Review: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

Note: I received this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect the content of my review. The book is just so honestly extraordinarily good.

Before I read Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine’s last book before Testosterone Rex, I thought that I had a pretty good grip on what it would contain, given that I already agreed with her arguments; and then when I actually did read it, it blew my mind straight out of the back of my skull and onto the wall behind me, and that was five years ago and I’ve been tucking splattery bits of brain back into my head ever since.

Testosterone Rex

Well wouldn’t you know it, here we are five years older and I made the exact same mistake when I was picking up Testosterone Rex. I thought, “I already agree with Cordelia Fine, and I’ve read a book by her about gender and science. I undoubtedly know what this book is going to be!” But then my reading experience was as follows:


Whereas Delusions of Gender focused on brains primarily and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female, Testosterone Rex is about evolutionary biology and development and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female. I loved this book so much I couldn’t shut up about it even to the person I bought it for for her birthday and desperately needed to conceal it from until birthday day arrived. I kept starting to tell her awesome things I learned from the book and then awkwardly pretending to lose my train of thought.

Okay, so what are some of the gendered science narrative that Cordelia Fine is countering in this book? (I hear you ask.) Pretty much everything that suggests men are this way and women are that way and it is always immutably so due to having evolved that way. Men have a greater penchant for risk! A disinterest in monogamy!

A desire to acquire showy possessions and high status in order to attract women! A lesser ability to nurture and feel empathy!

All because of evolution and testosterone!

Let’s take just one example, the claim that men are more prone to risk-taking than women. If you’d asked me ahead of reading Testosterone Rex whether this claim was true, I’d have said that yes the science showed men are bigger risk-takers but that no it wasn’t an inherent biological thing but was instead about socialization. If you’d pressed a little bit, I might have been able to come up with one of the points Fine makes, which is that surveys of risky behaviors likely tend to focus on areas that are traditionally male-dominated (due, again, to socialization) such as sports betting, fast motorcycle riding, or major financial investments.

Fine does go deep on the question of the gendered assumptions inherent in how we assess risk, pointing out complication after complication for the idea that men take risks and women tend not to. For instance, pregnancy is twenty times more likely to result in death than skydiving,1 yet women do it all the time. Or here’s another thing: Women do perceive the world as being inherently riskier than men perceive it as being, but this disparity disappears when you control for ethnicity.

Society seemed a significantly safer place to white males than it did to all other groups, including nonwhite men. What on first inspection seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.


Here’s something else I didn’t know: When you divide risks into categories by type (one study Fine cites broke it out into gambling, financial, health, recreational, social, and ethical risks), there’s no correlation between a high level of risk-taking in one domain with a high level of risk taking in the others (see also).

To see the problem this creates for the idea of risk taking as an essential masculine trait, ask yourself which group are the “real” men, or show a properly evolved masculine psychology: the skydivers, or the traders? . . . . The pure, unadulterated daredevil no doubt exists, but such individuals are statistical exceptions to the general rule that people are fascinatingly idiosyncratic and multifaceted when it comes to risk.

The whole book is like that. Wherever Fine encounters a simple, intuitive-seeming precept that would seem to explain gendered difference, she massively complicates the picture. Gender won’t account for the difference, genes and hormones give an incomplete picture, and every word in the original precept was miserably inexact to begin with. Watching Fine take these gendered claims painstakingly, methodically, devastatingly to pieces should rank among the great works of art that humanity has ever produced.

One of the chapters in Testosterone Rex begins thus:

Sometimes these days I’m introduced to people as an academic who wrote a book about how the brains of men and women aren’t that different. Disappointingly, the wide range of reactions to this brief biography has yet to include You must be Cordelia Fine! Would you sign this copy of your book that I carry around with me?

That would be me. That would be my response. I would also probably burst into tears and propose marriage. Y’all, for real, buy a copy of this book. Buy a box set of this and Delusions of Gender. Buy twelve. Distribute them to your loved ones. Absolutely everyone in the world should read it. You’ll thank me later.

