Sometimes, when you blog about fiction, people say things to you that are inexplicable—things like, “I hated the winged horse,” or “I wanted to set this book on fire.” That’s fine, really. Cool story. Is there more to it? Did Satan give you something when you handed over your soul?
I have strong literary preferences of my own. For example, I prefer that people’s psychic companion animals not comment on their sex lives. And it really bothers me when time travel stories try to explain the underlying science involved by treating time like matter, and yet don’t tear the universe apart—either your time travel is hand-wavy and doesn’t really need an explanation or you have to deal with the laws of physics. Some of my opinions are controversial. There are lots of people who don’t like psychic cats, or happily-ever-after endings. And again, that’s fine! Many things are a matter of taste. But I’ll be honest—I think those people are missing out.
I don’t claim to have the secret inner knowledge of Fandom, but my personal involvement in SFF has included a flowing fountain of recommendations. Some of them work for me and some don’t: Star Trek—yes; Highlander—yes on the TV show, the movie makes me sleepy; Zombies—only with an experienced emotional support person; Man in the High Castle—ugh. None of these recommendations have ever been accompanied by any sort of caveat or hesitation. And since it’s Valentine’s Day this week, I’m giving in to the urge to recommend the things I love: You should read cute stuff.
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
There are a lot of readers out there who are bigger fans of Martha Wells than I am, and there are a lot of people who discovered Murderbot before I did. I’m jealous of all of them. Murderbot would probably object to the term “cute” being used to describe a terrifying Murderbot; I respect that. A lot of things would be better with a heroic SecUnit who prefers not to make eye contact. In addition to being inexplicably appealing for a character who doesn’t care, Murderbot’s adventures offer an insightful examination of what it means to be human and the role media plays in our lives. Why do we spend hours re-watching and rereading things we watched and read before? Murderbot is too busy watching reruns of Sanctuary Moon to answer your annoying question. The first Murderbot book, All Systems Red, came out last year, and the next two are arriving in May and August.
I know, not really an SFF author, most of the time. I mean, Carry On was fantasy, but Rowell spends more time delving into relationships. Which is probably why she’s AMAZING at delving into relationships. I drove 40 miles on Indy Bookstore Day last year to get a copy of her short story, “Kindred Spirits,” which means I stood in line to get a story about standing in line. The line at the bookstore had the same number of people as the line in the book. If I had been aware of this incredibly meta situation while I was in the line, I would have made more of a point of making friends. In my defense, I hadn’t had any coffee yet, and I needed to pee. Which actually also made the experience of acquiring the book more like the experience at the center of the book. If you missed your shot at a free copy of Kindred Spirits on Indy Bookstore Day, it is now available for Kindle and in hardcover in the anthology Almost Midnight, and when you pick it up you should grab a copy of Fangirl. It’s about fanfiction.
Oh yeah—you should also read fanfiction.
I first found my way into fanfiction via Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s recommendation of AJ Hall’s Lust Over Pendle. If you have ever thought that you would never read anything in which Harry Potter characters are photographed in a compromising position on a tropical beach, then let me assure you that you have judged too hastily. And honestly, I don’t think you can call yourself a fan if you haven’t at least glanced at The Very Secret Diaries. These works by Cassandra Claire represent the very classic tip of the fanfiction iceberg. There is more. Some of it was written for you.
I am writing this blog post in the 2018th year of the Common Era. Romance is a thing. It’s kinda big. If you’re still avoiding it because of some kind of 19th-century notion about romance leading children astray or being too racy for polite company, you need to get over yourself. Romance is fun! No one hands out medals for hating fun. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey will make you familiar with some of the conventions of literary romance in the gentlest and most adorable possible way—Jane was very snarky. Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm updated those conventions for the post-World War One world—the Talkies were big, everyone had an aeroplane, and chapter nine is one of the most divine and amazing things ever written. Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible is also an excellent use of your time. The heroine is an Egyptologist. The plot includes oblique references to early 19th-century British politics. It’s clever and sweet in addition to being smart. Romance is an enormous, diverse genre and it has a lot to offer.
Ursula Vernon writes for children under her own name, and as T. Kingfisher for adults. When life gets REALLY stressful, I can create a wraparound Ursula Vernon experience—I can listen to some Hidden Almanac and Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap in the car, hit up her Twitter feed between classes for stories about gardening, dogs, and her local coffee shop, and re-read Nine Goblins or Bryony and Roses after work. Nine Goblins has an elven veterinarian. I am neither a veterinarian or an elf, but I endeavor to apply Sings-to-Trees’ pragmatic philosophies towards work and home decor in my own life. I also appreciate his refreshing honesty about unicorns. I’m not as keen to apply the Goblin approach to engineering or armed combat, but it’s fun to read about anyway. Bryony and Roses is a Beauty and the Beast retelling that does gorgeous things with the relationship between the main characters, beginning with the hero’s announcement that he does not carry women’s undergarments about his person.
Readers who think Miles Vorkosigan’s genius lies in a combination of luck and hyperactivity will appreciate Vernon’s Dragonbreath series, which features 9-year-old Danny the Dragon, his friends Wendell and Christina, and an excellent bus system. The books are designed for reluctant and struggling readers, which means that they are fast, funny, and have lots of pictures. If you don’t like funny books with lots of pictures, you should stop reading this blog post and find someone to help you verify that you still have a pulse. The Dragonbreath series ended after eleven books, and if you’ve run through it, Hamster Princess is here to save you. And then you can read Nurk. And Digger. Vernon is prolific, so if you’re completely up-to-date on her work now, just wait a couple months. Her next book, The Wonder Engine, is coming out on February 27.
I found her short fiction when “Cat Pictures Please” won a Hugo and a Locus Award last year, which suggests that I came late to the Naomi Kritzer party. I haven’t read her novels yet. I’m looking forward to it! I loved “Cat Pictures Please,” and “So Much Cooking” is shockingly comforting for a story in which a cooking blogger faces down a pandemic flu outbreak.
A Cooking Blog
If you want to live in the same universe as “So Much Cooking,” you need to follow a cooking blog! Even if you don’t, looking at what someone else is cooking is a pleasant way to stay in touch with the world while you think about what you want to do with yourself. I use smitten kitchen. In addition to a huge collection of useful ideas for things like tasty weeknight dinners, Deb Perelman takes her cakes very seriously. Bonus tip from my kitchen: Use a boxed mix combined with 1 and ¼ cups of some kind of soda—I usually use A&W root beer—for easy cake, and focus your from-scratch cooking efforts on making frosting.
Read a book. Have some cake. Keep your soul. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.