Tsana’s September Status
Since I last posted one of these updates I went to LonCon 3, travelled around England and Wales, and come home to an unpleasant infestation of builders. I would like to talk more about the first two things, but the last is making it difficult for me to string two thoughts together. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.
LonCon3 was pretty great. I met new friends and old — including old online friends for the first time — sat on a couple of panels, went to some panels, the Hugo Awards. I also hung out in the Dealers Room at the Twelfth Planet Press table which was more fun than it might sound. We also supported the 2020 bid for a New Zealand WorldCon and went to the NZ bid party. We also went to the Ticonderoga party and took another opportunity to spend time with Aussie fans. Both parties were good, but I wasn’t a fan of way parties were run out of tents in the fan village.
And, of course, I bought a pile of books. Also won some and a few were freebies. The Feist below is hubby’s signed limited edition copy which he won. He also won a set of signed and numbered George RR Martin quote posters, so a good haul in all.
We had fun dragging the books around the rest of England and then Wales afterwards. In each hotel I took all the books out and made a little pile. In one B&B we stayed in they were haphazardly split into two piles because of space. I had left Sex Criminals in between two normal-sized books and the cleaning lady pushed it further in so that the spin wasn’t visible. I’m imagining her clutching at her pearls when she saw it.
The second most geeky thing we did was visit the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. I highly recommend it for fans, although it did remind me that I didn’t like Eleven very much (and we went after watching the first Capaldi episode, so it felt a bit backwards). The museum was pretty good and so were the effects in Experience. The gift shop also tried our restraint. We walked away with posters and I bought more books there, but they were presents, so they don’t count. Actually, I was pretty excited that they had some books with Leela, my mum’s favourite companion.
On a completely different note, my round-up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which I wrote in a sleep-deprived haze and have little memory of.
What Have I Read?
- Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer — a writing advice guide.
- Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart — read on the tube and the train out of London to Oxford
- Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb — the start (and alas only a start) of a new trilogy about Fitz and the Fool.
- Kaleidoscope edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios — a pretty awesome read of diverse YA fiction
- Sex Criminals Volume 1 by Matt Fraction — an amusing comic, read in a hotel in Cardiff
- Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld — one of the best books I’ve read this year
- Guardian by Jo Anderton — the third book in the Veiled World trilogy. Read in Wales and on the flight home
- Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier — an exquisite short story collection
- Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro — audiobook of a short story collection. Hard SF.
What Am I Currently Reading?
Again, too many books. I blame the builders.
The novel I’m reading is Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson. Dark fantasy, first of a series, expect to see a review soon.
And finally, I also started reading Help Fund My Robot Army!!! and Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects. Which is also amusing. I’ve put it a bit on the back-burner for now because it was supposed to be my insomnia book, but because of the form it’s too choppy to successfully lull me adequately. Pratchett is better.
I’m running out of steam and awakeness, so these aren’t getting comments this month. Rest assured I am excited about all of them. Non-review books all came from LonCon3.
- Zac & Mia by AJ Betts (review, US edition)
- A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett (review, US edition)
- Secret Lives of Books by Rosaleen Love
- Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein
- Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart
- Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L Hannet
- Midnight and Moonshine by Lisa L Hannet and Angela Slatter
- The Girl with No Hands by Angela Slatter
- Death at the Blue Elephant by Janeen Webb
- Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
- The Hunt for Pierre Jnr by David M Henley
- The Hive Construct by Alexander Maskill
- Magician’s End by Raymond E Feist (can’t find the correct cover)
- Langue[dot]doc 1305 by Gillian Polack (doesn’t have a proper cover yet)
- Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson (review)
- The Three-body Problem by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu (review)
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Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine AsaroThe Radiant Seas, which is set in the same universe as the stories in Aurora in Four Voices.
