Monday, January 30, 2017

Control! (#selfpublishing #kdp #smashwords)

Divided We Fall cover

By Lisabet Sarai

I published a book this afternoon, on Smashwords and Amazon KDP.

The process took about three hours, including creating a cover and wrestling with Word formatting. Oh, there was also some time consumed by a power outage that killed off our router for a while.

Of course, this volume—Divided We Fall—is just a 7500 word short story. A novel would have taken me longer, simply to get the formatting right. Nevertheless, self-publishing is definitely the way to go if you’re the type who likes instant gratification.

That’s not the main reason I’ve embraced the process, though. The most desirable aspect of self-publishing is the way it gives you almost total control.

You have control over the price. I’m convinced that many of my romance novels would sell much better if my main romance publisher didn’t charge so much (six or seven bucks for an ebook novel!), but there’s nothing I can do about that. My contracts state quite clearly that the publisher has final say over the selling price.

In addition, for a self-pubbed book, you can change the price when you want, if that suits your marketing strategy. Especially with Smashwords, it’s extremely easy to set up a discounted price for a limited period of time, or even make the book free for purposes of promotion. Amazon requires a bit more time and work to modify prices, and is rather hostile to free stories, but I gather even that can be arranged if you can document that the book is free on other platforms.

When you self-publish, you have control over the cover. Granted, this is a mixed blessing when you have only basic graphic arts skills, like me, but at least I don’t have to put up with covers that I hate. (If I have to look at another waxed, muscular male torso, I might vomit.) Most of my self-published books have simple covers based on a single stock photo. However, at least they don’t look like every other book that’s out there. Furthermore, if I decided it might be worth it, I could always pay to have a professional cover designed. And it would be exactly the way I wanted it. I wouldn’t have to negotiate with the art department, or accept a bland cover just because it matches the style of an imprint.

Finally, the most important kind of control, for me, is control over content. When I’m working on a book that I intend to self-publish, I don’t have to please anyone but myself. I can break genre rules right and left, if that suits me. I can use any sort of sexual terminology and portray any sort of erotic activity, without either being censored or accused of being coy. I don’t have to satisfy an editor or convince anyone that my book “fits” the publisher’s image or supposed readers.

I truly love the freedom of self-publishing. I should say that I consider publishing with Excessica to be self-publishing as well. Their cooperative model means that authors have full control over, and responsibility for, content, price, cover, editing and release date. Excessica handles the final formatting and submission to different publishers, plus adds the book to their own on-line store, and takes a 10% cut in return. I appreciate having someone more skilled handling these tasks, and am happy to pay for that.
So what’s the down side of self-publishing? It’s often claimed that self-published work sells more poorly than books released by publishing houses. Maybe that’s true for some people. As for me, all my books sell poorly. I think the titles I have with Excessica are probably my most popular right now—not counting Raw Silk, which continues to find new readers eighteen years after its first publication.

Obviously you’ve got to put in more effort editing your self-pubbed books. If you’re not confident about your own grammar and spelling, you need someone else to help. However, I’ve read (and reviewed) plenty of traditionally published works that suffered from inadequate editing. Signing a publishing contract does not guarantee that you’ll get great editing—nor does it free you from the ultimate responsibility for your words.

Self-pubbed books used to get less respect, but it’s not clear to me that this is still true. Many authors with stellar reputations are going the self-pub route for at least some of their work. I recently read a wonderful self-published title by K.D. Grace, for instance.

If you think that a publisher is going to be much help with marketing—sorry, but you’re deluding yourself. Publishers may have their own branded channels—web site, Facebook page, Twitter account and so on—but honestly, they are as clueless as the rest of us regarding the magic formula for selling books. You’ll have to market a traditionally published book as actively as a self-pubbed one, without having some of the same tools.

I could go on, but I’ve got three other blog posts to write today, so I’ll let my fellow Grip people expound further. (I’m especially interested to read what Cameron has to say, given that he has just started a publishing company.)

However, I’d like to share the blurb for my new book with you, because it’s a charity volume in response to the recent U.S. Election.

All proceeds from the book sales will go to Planned Parenthood. Right now they need all the help they can get!

Divided We Fall by Lisabet Sarai
Multiracial erotic romance, 7500 words

Hate takes too high a toll

Linhs three year old brother has wandered out of Viet Village into Niggertown. Despite the danger, she has no choice but to go looking for him in hostile territory. She manages to convince the rifle-toting guard at the entrance to the black ghetto to help her search, using a mixture of bribery and bravado. As they comb the desolate streets of Niggertown, seeking any trace of Duy, Linh discovers that the barrios inhabitants arent necessarily the violent, drug-addled brutes shes been taught to hate, and by the time Linh and Steel have rescued the injured toddler and spent a long night hiding in a derelict building, she has come to understand who are their real enemies.

