Book Review: Paladin of Souls

Paladin of Souls
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read this right after the first book Curse of Chalion. I liked this one a whole lot more, mainly because I loved that Bujold focused the sequel on Ista, mother of who had been considered mad and is now bitter towards the gods. This story is The Sermon of the Cups, explained in the first book) expanded in the form of Ista’s pilgrimage. I particularly enjoyed Liss’s characterization of a courier girl who becomes Ista’s handmaiden, and breaks all the rules in how a handmaiden is supposed to act. I also loved the interaction between Ista and the gods, which was equal parts exasperation and intimacy. This is a beautiful tale of growth and submission, done from a fortyish woman’s point of view. Lovely!

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Review: A Stranger in Olondria

A Stranger in Olondria
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last month I read a book that took me to a futuristic Brazil. This month I read a book that took me to a different world altogether.

A Stranger in Olondria is a book you read slowly to savor every sentence. It’s about a young man who travels to a distant land and is haunted by an illiterate ghost, but really, that’s not what the story is about. It’s about the love of reading. How words are a type of magic that conjures images, embodies the heart of a person, indeed, even a person long dead, and transport a reader to a different place and time. Sofia’s descriptions lands of Bain and the Tea Islands were so incredibly rich, it felt at times like reading it was an escape, a true escape, from my real life.

This is not a book you read fast. Mundane moments are explained in rich detail: following Jevick as he learns to read, accompanying him as he travels to long-awaited Bain, experiencing, his wonder, his joy, as he explores the city. Experiencing his fear as the ghost of a young woman he met on the ship starts appearing to him. His attempts to get rid of the ghost, which takes him to an asylum. The characters he meet: The Priest of the Stone, his daughter, the melancholy Tialon, chipper Miros, who humor covers a lovelorn despair, and his uncle Auram, a fanatic who wishes to use Jevick to contact his ghost, or Angel. And then there’s the ghost herself, Jissavet, a force to be reckoned, even after her death, who demands her story to be written. And oh yes, there are stories. Many many stories, not just hers alone. (My favorite is a retelling of a selkie story that I instantly recognized, and felt extreme happiness upon recognizing it.)

There was a point where Jevick bemoans the loss one feels upon approaching the end of a book. I looked to see how many pages I had left, and I felt that loss keenly, it almost felt kind of meta. This is a book lovers book, something to read for the pleasure of reading itself, one mesmerizing word at a time.

Five books out of five, because…I can’t think of any other perfect way to rate it.
Five books out of five, because

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Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

Throne of the Crescent Moon
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m familiar with Saladin’s short fiction and been wanting to read this for a while.

This book really appealed to my spiritual self. I loved how Adoulla and Raseed had different views of their faith. Raseed being more the literal, by the book conservative while Adoulla was more relaxed and liberal. And it was so cool to see Adoulla using God’s name to fight the ghuls. Also, Saladin is the best blasphemer ever. The insults in this book had me in tears.

I also liked the depiction of the different relationships, particularly the tension between Adoulla and Miri. The book did slow down in the middle, where I found myself skipping a lot of talking scenes. But the story itself was good, and the action scenes, particularly towards the end of the book, had me riveted. It has me all psyched up for the next book. Four cardamon teas out of five.

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Review: Shades of Milk and Honey

Shades of Milk and Honey
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness, I devoured this book in two days. And I am not that much of a Jane Austen fan, but loved, loved, LOVED this book! I loved the fierce love/jealousy between Jane and Melody. Melody is a silly goose, but Jane could be so stubbornly blind to her own strengths. I knew full well how the love affairs would play out, and yet I went along for the ride anyway because it was so delightful. And the glamour in this was wonderful. The magic fit so well with the rules of etiquette, it didn’t feel forced like the zombies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It flowed very natural with a very satisfying finish. Now I’ll have to read Glamour in Glass next! Five glamurals out of five.

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Review: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We listened to this during our trip to Yellowstone.

