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Archive for the ‘Bookery’ Category

Forgotten Fantasy Favorites: The Golden Key

The Golden Key is a lush, stand-alone epic fantasy novel I picked up back in the hazy 90’s because it was co-written by some of my favorite fantasy authors in my teens: Kate Elliott, Jennifer Roberson, and Melanie Rawn.

This summary from TV Tropes is pretty good, though it forgets some key characters, which I’ll get to after the quote:

“(The Golden Key) traces a family of painters who, by nature of their Gifts, can influence events around them. In the Grijalva family, the Gifted males are usually sterile and short-lived; the women, who may be gifted for painting, but not Gifted for the particular type of painting that alters what it portrays, are generally kept within the family to produce children. However, one woman per generation is official mistress to the ruling Duke, so that the family maintains its influence at Court. The story develops when a particularly Gifted and unscrupulous Grijalva painter named Sario finds a way to continue living through successive generations in order to paint a picture worthy of his immense talent. As the political and social climate changes, including revolutions in neighboring countries and democratic challenges to the ruling Dukes, the increasingly conservative Sario seeks to hold onto the past, and especially his first love, whom he has imprisoned in a painting.”

The character not mentioned by name in this summary is Saavedra (positioned here as “the love interest” but a woman with a story in her own right), who is actually positioned as the heroine for the first third of the book, at least., and who I’d like to have had around a good deal longer.

The setting is a sort of alternative Moorish Spain (that’s southern Spain, for those unfamiliar with the term), and the painting magic was memorable for me because it involved mixing one’s bodily fluids with the paint to engineer particular effects on the real world and real world events: blood, saliva, tears, and well… “essence.” You know.

This was one of those great fantasy novels that’s heavy on politics and intrigue as well as interesting magic. The setting was astonishing, too – I felt like I could step through the pages and just… be transported there.

Plenty 0f backstabbing, double-crosses, and time jumping.

The book has a new paperback cover, but I still own the far superior Whalen hardcover, which is very good at telling you precisely the story you’re getting.

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Recommended.

Why Everyone Should Be Reading Ancillary Justice

Last night I stayed up late to finish Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. It’s been a long time since I stayed up late to finish a book. Way too long.

If you follow SF/F book blogs or are active in SF/F circles on Twitter, you’ve probably already heard of Ancillary Justice. If you STILL have not read it and bought copies for all your friends – NOW IS THE TIME.

(if you already bought copies, go buy some more)

Ancillary Justice is a colonial-era mystery/revenge saga (which colonial era? Well….) about a person named Breq who’s seeking (you guessed it) justice for a terrible wrong. There are an amazing number of things to love about this novel – the lush, careful, fascinating cultural details of the universe-conquering Radch and the people of Ors and Nilt, two far-flung peoples our protagonist comes into contact with. There are the wonderfully complex and human characters, who have love and faith and hate and ambition and anger and desire. It’s not until you read an SF book that knows how to spin a great character that you realize what a real dearth of them there are in a lot of SF, still.

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This is character-driven SF at its finest.

Even more interesting, for me, were the politics of slavery and oppression, colonization and hierarchy. It explores the mindbending doublethink of colonialism on a grand scale, and asks deep questions about what we mean when we say “civilization” – without losing a beat in the action. 

It’s got all the cool SFnal elements here, too. There are aliens and alien artifacts and super weapons and sentient ships and explorations of self vs. machine vs. collective. There are gun battles and near-death falls and genocide and double crosses and betrayals.

Reading this from the perspective of another writer, I was also impressed by the sheer ambitiousness of this book. There are narrative things Leckie does here that should not work, but which work. Having just written a book I thought was intensely complicated, I found myself shocked and awed at how well Leckie nails this entire concept. We get rapid-fire POV shifts between a sentient ship which inhabits several bodies. We get a whole scene happening concurrently – no scene breaks – to the “same” character in two different places.

The politics are also so intensely complicated that I found myself more relieved than annoyed when one of the characters had to re-explain the situation at the end of the book to another character. I’ve had people say that science fiction makes their head hurt. It so happens I’m one of those people who likes that about science fiction, and realizing that despite its intricacies, I had managed to grasp the political machinations with only mild head-hurty-ness pleased me deeply. Seeing how Leckie communicated these intricacies so well was deeply impressive.

