Friday, December 31, 2021

BOOK RELEASE: Bright Morning, an Anthology in Honor of Vonda N. McIntyre

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.

Now I proudly present the latest gathering of luminous stories of hope and courage. The anthology, stories by writers hanging out together in the Treehouse, arose from a desire to honor our friend, teacher, and colleague, Vonda N. McIntyre. For this anthology, I included both original and reprint stories. 

Vonda N. McIntyre preferred to keep her author's biography short and sweet: "Vonda N. McIntyre writes science fiction." While true, this modest claim conceals accomplishments that earned her multiple accolades and an enduring place among the most influential fantasy and science fiction writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Even more important to the authors of this tribute anthology, McIntyre was a kind and generous supporter of other writers. In Bright Morning, eleven career writers of science fiction, fantasy, and other genres share stories of hope in her honor, along with their memories of working with McIntyre. Profits from the anthology will benefit a charity that promotes literacy for children all over the world.

Table of Contents

Chautauqua, by Nancy Jane Moore

Dog Star, by Jeffrey A. Carver

Emancipation, by Pati Nagle

In Search of Laria, by Doranna Durgin

A Plague of Dancers, by Gillian Polack

Sanitizing the Safe House, by Leah Cutter

Smiley the Robot, by Amy Sterling Casil

More Lasting Than Bronze, by Judith Tarr

Panacea, by Pati Nagle

The Soul Jar, by  Steven Harper

Cuckoo, by Madeleine E. Robins

Unmasking the Ancient Light, by Deborah J. Ross

To Kiss a Star, by Amy Sterling Casil

Harden, by Gillian Polack

Though All the Mountains Lie Between, by Jeffrey A. Carver

The book is available now in ebook form from all the usual vendors and will be released in trade paperback next month. Reviews are especially welcome!

Monday, December 27, 2021

[politics] New California Laws Look to a Better Future

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. 

Universal Vote By Mail

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).

Police Reform

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) 

AB958, which allows departments to fire officers for joining a law-enforcement gang. Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Carson)

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) 

Criminal Justice 

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" Ban

"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)

Spousal Rape 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Short Book Reviews: A Dinosaur Hunting Romance in the Wild West

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

Guest Blog: B.A. Williamson on Being a Bipolar Writer

On Being a Bipolar Writer
By B.A. Williamson

It’s pretty hard to write this right now. Each sentence is taking a conscious effort. Why? Well, I’m depressed. Unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances. Cancelling all my book launch events and conference panels didn’t help.

There’s not always a reason. Occasionally this just happens. But I can say this depression is “just a phase” without any hint of condescension, because for me, it’s true. I’m bipolar.

Sometimes I just want to lay on the couch and escape. Hours of video games are good for this, though not exactly healthy. I suffer from the emptiness and lethargy that is familiar to millions of sufferers of depression.

What’s less familiar is the other side of the coin—my manic episodes. I have unlimited energy and focus, and can dive into projects for hours on end, and the words just flow. Everything I write is the best thing anyone has ever written. (Impaired judgment is another symptom.)

Manic energy can be a superpower, if harnessed correctly. I can hit any deadline, tackle any obstacle, and breeze through it with the confidence of a narcissistic tiger owner. But as I said, it’s a double-edged sword. The crushing writer’s despair is even worse, and can wipe out all the progress I’ve made.

Writing helps. Getting things out on the page helps. During a depressive episode, it takes a monumental effort to sit down and get moving. But even as I type this, it has become easier. I do feel better. I’m not agonizing over every punctuation mark, and hey, I’ve produced about 250 words so far! Halfway there.

Routines help, too. And outlines. The less you have to think, the lower the energy it takes to get started. I don’t have to think, just check the outline, do what it says, and follow the routine. They also keep me moving at those times when I’m balanced, and don’t have that supply of manic energy to rely on.

Whenever I want to give up before I’ve even started, I tell myself to write three sentences. That’s the rule—three sentences, then you can quit. Anyone can write three sentences. My seven-year-old can write three sentences. And to this day, I’ve never stopped at three sentences. I may only get a few paragraphs, but that’s still overshooting my goal by quite a bit.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Nightmare Thanksgiving

 Welcome to Velvet, Az, by Sherry Rossman

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

Guest Blog: Italian Author Luca Azzolini Takes On Roman History


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

Short Book Reviews: Composite Creatures, by Caroline Hardaker

 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

I Failed To Save That Chapter: What To Do When You've Lost Your Work

Recently a friend reached out to me when a computer crash resulted in the loss of several weeks'
writing. Here's how I responded.