Sometimes I forget the authors who have heavy influences over my writing. If the Narnia series was the first fantasy books I ever read, the Wrinkle in Time series would be the first fantasy/science fiction series that set me on the path to writing. I believe it was also the first SF book I read that effectively wove Christian faith and science into a fun, cohesive whole that did not feel preachy, but filled with wonder and possibility.

As an adult, I was surprised at how much science is in this. I know as a kid, the concept of space and time being the fourth dimension was beyond me (and certainly never explored in school) To this day, I know what mitochondria are, not through my science class, but through L’Engle’s exploration of Charles Wallace in the second? third? book. (Have to put that on my list). I also was able to pick up on the love of all things geek, during a time when being a geek meant being an oddball, an outcast. There’s a point where Meg and Calvin are talking about how different they feel around other people, how they don’t feel “normal” and they can’t fit in, and I looked at my husband and said, “They’re talking about being geeks!”

I fell in love with Meg all over again. Such a change from the Narnian Penvensie girls, who are proper and ladylike. Meg slouches, grumbles, and when someone makes a crack about the brother, instead of running off to tell her twin brothers, she beats up the kid herself. She’s a delinquent, a crybaby and a whiner, which, due to L’Engle’s reading, becomes overdramatic and overblown with angst (more on that in a bit). I love how Meg matures throughout the book, such as when she recognizes that her use of handholding is a sign of comfort, but also puts her in a position to constantly rely on others rather than trust her own strength. She also learns to use her faults as a weapon. I also love Mrs. Murray as both mother and scientist, though it’s interesting that she spends much of the book “cooking” in her lab. The three old ladies, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which (I finally got the pun of her appearance.) And then there was the Happy Medium, which not only surprised me, but was also a pleasant departure from Narnia’s ALL MEDIUMS AND WITCHES ARE EVILLLLLL….

In fact, women as a whole are treated with a positive bent. It made me wonder if this book was written as a response to Lewis’s Narna. I know it definitely influenced me as a child.

It’s the only complaint I had with the audiobook is L’Engle’s reading. I was excited to learn that she reads it herself, but then realized she TENDS. TO EMPHASIZE. AND. EMOTE. EVERY. SINGLE. WORD. LIKE. IT’S. WRITTEN. IN. CAAAAAAAAAAPS. Her portrayal of Meg was so full of angst, she became almost unlikeable. Her reading of Mrs. Which, fun on the page, is torture in audio, because she shouts in a loud echoey effect which grates on the ears.

But reading aside, I fell in love with this series all over again, and look forward to introducing the next book to my son. (I’ll do the reading this time, I think). Four tesseracts out of five, and we could’ve used one of those. Would’ve made our trip to Yellowstone easier.

Edit 7/16/14: There’s also a Wrinkle in Time graphic novel. My son read it in one day,and when he gave it to me he said I would love it. I’m happy to say that his prediction was right. You can read my review of it at Goodreads.

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Review: Watership Down

Watership Down
Watership Down by Richard Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After watching the movie when I was a kid, I avoided the book because I thought it would be dark and disturbing. Not so. It’s mainly about a bunch of rabbits that set off to form their own colony. There’s a lot of rambling about flowers and nature and oh-isn’t-this-pretty? prose that I skipped. I also found the written accents, such as Kehaar, to be grating on the eyes. But I did enjoy the character development of all the rabbits (my favorite was Strawberry), and the myth tales of El-ehrairah was a delight to read. A new way to look at the Rabbit Trickster mythology. I think this would be a good book to read to the boy. I’ll keep him away from the movie, though.

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Lavender & Chamomile Reprint, Wiscon 36 Schedule and Chicon 7

Way…way too much has been happening in my life. Suffice it to say, I finished my short story Sun-Touched and sending it out to markets, and I’m putting all my energy into editing Willow.  I’ll post more on that, but for now, I have a couple of announcements:

LAVENDER & CHAMOMILE REPRINTED IN A RUSTLE OF LEAVES ANTHOLOGY

I’m pleased to announce that my short story "Lavender and Chamomile" has been reprinted in the anthology A Rustle of Dark Leaves: Tales for the Shadows of the Forest, edited by Inanna Gabriel and published by Misanthrope Press. From the website:

Step among the trees and discover the tales that lurk within the shadows that fall across the forest floor. From the words of the Forest himself to the ancient gods who defend him, from those who dwell within to those who merely wander, these fifteen tales of the forest will intrigue, inspire, terrify, and enchant.

Includes stories by Alexis A. Hunter, Gerri Leen, LaShawn M. Wanak, Jenni Wiltz, Seth Drake, and many more, with an introduction by Cory Thomas Hutcheson. A Rustle of Dark Leaves: Tales from the Shadows of the Forest is sure to leave you with the camping lantern on and the tent zipped tight.

You can get the print version from their website or the ebook at Smashwords. You can also order both versions at Amazon. And when you do read it, send a review to Goodreads!

MY WISCON 36 SCHEDULE

This year’s Wiscon will be a little busy for me since I am this year’s liaison for one of the Guests of Honor at Wiscon 36: Andrea Hairston,  author of Mindscape and the 2011 Tiptree winner Redwood and Wildfire. Because of this, I’m keeping my schedule pretty light:

Friday, May 26, I’ll be moderating the Religious Agenda in SF panel in Conference 4 at 4pm. We will discuss such works as The Chronicles of Narnia, Left Behind, Battlefield Earth and other stories that have a clear religious bias.

Then, on Saturday, May 27 I’m part of the Exotic Worlds reading group at Michelangelo’s at 1pm. I’ll be reading an excerpt from the short story I just finished, "Sun-Touched". Even if you aren’t going to Wiscon, stop on by!

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Finally, just a brief, brief note that I’m going to Chicon this year! More info on that in a later post, but they just announced that the opening night will be held at the Adler Planetarium. Can you say SQUEE!!!! I knew you could.

Book Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

I’m returning from my short hiatus on book reviews by reviewing the first book that got me started in writing.

When I first read Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman, I was just getting used to being a stay-at-home mom. I had tried being a part-time secretary at our church, but wasn’t doing so well handling it with a squirming baby in my sights all the time. I was tired and a bit lonely now that I didn’t have much daily interactions with adults.

But one thing I did was read a lot, mainly because our library in Roselle was awesome. they had a bunch of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies that I got into, and one had the story Snow, Glass, Apples from Neil Gaiman. It was a riff off the Snow White story, and yet so simple, so elegant. Then I saw that the story came from Neil’s first collection of short stories, and the library had it, so I checked it out.

What sucked me into it right away wasn’t the stories. It was the introduction. I never read an introduction in front of an author’s collection of stories before. What set Neil’s intro apart from any other intro was that he took each story and spent a couple of paragraphs or so telling how he wrote it, where he got the ideas from, what or who inspired him. It offered fascinating insight into how he created each story–sort of like reading linear notes. And what was extra cool was that he actually put a story in the introduction. It was like a bonus buy-one-get-one-free.

I found myself flipping to the introduction a lot as I read through Smoke and Mirrors. When I read the background on Snow, Glass, Apples, on how he had read a story in the bath "I must have read a thousand times before…But that thousand and first reading was the charm, and I started to think about the story, all back to front and wrong way around. It sat in my head for a few weeks and then, on a plane, I begun to write the story in longhand…"

I read that and thought, really? Was that really all it took? Just an idea going around in your head? I had thought this because I had an idea of my own, rattling around, and I had been afraid to write it out because I was sure that the words that would come out wouldn’t match what was in my head. But somehow, reading that paragraph galvanized me to sit down and not so much care what came out, just see what exactly what would come out.  And what came out was Light as Gossamer, the first story I ever sold.

Reading Smoke and Mirrors now, for the second time, through the lens of a writer has been interesting. For one thing, I get now what Neil wrote about in the introduction, even though I’m still far from his level of writing. For one thing, I reading the stories now with a far more critical eye, looking at craft as well as story. And let me tell you, I am still light years away from his expertise. This will be a great book to study if you want to know the craft of the short story…and poetry too–Neil has several poems in here that already given me ideas. I’ve never even heard of a rondel before, but there is one, Reading the Entrails, right before the book starts.

