I don't know why it possessed me to check Catherine Fisher's website today, but I was curious to know what her next project would be and... and...

I am also thinking seriously about a third Incarceron novel, and have already drafted a synopsis. I once thought I had said all I needed to about this world, but there has been such a constant demand for more about Finn, Claudia, Keiro, Jared and Attia etc that I have been forced to think again. And yes, now that I'm working on it, it's a very exciting prospect. But it all depends on the publishers. As soon as I know anything definite, I will post news here.


I am SO EXCITED now. And also terrified, because I am about 99% sure Fisher doesn't care about Claudia/Jared nearly as much as I do (actually, Catherine Fisher does not appear to care about romances of any kind, period, even on those super-rare occasions when she seems to be trying to write one).

But still, more of these characters and this world would be AMAZING. *hyperventilates*
[personal profile] sartorias aka Sherwood Smith has a fascinating discussion going over on her LJ about when you only like one (or, if they're prolific, two or three) of an author's works and bounce off the rest. So far the responses have mostly been people commisserating and sharing which authors and which books affected them this way, but there's also been some discussion of why this happens.

I don't think there's any one answer to that question myself -- the reasons are as diverse as the individual readers. Sometimes the author undergoes an ideological or philosophical transformation between books (or even just becomes bolder about expressing the views they already had) which leads to a irreconcilable conflict of my thinking and theirs, or pushes my tolerance for those differences over the limit. (See: Philip Pullman.) Sometimes it turns out that the things I loved best about the author's first book -- the style, the tone, the atmosphere -- don't carry over into subsequent novels because they were a feature of that story, not the author's writing as a whole (such as Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which I mentioned in the comments of Sherwood's post). And sometimes I eagerly expect certain things from a series or sequel to a book I really loved, only to find that the author had a completely different plan and veers off in a direction that doesn't interest me at all (I've heard several readers say this about Maria Snyder's Study books, for instance).

Then there's the rarer phenomenon when you love an author's prose but not their poetry (or essays, or what-have-you); or you think them brilliant scriptwriters (or lyricists) but terrible novelists, or the other way around. The ability to put together words in an arrangement that pleases you in one medium doesn't always carry over to others, and that can cause this kind of dissonance as well.

What about you? If you have a much-loved book or books by a certain author but found that most or all of their other works left you cold, what were your reasons for feeling that way? Feel free to comment on either my post or [personal profile] sartorias's as it pleases you; I'll see it in either case.
So this week Naomi Novik's Uprooted won the Nebula Award, and as a result a lot of people are reading it. And the reactions, as they have been pretty much ever since the book came out, are... mixed.

On one hand you have readers (myself among them) who wouldn't go so far as to call the book perfect, but who really loved it and thought it worth recommending to other fantasy lovers. On the other hand, you have people who were so horrified by the book's seemingly dismissive attitude to sexual assault and the hero's lack of respect for the female MC that they either DNF'd the book a few chapters in, or they found the whole experience of reading it to be irrevocably tainted.

Some of those people who disliked (or even hated) Uprooted are my friends, and I am not here to tell them they're wrong to feel that way, or to try and argue them into liking it. But there's a strain in current fictional discourse that's been really bugging me over the past few months, and some of the critiques of Uprooted suffer from it -- the difference between "I didn't love X, and this is why," which is perfectly legitimate and fine (and can even lead to interesting discussions) and "I didn't love X because it's gross and problematic, and if you like X anyway, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU." 

I don't mind hearing that not everybody likes the same things I like. I do very much mind being made to feel that I am a lesser person, indeed a morally inferior one in desperate need of enlightenment, for liking them.

I am not here to defend Novik's choice to have her heroine sexually threatened, because I don't think it was necessary to the plot nor do I think that it added anything to the story. I did notice it, it did bother me, and I would have enjoyed the book a great deal more without that aspect. Nevertheless, it wasn't the dealbreaker for me that it was for some of my friends, and I think I know why.

Because I'm over forty, and I grew up reading different fantasy novels than they did. 


That may sound flippant, but it goes deeper than you might think. In fact, I feel fairly confident in suggesting that the majority of people who loved Uprooted despite its faults are 40+ and/or grew up reading "classic" fantasy novels almost exclusively, while the majority of those who disliked the book enough to DNF or strongly criticize it are 35 or younger, and in their childhood and teens had a much wider, modern pool of fantasy to choose from.

In other words, the twenty and thirtysomething readers didn't grow up having to swallow the occasional bitter pill of sexism or casual racism in order to read books in their genre. They could afford to be picky, and that's why they find it baffling and even upsetting that older fantasy readers don't seem to hold books like Uprooted to the same high standard.

