Monday Miscellany June 24

The chaos continues. I just have to accept that this is the new normal, trying to fit too many things into too few hours.

On the bright side, one of the “too many things” is having the painters in to finally paint over the appalling, flat brown surface that is the entirety of my living room. It’s one of those awkwardly tall rooms (with no real reason) that means while I generally love painting, I can not do it myself. It requires a 25 foot ladder. So it’s been years and years and years of gloom and doom and light-suck–just the thing for someone with SAD. But now it’s a nice, clear white and I spent a few minutes last night trying to figure out which light I’d left on before realizing, no, this is just the way it is now. I can see! Awesome.

Also the sinus infection is on its way out, so there’s that!

We’ve had weird amounts of rain and storms here, so while the sodden ground is getting to me—so much mud on the dogs’ paws!—the city itself is absolutely reaching gorgeous. Everything is green and growing and blooming! There are places where all the dark-boled trees are suddenly crawling with pale green mosses, and it’s all just very fairy-tale pretty. Still, I could do without having to retrieve the potted tomato plant from the bottom of the yard where it keeps washing up, or the random flash floods that make part of the city impassible.

Read a few books that were kind of unsatisfactory for one reason or another, so that’s been a bust this week. Nothing to recommend: though I did sample the new Max Gladstone and found it really fun. I look forward to actually getting the time to read that.

No TV this week; no new music. Just been too busy to sit down without immediately falling asleep.

I’m re-re-revising (god damn it) the fantasy novel. It gets better with each pass, but sometimes you just want it to be done. And I’ve been working the outline for the second urban fantasy book about monster-hunters. Have a tiny introductory snippet!

Dillon Jack hadn’t led a life that made him respectful of rules, laws, or social mores. Mostly those seemed designed to pin you in place, which made you easy prey for the hungry world.
But rules of survival… those were different. Those kind of rules were useful. Following those meant he’d made the Decaders’ Club when so many other hunters hadn’t.
Don’t hunt alone.
The kinds of things he hunted could hunt back.
Don’t hunt angry.
Angry made you quick to act, which wasn’t a bad thing, unless quick to act was mixed with slow to think.
Always have a back-up plan.
Tonight, he was 0 for 3.

 

Monday Miscellany June 24

Monday Miscellany June 17

What am I up to?  Some day I’ll get to answer that question with a wicked chortle and a carefully choreographed hand-rubbing, but… mostly it’s the same old same old.

I did finish the quick & dirty revision of my novel about monster-hunters marauding through America (you can say Supernatural-inspired, I make no bones about it; just don’t expect me to use any of those characters, or really much of the world-building) and sent that off to my long-suffering agent.

I’m taking a week away from writing for Reasons—mostly just chaos and a full workload. Not to mention the Sinuses of DOOOM, Jesus this summer has barely started and I’d like to breathe again, please.

I read a couple books this week, DNF’d a few others. I don’t have anything awesome to recommend to you, but maybe next week! There are all sorts of (potentially) delicious book goodies coming out this month including Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter (I’m a sucker for Sherlockiana), Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever, and Danielle Vega’s The Haunted (because who doesn’t like a good ghost story?) Plus I have my eye on a weird sounding novel called Bunny by Mona Awad.

I’ve been listening to a lot of reggaeton-inspired pop. I like it! J Balvin and Maluma and all the collaborations. Really like “Con Altura” and “Familiar”. “Familiar” sounds a lot like a Ricky Martin song and yeah, I liked his songs too, back in the day.

And weirdly delightful: the batshit crazy cover/remake of “Head like a Hole” as “On a Roll“.

I’m mostly through the fourth season of Lucifer and I’m see-sawing on whether or not I think Eve is an interesting character. I love that she left heaven for excitement and thrills, less enamored of the fact that her entire existence on earth seems to hinge on Lucifer. While I like that this drives her to make violent choices, I’m still bored by it. You can only watch someone making bad choices for so long.

I tried to watch Ralph Wrecks the Internet, but found it weirdly cringe-inducing and gave up. Ralph is a big man baby and I don’t feel sorry for him. Plus, a lot of the stuff I think that I was supposed to find funny just didn’t land with me.