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

Very Short Book Reviews: A time-travel supernatural mystery thriller

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.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Short Book Reviews: A Transgender Heroine Defends Her Homeland

 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

Memoir, Cancer, And Tent Camping: My Friend Connie

 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.

When my best friend, Bonnie, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she was the closest friend I had who had cancer. Since then, other friends have been diagnosed and some have died; Bonnie died in 2013 (peacefully, at home). One of the things Bonnie did way back when was find support groups for women with cancer. Maybe it’s a holdover from the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s, but it’s practically a reflex: whatever is going on in your life, you grab a bunch of women to talk it through. Do men do this, too? If so, it’s a secret from me.

It turned out that a cluster of women who were at college with us at the same time and who still lived in the area wandered through these groups at one time or another, or were otherwise associated with this community. Some have also died, some weren't doing too well the last I heard, and some are thriving. One of those I lost was my friend, Constance Emerson Crooker.

Connie and I weren’t close in college, but it was a small school and everybody pretty much knew one another in passing. She wasn’t an avid folk dancer or a Biology major like me, but she and Bonnie stayed in touch so I’d hear about her from time to time. Connie was one of those who stepped up to the plate in Bonnie’s final weeks, and I was not only grateful for the extra and very competent pair of hands but for the chance to get to know her better.

Connie was a long-term melanoma survivor, a “late-stage cancer patient,” and made no bones about being one of the lucky ones. 

One of the things Connie did was to go tent camping across America. Another thing was to write about it and her cancer. I slowly read and savored her memoir, MelanomaMama: On Life, Death, and Tent Camping. Tent camping does not rank high on my list of favorite things to do. I didn’t grow up camping, and I’m poor at it at best. But as I wended my way through her breezy story-telling, I realized it didn’t matter whether it was tent camping or ice skating or tango dancing (which Bonnie did, clear through the week she went on hospice) or anything else that gives us intense joy.

William Blake wrote that if a fool would persist in his folly, he will become wise. I think that if we’re blessed to have enough time and reflection we can move through the shock and terror and sheer awfulness to some other place, one of “sucking the juicy joy out of life.” Which is why Connie’s tent camping spoke to me and I’m grateful she wrote her book.

When something awful happens to us or when we at last glimpse it in the rear-view mirror, many of us want to write about it. If we’re fiction writers, we use our imaginations to spin out stories in our preferred genre. A huge weight, a pressure of all the intense experience, the fear, the relief, the unhealed and oozing wounds, cries out for us to make sense of the whole thing. That’s one of the things that fiction does, and often it does it much better than straight memoir narrative. Fiction requires emotional coherence, at least genre fiction does. I make no promises about literary or experimental stuff. We think, If I could just nail this down in a story, it would make sense. I understand that longing, that temptation, and at the same time, in my own life, I’ve had the good fortune to pay attention to my gut feeling that I wasn’t ready. Maybe I’ll never be ready to “tell my story.”

But Connie was and she did, with wit and the ferocious clear-sightedness of one who knows she has been reprieved and what it has cost her. Some parts are travelog, some parts are survivalog, some are the observations of an intelligent, thoughtful person who has had a long time to decide how she wants to live each day. I couldn't read very much of it at a time; it was too “chewy,” too emotionally dense. I needed to reflect on what she shared and what it meant in my own life.

In Connie’s writing, I recognized something quite different from the impulse to tell our story to make sense out it. It was the even more powerful need to take what we have suffered and have it make a difference. Have our lives make a difference.

“Hey world,” she seems to be saying, “I was here. Me, the only Connie there is or will ever be.” 

“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.”

And sharing that wonder with us. Thanks, Connie, wherever you are tent-camping now.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Very Short Book Reviews: Children of the Secret Laboratory

Refraction, by Christopher Hinz (Angry Robot)

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

Transgender and gender diverse teens: How to talk to and support them

Transgender and gender diverse youth have become more visible than ever. How does transgender history inform us about where society is at in the United States?

Jules Gill-Peterson: A lot of the rhetoric around [trans] kids frames them as totally new – most people are getting to know that there are trans youth for the first time. The visibility that we’re dealing with today is pretty unprecedented. But that doesn’t mean [transgender] people themselves haven’t existed before.

