Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice

Dear Auntie Deborah…


I wrote a story using another person’s characters, even though they said not to. Can I publish it since their book isn’t copyrighted?

If the author has published their story in any form, it’s copyrighted. That, however, is beside the point. It’s just plain unethical to do what you suggest. It’s a great way to make enemies in your genre and create a horrible reputation that will haunt your career, assuming you still have one after such a bonehead move.

Create your own characters. Write your own stories. Treat your colleagues and their work the way you would like to be treated. Pursue your career with integrity and generosity.

 

Are self-published books inferior to professionally published books?

It all depends.

Not that long ago, self-published or vanity press books were assumed to be of inferior quality, that is to say, unpublishable by “real” (traditional) publishers. There were exceptions, of course, but that was the conventional wisdom.

Today, however, many self-published books go through the same rigorous editing and quality standards as traditionally published books. Some genres, like romance, are especially friendly toward self-pubbed projects.

With modern publishing technology (ebooks, POD printing), there are many reasons why a pro-level author might want to self-publish, including:

  • Niche projects, like memoirs or family histories.
  • Series that were dropped by trad publishers but that have an enthusiastic fan following.
  • Well-written books that don’t fit into the NY “best-seller” model.
  • OP (out-of-print, rights reverted to author) backlist.
  • Great books that straddle genres or otherwise confuse traditional marketing/sales departments.

That said, many self-published books are dreadful. They aren’t good enough to attract the interest of an agent or publisher to begin with, they aren’t professionally edited or proofread, the covers are amateurish, and so on. The challenge for the reader is to sort out those books that are truly a wonderful reading experience.

Does reaching a certain number of reviews increase your indie sales?

The short answer is that nobody knows. Theories abound, usually to line the pockets of the “experts.” “Gaming” the Amazon system is a losing proposition. What might have been true 2 years or 6 months or last week no longer works — because thousands of self-published authors have tried it, thereby flooding the system with meaningless tweaks.

If you want to increase your sales, write a great book. Publicize it. Get stellar reviews on Publishers Weekly and the like. Write an even better book. Rinse and repeat. Even then, there are no guarantees when it comes to sales, but you’ll have the satisfaction of writing really good books.

My first attempt at a novel is a New Adult Romance novel using the Three Act Structure and I’m floundering. Help!

I’ve been writing professionally for over 35 years and this is what works for me: I noodle around until the story catches fire. Then I have some idea of: the hook, one or two plot points/reversals, the big climax, and the emotional tone of the ending. Sometimes I fall in love with the characters and they run away with the story. If I’m selling on proposal, I use that much to generate a synopsis. If it’s on-spec, I dive in. As long as I feel as if I’m flying or surfing the story, I keep on. I use things like structural analysis only if I feel stuck.

The thing is, and always has been for me (12+ trad pub novels, 60+ short stories, plus collections and non-fic), I go where the creative joy is. Anything else is a boring slog.

All this said, I write fantasy and science fiction, where fluid structures are appreciated. Romance is much more formulaic. Consider that your muse might be leading you to write a love story, not a by-the-numbers romance. Always, always listen to your heart. Continue reading “Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice”

More Delightful Summer Reading

Here are some more reviews of books I’ve recently enjoyed recently.

 

Servant Mage, by Kate Elliott (Tor)

Kate Elliott always delivers entertaining stories with relatable characters, and Servant Mage is no exception. Indentured fire-mage Fellian leads a drab life, half-starved and clinging to memories of her childhood, before the rigid, fundamentalist Liberationists came to power and enslaved anyone with magical power. The usurped Monarchists have formed an underground rebellion, and they need Fellian’s Fire magic. Of course, one among them is devastatingly handsome, thereby setting expectations of romance to come, as well as the restoration of a noble, altruistic king.. Here’s where Elliott departs from the usual and becomes deeply subversive. Fellian holds steadfastly to her own values when presented with an attractive man and the lure of a benevolent monarchy restored. Instead, she asks piercing questions and relies on her own judgment, time and time again. She is keenly aware that the other conspirators need her special talent, and she’s not about to exchange her autonomy for a new community. In short, she thinks for herself. Through her, Elliott strongly questions the romantic notion so prevalent in fantasy: the noble aristocracy, devoted to the welfare of their subjects. Fellian insists that to trust future generations of entitled rulers is folly and that exchanging one form of top-down rule for another is no guarantee against despotism. This emperor might be just and fair, but in a generation, common people like her might find themselves just as oppressed.

I love how respectful Elliott is of her readers’ intelligence. She plays fair and gives us all the information we need (such as Fellian’s passion for literacy in teaching fellow servants to read and write) without ramming conclusions down our throats. She lets the characters and unfolding events speak for themselves without telling us how to feel about them. For this, and for superb storytelling and compelling characters, I’ll grab anything she writes!

