2017 in Review: Music

By now, I should be compiling my lists of favorite novels and short stories of the year.

Unfortunately, in November my laptop decided to go to the great electronic scrap heap in the sky, and I am a complete idiot, and I didn’t have my reading list backed up.

Of course.

I am waiting at this moment to see what pieces of my data can be retrieved (at a prohibitively large cost that I will still gladly pay because there are so many things I need–back up your shit, kids), but my best of reading lists may not happen until January. Or ever!

So, in the meantime, while I try to avoid a complete nervous breakdown (that about sums up 2017 as a whole pretty well, don’t you think?), I thought I’d take a minute to talk about my favorite music of the year.

It’s been a really good year for music. At least, for things I like. I tend not to pay too much attention to the greater popular music scene: I know what I enjoy, I strive to find new things that I like, I don’t care who’s winning awards or on the cover of magazines. But in any case. This year has had some excellent standouts.

My three favorite albums this year have all been by amazing women.

K. Flay- Every Where Is Somewhere

The first words I ever heard K. Flay sing were “The boy I love’s got another girl/he might be fucking her right now.”

Immediately, I was like who the hell is this woman? and went to find everything she had ever done.

I fell in love with her early songs and EPs, alternately charmed and wowed by her hip-hop/alternative sound. Her 2017 album, Every Where is Somewhere, certainly sounds different from much of that earlier work, but it rapidly became one of my most listened-to albums of the year. It landed at just the right moment to feel timely and timeless. Something about it manages to encapsulate all of my anxieties and angers and fears, each song hitting harder than the one before.

Take “Black Wave,” a song that has literally made me scream. For me, this is all the feelings of fear and betrayal and distrust I feel as an American in 2017 wrapped up in three and a half minutes:

The songs on Every Where is Some Where cut deep, but they aren’t without hope and beauty.  I don’t know if this album would have reached me so well in any other year, but it’s a good one in any case. I want everyone to know K. Flay. I want her music to be everywhere. Because she’s truly a great talent.

Lana Del Rey- Lust For Life

Look, I love Lana Del Rey beyond reason. There was no way I wasn’t going to like Lust For Life. So it’s hardly an objective judgement, but I still think this is one of the best albums of the year. If I have any criticism, it’s that it feels a bit uneven, almost like two different albums shoved into one (more on that in a sec.) But honestly, if I had a chance to collaborate with The Weeknd and Sean Ono Lennon and Stevie Nicks and A$AP Rocky then I would too, no matter how uneven the results might end up.

So, there’s the first half of the album, the one that sounds like the Lana I’m used to:

Vintage sounds (in the case of “Lust For Life,” there’s a lot of play on fifties girl groups), doomed love, cheeky call-outs to her old songs.

But then there’s the second part of the album. Lana gets political.

She’s always used symbols of Americana as an aesthetic. “God Bless America-and All the Beautiful Women In It” fits right into that stylistic tradition. But it feels to me like for the first time she’s struggling, like a lot of us are, with what America means, now.

Sometimes it doesn’t quite work. “Coachella-Woodstock On My Mind” is a silly, shallow clunker (not sorry). But to me the earnestness, the simple attempt to reckon with 45’s America, is enough. This is an artist who has been all about image and aesthetic (as so many artists are) suddenly trying to say something deeper.

So, yeah. I’ve listened to Lust For Life approximately eleven billion times already. At the moment my favorite is “Heroin,” a long, wandering song about Charles Manson and mental breakdowns and addiction, with a kick that lands hard for me. But really, they’re pretty much all great. I think Lana has perhaps the most beautiful voice in modern music, and she does some unexpected and really interesting things here.

Kesha- Rainbow

Kesha’s mostly been a ‘workout’ artist for me–someone I put on when I’m at the gym and I need to get pumped up and don’t listen to otherwhise. So I’m not ashamed to admit that Rainbow was a total surprise. I knew she’d been through a lot of terrible things. I didn’t know she could put out an album like this, powerful and heartbreaking and fun all at once.

