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Interview with Blake Charlton [Sep. 7th, 2016|06:16 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Blake Charlton’s Spellbreaker came out last month, but the life of a doctor-and-writer is a busy one, so we just caught up with each other now! Here’s a Q&A with Blake.

1) Most classic fantasy is centered on an external conflict. Many of the best authors add an internal conflict. For triple backflip, you’ve added autoimmune to the other two layers of conflict in Spellbreaker. Is there any farther down the rabbit hole you can go? Can you talk about some of the difficulties of dramatizing conflict that isn’t just character vs. themself but character vs. their own body?

It’s intensely gratifying when a reader picks up on a personally important theme as you just did. So thank you kindly for this question.

Although the charters of Spellbreaker wouldn’t recognize the term ‘autoimmunity,’ they would recognize the disease that the protagonist, Leandra, contends with as one of the parts of her heritage at war with each other. They would also recognize the themes of self-hatred and self-attack as important to their lives and the story unfolding around them. Casual perusal of the internet suggests one of the more popular scenes in the book is Francesca’s emphatic, hopefully humorous declamation on why there is no hatred worse than self-hatred–which you can read here <http://darkfaerietales.com/review-spellbreaker-blake-charlton.html>.

My interest in these themes comes from my own struggle with my disability. I was often frustrated by my limitations, would often disparage the part of me that made me different. When I was younger, this lead to flares of hating and attacking myself or hating and attacking ‘normal’ people and the insensitive society they created. Escaping these flares was central to my struggle to become an adult. Anecdotally, I have noticed other friends and patients with disability get caught within or escape such flares. So you see, the conflict between a person and their own body or brain and the resultant secondary conflict with a society built by convenience around the fiction of ‘normalcy’ has been dramatized throughout my life.

For those interested in such things, the different characters in this series explore different aspects of this theme. In the first two books, Nicodemus was struggling with his doubt and self-hatred. The danger he faces is that of becoming the bitter and angry disabled person, who lashed out at the world. His nemesis in those books, James Berr, represents a shadowy reflection of who Nicodemus has the potential to become. Francesca, on the other hand, is a character who in the second and third books contends with regret. She has had to make difficult decisions–many of them the right ones, some of them wrong. She is haunted by her past, though she is not completely aware of her past. In the third book, her relationship with her daughter, Leandra, is fraught with regret; mother and daughter find themselves in cyclic flares of blaming themselves and then blaming each other. Trying to find a way out of that cycle, if there is one, is the central issue of their development in the book. Finally, Leandra has the most immediate and visceral relationship with the theme since she has a chronic disease that induces periodic, unpredictable, and agonizing flares. She has grown up with the sense that her own body has betrayed her, expecting that she will die young. There is a strong anti-heroic streak in Leandra, and the capriciousness and injustice of the world weighs heavily on her, makes her ruthless. Her overarching passion is to effect justice in a chaotic and prejudiced world. It gets her into trouble. Big trouble.

2) Many doctors get accused of having a God complex. You have several. Were there any divine complexes that got left out in the editing stages? Any fun combos of gods you’d have loved to include?

Wow. This question is amazing. I should get my answers out of the way of your questions. Yes, several god complexes. No, no developed complex was left on the cutting room floor. But I did toy with the idea of showing the creation of a new divinity complex. Perhaps, I thought, it would be fun to show the southern war gods–who show up as reinforcements toward the end of the book–on ‘shore leave’ as it were in Chandralu. Deities from different cultures intermingling.  I had some vague idea of dramatizing a kinda paper-rock-scissors love-triangle between deities of incompatible elements and ideologies: Something like an angel of light falls for, but would erase, a goddess of shadow who’s obsessed with, but useless to, a demon of prisms, glass, and illusion, who would of course perforce be enamored with the angel of light. But that was going to be too involved, and the book was already too long. So I put it in my back pocket, where it will likely stay.

3) Lupus, teratomas, and instant cancer curses: there’s a lot of medicine in this book compared to most fantasy. How much does your own practice inspire your work? How hard is it to keep the lines in the right places?

Medicine is the lens though which I see the world. As a physician in training, I don’t think I can escape it. When riding the muni around San Francisco, I can’t help but try to diagnose fellow passengers. When listening to the news, my mind jumps automatically to the implications on global or national health. And when I think about adventure, fantasy, magic that same lens stays with me. It may seem like a stretch to some. It certainly isn’t similar to the typical fantasy lens, which focuses on chainmail and horses and catapults and Feudal politics. I don’t know anything about chainmail. But maybe that’s okay. I think much of the innate human conception of health and sickness is connected to the spiritual and the magical. I would guess that many, if not most, of human prayers and rituals center around health and healing. So if magic were real and tied to manifestations of divinity, then maybe it isn’t so far a stretch to say that the world that created would be as much or more obsessed with medicine as with chainmail. I have wonderful beta-readers and editors who are good at slapping my hand when my medical speculations or technical language gets too far afield.

