Friday, December 27, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Lady Trent's Granddaughter Translates Draconean Tablets

Turning Darkness Into Light, by Marie Brennan (Tor Books)

If you, like me, fell in love with Lady Trent and her dragons (A Natural History of Dragons and its sequels) you will find this latest adventure a delight. Decades later, Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, is struggling to further her scholarly career after an unscrupulous suitor stole her original observations and published them himself. Now she and her Draconean colleague, Kudshayn, venture to Lord Gleinheigh’s remote estate to examine newly excavated tablets that promise to shed new light on the history of the Draconean people and their relationship with humans. It’s a tense time politically, for the Draconeans have been restricted to a single regional Sanctuary and a vote is coming up that may allow them freedom to settle where they wish. Audrey discovers an unexpected ally in Lord Gleinheigh’s niece, and perhaps a second chance with her former suitor.

Told as a sequence of letters, news stories, and diary entries, the story swept me up with wonderfully rich, sometimes unpredictable characters, the joys of archaeology (and of linguistics!), and the slow, exorable rise in danger until the thrilling climax.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Book View Cafe Sale!

It's a Boxing Week sale at Book View Cafe! Save 25% on everything -- check out our stellar authors, including Judith Tarr, Madeleine E. Robins, Jeffrey Carver, Sherwood Smith, Laura Ann Gilman and many more!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Monday, December 23, 2019

December Reflections

"Don't think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter.
It's quiet, but the roots are down there riotous..."

As the year draws to a close, I reflect that it's been, as Mark Twain put it, "One damned thing after another." Some good, some not-so-good, some most excellent, some terror-inducing. Whatever is happening, however, I remember the mantra, “This too shall pass!”

Life sometimes sideswipes us with occasions for rejoicing or unspeakable tragedy, but hard times run in cycles. It’s important to find ways of reminding ourselves of this rhythmic nature. Outward-facing periods of great vigor and challenge are followed by periods of apparent stagnation. These fallow times can feel like the pits of despair when nothing seems to be changing (except for the worse) and no matter how hard we engage with the problems in our lives, we seem to make no discernible progress. Winter is never going to end; all our senses convince us of it. We are never going to find “the one,” or sell that first story. And we’ve heard enough tales of folks who actually never do find a partner or make a sale that we are sure we belong in that group. As the days shorten and snow or rain turns into mud, we become even more certain the sun will never return.

That’s when I need black belt survival tools. My mantra (above) is one of them. Here are some others that work for me.

  • Every day, I speak with someone who loves me.
  • I try to do a daily act of kindness in a way that I will not be found out.
  • I try to begin each day with trust and end it with gratitude. These can take whatever form seems good to me on that day.

What helps get you through winter blues?

Painting by David Cox (1783-1859)

Friday, December 20, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Mercenary Spies Track Down a Missing Harp

The Harp of Kings, by Juliet Marillier (Ace)

The Swan Island super-elite mercenaries/spies have figured in previous stories by Juliet Marillier. This tale begins in the training school with three talented students, Liobhan and her adopted brother, Brocc, and the gorgeous but conceited young nobleman, Dau. The three are recruited as part of a party hired to recover the missing Harp of Kings, essential for the coronation of the next king of Breifne. Brocc and Liobhan, talented musicians both, go underground as members of a performing troupe, while Dau masquerades as a mute farrier’s assistant. Despite all their training and motivation, they each find it nigh impossible to maintain their disguises. All is not well in Breifne; the crown prince is arrogant, self-centered, and violently antagonistic to anything eldritch, including the fae Overworld that has traditionally co-existed with the human world to the peace and prosperity of both.

Marillier has grown from a talented new voice to a consummately skillful pro with exquisite control of narrative, character development, and plot. From the first page, I found myself relaxing and immersing myself in the story. Along the way, I noticed that instead of bashing me over the head with exposition, Marillier inserts subtle clues about each character’s inner turmoil, hopes, and relationships, in addition to important details in other characters and settings. This deepening of the story is brilliantly handled, and adds to the emotional satisfaction of every step of the journey. I’ve long been a fan of Marillier’s work, but The Harp of Kings clinches it!

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Feline Repose

Look who my daughter found, reclining on her bed...

