Leave the Lights On: 6 Tales of Speculative Horror

speculative horror recommendations

My greatest literary loves touch on the darkest elements of the human experience, where we confront our own mortality and the existential dread of an unforgiving cosmos. I’m delighted to share a small selection of some of the dark, twisted, or otherwise unsettling novels I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of years.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
1. The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Beautifully-paced and dreadful in the most satisfying of ways, with an emotional punch and depth that elevates the story well beyond mere suspense. Everything about this book is claustrophobic, from the setting and theme to the limited cast of only two characters.

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
2. The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Inspired by the classic cosmic horror tale, “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. Set within the quirky walls of a museum of oddities, this book balances its unforgiving horrors against a thoroughly likable cast and a story full of heart and humor.

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten
3. The Lost Village by Camilla Sten

Swedish author Camilla Sten brings us an atmospheric journey with a documentary film crew, an abandoned village, and a vanished cult. Sinister dealings from the past trickle down through the generations, propelling the protagonist toward her family’s long-kept secrets.

Revenge by Yōko Ogawa
4. Revenge by Yōko Ogawa

A collection of interconnected macabre stories that evoke a sense of alienation and displaced desperation, with exceptional attention to atmospheric detail. Revenge drips with high strangeness and quiet suffering, artfully conveyed through Ogawa’s subtle voice.

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet
5. A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

A group of precocious teens and children confront the apocalyptic consequences of climate change and late capitalism while their parents drift on a cloud of inebriation and denial. Astute, clever, and surprisingly beautiful amidst its (very human) horrors.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu
6. The Hunger by Alma Katsu

If you’ve ever thought, “I need a supernatural Donner Party novel,” then The Hunger is for you. Katsu depicts this agonizing journey through a restrained and brutal drip-feed of uncanny threats, breathing fresh dread into an already horrifying historical event.

J KoyanagiJ Koyanagi writes horror and science fiction with an eye toward exploring consciousness, mortality, and embodiment. Her novel Ascension landed on the James Tiptree Jr. Honor List, her short fiction has appeared in multiple anthologies, and she is a staff writer on the series Ninth Step Murders and Ctrl-Alt-Destroy through Realm. In her free time, she plays D&D and thinks about how good dogs are.

Sirens Mission: Finding Home

Sirens conference speculative fiction book recommendations

Not being able to gather in person with the Sirens community in 2020 was heart-rending. But it also gave us the gift of time: a chance, after more than a decade of work, to take a breath and consider what Sirens is today—and what we want it to be tomorrow.

Sirens is a conference that actively seeks to amplify voices that are pushing boundaries in speculative spaces—and specifically, are pushing those boundaries in the direction of a more inclusive, more empathetic, more just world. Since we featured works on this year’s villainous theme last year, this year’s Sirens Reading Challenge instead showcases 50 works by female, nonbinary, and trans authors that envision that better world—and we’re exploring what that means to us in a series of six posts, using those works as reference points.

Our first five posts discussed finding and sharing those speculative and nonfiction works that, respectively, reclaim what it means for us to be from somewhere, to transgress boundaries, expectations, and limitations for all people of marginalized genders, to revolutionize our world through collective action, to resolutely, radically hope, and to save yourself from a world’s worth of others’ expectations . Today, in the last of our series, we discuss how crucial, how necessary to find our own unique embodiment of home.

Finding Home

Sometimes we all need to come home.

Every day, we venture forth. We reclaim and we transgress, we battle and we hope, and we save ourselves. We go adventuring, on grand quests and smaller travels. We seek new experiences and expand our horizons. We go and go and go, so often at others’ behest but occasionally for our own growth and happiness.

But we all, sometimes, need to come home.

We’re taught that home has a very specific meaning: your house, your place of residence, on which you pay your utilities, a place to keep your belongings. Our societal interpretation of home is terribly impersonal, almost technical, a legal domicile, an investment. Despite that this is, one supposes, where you spend most of your time, where your family or friends reside, where you keep you most treasured possessions.

We don’t need a house; we need a home. We need somewhere where we feel warm and cozy and safe. Where we are most ourselves. Where there’s no need to reclaim, no need to transgress, no battles to be fought. A place of hope and a place of safety.

Yes, sometimes that is a place. Sometimes that is even a house or an apartment, yours or someone else’s, a family member’s or a friend’s. Sometimes that is another physical location: a desert or a lake, a library or a bookstore, a favorite chair or a porch swing. Anywhere that keeps you warm, keeps you safe, makes you whole.

Other times, that’s a person: in the arms of your lover, by the side of your best friend, at the feet of your forebears. Just as much as locations, with all their memories and attachments, people can conjure home for us just as indelibly. People can keep us warm, keep us safe, make us whole.

But whether your home is a location, a pet, a person, it’s vital that you have something, somewhere, someone that means home to you. Somewhere or someone that reminds you who you are, what’s important to you, what you’ve lost in the daily bustle of living your life. Somewhere or someone that can help you re-focus, re-group, re-imagine where you want to go next, the next time you feel ready to leave the warm and comfort and safety of home.

