Monthly Archives: January 2015

January Round Up

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I’m trying something new; I’m going to do a monthly wrap-up post about books and other media. Just to try and keep track of things. We’ll see how long this lasts!

Reading

I read 11 books in January, which is about five more than I expected to, especially because I’ve banned reading on weekends (…well, tried to ban it. Sometimes I crack.) Two were from my TBR project, 1 was nonfiction. Two of them were connected by Alexander the Great; I did not intend that, but it was an interesting coincidence. My favorites of the month were Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. 

Reading Diversity

4 of the books I read in January featured QUILTBAG characters. Two of these had trans characters. A very female-heavy month: 8 female authors, 3 male. All 11 authors were white. Which is definitely something I need to work on.

Writing

I finished writing three short stories and am working off-and-on on five short stories. I still haven’t been able to get back into the Novel of Doom, which I pushed aside due to some life issues over the holidays. I’m about a third through a draft, but I’m going to continue giving it breathing room rather than force it. In the interim, I’ve started notes and some early writing on a different novel.

Rejections have been really wearing me down lately. I know I have to submit things to get anywhere, but I just haven’t been in a great headspace to do it. So I only submitted three stories.

TV Junkie

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Agent Carter is pretty much the best thing to ever happen in my life. I have SO MANY things to say about it, but I’ll refrain for the moment.

I’m really glad that The Americans is back. It continues to be one of the best-acted and written shows on TV.

Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder continue to be batshit insane and awesome.

I quit watching both Gotham and Sleepy Hollow. I enjoyed Gotham at first but I think it might have been better served by a shorter season, and my interest has just sort of fizzled. Sleepy Hollow really upsets me. They went from being my favorite thing on TV to a steaming pile in a few short episodes and it was so frustrating. I tried to watch Empire but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be, so I stopped after the pilot. May try it again later.

Mix Tape

I’ve really been enjoying Night Terrors of 1927’s full-length debut, Everything’s Coming Up Roses. While I still don’t like this band as much as I do Rilo Kiley or The Elected, I will take Blake Sennett any which way I can get him, and it is a really good album.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that The Decemberists are never again going to make anything I love like The Crane Wife, and so I am able to enjoy What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World without worrying about it anymore. There are some fun songs but nothings particularly struck me yet.

Well that’s it, time to get ready for February.

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Review: Trade Me by Courtney Milan

23566506Title: Trade Me

Author: Courtney Milan

Rating: 4 stars and lots of flailing

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

I started reading romance in about 2012 (I used to sneak peeks at my mom’s bodice rippers back in the 90s, but we shall not speak further of those dark times), and one of the first authors I really read in the genre was Courtney Milan. She’s since become an auto-buy author for me. She writes historical romances that twist and defy the stereotypes of the genre, her books are both feminist and intelligent, and she writes with great humor. Basically, it’s a perfect recipe for Everything Heather Wants In a Book.

So then, earlier this month, I heard about Trade Me.

This book worried the hell out of me. First, it’s a contemporary. NetGalley labeled it “New Adult.” It’s written in alternating first person present. It’s about a BILLIONAIRE.

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No. No no no no a thousand times no.

I was a little more than dubious at the prospect of all that. That is the perfect recipe for Everything Heather Hates With the Fiery Passion of A Thousand Suns. I was anticipating simpering wet-mop heroines, BDSM-lite, an asshole hero who uses money to compensate for lack of human feeling.

I am an idiot.

Because of course Trade Me was fantastic, and of course I loved almost everything about it.  

Tina Chen is working hard to earn her degree and provide for her parents and little sister. Blake Reynolds is the billionaire heir of Cyclone Technology (an Apple sort of company). When he makes dismissive comments about being poor, Tina loses her cool and tells him that he couldn’t handle living her life. To her shock, Blake proposes a trade: he will take on her dumpy apartment, her debts and her minimum-wage bank account for a semester, while she takes on his house, his car, and his income.

Tina is reserved, cautious, and has some legitimate trust issues. She struggles with wanting to pursue her passions or pursue a career that will give security to her family. Blake is, surprisingly, a really nice, down-to-Earth guy, albeit one who thinks its totally reasonable to have a spending account of 15,000 a month. He also has a problem, which is why he wants to switch lives with Tina in the first place. I’m not going to spoil it, but I thought it was a pretty unusual issue for the hero of a book to tackle, and it was dealt with sensitively, and I loved that.

There’s actually a lot about this book I want to talk about but I feel like I can’t. Character spoilers more than plot spoilers, per se. Just know there are feels to be had.