 

So now I’m watching Black Spot, which is hitting the same “ooooh” spot that Happy Town did. I’m hoping this one has more of an ending. As per usual, I spend a lot of my time staring at a dark screen wondering what I was supposed to see there. What shadow? Where? ARGH.  I also have deep doubts about the translations, but since I don’t speak French, what else can I do?

Monday Miscellany June 17

Monday Miscellany

Things have been chaotic here: day job, writing job, regular life and a family member in and out of the hospital  (let’s all promise not to get old, yeah?), so I’ve been finding my entertainment where I can.

I’ve been listening a lot to Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go.  I like the way she’s cribbing from older songs and making new things out of them.  She’s definitely a singer with a personality that’s larger than life.  I am officially a wuss though: I find the videos to her songs deeply disturbing.

Oh well, it’s the music that counts!

I’m particularly fond of “you should see me in a crown”, which resonates really well with my character Silene.

Note: should you go check Billie Eilish out on youtube, be aware all of her videos are triggery in one way or another: strobing lights and scary doctors, spiders crawling on people, and so forth.

I watched season 4 of Legends of Tomorrow.  This season didn’t quite rise to Beebo heights, but was often fun.  Which is all I want from Legends. I was concerned at first, because as much as I enjoy Matt Ryan’s Constantine, the idea of sidelining Nate upset me.  I love Nate! I like that he’s a good guy with a good heart who wants to be friendly and isn’t chock full of toxic alpha maleness. I love his friendship with Ray.  And splitting them up so Constantine could be snarky and all damaged…  been there, seen that.  A lot.

I wasn’t sure if it would work. In the end, though most of the season was actually about Nate.  I didn’t love that we lost Zari, but that’s the plus of having a lot of women in important roles: I don’t get all bristly about the fact that one vanishes.

Things I’ve been failing hard at: cooking and baking!  Oh my god, I tried to make cookies and first I forgot where I was when counting out cups of sugar, then I forgot the baking soda completely.  (The cookies came out all right, but I didn’t enjoy them much, knowing I’d made them ‘wrong’: Butterscotch oatmeal for those of you who want to imagine my failure.)

And cooking–apparently you can screw up spaghetti with meat sauce.  It wasn’t even an interesting failure. Once upon a time, while deep in writer brain, I absent-mindedly threw a whole slug of dried oregano into my spaghetti sauce, only to realize after I’d stirred it in that the herb was actually catnip.  Still edible, even if weirdly floral. But this spaghetti was both bland and over salty. Fail!

Cooking and baking is always a good barometer of my brain power.  When I start screwing the basics up, it’s time to stop, relax, and really focus on what is going on in the moment.  Never my strong suit. So it’s kind of nice to have that harmless reminder of too-salty spaghetti and fail cookies.

Next week, I hope to get caught up on my podcasts, and maybe start Lucifer season 4.

Monday Miscellany

Book Review: The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed

Short take: I loved this novella.

Longer take with some small spoilery bits: Despite a rough, muddled blurb and a weird self-deprecating note from the author where she calls her story “drivel*” I bought this ebook.  You have to love samples for that!  The novella was mentioned as a good one on twitter by an author I like and follow, so I figured it was worth sampling.  By the description of the funeral, I was sold.

This is a quiet, heartfelt story about a soldier returning from a war to an alternate Great Britain.  He’s shell-shocked, full of survivor’s guilt, and stymied rage.  As well as haunted by the ghost of his young, disgraced commanding officer who nearly got them all killed.

I do a lot of critiquing, and there are some things I’ve learned that are super hard to do well.  Or at all.  One of them is having a protagonist who is depressed to the point of numbness and apathy.  After all, I tell people over and over, if your character can’t manage to cope, how can we?  It’s hard to just watch a character endure personal suffering without the agency to end it.