(This is Sonja, about 16 months old.) Turns out that Shakir is not the only one who loves to sleep on his back.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Monday, December 16, 2019

Winter 2019 Newsletter

My newsletter went out to my subscribers on December 8. Please consider subscribing here to get early news and first chance at giveaways.

Winter 2019 Newsletter
It's winter in the redwoods. Rain alternates with mist and occasional bursts of sun. Forest and garden rest and renew themselves. It's a time for reflection and the deep, slow workings of the imagination.
Freya, who came to us a year ago as a tiny kitten, is now a magnificent young adult. She's a mackeral-striped, dilute tortoiseshell tabby (what a mouthful), who is athletic even with only one eye. Fearless when with the family, she disappears at the first hint of visitors. Some of our friends believe she is mythical.
Book News

The Laran Gambit (working title):. My editor says it's on her list. Stay tuned!

Arilinn. I'm just about halfway through the first draft, discovering more connections and conflicts and even an unexpected love story as I go.

Collaborators. I will be reissuing my Lambda Literary Award science fiction novel in March 2020, complete with maps and blog posts about the city, gender-fluid characters, and a bunch more goodies. It will come in ebook (mobi, epub) and trade paperback formats. Read an excerpt below...

Friday, December 13, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Female Sorceress Sherlock Holmes

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall (Ace)

A delicious mash-up of Sherlock Holmes (Shaharazad Hass, with her companion, alchemist and military veteran Captain John Wyndham), Lovecraftian mythos, Dracula, and The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers.  Shaharazad Hass, a consulting detective as well as sorceress, accepts a commission from an old flame, who is threatened with blackmail unless she breaks off her engagement. The list of possible enemies is long, but as Shaharazad and John focus on the most likely suspects, one after the other is eliminated, including the vampire Contessa, another of Shaharazad’s many, many ex-lovers. I found the prose delightful in its replication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s narrative, transported into a world of magic, demons, mind-altering drugs, and a sideways-in-time journey into the mysterious, menacing world of Chambers’s Carcosa and The King in Yellow. Weird and shiveringly wonderful reading!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Monday, December 9, 2019

Author Interview: R.A. McCandless on The Clockwork Detective, Writing, and Life

Recently I reviewed R.A. McCandless's excellent steampunk novel, The Clockwork Detective, here. I said, 
The last couple of years have brought a slew of wonderful steampunk adventures with resourceful, kick-ass heroines, and this one by McCandless is a worthy addition.
Here I chat with the author about his inspiration, his future projects, and his advice for aspiring writers.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?
R.A. McCandless: I came out writing, which was a weird delivery for the doctor. But really, I found myself telling stories early in grade school. We'd have assignments to write a complete sentence using a set of vocabulary words, and I'd get bored with that. Instead, I'd use the words to tell a short story. From there, it was only a short jaunt to writing my own stories.

Dragons are one of my chief inspirations. I've only included one once, in a short story. But any world where dragons can conceivably exist—please and thank you! That's almost any fantasy or science fiction story, which creates a broad palette for me to enjoy. From there, it's a hop, skip, and a wardrobe journey into another world that I'm fascinated to start exploring and sharing.

DJR: What inspired The Clockwork Detective?
RAMcC: I’ve always, always, always loved the steampunk/dieselpunk aesthetic. I’d been approached by a publisher to submit a horror story for an anthology they were doing featuring Kevin J. Anderson. I love Anderson, but I’m not a horror writer. I knew this might be my one chance, so I buckled down and started working on a story. At the time, I was watching a lot of “Murdoch Mysteries” and “Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries” and really enjoying that pseudo-steampunk atmosphere. It wasn’t a huge leap for me to incorporate the same setting into my story, and suddenly I had Constable Aubrey Hartmann, solving mysteries, riding airships, and going on adventures.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Two October Daye Adventures (with Selkies)

I've finally caught up on the "October Daye" series by Seanan McGuire. As a special treat, each novel is followed by a novella featuring one of the secondary characters.

Night and Silence, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)

I’ve loved the October Daye series since the beginning, so I’m always up for another adventure. While I highly recommend reading the books from the beginning, McGuire gives you everything you need to enjoy jumping in – or in case it’s been awhile and you’d like a memory refresher. A long time ago, Toby had a daughter with her human boyfriend. That daughter, Gillian, has been raised by her father and stepmother (whose encounters with fae are another story entirely, and not a happy one), is now a college student, and believes Toby abandoned her. Now Gillian’s life is in danger and Toby must not only rescue her but solve a succession of mysteries while convincing her daughter to let her back into her life. It’s just as entertaining and heart-touching as the previous volumes, perhaps more so because of Toby’s intensely personal emotions when it comes to her daughter.

