Friday, May 29, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Liszt and the Whitechapel Murders

Music Macabre, by Sarah Rayne (Severn House)

This thriller, set in parallel time lines in modern and Victorian-era London, weaves together the legend of the serial killer, Jack the Ripper, and the music of Franz Liszt. In today’s time, writer Phineas Fox is researching his next project, a scholarly work on the life of Liszt, when he comes across a reference to “Liszten for the Killer,” a song that the women of Whitechapel used as an alarm signal.

The Victorian story line includes the notorious music hall dancer, Scaramel, and the poor girl, Dairy, whom she befriends. As the Ripper’s attacks grow nearer, Daisy and her younger brother barely escape his knives. Scaramel devises a scheme to use a melody composed by Liszt’s, as distinctive as it is haunting, as a way to rapidly spread word of his approach. Meanwhile, Phineas’s researches bring him to the physical location of the older story’s events. Many of the same buildings are still in existence, including the pub where Scaramel and her group met; in gaining access to the documents stored in the basement, he encounters the new owner, who has a secret family history and obsession of her own.

Music Macabre added something quite new and fresh for me to the usual tales of Jack the Ripper. Initially my curiosity was piqued by the use of Liszt’s music as a plot element. That in itself set the book apart (and as an adult piano student, I have Opinions about Liszt’s compositions for a pianist with relatively small hands). Both story lines drew me in, and as the parallel tales progressed, echoing and crossing one another, the tension rocketed up. The thriller elements were handled with seeming effortlessness, allowing deeper nuances to emerge. Sympathetic characters, a burgeoning sense of doom, and unexpected twists added to the reading enjoyment.

Now, where’s that playlist?

Saturday, May 23, 2020

New (Free) Chapter of Jaydium on Curious Fictions

The next chapter of Jaydium is up on Curious Fictions, and it's free (all the previous chapters are, too). If you love the story, the entire ebook is only $0.99 right now from all the usual vendors. (And subscribing to my Curious Fictions page for a small amount per month would be lovely, too.)

Jaydium, Chapter 4

By Deborah J. Ross
May 22, 2020 · 3,238 words · 12 minutes
From the author: Far in the future, an interplanetary civil conflict has ground to an uneasy halt. Kithri, abandoned on a desolate mining planet, meets Eril, shell-shocked pilot. A freak accident sends them back to a time when their desert world was lush and green, when an alien civilization stands on the brink of a war of total destruction. They must choose to remain outside the conflict or to stand up for what they believe.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Short Book Revews: Murder on the Night Train

Night Train to Murder, by Simon R. Green (Severn House)

Like the murder in a country house, a crime on a train in passage has become a staple of mystery novels. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express leaps to mind. The space is confined, as is the number of suspects, and the time in which the detective must identify the culprit is limited.

Author Simon R. Green brings his own inimitable twist to this classic model, beginning with his highly unusual detective, Ishmael Jones – who not only works for a highly secret agency but is himself not exactly human. In fact, not human at all, and bent on keeping that a secret, too. With his charming (human) companion, Penny, he’s been dispatched to protect one of the train passengers, the newly appointed and much disliked Head of the British Psychic Weapons Division. Ismael’s mission is unbeknownst to both the Head, his body guard, his agency, and of course the other passengers. When the Head is found murdered – in the loo (aka rest room) – a true “locked room” mystery if there was one – Ismael and Penny spring into action, questioning everyone, reconstructing the time line, and trying to prevent another murder. Each passenger has their own story, a bit like the characters in Rashomon, and their own secrets that they are desperate to keep hidden.

Green handles all this with a seemingly effortless finesse and attention to character as he guides the story through plot twists and revelations, always “playing fair” with the reader, yet not giving away the surprising resolution until the very end.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Guest Blog: Rubi Ariadne on Surviving Covid-19

I often hear from Darkover fans around the world. There’s a large and enthusiastic group from Brazil. Some time ago I became friends with a Brazilian fan, Rubi Ariadne, who is now recovering from Covid-19. I asked her to share her experience of the virus. She wrote:
Fique doente desde o início de abril. Não contei para a maioria das pessoas porque não queria que meus amigos ficassem no pânico. Já estou melhor se comparar com o estado em que fiquei. 
I've been sick with Covid-19 since the beginning of April. I didn't tell most people because I didn't want my friends to panic. I'm already much better now compared to the state I was in.

Deborah: How did you acquire the infection?
Rubi: I believe I picked the virus up while shopping. Here we still didn't have the call to wear masks, and practically no one was taking any care until mid-April. Here from the beginning, we faced two serious problems: the virus, and the president [Bolsonaro] who acts against all health measures and disregards the disease. So there are a lot of people who still don't take the matter seriously today. As an example, today several people in the neighborhood are having a barbecue.

At first I didn't realize it was this disease because I have sinusitis and mild rhinitis. I thought it was an acute episode because those are frequent at this time of year and our climate contributes to respiratory problems. But I don't usually have acute episodes; in fact mine are so mild that I rarely notice them. That's why we got suspicious. I had a very high fever, which did not go away, I started to have difficulties in breathing, and then I completely lost my taste and smell. It was at that moment that we realized that this was more serious than just a rhinitis attack.

Deborah: What it’s like to have Covid-19?
Rubi: I hate being idle, “standing still,” and not feeling useful all the time. So, besides all the strong and insistent symptoms, what is really difficult for me is to rest. Even getting up quickly creates results in coughing and shortness of breath.

Deborah: Was it difficult to get health care while you were sick?
Rubi: In my city it is not difficult to find medical help because the governor and the mayor are working very well, despite the difficulties with the federal government. Here, fortunately, we are not short of beds yet. When the test is positive for Covid-19, we do not need to stay in the hospital. They follow each case daily by phone, e-mail, and Whatsapp. Here at home it's just me and my mom, so she was the one who took care of me.

Deborah: What advice would you offer to others, based on your experience?
Rubi: We all know the preventive measures against the coronavirus, but if I could give everyone a single piece of advice on how to avoid contagion, I would say just one thing: obey the measures recommended by the specialists. They are the people who really know what they are talking about, who study hours without rest to bring us real information.


Rubi is also a talented amateur artist. You can follow her on Facebook here.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Changing the Story Halfway

The Last Human, by Zack Jordan (Del Rey)

I know this book has received a lot of buzz but frankly I found it disappointing and gave up near the end. The beginning was awesome: Sarya, a human teen raised by a voraciously violent, gigantic spider-with-razor-legs, lives on a space station with many other species, all joined by the Network, a galaxy-wide AI that offers communications and diplomatic services to those species who join, and ruthless segregation to those who refuse. Humankind is not among them; in fact, humans are considered to be extinct, so Sarya disguises her species. Various events catapult Sarya from her disadvantaged and frustrated life, variously aided and threatened by an array of fascinating aliens, and Sarya’s history – and the fate of humankind -- begins to be revealed.

That’s the story I was led to expect. But when Sarya is killed and her consciousness restored by the AI of all godlike AIs, I felt as if I had inadvertently stumbled into a cross between a New Age pseudoreligious tract and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I wasn’t nearly as interested in the new story, and I found the switch from coming-of-age and girl-finds-herself to tongue-in-cheek super-cosmic saving-the-universe a definite let-down. 

I also confess to a personal animus against the idea of species exceptionalism. I disagreed with the idea that humans were too dangerous a species to be allowed to exist (and that this specialness was admirable). If anything, our understanding of our place in the natural world demonstrates that our destructiveness is a bad thing, detrimental to our own survival, and that our saving grace is our capacity for compassion, not ruthlessness.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Wednesday's Lilacs

From our garden, gathered by Eldest Daughter.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Author Interview: B. A. Williamson, Author of the Gwendolyn Gray Adventures

Today I chat with Brent Williamson, author of the marvelous Gwendolyn Gray books. I reviewed the first one, The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray here, and the hot-off-the-presses sequel, The Fantastical Exploits of Gwendolyn Gray here.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?

Brent Williamson: Uh, boredom. I was on a charter bus taking a group of 5th graders to Washington DC. It was 2 AM, and some kid kept kicking my seat in his sleep. I had no wi-fi and no cell signal. So I got to thinking. I suddenly got that creative itch you get in those surreal moments in the wee hours in unfamiliar surroundings. My wife was pregnant with our first child, so I decided to write a bedtime story. That was the first time I ever thought of myself as a writer. Of course, later on, I looked back on the comics and musicals I had written in college, and the notebooks of songs and poems from high school, and realized that I had been writing all along. I hadn't thought of myself as a "writer," but I wasn't afraid of writing either. I had just enough experience that when I thought, "I should write a book!" I wasn't too intimidated to instantly rule it out. Also, stupid ideas seem much less stupid at 2 AM on a bus.

DJR: And in the shower!

DJR: What led you to write MG and how is it different from YA or adult fantasy?

BW: I never really thought about it. My favorite books are all mostly sci-fi and fantasy, and mostly for kids, so that's what I gravitated to. I had an idea and a character, and it wasn't until the book was done and ready for pitching that I found out that it was what was called "middle grade." From what I can tell, the big difference between YA and MG is intensity--violence, language... *ahem* relationships. You can go farther in YA. MG typically focuses on 4th-6th grade age characters, and YA focuses on older kids. You end up dealing with whole different sets of issues, because of the different challenges faced at those times of life. I picture this series as being an MG/YA crossover. Gwendolyn grows so much over the course of these stories. If you finish book two and take a glance back to the first few pages of book one, you realize just how far she's come. And in future books, I plan to follow her into the YA territory of her teen years.  

DJR: That will make me, and many readers, very happy! I love watching characters mature from one story to the next. 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Now (and Free) on Curious Fictions: Jaydium Chapter 3

The next chapter of Jaydium is up on Curious Fictions, and it's free (all the previous chapters are, too). If you love the story, the entire ebook is only $0.99 right now from all the usual vendors. (And subscribing to my Curious Fictions page for a small amount per month would be lovely, too.)

Friday, May 8, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Lakewalker Novella

Knife Children, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Subterranean)

This novella is set in the world of the Lakewalkers, magically gifted rangers who protect the world against incursions of rapacious, malignant forces. Superstition and mutual distrust separate them from the rest of human settlements, so when a Lakewalker discovers he has a teenage daughter from a long ago, one-night stand with a farm woman, father and daughter must negotiate the gray areas of their disparate cultures. At first they are strangers to one another, and the daughter knows nothing of Lakewalker ways. She can no longer fit into the world she once knew, yet the insular, suspicious Lakewalkers are anything but welcoming. 
What is the responsibility of a parent in these circumstances? When is it right to intervene, and when is it best for everyone to let go? How much guilt must a person carry for a single mistake?

All the while, of course, new dangers pop up, and everyone has their own agenda.

I found that I liked this novella better than the novels on which it was based, although all reflect Bujold’s superb storytelling and compassionate care with her characters. It’s not necessary to have read the novels to enjoy this story (and it might be an interesting experiment to read this first, then go read the others for backstory).

Strongly recommended if you, like I, love anything Bujold writes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Wednesday's Roses

From our garden, gathered by Eldest Daughter.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Guest Blog: P.G. Nagle on the Amazing Life of Emma Edmonds

P. G. Nagle: As the world adjusts to chaos and, at best, a new lifestyle of isolation and restricted movement, I’m reminded of how Emma Edmonds must have felt in the unusual life she crafted for herself, living as a man in 19th century America. Born and raised on a farm in Canada, she learned skills such as hunting, shooting, and fishing, that would serve her well later on. As a young woman, she assumed a male persona and became very successful selling Bibles and other high-quality books door-to-door. She reveled in the freedom from societal restrictions that she enjoyed as a male, but the price was risk. If she had been discovered, she would have faced imprisonment, and likely abuse as well. She dared not tell even her closest friends; certainly not her family. Hers was at its core a life of isolation, and she chose to accept this along with the risk.
Moving to America and eventually settling in Flint, Michigan, Edmonds (in her persona of Franklin Thompson) continued to enjoy prosperity, an active social life, and community including her church, of which her landlord was the pastor. Perhaps she was comfortable, having lived as a man for several years by then. Yet her comfort was soon challenged by the outbreak of secession and war.
Edmonds loved her adopted country so well that she felt compelled to offer her service, and so Frank Thompson enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Her risk accelerated; now she was living in close quarters with a hundred men, at first in barracks, and later in camps. No doubt her ingenuity was tested. The emotional strain of being constantly on guard against detection—constantly aware of everyone around her and alert to what they might be thinking—must have been something like what we face today.
I find this new awareness to be a kind of enforced mindfulness. We have no choice but to be vigilant, if we want ourselves and our loved ones—some of whom may be more at risk than ourselves—to survive this pandemic. We are aware of the consequences of each movement—the risk of touching doors, objects, things that other people have touched. The risk, even, of breathing the air that another has breathed.
Edmonds must also have been acutely aware of her every movement, knowing that she might be watched with suspicion at any time. Such vigilance forces one to live in the moment. Distractions bring a heavy cost; we must keep our focus. It is a new way of being.
Ultimately, Edmonds fell victim to sickness and faced a painful choice. Unable to care for herself in her illness, she had to flee in order to escape certain discovery. This cost her not only her reputation (Frank Thompson was proclaimed a deserter), but her very persona itself. Never again did she live in masculine freedom. She had to build a new life.

We, too, are building a new life. In a few years, the stress and tragedy of the time we are now entering will be softened in memory, and eventually this time will become an interesting paragraph of history. Yet now, as we prepare for what we know will be, at best, some level of devastation, the present feels stark. The near future looms with pending grief. We know it will be hard. Our only choice is how vigilant each of us will be.

A Call to Arms by P. G. Nagle

The Civil War Adventures of Sarah Emma Edmonds, alias Private Frank Thompson

Friday, May 1, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Women Take Over Henry IV

Lady Hotspur, by Tessa Gratton (Tor)

The origins of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal (Henry IV, Parts I and II, Henry V) lie in late 14th/early 15th Century English history, although the Bard took considerable liberty in embellishing those events, not to mention creating a panoply of additional (and memorable) characters, Falstaff among them. The historical prince was involved in suppressing the Welsh revolt (c. 1400-1415), led his own army into Wales against Owain Glyndŵr, and fought Henry "Hotspur" Percy at the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403). It seems only fitting that since Shakespeare made free with actual history, other writers should take similar liberties both with the factual record and with Shakespeare’s inventions. Author Tessa Gratton takes both sources, turns them inside out, stands them on their heads, shoves them into a magical kingdom full of Arthurian references, and switches genders.

Lady Hotspur focuses primarily on the character of Prince Hal, in this case a woman, and Hotspur Percy, also a woman, who became passionate lovers early in the book. Politics pull them apart as the fallout from the coup that placed Hal’s mother on the throne of unfolds and the magically imbued island of Innis Lear moves toward rebellion. Banna Mora, who would have been next in line to the throne, and who has been a dear friend to Hal, ends up captive in the island kingdom of Innis Lear, then becomes instrumental in leading its struggle for independence. This may seem like a lot of action, not to mention political intrigue, but it’s spread out over many, many…many pages. Pages of character development, of shifting personal and international relationships, battles, skirmishes, magical workings, and of daily life.

I went through several phases in reading Lady Hotspur. At first I was delighted with the gender swap and the larger-than-life love affair between Hal and Hotspur. Then the pace slowed and I found myself dipping into the story, reading a little, then going off and reading something else, then coming back. Halfway through, the story caught fire for me. It drew me in, kept me turning pages, and held my rapt attention to the very end.

Novels can be “about” many things, and the forward energy can arise from different aspects. A character-driven story has quite a different “feel” from one centered on an idea (such as a mystery) or a plot/sequence of dynamic events (action/adventure). Lady Hotspur is as much about the magical sundering and eventual reunification of two lands as it is a political or military drama, or even a love story. Such a story, in which the world itself is the hero, demands a different pacing than other types of novels. Once I understood this, I was able to settle into a long, deep sojourn in this imaginary landscape.

This is apparently one of a series of Shakespearean-derived novels, which I wasn’t aware of when I read it. That said, it made no difference to me, and should pose no obstacle to the curious reader.