Mohamed does this so well.  So amazingly well.  There’s never a doubt in my head that he’s shut down and not coping, just going with the flow because it’s so much easier than trying to express any of the jumble that is his head.  But at the same time, he is utterly compelling.  Why?  Because although his body and brain seem nearly separate from each other, we can see behind the heavy, smothering curtain of his grief and fear and rage to the incisive, observant brain beneath.  Because he has flickers when he’s nearly the man his friends remember him being.  And because Mohamed piles the small obstacles up and up until Braddock finds a scrap of his agency and uses it.

I love the characterization here.  Everyone rings true for this society.  We get such a wonderful look at Braddock, and an equally good one at his friends–a delightful married couple who are supportive and no-nonsense–and Wickersley’s ghost.  We see a lot of society characters, and they’re almost imaginary people–not because Mohamed doesn’t draw them well and distinctly, but because Braddock’s life and experiences are so far from theirs that they might as well be aliens.

There aren’t a lot of significant surprises here.  It’s fairly evident early on what Braddock’s relationship with Wickersley was, but that doesn’t mean watching the secrets unfold on the page isn’t satisfying.

One of the other things that I’m constantly telling people is “use the right details”.  The awesome Kij Johnson gave us (at the CSSF novel writer’s workshop) a speech about setting that changed the way I looked at writing.  Setting is about the character as much as it is about the world around them.  Different characters see different things, have a different perspective.  And that’s all in the details.  You can describe a room from top to bottom but if your character doesn’t care about wallpaper and furnishings, it’s not going to ring true.  Here, all the details that Braddock notices and conveys to the reader feel exactly like the type of thing he would notice.  It’s elegant.

The ending felt ambiguous to me, because this is one of those fantasy novellas that is light on the actual fantasy.  It’s an alternate England.  And there’s a single ghost that only Braddock sees.  And his friends, when hesitantly questioned on the matter of ghosts, are non-believers.  So it’s a fantasy world without magic.  Which then makes me wonder how real is the ghost and how much of it is Braddock’s mind turning against him.  But it’s a pleasant ambiguity, the kind you can argue over with your friends: is the top spinning still, or falling? Is Dom dreaming still, or waking?

All in all, a really enjoyable novella.

*(Jesus, people, don’t do that, it makes me SO ANGRY.  Seriously, the world is full of enough people who will LEAP to tell you that you suck at anything you do.  Why preemptively do it for them?  If you wrote something that you love, and you publish it, don’t undercut it!  More sputtered swearing follows.)

 

 

Book Review: The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed

Book Sale!

Malsmall

So this happened, which is wonderful.  Maledicte, my first novel, is on sale today in ebook form!  If you like murderous, genderfluid anti-heroes, dark gods, betrayal, and courtly politics, come take a look!

And hey, Maledicte even has its own TV Tropes page!  (Which cracks me up, seeing all the tropes laid out like that.)

The cover art still blows me away with how gorgeous it is.  David Stevenson hit it out of the park with this one.  It’s lush.

 

Book Sale!

March Miscellany

It’s Spring-ish here in KS, which basically translates to Season of Mud.  You can’t go outside without regretting it.  Cold, breezy, drizzly, slimy… oh god, so much mud.  And my part of Kansas is formed primarily of clay.  Which means it’s clingy AF and you know what?  It doesn’t smell too pleasant.  It’s just disheartening.  But at least it’s not ice.  At some point, I will have to brave the mudpit backyard and Do Something about it.  But for now, I’ve been mopping mopping mopping the floors and looking for inside entertainments.

I went to see Captain Marvel.  For me, it was like a slightly better Thor.  The space fantasy and the earth scenes meshed better, but had the same sort of “serious business” in space, and “banter and adventure” on earth.  Apparently, space is somber.  The one thing that Captain Marvel did really well for me was the ending fight segment.  Usually, no matter how engaged I am in the movie, the third act of superhero movies gives me CGI battle boredom.  Maybe because this climactic battle had multiple moving parts and shifting stakes, it just really kept my attention.  And on a shallow note, Carol’s powers were just so pretty!