4) The islands involved in this book mean that sailing, kayaking, and other water transport take a major role in thisbook. What’s your favorite form of water transport, and do you get to take part in it, or is this all theory for you? What’s your personal favorite? (I have an ongoing love affair with Lake Superior and a recent fling with the Kemijoki in northern Finland, so I probably get more emotionally involved with water than most.)

Maybe it’s a little silly but each of the books in the Spellwright series are associated with an element, a phase of life, and a direction. Spellwright is a book rooted in the earth. It’s about digging down into one’s past, discovering all the things about one’s family and what lies underneath. The ghostly chthonic people are the best example of this. My hope was to convey a sense of mystery and exploration, something like discovering a magical cave. Its physical inspiration was all the pseudo-gothic buildings and libraries of Yale University, where I was a student when I first conceived of the idea for the series.

Spellbound is a book that’s oriented upwards, into the sky and air. The theme is romance and fluidity. This was, hopefully, manifested in all the airships and the mercurial evolution of Francesca’s understanding of herself and her feelings toward Nicodemus. It was a book that was supposed to capture a feeling of weightlessness, flight, possibility. Its physical inspiration were the windy mountains of savannahs of my native California with a splash of the majestic ridges and jewel-like cities of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains–where I was fortunate enough to travel as a young man.

Spellbreaker’s element is water; its direction neither up or down, but all the innumerable points of the compass that the horizon represents to the sailor. The physical inspiration for Ixos is the leaward side of Kaui and my current home of San Francisco Bay. During my intern year, the America’s Cup came to San Francisco and during some of the rare days off, I would go down to watch the catamarans sailing out on the bay; the way the sail caught the wind, jumped up on to their hydrofoils, seems so magical to me I couldn’t help writing it in to Spellbreaker. I’m sure I made many, many nautical mistakes when writing the books, and I’d like to beg for forgiveness from any sailors who read the books.

To answer your question, I would have to say I’m partial to the traditional American ‘holiday on a lake’ activities of swimming, fishing, waterskiing. My grandparents had a humble cabin on Lake Nacimiento in the Central Coast region of California, and I group up splashing around in its green waters and then reading 1990s classic fantasy in the cabin at night. I am, however, very jealous of your access to Lake Superior, and after googling “Kemijoki” I might have to add “float down a Finish river” to my wanderlust bucket list.

5) It says that Spellbreaker is the final installment in this trilogy. Can we expect more in this world that’s separate from this trilogy, or will your future work be something completely different?

The next book will be something wholly different, something placed in this world but still a fantasy, heavily influenced by my medical training. The elevator pitch so far is “Neil Gaiman’s American Gods goes to Medical School.” But it’s a work in progress so we’ll see. There may well be a return to the world of Spellwright. I tried to plan a few seeds at the end of Spellbreaker; I’ll have to wait to see if they grow into anything.

Thanks for joining us, Blake!

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Mighty Jack, by Ben Hatke [Sep. 6th, 2016|08:40 am]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is the first in a new Hatke series. For those who have enjoyed Zita the Spacegirl and stand-alone works like Little Robot and (my personal favorite) Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, a new Hatke book is reason to sit up and take notice–a new series perhaps doubly so.

Jack has a single mom struggling to make it all work and a sister–Maddy–who is substantially non-verbal. He wants to help more than he’s allowed to, and it’s all very frustrating. Until a bad trade at the flea market leaves him and Maddy with packets of fascinating alien seeds. Their new garden draws the attention of their sword-fighting neighbor, Lilly, who has ideas of her own about what to do with the creatures who come out of the ground.

Mighty Jack ends on a cliffhanger, and a lot of how I feel about the series will depend on how it’s resolved. So far everybody is doing their best, and everybody has sensible motivations that don’t always work well together. But it’s Jack’s story. How will Hatke keep that balance going? The cliffhanger has me in genuine suspense–how will he resolve it and how soon? It’s pretty rare that I’m not sure. But this time I really don’t know. I’m eager for the next volume, to find out.

