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Books for joy September 18, 2016

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My recent reading has made me so happy that I’ve decided to try out something new with my reviews: a semi-regular category, books that make me joyful and that I want to praise to the skies. This first post of this kind covers three books which really spoke to me, and that I cannot recommend enough.

The Olive Conspiracy is the fourth novel in Shira Glassman’s wonderful Mangoverse series (there are also two short story collections set in the same universe), which follows the adventures of Queen Shulamit, her partner Aviva, and their ever-expanding found family of kind-hearted misfits, as they undertake the business of ruling Shulamit’s tropical kingdom of Perach. This fourth book sees Shulamit and co dealing with an international conspiracy to hamper the agriculture (and thus economy) of Perach, bringing Shulamit back in contact with her first love, Crown Princess Carolina of the neighbouring kingdom of Imbrio.

There’s so much to love about this book, and the series as a whole. Perach is a fantasy Jewish kingdom coexisting in a magical, medieval inflected world with other, non-Jewish nations (such as Imbrio). Almost all of the major characters are gay, lesbian or bisexual, in loving relationships supported by their friends, families and community, and there are also several transgender secondary or tertiary characters, and although their stories are not without conflict, there is never any threat of a tragic or unhappy ending. But what really makes these books great for me is their emphasis on kindness, cooperation, and non-violent solutions to thorny problems. The Mangoverse books are proof that in the hands of the right author, a compelling story about fundamentally decent people is possible. That they’re also filled with loving, detailed descriptions of mouthwatering food is just an added bonus!

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers shares a few similarities to Glassman’s work. It, too, is the story of a found family of oddballs, who are for the most part kind and good people seeking to avoid conflict and bloodshed, and food also features heavily. However, it’s set in the distant future, on a spaceship which is home to a multispecies crew whose job it is to create the hyperspace tunnels that make fast, convenient space travel possible for their fellow inhabitants of the skies. If you liked Firefly, but found yourself frustrated with the limitations of the future it imagined (a Chinese-inflected future with no visible Chinese characters; misogyny and other contemporary problems still present centuries into the future, and so on), this may be the book for you.

Chambers has imagined a future that is truly welcoming to all, in which human beings are just one species among many other sentient cultures of the universe, all of whom have organised themselves into a vast, intergalactic United Nations of sorts. The humans are very much the junior partners in this enterprise – late arrivals who were only taken in out of pity after half the inhabitants of Earth fled to Mars (the wealthy, who could afford to get out) and the other half took to the skies in a suicidal act of desperation as the planet became utterly uninhabitable. While it should be sobering to read of an all-too-plausible future in which we have rendered Earth utterly inhospitable to life, it’s oddly comforting to imagine a time when humans are only a tiny, insignificant fraction of the crowded skies of a vast, inhabitable universe. It’s as if the insignificance and miraculous survival of the human beings of Chambers’ novel caused them to grow out of the horrors that currently plague us: selfishness, lack of forward thinking, and rapacious, destructive greed. Humans in this book are more humble, and, like all the sentient beings in their universe, more open and understanding of difference. It’s more a character-driven story: don’t read it for the plot, which is as meandering and episodic as the journey of the spaceship its characters call home, but it’s as comforting and welcoming as a warm blanket, drawing you in to a hopeful and reassuring future.

The final book reviewed here, Kate Elliott’s Poisoned Blade, is less cozy and consoling than the first two — Elliott certainly knows how to put her characters through the emotional wringer — but it too brought me great joy. It’s the follow-up to Court of Fives, Elliott’s first foray into young-adult literature, which I reviewed here. Poisoned Blade sees Jessamy and her sisters following dangerous and different roads to ensure their family’s survival. Their individual stories and struggles intertwine with the revolution that is simmering below the surface of their profoundly unequal society, as well as with the broader political conflicts threatening their country.