But for me, the habit of overlooking story elements I don't care for in order to enjoy the ones that I do was drilled into me decades ago. When I was a teen reading fantasy novels -- or any kind of novels, for that matter -- it was practically a given that the heroine would be sexually menaced at some point. How else would the villain reveal the true depths of his depravity? What other fate, barring death, could be serious enough to make our hearts flutter anxiously on the heroine's behalf, and make our satisfaction all the greater when the villain was thwarted? And how realistic would it be, really, if the possibility of the heroine being raped was never even acknowledged? You might be able to get away with that in juvenile fantasy, but come on, we're grown-ups here...

I'm not saying this is how it should be or that it's the only way to write a good story, I'm simply stating a fact: this is how it was in 1970's and 80's fantasy (and historical, and crime, and a lot of other genres). You had to be prepared for that, or resign yourself to not reading any fiction at all.

So those of us who grew up reading fantasy learned to adjust our expectations. To see sexual threats or assault as a warning sign (because the way it was handled could often tell you whether the author was indulging a fetish, or merely bowing to what s/he thought were the rules) but not necessarily a dealbreaker. For me, a dealbreaker was having the hero commit rape (I'm looking at you, Lord Foul's Bane) or having the villain rape the heroine on-screen (hello, The Fionavar Tapestry*), whereas having the heroine merely threatened or finding a way to fend off the assault seemed like a positive triumph.

None of this explains, or excuses, why Novik bowed to this particular old-fashioned convention in a decade where sexual assault in fiction can no longer go unquestioned or be easily overlooked. But it does explain why those of us who loved Uprooted were able to do so. Because we weren't surprised to find such an element in a classic-style folklore-inspired fantasy. We could sigh or grimace or roll our eyes as necessary, and then move on.

Furthermore, because Uprooted is so very clearly a tribute to the great female fantasists of the 70's and 80's -- authors like
 Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, and Ursula LeGuin, who made me think not only "I want to write these kinds of stories" the way Lewis and Tolkien and MacDonald had, but "I want to write like this" -- the overwhelming feeling that reading Uprooted produced in me was a deep nostalgic fondness, and a strong sense of faith in Novik's ability as a storyteller. Because if she'd read and loved the same books I loved as a teen, and her writing was giving me the same feeling as reading The Forgotten Beasts of Eld or Beauty or A Wizard of Earthsea, then I could trust her to tell the rest of her story in a way that would make up for the bits I didn't like so much.

And in the end, my belief was that she did.

So yes, my friends who didn't warm to the book immediately as I did, and felt that certain male characters' treatment of Agnieska was too offensive to ignore or forgive -- I understand, and I'm not trying to change your opinion. But I think it's important to understand how the generation gap between younger and older fantasy readers, and the books that most influenced us, play into this.

It's not that we don't see the flaws and the problematic elements, or that we don't care about them. It's that we can see virtues and delights in Novik's novel, many of them based on the older fantasies to which Uprooted is paying tribute, that make us love it anyway. Which is why Uprooted won the Nebula this year, because the people doing the voting are fondly remembering those older novels -- many of them also flawed, but nonetheless deeply resonant and influential -- as well.


--
Oh hey, both those "classic" epic fantasies were written by men! What a surprise! No wonder nearly all my favorite 80's fantasy authors were women.
...and I found an entire box of Virgin and BBC New Adventures and Missing Adventures novels, including some that are fairly rare and look to be going for quite a price on eBay. So I figured, why not post 'em and see who's interested?

Condition-wise, they have been read, some of them multiple times (*cough* COLD FUSION *cough*), and have slightly cracked spines and wear -- the Virgin NA's and MA's in particular. Though on the other hand, my BBC NA's are in excellent condition with little or no wear.

Basically, I rule make me an offer. I'm going to ask you to cover postage to your country, and I reserve the right to accept the highest bid offered on a single title if multiple people show interest in a short period of time, but otherwise, feel free to suggest whatever price you think reasonable. (PayPal only, please.)

Comments are screened. I'll strike through titles as they are sold.

What's on offer... )

Suggestions for anywhere I should cross-post this are welcomed, or feel free to link people to it.
Oh dear, has it really been that long since I updated my journal? Well, at least the time away has been well spent, as I was able to turn in the revised draft of Swift to my UK editor on Friday. So that is Happy-Making Thing #1 at the moment for me.

Here's a little taste of what's to come, from the beginning of Chapter 2:

[Ivy] took a step backward, feeling the dirt crumble beneath her bare feet. All at once she was acutely aware of the hairs standing up on her forearms and the nape of her neck, the boom-boom-boom of her heartbeat, the stench of her own cold sweat. “How--“ Her voice wavered. “How do you know my name?”

The spriggan moved closer, teeth gleaming in the shadows of his hood. “That’s good,” he said. “I didn’t even have to tell you not to scream. I think we’re going to get along very well.”