Please consider using our link to buy Mighty Jack from Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Everfair, by Nisi Shawl [Sep. 6th, 2016|08:36 am]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The cover to this novel screams steampunk. The image, the articulated mechanical hand, the human hand, the globe: if you go into Nisi Shawl’s debut not expecting steampunk, you are just not paying attention. And yet it’s quite unexpected steampunk. It’s steampunk that has thought about where rubber comes from, who builds the steam-powered devices, who has access to them and who doesn’t. Who makes things work, who runs things, the dissatisfactions that arise when the two are not the same. This is steampunk with not just a thorough understanding of colonialism but a deep desire to engage with that colonialism.

Its African setting is perfect for that. If you’ve read things about Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–about World War I in Africa, for example–you’ll be able to see the places where Shawl’s worldbuilding research really shines. The vast variability of Shawl’s characters’ backgrounds and beliefs is completely natural. It would–should–be utterly unremarkable–but instead, it’s ground-breaking. This book is fiercely tender with its history, unflinching and understanding with its characters’ contexts. The parts of the premise that are not literally true are emotionally true–of course utopianists of the late 19th century would behave exactly like that, look at how they did elsewhere and how fascinating to watch it play out in fiction in a different setting.

Does that mean it’s written like a treatise? Nope. It’s written like a thriller novel: short chapters, lots of action, lots of POV switching to cover the most perspective. With a plot that covers thirty years and people from four different continents, it takes a breakneck pace to get through everything that happens. There is no time to stop and lecture. Everything has to be folded into actual story or there will not be enough room for all the story there is here.

Everfair has all sorts of tags you can put on it that will sound like other things, but it is fundamentally not a heck of a lot like the other things with those tags. Steampunk, fantasy, sure, yes, yes it is. But even more its own thing on its own terms.

Please consider using our link to buy Everfair from Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Books read, late August [Sep. 2nd, 2016|06:49 am]
Marissa Lingen

Renee Ahdieh, The Rose and the Dagger. This is the sequel to a 1001 Nights retelling, and while the first book (The Wrath and the Dawn) was vivid and fun to read, I like this better because it’s a more interesting question to me: what next? What did they do when the known story reaches its borders? The writing is just as vivid, and favorite characters return to develop complexity. You could maybe just start with this one, but I think getting the emotional backstory from the first volume is better. This is a definitive ending, in case you’re worried about series that go on indefinitely. (There’s also a free-on-Kindle bonus story, The Crown and the Arrow. -ed This is not a good way to find out if you like this series, it’s only good if you already know you like it and want bonus content. -M)

C.J. Cherryh, Visitor. Annnnd speaking of series that go on indefinitely. This is volume 17, and she’s showing no signs of stopping. The plot threads that started 10+  books ago are being picked up. You already know if you like this series, and look! here’s another! that’s about more than Bren’s apartment! My main complaint in this book was too many hoomans. I do not read this series for the hoomans. Too many hoomans, not enough Jago-ji, but I have hopes for future volumes. And the hoomans were surprisingly interesting for hoomans, it’s just that I can read about them anywhere.

Eric H. Cline, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Now that I know more nonfiction writers, I’m aware that they don’t often get to choose their title. This one is hideously ill-suited for the book, which should actually be called something like What Do We Know About the Sea People Anyway: Several Centuries of the Southeast Mediterranean. But it was aces at doing that.

Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History. This, on the other hand, does what it says on the tin. If you’re really interested in the Acadians, I wouldn’t recommend starting here, but it does talk extensively about the diaspora and is worth including in a larger-than-one-volume Acadian history collection for that reason. (What would I recommend starting with? Probably Farrager’s A Great and Noble Scheme.)

Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City. This is a fascinating book, and I’ve had several stories that are not about Hurricane Katrina directly (that’s not mine to tell, I don’t think) leap out at me since reading it. Very little will be surprising if you’ve paid attention to the news (and possibly watched Treme), but having it all marshaled into one place is very useful. Seeing it all laid out like that, what happened, who did what, what do we know. A really diverse set of viewpoints went into Horne’s research for this book. Recommended if your blood pressure can stand it.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Children of Earth and Sky. Kay tends to mostly write books that are set in thinly veiled versions of our own history, in various locations. This one is in the same universe as The Lions of Al-Rassan (one of my favorites of his books) and the Sarantium duology, much later in time. It’s basically the Balkan coast and Venice, in fantasy form. The fantasy conceit is somewhat more present than in some other works of this type that he’s done. I don’t think this is his masterwork, but if you enjoy this sort of thing from Kay–and I do–it’s definitely worth the time.

Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. I came into this volume having read the title story and one other story in it. Those two were my least favorite out of the whole volume–and I wanted the collection on the strength of them. “State Change” was an utterly fresh premise, for example, and there were many stories that had depth of research that’s often either not attempted or not visible in short fiction. I read every story. Very much recommended.