Get your copy at Smashwords:

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Women and Magic, Part 3

by Jean Roberta

Menna van Praag’s fantasy romances always involve magical places (usually shops) in Cambridge, England. In The Lost Art of Letter-Writing (to be released Feb. 16, 2017), Clara Cohen owns a stationary shop where visitors are drawn in by a desire to write something, which can include letters to dead loved ones. Here is what the visitors see:

"The walls of the little shop are lined with letters, hundreds and hundreds of letters,in every colour of ink and paper and every style of handwriting. Dark oak cabinets,containing writing papers in a thousand different designs: papers lined with silver leaf,imbedded with roses and violets, papers studded with glittering foil stars, or painted with watercolour sunflowers – each unique and furnished with matching envelopes.

Shelves sit above the cabinets, weighed down with a rainbow of notebooks: bound in leather, swathed in silk, embroidered on linen or cotton, some made of paper and flower petals but none the same as any other.

One corner of the little stationery shop is clear of any papers, pens or other writing paraphernalia. Instead there stands a delicate ornate Victorian writing desk made of mahogany and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, containing many drawers – one of them curiously locked and impossible to open – and accompanied by a chair cushioned with
dark green velvet.

It is here that Clara’s particular magic takes place.

Visitors who aren’t sure what to say are invited to sit at the Victorian writing desk and offered a special pen which helps them express themselves. After they’ve finished, they can mail their letters right in the shop, where there is a special slot for letters to the dead.

Clara herself seems to have a special ability to sense who needs to receive a special message, and she recognizes these people when she passes by them or their houses. She sends them the letters they need to receive, with help from her special pen.

The first five chapters of this book, sent out as a teaser to anyone in the MVP newsletter list who asks for them, describe a sad widower who receives an anonymous letter that begins lifting him out of his grief. Clara visits her mother, Sophia, who keeps a clutter-free home and discards everything that seems useless. Sophia casually mentions a lost cookbook that Clara’s grandmother wrote, for which she was given a special pen to sign autographs. This seems like a clue to the mystery of Clara’s magical shop, inherited from her grandfather. Clara knows that she is descended from Jewish refugees from the Netherlands who immigrated to England in the 1930s, but she doesn’t know enough, and wants to find out.

Readers who want to learn about the connection between the magical shop and Clara’s roots need to read the entire book. (I probably won’t be able to resist.) Clara will undoubtedly learn something that will improve her own life and probably bring her a love-interest. As cheesy as stories about love-magic usually are, I can’t disagree with the claim that communication in letters sets up a bond between the sender and the receiver, and that a good letter is worth treasuring forever.

My own version of the enticing lost cookbook by Clara’s grandmother is a dilapidated hardcover book about teaching poetry to secondary-school students, titled The Hollow Reed, published in 1935, and written by a spinster English teacher named Mary Rinn. She was the teacher in George Washington High School, NYC, who inspired my mother to continue her education. Miss Rinn was also mentioned as an important mentor by Dr. Harry Dillow, who also grew up in New York, but eventually found his way to the Canadian university where I currently teach, and where I started out as his grad-student teaching assistant. What are the chances?

Sifting through my parents’ books and papers after their deaths in 2009 was like digging for ancient treasure. I hadn’t known that Miss Rinn wrote a book until I found it in the pile. I also found other items that I hadn’t known my parents had, as well as books I had given them, which have now come home to my library. The magic of words only seems to grow stronger over time.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Women and Magic, Part 2

by Jean Roberta

Heiresses of Russ 2016 is a best-of compilation of lesbian-flavoured speculative fiction stories which were published in 2015. The guest editor of this edition is “Alyx” (named for a character in the late Joanna Russ’ fiction) Dellamonica, who teaches writing at the University of Toronto in Canada and has won several awards for her own spec-fic. She is married to another award-winning female writer, Kelly Robson. It’s hard to imagine a writer who would be better-suited to co-edit this annual anthology with publisher Steve Berman.

As I suspected before I opened my review copy, several of the seventeen stories in this book originally appeared in the Lethe Press anthology Daughters of Frankenstein: Mad Lesbian Scientists, which I reviewed earlier. This book contains introductory material about the history of science fiction by women AND of actual female scientists, some of whom were theorizing about the universe much earlier than you would probably guess, unless you have studied the subject in depth.

(At this point, I could go into a long riff about the erasure of women from history, but that’s been done, and I’d like to reserve some steam for another issue that I’ll bring up later on.)

