Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860 | Frederic Edwin Church

Monday, July 29, 2019

[personal] My Mother Was Murdered, and That's Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

The Department of Justice recently announced its intention to resume executions. I am appalled by this decision, and this is why:

In 1986, my 70-year-old mother was asleep in her own bed when a teenage neighbor broke into her home, raped her, and then beat her to near death and left her face down in a partially filled bathtub. It was a spectacularly brutal, banner headline crime, called by the District Attorney one of the most heinous in the history of the county.

Even in light of what happened, I am opposed to capital punishment, and I'd like to tell you why. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences, different histories, different internal and external resources. If there is one thing I'd like you to take away from my story, it is that not all the families of murder victims want the perpetrators to be executed.

I believe that capital punishment harms the survivors by interfering with the natural recovery process. In other words, when we focus on revenge instead of healing, we never heal.

A number of years ago, when I was being interviewed about my mother's death, the interviewer said to me, “You seem like such a sweet person. Most of us just aren't that spiritual.” What she meant was, “How could you not want revenge?” What I thought was, You have no idea how angry I was and how much I wanted to hurt the man who did this.

The rage I felt and that I've heard expressed by other murder survivors is so overwhelming, it's hard to find words to describe it. You feel as if your skin is going to crack open and out will pour enough molten hatred to incinerate the entire world. For years after my mother's murder, I obsessed over exactly how I would kill the perpetrator with my bare hands and how much I wanted him to suffer for every moment of terror and pain he'd caused her. The images were so vivid, I couldn't tell if I was awake or dreaming.

Adrenaline-fueled anger enables us to get through those early days and weeks. It sharpens our senses and focuses our thoughts. Our hearts pump faster. Biologically, we are primed to do whatever is necessary to meet the threat. We don't feel our own injuries, either of body or of mind or spirit. All our resources are devoted to our immediate survival. In some circumstances, this lasts only a short period of time. I know people who have lost loved ones to murder, but in that same incident, the murderer was also killed. At the other extreme are instances where the perpetrator is never discovered and the survivors must cope with the nightmare of walking down the street, suspecting every passer-by or wondering if the murderer has taken another life. I know people in that situation, too.

Anger and the craving for revenge are normal reactions when someone you love has been viciously attacked, their dignity as well as their lives stripped from them.  At the same time, these feelings fuel the illusion that retribution erases pain, and popular media constantly reinforce this illusion.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Hearne and Dawson Pervert The Lord of the Rings

No Country for Old Gnomes (The Tales of Pell), by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S. Dawson (Del Rey)

This whimsical anti-fairytale continues loosely after Kill the Farm Boy. If Kill the Farm Boy was an approximate, sort-of take-off of The Princess Bride, No Country for Old Gnomes owes much to The Lord of the Rings. At the core of the book is a quest, although not to destroy a ring. Here the halflings are the bad guys, bent on ethnic cleansing of gnomes, with whom they theoretically co-govern according to an ancient treaty. A fellowship – again, of sorts – sets out to retrieve the original documents and restore justice to the realm. They include not only a pair of gnomes (male and female, equally bearded), a dwarf on his coming-of-age Meadschpringå quest, a halfling attorney who believes in the rule of law, a saltshaker-stealing ovitaur (like a centaur, only sheep and woman) with her heirloom automaton, and a telepathic gryphon.

Besides an occasional comment like: “an ancient dwarf named Sir Gimlet, who was involved with the Fellowship of the String,”or “in a hole in the ground there lived a family of gnomes,” a brief encounter with Tommy Bombastic, and fanciful names like “a gnome whose gname tag read Hippi Pott,” there is a hilarious take on a classic passage:
   Everyone looked to Faucon [the legalistic halfling] as he stepped forward and solemnly knelt before Agape [the ovitaur].
   “I will protect you as we journey to the Great Library. You have my sword.”
   Kirsi [one of the gnomes, a sorceress] stepped forward to kneel, plucking a hir and tying it into an intricate design. “And my cursed bows.”
   Båggi [the dwarf] trotted up and knelt, offering his picnic basket. “And my snacks!”
Several characters from the previous book make guest appearances, both living and ghostly, notably King Gustave who was formerly a goat and hasn’t quite mastered the nuances of being human but makes a decent monarch anyway. As with Kill the Farm Boy, I found the book overlong and unevenly paced, but quite entertaining. No Country for Old Gnomes has more depth and occasional poignancy, which bodes well for the forthcoming The Princess Beard.

