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Lee Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]
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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

I Await the Devil’s Coming: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Curses are stories are histories, and Plain Bad Heroines is full to the brim with all three. In 1902 the Brookhants School for Girls witnessed the romance of two students, Flo and Clara, with each other and with Mary Maclane’s scandalous memoir—a romance ending with their gruesome demise in a swarm of yellowjackets. After three more untimely deaths the school closed for good, forgotten until the present, when young Merritt Emmons’s queer novel about Brookhants becomes a breakout bestseller. Hollywood comes calling, bringing along lesbian indie it-girl Harper Harper and former child star Audrey Wells to star in the adaptation. But naturally, when these three young women arrive at the old school grounds to begin filming, the situation goes frighteningly awry.

Plain Bad Heroines is Danforth’s first adult novel and second overall, following the much-beloved young adult book The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012). Illustrated by Sara Lautman with an echo of Edward Gorey, the book plays luxurious games with the reader, nesting stories within stories (within stories) as the hauntings unfold. Whether it’s the straightforward gothic of the 1902 plot(s) or the compulsive, prickly-sexy contemporary film production’s messy queer attractions, Danforth nails each beat. Plain Bad Heroines is scary, witty, and darkly taunting—without ever losing the core of heart inside the ghoulish cleverness of the prose.

[Read more]

Distinctly Heterodox: Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross

The emergence of superpowers among the population has dovetailed with austerity measures to create the situation in which Wendy Deere finds herself: a thief-taker paid to hunt a gang of robbers using their unregistered powers to pull off heists. The gang themselves, meanwhile, are a mash-up of queer outcasts trying to raise enough funds for their leader, Imp, to film a new Peter Pan movie… but their cat-and-mouse game is far from the real problem: the reappearance of a concordance to the true Necronomicon. Cultist billionaire Rupert de Montfort Bigge sets his second in command to acquiring the book, and she just happens to be Imp’s sister—so naturally, who’s she going to hire to help out besides her supervillain thief sibling?

Dead Lies Dreaming is currently billed as the tenth book in the ‘Laundry Files’ series, but per Stross, it’s more accurate to call it the first book in a Laundry-adjacent spinoff: new characters and new concerns, set in the same shambling-toward-apocalypse world we’re familiar with from the spies and managers of the previous nine books. And—thanks in part to the tightly structured fervor of the novel’s plot—that shift in perspective works. Dead Lies Dreaming is at once smothering with grim nastiness and a breath of fresh air in the broader series, which is approaching an ultimate end soon.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Just Bleed for Me: Watching A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and the Documentary Scream, Queen!

In 1985 New Line Cinema produced A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, taking a risky angle on the slasher that starred a ‘final boy’ possessed by the titular movie-monster. However, the gay subtext of the movie contributed to a negative public reception and the film tanked. More unfortunately, lead actor Mark Patton was gay… but wasn’t out at the time the film was released, so the role that was supposed to launch his career contributed to its end. He disappeared from Hollywood. Then fast forward to last year, when directors Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen along with Patton himself released Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street – a documentary exploring those buried tensions in the film within the context of ‘80s media, the slasher genre, and horror fandom at large.

I kept hearing about the documentary on the queer podcasts I follow, and that whetted my appetite. Obviously I’d missed a part of gay horror history, and that just wouldn’t do. So, for spooky month, I decided to tackle a double-feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) and Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019)—for the education, for the culture!—but had an unexpectedly emotional experience in the process.

[Read more]

Proof of an Iron Will: Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda (translated by Polly Barton) collects a set of linked short stories reimagining Japanese folktales in contemporary settings, shot through with exceptionally witty societal critique. Silent house-callers who watch over the babies of single mothers, lovers who must be scrubbed free of river mud each night, awkward but eerie saleswomen hawking lanterns, and vulpine shapeshifters to name a few feature in these tales… but rather than vengeful ghosts out to punish the living, Matsuda’s apparitions are complicated people in their own right with histories and interests.

Matsuda writes these tales of spirit(ed) women and dispirited men with impeccable comedic timing and a deceptively urbane tone that also carries biting commentary, while Barton’s translation maintains the rhythm of her prose with grace. The book is described as exuberant on the back cover, and the same word kept occurring to me. Wildness is dangerous but exuberant; these monstrous ladies are the same. At turns each might be kind, stubborn, careful, or cruel—but so might the living people they engage with and the world outside with its pressures around gender, respectability, class, and relationships.