I recommend a lot of books here with caveats. “Watch out for the superfluous rape scene” or “this lazy bit of racial stereotyping,” or “the three or four times it slips into misogyny.” But most astonishing of all, for me, was that Leckie wrote a powerful, arresting, beautiful space opera that didn’t punch me in the face the whole fucking time.

I love space operas to bits, but so many of them are so clunky and lazy they make me want to cry. Ancillary Justice did, in fact, make me tear up. But only because I sympathized so strongly with the characters. Not because I was being insulted. In fact, Leckie’s deft handling of gender here was so skilled that a third of the way through the book, I stopped trying to guess everybody’s gender. Because to our protagonist, gender does not matter. It’s not seen. Sure, you see a lot of writers try to do this – but Leckie actually achieves it.  This book should win a Hugo AND a fucking Tiptree. BECAUSE HOW AWESOME WOULD THAT BE??

Leckie’s book is one of those astonishing finds. She was one of those folks who I had only seen in passing on the TOC at Strange Horizons. And now here is this lovely book, this perfect book, the book I’d been wishing somebody would write for so very long – a space opera that was so lovely and thoughtful and bad ass and brilliant and that didn’t punch me in the face. And here it is. And best of all, Leckie makes it look so fucking easy that all I could think after finishing was, “Why aren’t we all writing books this fucking good?”

Because we should be. We really should be.

Go buy it. Right now. 

You’re welcome in advance.

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Forgotten Fantasy Favorites: Assassin’s Apprentice

Forgotten Fantasy Favorites: An irregular series

In the rush of GRRM and Joe Abercrombie madness these days, I couldn’t help but notice that a good deal of excellent grimdark-y fantasy from the last thirty years seems to have been tucked under the rug and forgotten, as if nobody wrote about incest or political intrigue before 2001. In this irregular series of posts, I want to highlight some of my favorite fantasy epics – gritty and otherwise – of the last twenty years.

You might think it’s impossible for folks to talk about epic fantasy without talking about Robin Hobb. In fact, I hesitated to put Hobb’s name on the list of writers I showcased for this series. But I’ve noticed a few “fantasy canon” or “hot fantasy that broke all the rules!”-type posts that have overlooked Hobb, which is both shocking and seemingly impossible, as Hobb’s work, I’d argue, had one of the first (and I think most influencial) “heroes don’t win shit” messages. It was proto-grimdark, and shocking for me to read as a teen in a fantasy landscape where heroes always got the girl and other Grand Prizes one gets from Saving the World

9780553573398_custom-4916c7e358c95aeafb7ebb2e67f473dc932d20a4-s6-c30If Jon Snow had been raised in the Starks’s kennels as their personal assassin, well – you’d have something very like Assassin’s Apprentice, Hobb’s first book written under that name. Assassin came out the same year as Game of Thrones, and incited quite a bit more buzz, as I recall, because Hobb was an obvious pseudonym and nobody could figure out what Amazing Established Writer had come out of nowhere to write such a gutwrenching epic.

In fact, Hobb’s name was a carefully calculated pen name, as her work under her real name, Megan Lindholm, hadn’t sold as well as folks liked and was in an entirely other genre (urban fantasy of the old school “creepy shit happening in cities” type, not the werewolves-sexing-up-vampires type). The new name and – most importantly – the dark, gritty, lush and amazing storytelling did the trick, and Hobb’s work has become a large influence in breathing new life into the fantasy genre.

The astonishing thing about the erasure of this particular fantasy great in the narrative is that not only are her books well-selling (and well-paying – after her Assassin books, her next series is reported to have garnered a 7 figure advance) but she has just announced another trilogy set in the same universe, The Fitz and the Fool trilogy, with the next book coming out in 2014.

 

 

Forgotten Fantasy Favorites: Sword Dancer

Forgotten Fantasy Favorites: An irregular series

In the rush of GRRM and Joe Abercrombie madness these days, I couldn’t help but notice that a good deal of excellent grimdark-y fantasy from the last thirty years seems to have been tucked under the rug and forgotten, as if nobody wrote about incest or political intrigue before 2001. In this irregular series of posts, I want to highlight some of my favorite fantasy epics – gritty and otherwise – of the last twenty years.