  1. Not anywhere in the world. Pregnancy in America.

Review: The Language of Secrets, Ausma Zehanat Khan

Esa Khattak and his partner Rachel Getty are back in a sophomore mystery called The Language of Secrets, in which Esa is called in to investigate the death of an undercover agent killed while investigating an extremist terror cell. The cell is still planning an attack in Toronto, so it’s vital that Esa should investigate the murder without letting the cell discover that the dead man, Mohsin (a university friend of Esa’s), was an agent of law enforcement.

The Language of Secrets

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, so I feel unqualified to speak to the success of the book as a mystery. As a piece of fiction, though, I found it immensely satisfying. Esa gets brought onto the case almost as political cover: They need a Muslim officer who can appear to be investigating the case without investigating it so much that the sting on the terrorist cell gets derailed. The lead detective handling the terror case believes that Esa was promoted unfairly for “diversity” purposes, and he is condescending and rude to Esa at every turn while undermining the legitimacy of the murder investigation that Esa and Rachel are working on. That his distrust of Esa turns out to have real, terrifying consequences for the case is predictable but also the kind of thing I don’t see played out that often in — particularly — mystery books.

At first I was surprised that Khan chose to go with a “Muslim terrorist cell” plot for her second book. The previous book dealt with the genocide in Bosnia, with Esa’s religious background giving a context and particularity to his investigations. This story felt, at first, altogether more like one that I’d encounter on a television show. But one of Khan’s strengths as a writer is that she uses the structure of a familiar story while fleshing out a range of experiences and faiths for her Muslim characters. Members of the cell have different motives and levels of involvement, while people like Esa and his sister, or Mohsin’s widow, or Mohsin’s father, practice a peaceful version of Islam that is, of course, far more common and normal than the violent extremism we see in the cell leader, Hassan.

An element of the book that I found very unsatisfying was the character of Esa’s sister Rukshana. There will be spoilers in this paragraph only. We find out early on — through Ciprian Coale — that Rukshana is engaged to the apparent leader of this extremist terror cell. When Esa goes to speak with her about it, Rukshana is hotly defensive of her relationship, which has arisen within the last year, and she refuses to listen to Esa’s words of caution. Okay, fine, people in love never listen to anyone who naysays them. The book never tells us what Ruksh sees in Hassan, or where she met him, or what the course of their relationship has been; and at the end of the book, after Hassan nearly kills Ruksh, we see her anger with Esa for not telling her that Hassan was part of a terror cell. But we don’t see any moment where she’s like “oh my God the person I said I loved was a violent terrorist.” It felt weird and off — she felt like a plot device, not a character in her own right.


Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.79: 2017 Book Awards and The Woman Next Door

It’s the inaugural episode of our Serial Box Book Club! Plus, a sea update, a rundown of some recent book awards, and our thoughts on Yewande Omotoso’s (Bailey’s-longlisted!) book The Woman Next Door. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here’s the time signatures for each segment, if you want to skip around!

1:05 – What We’re Reading
4:01 – Sea or Space Update
5:42 – Serial Box Book Club
14:32 – Book Awards!
31:58 – The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso
44:41 – What We’re Reading Next Time

And here are the books we discussed this ep!

What We’re Reading

Mama Day, Gloria Naylor
The Abyss Surrounds Us, Emily Skrutskie
The Fortunes, Peter Ho Davies

Sea or Space

Here’s an article about the supergroups of humpback whales.

Serial Box Book Club

We’re reading episodes one and two of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold. Thanks again to Serial Box for letting us have these episodes to review!