[A review.]

The Expectations That Travelers Carried: The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun (trans. Lizzie Buehler)

The Disaster Tourist is a trim near-future speculative novel from Yun Ko-eun, the first of her novels to be translated and published in English. Ko Yona, our protagonist, has been an employee of the travel company Jungle for around ten years; Jungle creates “ethical” vacation packages to locations of catastrophe. Tsunami, earthquakes, volcanoes, radiation, prisons and asylums, mass killings: the humans involved and the sites of their trauma become the consumables offered in trade for tourists seeking that authentic experience and a bit of moral righteousness to assuage the guilt of rubbernecking.

But when Yona begins to experience sexual harassment from her boss and assumes this means she’s gotten an informal “yellow card”—implying she’s on her way out of the company—she attempts to resign. Instead of her resignation being accepted, she’s offered a ‘working vacation’ to check out one of their failing packages on the island of Mui and review it for cancellation. However, all is not as it seems on Mui, and Yona’s own complicity in the broader systems at work in Jungle’s interventions on local spaces begin to dreadfully evolve.

[A review.]

There Was and There Was Not: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is Melissa Bashardoust’s second novel, a lush stand-alone fantasy inspired by the courts and lore of ancient Persia.  Woven through with conflicts of desire and power, loyalty and self-interest, the novel presents a coming-of-age tale that is subversive, queer, and rife with danger. As the intriguing cover copy starts, “There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch.”

Soraya is the twin sister of the shah of Atashar, but their lives run on opposite courses. She has kept to untouched seclusion in the palace through her entire life for the safety of herself and others, as one glancing brush of her skin is lethal. Her lush rose garden and occasionally her mother, brother, or childhood friend Laleh are her only companions—until Laleh stops visiting. However, when her brother brings a captured demon home with him to Golvahar, Soraya sees a chance to bargain for a cure to her curse… except bargaining with devils for knowledge comes at a high cost, and the consequences of Soraya’s actions far exceed the scope of her imagination.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

Return to the Hollows: American Demon by Kim Harrison

Rachel Morgan might have hoped that fixing the source of magic would earn her a vacation, but instead, she finds herself mired in a swamp of fresh trouble: wandering zombies, a mysterious demon and a teenage elf loitering around her church, a series of violent but inexplicable crimes cropping up throughout Cincinnati and the Hollows. If the question posed by American Demon is “What happens after you’ve saved the world?,” the answer seems to be: start cleaning up the mess the ‘saving’ made, because your work is far from finished.

I had thought, as I figure most readers of Harrison’s Hollows series did, that 2014’s The Witch With No Name was the final novel: the main couple get together, the family unit feels secure, magic is recreated, demons are freed from their elf-arranged servitude and must find their way in the real world. Imagine my surprise, then, when American Demon was announced! Worlds as thoroughly fleshed-out but narrow in scope as Harrison’s are the easiest kind to slip into though, and despite the six-year gap, picking up where we last left off was no challenge.

[A review.]

Queering SFF: The Weird, Wild Fun of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula

Attention fellow queer nerds and weirdos: if you dig boundary-pushing drag, general gender-fuckery, and also alternative culture… well, have I got a recommendation for you. While seeking comfort this June—resting the body from protest marching, or the heart after reading the news, or the soul that longs for Pride festivals cancelled—might I suggest diving into The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula, with all three seasons currently available for streaming?

[Let’s get weird.]

Series: Queering SFF

Queering SFF: 12 Authors, Critics, and Activists on What’s Changed in the Last Ten Years

At the start of a new decade, and as this column also reaches its tenth anniversary, I wanted to offer readers a bit of a retrospective with some folks who have been part of the broader field of queer SF/F across that same timeline. And by “a bit of a retrospective,” I mean a big ol’ roundtable discussion with some of the finest individuals our field has to offer—critics, organizers, writers, and occasionally all of those at once.

Whether you’re a convention-goer or a short fiction devotee, a home cook or a Twitter fanatic, a novel reader or a nerdy poet, you’re likely to have run into some (or all!) of our conversational partners today at one point or another. Their interests are diverse, as are their engagements with the field of Queer SF/F at large.