Kate Elliott is one of my favourite writers of stories of girls and women, because she always depicts many different types of female characters, with nary a stock trope in sight. Poisoned Blade is no different: we’ve got Jessamy, who is a competitive and talented sports player, confident in her physical abilities but out of her depth in challenges that require subterfuge, subtlety or verbal persuasion. Her sister Amaya and her friend (and lover) Denya are much better at handling the delicate dangers that take place in the homes of the wealthy and privileged, and while they — like all women in their society, particularly the lower class (like Denya) and the Efean Commoners (those who, like Amaya, Jessamy and their mother and sisters, descend from the original inhabitants of their land who were conquered by the Patrons who rule them) — lack overt and political power, they are adept at exercising power indirectly and carving out a place of relative safety for themselves. There are so many other types of women in this book, but I’d like to draw particular attention to Amaya, Jessamy and their siblings’ wonderful mother, who is a character after my own heart: the sort of woman whose strength lies in her ability to empathise with and care for others, and who quietly does the vitally important work of forging alliances, building connections, and sustaining others. The world of Poisoned Blade is deeply hostile to women, and Elliott doesn’t shy away from that, but she also emphasises the many important relationships women and girls form in spite of that, and the strength that they draw from these connections. There are also giant, robot spiders, a growing revolution led by the dispossessed, and intense competitions in a sport that involves racing through a massive, terrifying obstacle course. What more could you want?

Divided cities April 28, 2016

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The three YA novels I review here are all set in cities which are, in one way or another, divided, featuring state-sanctioned inequality so extreme that revolution needs only a tiny spark to set it off. Characters in all three books reach out across the divide, fighting in their own ways for justice, equality, or just the chance to carve out a tiny space of safety for themselves.

Sarah Rees Brennan is nothing if not ambitious. Her latest work, Tell the Wind and Fire reimagines Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as an urban fantasy romance involving doppelgängers, a complicated magical system, and, of course, revolution. Instead of the ‘two cities’ of Dickens’ story, Tell the Wind and Fire is set in a New York divided into ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ cities, which exist in parallel, mirror images of glittering privilege and violently enforced dispossession. Rees Brennan’s Lucie Manette is a teenage magic wielder who grew up in the Dark cities, but was brought to the Light, where she is treated as something of a symbol and a trophy, the girlfriend of the cherished son of the Light city’s ruling family. This ruling dynasty’s ruthless maintenance of its own power is matched only by its complicated, hypocritical secrets. Rees Brennan is great at showing the cruelty and injustice that keeps her imagined New York divided, and doesn’t shy away from placing the blame entirely at the feet of its glittering Light elite, who care little that their enormous wealth is built on suffering. As revolution smoulders, Lucie attempts to navigate the treacherous political waters, torn between individual loyalty to those she loves – in both Light and Dark New York – and her moral outrage at the injustice of her society. Lucie is well aware of her power as a symbol – a borrowed power that is dependent on her never, ever speaking for herself – and has a realistic sense of this power’s limits. Lucie’s sharp sense of self-preservation, honed through years living in the downtrodden Dark city and among the capricious powerbrokers of the Light, is one of the strongest elements of this book, and she is a character with whom I very much enjoyed spending time.

Rather less satisfying for me were the wider character dynamics of Tell the Wind and Fire. In previous works, characterisation has been Sarah Rees Brennan’s strong point, and I’ve come to look forward to her books for their fantastic found families – collections of odd, misfit characters thrown together by circumstance, who’ll protect each other fiercely against the cruelties and dangers of the world. Perhaps because it was a standalone book rather than a trilogy, with less time to develop secondary characters, I found this element somewhat lacking in Tell the Wind and Fire, and missed it. Other than that, however, the book was an enjoyable read, although the twists of the plot will be unsurprising to those already familiar with A Tale of Two Cities.

Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel An Ember in the Ashes is a claustrophobic fantasy romance set in a city under occupation. The Martial Empire enforces its rule with military might and legalised discrimination; the Scholars, formerly the elite, are forbidden to learn to read, and are either enslaved or forced to live in precarious poverty. The novel is told from alternate viewpoints – that of Laia, a young Scholar girl who accepts a dangerous spying mission at the heart of the Martial administration as a slave to its ruthless military leader, and Elias, a Martial boy training to be the empire’s most lethal warrior (more weapon than human being), but secretly attempting to escape his abusive training. Tahir does an excellent job of making all parts of her stratified city – from the brutal Blackcliff Academy where Elias trains and Laia spies, to the twisting alleyways where Scholars make their homes and the resistance plots the Martial Empire’s demise – come alive, always emphasising the rampant inequality and the violence with which it is maintained. While I slightly preferred Laia as a viewpoint character, both protagonists are carefully drawn, and their respective fears, hopes and motivations are well balanced. I particularly like it when characters in this kind of set up have an internal struggle between genuine and well-justified terror at the life-threatening situations in which they find themselves, and their desire to transform their society into a more just and equal place. I like it when it forces them to make compromises, bargains, and small, short-term sacrifices of principle, and I very much appreciated that this was the case with Laia. An Ember in the Ashes ends on quite the cliffhanger, so I’m relieved to see that the sequel will be published in August.