 

The Necropolis Empire, A Twilight Imperium Novel, by Tim Pratt (Aconyte)

Tim Pratt writes a lot of very cool science fiction. From his “Axiom” series (my gateway into his work) to The Doors of Sleep (which I really, really hope will become an entire series, now that there’s a sequel) to his “Twilight Imperium” novels. When I reviewed the first of these, The Fractured Void, I had no idea that Twilight Imperium is a war-without-end strategic game. I wrote, “Game tie-in novels are common these days, but not those that are so well crafted as to stand on their own merits. I picked it up because I loved Tim Pratt’s other science fiction novels (and after reading it I still have no idea what Twilight Imperium is, nor do I particularly care as long as Pratt turns out books as good as this one).” That’s even more true for The Necropolis Empire. If you, like me, are so much Not a Gamer that you’re into negative gamer-ness, just ignore that part and enjoy the book as a great science fiction tale.

Standing on its own, The Necropolis Empire falls into one of my favorite science fiction subgenres: spooky alien ruins. In this case, very, very old alien ruins from a race we’re really glad has gone extinct. Now if folks would just stop trying to resurrect their tech…

Our young heroine, Bianca, lives on one such world, a pastoral culture built on top of the aforementioned, deeply buried alien tech. Scavenged bits are useful, but mostly the farmers go about their lives…until a ship from the imperialist Barony of Letnev arrives, annexes the planet, and carries Bianca away with a rather incredulous story about her being a space princess. Bianca falls for it, though. Not only is she adopted, but rather than settle down with a nice neighbor boy, she has always yearned for something beyond her own world. That something becomes clearer when she begins changing, developing superhuman speed, strength, senses, healing, and more. The ruthless Letnev believe she is the key to finding and controlling the ancient military relics, which they mean to use to dominate all known space. Bianca has other ideas.

I absolutely love how vulnerable and how competent Bianca is. Her confidence in herself and her abilities stems from more than her new, superhuman powers. As a child, she was wanted and cherished, never coddled but given responsibilities. She grew up with permission to tackle all manner of challenges, and she’s a genuinely nice person. The Letnev, not so much. They’ve perfected arrogance to an art form.

I would be perfectly happy to see an entire series of “The Adventures of Bianca,” although I sadly fear the good folks who’ve created Twilight Imperium are more interested in promoting their game and not so much in a fascinating character who stands on her own.

 

Scandal in Babylon, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

I loved Barbara Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God, a fantasy set in Roaring 1920s Hollywood. Now she returns to that era, with its glamorous silent film stars, bootleggers, gangsters, drug use, widespread corruption, and the frenzied exuberance that followed World War I. In this story, a murder mystery (without Bride’s supernatural elements) the viewpoint character is Emma, a young British widow who now works as a companion and secretary for her superstar sister-in-law, Kitty. Classically trained, Emma is constantly affronted by the wildly inaccurate movie scripts (Kitty is currently starring in The Empress of Babylon), many of which she is called upon to rewrite on the spur of the moment. She’s also embarked on a possible new romance with cameraman Zak. To complicate matters further, Kitty’s real life is as melodramatic as her screen characters. She is a generous person for all her antics, especially loving to her three adorable Pekinese. When Kitty’s dissolute ex-husband, Rex, is found murdered, it looks very much as if someone is trying to set Kitty up to take the blame and is doing a very bad job of it. A deliberately bad job?

Drenched in atmosphere and fascinating historical details, featuring vivid characters and snappy dialog, Scandal in Babylon is Hambly at the top of her form. The pacing and depth of the scenes are wonderful, just the right combination of page-turning action, whodunit tension, and moments of reflection and personal growth.

Rumor has it that Scandal in Babylon will be the first of a new series. If so, sign me up!

 

The Science of Being Angry, by Nicole Melleby (Algonquin Young Readers)

Eleven-year-old Joey lives in an unusual blended family. For one thing, she had her two twin brothers have two moms, one of whom was married before and has a son from that marriage. She and her brothers were the result of IVF, and the boys are identical, having split from the same egg. For all the nontraditional nature of this family, there’s a lot of love and acceptance. But all is not well with Joey. She’s been having increasingly volatile episodes of anger and acting-out. Her temper has become legendary at school, where she’s been given the nickname, “Bruiser,” after she threw a soccer ball at a boy in gym class so hard she bruised his collarbone. She’s roughly pushed away her best friend, on whom she also has a crush. Now she’s left with the fallout wreckage of what she’s done.

Despite the efforts of her moms to help her, Joey’s outbursts are only getting worse. Finally, she melts down into a tantrum so destructive, her family is evicted from their apartment and must move into a motel, where close quarters fuel everyone’s irritation. Her moms start bickering, and Joey thinks that’s her fault. Her older brother, who is trying to focus on his academics, goes to live with his father, and of course, Joey blames herself for that, too.

Joey can’t understand why she flies into a rage or how to control it. All her best intentions are in vain. Then she gets the idea that perhaps her temper is a genetic trait inherited from her biological father. If she can just track him down, she thinks, she might better understand her own volatility—and he might have found successful strategies for managing his anger. With the help of her alienated best friend/crush, she embarks on a genetics project for science class. And, of course, nothing goes the way Joey expects.

In many ways, Joey is a typical adolescent, struggling with the tensions between immaturity and independence. In others, though, she is very much her own person with a unique family. I loved the way the unusual marriage and relationships are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Joey’s anger is clearly not caused by her having two lesbian mothers. Indeed, the clear love and understanding between her mothers, the way each of them has found her way to an authentic life, are one of Joey’s principal strengths. I also noted very little along the lines of, “girls don’t have anger management issues,” when in fact psychological research shows that girls experience anger as frequently as boys do (but are socialized to suppress it).

What I most loved about this book was the respect with which Joey and her problems were portrayed. Joey is in many ways still a child, and for all her competence in many areas, she has a child’s limited resources for dealing with psychological issues that confound many adults. Her sense of responsibility often leads her to shoulder disproportionate blame, to withdraw rather than harm someone she loves, and to keep her pain to herself. She confronts an issue all of us face, regardless of how old we are: when do we ask for help, and when do we rely upon our own resources? In the end, Joey realizes that she cannot master her temper by herself, and—more importantly—that there is kindness, understanding, and help available to her.

Highly recommended for adults as well as their adolescent children.

 

Noor, by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)

Okorafor’s work invites us into a world of the future, but one in which the foundational culture is not derived from Western Europe but situated in Africa. Her underlying premise is that the Africans of the future, in this case Nigerians, have developed their own rich technologies. Two stand out for me in this novel: harvesting solar and wind energy in the deserts of northern Nigeria; and the heroine herself, whose cyborg body has been extensively augmented. At the same time, herdsmen follow ages-old traditions. In Okorafor’s skillful hands, high tech and ancient ways of life blend into a seamless whole.

 

 

Reasons to write #ownvoice, a bit of personal history

I’ve been thinking about the Jewishness in my fiction. Bettina Burger and I are working on getting a handle on Australian and NZ Jewish speculative fiction, so, this week, the books being discussed are my own.

Firstly, I need to admit (alas) that I don’t think I’m related to Joel Samuel Polack, who wrote in the nineteenth century. Right surname, right religion, right region of the world, wrong family. I’m descended from the Abraham Polack who came to Melbourne in 1858, not the rather more famous one who came to Melbourne in 1824. I think Joel Samuel is from the earlier family. There are other writers in my family, but I’m the only one with this surname.

A subject that comes up a lot in my vicinity is why there aren’t more Australian SFF writers who publicly identify as Jewish. There are so many possible reasons, but I don’t want to give simplified explanations, especially about identity. One thing I do know is that, when I speak before a large audience, I often have Australians (so far no New Zealanders) coming up to me afterwards and admitting they are Jewish and asking, “But don’t tell anyone.” Some give the reason as personal safety, while others give no reason at all. Others identify with Judaism because of Jewish parents and grandparents but are not halachically Jewish and do not wish to claim Jewishness. In other words, it’s a very personal decision. Given the number of Shoah survivor families who are in Australia and given the small number of Jews outside Melbourne and Sydney (and that I am in Canberra) the decision not to be public about one’s identity is an important one.

I have been publicly Jewish my whole life. It’s caused me many problems and lost me many opportunities, but various family members let me know how important it was to them and family culture is important to me. One Moment in my life was when my great-uncle explained to me that if no-one did this, then things would be worse for those who had no option. I was (and possibly still am) very dutiful and was on so many committees and did so much stuff in response to the need for public understanding of Jewishness in order to prevent another mass murder. I was on committees and even gave advice to government Ministers at one point, which is why a chapter of Story Matrices has a letter from a minister saying it was fine to use the material.

Eventually I realised that I was not my great-uncle or my grandmother and that Gillianishly was a proper way of living a life. I finally wrote my Australian Jewish novel. I thought the whole world would change in 2016 because there was finally an Australian Jewish fantasy novel. When The Wizardry of Jewish Women was released, I kept a very close eye on its trajectory within the Jewish community, partly because I have a history of activity in the Jewish community (that family thing!). Not many people noticed. It was world-changing for me, however, and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, and ever since then I’ve worked through my fiction.

Ironically, I’m writing this post on the weekend when Ditmar award nominations are open (see addendum, if you’re curious) and I have another Jewish-themed novel that is eligible (The Green Children Help Out). Given COVID, it’s been more visible elsewhere than Australia, so I’m appreciating the irony of writing about my Jewishness in my fiction at this precise moment.

Sorry about the diversion. Back to Wizardry. I wanted a Jewish Australian #ownvoices novel. There are so many options for Jewish Australian #ownvoices, so I chose one very precise family and had a lot of fun exploring them. I was also reacting to the invisibility of Jewish Australian culture and the misuse of the Jewish fantastic. I still have issues about all these things, and one of these issues is going to be addressed in a story I wrote for Other Covenants, where I brought out my Medieval self to address the significant differences between Christianity and Judaism and that Christian interpretations of stories are not going to be the same as Jewish. But that’s in my future. Today I’m talking about the past.

Most Jewish-Australian speculative fiction writers are, for the most part, first or second generation Australian. They bring with them backgrounds from Europe, Israel, South Africa and the USA. My family arrived in Australia between 1858 and 1918. While much of it is European, one branch is from London.

Given the strength and cultural impositions from the White Australia policy and Federation, that London origin has impacted the family culture. Yiddish and Ladino had not been family languages for over a century until Yiddish was reintroduced into the generation after mine and until I learned to read a bit of (transliterated) Ladino.

Anglo-Australian Judaism is closest to UK Modern Orthodox Judaism in culture and much of the acquisition of Yiddish folkways and even Yiddish words in English came to the family through US popular culture. I have a US Catholic friend who knows far more Yiddish than I do, because she is from New York and Yiddishisms are part of her everyday English. While the family Chanukah tradition included a sung version of Ma’otsur, the Dreidel song was not acquired until the 1990s. I still don’t think of the Dreidel song as very Chanukah-ish. I didn’t react to not being from a well-known type of Jewish culture. I built my world from the inside: I intentionally use my Anglo-Australian Jewishness in my fiction, whether directly in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, or indirectly, for example as satire in Poison and Light. (The Chelm-equivalent jokes in Poison and Light came from my mother’s neighbour, who was from Chelm and who taught me Chelm jokes ie none of these statements are universal – culture is delightfully complicated.)

Older Australian Jewish culture holds very strong family cultures of university education. For my work specifically, this means that the Jewish history I learned through stories and through books in our (very bookish) home was placed in the wider context of Western European histories from my teens. I owe being an historian to being Jewish, I suspect.

While occasional members of my family were Shoah survivors and whole branches of the family were lost to the Holocaust, the young men in my corner of the family were in the Australian and British military (army and air force) during the war, and the most significant loss for those close to me was my mother’s youngest uncle, who was a bomber pilot. When addressing issues of war and loss, my approach is still Jewish (and still replays many issues relating to the Shoah) but deals with these matters from a different angle to the work of most other writers. Where Jane Yolen wrote Briar Rose, for example, I split my sense of what was lost into several parts and addressed some of them in The Time of the Ghosts, some in Poison and Light and others in The Green Children Help Out.

There were emotional and experiential gaps between Australian Holocaust narratives and my family’s experience. These gaps are very Australian in nature. Many survivors came to Australia because it was as far from Europe as it was possible to go. My family had been here for a generation or more when they made that difficult journey. The difference between their experience and my family’s understanding led to a different set of narrative paths. This is not true of all Australian Jews. Mark Baker, for example, writes Shoah narratives based on his own family background. He does not, however, write speculative fiction.

I did a little research about Australian Jewish fiction (in general, and also in YA, and also in historical fiction and in speculative fiction) a few years ago and I was greatly perturbed to discover that novels about the Shoah or Ultra-Orthodox life were acceptable, but that secular Australian Judaism was almost impossible to find in fiction. The only aspect of Jewish folklore or magic that was written about consistently was the golem. This is the main reason I wrote The Wizardry of Jewish Women (2016) and a sequel short story (that was published long before the novel) “Impractical Magic.”

Poison and Light (2020) and Langue[dot]doc 1305 (2014) are examples of my ongoing tendency to include appropriate elements of Jewish history and culture in types of novels where they’re normally entirely neglected. In Poison and Light, Jewish characters (all minor players in the story) have a different response to everyone else when the eighteenth century is re-invented on New Ceres, while Langue[dot]doc 1305 has a minor character whose experience of Judaism is of a kind, again, that’s seldom covered in fiction. The Time of the Ghosts (2015) has a major character who is Jewish and whose personal writing about historical events and her own life again, do not follow the standard stories Australians use when writing Jewish character and culture. The Green Children Help Out (2021), stories in Mountains of the Mind, (2019) and “Why The BridgeBuilders of York Pay No Taxes” (that Other Covenants story) are all set in an alternate universe where England has a significantly higher number of Jews. Once I learned how to start creating fiction with Jewish components, I was unable to stop.

And now you know…

Addendum:

For those of you who want to know about the Ditmars (Australian SFF awards – the Hugo equivalent, really), this is the information that came by email today via Cat Sparks. These are not my words – they’re the official information.

Nominations for the 2022 Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) awards are now open and will remain open until one minute before midnight Canberra time on Sunday, 7th of August, 2022 (ie. 11.59pm, GMT+10).

The current rules, including Award categories can be found at:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/Ditmar_rules

You must include your name with any nomination. Nominations will be accepted only from natural persons active in fandom, or from full or supporting members of Conflux 16, the 2022 Australian National SF Convention (https://conflux.org.au/).

Where a nominator may not be known to the Ditmar subcommittee, the nominator should provide the name of someone known to the subcommittee who can vouch for the nominator’s eligibility. Convention attendance or membership of an SF club are among the criteria which qualify a person as ‘active in fandom’, but are not the only qualifying criteria. If in doubt, nominate and mention your qualifying criteria.

You may nominate as many times in as many Award categories as you like, although you may only nominate a particular person, work or achievement once. The Ditmar subcommittee, which is organised under the auspices of the Standing Committee of the Natcon Business Meeting, will rule on situations where eligibility is unclear. A partial and unofficial eligibility list, to which everyone is encouraged to add, can be found here:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/2022_Ditmar_eligibility_list

Online nominations are preferred

https://ditmars.sf.org.au/2022/nominations.html

The Power of Story

Last night (your Sunday night) I was putting together some material for my patrons. It includes an interview I did years ago with Carrie Vaughn, Seanan McGuire and Daniel Abraham. I was looking into what made the suddenly-very-trendy preternatural romance and adventure novels and going straight to three excellent writers on the topic seemed like a good idea.

It still does. I’m considering picking up my old habit of interviewing writers in groups, to find out what they think and who they are. If you think that’s a good idea, please let me know. In the interim, it may be years since the first novels of these three writers came out, but I made such an excellent choice of interview subject: they’re still all perfect for this difficult year. Good writing trumps tough times, I find.

These days using ‘trumps’ like that makes us think of politicians who lead people astray and make the hard, harder, but I want us to return to the pre-Donald use of the word. It comes from playing card games. Card games, like good light fiction, help when the emotions are really not up to heavy lifting. Still, I’d rather read Carrie or Seanan than play cards this month. Cards may be fun, but COVID is still with us and far too many of my friends are down with it. I want to step into a delightfully frothy werewolf tale or dream of sarcasm in fairyland.

My present to you for the Fourth of July then, is a reminder of the power of books to keep us sane when life goes awry.

A Potpourri of Short Book Reviews

I’ve been reading a lot of delightful books recently. Here are a few for your consideration.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager)

Set on an uninhabitable planet whose only value is as a stopover for other worlds, this story explores what happens when members of very different species and histories are forced into community when they are temporarily cut off from contact with the larger Galactic Commons. Three of these strangers are guests at the overwhelmingly hospitable Five-Hop One-Stop version of a spacer’s truck stop when a freak accident halts all traffic and communications. At first glance, they have little in common: an exiled artist with an urgent, perhaps redemptive appointment to keep, a cargo runner with a military history at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual who cannot leave her space suit but is doing her best to help those on the fringes. Add to this odd grouping, their host and her teenager, furred quadrupeds that reminded me repeatedly of space otters. Most of all, though, this book is about how people who are initially not only diverse but at odds with one another can bridge those differences through understanding and shared experiences to form friendships and, ultimately, community.

 

Crazy in Poughkeepsie, by Daniel Pinkwater; Aaron Renier illustrator (Tachyon)

It’s difficult to find words to describe a Daniel Pinkwater book because they are a unique breed that defies the usual literary terminology: they’re enchanting (often literally), playful, spontaneous (as in combustion, upon occasion), and hilarious-yet-insightful. In other words, a Daniel Pinkwater book provides the occasion for parents wrestling the copy from their kids, and vice versa, so why not avoid bloodshed, or paper-shred, and read them aloud together?

Mick’s ordinary life comes to a screeching 180 degree turn when his older brother returns home from Tibet with Guru Lumpo Smythe-Finkel and his dog, Lhasa, and Mick finds himself—how, he’s never entirely clear—the guru’s new disciple. Guru, disciple, and magical dog set off on a quest that’s as notable for its vagueness as its unpredictability. They acquire fellow travelers, graffiti-fanatic Verne and Molly, a Dwergish girl (sort of like leprechaun trolls with hidden goals, magical powers, a gift for making friends, and a charmingly madcap sense of humor). Soon they’re cavorting with a ghost whale who is the essence of love, as well as other wacky and memorable characters.

Pinkwater’s in on a great secret: if you want to communicate wisdom to young readers, first make them smile. Or giggle. Or run wild in Poughkeepsie, as the case may be.

 

 

The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi (Subterranean)

Part noir detective story, part thriller, part inventive science fiction that examines a world in which death is not permanent (well, certain kinds of death and mostly), this is newest adventure in John Scalzi’s “The Dispatcher” series. I hadn’t read the first one but quickly found that didn’t matter. Scalzi skillfully weaves in all the necessary backstory with nary a plot hiccough.

In Scalzi’s world, a few years ago almost all folks who were murdered don’t die, they reappear in a place they feel safe, like a childhood home. Natural deaths are something else: you die, you stay dead. A new profession has arisen, that of “dispatcher,” a not-murderer for hire. If you’re about to die naturally, you hire them and get another chance at life. Most of the time. But business has been drying up, and Tony Valdez has been taking on cases that blur the shady line of what’s strictly legal. Like killing a Chinese executive so he can re-appear thousands of miles away in time for an important business meeting. At this point, Scalzi propels Valdez firmly into thriller territory, with plenty of dramatic tension, noir mystery, and danger. In Scalzi’s superlatively competent hands, it all comes together seamlessly for a can’t-put-it-down ride.

 

Paper & Blood (Book Two of the Ink & Sigil series, by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey)

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Hearne to begin with, and his “Ink and Sigil” series is a delight. As a former student of calligraphy, I love the idea that the written word is magical. In this series, set in the world of the Iron Druid, scribes create magical spells using not only words, but painstakingly prepared pens, inks, and paper. The spells include the Sigils of Unchained Destruction, Restorative Care, Agile Grace, Muscular Brawn, and Quick Compliance and are used to protect the world against malevolent gods and monsters.

Our everyman-hero, Al MacBharrais, is under a couple of nasty spells himself. If he speaks to someone more than a few times, they loathe him (this happened to his own son), and his apprentices die violently after a year of service. This isn’t good news for his hobgoblin apprentice, Buck Foi. While Al is searching for a way to lift his misfortunes, his fellow sigil agents go missing in the wilds of Australia. Al and Buck are off to the rescue, joined by one of the missing agent’s apprentices, his receptionist Gladys Who Has Seen Some Shite, a few sundry allies, and the Iron Druid himself. The search leads them to a forested preserve, where chimeric monsters lie in wait. These critters are sometimes more effective and lethal than others, but always inventive: a turtle-dragon-spider, an eagle bull, a scorpion with a rat’s head (ugh), pygmy goats with fanged snake heads, a gorilla elephant, a yak badger, and my favorite, a zebra possum.

All in all, this is a quick, fun read filled with plot twists and delightful characters but also depth, the best combination.

“Abandoned cheese is a sure sign that something’s gone wrong.”

 

The Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart (Ballantine)

If we ever managed to figure out time travel, who would control it? How would we prevent time tourists from messing with the past—and would that warp the present, as in the grandfather paradox? In Rob Hart’s latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, the US government has been policing time tourism and historical research expeditions, only now they’ve run out of funds and the franchise is about to go to auction.

January Cole works security at the Paradox Hotel, which hosts time travelers awaiting their scheduled “flights to the past” at the nearby Einstein Institute. She’s a seasoned time traveler herself, having made many trips as part of the policing agency. As a result of spending too much time in the past, she’s become Unstuck, with the result that she often sees events and people from prior times. The best of these incidents allow her to be with her sweet, loving girlfriend, now dead. But January’s condition is worsening, and she’s not only seeing the past but the future. That future includes a corpse in Room 526.

With trillionaires arriving for the auction, baby velociraptors on the loose, and January’s grip on the present moment growing ever less reliable, it’s inevitable that more things will go wrong…starting with a series of “accidents” befalling the powerful, ultra-wealthy bidders. Clocks run backward, time seems to stutter, the treatment for being Unstuck no longer works, and January’s running out of time to stop the murder.

I loved the convolutions of time, January’s wrestling with grief and guilt, the dips into the past, and of course, the baby velociraptors that grow much too fast, all with the fast pacing of a thriller. In short, Hart’s time-twisting murder mystery satisfies on many counts.

 

 

Something Perfect, by Laura Anne Gilman (Faery Cat Press)

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes a sweet, sexy novella from Laura Anne Gilman. It’s a romance between a long-married couple, Jenny and Nic, who feel more complete with a third person. Luck hasn’t favored them so far, as triads or throuples aren’t for everyone. Polyamory requires excellent communication skills, integrity, and generosity of heart. Frustrated with having their hearts broken from yet another breakup, Jenny asks Nic to use his scrying talent to find their perfect partner.

“When you see the curve of their face reflected in glass and moonlight,” goes his reading. “The city shining on their skin. When you see that, you’ll know.”

Years go by, until Jenny attends an exclusive party in New York City and spots Amy sitting alone on the moonlit patio. Jenny knows she’s “the one.” Courtship is difficult enough, but between three people it’s a real challenge, especially when one of them is as insecure as Amy, who’s convinced she “isn’t good at sex” and will never find the right partner. Nic’s “Seeing” may have started the ball rolling, but it takes more than magic to forge strong, resilient relationships.

There was so much I loved in this story, and it’s all beautifully rendered: the strength and clarity of Jenny and Nic’s marriage and their ability to communicate in a loving, nonjudgmental fashion; the absence of plot stupidities and misunderstandings that serve no other purpose than to draw out tension, when a simple conversation would resolve them; the positive portrayal of sex and multiple relationships, one that trusts the reader’s intelligence; and most of all, a thread of gold running through the story, the importance of consent. Asking for it, giving it, checking in, taking it back, celebrating it. And the wonderfully juicy erotic bits are great, too.

 

 

Within Without (A Nyquist Mystery), by Jeff Noon (Angry Robot)

This is the third “John Nyquist Mystery” I’ve read and it’s by far the weirdest. Nyquist’s latest case involves the theft of a sentient, essence-of-glamor image that has gone missing from its host. To

investigate, Nyquist and his new assistant travel to the city of Delirium, guarded by boundaries that are far more than checkpoints or physical barriers. Their search for the magic practitioner who created and attached the image to begin with leads them into increasingly bizarre cities-within-cities. In Escher, Nyquist discovers his “Inverse,” the character hidden within his psyche, and it turns out to be Gregor Samsa, the narrator of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who wakens one morning to discover he has turned into a cockroach. So Nyquist must deal not only with Samsa’s personality and voice, but that of the cockroach. As if that weren’t strange enough, his assistant has become infected with a creeping magical substance and, obsessed with taking the image, named Oberon, for his own, disappears. Plot twists abound, building until Nyquist finds himself in an utterly different plane of existence, one in which the images define and distort reality. The book carries forward and intensifies the hallucinatory texture of the previous Nyquist novels.

 

 

 

Talking genre

This post is brought to you in between panels at Balticon. I’m still in Australia and there’s a 14 hour time difference between my computer and Balticon, so this will be short.

My supporters have asked for Medieval recipes for the next little while on my Patreon page, so the Medieval food and foodways books will have to wait. So where do I look for inspiration? The panel I’m in the audience for is an amazing group of writers and editors and they’re talking about genre as literature. Balticon has the best panels. Instead of a single book or group of books, then, I’ll use their discussion for inspiration. The panel began with an analysis of why some books belong in one part of a bookshop and why in another. Karen Osborne let us know that marketing is an issue, that where books are placed in a shop depends partly on negotiations between the shop and the publisher’s people.

This makes me think about how marketing can hide a book from an audience and how the culture that underlies the book calls out to some audiences more than others. This makes me think (again) of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book.

The marketing of The Swan Book was that it was great literature, which it is. It’s a totally brilliant and absorbing novel. It’s also not an easy read. This means that the ‘this is great literature’ categorisation meant that genre readers are only just discovering it. US novels travel more easily between the two markers, but US genre critics don’t always watch for Australian literature and so The Swan Book was missed for all the awards that might have enabled it to be seen by the wider public.

This applies to so many books from outside the US. Books from Canada and the UK are a bit more likely to cross genre boundaries because they are that much more visible, but most Australian books that win awards and that enter into US bookshops and that are reviewed in Locus are not only firmly seen as genre from the get-go and marketed as genre, but follow US genre tags. The more unique a writer is and the more their work brings out cultural material that is not widely known and break genre tropes in so doing, the more difficult it is for their work to be seen by genre readers.

I know this from experience, because my novels are distinctly Australian and are discovered more slowly by readers than, say, the more US-like writing of Garth Nix or of Trudi Canavan. This is not a quality issue. It’s to do with choices we’ve made as writers about what will be in our novels. Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book is so very remarkable and the culture that it expresses is not only very Australian, but specifically Indigenous Australian. It’s now sneaking into conversation about speculative fiction.

Genre boundaries are porous, but some work doesn’t cross it and reach genre readers when it ought, and some crosses more slowly and… it’s complicated.

Children’s books can play mind games

I’m writing late today, because it’s my birthday. In fact, I’m writing so late that my birthday is already finished in Australia. My birthday is on a public holiday. In a normal year, I’d probably introduce you to a book that tells the history of that public holiday, but the history of that public holiday is very military and there is enough of that in our everyday right now. If you’re curious, the day is ANZAC Day and the history is the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

‘ANZAC’ stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so I’ll give you one of my favourite Australian novels written by a New Zealand writer, as a compromise. Ruth Park moved to Sydney in 1942, where she married another writer of classic Australian books, D’Arcy Niland. I’ll introduce his The Shiralee one day.

I have several favourite books by Park: The Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange, and, of course all the stories of the Muddle-Headed Wombat. I suspect The Muddle-Headed Wombat was one of the first books I read outside school textbooks, in fact. I obtained my own copy of it in my teens and have never let anyone borrow it. My copy of The Muddle-Headed Wombat is pristine, however, compared to my copy of Playing Beatie Bow. I have maybe half a dozen books read so often that they cannot hold together, and this is one of them.

It’s set in Sydney, and is a time slip novel and… it’s almost impossible for me to describe. It’s been filmed and the film is charming but slight and the book is far more haunting and simply one of the best time slip novels out there.

Some books I read and re-read because they remind me of things I ought never forget. Playing Beatie Bow came out when I was an undergraduate, studying history. It became an instant reminder to me that history can happen as a narrative, as a spiral, as layers in time and more: history is not a simple thing.

I had only been to Sydney very briefly when I first read the novel. It suggested a society that was very different to the one I knew. More poor and urban and complex than the suburban I knew. Park’s two Sydneys brought the place to life in a way that made me rethink my own Melbourne. I wasn’t specialising in Australian history, but I attended every public lecture about Marvellous Melbourne by John Lack and I started to shape the stories of the streets I knew and I began to see the relationship between the stories we tell, the stories we lead.

When I myself moved to Sydney, in 1983, I walked down George Street and ventured down to The Rocks and found that the district was nothing like the novel. I had to learn another kind of history, or maybe another layer. Since then, The Rocks has been rebuilt and a museum established and it’s easier to see how the different moments of the past link, but then, I studied a street corner and tried to work out how it fitted and failed. I stopped trying and instead learned about the influenza pandemic and how it changed that tiny corner of Australia.

I suspect that this is the other reason I’m thinking of Playing Beatie Bow. The Rocks are indelibly linked in my mind with that pandemic, and, of course, now we are living through our own pandemic.

I can’t review Playing Beatie Bow. I can’t even analyse its history. This is unlike me. There is another timeslip novel whose history I analyse perfectly well, and that has an even more battered cover, Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. I suspect that Park’s novel is too linked to that big change in my life, becoming an historian and, in order to do so, moving from Melbourne to Sydney. I may never be able to pull it to pieces in the same I way I pull most novels to pieces. All I can suggest, then, is that you read it for yourself.

The Joy of a New Book

SpearThere are lots of ways to pick a book to read. Subject matter. Genre and sub-genre. A great cover. Reviews. Blurbs. Reading the first page and getting hooked.

But one of the best ways to choose a book is because you’ve read other work by the author that knocked your socks off. This works with both fiction and non-fiction.

It also doesn’t matter if the story is about something you didn’t think you were particularly interested in, because in the hands of a master writer, you will find yourself entranced.

Case in point: Spear, by Nicola Griffith.

It happens that Nicola is one of those writers whose books I always read. I have read all of her novels and a lot of her short fiction. She brings something unique in everything she writes, regardless of the genre.

For example, I don’t read a lot historical fiction, but Hild is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I recently re-read it in anticipation of the sequel, Menewood, which will be out a year from now.

So all I needed to know to pre-order Spear was that Nicola wrote it. Other than that, all I knew was that it was fantasy set in early medieval Britain and that the main character was a woman. Continue reading “The Joy of a New Book”

Getting Their “Comeuppance”

Comeuppance Served ColdI heard Marion Deeds read from her novella Comeuppance Served Cold – just out from Tor – at one of last year’s FOGcon virtual readings. During the question period afterwards, I asked, “So is this homage to Dashiell Hammett?”

She was pleased that I picked up on the tone of the book. As she noted in the acknowledgements, Hammett’s take on the West Coast wealthy during the 1920s and 30s provided inspiration.

So while this book is fantasy – complete with magicians, shapeshifters, and a hint of the Fair Folk – it takes place in the corrupt worlds of human power that the noir and detective stories of the Prohibition years made famous.

It’s a delightful book. Some of its biggest charms are things that would be spoilers, so let me just say that if you like the idea of urban fantasy set in Hammett’s world, you won’t be disappointed.

One charm that’s not really a spoiler is that while some of the magic is intertwined with the political power dealing common to such books, the story includes the racism and other ugly reality of the non-magical side of things.

Shapeshifters are treated badly in this magical world even though many of them served valiantly in World War I, but this is in addition to, rather than an allegory for, the abusive treatment of African Americans. Continue reading “Getting Their “Comeuppance””

Guest Blog: Tara Gilboy on Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade Novels

Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade Novels

by Tara Gilboy

I don’t read adult books.

Most people give me strange looks when I say this. I’m an author, after all.  And a grown up. Why wouldn’t I want to read adult books?

I think my friends and family assume it’s a phase. They are always trying to give me books after they’ve finished them. This one will convince you to read adult books again. Nope.

Now don’t get me wrong: there are many adult books I like. I have a few favorites, and from time to time, I will reread them. I love Jane Austen, Stephen King, and Amy Tan. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a favorite, as is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with adult books. It’s just that I like middle grade books better.

As I sat down to write this blog post, I realized I’d never really considered closely why I prefer middle grade over adult novels. Whenever anyone asked me, I’d always given the easy answer: “well, it’s because I write them.” (Which seems like the very responsible, professional, “adult” answer.) Or even worse: “ I don’t know. I just like them better.”

But middle grade books are important. For children, yes. But for adults too.

There’s been a lot of crossover in the young adult genre in recent years. Adult readers devour YA books like The Hunger Games, but the same sort of crossover is not seen as often in middle grade. Grown-ups who wouldn’t think twice about purchasing books like Divergent or Children of Blood and Bone are less eager to pick up books like Holes and Ella Enchanted.

I think there is a myth that because middle grade is shorter and written for younger readers, it must be simple or unsophisticated, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than making it simple, middle grade’s brevity simply means it is concise, distilled down to its most essential elements with everything extraneous stripped away. Most middle grade books are short enough to be read in one sitting, allowing you to hold the entire story in your mind in a single afternoon.

Middle grade is unpretentious, but not unsophisticated. This is its charm.

Middle grade is all about storytelling. Writing middle grade forces the author to disappear, to remove his or her ego from the writing. Readers don’t want paragraph after paragraph of all the wonderful historical research you did. They don’t care if you can write fancy poetic sentences that are grammatically correct even at a mile long. They don’t want pages of beautifully written exposition. There is a reason that middle grade books are so beloved, the books that often turn many children into lifelong readers. It’s called the “golden age of reading” for a reason. Middle grade draws on traditional storytelling forms. Heroes and quests. Magic. Evil villains.

They can be highly literary but in a way in which the language does not draw attention to itself. Continue reading “Guest Blog: Tara Gilboy on Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade Novels”