Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A BookTok recommendation
Bargaining Power, by Deborah J. Natelson
A very original mix of spy thriller and urban fantasy. It's set on a secret island in the Atlantic, where shipwrecks have provided it with population and technology over the centuries. So they have cars, cell phones & TV, but no contact with the outside world. The heroine, Mercedes, is the personal assistant to a cryptoanalyst, and they are working frantically to stop an assassination plot against the king - but first they have to infiltrate the plotters.
The villainess, Theodora, is the personified Spirit of Deals & Bargains, and any deals made with her will be twisted against you in the worst possible way. She has a mysterious hold on Mercedes's boss, and is now attaching herself to Mercedes's beloved brothers.
The ending wraps up the main plot in a satisfying way, while leaving some important questions unanswered. (Like, why is the king such a weirdo?) So I'm hoping Book 2 shows up soon.
My 2022 in Books, Part 1: Fiction
This year I read 97 books, a personal best. 50 of them were for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, a sort of literary scavenger hunt where the object is to read a book in each of 50 categories (a book by a Latinx author, a Hugo Award winner, a book with a tiger on the cover or in the title, a social-horror story, etc., etc.) I wrote short reviews of those 50, linked below.
James Baldwin, Another Country
Charles Chestnutt, Conjure Tales and Stories From the Color Line
Wilkie Collins, Basil
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
Jack London, The Scarlet Plague
Vladimir Nabokov, Ada
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
This year I checked out some of the lesser-known books from famous authors. Nabokov’s Ada is possibly an even weirder book than Lolita, though at least the adolescent sex is consensual in this one. It’s about a lifelong affair between “cousins” who are actually siblings, and it’s set in an alternate-history earth where technology & politics went in a different direction. Wilkie Collins is best known for mysteries, but Basil is more of a melodrama, down to the final life-and-death struggle. The Scarlet Plague is a brief novella by Jack London about a pandemic that drives everyone back to primitive living. Baldwin’s Another Country is hard to summarize: there are multiple love affairs, some crossing then-taboo lines around race and/or gender.
I hadn’t read Charles Chestnutt before, and I really loved this short story collection. Set in the Reconstruction era, the “conjure tales” are told by a Black servant to his Yankee employers, always with a point aimed at getting something he wants from the boss. The “tales from the color line” are about the gray area where mixed-race people existed in that era, some trying to climb the racial hierarchy by leaving their Black families behind.
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Nalo Hopkinson & Uppinder Mehan, Eds., So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy
Maggie Shen King, An Excess Male
Ursula K. LeGuin, Always Coming Home
Jamie Marchant, The Kronicles of Korthlundia series: The Goddess’s Choice, The Soul Stone, The Shattered Throne, and The Ghost in Exile
Janet Morris and Chris Morris, Eds., Lawyers in Hell
Kit Rocha, Deal with the Devil and The Devil You Know
Catherynne M. Valente, Space Opera
My favorite SF/fantasy books this year were An Excess Male and Space Opera. An Excess Male imagines a near-future China where the gender imbalance is addressed by allowing women to take multiple husbands. The story is told from 4 points of view: the first husband who’s still treated as the “head of household,” the autistic second husband who’s never felt he fit in, the man who’s desperately trying to become the third husband, and the woman who yearns for a love she’s never had.
Space Opera is a hilarious book in which Earth is contacted by aliens who are trying to determine if Earthlings are a sentient species. To prove their worthiness, earth’s representatives — a washed-up glamrock group — must participate in a Eurovision-like music contest. And from there it gets really weird.
Deal With the Devil and The Devil You Know are the first two books in Kit Rocha’s Mercenary Librarians series. In a post-apocalyptic world, the Librarians help build a community where they distribute books, food, and other resources, in the shadow of the all-powerful TechCorps. Each book concentrates on a different badass librarian and her mercenary lover.
The Gods Themselves and The Man in the High Castle are both SF classics. The Gods Themselves is about a cheap source of energy that’s eventually going to destroy the world, but nobody wants to hear that part. The Man in the High Castle is about an alternate world where the Nazis won WWII. Both books hit a little different in the current political climate.
Always Coming Home is the book every SF/fantasy writer wants to write: 500 pages of almost nothing but world building.
Casey McQuiston, I Kissed Shara Wheeler
Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop
Casey McQuiston, Red, White & Royal Blue
Courtney Milan, Hold Me
Can you tell I discovered Casey McQuiston this year? Her books are queer romances with wonderfully improbable premises. A closeted British prince falls for the son of the first female US President (RW&RB, the single most fun book I read this year). A lesbian becomes an accidental time traveler permanently stuck on the NYC subway (OLS). The too-perfect girl at a Jesus-y school kisses her female rival and disappears, leaving a series of puzzling notes as clues to find her (IKSW). Courtney Milan’s Hold Me is also a queer romance: it’s the You’ve Got Mail trope with a trans heroine. (Refreshingly, her being trans is not the issue/conflict between her and the hero; he’s pansexual.)
Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades
A. E. Osworth, We Are Watching Eliza Bright
The Shortest Way to Hades is a fun comedy-mystery from Caudwell’s Hillary Tamar series, with an assortment of clueless attorneys. We Are Watching Eliza Bright is a thriller apparently inspired by g*merg*te: a game designer’s complaint about sexism snowballs into her being harassed, fired, doxxed, and stalked. The book has a really well-done “Greek chorus” unreliable-narrator voice that was brilliantly spot on.
Young Adult/Middle Grade:
Elizabeth Acevedo, Clap When You Land
Jeff Ayers, Skate the Thief
Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom
Eoin Colfer, The Fowl Twins series: The Fowl Twins, The Fowl Twins Deny All Charges, and The Fowl Twins Get What They Deserve
April Daniels, Sovreign
Carl Hiassen, Hoot
Lillie Lainoff, One for All
C. B. Lee, Not Your Villain and Not Your Backup
Rick Riordan, The Battle of the Labyrinth and The Last Olympian
Catching up on the later books in some series here. If by some mischance you haven’t read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, start with The Lightning Thief. The Fowl Twins series is the follow-up to the Artemis Fowl books. Myles is a lot like Artemis; Beckett is...weird. There’s a lot of gross-out humor in each book.
C.B. Lee’s Sidekick Squad books are set in a world where the Heroes’ League of Heroes is not all it seems. Each book features a different man character, all of them queer and most POC. Start with Not Your Sidekick. April Daniels’s Sovreign is the sequel to Dreadnought, a superhero story with a trans heroine. As in Lee’s books, the superheroes’ league has a definite dark side.
Six of Crows is a wonderful heist story set in a world where magic has suddenly become a lot more dangerous. Skate the Thief is another great fantasy story, about a child caught between the criminal syndicate that saved her, and the wizard she’s supposed to be robbing. One for All is about a secret academy for female Musketeers; like the author, the main character has a condition that gives her sudden dizzy spells.
Clap When You Land is a novel in verse, about two half-sisters, one in NYC and one in the Dominican Republic, who discover each other’s existence when their father dies in a plane crash.
Louise Erdrich, The Sentence
Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson, Eds., Nothing Without Us
Joseph Guzzo, Mousetrap Inc.
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone
Vaddey Ratner, Music of the Ghosts
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
Some of Colson Whitehead’s books (The Intuitionist, The Underground Railroad) venture into the surreal. The Nickel Boys is firmly grounded in reality, and it will break your heart. It’s based on a true story about a “reform school” with a secret graveyard. Even knowing this, I was unprepared for the devastating final chapter.
The Wind Done Gone is a parody of Gone With the Wind, from the point of view of Mammy’s daughter — Scarlett’s secret half-sister.
Music of the Ghosts is about a Cambodian refugee who fled as a child during the Khmer Rouge, then returns decades later to find out what really happened when her father disappeared.
Nothing Without Us is a short story collection by and about disabled people. The stories are funny and serious, SF/fantasy and real-world, but all of them have disabled characters as the stars, not the “inspirational” sidekicks. A particular favorite was "Search and Seizure," by Shannon Barnsley, about a ghost haunting the doctor who told her that her symptoms were all in her head.
The Sentence is set in a Native American bookstore, where the most annoying customer has died and is now haunting the store. Set in Minneapolis in 2020, it really conveys the feel of the early pandemic era, and the George Floyd/BLM protests as well.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book with a map
Dance With the Devil, by Kit Rocha
The Popsugar Reading challenge is back! Last year I included Deal with the Devil, the first of Kit Rocha's Mercenary Librarians series. The Librarians are three extremely badass, genetically altered women who help hold together a neighborhood in post-apocalyptic Atlanta. Each book concentrates on one pairing of a librarian and one of the Silver Devils, ex-mercenaries trying to stay one step ahead of the TechCorps after defecting.
Book 3, Dance With the Devil, spotlights Dani and Rafe. She's a surly ex-assassin; he's a cinnamon roll who still believes in love and family. They have to infiltrate the highest levels of the TechCorps executive aristocracy (while pretending to be married, naturally). I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that eventually they can't keep their hands off each other.
The last third or so of the book is the final (?) battle with TechCorps, and we get chapters from all the major characters' point of view as they face their personal and collective nemeses. It's a fun, twist-filled book - and there's one final twist in the epilogue.
I shelved this under "book with a map," but the maps aren't essential - they just add a dash of the flavor of the world beyond the area our characters inhabit.
Cosmic Turkey Kindle sale, January 1-7
For the first week of January, The Cosmic Turkey is just 99 cents on Kindle!
