I made my editorial debut in 2004 with the first volume of the Lace and Blade series and discovered that I loved working "on the other side of the desk." Since then I have edited more volumes of Lace and Blade, The Feathered Edge: Tales of Magic, Love, and Daring, co-edited Sword and Sorceress 33, and took over editing the Darkover anthology series, beginning with Stars of Darkover. Over the years I've had the privilege of working with Tanith Lee, Judith Tarr, Catherine Asaro, Jay Lake, Mary Rosenblum, Chaz Brenchley, Harry Turtledove, and many other, stellar authors.
Friday, December 31, 2021
Monday, December 27, 2021
The California state legislature has been busy with a wide range of new laws on voting access, police reform, housing, single-use plastics, sexual assault, and more.
All active registered voters in California will automatically be mailed ballots in all future elections, beginning in 2022, AB37 by Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park).
AB490 prohibits the use of restraints that risk suffocating a suspect. Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Carson)
AB48 bars police from firing rubber projectiles and tear gas at protesters if the situation is not life-threatening. Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego)
AB89 raises the minimum age to become a police officer to 21. Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles)
AB26 requires police officers to report when they see a colleague use excessive force. Officers who witness excessive force but don't intervene will face punishment. Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena)
SB16 makes public any records related to excessive force, unlawful searches and other misconduct. Sen. Nancy Skinner, (D-Berkeley)
SB81 by Skinner authorizes judges to give more weight to mitigating factors such as childhood trauma when considering sentencing enhancements.
Wiener's SB73 ends mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes that are nonviolent.
"Stealthing," the nonconsensual removal of a condom during sex, is now considered a form of sexual battery, and victims can sue for civil redress. Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens)
Friday, December 24, 2021
Every Hidden Thing, by Kenneth Oppel (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Oh my. Dinosaur hunters and the Wild West and star-crossed lovers, all in one fast-paced, eminently readable novel.
The late 19th Century was marked by, among other things, rivalries between paleontologists. The equivalent of a fossil Gold Rush sent them into the West, in this case the Badlands, in search of ever more spectacular finds. Amateurs vied with professors for the fame of their discoveries, although by the time of Every Hidden Thing, professional journals and museums were already favoring those with academic credentials. To say these bone hunters were cavalier about their treatment of fossil-bearing sites, their understanding of anatomy, and their ethics in dealing with one another is an understatement. Bribery, theft, lies, luring away employees, and outright destruction of excavations were not unheard of.
Set in a fictional version of this fossil race is a love story between the adult children of the two rivals, one an amateur desperate to hold on to his tattered reputation, the other a pompous academic. The young people manage to get themselves included in the expeditions mounted by their fathers, a race to find and unearth “Black Beauty,” a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. They encounter grifters and Native Americans, the latter resentful about incursions into their territory, guides and traitors, not to mention the elements and hazards of excavation.
It’s a lively page-turner with a pair of engaging lovers, curmudgeonly elders, plot twists, and best of all, dinosaur bones!
Monday, December 20, 2021
Friday, December 17, 2021
For the past eighteen years, the town of Velvet has been under a holiday curse. Thanksgiving is not about turkey and family. On that night the town is beset by Nightmares, terrifying hooded figures that embody a person’s worst fears. A handful of Velvet residents have the ability to absorb the horror of the Nightmares, so every Thanksgiving the town gathers in one place, patrolled by the guardians. The most powerful of these protectors is seventeen-year-old Boone, who was raised by an ageless eccentric and who suffers tremendously by neutralizing the Nightmares. Everyone in Velvet knows the routine. Problems arise, however, when newcomers regard the ritual as mere superstition, to be blithely disregarded, or residents bound to solve the problem with firearms (hint: very bad idea). Two recent arrivals are Nick, who used to live in Velvet and has returned seeking refuge in the midst of a breakdown, and teenager Toni, heavily armored against her traumatic past. While Toni holds Boone at arm’s length, she’s oblivious to the dangers she puts herself in. Nick, on the other hand, delves even deeper into his past and the sequence of events that invoked the curse.
What could possibly go wrong?