And so, in the speculative space that is Sirens, our sixth mission statement is finding home: to create a place or discover a person who makes you feel especially warm and safe.

Whether we battle of our own accord or war comes to us, whether we adventure readily or reluctantly, whether we reclaim or transgress or simply get through the day, our lives are not so different from our stories. Stories of revolution and quests, combat and peace, all present some notion of home. Stories assure us that it’s okay to need that place, that person, to fill our hearts, guide us back to our north star, remind us that we can—and will—do whatever it is we set out to do.

Whatever home means, now or ten years from now, we must, each of us, find ours.

Finding Home Works

In Maybe a Fox, Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee’s ugly-cry middle-grade novel, Jules and Sylvie are sisters and, even better, best friends. But when their mother passes away, each of the sisters grieves differently: Jules hunkering down, Sylvie running away. When Sylvie disappears, Jules is lost, bereft, inconsolable, as Sylvie was even more essential to Jules’s idea of home thane even their mom was. But at the same time as Sylvie disappears, a new fox is born, one that seems destined to protect Jules as she searches with an ever-thinning thread of hope for her missing sister. Maybe a Fox is a delicate reflection of what it means to grieve, what it means to hope, and what it means to reconstruct your home after a catastrophic loss.

Lumberjanes, the Noelle Stevenson-created comic that has featured dozens of creators over its 21-and-counting volume history (with offshoots for graphic and non-graphic novels), explores what it means to find home by finding your people. Five best friends are determined to have the best time at summer scout camp—and they’re not about to let any three-eyed wolves get in their way. Lumberjanes is a little bit punk rock, a little bit girl detective, and a whole lot of joyous queer space all rolled up into a series of fantastical adventures. But where the series really excels is beautifully crafting its main characters and their relationships—which grow and change as they themselves grow and change. Friendship to the max!

Speaking of friendship, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, challenges the notion that our friendships should not—could not—be as important that our romantic relationships. By putting their own friendship on display, with all its twists and turns, ups and downs, Sow and Friedman construct a new way of viewing our friendships: as fulfilling, as comforting, as challenging, as complicated and complex and ultimately crucial to our wellbeing. But they also note that those sorts of friendships are not easily won, and require foundational commitment and daily care. As we examine what it means to find home, and how that is so often found through the people in our lives, Sow and Friedman offer a validating, reassuring, earth-shaking option: our friendships.

So much of what we read is challenging, traumatic, dystopian—and rightly so, as we examine our own challenging traumatic, dystopian world and our place in it—but in Two Moons, Krystal A. Smith does something radical: She chooses joy. Two Moons, her collection of thoroughly delightful short stories, is full of Black mysticism, queerness, and happy endings. In the opening, utterly gorgeous work, a woman falls in love with the moon. Later, a woman births a goddess—and receives a surprising reward. In a surprise turn, a woman has a heart-to-heart…with her heart. Each work is a further pleasure, a further enchantment, a further chance to find a little bit of bliss—and a map to a new incarnation of home.

Monstress, the exquisitely crafted comic by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, is now in its sixth volume—and for good reason. In an alternate-world Asia, full of Art Deco architecture, steampunky science, magic inspired by Middle Eastern myth, and a matriarchal society, Monstress offers a beautiful canvass for its creators to explore what it means when your homeland is broken—and the lengths a people will go to reclaim it. As the reader traverses this world, following former child slave Maika Halfwolf, who is hell-bent on avenging her dead mother but who is also the occasional host of a terrifyingly powerful monster, Liu and Takeda travel inexorably down the rabbit hole, asking over and over again: When do you fight for your homeland and when do you burn it all down?

In Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night, we are on January, a colonized planet frozen in space, where one side lives in perpetual, blazing sun and the other in perpetual, suffocating darkness. In this hellscape, Sophie lives in one of the border cities, moderately more temperate, but after contributing to a failed revolution, she is exiled to the dark. And Sophie navigates her new world, Anders adeptly navigates her themes, including what it means to build a home in a society that is relentlessly corrupt, uncaring, violent, and brutal. We all need home, even when that seems impossible.

The Four Profound Weaves, R.B. Lemberg’s debut set in their Birdverse universe, is a bravura exploration of healing, faith, family, and friendship, full of layered and intricate world-building, meticulously crafted language, and complex characters. Uiziya has spent much of her life waiting for her aunt to return and teach her the last secrets of her craft; a nameless man searches for belonging and purpose, unsure he will be welcome if he returns home. Together, they set off in search of Uiziya’s missing aunt, fully aware that the answers to their questions might have an enormous cost, and that they will each need to confront the pain of their pasts to find a new path forward. As Lemberg reconciles questing and returning home, your heart will sing.

Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction by Dr. Sami Schalk is revelatory. She begins with the notion of the bodymind, or the intertwinement of the mental and physical, the true home of your own physical/mental space. Then, using that as a foundation, she extrapolates the true political and social power of speculative spaces: creation of bodyminds that transcend reality’s limitations. Schalk examines works of Black speculative writers as she examines the intersections of marginalizations and creates a new framework for disability studies, Black studies, and gender studies. If the universe truly bends toward justice, it’s work like Schalk’s that makes that so.

Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks is also about finding home within yourself. In 1989, in Danvers, Massachusetts—formerly Salem Village—a truly terrible girls’ field hockey team makes a deal with the devil in the form of a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. If they want to win, they must commit acts worthy of the devil’s patronage. The girls start small—a lie here, a prank there—but as the season progresses, their matches become closer, and the girls commit more serious sins. But are these acts devilish—or are they transgressive? Barry’s clever, hilarious romp explores the dichotomy between objective bad acts and subjectively bad acts, the diminishing force of unrelenting stereotypes, and using a deal with the devil to find yourself and claim your power.

This post is the last of a six-part series on Sirens’s mission. You can find the first five posts here: reclamation, transgression, revolution, hope, and saving yourself.

10 new speculative books from Latinx authors

speculative fiction Latinx recommendation

Tomorrow marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) in the United States, and we’re delighted to bring you 10 new books by Latinx authors released in the last year or so, to update our 2020 list of Fifty Latinx Authors and Books and grow your TBR list even further! Some are names longtime Sirens will recognize, others we hope will become new favorites—and it goes without saying that this list is far from comprehensive.

(Note: We know the identifier “Latinx” continues to be contentious in many circles; as a conference on gender in speculative literature, Sirens uses the term to signal inclusivity to genderqueer, nonbinary, and nonconforming individuals that share markers of language, geography, and race—and will follow the lead of Latin American queer scholars. There are a number of articles addressing the history and usage of the term such as in Mother Jones, NPR, and Pew Research.)

Happy reading!

Queen of the Cicadas by V. Castro
1. Queen of the Cicadas by V. Castro

Told in dual timelines, this mythic novel features Belinda in modern-day Texas at her friend’s wedding, at the same site where farmworker Milagros was brutally murdered in the 1950s. Milagros’s death ignored by everyone in the town except by the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. Belinda realizes that the urban legend La Reina de Las Chicharras (The Queen of the Cicadas), meant to scare children, is actually real… and her fate is irrevocably tied to the events of 70 years ago.

Children of Chicago by Cynthia Pelayo
2. Children of Chicago by Cynthia Pelayo

Interweaving horror and fairytale, police procedural and thriller, Pelayo features Chicago’s Humboldt Park communities in this modern-day retelling of the Pied Piper. Detective Lauren Medina is determined to get to the bottom of what’s happening to the city’s young victims, even if it means unearthing her own painful family secrets.

Mañana: Latinx Comics From the 25th Century edited by Joamette GilMañana: Latinx Comics From the 25th Century edited by Joamette Gil
3. Mañana: Latinx Comics From the 25th Century edited by Joamette Gil

From 2021 guest of honor Joamette Gil, this crowd-backed speculative comics anthology is in its final stage of fulfillment with physical copies imminent. 27 young adult stories set in 2490s Latin America span 300+ pages, envisioning radical futures from Latinx creators throughout the diaspora, including post-apocalypse, liberationist utopia, and slice-of-life magical realism. Released simultaneously in both English and Spanish.

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore
4. The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

Sirens attendees from 2018 might recall guest of honor Anna-Marie McLemore’s seminal keynote. The Mirror Season centers on Graciela who develops a tentative friendship with a boy she barely knows, after discovering they were sexually assaulted at the same party. With a magical bakery, an otherworldly secret forest, and mirrored glass with complex magic, McLemore pens a testament to survival and a love letter to their queer Latinx communities.

Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti, illus. by Dana Sanmar
5. Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti, illus. by Dana Sanmar

With chapters structured through the ancient game between best friends Life and Death, a girl’s fate hangs in the balance. A middle grade magical realist adventure that interweaves themes free will, choice, and destiny, Clara embarks on a portal fantasy to find her missing cousin. Rich with symbolism and imagery in the cards dealt, this book asks readers of all ages all the big, philosophical questions.

Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher
6. Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher

A YA envisioning of a horrific future United States where a wall has been built between US and Mexico. It’s 2032, and everyone is chipped and tracked—but Vali is undocumented, and when her mother’s chip malfunctions, their family’s carefully set life in Vermont is uprooted. Vali and her younger brother must make their way to California, a sanctuary state, on foot, in a journey that’s visceral, heartbreaking, and all-too-possible.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
7. The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova

2017 Guest of Honor Zoraida Córdova makes her adult debut with this sweeping, multi-perspective family story. The Montoyas know not to question inexplicable things, but when they flock to their ancestral home to attend the funeral of their matriarch, Orquídea Divina, they’re left with more questions along with their inheritance gifts. Seven years later, four descendants travel back to Ecuador to uncover Orquídea’s buried secrets before a hidden figure destroys their family tree.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
8. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

From the acclaimed author of the Sirens-favorite short fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado uses literary tropes and genres (such as the haunted house, the romance novel, and choose your own adventure) in her stunning, inventive memoir. In it, she tackles difficult personal subject matter—her experience in an abusive queer relationship— with wit and incisive commentary.

