Friday, March 24, 2017

Short Fantasy Book Reviews: Near Misses, But No Banana

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco.
I really wanted to like this YA described by the publisher as “Memoirs of a Geisha meets The Name of the Wind.” It opened with great promise, and it has many things going for it. I loved the idea of an evolving relationship between the heroine, Tea, and her brother, Fox, after she inadvertently brings him back from the dead. The author gets kudos for a non-Western setting. There are lots of details about the city, the school, the monstrous and occasionally draconic daeva, and so forth. I loved the idea of heartsglass that changes color and reveals much of who you are, although I was perpetually confused about how it worked (also the geisha “asha” and why sometimes a bone witch – necromancer is one and sometimes not). There are a number of wonderful characters like Mistress Parmina (a most un-Japanese name) and Likh, who longs do dance but who is male and so is destined to become cannon fodder for the Deathseekers) and a sense of history and tradition. Unfortunately, the development of intriguing ideas fell short. The relationship with the brother happened slowly, almost as an afterthought or something pinned on. At first I thought how cool it was to have a Japanese Hogwarts, but the culture did not ring true. Attitudes and speech patterns felt Western, and the seemingly random inclusion of elements (like cuisine) from other areas of the world created a slap-dash patchwork instead of a seamless whole. The major problem though, was that there was no clear goal or threat that built to a climax. The result was a story that felt flat and episodic. The hazing from other students had as much emotional weight as the threat of the Faceless (a generic, all-purpose enemy who seem to be evil for its own sake). The utter absence of sex, even sexual feelings, was a jarring omission. These young women are being trained as hostesses and entertainers; it is impossible that the issue of intimate favors for their patrons never comes up. Even if the younger ones are protected from forming liaisons, surely the questions must come up for the more mature asha. It’s ridiculous to thing that a YA novel must exclude all references to sex when it is so important to teens in real life. Discerning older readers may well give this one a pass.

Toward a Secret Sky by Heather Maclean  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, 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.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

My older daughter  and I went to see HIDDEN FIGURES. We could have waited and seen it on Netflix (or whatever) but wanted to contribute to its financial success, albeit belatedly.

Be still, my geeky heart. I wish I could go back and re-take every science and math course I've ever had (well, college and beyond, let's not wax eloquent over high school algebra) from a perspective of loving science and tech-stuff and understanding what it's FOR. Understanding the universe and our planet and ourselves. Building incredibly nifty things like Hubble Space Telescope and the laptop I'm typing on and the Prius I drive. Fine-tuning my mind, pushing myself to not only comprehend but creatively and fearlessly master whatever I set myself to. Anyway, the movie...

We fell in love with the film within the first minute. Maybe the first 30 seconds after the opening credits. Even though it's been some time since it opened, there was a good-sized, highly responsive audience. We all laughed and cheered (and teared up) together. Afterward (in the ladies' loo, of course) a bunch of us chatted about it -- one was a young woman about to enter college. We were all jumping up and down, cheering science, and somberly reflecting on racism then and now.

Definitely my cup of tea. Definitely worth seeking it out in a theater. As we headed for the parking lot, an elderly lady with a walker asked if we'd just seen it and told us she'd see it twice. "Is a third time too much?" she inquired. "NO!" we chorused.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Jane Bigelow on "Duvin’s Grand Tour" in MASQUES OF DARKOVER

In the spirit of a masqued revel, here is a gala presentation of tales set in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s beloved world of the Bloody Sun. Some of these stories are humorous, others dark, some gritty, and others whimsical or romantic, but all reflect the richness and breadth of adventures to be found on Darkover.

Masques of Darkover will be released May 2, 2017 and is now available for pre-order at Amazon.comBarnes and Noble and Kobo. The print edition will be on sale on the release date.

Jane M. H. Bigelow had her first professional publication in Free Amazons of
Darkover. Since then, she has published a fantasy novel, Talisman, as well as short stories and short nonfiction on such topics as gardening in Ancient Egypt. Her short story, "The Golden Ruse" appeared in Luxor: Gods, Grit and Glory. She is currently on a mystery set in 17th century France. Jane is a retired reference librarian, a job which encouraged her to go on being curious about everything and exposed her to a rich variety of people. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband and two spoiled cats.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us about your story in Masques of Darkover.

Jane M. H. Bigelow: “Duvin’s Grand Tour” began with a mental video clip of a well-meaning but clueless young male visitor to Darkover walking through Thendara. He stops where he is when he sees a beautiful young woman walking gracefully through the crowds. Our visitor has been warned to be circumspect in what he says to or about women, and he’s heard the rumors that Darkovan nobility can read thoughts, so he tries really hard not to think anything offensive. He wouldn’t want to offend, anyway; he’s a nice fellow. Womanly, that’s the word he wants to describe her, womanly. She giggles.

Who is this man? What’s he doing on Darkover? And how did a P.G. Wodehouse character get so far from home? Who’s the woman? Why is she amused rather than offended?

I did give Duvin one advantage over the usual Wodehouse protagonist. Although he thinks of himself as not clever, he has a gift for languages.  I wanted him to be able to communicate with people independently, even though it soon became clear to me that he had not come to Darkover as a Terran official, and I didn’t want to use the “visitor discovers unsuspected telepathic abilities” trope for a humorous story.

This is the first story I’ve done where humor was the main focus.  All those people who warned that writing funny is seriously hard were right, but it’s also a great deal of fun. Thank you, Deborah, for encouraging me to write it.

DJR: How do you balance writing in some else’s world and being true to your own creative imagination?”