One of the stories from Daughters of Frankenstein (“Doubt the Sun” by Faith Mudge) is about an advanced robot or artificial intelligence, which is one of the themes in that collection. Another of these stories (“Love in the Time of Markov Processes” by Megan Arkenberg) is about a kind of hermit-scientist who studies the ocean from an underwater lab, somewhat like Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The third story from Daughters of Frankenstein (“Eldritch Brown Houses” by Claire Humphrey) is set in the witchy New England of H.P. Lovecraft.

Like the previous ones, this edition of Heiresses of Russ is a spellbinding read, but it is more eclectic than Daughters of Frankenstein and other themed collections of speculative fiction. “The Wollart Nymphs” by Melissa Scott (a writer of well-constructed plots) starts out suggesting that the “nymphs” (actually three ships) have supernatural capabilities, but the historical mystery surrounding them is resolved by a factual explanation.

At the opposite extreme of mystery and sci-fi stories are those that use characters from fairy and folk tales (monsters, talking animals, evil monarchs who control kingdoms by magic) in symbolic ways. In “Where Monsters Dance” by A. Merc Rustad, a young lesbian who is terrorized by her stepfather is taught to dance by a protective monster from a parallel realm where dancing destroys hatred.

Speculative fiction by women often deals with alternative (imaginary) ways of creating new humans, or humanoid beings, but surprisingly few of the ones I’ve read really tackle the political implications of the fact that humans who were born female (including some transmen) can get pregnant, while those who were born male cannot. The term “patriarchy” points to time-honoured attempts to keep reproduction in the hands of men by controlling women, especially those capable of breeding.

“The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer is a sci-fi story in Heiresses of Russ 2016 about that very thing. The science part is based on the fact that conception in several species, including humans, is actually triggered by the pricking of the mother’s egg rather than by the addition of a father’s DNA per se. (Presumably the mixing of two sets of genes to produce a new individual is an evolutionary development.) In this story, a virus which is transmitted by males to females causes women to conceive during ovulation (the release of an egg from an ovary), and the results are baby girls who are genetically identical to their mothers. Virus-infected women can no longer be impregnated by men.

Giving birth to girl after girl, all looking exactly like oneself, does not seem empowering to the unfortunate women infected by the virus, as it wouldn’t in real life. However, this phenomenon seems very threatening to men who don’t want their whole gender to become a genetic dead-end, as it would in real life. In the story, a lesbian journalist follows the trail of the virus. To add to her anxiety, she is pregnant by an anonymous sperm donor. Like a sexually-active gay man in the early 1980s, the protagonist in this story can’t be sure she is virus-free.

Although this story is definitely speculative rather than strictly realistic, it undercuts a currently-fashionable kind of queer theory that gender (however defined) is either a strictly personal choice, or at least a socially-determined set of characteristics with no real connection to biology. In biographical descriptions, various individuals now define themselves as “non-binary” and “gender-queer.” Since speculative fiction plays with imaginary spinoffs from reality as we know it, it provides a welcoming setting for androgynous characters who have floated free from binary classifications of all kinds.

As exhilarating as it can be to imagine that we are all living in a post-binary world, it just ain’t so. Young women are still afraid of the possibilities that scared me when I was young and fertile: I could be impregnated without my consent (possibly through rape), and I might not be able to get a safe, legal abortion--or I might not want to destroy the strange, tadpole-like being inside me. After giving birth, I might have trouble earning enough money to support myself and my child and to ensure that the baby would be cared for if I had to work outside the home.

I knew that I couldn’t rely on any man, including the biological father of my child, to help us survive. As I found out, none of the legal mechanisms of Western society (including marriage) really force fathers to accept responsibility for “their” children.

As far as I can tell, young women (including non-heterosexuals) still have reason to worry about these possibilities, and young men of all sexual orientations do not. Although I could say that menopause brought me “beyond” the reproductive binary so that I can be as sexually carefree as a male, the binary hasn’t been wished out of existence.

Now that Donald Trump is President of the U.S., and he is in touch with other right-wing politicians all over the world, reproductive rights for women are being threatened, as they always are when patriarchy objects to freedom of choice. At such times, speculative fiction can enable us to escape momentarily from grim reality and give us hope, but we can’t really live in another dimension or in perfectly invulnerable bodies just yet.

Women and Magic, Part 1

by Jean Roberta

Hellebore and Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic, edited by Catherine Lundoff and JoSelle Vanderhooft (Lethe 2011) is an anthology of a dozen stories. A review copy was sent to me years ago, but I didn’t find time to read it until lately. The two herbs named in the title are either healing or poisonous, depending on how they are used: in poultices, remedies, or spells.

Two of the stories in this collection were reprinted in the 2012 edition of Heiresses of Russ (co-edited by Sacchi Green and publisher Steve Berman), an annual best-of collection of published lesbian spec-fic. Several years later, I was invited to co-edit Heiresses of Russ 2015. Several weeks ago, I received a gift copy (for review?) of Heiresses of Russ 2016.

So I’ve learned that in the 21st century, there is no shortage of fantasy and sci-fi stories in which the protagonists are women-loving women. The genres of the stories range from “high fantasy” or sword-and-sorcery to steampunk, slipstream, projections into the future of current technology (science-fiction), parody, and horror.

The lesbian relationships in these stories range from casual hookups among adventurous young women to long-term nesting to working/romantic partnerships between women with complementary skills. However, none of the sex in these stories is explicitly described.

To add to my pile of stories by/about women, I recently received the first five chapters of an upcoming novel, The Lost Art of Letter-Writing by Menna van Praag, to be released on February 16, 2017. This writer is a young woman in Cambridge, England, who writes fantasy romances set in her city. So far, they are: Men, Money and Chocolate (novella), Happier Than She’s Ever Been (sequel), The House at the End of Hope Street, The Dress Shop of Dreams, and The Witches of Cambridge. Over a year ago, I picked up a reduced-to-clear copy of The House at the End of Hope Street in a bin in my local Safeway store, and I was charmed. I signed up for the Menna van Praag (MVP) newsletter on-line. This is how I know that she and her husband now have two children, and that she struggles to find writing time.

To start with Hellebore and Rue, since this is the oldest book in the pile, I was impressed for several reasons: the stories are really varied, they are by authors I’m fairly familiar with, as well as ones I’d like to know better, and they include some Canadian content.

One of the authors, Rrain Prior, comes from the prairies (Manitoba, just east of where I live), and the protagonist of her story is a bounty hunter named “Key” who was hired to trap a rogue Salamander (elemental spirit) that starts wildfires. This story seems to foreshadow several actual fires that occurred later, particularly the one that largely destroyed Fort McMurray, Alberta, to the west of me, in spring 2016, and forced the evacuation of thousands of people, including a writer I know. (To this date, it is the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.) Where is Key when she’s needed?

Another story in this collection, “Counterbalance” by Ruth Sorrell, is set in Toronto, although it was written by a writer from Birmingham, England. This story, like several others, deals with kitchen magic (e.g. an ability to make a cake from raw ingredients on a hot summer day without turning on the oven) which requires an exchange of energy in the world. A supernatural villainess tries to seize too much power, only to find that the kitchen witch has allies.

Space doesn’t allow me to describe all the stories in this book, but the theme of undercover witches runs through several of them. “Witches Have Cats” by Juliet Kemp is probably the funniest; in this story, a woman with latent psychic power but no knowledge of how to use it effectively has a cute but clueless puppy rather than a cat as familiar. The process of learning how to wield one’s power is shown as parallel to the process of “coming out” as queer.

In “D is for Delicious” by Steve Berman, a school nurse facing retirement is introduced to the witchy tradition of feasting on children in order to prolong her life. Of course, she resists at first, but she has resisted so much of her appetite for pleasure that at last, she decides to give in to it, having been seduced by a tempting sister-witch.

The female police officer who returns to a small English town from the city in Rachel Green’s “A State of Panic” is probably the most complicated kitchen witch of the bunch. This story is a self-contained murder mystery, but it is better-understood as one of this author’s “Laverstone” tales (including a novel, An Ungodly Child), set in a town with an unusual number of supernatural beings due to a portal which was never properly closed. In this story, local landmarks include Moot Point and Hobbs’ Wood (as in “hobgoblin”).

The stories that are not set in the world as we know it feature women with professions that don’t exist here. In “The Windskimmer” by Connie Wilkins, the greenmistress who can control plant life has a history with the wind pilot who sails airships. Although their specialties seem to have nothing in common, it turns out that they were once sent on a joint mission that threatened the earth for the sake of victory in war. Their agreement to right an old wrong also reignites their love for each other. This story is one of the more satisfying of the other-worldly stories because the reader is not left wondering WTF?

If I have any complaint about anything in this collection, it is that some of the writers rely too much on the formula: Show, don’t tell. Characters suddenly appear with a clap of thunder, and exude attitudes of various kinds, without much explanation of where they came from or what they want. Fantasy writers of the past (who are still read, I might add) didn’t seem to dread world-building in the form of long introductions or info-dumps which could inform readers about the culture and history of the setting. In some cases, info was dumped into a Book of Lore which was left someplace where the protagonist (and reader) could find it. Some of the stories in Hellebore and Rue left me wishing I could find a book of spells, a long footnote, an appendix, or a concordance.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reading in Tandem #AmReading

By Annabeth Leong

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in tandem recently, and I’m enjoying the interconnections and sense of variety it creates. My current routine is to read a short story first thing when I wake up, listen to an audio book while commuting, read an essay at lunch, and then read a chapter or two of a novel in the evening. It means it’s taking a long time to finish each book, but I’ve found I like that. I live with characters longer. I get more time to mull over an author’s ideas. I soak in the feeling at the end of a short story and get to roll it around in my mind all day.

In a productivity-oriented culture where I feel encouraged to count everything—words, books read, chores finished, money made—it is lovely to take a damn long time to read a book. I’m also convinced that some books are meant to be read this way, and that it is doing a disservice to oneself and the author to blow through them.

I’m going to talk about the four books I’m currently in the midst of, because they feel very vivid to me, and then finish with one I came to the end of recently and quite enjoyed.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
I want to say, if you read one book in your life it should be this one. I am living with these women in the early morning hours. I am feeling more than seems possible for them.

There is a story, “North Country,” that I was so sure would be about the rejection of love and instead became a story about the bravery and luck involved with accepting it, and I think I’m going to carry it in my heart for a long, long time. The gentle sense of hope it held, a feeling I could trust, is the sort of thing I need right now to get through a day.

There is another story, “Break All the Way Down,” that made me sob for an embarrassingly long time after I read it. It made me feel how painful love can be, even when it is good and true—maybe especially then.

The stories fit together so well that I wonder if Roxane Gay planned this book all along and wrote it in pieces instead of as a whole, spreading those pieces through all sorts of literary magazines as hints of what was to come. I remember some of the stories from years ago, when I used to read for a literary prize—the year I read, I remember noticing how many of her stories we preliminary readers nominated, and how good they all were.

This book will hurt if you read it, but it hurts in the way that’s true, and I always want that from my fiction.

Many of the stories in the book concern sex, and they cover it in the way I naively thought erotica would when I got into it—as a complicated human thing that works all sorts of ways and evokes all sorts of feelings, good and bad. There is no mandate here for sex positivity or arousal, but neither is there a rejection of those things, and the emotional honesty that results is particularly refreshing for this erotica writer.

Also, while writing this post, I saw this article about how Roxane Gay is a brave and amazing hero and has somehow earned even more respect than I already had for her.

Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
I’m listening to this book in audio right now, and my first comment is on the performance: the reader brings necessary passion to the subject matter. This book is full of power and anger, and I’m so glad its audio format was given a reader who knows how to convey that tone. I can’t imagine how it would sound delivered flatly.

Next, on the book itself. Why is every book I read about race shocking to me? I am from Hawaii, where ideas of America as perfect are necessarily strange because we grow up also with stories about our wrongly imprisoned queen, our stolen land, the white businessmen who felt entitled to destroy and claim the islands. I have been told to “go home” by people who assume I am a Chinese immigrant, and I want to laugh in their faces and tell them that if I’m not a “real” American, the US ought to give my fucking homeland back.

When I moved to the mainland, I was plunged into the midst of a different bewildering mess of race relations, which was quite clearly twisted. I will never forget my shock the first time I saw ads for Stone Mountain, Georgia. Look it up if you’ve never heard of it.

Still, white supremacist viewpoints are deeply entrenched in my head, and I marvel at how sinister it is that they’re lodged there. One example: it was only recently that I started to pay attention to what people mean when they say, about the United States, “we.” It was only recently that I realized “we” often makes no sense in context if you’re talking about we, all of us, and only works if you mean we, white people. If one makes an exercise of this alone, it is incredible what unfolds and gets overturned.

So, Glaude’s book shocks me and makes me angry by revealing things that have been right in front of my face all this time. Perhaps most striking so far is his account of what has been done to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Glaude breaks my heart by describing in convincing detail how King’s rhetoric has been twisted and used to scold people working toward equality, used to shame black people for societal ills that result from conditions of systemic racism. He lays out how both Democrats and Republicans have done this. The picture he paints of King toward the end of his life hurts my heart—demonized from all sides, struggling to maintain faith in the power of nonviolence and love. I can see how this would happen, and I wonder why he never got presented to me that way in school.

Glaude’s larger point is that the ideals of democracy espoused in the US don’t match any reality that’s ever existed in this country. Not only that, the country was founded with a lot of inequality in place. There’s a narrative around that “we” have improved over the years, become more equal—but Glaude makes very sure that you notice who “we” are in this construction. He argues for being honest about all this, and works toward an idea of what it would look like for the US to pursue a truly democratic society.

As far as I can tell, this was written before the election of Donald Trump. It feels even more vital now.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I’m not usually a reader of books that have won lots of awards. Honestly, I hesitated before buying this one because I was scared I would pick it up with good intentions and never make it through. The Vietnam War, though, casts a long shadow on my life, so I was interested—especially because this book was written by a man born in Vietnam, raised in the US, who therefore has a different perspective on this than other movies or books I’ve checked out.

I’m not too deep into it yet, but I’m not finding it a hard read at all. The description is sly, precise, and clever. I’m stunned by how well I can see everything described, and how poignant, painful moments are mingled with an odd sense of humor.

The back of the book compares it to, among other things, the work of Graham Greene, a writer I love. I see it. I can’t say much more yet, but this has really grabbed me so far.

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt
I saw mixed reviews of this book. Some seemed to think the writer pretentious, too clever for her own good. I think they read the book too fast. This book really benefits from a slow and careful approach. Hustvedt writes a lot about art, and as I read I look up the paintings she talks about and ponder them alongside her words.

I’ve been particularly fascinated by her essay “Sontag on Smut: Fifty Years Later,” in which she ponders shock, sexuality, feeling in art, gender, and more. I don’t entirely agree with her, but it’s really interesting to think why or why not, and I could write a lot about the issues she raises (and maybe will?).

There is something abrasive about Hustvedt’s writerly voice, but I find that same quality deeply compelling. She is a woman who does not apologize for sharp intelligence and strong opinions, and I don’t think it’s clear how rare that is until you see it. I’ve been entranced by Hustvedt’s work since reading The Blindfold in my early 20s, and ever since I always check her name when in a bookstore. I may like her essays even more than I like her novels. They feel extremely intimate but not vulnerable, like she’s talking from somewhere startlingly inside my head but never weakening herself through the exposure.

I think sometimes about how every writer’s voice is translated through my own reader’s voice, and I wonder if Hustvedt arouses a particularly strong, unapologetic part of me that I enjoy hearing from. It’s a thought she would appreciate—she’s adamant about the communicative nature of art, the fact that it is always a shared creation of producer and beholder.

I would call this book a hard, difficult read. Another that makes you work. So far I’ve been very glad to do the work, though.

The Second Mango by Shira Glassman
Now for something completely different. This book is light, sweet, easy, and yet subtly challenging and utterly revolutionary. It involves a princess, the captain of her guard, and a dragon, and from this standard fairy tale material, Glassman weaves a world that feels vivid and new. The princess wants a woman and makes a deal with the captain to go in search of one. The seemingly frivolous quest soon becomes a significant one.

The plot pulled me through and genuinely surprised me at times. It is rare that I don’t predict most of the details of an ending while reading, and a couple of things that happened here really caught me off guard. I also loved that, while there is magic and fighting, many problems are solved through compassion or clever thinking.

The source material is Jewish. The view of gender is refreshing. Glassman does an admirable job of showing a world in which there is prejudice against LGBT people without making the reader feel beaten down by it. The happy ending is thoroughly satisfying. I recommend it—and I’ve already ordered the sequel.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Architecture Punk Rock Biosphere (#T.C. Boyle #Frank Lloyd Wright #City Gardens #Trenton #Randy Now #Jim Harrison #Katherine Dunn)

by Daddy X

Still carrying on my affair with T.C. Boyle. Two this quarter:

The Women

When I did a bit here a few months ago on Boyle’s Road To Wellness (about J.H. Kellogg), Lisabet mentioned another historically-based work by (IMO) one of our greatest living wordsmiths.

“The Women” follows, or rather effects, a reverse chronology of the wives of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Last wife first, and not much about the first. No matter. His rendering of these human beings spins off the page at times, especially in the case of the headstrong, morphine-addicted Meriam, Wright’s third love.

Boyle employs a unique introduction using a fictitious composite Japanese apprentice (Tadashi) who follows the narrator throughout the work and keeps him honest while one Seamus O’Flaherty, an American Biographer (Boyle himself) relates the tale. If my set-up sounds rather complicated, Boyle does a much better job of convincing the reader of the machinations, using Tadashi’s numerous footnotes.

Now don’t get rattled by the specter of footnotes. These are not footnotes that pull the reader from the story with some arcane fact or diversion from the story arc. They have real impact on the tale, and there will be times when you’re waiting for Tadashi to pop in with his often humorous Japanese take on the biographer’s account. 

Wright is presented as a pompous serial philanderer, a self-important, self-promotion scheme on two feet, in spats, wearing flamboyant clothes, driving exotic cars in long scarves, all balanced on his dick. He goes through wives in a pattern of sorts: first she’s the apple of his eye, then a discarded and vituperative source of payback that brings down trial after trial on the extended Wright family.

I’ve said enough. Read it yourself. You won’t be disappointed. Humor, pathos, love, hate, loss, gain, all delivered with the intensity of a tornado.

The Terranauts

Boyle’s latest. Momma X gave it to me for Xmas. One of those ‘can’t put it down’ deals. Just finished last week.

Opens with choosing the personnel of a biosphere to be closed then opened two years in the future. Competition is, well, competitive among the candidates, sixteen members of a ‘team’, half of whom would be sidelined until the initial confinement was finished and the teams would essentially trade places.

That’s the plan anyway. But as usual, not everything planned will come off accordingly. Problems arise. Air and exhaust systems malfunction. Heat and humidity. Problems among the crew. Problems outside the biosphere, in “Mission Control”.

But I’m not here to tell you the story. With this intro, you’ll probably imagine a ‘Lord of the Flies” scenario. You’re not that far off, though Boyle presents this aspect with enviable subtlety and style, employing three first-person accounts: Two people inside the manufactured environment, one still outside and jealous of those who made it in.

What makes me crazy about this Boyle dude is that he counters many of the dogmatic elements I rely on to write a story or do critiques on ERWA. He uses long sentences, often fifty words and more. He also uses one-word sentences. And everything in between. I don’t know if two of his longer sentences are ever structured alike. His prose flows so easily, I can comfortably read through all the extraneous and redundant words I would ordinarily try to avoid. His vocabulary is so complete, I learn new words in every chapter, most that are obvious as to the meaning so the reader doesn’t have to go and look them up. What the hell kind of talent is that? How could an author surmise so much and still get it across?

No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes

By Amy Yates Wuefling and Steven DiLudivico

Whoa! WTF? A first-run concert venue in Trenton fucking New Jersey? Where I grew the fuck up?

A couple of years ago, John Stewart (The Daily Show) featured the authors of this book on his show. Turns out that in his youth, Stewart had tended bar at the place. He went off about the wild scene at City Gardens, located in perhaps the worst neighborhood in a town that was, at the time, the acknowledged armpit of the east coast: Trenton, New fucking Jersey, (either version acceptable) my home fucking town.

In Trenton-speak, most sentences feature the word ‘fuck’ ‘fucked’ or ‘fucking’.

My parents would talk the fuck out of the big band era, when fucking Trenton (right the fuck between Philadelphia and New fucking York on Route 1) would host the likes of Basie, Ellington, and Artie the fuck Shaw. They and other luminaries had convenient Trenton on their fucking tour plans. Even in my time of early rock and fucking doo-whop, groups with top fucking 40 hits would be featured at every fucking weekend record hop. I saw The fucking Isley Brothers. Fucking Brenda Lee. Frankie fucking Lyman and the fucking Teenagers.

Whooooops! Sorry. I traveled back to Jersey in October. Guess my old speech patterns caught up to me. ;>)

Fuck—part of the appeal for me was that local aspect. Even though by the 80’s, when this book begins, I’d been gone for many years, still the fucked specter of Calhoun Street looms over my memories. In 25 years living in or near Trenton, I don’t think I ever got the fuck out of the car on fucking Calhoun Street. Fuck that.

I do remember the building that housed City Gardens. Back in the 40’s, it was the Giant Tiger, what a super market aspired to in those days; later A-1  Motors, a rip-off used car lot just up the street from “Big-Hearted Nat,” another fuck of a place to buy a car.

The authors have chronicled every drunken, violent, fucked-up, spaced-out  concert ever held at City Gardens over fifteen years, using conversations with performers, parents, regular attendees, bouncers, bartenders, and general hangers-on who remember details of each and every show, those details often of varying consistency. I have to wonder how much was lost to the ether.

 Names like Joey Shithead, Ween, Mel Toxic, Jello Biafra, Henry Hose. Bands such as The Ramones, (played there 22 times). Henry Rollins Band, Ministry, Regressive Aid, Sic Kidz, Dead Kennedys and on and on through the 80’s and into the 90’s. 

This book informed me of a style of music (and behavior) I was never privy to: Punk Rock. Hardcore. Metal. Skinheads. Slam dancing. Stage diving. Throwing bottles at the band. Spitting on each other. Punching people because it’s fun. Getting punched because it’s fun. Shudder. How fucking Trenton!

Randy Now, a mailman from across the river in Bucks County Pa., booked the bands, promoted the shows and kept the chaotic scene somewhat intact for 15 years. It seems he was loved and respected for providing a much-needed venue (1200 capacity) for upcoming artists as well as better-known performers traveling between Philadelphia and New York. If nothing else, meeting this tireless and dedicated individual in print made the read worthwhile.

At this point, I’d like to mention two writers we lost last year who have been influences, not only on my own desire to write, but on life itself.

Katherine Dunn

In 1989, Ms. Dunn wrote what at the time I thought was the ultimate novel: Geek Love, about the Binewskis, a down-on-their-luck carnival family. Rather than hiring expensive freaks, they decide to birth their own, plying the mother (Diamond Lil) with drugs, arsenic, biological waste, paint thinner and radio isotopes. This book is humor, philosophy, fantasy, action, romance, erotica all at once. Just imagine possibilities for Siamese twin girl pianists, coming of age joined at the waist.

I tried reading Dunn’s first two novels, Attic and Truck, both so stylized as to get in the way of the story. No matter, Geek Love shows an immense capacity for imagination and how human we are in our differences.
Dunn was apparently a singular person, by all accounts well-traveled, obviously intelligent, and worked as a boxing stringer for several newspapers. She took boxing lessons herself during her 40’s.

Jim Harrison

When I was told in 2005 that I’d have to do a year of Interferon/Ribavirin treatment to save my new, cancer-free liver from the ongoing ravages of Hep C, a good friend brought me a sack of Jim Harrison books.  The bag contained: Legends of the Fall, Wolf, Dalva, Sundog, Warlock and The Road Home. I believe I read The Road Home first, a big, semi-biographical account of a Midwestern family. After reading that batch, I then went out and bought A Woman Lit by Fireflies and A Good Day To Die.

Harrison, also a noted poet, writes of big vistas, setting his stories in the great plains of Nebraska or Michigan’s upper peninsula, never sentimental or cloying, but describing the changing ways we are affected by modernity. Just the thing for someone whose future is in question.

Though I can only aspire to these masters of our art, they both showed us what grand things could be done with the written word. 


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Character is King

I normally adore my kindle, but every so often I get a yearning for a good old fashioned paperback. That’s when I scour my shelves for something I haven’t read yet, and as often as not come up with Nora Roberts. Nora is my go-to author for well-written romantic suspense, and she’s so prolific there’s always something new. Here are the most recent three books of hers that have got a grip on me.
What do I like most about Nora? Her characters, probably. Her heroes are without fail solid, capable and just plain nice. They can be sexy as hell (always a winner with me) but they don’t have to sacrifice good manners, respect, and not taking their ladies for granted. I prefer stories to include sex, but despite being an erotic author myself I don’t necessarily insist on explicit scenes if the plot doesn’t call for it. Gratuitous smut gets tedious after a while and will slow down an otherwise strong story.
Heroines, too, will make or break the story. I prefer to read about women who might be my friends in real life – strong, independent, clever, successful – and Nora delivers those in spades. Set all that against a well-researched and believable plot and you’ll have me every time.
Nora Roberts’ back covers and accolades as often as not proclaim her to be the most successful novelist on the planet. I love Nora but I’m not sure about that, I suppose it depends on how success is to be measured or judged. Number of books sold? Money earned? Film rights? There would be other contenders, but I suppose Nora would be up there among them, and I don’t blame her publicist for trying.
I also read crap. Not much of it, to be fair, because my tolerance threshold for BS is low and if a story doesn’t draw me in within the first chapter or two I tend to delete it and move on. There’s far too much good stuff out there to waste time on drivel, but occasionally something sneaks onto my kindle, if briefly. I’m not about to name names here – on principle I refuse to give poor reviews – but perhaps some general comments on what irritates me and would tempt me to consider a paltry two or even one star.
First and foremost it would be poor or mediocre writing. Please, please spare me from ‘he said’, ‘she went’, ‘they were…’. I relish strong verbs, descriptive nouns, clever sentence construction – not necessarily grammatically correct, I value strength of meaning over rules every time. My beloved Nora is something of a head-hopper, but I forgive her that because she knows what she’s doing.
I contend that pretty much any story can be gripping if told well, and the reverse is true. Wizard stories are two a penny, but Harry Potter… now there is a wizard, and it is the literary genius of J.K. Rowling that made him what he is. Come to think of it, if the crown of most successful novelist is up for grabs…
Plot matters. It needs to be believable and with enough pace to keep my interest. Description is good, but don’t overdo it. I like to be taken to new places, I want to see, feel, hear, smell, and experience all of this through characters that I’m happy to snuggle right up alongside.
Which brings me back around to my first and my final must have. Character is king. Give me intriguing characters, interesting and engaging people, people I can recognise in situations that offer both challenge and fascination. Spice it all up with plenty of conflict, get those characters rubbing against each other (literally or otherwise), and I’m yours.