Related, since Avengers: Endgame is coming out soon, I figured I might as well sit my butt down and finish watching the interminable slog known as Infinity War.  Seriously.  I got through it, but I can’t think of a movie less designed to suit my taste.  You’re going to give me all these super competent people and just show them losing from scene 1 onward in increasingly tedious ways?  I like a good tragedy, but this was just…. grinding misery involving characters I really have grown to care for.  But I’ll be there to watch Endgame.

Books!

Between the library, kindle, and the actual facts bookstore, I read a slew of entertaining books this month.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson.  First book in a YA mystery series with the big whodunit lingering undefined at the end, but instead of annoying me, it just made me eager to get the next one in the series.  Stevie Bell, the narrator, has a great “voice” that just makes it so easy to keep reading.

 

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand.  Another YA, this one horror.  It’s a strange book that I’m still picking apart.  Not so much for the events–it’s pretty straight-forward horror–but for the truly peculiar tone the story takes.  It’s like a mash-up of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Madeleine L’Engle.  Oh and Lovecraft.  It’s reaching for cosmic truths and finding cosmic horror and it’s also about monster-killing girls. I don’t know.  It was uneven, but really interesting.

Watcher in the Woods by Kelley Armstrong.  Book 4 in the Rockton series and not a standalone since it not only builds on the first three books, but begins as a direct result of the showdown in the last book.  I enjoyed this one a lot.  I didn’t like book 3–This Fallen Prey–very much, so I dithered on whether to buy this or not.  But I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket and it turned out to be a really good entry.  Come to Rockton for the characters, stay for the weird conspiracies and the violent crimes.

 

Nightchaser by Amanda Bouchet.  I’m not sure where I first saw this recommended, but science fiction adventure romance!  Whoot!  This was a lot of fun, if a little overstuffed at the end.  I can bring up the specter of Firefly here, and say, hey this book would be fun for fans of Firefly and it would probably be true.

 

Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews.  Book ten! TEN! of the Kate Daniels series and the final one.  There’s so much story that gets built up over that many books that the final book was going to have a hard slog of wrapping things up, much less dealing with ten books worth of fan favorite characters.  Not only did Kate have to deal with her father once and for all, but oh wait, there’s an entire new army of evil to defeat.  It wasn’t my favorite of the series–felt a little cluttered and rushed–but truthfully, any Ilona Andrews book will provide an enjoyable read.  I’m really looking forward to whatever they do next.

 

 

 

March Miscellany

Book Review: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

VigilanceRJBVigilance
Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor
190 pages

Why I Chose it:
C’mon.  Robert Jackson Bennett is an autoread for me, and this particular book? As writers, a lot of us struggle with terrible public events, feeling like we should be able to put words on the page to expose the awful truth of things. But most of us just flail in that direction. So when I heard that RJB had written a satirical SF novel about America’s obsession with–and enabling of–mass public shootings, I picked it up.

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it.  Satire is as often bitter as the truths it exposes.

The Premise:
Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance is a dark science fiction action parable from an America that has permanently surrendered to gun violence.

The United States. 2030. John McDean executive produces “Vigilance,” a reality game show designed to make sure American citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats. Shooters are introduced into a “game environment,” and the survivors get a cash prize.

The TV audience is not the only one that’s watching though, and McDean soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Discussion:
I’m going to avoid spoilers for most of this review, but really there are no surprises here.

The blurb tells us right away that McDean will suffer the same fate as his “contestants”. There are some fiddly little twists, but overall, this book provides what you expect.

And that was… weirdly disappointing.

The book is compulsively readable.  RJB is great at stringing words together and creating vivid characters, even in the shorter form of the novella.

That said, I expected more somehow.  More of an edge. Something more potent than just the USA turning public shootings into a patriotic-tinged game show, which… I’ve seen before and before and before.  So many story-lines go back to the bread and circuses of the Romans–death for sport. It’s not enough to really make me sit back and think. I’ve seen variations on it in Star Trek and Doctor Who and any show that ever declares “fight club to the DEATH!!!”.  It’s trope is what I’m saying. And kind of a tired one to hinge the entire novella on.

(Now if someone wanted to write a satirical novel about the NFL and CTE, that would be interesting, and RJB touches on it a bit here.)