Keep turning the pages to find out..
Monday, December 13, 2021
History offers a rich, fascinating treasure trove of people, events, and customs. Today, I'm delighted to host Italian writer Luca Azzolini as he shares with us his journey from a kid who was curious about everything to the author of a new trilogy, "Romulus."
The luck of living in a country like Italy is that you can touch history every time, everywhere. We cannot avoid seeing it, experiencing it, touching it or breathing it. Everything around us tells us about a mythical and distant past. And in some places you can live this even stronger than in others.
Mantua is the city where I live, and it is a stratification of different eras that coexist with each other. There are the remains of the Etruscan age, the Roman ruins, the medieval castle, the Renaissance palaces and squares.
I think my love for history began here. I read as much as I could. Especially essays. I realize I've always been a weird kid! Which 12-year-old would passionately study the contents of Canopic jars? Which twelve-year-old would be passionate about the genealogies of the great noble dynasties of Italy? From the Gonzaga, to the Este and to the Sforza.
Well, I was that kind of kid!
The love for novels came immediately after. There was a key moment that I remember very well. At the age of fourteen I faced a crucial choice. Of those that can change your life forever. I wanted two books and could only buy one. I was very torn.
The first was an essay by a well-known Italian astrophysicist, Margherita Hack, whose title I no longer remember.
The second was a novel, in a brightly colored cover, by an author unknown to me at the time: The Planet Savers, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
I chose the astrophysics essay. I stayed for more than an hour in the bookshop with that book in hand.
Then I went back to the shelves, put down the essay, and took The Planet Savers away with me.
I owe a lot to that novel. Reading that book, and the whole Darkover saga, was perhaps the most beautiful, adventurous and exciting journey of my life. Not only I discovered a distant planet where I felt at home, but I also realized I wanted to write novels. Since then I have set my whole life on that choice. At the age of nineteen I chose a faculty at the University of Verona that would allow me to discover “as many stories as possible, and as many lives as possible.” My choice fell on Art History. I never imagined that, over a decade later, that choice would pay back.
Friday, December 10, 2021
Composite Creatures, by Caroline Hardaker (Angry Robot)
This is a very strange book, but strange in the sense of mind-bending speculative fiction about a dystopian future, executed with great skill and, most of all, respect for the reader’s intelligence. In an era when all too many novels spoon-feed information, practically hammering the reader’s attention, Caroline Hardaker builds her world, characters, and mysteries layer by intricate, subtle layer. She invites us into a world that is grim but recognizable, one in which pollution and habitat destruction have resulted in the loss of most animals city dwellers might see, including pets. Governmental institutions are slowly being replaced by private ones, notably Easton Grove, and the author doesn’t tell us upfront what it does. Norah, the viewpoint character, has signed up with Easton Grove and has been matched with Arthur, a notable novelist. She’s understandably nervous about their first date in a bizarre courtship by corporate decree, but all goes well, they set up housekeeping together, and soon a cardboard box arrives. Inside is a creature that sounds awfully like a cat. A pet! I thought. They’ve gone through this rigorous process and qualified to parent a pet!
Little did I know that the strangeness was just beginning. As Norah becomes increasingly obsessed with “Nut,” as she has named the creature, Arthur grapples with crippling writer’s block and their network of friends gradually disappears. Then Nut’s fur falls out, Easton Grove increases its surveillance, and Arthur sports a new tooth, wrenched from Nut’s jaw.
In places, Composite Creatures wanders over the border into horror, but I don’t think it belongs properly to that genre. It’s edgy, complex, layered dystopian science fiction, with the emphasis on the inner lives of the people caught up in the Kafka-esque world. It isn’t an easy read or a pleasant one, but is nonetheless rewarding. Norah and Arthur are so much like ordinary people, and we are all vulnerable to the intense seductions and pressures they succumb to.
Monday, December 6, 2021
What a colossal bummer!! There's no getting around how frustrating and just plain maddening it is to lose work. I used to do that with some regularity back in the era when I had to manually save everything to disk/ette. I still have a 5 1/4" floppy that no one can read because of the misalignment of the drive when I saved it -- that I am sure contains brilliant and irreproducible words. And I just did it last year by overwriting a chapter and saving it in the cloud.