First up is the excellent Sword Dancer series (first published in 1986!), which was reissued again in 2006 (Kindle version here). This is the story of a smart ass former-slave-turned-sword-fighter who teams up with a bad-ass-woman-seeking-revenge to find her stolen brother. It’s a classic sword-and-sorcery tale that becomes more epic and world-changing in subsequent volumes as Tiger and Del uncover how a feud between two dueling sorcerers has transformed their world into the cold, cold north and the sandy, sandy south.

What’s so endearing about this series is our smart-ass hero, Tiger, and his snarky humor and laid back view of the world. A worldview which slowly changes while he’s on the road with Del to avenge her family and uncover the history of his own. If you’re discouraged by this opening, I encourage you to read on – Roberson knows what she’s doing, and it’s pretty brilliant:

51XK55NCVBL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“In my line of work, I’ve seen all kinds of women. Some beautiful. Some ugly. Some just plain in between. And – being neither senile nor a man with aspirations to sainthood – whenever the opportunity presenting itself (with or without my encouragement), I bedded the beautiful ones (although sometimes they bedded me), passed on the ugly ones altogether (not being a greedy man), but allowed myself discourse with the in-betweeners on a fairly regular basis, not being one to look the other way when such things as discourse and other entertainments are freely offered. So the in-betweeners were all right, too.

But when she walked into the hot, dusty cantina and slipped the hood off her white burnous, I knew nothing I’d ever seen could touch her.”

Tiger’s voice wins this whole series for me.

This story enthralled me when I first read it, because though on the surface of things it’s a slash-and-hack series of sword and sorcery novels, it has a lot to say about bodies and slavery and autonomy and the trouble with trying to earn one’s living with a sword, especially as you get older. It’s a brutal world, with abuse perpetuated by and against both men and women, rich and poor, free and slave. The first three books are tightly written and engaging, and though they get a little more travelogue-y in subsequent volumes, it’s a great exploration of the relationship between two broken people in a broken world.

I especially recommend these books for fans of my bel dame books, as you may recognize the gritty setting and heroes-in-opposition tropes that I employed in those books, here (and it’s where I first read the term “burnous” and remains one of the reasons why everyone in those books wears one). Roberson’s work was a big influence.

Roberson continues to write furiously today, most notably for SFF readers in her Karavans series.

Books I’m Reading (and you should be reading too)

Here’s the latest roundup of what I’m (perpetually) reading:

ascension-by-jacqueline-koyanagi-194x300Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

There’s been some buzz about this one in the circles I follow, and for good reason. Complex, fascinating heroine (she has a chronic illness!) running around a space-opera-ish universe. I’ve heard the book likened to really good Firefly fanfic, and that’s not a bad thing. There are badass women running around doing badass things and falling in love with each other and with starships, and I’m totally down with that.

 

 

no-return-by-zachary-jerniganNo Return by Zachary Jernigan

Yes, I’ve been reading this one a long time, and you should be too. I even went out and bought the hardcover in addition to the ebook, because the world was so lush and the language so intoxicating that I wanted to have it in hardcover. Yeah, there are some strange structural issues, but I could give a shit. Don’t let the cover fool you – it’s a hypnotic sort of read the evokes a lot of the same awe and wonder I felt reading Gene Wolfe’s stuff; the Elizabeth Hand blurb tells you all you need to know. If you love the shock and awe of science-fantasy and don’t care much for paint-by-numbers plots, pick this up.

 

 

Tregillis-3-NecessaryEvilUK[13]Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis

Another book I’ve been reading for a long time, because it’s the last in an incredible series that I really, really don’t want to end. Tregillis comes across as one of those writers who just sits down and effortlessly writes out a brilliant, clean book. He makes this shit look easy. His characters are heartbreaking and creepy and Gretel in particular will stick with you a long time. Be sure to start with the first in the series, Bitter Seeds, which is epic gold in itself but even more epically golden if you’re a military history-loving SF/F nut like me.