The big problem for me is that I expect a certain level of horror/shock or appalled laughter from my satires—like I did in reading Swift’s A Modest Proposal or Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens.

Or Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, which gave me this:

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.

This is giggle-worthy writing, bleakly true, and best of all, relatable.

In Vigilance, I got that sting only once in the entire book.

McDean’s guts flutter unpleasantly. He does not want to piss off Kruse—but he can’t share the man’s blithe confidence when it comes to subjecting his entire audience to a subliminal AI about which he knows fucking nothing at all. He’s heard Kruse’s people conduct tests on prisoners, and the thought horrifies him: prisoners don’t share the same race and economic backgrounds of any of his primary demographics at all. The population’s all wrong! If that’s his sample, then it’s skewed, utterly fucked! This could decimate his TMAs.
p 69

TMA- Target Market Activations, by the way if you, like me, are not up on marketing terms.

This point stung and resonated, twisted the common expectations of McDean’s horror in an effective way.  We’re poised, after the thought horrifies him, for human rights violations, not poor demographic matches.

McDean is our primary voice, though there is a secondary POV from Delyna, the “Regular girl” who (rightfully) loathes Vigilance. But then, she’s not his target audience at all, being neither white, nor male, nor constantly afraid. She’s feels only tangentially there–much like the comforting commercials McDean airs between scenes of Vigilance–to soothe the reader and keep them turning the pages instead of turning away.

But in the end, Bennett uses Delyna’s POV in a wonderful (horrible) way to make his primary point.

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

The “Vigilance” TV-watching portion of the USA descends into gun-fueled chaos courtesy of the subliminal AI mentioned above.  Chaos and bloodshed everywhere. Everyone turning on everyone else, guns ablazing like any old Western movie. Not a surprise.  We’ve seen the writing on the wall from page one.

Then there are the customers in Delyna’s bar, and what happens when she dares to turn off the TV in the middle of the episode.

Her patrons don’t fall prey to that subliminal AI because she shut the TV down before the AI started its work; their minds are still their own.   And yet… and yet… they still erupt in violence. Because, as Bennett suggests on every page, once you have a gun in your hand and fear in your heart, there’s no backing down.

So even though Bennett put a third party player on the page, he doesn’t let it absolve the citizens from their murderous, destructive spree.  See, Bennett suggests, they (we) would have erupted eventually anyway.

That’s a powerful statement, and sadly, one that lacks an easy rebuttal.

Overall:
I’m glad I read Vigilance. At the same time, I wish it packed more punch.  Maybe it’s that I keep thinking of Vigilance as a satire, and Bennett wrote it as a parable—a lesson for us to learn from.  Maybe it’s the brevity. There was a lot of world-building glossed over or hand-waved away. Maybe it was just that this was such a White America story and I kept wondering where the other citizens were—just keeping their heads down, like Delyna? Trying to keep a low profile? Or fleeing the country for inexplicable welcomes elsewhere. I felt a lot of absence in this book.

I think, looking at the Jingo quote up above, I know what hampered this book the most for me.  For it to be a satire or even a parable, we have to recognize ourselves in the pages.  We have to say oh god, I’ve thought that, felt that, could I become THAT?!? And I never got that feeling here. McDean is a compelling caricature but he’s not relatable.  I was never in danger of thinking, oh a few missteps and I’d be like him….

There was a tiny moment that zipped by, part of the set-up and explanation for how this game show came to be: ads accidentally get linked to violent footage of a public shooting and… the ad revenue soars because people keep watching and watching.  And watching. That’s relatable.  Our appetite for disasters is marketable.  I believe it. Anyone who reads, watches, or otherwise consumes True Crime stories knows how thin the line is between observing a terrible act and glorifying it.  Between analyzing it and mythologizing it.

I think, in the end, though Vigilance is an enjoyable, thoughtful read, and one I definitely recommend, it isn’t the story I wanted to read. Someone, somewhere has written or is writing something scathing about America’s Gun Problem ™ which holds a mirror up to each and every one of us “regular people”. That’s the one I want to read.

Book Review: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett