a late summer reading list

I’ve spent the last three days trying to write a post about the Florida State athlete who punched a woman in the head during what a lot of people are unfortunately calling a “barfight,” but I haven’t been able to collect my thoughts well enough. The only things I’ve managed to put into writing are phrases like “this is fucking terrifying” and “I’m never leaving my house again.” I was so triggered after I saw the video on Monday night I went non-verbal for a bit and the anxiety that makes my ribcage feel like a vice hasn’t gone away yet.

So, today, I decided I’m going to do something a bit lighter and share some of the books I’ve been reading that I’ve really enjoyed.

bad feminist

I’m not completely finished with Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, but I am so glad that I randomly picked it up the last time I was in a Barnes & Noble. I only ever really visit three sections in any given bookstore: Women’s Studies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and Poetry. I found some books for work on my last trip (I’ve been needing Yes Means Yes), and spotted this one, which stood out to me because I’ve heard some people talking about it lately. Two-thirds into it I can really see why– it’s an amazing collection of essays, and I’m almost done with it and haven’t lost interest (I managed to make it halfway through Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman before I just got bored). Roxane’s writing is compelling and important– we all need to read more writing by women of color.

lang leav patricia lockwood

These are both poetry collections. I found Love and Misadventure by Lang Leav because a friend kept posting quotes on instagram and I decided I loved her lovely, whimsical style. Many of her poems cover love and heartbreak in a way I found delightful, comforting, and healing, and I really appreciated the fact that many of her poems are gender neutral.

I’ve been meaning to get Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homosexuals ever since someone I follow posted “Rape Joke” on tumblr. The post linked to an interview with her, and something about her voice intrigued me. When I saw it at that same Barnes & Noble trip, I was glad I’d finally found it. I’ve been going through it slowly– many of her poems are meaty and dense, which I love– and I’m not entirely sure why but she reminds me of Billy Collins. She’s definitely edged into my “favorite poets” group (along with Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and Tennyson).

mirror empire

I found out about Kameron Hurley when I read her essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle, and Slaves’ Narrative” which I highly recommend you read. The author bio said that she’d written a fantasy novel, and I’ve been on the lookout for more fantasy novels written by women (Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion and Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of Ages are some of the few I’ve read. I need to read more Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, but … haven’t yet). When I saw that The Mirror Empire had made an io9’s “fantasy books you need to read” list, I went ahead and requested it at my local library. Well, they never got it in, but it was a Christmas gift and I am beyond thrilled with it.

The plotting and writing and setting and characters are all amazing, but my favorite thing about it was the cultures. One culture has five genders, which are not assigned at birth, and it’s considered the height of rudeness to misgender someone. Another culture has three genders– male, female, and something a bit like intersex– all of which are assigned, but one character from that culture has a body that transitions back and forth between male and female, and the people respect that fluidity.

In short, I cannot wait for the sequel.

kristin cashore

I discovered Kristin Cashore’s Graceling when a WordPress blog I follow (wish I could find it again!) did a review of it, and it raved about how well Kristin handled the “strong female protagonist” trope. Kristin had an opportunity to subvert some of the trappings that come along with writing about a young female warrior (coughcoughKatnissTriscough), and she did it so fantastically well. I cannot say enough good things about this entire series, especially Fire.

Each of these women claim and own themselves in such a gloriously fierce way, and while each book features a romantic interest, they’re just … different. As in realistic. At least, to me. A relationship where the conflict/movement is completely unrelated to characters lying to each other or plain just not communicating? Sign me up! There’s also a very frank discussion of reproductive justice in Fire, and one of the struggles that Katsa faces in Graceling is the pressure to get married even though she doesn’t want to. All in all, these were fantastic stories that wrestled with honest questions in a meaningful way.

marissa meyer

I noticed when the first book of this series by Marissa Meyer came out and it went onto my list primarily because the “retold fairy tale” genre is one of my absolute favorites. I’ve inhaled anything Gail Carson Levine ever wrote, and both Shannon Hale and Robin McKinley are favorites. But a science fiction retelling of Cinderella? Uhm… alllll the yes. When a friend– whose literary tastes I respect– posted a picture of her reading Cress on her birthday, I decided I would finally check it out. Own a Nook makes this far too easy, y’all. I stayed up all night to finish Cinder, and when it ended on a cliffhanger, I immediately got Scarlet and Cress, and about cried when I found out that the next book, Winter, isn’t out yet. Boo.

The best thing about this series is how fantastic the characters are. Cinder is set in “New Beijing,” and is a cyborg, and dealing with oppression and marginalization is a main theme of the book. Scarlet gets damseled, but is then rescued by two women (yahs!).

My favorite of the three, though, is Cress. Based on Rapunzel, Cress’s primary internal conflict is dealing with the fact that the fairy tales she’s sustained herself on while locked up in a satellite as an evil Queen’s hacker and master spy (because being isolated and shut away from society doesn’t mean you are useless and have no skills! YAY!) aren’t actually true, and she can’t count on other people to save her or make her happy. As an ex-fundamentalist and homeschool graduate … Marissa got it right.


In the vein of me finding more women fantasy authors, I picked up Naomi Novik’s Uprooted because Ursule K. Le Guin, Tamora Pierce, and Jacqueline Carey endorsed it, and with that set of writers saying things like “I could not stop reading this book!” I didn’t really have to think twice about buying it. Initially I got it because it seemed like a Beauty and the Beast-type story, but it is not, and it is wonderful. It has more of a Grimm feel to it than many other novels in this genre, and although I don’t typically go for the “dark faerie” feel, this was really good. It made me want to go out and get her Temeraire novels, but I spent my book budget on The Lunar Chronicles, so … that’ll have to wait a bit or until I can convince the library to order them.

Photo by Josué Goge
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  • great, now I have even MORE books to add to my to-be-read list! 😉

  • What did you think of How to Be a Woman? I found some of it entertaining, most of it downright obnoxious and trying to too hard to be funny, and some of it in very poor taste. More like “How to be a woman like Caitlin Moran” than “How to be a woman,” I thought.

    • I enjoyed it up until I couldn’t ignore how annoyed I was getting. I’ve had enough with people telling me there’s only one right way to be a person.

  • Claire

    Awesome. I now have another hold at the library… *g*

    May I recommend Lois McMaster Bujold? She’s an amazing writer, who writes realistic relationships, including abusive ones. (so trigger warning on Komarr…) (also DO NOT start with Mirror Dance, whatever you do)

    If you want space opera with actual character development, her Miles Vorkosigan series is awesome. I’d start either with Cordelia’s Honor (omnibus of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, which really form one complete story in two books), which follows Miles’ mom, or Young Miles (another omnibus, starting with The Warrior’s Apprentice). Miles screws up epically along the way, but he *learns* from it.

    If you want fantasy, The Curse of Chalion is possibly the best fantasy book I have ever read, and you should see the bookshelves in our house… Religion (not Christian-based, there are either five gods or four gods and a demon, depending which country you’re from) is real, and makes a meaningful impact on people’s lives; it’s not pseudo-medieval window-dressing. The sequel (The Paladin of Souls) is a middle-aged woman’s coming of age story.

    Thanks for your blog. I’ve been reading for quite a while (since following a link from Slactivist), and really appreciate everything you’ve posted here.

    • The Curse of the Chalion sounds interesting– especially since that’s the sort of thing I’d like people to say about my book when I’m done with it.

      • Claire

        Excellent. 🙂

        Just a note, though: It’s “The Curse of Chalion” – no the. Chalion is the name of the country the action takes place in.

  • Crystal

    God that list looks cool Sam.

  • Sarah S

    Excellent list 🙂 I’ve been wondering about the Lunar Chronicles, definitely going to check it out now. I haven’t read Uprooted yet, but I LOVE the Temeraire series.

  • I quite enjoyed Naomi’s first series (“What would the Napoleonic wars be like if they had dragons?”) and video game (One of the expansions to the Neverwinter Nights games), so I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one. And the other books listed — sounds like my ereader has some work cut out for it.

    Although you really ought to read more LeGuin. I should probably read Atwood as well, but I was forced to read her in school and have no particular desire to ever do so again.

    I’d also suggest looking for the World of the Five Gods series by Lois Bujold, if you want fantasy-by-a-woman and haven’t read hers yet. Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, Hallowed Hunt…. and the fourth book coming out soon whose name I’ve already forgotten. Penrick’s Demon?

  • g2-1bb886defda9e65bd456e133a1961d86

    I’ve been wanting to read the Lunar Chronicles and this may have been the push I needed. And Uprooted looks interesting.

    It’s summer. What other excuse do you need to grab a good book? XD

  • Yesss, precious. Bookses.

  • If you’re looking for excellent sci-fi in addition to fantasy, might I suggest Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series? It’s far future space opera centering around a ship’s AI who experiences multiple physical perspectives through her Ancillary bodies. Really cool stuff with gender especially, since the AI comes from a culture that doesn’t distinguish between genders, so she just refers to everyone using feminine pronouns even when she knows they’re male. First one’s called _Ancillary Justice_ and second’s _Ancillary Sword_.

  • Funny, because I felt the exact opposite about Graceling. Interesting how different people read a story.

    Yes a million to the recommendation for Ancillary Justice and the fun stuff Leckie does with gender.

    You might also like NK Jemisin (black female author writing non-western setting fantasy YES PLEASE), and Nnedi Okorafor (Nigerian-American author writing Nigerian flavored fantasy, so the same)

  • Matthew Lee

    I have been slowly going through LeGuin’s books and short stories. Living in the Pacific Northwest makes reading her almost mandatory. If you haven’t read Four Ways to Forgiveness. I highly recommend it. I also think you might like Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand. It is a series of interconnected short stories taking place in a fictional Oregon coastal town. Some of the stories deal with the consqences of rape and illegitimacy. Lastly, for of a fantasy feel, the Wizard of Earthsea series deals with many of life’s meaty issues. The ones written after the original trilogy are amazingly good. Not to downplay the trilogy which still are cherished books from my childhood.

    Not that you don’t have a lot of great books on your list. Enjoy your reading.

  • CynicMom

    Oooooh, I’ll have to pick these up! I loved the Rape Joke and Women Have Always Fought links.

    I’d like to second Ancillary Justice and NK Jemisin. Also, if you’d like to start with LeGuin I’d recommend The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s a sci-fi about an ambassador trying to convince a planet to join a federation of planets. There’s some very interesting stuff about gender in there too, but I won’t say more for fear of spoilers. : )

    It is available for free online here: https://www.mlook.mobi/files/month_1203/80e49eb29e78d387d11eb2927ebb8b0dff842941.pdf

  • Some interesting reading there.

  • Claire

    Multiplying the recs for LeGuin. 🙂 Though I’m partial to her Earthsea series (YA). 🙂

  • Tim

    Echoing CynicMom, I guess that was going to be my question – have you read The Left Hand of Darkness yet? Either way, I’d be interested in your take on how Le Guin’s pioneering foray into an exploration of normative non-binary gender compares with more contemporary efforts.

  • Kate

    I loved Cinder but haven’t gotten to the others yet. I’m so happy to hear they’re all great! I’m reading Rainbow Rowell’s books this summer and I’m really enjoying them!

  • noirceuil

    Hi! That seems like a really fun reading list. I just wanted to chime in to give another vote to the Temeraire series of books. They are really fun.

    Also, I wanted to throw in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. I found the series protagonist, Min, to be a wonderful example of the “strong female character.” We get to follow her hero’s journey from fearful street urchin to the most badass warrior in the realm, but she still feels like a real person. A young girl who has all these huge responsibilites dumped into her lap, and by the god(s) is it hard.

    If you haven’t read it, you might want to give it a try.

    • I’ve read all of Sanderson’s books. The Mistborn trilogy I’ve read three times.

      • noirceuil

        Oh. That’s settled then.

        *drops a clip and pushes away, awkwardly*

  • 12anon

    Ooh! Ooh! Fantasy with strong female characters? I’ve recently enjoyed the Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marillier. The first one is based on an old obscure fairy tale and all incorporate old Celtic folk tales. The girls usually rescue themselves and frequently also their romantic interests. The books include a lot of druidic themes and sympathetic treatment of lgbt characters and women’s ability to make their own choices, even while maintaining a realistic feeling of the historical setting.

    • Sarah S

      I was just coming back here to recommend the Sevenwaters series!

  • Another plug for Juliet Marillier.

    Also, if you haven’t read any of Michelle Sagara or Michelle West (her two pen names), then they’d be worth taking a look. The Michelle West books have a few trigger warnings attached to them, though everything is well done. She’s a Japanese-Canadian and writes very non-standard fantasy.

    If you want more science fiction, then Sheri S. Tepper is also worth a look. I’d start with “Grass” and “Family Tree”.

    Finally, Robin Hobb is one of my favorite writers.

  • Michele Cox

    You might want to take a look at Seanan McGuire’s _Indexing_ for a different way of taking a new look at fairy tales/folklore — it’s fun, at the very least, and may be thought-provoking from time to time.

    (Honestly, I like all the McGuire I’ve read, particularly the InCryptid books, and I like her alter-ego’s _Feed_ series, too — Mira Grant is the name those are published under.)

    If you haven’t read any Jo Walton, I recommend her — I’ve read her _Among Others,_ and adored it, and am looking for more. It’s… probably?… fantasy/magical realism, but very much not par for the course.

    N.K. Jemisin is another one you might look for — _The Inheritance Trilogy_ is what I’ve read, and it’s so rich and complex and different and the people are all *complicated,* which I like very much.

    T. Kingfisher has a couple of fairy-tale-retellings I very much liked — “The Seventh Bride” and “Bryony and Roses”

    I strongly second the recommendation of Bujold, either her SF or her fantasy, and particularly _Paladin of Souls_ which has become a go-to re-read for me. And — from her science fiction — I want to grow up to be Cordelia Naismith.

    Oh, there’s just too many names I haven’t seen here yet — M.K. Wren, Sharon Shinn, Diane Duane, Miller & Lee (a husband-and-wife pair), more — always more — Bujold; you mentioned Carey, but have you read her books that start with _Santa Olivia_? They’re very different from her others and I adore them (I quite like the original Kushiel trilogy too, but these are science fiction and very different in tone and are also really wonderful), Melissa Scott (I had read her series starting with _Five Twelfths of Heaven_ and only recently discovered her “Order of the Air” books — Ceremonial Magician (mostly) pilots in the first part of the 20th century), so so so many wonderful books…