 

 

What You Should Be Reading

And now, back to why it is we’re all here in the first place. Here’s what I’ve been reading, and some recs.

 

 

 

 

 

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THE DINNER

I don’t read a lot of literary fiction these days, but the idea behind this one – that you’re introduced to a character you have some sympathy to begin with who you slowly realize that, uh, maybe you shouldn’t… is really done exceptionally well. This unreliable narrator reminded me a lot of American Psycho (the violence here is not nearly as graphic as that, but it does exist). The conceit is this: a man finds out his son has committed a terrible crime, and the events of what happened, and why, are framed by a dinner the man and his family are having. If you’re a writer, I recommend this for the pure technical genius of it. This is also a rather short book, and the first I read entirely on my phone.

 

 

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EMBEDDED

Have you played through the game Borderlands? Remember how fun it was, until you got to the rather deflating ending? That’s what Embedded is like. It’s not bad. It’s a fun little military SF book, and guess what! It has actual women in it! Who are actual characters! The mix of women characters makes up for the way a few others were handled. Still, no rape/attempted rape scenes, and no idiot women. That alone, to be dead honest, swayed me to recommend this to folks who enjoy military SF/fantasy but hate the misogyny that generally comes with it.  Would be interested to see what others thought of it.

 

 

 

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AFTER THE APOCALYPSE

Most folks know Maureen McHugh is brilliant, but really, folks, she is brilliant, and she owns the short story form. These are tough, gritty, character driven stories that pull no punches, and show a tremendous range of characters and character voices. I was actually reading this collection about 20 miles outside of Lancaster, OH, which showed up as a setting in one of my favorite stories in the collection, and made me laugh and laugh, because who sets a science fiction story in Lancaster, OH? Wonderfully done, highly recommended.

Books You Should Be Reading (and other things)

I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile because… well, because it takes me awhile to read books. So here’s a quick grab bag of what I’m been consuming that I think is pretty good food for thought. I do have a stack of other things (so many, many other things) left unread. So here’s to hoping I can recommend some of those soon as well. But no promises! I’m in deep research mode again, and headed off to the library today to look up some information on toxic plantlife, so much of what I read the next couple months will likely be nonfiction.

 

 

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SAGA

 

All I really need to do is post the marketing copy for this, because, yo: “When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe.” There’s the people with wings and the people with horns and one’s on this planet, and the other’s on this moon, and there’s weird ghosts and intergalactic bounty hunters and it opens with our heroine giving birth and then taking part in a firefight, so what’s not to love? Annoyance with an overzealous intergalactic brothel scene, which seemed entirely useless to the story and eye-rolling in its “ISN’T THIS SHOCKING-NESS” (it wasn’t), but everything else (and the spaceship! The spaceship!) was gold. Highly recommended, and can’t wait for volume 2.

 

 

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The Signal and the Noise

 

Most people know who Nate Silver is by this point, and I couldn’t help but pick this book up after my nail-biting election night. Silver does a great job here of making statistics and probability easy to understand for writerly-minded folks who may find most crazy math talk annoying to puzzle through. He explores why some activities – like poker and baseball – are easier to predict than others (like earthquakes) and also takes a look at why it is weather forecasting is getting better (and confirms the feeling that the local news plays up argmageddon for no reason; they give weather forecasting a bad name). Great stories, interesting people, and some smart ideas to chew on.

 

 

 

           

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 What if the Earth Had Two Moons?

I’m currently working on a fantasy series that has a pretty wild system of suns and moons and nutty satellites, so I was looking for some kind of layman’s “in” into how things on this world might be different with two moons or two suns. Each section of the book starts off with some very silly, very bad “fiction” excerpts from the worlds the guy posits. After trying to muddle through the first one, I just skipped those and got straight to the actual non-fiction part. He posits many different situations: earth with two moons, earth with two suns, earth with counter-earth, what if the earth was a moon of a larger body (one of the most fascinating, to me), and what if the earth formed much later, and many more. Highly recommended if you need some ideas for how worlds that formed under some very simply different circumstances might operate.