Court of Fives, the first in a YA series by Kate Elliott, is much subtler than the previous two books reviewed here in its exploration of power, privilege, and their corrosive effect on societies and individuals. Its setting is inspired by Ptolemaic Egypt, with divisions between the ruling Patrons and ruled Commoners more fluid than the letter of the law would suggest. Patrons cannot marry Commoners – but they can form relationships, as is the case in the family of protagonist Jessamy, whose father is a Patron and mother is a Commoner. Similarly, certain routes to advancement are barred to Commoners – but they can gain prestige and acclaim as talented players of Fives, the popular sport beloved by Patrons and Commoners alike, and played by both. But – as is the case with all unequal societies – there are hidden complications and unwritten rules that slowly become part of the social structure, understood by all, but difficult to live with. Jessamy and her sisters occupy an uneasy space between Patron and Commoner worlds, both exoticised and scorned. They are all painfully aware that their fate – and fate of their family – is dependent on their making good marriages with Patron men. Their mother is a hindrance to their father’s career, and, after a series misfortunes, it becomes clear that their parents’ apparent love match is a more fragile thing, vulnerable to the demands of politics and social mobility. Playing Fives – formerly an escape for Jessamy – becomes a deadly necessity, as the fate of her entire family depends on her success on the court.

There are echoes in Court of Fives of Little Women, but Elliott’s refusal to let the father character off the hook is a breath of fresh air to me, as someone who always found Alcott’s depiction of Mr March too close to hagiography. Here, there is an acknowledgement that the actions of men in patriarchal societies can have appalling consequences for the women around them, that such men are very often ignorant of, and unmoved by, the effects their actions have on the women in their lives, and, most importantly, that even in patriarchal societies, women and girls have lives and relationships and stories independent of the husbands and fathers whose actions circumscribe their existence. Throw in a brilliantly depicted set of sisters – each with her own personality and dreams – and you have everything I could possibly want in a Kate Elliott book.

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.

And it’s all for my true linkpost, who’s far far away October 2, 2015

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That title doesn’t quite scan, but it will have to do.

Via Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, probably the best thing I’ve read all week: Nine Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible, by Kai Cheng Thom. Really important stuff.

Read this essay by Sofia Samatar about being a black academic.

On a related note, Black Sci-fi Creators Assemble at Princeton and Imagine Better Worlds than This One, by Rasheedah Phillips.

Kari Sperring talks about justice, socialism, fantasy utopias, and Terry Pratchett.

Here’s Alana Piper on the myth that ‘women secretly hate each other’. Nothing throws me out of a story faster than female characters with no female friends, so this post was right up my alley.

Kate Elliott needs your help in a workshop on gender defaults in fantasy.

Shannon Hale writes about writing outside her culture. Note that at least one of the recommendations of books ‘by Asian-American authors’ is not by an Asian-American author, but rather, a Palestinian/Egyptian-Australian. It’s still a good list.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz interviews Zen Cho. I wait impatiently for my copy of Sorcerer To The Crown to arrive.

As always, the new posts at Ghostwords are a delight.

Two new reviews are up on Those Who Run With Wolves:

Vida Cruz reviews Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter.

I review Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall.

It has been twenty years since two formative works of my teenage years, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and the film Hackers, were released. Here’s an interview with the Hackers director.

The Toast remains amazing. Two of my favourite recent posts: Dirtbag Milton (I remember studying him in uni and being furious about how badly he treated his daughters), and How To Tell If You Are In a Lai of Marie de France.

I hope your weekends are glorious.

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.

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.

One linkpost, one heart August 21, 2015

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*dusts off blog*

It’s been a while. Have some links.

Sadly, the comments on this excellent essay by Judith Tarr about the invisible older women in SFF completely prove her point.

Kate Elliott talks about the historical inspirations and influences on her YA novel Court of Fives. There’s a giveaway underway there too.