We Light Up the Sky by Lilliam Rivera
9. We Light Up the Sky by Lilliam Rivera

Rivera reclaims the first-contact, alien invasion story for her communities by featuring three Latinx teens in near-future Los Angeles. In this new YA, Pedro, Luna, and Rafa are peripherals at the same high school when The Visitor lands—a Visitor that looks suspiciously like Luna’s cousin Tasha, who died two years ago from COVID-19. The three teens must work together to save the city, and themselves, when they’re not sure who the true enemy is: the Visitor, or their fellow humans?

Fire with Fire by Destiny Soria
10. Fire with Fire by Destiny Soria

This YA urban fantasy romp features dragon-slayer siblings in contemporary rural Tennessee—what’s not to love? Dani and Eden are a pair of Mexican American sisters, both trying to find their way in the world. When Dani bonds with a rare dragon, the sisters find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict and playing with magic more dangerous than they know. To what lengths will they go to save each other?

Peaces is a thoughtful, hilarious adventure of a novel, but in the end, without quite all its pieces

Read with Amy

A number of years ago, I read a book called The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers). It was a wild ride of a book, full of twists and turns, questions and often fruitless interrogations, more game with the reader than traditional reading experience. I finished this book and the friend who was with me at the time asked how it was. I said, with great puzzlement, that I didn’t know what happened in the end. My friend assumed I didn’t like it. I said I didn’t know that either. Three days later, I decided it was genius.

Reading Peaces, Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel, reminds me of reading The Rabbit Back Literature Society. An omnipresent but missing character, a series of questions answered by nothing more than more questions, a slow but not complete coalescing of patterns. But it’s been more than three days since I finished Peaces, and despite my expansive love for Oyeyemi’s work, I don’t think this one is quite genius.

Let’s begin.

Peaces Helen Oyoyemi

Otto and Xavier Shin, utterly charming thirtysomethings, have recently decided to consummate their love, not with sex (that’s been going on for some time now) or marriage (who needs that?), but with Otto taking Xavier’s last name. In celebration, Xavier’s eccentric aunt gifts them with a “non-honeymoon honeymoon,” a trip on The Lucky Day, a former tea smuggling train. The train is a curiosity, full of strange cars (a mail car, a sauna car) still in use, even though only five people and two mongooses appear to be on board. In the jumble of exploring the train and glimpsing a woman who is either saying hello or asking for help, Otto, Xavier, and pet mongoose Árpád find their cabin, but leave Otto’s suitcase behind on the station platform. The trip isn’t long enough for this to really matter, and Xavier’s seemingly close enough in size—though much is made of Otto’s days of the week boxers.

Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit.

As Otto and Xavier’s trip begins—and as our trip as readers begins—things are delightful. Otto and Xavier are both singularly likeable: kind, self-aware, somewhat unreliable, hilarious. Oyeyemi’s prose is pure Oyeyemi: peerless in its craft, its trademark insight on brilliant display, with the addition of a heretofore unknown wit. When you have no idea what’s going on in this book—and that will happen several times over—Oyeyemi’s gorgeous, unexpected turn of phrase has more than enough magnetic pull to keep you on track.

As we spend more time on the train, though, things get weird. Your brain is going to want to turn this into an Agatha Christie-esque mystery, and while Oyeyemi presents a mystery, it’s neither the one you think it is, nor is there a dead body. Let’s recalibrate your brain. Oyeyemi is far too much her own force to pay such direct homage to Christie.

As Peaces rolls on, Oyeyemi reveals that the five people on the train—Otto, Xavier, Ava Kapoor (owner of the train and Xavier’s aunt’s friend), Allegra Yu (Ava’s lover), and Laura De Souza (a mysterious agent on behalf of someone with a financial interest in Ava)—all intersect, with ties both expected and inexorable. And through stories and epistles, snippets of information and paintings that reveal themselves differently to each viewer, Oyeyemi also reveals that all five people on the train know—or mysteriously, know of—a sixth character, Premysl Stojaspal, even if they don’t know Prem by name.

While Oyeyemi’s brilliant fabulism pervades Peaces, perhaps even more than it did What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours or Gingerbread, Prem is where that fabulism really comes into play, with shifting identities, cryptic encounters, a burning building, a theremin, a second mongoose, and oh, the fact that Ava Kapoor cannot seem to see Prem, even though everyone else can. This befuddles everyone else, and infuriates Prem, though Ava, without questioning the presence or realness of Prem, seems to take this largely in stride.

What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t?

And in all the muddle of Peaces—Otto and Xavier’s seemingly shared former lover, the man who jumped from the moving train or perhaps never existed at all, the destruction of the dining car with French toast, and more—the crux of Oyeyemi’s work might be this: What does it mean when the person you most want to perceive you…simply doesn’t? When you want so badly to be seen, but you aren’t, at least not by the person who most matters? What does that failure do to your existence?