I found the parent-child relationships in Trade Me much more interesting than the romance. The romance wasn’t bad, but I could guess at the general shape of it, I kind of knew where it was going to go, and it just didn’t hook me as much. By contrast, I found the relationships between Blake and his dad, and Tina and her mom, much more unpredictable and fascinating. Tina’s mom could easily fall into the trap of immigrant mother stereotypes. She has no sense of privacy or decorum, she thinks her daughter with ADHD just needs to “apply herself,” she holds the past over Tina’s head like a sword. But she also knows the ins and outs of the legal system, and helps immigrants deal with citizenship and deportation as a hobby. She’s kind of a badass. Blake’s dad Adam is manipulative, genius, immensely powerful, and calls his son “asshole” as a term of endearment. He’s also fiercely protective and loving of Blake, and surprised me by becoming my favorite character in the book (the foul mouth really helped in that regard).

Milan has planned at least two more books with these characters, and I already cannot wait. I guess it goes to show that it can be really rewarding to jump out of your comfort zone once in a while.

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Short Story Sunday: “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”

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“The scarecrow that we found lashed to the pin oak in Friendship Park, New Jersey, was thousands of miles away from the yellow atolls of corn where you might expect to find a farmer’s doll.”

The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” by Karen Russell, reprinted by Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.

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I wrote a thing…

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…and somebody published that thing!

The current issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly features my story “We Can Get It to You Yesterday.” It’s about time travel and home shopping (…mostly, the home shopping part.) If you are so inclined, you can purchase it for Kindle right now. There’s lots of great stories in the issue. This is the first story I’ve had out in over a year, cause heart surgery derailed me a bit, so I’m extra excited about it.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Twins

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The topic of this Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is a freebie. So I was trying to think of an interesting list, and I came up with twins. Twins are all over literature. They’re definitely an interesting device to explore character. I thought this would be a fun one.

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The Wakefields…we’ll get to them.

1. Alanna & Thom, The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce

Alanna is supposed to study magic, and her twin brother to a warrior, but each of them wants what the other has. So Alanna pretends to be Alan, and Thom goes off in her place to become a sorcerer. Thom eventually goes evil (or is just used by evil? I can’t quite remember) and dies.

2. Tobin/Tamir & Brother, the Tamir Triad by Lynn Flewelling

Skala is supposed to be ruled by queens, but the throne has been taken by a usurper king, and all of his female relatives, save for the little sister he dotes on, have turned up dead. Now the land is suffering under drought and famine. The only hope for Skala’s future is the princess’s soon-to-be-born daughter, but her uncle would make no compunction about killing her. When the princess gives birth to male and female twins, the wizard Iya makes a terrible choice, kills the boy twin, and then switches their bodies so that the living twin appears to be the boy and the dead twin the girl. But Brother is not a quiet spirit, especially when his mother, who goes mad after discovering the murder, digs up his bones and sews them into a doll.

3. Cersei & Jaime Lannister, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Talk about a twisted relationship. Perhaps the most famous twins in fantasy, Cersei and Jaime are lovers and conspirators. But it isn’t all sunshine and roses for these two. Jaime is faithful to his sister in all things, but Cersei will do anything for the power she thinks she deserves, including having sex with pretty much anyone. When things go really wrong for Cersei in book four, she begs Jaime to come for her, but he seems to finally have reached a point were he won’t do it.

4. Cath & Wren Avery, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Cath & Wren are sisters growing up and growing apart. Cath wants to hold on to the things they used to enjoy together, Wren wants to party and find new friends. I love how Fangirl charts their ups and downs as well as lets Cath blossom into her own character

5. Marion & Shiva Stone, Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

The sons of an Indian nun and an English surgeon growing up in Ethiopia, Marion and Shiva start life conjoined, spend most of their early life speaking with one voice, and then have a fight over the stupidest thing in the world and separate. They have very different personalities and take very different paths, but when one twin needs the other, they become ShivaMarion again.

6. Greta & Felix Wells, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Scott Greer

Greta Wells’ journey through time is spurred on by the death of her twin, Felix, from AIDs in 1985. She finds two other versions of Felix, and struggles with the knowledge that neither of them will ever be quite the same as the brother she lost.

7. Nick & Go Dunne, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Go keeps Nick grounded and keeps him from being a complete and total asshole. They have a fascinating twin relationship.

8. Antipholous & Dromio of Syracuse and Antipholous & Dromio of Ephesus, The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare uses twins a few times in his plays, but my favorite is in The Comedy of Errors which features not one but two sets of twins, each of whom shares the same name! The play is all about mistaken identity, and it is hysterical (and not as confusing as you might think once you get the hang of it.)

9. Viola & Sebastian, Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

More Shakespeare twins, with bonus cross-dressing.

10. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, Sweet Valley Twins by Francine Pascal. I was not as into the Sweet Valley Twins as some girls. In fact, I only remember reading two stories, one where they switched bodies because of a wishing well (what is the point of body switching magic when you are an identical twin? A question of logic that did not occur to me at the time), and a trilogy where they and the rest of the senior class were shipwrecked on a deserted island a la Lord of the Flies (every semester, the Honor Roll students at my school would be given a prize of a lunchtime cruise in the Gulf of Mexico…thanks to that series I was so ready should we ever find ourselves shipwrecked). But anyway. The Sweet Valley Twins are archetypal twins. Even if you’ve never read them, you probably know a lot about them. Jessica–her very name sounds harloty– is the Bad Girl. Elizabeth, she of the old-fashioned name and style, is demure and studious. Conflicts ensue.

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Review: The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

16071744Title: The Sweet Girl

Author: Annabel Lyon

Rating: 4 stars

I read this book through the library.

This is the first book I’ve read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. I’m feeling good about this, I really think I can manage one book a month!

I’m not sure quite how The Sweet Girl first came to my attention. It’s not the sort of book I generally read. But I found that I enjoyed it very much, despite the use of  (horrors) first person present.

The Sweet Girl is the story of Pythias, Aristotle’s daughter, both growing up in Athens and in the aftermath of her father’s death. Her father encourages her intellect, to a point, but because of her sex she is marginalized, used, and abused. When all of her protections fall away, first through the death of Alexander the Great and then through the death of her father, she has to forge her own path and become a self-sufficient woman.

The language here is very poetic. It makes for a fast, evocative read. And the characters are fantastic. The doting father, the silly brother, the bad-boy love interest, the overbearing stepmother- they’re all types, but they transcend and transform those constraints, too. In particular Herpyllis, Pythias’ complicated stepmother, is a character that will stick with me for a long time to come. She was funny, poignant, and real, and I loved reading about her.

In some ways, The Sweet Girl reminded me of Nicola Griffith’s Hild, one of my favorite historical fiction novels. Both focus on strong women of a certain class; you know that, however difficult they have it, they are actually very privileged and favored. Both also completely transport me to a different way of thinking. Pythias is definitely not a modern person imposed on a historical past. Her entire worldview is different, removed, strange. This is a world where women wear veils and cannot speak in public, but also a world where nudity and sexuality are ever present. That sexuality is often shocking and primitive, it’s an occasionally disturbing thread throughout the whole novel.

The Sweet Girl was surprising in a lot of ways. It felt like a fairly straightforward historical novel, and then things suddenly got mystical. It’s up to the reader to determine how much of that superstition “really” happened, and how much was a product of Pythias’ world view. I enjoyed the ambiguity of that.

So that’s one book down, 11 to go. This was a great start to this challenge!

 

 

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Short Story Sunday: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”

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“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, originally published in TriQuarterly.

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Vintage Science Fiction: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

27059A few years ago, I read the fantastic biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. I already knew who Tiptree was, but I’d never read him (for the sake of less confusion–I hope–I’m going to use male pronouns to refer to the male pseudonym throughout this review). The biography should be required reading for anyone learning about the roots of modern science fiction, or interested in gender politics, or…well, really, anyone. It is a fascinating look into the life of a complicated and brilliant woman.

Around the same time, I read the short collection Star Songs of an Old Primate, but since then I’ve been remiss in reading more of Tiptree’s work. So for Vintage SciFi month, I thought it would be the perfect time to read more, and I picked up what I would tend to call the definitive Tiptree collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. (The collection itself was published in 2004, but individually all the stories were published in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.)

There are 18 stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, three of which I would classify as novellas though I don’t know exact word counts. A few I was already familiar with, but most were brand new to me.

I was struck by how bleak and frightening so many of the stories are. They teeter right on the edge of horror, and sometimes fall over. There is ever-present violence, much of it sexual, and death hangs over many of the characters.

Gender and women’s roles play a large part in these stories. A mother and daughter beg aliens to take them away from the world of men in “The Women Men Don’t See.” “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?,” centers around three men from the twentieth century who accidentally time travel to a future where women are the only humans left. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and “With Delicate Mad Hands” both feature ugly women who are commodities, objects (side note–I so appreciate Tiptree’s use of ugly women. These are not the usual fictional ugly ducklings who take off their glasses and magically become swans). And in the chilling story “The Screwfly Solution,” which I am of the opinion is as relevant and prescient today as it was in 1977, if not more so, an outbreak of a strange disease causes men everywhere to start murdering women. All women. It gets to the point where religious cults form that believe the extermination of all women will “purify” humanity in the eyes of God.

Since I knew of Tiptree’s real identity before I read him, it is impossible for me to see these stories as written by a man. I wonder how readers ever couldn’t “tell”. To me, the biting commentary on gender roles and the feminism just jumps off the page and elements that may have been taken straight by a 70s audience I read pretty clearly as satire. But then, I have the benefit of hindsight, so I can never know what that reading experience was like, or what it was like to discover who Tiptree really was behind the name.

