Tuesday, March 30, 2010

book reviews!

A mixed bag, strangely full of troubled adolescents.

Tamsin, by Peter Beagle, Firebird 1999. Jenny is a plain, resentful teen whose mother's remarriage uproots her from New York and dumps her, all bare roots and wilting leaves, in a crumbling Dorset farm. There she meets Tamsin, a ghost girl who died during the time of the Bloody Assizes, and finds that Tamsin herself is haunted, and that more dangerous spirits than a wistful ghost girl walks by night.
On the whole, I liked this (I'm sure Mr. Beagle is relieved to hear it). Jenny's misery and self-aware sulkiness are well-conveyed, with her devotion to Mr. Cat and her steadfast aid to Tamsin demonstrating that she is more than self-pity and snappishness. The Dorset countryside is brought to life, in more ways than one, and the secondary characters are distinctive. I'm still reading with my cutting goggles on, though, and I did wonder whether the story demanded both the pooka and the Wild Hunt? Sure, they Do Things In the Plot, but.

One for Sorrow, by Christopher Barzak, Bantam 2007. When Adam's classmate and almost-friend Jamie is murdered, his ghost comes to Adam for comfort and acknowledgement. Adam too needs comfort, as his family breaks apart and he slides from his high-school niche of nobody-much to outcast status. Even though Jamie's ghost-world is cold and dangerous, with skinless men lurking by the gates, it is a place where Adam seems to have purpose, and for a time living companionship with the girl who found Jamie's body and is also haunted by him.
One for Sorrow has several themes & tropes in common with Tamsin - the ghosts' memories are fragmentary and easily lost, and trying to recall traumatic memories breaks them apart; the living teens are faced with losing their ghost friends by helping them move on - but Tamsin is a fairly conventional mystery at its heart, and Barzak never attempts to solve Jamie's murder, which I liked. It did feel like a first novel (if that isn't a pretentious thing for me to say), with the story wandering about rather once Adam runs away from home, and the spunky black girl who befriends him being, um, kind of Magical Negro, and Adam's family getting their act together perhaps a little too much while he's hiding out. Still and all, this was a memorable and original story.

I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells, Headline 2009. I bought this at World Fantasy because of his elevator pitch, and damn if it doesn't deliver more than what was promised. I'm not keen on using terms like 'compulsively readable', but I'm awfully tempted in this case. As I was getting near the end of the book, I was scared not only of what John might do but scared for him, and wondering how in heck Wells was going to pull a satisfactory conclusion together without being false to John. (spoiler: he does it.)
You can read about it over on Scalzi's Big Idea, which is probably more to the point than me blathering.

The Witch's Boy, by Michael Gruber, Harper 2005. I bought this for the astoundingly beautiful cover and for the opening: "Once upon a time, in a faraway country, there was a woman who lived by herself in the middle of a great forest. She had a little cottage and kept a garden and a large gray cat. In appearance, she was neither fair nor ugly, neither young nor old, and she dressed herself modestly in the colours of stones. None of the folk who lived nearby (not the oldest of them) could tell how long she had dwelt in that place."
Terri, if you haven't read this book, do so - you will love it. Gruber plays with any number of fairy tales, with incidents and characters wandering in and out of the plot, some central, others only winks or nudges to the well-read reader. He takes a risk by having Lump, the ugly goblin-like child that the witch absently adopts like a stray kitten, be as damaged, angry and selfish as he is, but when I fell out of sympathy with Lump, the other characters kept me involved, from the cat who becomes a man (a mercenary soldier, because 'he does so love killing') to the grown-up Hansel and Gretel, a cheerful and resilient pair through all their fortunes and misfortunes, to the daughter of Bluebeard and his last wife, who drove him to his death by her utter lack of interest in his locked and Bloody Chamber (yeah, I weep bitter tears there, that my conceit for Bluebeard Contented has been used).

I was thinking I should post about The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones, in terms of how it influenced my plotting and worldbuilding - but that's probably another post altogether.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I'd post more often

but I'm constrained by circumstances.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I promised book reviews

and my spam promises me a 'Massage from International Monetary Fund Unit London'. I guess the economic crisis is really calling for desperate measures.
Obligatory Monty Python reference: "And now, a massage from the Swedish Prime Minister."

Anyway, yes, I have been reading. Stacking up the recently-read, I saw that I had still managed to knock off a few books through the revision blitz, in part because I can't revise on my lunch hour or while waiting in lines. Add to that more intensive reading last week, and it makes a stack I'm at least not ashamed of.

