Friday, July 29, 2022

Book Reviews: Naomi Novik's Deadly Magical School

The Last Graduate
, by Naomi Novik (Ballantine)

I’ve loved Naomi Novik’s work since discovering her “Napoleonic Wars With Dragons” series (Temeraire). It seemed to me that with each book, both in that series and more recent publications, she has grown in skill and depth. I read the first two volumes of “Scholomance” back-to-back. It’s fair to say I inhaled them, they were so good.

I’ve been reading a bunch of magical school stories recently, and the Scholomance books redefine the genre. Many of the other books use a boarding school-like setting, whether it’s Hogwarts or the school of magical juvenile delinquents in Promise Me Nothing, by Dawn Vogel or the more troubled environment of D. R. Perry’s Sorrow and Joy. The schools and their teachers are charged with educating (and sometimes reforming) their students. Not so the Scholomance. Created by elite wizards to protect their adolescent offspring from being the prime targets of supernatural nasties (“maleficaria”), the school exists in a pocket carved out of the void, with only a narrow access to the outer world. There are no teachers, mail service or messengers except to a limited degree the incoming freshman classes, and the school may be sentient, trying to do its job regardless of the cost. Students take their classes as seriously as if their lives depended upon them, which they do. At the end of the senior year, the doors of the graduation hall open and all the incoming and resident nasties flood in, forming a gauntlet that only a few students survive. Even so, their odds are better than if the kids had stayed at home.

Into this world comes Galadriel (who hates her name, so she’s “El”), daughter of an unrepentant hippie witch who lives in a yurt in Wales (wrap your mind around that!) and gives away her best spells for free in a world of precisely measured tit-for-tat. A prophecy has marked El as destined for destruction and dark magic, and she’s become a self-isolating pariah noted for her uncensored rudeness. When heroic Orion Lake keeps saving her life, she can’t get rid of him. Gradually, they become friends (and more than friends). Much to her amazements, El gathers together a small team of fellow students, since cooperation and coordination will provide their only hope for surviving the graduation ordeal. At the end of their junior year, El and her friends joined forces with the graduating seniors, with surprising success.

Now it’s their turn, as graduating seniors. El has grown from a grouchy recluse to a young woman of courage and compassion, a born leader. She can inspire, cajole, and persuade the other seniors to work together to save the entire class, but that will leave successive generations of students to face the same heavy mortality. El wants to save them all and put an end to the yearly massacre. She comes up with a plan to graduate every single student, culminating in a mass extinction of the maleficaria. Her scheme will take every scrap of ingenuity, persuasion, and sheer magical power she possesses. To make matters worse, the school itself seems to have turned against her…

Novik combines a different and much grittier take on the “magical school” trope with a compelling central character who changes and grows. El faces her fears and insecurities, as well as the temptation of evil sorcery, to become a passionate and compassionate leader. Her voice drives the movement of the books. I can hardly wait to see what impossible-seeming tasks she tackles next!

Monday, July 25, 2022

[author squee] Sweet Words about The Children of Kings

Here's what Goodreads reader Marie Parson said about The Children of Kings. This review made my day!

Darkover stories have always at their heart been about transcendent acceptance-not only
one's own acceptance of who and what one is, and not only the acceptance, of one, by others. Darkover's tale of acceptance is the story of how, in the very act of accepting oneself and of the other--which too often is perceived as an act of weakness or simple naivete--instead, brings about a unity of soul and spirit that carries with it immense power and purpose.

The Children of Kings definitely does not disappoint, in this regard. It opens another brilliant chapter into a world of future possibilities, where not only do humans travel between the stars, not only find destiny and heart's home in the strangest of places, but also, find that they can do anything wondrous, build anything marvelous, if they find the way to do it together.

Well done, Children of Kings. Be warned, once you begin this book you will want to continue through to the end.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Book Review: Overcoming Deepest Grief, by Mary Aviyah Farkas

Overcoming Deepest Grief, A Woman’s Journey: Grief, Acceptance, Gratitude and Joy
, by Mary Aviyah Farkas

Mary Aviyah Farkas’s book, based mostly on her journal entries, is an intensely personal record of her passage through grief. It begins with a stark retelling of three major losses: the death of her sister, with whom she was very close, followed by discovering the dead body of her long-time lover and the consequent removal of her lover’s possessions from their home by the lover’s family, an incident she describes as “a rape.” The opening essays, written after the journal entries, speak eloquently of the depth of loss, the shock and the grief—experienced by the author. The simplicity of her diction expresses the complexity of her emotions, stemming not only from the deaths of two people she dearly loved but also from the sense of violation when her home was invaded by her in-laws in what she experienced as a callous and rapacious manner.

I think every reader would identify with Farkas’s feelings of shock and horror. As much as we might like to think that physical possessions aren’t important, when we have suffered the loss of someone we love (in this case, two people), items that they owned or shared become precious. Most of us aren’t ready to let go of them until we have done considerable grieving. (Example: I still have my mother’s aprons, 40 years later!) As someone who has experienced grief under complicated circumstances, I understood why Farkas didn’t respond with legal action or even simply kicked them out, and why she could no longer remain in the home she had shared for decades.

The remainder of the book consists of essays and poetry in chronological order, written as Farkas struggled to rebuild her life and rediscover joy and connection. Here is where the universality of the opening shifts into the specificity of her experiences and beliefs. Farkas states clearly that her book is not intended to be a “how-to,” although a few sections contain suggestions; this is a record of what comforted and helped her. Some of her experiences may fall outside the interests or means of ordinary people, for example, her sessions with her bodyworker or her guru. So, too, her use of capitalization denotes esoteric definitions of otherwise common words. I wondered, for example, what was the precise difference between accepting a loved one’s death and Accepting it. Clearly, the choice of diction and punctuation has special meaning for the author, reinforcing the presentation of her unique, personal experience.

Farkas offers her healing journey with remarkable honesty and courage. She is as open about her anguish as about her renewed joy. The importance of her spiritual life shines through the pages. The book won the Silver Nautilus Book Award for “books that support Nautilus’ Four Pillars: Conscious Living & Sustainability; High-Level Health & Wellness; Spiritual Growth; and Positive Social Change & Social Justice.”



I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Monday, July 18, 2022

Time, Patience, and the Beginning Writer

Beginning writers enjoy the unappreciated luxury of time. They can work without submission deadlines and crash and burn editorial demands. There’s an undeniable glee in such deadlines; they are the mark of a professional author, aren’t they? They demonstrate our commitment to our writing careers, and that our publishers take us seriously. Deadlines, especially short ones, imply an editor’s trust in our ability to work competently, even brilliantly, at speed. Surely, that’s proof of a high degree of Expertise, not to mention Importance.

If you haven’t picked up the sarcasm in the opening paragraph, please insert it now. Bleary eyes, aching shoulder muscles, unwashed laundry, family eating frozen dinners, and kids running amok from neglect are nobody’s idea of good working conditions. For many published and publishing authors, these things happen from time to time as a part of the publishing industry’s inherent chaos. If we can’t change them and don’t feel we have the option to refuse, then we make them more acceptable via glamorization of suffering. To be sure, when we were beginning writers, we may well have regarded the necessity of dropping everything to proofread a book that should have been done two months ago as a good thing. We wanted to see our work in print, the sooner the better, and too many of us jumped at the chance of being published anywhere.

The time during when we are writing seriously but not (yet) on contract offers its own gifts, and one of them is freedom from publisher- (or editor- or agent-) induced overwork frenzy. We may be overworking in a different way, juggling day jobs, families, and other responsibilities. Our friends and families may regard our writing as a hobby, no matter how seriously we take it, because we have yet made any money at it. (And when we do, the bar escalates: we haven’t sold a novel, we don’t earn enough to support ourselves entirely from our writing, we haven’t won a national award, etc., and with the achievement of each goal, we are subjected to another, even more difficult one.)

A beginning writer has the flexibility to accept external deadlines, like for submission to an anthology or contest, or to ignore them.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Heroine of the Magical Underclass

 Servant Mage, by Kate Elliott (Tor)

Kate Elliott always delivers entertaining stories with relatable characters, and Servant Mage is no exception. Indentured fire-mage Fellian leads a drab life, half-starved and clinging to memories of her childhood, before the rigid, fundamentalist Liberationists came to power and enslaved anyone with magical power. The usurped Monarchists have formed an underground rebellion, and they need Fellian’s Fire magic. Of course, one among them is devastatingly handsome, thereby setting expectations of romance to come, as well as the restoration of a noble, altruistic king.. Here’s where Elliott departs from the usual and becomes deeply subversive. Fellian holds steadfastly to her own values when presented with an attractive man and the lure of a benevolent monarchy restored. Instead, she asks piercing questions and relies on her own judgment, time and time again. She is keenly aware that the other conspirators need her special talent, and she’s not about to exchange her autonomy for a new community. In short, she thinks for herself. Through her, Elliott strongly questions the romantic notion so prevalent in fantasy: the noble aristocracy, devoted to the welfare of their subjects. Fellian insists that to trust future generations of entitled rulers is folly and that exchanging one form of top-down rule for another is no guarantee against despotism. This emperor might be just and fair, but in a generation, common people like her might find themselves just as oppressed.

I love how respectful Elliott is of her readers’ intelligence. She plays fair and gives us all the information we need (such as Fellian’s passion for literacy in teaching fellow servants to read and write) without ramming conclusions down our throats. She lets the characters and unfolding events speak for themselves without telling us how to feel about them. For this, and for superb storytelling and compelling characters, I’ll grab anything she writes!


Monday, July 11, 2022

[politics] Strategies for Reclaiming the Right to Choose

The New York Times recently published a piece by, "The Long Road to Reclaim Abortion Rights." Because it's behind a paywall and the information is so important, I've summarized it here.

Abortion rights groups have mounted a multilevel legal and political attack aimed at blocking and reversing abortion bans in courts and at ballot boxes across the country. They have rolled out a wave of lawsuits in nearly a dozen states to hold off bans triggered by the court’s decision, with the promise of more suits to come. They are aiming to prove that provisions in state constitutions establish a right to abortion. They are also working to defeat ballot initiatives that would strip away a constitutional right to abortion and to pass those that would establish one, in states where abortion access is contingent on who controls the governor’s mansion or the state house.

Democratic-aligned groups are campaigning to reverse slim Republican majorities in some state legislatures and to elect abortion rights supporters to positions from county commissioner to state supreme court justices that can have influence over the enforcement of abortion restrictions.

The path ahead is slow and not at all certain. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly say that the decision to have an abortion should be made by women and their doctors rather than state legislatures. But Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed hundreds of restrictions on abortion over the last decade, and legislative districts are heavily gerrymandered to protect Republican incumbents. Litigation in state courts will be decided by judges who in many cases have been appointed by anti-abortion governors.

Abortion rights groups say their cases offer a viable path forward to establish protections in states. Even in conservative states such as Oklahoma and Mississippi, they see an opportunity to overturn abortion bans and establish a constitutional backstop against further restriction. But in other places, the goal of the litigation is to at least temporarily restore or preserve abortion access, now that the court’s decision stands to make it illegal or effectively so in more than half the states, which include 33.5 million women of childbearing age.

In Louisiana, for example, though the state constitution expressly says there is no right to abortion, the legal challenge has allowed three clinics to continue serving women whose plans to end their pregnancies were thrown into disarray by the court’s decision.

By Friday, the groups had temporarily blocked bans from taking effect in Utah, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Florida; judges have set hearings over the next several weeks to consider permanent injunctions. But they lost bids to hold off bans in Ohio and Texas.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Very Short Book Reviews: Smart Oceans and Other Treasures

 Along the Saltwise Sea, by A. Deborah Baker (Tordotcom)

Along the Saltwise Sea follows the children from A. Deborah Baker’s (Seanan Mcguire’s) Over the Woodward Wall. Two adolescents—conformist Avery and adventuresome Zib, have found their way into the Up-and-Under, a magical world, via the aforementioned wall. Here they encounter all manner of creatures, from sarcastic owls to evil Pages to Niamh the drowned girl, and a girl composed of a murder of crows. Of course, they’re given a quest to fulfill to return home.

Along the Saltwise Sea adds even more delicious elements to their story: pirates! An intelligent ocean! A mysterious passenger!


by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)

Okorafor’s work invites us into a world of the future, but one in which the foundational culture is not derived from Western Europe but situated in Africa. Her underlying premise is that the Africans of the future, in this case Nigerians, have developed their own rich technologies. Two stand out for me in this novel: harvesting solar and wind energy in the deserts of northern Nigeria; and the heroine herself, whose cyborg body has been extensively augmented. At the same time, herdsmen follow ages-old traditions. In Okorafor’s skillful hands, high tech and ancient ways of life blend into a seamless whole.



The Cat Who Saved Books, by Sosuke Natsukawa (HarperVia)

What a sweet story, featuring a reclusive teen, a bookstore full of used classics, and a talking cat bent on saving books. I found the slow pace deceptive, for there is a great deal going on between the words and the worlds. The book weaves together a series of quests with the slow process of Rintaro’s grief at his grandfather’s death evolving toward renewed engagement with life and self-confidence, all framed in discussions of the role of books, ideas, and story-telling, not to mention the publishing and book-selling industries.

Monday, July 4, 2022

In Troubled Times: Tenaciously Hopeful

I first posted this on January 2, 2017, right after the presidential election. I'm putting it up again as a reminder of how important it is to take care of our mental well-being in troubled times.

Recently, I’ve noticed more articles on staying grounded in joy and hope, even when surrounded by fear. Perhaps such articles have always been part of the general social media discourse and I am only now becoming sufficiently calm to notice them. But I rather think (hope!) this is a trend. In me, it certainly is. After the initial rounds of fear and trepidation, the constant adrenaline wore off. I’m not naturally a person who enjoys being fearful; from my experience training dogs, I suspect it’s not an appealing state for most of us. Some, I suppose, enjoy the “high” of confrontation, even violence, but I’m not among them. Harming others and myself is not where I want to live my life.

I see also posts affirming commitment to action, often in terms of “We Will Fight On!” and I’ve been resisting the urge to jump on that bandwagon. (Also the “Organize the Resistance” brigade.) It all sounds so necessary, a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. And is just as unrealistic for me as remaining in that state of terrified fury.

As unhealthy.

I am not objecting to others following the paths to which they are led. Resisting fascism and protecting the most vulnerable are inarguably vital to our survival as individuals, communities, and a society. I am thrilled that people have the drive and knowledge to organize such resistance. I will be right there, cheering them on. But I won’t be in the forefront.

It’s taken me a long time, coming from a family of dyed-in-the-wool organizers (labor unions, radical politics, war resistance, etc.) to come to terms with not being one of them. Undoubtedly, seeing the cost to my family played a role in my reluctance. I’ve marched in my share of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, written a gazillion letters, painted an equal number of signs. But it’s not where my heart is. I’ve seen the joy in the eyes of those for whom this is their passion, their “thing.” I want to hug them all and say, “I’m so glad you’re out there, doing this for both of us.”

The fallacy is that making the world a better place is an either/or proposition. Either I’m out there, making headlines by facilitating events of vast numbers for the people’s revolution (as an example), or I’m sitting at home, knitting while Yosemite burns.

The fact is, any social movement happens on many levels. There’s the outward, banner-headline, political level, one that often requires organization on a national or international level. There is a community level, supporting your neighbors, particularly those in need. Soup kitchens are just as necessary as demonstrations outside the White House, although they serve fewer people. Taking care of ourselves and our families is yet another.

Quiet, mindful actions that focus on compassion, justice, and unity need not be limited to small numbers. In fact, outward activism must be balanced by inner activism. We can all find where we are called to act along that spectrum, and we can move back and forth (or in and out, whichever image works best) with circumstances, experience, and energy levels. What a relief to realize I don’t have to pick one thing or level of involvement!

So what speaks to me right now is remembering joy. The year to come is almost certainly going to be full of occasions for grimness if not despair, so I don’t want to start off that way. I want to full up my “savings account of hope” as much as I can, cultivating those people, places, and things that lift my spirits. I want to never, ever let go of believing we can survive this, kindness and persistence will triumph, and no matter how dark it may seem at the moment, love will win.

I refuse my consent to fascism. I also refuse my consent to despair.

I affirm that I will cling tenaciously – relentlessly – to hope, and I invite you to do so, too.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Time-Twisting Murder Mystery

The Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart (Ballantine)

If we ever managed to figure out time travel, who would control it? How would we prevent time tourists from messing with the past—and would that warp the present, as in the grandfather paradox? In Rob Hart’s latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, the US government has been policing time tourism and historical research expeditions, only now they’ve run out of funds and the franchise is about to go to auction.

January Cole works security at the Paradox Hotel, which hosts time travelers awaiting their scheduled “flights to the past” at the nearby Einstein Institute. She’s a seasoned time traveler herself, having made many trips as part of the policing agency. As a result of spending too much time in the past, she’s become Unstuck, with the result that she often sees events and people from prior times. The best of these incidents allow her to be with her sweet, loving girlfriend, now dead. But January’s condition is worsening, and she’s not only seeing the past but the future. That future includes a corpse in Room 526.

With trillionaires arriving for the auction, baby velociraptors on the loose, and January’s grip on the present moment growing ever less reliable, it’s inevitable that more things will go wrong…starting with a series of “accidents” befalling the powerful, ultra-wealthy bidders. Clocks run backward, time seems to stutter, the treatment for being Unstuck no longer works, and January’s running out of time to stop the murder.

I loved the convolutions of time, January’s wrestling with grief and guilt, the dips into the past, and of course, the baby velociraptors that grow much too fast, all with the fast pacing of a thriller. In short, Hart’s time-twisting murder mystery satisfies on many counts.