Michael A. McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America. This book performs the kind of recentering that resets your brain, akin to being taught when Rome fell and then having the epiphany that the Byzantines considered themselves Romans for centuries thereafter. If your point of view on Native American/First Nations/Indian people is centered on the east coast of the US and Canada, then the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries look like a steady decline, caused by invasion and disease. McDonnell centers his thinking on Michilimackinac, what is now Mackinaw City, the center of a powerful meta-kin network and series of alliances that was in some ways highly successful in this period. Fascinating stuff.

Thomas Michael Power, The Economic Role of Metal Mining in Minnesota: Past, Present, and Future. Really really what it says on the tin. I was hoping there was more “past” involved. Nope. This is an environmental and economic assessment of these industries in Minnesota’s north–interesting, though not useful for the story I was hoping it would be useful for.

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. A solid biography of an important and little-sung figure in the Civil Rights Movement and adjacent social movements. If you’ve ever wondered who did the caregiving in that era of fighting for racial justice, read this book–it gets quite specific in spots about what unheralded labor was necessary for the famous events to go off as well as they did. Baker was a firebrand. Awesome stuff.

Tsuruta Kenji, Wandering Island Volume 1. This is a manga whose main appeal is its setting: not any of Japan’s cities, but the outer small islands. The speculative conceit is moderately interesting. If you’re thoroughly habituated to ubiquitous bikini pictures, bath pictures, panty shots, etc. in this genre/set of genres, the fact that it’s utterly idiotic to have a pilot flying around in a bikini top (IT GETS COLD UP THERE) may not bother you (nor is that the only stupid excuse for scantily clad heroine). The plot did not advance very quickly, and I’m going to stop at just this one volume.

Django Wexler, The Mad Apprentice and The Palace of Glass. Second two books in a middle-grade series. (The first of which is The Forbidden Library. -ed) Much darker than books for that age often are, with cruelty and death foregrounded in the fantasy–foregrounded but not triumphant. I found both of these fast and smoothly written, and I think you could start with either if you were doing the fairly typical grade school kid thing of grabbing whatever was in front of you that looked cool regardless of series placement.

Dorothy Dora Whipple, Chi-mewinzha: Ojibwe Stories from Leech Lake. This book is laid out with the Ojibwe text on one page and the English translation on the facing page. It’s thoroughly illustrated, so between those two factors it ends up being quite a quick read (unless you’re an expert in Ojibwe or other Algonquian family languages and are doing complicated comparisons with the translation. Some are “traditional” stories, a lot are family stories, personal stories. It’s well-done and interesting, and if you’re trying to do research on another culture you shouldn’t stop at one book anyway, so it doesn’t matter that this can’t be the one. And if this is your culture, you can tell me, but it looks from here like Whipple did a really great job of providing this as a resource for both insiders and outsiders.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Intermittent [Aug. 28th, 2016|09:20 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Today I sold my third short story this week. I also had a revision request from an editor I work well with and have done revisions with in the past; while a sale is never guaranteed in those circumstances, it’s certainly better than a rejection. Two of the stories I’ve sold, I wrote this summer; the third I co-wrote with Alec Austin in early 2013. I mentioned this on social media, and my kind friends are congratulating me. That’s really nice of them, and I do feel proud of the work I’m doing.

Here’s the thing: before this month, the last time I sold a story was April. And before that January. One of the most important things that would-be writers should know is that this business is completely sporadic–but even people who know that can I think have difficulty with the phenomenon of comparing other people’s highlight reels to their own uncut footage. This week I am the superstar who sold three stories in a week. Last week I was in a drought lasting a third of a year. Same writer, same writing.

So you hear wry quotes about how intermittent reinforcement drives lab rats crazy. I have a solution to that. Do not let sales be your main positive reinforcement. Don’t get me wrong–selling stories is great. If I didn’t want to sell stories, I would write them and throw them in a drawer; it’s not like attaching files to emails and web forms and keeping track of who has seen what is deeply entertaining. But if I was relying on sales to be the reason I love this work, I would be miserable.

The work is the work. The work is its own reward. And if you’re finding that the creative work you’re doing is not its own reward–whether you’re a person who likes to write or likes to have written–then it may be time to assess what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You cannot sell something every day, or even every week–even the most prolific writer just does not have that consistency of response. (Or probably that many markets, unless they’re writing a huge variety as well as a huge amount of fiction.) The editor who is going to love this particular piece might be on vacation this week. They might have a family emergency. They might, God forbid, have left the magazine. Or there might not even be an editor working yet who will like this particular piece–you might have to keep sending it around and being patient.

