Monday, October 31, 2016

Short Book Reviews: We've Come a Long Way Since 1492

1492: A Novel of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish Inquisition, and a World at the Turning Point, by Newton Frohlich (Blue Bird Press, October 2016) This novelization of the events leading up to the “discovery” of the Americas was originally published in 1990. Alas, the years have not worn gracefully on the work. From the beginning, I found the depiction of the Muslim world stereotyped. Works such as Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984) and Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (2006) portray another picture. Even setting aside the preconceptions of nearly two decades ago, I found the portrayals of the various historical personages emotionally distant. To anyone unfamiliar with the time period, the connections between the Inquisition, the political ambitions of Queen Isabella, and the increasingly desperate need of the Jews for a safe haven, will provide thoughtful insights. However, it pales compared to the lively, vivid Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Edward Kritzler (2008).

Friday, October 28, 2016

Election Anxiety Disorder and What To Do About It

Like just about everyone I know, I have been feeling anxious about this election. I say "just about" because  there might be some acquaintance who is blissfully uncaring about the issues and candidates. So for the rest of us, this season has turned in to a series of conversations that always end up on the topic, augmented by repeated and frequent checking on news (and polls and election predictions), and, most of all, anxiety about what might happen if the other candidate wins. I've dubbed this toxic combination of worry and hypervigilance "Election Anxiety Disorder." (Although Electoral Anxiety Syndrome works, too.)

This is the most fear-driven campaign I can remember, and the first presidential election I remember was Eisenhower versus Stevenson, so that's quite a few. Each side holds up emotionally manipulative predictions of doom, gloom, global thermonuclear destruction, moral deterioration, and general Bad Things Happening as a way of galvanizing their followers into action and swaying the opinions of those very few remaining undecided voters. And it's happening on both sides, although the specific details of the threats are different.

Chronic anxiety takes its toll in physical as well as psychological unwellness. Sleep, work, relationships, all aspects of our lives can be impacted. We may lose or gain weight, depending on which we do not need to do. We spend more and more time glued to the television or computer. Eyestrain, backaches, headaches, stomach pain, obsessive thoughts, irritability...the list goes on of the ways our bodies and minds break down under stress. Recognizing what's going on is the first step towards better managing this stress.

Laughing at it -- and ourselves -- including giving the whole mess a silly name, goes a long way.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Short Book Reviews: Steampunk Victorian Revolution

Rebel Mechanics, by Shanna Swendson (Macmillan Children's Publishing Group) Steampunk and 
alternate American history, spies and skullduggery and steam engines, oh my!

From the beginning, I was captivated by this tale of an 1888 America that never freed itself from Britain, a world ruled by aristocratic “magister” magic-users, Masked Bandits and airships, and an intrepid heroine. With the focus on plot and character, perfect for young adult audiences, the world-building is handled with subtlety. Verity Newton arrives in New York City to take up a position as a governess, only to become entangled with the Rebel Mechanics, a fellowship of engineers committed to freeing themselves from the tyranny of the magisters through the creation of steam engine powered devices that anyone can operate, regardless of magical talent. (A particular charming twist was the role of the novel Jane Eyre, and its reflections on the role of governesses!) I hope this will be the beginning of a series of Verity’s adventures and the eventual liberation of the American colonies. Fans of Gail Carriger will particularly enjoy this book.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Short Book Reviews: Nothing New in Camelot

The Return of Sir Percival (Book 1, Guinevere's Prayer), by S. Alexander O'Keefe (Greenleaf, September 2016). 

A year after the death of Arthur, his kingdom lies under the brutal yoke of a Viking invader. Guinevere languishes in a convent, while setting up a secret spy network to keep tabs on the rest of the kingdom. Sir Percival, who had been dispatched to the Holy Land in search of the Grail, returns along with his Moorish companion. Morgana schemes to at last assassinate Merlin, while playing a dangerous game of alliance with the Vikings.

Although smoothly written, this sequel to the well-known story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table came across as flat and derivative. None of these characters struck me as remarkably original; they were all pretty much what I expected, although the many historical inaccuracies gave the narrative a Hollywood flavor (for example, Morgana is supposed to be a Roman assassin, but neither speaks nor behaves in a Roman fashion). The Moor, as charming as he is, reads as if he has just stepped out of Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” and that character was copied from the Saracen in the A & E “Robin of Sherwood” series. 

Readers hungry for everything Arthurian may enjoy this book, but anyone looking for a fresh take on the legends will likely be as disappointed as I was.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Supporting a New Writer 7: Flexibility

"Moving ahead, this is a good time to talk about where to connect with other writers, how to use social media, the benefits/drawbacks of face-to-face, what to look for in a group, workshops -- which ones, pitfalls, etc. And how to use technology like the internet and digital publishing (and why you shouldn't). Any of these spark ideas?"

Barb Caffrey: Today I'd like to talk about social media. I've known some writers who've made great strides in their readerships, using it -- but what I use it for, mostly, is to get to know other fans and writers. I've been able to gain encouragement, support, and appreciation through the use of Twitter and Facebook (I don't use Instagram or Pinterest, but I've heard both of those also are quite useful; find your own platform, and use it).

Most of the writers I know on Facebook, for example, talk about their works-in-progress, or sometimes about the struggles they're having with their works-in-progress. This lets me know that I'm not alone, and gives me the option to talk to them, see what they're doing and how they're doing it, and give them the support they've given unending circle, if you will.

While I stand behind my previous recommendation of the Forward Motion Writers Group (, I urge you to try the various social media platforms, and see if one -- or more -- may work for you.

Now, as far as how to find other writers locally, in whatever area you live in? I know where I live -- Racine, Wisconsin -- we have a local writers' group that meets every Thursday night in various places. I've only been there once or twice, but I appreciate knowing this group exists; I get their e-mails, and have written back and forth a few times to the various group organizers. (This group, by the way, is absolutely, positively free. Just like Forward Motion is online, except with real-time communication.)

There are a few other ways, mind. If you live near a university (or college), you might see if there's a group meeting there. Or there may be writers doing events at a local book store; going there to talk with the writer (or writers) in question may help you meet someone with similar interests, and perhaps lead to a writerly friendship down the line.

But the main thing to know is this: We all start off as neophytes. And the only way to get any better is to keep trying, keep writing, keep creating, and dare to be the creative person you were born to be.

I hope that helps.

Barb Caffrey has written three novels, An Elfy On The Loose (2014), A Little Elfy in Big Trouble (2015), and Changing Faces (forthcoming), and is the co-writer of the Adventures of Joey Maverick series (with late husband Michael B. Caffrey) Previous stories and poems have appeared in Stars Of Darkover, First Contact Café, How Beer Saved The World, Bearing North, and Bedlam's Edge (with Michael B. Caffrey). 

Doranna Durgin: I admit, the scope of this question was a little daunting.  How many of us have really figured out the answer to all these questions on our own?  Not me!

But I have an approach to figuring them out, which is maybe the next best thing.
Actually, it’s going to sound too simple: Figure out where you want to go.  Figure out what you need to get there.  Choose to do those things.

Ha ha ha ha!

Okay, so, for instance:  there are many social networking platforms.  What do you want yours to accomplish?  How many platforms are you comfortable juggling?  What are you comfortable with in terms of user experience and investment?  With which demographic do you want to connect?  What devices do you have on hand and what do they do best?

Ask yourself ALL the questions!  You may still have to do some eenie-meenie, but questions should winnow things out so it’s not all just one big overwhelming mass.
Also, there are many opportunities for connecting with others of a writerly bent.  Do you want something local, or online?  What are your goals for connecting—are they social, or are they educational?  Can they be met by writers of any experience level, or only those well along their career path?  Can they be met by gathering as a reader, with readers?

What are the downsides to any of those choices?

The thing is, sometimes we don’t know.