In the end, I found Oyeyemi’s central theme fascinating, her approach equally so. But while I think she ties her pieces together in the end—why these five people are on this train at this time—through her enigmatic sixth character, I didn’t find that she quite had enough pieces. Part of a jigsaw puzzle, but not the whole. With Oyeyemi, though, maybe that doesn’t matter as much. Her work is always somewhere on the continuum of thought experiment and adventure, and her prose always ushers you through, unwavering in its blazing magnificence, a gorgeous train barreling its way to a point unknown.

Before each conference, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy and other interesting books by women, nonbinary, and trans authors. You can find all of her reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

Amy TenbrinkAmy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and ten years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

We Asked Sirens: What do you wear to the Sirens ball?

Sirens, at its very heart, is about community. As we gear up for our in-person conference this October after two years physically apart, we thought we’d ask our community a series of questions about their impressions, memories, and favorite conference programs. In this case, we thought we’d turn your responses into a paper doll set. Please feel free to print, cut it out, and share on social media!

Our attendees are comprised of incredible readers, scholars, librarians, educators, publishing professionals, authors, and fans—but they also identify as veterans, graphic designers, lawyers, immigrants, cat-lovers, superheroines, and even the occasional Aquarius. We hope to count you among us!

Sirens conference paper doll

New Fantasy Books: September 2021

We’re excited to bring you a roundup of September 2021 fantasy book releases by and about women and nonbinary folk. Let us know what you’re looking forward to, or any titles that we’ve missed, in the comments!

10 books celebrating queer monsters and magic

As an author of a couple of books about queer menopausal werewolves who are transformed by magic, it’s not surprising that I have a soft spot for queer monsters and magic as a reader too. What follows is a mix of book recommendations in which there are queer magic users and monsters, as well as queer monsters who are magic users, plus one additional book that I think is worth checking out. (I should also note that instead of relying solely on my memory and bookcases alone, I crowdsourced to see what suggestions other people might have and included a couple of stories that looked interesting.) I weighted more heavily toward the queer monsters, but all of these have some element of magic to them as well. What are some of your faves that I didn’t include? I don’t read much young adult fiction, for example, and I thought I would bow to Sirens attendee expertise in that arena.

(Editor’s Note: Given that until only recently, many mainstream publishers shied away from publishing books with LGBTQ+ protagonists, each entry includes the original publisher in English as well as the publication year. Title links lead to book pages if available, or are otherwise linked to purchase pages.)

The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward
1. The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward (Aqueduct, 2017-2021)

This is the first of a four-book series set in Europe during World War II and features Lucy Harker (Dracula) and Carmilla (Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous lesbian vampire) as vampire lovers and spies—fighting zombies, Nazis, and sundry foes mortal and otherwise. There’s a ton of mashed up, pulpy adventure to be found in these volumes. There are also lots of guest star appearances that include many of the luminaries and creatives of the time. Ward also does a nice job of touching on the status and experiences of LGBTQ folks during the time period while keeping things fast-paced and engaging.

Silver Kiss by Naomi Clark
2. Silver Kiss by Naomi Clark (Queered Fiction, 2010)

Silver Kiss is the first book in Clark’s sexy f/f werewolf detective series, Urban Wolf. The series tackles mystery and homophobia amongst supernatural creatures and has one of the most glorious drag queen werewolves I’ve ever encountered on the page. They are marketed as erotic romance/urban fantasy, with several books and published stories in the series.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
3. The Gilda Stories by by Jewelle Gomez (Firebrand, 1991)

The celebrated, classic African American lesbian vampire book has been in print for over twenty years, and has also been adapted for the stage. Gilda’s story moves through time from the 1850s to the
fairly recent past, tackling timely and timeless issues along the way.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Levine Querido, 2020)

A young ace Lipan Apache woman, her family, and her ghost dog travel through a landscape of monsters and magic—in order to solve a murder in a North America that’s not quite the one we know.

The Devourers by Indra Das
5. The Devourers by Indra Das (Del Rey, 2016)

One of the novels that’s on everyone’s recommended list of queer literary horror with bisexual characters. A scholar and a werewolf meet in modern India, beginning a twisted journey through history, shapeshifting, sexuality, love, and more.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
6. Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (Orbit, 2017)

I’ve been fascinated by McGuire’s monstrous mermaids since I read her story “Each to Each” in the anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction. Please note that this is Seanan McGuire writing as Mira Grant, and that this is the first book of a two-book arc. A lesbian couple, as part of a team, solves an aquatic mystery involving murder, mermaids, and more.

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson
7. Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson (Quirk, 2019)

An excellent collection of biographical sketches featuring women—including some queer women—who created and wrote about monsters of varying kinds. If you ever wanted to know more about our forebearers in the genre, this nonfiction book is a great introduction.

Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack
8. Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack (St. Martin’s Press, 1994)

Technically the second book in the series, but stands alone pretty well. Two queer women confront a demon who runs a temp agency in an office building, and face angels, financial shenanigans, and more! Pollack is one of the best writers of queer fiction, as well as being one of the first out transwomen in the field. This and the first book Unquenchable Fire are both quirky and brilliant. Though no longer in print, it can still be found used and as an ebook.

