book reviews

Jan 2013 Stats

In an effort to keep better track of the work I do as a writer, reviewer, editor, and publisher, I’m going to try to post regular stats updates. I did this one by creating a post at the beginning of the month, saving it as a draft, and then adding to it whenever I accomplished something. (Much easier than trying to put it together all at once on the day I want it to post.)

In January I …

Read

  • “After the Apocalypse”, the last story in the collection of the same name by Maureen F. McHugh. Read my review here.
  • The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. Brief review on Goodreads.
  • The Bleeding Man, and Other Science Fiction Stories, by Craig Strete. Review here.
  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine, issues 104, 105 & 106. Review of 104 & 105 here.
  • Started reading Nobokov’s Pale Fire.
  • and some Tony Stark/Captain America slash fic, but I blame Conni for that.

Wrote

Edited

  • A 990 word lit fiction piece from 2011 called “Skipping Ahead To The End” (see below)

Published

  • FISH. (And there was much rejoicing.) This included proofing print and ebooks several times, submitting files to markets, blog posts, a Goodreads giveaway, and so on.

I also

  • appeared on two more Functional Nerds podcasts – Episode #133 and Episode #134 (click on the links to listen)
  • appeared on an SF Signal podcast (will post in February).
  • got my Goodreads account organized, updated my bookshelf, and started using it to keep track of the books I’m reading.
    • Created a Dagan Books group for people who want to discuss our projects or authors (join it here).
    • added a page for FISH.
  • Updated the Our Staff page on the Dagan Books site; fixed date/link/spelling errors in other places on the site.
  • Updated my Non-Fiction page, and my links.
  • Chased down and corrected contract issues for two stories I sold back in Spring 2012 (as yet unpublished).
  • Critiqued two 4k word stories for a friend.
  • Spent some time in the forums at Zoetrope. It’s focused more on literary fiction than genre fiction, and I like getting that perspective on my work.
    • Read and critiqued 5 flash-length stories.
    • Submitted one of my own (“Skipping Ahead To The End”).
  • Put more story ideas into Evernote.
  • Interviewed E.C. Meyers (read it here) and Fran Wilde (here).
  • And started tracking my fiction submissions in one of these:

Old School For The Win.

Overall:

That’s about 9,300 new words of non-fiction writing for the month and 1300 of fiction. Read 22 short stories (7 unpublished) and one novel (started a second). Revised and submitted one flash piece to be critiqued & critiqued 7 stories for other writers. Was on 3 podcasts. Got an anthology prepped and published – a year later than I’d originally intended but proof that I am starting to get back on track. Plus a bunch of office work (I am my own middle manager).

I’m planning to write more fiction in February, as well as get at least one more (hopefully two) Dagan Books projects published, and move forward on the other four in-progress titles.

My advice for February:

Do one thing every day. If you can, write. A blog post, or 500 words on your current story. If not, read. A short story, chapter, a couple of articles you need for research, it’s all useful, and often easier than writing when you’ve had a long day. Make a list of the things you’ve been meaning to do and check one off. By focusing on one thing a day, you’ll end up having done 28 things by the end of the month, instead of pushing yourself to do too much and being too burnt out to work for days at a time. That’s reading several magazines, or writing your weekly blog post for the next six months, or 14,000 words on your novel…

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #104, 105

Furthering my quest to catch up on my reading list, I finally started on my back issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The magazine usually publishes two stories per month, focusing on “Literary Adventure Fantasy”, and is edited by Scott H. Andrews. They also post free podcasts of some of their stories on the website.

Issue #104 (September 2012) introduced me to Seth Dickinson, who offered up “Worth of Crows“. Dickinson’s quest tale has a young wizard seeking a dangerous foe, as many such tales do, but he changes it up by making the hero a girl. Who’s also a necromancer. Who also knows that magic is nothing without science, and who talks to dead crows about thermodynamics. It’s a solid fantasy story that doesn’t rely on florid language or huge chunks of exposition to make it feel magical. Loved it. (Listen to the audio version here, read by my friend Michael J. Deluca.)

Issue #105 (October 2012) was their anniversary double issue. Marissa Lingen’s delightful “Cursed Motives” reads very much like a Terry Pratchett story (I’m thinking of Nation particularly) and is a great example of two things: telling a story within a story in order to give history or explain a character, and using a very common idea as the kernel of a fantastical story (in this case, the idea that “getting exactly what you wanted” is a curse). Peta Freestone’s “Luck Fish” is set just next door of our own Universe, in a familiar-feeling tribal village with comfortable characters. Again, there’s s simple-seeming core of this story – unfortunately for this village, it only rains once a year. Freestone takes that idea and runs it with toward a very logical bit of world-building.