Please remember to drop a review at Amazon or elsewhere! It doesn't have to be long. Reviews tell the algorithm to make the book more visible.
The Backup Plan
My short story, "The Backup Plan," is in the new women's fiction anthology Life at Its Best.
Angel and Max's relationship was a disaster last time, so why does Max suddenly want to get back together? And why is a handsome cop reading Angel her rights?
This is one of the stories from the Found in Translation series.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A Sapphic book
Book: I Kissed Shara Wheeler, by Casey McQuiston
There are certain things I've come to expect from Casey McQuiston: a wonderfully over-the-top premise, a bisexual main character finding first love, new friendships that bring the main character out of isolation, a lot of laughs, and of course a happily-ever-after ending.
Chloe is a heathen Californian at a very Jesus-y private high school in Alabama. Her rival for valedictorian is the principal's daughter, Shara Wheeler, who's almost too perfect: beautiful, smart, friendly, devout but not obnoxious about it. Over the course of 24 hours, Shara kisses her football player boyfriend Smith, her bad-boy neighbor Rory, and, inexplicably, Chloe. Then Shara disappears, leaving a series of mysterious hidden notes that lead the other three on a sort of treasure hunt to find her.
By the end, all four of them have discovered things about themselves they hadn't known, the school's pristine reputation is upended, and Chloe and Shara have to confront how they really feel about each other. Equally important, Chloe discovers how many of her classmates felt as out of place as she did. There's a lot of playing against stereotype: Smith is a jock, but he's neither dumb nor macho, and Rory isn't quite the "bad boy" he tries to appear. Unlike McQuiston's other books, there's no sex in this one, but there's a lot of characters rethinking their notions of gender, sexuality, and who they are vs. who they thought they were supposed to be.
A lighthearted, entertaining ride, all the way to the final kiss.
Ring My Bell
I took second place in the latest #OnThePremises mini-contest. 25-50 words on the theme "Ring my bell."
49. #PopsugarReadingChallenge: Hoot
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book with onomatopoeia in the title
Book: Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen
Hoot has all of Carl Hiassen's hallmarks: environmentalism, Florida weirdness (alligators in the porta-johns!), and an ending where everyone gets their just desserts. As it's a middle-grade novel, there are no murders as there usually are in his adult books.
Roy, a middle school student, is new to Florida and missing Montana. He befriends a runaway who's on a mission to save the endangered burrowing owls. The owls about to get bulldozed for a construction project, because the company has managed to hide their existence. Roy has to dodge both the construction company and the school bully as he and his friends use creative pranks to delay construction until they can come up with a plan to safely stop it for good.
Along the way, Roy makes more friends, finds a way to thwart the bully, and finds that he loves Florida after all.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book about "found family."
Book: Deal with the Devil, by Kit Rocha
The Mercenary Librarians series is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the United States has fallen apart, with some areas controlled by the ruthless TechCorps, some in anarchy, and some riding an uneasy edge in between. In one of the latter areas, we find the librarians, all of whom were created or genetically altered by the corporations: Nina, a warrior with super-fast reflexes, Maya, who remembers everything she's ever heard, and Dani, who's impervious to pain.
The librarians have carved a safe space out for a neighborhood in Atlanta. They trade not only in books, but in information, technology, food, heirloom seeds that produce better crops than the TechCorps ones, etc.
Enter the Silver Devils, a team of super-soldiers led by Garrett Knox. They've broken free of the oppressive regime that controlled them, but the technology implanted in their bodies is breaking down. They've been offered one chance at help - but the price luring Nina to be handed over to a mysterious kidnapper. And there's one other problem: Nina and Knox are falling in love.
The book combines action and emotional depth to make a satisfying read. There are a couple of startling twists toward the end that promise more in the later volumes. This book concentrates mainly on Nina & Knox, with an occasional look inside the other characters' heads; it appears that the other books concentrate more on other parings. The future in this series is dark but not hopeless, and the characters' ability to keep their humanity and form a family is what makes it memorable.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book about or set in a non-patriarchal society
Book: Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. LeGuin
A science fiction writer's dream: a 500+ page book that's all world building. It's presented as an anthropological study of the Kesh, who live in a valley in a far-future California where the USA has been forgotten and fossil fuels have run out. The Kesh live close to the land; they have technology, but no cars, television, or computers. The book was written pre-Internet; now it's hard to imagine a people so uninterested in the outside world.
There's a story that takes up less than a third of the book, told by a woman who left the peaceful valley of the Kesh to live with her foreign father in his very patriarchal, warlike society. Years later she flees, taking the new name of Woman Coming Home.
But mostly the book is a collage of brief sections about Kesh social organization, customs, festivals, marriage and family, music, food, poetry, clothing, medicine, war, birth and death customs, and a considerable glossary. It's a world you can step into and walk around in.