[Onward!]

Series: Queering SFF

Ten Years of Queering SFF: The Scream, Queen! Podcast

For the penultimate post of our ten-year retrospective, I thought I’d recommend something fresh… which also happens to (sorta-retrospectively!) cover a genre I don’t often tackle: Scream, Queen!, the horror film podcast. With the finale for season two coming up, this podcast has cemented itself as a hands-down favorite for me, because I too was a weird kid who cut their teeth on horror VHS tapes smuggled out of the Blockbuster or binged at friends’ houses. Scary stories, strange happenings, and things that go bump in the night hold a visceral, endless fascination for me—which, anecdotally, resonates with a ton of other queer folks across the world too…but I don’t often see these movies explored from that angle.

So: Scream, Queen!

[Read on!]

Series: Queering SFF

Ten Years of Queering SFF: Five Series From the Last Decade That Can’t Be Missed

I’ve had a couple of opportunities to write about whole series in this space before—for example, the four-post sets that discuss Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle and Laurie Marks’s Elemental Magic series in depth, or the longer run on “Reading Joanna Russ.” But what usually happens is something more along the lines of… I happen to review a book or two (or if we’re really lucky, each separate book in a series over several years of coverage!) in this space, on a pretty individual basis. Some of those were great and I reflect on them fondly, like Chris Moriarty’s Spin trilogy or Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder novels, but I can’t get to everything.

So, what better opportunity than our special retrospective month of QSFF am I going to have to talk about a handful of queer book series I either haven’t reviewed at all, haven’t considered as a coherent whole, or just want to give a nice solid “remember how cool this was” bump to? I can’t think of a more perfect moment. For several of these, my awesome colleagues wrote reviews at the time of publication, and in those cases I’ve included links too!

[Onward!]

Series: Queering SFF

Ten Years of Queering SFF: The Five Queer Comics I Remember Most

Since I’m feeling reflective, what with the turn of the decade coinciding with the ten-year anniversary of Queering SFF, I wanted to take a look back. Specifically, I wanted to look back at some comics that stuck with me from my reading over the past long while… things that I didn’t actually review, or talk about at length here so far. So, what five queer comics am I carrying out of this last decade with fond memories?

These comics don’t make up a definitive top five, or a best of the decade, or anything like that. In fact, how I chose the five to write about was this: I sat cross-legged in front of my comic book shelf and thought, “Which ones still give me a jolt to remember—that huh maybe I’ll read that again tonight feeling, after all this time?” And the results are as follows, from the past ten years of my queer life in words & pictures.

[Read on!]

Series: Queering SFF

Looking Back on Ten Years of Queering SFF, From 2010 to 2020

To quote a favorite writer of mine, theorist José Esteban Muñoz: “The future is queerness’s domain.” There’s something about speculation, about the natural process of thinking but what if it was different, that lends itself to queer people’s art and artistry. He goes on to say, “Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. […] Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility of another world.”

Potentiality, futurity, and imagination set to the purpose of thinking about a better future, critiquing our present, and understanding our past. Sounds kind of like SFF as a genre, right?

The first post in the Queering SFF series went up on March 16th, 2010 and since then we’ve had almost one hundred installments—including a lot of reviews of queer SF that aren’t officially tagged in the series but are part of the ongoing conversation. We’ve talked about writing about sex, about violence and language, about comics and movies and novels (as well as the occasional outlier like a book of theory or poetry) by and about queer people. Along the way, linked series like Reading Joanna Russ and Reading Laurie J. Marks’s Elemental Logic have potentially snagged your readerly attention, as well.

[Let’s get a little reflective.]

Series: Queering SFF

Wormholes and You: Finna by Nino Cipri

Dating a coworker then breaking up with a coworker presents one very specific, very unfortunate hitch: being forced to see each other too soon after the dissolution of your relationship, at the low-wage exhausting job both of you can’t stand but can’t survive without… and that’s how Nino Cipri’s sf novella Finna opens. Ava and Jules are both employees at the (Ikea-clone) LitenVärld store and have only been separated for three days, so the wounds are still fresh.

However, on their first shared post-breakup shift, an older woman goes missing in their store—because she stumbled through a wormhole. Which, as it turns out, happens not infrequently.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

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