Book Prizes

National Book Critics Circle Awards

LaRose, Louise Erdrich
Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram Kendi
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren

Los Angeles Times Book Awards

Darktown, Thomas Mullen
A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, Robert F. Worth
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Heather Ann Thompson
They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, Wesley Lowery
Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson

Suki Kim on journalism and memoir

His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life, Ed Yong
Patient H. M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, Luke Dittrich
Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, Masha Gessen

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso
Barkskins, Annie Proulx
The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride
Stay with Me, Ayobami Adebayo
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

Tournament of Books

We did not love this match-up.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders
The Mothers, Brit Bennett
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
We Love You Charlie Freeman, Kaitlyn Greenidge
Version Control, Dexter Palmer
The Vegetarian, Han Kang
Sudden Death, Álvaro Enrigue
High Dive, Jonathan Lee
The Nix, Nathan Hill
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter

For This Time

The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso

For Next Time

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour

Review: Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar

Because I am perverse, the first Superman comic I ever read was Superman: Red Son, by famed Scottish comics creator Mark Millar, whose name I thought sounded vaguely familiar when I was scanning the comics shelf at my library. The premise here is that instead of being dropped in the middle of Kansas, Superman ends up in a Ukrainian collective farm. He fights for Stalin, socialism, and the neverending expansion of the Warsaw Pact; while American scientist Lex Luthor plots how to bring him down. Fun, right?

Superman: Red Son

Art is by Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Kilian Plunkett, and Walden Wong; colors by Paul Mounts; letters by Ken Lopez.

If you haven’t read any Superman, Red Son will still make sense, and it’s a good comic to read because it’s contained to the one volume. The introduction to the volume assured me that it was so, and indeed it was so. But I think it was also a little bit like reading Kurt Busiek’s Marvels without knowing, for instance, the classic Spiderman / Gwen Stacy story. It still works; the story explains what’s happening. The punch is just less punchy. As I was reading, there were (many) times when it was clear there was a callback being made, and I was missing it because I don’t know anything about Superman’s history.

That said, Red Son is a very cool story that takes away Superman’s heroism mostly without taking away what’s fundamental to his character. Lex Luthor fights against Superman not because he believes Superman is wrong — he explicitly doesn’t care — but because he doesn’t like to lose, which means that this is a book whose two primary characters are both fundamentally villains. The heroism of other characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman, or the team of fighters trying to oppose the spread of Russian autocracy1, are no less brave for being ancillary to the work that Superman and Luthor are trying to achieve. It also has a hugely satisfying (to me) ending.

Ready for your Angry Feminism Minute? You must have known it was coming! Lois Lane is around basically to mope over Lex Luthor (her husband in this universe) and, now and then, wonder what her life would have been like if she were with Superman.

Lois: Listen. Bring Norma Jean and Jack to dinner if you want. Lex, I’m not sure I even care anymore.
Lex: Oh of course you still care, Lois Luther. Why else would you have chosen to live alone all these years, eh?
Lois [with image of Superman in background]: I guess you’re right, Lex. Maybe I am just a one-man woman.

Framing one of the only women in the comic as fundamentally about her romantic life is tediously regressive. I’d say atavistic were it not for the fact that comics just have not come that far from the days of this shit in the first few issues of Iron Man.

Happy: Are ya brushin’ me off… Me, Happy Hogan, who has finally found the dame of his dreams?
Pepper: My dear Mr. Hogan, your dream would only be my nightmare! In short…you wouldn’t be my type even if you were my type!
Happy: Hm, I get the picture…it’s him…Stark…who makes yer ticker go thump thump. Right?
Pepper: Right! Only he doesn’t know I’m alive, but someday he will…and then he’ll give up all his actresses and debutantes…and I’ll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!

Again, this Iron Man comic is from 1963. Red Son was published four damn decades later, and it’s still coming at me with this same retro gender shit. I googled “Mark Millar gender” to see if I was being oversensitive, and it turns out that this is a thing he told the New Republic in an interview with (omg of course) Abraham Riesman.

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”


Comics, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

  1. Jenny sobs into her tea

Interrupting Women: A Links Round-Up

A man named Ben Blatt analyzed — among other things — the gendering of certain terms and descriptions in fiction. My favorite finding is that male writers were 75% more likely to depict female characters interrupting male characters. TYPICAL.

