What I’ve Been Reading: Comics (O’Malley, Chao, Kim, Talbot, Cooper)

Have you seen the introductory essay for my new indie comics column at SF Signal? Though I am aiming to keep myself to speculative fiction comics for them, because that fits with the scope of what SF Signal talks about, I read a lot of other comics each week. I’m particularly into semi-(and)autobiographical and realist stories, which rarely have a speculative element, but I still think are worth reading. In the last two weeks I’ve read:

Lost At Sea, Bryan Lee O’Malley – This book, by the creator of Scott Pilgrim, comes early in O’Malley’s career, drawn when he was just 24. Though SP fans will be able to see the evolution in O’Malley’s style from here to there, I actually prefer Lost at Sea. It’s not as directed toward the 20-something gamer geek crowd, which I am tangentially affiliated with (being both a gamer and a geek) but not quite a member of.

Lost focuses on the story of one girl looking for her soul, which was stolen by cats, or traded to the devil. Or she could be looking for friends, or a salve for her broken heart, or a ride back to Canada. There are a lot of possibilities. O’Malley mixes a strong but cute style – grounded in his use of dark line work and sometimes-dynamic panel placement – with a not-entirely-linear story line that was so intriguing I read the whole book in one sitting.

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Review: Clarkesworld, Issue 71, Aug 2012

I recently subscribed to Clarkesworld as well, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, since I actually buy their issues when I get a chance. Now I get them delivered to me, thanks to Weightless Books! Let’s jump right in…

FICTION:

  • “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson – another short, list-structured story, like Ken Liu’s piece from the August Lightspeed. Like Liu, Johnson gives us a smart, well-crafted, rigidly structured story that, for me, lacked an emotional element. I can see how it’s pretty and clever, but it didn’t affect me.
  • “Honey Bear” by Sofia Samatar – Oh, this was perfect. Samatar lets the story of mothering a different kind of child unfold naturally. She’s set up her world and her characters off screen so that all she needs to do is show you their story, the one that makes sense in that world, and she doesn’t clutter it up with unnecessary explanations. By the end of the story, it’s all clear. The child, the parents’ relationship, the ways in which their world is different from ours. In between bits of a rather frightening alien invasion story (made less scary, initially, by the fact that Samara doesn’t tell you about it all at once, which just means it hits you harder when you understand what’s happened) you also see the ways in which a woman adapts to her child, and a marriage lives, stutters, or dies. I had to take a break after reading it, to let it all soak in. “Honey Bear” combines horror and beauty in the best possible way.
  • “Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente – I want to ask Valente if she’s played Fallout, particularly Fallout: New Vegas, because in a way this story could be a glimpse into the lives of the people who didn’t go into a Vault just after the war. But saying that might give you the impression that this story is childish or flat, which is completely wrong. That “Fade to White” appealed to my geeky, post-apocalyptic, Cold War loving self (in a variety of ways) is no complaint. It is a sharp, brilliantly written, look at what being a teenager is like, when you live in an America that was hit by nuclear bombs, is ruled by “President McCarthy”, and is struggling to hold on to the imagined brilliance of the 1950s it didn’t get to have. It’s all about the propaganda that the adults created to hold on to their American Dream, and the ways in which that shapes and manipulates the people trying to live up to it. Like Samatar’s story, like all of the best stories, Valente’s tale doesn’t spoon-feed you the world building or explain it all up front. You see it like you see your life, out car windows and in commercials and in small pieces in the tiny moments you’re truly alone. Loved it.

NON-FICTION:

  • “The Spell of History: Magic Systems and Real-World Zeitgeists” by Jeff Seymour
  • “In a Carapace of Light: A Conversation with China Miéville” by Jeremy L. C. Jones
  • “Another Word: Plausibility and Truth” by Daniel Abraham
  • “Editor’s Desk: Finding the Good in a Dark Day” by Neil Clarke

I don’t have anything to say about the essays/interviews individually, except to say that they’re good, you should read them, you’ll learn something. Clarkesworld has a great non-fiction editor, and their essays are more about exploring a piece of genre than about fawning over a particular author, which I appreciate.

Overall, I’d say it’s a short but excellent read. As always, I wish that Clarkesworld had more fiction, because what they print is so good. It should tell you something, though, that the only complaint I ever have with this magazine is, “WANT MORE!” – which is really a compliment, phrased badly.

Want to hear these stories as podcasts instead? Go here and listen.

A Few Thoughts On Reviewing Books

I review, on average, 3 books or magazines a month. I talk about what didn’t work for me but mainly I talk about what did, because my goal is to share something that I think you should be reading.* If I read something, and I don’t like it at least enough to suggest you might get something out of it as well, I don’t review it at all.

Why not? Because I’m not a book reviewer.

There’s nothing wrong with being a reviewer, someone who reads a lot of books and shares their opinions with an audience. Depending on who it is, they’re going to be looking for different things in a story, but the overall goal is to take in a lot of reading and produce an opinion about what is good and what isn’t. Their reviews are incredibly useful for people looking to read a new author or a new book, and hoping for recommendations.

As an author and publisher, I love book reviewers who are dedicated solely to this task.  A good reviewer can convince you to read something just as much as they can turn you off of it, and (most importantly) doesn’t just recommend everything they read. Their followers can trust that when the reviewer says they liked an author’s work, they genuinely did. If that reviewer like your book, chances are good their audience will too. That’s new readers for me, increased sales, and the satisfaction of knowing that someone else got what we were trying to do.

But for me, reviewing is a byproduct of reading critically, not the goal. I read because I am a writer, first and foremost, and reading teaches me. I learn more about what I like, what I want a story or sentence to sound like, what feels smart or emotionally true or creative. I learn just as much from what I don’t enjoy, because over time you start to recognize patterns in the things that turn you off and then you can learn to avoid those things in your own work.

Even when a book is awful, I learn something.**

When I share my thoughts on a book, it’s because I want to support an author, magazine, or publisher that shared a great story with me. It’s also because most of the people who read this blog are also writers, and if I learned something cool, I want to share that with you too. Lastly, I review books because if I can get you to read something that I loved, or even liked, there’s a better chance that magazine or that author will create someone new in the future, and then I’ll get to read that too.

As far as I’m concerned, my discussions of what I like and don’t like are the same as when a group of us writers sits in a bar at a convention, talking about whose work has made an impression on us since the last con. (Yes, we do that.) I’m talking to you as part of my peer group. Here, come and take a peek at the conversation being had by people who are involved in making books. You’ll see it’s exactly the same as the ones readers have all of the time, too.

Authors should always be readers anyway.

So if you recommend a book to me (or send it to me, or you know that I bought it) and I don’t review it, it means that either I haven’t gotten to it yet (but plan to, if I can find the time) or that I didn’t have anything good to say about it. It could be either one, and you shouldn’t assume that you know which it is. Most of all, don’t ask me to tell you which books I hated this year, or why I didn’t like something. For the most part I can see when a book is well written, but just doesn’t appeal to me. I know my tastes aren’t the same as everyone else’s, and I’m not going to turn you away from a book you may love just because I couldn’t get through it. (I will say, if asked directly, that I wouldn’t recommend a book, because I won’t tell you to read a book I couldn’t get through either.)

When I review a work that fits within the kind of literature I talk about here, I’ll post that review to this site. If I read something that I enjoyed quite a lot, and is very entertaining, but doesn’t teach me anything, I usually post that review other places (like Functional Nerds or SF Signal). Those books are still great, but there’s a difference between “wow that’s brilliant, I should write like that” and “wow that was crazy fun I’m so glad I spent my evening reading that”.

Any questions?

* Most of my reviews are labeled Books I Recommend or You Should Read for that reason.
** Mostly, “Do not try this at home,” but hey, that’s learning.

Review: Lightspeed Magazine, Aug 2012; Issue # 27

I’ve recently subscribed to several great magazines (including Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Fireside). I’ve always bought individual issues when I could but I made the move to yearly subscriptions as soon as I could afford to. Well, not afford, not quite yet, but as soon as I could be sure I could no longer afford not to.

Why am I trading eating Ramen more than once in a while for a chance to read some short stories? Partly because I firmly believe that a writer needs to be, first, a reader. Partly because I want to make the transition from someone trying to break into this industry to someone who’s in this industry, and being well-informed as to current trends in genre fiction makes me a better publisher too.

Since I’m getting to read these magazines more regularly, I’m going to start reviewing them as I get to each one. First up: Lightspeed Magazine, Issue #27, which I read this week.

This month’s ebook-exclusive novella is “A Separate War” by Joe Haldeman, and I wish it wasn’t the first piece in the magazine. Because I loved Forever War, and read it more than once (including dissecting it for a class on Science Fiction in Literature), I was well aware of who the main character in this novella was, her connection to the novel, and what was going to end up happening to her. That was what pulled me out of an otherwise well-written novella in Haldeman’s classic military sf style: if you read the novel, and you remember who she is, you know where she’ll end up. This story, then, isn’t about sharing something new as much as it is about filling in a gap from a background character’s off-screen life. Probably fascinating to some people. I didn’t love it.

Next was an excerpt of Kitty Steals the Show, the “new Kitty Norville novel by bestselling author Carrie Vaughn”. It’s typical urban fantasy, starring a werewolf named Kitty (ha ha! get it?) and a horde of vampires and cute boys and leather pants. I tried to read it but ended up skipping over it.

Then came the feature interviews (which I’ll talk about at the end).

The first original short science fiction story of the month was “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Nebula and Hugo award-winning author Ken Liu.
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You Should Read: DEATHLESS by Catherynne M. Valente

Synopsis: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what giants or wicked witches are to European culture: the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. Valente’s take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever peasant girl to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, that will bring Russian myth to life in a stunning new incarnation. via Amazon

Let me be up front and tell you that I won this novel from Valente herself, last year, in a Twitter contest that basically amounted to stalking her over the Internet. Or, to put it another way, by identifying what hotel she was staying at from a picture of a stuffed leopard. Being the fastest at googling images of hotel pools near the convention her Livejournal post from the week before said she was attending won me the book.

Which is three ways to give you the same information – that I won the book instead of buying it – and you can decide for yourself which interpretation works best for you. In the same way, DEATHLESS is an interpretation of classic Russian myth, mixed with factual history, and woven together with the story of a willful girl who likes to be spanked. It doesn’t pretend to be an entirely original story, and you’ll be disappointed if you expect it to be, but if you can read it as a retelling, and look for where it is the best and prettiest retelling possible, you’ll find the beauty of Valente’s book.

It is one of those novels that is so well crafted you don’t see where the seems were sewn together. It takes bits from a couple of different places, and you’d expect it to be jarring in spots, but it isn’t. It’s possible to sit down with it one evening, read all the way though, and put it down at the end without having been kicked out of the story by bad writing or a missed connection with its disparate pieces. I know, because I did just that, reading it through in one shot. It’s lovely and it’s good and it’s absolutely worth reading.

My only complaint is that I may know too much to be the right audience for this book. Because I grew up on fairy tales (Russian stories being some of the best and most-read because they had the best art) and my favorite time in history is the period between 1900 and WW2, and in college I studied world history and fairy tale structure and art and cooking and  … I’m the wrong audience for this book because nothing in it surprised me. It didn’t feel novel, and I suspect it should have. For me it was like looking over photos from a trip I’d taken a few years ago and finding that the camera had better resolution than I remembered – there’s nothing new in the images and I have a comfortable familiarity with the subject matter, but they’re prettier than I’d expected.

If you’re not familiar with the history and fantasy that Valente mixes in this book, I think you’ll enjoy it very much. If you are, pick it up anyway, and read it on a cold night when you’re wrapped up in a blanket with a hot cup of soup nearby. It will feel to you then like listening a much-loved story being retold to you by a favorite grandmother.

I don’t think we give enough credit to the amount of work it takes to write a book like that, by the way. In a thousand different little ways, DEATHLESS could have failed, and it doesn’t. Familiar or not, it’s lovely. How often can you say that?