Hm, maybe that particular excerpt is not very happy-making. But you get the idea. Action! Excitement! Danger! That sort of thing.

***

Thing #2 that fills me with delight at the moment is this video, from singer Kina Grannis:


In Your Arms - Kina Grannis (on YouTube)

As an animation geek, I found the "Making Of" video even more interesting, but it's a sweet song and a lovely bit of stop-motion work.

***

And Thing #3 I've been enjoying of late are the books of Zoë Marriott, a UK-based author I met on Twitter who said some lovely things about my books, which caused me to check out her blog, which led me to the page of her website describing her books, where I found out that said books involved non-white female MCs, interracial romances, disability and mental health issues, high fantasy worlds based on non-Western history and culture, and other things Relevant To My Interests, which led me to leap to Book Depository and order all her books immediately.

And I was not disappointed. I enjoyed Ms. Marriott's most recent book Shadows on the Moon, a loose retelling of Cinderella in a fantasy world based on historical Japan (with a few bits of China and references to a quasi-African country), quite a bit -- she handled some thorny issues in a very interesting way, and created compelling characters that I came to care about a great deal over the course of the book.

But even then I was unprepared for how much I absolutely loved Daughter of the Flames, her second book (yes, I am reading them in reverse order). Seriously, it's like she had a checklist of tropes and ideas that I either adore unconditionally (swords! acrobatics! fire! amazing descriptions of food!), or would like to see handled in a new and interesting way (religion! disability! culture clashes!), and was ticking them off in every chapter. I actually squeaked out loud when I got to page 174 in the UK edition because [classic romance trope redacted] is one of My Favourite Things (right along with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens) and she handled it so very well.

So now I just have The Swan Kingdom, Ms. Marriott's first novel, left to read, but part of me is almost afraid to start into it because once I've read it there will be no more left until her next book comes out...
In yesterday's post we discussed whether or not it's a reasonable expectation that protagonists should always be pushing the plot forward or otherwise taking decisive action in order to justify their place at the center of the book.

There were some interesting suggestions in the comments about how that expectation might have arisen among certain readers, as well as some examples of well-known protags who don't fit the derring-do mold. But I think [livejournal.com profile] megancrewe brought up an especially good point about the crucial difference between a protagonist who is too passive to hold the reader's interest, and one who is believable and sympathetic in spite of not always being proactive:
Even if there isn't anything the MC* can do to change their situation at certain points, I want to know that they want things, and will try to get those things when they can.
I think that sums up the essence of a good protagonist really well. You can have an MC who is too reluctant or self-doubting or depressed to drive the plot forward on their own for a while, but if it's clear to the reader what the MC wants, and as long as there's hope that the MC will take action to get it when they have the chance, then you've still got a story.

It's not that I think those who find quiet or reluctant protagonists frustrating don't have a right to say so. But I do think it's a mistake to take what amounts to a personal preference ("I prefer MCs who are decisive and proactive") and voice it as though it were an objective criticism with which all right-thinking readers should agree ("The MC spends more time reacting to things than she does in making things happen, and that's a fault in the book").

***

Now on to today's Unreasonable Expectation!

2. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

Now, to be fair, I should have said "major development", because I think we all understand that not everything that happens in the book has to be a surprise. What I'm talking about is the expectation that when some significant discovery or revelation occurs in the plot, it has to be set up in such a way that the reader will find it surprising, or the author has failed in her duty -- and I don't think that's always the case.

Don't get me wrong, I love surprises... )

All of which is to say that it may well be hasty and even unfair to criticize a book if you guess a certain "surprise" before the characters do. It may indeed be that you are more perceptive than the author gave you credit for, and that a better author would have handled that aspect more subtly and cleverly so as to surprise you. But it may also be that the author considered it only a minor revelation in relation to the rest of the plot, and wasn't expecting most readers to be surprised by it at all. The real question is, do the characters have good reason to be surprised? Are their reactions believable and satisfying, and do they contribute to the advancement of the plot? If they do, then I'm inclined to give the author a free pass -- even if I feel a little disappointed that they didn't trick me into being surprised as well.

***

But what do you think? Am I right in thinking it unreasonable to expect every twist to be surprising to the reader, or am I setting my own expectations too low?

Or if you agree with most of what I've said, can you think of some other books, movies or TV shows where a particular big revelation wasn't a surprise to you, but you found it satisfying all the same? What about books that do have a genuinely shocking twist -- without spoiling, can you give some examples for those of us who like that kind of thing?

--
* Short for Main Character.

And hey, nobody got my Big Country allusion from yesterday? Probably because I misquoted the first line of the song (it's "This time" and not "Sometimes"). But still, YOU ALL FAIL MISERABLY. (And also, I want that girl's hair, in the video. So pretty.)
I've seen a couple of criticisms cropping up in reviews lately -- not reviews of my own books necessarily, but of some very fine books by other authors. They're often stated somewhat crankily, as though they are universal rules and every author worth her word count ought to know better than to flout them -- but as a matter of fact they are comparatively recent expectations, and not ones that every reader shares or, I think, even needs to.

The criticisms are, as follows:

1. The protagonist must drive the plot at all times;

and

2. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

Today I'm going to tackle the first one.

Now, on the surface, insisting that the protagonist should incite the plot of the book or at least keep pushing it forward sounds like a solid fictional principle. After all, nobody wants a book where nothing happens, and nobody wants to read about a main character who never does anything. If a particular protagonist never grows or changes or becomes stronger or takes decisive action, one may be tempted to wonder why the author bothered to write a book about them at all (and this is certainly a fault which dooms many an unpublished manuscript).

But I am not talking about books so obviously flawed as all that. What puzzles and annoys me is that I've seen the "protagonist isn't doing enough" charge leveled against books which I really don't think deserve it. To use one specific example, I've seen a couple of reviews of Erin Bow's lovely, haunting, utterly unforgettable upper MG / lower YA novel Plain Kate which accuse Kate of not driving the plot enough -- that too many things happen to Kate rather than being initiated by her.

Now to me, this is just mindboggling, because Kate has a quiet strength and determination which is very evident from the beginning of the novel. She is not spineless or soppy or whiny; she suffers greatly and experiences deep sorrows, but she also displays great courage. And if Kate were what these critics seem to want her to be -- a feisty take-charge type who sets off into the world to have a great adventure -- then Plain Kate would be a very different story, and not nearly so emotionally affecting as it is.

Yes, we all enjoy reading about larger-than-life characters who do extraordinary things. But people like that are only a small part of any world's population, and most of us readers aren't like that ourselves. Very few of us get to be constantly in charge of our lives or otherwise making things happen; instead we spend most of our lives reacting to what others do around us, or to us. And when we face obstacles and challenges, we don't all leap at them with drawn swords and hack until the walls come down. Sometimes we run. Sometimes we hide.* Sometimes we're too busy reeling in shock to do anything for a while.

To me, as long as an MC keeps responding to the things that happen to her in a way that I can understand and find at least a little sympathy with, and as long as the plot keeps moving forward to the next situation or circumstance, there's nothing wrong with her not being Miss Spunky Dynamic. In fact I find it easier to care about her and identify with her if she isn't, because that makes her seem more realistic to me.

Of course, at some point in the narrative the protagonist has to take some kind of deliberate action to face their fears or confront the villain or solve the mystery, or they aren't worthy of being the protagonist at all. When a character is completely passive and does nothing but cringe and moan about their hardships without attempting to resolve them in any way, they become contemptible to the reader.

But if the character reacts to a succession of difficulties by trying to make the best of them, or trying to escape them, they are taking action, even if it isn't a big showy action. We aren't all knights of Camelot setting out on quests, after all. Often we're more like Hansel and Gretel, abandoned in the woods and trying to find our way home. And I think we need both kinds of stories -- and both kinds of protagonists -- to remind us of that.

Now, having shot off my own mouth on the subject, I'm interested to know what you folks think. Can you tell me about books you've enjoyed where the MC is more of an observer or reactor than a take-charge type? (I'll give you one: Alice in Wonderland.) Or do you have a different perspective on this subject that I might not have acknowledged here? Let me know in the comments.

And tomorrow I'll tackle #2, about surprising the characters vs. surprising the reader, and whether the two always have to be the same thing.

--
* Sometimes we draw on all the fire we have inside. (And +100 points to anybody who gets that reference WITHOUT googling.)
I don't normally get involved in censorship debates, because more often than not I haven't read the works in question, have no desire to read the works in question (not because I am pre-convinced that they are evil, but because they are based on a premise or deal with subject matter that doesn't interest me), and don't have the time to investigate both sides of the controversy in enough depth to have an intelligent opinion on it.

However. This time, I have read the book in question. Twice in fact, most recently a few months ago. And so I do feel that I can (and should) say:

Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak is not pornography.

And this is why )

I am a conservative evangelical Christian, and I take my faith seriously. I do choose to be selective about what I read, what I allow my children to read, and what I recommend to others. But I also choose to be informed about what a book really contains, and in what context, and with what intent and overall effect on the reader, before I decide whether it is inappropriate or not. And I believe that Speak contains nothing that is inappropriate for its intended teenage audience. I do not believe that it portrays evil as good, or makes immoral behavior enticing.

Speak is not pornography, any more than the Bible is pornography. I believe that individual teens and families who are concerned about Speak's subject matter should be free to choose a different book to study if they wish, but I do not believe that taking Speak out of the hands of all students is a wise or God-honoring choice.
Okay, I have just come across the second book review in as many days which describes how, in the course of the story, a young person involved in an evangelical Christian church is struggling with doubts and goes to their pastor, a parent, or other trusted authority figure for advice. And what they are told, in both these books, is "Don't question, don't think, just pray and believe."