On diversity in historical romance.

Given the history of Nazi appropriation of medieval studies and folklore, I was particularly interested in this February series at the Public Medievalist about people of color in the medieval world. The introduction to the series is here, and you can click through to the other pieces in it.

Well this story about a doctor who reads a lot but never any women makes me want to punch someone.

Why “we made it for the fans, not the critics” is nonsense.

The US is insisting that Cambodia pay off a huge debt incurred by a dictator the US installed via coup. It’s tremendously garbage.

How to counteract gaslighting.

Linda Holmes is predictably fantastic on the “Missing Richard Simmons” podcast.

I loved this Jezebel review of a book called How Not to Hate Your Husband after Kids, which both gets at a lot of intractable gender dynamics and made me want to read this book whose title initially really really put my back up.

Author Karan Mahajan on being brown in Austin.

Jia Tolentino is such a terrific writer. Here’s her piece on the gig economy and how it celebrates overwork.

Belle should have married Gaston: A historical perspective.

Why do dude journalists think lady celebrities want to sleep with them (spoilers: they don’t)?

Review: Version Control, Dexter Palmer

What a weird, weird book. It reminded me a little of Nick Harkaway with the quills retracted (does that metaphor work? do porcupines retract their quills ever?). Version Control is a time travel novel with very little time travel, a story about humanity and loss from whose human characters I felt distant, a novel of ideas that sometimes made me think brand new thoughts and sometimes made me feel very tired of humanity (although not in the way the author maybe intended).

Version Control

Philip Wright has not built a time machine. It’s a causality violation device, and so far it has always had null results. His wife, Rebecca, works for a dating service called Lovability that is monumentally successful at reducing people down to data points and matching them up with the data-driven correct mates. They are recovering from a tragedy, and Rebecca can’t shake the feeling that the world isn’t quite what it was supposed to be. It’s nothing to do with the time machine. It’s a causality violation device, anyway.

Version Control takes a very, very long time to get to its premise. I was warned about this, so I bore with it to get to the pay-off, and in fact I think the pay-off was worth it: Dexter Palmer has a take on time travel and its paradoxes that I don’t think I’ve ever seen done before. When the characters finally unravel (ish) the central mystery of the book and attain (ish) a resolution, it felt eminently satisfying.

On a character note, eh, not so much. It wasn’t exactly that Rebecca and Philip and Alicia and Carson and Kate were paper dolls in service of a novel of ideas, but they didn’t feel like real people, either. Actually! They felt very similar to how Rebecca felt about the world in general: Similar in most respects to what people would be like, but somehow not quite there. Maybe this was intentional on the author’s part, but it’s not my preference — I like to read stories about people who have conversations, not people who perpetually exchange monologues, and I particularly like to read about people who admire and like each other, the way virtually nobody in this book seemed to. I was always very aware that the book wanted to get across ideas more than it wanted to write about humans.

A mixed bag, then, but a very worthwhile one.

Agree or disagree: Time travel is always more trouble than it’s worth and we should 100% stay when we’re at, even if someone we know has built a time travel machine.

Review: Borderline, Mishell Baker

What’s that you say? Somebody wrote a book about creepy fairies and mental health treatments? YES THANK YOU, I DON’T MIND IF I DO.

Borderline has been garnering all the accolades this past year in SFF circles, most recently a well-deserved Nebula nomination. It’s about a filmmaker called Millie who has borderline personality disorder (BPD hereafter) and is a double amputee following a suicide attempt the year before. A mysterious woman named Caryl shows up at her mental hospital and offers her a job with the equally mysterious Arcadia Project. Work with us for a year, says Caryl, and at the end of it we’ll get you a job in Hollywood. Figuring it’s the only way she’ll get back into the movie biz, Millie agrees and is instantly put on a missing persons case — or to be more specific, a missing fairy case, because it turns out the Arcadia Project manages human/fairy relations. Delicately.