Look: a friend with a geology degree posted to Facebook a meme claiming that a career in geology sounds so much cooler if you talk about it like a six-year-old. It’s true. But: there is approximately no way to talk about my work and sound any older than that. “I make up stories about magic and the future and different worlds.” How cool is that.

So yes, we get happy about sales. We celebrate the sales. But it’s far easier to avoid getting anxious and wrung out if the main enjoyment is in making the thing you wanted to make. People are saying things to me like, “You’re on a roll!” And in fact I am. But not just for the reasons they’re thinking. I’m on a roll doing the things that will make another week like this next month or next year. Doing the things that will sit for weeks, months, without any thought of being published. It’s a good writing time for me. It’s really nice that it’s a good sale time, too. But if I attached too much to that, it would interfere with the good writing time. And we can’t have that.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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In Defense of Closings [Aug. 22nd, 2016|05:54 am]
Marissa Lingen

One of my college friends linked to this article from her Facebook, excoriating people who use the email closing, “Best.” The article is full of hyperbole. (“It seems harmless enough,” says the author in the beginning, and then writes an entire article that fails to even suggest any actual harm done to any person, animal, plant, or ecosystem by closing an email with “Best.”) The author’s main objections to “Best” seem to be that it is rote and bland, and worse–oh, so much worse–she suggests just not closing your emails at all, in imitation of text/IM.

People. People. That is what is worst about text/IM as a medium. You can be chattering away with someone you like and then–no more chatter. Are they done? Are they just taking a minute to think? If you wander off, will they have more to say on this subject that they will say to an empty room, or will you be the one sitting there thinking, “…I guess we’re done here? maybe?” Obviously this is not true of “leaving the house be there in 10” or similar texts/IMs. But actual conversations–“goodbye” messages, closings of various kinds, give you very valuable information. “I am going away now. Do not expect more of me here. We’re done for the moment. I like you, but no more words now.”

At my house, “good night” doesn’t always mean “I am going to sleep this very minute.” It means “I’m done being sociable for the day, you don’t have to think about whether you’ve started the dishwasher inconveniently, etc.” It is a polite and affectionate “done now.” And it is very useful to know when the person you’re talking to is done for the day. (The more so if their sleep and your sleep don’t nearly line up, so you can’t just guess that now is the time when everyone is tired.)

So…does this have to be heartfelt every time? Sometimes you have a heartfelt “Thanks.” Sometimes you really do mean, “Love.” Great times, those. But “This email did not get cut off accidentally” is also valuable information, and “DONE NOW” is really not considered appropriate for business communications. Rote and bland are the goal here. Rote and bland are what you’re going for. “–30–” would be fine if it would be accepted. “Mris out.” Whatever. “This is my acceptable business closing, Marissa.” Fine–if it would work, no reason not to.

So yeah, the least I’m going to do is sign it “m.” Unless we’re going back and forth with emails quite quickly, I generally want to sign it. I want some indication: yes, I meant to be done. And further–suggesting that people just not sign things doesn’t really feel functional if you’re getting formally structured, signed emails from the other party–so then you’re kicked back to “what do I use to sign it?” And really–we have an obsession with creativity and deep sincerity in every aspect of our lives that is just completely misplaced. Sometimes you can greet people with “hey” or “morning” even if you did not come up with this heartfelt greeting just for them, just for this morning. Spending your time trying to come up with yet another “howdy” variant will leave you cribbing from Woody Guthrie and still not making a heartfelt and unique entrance every time. Sometimes the done thing is the thing to do. Dialog can be marked with “said.” Emails can be closed with “thanks” or “best” or “cheers” even if you do not literally wish to express heartfelt gratitude, you only wish the receiver some of your best, and you would not raise a glass to them given the opportunity. It’s okay. Really it is. Just give the necessary information, indicate that you’re done, and move on.

When I was talking to Tim about this the other night, he said, “I often close with, ‘here’s what I want to happen.'” That feels more like a last paragraph than a closing to me, but more power to you if you’ve got it. It also made me giggle thinking of doing this in chatty emails with friends: “Here’s what I want to happen: you feel like your friend [me] cares about you and you have a good time of it until I talk to you again, and also maybe you think some more about whether the structure of this series requires the books to be slow-paced now, let me know.”

In the middle of writing this post, I got an email from a friend that their phone had cut off in the middle. And it was not signed, and this friend signs their emails, so I knew there was more coming. And there was. SEE? Yes. That.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Worthy causes: arts version [Aug. 21st, 2016|06:27 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Because of all the Langston Hughes posts I made around the RNC, one of my friends sent me this information about a fundraiser to preserve Langston Hughes’s brownstone for an arts collective. Interesting stuff, and I thought some of you  might want to know too.