So, having been around the block on losing work enough times I know a couple of things.
One, as I began with, is that I'm going to feel wretched and desperate and aggravated no matter what I tell myself.
Two, THIS WILL PASS. Two sub-two, I won't be ready to rewrite until I am ready. Sometimes that's an antidote to Great Flaming Balls of Upset, but more often I need to go away and calm down. Do something else, like making bread by hand or chopping wood or throwing a ball for the dog. And wait for words to start coming again. That could be remembering how I started or a detail I liked. Sometimes I can re-build around that, but more often it's just a starting place.
Sometimes I'll try to recreate what I've written but it's flat, like a xerox of a carbon copy. For some, I suspect, it's better to just start fresh and not try to recreate, but mostly for me I need an entry point (think of me as a sperm cell, frantically trying to find a way into the story ovum) and then at some point I'll clear away the scaffolding.
Telling myself that the rewritten prose will be strong isn't very helpful when I'm still raging. As a matter of fact, it's dubiously helpful except in retrospect when I'm finished.
Another thing I've learned is that if I can find a way to lighten up, I'll get through the Argh stage sooner. It really is awful, but it's survivable. If you can find a way through it that results in a funny story to share with fellow writers, so much the better.
Friday, December 3, 2021
The Lost Girls of Foxfield Hall, by Jessica Thorne (Bookouture)
Two very different women separated by sixty years of history – garden designer Megan in 2019 and heiress Ellie in 1939 – meet in a moonlit hedge maze. After the usual suspicions are allayed, they discover how much they have in common. The legendary Green Lady, who may or may not be Arthur’s Guinevere. Two stern women with the surname Seaborne, one an archaeologist in Megan’s time, the other a wartime secret service agent in the employ of Ellie’s father – or is it the same person? When Megan starts researching Ellie’s home, Foxfield Hall, she discovers that Ellie disappeared without a trace. Then it’s a race against the countdown to the date of that disappearance, for both women to discover the link between the supernatural feminine figures called Vala, the tunnel through time, and the fate not only of Ellie but of Megan herself.
A highly readable time-travel supernatural mystery thriller, The Lost Girls of Foxfield Hall hits all the notes perfectly with smooth prose, evocative details, compelling characters, and a superbly revealed mystery.
Monday, November 29, 2021
Friday, November 26, 2021
Gifting Fire, by Alina Boyden (Ace)
I enjoyed this sequel to Alina Boyden’s wonderful debut fantasy novel, Stealing Thunder, for many reasons. With power and authenticity, the story of her heroine, Razia Khan, a transgender royal who ran away from unendurable abuse to work as a prostitute thief, find true love, rescue her feathered-dragon zahhuk, and discover her military genius, came alive. If Stealing Thunder was about discovering who you really are and being willing to fight for yourself, Gifting Fire elaborates that theme, centering on creating community and loyalty. Both stories are set in an alternate pre-Raj India, a refreshing departure from the usual Western European fantasy worlds. In our world, as in Boyden’s, transfeminine people called hijras have recognition, joining together in communities, even if as individuals they are rejected and scorned.
Razia has finally created the life she longed for, as a princess cherished by her soulmate, Prince Arjun, guardian to her sister-hijras, whom she deeply loves. But such bliss cannot endure. Her ambitious father, having maneuvered her into the governorship of an unstable province, Zindh. He now joins forces with her childhood nemesis, Prince Karim, who brutally raped her as an adolescent. In order to save her prince and his city from certain destruction, Razia agrees to marry Karim. Soon she is imprisoned in the women’s quarters at Karim’s palace, her good behavior ensured by threats against her sister-hijras whom he holds hostage. All is not lost, however, for Razia has now found a community of empowered transgender women, led by the rightful ruler of Zindh. It will take all of Razia’s military brilliance and courage to organize a successful conquest while playing the part of a submissive bride.
