Tea and a Tome

Kestrel bookmark fragment © Carl James Freeman, 1989.
Used with kind permission of the artist.

Today’s tea: organic jasmine green, with a shot of honey generously provided by one of our gracious hosts during last week’s Crescent Beach conference of writerly types. Evokes good memories.

Today’s book: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Botanist Kimmerer is a scientist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. This doubled authority charges her writing with confidence and passion. Her technical background might lead you to expect bare factual reportage, but beauty of her words comes from the well that poets frequent. I love discovering wonderfully written creative nonfiction. Laced through with Kimmerer’s personal experience and study, Braiding Sweetgrass gives us the interweaving of three sources of knowledge: science, tradition, and soul.

I’m reading more slowly these days, but I really don’t mind with a book this rich in content and language. I find I’m being educated in multiple fields at once, with joy along the way. Highly recommended so far.

The Pros Know

I just listened to the audiobook Million Dollar Professionalism for the Writer Million-Dollar-Pro500
by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. Again. And I’m feeling an urge to reach out to all the new, new-ish, and aspiring writers I know. I want to tell them to pick this book up, and read or listen. And then do it again.

The first time through, I was occupied with things such as driving, not burning dinner, you know the drill. The second time I listened? I took notes.

Moesta (author, editor, and publisher) and Anderson (author of over 50 bestsellers) give straight talk about the real world of writing professionally. The book is liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, generally personal stories from the authors, often painfully at their own expense. They demonstrate how things can go terribly wrong in writing, in publishing, in personal interactions with others in your profession. And they advise how to avoid these hazards yourself. Topics range from personal presentation to making connections in the publishing world, how to handle professional and fan interactions, talent versus persistence, and other potential assets or pitfalls to the newcomer.

While Anderson and Moesta state that this information is largely the material assembled for a course they’ve taught repeatedly, it doesn’t come across as a classroom presentation. In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as an involved conversation with respected industry pros: colleagues sharing stories over dinner, lingering over desert, swapping tales and giving advice to the newcomers.

Narrator Charles Kahlenberg’s avuncular reading furthers this feeling, making the book easy to listen to and absorb. Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this audiobook. But nobody made me stop halfway through the first listen and send Wordfire Press and Kevin J. Anderson a congratulatory note on their choice of narrators. Kahlenberg’s reading is expressive, conversational even. Yet it doesn’t detract from the important material the book is sharing.

I was impressed by the subtle positive messages of encouragement the authors included. There’s a danger when seasoned pros give “advice.” I know, I’ve fallen prey in the past to glib warnings, pronouncements of criteria for success. Pronouncements that made possibilities seem so unattainable that they were discouraging, rather than helpful. But Anderson and Moesta don’t do that. Instead, there is an assumption that OF COURSE you’re a writer. Of course you belong at the table with them, listening to the stories. Here’s what you do when the opportunities become available, when the anthology calls, when the publisher says yes. When you’re a guest at the convention. And at the award ceremony.

This implied success is contagious! And it’s attributed where it belongs: to the writer being professional, to getting the work done, to loving their job but respecting it too.

Million Dollar Professionalism for the Writer: highly recommended for the new, new-ish, or aspiring writer, or other creative professional who might be looking to jumpstart their career. To read now, and revisit.

 

 

Foz Meadows Sees Your Tropes and Uses Them for Silage

IMG_6889I was reading this book during the aftermath of a horrific mass murder in our local high school. This quote is really sticking with me: Apathy breeds more evils than defeat. So, you know, keep fighting. I kind of want it on a t-shirt. Thanks, Foz, for helping me get through this rough time. 

Spoiler warning: I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reader responses. I can’t really do that here; this book is too complex and so you’re fairly warned.

I present for your consideration An Accident of Stars, Book I of the Manifold Worlds, the ambitious portal fantasy by Foz Meadows. (Note 1) I say ambitious because it’s almost as though Foz sat down with a LIST OF PORTAL FANTASY TROPES, and went down the list intentionally reversing or dismantling each one. (My Foz quotes here are not actual quotes. It’s my imagination of her process, every time I’d see her turning some other expectation on its head.) Here’s a few:

  • Protagonist from “real” world is a Chosen One in the new world. Special gifts or powers. I can imagine Foz: “Ohellnoez. Normal girl.”
  • Protagonist is an orphan. Foz: “Nope. Nice family. Supportive. Conveniently offstage, but everybody’s alive and caring.”
  • Protagonist has Special Problems. Foz: “Nope. Sexual harassment at school, all the girls face it, and some (implied) have it worse.”
  • Adults Don’t Understand/Won’t/Can’t Intervene…well, okay, that trope sticks around but it feels like it’s making a point that Yes This Is What The Real World Is Like for Teens; especially resonant with the #metoo movement.
  • We follow the Protagonist through their journey to the other world, experience the world with them, then follow them home. Foz: “Y’know, let’s have another viewpoint right away, before we even get through the portal. And then, a bunch more. But we’ll actually let the main character change and grow, instead of just being a boring narrator placeholding for the reader.”
  • Guys have a bunch of adventures. Foz: Let’s have most of the major characters be females. Even the nominal villain, let’s have the real interesting one be his wife. Let’s see her more often, too. And…the warriors are women. And the religious leaders. And the guys are kind of sidelined, and it’s really not fair, let’s make that really visible! (To be fair, the male characters are also interesting, and the older one has some nuance. The younger one is less developed. But there’s only so much you can do in the space of one novel.)

 

(I can practically smell the burning rage coming from some folks who are still jammed up into the idea of ButFictionHasToLookTheWayIExpectItTo.)