It reminded me that some of you don’t know we’re trying to get an arts center and various other arts events/programming here in the south suburbs of Minneapolis, through the group Art Works Eagan. They’re still working on the building plan, but in the meantime they’re holding events like stilting demonstrations at the farmer’s market and who knows what kind of installation in early September–it will be a surprise to me, but they have the artist lined up. They’re always looking for volunteers and support.

Three is a good number, right? So while you’ve probably seen it, I’ll put this here: Pamela Dean is starting a Patreon to help her keep the lights on and the cats fed and vacuumed while she writes more of the things we’ve loved from her over the years. I’ve read parts of the books she’s getting into production with this project, and I want them. So all the help we can give will be useful.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Books read, early August [Aug. 18th, 2016|03:35 pm]
Marissa Lingen

A ton of books, many of them not book-length but on my Kindle so I keep track all the same…so you can tell that I was traveling in this fortnight, and indeed I was.

Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters. The friend who recommended this collection said it was dark, and it is. It may be the darkest thing I’ve finished. I have no idea why Maureen McHugh’s blurb describes it as Lovecraftian, because there’s very little unfathomable horror here: most of the horror is entirely fathomable. It is substantially characterization horror–while there are elements of supernatural, the tone is consistent throughout the stories, never a moment where you’re surprised that the supernatural thing is not a sparkly friendly unicorn for these nice happy people. It’s also a very blue collar set of stories, and I am having feelings about how easy it appears to be to find a horror writer who wants to write about blue collar people as opposed to an optimistic science fiction writer. I think it’s probably easier to write about a broad spectrum of people than to change fundamentally what metaphysics your stories have, so I am not upset with Ballingrud about this, but…still. Many feelings in other directions.

Chaz Brenchley, The Crater Girls in Camp. Kindle. While I wait for enough of the serial to stack up that I can read it, this is a stand-alone from the same project. It has the “school story/camp story” nature, but set on Mars, so if you read that kind of thing as a kid, it’s quick and fun and full of spunky girls.

Marie Brennan, The Bottle Tree. Kindle. A motivating prequel story, a “how they got there” for her Chains and Memory/Lies and Prophecy universe. I think it works better for having read the books than it would on its own, but since the books are available, that’s entirely possible.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric and the Shaman. Kindle. This is another in the Chalion universe, a sequel to the earlier novella Penric’s Demon. This features ghosts and hedge shamans and trying to figure out which gods will want which souls. It doesn’t have the personal/interpersonal depth of Paladin of Souls, but it’s a fun read all the same, and that’s a pretty high bar to expect to clear. If you liked that universe and want more, here’s some.

A.S. Byatt, Possession. Reread. This was one of the first things I read of Byatt’s. Looking back having read pretty nearly everything of hers, I find the passionate fight for one’s own proper work to thread through it, and it’s definitely here, both in the flashbacks and in the contemporary chapters. I’m also fascinated with how this book was written, in what order, because of all the pieces of Victorian-esque poetry and prose she had to do for it. I’m a non-linear writer myself, and I’m looking at the construction of it, trying to turn up the hems to see how they’re sewn.

Blake Charlton, Spellbreaker. Discussed elsewhere.

Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, eds., Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction. This was a series of essays that was purportedly about ecology and SF. And…I think how you feel about this book is going to depend on how you feel SF, as a genre, is doing at dealing with the environment, climate change, ecologies, etc. Do you feel that it’s doing a bang-up job and nothing more could really be asked? If so, the self-congratulation of this collection (“yay! someone is dealing with any kind of ecology at all ever!”) will probably not grate on you. And the stretches the critics in it require to make connections with ecology will not, and the moments where they let gigantic social movements outside the field go completely unmentioned when relevant. Yeah. All that will be fine, if you think that environmental SF is in a state that’s just peachy keen and doing all that could ever be asked of it. So.

Jan Golinski, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science. This is not a traditional biography so much as a character study. It goes through different personae Davy may have been considered to have adopted or had thrust upon him, in the context of what his era made available–“scientist,” for example, was not something young Humphry knew about to aspire to or shun. Remarkably, it goes into quite a lot of gender identity and sexuality for its era, and does so without imposing on Davy any modern identities that his writings don’t support him taking on personally. So go team on interesting and useful context that doesn’t push farther than the documentation.

Bill B. Hayes, Five Quarts: A Natural and Personal History of Blood. I found this book unexpectedly touching. There were interesting facts about the way that blood has been studied and known and considered–I expected that. I didn’t entirely expect how much there would be personal stories from Hayes about his family and his partner, and they were sweet without being treacly. It’s a quick read, and, well, heart-warming.