“The Screwfly Solution,” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” are undoubtedly the best stories in the collection. I’m also quite fond of “A Momentary Taste of Being.” Not all of them work, however. “With Delicate Mad Hands” starts out promising, with the shockingly violent revenge fantasy of a woman who has been used, abused, and discounted by men all her life, but it devolves into some serious, overly-sentimental weirdness. “Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death” I find nigh on unreadable. I think it’s about some kind of spider creatures, but I really couldn’t even tell you. “She Waits For All Men Born” is meandering, and fairly plotless, more a meditation than a story. But on balance the bulk of this collection is incredible, and I would say essential. I still don’t have a lot of experience reading the Old (white, male) Masters of science fiction. I read some Bradbury and Asimov in high school, and felt left out in the cold by it. I’ve read some Heinlein but not managed to find a single story that doesn’t piss me off. Other authors I have just read in bits and pieces. But I really connect with Tiptree’s work. Most of my life I’ve gravitated towards the the fantasy side of the speculative fiction world because, rightly or wrongly, I felt that science fiction “wasn’t for me.” But Tiptree changed that for me.

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Review: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen

22240069Title: In Some Other World, Maybe

Author: Shari Goldhagen

Rating: 2.5 stars (in some other world, possibly 3)

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

It took me a long time to warm up to In Some Other World, Maybe. Despite some good prose, I never quite got there. There are various reasons for this, some having to do with my personal reading experience (I am almost-on-my-deathbed sick right now, and that feels like only a slight exaggeration), and some having to do with what I felt was an unevenness in the narrative.

In 1992, three groups of teenagers in three cities go to see the big screen debut of a comic book series called Eons & Empires. (The comics deal with alternate dimensions, which is not particularly important, except to the title of the novel). Over the next twenty years Adam, Phoebe, Sharon, and Oliver’s lives intersect in ways both profound and mundane, realistic and surreal.

Problem one: I thought this was going to be a paean to the geeks. A celebration of geek culture. Eons & Empires might be made up, but there was plenty of room for a real, textured world and the geeks that love it. Instead, three fourths of the characters go see the movie as an excuse to make out. The fourth, many years later, very reluctantly calls herself “kind of a closet geek,” but she never seems to have any other scifi interests and even seems ashamed by her fandom.

Eons & Empires shows up periodically in the narrative, but it is in mostly shallow references, or as something cheesy to be made fun of. Which meant that already my notions of what this novel was going to be were destroyed.

Problem two: sex. I don’t mean that there is anything graphic or disturbing in the book. I just mean that is seems like at all times, every single person in this book is solely motivated by sex. Who’s having it with who. Who’s not having it with who. Every single relationship, every single bit of motivation and development, goes back to some sort of sexual experience. In fact, when one of the characters is celibate for seven years, we almost never hear from her at all. It was odd. I was all, “hey, remember X? Did she die or something?” Nope, turns out she just wasn’t banging, and the next time we do see her she’s getting some…*ahem*…manual stimulation, and pining about how maybe it’s time to find a real man again. (she WAS writing a whole goddamn novel. Do we ever see any of that happening? Nope.)

I’m not really a sexual person in any way. I understand that I am somewhat of an aberration, but come on, people do relate to each other in other ways than shoving their junk together.

Which leads me to what tended to bother me about this novel. The cover copy says that “In Some Other World, Maybe sheds light on what it means to grow up in modern America.” I am roughly contemporary with these characters, maybe about ten years younger, but for me I never got that at all. Not the slightest bit. These people and their experiences were so foreign to me, which can be plenty fun to read about, but wasn’t in this setting.  I have never met people like these characters, I didn’t feel connected to them or inspired by them, or really, feel anything about them. Adam, who goes through tremendous ups and downs, was probably the character who appealed most to me, even when he was being vicious and gross. The others I have mostly already forgotten.

That’s not to say this is a bad book. The prose is really nice, and there are certain vignettes that really worked well. My ARC suffered from a LOT of typos and errors that were hard to read around, but for the most part the writing was solid. But there were some stylistic choices I considered odd. One of the characters only shows up in second person present tense. When was the last time you saw that in a novel? (Hello, 1984.) (The year, not the novel.) The characters are given vastly unequal amounts of screen time. And the shape of it was odd. I’m all for nontraditional narratives, but there was no particular goal or climax of this novel, what I would consider the most important event to happen to all of the characters occurred pretty solidly in the middle, and at some point I was checking my watch, thinking “God, we still haven’t gotten to 2012 yet?”

So it just didn’t work for me, I’m afraid.

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Short Story Sunday: “Celia and the Conservation of Entropy”

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“I’m shocked that my time machine has worked.”

“Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” by Amelia Beamer, published by Uncanny. (BTW, if you haven’t yet checked out Uncanny, it’s a pretty new magazine and it is fabulous, so go do it.)

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