To which I say, what?

Now, to be fair, I'm sure this does actually happen in real life at times. I'm sure there are places where people are that ignorant, or that lacking in confidence about the integrity of their beliefs, that honest questions and doubts frighten them and they try to silence the questioner as soon as possible. So I'm not saying this scenario is implausible, as such.

That being said, I have spent my whole life attending conservative evangelical Christian churches, and I have NEVER heard anyone say anything like this. Not from the pulpit, not in small Bible studies, not in personal conversation. What I've always heard instead is that the Christian faith is reasonable and that there is good evidence for believing it, and that people who are struggling with doubts and questions need more information, not less.

Usually this is what happens... )

When John the Baptist was in prison and began to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah (and the gospels tell us quite clearly that he did), Jesus didn't say, "Tell John I'm disappointed in him for his lack of faith." He didn't even say, "Tell John to remember what he saw with his own eyes when he baptized Me -- how the Spirit of God came down from heaven like a dove and the Father Himself declared that He was well pleased with Me." Instead, He performed a number of new miracles in the sight of John's disciples, and he said, "Go back and tell John what you have just seen -- how I have healed these people before your eyes. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

And then, instead of launching into a sermon on the evils of doubt using John as an example, Jesus turned to the crowds and began to talk about how great a prophet John was. He did not say one word of reproach against John for struggling with doubt. Instead, He gave John the encouragement -- and evidence -- that he needed to regain his confidence and hope.

That is a Biblical, Christian response to doubt.

Of course, if your whole point is to write a book about how Christianity is weak and unsatisfying and poisonous to the intellect, and how much happier you will be if you abandon it in favor of some other belief (because goodness knows people of other religions and philosophies never ever struggle with doubt or dissatisfaction about those beliefs, and it's not like self-questioning and uncertainty is endemic to mankind or anything) then I guess there's not going to be much room in the book to include things like counseling and apologetics, or any Christian characters who actually possess some degree of intellect, education and integrity.

But if you write a book like that, then I reserve the right to roll my eyes at your bigotry and walk away.
I was reading a MG fantasy novel last weekend which I quite enjoyed. It had nice solid worldbuilding, a dynamic and resourceful MC, an interesting cast of supporting characters, and the stakes and dangers were high enough to keep the tension going. I was quite impressed with it overall, and became even more so when a new character appeared on the scene who had a disability and used a wheelchair.

Huzzah, I thought to myself. Well done, author! This lady is attractive, likable, vibrant, talented, holds a position of authority and respect, and even turns out to be the love interest of my favorite supporting character in the book! I look forward to getting to know her and seeing more of the two of them together, and watching this romance continue to develop.

Except.

And this is where things started to go downhill... )

Please, let's stop writing characters with disabilities as though they're all doomed to suffer nobly and die tragically, unable to marry or have families. That's what Madeline L'Engle did with the character of Matthew Maddox in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and though I greatly respect L'Engle as an author, it angered and frustrated me that she would treat my favorite character in the whole book that way.

Let's also stop using disability as a metaphor for ugliness and deformity of spirit -- I could write a whole rant about the handling of Dean Priest in L.M. Montgomery's Emily books, but of course there are even more obvious ones like Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

Let's stop "rewarding" protagonists who have disabilities by having them magically cured once their quest is achieved* -- thus sending the message that those who have not experienced such a magical cure are inferior and unworthy, or have not yet experienced some needed epiphany in life. Kitkryan's post Dear Author, Please Don't Heal Me shows the response of one reader with a disability to a recent and popular YA novel in which a magical healing takes place, and it makes this point far better than I could.

And let's also try to steer our way between the Scylla of the angry, bitter person with a disability who has to be helped out of it by someone who is not disabled** and the Charybdis of the saintly, sunny person with a disability who acts as an Inspiration To Us All.

There are of course some wonderful exceptions out there -- characters with disabilities who learn to work with and around them to accomplish meaningful things; who experience natural disappointment, grief and even depression over their disability at times but manage to get past it without turning into marble saints; who love and are loved (romantically and sexually, even!); who play sports and drive vehicles and fight for accessibility and do all the things that real people with disabilities do every day. But there need to be more such characters.

And there need to be a lot fewer characters like the one I encountered in the book I read this weekend, who seem to exist only as props to be used to arouse the reader's and their fellow characters' pity before being tossed away.

***

I welcome your comments on this subject, especially from readers with experience of disability. I'd be particularly interested to hear what books you've read that contained good, well-rounded, interesting, dynamic portrayals of characters with disabilities. Tell me a little about the characters involved, and let me know why they are great!