Kat Howard, Roses and Rot. A modern Tam Lin story with sisters, both artists, daughters of an abusive mother. One is a dancer and the other, the protag, is a writer. The main weak spot for me was that Kat Howard is a better writer than her protagonist, so whenever we saw flashes of Imogen’s work, I didn’t really buy that it was supposed to be wonderful. The other art, described but not shown, was far more interesting, as were the discussions of people’s varying attitudes toward their art, its inspiration, and its influences.

Ayize Jama-Everett, The Liminal People. An American superhero in Africa and London, in a not-at-all-typical situation but possibly a much more realistic one…until the last third, where the structure becomes a lot more formulaic/predictable. I was interested in this very very non-Justice League superhero and not so disappointed with the ending that I wouldn’t recommend it, but it gets dark, considering that the main character works for a warlord. Heads up. Still worth the time if you’re in the mood for it.

Eeva Kilpi, A Landscape Blossoms Within Me. Kindle. A wry, witty, earthy Finnish poet. This volume gave the poems in Finnish and English, first the one and then the other. Some of the shortest poems were the best. I could have read dozens more if there had been more here. Runs a large emotional range.

Robin Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Does what it says on the tin. Kimmerer, while a trained scientist who is talking a lot about moss science, is not shy about acknowledging that she has emotional and personal reactions to moss as well, which is refreshing considering that most scientists do. Lots of variety, lots of interest here, ends if anything too soon.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Ghost Talkers. Discussed elsewhere.

Leena Krohn, Tainaron: Mail from Another City. Kindle. This is a series of letters describing life in a city of bugs. It’s weird and fanciful and probably would get tedious if it was longer, but it isn’t longer, so it’s just the right length of stay in Tainaron.

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, eds., Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet Issue 34. Kindle. I liked the poetry in this. I liked the first Hazel Crowley poem, the one about the patron saint of sunken ships. I liked Molly Gloss’s “Superman, Sleepless,” and I liked Holly Day’s “People in Boxes.” I don’t know if the proportion of poetry is typical of LCRW. But it was time well spent.

Sonia Shah, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. Read this book and get mad at Aaron Burr all over again, for screwing over the New York water system for half a century and several cholera epidemics. There’s also a bunch of other stuff, most of which I already knew and you might too or maybe not. I don’t know, it’s really hard for me to gauge what the general cholera knowledge is. For a cholera book it’s only middle of the pack. But the stuff about Aaron Burr will make you steam.

Vandana Singh, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet. Beautiful science fiction stories rooted both in place and in genre. This is in some ways the opposite of what I was talking about Gerald Vizenor doing in Treaty Shirts earlier: this is the concerns of traditional science fiction, all the genre furniture, but in a context and culture that traditional science fiction ignored. I want both things. I want more of both things. I want this, though, definitely this.

Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Carolyn Nowak, and Maarta Laiho (et al), Lumberjanes: A Terrible Plan. This rambled, and I did not care. I love the Lumberjanes and their failure to earn cake decorating badges and their run-ins with the bear woman and everything. I hope it doesn’t keep rambling indefinitely. But a little ramble? Yes please gimme. Usually I don’t need an identification character. Everyone in this series is my identification character. Everyone. Even the bear woman.

Anthony Trollope, Miss Mackenzie. Kindle. I started reading this in Sweden, back in May, and it’s taken me this long to finish it partly because I don’t preferentially read on my Kindle (at all) and partly because Trollope makes me exceptionally nervous. Oh so nervous. And this book is no exception. He keeps talking about money right out loud. This is terrifying. What if the title character ends up poor and/or with a mother-in-law she hates? This happens to my friends all the time, and it’s scary stuff. My friends are pretty low-risk on the bitten by werewolves front, but poor and fighting with their mothers-in-law? Terrifying. So I basically read Trollope through the cracks in my fingers. I think the ending of this book–and in fact the structure of several key events–was far more surprising to me than it ought to have been because I share so few values with Trollope. But I liked the central character a lot.

Genevieve Valentine, Icon. This is a sequel that very much needs the book before it: you want Persona first. But if you’ve read Persona, this is just as fast-paced, just as hard-driving. Maybe more so. It takes on the aftermath of the events of that book and brings them to a logical conclusion that is not in any way formulaic. Politics, media, interpersonal questions…it’s all here, all systems go.

Gerald Vizenor, Griever: An American Monkey King in China. This is semi-autobiographical: Vizenor really is a Native American professor who went to live in China very early in the time when Americans were able to do so. That he then recast himself in a Chinese epic role…well. It’s a very, very different book from Treaty Shirts. Sometimes the intersection of American imperialism and Chinese imperialism, American exceptionalism and Chinese exceptionalism, is staggering. Vizenor’s Griever is (and sees himself as even more of) an outsider to American culture, and yet even more of an outsider to Chinese culture. Weird, weird book. Having read two of his, I have no idea what to expect of a third. Trickster myths? maybe, sure. Maybe not. Who knows.

Jo Walton, The King’s Peace. Reread. Years and years later, now that I am friends with Jo and she has written and published all sorts of things (none of which was true the first time I read this)…this still feels like a very natural book. It has a flow, a comfort level with the material. It’s been years since I voluntarily reached for an Arthurian retelling, and I think having Arthur at the remove of Urdo instead, having everyone with different names, is important to my enjoyment here, because Jo can do slightly different things–I can think, “Oh, right, that’s who Fishface is,” but I can feel that she will have her own shape of story around him, her own outcomes, where using the familiar names would close off those possibilities. Some possibilities, of course, are outside the light cone completely.

Kai Ashante Wilson, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. This is like a Silver Age military science fantasy, if one of those had been built without the prejudices they’re generally steeped in. If you really love that sort of story and hate being slapped in the face with racism, sexism, homophobia, here’s Wilson doing it without internalizing those things–his characters are not perfect but are called on their flaws, concisely and to the point.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal [Aug. 16th, 2016|06:07 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Ginger Stuyvesant is an American medium serving the British army in WWI. In secret, she takes reports from recent casualties about the circumstances of their deaths and dispatches the information back to the front so that the survivors can adjust to where the Germans have moved their guns and troops, where danger is coming from where it has just been.

She and her fiance, Ben, discover evidence that the Germans have found out the Spirit Corps’ existence, a closely held secret–and what’s worse, it looks like a traitor within their own ranks is the source of the information. Ginger can talk to the dead and read auras, but knowing that the people around her feel angry, sad, guilty, or confused doesn’t tell her why they feel that way–so she and her allies have to embark on a great deal of painful and dangerous detective work for the sake of the war effort–and their own needs. Because it swiftly gets very personal–of course it does.

This was a fast read, very smoothly written. Ginger’s encounters with the misogyny of her time don’t make it a happy romp through an early twentieth century that never was, but anyone who writes a happy romp of the Great War is probably not paying attention. Ghost Talkers is doing things with Spiritualism and the Great War that I haven’t seen done elsewhere, and it’s a major interest of mine. Worth the time.

Please consider using our link to buy Ghost Talkers from Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Not writing the phone book [Aug. 13th, 2016|03:14 pm]
Marissa Lingen

I often hear people say of actors they particularly like, “Oh, I could watch them read the phone book.” You never hear that about writers, “I would read it if they wrote the phone book.” And there’s a reason for that. A major part of being a good writer is the judgment about what to write. When people are saying that about an actor, they mean that their voice, their face, their body language, everything is very expressive and interesting. And there is a common writerly impulse to take any statement of “I find [thing] boring” as a challenge, to make it interesting. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good impulse; writing interesting stories is hard enough without being belligerent about things that bore your reader friends.

Recently a friend of mine started reading a fantasy piece with rogues in it, and it started with two annoying characters boasting to each other. “If [bestselling author friend] or [other bestselling auth–oh, fine, she said Scott Lynch and Steve Brust] had written this, they could have pulled it off, they could have made it funny, they could have undermined the annoying characters and shown what jerks they were,” she said, and I said, “Okay, but part of what makes Steve and Scott as successful as they are is that they generally choose not to do that.” They choose not to lead from a disadvantage that’s a boring disadvantage–not “can I make my reader sympathize with this intriguing villain” but “can I make my reader sympathize with a guy who’s like the annoying co-worker they’re glad they left in their last job.” Sure, someone with writing chops is in a better position than a beginner to pull that off. But it’s writing the phone book. It’s challenging for no particularly good reason.

I can’t remember where I read the review that suggested that Lois McMaster Bujold could write another novella between the two recent Penric novellas, in her Chalion universe, that would basically be a training sequence for the protagonist. And…okay, so there is an adage in physics that I think has a parallel here. If a respected, award-winning senior physicist tells you that something is impossible, she may or may not be right; if she tells you that something is possible, listen. In writing, it’s this: if one of the most decorated writers of her genre of all time chooses to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives of her genre, she may or may not have a good reason for it. Genre conventions sink into us all, just as the sense of constraint does in physics. But if she chooses not to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives, to skip over that bit and on to the next, pay attention, there was probably a really good reason why she didn’t find that part interesting enough to focus her time on it. And that’s worth learning from.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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