Unsilenced” by Karalynn Lee is a complex story, weaving the love lives of several different people together, that would have been much more interesting to if it had been about something more than that. Girl wanted her father’s love, family friend wants hers, male mage wanted the girl’s mother, female mage wanted some other guy, girl wants the mage’s love … Every action in the story is based in someone trying to win the heart or warm the memory of the person they love, and I’m kind of tired of those stories. But the world building is interesting, the writing is strong, and the plot holds up as Lee ties the different threads together. I think this is a case of a good writer telling a story I’ve heard too much of, but someone else would probably enjoy.

You can also listen to Lingen’s story read by Tina Connolly – who I’ve published at Dagan Books – here.

Overall I really get into about half of what BCS publishes. Sometimes the stories that are part of larger pieces – themed short story collections, or novels set in the same world – seem to rely on having a reader knowledgeable about those other works. I don’t read much novel-length fantasy, so pieces like Marie Brennan’s “The Ascent of Unreason” are measured on the strength of that one tale alone, and for me, didn’t work. But the original stories, the ones not part of a larger arc, tend to be creative, smartly-written, and entertaining. Many of them feature strong female characters, and there is a decent amount on non-Western settings. It’s especially nice when those strong female characters are girls of color, like in “Cursed Motives” and “Luck Fish”.

BCS is definitely on my list of markets to submit to this year. And check back next week for another set of BCS reviews – I have 8 more issues to get through.

Review: Apex magazine (Issues 40, 41, 42, and 43)

I subscribed to Apex Magazine for the first time this year. By the time I got a chance to read the accumulated issues, I had four of them waiting for me, so I’m going to do one big round up. Because this is a multi-genre magazine, I made a note of what I suspect each story’s genre is after the review.

My favorite pieces from Issues 40, 41, 42, and 43 are:

Issue 40

“Sexagesimal” by Katherine E.K. Duckett takes the idea that the Afterlife was always meant to be a short term excursion  a place where we could digest the moments of our lives before letting go of everything else, and gives it a structure that makes logical sense. Very smart, great read. Shades of Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman.” SF.

“Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” by Elizabeth Bear invokes the image of real-life boxer Sonny Liston, mixes in some of the history of greatness, gives us a know-it-all narrator, and spins a story about winning that is more about the way it’s told than what’s being said. What’s being said is good, no doubt, but it’s the words that matter here, and Bear tells you this story like it wants to be told, needs to be told, so shut up, sit down, and let her tell it. (Reprint from The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction edited by Ellen Datlow, 2008.) Lit bordering on SF/Fantasy in an alt-history kind of way.

Issue 41

At first I thought Cecil Castellucci’s story, “Always the Same. Till it is Not” was a prose poem, a jagged, off-kilter stream of emotional words, growing into phrases, but those words developed as the narrator’s view of himself evolved, until the story appeared. Nicely done. Horror/Fantasy.

“Simon’s Replica” by Dean Francis Alfar makes me wonder why no one has pointed me toward Alfar’s work before now. Seriously, I expect better from you people. “Replica” is deceptively simple-seeming with a touching ending that makes the set-up worth the time invested in reading it. It says something beautiful. Lovely. Lit bordering on Fantasy.

Issue 42

“Splinter” by Shira Lipken is short and blunt, to the point, and a perfect piece of flash fiction (though I think it may have a few too many words to strictly be called “flash”). It’s a moment, a conversation, a story, a thing that happened, and it says just enough to be all of those things without having to be anything else. Wonderful. Fantasy/SF.

“Erzulie Dantor” by Tim Susman is a werewolf/ghost story set in Haiti after the earthquake. I appreciate when American authors try to reach outside of the US for source material, and the setting enlivens an otherwise straight-forward tale of a jealous woman. Didn’t love it but liked it. Horror.

Issue 43

Alethea Kontis takes a classic gothic horror trope and gives it new life by showing the us lovesick girl who gave the bad baron his start. “Blood from Stone” tells the oft-retold story of the baron in his castle, killing young brides one after the other, beginning not with the final girl whose brothers will save her from the baron’s clutches, but the first sacrifice that happened before the story as we know it. The modern dialogue toward the end felt out of place, but if you assume that Death is timeless, you’ll be fine. Horror.

“Labyrinth” by Mari Ness made me cry. I didn’t expect the ending, though it fit perfectly, and the first person narration wasn’t overwhelming. I’m labeling it Lit bordering on Fantasy, though there’s no magic in it, because maybe it’s alt history, and maybe it’s not.

“Relic” by Jeffrey Ford is a strange tale about a saint’s relic, talking fish, myth and thieves. It was I’m just starting to get into Ford’s work; if this is a typical story from him I’m going to love his writing. Weird Fiction.

Overall I’m enjoying Apex. Editor-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas has a taste for borderline stories, tales that are just barely in genre, and that suits my reading tastes. It reminds me of Goss and Sherman’s selections for Interfictions, which I reviewed two weeks ago. In fact, Apex publishes work that is similar to my own writing, and I definitely need to submit to them soon.

