News!

I am so thrilled to announce that my debut novel, Lord of Secrets, is going to be published next year (2019) by the amazing Jo Fletcher Books. You can bet that as soon as I have cool information for you (like a cover! whee!) you will hear about it here.

In the meantime, I’m off to bake a cake!

What I’m Reading Now: Trail Of Lightning

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World Book 1) by [Roanhorse, Rebecca]

What if all the stories started to come true?

That’s what the hero of Trail of Lightning, Maggie Hoskie, has to face.  Living in the land of Dinè (what used to be called the Navajo reservation), Maggie is one of the few with the wits, training, and grit to face the monsters that roam the world since an apocalyptic earthquake flooded most of the former United States.  As if that wasn’t tricky enough, she also has to maintain working–and sometimes personal–relationships with a couple of demigods.

It’s difficult to be concise when talking about everything I liked about this book.  The setting is meticulously rendered.  The action and paranormal mystery is perfectly paced.  And then there are the characters.

Maggie is a monsterslayer, a survivor, dealing with the trauma and guilt that surviving and doing her job brings.  She is by turns prickly, dangerous, vulnerable, and kind.  I was so proud of her toward the end of the book for choosing to believe she was worth something.  (I can’t explain why without spoilers.)

Kai, on the other hand, is a medicine-man-in-training and a smooth-talking delight.  He’s less certain about the merits of shooting/decapitating enemies before they can shoot/decapitate you than Maggie is, but he displays his own kind of grit and a kind of dogged belief in Maggie’s goodness that makes him a perfect foil for her darker energy.  Plus, I love a flirty character–especially when they’re flirty-but-careful-to-get-consent.

And, of course, there is Coyote.  (Yes, the Coyote.)  But about him I can’t say much of anything without spoiling the mystery.

This is one of the books that I’m recommending to everybody this year.  It’s fun, is fresh, and it’s escapism at its very best.

What I’m Reading Now: Rotherweird

 

The mysterious town of Rotherweird lies cut off from the rest of England, independent but ignorant of its own past–a past which includes a set of exiled Tudor genius kids as founders. A new history teacher is hired at the Rotherweird school at the same time as its ancient manor is bought by a shady new owner, and things start getting very strange indeed.

Summing up any more of the intricate plot is difficult without giving spoilers, so instead I’ll try to talk abou the feel of the novel. It has a light and whimsical touch that almost reminded me of the Harry Potter novels, but with subject matter that seems straight out of vintage Bradbury (I was thinking in particular of The Illustrated Man). I suppose you could classify Rotherweird as a fantasy, but I think it’ll find a place on my shelves with my “soft” science fiction. That is, there’s nothing to indicate that the fantastical events in the book are anything by natural, scientific phenomena–quite the opposite, actually, as Rotherweird’s thick crop of geniuses bring their various expertise to bear on the strange secret at the heart of the town’s independence.

I think it would have been very easy for all the different elements of this story to go awry, but Caldecott manages to tie together enough strands by the end to leave the reader with a satisfying experience. (Although, I will admit I wanted more comeuppance for a couple of the secondary villains–one professor is a misogynist jerk, and I rather hoped he’d get eaten by one of the creatures.  Oh well, there’s always the sequel!)

The book itself is gorgeous to hold, with a brilliantly executed cartographic cover and illustrations that capture the playful energy of the text. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Wyntertide, which was recently released.

What I’m Reading Now: Space Opera

Note: In all honesty, this is “what I was reading during my trip to Europe back in May”, but my trip to Europe was also my “trip without wifi” and my “trip that pushed my deadlines tighter/makes writing blog posts secondary to writing novel words”, so you’re getting this review now.  But you should still read this book.  It’s that good.

Space Opera by [Valente, Catherynne M.]

What if the only way to save the world was to rock, sparkle, and shine?  What if humanity’s fate depended on how a handful of bizzaro aliens judged our entrants in a glamrock megashow battle of the bands…in space?

If you’re thinking that sounds an awful lot like Hedwig meets Hitchiker’s Guide meets Ziggy, well, friends, you would be gloriously, freakishly, wonderfully right.