First of all, who doesn’t love “Woman”? It’s the empowering, takes-no-shit song I think all of us need this year.

Rainbow has a couple of empowerment songs like “Woman.” songs about brushing off the haters and learning to love yourself instead of what people want from you. But it also has love ballads and countrified bops and some beautiful, unclassifiable oddities. “Spaceship” made me cry the first time I heard it.

A lot of Rainbow made me cry, actually. In a totally beautiful way.

So if you haven’t listened to Rainbow, if you think Kesha’s not your style, I urge you to give it one try. She’s a really amazing songwriter with a powerful voice, and while I think this is her best work I think it points to even better things to come.

Other albums I loved in 2017? 

Well, thanks for asking. Sylvan Esso- What Now? Declan McKenna- What Do You Think About The Car? Run the Jewels- Run the Jewels 3 Bishop Briggs’ self-titled EP (put out a full album already!)

Some songs I dug: 

Sir Sly- & Run:

alt-J- Deadcrush:

 

BORNS- Faded Heart:

Bishop Briggs- Dream:

& probably a hundred other things I’ve forgotten that I will remember when I press publish.

But anyway.

That’s my 2017 in music.

Hope you find some new stuff to like!

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I wrote a thing!

Today my story “Sparks” is available at Electric Spec.

This one’s a little weirdo that I don’t quite know what to say about. I sat down to do a worldbuilding exercise and suddenly it seemed to look almost story-shaped by mistake. So I thought I’d try to fit it into a story structure, and I let myself listen to the character’s unusual voice, and this is what came out.

Anyway, I’m thrilled that the people at Electric Spec liked it and I hope maybe you will to.

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Another day in America

In general, I try to keep this blog at least vaguely on topic. Books, writing, etc. But I need to share this somewhere and this blog seemed the best place for me to do it.

What follows is a letter I sent to my Senator yesterday in the wake of yesterday’s massacre. I am ideologically opposed to my Senator on most every issue. I have never voted for him. My feelings are not warm…they cannot even rise to the level of neutral. Not in this toxic climate, not when there is so much to resist. I know whenever I contact him it will be like running straight at a brick wall. But I try. As much as my mental health allows, I try.

This is what I said yesterday:

Dear Senator Burr, (or, more likely, the overworked Aide who will be the only person to see this letter: hello, overworked Aide)

 

I am writing to you tonight because I am, to be blunt, pissed off. I am saddened and exhausted and bewildered but mostly, at this moment, pissed off.

Sixteen months ago in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre, I wrote to you begging for you to address gun control. I received an empty, meaningless form letter, fumed for a few days, and we both went about our business, while you collected thousands of dollars from the NRA for your 2016 campaign.

Well, here we are again. Both America at large, in the wake of yet another devastating act of domestic terrorism, and me, with this little email box that will probably spawn nothing more than another form response. So be it.

I am pissed off.

59 people are dead tonight who shouldn’t be, and a staggering number of hundreds more injured, because people are able to access assault rifles by the dozen and huge stockpiles of ammunition while people like you take blood money from the NRA and scream about second amendment rights. What about the right to live, the right to not be gunned down for going to a concert, or sitting in church, or shopping at the mall, or going to school? Where is that right? Why is my right to live secondary to someone else’s supposed right to hold weapons of mass destruction?

We’ve been here with Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, and Aurora, and Orlando, and so many other places I could name but I know you will not care. You offer “thoughts and prayers” and continue to do nothing while the violence gets worse. I wonder what will happen when it’s Charlotte’s turn for the next big mass shooting, or Asheville, or Chapel Hill, or Winston-Salem, or Raleigh. Will you offer empty platitudes and meaningless “thoughts and prayers” when North Carolinians are bleeding out in the streets? How much money from the gun lobby will it take to make you look away, to say “now is not the time to talk about gun legislation”?