Boyden brings an unusual sensitivity to her portrayal of Razia, not as a stereotype or object of curiosity defined only by her gender identity, but as a person discovering her strengths in an often hostile world. Highly recommended for all fantasy readers. For anyone interested in positive portrayals of transgender characters, defined by much more than their gender, these two books are a treasure.
Monday, November 22, 2021
When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, the effects ripple through the community. If we and our friend are relatively young, we may feel shock but also a sense of insulation. We have not yet begun to consider our own mortality, or the likelihood of losing our peers to accident or one disease or another. It hasn’t happened to us yet and the odds are still in our favor, particularly if we don’t smoke or drive drunk, we exercise and eat many leafy green vegetables. As the years and the decades go by, most of us will see an increase in morbidity if not mortality in our friends. They – and we – may develop osteoarthritis or Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, all those common ailments of aging.
Some of us will get Covid-19. Some of us will get cancer.
“So now, I’m back to scans every three months. Watch and wait. Watch and wait. Wait for the pink and turquoise sneaker to drop. But I keep enjoying my miraculous recovery.“When I say miraculous, I don’t mean a conventional miracle. … It’s miraculous that a Monarch butterfly can wing its way from Canada to one small patch of breeding ground on a Michoacan hillside. It’s miraculous that a black hole’s sucking gravity can pull everything, including light into is gaping maw. It’s miraculous that there are billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in our universe…“And I’m still here, gazing with wonder at it all.”
Friday, November 19, 2021
A generation ago, a handful of babies in a secret laboratory were exposed to a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial material and then placed with normal families and observed. Aiden Manchester is one such child, now grown. He’s ignorant of his origins but beset by an uncontrollable and rather disgusting talent for manifesting piles of sticky brown goo when he sleeps. His otherwise placid life is upended by the search for the other children, as well as the scientists that experimented on them, a search that quickly twists the story into a thriller when he’s kidnapped by one of the other kids. That one is a homicidal psychopath, by the way, bent on eliminating all the others, who each have a unique gift and piece of the puzzle.
Aiden makes allies of varying degrees of ferociousness and competence along the way, although their goals are never precisely aligned with his. This is a refreshing change from the common “fellowship” quests, where everyone wants the same thing and always acts in unison. I honestly did not see where the story was headed. It’s a wild ride with a likeable hero who in the end uses his wits and insight against villainous treachery. For me that’s a sure formula for success!
Monday, November 15, 2021
Friday, November 12, 2021
The Tangleroot Palace, by Marjorie Liu (Tachyon)
This collection was my introduction to the work of Marjorie Liu. I found the stories oddly disquieting while I was reading them but Liu’s skill was so evident, I trusted it all to come together and I was not disappointed. I didn’t like all the stories equally, but that’s to be expected in any assortment of short fiction. These feel as if they’re paced like novels, but I think that’s because of the unusually subtle ways Liu weaves together the various fictional elements. Her work reminds me of that of the late Phyllis Eisenstein, who told emotionally complex, sophisticated stories with simple language. Here the real story lies beneath the mechanics of prose and plot, each thread of the tapestry contributing to a gorgeous and emotionally satisfying whole. And the last piece, a novella that gives its name to the collection, is just jaw-droppingly awesome.
Friday, November 5, 2021
Give Way to Night, by Cass Morris (DAW)
Rome with magic, how cool is that? In this second volume of “The Aven Cycle,” Aven (aka Rome) is beset by enemies both within and without. Iberian tribes are wielding blood magic against Avenian-held territory, and Sempronius Tarren, our hero from the first volume, has been dispatched to lift a siege. Meanwhile at home, the Discordian magicians plot the city’s ruin through the ascendency of chaos. Latona, along with Sempronius’s prickly sister, Vibia, must discover who’s behind the attacks and stop their dastardly plots.
As with the first book, this is a long, intricately detailed story involving a huge cast of characters (and the author has thoughtfully provided a list, arranged by nationality and family affiliation). The pace varies from dramatic battle scenes to quiet domestic affairs. The threads of plot, character development, relationship, magic, and culture clash are so skillfully handled that each individual scene adds another layer to the tapestry. I especially liked the way the love story between Latona and Sempronius unfolded even though they were many miles apart and each growing in their own way. The descriptions of battle tactics, especially Roman discipline against wild magic, were both vivid and insightful (yep, there’s a reason Rome conquered most of Western Europe). Characters discover clues about the plot underlying the encroaching chaos in much the same way people do in real life, slowly putting together a pattern while desperately beating back the most dangerous manifestations.
Magic in this world comes in different flavors that reflect the distinct cultures. I explored this aspect of world-building in my “Seven-Petaled Shield” trilogy where I contrasted the polytheistic, highly structured magic of my version of Rome with scripture-based, story-based magic of ancient Judea, and both with the expansive nature-based magic of my steppe horse nomads. Morris pits the magic of her version of Rome, with temples and deities, against the blood-fueled magic of the Iberian tribes, with great success.
I strongly suggest that the reader begin at the beginning of this long “cycle” (Give Way to Night is only the second installment and there’s more to come). Although Morris provides plenty of references to what has come before, there’s simply too much backstory and previous character development for most of us to jump easily into the middle. And the world and its characters are so appealing, you won’t want to miss out on how it all started!
Tuesday, November 2, 2021
In pre-Civil War Delaware, farmer Thomas Covington is part of a network of Quakers who help escaping slaves headed north. When he shelters a runaway, a slave-catcher comes calling…only it’s not human. The hunter is an automaton, relentless and incapable of mercy. Dealing with the automaton will test Thomas’s Quaker belief that there is “that of God in every person,” and force him to consider whether the mechanical intelligence may be enslaved by its programming, leading to unexpected questions for the Abolitionist movement.
One of my favorite pieces of short fiction in recent years, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, reprinted in The Shadow Conspiracy III. Here I read from the beginning, to give you a taste.
If you enjoyed the story, please leave a review! Here's where you can find it.
Monday, November 1, 2021
generation, whether they are our own children or someone else’s. In my personal life, my younger daughter dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the world of social media, into getting my first stupidphone, and later into video chatting (during her years of medical school on the other side of the country). Now these technologies are part of my everyday and work life. They've saved my sanity during the pandemic.
My very first stories (actually, my first umpteen attempts at novels) were written by hand in composition books or on scratch paper. I remember reading an interview with the British mystery writer Dick Francis, in which he described writing in ink in composition books (and that it had never occurred to him that a story, once written, could be revised!) so the method is definitely a time-honored one. Once I learned to type (in high school, on those really heavy manual typewriters) that became my preferred method, although when my children were small, I always carried a spiral-bound notebook on which to work on the Story of the Day in odd moments. Retyping a revision was a major chore, since I had to do it myself. I became expert in the application of white correction fluid. At least carbon copies were no longer necessary, but I had to take my finished manuscript to a copy shop because in those days no one owned a home copier.
I am of several minds about whether the ease of making changes as I go, being able to print out a manuscript at any stage, and so forth, have really changed how I write. I love the saying that the most important word processor is your brain. Perhaps I splat over the page, as it were, more spontaneously when I use a computer just because it’s so easy to tidy up my prose later.
Having multiple writing media available to me is a great thing. I often go back and forth when I’m stuck, especially between dictating and typing or typing and longhand. Dictation using voice recognition software is especially great for dialog or speeches (can you see me acting out the parts of the various characters?) Just as we don’t all write in the same way, I don’t write in the same way all the time. Sometimes words flow and then I want the medium that allows me to best keep up with them. But other times I’m stuck (or sulky, or distracted, or tired) and switching can help get things rolling again.
In the end, though, the only version that matters is the one in the hands of the reader.
Friday, October 29, 2021
Lies Sleeping, Ben Aaronovitch (DAW)
Best Thing You Can Steal, by Simon R. Green (Severn House)
I very much suspect that one night, Simon R. Green, Charles Stross, and Ben Aaronovitch met in a pub, got drunk together, and started telling tall tales about creepy things happening in London. Stross’s “Laundry Files” novels center on a secret agency tasked with keeping Lovecraftian Elder Gods in check. In Aaronovitch’s “Rivers of London,” waterways ancient and modern possess spirits, foxes have their own security forces, and a not-so-secret agency investigates supernatural crimes. Elsewhere I’ve reviewed some of the “Laundry Files” novels (they’re terrific fun, so check them out if you haven’t already).
My introduction to Aaronovitch’s enchanted London was reading Lies Sleeping and What Abigail Did That Summer simultaneously. It wasn’t intentional, but it turned out brilliantly. In the former, police constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant investigates an ongoing mystery from the agency’s headquarters, “The Folly.” This is actually well into the series, which I didn’t realize, and there’s a massive amount of backstory, but I found that just hanging out with Peter was vastly entertaining. Really, a summer evening picnic, trying to get the spirit of Old Father Thames to remember where King Arthur left his sword? Delicious fun! Abigail of What Abigail Did That Summer is Peter’s cousin, and her own adventure took place back in 2018. Missing kids, a seriously psychotic haunted house, and a security detail provided by talking foxes were just a few of the marvels. Then Abigail appears in Lies Sleeping as an extraordinarily perceptive student, which makes sense given what she went through years ago. It’s no wonder the magical bosses insisted she receive proper training!
And then there’s Green’s Best Thing You Can Steal, which features a thief and con man extraordinaire, going under an assumed name. He specializes in stealing things like a ghost's clothes or a photo from a country that never existed. Now he’s after a television set that shows the future and that most delicious of prizes, revenge against “the worst man in the world.” He’s put together a team that includes a ghost who remembers being human, a man wearing the armor of the angels he’s slaughtered, the possibly human embodiment of random luck, and his ex-girlfriend, who can make technology fall in love with her. Armed with a ballpoint pen that can stop time and a skeleton key that can open any lock, not to mention their special talents and wits, he and his team go up against poltergeist attack dogs, golem guards, shaped curses, and a villain who can foresee their every move.
Each of these books is fast-paced, chock-full of inventive imagination and quirky characters. They also share a blend of off-beat bad guys, love for London and the English language, and humor that strikes me, as an American, as quintessentially British. Which is not to say they share a setting, magical systems, or histories, because each is as individual as the thoroughly skillful author who created it, only that if you enjoyed one you’ll likely find delight in the others.
Friday, October 22, 2021
Sorrowland, by Rivers Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Rivers Solomon’s previous novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, was a powerful story set on a multi-generation space ship. Now she weaves a tale of magic and racism in the American South. The story begins with a gripping sequence as pregnant Black teen Vern escapes to the woods from an oppressive cult commune. Alone she gives birth to and then raises two very different fraternal twins. From almost the beginning of her exile, she’s hunted by shadowy demons and haunted by ghosts. I confess I found it unbelievable that a girl this young could not only survive delivering twins without help but re-invent survivalism, everything from finding or growing enough food to making her own shelter and clothing. However, the story carried me along, and it turned out I was right about these feats being extraordinary and it was a piece of deliberate awesomeness on the author’s part.
This book has many layers woven together. Seemingly disparate elements, like Vern’s ability to see and later to physically interact with ghosts, are eventually tied together as Vern’s physical and emotional transformation proceeds. The skillfulness of the prose and the dynamic plot momentum gave me enough confidence that the author knew what she was doing, and with each emerging connection, that trust was amply rewarded.
Solomon is a courageous, generous writer who doesn’t shrink from facing painful and difficult material squarely. Vern’s experiences in a Black-supremacist cult and her forays into the larger world are fraught with danger, bigotry, and ugliness. Yet the story never descends into polemics and it’s not solely about racism. There’s a great deal about love and loyalty and friendship, and how these define our humanity.
Monday, October 18, 2021
|Photo by Cleo Sanda|
Friday, October 15, 2021
The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Tor)
As I read Siliva Moreno-Garcia’s The Beautiful Ones, I kept thinking of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, with its theme of lovers given a second chance. In Persuasion, young lovers Anne and Frederick are parted when her family persuades her to reject his proposal because of he lacks riches and aristocratic standing. Years later, when he returns as a rich naval captain, they gradually overcome misunderstandings, jealousies, and broken hearts to re-kindle their devotion. The Beautiful Ones begins when a pair of youthful, parted lovers, Valérie and Hugo, meet again. By this time, however, Valérie has given in to family pressure and married, whereas Persuasion’s Anne remained single, a spinster ignored by her family. Valérie’s husband is rich and boring, his sole virtue seems to be his affection for his niece, Nina, who visits him. Hugo, like Frederick, is now rich and Valérie the icy, elegant queen of the social scene (“The Beautiful Ones” of the title). Magic comes into play since Nina, like Hugo, can move objects with her mind. While attempting to get close to Valérie, Hugo becomes Nina’s mentor in levitation. She falls in love with him and is shattered when she walks in on him and Valérie in a passionate embrace.
Here the parallel breaks down. Our sympathies are with Nina, not Valérie, who has become an unrelentingly selfish, vain, mean-spirited, possessive woman. Who she might have been if she and Hugo had stayed together is a matter of conjecture because the unfolding story makes it plain that theirs was a tempestuous, immature, and problematic infatuation that both have outgrown but not been able to let go of.
This leaves the issue of Nina and Hector, her heartache and anger at him, his gnawing guilt at having caused so much pain to someone he actually loves. Hugo’s struggles to come to terms with how he betrayed and injured Nina force him to review his past and himself in an uncompromising light. It’s a reversal of roles from Persuasion, where his was the broken heart, but strongly parallels the journey to understanding and forgiveness, both of self and the beloved, with renewed appreciation for how each enriches the other’s life. It’s a gorgeous, emotionally generous tale worth savoring again and again.
Monday, October 11, 2021
Friday, October 8, 2021
Questland, by Carrie Vaughn (Mariner)
I’m not a gamer, but I belong firmly in the camp of those who’ve longed to run away to Narnia or Middle Earth, or to ride a unicorn or cross wits with a sphinx. Imagine an entire island amusement park where such adventures come alive! Add high tech monsters and characters and you’ve got a sure hit. What could possibly go wrong? (Shades of Jurassic Park?) To begin with, even before Insula Mirabilis can go online, it goes offline. As in, breaks off all contact with the outside world. When a Coast Guard ship attempts to investigate, it crashes into an invisible force shield and is destroyed. Suspicion for this technological insurrection falls on Dominic, the head designer. At this point, the eccentric billionaire genius behind the project puts together a mercenary team to infiltrate the island and bring it back under his control. He enlists Addie Cox, a literature professor and ardent gamer with special expertise in legends and mythology, to help the team negotiate the built-in quests. The mercenaries, initially skeptical about Addie’s value, soon realize they are in over their heads. Insula Mirabilis is neither predictable nor safe, especially when they venture into areas where the foundational stories break down and supernatural creatures run amok. But Addie’s expertise is not the only reason she’s been offered the job: Dominic, the head designer, is her ex-boyfriend, and she’s probably the only one who can get through to him.
Smooth prose, fascinating details, and pitch-perfect pacing mark this, as other novels by Carrie Vaughn, as a book that will swallow you up in the most satisfying way.
Monday, October 4, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has been raging for many months now, marked from the onset by lies about the disease, its origins, its treatment, and its prevention. No aspect of the pandemic has been free from controversy and misinformation. In the middle of flame wars and whack-a-mole efforts to squelch anti-vaccine, anti-mask internet sites lies the confusion and grief of those who have lost loved ones to this disease (over 700,000 in the US and 4,800,000 worldwide).
Like many others who believe in science, I was first puzzled and then appalled by the cloud of outright falsehoods that grew up around vaccination. Refusing the vaccines based on illogical and unfounded internet rumors struck me as downright suicidal. Equally troubling were the friends who bought into those lies.
