This is The Bookshelf, a list of recommendations related to each issue’s theme. It’s not an exhaustive list, or a top 10 list in any way. It’s just a collection of books that we love by women or that feature interesting female characters and themes.
The Brides of Roll Rock Island by Margo Lanagan
A beautifully written story told from the perspectives of different generations of islanders about the myth of the selkie – seals that turn into humans. The men of the island are desperate for the company of the beautiful and meek seal-women, leading them to abandon their human wives and girlfriends and start mixed race families. However, the seal-women come from the sea not of their own accord, but because the men go deep into debt to get their brides, paying the local witch to release them from their sealskins. The sons of these unions can see the sadness in their mams (as they are called in the lilting local dialect used throughout the book) though; they know they miss the sea. When reading the book, I confess I didn’t know the myth of the selkie at all, a Scottish folklore. Instead, I saw in it aspects of my own mother, who came to England for college from Malaysia, never intending to stay in this cold, grey and rainy land, but who met my father and stayed for 30 years, complaining more and more of the freezing winters. Eventually, she returned to her own land, where it’s hot every single day of the year, taking my father with her. She came and stayed through choice, but the brides in the book are wrenched from their own environments, like mail-order brides who must adapt to the husband’s culture, and the tragedy of this theft is borne out through the effect on their children and the island’s community. LAS
The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R Kiernan
This is a book about being haunted. By ghosts, yes, but also by your family, your past, by your own psyche. The Drowning Girl is told by Imp, or India Morgan Phelps, a thoughtful, kind, extraordinary girl working through her schizophrenia with the help of her painting. We experience Imp’s haunting through her flickering, confused gaze, told in her incredibly distinctive, sparklingly original voice. This is a ponderous unfolding of mystery that travels along Imp’s disjointed experience of the world. Where mermaids, crows, wolves, madness, loss, conspiracy, sirens, and the difference between truth and fact mount to overwhelm her. The Drowning Girl is about the real and the un-real, how the boundary is not always a clean line, but can be blurred and treacherous. What happens when you can no longer tell the difference? Are you mentally ill? Or can you see things that others cannot? Kiernen weaves the tendrils of this complex – yet somehow at the same time effortless – novel with great craftsmanship and artistry. Kiernan is one of those inspired and exciting writers you don’t come across all that often. The Drowning Girl is a truly visionary book, well deserving of its British Fantasy Society nomination. Just read it. LJS
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Rather than Arthurian legend, here we have the legend of Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar and the other women of Avalon. We hear of knights' quests and battles through court gossip and reports, instead spending time with priestesses, ladies-in-waiting, mothers and Queens, and through their eyes see the clash between the matriarchal, pagan way of life and the growth of Christianity. I could happily spend all my time reading myths told from the woman's point of view (see Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiaed too), and this book thrills me with its drama and mysticism, although Gwenhwyfar certainly would put a stop to the latter. Growing up reading classic Arthurian stories, I wondered at Morgan Le Fay. Why was she so evil? Just because she's evil, I guess! But here she is made complex, powerful and tragic, fighting the good fight against the restrictive patriarchy. LAS
Kindred by Octavia Butler
In a recent article in the Guardian, Anna Smith asked why women in SF films don't time travel. I wonder if one reason is that males, specifically white males, are easier to write. Generally, they'll transport to a place of privilege. For Dana, the black female protagonist of Kindred, travelling from 1970s California to early 19th century Maryland means she is automatically assumed to be a slave by everyone she meets. She is pulled back whenever her slave-owning ancestor is in trouble and has to undergo and witness terrible, terrible things. Dana's involuntary visits become increasingly nightmarish and the contrasts to the relatively more enlightened 20th century more stark. Time travel itself is brutally depicted, with Dana suffering from transporting through space as well as time and her relationship with her husband Kevin is also put to the test. Newlyweds, happily pursuing writing careers, they deal with unfavourable attitudes from both their families towards their relationship, but of course that's nothing compared to what happens when Kevin accompanies Dana to the past on one of her journeys.
Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb
I loved these books even more than The Farseer Trilogy, for I appreciated the women of the Vestrit family: Ronica, the strong mother, Althea, the willful and tomboyish younger daughter, Keffria, the more traditional older daughter and Malta, the prissy, spoiled granddaughter, whose character arc I appreciated the most. Vivacia, their tragic Liveship is also part of the family, and joining the action is the beautiful, bronze Amber, the Fool from The Farseer Trilogy. The story is epic, tense and tragic, dealing with women who want to be sailors, Ladies, and pirate queens who just want to survive the war. Spoiler alert and just one more reason why this is probably my favourite fantasy trilogy: one of the characters ends up with a giant, visible and permanent clitoris on her forehead. She acts confused when a dragon tells her to enjoy it, but I think she knows that she will. LAS
Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
I've always had a thing for efficient people, and the bit that really won me over during this book was the part where Deeba Resham, the accidental heroine in the fight to save this other London from the evil Smog, skips to the end. Instead of battling her way through a series of quests, she just forgoes the character growth section of the hero arc as frankly, she's kickass enough already. Deeba comes to Un Lun Dun with her best friend the Schwazzy ("Choisi"), the girl who is prophesied to save the city, but ends up leading the battle, even though she's given the chance to go home. As one of the colourful characters of Un Lun Dun points out, doing something that you're destined to isn't as hard as doing it even though you really aren't. Deeba rocks. The world created by China Mieville in this book for young adults is exciting, comical and terrifying. I'd like to visit myself, but am too scared of the giraffes. LAS
We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ
A group of commercial starship travellers crash land on an uninhabited planet and have no way of communicating with civilisation. The narrator, an unnamed woman, is realistic about their chances of survival and becomes increasingly frustrated with the other survivors’ colonist attitudes. I enjoyed her misanthropy towards the other survivors, finding it more realistic and braver than the others’ attempts at water distillation. If hell is other people, it’s probably worse when you’re stuck with just a handful of them. LAS
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories by Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke’s pastiche style of 18th-19th century literature that worked so well in her debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel is maintained in this collection with artful wit and flair. Focusing more on women in this volume, we see how the wives, sisters and daughters of Strange and Norrel’s era are quietly and competently holding their magical own. In the title story, three women have to use their own magical intellect against some rather brutish and nasty men. Mrs Mab features a girl having to rescue her helpless fiancé from the Fay. All of the stories carry the dark danger of fairy, drawing on mythology, folklore and old English tradition.
Throughout, the stories are brought to life by Charles Vess’s enchantingly beautiful illustrations, bound in the loveliest hardback I think I’ve ever come across. The book itself is an artefact, and well worth owning and coveting, rather than getting an eBook or paperback edition. However you read these eight enthralling stories, we recommend that you do. LJS
The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson
Calamity’s father, who she has cared for through two long years of illness, has died, leaving her to reassemble her life in the wake of dedicating it to his care. But it won’t be as simple as going back to work and getting on with things. For Calamity is beginning life’s great change, menopause, and with this change comes the return of her magical gift for finding things. They are not things that Calamity was particularly looking for; old plates, bashed up toys, trees; but each reappearance brings with it a little piece of Calamity’s past when she was a little girl named Chastity, before her mother had run away, before she had given birth to her own little girl at fifteen, before her father had thrown her out of her home to fend for herself. When a little boy washes up after a storm, Calamity is forced to confront her past with the realities of her present.
The New Moon’s Arms is a heartfelt, funny, original fantasy, drawing from the legends of the Selkies and the myths of the Mermaids; threaded with the wonder of inherited magic. Set against the steaming hot and storm-racked backdrop of the Caribbean, the characters are incredibly rich and well written. Calamity is a fine balance of rambunctious strength, and terribly flawed fragility. She is funny, tragic, heroic, bad mannered, lonely, hurt, loving, kind, cruel. In short, she is very real. And completely loveable. Hopkinson is an incredibly skilled writer that every fantasy fan needs to experience. LJS
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Every now and then, a book comes along that will stay deep within your psyche for the rest of your life. The Handmaid’s Tale is such a book. Often noted in the same breath as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, it is dystopian fiction of the highest calibre. The Handmaid's Tale takes place in the former United States, now named Gilliad, a theocratic military dictatorship. The fundamentalist patriarchal government subjugates women to the point of slavery. We see this world through the eyes of Offred (Of-Fred - her handmaid’s name), a woman who has grown up in a free world and lived through a revolution that has resulted in her enslavement. For now she is a ‘handmaid,’ a concubine to the Commander, an old dried up, high-ranking official. Offred’s voice is masterfully written. We hear her sadness, loneliness, resignation, fear, anger and strength. Offred is not ‘kick-ass’, she doesn’t have powers that give her dominance over her attackers; Offred is an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances. What is amazing about her is how she endures, how she simply survives.
The scary thing about this book is that it all seems quite feasible. Atwood has logically looked at the reality of our society and imagined how things could develop. Real issues play out in a chilling way that feel all too possible. Delivered with clarity and precision, this is a true benchmark of the dystopian genre, and simply must be read. LJS
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