 

 

NATHAN FILLION, RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON, SEAMUS DEVER, JON HUERTAS, STANA KATIC

 

CASTLE

 

I wanted to bring this one up because I really, really hated the first season. Despite loving the whole idea (a writer and a cop! They fight crime!), I found Nathan Fillion’s character a boring adolescent playboy who was constantly one-upping and denigrating Beckett, the woman cop who was supposed to be so clever and amazing that she was hugely respected on the force. But not so clever and amazing, of course, that a mere playboy writer could not one-up her. It was a frustrating season, and I live-tweeted my distaste for the whole thing. I felt like Beckett was insulted at every turn, and when my partner suggested we buy the second season from Amazon Prime, I turned up my nose at it. It was only after trying several other “murder shows” (as we call them around here), all of which constantly fridged women, that I grudgingly went back to Castle. Season 2 was the season where it appeared the writers had actually paid attention to the fans, fans who likely had about the same problems with the show that I did, and instead of funny-ha-ha misogynist Castle undermining Beckett, they finally started to act like partners, and there were even cases where suddenly she acted like a real cop and, you know, solved the murder. More and more, they would solve the “Whodunnit” at the same time, which was fun. I’d wanted a show that was more like Bones, and this finally started to deliver. It’s still not a perfect show (not an episode goes by where someone doesn’t mention how “hot” Beckett is or frame her with a male gaze), but the writing overall is very good, and the cast is really starting to have fun with it the way the Bones cast is (I just finished Season 3). So if you gave up on this one because of the misogyny of the first season, I’d recommend that you start over with season 2. You might be surprised.

LeGuin, Boys’ Own Adventure, and the Fine Art of Genderfucking

NOTE: This post was originally published on the Feminist SF blog in 2006 or so. It was pretty popular at the time, but has been difficult to find these days, so I dug up the cache and am re-posting here. Despite being tempted (the “terrorism” bit is… interesting), I have left it unedited.

Almost without fail, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness gets praised (and praised, and praised) as the most groundbreaking book on gender relations ever written in the SF/F field. I’m always hearing about how it changed so-and-so’s whole world, their entire conception of gender. You can’t throw a stone at a Wiscon panel without hitting somebody who gushes about this book.

This book was written in 1968.

And nothing else written since has carved such a significant place for itself in both popularity and sheer genderfucking.

I repeat: this book was written in 1968

And there’s no other book anyone’s ever talked to me about that fucked with their ideas about gender in the same way this one did – at least, not any book that was as wildly popular as LHoD.

This has been bugging me for a long time. In the last 38 years, no other book has been as widely read and as radical as LHoD?

Are we just not writing good genderfuck books? That can’t be it. You see genderfuck books on Tiptree lists every year (well, *most* of the books on the Tiptree lists. heh heh).

But where’s the book that’s going to change an entire generation’s conceptions of gender? LHoD is great, but I’d hope that over the next 50 years we’re passing around several books of the same popularity and significance as LHoD. I’d hope we’d be producing stuff that’s just as well thought out, that we can’t help but read, talk about, and watch go mainstream.

Which begs the question, what’s missing from all these other genderfucking books?

I’d say: great writing, traditional adventure (plot), accessibility.

Because that’s what Le Guin did – she gave us an apparently “safe” boys’ own adventure story from the POV of a hetero white male. Then she pulled us in and started dropping bombs. It’s the same strategy she used in Wizard of Earthsea: you don’t find out Ged’s skin color until you’re well enough along in the story. If reading about somebody of a different color might have bothered you up front, you’re hopefully too deep into it to care by the time she reveals it.

When asked about whether she would have written LHoD differently – perhaps more radically – if she wrote it today, Le Guin reminded the speaker that the book was already pretty damn radical for 1968.

It was a funny question, because you know what? It’s not up to LeGuin to write the next radical feminist book.

If the most radical and popular feminist fiction came from a white, heterosexual mother of three in 1968, what does that say about the current state of feminist SF? And the current writers? (oh, relax, I include *myself* in this category) Why are we still asking her to write and rewrite it for us? Are we all still wallowing in a post-1980s backlash (oh, fuck, to be stuck in the 80s!), or is Le Guin just so incredibly talented that you only get that mix of great writer/great thinker/great feminist once every fifty years?

Cause if that’s so, that’s really fucking depressing.

