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Friday Five: 5 (More) Fantastic Fictions with a Female Focus

Our first guest Friday Five of the year comes from Laurel and Lucy of Holdfast, a new online magazine devoted to examining (and enjoying) speculative fiction. 

Please welcome them as they share some great reading recommendations... and don't forget to swing by Holdfast for more reviews, original fiction and other wonderment!

As a pair of women who are passionate fans of Speculative Fiction, we decided to devote the first issue of the magazine we co-edit, Holdfast, to exploring where women stand within genre fiction. Part of that was our Bookshelf, a list of brilliant books that we wanted to tell people about. Obviously this is an ever growing list of fantastic books, and people have come forward since with a lot of ‘what about this one? How could you have missed that one out!’

Thankfully, Pornokitch has given us the opportunity to rectify this a little. So, in no particular order, here are five more books that we love written by women or featuring female characters and themes, which we weren't able to include on our original list.

Fly By NightFly By Night by Frances Hardinge

I have come incredibly late to the feast that is the writing of Frances Hardinge. I picked up Fly By Night after it was carefully suggested that it was quite scandalous I had not done so already. Within a few paragraphs I began to grin, and that grin rarely left my face for the rest of the book.

Mosca Mye is an orphaned girl living in the watery village of Chough, whose only friend in life is a homicidal Goose, named Saraken. The only legacy her father left her was a love of reading and words, and when Eponimous Clent, a smooth talking conman, comes through town, she is drawn to him by his impressive vocabulary. Together they embark on a dangerous adventure that draws them unwittingly into the heart of treachery, rebellion, sedition and danger.

Besides the incredibly imaginative, complex and well-drawn plot, it is Hardinge’s characterisation that is so very impressive. She has the ability to construct an image of individual personality and appearance in a single sentence, which imprints that character instantly in your mind’s eye. You know that feeling you very rarely get, when you find an author whose writing makes you feel as if you were coming home? With this excited feeling in my belly, I read the rest of the book in the kind of absorption that certain books commanded of me as a child, that I rarely experience anymore. Adults, do not be discouraged by the fact that this is a book for children. After reading Fly By Night, this particular adult is very excited about getting her hands on every other book Hardinge has ever written. - LJS 

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Lud-in-the-Mist, published eleven years before The Hobbit, was a seminal work in the early formation of the fantasy genre. Written by Hope Mirrlees – a woman writing in a highly male-dominated climate – Lud-in-the-Mist was groundbreaking in many ways. Drawing from myth, legend, and religion, Mirrlees explored themes of hypocrisy, social hysteria, class, the balance between the mundane and the fantastic, life and death, and the subconscious and conscious mind. 

Lud-in-the-Mist is a town of good, respectable merchants whose safe, rather boring lifestyle is being undermined by the infiltration of ‘FairyFruit’. Eating the fruit basically sends the good citizens on psychedelic trips, opening them up to suggestion and generally degrading the town.

The fruit is being smuggled from Fairyland, which is a physical place accessed by passing through the Debatable Hills. This is the source of all the naughty, taboo, dangerous vices that threaten the civilised world.

Mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer must discover who is behind this, whilst attempting to save his son from the dark influence of fairy. For everything soon deteriorates, and when the wholesome girls of Miss Crabapples' Academy for Young Ladies are abducted, he must act quickly before it is too late.

You can see Mirrlees’ influence on Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, where the town of Wall is separated from Fairy by a tumble down stone wall, and Garth Nix’s Sabriel, where Ancelstierre is protected from The Old World, where the dead still walk, also by a wall. Obviously Hadrian’s Wall factors in, but it is the idea of that secondary magical world almost acting simply like another country that has its roots here. There is also an echo of her style in the atmosphere of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel.

Written in truly beautiful prose, Lud-in-the-Mist is a must read for any Fantasy fan.- LJS

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

There are so many reasons I could give you when urging you to read Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. But I think the main thing to consider, really, is that it is about a time travelling serial killer! This fact alone, when having the book recommended to me, made me run to the bookshop. It is such a good idea, but of course a good idea isn’t enough to ensure a wonderful book. No, that is thanks to Beukes’ excessive talent as a writer.

Expertly flitting between the killer’s point of view and that of his victims, we watch Harper – a psychopath emerging from the depression of 1930’s America – travel through time and murder his ‘shining girls.’ Besides Harper, the other main voice is that of Kirby, a girl with a flaky stoned mum who is unlucky enough to ‘shine’. Kirby is one of the least victim-like victims I have ever come across. Intelligent, damaged, strong, fragile, she is incredibly real (although maybe a little braver than your average person). Perhaps not for the easily nauseated; this book is gory, with some detailed fighting and murder scenes. It is unsettling, suspenseful, frightening, and exciting.

The Shining Girls was so immersive that it had me staying up late into the night in my need to know what happened next, but being sleepy at work was well worth it.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (also known as The Unsleeping Eye) by DG Compton

Published in 1974, DG Compton's book precursors the 24 hour reality TV and celebrity-chasing paparazzi culture that we are now so familiar with. Set in a future where people mostly die of old age, the public are morbidly fascinated by anyone who doesn't, and their deaths are televised whenever possible as entertainment.

The heroine of the book, Katherine Mortenhoe, finds out she has a rare and terminal disease with only four weeks to live and is chased by a man who has disguised television cameras for eyes. The book is a character study of an ordinary, dignified woman who wants her privacy and an examination of the media machine that will not leave her alone. Well-written and gripping, it is a miserable and voyeuristic read. - LAS

Woman on the Edge of TimeWoman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Connie is a Latin American woman who has suffered from abuse from both the men in her life and the state. She is unfairly locked away in a New York psychiatric institution after past injustices that surely befell her due to her sex, ethnicity and class. Just before she is hospitalised however, she receives a visitor from a utopian future, and soon learns to travel back and forth between the two times. She is shocked at the future, where there is little personal ownership, no sexism or racism and people live in commune-like villages, sharing interesting work only (the washing up is done by machine) and making decisions through lengthy, democratic debates. The book is an excellent and thought-provoking feminist read, examining the condition of the most marginalised people in 1970s American society through Connie and the lens of the idealised vision of the future. - LAS

We hope you enjoy these treats as much as we did! If you think of any we still managed to leave out, or want to ask us any questions, please do contact us at Thanks for having us!

As always, please leave any additions, corrections, arguments and discussions in the comments!