JMHB: For me, writing Darkover stories is like writing historical fiction or alternate history. There’s a framework of accepted fact, but it certainly doesn’t cover everything. It gives the writer a starting point; the stories branch out from there. For example, I recently had a story published in Luxor: Gods, Grit and Glory, an anthology of Ancient Egyptian historical fiction. Several authors chose similar time periods, but they certainly didn’t do the same story. Darkovan history is also long, and varied. There’s plenty of room for writers to wander.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Short Book Reviews: Thoughtful, Inspiring YA/MG For Everyone

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier.

Dimple Lala is an American Indian (as in East Indian, not Native American) caught between the traditional world of her parents and the life of a normal American teenager. Her best friend, willowy blonde ultra-cool Gwyn, thinks Indian culture is exotic and cool. Dimple’s one passion is her photography, and the world as she sees it through her camera lens is described in luminescent detail. Only here can she be herself, instead of awkward and alienated. At school, she can never compete with Gwyn; at home, wishes her meddling parents would stay out of her hair. When they arrange an introduction to a “suitable boy” (suitable for an arranged marriage, that is), Dimple goes on a blind date that Gwyn had set up, with predictably disastrous consequences. As the story unfolds, spilling out into the Indian music club scene, Dimple comes into her own, fusing the best of both worlds. An array of vivid secondary character and gorgeous sensory detail mark this as a book to be savored and shared.

We Are the Goldens by 

This book is deceptively simple in tone yet rich in nuance and courageous in its approach to complex, painful issues. This book chronicles the parallel journeys of two teenaged sisters, using an interesting twist on the usual YA first-person narrative in that one sister is addressing the other: their relationship forms the core of the story as they grow from intertwined to antagonistic to individuated. The story opens with the narrator and younger sister, Nell, beginning high school and discovering that the previously close relationship with adored, perfect Layla has now developed fracture lines. While Nell develops an unrequited crush on a glamorous older boy, Layla begins acting mysteriously. She, too, has a secret – one that Nell discovers and that has the power to tear them and their whole family apart. Highly recommended for both adult and teen readers for its clear and excellent handling of relationships and sexuality.

The Cartographer's Daughter, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

This lovely middle grade story offers a wonderful twist to the usual fantasy tale featuring adolescent heroes. The protagonist’s strength is not magic or physical prowess but her understanding of how our knowledge of the landscape gives us power. The techniques of map-making are woven into the story in beautiful, evocative ways. The plot itself involves a group of friends, a journey to forbidden lands, monsters and creatures, villains and allies. Much has a familiar feel, but the use of cartography makes this book stand out. It would make a great book for a family to read together and discuss the principles of geography and their relationship to the plot.

Thursday, March 16, 2017



Three months later
I'm still vacuuming up dog fur,
Each clump a ghost of her.

Maybe this one hair
Came from the previous Shepherd,
Loyal, fierce, and strong,
Or this bit of fluff
My old tortoiseshell cat.
Gone four days later,
Content to pass on at 20 years of age
In the sure knowledge
She'd finally outlasted the damned dog.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Marella Sands on "Bone of My Bone" in MASQUES OF DARKOVER

In the spirit of a masqued revel, here is a gala presentation of tales set in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s beloved world of the Bloody Sun. Some of these stories are humorous, others dark, some gritty, and others whimsical or romantic, but all reflect the richness and breadth of adventures to be found on Darkover.

Masques of Darkover will be released May 2, 2017 and is now available for pre-order at, Barnes and Noble and Kobo. The print edition will be on sale on the release date.

Marella Sands was born in a greenhouse surrounded by smug hothouse roses, but they made her sneeze so much, she left the greenhouse for different pastures and now lives in a fairy hut by the shores of a beautiful blue lake where she is sung to sleep every night by the song of the tree frogs. Or, at least that's what it says in her bio. Her latest works are a series of novellas about a bartender who must cope with the discovery of a supernatural world just beyond our own that wants her for its own purposes. Through a Keyhole, Darkly, the first of the Tales of the Angels' Share series, was published in September 2016.

Deborah J. RossTell us about your introduction to Darkover. (Funny stories welcome.) 

Marella Sands: I don't have a funny story, sadly. I believe my introduction to Darkover was a second-hand copy of Hawkmistress, which I still have. 

DJR: What about the world drew you in?

MS: I think, at first, it was the adventure aspect (especially with Hawkmistress). I always wanted to see another book about Romilly, after she'd gotten Tower training and had married and was the king's hawkmistress. What other adventures awaited her? What happened when she went back home? As inspiring as she was as a teen character, how much more so would she had been as an adult? 

DJR: What inspired your story in Masques of Darkover

Friday, March 10, 2017

Short Book Reviews: Prose Poetry to Savor

Mary Oliver has been one of my favorite poets since I read her poem, “The Journey,” at just the right
time in my life. I was delighted to see her new collection, “Upstream,” and I was not disappointed. Surprised a bit by the prose format, but not disappointed. The trick is to read these entries as if they were in “poetical” form, that is broken down into short lines, to be read slowly and savored, not your usual essays that you can gloss over with some version of speed-reading, grabbing for the main concept and not the subtleties of language and imagery. As with “proper” poetry, the journey is the heart of the piece, and phrases that ring in the mind like sweet bells or brash sirens can be found everywhere. The poems form a loose sort of journey centered around a cabin in the woods near a pond (somewhere in New England, I suppose), through the seasons and with digressions into the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others. I love what she has to say about them and how — especially in the cases of Emerson and Whitman — she weaves those observations into the context of the natural world that was theirs as well. Just as “The Journey” struck me in the right way at the right time, Upstream carried me along through the final illness and death of our dog. Not a big thing in the grand scheme of things, but neither is a turtle laying her eggs, a wounded gull, or building a little house by hand, or any of the other things portrayed so beautifully in Oliver’s work.


Wild Geese 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting 
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver