Friday, December 30, 2022

Short Book Reviews: "This Fine Crew" of Weird and Wonderful Aliens

The Signal out of Space, by Mike Jack Stoumbos (Theogony Books)

This space opera hits so many tropes just right! It’s a school story (well, cadets in the Interstellar Initiative, but close enough), a patchwork of alien species learning to work together (shades of Star Trek) and a mystery. After a brutal interspecies war, the Interstellar Initiative is the galaxy’s best hope for peace, cooperation, and rewriting nasty first impressions.

    • To begin with, our motley crew includes:
    • A declawed reptilian engineer who goes “Mmmmmm!”
    • A furry medic with a secret noble heritage, like a werewolf with tusks
    • An insectoid programmed to adore humans, whose chosen name is Paul Newman and who has four arms, rather than wings
    • A barely-legal-age human pilot who reminds me of the kid in the film, The Last Starfighter with his gift with video games and puppy-like enthusiasm.

The prolog throws us into action as the crew hurtles across the Martian terrain in a test run when matters go seriously pear-shaped. It’s confusing because (a) there’s no context for any of these characters or their relationships (for example, one is referred to as “Paul,” but later turns out to be the sentient insectoid who has adopted the name, “Paul Newman”); (b) prologs at best are incredibly challenging to pull off and are usually a terrible idea. However, it’s soon over and when we return to the scene later in the book, we are better equipped to understand what’s going on.

From there, the story shifts into multiple POV, not-quite-linear time as we experience each character’s arrival and interactions. These chapters are brilliant. The depiction of the differences as well as similarities between the five characters/five species are gorgeously well done.

No book is perfect (not even mine!) but I found the few flaws trivial in comparison to the wonderful voices of the characters, the unfolding mystery, and the intricate politics of each species. It’s the first of series but stands alone very well. Fans of space-opera-with-aliens will love it!


Friday, December 23, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Combat Linguistics Rules!

 Battle of the Linguist Mages, by Scotto Moore (Tordotcom)

 This is a deliciously psychedelic romp through the virtual worlds of gamers, linguists, philosophers, cultists, and political power players. Isobel is the Queen of Sparkle Dungeon, a medieval rave-themed VR game. Her prowess makes her an ideal candidate to learn the secrets of "power morphemes"—dense units of meaning that can warp reality when skillfully pronounced. As she masters level after level of power morphemes, she realizes the driving force behind them—and her beloved game—is a shadowy faction led by the Governor of California, bent on developing the arcane art of combat linguistics to create a totalitarian empire. This faction is out to recruit Isobel, but so is the resistance movement of spellcasting anarchists. Unfortunately for everyone, the faction has attracted much bigger and weirder enemies than the resistance, emerging from dark and vicious dimensions of reality.

The story is jam-packed with ideas, action, and just plain fun. I mean, really, combat linguistics? I loved the characters, even the evil, scheming governor. I’m not a gamer, although many of my friends are, so I’m sure some of the hilarious Easter eggs and in-jokes went by me. If there’s a fault in the book, that is its length. There’s a limit to how many didn’t-see-it-coming twists one storyline can sustain and even whimsy falters after so many pages. Still, I enjoyed the linguistic mages enough to look forward with anticipation to Moore’s next book.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Gideon Sable Returns!

A Matter of Death and Life
, by Simon R. Green (Severn House)

Master thief, rogue, and con artist extraordinaire Gideon Sable is back for another supernatural heist, this time stealing an artifact rumored to grant immortality from a Las Vegas casino. In the process, he’ll pay off a very big favor and piss off his enemies. To do this, he pulls together his old crew, including his now-girlfriend, Annie Anybody, the woman who changes her persona as easily as her clothes and who can make electronics fall in love with her; The Damned, who wears invincible armor made of the halos of angels; and Johnny the Wild Card, who has walked the edge of madness so closely he’s on nodding terms with reality at the best of times. Joining them is predictably unreliable Switch It Sally, whose special talent is exchanging objects from a distance, instantaneously and invisibly. But the casino’s owners are definitely Bad Guys, it’s guarded by supernatural goons, and in this universe, nothing is ever as it seems.

I first encountered Gideon and his crew in The Best Thing You Can Steal, and this book is a worthy sequel. Green handles character, tension, and gorgeous if dark imagery so beautifully, his work is a joy to read. Here’s a taste:

“I finally came to a quiet cul-de-sac where the street lamps were remainders of a bygone age. All black iron and ornate stylings their light was so hazy that shadows formed dark pools between the lamps, like sinkholes in the world. The buildings were just dark shapes, with no lights at any of the windows, slumped together like drowsing animals, waiting for their prey to come within reach. Ample warning that this was not an area to be entered lightly, because the phrase ‘urban jungle’ isn’t always a metaphor.

“One photo showed a city where every building had been carved from a single piece of bone, and insects the size of people, or perhaps people who moved like insects, crawled up the outsides of the buildings. Another photo showed a flock of white whales, flying over an endless desert like living dirigibles. In a New York where all the skyscrapers were wrapped in ivy, lizards in smart city suits walked briskly through the financial district. Pterodactyls flapped around a broken Eiffel Tower…”



Monday, December 12, 2022

Community and Virtual Connection

Autographing at 2019 Nebula Award weekend
It’s been several years since I’ve gathered with fans and other writers in person. I used to attend local
science fiction conventions regularly, but the last one was FogCon (Walnut Creek CA) in February 2020. I find it amusing that my last haircut was in March 2020, although one is not necessarily causative of the other. I attended book signings at local stores and gave presentations at our local branch library. I also organized a monthly lunch and support group with a group of local writers. Needless to say, all these came to a screeching halt with the pandemic, and while some have ventured into in-person conventions, I have not done that yet. I’m in my mid-70s, which in itself increases my risk of serious disease or death, but I feel strongly that no one should ever feel pressured to defend wearing a mask or justify staying away from indoor gatherings. (In my case, there’s the personal risk, plus that my younger daughter spent the final year of her medical residency in Family Medicine taking care of desperately ill and dying Covid patients — this was before vaccines were available — and she is fiercely protective of me.)

All of which leads to social isolation, especially from my peer group, other genre writers. Video conferencing has helped ease the loneliness, although nothing entirely takes the place of hugs and shared adventures. My first forays included skyping my husband every night when I took care of my best friend in another state during the last weeks of her life; we finally went to phone calls because the video kept pixelating, the signal was so poor. Then my daughter attended medical school on the other side of the country and we video chatted regularly until her last year, when she was in clinic most of the time.

When the pandemic hit, I was fairly comfortable with many things video, and I started attending conventions remotely, for example, The Nebula Awards weekend, InkersCon, and various panels at other conventions. Hang-outs, mini-conventions, and themed chat sessions (such as those hosted by Lemon Friday) have proven to be great ways to meet new writers and learn much cool new stuff. I love being able to watch recorded events so I wasn’t forced to choose between two panels I wanted to attend. And to re-watch things at my own convenience. I even moderated a panel, although the inconsistency of my internet connection (due to living in a remote, mountainous place) knocked me offline for a full 10 minutes. Thankfully, the panelists carried on in fine fashion and no one seemed the worse for my absence!

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Today's Moment of Beautiful Music

 Serene, gorgeous piano music for a rain morning.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Disappointing "Elemental Master"

 The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley (An Elemental Masters Novel), by Mercedes Lackey (DAW)

I have been a fan of Mercedes Lackey’s “Elemental Masters” series for a long time. My favorite so far is Phoenix and Ashes, a Cinderella story where the prince is a WWI veteran with PTSD. I grabbed the latest with anticipation. Annie Oakley with Elemental Master powers? How will she use her silver bullets?

The story begins with a nightmare memory of her impoverished childhood and the malevolent nature of the couple she’s hired out to work for. I expected the man whom she calls “He-Wolf” and who plants a curse on her would loom throughout the book as the Big Bad, that her internal struggle would free herself of her fears, and that a showdown would involve silver bullets (against werewolves, according to canon). The action itself opens on a European tour of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and the introduction of Frida, a German woman sharpshooter, who happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. To no one’s surprise, not mine, both Annie and her husband have rare magical abilities, which they proceed to hone by studying with Frida and her husband. During the winter, they join in the hunt for nasty supernatural creatures, and Annie’s superb marksmanship and magical abilities prove an asset.

Most of the story reads like a leisurely travelogue of Europe, with details of places they travel through, the meals they eat, daily life in the show, how to take down and put up tents, their hosts in every town, and so forth, not to mention the magical exercises and mystical creatures, all lovingly laid out on page after sedate page. Characters talk at length about what is going to happen and who they are going to meet before the events themselves. Everything is so predictable that the sense of danger is minimal when it’s present at all, even during the nocturnal hunts. The confrontation with He-Wolf doesn’t come about until the very last pages, and even then, Annie is not in any real danger. She has one brief moment of childhood panic before she resolves the situation. There’s no internal struggle, no doubt of the outcome, and no remorse at what she’s done. While she was notable in negotiating with supernatural creatures during the Hunt, she never attempts to do that with the He-Wolf, which would have been a compassionate overture but also a huge step toward recovery from her childhood trauma.

The pacing, the resolution, the flat dramatic arc, and the overall sedate pace lag when compared to earlier “Elemental Masters” books. I’ve noticed that Lackey’s recent Valdemar books are written less tightly than the early ones, but they have more dramatic impact than this one. I presume that long-time fans enjoy a leisurely stroll through their favorite fantasy world. The “Elemental Masters” books are stand-alones, so the stories must be complete and engaging. I hope The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley is not a forewarning of a tedious future.


Monday, December 5, 2022

Shall-Be-Nameless Magazine Review

Every once in a while, I post a review of a magazine. Usually, it's done something to tick me off and I want to vent. Unreadable print ranks high on my list of no-nos.

For many years, I was a fan of a healthy cooking magazine. It provided me with wonderful recipes and articles about the chemistry of cooking. It changed its name, and I faithfully followed it into new territory. If there were fewer recipes that appealed to me, there were more articles on how food is grown, as well as other aspects of health. Last year, that incarnation went belly-up. I received a notification that the remainder of my subscription - all 3 months of it - was being transferred to a general "good living" magazine. I was assured of many healthful, delicious recipes. 

The first issue had one, exactly one, article I was interested in (the varieties of lavender bushes).

The next issue (summer 2022) contained:

The cover features a man wearing huge beads, nail polish, and a tattoo of a cross. He is grinning widely, showing unnaturally white teeth. I've never heard of him.

Article 1: A list of "summer fun" events sure to be Covid super-spreaders.

Article 2: "For the dad who has it all": a collection of gender-stereotyped merchandise I'd never buy for anyone.

Article 3: "Pool party" featuring blow-up pools large enough to accommodate several adults. In my area, water restrictions forbid filling pools. Don't the magazine folks realize that some of us live in drought zones?

A bunch of articles on makeup, with or without SPF. Yawn.

Article 4. A remodeled porch, with many pages of interior decoration porn. 

Articles too-many, more interior decoration that would be way beyond my budget even if I could stand to look at it. Chairs designed to give you crippling back pain. Fabric upholstery my cats would love as scratching posts. Wall paint so dark as to create instant depression. Kids' rooms no self-respecting child would enter.

Article 5. Ah, gardening. Planters with trellises. Nope, nope, nope. Well, maybe, if I wanted to grow only 2 bean plants. Nope, nope, nope.

Articles more-too-many. You've-got-to-be-kidding-me style decor, complete with a plaque that says, "You're a mess." Yep, you are.

More sure-to-drive-kids-insane decor. More gloom-inspiring wall paint.

Article 6: "Egg bites"???

Article 7: Ah, some actual recipes, beginning with hearty salads. I think maybe I can work with this...until I look at the nutrition information and see sodium levels that start at 500 mg/serving and go upwards of 1,500 mg/serving. In what universe is this healthy??? (The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg a day and moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg.) You could get your entire day's allowance of sodium in just one salad!

Article 8: Cover guy in "Finding Home." Wearing pajamas, then wearing 1890s-style onesies. Wearing...what is that thing? I'm so uninterested in this person I don't recognize and who seems bent on warping his spine that I'm anti-interested.

Article 9: Drinks, all of them containing alcohol. Many pages' worth.

Article 10: Summer gatherings in this family's garden. Same back-pain-inducing furniture, but the garden looks nice. They have a cute dog. Maybe an outdoor meal might be safe...oh no, now they're indoors. Still, they look like a nice family.

Article 11: More decor, described as "exuberant patterns and joyful color." Too busy, too impersonal, too aggressive on the eyeballs. Does anyone actually spend time in these rooms?

Article 12: More salads, these arranged on large platters that look pretty but are designed to make sure (a) ingredients are distributed unequally; (b) there will be unusable leftovers. But I'll take a look. I like salads. I see 654 mg sodium...1.064 mg, here's one with only 470 mg. sodium but 42 grams of least most of it's unsaturated, but depending on your caloric intake, that could be an entire day's fat allowance. (See the above-recommended limits on sodium.) 

I'll pass.

After I toss the issue in recycle bin.

There, I feel much better.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Book Reviews: Cool Idea, Confusing Bummer Ending

Book description: “Vanja, an information assistant, is sent to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka to collect marketing information. Intending to stay just a short while, she falls in love with her housemate and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.”

Told through deceptively simple prose, Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka depicts a world chillingly reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. Layers of bureaucracy and social conditioning create the illusion of a happy community, while despair, disease, and alienation produce attrition and threaten the city’s survival. Social and psychological disintegration parallel the breakdown of the physical environment. Objects large and small must be constantly marked with written labels or names spoken aloud or they break down into amorphous goo.

The use of language in creating and maintaining reality is one of the more creative I’ve seen. I admired how Tidbeck introduces her world with very little explanation, using subtle clues layered into the otherwise prosaic action. For most of the book, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on: the mutable nature of matter, the increasing suppression of dissent, the enforcement of conformity, and the inexorable loss of history. I was curious about how humans had come to live in a world in which the basic rules of physics were so plastic and what the underground resistance was about, but I was also confident that the answers would be made clear.

The publisher describes this book as, “A surreal debut novel set in a world shaped by language in the tradition of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin.” The only part of this description I agree (other than “debut”) with is “surreal.” Atwood and Le Guin created imaginative, provocative stories, but their work is accessible to most readers. There’s a difference between being mysterious and mystifying. As I waited for the answers to the many questions Tidbeck raised, she piled mystifying upon mystifying until I had no idea what exactly Vanja was discovering (other than that the commune was re-using stable “good” paper for announcements).

The book ends with Vanja acting in an erratic, destructive manner, setting fire to the records she previously treasured, and then being lobotomized so that when she’s freed, she no longer possessed the speech that would allow her to re-shape the world as part of the resistance. I don’t mind grimness, but such a downer puts Amatka squarely in the 1984 camp. This could have been such a cool book, too, with a denouement that made all the sacrifices worth it. After earning my trust as a reader, Tidbeck dropped the ball royally. I doubt I’ll pick up anything of hers in the future. To be fair, however, I don’t think the disappointing ending is entirely Tidbeck’s fault; it’s what happens when pretentious literary editors take on genre projects. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Support Borderlands Books!

Support Borderlands Books, an indie bookstore, and get a hardcover copy of The Laran Gambit with a bookplate autographed by me. Link here.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Guest Post: Do Women Make Better Leaders?

My older daughter, Sarah, currently a college student, earned praise for her essay on the leadership role of women. With her permission and no small measure of pride, I share it with you.

The assignment was: Some theorists have suggested that the world would be a much better place to live (i.e., fewer conflicts, wars) if women held all the positions of leadership. Do you agree? Why or why not? Do women in positions of power tend to behave in more stereotypically female (caring, nurturing) or male (aggressive, dominant) ways?

Would the world be better off if it was run by women?  This deceptively simple question is best broken down into components: Are individual women better leaders than individual men?  Does the culture of leadership drive women in positions of power to behave in stereotypically male ways?  And, What is the effect when the majority of leaders in the legislative space are female?

The first two sub-questions are related.  Are individual women superior leaders?  Perhaps not, because for every Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel there may be a Margaret Thatcher or Marine Le Pen.  Perhaps the character traits expected by the electorate, and the strategies employed by powerful women to attain and defend their status, weeds out individuals who behave in a cooperative, nurturing manner.  It is quite plausible that the culture of power, or the traits demanded of leaders regardless of gender, is so pervasive that the theoretical advantages of female leadership are eliminated.  What does the data show?

A Forbes analysis indicated, and an academic analysis later confirmed, that the countries which fared best during the pandemic were led by women: Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark all took the pandemic seriously and took early steps to safeguard health.  This association has been found to be systematic among a sample of 194 countries (Garikipati & Kambhampati, 2020).  Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir instituted free testing, while Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen instituted 124 pandemic-curbing measures early, in January of 2020, and by April were sending face masks abroad.  Their success is punctuated by the expression of traditionally feminine traits: Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg went on live television to reassure children that it was okay to feel scared.  Just try to catch a strong-man leader such as Bolsonaro or Putin doing that! (Wittenberg-Cox, 2020)

Friday, November 25, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Cat in London Tower

Thunderpaws and the Tower of London
(Nature's Claw Series, Book 1), by Ben Housden (High Gate Press)

When Teufel the cat (who hates his nickname, “Thunderpaws”) moves into the Tower of London with his chaplain owner, he is less than thrilled. The trip itself, including being sedated and transported, was bad enough, but now he finds the new rules insufferable: no doing his business on the lawn, no wandering at all hours, and no chasing the sacred ravens. Teufel is a Cat of Attitude, snark being primary among them, and he is not about to play nicely or restrain his innate Cat Nature. In his attempts to exercise his feline right to kill small prey and anything with wings, he encounters a mystical mouse, a couple of ghostly cats, and the deceased spirits of humans who have died in the Tower. Queen Anne, Lady Jane Grey, and Sir Walter Raleigh are bad enough, with Anne planning to destroy the internet. But when King Richard III and Guy Fawkes hatch a plot to take over London (and the world), Teufel is drawn in to a maze of dark schemes and darker magic. As it turns out, he’s not nearly as savvy as he thinks he is.

Among the many delights of the book are Teufel’s sarcastic voice, details about the ghosts, and the army of lady rats led by a giant rat named Elvis. I wish there had been more exploration of how Teufel changes with his misadventures, especially those that were his own fault. It was a good thing I read the book on my Kindle, because quite a number of references that would have been obvious to Londoners escaped this Californian at first.

My only real issue, however, was the extended epilogue. It’s one thing to set up a sequel, but to go on at length detracts from the satisfaction of defeating the agents of evil and then taking a break. Sequels, as opposed to books in a single multi-volume story arc, run the risk of being episodic, especially when the beginning of the next is inserted into the end of the first, thereby making it not a true end at all.

Despite my quibble about the epilog, this book should have special appeal to cat fanciers (and perhaps Londoners). The illustrations are particularly wonderful.


Thursday, November 24, 2022

Happy Thanksgiving: Hard Sauce recipe

 In case your dessert wasn't rich enough, here's a delectation to top it with. It's incredibly sweet and rich, compared to ordinary whipped cream. This recipe comes from my first mother-in-law and I believe it had been in her family for several generations. This version is in my (then teenaged) daughter's handwriting and is transcribed as written. See the note below.

Hard Sauce

1/2 c. sugar

1/2 c. butter

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 c. condensed* milk

1 Tbsp. flour

Mix sugar and butter well.

Cook flour and milk into a THICK paste. 

When paste is body temp, combine with butter and sugar. 

Beat on high speed until sugar granules are gone. Add in vanilla and beat until mixed. 


*It is not clear to me whether this means sweetened condensed milk or unsweetened evaporated milk, although I suspect it's the former. If you prepare this recipe, please let me know which you used and how it turned out. 

Monday, November 21, 2022

Gifts to Give Yourself This Season

 Gifts of the Season

Give yourself a break.
Give yourself grace when you make a mistake.
Give yourself credit for your accomplishments.
Give yourself permission to ask for help.
Give yourself the same compassion you give to those you love.

Adapted from Mirror Coaching

Friday, November 18, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Fabled Journey to the East, With Horses

 All the Horses of Iceland, by Sarah Tolmie (Tordotcom)

In a long-ago time, a Norse trader embarks upon an expedition to Central Asia in search of riches. He hooks up with an experienced Jewish merchant as they travel through Khazaria to the steppes of Mongolia, through war-ravaged territory and vast, open lands. He encounters new peoples and their magic, bringing the wisdom of his people and learning much more. When he returns to his home in Iceland many years later with a herd of tough steppe horses, led by a white mare without a name that sometimes only he can see, he is a changed man.

The best thing about this short novel is the wonderful authorial voice. Tolmie conveys both familiar and unfamiliar customs and assumptions without modern exposition. That is, Eyvind remarks on events from the context of his own culture and understanding of others, not from a modern narrator’s viewpoint. The effect is to immerse us into a world view informed by his open-mindedness. He takes the customs and teachings of the people he encounters on their own terms, with an occasional dry and witty comment. He’s incredibly generous, even when he disagrees. His open-mindedness evokes an open landscape, both of thought and of physical distance. It’s very deftly done. While there is plenty of adventure to be had, for me the heart of the story is very much the exploration of a vivid world only hinted at in history books.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Book Review: Love and Survival Under the Iron Heel

 In Light’s Shadow, by Warren Rochelle (JMS Books)

This dystopic urban fantasy blends a sweet m/m romance, a coming-of-age story, and a horrific alternate-history world. Magic and magical creatures exist, although throughout the history of this world’s United States, the Columbian Empire, they have been progressively more restricted and then criminalized. Even a hint of returning the “the Relaxation” is enough to ignite assassination attempts. Meanwhile, fairies are locked away in ghettoes or have gone into hiding, and magical beasts, such as gryphons and unicorns, are kept in zoos. Hand in hand with oppression of magical beings comes proscriptions against same-sex relationships and freedom of speech. Church, school, and state unite in systematic brainwashing and instilling fear and hatred for anyone who deviates from a rigidly conformist norm.

Gavin Booker has grown up in such an environment. His half-fairy mother was so traumatized by discrimination that she has become pathologically secretive. Although “passing” for human-normal by marriage, she imparts her paranoid to Gavin. He has always known he was different, but with the stirrings of his earliest childhood attraction to other boys, his very life is now at risk. His mother is terrified that such close friendships may cause them both to be revealed as hybrids, and she pressures him to “pass” as straight. At the same time, she takes him to a healer who dispenses medicines to suppress the beautiful golden glow of fairies and teaches him psychological suppression methods.

Gavin’s life becomes one of unending denial of his deepest feelings and his true nature. The price of exposure is not just immediate public execution without trial. It has consequences for the family and friends of the accused. Suicides by gay, fairy youth are rampant, and Gavin himself, a teenager drowning in despair, attempts to end his own life. One of the few consistent bright spots in his world is his relationship with a golden fairy boy who visits him in dreams. Their emerging love and sexual bonding sustain Gavin through the deaths and disappearances of every other boy he’s cared about.

The Columbian Empire is alarmingly like our own United States. Rochelle fleshes out Gavin’s daily life with details like news reports by Walter Conkrite, popular obsession with “the royals,” and almost-accurate bits like Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Summer” (my favorite)

Rochelle’s portrayal of the intense psychological devastation of unrelenting fear, the toxic nature of secrets, and the impact upon self-esteem is chillingly accurate. I grew up in the 1950s, when my father was the target of a McCarthy Era probe and a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department to take away his citizenship. Although I was too young to know about the FBI surveillance of our family or the relatives who went “underground,” I have vivid memories of the anxiety my family endured. Yet even in those dreadful times there were beacons of light: friends, family members, sympathetic and courageous attorneys, organizations like the ACLU, labor unions, and Quaker and other religious groups who, often at great risk to themselves, stood up for the rights of those under suspicion.

Although in Rochelle’s world, there is an underground of sorts, I found the absence of public resistance disappointing. The Columbian Empire arises from the same traditions of rights and limits on power as the United States today, dating back to the Magna Carta and earlier. At the same time, the unrelenting targeting of both gays and hybrids is an important dramatic element in how much it intensifies the pressure on Gavin and others.

One of the strengths of this book is how many different ways a reader can look at it. Certainly, it’s a gay love story. It’s also a psychological and political thriller. It’s an examination of the corrosive effects of ignorance and hatred. In all these areas, it has broad appeal.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Tips to manage stress during the midterm elections

In The Conversation, a clinical psychologist offers advice on managing stress during this stressful time.

I've excerpted the article here (the "Cliff's Notes" version). Click through to read the whole thing.

1. Put the phone down!

While it is tempting to stay glued to your devices, never-ending doomscrolling and screen-refreshing can become overwhelming and keep you in a state of tension and constant vigilance. Excessive consumption of news and social media predicts poorer long-term mental health during times of crisis.

Plan some breaks where you can engage in activities that take your mind off politics.

2. Uncertainty doesn’t equal catastrophe

When anxious – as many in the U.S. are right now – people tend to assign threatening meanings to ambiguous situations. But this tendency is neither reliably accurate nor helpful. Jumping to catastrophic conclusions is like setting off a series of false alarms that exaggerate your sense of threat.

3. Don’t retreat into bed

The feeling of deep disappointment about election results you don’t like can trigger a desire to withdraw and hole up. Staying engaged in activities that give you a sense of accomplishment, pleasure or meaning can make managing this time far less painful.

4. Remember, it won’t always feel this intense

It’s normal and understandable to feel overwhelmed by current events. Focus on what will help you manage this day without punishing yourself for being upset or feeling depleted. Human beings tend to be remarkably resilient, even in the face of tremendous stress and trauma.

5. Don’t go through this time alone

Feeling isolated, whether physically or emotionally, can make a hard time feel worse. When people experience acute stress, they cope much better if they have social support.

6. Stay regular

While self-care may seem unimportant, attending to those basic bodily needs can go a long way toward keeping your internal resources sufficiently replenished so you can meet the high demands of this time. There is increasing evidence that poor sleep is closely connected to many mental and emotional health difficulties.

7. Help others

There’s so much during this time that you cannot control – there is no magic wand that speeds up vote counting in critical contested races or makes climate resolutions between countries come sooner. But taking action to improve things now for the people around you both helps others and reminds you that you can make a difference in meaningful ways. It’s a win-win.

8. Add to your toolbox

Each person is different in what helps them to relax or feel more centered. For many people, online mindfulness or cognitive therapy exercises can make a big difference. Check out online mental health programs that have been reviewed by experts and pick the resource that’s right for you.

9. Offer compassion to yourself

The combination of pandemic stresses, economic worries, social injustices, climate breakdown and more means few of us will be at our best right now as we try to just make it through the day. No one is making it through this time unscathed, so kindness to ourselves and others is desperately needed.

10. Reach out if you need additional help

If recommendations 1-9 aren’t cutting it, there are lots of resources to help people through this difficult period:

Be patient, stay calm and keep the faith is a tall order. I’ll be happy if I can get most of the way there.

Monday, November 7, 2022

A Moment of Writing Inspiration

This is for all my friends who are either doing NaNoWriMo or are just slogging through a Work In Progress:

No one else in the wide world, since the dawn of time, has ever seen the world as you do, or can explain it as you can. This is what you have to offer that no one else can.

- Edith Layton

Friday, November 4, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Witch's Life

 The Great Witch of Brittany, by Louisa Morgan (Redhook)

In mid-18th Century Brittany, a clan of Romani travels from town to town, trading and earning money by other means. Teenager Ursule Orchière has been raised in the stories and customs of her female ancestors, the great witches of the past. Her fortune-teller mother is not among them, using dramatic skill and common sense on her gullible village women customers. For Ursule, however, the “magic crystal” that has been passed through generations is more than a stage prop. The crystal and the grimoire she learns to read in secret open a world of spirits and spells to her. When her mother is accused of being a witch, the two end up on the run in an increasingly dangerous landscape as the French Revolution draws ever nearer…

The story is full of dramatic tension and plot twists, yet in the end it is not about a series of events. It’s about a life well lived with courage and kindness. Even when Ursule and her mother found shelter working as laborers for a farm family, I kept turning the pages to see what would happen next. Morgan’s authorial touch is deft and sure, inviting the reader to enter fully into this fascinating glimpse into history and the very real people in it.

Highly recommended.




Monday, October 31, 2022

What Deborah's Playing on the Piano

Saturday afternoon, I attended a lovely Hallowe'en student concert at Cabrillo College. Audience was masked, performers masked or PCR tested. So great to hear live music again! One of the pieces was a synthesizer adaptation of Satie's first Gnossienne, which I'm working on. (It was very weird. Very weird on steroids.) That reminded me it's been a while since I posted what I'm working on now. For those new to this journey, I'm an adult piano student who began piano lessons 15 years ago, my first ever formal instruction. I'm a grown up, or so the theory goes, so I get to play what I want.

Satie. Gnossienne #1. It's a hoot. One measure that goes on for pages, with directions like "Postulez en vous-même" (wonder about yourself). Lots of repetition of the motifs with subtle differences of expression.

Gillock. "Silent Snow" from Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style. Gillock was primarily a teacher. These short pieces are beautiful and fun to play as they challenge technique. The one I just started requires exquisite control of dynamics and pedaling. Gillock's pieces are a great prep for composers like Debussy and Satie.

A couple of Schubert waltzes. They're like "bon-bons" or Chopin Lite.

"Warg Scouts" from Howard Shore's music for The Hobbit. The dwarves are running for their lives, Radagast is trying to lure the orcs on their wargs away, and Gandalf is scheming to get his part to Rivendell. Pounding rhythm. Am I nuts? When I looked at the piece, I went, "Ack!! I can't possibly!!!" So I'm tackling it slowly with the metronome under my teacher's guidance. Might take a couple of years to get it up to tempo (quarter note = 180, agitated) but it will do wonders for my technique. And be soooo much fun!

Bach Invention 14. If I skip a day, it falls apart. Otherwise, I'm focusing on the way the motif bounces back from one hand to the other, detached notes in one hand but legato in the other.

Debussy. "Claire de Lune." Be still, my heart. I'm about a page away from playing it straight through and then we get to work on dynamics, speed, and expression.

When I have time, I work on my past repertoire. Current favorites are "May It Be" (Enya), Debussy's "La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin," Satie's 1st and 3rd Gymnopédies, a transcription of Ashokan Farewell, and a bunch of music from LotR.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Very Short Book Reviews: A Delicious Fantasy, a Noir Detective SF Murder Mystery

 The Liar's Knot, by M. A. Carrick (Orbit)

 If you, like me, couldn’t get enough of the Renaissance Venice-like world of The Mask of Mirrors, dive right in! The Liar's Knot picks up the story during a brief pause, a moment of uneasy peace. The evil House Indestor may be finished, but an ancient darkness still weaves through the city’s filthy alleys and jewel-bright gardens. Ren (aka the Black Rose and a bunch of other alter egos), Vargo, and Grey Serrado (aka The Rook) each have their own gifts, weak points, and suspicions as they are drawn together. To say more is to risk spoiling the unfolding of secrets. Take my word for it, though. This sequel is just delicious!

Titanshade, by Dan Stout (DAW)

 Dan Stout’s debut novel is a quirky, gritty cross between noir detective and science fiction. The protagonist, Carter, is a mostly-disgraced homicide cop perpetually on the verge of either a fight or a collapse from ignoring the long-term physical injuries. His beat is the oil town of Titanshade, once booming but now on the break of bankruptcy as the wells run dry. The city's future hangs on an inflow of cash from the reclusive amphibians known as Squibs. The action opens with the murder of the Squib ambassador, there to negotiate for the creation of wind farms to replace the dying oil industry. Lots of conflicting interests here. Carter’s less than thrilled when he’s paired with a junior cop, an alien Mollenkampi with several sets of jaws who is a really nice person.

The real strength of this novel lies in its worldbuilding, the innovative ways in which scarce resources create impoverishment, especially a society that includes a diversity of races. It’s definitely worth checking out, especially if cross-over mysteries appeal to you.




Monday, October 24, 2022

5-Star NetGalley Reviews of The Laran Gambit

ARCs of The Laran Gambit are still available by request on NetGalley. The early reviews give it 5 stars!
"This was such a well-done scifi novel, it had everything that I was hoping for. It does the mind-control technology being used well and was what I was hoping for. "
"The Laran Gambit is science fiction from a master voice. Sure to please fans of this author and genre."

Friday, October 21, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Great New Supernatural Mystery Series

 Uncanny Times, by Laura Anne Gilman (Saga)

This new turn-of-the-20th-Century supernatural hunter series boasts engaging characters, a gigantic magical hound, and a murder mystery. Siblings Rosemary and Aaron Harker come from a long tradition of hunting monsters. When an elderly cousin dies under mysterious circumstances, they journey to a small town, along with their oversized hound, Botheration. On the surface, the death appears to be natural, but as Hunters of the uncanny, the Harkers know something sinister is at work. At every turn, their investigation leads nowhere, even when one corpse after another turns up.