The Cup of the World, by John Dickinson, Random House 2007. Phaedra, only child of the Warden of Trant, refuses all suitors, both for fear of dying in childbirth and for love of a man she has met only in dreams. When the king's son courts her, her dream-lover comes to take her away, and proves to be the mysterious and ill-famed lord of the province across the inland sea. Her elopement is the trigger for war, and she hardly knows who to trust, who will betray her, or who she must betray next.
Not an ordinary fantasy. The world setup is nothing unusual - a continent with an inland sea, ringed with provinces & city-states, unstable politics and a king holding on by the fingernails. But the rulers came in ships, and there were aboriginal people, so there's a conflict rarely examined. The hillmen (shades of Kipling perhaps?) have a mythology involving a Great Mother, quite different from the near-Christianity of Phaedra's people. Phaedra is not an entirely sympathetic character, somewhat cold and self-centred (also only 15 in the first chapter) but with an inner core of toughness and endurance. What really stands out is how much of the story is what happens at home while the battles and raids and treaties are happening elsewhere, and how much of the intrigue and discovery is Phaedra's story and coming of age.

Thirteen Orphans, by Jane Lindskold, Tor 2008. I really like the premise of this - that when the first emperor of China 'burned the books and buried the scholars', he unknowingly created another world, the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice, an alt-China. I admit to some disappointment that the story takes place in our world, where the characters' ancestors (the Thirteen Orphans) fled after dynastic overthrow in the Lands. Within a couple-three generations of assimilation, the descendants mostly believe the the history of how the Twelve protected the Thirteenth (true heir of the overthrown dynasty) and how they were exiled to be delusions or bedtime stories. But the Lands are once again in turmoil, and about to spill over into our world again.
Perhaps it is my increasing age, but I was more interested in the older characters, Pearl and Des (whose full name is the wonderful Desperate Lee, because of a birth certificate misunderstanding) than in the younger Brenda, discovering some unexpected powers as she takes on the role of the zodiac Rat. I was also made a bit uncomfortable by Brenda's nemesis from the Lands, a slinky sexpot who seems like a Dragon Lady in training - I really hope she's humanised in the sequels.

I tell you, it's hard to read big thick books when coming off a revision high. My cutting goggles are still on, and I keep asking 'does this scene need to be here?'

Which brings me to The Apocalypse Door, by James D. Macdonald, Tor 2009. In which there may not even be a superfluous syllable, let alone scene. This moves at a dead run, with black humour gasped out here and there. Not what you'd read for lyrical description or introspective character development--the main character does have a crisis of faith, but he has to keep running while he has it. It's great fun, but I wouldn't describe it as a romp, because there's an edge of seriousness throughout, not so much because of the threatened apocalypse (which is almost a staple of urban fantasy: Buffy stalled it at least once a month) as the questions of faith and purpose that move the characters.
I also read The Confessions of Peter Crossman, ordered from Lulu.com, three stories of the Knight Templar special agent and his rival and occasional sidekick, Sister Mary Magdalene, leather-clad assassin and Bride of Christ. A nice warm-up for the Apocalypse Door.

Oh, and I wrangled around with pdf and jpgs and put together my three alt-Europe 3-day novellas to make a single volume on Lulu. Not public, but so I can have a convenient hard copy. After I've seen my first copy and discovered whether the cover or anything needs fixing, I can share the url for private ordering, which is $8 US for pbk, or free download.
I titled it Threefold, in case anyone wondered.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

work-related thought

My day job, the one with benefits and a pension plan and lunch break (thank you all my union brothers and sisters who went before!) involves finding and ordering out of print (OOP) books. Sometimes they are meant as new additions to our library, sometimes they are replacements for lost, damaged or stolen books from the shelves.
The used book market is irrational, and moving online has made it even less rational. I have a couple of potted speeches on the subject, which I'll spare you this time.

Anyway, one result of the ability to search online is that anyone who has a book for sale, and sees no other copies available, decides that his copy is thus immensely valuable. Books that in the snail-mail market might have been priced at $5 or $20 soar now to $400 or $600. Plus shipping. And this is often for ex-lib or student-owned copies, full of hi-liter and pen marks, which a reputable bookseller probably wouldn't even carry.

So I was mildly amused today when I was asked to discover the real replacement cost for a science text someone had lost (from my own student background I'm inclined to call that 'lost'). The standard replacement cost is something like $50, meant to encourage the student to actually look through the piles of laundry and pizza boxes for the book. What was the real replacement cost of this particular book? Well, if the two copies on offer were real and not megalister vapourware, not less than $500 before shipping.

Want to bet that the lost book will show up soonish?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

recollected in coziness

I'm sitting in the kitchen, with the woodstove huffing and crackling to itself, with peanut butter cookies and cheese scones on the counter and a cup of tea beside me. Outside it's raining gently, but not quite dark enough for me to draw the curtains. I can see the tight little clumps of blossom on the plum tree still, and the leaves coming out on the roses.
The kitchen curtains are newish. The winter was cold enough that I scoured through the thrift shops for something I could stand looking at (though, as Mark said, any curtain becomes invisible after a month anyways), and came up with nice slubby linen with a powdering of fat stars for the wide window, and two long tan corduroy pieces for the tall window. Then I stencilled fleur-de-lys in dark red over the tan, to make it less boring. So now I can shut the outside away if I want.

This week I've been sleeping in until 6 or 7 a.m., and reading, not writing. I'll post some book reviews in the next day or so, but I thought first I'd ramble a bit about revisions, since that's what I've been immersed in when not engaged in salaried labour, for the last couple of months.

So, yeah, revision. Willow Knot completed came out at almost 130k wordcount, and after getting my beta readers' feedback I hacked it down to 105k, which was at the high end for what I understood agents would look at for a first novel (90k is preferable).
What I took out in that pruning was:
introspection. Any time a character thought something over and those thoughts resulted in action or decision, I cut the thoughts and demonstrated them through the action.
incident that contributed to atmosphere rather than plot, or that began a plot thread that was later cut.
description of anything already established, even if the writing was pretty.

Then, after 30 form rejections or silences, I got an agent. Woohoo! (I still don't quite believe this.) Phone call and email and a list of further revisions, with the perk that I could bring the wordcount up to 125k or so.
A note, here. Agents often ask for revision. I understood this, because I tend to binge-research, and I'd researched agents, and the process of querying, and what's involved in being represented by an agent. But I've run into enough beginner writers who are astonished and somewhat distressed by the idea that an agent, while loving one's work, doesn't think it is perfect as it stands, that I feel I should emphasise this point.
So. Agents may ask you to revise your novel. My agent (a little quiver every time I type those words, still) began as an editor, so she knows what she's doing when she suggests revisions.

First lot of revisions: tighten up the time in the woods, and spread the more eventful events more evenly through those years; build up Myl's knowledge of plants and the hardships & hunger of the forest; make Myl's adjustment to the court more gradual and show her finding her way; simplify the political situation within and without the kingdom.
The wordcount went up to about 120k, and I shipped it off.
Thing I was sorry to lose: the establishing of a House of Commons.
Thing I was happy to add: a masque! and more of the bear.

Not unexpectedly, there was more to come. Second lot of revisions: tighten up the time in the woods, this time by wordcount more than events; build up Myl's ear for charms & magic; add brief episodes of Midame's doings in the first half of the story; establish the elves so as to raise the question of whether Errigenie is elf-touched; intensify the tension between the two kingdoms & bring them to the brink of war; tie the conspiracies together; clarify Alard's scepticism and give him more time for character development in the last part of the story.
The wordcount went up to about 122k, and I shipped it off.
Kind of funny things: the suggestion that I add scenes from Midame's pov, and the suggestion that Nomency and Lusantia be downgraded from kingdoms to duchies or counties. Both of these were things that I had considered in the first writing, but had held back on.
It was suggested that I cut the black thing. This is where I balked, and instead have tried to tie the black thing more closely to Midame and to the marsh events. I may still have to cut it, but I feel it has a job to do, particularly in being what breaks Myl's hope in the forest and inclines her to accept Alard's offer of return.

General thoughts about revision.
Writing is like painting. Add more words, cover up mistakes, fill in layer after layer to create an illusion of 3-dimensionality. Really it's all paint and flat, but add light and shadow and you will deceive the eye.
Revising is like carving. Take away what obscures the form. Start with chisels and mallets, finish with sandpaper. It can't be done in one go, the way the writing can. I have to go back the next day, and back again, each time finding more (though less at a time) of what obscures the form, and removing that piece, that layer, that corner.
Another metaphor altogether: what my agent showed me, and what I found for myself once I started looking, is that I have all the pieces for a strong scene, all the lego blocks for the pirate ship or space shuttle, but I haven't put them together. For example, Alard is carrying his unconscious friend through the forest, evading the conspirators who want to kill him and, unknowingly, the bear (more bear!). Did his injured friend rouse and rave? Did the conspirators pass nearby? Did the bear? Here's where I scuff my feet and look at the ground. Um, no. No, it didn't occur to me to do anything with those pieces, like snap them together into a more intriguing shape. Not until this most recent revision.
Naturally, I can look at someone else's writing and see where they missed an opportunity to build suspense or excitement. That's easy. It is to be hoped that I can now look at my own and do the same. At least in the second draft.

Closing with a brief arthritis report. The right elbow is annoying, and the left foot (the ball thereof). Both thumbs are a bit twingey if I stretch them out, but that may be due to using the belt sander to rough out the puppet heads last week (in case you wondered where that carving metaphor came from). Overall pretty good.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

more puppet pics

Because puppets are cool. Also I thought I should show you what the booth design is based on, though the puppets obviously are from the other bas-de-page illustration.
My puppets have heads of linden, hands of pine, cloth bodies, and are dressed in linen and wool. They are painted with ochres and whiting in size tempera, with a little ceruse for the eyes and vermilion for the lips tempered with yolk.
The booth is made of pine and oak, glued with cheese & quicklime glue, nailed, and painted with ochres in size. I handsawed the whole damn thing, because our tablesaw is under the beltsander and thus inaccessible.

The play was Le Cuvier, a French farce of about 1400, trimmed down and with one character removed. I used the French text, rather than my rough translation, so as not to lose the rhymes and bounciness.

In writing news, I've had my first real review, over on the Internet Review of Science Fiction, in its last issue, alas, alas. The review is for "On the Transmontane Run with the Aerial Mail Express", in the December issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and is brief enough that I think I can quote it here:
Rookie Willow, with her chimpanzee crew, has to prove herself as a blimp pilot on her first solo run. Adventures await her, pirates and treachery. Inventive stuff in this adventure story with a plucky heroine who is also pretty clever. But then, we expected that.

In reading news, I'm going to spend a week depleting my TBR piles before I jump back into The Cost of Silver. I have a fear of becoming one of those writers who says 'oh, I can't tell you which writers I enjoy, I just don't have time to read in my field anymore'.
I was a reader before I was a writer. I'm a writer because I'm a reader. The idea of having to sacrifice reading for writing makes me shudder. I'll try to post some reviews and thoughts of what I've been reading, and what I get on to reading in the next little while.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I must like deadlines

Because I've spent the last two months surrounding myself with them. Most important was the revisions deadline for Willow Knot, that being a real-world commitment. I got the second lot of agent-requested-revisions done and emailed only one day over deadline, and snail-mailed a printout that week. Whoof!

Then it was the last push for my entries for the An Tir Arts & Sciences Championship. I was entering hand-puppets and booth based on the bas-de-page miniatures from Bodleian ms.264 Romance of Alexander, a play with said puppets, a folding almanac on parchment, and a recitation & translation of a Hans Sachs poem (one of the short ones).
On Feb 20 I took some time away from the race to attend Dragon's Laire's Candlemas, where I visited with my wonderful apprentice Eileen, caught up with Deirdre about stained glass, and picked up more info and inspiration for the puppets and the almanac, as well as an insight on hunting that pointed the way into Alard's character for revisions of his pursuit in the marsh. So yayness! I came home full of excitement and energy.
And fell over with the cold Mark brought me back from Estrella. Cue two weeks of hacking up yuck and of a head full of mucus. Which slough I am only now crawling out of.
As a result, although I got the revised ms out the door, my A&S entries went to heck. I clung to the illusion that I could pull it all together in the last few days, and indeed, I had the puppets and booth ready to go, the play handwritten and the poem translated and rehearsed. The almanac was mostly blank pieces of parchment cut to shape, and my documentation was pretty rough, but still! I ignored Mark swanking around with his two entries all finished and ready to go, and struggled on.

Friday we packed up the van as I frantically edited documentation. Off we go! Customs searched the van, but in a less accusatory way than previously. Then, disaster of sorts: the puppet booth was made partially of raw branches - willow and alder that I scrounged from recent prunings around the neighbourhood. And untreated/unheated hardwood is not to cross the border. So the supports for the booth have to stay behind.
Which I don't at all argue with - it never occurred to me to check into that, although I've lived most of my life in areas where forestry was a major industry. Dumb me. And my most complete entry is now not very complete. The part made from milled lumber is okay, and the puppets are okay, but it will be something of a challenge to present the play--and my voice having mostly disappeared is not helpful.
Well, it wasn't as if I were trying to win (what I was trying to do is a long and ranty story, to be saved for some other time). So here are my puppets on the improvised supports, and beside is the model from the manuscript. My bent-willow arch with the scrim to hide my face is missing, (due to Customs) so the resemblance isn't all it could be, even above the missing supports.

Anyway, the Championship was a good event. I got to share my most recent enthusiasms with other enthusiastic people, got pretty stoked for trying the same stuff (only finished) next year, and best of all, my former apprentice Alicia took the Championship, with her student Constance being one of the finalists.