Werecockroach by Polenth Blake
9. Werecockroach by Polenth Blake (independently published, 2018)

A novella about gay werecockroaches, aliens, and more! This was one of my crowdsourced recommendations, but it’s been on my radar for a while. Reviews say that it’s a wry commentary on Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Create My Own Perfection by E. H. Timms
10. Create My Own Perfection by E. H. Timms (independently published, 2021)

Another one of my crowdsourced titles that looked interesting! This novel features an aroace protagonist who chooses to become a Medusa to deal with trauma from her past.

Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff is an award-winning queer writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis where she lives with her wife and the cats who own them. She is the author of over 100 published short stories that have appeared in venues ranging from Fireside Magazine to Sherlock Holmes and the Occult Detectives. Her books include Silver Moon, Blood Moon, Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories and Unfinished Business: Tales of the Dark Fantastic and as editor, Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space). In addition, she is the publisher at Queen of Swords Press, a small press specializing in fiction from out of this world. Websites: Catherine Lundoff and Queen of Swords Press

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 13, Issue 6: August 2021

This month:

We are now fewer than two months from Sirens 2021! If you’re planning on joining us in Denver, we have guidance galore to help you plan your trip and prepare for an amazing, mind-expanding, soul-refreshing retreat. And if you can’t join us this year, we’ve got plenty of reading suggestions and online content to keep you engaged with and vitalized by the weird, wild, wonderful world of speculative fiction and the female and nonbinary people who love it.

A Siren’s Voyage

Our detailed guide to the Sirens adventure continues! In Part 2: Getting Here, we share details about our hotel, the Hilton Inverness. (Did you know it has a pool and a spa?) We also provide some tips on how to travel to Denver by plane, train, or automobile, as well as information on the Sirens Shuttle, a more affordable option for making it from the airport to the hotel.

Part 3: What to Bring spotlights that crucial pre-conference activity: packing! We give advice on handling the desert plains climate, the unpredictable October weather, and bringing an extra bag for all those books and auction items that will be begging to come home with you.

We Asked Sirens

Never been to Sirens and wondering what to expect? Attended many times but wondering how others experience the conference? Well, we conducted some informal surveys, and you can see the results in our We Asked Sirens series. We hope these posts will help you get psyched up for the unique energy you can only find at Sirens!


Book Recommendations and Reviews:

  • There’s still time to join us for August’s Book Club, Sunday, August 29 at noon MT (2:00 p.m. ET). We’ll be discussing Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel. If you’d like to join the conversation, email us at (help AT to be added to our list.
  • Looking for a “hopepunk tale of the apocalypse” to get you through the world’s current and ongoing crises? Jazz Sexton reviews Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel, The Past is Red-and even recommends some musical accompaniment to go along with it! “Long-time fans and newcomers will find Valente at her best, relishing in elaborate sentences packed with imagery that sort of make you want to visit Garbagetown despite it being the result of decadence and apathy.”
  • The fifth installment of this year’s Reading Challenge feature series focuses on the theme of “Saving Yourself.” We know that all Sirens have the capacity to be their own heroes—but a little inspiration from our fictional counterparts never hurts!
  • Continuing our Books and Breakfast series, this month we’re spotlighting our three young adult selections: Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Dia Reeves’s Slice of Cherry, and Rory Power’s Wilder Girls.
  • This month’s Read with Amy feature explores Hannah Abigail Clarke’s YA contemporary fantasy The Scapegracers and its tagline: Party Hard; Hex Harder. Amy is delighted to find a “mean girls” fantasy book that defies the patriarchy rather than reinforcing tired tropes. “Clarke couldn’t care less about some patriarchal notion of girls needing to relinquish their power in order to achieve an unnecessary redemption… This work is about characters to the exclusion of almost anything else and you’ll love these girls so much, admire them, respect them, that you’ll be back to pick up those dropped threads anyway.”
  • Still need a few more stories to keep you busy on a Labor Day weekend retreat or on a back-to-school or back-to-work commute? Be sure to look at our roundup of August’s new releases from female and nonbinary authors!

As summer winds down, we hope that you, yours, and our whole Sirens community are safe, well, and well-stocked with reading material!

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A Siren’s Voyage, Part 3: What to Bring

What to Bring to Sirens Conference

After a very unusual year, in which we transformed Sirens into an online gathering, we are again planning for an in-person event this fall. We are readying the programming schedule, collecting newly released books, searching for amazing auction items, and discussing how we can make Sirens—after a year away—feel as warm and welcoming as ever. We confess: This all feels a bit strange.

And we suspect that coming—or coming back—to Sirens might feel a bit strange to you, too. So we thought we’d offer a series of posts about what Sirens is (or isn’t), some travel tips and tricks, and how you might choose to engage with the conference and community. If you’re considering attending, we very much hope you do. And if you’re returning, we can’t wait to see you again.