Social media platforms change.  The software around engaging with them changes.

Writers’ groups wax and wane with the participants’ real life obligations and their evolving writing paths.  The value of our choices (to us) changes.  This can be hard to acknowledge once one has invested time, energy, and emotion into a situation—I for one am particularly guilty of lingering when I should move on—but it’s important to perceive when a thing that should be supporting your writing is actually taking from it.

So Part Two of the simple approach is this: Maintain reality checks to adjust outreach choices as your experience grows.

Our initial choices don’t need to be perfect—there’s no way that all of them are, no matter how thoughtfully we proceed, so the need to adjust a decision isn’t a fail.  In fact, it might well be a nice indication of progress and growth.  Cool!

So Part Three of the simple approach is a reminder that decisions made/actions taken count as moving forward even when they aren’t perfect.  Endless sit and spin…well, that’s just sitting and spinning.

So figure out your personal goals—your goals, not what everyone says should be your goals or what they’ve all chosen as goals--and go for what meets them.  And then pat yourself on the back.  

(Also, chocolate.)
Doranna Durgin is an award-winning (Compton Crook--best first SF/F/H of the year) whose quirky spirit has led to an extensive and eclectic publishing journey across genres, across publishers, and across publishing lines.  Beyond that, she hangs around outside her Southwest mountain home with horse and highly accomplished competition dogs. She doesn't believe in mastering the beast within, but in channeling its power. For good or bad has yet to be decided...

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The "Ennara" Books: Middle Grade Fantasy Strikes the Perfect Tone

Ennara and the Fallen Druid (Ennara, #1) by Angela Shelley, Patchwork Press, October 2014.

Ennara and the Book of Shadows (Ennara, #2) by Angela Shelley, Patchwork
Press, October 2014

Middle grade fiction stands apart from its younger and older (Young Adult) cousins in ways that go beyond the simple division by ages. Kids this age are just beginning to spread their wings, assert their independence and individuality, and test their limits. Friends help them define themselves and try out new behaviors and identities, although not always in ways their parents approve. At the same time, they’re not ready to plunge into the full-blown angst, sex, blood, and darkness (although certainly rock/n/roll) of stories for older readers. They often prefer adults to hang around somewhere, just not too close by; they tread the line between wanting to go off entirely on their own and needing someone stronger and wiser to lend a hand when they get in over their heads. In other words, they’re highly capable children. Some will happily devour literature for teens and adults, but others want the same adventurousness, but featuring kids closer to their own age.

With this perspective in mind, I embarked upon a series of adventures with young Ennara and her friends. The setting included many familiar elements: low-technology villages, magic, prophecies, pirates, “shadowspawn,” and druids. In an adult fantasy, these might feel generic and derivative, a hodge-podge of time-worn tropes, but in Angela Shelley’s hands, they evoke a sense of familiarity. Pre-teen readers aren’t after a startlingly original world with sophisticated culture and so forth; they want a good story with characters they can relate to. So even details that caused me-the-adult to roll my eyes were strangely congruent and certainly didn’t cause me to stop reading (although I admit, finding a professor in a plaid blazer in the middle of a fantasy tale gave me a giggle). I don’t think the intended readers will notice, for instance, that druids have been done to death in adult fantasy; instead, they’ll recognize the name, just exotic enough to be not-here-and-now, but not so alien as to require chapters of backstory and explanation.

So the above-mentioned shadowspawn appear in Ennara’s village, thereby initiating a quest for our young heroine. Ennara is magically gifted, of course, although not educated in its use. She has a mentor, a wise old magician (who incidentally is in love with her potion-making aunt, which made me smile), a family, who remain behind but send their love and support, and a best friend. As the adventure unfolds, she picks up a new friend (and a huge marine cat named Smoos who loves to swim), loses the mentor partway through (although he’s still alive and they wrap him up to bring him along with them). Ennara’s gifts and self-confidence grow as she learns from her adventures, so there are no sudden bursts of power but a careful, step-wise mastery and growing self-knowledge, which is, after all, what the pre-teen years are about.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Short Book Review: Twilight with Angels and Demons

Toward a Secret Sky by Heather Maclean (Blink, April 2017) is a YA novel of the “Twilight with Angels and Demons” sort. Our teen orphan heroine finds herself shipped off to grandparents in Scotland where she explores scenery, makes friends, and encounters the devastatingly gorgeous angel assigned the guard her.