There are stories inside that I deeply enjoyed just as much as the first time. I was delighted to read again We Can Get Them For You Wholesale, a dark comedy about a man who learns that the more people he can get killed, the price for killing them goes down.  Chivalry was another favorite–recently, NPR featured Jane Curtin reading the story on "Selected Shorts"; I highly recommend listening–it is just as funny and sweet as the written form. And Babycakes was just as chilling, perhaps even moreso since I recognized the format as flash fiction.

Then there were stories that became my new favorites. The Goldfish Pond and Other Stories is not SF, not speculative, not anything, yet it is reflective, brooding, and may or may not be true. I read When we went to see the end of the world by Dawnie Morningside, age 11 ¾, over and over again because the language was beautiful, bizarre, and so dark.

I remember reading Murder Mysteries it the first time and thinking, "a story within a story about angels. Cool."  This time, I read it, but Neil’s intro for it kept sticking in my head: "I tried to play fair with the detective part of the story. There are clues everywhere. There’s even one in the title." I wondered, why would he write something like that. So I went back and read it again. Then I read it a third time.  And then my mouth dropped wide open. Holy crap, how the hell did I miss that?

I won’t tell what the story is about, or what I missed. You just have to read it. But let me tell you, Murder Mysteries is now my new favorite in the book.

Mind, not all of the stories clicked with me.  Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar and Bay Wolf are in Clthulu mythos, but if you don’t know the mythos, most of it goes right over your head. I was able to recognize some of that in the stories now, but they still didn’t stick with much. And surprisingly, I found myself less impressed with Snow, Glass, Apples upon reading it again. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the story, and reading it was quite a pleasure, but it resonated with me less than the first time. Maybe it’s because I have since read other fairy tale stories that struck me just as profoundly. Or maybe because Murder Mysteries so blew me away.

On Writing by Stephen King is the best book for learning how to write from a writer’s point of view. But if you want to learn technique and craft in short stories, pick up Smoke and Mirrors. And don’t just read it; study it. See the different styles Neil use to tell a story, not just in short story format, but in poetry. This book is that inspiring.

This book rates five dead angels out of five. I do realize that I have yet to read his second collection Fragile Things. I’m almost hesitant to.  Smoke and Mirrors means a lot to me, so much so I got it signed by Neil Himself. One day, I’m sure I’ll get over my fixation of all things Neil, but in the meantime, I got a sestina to write using my son’s spelling list. And why the heck not?

Book Review: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Some time ago, I was watching PBS (come to think of it, I used to watch PBS a lot. What happened? It’s not like it went away after our cable got cut) when I saw a trailer for Masterpiece Theater that showed a gothic castle, a creepy looking young man who takes over said castle, even creepier twin spinsters, and a youth trying to take back his birthright. The fact that it was obviously fantasy, on a PBS station no less, intrigued me enough to do a little research at my library. And thus how I learned about Gormenghast and its creator, Mervyn Peake.

Peake was an interesting man. Although he’s best known for the Gormenghast trilogy, he’s also known for his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While his books are ranked up there with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Peake credits Charles Dickens and Robert Lewis Stevenson for his inspiration.

Titus Groan isn’t so much book one of the trilogy as one long prologue. It isn’t about the title character himself (who is a baby throughout all the book) as it is about Steerpike, Titus’s nemesis in the next book. But here, Steerpike is just a lowly kitchen runt, looking for a way out.

This is a dense book. Not that it’s thick—only 396 pages, lightweight fare by fantasy standards. But the writing is so dense, it takes a while to get through one page. Peake’s writing style is so wonderfully florid, from the first page on: [The Tower of Flints], patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. With his heavy prose, you can feel the the claustrophobic weight of Gormenghast press down upon its inhabitants, who are just as eccentric and foreboding. Just listen to the names: Flay, Swelter, Sourdust, Nannie Slagg, Lord Sepulchrave, The Countess Gertrude, Fuschia. You can’t get much more gothic than that.