That’s the setup, but it falls short of conveying my experience of reading the book. Gilman’s a skillful writer, and here she perfectly balances the tension of a murder mystery with exploring a world that’s just enough skewed from the mundane to be endlessly fascinating, and best of all, to hang out with three really interesting characters (I definitely include the dog in this category!) Even the minor characters bring vivid quirks that deepen the journey through this town and its mysteries.

Despite the dramatic elements, plot twists, and escalating danger, the pacing is measured rather than thriller-taut, yet I found myself turning page after page, reluctant to put the book down. If the opening of a novel is an invitation to the reader, Uncanny Times provides superb hospitality, chapter after chapter. I hope this is only the beginning of a long-running series of the Huntsmen adventures.


Monday, October 17, 2022

Proofreading The Children of Kings

Here's an image from late 2012. Cleopatra left us the next year at the ripe old age of 20.

Here I am, complete with Cat Muse, working my way through page proofs of The Children of Kings.

Cleopatra is almost 20 years old, and I've had her since she was 8 weeks. She's moving very slowly these days but still loves to curl up with me while I work. She's so thin, I've covered her with the edge of the afghan for extra warmth.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Domestic Revenge Thriller

 The Violence, by Delilah S. Dawson (Del Rey)

 What a powerful, disturbing, exhilarating novel! In the beginning, three generations of women are struggling with domestic violence and oppression in different ways, with Chelsea in the middle generation. Her husband terrorizes her, sometimes choking her into unconsciousness and keeping her isolated and financially dependent on him. Her mother, once a destitute teen mother, has sought security in a loveless but wealthy marriage and become obsessed with conformity and her own survival. Now her teenage daughter is about to fall into the same trap when her once adoring boyfriend shows a dark, possessive side. Chelsea knows her chances of making a successful break for freedom are slim to none with her husband’s law enforcement and lawyer buddies to corroborate his side of the story. Her life seems hopeless until The Violence strikes, a viral epidemic that causes bursts of unprovoked, deadly rage that leave no memory of their deeds. In a scenario eerily reminiscent of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rich wall themselves into enclaves while lawlessness takes hold. Soon Chelsea finds herself separated from her family, on the run in a landscape of senseless carnage. Then she stumbles on the Violence Fight circuit, successor to pro wrestling with its vivid persona, costumes, and choreographed moves, and she begins reclaiming her life.

Part revenge-wish-fulfillment, part allegory of what happens when the downtrodden revolt, part examination of society-wide misogyny, The Violence delivers a breath-taking page-turner.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Cat Rambo on Writing Euphoria and Multitasking

Cat Rambo is a wonderful writer and teacher. I reviewed her space opera, You Sexy Thing, here. She runs the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers live and on-demand classes. And she's a nifty person. Best of all, I love the way she talks about the writing process. Here, in an article on multitasking from the SFWA blog, she nails the description of the mental state when everything comes together and the world flow like silken fire. Whenever I see a depiction of a blocked writer (last night I watched the "Calliope" episode of the Netflix "The Sandman" series), I cringe. Yes, we go through fallow periods, frustration, and emptiness. But most working writers find strategies to get around, over, or through those blocks because there's nothing like a writer's high.

Here's Cat's description:
You start putting words on the page, and if you’re lucky, you hit the flow, that happy stream of words where you are writing and simultaneously entertaining yourself, discovering what happens next, where the world falls away and all you are doing and thinking about is writing. A state of intense, focused concentration that feels wonderful, because you are simultaneously challenged and exercising competency, constantly rising to that challenge and succeeding. [bold mine]

That’s one of the happiest states for a writer, and one that we chase. And if we want to hit it, we need to get rid of distractions. Multitasking is such a distraction, taking up a little bit of bandwidth in order to keep tabs on that task or other tasks and tracking time. Multitasking is not compatible with things that require concentration and time.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Sweet M/M Historical Romance

 Resurrection Men, by Steven Harper (Darwin Press)

Life in the late 1800s wasn’t easy for medical students from poor backgrounds like Arthur, and one of the few ways to pay tuition was through the illegal “resurrection” of buried corpses for use in anatomy laboratories. Life wasn’t much easier for Jesse, who fled his ultra-controlling, wealthy socialite family and ended up as a grave-digger. Now a vengeful judge is looking for a reason to throw Arthur in jail, and Arthur’s budding romance with Jesse might provide just the excuse.

The pacing of this historical novel is perfectly balanced, from desperate action to the sweet, slowing unfolding of a deep connection between the two men. Historical details create a vivid setting that heightens the stakes, drawing the reader ever deeper into this compelling story.