You can read the first two posts in our Siren’s Voyage series, about whether Sirens might be the right conference for you and about making travel arrangements.This week, let’s talk what to pack—and why you might want to bring an empty suitcase!

Sirens Conference: Denver, Weather, and Altitude

Sirens takes place at the Hilton Inverness Hotel, located in south Denver, about 20 minutes from downtown. What dominates the Denver landscape, though, isn’t its skyscrapers, but the magnificent Rocky Mountains, which form the western edge of the city.

Denver was founded in 1858 as a mining town during the Pikes Peak gold rush in western Kansas Territory. Visitors today find that the city retains much of that western spirit: big dreams, expansive views, and a sometimes philosophical connection to the outdoors. We hike, we bike, we ski, and we do as much as possible four seasons of the year. If you’re looking to get outside during your trip to Sirens, no matter the weather, you won’t be alone. The Hilton Inverness offers a running/walking path right outside the hotel, but the hotel is also located just a couple miles from the nearest light rail stop (and offers a complimentary shuttle in a five-mile radius) and only a couple hours from the famous mountain towns of Breckenridge, Vail, and Winter Park.

The weather in Denver in October—not to mention September and November—can be changeable, so when we talk about what to pack, we’re talking layers. The weather usually hovers around highs in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit (10-20 Celsius), with colder temperatures after sunset, but Denver usually gets its first significant snowstorm of the year in October, so anything is possible. Unless you’re planning on exploring, you’ll likely spend most of your time inside—where the weather will be more predictable, but also hotel-conference-space cold, so you’ll want those layers indoors and out. A jacket and sweaters, gloves and fingerless handwarmers, scarves no matter where you are.

Denver sits at exactly 5,280 feet—one mile for those trying to do the mental math—above sea level, which sounds impressive to flatlanders, but isn’t nearly so high as mountain-town elevations (or standard airplane pressurization), where the elevation usually exceeds 8,000 feet. Denver’s elevation does not give rise to altitude sickness or other health concerns associated with mountain towns.

But! Denver does not have as much oxygen in the air as you might be used to at lower elevations. You’ll breathe more quickly, you’ll sweat more easily, you’ll be hungrier, and you’ll need more sleep. Further, as every Denver bartender will tell you, alcohol will have a greater effect. Denver’s altitude also comes with less atmosphere, so bring your sunscreen and sunglasses. Unless you’re coming to Sirens for a really long time, you won’t acclimate while you’re here! It often takes a week or more to stop getting winded climbing a flight of stairs at altitude—and it can take six months or more for your workout to feel normal again. Prepare to take it easy!

To add insult to injury, Denver’s prevailing climate is high-plains desert. It’s hard to see in the city, but if you drive 20 miles east, you’ll see miles of dusty ranchland between you and the horizon. Colorado is one of the driest states, especially the eastern plains, where Denver lies, so even while you’re sitting in our climate-controlled meeting space, please remember that you’re in the desert. You’ll need to drink a lot—a lot!—more water in Denver than you do at home, and if you start drinking a lot more water a few days before you arrive, you’ll be much happier. You might need to supplement with the occasional sports drink. You’ll also want to bring all those things that Coloradans take with them everywhere: a water bottle, lip balm, hand lotion, eye drops, saline nasal spray, and so on, as those items can help you feel more comfortable in a very dry climate. This dryness can also lead to insomnia or headaches, so you may want to bring sleep aids or painkillers, take it easy on the alcohol, and ask the Hilton Inverness for one of their guest-room humidifiers.

Sirens Conference: Packing

So with all that, let’s talk a bit about packing! First, let’s abandon the notion that you’ll be able to do Sirens with just a carry-on. The dry-climate toiletries aren’t going to fit in that tiny zippy bag! And once you’re checking one bag, hey, why not two? Because, friends, we are going to have over a thousand speculative titles by female, nonbinary, and trans authors at Sirens. We ship! But if you don’t want us to ship, how do you plan to get those books home? A second suitcase, of course!

Toward that end, have you thought about flying Southwest, where bags fly free? We know it’s the bus of the sky, but if you can manage their cattle-call boarding policy, you might be able to jettison the notion of trying to cram all your hydrating needs into a tiny bag and all your Sirens merchandise, auction items, and books into your single suitcase—and then lifting that suitcase over your head into the bin. Fly in style: with a suitcase for your lip balm and another for your books!

Here’s what we’d pack:

For the weather:

  • Outdoor coat or jacket
  • Outdoor mittens or gloves
  • Scarf
  • Sweaters or sweatshirts
  • Layering t-shirts or tank tops
  • Fingerless handwarmers for chilly conference rooms
  • Things to wear with pockets! For your lip balm, your hand sanitizer, and your tiniest notes

For the altitude/climate:

  • Lip balm (nothing beats original Chapstick!)
  • Hand lotion (heavy duty repairing, like for gardeners, is best)
  • Body lotion
  • Eyedrops
  • Saline nasal spray
  • Water bottle (though we’ll have Sirens water bottles for sale)
  • Healthy snacks (the hotel has a convenience shop with a limited, expensive selection)
  • Headache medicine
  • Sleep aids (if you’re prone to trouble sleeping)

For COVID-19 safety:

  • Masks (N95 masks are now readily available and come in colors!)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Spray hand sanitizer for soft surfaces
  • Sanitizing wipes (for shared surfaces)

Just because:

  • Any books you’d like signed by our guests of honor (we’ll have copies for sale, but if you already have your own, you’re welcome to bring it)
  • Your shopping list
  • A notebook and your favorite pen
  • Whatever you’d like to wear to the Sirens Ball
  • That second suitcase!