Even though she is told in no uncertain terms of the dire consequences of human-angel love affairs, she plunges into one obsessive daydream after another about him, refuses to heed his warnings to leave him alone, and in general behaves like an infatuated adolescent incapable of making rational decisions. To be sure, she has personality and strengths, not the least of which are keen mental abilities and a generous heart, and the story moves along nicely, with enough twists to keep the reader engaged. Logic bobbles (like why would a handsome, rich incubus need a date-rape drug when looks and money alone would get him as much sex as he wants?) flawed an otherwise enjoyable flow of prose, and the “the war [with demons] is just beginning” epilog felt tacked-on. 

These shortcomings may pale in comparison to the overall enjoyability of the story, particularly for a young adult reader but a more critical reader may find them annoying.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Supporting a New Writer 6: Connecting

Effie Seiberg: Depending on what kind of writing you're doing, and where you are geographically,
there are a number of ways to find kindred spirits.

Conventions: Whether conventions or conferences, I found these to be an invaluable resource for meeting people. (In fact, that's how I met Deborah!) At one panel about plotting techniques, one person from the audience asked how one might go about finding a critique group. One of the panelists said to look around the audience - the people going to the same panels you are probably have the same needs. After the panel was over I got together with two other people from the audience and formed my first crit group. That was three years ago, and I'm still swapping stories with one of them. 

Classes and workshops: If there are classes in your area, that's another way to get an insta-community. You can also apply to a variety of workshops that are available. Or, many writers offer online classes with a video component, either through YouTube or Google Hangouts. A digital class community still counts!

Industry groups: If you're publishing science fiction, fantasy, or horror, trade groups like SFWA  (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, sort of the national guild, with online forums for discussion) and community groups like Codex (an online community full of support and advice) are great ways to meet people. If you're interested in pure horror, there's also HWA (the Horror Writers of America.) For all, you need to qualify to join.

If you're publishing romance, the industry group RWA (Romance Writers of America) is massive and allows anyone to join, and has local events in many places. 

Other sub-genres have their own groups. Just look online!

Local meet-ups: is a great way to find local writing meet-ups. My area has a number of "Shut up and Write" meet-ups, and guess what happens there.

Online critique forums: You can trade work with other writers on groups like Critique Circle, Critters, and more. 

I hope one or more of these options work for you! I find my writing support groups (yes, I have several!) to be incredibly helpful, both in improving my writing and in improving my state of mind. Good luck, and you can do it!

Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in the "Women Destroy Science Fiction!" special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, Galaxy's Edge, Analog, Fireside Fiction, and PodCastle, amongst others. She is a graduate of Taos Toolbox 2013, a member of SFWA and Codex, and a reader at

Barb Caffrey: Here's one more additional resource that helped me, back in the's Forward Motion Writer's Group (or, I think -- might be .org). Lazette Gifford runs the site now, but it was started by Holly Lisle. It's a group by writers, for writers, and they talk about all sorts of writerly-related things, including things that get in the way of writing.

Barb Caffrey has written three novels, An Elfy On The Loose (2014), A Little Elfy in Big Trouble (2015), and Changing Faces (forthcoming), and is the co-writer of the Adventures of Joey Maverick series (with late husband Michael B. Caffrey) Previous stories and poems have appeared in Stars Of Darkover, First Contact Café, How Beer Saved The World, Bearing North, and Bedlam's Edge (with Michael B. Caffrey).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Short Book Review: Motorcycles, Mayhem, and Psychiatry

Medea’s Curse, by Anne Buist (Legend Press, October 2016) This psychiatric thriller immediately
reminded me of the work of Tess Gerritsen and the “Alex Delaware” novels of Jonathan Kellerman. Yet Buist’s heroine is very much her own person, an Australian motorcycle-riding forensic psychiatrist who specializes in women who have killed their own children.