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, July 24, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

White Mountains and Conway Meadows, 1881 | William Keith

Monday, July 22, 2019

Summer 2019 Newsletter

Here's my summer 2019 newsletter. If you want more news like this, plus snippets, freebies, and more, please subscribe here.

Summer in the Redwoods 

The spring rains have finally ceased, the garden is bursting with awakening vegetable and flower plants, and it's a bit of a challenge to keep writing when I just want to be outdoors, enjoying the wonderful weather. I often get the sense of how very nourishing this season is. So many of the winter's struggles have been laid to rest, and projects I've been working on are -- like the blossoms and vegetables -- nearing maturity. I send all my friends and readers wishes for a joyous, fruitful summer.

Publishing News

Announcing A Heat Wave in the Hellers, and Other Tales of Darkover -- the new collection of my Darkover short fiction!

With the permission of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust, I've gathered all my Darkover short works in one volume. I'm excited about this project for many reasons, including that these are some of my favorite stories, that I got my professional publishing start in Marion's anthologies (Free Amazons of Darkover and the first Sword and Sorceress) and especially that I now have the opportunity to share with you my previously unpublished Darkover tales. The Introduction and Table of Contents are below. In the title story, written as a birthday gift, I sent Marion herself to Darkover to solve a planetary crisis. Needless to say, the gift was received with delight.

For the cover, I was delighted to have this beautiful original painting by Hannah M.G. Shapero, who also did the cover for Hawkmistress!

A Heat Wave in the Hellers will be released on October 1, 2019, but it's now available for pre-order in ebook and print editions. It will also be available in print through Ingram, so if your local bookstore uses them as a distributor, you can order it.

Amazon Kindle here. Print edition here.
Barnes & Noble. I'm still working with them, so check pre-order availability soon.
Book View Cafe will have both mobi and epub versions, released on October 1.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Jane Austen Heroine, Time Travel, and Frankenstein's Monsters Win the Battle of Waterloo

Timepiece (Book 1 of the Keeping Time Trilogy) by Heather Albano (Stillpoint Digital Press Prometheus)

The concept: Jane Austen-style characters travel through time to keep Frankenstein’s monsters from saving the Battle of Waterloo and transforming Victorian London into a nightmare of pollution and Orwellian robots.

The execution: Deft prose, careful characterization, and meticulous historical research brought the story alive from the opening pages; On the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s position is dire. The French have inflicted massive losses on his forces and he fears with good reason that his lines cannot hold another determined assault. The Prussians, whom he had counted on for relief and reinforcement, have been delayed, despite promises of imminent arrival. His only hope: the “special battalion” troops, descendents of the monsters created by “the Genevese” student (presumably a historical Dr. Frankenstein) a generation ago. He makes a choice and sends for them. That’s the set-up.

Across the Channel in England, a young woman, straight of the pages of Jane Austen and very much an homage to Elizabeth Bennett, aptly named Elizabeth, befriends William, a disabled veteran of those same Napoleonic wars. A mysterious gift, a watch-like device with multiple dials whose purposes are unfathomable, catapults the two to London half a century later, where the city has become an inferno-esque nightmare of pollution, poverty, child labor, and an Orwellian spy state, enforced by gigantic robots. The robots, it turns out, were developed against the “monsters,” who did not simply go away after Waterloo but were used as slaves in hazardous occupations like mining, rebelled, and were driven to Scotland behind “Moore’s Line” (shades of Hadrian, anyone?) Here they meet enigmatic Maxwell, possessor of a second time-travel watch, whose goal has been to prevent the current catastrophe by changing history. His multiple attempts – convince the Genevese to not create a monster, prevent Wellington from using the “special batallion,” etc., have all been unsuccessful. Now our stalwart team, aided by a few sundry folks from 1885 and a few more allies they make upon the way, embark upon the same mission. Needless to say, the following adventures are vastly entertaining, full of poignant moments, character development, and perspectives on the cultural shifts between 1815 and 1885, particularly for women. When they finally return to 1885, the initial signs are good: clear skies, fresh air, streets bustling with normal commerce…except they have inadvertently broken history. And obviously must go on to fix it in the second volume.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Monday, July 15, 2019

[Archives] How I Find New Authors to Love

E. Duranty by Degas
This post first appeared in 2011, but is well worth repeating.

Once upon a time, I gobbled up every new book of fantasy and science fiction that I could find. I'd trek to my local independent specialty book store or my local branch library and devour each month's arrivals. Now getting to the closest (general) bookstore requires a trek, our local library branch is in danger of closing (or maybe not, it keeps changing), not to mention losing its human librarians, and the number of new books has multiplied beyond any hope of keeping up with everything that's being published. I don't recognize many of the authors, at least not under those by-lines.