You Should Read Maureen F. McHugh’s “After The Apocalypse”

I knew that Maureen F. McHugh was going to be a Guest of Honor at the 2013 Readercon, but I hadn’t read any of her work. Luckily I was given a copy of her short story collection, After the Apocalypse, and I found time to open it over the holidays. Well, there were some stone steps involved, and a patch of ice, and a day spent lying in bed trying to not move anything that was sore, but it was during the holiday break so that’s close enough.

I had no idea what I was going to get into when I opened the book. The first page of the first story opens on a zombie preserve. A guy, a prisoner, dropped off there to survive, and oh yeah it used to a be a real city, this place full of walking dead. It used to be Cleveland.

Yeah, that’s when I fell in love with the book.

I wasn’t wrong, either. McHugh’s prose is easy, flows well from one sentence to the next, without too many sharp edges or dictionary words, but the stories aren’t simple. They’re full of smart ideas. “The Naturalist”, the first in the collection, skips past the zombie apocalypse to a point where we could get rid of the last stragglers if we wanted to … but what we had another use for them? From that concept comes another simple idea – what if the guy sent to get eaten by zombies started studying them instead?

It’s not too much of a stretch, and in fact, none of McHugh’s stories are. There a few steps beyond what we have now, in some cases just a little hop into tomorrow, but you can trace them all back to something recognizable. “Special Economics” takes the idea of biotech advances in China and reduces it down to a young factory girl working off her debt. “Useless Things” shows us an American Southwest after an economic crash but doesn’t use the setting to explore large-scale effects of poverty. McHugh focuses tightly onto one older woman, living in the desert, making ends meet with a skill she learned before the jobs disappeared.

It’s that focus that makes McHugh’s work personal and accessible. “Lost Boy” investigates the unusual amnesia affecting a boy lost during a dirty bomb attack in Baltimore. Not the aftermath of the bomb in the conventional sense, not the terrorists, not the long camera pan across a pile of bodies lying in the street outside of the bomb site. Just one teenage boy, misplaced in the chaos.

“The Kingdom of the Blind” includes a tech girl who loved Mycroft from Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress - one of my favorite books – so there may have been a little fangirl squee on my part at that moment. The story itself wasn’t one of my favorites; it felt a little forced in places, though not much. It’s followed by “Going to France”, which is the only piece in the book that I didn’t like. I’m not sure if it’s the rambling tone of the story, or the fact that it included a mute autistic character who only served to be a part of the scenery. She’s got a superpower – flight – like some of the other characters, but while McHugh describes one flyer as being nervous after a brush with mortality, and another who “seemed caught up in dealing with logistics”, she then says “the autistic one was just pure compulsion”.

Not a fair description of most autistic people I know.

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” had an odd narrative flow and while the story mentioned an Avian Flu it’s really about a teen girl torn between a dying parent and an irresponsible one. It’s a story about a personal apocalypse, the end of life as she knew it. “After the Apocalypse” ends the book on a strong, dark, note, making up for the minor missteps of “Kingdom” and “France”. It blends the personal trauma with loss on a larger scale and puts into perspective a woman’s choice to save herself instead of anyone else. Doesn’t make light of it or, I think, approve of it, but the explanation is there. McHugh also plays with a present tense voice that isn’t as distracting as it could have been.

In the end, I loved this book. These stories are wonderful. McHugh writes in a evocative yet minimal way that I like to shoot for my own writing. She rarely tries to make it complicated, because she doesn’t have to. The stories are strong, they’re good, without making them fussy or overtly decorative. It’s a small book of short stories but it’s also a fine example of what writing can be: smart, clean, powerful.

I’m very glad I read it.

You Should Read INTERFICTIONS: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Synopsis: Nineteen writers dig into the imaginative spaces between conventional genres—realistic and fantastical, scholarly and poetic, personal and political—and bring up gems of new fiction: interstitial fiction. This is the literary mode of the new century, a reflection of the complex, ambiguous, and challenging world that we live in. These nineteen stories, by some of the most interesting and innovative writers working today, will change your mind about what stories can and should do as they explore the imaginative space between conventional genres. The editors garnered stories from new and established authors in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and also fiction translated from Spanish, Hungarian, and French. The collection features stories from Christopher Barzak, Colin Greenland, Holly Phillips, Rachel Pollack, Vandana Singh, Anna Tambour, Catherynne Valente, Leslie What, and others.

At Readercon this last July I got both Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing and Interfictions 2, collections of short stories that are considered interstitial – not necessarily of one genre or another, but something in between. Strange but not quite speculative; often based in realism but still unreal. They were put out by the Interstitial Arts Foundation (disclaimer: I’m a member and you should be too), and I’ve been working my way through the books. Since it’s just been announced that the anthology series is moving online and will be open to submissions in February, it’s a good time for a review of book one.

I’ll give my quick thoughts on each story and then an overview at the end:

Christopher Barzak, “What We Know About the Lost Families of – House” – Easily my favorite story in the collection. The first person collective voice fits the story perfectly and adds that little bit of a strange, not the same kind of strange as reading a ghost story (which it also has), but the “what kind of story is this” strange that makes it interstitial. Loved it. (more…)