With dramatic tension that never lets up, the story follows Natalie King through cases past and present, with danger never far behind. But who is stalking her? The attentive husband of an inmate who may or may not have multiple personality disorder? The boyfriend of one of her clients, now in prison – and whose present  wife has just been accused of murdering their baby? The charming attorney with whom she’s shared a fling? With the lives of other children at stake, Natalie races to solve the mystery before it’s too late. 

One of the things I liked best about the book was the understanding that no professional can deal with material this upsetting without a support system of her own. Plus it’s really cool to have a strong woman hero who is also really smart!

From the book: Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental health at the University of Melbourne and has over 25 years clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry, working on cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide, and murder.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Short Book Reviews: Immortality and That Special Occult Book

Two recurring motifs in fantasy literature, both historical and contemporary, are the conquest of death and the book of secrets. The search for immortality — and its advantages and drawbacks — ranges from a fascination with immortal creatures (vampires, gods, Tolkien’s elves) to The Fountain of Youth and the cure for all bodily ills. The book or scroll or other text takes as many forms, from ancient books of magic, grimoires, H. P. Lovecraft’s Necromonicon, and other sorts of occult texts.

The Apothecary’s Curse by Barbara Bennett (Pyr, October 2016)  reads a bit like a Dan Brown thriller. Immortality (or rather, the ability to heal from almost any disease or injury) has been achieved, thanks to an ancient text, a compendium of remedies based on various herbs and chemicals, derived from knowledge millennia before its time and rooted in a Celtic-like myth. The ingredients and procedures must be followed with scientific accuracy, and any deviation is likely to cause disastrous results. In this story, the two viewpoint characters — one a 17th Century apothecary, the other a physician from almost two centuries later — have achieved immortality and found it to be a curse. The book, however, has been lost, along with any hope of restoring them to normal human lives. In every era, they must deal with those who seek this knowledge for their own nefarious purposes. 

I loved the premise that an ancient text, written is such a way that only an adept can unravel its secrets, holds a treasure trove of scientific lore equal to what contemporary medicine possesses. The characters appealed to me, especially the apothecary struggling with PTSD after being tortured for decades in a madhouse. The one misstep came near the end with a sudden detour into conventional fantasy and divine intervention that was not only unnecessary but for me detracted from the “ancient science” theme. Still, the book was an enjoyable read, a nice combination of two time-honored themes with a medical thriller twist.

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard (St. Martin’s Press, Thomas Dunne Books, Sept. 2016) presented a delightful read from the first page, with its quirky humor and even quirkier characters. This is not the first adventure of Johannes Cabal, necromancer and social misfit, and his debonair vampire brother, Horst, but it’s a dandy place to jump in. Johannes and Horst are off on a quest across virtual dimensions, one that involves both immortality that That Special Occult Book. On their way, they're accompanied by assorted comrades — living, dead, and demonic. My favorite was the latter, a gigantic half-woman, half-spider who wears an angora sweater and is as enthusiastic about sex as she is about murder. When introduced to Johannes's (human) woman detective companion, someone he cannot bring himself to admit his feelings for, the first thing our spider-demon asks is, "Is she your lover?" No, he sputters, of course not. "But here is Horst, my brother." "Oh," says the spider. "Is he your lover?" 
You've got to love a creature who thinks that way.

The story is a witty, endlessly entertaining, fast-moving romp through Hell and London (via a few other places) that left me cheering and wanting more. I have no doubt that the House of Cabal shall rise again!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Con-Volution 2016 Report

Con-Volution is a medium sized (700 ish members) convention in the Bay Area. I first attended a
couple of years ago and was pleased to be invited to return. This year’s theme was “Monsters,” so many of the panels and other events centered around Things That Go Bump in the Night, creepy-crawlies, and the like, a fitting greeting to October.

I arrived in time to attend part of “An Aviary of Beasties,” moderated by Juliette Wade and held in the parlor of a hotel suite, making it cozy and very difficult to find. Nevertheless, the small space was filled, and as I walked in, Juliette was discussing the difference between the wings of a bat and a pterodactyl. Panelists shared myths of flying creatures from many cultures. In wandered one of the residents-in-costume, wearing a marvelous kirin head, whose timing made a perfect introduction to tales about that creature.

My first panel was “Authors: Going to that Dark Place,” with horror author Fred Wiehe, Margaret McGaffey Fisk, Loren Rhoads, and Guest of Honor Ann Bishop. We approached the relationship between authors and “that dark place” from two directions. One involved delving into our own nightmares and using them to fuel our stories, and the stories then become cathartic or therapeutic in lessening the hold those catastrophes have over our lives and (hopefully) those of our readers. I was reminded of Octavia Butler saying she took her worst night mares and put them down on paper. This is also what I did in a number of stories (“Rite of Vengeance,” “Beneath the Skin,” “Crooked Corn”) following the murder of my mother, and also used for my hero’s journey in The Seven Petaled Shield. Others take another approach, which is to start with the story and find the darkness within ourselves to give it depth and power. Ann Bishop observed that horror stories are like a journey through a spooky forest with various companions that may survive or not, but we have faith that someone will make it through. “There is no light without darkness,” Fred Wiehe pointed out. Does the dark keep us sane?

For “How Cthulu Became Cuddly,” I was joined by Artist Guest of Honor Lee Moyer, Laurel Anne Hill, and Jennifer Carson.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Darkover Anthology News

I just turned in the final copy for Masques of Darkover, which I edited. Dave Smeds, who did the covers for Stars of Darkover, Gifts of Darkover, and Realms of Darkover, is working on the cover art and design. It'll be released in May 2017. Table of Contents is below--it's such a treat!

Jane Bigelow, Duvin’s Grand Tour

Rosemary Edghill, Generations 

Meg Mac Donald, Upon this Rock 

Evey Brett, Only Men Dance

Shariann Lewitt, The Wind 

Ty Nolan, Dark Comfort 

Steven Harper, Sight Unseen 

Robin Wayne Bailey, The Mountains of Light 

Marella Sands, Bone of My Bone 

Rebecca Fox, Where You’re Planted 

Leslie Roy Carter and Margaret L. Carter, Believing 

India Edghill, The Price of Stars

Here's Dave's cover for the last anthology:

Monday, October 3, 2016

[links] Hitch-hiker Barnacles and Other Nifty Things

Barnacles can tell a whale of a tale. Chemical clues inside barnacles that hitched rides on baleen whales millions of years ago could divulge ancient whale migration routes, new research suggests.

While Mercury has no plate tectonics in the terrestrial sense, crustal shrinking still qualifies as tectonic activity. It could even trigger Mercury-quakes.

New Ostrich-Mimic Dinosaur Species Identified “We histologically thin-sectioned the femur of Rativates evadens to analyze its growth and determined it was at least eight years old and nearly adult-sized at the time of death,” said Thomas Cullen, from the University of Toronto. .... “This suggests that there are at least two differently-sized, but closely-related dinosaur species that lived together on the ancient landscape, similar to what we see today in the closely related predators like foxes, coyotes and wolves,” said Dr. Claudia Schröder-Adams, of Carleton University.

On hearing voices: Psychics are much more likely to perceive the voices as positive or helpful and as experiences that can be controlled, according to a new study published Sept. 28 in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin. "We have known for some time that people in the general population can have the experience of hearing voices—sometimes frequently—without the need for psychiatric intervention," said Albert Powers, a psychiatry fellow [at Yale] and lead author of the study.