The Unkindest Tide, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)

At the end of Night and Silence, October Daye has managed to save her daughter’s life by convincing the sea witch to give Gillian one of the few precious Selkie skins, thus giving human Gillian immunity to elfshot, a poison fatal to humans but not fae. But the terrible story behind the Selkie skins and the massacre of their original owners, the Roane, is rapidly drawing to a climax. The sea witch, mother to the Roane, has vowed to re-create that race by transforming the Selkies so that they can no longer remove or pass on their enchanted skins to their children. In effect, they will become permanently fae. For this, the sea witch needs Toby’s special blood magic. Gillian’s life depends on the fae protection of her Selkie skin, so she too will lose her humanity in the process, and the mother-daughter relationship between Gillian and Toby is rocky at best. The action moves briskly along as the son of Toby’s friends, heir to another aquatic kingdom, is kidnapped and one of the Selkies turns up dead, her skin missing. More exotic locations and fascinating characters mark this latest chapter. The story, like those before it, is brimming with the warmth and humor of Toby’s personality. Despite the complexity of all that has come before (many volumes of it!) I found no difficulty in immersing myself in this tale, so skillfully does the author handle all the backstory, relationships, and personalities.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

Winding Road, by Elsie Palmer Payne (1884 – 1971)

Monday, December 2, 2019

Europa's Water, and Other Wonders of Science

Water Vapor Was Just Found on Europa

Scientists have found evidence of plate tectonics on Jupiter’s moon Europa. This conceptual illustration of the subduction process (where one plate is forced under another) shows how a cold, brittle, outer portion of Europa’s 20-30 kilometer-thick (roughly 10-20 mile) ice shell moved into the warmer shell interior and was ultimately subsumed. A low-relief subsumption band was created at the surface in the overriding plate, alongside which cryolavas may have erupted. Image credit: Noah Kroese, I.NK

More evidence came from studying the brown splotches on Europa’s surface. Scientists hypothesized that those are chemicals from the subsurface ocean which have made their way to the surface. This shows that the sea floor might be interacting with the surface, an important consideration when thinking about habitability.

The discovery of liquid plumes raised the excitement level about Europa’s potential habitability.

For the little brown bat -- a small mouse-eared bat with glossy brown fur -- a warm, dry place to roost is essential to the species' survival. Reproductive females huddle their small furry bodies together to save thermal energy during maternity season (summer), forming "maternity colonies." In the face of severe population losses across North America, summer access to an attic or other permanent sheltered structure, as opposed to just trees or rock crevices, is a huge benefit to these bats.
[Bat image: By SMBishop - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,]

Arp 273: Battling Galaxies from Hubble

The upper galaxy is labelled UGC 1810 by itself, but together with its collisional partners is known as Arp 273. The overall shape of the UGC 1810 -- in particular its blue outer ring -- is likely a result of wild and violent gravitational interactions. The blue color of the outer ring at the top is caused by massive stars that are blue hot and have formed only in the past few million years. The inner part of the upper galaxy -- itself an older spiral galaxy -- appears redder and threaded with cool filamentary dust. A few bright stars appear well in the foreground, unrelated to colliding galaxies, while several far-distant galaxies are visible in the background. Arp 273 lies about 300 million light years away toward the constellation of Andromeda. Quite likely, UGC 1810 will devour its galactic sidekicks over the next billion years and settle into a classic spiral form.

Scientists Construct a Global Map of Titan’s Geology

Titan’s methane-based hydrologic cycle makes it one of the Solar System’s most geologically diverse bodies. There are lakes of methane, methane rainfall, and even “snow” made of complex organic molecules. But all of that detail is hidden under the moon’s dense, hazy atmosphere.

The map is based on radar, visible, and infrared images from the Cassini mission. The Cassini mission ended in September 2017 when it was directed to crash into Saturn. But even after two years, scientists are still going through Cassini’s data and producing studies like this one.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Mexican Cinderella

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey)

From the first page, this retelling of “Cinderella” crossed with the Orpheus legend captivated me. The language is vividly evocative, the characters – both human and supernatural – are compelling, and the depiction of the culture, setting, and history, not to mention the rich folklore and language – are first-rate. I found myself reading more slowly than usual just to savor the luscious prose.

It’s 1927, and elsewhere in the world, the Roaring Twenties are in full swing, but not for Cassiopea Tun, who lives with her downtrodden mother in the small Yucatan village of Uukumil under the despotic thumb of her grandfather and the maliciousness of her vain, useless cousin. By accident, she re-animates Hun-Kamé, Lord of Shadows, the Supreme Lord of Xibalba, land of the dead, and the two embark upon a quest to retrieve the lost parts of his body (an eye, an ear, etc.) and wrest his throne from the clutches of his twin brother. Cassieopea discovers her inner strength, even as associating with her renders Hun-Kamé progressively more human. In this world populated by gods and witches, ghosts and flappers, Mexico itself becomes a character, stretched between desire for modernity and its ancient, compelling heritage.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a brilliant, satisfying cultural fantasy that pushes the boundaries of the field while offering a sweet story of love, courage, and sacrifice.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to praise it. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving Wishes for You

May your hearts be blessed with an abundance of love, this day and always.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Friday, November 22, 2019

Short Book Reviews: First-Rate Multiple POV Space Opera

The Cruel Stars, by John Birmingham (Del Rey)

The popularly conceived optimal number of point-of-view characters changes with the times, everything from only a single, first-person protagonist to a cast of thousands, er, dozens. I love how multiple points of view, even those that seem to be unrelated at the beginning, come together, and John Birmingham’s The Cruel Stars falls squarely in that category. The story begins with a handful of characters who seem to have little in common, except living in the same universe, in which humans have populated planets across the galaxy: a young lieutenant in one of the space navies, a princess of a planet’s ruling family, a curmudgeonly astroarchaeologist, and a space pirate. When the Human Republic, long defeated and exiled for their extreme opposition to any modification of “natural” humans – either by tech or genetic modification – attacks, their first move is through the galactic network linking everyone who’s logged in, essentially frying their brains and turning them into psychotic cannibals. With the leadership and aristocracy decimated, our disparate characters end up among the few competent people who are unaffected. Especially moving was the ship’s digital Intellect, who walls off and then essentially sacrifices themself, rather than spread the contagion to their human shipmates.

This space opera entertains endlessly with skillfully handled dramatic tension and first-rate world building.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Friday, November 15, 2019

Short Book Reviews: The Princess Bride Meets Princess Leia on a Space Station with Magic

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, by K. Eason (DAW)

The blurb for this entertaining coming-of-age in a weird mix of space opera and magic reads, The Princess Bride Meets Princess Leia. While I appreciate the ease of film references, I found the book more strongly reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Most of the action takes place on a space station habitat rather than a desert planet, but many of the cultural and world-building elements are eerily similar. The young heroine (named Rory out of family tradition) is, like Paul Atreides, the heir to the throne. She’s protected and educated by a pair of extraordinary, dedicated teachers. From a early age, she learns not only personal self-control but the nuanced maneuvers of controlling others. And, like Paul, she’s caught up, in over her depth, in a complicated interplanetary struggle. In Rory’s world, however, computer nets are controlled by hexes and spells, and at her birth, fairies granted her various gifts, including the ability to detect falsehoods. This is indicated in the text by offset italics of what the person is actually thinking, with often humorous results.
            like this…
A peace treaty between Rory’s widowed mother and the scheming villain who murdered her father locks her into a betrothal (to a prince whose only public appearances are by his short-lived, imbecilic clones) and exile on the afore-mentioned space station. Cut off from her teachers, she’s forced to find new (and surprising) allies and most of all, to come into her own power. I love that she makes mistakes, and that her opponents are formidable. The risk to her, the people she cares about, and her home world are equally daunting.

Enormous fun. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Many Teeth" in Sword and Sorceress 34.