Space Opera has a deceptively simple plot: a washed-up glamrock trio–now a duo, because the lynchpin member is dead–have to perform in a Eurovision-type battle of the bands to prove humanity deserves to continue as a species.  That summary leaves out the most important things about the book, though. There are aliens: time-traveling red pandas; sentient computer code (which helpfully purchases a physical form: Clippy, from MS Word); the glass-boned Roadrunner; the chainsaw murder-hippos.  There is the prose: intense, delerious, inspiring and hilarious prose that sounds like beat poetry laced with profanity and cocaine.  There’s the fabulously diverse cast of characters (shoutout to Nani, Decibel’s grandma, who wins all the grandma awards, #naniforever).  And, finally, at last, there is the duo, Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, and their broken hearts.

These two middle-aged, failed, and brokenhearted musicians care so much, about music and family and each other, that they are the shining, glittering soul of the novel.  They know they’re screwed, they know they’re going to fail again, but in spite of that they keep trying, keep bleeding their souls out on stage.  They give me courage.  They give me hope that the music will outlast the dark, and the disco ball will rise again.

In the end, this book just made me happy.  In times like these, happiness is enough reason to love a book.  If you love music, beauty, and gorgeous, imperfect weirdos, and eyeshadow, you MUST read this book.

What I’m Reading Now: Traitor’s Blade

 

Traitor's Blade (The Greatcoats) by [de Castell, Sebastien]

Have you always wanted the Three Musketeers, but without D’Artangan and with more magic and assassins? Then the Greatcoats are your boys.

Falcio and his two best friends are loyal to a dead king, just trying to keep their heads above water long enough to gain some semblance of security. Of course, this goes poorly for them, and from the very first chapter we’re tossed into a maelstrom of sword fights, double-crosses, and callbacks to people in Falcio’s past. Overall, the book was rollicking good fun.

My only quibble is more personal preference than flaw: I felt like our heroes suffered a bit from what I call the “Arrow approach to minions”. In the eponymous TV series, the superhero Arrow kills evildoers and minions with nary a second thought, and sometimes without checking to be sure that they are, in fact, evildoers and minions. The Greatcoats don’t seem to be much concerned with whether lethal force is necessary–they just use it. It struck me as a little weird, given that Greatcoats are supposed to be legal officials, but then again they’re adjudicating in the middle of what is essentially the 100 Years’ War.  It makes sense that they might be a little more inclined to dole out executions. Falcio has a strong moral code and frets about the ethics of a lot of his decisions–it would just have been nice to hear him reason, at least once, about why it’s cool to fling minons off a roof.

But I will say, the sword geek in me was happy to see such meticulous attention to detail in the fencing and weaponry, and I’m always a sucker for a crew that banters while they fight. Basically, if you like swashbuckling and shenanigans, this is a great book for you to take a chance on. I’ll be reading the rest of the series.

What I’m Reading Now: KIN

 

“What I’m reading now” is, today, more of a “what I just finished reading”, because I couldn’t quit until I knew the ending.

If you’re into Vikings, murder mysteries, and the details of feeding a bunch of warriors who show up randomly to your medieval farm and want to drink up the good mead, Kin by Snorri Kristjansson is the book for you.  (As someone who both has brewed mead and regularly has to feed a bunch of people who show up randomly, I maybe empathized more with that part than you’d think.)

Mead takes months to make, people.  You can’t just guzzle it all in an afternoon.

A family reunion of sorts occurs on a semi-isolated farm when the sons of a local chieftain bring their wives and children to visit their parents–and maybe get a hint of where their father has hidden the treasure he is rumored to have brought home from his days raiding.  Tempers run high, and, inevitably, blood spills.  (Quite a lot of it.)  Rough justice requires that someone pay for the death.  The question is, who?  Helga, an adopted daughter, is determined that nobody innocent will be scapegoated, but innocence turns out to be complicated.  Helga has to pit her wits against that of the murderer, and in the process has to discover exactly how different she may be from her foster-family.

Without spoiling the plot, I’d summarize Kin as a cozy murder mystery plus Vikings.  While cozy might seem like a strange descriptor for something involving so many axes, I think it fits a little better than noir, which is the other way I’m seeing the book talked about.   To me, the difference between the two is primarily one of intimacy–and the murders in this book are nothing if not intimate.

While the detecting/puzzle solving in the book was entertaining, I really enjoyed the characters’ depth, and the ways that Helga has to grow up and question her assumptions about the world in the course of the story.  I think it’s easy to forget exactly how isolated people’s lives could be in an era when travel was more dangerous, and the “locked room” aspect of the puzzle served not only to limit the number of suspects, but to make Helga’s psychological distress more intense and believable.

Plus, it’s always fun to have a lot of female characters in a book who aren’t afraid to throw punches or swing knives.

All in all, I recommend getting yourself a cup of mead (it tastes like whatever flowers the bees were eating when they made the honey, you know) and settling down with Vikings and death this weekend.

But not my mead, though.  Get your own.

What I’m Reading Now

I devoured–which is a hippo pun, although you wouldn’t think it was–Sarah Gailey’s book River of Teeth in about a day and a half.  You would, too, if you don’t mind having rivers and bayous becoming even more nightmare-fodder than they already are.

What’s this book about?  Well, it’s about hippos.  And cowboys (or “hoppers”) who ride hippos.  And muuuuurder.  What can I say?  I’m a sucker for a great concept, especially one where the introduction promises me a fair array of hats.

The hats, as with the rest of the setting and tech in the novel, were indeed meticulously done.  (Personally, I loved the scene where Hero catches a hat from a ranger on a tower and then lazily throws it back like a discus–more about Hero anon.)  The book is essentially a heist story, full of boiling intrigue and dangerous riverboat casinos–like Maverick with more knife fights and hippo-caused dismemberments.

Nevertheless, as difficult as it is to compete with hippos and hats, for me what really stood out was the characterization.  Like all great heist stories, the novella assembles a crew of rogues, and none of these rogues are the ones you’re expecting.  There’s the revenge-obsessed ex-rancher Houndstooth, who turns out to have a soft heart.  There’s Hero, the nonbinary poisons and explosives expert who finds themself in love.  There’s the (seven months pregnant) master assassin Adelia.  It’s difficult to pick a favorite among the talented, morally ambiguous group.

But I generally pick my favorite characters based on who I’d go to dinner with, so I have to plump for Archie, the con artist and self-described “fat Frenchwoman with an albino ‘ippo”.  I wouldn’t turn my back on her, and I would probably end up robbed blind, but I think I would enjoy the experience.

Gailey’s writing is wonderfully pulpy, lush and brutal, echoing for me both the tone of classic westerns and detective noir.  The introduction (“worth it for the hats alone”) and the appendix (“Lincoln promised to solve the hippo problem, but some things came up”) are as much fun as the text.

If there’s one thing to complain about, for me, it’s the ending, which felt a bit rushed, almost as though the book had ended during a midpoint climax or had been sliced in two.  While I know there’s a sequel novella out, I think I would have preferred to be able to read the whole story in one volume.  However, there’s a lot of interesting things being tried at the moment with story and publication structure–Annihilation, for example, and the other books in its trilogy–so I suspect that Gailey and her publishers know exactly what they’re doing.

In short: do you like westerns, hippos, explosions, having your expectations subverted, and muuuuuuurder?  Do you have four bucks, a Kindle, and room in your “I fell in the river” nightmares for more creative types of death?  Pick up a copy of River of Teeth, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Going To Another Place

I read a blog post the other day suggesting that Back In The Day, people mainly read fantasy to get a certain feeling that wasn’t super common.  I.e., you had to go looking to be able to find wizards, dragons, cloaks, chainmail and whatnot–whereas you can get a lot more of them in mainstream pop culture nowadays.  I have to agree.  This explains why, for example, I picked up a fantasy book from the late 80s a while back and realized it had footnotes about everything from how the days of the week were named to the system that its land used to determine water barrel prices.  (You’d think this would mean that water barrel prices would be important to the plot, wouldn’t you?  You would be wrong.)

I think an immersive setting is important, though–as long as it’s not intrusive.

12an5t
No Footnotes!

One of the things I enjoy the most about reading is the ability to leave where I am, and go to another place–be that Botswana, or 1930s Yorkshire, or Regency England, or Pern, or Earthsea.  Some places I go to when I am wanting to be somewhere comforting and reassuring (Botswana and Yorkshire).  Some places I go because I need to think about what it would be like to live there (the Republic of Gilead).  And some places I go just because I like the people there.   I write because I like the characters, and they show me around the setting.  I think setting, plot, and character all need to be in balance, but I will forgive a lot for a good setting.

Of course, I’ll forgive everything for the sake of a good character, but that is another blog.

What do you think?  Do you experience setting as a form of immersive escapism, as unimportant backdrop, or something in between?

Music Monday: Playlists for Villains

My characters often get their own playlists, but in the last book I wrote the villain was a very specific personality, and he inspired a beautiful thing: a big sprawling Pinterest board full of photos and music videos that became a Spotify list.  Here’s some things I’ve found that help with figuring out songs for the list (and the character’s personality):

  1. A sense of aesthetic.  This is the main thing.  What feel do you associate with the character?  Melancholy? Epic-ness?  Sass?  Choose songs that reflect that.
  2. A sense of story.  Does this character triumph?  What type of dark night of the soul do they suffer–are they betrayed, hopeless, lonely?  There’s a sad song for every occasion.
  3. Without lyrics that you *have* to pay attention to/sing.  This is a practical one.  Some writers can’t write to music that has any lyrics at all.  I like songs with lyrics, but with a prominent beat or bass line, because it can fade into the background of my subconscious and inspire me to type faster.
  4. That you associate with the book.  Some characters of mine show up with a song that I feel perfectly expresses them.  Other times it takes a while, after I’ve met them, to figure out who they are.  Then, as I write the book, eventually the whole book gets songs or albums associated with it.  This is useful in a behaviorist kind of way, because listening to the album triggers the “it’s time to write now” part of my brain.

Curious about what showed up on my villain’s playlist?  You can listen on Spotify here.

Do you listen to music while you write?

The 30k Cliff

When I wrote my first novel I was 12 years old, and my goal was pretty much to type until I had 100 pages of words.  “There,” I thought to myself, “I did it! Novels are 100 pages long, I just wrote one!”

(Even at 12, though, I recognized that 100 pages of “they leave home, they wander for a while with the guy who can talk to birds, and then they come home again” was not actually a plot.  More like typing practice.)

I wrote a lot through high school, heady days of popping open a laptop and getting 5k-6k words per night.  I was still, you see, in the situation where I didn’t really care whether the words were a plot, I just liked putting them together.

Then came the intention of Getting Serious About This Stuff.  I began selling short stories.  I wrote a Real Novel.

Yes, well, that one is currently trunked, but like all first Real Novels it taught me a lot.  For example, that when you get to 30k words in the first draft, you will panic and think that the book sucks.  (And the idea sucks, and the execution.  You suck as well.)  I thought this on the first Real Novel (which really did have problems).  I thought this on the next couple of books, too, though.  It’s something about that particular spot in the narrative.  I think it has something to do with both the way stories are structured (that’s about the time in the story when stuff should be getting serious), but also with the way that ideas are born.  You can run on spit and inspiration for 30k words.  After that, you’d best have written a roadmap down for yourself.

It’s important that you know the 30k Cliff is coming, if you are a writer.  Real life interferes with writing all the time.  It’s better not to compound the weekend when the kids get the flu, or there is a mysterious leak dripping, or you’ve been slammed at work, or it’s too dang hot, with the looming feeling like you’re not a real writer and you should stop wasting everyone’s time–just because you’re at 30k and it’s haaaard.

Sit down, plot out the next scene, and just keep going.  Maybe the book does have problems.  But you won’t know if you don’t finish it.