One was a long-time, very dear friend, who had supported me through dark times and whom I had supported in turn. Early in 2020, L told me that she didn’t trust the mRNA vaccines and besides, she thought she’d had a mild case of COVID-19, although she was never tested. But she was diligently wearing a mask at work, and it was clear that further discussion would only be confrontational, so I backed off. For the next year, all appeared to be going well. Then she moved to another part of the country, one with low vaccination and mask-wearing rates. I heard from her while she was waiting at an urgent care center for a persistent cough. Her COVID-19 test was positive. A few days later, she was admitted to the ICU. We talked and texted frequently as her condition deteriorated. After a week and a half, she was placed on a ventilator. She died two weeks later. Her last text to me was, “I love you.”
During her hospitalization, I felt not only growing concern for her, but anger. Anger at so many things. After her diagnosis, I wanted to scream at her, “How could you fall for that conspiracy nonsense?” Then my fury spread to everyone who spread those lies, manipulated statistics, and otherwise terrified people into refusing the one thing proven to save their lives. Anger at the last administration and the former president, who failed to take action at the onset of the pandemic. Anger at the officials in her state for their lax measures and cavalier attitudes to the virus. Anger at everyone who touted ineffective remedies in order to make a profit. And most of all, guilt that I hadn’t pressed the vaccine issue harder and been persuasive enough to save my friend’s life.
Grief mixed with anger and guilt isn’t logical. Nor is it simple.
Friday, October 1, 2021
What a luscious book! Part mystery, part thriller, part love story, part alternate history, set in 1912 Cairo. A generation ago, a great magician styled Al-Jahiz opened the door to the realm of supernatural creatures like djinns and angels. In response to the influx, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities acts as police, investigators, and regulators. Enter Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman working for the Ministry, who is called to investigate the murder of a member of an aristocratic British cult devoted to Al-Jahiz. That same legendary figure is now stalking the city, gaining ever more numerous and more violent followers. Perhaps his most terrifying power is his ability to control the djinn, even those integrated into human society. Even the mightiest of demons. (Even the charmingly OCD djinn Ministry librarian.)
Balancing breathless action, escalating peril, and plot twists with quieter human moments, evocative details of daily life in an invented world, and the slow unfolding of the heart is always a challenge. Pace and momentum, though, are not the only story elements that hook a reader and keep us going. Clark succeeds on all levels, using effortlessly vivid prose, multi-dimensional characters, and gorgeous world-building.
Monday, September 27, 2021
In this installment, Auntie Deborah discusses writing a first draft, the unfairness of publishing, and when to run away from a publisher's contract.
Dear Auntie Deborah: How can I prevent myself from constantly trying to edit as I draft?
- Beginning each session with reading the last page or so but not making any changes in it.
- Reminding myself that the only draft that counts is the one on my editor’s desk. And that what looks like an error may point me in the direction of a deeper, richer story, so I need to preserve all that drek the first time through.
- Reminding myself about author B, whose work I greatly admire, who told me that no one, not even her most trusted reader, sees anything before her third draft.
- Giving myself permission to be really, really awful.
- Falling in love with the revision process. I can hardly wait to get that first draft down so I have something to play with.
- Writing when I’m tired. Believe it or not, this helps because it’s all I can do then to keep putting down one word after another.
Friday, September 24, 2021
Phaethon, by Rachel Sharp (Pandamoon)
When a new tech company releases a smartphone that’s light-years beyond previous models, customers line up to be the first to own it. Jack and Rose, hackers par excellence, join the throng with the purpose of cracking the tech, stealing the code, and making it all available online in a sort of underground people’s tech empowerment. The Phaethon phone does things no device has ever been capable of. Not only does it make and receive phone calls, take photos, search the internet on voice command, but it interacts creatively with its owner – and it flies. The puzzle deepens as Jack digs into the primitive, outdated code and Rose opens the case to find junk parts that shouldn’t be able to do anything, let alone do the incredible things it can. What gives? As they delve deeper into the mystery, they stumble upon Phaethon’s incredible secret; the phone is powered remotely by a tiny magical creature. Soon they’re drawn into a world of mythical beings, friend and foe alike, and must take sides in a war not only for the control of fae but the future of the human race.
I loved it. I loved Jack and Rosie, both as quirky nerdish individuals and as a long-established loving couple. I loved their friends. I loved the way the mystery unfolded, step by page-turning step. It’s intelligent, compassionate, and just plain fun.