I was nervous to read this book (despite the fab cover and raves from all sides), partly because depictions of mental health in SFF can be hit or miss for me (with a lotttttt of miss), and partly because borderline people are bad at boundaries and I am made up of ~95% boundaries so I was worried that if the book accurately portrayed BPD, it would put my back up and I would have a hard time enjoying it.

Borderline pooh-poohed all my concerns: It portrayed BPD in a way that was absolutely familiar to me from borderline people I have known, and gave me a ton of insight about what it’s like from the inside if you are self-aware and trying to deal with it, and got into the nitty-gritty details of cognitive behavioral therapy work1 that BPD-havers can do to lessen the impact of their symptoms, and showed how BPD both helps and hurts Millie in her work with the Arcadia Project. What a great fucking book.

The world of the fey that Mishell Baker explores here is wonderfully weird and specific. If the explanations Millie gets from her colleagues at the Arcadia Project occasionally feel like visits from the Exposition Fairy, those moments are quick and well worth the reader’s time (especially given that this is the first book in a planned series). The mystery Millie is assigned to investigate throws out an exactly correct number of clues, red herrings, and conspiracy, leaving behind a satisfying solution and some loose ends for the second book to explore. The last time I enjoyed urban fantasy this much was War for the Oaks.2

My one single gripe is that the character of Gloria bummed me out. She’s a blonde Southern bitch whose polite words have barbs behind them:

“Don’t mind Teo,” said a cloying, high-pitched Southern voice. “He’s a Grouchy Gus.” . . . . She giggled, in that cute way Southern women do instead of punching you in the teeth.

Ha ha yeah totally, we are cloying assholes down here.

Whereas with other characters at the Arcadia Project, Baker gives you a sense of what lies behind their behavior toward Millie, Gloria pretty much seems like she’s being a bitch to be a bitch. (She Does Good at points in the story, but in general she’s pointlessly shitty, passive-aggressive, and insincere to Millie.) The fake-nice blonde Southern lady is a stereotype I’d like a break from, given how closely the fakeness and the blondeness seem to be linked. While individual writers who write this type of antagonist for their heroes to clash with probably don’t intend it this way (it’s clear Baker doesn’t), the uncritical reproduction of this stereotype nevertheless reinforces a dichotomy of honest vs. deceptive gender performance that I do not love.

On the other hand, I am a blonde polite Southern woman who has spent a lot of time around people that think that list of adjectives tells them everything they need to know about me, so maybe I’m just annoyed on behalf of my people. You decide!

Overall though, I absolutely loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, talked about it to everyone, will read the sequel in a hot second when it comes out. I already know it’s going to be one of my favorites of 2017. Thanks so much for Sarah over at The Illustrated Page for putting me on to it!

  1. I love cognitive behavioral therapy so much, and it has helped so many people, and I almost never see it depicted in fiction, so that was awesome.
  2. Aha, says the perceptive reader, you must not read very much urban fantasy. Correct, I do not; it does not often tempt me.

Review: Jem and the Holograms, Kelly Thompson & Sophie Campbell

Well, Memory and Ana were correct: Jem and the Holograms is a joyous delight. I dragged my feet on reading it because I was not familiar with the original property, which should be no surprise to anyone because I know 0 things about pop culture prior to 2005 or so. But it turns out you don’t need to be familiar with the television show to appreciate the glorious weirdness of this comic.

Jem and the Holograms

The premise: Jerrica, Kimber, Shana, and Aja want to submit a video application to the “Misfits vs” competition, where a bunch of unknown bands get to compete against The Misfits in live performance. But Jerrica (their lead singer) has such terrible stage fright that she can’t get through a single song without choking. So instead they USE A HOLOGRAM OF HER and pretend the hologram lady (Jem) is their real lead singer. Hijinks ensue.