On the feminist SF list I belong to, one list member asked if perhaps Le Guin’s book was so popular because it wasn’t actually as radical as we might think. It was very safe. The hetero male protagonist doesn’t have sex with any of the planet’s inhabitants, no matter their current gender. We go off on a boys’ own adventure story, on a planet entirely populated by people referred to as “he,” no matter their gender. Le Guin is a natural storyteller, and she concentrates on the story. It’s not overly didactic. It’s engaging and entertaining.

Stuff like Egalia’s Daughters might have some far more radical ideas, but it’s got shitty characters, inconsistent prose quality (if you could call it “prose”), and bizarre POV shifts. Also: not really an adventure story. Also: silly ending.

Joanna Russ’s The Female Man pretty much consistently Freaks People Out. Especially those uncomfortable with her angry writing (I LOVE the angry writing, but I’d bet that’s a lot of why she’s not as popular as LeGuin, though her body of work is also much, much smaller).

As for more recent stuff: Wen Spencer’s A Brother’s Price was simple romance-role-reversal fluff reading, and ultimately about as filling as cotten candy. Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine is brilliant and haunting and weird, but it’s a weirdness that also makes a more mainstream audience uncomfortable. Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite comes closest to the adventure-feminism-good writing combination, but ultimately, she’s writing about another all-female planet, and it was ground I felt Russ had already covered pretty well in The Female Man and When it Changed. I also love everything Maureen McHugh has written, but her plots aren’t traditional “plots” and her endings tend to taper off instead of tie up. Eleanor Arnason does some very non-traditional things with her story structure as well (another author who seems to be playing with traditional notions of “adventure” plotting), and I think that’s a turnoff for a wider readership (I’d like to add that not having a wider readership does nothing to invalidate the work of these authors or their work. I love their work. I’m simply trying to understand why LHoD and not these others as “book that totally changed the ENTIRE SF/F FIELD AND MY LIFE!”?).

To be honest, LHoD has just never done it for me. Le Guin is one of the most talented writers in and outside the field, but I’ve always found her fiction a little dry (I prefer her nonfiction). She’s never been as radical as Russ, nor as angry (in writing, at least), and it’s the anger I especially identify with in Russ’s work – that anger that so terrifies and puts off so many others.

It’s my own ambivalence toward Le Guin’s fiction that’s made me so curious about why LHoD is still held up as the primary book about speculative genderfucking. Certainly, it should be part of the SF/F feminist fiction canon, the first groundbreaking book.

But where’s that other groundbreaking book? Not just one rich in radical ideas, but so well told and well-respected that it enjoys a wide and fanatic readership?

You could argue that that sort of book builds up a reputation over time, but I can’t help but note that 15 or 20 years should be plenty of time for something written 15 or 20 years ago to come into its own. And I’m not seeing that.

Are there not enough good SF/F storytellers? Not enough good storytellers writing about radical feminism/gender/body politics?

Or, you know, is feminism just so five minutes ago that we’re all content to write about strong female heroines who are just assumed to be “equal” in whatever made-up society we throw together – where men are men and women are men, too?

Cause if that’s radical feminism, I’d love to see what we’d call a body of work today that was written in the same angry, brutal vein as Russ’s fiction.

We’d probably call it terrorism.

And that would be really, really cool.

Books You Should be Reading

I would not call a lot of books “brilliant,” but OSAMA is pretty effing brilliant. I thought this book was going to be nigh unreadable, based on the concept – a world where Osama bin Laden is the character in a series of pulp novels, and a private eye is tasked with hunting down the guy who writes the bin Laden novels. But wow. I’m so glad this got nominated for a World Fantasy Award. It crushes me this book hasn’t sold a bazillion copies, though.

What makes this book is the stark back-and-forth between the droll, emotionless reporting of the pulp novels – the parts that describe the events in our world – with the very lush, visceral portions of the novel where the private eye is uncovering who the author is, why he writes the books, and what exaclty they have to do with Our Hero.

Note that if you’re looking for compelling female characters who aren’t in service to the male protagonist’s story, look elsewhere. This is a book that’s very much centered on the male protag; the conciet of the novel pretty much depends on all the secondary folks in the story being secondary. It very much appeared to be a conscious choice, tho, so it gets a pass.

I got the Kindle version of this book for free during a promotion, but will be buying a dead tree  version as soon as I can find one (I hate reading books electronically. The writing here is so good that it deserved a more immersive reading).

 

Tobias Buckell’s ARTIC RISING is a punchy little thriller set in in a post-icemelt world rapidly being exploited by corporate interests. The big surprise here was that the heroine is a lesbian Nigerian pilot with combat experience – not exactly somebody we get to see in thrillers everyday, and that was a delight.

The first 3/4 or 4/5 of the book are tough to put down – I just kept compulsively turning pages. In some ways, it reminded me of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, with its Arctic setting and at-first-possibly-freaky-alien-unknown-things-going-on-thriller plot.

Do note that it gets a little over the top at the end, but overall it’s a fun thriller with a lot of interesting extrapolations about what the new Arctic frontier might look like in… twenty years?

Also: One of the most realistic garrotting scenes since No Country for Old Men.

 

I am going to do something I almost never do and recommend a book before I’ve finished it, in part because of the very smart catch-and-release trick the author employs at the beginning of this book and in part because I’m too lazy to save this one for the next book post trifeca. I’d been hearing a lot about vN by Madeline Ashby, but the concept really put me off. Another sex robot story? Really? But when I asked some Twitter folks to screen this one for me, lo and behold the overwhelming reponse was: READ IT.

The opening chapter is this dude talking about his sex robot (his wife, yeah, yeah, OK), and I was like, “My God, really?” But then about halfway through the chapter I started to realize there was some sneaky stuff going on here. These robot women all had agendas and actual internal lives that this guy was completely oblivious to. So here I am imagining all these readers sucked in, thinking they’re getting another happy-guy-does-robot robot sex story and then.. and then… they get to the end of the first chapter.

And everything changes. It’s The Women Men Don’t See, only now we get to see them – with bonus cannibalism.

The book suffers from a few jarring transitions as it goes along, mostly first novel hiccups, but there are some really smart and interesting choices made throughout this book, and it’s a fun ride. Recommended, with the caveat that I haven’t finished yet, and reserve the right to change my mind if Something Horrible happens in the last bit.

 

 

Starve Better

A couple years back, I had an old high school classmate email me out of the blue and ask if I could offer him some tips on writing, because he really wanted to be a writer so he could “Work from anywhere and make money typing on the beach in Hawaii.”

No, really, that’s what he said.

This email made me so angry that I just deleted it without a response.

By that time, I’d been trying to make a living at writing for nearly fifteen years. I’d gotten over a hundred rejections and stopped keeping count. The times that people spent going to parties or having real hobbies, I was writing crappy short fiction and banging out bad novel drafts and copyediting business correspondence and writing press releases.  And I sure as hell wasn’t doing any of that from a comfy chair on the beach. In fact, much of the writing I did was from my parents’ den or a cockroach infested flat in South Africa or an incredibly dark dorm room in Alaska where your nose hairs froze when you walked outside.  I didn’t write because I thought it would give me any kind of freedom. I wrote because it was fun, and cathartic, and it was something I was starting to get good at. It beat cleaning dog kennels.

But I guess what really bugged me about the former classmate’s email was not that he assumed that writing was great because you can do it anywhere (it is and you can) but that writing itself was some kind of hobby vacation… that writing isn’t work.

Later, I got a technical writing job where I wrote policies and procedures and training and software manuals. I got that job because in other jobs I’d been copyediting those same types of documents – it turns out that copyediting so many of my own manuscripts over the years translated into a real-world skill. Then I wrote business blog posts and press releases and internal correspondence. I took up freelance work doing resumes for $25-75 a pop (that rate has gone up substantially, because I’ve gotten very good at it).  This became a marketing gig where I wrote brochure copy and online ads and full-page trade ads.  When I wasn’t paying attention, I ended up writing radio and TV ads, short training and inspirational video scripts, the crazy language of SEO, optimized blog posts, and started maintaining business social media accounts. Now I spend much of my time creating marketing emails, reg pages, web copy, literature sheets, and online and trade ads, and I make a very reasonable amount of money at it.

Much of my success in landing increasingly writerly jobs was simply earning a reputation as “the writer” who could “write anything.” I could write quickly and competently to deadline, even some wildly insane deadlines like, “Fifteen minutes.” Sometimes I even wrote things that were pretty good, and performed well.

But that didn’t just “happen” one day. It was me leveraging what I was learning on my own through fiction writing in my everyday administrative job life, and slowly building up the skills I needed to fake my way through my first official all-writing, all-the-time job. When somebody comes up to me and asks, “How can I become a writer who makes a living at writing?” I often don’t know what to say. How do you condense your own 15-20 years of writing experience into some nugget for somebody who wants a get-rich-quick-scheme, not actual career advice? And that’s honestly what kills me about a lot of people who approach me asking for advice. They don’t want to hear, “Write things for 10 or 15 years so you become known as ‘the writer’ among your friends and can take on increasingly challenging work.” They want to hear “Read this book/publish a blog post on Amazon and make a million dollars.”

And it’s just… it’s not like that. It’s like asking somebody how to become a dancer, or a brain surgeon, or a physicist. It’s like, “Well, work real hard at it. Duh.” And nobody believes you. Instead, they all run off to get MFA’s or publish the first thing they wrote on Amazon and gleefully await the money to come pouring on in.

That’s why I enjoyed Nick Mamatas’s book, Starve Better, so much. I’ve been following a lot of his online rants about writing – real writing, writing for money, for rent, for food – and I knew this compilation would contain all the sobering, gut-punching, garret-living, real-world advice that folks who really, truly want to make a living off writing need to know.

I was not disappointed.

I think this book should be required reading for every single person who takes a creative writing course. Not just MFA programs, but right out the gate, during those first few creative writing courses you take with those people who are bringing the same three poems to every class, or writing about the décor in their dorm, or who spend the entire session critiquing the one sentence in your whole story with the typo, or the weird construction they didn’t understand.

Because this is the book that reminds you that writing is work. That it’s something you can (and really should) do for money. There are pointers on how to get better, sure, and stop writing the same “good” crap that everyone else is writing so you get noticed. But for me, as somebody who’s been coming to grips with the business end of writing the last couple of years at both my day job in marketing copy and my night job in fiction, seeing somebody talk publicly about the shit that is the business end of this business is really comforting. It’s like, “Oh yeah,  you pick up crap work so you can get better crap work, then decent work, then good work, then great work.” You don’t just set up on the beach and watch the checks roll in (unless you’re writing Twilight fanfic).

And the fanfic thing brings up another issue I’ve been struggling with in this weird writing economy. Do I want to sell things, or do I want to be a good writer? Because as Nick points out here, those things are often – though certainly not always – mutually exclusive. You can write any crap you want and get published if you write it on time and you’re easy to work with. And that’s fine, if that’s the writer you want to be. We all have to eat.  And some of us will do both “competent, on-time work” and “very good, but maybe late” work in our careers. Cause we have to eat.  But what’s the end goal? Is it the beach? Is it being awesome? Is it being awesome on the beach? Because whoa boy, for me, being awesome on the beach is a very long way off.

The last few years, I’ve grown callous toward the fluttery, nice-sounding “free your inner creative spirit” type writing books that I read as a teen.  Those are great for luring you into the business, but they don’t give you a very good set of tools for dealing with the harsh realities of how to make a living. They don’t teach you how to find an agent, or negotiate contracts, or make a living freelancing while working on your novel. They don’t tell you how to make a living writing at all, really, because it’s assumed that nobody does.

But in fact, there are writing jobs out there beyond “I will write novels that sell a bazillion copies.” There are technical writing jobs, and marketing writing jobs, and blogging jobs, and copyediting jobs, and magazine article writing jobs, and educational writing jobs, and on and on and on. And if you love to write and you’re competent at it, these sure as heck do beat being somebody’s admin for five or six years.

So if you want to get a peek into the bowels of the real writing life, and maybe figure out how to dump your crap job and make a living doing it (even if it’s not nearly so romantic as you thought, sorry), pick up a copy of this book.

If you’re a pro and already know this stuff, pick it up anyway. Misery loves company. I know I sure did.