I didn’t love all of the stories in this collection, although I didn’t hate any of them either. My least favourite was definitely “Ave de Paso”, in which the main characters didn’t particularly grab me and which also had a bit of a squick factor towards the end. I liked many things about “Aurora in Four Voices” and I’d say it was probably my second favourite story. I had mixed feelings about the relationship between the two main characters since Soz is the main character of the other Asaro books I’ve read and her OTP the main character was not. I also enjoyed “Light and Shadows” although it was not, I think, supposed to be an overly cheery story. My favourite story was easily “City of Cries” and I was interested to learn in the outro that there is a novel sequel coming late this year. I will have to keep an eye out for that.
One thing all the stories have in common — with the exception of “Light and Shadows” which only really has the one male character in it — is strong female characters. This is something common to all of Asaro’s work, I believe. People seeking hard science fiction populated by women who actually do things, would do well to check out Asaro’s work. And in case you were in any doubt that her SFnal universe is indeed hard, this collection contains a short maths essay at the end. I have to admit, I found it difficult to listen to — my brain went into lecture mode and turned off — but luckily there was a simplified URL mentioned to the written and illustrated essay online. You can read it here. (And if you need further proof, some of the mathematical concepts used in her stories have been published in mathematical journals.)
As always, I’ve written some notes about the stories as I read them. I recommend this collection to people wanting to get an idea of Asaro’s work. The stories are pretty broad in setting and, I think, a good showcase of the sort of stories she can write. I particularly recommend it to SF fans looking for more women in their fiction.
Aurora in Four Voices — Not bad, about Soz (main character in Primary Inversion and Radiant Seas and others I haven’t read) and, more prominently, a man who has been trapped on a planet populated by mathematical and artistic geniuses who like to live in eternal night. He has been mistreated by, well, a mean chap and when Soz shows up she helps him escape his situation.
Ave de Paso — Meh. A pair of orphaned cousins deal with recent bereavement, the desert and magical possession by a malevolent spirit. Not terrible, but not my favourite.
The Spacetime Pool — Your classic present-day maths graduate falls into gate in the spacetime continuum and finds herself in an alternate universe where she’s at the centre of an empire-changing prophesy. I wasn’t fond of the whole “you must marry me and not my brother because he’s a bastard” opening but since it’s a novella there was plenty of room to turn it around and I enjoyed the heroine rescuing herself with the application of mathematics.
Light and Shadows — A heart broken test pilot deals with his pain by trying to go harder, faster further. When he pushes his plane beyond the specified limits he gets a bit more than he expected. An amusing story (well, not the parts where he was sad about his dead lover) about a character I’m pretty sure reappears in Skolian Empire books I’ve read.
City of Cries — This was my favourite story of the bunch. It’s a gender-flipped hard-boiled PI story in an SF setting. And when I say gender-flipped, I don’t just mean that the ex-military PI is female (though she is) but all the trope-mandatory characters are gender flipped. I found this delightful even while unpleasant things were happening to people.
A Poetry of Angles and Dreams — not a story but an essay, which you can read here. For someone with a maths degree, it was a fairly straight-forward description of concepts. Particularly the imaginary number half of the essay starts at the most basic level and builds up to the more complex (lol, pun) concept of Riemann sheets. I suspect the second part of the essay, about Fourier transforms/analysis would be less enlightening to the lay person.
4 / 5 stars
First published: 2012 Isfic Press (audiobook 2014)
Series: Stories set in the Skolian Empire universe (apparently including the ones that don’t seem like they are)
Format read: Audiobook
Source: Kickstarter reward
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Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
Believing is dangerous.As the blurb suggests, Afterworlds is really two novels in one. Darcy is a teen writer who got an incredible book deal for the YA novel she wrote in her last year of high school during NaNoWriMo (although, actually, I’m pretty sure NaNoWriMo is never referred to directly, but she wrote it all in November, so one makes assumptions). Because of the book deal (and the giant pile of money that came with it), she puts off going to college and instead moves to New York to do revisions and write the sequel she’s under contract for. Her story is about writing and about growing up.
Darcy Patel is afraid to believe all the hype. But it’s really happening—her teen novel is getting published. Instead of heading to college she’s living in New York City, where she’s welcomed into the dazzling world of YA publishing. That means book tours, parties with her favorite authors, and finding a place to live that won’t leave her penniless. It means sleepless nights rewriting her first draft, and struggling to find the perfect ending … all while dealing with the intoxicating, terrifying experience of falling in love—with another writer.
Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, the thrilling story of Lizzie, who wills her way into the afterworld to survive a deadly terrorist attack. With survival comes the responsibility to guide the restless spirits that walk our world, including one ghost with whom she shares a surprising personal connection. But Lizzie’s not alone in her new calling—she has counsel from an extremely hot fellow spirit guide, who is torn between wanting Lizzie and warning her that …
Believing is dangerous.
Every alternating chapter is a chapter from Darcy’s novel. Darcy’s novel is a paranormal YA with pscyhopomps and mythology borrowed from Hinduism. It’s pretty dark, mostly dealing with death, ghosts and the afterworld. I think if the two novels in one were taken apart, then the fictional (-er) story could stand alone but Darcy’s story probably couldn’t. But putting two stories together like this allows Westerfeld to explore the process of writing and various issues that can arise. Darcy’s story would not have worked without having the chapters she and the other writers were discussing there for us to read.
In exploring the process of writing, a lot of different issues arise. On the more mundane side of things, Darcy finds herself thrown into the world of adults straight out of high school and with little preparation. She worries about fitting in, being seen as a real writer and whether her book was a fluke. At the same time, she meets other writers mete out advice, support and offer friendship. And discussion about books, her book and the process of writing. Some of the issues they discuss are whether it’s OK for Darcy to appropriate bits of her parents’ religion (when she herself is an atheist) and base a character more on a Bollywood actor than the religious figure, and the dilemma of having made her protagonist white while she herself is Indian. Darcy also runs into the interesting problem of having the people she meets assume she’s older than she is (for a long time, she doesn’t tell anyone she’s only 18) and treating her as such, especially by making assumptions about her already been to college. Stuff like that, which only contributes to Darcy’s imposter syndrome.
The other thing the double story allows Westerfeld to do is explore the mind of the writer which leads to certain choices in their books (something, I think, which is particularly applicable to a writer’s first book). The version of Darcy’s novel that we are privy to is the final version that eventually gets published. But part of following Darcy’s story is her rewrites and the dilemmas she has along the way. The opening chapter seems to have been the only constant thing as we hear second hand accounts of overly “Disney” scenes that Darcy removes and her endless search for a new ending. The latter was particularly interesting; we hear a lot about the endings she doesn’t choose but we don’t find out what ending she did write until we actually got to the end of the book and read the last chapter. It also allows for some discussion of what publishers want from authors and books and why.
There were also several answers to the much maligned question of “where do you get your ideas?” We learn fairly early on where Darcy got some of the key ideas for her novel and as the story progresses, we also learn about where the other writer-characters get various types of ideas from, where it’s OK to borrow ideas from and from where one shouldn’t borrow ideas. (And there’s a really hilarious bit at the end when Darcy finds out something about the story she thought she was writing <spoiler redacted>.) And, of course, some of the authors may or may not bear some resemblance to certain real-life people…
Because this book deals so much with the nature of writing, I suspect writers and other book-world people will probably enjoy it more than the average reader who doesn’t spend much time contemplating where books come from. I know that aspect definitely enhanced my enjoyment. I thought the two storylines fed off each other quite nicely. When one was moving a bit slowly, something exciting was happening in the other and vice versa. I’ve spent most of this review talking about Darcy the writer and not about Lizzie the fictional (-er) character, who plays just as important a role and has as much page time and character development. Lizzie’s story is compelling and, in terms of YA tropes, reasonably uncommon — and it is her exciting first chapter (officially chapter 2) that hooked me — but it’s not overly remarkable. What makes Afterworlds remarkable is the nested nature of Lizzie’s narrative. By itself it would have been a quick fun read (although I should note that Afterworlds is roughly the length of two shortish YA books, so it’s not that pared down), but with the other story it’s a fascinating deconstruction of the YA genre and the writing process.
I highly recommend this book to writers and people interested in the book industry. Fans of YA, especially fans with writing aspirations will, I think, find much to enjoy here. I suspect readers with no interest in the writing process or readers looking for only one of contemporary YA (slash new adult for Darcy’s story) or dark paranormal YA will be disappointed. This is not a straightforward book.
5 / 5 stars
First published: September 2014, Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Series: I don’t think so
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
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Sex Criminals Volume 1 by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip ZdarskySex Criminals Volume 1, written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky is the trade collection of the first five issues of the ongoing comic book series. As you may gather from the title, it is not a comic book for children. I picked it up because of Tansy spruiking it on Galactic Suburbia podcast (and then again in person at WorldCon).
Suzie’s just a regular gal with an irregular gift: when she has sex, she stops time. One day she meets Jon and it turns out he has the same ability. And sooner or later they get around to using their gifts to do what we’d ALL do: rob a couple banks. A bawdy and brazen sex comedy for comics begins here!The difficult thing about reviewing comic books is that the plot moves relatively slowly over an issue and even a collected volume, so it’s hard to say much without spoiling the entire plot. So I’m going to keep this short.
Both characters, Suzie (our main narrator) and Jon, recount how they tried to deal with their time stopping sex power when they were teens. Now as adults, they have finally found someone else who shares that power and that doesn’t leave them alone after/during sex (other people freeze when time freezes). They get a bit carried away with this information.
There is much humour and it’s definitely worth looking closely at the backgrounds of the panels (especially the ones set in the sex shop), so as not to miss any jokes. The plot really takes a turn when the two discover that they are not the only two special snowflakes in the world… Issue #4, I believe, is called “Sex Police” to give you a hint. Also, the antagonist is called (by Suzie and Jon) Kegelface, which shod tell you something about the humour.
So. Sex Criminals is pretty funny and entertaining. I am much looking forward to the next volume (apparently the next two issues are out already, but I’ve decided comics work better on bookshelves if they’re trades). I recommend it to, well, anyone who thinks sex-based time stopping magic sounds amusing. It’s a good read.
4 / 5 stars
First published: April 2014, Image Comics
Series: Yes, Sex Criminals ongoing, Volume 1, containing issues #1–5
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Purchased from Forbidden Planet stall at LonCon3
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Kaleidoscope edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
It’s really hard to pick favourites in this collection. Although I didn’t love the stories equally, there weren’t any duds. (The one I talk about disliking below was because of a theme I’m sick of, not because there was anything wrong with the story per se.) Really, I liked all of them. However, some that stood out to me more than the others were: “Cookie Cutter Superhero” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, which was just awesome and needs a novel set in its universe; “Signature” by Faith Mudge, which was clever, amusing and ultimately happy-making; “Careful Magic” by Karen Healey about a magical school and a girl dealing with being an outsider for her eccentricities; and “Double Time” by John Chu, which was about ice-skating and having a pushy parent.
Most of the stories, I found, were reasonably upbeat but the anthology was punctuated with a few sadder stories. For example “The Legend Trap” by Sean Williams and “Krishna Blue” by Shveta Thakrar both have ambiguous and not entirely happy endings.
It’s hard not to comment on all the stories now, but I’ve already done that below as I usually do with anthologies and collections. Kaleidoscope is an excellent anthology and I strongly recommend it to everyone. If you haven’t already picked up a copy, do so!
5 / 5 stars
First published: August 2014, Twelfth Planet Press (official Australian launch is October, though, for technical reasons)
Format read: Bit of paper, mostly ebook
Source: Kickstarter rewards
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Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb
Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly these many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown.Robin Hobb remains an excellent writer but there are several caveats that I feel need to be issued to potential readers. First of all, this is not the book/series from which to pick up the story for the first time. Readers who haven’t read the first two series will a) be spoiled for many key events and b) will not have the same investment in the characters. On the other hand, I read the Tawny Man trilogy when it first came out in 2001–2003, more than a decade ago, and, although my memory of some events was hazy coming into Fool’s Assassin, I had no trouble picking the story up again. (Although I did spend a large portion of the start thinking “Fitz was how young then?!” in mild alarm. I haven’t seen it with YA-ified marketing, though. I wonder why?)
But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more…
On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing.
Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?
Suddenly Fitz’s violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe.
Fool’s Assassin begins similarly to Assassin’s Apprentice in that events are conveyed chronologically and it is some time before we reach the “present” of the main story. Alternatively, you could just think of it as a story told with several jumps forward in time in the first third. It does mean that while the story is eventually told in alternating (first person) points of view, it takes a while for the second character to join Fitz in the narration.
It is very difficult for me to talk abou the plot at all without spoilers. The blurb above, for example, entirely fails to convey the actual thrust of the story and merely summarises the first chapter, which takes places something like fifteen years before the end of the book. There is a very crucial event that happens in the first third of the book which changes everything, including what the book is actually about. However, I think that talking about it in any detail is a spoiler so I will put my discussion under a spoiler tag (hover to read). Not talking about it at all would mean ignoring the main thrust of the story and also precluding a rant I really want to get out. But please don’t read it if you want to enjoy the story as it was intended. Knowing a particular outcome would greatly reduce some of the tension surrounding it (more so than usual, I think).
<caution, here there be spoilers>
Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer
This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.I’ve read a lot of writing advice in my time, mainly online, I have to admit, and the lack of an SFF perspective has often bothered me. Generic writing advice is great up to a point, but eventually I felt like I’d read most of it before, in one form or another; I had already gotten what I could out of it. And it rarely addressed some of the issues that can come up in writing science fiction (I don’t really write fantasy, I should mention up front).
What’s really great about Vandermeer’s book is that it starts with the assumption that you’re writing some form of speculative fiction. It covers some generic writing advice as well, but puts everything in the context of spec fic, even while using examples from more realist fiction. The chapters cover key elements of fiction writing: “Inspiration and the Creative Life”, “The Ecosystem of Story” (including narrative elements and so forth), “Beginnings and Endings”, “Narrative Design”, “Characterisation”, “Worldbuilding” (which, obviously, is much more central in spec fic than real-world fiction), “Revision”, and some extra stuff and writing exercises in the appendices.
Other than the focus on fantasy, what really stands out about Wonderbook are all the gorgeous illustrations. The book’s accompanying website (which I have not explored in detail) gives a good idea of the aesthetic. The whole thing is trade paperback sized (I don’t think there’s a hardcover version) and filled with glossy pages. To give you a clearer idea of the illustrations, I’ve taken a few crappy photos with my four-year-old phone. At night. With a paper Ikea lampshade doing most of the lighting. We have the endpaper + inside cover, an illustration of story structure (more or less), and the journey of a writer. Click to embiggen (but not really to enhance much).
The only thing I didn’t love about Wonderbook was that it did focus more on fantastical fiction (rather than science fiction). This mostly came across in specific examples, so it wasn’t a huge problem and there were some SF examples. But I felt there was a bit of an emphasis on degrees of surreal fiction — reflective, I think, of what Vandermeer writes. People looking for specific subgenre advice (other than what I’ve mentioned) won’t quite find that here. But that did not, for me, diminish the value of the book. I will definitely come back to it as a reference down the line.
If nothing else, I would come back for some of the writing exercises, of which there are several (and of which I only attempted a few). I should also note that I found the process of reading Wonderbook inspiring in itself. It inspired one short story semi-directly and helped me finish another that I was part-way through. The main text is also broken up with short essays from other writers on specific topics, which I can also see being useful references to come back to.
I highly recommend Wonderbook to writers of speculative fiction looking for an extra push. Or to beginning writers wanting to learns skills through something other than trial and error. As you might guess, it’s not the kind of book you read straight through without stopping but it is a book worth reading all of. Including the appendices, which contained a very interesting interview with George RR Martin. Or, really, you could just buy it for the pictures.
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: 2013, Abrams Image
Format read: Paper! Illustrated! Pretty!
Source: Purchased from a real-life bookshop, and also a present
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