It goes on and on. Instead of a love triangle or epic hetero romance, there are complex relationships: friendships, polyamory, parent/child, complex families, siblings, subject/ruler, worshiper/priestess, etc. We see trans representation, aromantic representation, genderqueer, bi…a whole rainbow of gender and sexual orientation. BUT unlike a number of fantasy novels I’ve read recently, these relationships aren’t painted in graphic detail. This keeps things more YA friendly (and, honestly, a number of my older friends have told me they’re a bit overwhelmed with the volume of sex in some recent fantasy novels, so I’m happy to point them here.)

I really admire the way Foz tackles Big Social Issues around gender, race, identity, religion, sexuality head on. Representation is so vital! And Foz dives in head first, into the deep end. Let’s be very clear: this is a book I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to tackle writing. At least, not without having seen Foz do it first. And maybe not even then, because parts of it are so honest. There’s a vulnerability in that, and some writers just aren’t comfortable opening themselves that way. I am blown away by this author’s determination to Not Shy Away From Hard Subjects.

Sometimes it feels as there may be too many issues being grappled with here to fit easily within the structure of one story. As a result, we get more exposition chunks than we might otherwise; that can pull the reader out of the story flow. The framework is solid: newcomer has to learn the new ways. But there’s so much complexity, so much to fit within that framework, that it feels a little forced sometimes. This wouldn’t keep me from recommending the book, though…(cue moment of personal reflection)… Sometimes exposition feels weighty because we’re being exposed to something outside our usual understanding. For example, I’ve never been in a polyamorous relationship; this may have made the explanations for the complex marriage customs seem longer to me than they actually were. (Note 2) (If my TBR pile weren’t so big, I’d re-read, with my self-evaluation glasses on.)

Back to the book. I like the magic systems, with their built-in flaws that keep things interesting. The world is complex, with some well-developed scenes that made me feel that I was really seeing the place the characters were experiencing. The plot is intricate and as tightly interwoven as the braids that are a recurring image in the novel. The characters are diverse, multi-dimensional, well thought out with their own motivations and goals.

Between themes, characters, worldbuilding, and plot … I wonder if An Accident of Stars might have been better served by being TWO books. Each of these areas left me wanting a bit more development. I wanted to see more of the characters, more of their worlds, have a bit more space to breathe around the social questions. But I understand that pacing is important, so I’m going to trust that Foz and her editors made these choices for reasons. (And leaving them wanting more is not generally seen as a bad thing.)

I’ll definitely be picking up Book Two. This was a really solid, ambitious work for a first novel. Congratulations to Foz for a trope-bashing extravaganza! And, hey Foz? You know…keep fighting.

(Note 3)

 

(Note 1) Foz and her husband came to my attention recently due to egregious and unfounded attacks by some hacks with more time than skill, in writing OR online detective work. I pulled this book to the top of my TBR pile as a gesture of solidarity. Because it’s not a good idea to let the malicious voices be the dominant ones in a conversation just because they’re loud and annoying.

(Note 2) It’s a good thing to read books that represent people who don’t look, act, love, believe just as you do. It strengthens our understanding, increases our ability to identify with other humans. It makes us better people. And if it makes us uncomfortable? Well, sometimes we need to be uncomfortable.

(Note 3) I read an early print version of this book. I understand that later versions have had the formatting errors corrected. 

SNOWSPELLED by Stephanie Burgis

I tore through the advanced read copy of SNOWSPELLED by Stephanie Burgis. A quick-reading adventure story set in a Regency-flavored “Angland,” this novella twists some tropes on their heads and sets off merrily in its own direction. Seriously, I laughed out loud a couple of times when the “expected” was NOT what happened. Very refreshing.

The political and magic systems are engaging, and there’s an intriguing romantic interest … again, trope-twisting.

There’s also non-romantic relationship development; this was delightful (and hearkens back to the Austen tradition, which I really appreciated). I was looking forward to doing a review in time for the book’s release back in September.

Then I was in a car accident, and muddled my brain. And basically forgot the book. So I had to re-read it, but my brain refused to focus on more than a paragraph at a time for several weeks.

Then I was in a hurricane.

So my reader response is posting REALLY LATE!

But I have to say, there are worse things to re-read in 98 degree Fahrenheit South Florida humidity than a book in which a group of people are snowed in at a house party. Magicians, politicians, and lots and lots of chill, both in atmosphere and human relations.. This is a quick-reading book, and I’m recommending it for fans of historically-influenced romantic fantasy as a great escape. Just the sort of thing to have on your reading list for those times when you need to mentally Do Something Else. SNOWSPELLED’s world is engaging and well-written. And while the reader may suss out the source of the conflict long before the characters, the process of their realization is engaging enough to keep the pages turning.

SNOWSPELLED was created as the first in a series, and while it is a stand-alone, it does read very much as though it’s establishing this world, these characters, for a longer adventure. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series; I want to see what protagonist Cassandra Harwood and her peers are up to next!

GBR #2: Varley’s MAMMOTH

Look who stopped by from ramacavoy.com! Printed with kind permission.

Guest review by R.A. MacAvoy

Mammoth 

Wow!
In this novel John Varley gives us the most intricate sort of time travel story, and no time travel story is easy in itself. On top of this he donates some very believable portrait sketches of people, some of whom are human and some mammoths of assorted species. Even including mammoth teenage angst. And to tie all this in a bow is an over-story that is a children’s informative introduction into the world of the Pleistocene, complete with bold type for vocabulary building and ‘hyperlinks’ to other source material.

What makes this layered complexity work is humor: over-the-top humor with lovely comic timing.

And my response to it is, as I began my review, is Wow! (See – it’s in bold, too.)
Make that double-Wow.