The thing is, though, it’s almost too florid. I can see this is where purple prose can come from. It’s lovely writing, but it’s really so much of it, a simple scene where a character walks down a hall becomes a musing soliloquy of angst and scheming. Hardly anything can be done straightforward, and after a while, reading the book grows tiring. It’s like eating a gallon of very rich chocolate mousse. After a while, you just can’t get it down, no matter how much you try.

Still, for all dense writing, there is a story here. We see Steerpike as he escape the hot kitchens and charms his way into becoming Dr. Prunesquallor’s assistant (the latter being a weird fellow with an annoying laugh, yet who might be the sanest of the entire bunch). We watch the rivalry between Chef Swelter and the lord’s assistant Flay culminate violently in the Hall of Spiders. We get to see Lord Sepulchrave’s descent into madness after his library, the only bright spot in his life, goes up in flames. And yes, we meet the twins Cora and Clarice, mirror images of each other who may have inspired the trope of creepy twins overall.

The end of the book sets the stage for Gormenghast, and while I do have it on my shelf, I think I need some time to recover from Titus Groan first. Maybe I’ll pick it up again on the first cold rainy day of autumn—I think that’s the best way to appreciate it. This gets three crumbling towers out of five; I don’t believe no one even knows what’s in those other towers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a whole city of owls living in them…

HELLO! I’M ONE OF THOSE AFRICAN AMERICAN SF/F WRITERS! HEY! OVER HERE! YOO-HOO!

I subscribe to Google Alerts. It’s a great writer’s tool: you give it a certain set of keywords, and it scours the internet, looking for those words. Great way to find out if someone plagiarized your story, or if your name gets mentioned anywhere.

My name popped up on a Barnes and Noble blog, so I took a look. It turned out to be an interview of N.K. Jemisin on her debut novel "the Thousands Kingdoms", which I also did a review about here at the Cafe. It’s your standard talk about your book and its influences article, but then the interviewer asks why aren’t there more African American women writing SF/F.

Her response:

“I’m not really sure how to answer that question, because it starts from what I think might be a false assumption. I know plenty of African American women (and men, and Asian Americans, and Latino/a Americans, and so on) who write SF/F. Offhand I can mention Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, LaShawn Wanak, Alaya Dawn Johnson, K. Tempest Bradford, Helen Oyeyemi, Tananarive Due, L.A. Banks, Ibi Aanu Zoboi, Carole McDonnell, Linda Addison, Sheree R. Thomas, Jewelle Gomez… I’m probably missing quite a few. And those are just the ones who’ve published short stories or novels; I know many more who are on the hoping-to-get-published track. Octavia Butler left behind a lot of children, spiritually speaking."

What especially thrilled me was that I knew many of the names she mentioned, and even met several authors in person. And I felt so honored to be listed among them. I’m a spiritual child of Octavia Butler. WHEEEEEEEEE!!!!!

So it was especially interesting when the next day, I mean the very next day, this popped up on Asimov’s and caught the SF/F world’s attention. I read most of it—at least the parts that weren’t rambling, but basically, in a nutshell, the guy basically says that there’s no such thing as an African Science Fiction  writer. Which at this very moment is being disputed by many wanting to set this guy straight.

As for me, however, it caused me to think back to N.K’s interview.  The interviewer pretty much expressed the same thing—albeit it far more eloquently and less…um…racefailly (good grief, is that even a word?) than the Asimov column. It does seem to be the opinion that while we are out there—there are many, many people who are unaware that there are people of color SF/F writers. In one of the interview’s comments even asks: "Where are these people?"

So, how do we address this? It just proves to me that we need to not only pimp ourselves as writers in our careers, but other people of color as well. Spread the word. Jump up and down, continue mentioning such groups such as Carl Brandon Society and Verb Noire, and magazines like Daybreak Magazine. Keep putting forward our names. Get more people talking about us.

Wish I can write more but I got to run. But what else can we do? Any ideas? Let’s brainstorm, and then let’s act.