One of the challenges that anyone who’s trans faces is coming to an understanding of yourself in a culture that fundamentally doesn’t recognize that you exist. One of the most remarkable things about trans youth is that they’re able to stand up in this world that we’ve created, that gives them no reason to know who they are, and say, “Hey, actually, I know something about myself that none of the adults in my life know.”

I think history can be a really powerful grounding force to give young people a sense of lineage. It’s not like you look back in time and you see yourself reflected, by any means. But I think it can be profoundly reassuring, in a moment of not just political backlash but the general isolation that trans people face in a cis-normative society, to be able to [see] that you’re not the first person to ever go through this. [I think] that is just kind of a powerful message and one that I certainly subscribe to as an adult too, but I can imagine it’s especially important for young people.

What does “cis” mean and where does it come from?

Jules Gill-Peterson: This is actually a term from chemistry. It’s a prefix that you can put in front of words. So is the word “trans.” Trans as a prefix means across – it’s the spatial metaphor moving across something. Cis means on the same side of. At some point on the internet, people started using that word; they were looking for a word to distinguish between people who are trans and people who are not. Cisgendered came to mean that your gender identity matches what was assigned at birth. That being said, it’s not a totally kind of innocent or uncomplicated term. I’m not sure how helpful it is to think of cisgender as something that people need to own up to, for example, in a pronoun circle (when people introduce themselves by name and by the pronouns they prefer).

I think often the pressure for people to [identify] as cis doesn’t make any sense, either. It’s like, well, what makes you cisgender? Did you really go through that long process of deciding if your gender matched what’s on your birth certificate, like trans people have to deal with? I tend to use the word cis in my work to describe large historical structures that created that very obligation in the first place.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Very Short Book Reviews: Marjorie Liu's Delicious Collection

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

Book Reviews: More Magical Rome

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

Book Release Day: Among Friends (stand-alone novelette)


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.

Amazon Kindle: 

Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, and other vendors:

Google Play:

Monday, November 1, 2021

A Few Thoughts on Technology and Transitions

It’s always amazing and heartening how much inspiration we can draw from the next

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. 

I think it’s good to keep learning new things, to use our minds and bodies in different ways. One of the challenges of these new computer-based technologies is that they require us to use different methods of thought. The transition, for example, from keyboard-based word processing programs (like WordStar for DOS, the one I first used) to graphics-based (Windows) programs entailed a different logic and hand coordination. And both of them are a far cry from the typewriter I used to write my first published stories.

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. 
That can be a good thing as I follow whatever wacky idea pops into my mind. Some of them are truly best expunged but others are quite juicy. In some ways I am more focused now than in 30 or 40 years ago; I know much more about how to put a story together, even if it isn’t one I’ve outlined.

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

Book Reviews: Magical London, Three Views

What Abigail Did That Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch (Subterranean)

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

Short Book Reviews: The Transformative Power of Fungi

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

Do You Outline Your Novel? Should You?

Photo by Cleo Sanda
It cannot be repeated often enough that there is no single right way to write a novel (or to compose a symphony or design a house). All these artistic endeavors require certain elements (plot, characters, tension rising to a climax, or motif and variations, harmony, contrast, or foundation, walls, plumbing, etc.) They vary in the point in the creative process at which those crucial elements must be in place, of course. Within those parameters, there’s a great deal of flexibility that allows for individual differences. What matters is not when a writer nails down the turning points, but that they are present and in balance with the rest of the book when it ends on the editor’s desk.
Many writers attempt their first novels by the “seat-of-the-pants” method, that is, writing whatever pops into their heads. Sometimes they end up with dead ends (disguised as “writer’s block”) and don’t finish the work. Other times, they do finish, only to discover (either through their own perceptions or feedback from others) that the book has significant problems. So they write another draft and go through the same process until either the story works or they become so frustrated they give up, or they refuse to accept further critiques and self-publish it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a spontaneous approach to the first draft. A good deal of the pleasure of writing is in discovery, in not knowing what will come next as the adventure unfolds. This is how children play. It does require a separate editorial, self-critical phase, at least for most of us. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just part of the process. If you want to “pants” your first draft, you accept that you’re going to have to revise. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Some writers loathe revision. I happen to love it.

At some point, it occurs to many of us that if we maybe thought about what was going to happen in our novel and how we were going to portray it, that we might save ourselves a bit of revision time. We might even jot down a few notes, reminding ourselves that this is just a tentative sketch and that nothing is carved in granite. We may and most certainly do change our minds when we discover that the actual story has diverged significantly from our strategy. I’ve been known to rework my notes, negotiating the borderlands between spontaneous writing and ill-thought-out plan.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Magical Lovers Reunited

The Beautiful Ones
, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Tor)

Spoiler alert!