--
* I have made this careless mistake myself, in a fanfic where I allowed my heroine to be (magically) cured of her (magically induced) blindness. I regret it, and would write those stories differently now.

** I've done this too to some extent in Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter, though I hope that it does not come across quite as one-sided and obnoxious as that. And I hope that future developments with that character also helped to mitigate it. But I am willing to be called out and corrected on this point by those with personal experience of disability, and to learn to do better in future.
BOOKISH SHINY

If you like your secondary-world fantasy with a healthy dollop of intrigue, wit, danger, and understated but powerful romance, you should all go read Leah Cypess's Mistwood (HarperTeen, April 2010), which I just finished and enjoyed enormously. Steph Su has a very good review of the book here, though I'd disagree with Steph's comment about the secondary characters -- I had no trouble telling them apart, myself.

And Leah tells me she is working on revisions to the companion novel as we speak! Yay, companion novel!

***

TV SHINY

In the DO WANT category: J.J. Abrams' new show Undercover, about a married couple who are spies. From the guy who wrote Jack and Irina? This HAS to be good. Seriously, look at this picture. I am gleeful and optimistic.

Also, check out this lovely, exuberant, heart-warming Doctor Who S5 vid from [livejournal.com profile] humansrsuperior: Brand New Day. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] infiniteviking for the tip.

***

WRITING SHINY

I'm mostly preaching to the choir here, I'm sure, but still -- [livejournal.com profile] taraljc has reposted a terrific essay about the effort that goes into writing quality fan fiction, and how it isn't always easy -- or even desirable -- to just file off the serial numbers.

***

And that will be all, because I'm feeling curiously dizzy all of a sudden. *blinks*
Today has been a brilliant day, I have to tell you. Being Canadian, I had my Thanksgiving over a month ago, but it might as well have been a holiday around here considering how much goodness has come my way in the last twelve hours.

First, I spent a lovely few hours at the house of a dear RL friend. Then I came home to find that my mother had been baking Saffron Cake in preparation for Christmas, and had left a warm golden loaf of it sitting on my counter. *inhales sentimentally* Ahh.

I was just making tea and preparing to sit down with a slice of saffrony goodness when the doorbell rang and there was the DHL lady with a package from HarperCollins, containing -- oh glory -- the ARC of A Conspiracy of Kings, the latest book by one of my very favorite authors, Megan Whalen Turner.

What can I say about Ms. Turner's Thief series that has not been said already, and better, by more seasoned reviewers than myself? Check out the glowing endorsements from Bookshelves of Doom, A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, and Angieville, among others (but ware spoilers on those last two links). These books are, quite simply, superb.

I am happy to say that A Conspiracy of Kings, the latest in the series, absolutely lives up to the promise of the earlier books. I felt confident that it would be a good story, but it even exceeded my wildest expectations of just how good it would be.

No worries, I am not going to spoil this book in my review. I would sooner cut off my hand* than spoil it for anyone. I will tell you no more about its basic premise than you can find in the HarperCollins catalog:
Sophos, heir to Sounis, doesn’t look like much of a prince. At least, according to those in power. At least, to those who do not know him or the size of his heart and the depth of his courage, loyalty, and love. But Helen, Queen of Eddis, knows him, and so does Gen, the queen’s Thief, who is now King of Attolia. Gen and the queen believe that Sophos is dead. But they also believe in hope, especially since a body was never found. So when Sophos is discovered in Attolia, the obvious question becomes: where has he been all this time?
I will say, however, that this summary is slightly misleading. There's so much more to the book than just the question of What Has Sophos Been Up To, gloriously so. There's the usual rich background, diverse cast of characters, byzantine political machinations (but they never get boring, and from someone as infamously apolitical as myself, that's saying something), flashes of wry humor, and unexpected wrenches at the heart. It's subtle and clever and outrageous and surprising and touching and thought-provoking, and all the things I've come to expect from Ms. Turner's writing -- plus some.

And it made me love Sophos -- who never really made it onto my radar in The Thief, being so eclipsed in that book by the irrepressible Gen -- more than I ever imagined possible.

I can't wait until April when everybody else can read this book, so I can discuss it with people like the good folk on [livejournal.com profile] sounis, whom I can confidently say are going to love A Conspiracy of Kings as much as I do -- or more. I don't want to overhype it (oh yeah, like I haven't already) to people who haven't read the series, because I am sure there will be readers out there (as with any book however brilliant) who don't connect to the story and the characters the way that I do. But I do feel confident in saying that if you have read the earlier books and are already a fan, A Conspiracy of Kings will definitely not let you down.

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner will be released on March 23, 2010.**

--
* Sorry. That was bad, I know.
** ON MY BIRTHDAY EVEN. HOW AWESOME IS THAT.
I just finished Adam Rex's novel The True Meaning of Smekday and I loved it SO MUCH I can hardly find words to tell you.

Well, okay, maybe I can )

You can find out more about the book at the Smekday site, which includes an excerpt from the text, among many other entertaining things... like Gratuity and J.Lo in comic form giving you 10 reasons you should read the book. (If you pay attention to no other part of this review, at least check out that last link!)

***

Another book I have been meaning to talk about for days now is Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon. Now, this is a book I would normally have bypassed due to its having the word "demon" in the title, because I am really not keen on fantasy that involves the occult. However, since I have come to know and appreciate the delightfully witty and talented Ms. Sarah through chatting with her on the [livejournal.com profile] debut2009 community, and had read a few excerpts from the book that made me positively salivate with eagerness to find out more, I resolved to give the story a chance and find out how the titular demons were handled.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried, because I loved it )

Check out the first chapter on Sarah's site for a taste of her lyrical, witty writing, or visit her Livejournal at [livejournal.com profile] sarahtales to enjoy her hilarious posts about her life as an author.

***

And now, since I seem to be recommending books in reverse order from when I actually read them -- [livejournal.com profile] lisamantchev's Eyes Like Stars is finally out and I can't wait to buy my own hardcover copy!

Here's why )

Check out an excerpt from the book if you want to know more, or find it at a bookseller near you.
usvuk



Come escape with us - and win all seven of our books! A US prize pack that features all 7 with our US covers, or the UK prize pack that features all 7 of our books with our UK covers when available! Enter once, win twice because we’re giving away secret surprise prizes too! But enter by midnight EST tonight, because at 12:01, it will be all gone! Escape with the 7!

ss05 ts05 fht05 frsh05 wings05 db05 tdl05


All content shamelessly poached from [livejournal.com profile] anywherebeyond, because I'm lazy like that this morning.

There's been a lot of talk lately about authors behaving badly in response to negative reviews -- in some cases really, really badly. And having had some past experience with less-than-stellar reviews of my work, I can understand the disappointment and frustration that the authors involved were feeling when they allowed their emotions to get the better of their judgment. Nobody likes to be told that the book of their heart, the one they put months or years of effort into creating, has fallen short of excellence -- even if it's only in one critic's opinion.

On the other hand, I've often heard it said by wise and experienced folk that book reviews are written for readers, not for writers -- so in a sense people like Ms. Hoffman and Mr. de Botton are eavesdropping on a conversation that was never intended to include them, and shouldn't be surprised when they don't like everything they hear. I know many authors who deliberately avoid reading any reviews of their work whatsoever (meaning reviews written after the book is published, when it's too late to change it anyway), for this very reason.

Mind you, I am still a publishing n00b myself, and therefore unable to resist reading every review of my book that crosses my path. So if I get a bad review, it's my business to deal with it -- privately that is, without swearing vengeance on the reviewer and their descendants unto the third and fourth generation. (Though it can be tempting.)

Fortunately, I've noticed something about the reviews I've received so far that makes me a lot more relaxed and philosophical about getting the occasional bad one.

"There are too few faeries introduced to us in the book -- it would have been nice to meet some more of them," said one of my early reviewers, and I felt a little sad about all the incidental characters who vanished in revisions. But then, a few days later, I came across another reader lamenting, "There are too many faeries mentioned in the book and I couldn't keep track of them all."

"This book has far much romance for its intended audience!" complained another reviewer on GoodReads. And then, a couple of months down the line, a young reader complained "This book is not a romance AT ALL."

"The antagonist needs more villainy," mused one respectable critic, but then a commenter elsewhere said, "The antagonist's villainy made me so furious I could hardly get through the book."

A review which stated, "The story was muddled and confusing, I couldn't follow it" was followed almost immediately by another saying, "The plot was too plainly spelled out, I would have liked to figure some things out for myself."

Oh, well, okay then.

Of course, there are times when multiple reviewers (or worse, nearly all the reviewers) agree that a particular aspect of the book or story is weak. In which case I think it's the author's duty to swallow their pride, make a note of this particular fault in their writing, and try to do better in future... but in my experience of reading and writing book reviews, this happens a lot less often than one might think.