I dunno, if you enjoyed the first act of The Parent Trap or want to read about ladies tearing it up in the music scene with excellent eye makeup, I feel I can recommend Jem and the Holograms to you in good conscience. This volume mainly focuses on Jerrica and Kimber, but it’s clear that the background characters have their own desires and stories to tell, which I hope we’ll see more of as the comic progresses. It’s A+ to see Kimber’s budding romance with a lady and Jerrica’s budding romance with a dude treated with the exact same tone and respect; I am rooting for love all around!

Another wonderful thing about this comic is that when artist Sophie Campbell came out as trans over the course of the comic’s run, publisher IDW reprinted every issue to get rid of her deadname. That is absolutely putting your money where your mouth is, and I think it’s great that the publisher supported Campbell. Also great: Trans ladies being lead artists on comics! Woooooooo!

(Note: Sophie Campbell finished her run on Jem and the Holograms after the 17th issue and moved on to other projects. But that still gives me two (ish?) more trade paperbacks of this marvelous comic to look forward to with her art.)

So if the Trump administration is backing up on you and you need some pure, bright-colored joy in your life, check out Jem and the Holograms.

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.78: Romance Novels and the Forcening Concludes

Happy Ides of March, friends! After a very tense podcast last week, in which Whiskey Jenny naysayed two of my absolutely favorite books in the whole world, we have again reached an accord this week and legitimately had to stop ourselves from talking forever about romance novels. We also chat about Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s book Agnes and the Hit Man, answer some listener mail, and preview some THRILLING NEW PODCAST CONTENT. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here’s the time signatures for each segment, if you want to skip around!

1:23 – What we’re reading
07:07 – Romance novels!
33:43 – Agnes and the Hit Man, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer
47:34 – Listener mail
52:44 – What we’re reading next time
53:44 – What else we’re reading next time

What We’re Reading

Njinga of Angola, Linda Heywood
a top secret book
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Rosa Brooks

Sea or Space

Here’s the New York Times article about the awesome new planets we’re going to have to colonize when Trump blows up our one.

Romance Novels

One Plus One, Jojo Moyes
A Gentleman’s Game, Theresa Romain
Wanted, a Gentleman, KJ Charles
Wicked Becomes You, Meredith Duran
Riveted, Meljean Brook
Ride with Me, Ruthie Knox
Beta Test, Annabeth Albert
Faking It, Jennifer Crusie
A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal, Meredith Duran
The Convenient Marriage, Georgette Heyer
True Pretenses, Rose Lerner
A Lot Like Love, Julie James

Here’s Dahlia Lithwick’s brilliant unified theory of Muppet types.

Unraveled, Courtney Milan
Proof by Seduction, Courtney Milan
A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant
Special Werewolf Alpha Team series, Paige Tyler
Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich
Nora Roberts in general
A Gentleman Undone, Cecilia Grant
The Spymaster’s Lady, Joanna Bourne
Acute Reactions and Hard Knocks, Ruby Lang
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, Sarah MacLean
Sutphin Boulevard, Santino Hassell
A Woman Entangled, Cecilia Grant

The Second Annual Forcening, Part Two

Agnes and the Hit Man, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

For Next Time

The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso

Programming Note

For next week, we will be reading the first two episodes/chapters of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, and you can follow along with us on Serial Box!

Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Theme song by: Jessie Barbour

What’s on My To-Lend Shelf?

Happy Tuesday! Today I’m collablogging (hm, that doesn’t really work, does it?) with the fabulous Renay of Lady Business, Chelsea the Reading Outlaw, and Claire Rousseau, and we’re all talking about the ten books we’d like to keep on a “to-lend” shelf (should our lifestyles support such a thing).

First up, I know because I nearly bought two copies at a library book sale recently that I like to be able to lend out Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The un-spoiler-y version of the pitch is that it’s about a girl who used to have two siblings and now has zero. You can have the spoiler-y version that got me to read the book in the first place in the following footnote.1

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanigahara, is my number two. Despite the utter weirdness of this book, and my great dislike of Yanagihara’s entitlement and second novel, The People in the Trees remains one of the best reading experiences of my life. It’s the story of the life of a fictional scientist — now disgraced after several of his foster children accused him of sexual abuse — who discovered the secret of immortality on a faraway Pacific island. Reading it made me feel like I’d never read a book before. I wish I could get everyone in the world to read this damn book.

The greatest triumph of randomly-picking-up-a-book-in-the-library since Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons remains a tricky sell because the title is blah and people are not exactly lining up to read old-time diaries all over the place. But maybe if I had some spare copies, that would change. It’s the diary of a teenager in London during the Blitz, a description that is completely inadequate to describe how charming, funny, and strange Love Lessons really is.

One of these years, I am going to get Whiskey Jenny to read The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, with me. It’s the story of a young black woman growing up in rural Alabama in the 1930s, and while it is tremendously dark in places, its luminous beauty and hope have kept it one of my favorite books of all time. Plus, it has queer ladies! Queer women of color in the rural South! Don’t you want that? Of course you do.

Again, I may be influenced here by my own recent book sale behavior, as I purchased a spare copy of this book there, but I’d love to share Kage Baker’s book In the Garden of Iden with more people. It’s the first in a science fiction series about time-traveling cyborgs who work for a futuristic Company. In the Garden of Iden follows the cyborg Mendoza through her rescue by the Company, her metamorphosis into a cyborg asset for the Company, and her life in Elizabeth England trying to rescue specific old-time plants from extinction. It’s a fun book on its own and a wonderful first entry in a brilliant and gripping SF series.

Greensleeves, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, is about an eighteen-year-old girl called Shannon who doesn’t exactly know where she belongs or what she wants to do next. She does know that she’s tired of being herself, and so she takes on a job as an investigator for a contested will, which requires her (well, she decides) to become a completely different person. Teenage me needed this book like oxygen, and it remains one of my very most favorite books in the world (that no one else has ever heard of).

In comfort food, I would include Hilary McKay’s wonderful Saffy’s Angel, a middle grade novel about a girl called Saffy who discovers when she is eight that she’s adopted. Her siblings are really her cousins, and her parents are really her aunt and uncle. When her grandfather dies and leaves her “the stone angel, the angel in the garden,” she decides to set out to find that angel (if it still exists). It’s a funny, heartfelt dear of a book with a strong female friendship at its center.

If I had thought of it while I was at the book fair, I’d have bought the shiny new copy of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and kept it for just such an occasion. When someone tells me they’re in the mood for a book that’s meaty, plotty, and well-written, Fingersmith is what I give them. It’s about a queer girl running a con in Victorian London, and if that pitch doesn’t get you then I don’t even know what to say.

In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden, is about a businesswoman who decides to become a Catholic nun. A proper one, who stays all the time in the convent. Not long after Philippa arrives, the brilliant, complicated Abbess Hester dies, and the convent is plunged into financial crisis. It’s a bit like a boarding school book with adults, lots of politicking and internal conflict, and it’s among my favorite books by one of my all-time favorite authors.

And finally, my beloved, cherished Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. For reasons not entirely clear to me, this vampire dystopia has become one of my dearest comfort reads. It is about a girl called Sunshine who gets kidnapped by vampires as she’s visiting a lake that should have been relatively safeish. She finds herself sharing a cell with a vampire, whose meal she is supposed to be; but instead they form a kind of alliance. Sunshine does vampires in a brilliantly specific and visceral way, and seeing Sunshine come into her own as a vampire adversary is A+ terrific.

What books would be on your to-lend shelf?

(PS I asked my mum to help me come up with books for this project, and she became very excited about the idea of my having a to-lend shelf. “Mama, no, it’s for a blog post!” I kept saying, and she kept handing me spare copies of her favorite books and saying “Start the shelf! Start the shelf! Now you have three books to put on it!” So now I have an actual, literal to-lend shelf. You’re welcome, guests.)

  1. One of the siblings is an ape, because the protagonist, Rosemary, was raised in a family that was conducting ape language studies.