Tansy Rayner Roberts is starting a new series on ‘SF Women of the Twentieth Century’. (A nice counterpoint to Tarr’s article, perhaps.)

Athena Andreadis: ‘Note to Alien Watchers: Octopuses are Marvelous, but Still Terrestrial’.

A Complete Oral History of Bring It On. Yes, really.

‘What To Expect When You’re Expecting A Changeling: Forum Names On Message Boards For First-Time Mothers Of Changelings’. I love it.

I am resolutely avoiding the inevitable Hugos drama this weekend by spending the entire time on holiday and without internet access. I hope those of you who are in Spokane, or will be following the awards live online, are well fortified against Puppy-related nastiness.

(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.

Why can I not conquer linkpost? June 5, 2015

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The links this week are a bit of a mixed bag, partly because I’ve been somewhat distracted, and as a result this post is a bit shorter than usual.

Tade Thompson made some important points about literature and diversity, storified by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. I see Tade’s thoughts as another part in the conversation I linked to last week.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz had some further thoughts on the matter.

Zen Cho posted ‘Ten Things I Believe About Writing’. There’s also a great interview with her up at Kitaab:

I write stories as a way of answering questions.

Another post by Rochita talks about language, identity, and the process behind writing her latest published story, ‘ Bagi: Ada ti Istorya’:

While thinking of language recovery, I found myself thinking too about what lies buried in language. What narratives had I chosen to erase when I chose to leave behind that language? What narratives could be pulled out of a text or a few lines or a word? What memory–what emotion would rise up from the use of a language that has lain dormant for so long.

More on language and storytelling: Samantha Shannon interviewed her Dutch translator, Janet Limonard.

I loved this new, bilingual Ghostwords post.

Kate Elliott had lots of thoughts about Mad Max: Fury Road, and Charles Tan storified them.

This review of Mad Max: Fury Road by Julianne Ross really resonated with me:

But where Fury Road really surprises is in its genuine respect for the five women Furiosa is trying to save. They are beautiful, generous and kind — deliberately feminine traits that have allowed them to survive as long as they have, and which the movie refuses to treat as a burden or incidental.

This Mad Max fanvid by Tumblr user jocarthage is simply breathtaking.

Happy Friday, everyone!

If you link me that much you will stick around March 6, 2015

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I have so many links for you this week! My Twitter feed has been very generous in sharing its fabulous internet finds, and I’ve gathered the best of them to post here.

First up, have a couple of short stories. ‘Translatio Corporis’ by Kat Howard and ‘The Monkey House’ by Tade Thompson absolutely rocked my world. They’re published in Uncanny Magazine and Omenana respectively.

I went on a massive Twitter rant about failures of imagination in historical fantasy novels set in medieval Britain and Ireland, so I found this post on ‘Celtic fantasy’ by Liz Bourke to be very welcome and timely.

Likewise this post by Kate Elliott on writing women characters touched on a lot of things that matter to me in storytelling.

Joanne Harris makes some good points about the economics of literary festivals.

This post by Renay is very perceptive on self-rejection, anthology-curation and the difficulties in amplifying the voices of others.

I found the conversation taking place at the #WritingNewZA hashtag on South African literature really interesting.

Tricia Sullivan writes about the pitfalls of being a mother who writes. (I would say that this potentially applies to primary caregivers of any gender, but there are particularly gendered elements of the problems she’s outlining that lead me to think her emphasis on mothers specifically is correct in this instance.)

Here is a Storify of tweets by Aliette de Bodard about the fallacy of devoting your entire life to writing.

I grew up on Sara Douglass’s books, and while they’re far from perfect, she herself was a really important figure in the history of fantasy literature in Australia. Here, Australian fantasy author Fiona McIntosh remembers her.

I’ve found Abigail Nussbaum’s recent Hugo recommendation posts useful. Here’s the short fiction one, and here’s the one on publishing and fan categories.

I want to see this film!

I’m thoroughly enjoying watching Ana discover the Dark Is Rising sequence over at The Book Smugglers.

This is a good summation of what made Parks and Recreation so great, over The Mary Sue.

Finally, have an Old English text about the wonders of books.

The sun is shining and the sky is clear here in Cambridge. It looks like this weekend is going to be excellent for me, and I hope it is the same for you.