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

Gossip and Community

The internet is practically an engraved invitation to indulge in gossip and rumor. It's so easy to blurt out whatever thoughts come to mind. Once posted, these thoughts take on the authority of print (particularly if they appear in some book-typeface-like font). Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to question something when it appears in Courier than when it's in Times New Roman? For the poster of the thoughts comes the thrill of instant publication. Only in the aftermath, when untold number have read our blurtings and others have linked to them, not to mention all the comments and comments-on-comments, do we draw back and realize that we may not have acted with either wisdom or kindness.

To make matters worse, we participate in conversations solely in print, without the vocal qualities and body language that give emotional context to the statements. I know a number of people who are generous and sensitive in person, but come off as abrasive and mean-spirited on the 'net. I think the very ease of posting calls for a heightened degree of consideration of our words because misunderstanding is so easy.

I've been speaking of well-meaning statements that inadvertently communicate something other than what the creator intended. I've been guilty of my share of these, even in conversations with people with whom I have no difficulty communicating in person. What has this to do with gossip?

Friday, October 8, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Carrie Vaughn's 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

A COVID loss: anger, grief, and healing

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

Short Book Reviews: The War of the Djinn

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom)

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

Auntie Deborah Answers Your Questions About Writing

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?

Auntie Deborah: You’re halfway there in understanding why it’s important to plough through that draft so you can look at the whole thing when it’s time to revise. It’s tempting but (for many of us) deadly to halt forward progress and nitpick. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

  • 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.
All that said, sometimes editing is the right thing, like when it feels as if I’m pushing the story in a direction it doesn’t want to go, or I’ve written myself into a hole I can’t dig out of. Usually that means I’ve made a misstep earlier, not thought carefully about where I want to go. Or whatever I thought the story was about, I was wrong, and the true story keeps wanting to emerge. How do I tell when this is the case? Mostly experience, plus willingness to rip it all to shreds and start over.

Dear Auntie Deborah: How do you come up with names for your characters?

Auntie Deborah: Sometimes the novel and its setting dictate parameters for last names. For example, if I’m writing a science fiction novel about Scottish colonists on Mars, I’m going to look at Scottish last names.

Often the character herself will suggest a last name, either based in ethnicity or personal traits and history. An aging hippie might have changed their last name to Sunchild or Windflower or Yogananada. A family trying to erase immigrant origins might have a last name like Smith or Jones.

And then there’s the telephone book (do such things still exist?) Or the credits for a really big movie, the ones that go one for screen after screen after screen. Do be careful when using real last names, though. If they’re too different, they might be identifiable. Just use the lists as prompts for your thinking.

Another strategy is to look at first names and then use them as last names. (My middle name is Jean, which was my mother’s last name, so the reverse could also be true.)

That said, always do an internet search for the name you’ve chosen. Even if you aren’t aware of others with that name, it’s good to know.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Heroic Hackers Save the Fae

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.


Friday, September 17, 2021

Short Book Reviews: A Skunk, a Badger, a Magical Egg, and A Chicken on a Mission

Egg Marks the Spot (Skunk and Badger 2), by Amy Timberlake (Algonquin Young Readers)

I adored the introduction of Skunk and Badger (Skunk and Badger), at first unwilling housemates, who become fast friends. Badger is a fussy, hyper-organized Important Rock Scientist who resents any interruption of his routine, while Skunk is expansively friendly, speaks to cryptic chickens, and cooks gourmet meals. Skunk’s one obsession is the New Yak Times Book Review. That’s really all a reader needs to know before embarking upon their next adventure: a camping trip. The trip proceeds along hilarious lines, with Badger calculating the exact weight of every multi-purpose article in his neatly organized pack, and Skunk throwing in pots and pans, fresh produce, and other items on which usefulness he and Badger disagree profoundly. This, then, is the essence of their friendship: how the differences supply each other’s blind spots.

Needless to say, the camping trip quickly takes several unexpected turns with an obnoxious bully from Badger’s past, an incredible find in a cave, the secret mission of chickens, a bivalve moving company, and much, much more. The characters are endearing, the action lively, the prose deliciously inventive, and the deeper themes of friendship, loyalty, and courage shine through. 

A splendid book for the whole family to read aloud!