One way through the deluge is to connect with authors online. (Shameless Promotion Hint: Book View Café is a wonderful way to get acquainted. A whole community of fabulous writers with a wide range of styles and genres is right here -- we will now pause while you read a short story from a writer new to you. Okay, aren't you glad you did?)

Conventions also work well for me as a way to sort through the enormous number of new titles. I'll hear someone talk on a panel or read aloud from their work and be impressed with what a strange and thoughtful mind they have. Sometimes, I'll meet them afterwards and be curious about their stories. Sometimes when I hear a writer in person, I'll pick up a book whose title or cover would not otherwise appeal to me or I'll be willing to read something outside my usual "taste zone." Since I believe in supporting other writers, especially newer ones, I usually buy (at least) one "unknown" book from the dealers room. This has the additional benefit of helping out my friendly convention dealers, who get even friendlier and more diligent in carrying my own books. The next step is a request for an autograph, which is a pleasure for everyone involved. So many times, the few moments it takes can give a writer, even an established writer, a lift. "Wow! Deborah J. Ross bought my book -- and asked me to sign it!"

Friday, July 12, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Fairy Tales, Dragons, and the Russian Revolution

The Last Tsar's Dragons, by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple (Tachyon)

This dramatic yet playful re-telling of the days leading up to the Russian Revolution (with dragons!) offers a variety of delights, from the courtly intrigues and madness of Rasputin, to the Jews huddling in the burrows to avoid the tsar’s dragons, to the machinations of the revolutionaries, to an entirely new meaning of the term “red death.” I believe the authors, seasoned professionals both, had way too much fun concocting this tale.

A little knowledge of the Russian Revolution is desirable for enjoying this book, and I fear that younger readers, who think “Putin” when they hear “Russia,” had little understanding of the tumultuous events leading to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the principle movers and shakers of those days. On the other hand, The Last Tsar’s Dragons would make a great addition to a serious class about the early part of the 20th century. By shifting the narrative of power to metaphor, while preserving actual historical and occasionally fictional characters, this could and should provoke lively discussion.

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, by Jane Yolen (Tachyon Publications)

When it comes to giving classic (and not-so classic) fairy tales a new twist, nobody does it better than Jane Yolen. This collection includes her children’s book, Sleeping Ugly, which I read aloud innumerable times to my own daughters. Best of all, though, are Yolen’s own comments on the tales, the nature of fairy tales, and how we grow and heal through story-telling.

The usual disclaimer: I received review copies of these books, but no one bribed me to say anything in particular about them. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Today's Moment of Art

Winter Sunlight, Andrei Shilder (1861 - 1919)

Monday, July 8, 2019

Writer's Block: Lowering Standards?

I just finished Sandra Tsing Loh's review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua, Penguin) (about which I may write a completely separate blog post) in the April 2011 Atlantic. Loh writes:

I follow the old writer's chestnut: "When you face writer's block, just lower your standards and keep going."

Cute, I suppose, and encouraging in its own way, but I'm not sure I agree with the mindset. I had never heard such a thing, and I've been publishing professionally for over 30 years. Maybe it's the difference between mainstream writing (and the expectation of peerless prose?) and genre writing. Or that the mentors I've have and and the pros I hang out with have a more organic approach to writing, an appreciation for story-telling over meticulously "beautiful" language? Or has this writer never been truly blocked, only impatient and self-critical?

Whatever the reason for my not hearing this before, I find its underlying premise destructive: that writing (i.e., composing a first draft) must somehow embody one's highest literary standards. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is nonsense! If you can just "carry on", what's going on isn't writer's block. It's elitist self-indulgent pifflebunk. If worrying about your "standards" interferes with the flow of your writing, then maybe you're trying to write and to critique yourself at the same time, and it might be better to get out of your own way and just write!