Anyway, all this has made one thing very clear to me: there is no point in getting upset over one bad review, or even a whole bunch of bad reviews, because every reader brings different tastes and expectations to a book, and it's impossible to please everyone. The best thing I can do when I'm disappointed by a particular review is to remember that I don't love every book I read either, and that some of the books I love best have been heavily criticized by others, and try to move on.
I dashed downtown to my beloved indie children's bookseller to pick up my special order this morning, and am now the proud owner of:


Then I went to the library, because I woke up with all sorts of new ideas scrambling around in my head for Touching Indigo (the aforementioned WiP) and decided it was time to knuckle down and get serious with my research instead of having the vapors over it. I hate research, because I am so inefficient at it and I worry constantly that something I find out will kill my book stone-dead, and yet I also can't bear to just make stuff up when there are legitimate facts to be had. So these are the books currently piled on my desk:

  • The Day the Voices Stopped: A Memoir of Madness and Hope by Ken Steele and Claire Berman
  • Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison
  • Straight Talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Kay Marie Porterfield
  • From Crime to Punishment: 6th Edition by Joel E. Pink and David C. Perrier
  • No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times by Dorothy Rabinowitz
  • Youth Injustice: Canadian Perspectives Edited by Thomas O'Reilly-Fleming and Barry Clark
  • Youth in Conflict with the Law by Paul Maxim and Paul Whitehead

So that will tell you a few more things about the plot of Touching Indigo... and also why this book has been giving me hairy conniptions for over two years. SO MUCH STUFF TO GET WRONG OMG.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go Write Stuff.
Recent discussions and debates generated by RaceFail '09 and its most recent iteration of Mammothfail have got me thinking a lot about my own mistakes and carelessness when it comes to trying to understand, and be responsible about, issues of race (as an author of fantasy and science fiction, that is).

I want to be careful about writing this post because it's easy to get derailed into "Why you should feel sorry for me because I'm white and dealing with racial issues is so haaaard" or "So this is why you people of color need to cut us white folks more slack," both of which are, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. Nor is this post about me patting myself on the back for not being like Those Other White People Who Don't Get It, because even now I am one of those White People Who Don't Get It and to some extent always will be.

What I mean by that is, I frankly have no idea what it's like to be discriminated against, patronized, and thoughtlessly left out or even downright negated on account of my skin color and cultural background. I can try to imagine what that would feel like, but imagination is all I've got – with all the errors and omissions that kind of guesswork inevitably implies. I still have a lot of reading and thinking and most importantly listening to do before I can even begin to appreciate where all my blind spots and thoughtless prejudices are, let alone how to address them and make them right.

So I will just say this.

My thoughts on THIRTEENTH CHILD, authorial decisions, inclusiveness, and writing race )

I am no expert on racial issues, as many people who know me could tell you. I've only recently started thinking seriously about these things, and I've said stupid things in the past, and my first novel is full of whiter-than-white characters. I am in no way trying to set myself up as an authority here: that's not what this post is about.

But I am grateful to the fans of color who have spoken out about their reading experiences and the problems they've seen in the F&SF books they love, and called out us privileged white authors on our careless bigotry, and challenged us to be mindful of what we're doing, and listen to other voices besides our own, and apologize when we've screwed up, and resolve to do better in future (or at least not make the same mistake twice).

It's a challenge we authors have been given, and a humbling one. But it's a challenge I want to rise to, and I am trying to do so, one small (perhaps too small, but still better than nothing, I hope) step at a time. And I know other white authors who've followed RaceFail '09 and felt similarly challenged to include more racial and cultural diversity in their writing, as well as reading more books by authors of color and including more fans of color on their friends list. So even though the debate was very painful and frustrating for many of the people involved, good things have come out of it as well.

I hope the same can be said of Mammothfail, in the end.

--
* I did wonder a little whether those characters might fall into the "magical negro" category (not so much by virtue of them being literally magical, because that seemed to me a positive thing, but because they are both involved in educating and advising the white heroine as their primary function in the narrative). I am still undecided on this point, but anyway they're two of my favorite characters in the book.

** Though not so much the apparent belief that those were the only two options.
Janet Ursel, a fellow fantasy author who was kind enough to accompany me to my first school visit in Ottawa last week, posted this on her blog and it is well worth watching -- if for no other reason than to find out how a book gets put together. But really, the idea of books-on-demand is simultaneously thrilling and harrowing, don't you think? Behold, the Espresso Book Machine:



And here's a couple of pictures of me talking to the crowd at that school visit -- 200 kids at Knoxdale Public School, on April 27th:

Under Me )

When I looked at these photos my first thought was, "Wow, that's a lot of kids," and the second was, "Man, I have really terrible posture." Do they still have those charm schools where you learn to balance a book on your head?
HOW DID I MISS THAT LAURIE R. KING'S LATEST MARY RUSSELL BOOK DEBUTED THE SAME DAY AS MINE?!

THAT IS SO AWESOME.

(The Language of Bees, people. Holmes! Russell! Go buy it!)

And now I am furious for myself for not getting a copy when I was in the bookshop just a few hours ago. Must amend that very soon.
Tags:
I'm still alive! I'm feeling quite happy! I think I'll take a walk!

Seriously, though, I am still working hard on revisions, but you can find me as today's guest blogger over at Booklover Carol:

R.J. Anderson on "Writers as Readers"

Feel free to drop by and leave your thoughts about books that have influenced you in the comments!

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