Friday, February 28, 2020

Short Book Reviews: The Princess and the Grave-Robber

The Resurrectionist of Caligo, by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga (Angry Robot)

In this fantastical version of Victorian England, magic runs in the royal family, which jealously guards the purity of its bloodline. One of the elite is young Princess Sibella, currently in disgrace at a remote, austere country estate. Her magical abilities include an inner glow and streaming ink from her fingers to create not only letters on paper but tapestries in the air. Her childhood companion, Roger, has also been expelled in disgrace and now ekes out a living as a “resurrectionist,” procuring bodies for anatomical study at Caligo’s medical school while learning everything he can about surgery. Their parting was rife with misunderstanding, hurt, and anger.

Now danger stalks the back streets of Caligo as “The Greyanchor Strangler” strikes again, just as Sibella is summoned back home to be a marriage pawn in trade negotiations with a neighboring kingdom. Eventually, of course, their paths cross again, Roger is accused of being The Strangler, Sibella navigates the tortuous schemes of the royal court, and secret plots and parentages are revealed. It’s as much a comedy of manners and switched identities as a love story, a murder mystery, and a tale of international intrigue as it is a fantasy. The characters are fresh and lively, the plot twists many and delightful, and a delicious vein of humor, while not taking itself too seriously, runs through the whole story. Verdict: an entertaining read, quirky world-building, and fun characters mark this as hopefully the beginning of wonderful series.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Monday, February 24, 2020

Auntie Deborah Advises on the Business of Writing

Auntie Deborah is back at her advice desk…

If two authors want to collaborate on writing a novel, how much should each author contribute?
Auntie Deborah: It all depends. There are so many different ways to do this. I’ve seen authors alternate chapters, divide scenes according to their strengths (ex: character/dialog vs action/technology), one writes the draft and the other revises it. I co-wrote a (published) short story in which my partner described a scene while I typed it out, asking questions and filling in details.
For the last 20 years, I’ve written posthumous collaborations with the author who was my mentor. During the last year of her life, we talked about the basic plot arc for the first 3 books, but then she died and I wrote those books (and 6 more and counting…) My natural literary “voice” is very close to hers so the transition was easy. Her Literary Trust approves the manuscript for consistency of style and content before it goes to her agent (who also happens to be my agent), so in a sense they act as a current collaborator. I work under subcontract to them and we have a formal, written, legal agreement.
The one unbreakable rule is that you set down in writing how you will resolve differences, divide payment, and what you will do if it all falls apart. Absolutely do not skip this step!

Is it wise to try and find a literary agent before I've finished writing my novel?
Auntie Deborah: I would advise not. First and foremost, the agent has to have something to sell. Otherwise there’s no point in representing an author without a marketable project. Second, you will be new to the agent and she will have no idea whether you can take those unfinished pages and turn them into something great. On the other hand, suppose they liked the sample chapters but you don’t have the rest ready to submit; you’ll end up either losing that interest in delay or sending something not ready. Either way you’ll have lost a potential agent.
If you’ve made personal contact with an agent, say at a convention, pitched your project, and aroused their interest, follow that with a polite note. Do not send anything less than your polished best! You don’t want to get put into the “talks great but doesn’t deliver” category. Then when you do submit, use the cover letter or query — depending on what the agent has asked for — to remind them of past interest.
Be patient. Do your work to the utmost of your ability.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Short Book Reviews: The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen Rides Again

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, by Theodora Goss (Saga Press) 

The “league of extraordinary gentlewomen” (aka, The Athena Club) continues as, fresh from their last adventure, our stalwart heroines must thwart a dastardly plot to mesmerize the world and place an imposter on Queen Victoria’s throne. Mary Jekyll (yes, that daughter), Diana Hyde (her sister), Beatrice Rappaccini (“The Poisonous Girl”), Catherine Moreau (panther-turned-human), and Justine Frankenstein (who, despite her enormous size, is a gentle vegetarian philosopher) are hot on the chase to rescue not only the entire British Empire, but their friend, Sherlock Holmes. With occasional homage references to H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mary Shelley. Hugely entertaining, especially the digressions in which the various characters kibbutz about Catherine’s writing narrative.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Auntie Deborah Advises on Writing Craft

Auntie Deborah is back at her advice desk...