And with that, we hope to see you at Sirens! With a bit of luck, these packing suggestions will make your journey to Sirens and back again just a little bit easier. And we’re all about making things easier as we continue to muddle through 2021.

The truth-telling optimism of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Past is Red

The Past is Red

I approached The Past is Red with gallons of glee and a drop of trepidation. Plenty of books disappoint me, even ones written by my favorite authors. I am happy to report The Past is Red is the hopepunk tale of the apocalypse I have been waiting for. Reading it felt like seeing my name up in lights on a marquee—surreal and marvelous. It filled me with warm feelings for humanity at large because if our narrator Tetley, someone with plenty of pain in her life, can love the future, so can I.

The Past is Red begins with Catherynne M. Valente’s novelette “The Future is Blue” and expands the story of the narrator. In Part I, Tetley Abednego is the most optimistic girl in Garbagetown. Despite living on a floating garbage heap in the ocean centuries after the oceans rose high enough to swallow all dry land on Earth, Tetley finds beauty and hope all around her. Her best friends are an elephant seal named Big Bargains, a gannet bird called Grapecrush, and her twin brother Maruchan. She finds solace in her savior St. Oscar the Grouch. When the mobile theme park Brighton Pier arrives in town with news of dry land, all of Garbagetown prepares to turn on their engine to get there—a journey that will use all of the electricity that powers the town. When Tetley discovers a terrible secret, she makes a choice that turns her into the most hated girl in Garbagetown, and she learns the brutal lesson that no good deed goes unpunished.

In Part II, Tetley is some years older, and still suffering the consequences of her choice. She’s also still the most optimistic girl in Garbagetown, albeit one who lives on a boat circling the garbage heap. Told in alternating timelines, Tetley recounts how she made the choice to flee her punishment only to end up tricked into being the wife of a self-proclaimed king for thirteen whole days. Along the way she makes the acquaintance of a mysterious talking machine she calls Mister and the girl Big Red Mars, the only person to never hate her. What unfolds is beautiful, tragic, and wondrous.

It is unusual to find a bright and bubbly narrator in Valente’s work, which is part of what makes Tetley’s voice so thrilling. Longtime fans and newcomers will find Valente at her best, relishing in elaborate sentences packed with imagery that sort of make you want to visit Garbagetown despite it being the result of decadence and apathy towards the climate crisis left behind by the Fuckwits (that’s you and me, dear reader). I want to pull the tangled string of baby dolls so they wail at me like “the death of joy” as saltwater pours from their mouths, which I like to imagine arcs in high-order Bézier curves reminiscent of a fountain. I want to visit Tetley in her house made of wax candles and compliment her on her moringa tree. Then I want to go home. Of course, the tragedy of Garbagetown is that you can’t visit. Once you’re there, you’re stuck. You’re stuck among a group of humans with a concept of happiness so narrow that they would rather be told a lie they know is a lie than process the truth because a lie is so much easier to live with.

Much of the tension in the novel comes from the inability of others to understand Tetley. Why is she so happy when everyone wants her to be miserable? Why does she love Garbagetown when everyone else wants to leave?

It’s true that optimism can sometimes be insufferable, but our girl Tetley does not engage in toxic positivity. She very much understands the sorry state of the world, but still appreciates humanity’s innate goal, that North Star guiding every one of us: survival.

In her afterword, Valente writes, “The oceans can erase our cities, but they cannot drown our existential malaise.” I agree with Valente’s point here. It is easy and even comforting to be defeatist about humanity’s existence, to want someone else to call the shots. That’s why people like Tetley are necessary to help us progress. We are going to survive whether we like it or not. Yet to move forward, to change, to make things right, we need someone to tell us the truths we do not want to hear.

As for why Tetley has so much hope, consider this. The citizens of Garbagetown may live on a hideous trash heap, but what a miracle it is that they still live, worship, and love. It is with great pleasure I assure you this view of the apocalypse does not come with roving gangs of cannibals. Grimdark can launch itself to Mars in Tetley’s world.

If you want a soundtrack to accompany this brilliant book, fire up David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). There’s a reference to the track “Ashes to Ashes” in chapter 4, and the album encapsulates the tone of the book perfectly.

Jazz SextonJazz Sexton is a stay-at-home daughter taking care of her parents and working on a novel. She received her BA in English with a Certificate in Children’s Literature from the University of Pittsburgh, and her Certificate in Publishing from NYU. You can find her poetry in inkscrawl, Liminality, and Stone Telling.

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.


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