Senator Burr, now is exactly the time.

You have a platform. You have a voice. You are supposed to be *our* voice. So once again, I am begging you, give back your blood money and turn your platform to solving this American crisis. What steps will you take to stop this wave of senseless and preventable gun violence? Stand up. Use your voice. Say something for once other than insulting and empty words without action.

To borrow the words of the great American musical: if you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?

You have shown through your continued inaction that American lives mean less to you than campaign funds. Now is the time to change that. Prove me wrong. Stand up. Stand for something. Or I guess I’ll be emailing you again the next time we have a new deadliest mass shooting in American history. They seem to happen about twice a year these days, after all.

 

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Some slight maintenance

I’m in the process of removing my Short Story Sunday posts from the blog. It’s a feature I haven’t been able to focus on in a long time, and it’s the number one attractor of spam to this site (pretty much all my views are spam anyway, so I’m not quite sure who I’m writing this for, but it is what it is.)

My hope is that the short story posts were helpful for some of you in finding new writers, new venues, and new worlds to explore. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to incorporate my love of short fiction back into this blog at a future date.

In the meantime, I have a few things planned for the future, but I still don’t have the spoons to be back at this full time. Until you next see me, happy reading.

-Heather

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I wrote a thing!

People, I have written a novella.

It’s a really short one, so it feels kind of weird to call it that (stories are typically categorized as novelettes until 17,500 words, mine just bumps over the 18K line), but that’s what it is.

It’s called “The Heartless Knight,” and it’s included in the wonderful queer fantasy anthology Heart of Steel. The anthology is officially out on Wednesday September 20th, but you can preorder it right now and get a bit of a discount, if you are so inclined.

So let me tell you a little bit about “The Heartless Knight,” and where it came from.

The story’s about Isi, a young man of color who has been a slave for most of his life and is now trying to navigate a world where he is not. He’s stuck between cultures, and pulled in different directions depending on what different people expect of him. He’s also aroace, and he is suffocating under the pressure of both performative masculinity and performative sexuality. He doesn’t know he’s suffocating. He’s just trying to be “normal.” But he doesn’t know how to do that.

Then he ends up on the run with a princess who forces him to confront all the things he’d rather hide about himself.

Isi has been a character in my head for quite a while now, one of those quiet ones who hides in corners that you don’t much pay attention to. For a couple of years now, I’ve been trying to write a novel about Anne, a character who you’ll meet briefly in “The Heartless Knight.” I was even making something like progress when I decided to finally settle down and work on it as a NaNoWriMo project…at least, until November 9, 2016 happened. Anyway, that project’s still going to happen some day. In some form. But like I said, Isi’s been on the edges of that in my head for a long time, and at one point I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write something to get to know him a little?

BAM!: novella.

(It didn’t quite work like that. It never really does. I’ve been living in this piece for something like 18, 19 months by now. And it’s far, far different now than what I initially conceived it to be. Still, let’s go with BAM!)

“The Heartless Knight” was written mostly to alt-J’s “Nara,” which I ended up listening to on many repeats through the drafting process. Later, it was edited to a godawful amount of Sylvan Esso, particularly “Dreamy Bruises,” and “Coffee”  (I don’t think you’ll necessarily find anything of those songs in the text, but I thought someone might find it interesting)

I’m more nervous about this one than I have been for a while. There are a lot of things that I need to get right and I don’t know if I fully suceeded. But it’s finally time to let it out in the world and let other people decide.

So that’s it. I hope you all like it!

Be sure to check out Heart of Steel and the rest of the great queer stories on offer from Less Than Three Press.

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I wrote a thing!

…I know. Been a while, ain’t it?

My story “Maps of Infinity” is in the newest issue of Shimmer, which is super, super exciting! The whole (excellent) issue is available for purchase now, and “Maps of Infinity” will be available online on August 1st. I’ll update this post with a link then. For now, feast your eyes on some cover art:

Update: “Maps of Infinity” is available online now.

I hope you all enjoy!

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I wrote some things: nonfiction edition

While my regular blogging has trailed off, I’ve spent a lot of 2017 trying to focus on some new directions for my writing, namely nonfiction and personal essay. Now when it gets to the “personal” in personal essay, a lot of the things I’ve been writing about have been really hard to put out there. I’m still learning how to pitch them, and where to draw my personal boundary lines on how I talk about myself. Many of those essays may never see the light of day, but some might, eventually. But the process of learning how to write these types of pieces is valuable in its own right.

However, when it comes to less personal nonfiction, I have had a couple things out this year. And since I’m an eternal dope, it just occurred to me now that I might want to post these reviews to the blog where I actually, you know, occasionally still review things.

So. Both of these pieces were written for the ever-wonderful romance review site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (seriously, I was a dedicated reader of this site before I even started reading romance, they are so fantastically funny.)

I wrote about one of my favorite books as a teen, Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel, right here.

And I wrote about my newest favorite binge-watch, Harlots, here.

And who knows? Maybe getting used to writing reviews again will help kickstart me into more consistently reviewing books here again. As always, stay tuned.

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Judging books by their covers

Summer is by far my favorite season…until right about now, in the middle of July. It’s hot. My local pool is inevitably closed for maintenance. Everything seems to slow down. There’s a long, long slog to Labor Day and my next day off, and I definitely can’t afford a vacation. The air feels like soup when you walk outside. Hot soup. Have I mentioned that it’s hot?

Anyway, my point is that I don’t have much patience or energy at the moment for anything other than superhero movies, TV binges (currently: Star Trek Deep Space Nine and The Handmaid’s Tale, which I will finish) and very, very light reading. So it felt like a really good time for a very light sort of post. Let’s judge some covers!

I don’t know about you, but so far 2017 has seemed pretty excellent on the cover design front (which really means that 2016 was excellent, because these things take a while, but still…) I’ve been seeing a lot of new things that make my jaw drop. If I immediately want a print of a cover to frame and hang on my wall? Well, that is a damn good cover.

So let’s dive in!

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

This cover is just so happy. I haven’t had a chance to read When Dimple Met Rishi yet, but even if I didn’t know a word of the blurb copy, I would want to. It’s so bright, and cheery, and I really love the placement/typography of the title. I really, really, almost instinctively hate the color orange. I don’t know why, I just do. But this cover pulls off the impossible and makes me love orange. I can’t get enough of it.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Compared to the relatively spare cover above, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue has a ton going on. And I love it. You have the formal image of the protagonist contrasting with the loud, busy text and random doodles. It really gives you a good feel for what the tone of the book will be. I looks different than a lot of what’s out there right now (though I have a feeling over the next year or so we’ll be seeing more covers that look a lot like this.)

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

By using blank space so brilliantly, The Hate U Give packs a punch with its central image. I have to admit that I didn’t understand the title until I saw it spelled out on this cover. It’s an image that almost forces you to look, to engage. And the book is brilliant, too.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

I want to talk about An Extraordinary Union not because it’s a beautiful cover (although I think it is), but because I can see what the marketing department was trying to do. (At least, I think I can. Indulge me.)

So,  An Extraordinary Union is a romance novel, full stop. It follows a very typical romance novel structure–two characters, POV traded back and forth, Happily Ever After achieved, etc. But while there are all kinds of different romance covers, you tend to have certain expectations. The torrid embrace, the smoldering glances.

This? This looks like a mystery.

I think this was very deliberately chosen to appeal to readers outside the genre. By packaging it this way, it sort of gives permission for people who avoid romance or even denigrate it to pick it up. And maybe it will be a gateway into the genre for some of those people. And for that I kind of love it.

Also, by centering Elle, the image shines a spotlight on a character who has spent her life underestimated, sidelined, and stereotyped. It shows you that she is without a doubt the hero and the center of this story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Soldier’s Scoundrel, The Lawrence Browne Affair, and The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian

(I’m going to cheat a bit with a 2016 cover on here, don’t mind me)

While the above was all about wrapping a traditional romance in somewhat nontraditional packaging, the reason I love Cat Sebastian’s covers is that they are very traditional romance covers…with one obvious twist.

I read a fair amount of queer romance. Most of it is being self-published or put out by relatively small presses. And as a result, a lot of covers are hodgepodges of stock imagery. Now, that’s not to knock stock imagery. Some of those covers end up being quite good. But the quality definitely varies and doesn’t always match the book inside.

The reason that these covers immediately jumped out at me is that they are very much traditional romance covers. You have the embrace, the smolder. The painterly quality. This is very much how the popular consciousness “expects” romance novels to look, only the characters on the cover are all men. Which is not something I’ve seen any other publisher do, yet.

I also love that each cover has a very specific pop of mostly-solid background color the ground the image of the characters.

The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

When I first saw this cover, I’m pretty sure I made a happy squeaking noise.

I haven’t read the book yet (it doesn’t come out until the end of August), but everything about this cover just screamed to me. From the thumbnail.

I’m still not entirely sure why. It’s got pretty much the elements you expect of a romance novel that we’ve already discussed. Skinny girl, floofy dress, half-clad hero. Embrace, smolder, yadda yadda. But I think it’s something about the colors, and the lighting that give a very specific feel to this cover. It’s soft and dreamy and, well, romantic. I kind of adore it.

So, that’s a rundown of some of my favorite recent covers. What are some of yours? What elements do you think we’ll start to see on the shelves over the next few months?

 

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Review: A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

Title: A Lady Awakened

Author: Cecilia Grant

Rating: Like, all the stars

So, recently I found myself in need of a little fluff. A book that would make me forget myself for a few hours and help me set aside some anxieties. I’ve read a fair amount of romance over the last few years, and I’ve read a whole lot more than usual since the world went to shit. Cecilia Grant is an author I haven’t read a lot of, but I like what I have seen. I figured A Lady Awakened would be enough fluff to lift me out of my mood.

Turns out, it might be my favorite romance novel ever. 

At least, since the last favorite romance novel I read and before the next one.

In any case, I really, really, really loved. it.

Recently widowed Martha Russell is in a predicament. She’s about to be tossed out of her home, with a significantly reduced dowry, in favor of her deceased husband’s brother, unless she turns out to be carrying an heir. More than for herself, though, she worries about her brother-in-law’s bad reputation, and what it means for the community she’s been trying to better since her marriage. She is decidedly not pregnant by her husband, but in desperation she comes up with an audacious scheme that could save or destroy her.

Theo Mirkwood is a dissolute rake who has been banished to the country by his father in the hopes that he will learn land management and grow up a little bit, prospects which completely bore him. When the stern widow next door calls on him he’s intrigued; when she proffers an indecent proposal wherein he will have one month to try to get her pregnant, he is unexpectedly tempted.

These two strangers jump straight into what they think should be a simple business arrangement, only to inevitably become more entangled as the days go by.

I worried a bit at the beginning of A Lady Awakened. The characters are lying straight off the bat, pretty big lies with pretty big consequences, and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to like them as a result. However, Grant does a superb job of developing these characters, making their motivations real and immediate. They understand the madness of their situation, they face the various consequences of their lies. They are empathetic and compelling where they very easily could have come off as selfish or reckless. So that concern was put to bed pretty early.

One of the reasons I enjoy romance is because of how often it is intensely focused on two characters and their development, separately and together. Oftentimes one character will stick out above the other to me. That’s not the case here. Theo is fantastic. Martha is incredible. Put them together, and I was constantly like now, kiss:

I have a select few romance heroes who are perennial favorites. Winter Makepeace of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Thief of Shadows. Colin Sandhurst of Tessa Dare’s A Week to be Wicked. Basically every character K. J. Charles has ever written. And now, Theo Mirkwood.

Let me tell you about Theo and how beauteous he is.

Theo doesn’t have many high expectations of himself for the sheer fact that no one else ever has. He likes spending his father’s money, enjoying the society of London, and having lots of sex with lots of ladies. He’s ridiculously proud of his…ahem, endowments. When Martha doesn’t immediately come undone due to his ministrations, he takes it as something of a personal affront, and engages on a quest to successfully seduce her as well as knock her up. He devotes himself to finding the key to her pleasure whether she wants him to or not.

Meanwhile, out in the world, he begins to develop relationships with the tenant farmers on his land. He sees problems that have contributed to poverty, and is inspired to think of solutions. He learns, and tries, and fails, and tries again. He isn’t naturally the smartest or most business-minded, but he is good with people, and has a stronger sense of duty and responsibility than he ever would have realized had he not met Martha.

So often in romance, even good, modern ones, you have a hero who starts out sexy and cocky but emotionally distant, who has to learn that love isn’t a dirty word. They often don’t grow very much beyond that. But Theo, though he starts out sexy and cocky, is never emotionally distant. He’s bright and open. And over the course of the book, he grows up. You watch him reorder his priorities, you see him mature. It’s quite lovely.

Then, we have Martha.

Heroines in romance suffer from just as much tropeiness as the heroes. As with any trope, it’s all in how the authors handle it. But a lot of modern heroines fall into one of a few narrow templates–feisty bluestocking, imperiled virgin, and the like–which can get boring.

Martha was unlike any heroine I think I have ever read. At the start of the book she has been married for only ten months, but in those ten months she has worked diligently to open a school and further the education and opportunities for the children of her tenants. Her husband’s sudden death puts that work at risk, but more than that, when she learns that her brother-in-law has a reputation for raping servants, she is determined to keep those servants safe by any means necessary. People see her as cold, because she shoulders the responsibilities of the world without opening up to anyone. But she feels deeply, and has a keen sense of justice. She has a steel backbone. She’s not a snarky bluestocking rattling off one-liners. She’s not flashy. She takes a long time to realize her own worth and value. It’s a deeply relatable character arc, one that I treasured.

Romance works best when characters are interesting on their own, but become better versions of themselves together. A Lady Awakened is one of the best examples of this that I have ever seen. Martha inspires Theo to become more responsible and adult, Theo helps Martha open up emotionally and not shoulder so many burdens on her own. They build a partnership in the truest sense.

Most romances, particularly historical ones, require suspension of disbelief to one degree or another. Dukes didn’t marry kitchen maids, queer people could be imprisoned and killed, and knocked-up widows couldn’t remarry within two months and ever expect to be accepted by society. Yet in fiction, these characters get happily-ever-afters all the time, across a spectrum of believability.

Frankly, the solution to Martha and Theo’s problems, the setup for their happily ever after, is absurd. It never would have worked out in real life. And I know that bothers some readers. But for me, in this case, I was able to accept the fantasy and totally go along with it. The characters were so strong, their development so believable, that I totally bought into any absurdities of their situation.

Add to all this character work some really strong, vibrant prose, a taut and intriguing plot, and supporting characters who don’t at all feel like cardboard props, and A Lady Awakened is an all-around winner. If you haven’t read romance, or have become bored by some of its tropes, this is definitely a great example of the genre to try. And, hey, it got me out of my head for an entire weekend. That’s always a fantastic thing.

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A poll!

I am conducting a class about blogging at my local library (Rocky Mount, NC, if you’re in the area on May 2nd!). While The Bastard Title has lately been woefully ignored due to real-life circumstances and blogging fatigue, I’d like to ask any of you reading this to take part in a brief poll about blogging in general. Thanks in advance, lovelies 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

If you have any other advice for aspiring bloggers, feel free to hit me up in the comments!

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