I’ve been told that as a new writer I should write what I know. How can I apply this to writing a historical novel?
Auntie Deborah: First of all, that old saw about writing (only) what you know should be consigned to the dustbin of bad literary advice. If we all followed it, all fiction would be trite and unendingly boring. We’d write about writers staring at blank screens, unable to summon the enthusiasm to describe their morning cup of coffee. All our characters would be exactly like us. There would be no science fiction, no fantasy, no romance, no mystery, no historical fiction, no sweeping love stories across two continents…
Better, write what you are passionate about.
But do your research. If your main character is disabled, talk to disabled folks and read what they have to say about ableism. If your story is set in Regency England, head for the library (or better yet, the nearest university) and delve into the history, culture, social mores, language, everything you can learn to bring your story to life.

How can I create an amoral, despicable, sociopathic villain, without making him too cartoonish?
Auntie Deborah: Why would you want to do that when complex characters who do bad things for good reasons (or good things for bad reasons) are so much more interesting?
Look, no one worth reading about gets up in the morning and goes “Evil! Evil! Rah! Rah! Rah!” The best villains have heroic, majestic qualities with tragic flaws. They’re a whole lot harder to write well than cardboard characters, but if you put in the work, they’ll steal the show.

 What can you do if your characters won’t do you want them to?
Auntie Deborah: 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.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Deadly Secrets in a Newly Magical World

The Witchkin Murders (Magicfall, Book 1) by Diana Pharaoh Francis (BelleBooks)

Magic, long underground, has exploded from its confines, leaving the world and its human inhabitants transformed by Magicfall and the subsequent Magic Wars. Most of those transformed by magic – “witchkin,” including witches, dryads, and many even more mysterious creatures – are shunned by humans. When Portland, Oregon, police detective Kayla realized she was one such, she abruptly left the force rather than be discovered. But when she stumbles upon the ritualistic mass murder of witchkin, she calls her old partner, Ray, and gets dragged into the investigation. Someone is slaughtering these marginalized people with a bigger, darker, more horrendous goal. It’s up to Kayla and Ray to overcome their personal hurt, open their hearts, reveal their secrets, and work together to solve the mystery.

The mystery and the angst-ridden characters drew me right into the story, and the pacing kept me turning the pages. The book’s major flaw – for me, anyway, as for other readers it might be a feature, not a bug – was the Romance-style pacing of the unfolding relationship. I get impatient when lovers keep secrets to protect the other person, and especially when the estrangement and misunderstandings that should have been cleared up by a single honest conversation drag on for chapter after chapter. This romantic/erotic tension appeals to many readers, but I found it overly long drawn out in comparison to the fascinating world and its tantalizing mysteries.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Monday, February 10, 2020

When Writing Friends Aren't: Sabotage and Self-Image

Elsewhere on the net, a talented new writer made a comment about the damaging effects of another person's behavior. We can encounter destructive relationships in every area of our lives, but when it comes to our creativity, they can be particularly nasty.

Some people write in isolation. Either they aren't naturally sociable or they find that critical feedback simply isn't helpful. Most of us, however, create some type of support system at some stage of our careers. Often it's early on, when we're struggling to learn the craft. We may find a face-to-face group or an online workshop or other network of fellow novices. The internet provides a wealth of opportunities to meet such people, as do conventions. (When I was starting out, there was a wonderful workshop-by-mail run by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury; I'm still friends with some of the writers I met by exchanging letters and written critiques.)

Most of the time, beginning writers are honestly trying to help one another. We may make mistakes as we learn how to give useful critical feedback or make idiotic suggestions about marketing, but the basic relationship is one of good will and support. Success, however small the sale, becomes an occasion for celebration. When one member improves, we all feel encouraged.

Trust is a crucial element in such groups. We work hard to learn to accept criticism, to not be defensive, to take time to think through the comments. While this vulnerability makes us more teachable, it also leaves us open to manipulation and abuse.

Sadly, sometimes the people we thought were our friends and supporters, our colleagues and conspirators in the adventure of creating and publishing stories, turn out to be our most insidious adversaries. Sometimes, the alarm comes in the form of a sinking feeling, a sense that verges toward futility, after a discussion with a particular person. Other times, we realize that once again, we have been lured away from time in which we intended to work. Often we have no idea how that happened. We want to think well of our friends; we believe their words even when their actions speak differently.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Psychological Thriller from SF Master John E. Stith

Pushback, by John E. Stith (ReAnimus Press)

I encountered the work of John E. Stith through his imaginative hard science fiction novels, Redshift Rendezvous and Manhattan Transfer (among others, but these were my gateway). I was curious to see what he would do with mainstream thriller material, and I was richly rewarded. Stith is not only thoroughly skillful in handling character, plot, and descriptive narrative, but in this book, he weaves together a dramatic, tension-filled plot with the main character’s struggles with PTSD. In fact, rarely have I seen a protagonist as functional yet scarred, and PTSD and the techniques for managing it so accurately depicted.

Dave Barlow has made a remarkable recovery from childhood trauma. He’s a successful investment adviser, and happy in a new romance after the death of his fiancée. Things start to go wrong in bizarre, inexplicable ways when he and his girlfriend show up for his high school reunion and no one there has heard of him. Soon it becomes apparent that someone is trying to systematically destroy every aspect of his life – his relationship, his career, his home, his assets . . . and then his very life. The most likely suspects include anyone outraged that he has found love again, like his dead fiancée’s wealthy, reclusive father.

Stith shapes the tension of this thriller with consummate skill, pushing each new threat ever higher. I especially admired how he used Dave’s inner turmoil and still-unhealed wounds to intensify the escalation of pressure. The dramatic story is extremely well handled, but most of all, it’s a compassionate, humane tale of the resourcefulness of a deeply damaged, yet sympathetic, courageous, loving person. Ultimately, it’s as much a story of hope as a page-turner thriller.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Monday, February 3, 2020

New Story on Curious Fictions: Sing to Me of Love and Shadows

Curious Fictions: Sing to Me of Love and Shadows 

In this medieval murder mystery, a chanteuse traces the history of opera to solve the crime.

A snippet:
On a honey-scented spring morning, the young widow Solange sat spinning the wool from her own sheep and patiently repeating the melody of her newest song while Gaétan the minstrel struggled to set chords to it. The sun cast a narrow strip of shadow from her house, one of a half-circle that made up the tiny village. A breeze carried the mingled smells of hot earth, leeks, and thyme. A short distance beyond lay the manor house of Val-Joli, whose ancient, battered stones had been pried from the last remnants of the Roman road.
Blowing out his breath, Gaétan set the lute across his knees and stretched his fingers. He was only a few years younger than Solange and almost as homely.
“Don't give up,” Solange said, tucking a tendril of russet hair under her linen coif. “You sing so well.”
“Yes, I can sing. But nobody wants to hear my chansons de geste any more. They're bored with tales of high valor; today it's all love and ladies' favors, and I'm no good at that.” He sighed again and stroked the feather he used to pluck the paired strings.
Maman sings pretty songs,” said Jeannette, Solange's stepdaughter, as she wound the spun thread on a frame. Although she was twelve, she still wore an outgrown child's smock.
A smile curved the edges of Solange's mouth. She'd started making songs when she was a new widow. Some said Jeannette ought to have died of the same fever, but whether it was by the Virgin's blessing or some other power, the child had lived.
The minstrel picked up his lute again. Solange began humming and gradually a melody unfolded.
“A sky so pure,” she sang, “a sun so bright.
Love brings hope to darkest night.
A man of feathers longs for his promised bride,
A golden pipe moves the hardest heart to stone,
Through fire and water—”
“Hark!” Gaétan rose to his feet. “There, on the north road!”

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