You can always edit and polish to your heart's content, but get the story down first.

For a long time in my early career, I wrote perfectly awful first drafts. I mean really bad in almost every sense -- except the passion I brought to them. Grammar, plot, characterization, prose style, you name it, I butchered it. As a consequence, I learned to revise with a vengeance. I learned that all of these things, these "literary standards" things, are fixable. The only thing that can't be changed is inserting "heart" into a story when it isn't there to begin with. (Or maybe some writers can do that, but I can't.) I'd a thousand times rather write--or read--a story with that core of fiery truth than with the most sophisticated technique in the world.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Imprisoned in Darkness

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, by Vylar Kaftan (Tor)

This lovely novella reminds me of water-colors, painted with a deft touch, often evoked rather than explicitly depicted as layers of illusion are dispelled. The story opens with Bee, incarcerated in a series of caverns with only one companion, her lover, Chela. Although her crime was blowing up a space ship, she has no memory of it. Food and other supplies are delivered, but the two of them never encounter another human being. Gradually, though, Bee realizes she has telepathic powers that are nullified by a chip in her brain, supposedly related to her crime. The more she tries to reach out with her mind, the more agonizing the consequences, and the more frantic Chela becomes to maintain their status quo, to not challenge their imprisonment, and to keep Bee emotionally entangled with her.

Slowly Bee peels away the layers of illusion, and I won’t reveal what comes to light, as “the pleasure is in the journey.” Suffice it to say that I kept turning the pages, pausing to savor the nuanced, exquisitely crafted prose. Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water showcases Kaftan as an author of immense skill and sensitivity. The end suggest that Bee’s story will continue, and I for one will be looking forward to it!

I would not be surprised if this book was an award contender.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Monday, July 1, 2019

Escapism and Pleasure

One of the criticisms of genre fiction that amuses me most is that it's escapism, as if that's a bad thing. I think just the opposite. Nobody, except the unbelievably incompetent, escapes to jail. (I'm not talking about the chronically incarcerated who, unable to function in normal society, deliberately choose actions that will return them to imprisonment, although that's an interesting image when it comes to preferred reading material.) No, the direction of escape is toward freedom, imagination, innovation, pleasure. In other words, we move toward becoming bigger, richer lives. So what is “escapism” an accusation of? Why is it bad to want something better?

What do we mean by “escape”? Escape from what? The critics mean, of course, escape from "real" life: responsibility, order, duty, piety. Underlying this notion is the assumption that life should be serious (serious = grim, humorless, unpleasant, joyless). You should work hard and deny yourself pleasure "for your own good." You should accept the way things are ("be realistic"). If you find reality oppressive and intolerable, it's because there's something wrong with you. You're weak-willed, inadequate, ineffectual, immature, lazy, stupid . . . you've heard the litany. I've exaggerated a bit here to make a point, which is that this attitude ("life sucks, get used to it") arises from a pernicious blend of Puritanical abhorrence of pleasure and the need for conformity in an industrialized society. Under such a system, the two greatest sins are to seek delight and to follow one's own preferences. In other words, to not only be open to change but to create it, to challenge the established order, to question and to dream.  To value joy above productive capacity and meaningfulness above popularity. To be an individual, not a cog in an assembly line, to sometimes be productive but other times contemplative -- in other words, to be unpredictable and unique.

When we speak of pleasure, we cannot avoid the issue of sensory pleasure and sexual ecstasy. Sexuality is a powerful, primal source of energy. No wonder industrialists are afraid of it, except when they can use it to sell things. They want us to be consumers, not originators. This brings me to a second way in which escapism is considered bad, and that is as a force of appeasement, of sedation, a means to drain off rebellious energy and maintain the status quo. I think genre literature, especially fantasy and science fiction, works exactly in the opposite way. The dichotomy and mutual exclusivity between body and mind or spirit is not a universal belief, nor is the insistence on negating or minimizing the importance of the full range of physical sensations. They are, however, tools of a hierarchical society. People are, after all, easier to control when they can be convinced to invalidate their direct experiences of themselves and the world, to distrust themselves and instead trust an external authority. Pleasure must be sinful when it seduces people from abject obedience. And yet, in every age and circumstance, people consistently seek it out, whether through sex or music or drugs or listening to a whopping good tale.