The last volume of Sword and Sorceress, edited by Elisabeth Waters, is now out (at all the usual venues), and it contains my novelette, "Many Teeth." Like many others, I am sad to see this series end, although 34 issues of an anthology demonstrates extraordinary staying power. My very first professional sale was to the debut issue, and I've been in almost every one since (except the overflow volume, the year I lived in France and the year my younger daughter was born -- a month after the deadline). I co-edited Sword and Sorceress 33, which was a delight and allowed me to work with a number of splendid authors who were new to me.

Much has been said about this series and its importance in the genre. That first volume, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley, came out in 1984, a tidal surge of women's voices in science fiction and fantasy. Sword and Sorceress extended that inclusion to the romantic, action-adventure style of "sword and sorcery." Bradley wanted strong, resourceful women characters who were more than cardboard copies of the male heroes ("Conan in drag"). To this end, she sought out writers like C. J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, Pat Murphy, Rachel Pollack, Laurell K. Hamilton, Charles de Lint, Diana L. Paxson, Emma Bull, and Jennifer Roberson.

As I contemplated what I might submit to this final volume, I returned to an image that had come to me after watching a well-known movie with animated dinosaurs: a swordswoman wielding a katana, facing down a velociraptor.* As with most inspirations, that scene didn't exactly feature in the story...but close.

*Yes, I know the critters in the movies are paleontologically inaccurate...

Here's a snippet from the story:

The inner door swung open and a young woman entered. Karan’s first impression was of a lioness suddenly finding herself in the midst of a fancy dress ball. The gown was of silk, the hair set with pearls and tiny winking gems. But the skin was sun-browned, the cheeks innocent of rouge powder, and the expression one of determination. 
“Leave us,” the young woman said to her attendant. Once they were alone, she approached Karan. “Please, let us sit together.”   
Karan lowered herself into a chair, choosing one that put her back to the nearest wall.    
“I’m Estelle Rockland, and my father is Sir Henry Rockland.” 
When Karan looked blank, Estelle explained that he was a founding member of the Royal Society of Naturalist Adventurers. 
“Never heard of it,” Karan said.  
“There’s no reason you should. I’m not sure anyone cares who they are or what they do, beyond their own membership and the Lord of the Keys, who supervises the royal charters. For the past twenty-five years, my father has been on a single-minded quest, and now he’s gone missing. I want you to find him.”

Friday, November 8, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Teaming up To Stop the Apocalypse

Life and Limb, by Jennifer Roberson (DAW)

A new Jennifer Roberson novel is always a treat, but a new Jennifer Roberson series is a cause for celebration. It should be obvious from my opening sentence that I am a huge fan. I’ve been an avid reader since her debut, Shapechangers (1984, the first “Cheysuli” novel). The way she combines action, ideas, internal struggle, and romance hit just the right notes for me. More importantly, I love how her work has matured and deepened over time. It seems to me that every time she takes a break or begins something new, I see a quantum leap in skill and insight.

Life and Limb, the first volume in her new “Blood and Bone” series, is no exception. She’s begun with a nifty concept: an ex-con biker (Gabriel Harlan) teams up with a clean-cut cowboy (Remi McCue) to fight supernatural nasties and stop the looming apocalypse. And oh yes, they both grew up with a mysterious grandfather, Grandaddy Jubal Horatio Tanner who isn’t human, and neither are they, or not entirely.

In many ways, Life and Limb is the set-up for that conflict, the origin story. Certainly, there’s plenty of action, both internal and external, and a host of adversaries and allies. Grandaddy Jubal has other teams to enlist, so he leaves our heroes in the care of Lily Morrigan (as in “The” Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of war, fate and death). Hell’s vents have opened, pouring forth an army of mythological nasties (ghosts, vampires, black dogs, and the like) which now can get infected by demons. Their skills are complementary: Gabe is a crack shooter with guns, but Remi is expert with throwing knives. Gabe has an unerring sense for the rightness (or wrongness) of a place, while Remi’s gift is reading people. And while they’re sniffing out and doing away with demonic presences, the Morrigan tells them, “hell knows you’re here.”

The narrative voice, from Gabe’s first-person perspective, is richly evocative, and the handling of detail, setting and nuance is top-notch, flavored with my favorite cultural references. Therein lies both the book’s strength and its challenge. The heart of the book’s energy, its center, is the emotional and spiritual journey of these two characters. Neither just accepts at face value their angelic nature or their destiny. Much of the story revolves around challenging what they have been told, grappling with how their lives will never the same, figuring out what each means to the other, and along the way making near-fatal mistakes, either from inflated self-confidence or ignorance. They learn by slow steps, often circling around to the same questions before moving on. This is how we humans deal with events and information that changes our entire understanding of the cosmos and our role in it. We question, we negotiate, we accept, then we question some more. Sometimes we have to ask the same questions over and over in different ways until the answers make sense. All the while, these characters get to know one another, overcoming skepticism and distrust. Much of the pleasure of reading a character-rich novel is in falling in love with those characters.

Bottom line: I adored this awesome urban fantasy and can’t wait for the next volume.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

The Flowering Desert, John (Jack) Frost (1890-1937)

Friday, November 1, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Scathing Industrial-Political Science Fiction

The Warehouse, by Rob Hart (Crown)

This dystopian thriller with shades of Kafka and Frank Norris’s The Octopus centers on a bloated industrial empire in which merchandise of all kinds is stored, picked, packaged, and delivered via drones. The vast complex, set in a desert 100 miles from the nearest town, is not only the workplace for thousands, but its living quarters, medical, food, and recreational facilities. It’s all presided over by an avuncular “old white dude” who prides himself on having passed legislation to outlaw unions, do away with worker safety, and so forth, all under the guise of providing environmentally clean delivery of goods and great jobs for anyone willing to work hard. The true “MotherCloud” warehouse complex is anything but utopian. Work, especially for the “pickers,” is unrelentingly brutal, and security turns a blind eye to sexual harassment and other crimes for the sake of good reporting statistics. The enclosed environment, although air conditioned, is monotonous and humdrum, with few choices beyond soporific entertainment, alcohol, and illegal drugs.

Into this world come two applicants. John is an ex-prison guard whose dream of independent entrepreneurship came to a screeching halt with “The Cloud” stole his invention. He hopes to work anywhere but security, but that’s his assignment. Zinnia presents as a bright young teacher, taking time off to earn extra cash, but she is actually a corporate spy, hired to find out why the MotherCloud uses so much less energy than it actually requires. The mind-numbing work changes each of them.

Scathing condemnation of computerized factory life and its dehumanizing brutality, along with the naïve blindness of the privileged few, makes this book a stand-out for thoughtful political science fiction. If you aren’t outraged, you’re not paying attention.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Monday, October 28, 2019

Auntie Deborah’s Autumn Writing Advice Column

More tidbits from the desk of a hard-working author.

Dear Auntie Deborah: 
Help! My characters have gone amok and won’t follow the plot of my book! What can I do to whip them into shape?
-- A Frustrated Author

Dear Frustrated:
The short (but brutal) answer is that your characters behave the way you created them. Their histories, personalities, goals, and motivations are all part of that creation. So if you — like so many of us! — find your characters resisting the demands of the plot or going off on their own adventures, it’s time to take a step back and delve deeper into what’s on the page and what’s in your creative imagination that isn’t explicit but nonetheless exerts a powerful influence over the character’s behavior.
Looking at it another way, stories can be driven by plot (a series of actions where one leads inevitably to the next) or by character (the motivations and inner conflicts dictate the character’s goals and actions). (Other possibilities include ideas — mysteries, for example — or environments — where the world itself is the focus. But your problem really pertains to the competing demands of plot versus character.)
If you’ve conceived of the story as a plotline first and foremost, of course you want interesting characters but you also want them to follow the script. One way to do this is to work backward to discover what kind of person would make those choices and have what it takes to overcome those obstacles. You cannot simply plug any character into any role and have it work (unless your characters are all “cardboard.”) “Misbehavior” = mismatched personalities and roles.
If, on the other hand, you have a compelling, fascinating character with an agenda of her own that doesn’t fit your plotline, you can always chuck the script and see where the story goes when driven by this character.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Wedding Murder Mystery with a Demonically Conflicted Detective

Till Sudden Death Do Us Part, by Simon R. Green (Severn House)

It’s always a challenge to jump into the middle of series, but a skillful author will give you all the background you need, woven into the action without infodumps or confusion. Such was the case with this, the seventh "Ishmael Jones" mystery.

Ishmael Jones was a real person, or rather the pseudonym used by a covert CIA officer. Green’s Ishmael Jones isn’t exactly human and is very much a secret agent for a succession of secret agencies. He looks human enough, and has a rewarding relationship with the fearsomely intelligent Penny Belcourt, but he doesn’t age and he fights a continual battle to keep his demonic self submerged.

The current episode follows the classical form of a murder mystery: a gathering in a small English town, a family curse, a series of murders designed to prevent a wedding, and so forth. Green’s deft handling of the elements of the unfolding mystery (actually, several) and Jones’s personal journey make for a fast, enjoyable read. I did not see the ending coming, even though all the clues were there.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything in particular about it. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Friday, October 18, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Telepathic Kittens, Lustful Alien Emperors, and a Mad Chase Across the Galaxy

Chilling Effect, by Valerie Valdes (Harper Voyager)

In many ways, this delightful, supersonic-paced space adventure reminded me of Amber Royal’s Free Chocolate. Both involve fascinating and occasionally romantic relationships between humans and aliens, resourceful heroines, mad chases through space, and a text liberally sprinkled with Spanish phrases (or in the case of Royal’s book, Spanish and Portuguese) that reflect the protagonist’s fluency and mixed heritage. (And an added benefit to reading both on an ereader is the ability to easily check for a translation.) I hope these two books signal a wave of multicultural, multilingual stories.

That said, Chilling Effect is very much its own story. Eva Innocente (that’s Captain Eva Innocente of  La Sirena Negra) ekes out a living transporting various cargo (including a litter of telepathic kittens the recipient doesn’t want), when her sister is kidnapped by the crime syndicate, The Fridge, and forces Eva into one unsavory job after another in order to gain her sister’s freedom. That description skips over Eva’s wonderfully colorful crew, one of whom – Vakar, her engineer -- communicates his emotions by odors that Eva interprets as things like licorice, roses, and burnt rubber, and the hilarious adventures she has on the way. Very early in the story, she turns down the lecherous advances of the Glorious Apotheosis, a fish-faced Jabba-the-Hutt emperor who then pursues her ship across the galaxy, spouting overblown threats in her general directin. Eventually, Eva turns the tables on The Fridge and discovers the method to their mad schemes, which involves a mysterious, incredibly powerful ancient Proarkhe alien artifact, finding love in unlikely places, getting stuck in cryo for a year, getting double-crossed by her shyster father, finding out her sister isn’t as helpless a victim as she’d been led to believe, and never getting rid of those kittens.

There’s a ton of action and cool details in this story, but for me the best part was the characterization, both of Eva and of the other wonderful beings who inhabit this universe and touch her heart, and, by extension, the reader’s.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to praise it. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

Landscape with Birch Trees, Yakov Brovar (1864-1941)

Friday, October 11, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Steampunk Detective, with Centaurs

The Clockwork Detective, by R.A. McCandless (Ellysian)

The last couple of years have brought a slew of wonderful steampunk adventures with resourceful, kick-ass heroines, and this one by McCandless is a worthy addition. Aubrey Hartmann is a veteran of recent war, having lost the lower part of one leg, and now works as a constable. Her prosthetic is a clockwork device that needs to be rewound regularly and isn’t a perfect fit but does keep her mobile, if in pain. As a result, she’s become addicted to laudanum (opium). Her current assignment involves investigating the murder of a druwyd (druid, local witch-doctor holy man) in a little town near the Fae-ruled Dark Wood. Here is where the world-building of The Clockwork Detective sharply deviates from the usual Victorian gears-and-whistles steampunk. Magic is not only real, it’s part of everyday life, and the human wars are overshadowed by the possibility of a terrible conflict with the Fae.

Aubrey’s research leads her into the Dark Wood to question the denizens there, those being centaurs, who are not only fierce fighters but wonderfully oblique and weird. The blending of Victorian mechanistic steampunk, mythology, and magic is seamless and believable. The story moves from murder mystery to international thriller to magical encounters of the terrifying kind. Aubrey herself is a wonderful combination of vulnerable addiction, resourcefulness, keen intelligence, and general all-around bloody-mindedness. I look forward to reading her further adventures!

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to praise it. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

Evening in the Village, Henry John Yeend King (1855-1924)

Monday, October 7, 2019

Deborah’s Excellent Mountain Adventure

I ran away to the mountains.

That’s an odd thing to hear from someone who lives “in the mountains.” But my lovely, peaceful mountains are really just forested hills. The highest point in the entire range is only 3,000 feet. What constitutes a mountain versus a hill is apparently up for debate. The usual definition of a mountain is a landform greater than 1,000 feet above sea level. But other definitions put the limit for a hill at twice that. (There are also other characteristics of mountains, like steepness.) So technically my home is “in the mountains,” but viscerally only in the sense of being remote, peaceful, enclosed in redwoods, and requiring 45 minutes to get anywhere except here. Visually, forested hills. Snow maybe once a decade, and mostly along the crest line.

One of the neighbors I go walking with has a family cabin up in the Sierra Nevada. Those are real mountains! The highest point is Mt. Whitney (14,500 feet). Lots of snow. Years ago, I went cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at Royal Gorge, not too far from my friend’s cabin.

Enticed by the Sierra, no access to internet, dubious cellphone coverage, and a chance to curl up in a corner and write, my older daughter and I eagerly accepted my friend’s invitation.  Off we went, carpooling with our friend. A fourth joined us, taking the train to the nearest town. The drive was about four hours, strongly reminiscent of other road trips but without the singing at the top of our voices. We settled in, explored the town, walked around the neighborhood in the increasing chill, and tucked in for the night.

Along the trail

The weekend’s high points included:
  • Making meals together
  • Hiking and exploring the Donner Party memorial (yes, that Donner Party, the one who thought it was a dandy idea to just hunker down for the winter)
  • Playing silly games in the evening
  • (for me) – writing! 24 pages on the novel in progress!
  • Snow!
From the porch

Deborah and Sarah

Friday, October 4, 2019

Short Book Reviews: The Ghost of the Paris Catacombs

Tunnel of Bones, by Victoria Schwab (Scholastic)

This charming Middle Grade adventure was my introduction to the work of Victoria (V.E.) 
Schwab, and the selling point was that the tunnel of the title is part of the Parisian Catacombs – one of the all-time, hands-down weirdest places I’ve ever been. I visited on one of our weekend trips to Paris when my family and I were living in Lyon (a mere two hours or so by the high-speed rail). I’d asked a well-traveled friend what I should be sure to see (besides the usual huge monuments and the Unicorn Tapestries at Cluny). “The Catacombs!” was her answer.

Dating from the first century C.E., folks have mined limestone under what would become Paris. So extensive were the underground tunnels that in 1774, there was severe collapse (300 meters) at Rue Denfert-Rochereau and thereafter no more mining was permitted. But Paris had another problem: overfilling graveyard. So in 1786 the municipal ossuary known as the “Catacombs” was consecrated, and the following decades saw the transfer of bones from the parochial cemeteries of Paris. Eventually, the bones were rearranged in chamber after chamber, largely due to the efforts of Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service. Some of the resulting designs were downright macabre, others whimsical, all of them shiver-producing. What the histories don’t tell is how the temperature falls as you descend the staircase at the Denfert-Rochereau entrance, or how the bones in the outer chambers are slightly green. Or the charcoal guidelines on the ceilings… Or the whispers that must surely be due to your imagination…

Tunnel of Bones is a sequel but works perfectly well as a stand-alone. Following a near-drowning accident (that happened in the first book, City of Ghosts), Cassidy Blake can see and interact with ghosts (including her best friend, Jacob, who described himself as “corporally challenged). When her filmographer ghost-investigating parents get a gig filming in Paris, Cassidy (and Jacob, and Cassidy’s black cat, Grim) embark on their own adventure. A dangerous, terrifyingly powerful spirit lies sleeping in the Catacombs . . . until Cassidy wakes it up. Soon the entire city is at risk from the uncontrolled temper of a poltergeist. It’s up to Cassidy, with her fledgling ghost-hunting skills, and Jacob to help the poltergeist remember his humanity.

I loved revisiting Paris, but I also enjoyed the characters and world-building. Schwab’s portrayal of Cassidy, a resourceful young woman coming of age and coming to terms with her abilities, is pitch perfect, as are her friendships and family. The rise and fall of dramatic tension kept me turning the pages. It’s a nice length and emotional complexity for adult readers as well as Middle Grade. I’ll look out for the first book, and anything else Schwab has written. So glad I found a new author to love!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

Signs of Spring - 1921 | Joseph H. Greenwood