Sunday, 30 January 2011

ChiZine Publications Starts Monthly Reading Series in Toronto

The Chiaroscuro reading series, sponsored by CZP, runs the second Tuesday of the month, normally at the Augusta House (125 Augusta Ave.) in Toronto.

Their mandate:
at the Augusta House
152 Augusta Avenue, 2nd Floor
(link to google map? or jpeg of google map?)
Toronto, ONery available between 21-24 of this month
 Emerging from early magic realism, mythology and fable, from the work of science fiction authors who cut their teeth during the 1950’s golden age of pulp science fiction, and from the disturbing literary forays of horror writers inspired by Shelley, Poe, and Stoker, Canadian speculative fiction has begun to move in strange and provocative new directions, becoming something altogether different from its American counterpart and wholly itself. 
 We believe that Canadian authors may well prove to be the kind of rejuvenating force necessary to revitalize the “pulp” genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror writing.  As Canadian publications including Neo-Opsis, OnSpec, Ideomancer, Challenging Destiny, the long-running Tesseracts collections, and our own ChiZine Publications become increasingly prominent markets for speculative fiction, we want to establish a dialogue between senior and junior authors, between authors and editors, and between authors and readers in order to encourage the growth of this important literary domain. 

If you're in town, their next event * takes place at Bakka Phoenix Books will be honouring Bakka Phoenix Books (84 Harbord St.) as it features several of their alumni, on Tuesday, February 8th, 8-11pm.  It will still take place at Augusta House.  Here are the authors participating, from the event page on facebook:

ROBERT J SAWYER is one of only seven writers in history (and the only Canadian) to win all three of the science-fiction field's top honors for best novel of the year: the Hugo Award; the Nebula Award; and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

ED GREENWOOD is an award-winning Canadian writer, editor, game designer, columnist, and librarian best known as the creator of The Forgotten Realms® fantasy world. 

LEAH BOBET has a degree in linguistics from the University of Toronto, edits at Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, and moonlights at Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada's oldest science fiction bookstore.

MICHELLE SAGARA WEST, a 1992 Campbell Award nominee, started her first novel, Into the Dark Lands, in 1986, which was eventually published by Del Rey books at the tail end of 1991. She has also published the House War with DAW and the Chronicles of Elantra.

If you want more information about the reading series or the workships they offer, head on over to their website.

* Thanks to The Quiet One who corrected me on the venue in the comments.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Book Review: Monstrous Affections by David Nickle

Pros: variety of stories, different lengths and wildly different subject matters, though provoking, unsettling

Cons: several stories require some thought to understand, with one being beyond my comprehension

This is a great collection of horror stories.  There's variety in length and subject matter, with most having horrifying twist endings of some sort that make you rethink what you believed was happening in the story.  Mr. Nickle brings in different mythologies, which was fun.  And they all deal with affection in one way or another, most regarding family and a few with other topics.

There were only two stories I didn't like and in one case that was because I didn't quite understand the ending.  With a few other stories it took some thought to realize their brilliance, which I did like.

Mr. Nickle uses your natural assumptions against you.  For example, you assume Janie in "Janie and the Wind" is a victim.  Turns out that's not entirely the case. 

My review code for short stories is ^^ for 2 thumbs, ^ thumbs up, v thumb down)

^^ "The Sloan Men" - Judith visits her boyfriend's parents and discovers the man she loves is not WHAT she remembers him as. A very unsettling story.

^ "Janie and the Wind" - Janie's husband gives her a beating and leaves her stranded without food on a small island in Georgian Bay.  A storm's coming and she's hungry.  I found it a little long and rather strange.  Great twist ending.

^^ "Night of the Tar Baby" - A father recently released from prison takes his two kids out to make a tar baby.  He uses the creature to teach those around him about anger management.  Another unsettling story, told from the young daughter's POV.

^ "Other People's Kids" - A rest stop lunch break turns weird when 13 year old Sam spots a kid with really sharp teeth.  A strange tale about growing up and leaving childhood behind.  Sam makes some interesting choices.

^^ "The Mayor Will Make a Brief Statement and Then Take Questions" - The mayor speaks of the city's grief over the murder of a young boy.  Surprisingly short and deeply profound - after a bit of thought.

^ "The Pit-Heads" - Four painters make a terrifying deal to improve their craft.  An interesting take on vampires.  Mr. Nickle's father, a painter, has done some paintings for the story.  You can read the story with the paintings online (under a creative commons license).  I managed to see the paintings just before reading this story, and they do make it come to life.

v "The Slide Trombone" - Three musicians at a cottage wonder how they knew to pick up the 4th, a trombone player whom none of them had met before.  I found this story confusing.

^^ "The Inevitability of Earth" - A man tries to find his grandfather to learn the secret of human flight.  Unsettling with a very creepy ending.

^ "Swamp With and the Tea-drinking Man" - A swamp witch is in for a very bad day, filled with regrets.  Another story that took some thought to figure out.

v "The Delilah Party" - An autistic teen accompanies some internet friends to a small party.  Deeply unsettling.

^^ "Fly in Your Eye" - Discusses a rather creepy medical condition.  Another very short and extremely creepy story.

^ "Polyphemus' Cave" - A man returning home for his estranged father's funeral sees a cyclops and hears an odd circus tale.  Originally published in Queer Fear 2, this is another unsettling story, about what horrifying things can happen in families when one person doesn't act the way other members would like them to.

^ "The Webley" - Two boys make up after a fight to deal with a threatening dog.  A look at how children act and their cruelties to one another.

It's a strong collection of thought provoking horror stories.  I look forward to reading his novel, Eutopia, out this May.

And if you want to get a feel for his storytelling, here's a video of the author reading "The Mayor Will Make a Brief Statement and Then Take Questions" from the book launch for Monstrous Affections held at Bakka-Phoenix Books in Toronto, November 2009.  The story intro starts at 1:30.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Movie Review: Clash of the Titans, Original

Director: Desmond Davis, 1981

Pros: Ray Harryhousen's creatures, good story, strong female character in Andromeda

Cons: some very cheesy special effects

Perseus, mortal son of Zeus, is given his father's favor when he sets out to fulfill his destiny.  He encounters the cursed Andromeda, whose fiance, Calibos, displeased Zeus and was turned into a beast.  Now, any suitor who attempts to claim her hand must answer a riddle posed by Calibos.  In order to save Andromeda from Calibos and his revenge, Perseus sets out to find something that can kill a Kraken before his lady love can be sacrificed to it.

Campy special effects make this movie sometimes cringe worthy and other times a laugh as the film doesn't take itself too seriously (especially when Bubo shows up).  They did a surprisingly good job animating the wings for pegasus - my favourite of the creatures (which include the kraken, Calibos and Medusa).

Harry Potter fans will recognize Maggie Smith (Prof. McGonagle) as the goddess Thetis.  I enjoyed seeing Burgess Meredith (the Penguin from the 1960s Batman) as well.

The script is well written and brings forth the spirit of the Greek gods.  There's a lot of infighting, taking place mostly on earth, between the favourites of the gods and those who have lost influence.

Andromeda is portrayed as a rather strong woman.  She accompanies Perseus on the start of his quest, and later in the film, when the Kraken comes for her, she doesn't scream, making her braver than most people would have been.  (I'm also impressed she didn't just try to run away with Perseus to avoid her fate.)

The movie's worth seeing, but don't expect too much from it.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

New Author Spotlight: Ben Tripp

New Author Spotlight is a new series designed to introduce authors with 3 books or less in the different SF/F subgenres.

Today's spotlight shines on Ben Tripp.

Ben Tripp's books include:
Here's the cover copy for Rise Again:
A MYSTERIOUS CONTAGION. MASS HYSTERIA. SUDDEN DEATH. And a warning that would come all too late . . .

Forest Peak, California. Fourth of July. Sheriff Danielle Adelman, a troubled war veteran, thinks she has all the problems she can handle in this all-American town after her kid sister runs away from home. But when a disease-stricken horde of panicked refugees fleeing the fall of Los Angeles swarms her small mountain community, Danny realizes her problems have only just begun-starting with what might very well be the end of the world. Danny thought she had seen humanity at its worst in war-torn Iraq, but nothing could prepare her for the remorseless struggle to survive in a dying world being overrun by the reanimated dead and men turned monster. Obsessed with finding her missing sister against all odds, Danny's epic and dangerous journey across the California desert will challenge her spirit . . . and bring her to the precipice of sanity itself. . . .

If you like this title, you might also like:

Monday, 24 January 2011

Book Review: The Unidentified by Rae Mariz

Pros: good writing, fast paced, nifty concept, true to life high school atmosphere

Cons: takes a while to understand the school/game setting, plot twists were often obvious

For Parents: there's a little swearing, minor violence, no sex

In a future where corporate sponsors run school as a game, a group of kids wants to reclaim their privacy as the Unidentified.

Katey Dade (@kidzero) is in the pit when the Unidentified pull off their first publicity stunt.  Her interest in the act propels her into the limelight, where she has no desire to be, and forces her to make important decisions regarding her future.

A refreshing change from the weightier, more violent YA books I've read recently (The Hunger Games, Chaos Walking), this is a quick, entertaining book.

Told from Kid's POV, it captures the ups and downs of high school perfectly.  I could easily imagine a future where schools are run by corporations sponsoring events and certain 'in' students.  And the willingness of the kids to have public lives is something facebook attests to today.

The plot focused on Kid's desire to remain low key despite the advantages (depending on your outlook) of being branded.  The language is easy despite a few futuristic curses and expressions (Oh Google).  There's minor swearing, a tiny amount of violence and no sexual content for parents to be concerned about.

The game took a while to take shape.  Mariz drops you into the story with no preparation.  I liked trying to figure out how the game worked but some readers may find it a chore to piece together what's going on.

Ultimately it's a well told story about the importance of choosing friends wisely, of privacy and the freedom to be yourself.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Author Interview: Laura Bynum

Novel: Veracity

What is Veracity about? 

Veracity is both a cautionary tale about what happens when we give up ownership of our words and thoughts for the promise of false security, and a love story between a mother and her daughter.

The main character, Harper Adams, is six years old when a pandemic kills her parents and half of the United State's population, giving rise to a totalitarian government. The Confederation of the Willing controls the populace via government-sanctioned sex and drugs, a brutal police force known as the Blue Coats, and a device called the slate - a mandatory implant that monitors every word a person speaks. To utter a forbidden, Red-Listed word often results in death. Harper works for the Confederation despite her aversion to it, believing it's the only way to keep her daughter safe. It's when Veracity's name is added to the Red List that Harper joins the resistance, a band of freedom fighters who possess a book that, in the most important way, has the power to set them all free. 

Veracity has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell's 1984amazing references that still blow me away. 

Why did you write the novel? 

Veracity was inspired by a series of events that took place a few years back that began with the passage of the Patriot Act and the ensuing loss of a few crucial constitutional rights, an announcement that the 2004 election might be delayed as federal officials were worried about potential terrorist attacks, and when a certain member of the cabinet, who owned a good amount of stock in Tamiflu, went public with a suggestion that we stock up on said drug in response to what was looking to be a world-wide pandemic, the bird flu. (Not a bad idea, but a huge conflict of interest.) Even more than these issues themselves and the power shifts each one portended, it was the lack of public debate that bothered me. The lack of questioning. It was white-coat syndrome of the highest order. Publicly elected officials telling us what to think and us thinking it. I believe that the healthiest countries on earth are those that are the most diverse. I believe we glean from each others’ wisdom bits that enhance our own.

I believe in thinking critically. In knowing the difference between opinion and fact and in recognizing what the word ‘agenda’ sounds like in all its forms. I believe in knowing how to recognize hate, despite the vessel carrying it, and being responsible for our own truths. I believe in knowing where each of our opinions came from, why we cling to them, if they’re right or wrong and if it’s just maybe time to change one or two. I wrote Veracity because a world filled with thinking people is much more interesting, and because ignorance inspires hate and knowledge, compassion.

What is the most terrifying aspect of the future world in Veracity for you?

Without a doubt, it's the loss of critical thinking. As I wrote in another interview, I believe that, as the phoneme is to the word, and as the word is to the sentence, so is language to freedom. We lose our ability to discern the truth, and we've put ourselves up for sale, lock, stock and barrel. And I see it happening more and more, every day, though I believe it's reversible. We just have to want it more than the alternative. 

What made you want to be a writer?

I came out of the womb with a story in my head, so I can't give you that particular genesis, but I can tell you when I discovered I couldn't continue avoiding it. I'd gotten my degrees, had my corporate job, but it felt like I was on the wrong path. I was miserable living my 'getting the bills paid but still starving' life.  There were things I needed to say, truths I felt that maybe only I and few other people saw. So I wrote Veracity. And, I'll mention, that trend towards writing socially conscious stories continues in book two. 

If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?

I love my characters for various reasons, even Jingo, but I think it's Ezra's completely care-free attitude regarding what people think of her that I covet the most. She understands what she's doing and why she's doing it and is her own judge, jury and executioner, and I admire that. I learned a long time ago that it was my opinion about myself that counted, but knowing that and applying it can be two different things.

How long did it take you to write Veracity?

The first draft took a year and a half as I was working full-time, raising kids, and all that - all the same things every other first-time novelist goes through. After the Maui Writer's Conference, where I won the Rupert Hughes Award for Veracity and, consequently, gained representation with the Writer's House in NYC, I believe there was another eight or so months of editing. Then, after selling it to Simon and Schuster, there was another period of editing with my publisher, not much, but it took some time as I was being treated for breast cancer. I should back up and explain that, the very day I had a biopsy on my left breast, we received not one but two bids on Veracity. A couples days later when I signed with Simon and Schuster, I found out it was cancer. I was in the middle of a move to Virginia (from Illinois) so it was craziness. I had surgery in Champaign, Illinois, then two weeks later, moved to my little hometown in the Piedmont region of Virginia, began radiation in Charlottesville (about an hour away), and edited Veracity, all at the same time. I don't remember writing chapter two at all (a late-in-the-game addition). It was a circuitous route getting Veracity finished, but I believe all of it, every curve and bend in that road, added some essential element. 

What was the hardest scene for you to write?

The first chapter, most definitely. When I'm doing readings, I can't get through it without misting up. I was divorced from my first husband just before our daughter (my eldest) was born. It was just Alex and I in the world for a while. Our relationship is the basis for the relationship between Harper and Veracity. When Harper is screaming herself free in the farmhouse closet, I think of what she's given up in order to save her daughter, and of what it would be like to have to lose your child to save them. And I think of how lucky I am that, of all the potential moms in the world, they chose me. 

Did getting Bachelor and Masters degrees in Communications help with your writing?

Absolutely. Part of what I focused on, especially with my master's, was how people absorb information and how they determine what's true and what's not. This process has become so intrinsically linked to marketing, it's scary. I don't think most people realize that, for every commercial or news story out there, there's a group of marketing execs sitting in a room with the sale reps, tweaking everything to oblivion to achieve some particular end. My marketing studies put me in that driver's seat and, damn, it's a scary place to be headed. Most people don't realize that they're a demographic, being targeted every time they watch a commercial or go to a political rally or watch the news. 

Why did you start doing your 'sound bites' audio series?

I love this question! And I love that you listened to them (any or all). In 2004, I think, a girlfriend and I began what Joseph Campbell calls a 'Hero journey'. We wanted to know who we were when you scratched the surface and what we truly believed. We wanted to revisit all the sacred sources in our lives - our parents, our religious leaders, our political narrators, history - and see if we were what we purported ourselves to be. So we did a world religion study and figured out where we fell within that spectrum. Then, being Americans, we decided we'd better know what that was all about, so we went down to the local Independent Media Center with a copy of The Idiot's Guide to the American Government, and made seventeen episodes of Sound Bite - a five-minute radio program that went through the makings of government, our concordant rights and so on. It was a blast, and very enlightening. It's amazing how few people know their rights, or what the first amendment provides, or that Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life, and so on. You can't know what you're losing until you know what you have, so we thought it was important. I should also note that this took place, again, right around the Patriot Act. Apparently, an act that caused much upheaval in my life, in the best of ways. 

When and where do you write?

Veracity was written almost exclusively in the bookstores of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (mostly the Borders). Now, I write in my office. My best, most creative hours are between 5pm-midnight, though I often start early and work in two hour blocks. If I can focus on something else for an hour in between, I get a more macro perspective on the story when I go back to it. 

What’s the best/worst thing about writing?

The best thing about writing is getting that writer's high. That sense of something divine slipping through you via a beautifully turned sentence or a scene playing out just so. The worst thing about writing is that it's very secluding, which can also be wonderful. (Note - I have twins.) 

What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published?

That there would be so much variety to the ways my story could be developed. We've had some early interest in a movie and a graphic novel. The sources of interest have also been surprising. My first international sale was Turkey, a delightful surprise. We haven't yet signed a contract for a movie (or graphic novel), but to know the interest is out there, as well as the possibility, is, frankly, amazing. 

Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?

Write anyway. Even if you think you're cranking out junk, if it's in your soul to write, do it, and then edit. I became the writer that I am through editing. I was merciless with myself and that was key. And another bit of advice, straight from my agent - pare down ruthlessly. 

Any tips against writers block?

Watch a movie that inspires you, or read a book that really got your creative juices flowing when you last read it. It's that garbage in, garbage out theory in reverse. 

How do you discipline yourself to write?

There are times I have to force myself to do it, but I'm blessed with this second novel, as I was with Veracity, in that I can't wait to get to my computer and work. I tend to believe that if you aren't craving that story and those characters, maybe you're conforming to someone else's idea of what makes for good story. Open up that Pandora's box in your writer's self and see what comes out. It may be that you think you're supposed to be writing romance but you really want to write westerns. Being authentic with yourself, and your story, makes it easier. 

How many rejection letters did you get for your first novel?

My agent was very kind to keep that information to himself, but I will say that the main theme we got with our 'thanks, but no thanks' responses was that Veracity was a tweener. Which means it's hard to market, being somewhere between two genres - for me it was fiction and science fiction. I knew going in that it would be hard to place Veracity in the store. I knew from being a marketing major that this was going to be an issue, but I wasn't going to change the story. I knew it would require a bit of a groundswell on my reader's parts to get the word out, and I've been lucky to have had the passionate readers I've had. The rejection wasn't easy because every author's goal, obviously, is to get their words and ideas into the public realm. But I believe things happen for a reason and, for me, the timing wound up being perfect. I was given some of the best news of my life during one of its darkest times. 

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Book Review: Veracity by Laura Bynum

Pros: first person point of view allows you to directly experience the world, lots of tension, thought provoking message

Cons: the novel is less about the resistance and overthrowing the government than it is about one woman's journey

Harper Adams was six when the pandemic spread to America, killing half the population.  Now, she's a Monitor, assigned to use her special abilities to read the truth of people when their recording chips capture the use of Red Listed words.  She also retroactively determines whether the punishments administered by the Blue Coats (beatings, rape, torture, execution) are appropriate to the crimes committed. 

But the Red Listed words are growing in number, and now include the name of Harper's daughter, Veracity.

Harper is recruited by the resistance to help bring down the totalitarian government.  This is her story, told partially through flashbacks, explaining how the world became what it is.  It's the story of a woman who is willing to make personal sacrifices so that her daughter's world will be a better place.

First person narrative works very well for this book.  It gives Harper's story an immediacy third person narrative couldn't have achieved.  Her attempt to leave a high position in the Monitors creates a lot of tension as she comes face to face with the Blue Coats and their punishments.  And the unveiling of her past brings this new world into horrifying focus.

The book is terrifying because it's easy to imagine all of this happening, one act at a time.  We've already given up some liberties due to fear of attack, plague, etc. Veracity merely takes those losses to extremes, one freedom at a time.  One word at a time.

As a character, Harper is a fascinating woman.  She's grown up in this world and has had to lie - to herself and others - in order to survive in it.  She has prejudices (well deserved) and weaknesses.  She also has strengths and acts on the desire to be free despite the potential consequences.

I mark the fact that this book is more about her personal experience rather than about the resistance and overthrow of the government as a con because that's what some people will be expecting.  For me the book works great as it is.  There's a lot of tension and some action, but if you're looking for a war focused book, this isn't it.

It's a terrifying glimpse at a possible future that I sincerely hope never comes true.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Calling All Manuscripts

Del Rey/Spectra (ie Random House) is holding a writing contest!  Alas, it's only open to US residents.  So if you're in the States and you want the chance to be published by Random House, here are the details, direct from their website:

At Suvudu, we’re aware that getting your work into the hands of a professional editor can be a major hurdle in the road to publication. Many New York publishers do not accept submissions except from literary agents. That’s why we’re making available this limited opportunity to put your best manuscript of  science fiction, fantasy, horror, or paranormal romance into consideration by the Del Rey/Spectra staff.
Del Rey/Spectra through Suvudu will be accepting submissions from now through March 18, 2011, of  previously unpublished manuscripts of no more than 150,000 words. Over the next few months, they will be judged on the basis of originality, creativity, and writing style. The top submission will receive a full edit of the submitted work by Betsy Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief of Del Rey Publishing, and the story will be considered for publication. Three runners-up will receive a set of Del Rey/Spectra titles selected by Suvudu.
When you’re ready to submit, click here to fill out the entry form. Once you’ve done so, you’ll receive an e-mail from Suvudu. Send your submission in response to the e-mail to enter the contest. Click here for official contest rules.
The winners will be announced on May 18, 2011.
Contest is from January 18, 2011 to March 18, 2011 (EST), and open only to legal residents of the United States, excluding Puerto Rico, who are age 18 and over as of January 18, 2011. Void wherever prohibited or restricted by law. Sponsor:, a website of Random House, Inc.
 If you've got a manuscripts in the wings, it sounds like an amazing opportunity.  

Can You Judge a Book by its Cover?

This was the SF Signal podcast question of the week.  More specifically, whether covers are becoming more minimalistic.

I think when it comes to classic SF authors and stories the minimalistic covers are a way of showing that they have this status (like how Dickens and Austen have minimalistic covers now, in addition to the paintings, etc.) and making the books more palatable to non genre audiences who might otherwise avoid them.  Like how the Harry Potter books got 'adult covers' in addition to the playful kids editions.

Look at the covers above.  SF readers might pick the one that has SF elements, but people who 'don't read genre books' will read the versions with more simplistic covers.  The covers don't tell you anything about the book, which, depending on your point of view, can be a good or a bad thing.

Literary fiction with SF themes tend to get minimalistic covers.  The Road is white text on black, The Passage is a couple of trees.  The Year of the Flood gets a poppy.  It's a way of appealing to a wider audience by toning down the SF elements on the cover.  The Gone Away World was a horrible fluorescent green on fuzzy fluorescent pink (which I think failed, and given the trade paperback got white text on an orange background, so did the publisher).

With regards to covers themselves, back when I had a dearth of books to read, I used to walk up and down the aisles at the store looking for something that intrigued me.  Sometimes I'd find new books by reading the backs when shelving (a great way of learning what's available, and you'd be amazed at how many books you can remember and hand sell later by doing this... and how many books you'll end up reading that otherwise you'd never have heard of).  Other times I'd just pick something based on the cover.  I found some great books that way.  Like:

Dhampir by Barb and J. C. Hendee
Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
Song of the Beast by Carol Berg

There have been some books where I hated the covers and loved the books.  Like:

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson (I thought it was SF when it came in, because of the cityscape on the cover)
Everything written by Terry Pratchett with Josh Kirby's covers (I can't stand his artwork)

And others with good covers where I just couldn't get into the story for some reason. 

Everyone's taste is different, so the covers one person likes, another will despise. 

There's also a lot of copying going on.  When one cover takes off, others will start to look similar.  And there's almost cliches for covers.  Urban fantasy typically has a woman with a tattoo on the cover, back to the reader.  Or there's a man, often in a trench coat.  Switch up the cover treatment and you can confuse readers.  Living With Ghosts by Kari Sperring is traditional fantasy but the cover looks very urban fantasy. 

So while covers are important (I've had customers turn down great books because they didn't like the covers), what's really important is what's inside the cover.  I think most people nowadays will look at the cover, read the back and then read a page or two inside.  Still, if you've got a good cover, getting attention from browsers is that much easier. 

So, what books have you read because you liked the covers?  

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Book Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Pros: political intrigue, gritty realism, great setting, lots of plot twists, gorgeous cover

Cons: so much is happening I didn't get to connect with any of the characters as much as I'd have liked

It's Venice, 1407.  Marco IV, 'the simpleton', is Duke in name only.  His mother, Duchess Alexa, co-rules with her hated brother-in-law, the Regent, Prince Alonzo.

One thing they agree on is the upcoming wedding of their niece Giulietta di Millioni to King James of Cyprus.  But Lady Giulietta is 15 and unwilling to wed.  And Alonzo has sinister reasons for agreeing to the nuptials.

Meanwhile, the numbers of Venice's royal assassins have dwindled.  Their head, Atilo il Mauros, needs an heir and fins potential in a chance meeting with a pale faced, silver haired young man.  A young man named Tycho, who was freed by chance from a special prison aboard a Mamluk ship.

The plot changes focus frequently, dealing with the politics of Alexa vs Alonzo, Atilo and his new apprentice, Giulietta and others.  In this book alone are: werewolves, a vampire, a stregoi, several fights (including a naval battle), unrequited love, frustrated love and true love.  Many people die.

The Venice of the story is gritty, dirty and dark.  The underside is better detailed than the palace scenes, which are brutal in their own fashion.

While going back to the origins of his creatures (Tycho can't abide sunlight or cross water comfortably), he still makes them unique. 

The one downside to the book is that scenes change so fast you can't really connect with the characters.  On the other hand, this makes it easier to move on when principle characters start dying.

A fantastic novel.  It comes out January 27th from Orbit Books.

Here's an article Mr. Grimwood wrote for their blog, on how he writes.   And he's agreed to do an interview for me, to be published here in February!

Reviews, Reviews, Everywhere...

I didn't expect to have much reading time over Christmas, so I went into reading overdrive in November, trying to get a store of book reviews to trickle out when I didn't have time to read.  That turned out to not be the case, and I now find myself with a backlog of book reviews, and several new books that need reviews published soon (rather in a month or more, when my current schedule would bring them out).  So, for the next little while, expect 2 reviews a week until this backlog has cleared and I'm back to publishing my reviews in a more timely manner after reading the books.

I'll also be away next week.  Don't fear, I have some blog posts prepared including a few book reviews...

Friday, 14 January 2011

Geek Gifts: Electroluminescent Clothing

In the interests of finding new gift ideas for my husband, I'll be starting this monthly feature: Geek Gifts.  The US has a lot of nifty sites but since I don't like ordering from the States (because you have to deal with surprise taxes, duties, high shipping fees and unknown currency conversion) I'll try to mention both US and Canadian sites where you can get the items mentioned.

And if you have gift suggestions for future posts, feel free to mention them in comments.

The first gift idea is electroluminescent clothing, ie clothing that lights up!  It's mostly shirts, but you can find other things, like ties and hats too.
In Canada you can get a limited selection of t-shirts from the Geek Chic Boutique and the Glow Authority Canada (I've purchased items through Glow Authority Canada's website and had no problems).

In the US, you can try T-quilizer or Light Up Decal, which has a large selection of shirts.  These are just the first two sites that came up under my search.  I'm sure there are dozens of places that carry light up clothes items now in the States.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Book Review: The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

Pros: interesting concepts; mix of SF, fantasy and mystery; use of Inuit mythology was great

Cons: not hard SF, pacing issues, some characterization problems

The Barsoom Project is advertised as being the direct sequel to Dream Park.  This is true insomuch as several Dream Park staff members remain as well as a few gamers from the previous book.  But with one exception, nothing in this book requires having read Dream Park - and while that one event isn't fully explained for those not in the know, if you want to read The Barsoom Projet as a standalone, it's doable.

Eviane's mind was shattered when, during a game at Dream ark, her fake gun actually shot and killed someone.  Out of the hospital, she's back at Dream Park - unwittingly about to participate in the same game.

Meanwhile, the park is hosting dignitaries from many nations to gain funding for their Mars terraforming project, The Barsoom Project.

Griffin, chief of park security, needs to keep those dignitaries safe and has just learned about Eviane's first visit and the fact that the person who switched guns during that ill-fated game was never caught.

As with Dream Park, The Barsoom Project works on many levels.  Aspects of the book that seem incidental (like the visiting dignitaries) have great importance when the mystery is finally solved.

Many of the concepts introduced by the book are quite interesting (and some of them are real): the means of terraforming and colonizing Mars, the skyhook, the 'fat ripper special' game.  While the Barsoom Project isn't described in hard SF detail, what is described is fascinating.

I liked how the gamers seemed to live the experience more than question the magic in this book.  It's how I expect I would react in that situation.  I did find some of their attitudes bizarre though, especially with regards to the hookups.  One character gets very jealous concerning a bedmate, despite barely knowing the person, while another completely forgets about their bedmate pretty quickly (I don't want to spoil the ending so I'm being purposely cryptic here - I found this character's reaction quite odd in the book).

But, the characters did have more depth than those in Dream Park, and with fewer gamers to keep track of, I didn't need the dramatis personnae list much.

With this book the authors jump back and forth between genres.  The game is mostly fantasy - using Inuit mythology, which was a nice change from the medieval norm.  The Barsoom Project is pure science fiction, and many of Griffin's scenes are mystery related.  The climax and conclusion provide a satisfying ending, tying up all the plotlines.

I did find that the first half of the book was purely set-up for the second, making it slower.  It took a while for the game to get interesting and for Griffin to learn enough of what's happening for the mystery to really take shape.  Once it did, the story picked up and the second half was a quick read.

All in all, it's a fun romp.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

SF Signal Podcast Question, "Is social media good for the book industry, publishing and authors?"

The 23rd SF Signal Podcast dealt with social media with regards to the publishing industry, specifically:

"With Twitter and Facebook, publisher, author and fan are more connected than ever before. Is this instant communication good for everyone or has it become a distraction? Are the days of the anonymous author gone forever?"

It's a large topic, and those of us on the panel answered it with different focuses.  I don't tweet, so I thought of the question mostly from a blogging and facebook POV.  Mark Charon Newton mentioned on his blog recently how the blogging game has changed.  In the past, individual bloggers with good content could derive decent followship as they engaged in discussions on the internet.  More recently, the spheres once hosted exclusively by genre fans have been taken by the publishers.  With more author contacts, money and time, publishers have rolled in an become the mainstay of the regular blog.  They've made inroads into facebook - now has, what, 5 facebook pages?, all combing the internet for tidbits to put on your daily feed.

When I look at my google reader at the blogs I follow, I have a few of the bigger pre-publisher SF/F bloggers, some non publisher industry pages, then a ton of publishers, one or two authors and several literary agents.

Newton's right though, in that the information only flows one way.  While I might check out an author's site if they post to the publisher page, the chances that I'll follow the author are slim.

But that's not the purpose of this post.

I think the book industry and publishers in particular are thriving under the current social media focus.  It's a fast way of alerting a lot of people to what's coming out and reminding them of what's already on bookstore shelves.  And with so many people buying online - hard copies or digital - it's not hard to follow the link from a publisher page/tweet to the buy page.

When it comes to authors we, the podcasters, agreed that things were harder.  If you're a big author you don't really need a web presence.  Having one doesn't hurt, and could only help, but you don't need one.  For debut authors it's essential to get your name out there.  With fewer people browsing physical bookstores - and coming across the book that way, there are fewer ways of being 'discovered', making social networking, guest blogging and word of mouth even more important.  But the success/failure of the social scene really depends on author savvy.  If you can balance your time appropriately and are enough of a people person to not rub the wrong way, you need a web presence of some sort.

If not...

The days of authors who can thumb their noses at fans are over.  While personal life choices and political/other views shouldn't impact your audience, it does.  Elizabeth Moon's now infamous post has caused a lot of people to boycot her work, something that probably wouldn't have happened had people not been able to go and read what she said themselves.  Yes, other authors have suffered similar things before social networking became so popular, but the reach is further and faster than ever before.

Again, back to the podcast.  I found it interesting that while discussing the topic, we all sort of focused on one or two forms of social networking.  As I said above, my comments were made with blogging and facebook in mind, and I think Jay Garmon was coming from the same place.  Patrick Hester dabbled in all the forms.  Jeff Patterson mentioned forums (before the social boom), Larry Ketchersid dealt with twitter.  So it's a varied look at how things have changed.  Even the term 'social media' brings numerous platforms to mind.

Oddly enough, just before the podcast I checked my google reader.  Literary agent Janet Reid had a post about why it's important to be on twitter, quoting this book review, wherein the reviewer mentions they only read the book because SF Signal's own John DeNardo tweeted that he'd enjoyed it.  It really is a small world. 

So what are you waiting for?  Go listen to the podcast. 

And then write your answer to the question in the comments. 

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Book Review: Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

Pros: unique but accurate mythology, good science, interesting ideas

Cons: two dimensional characters, large cast meant referring to dramatis personnae list several times, characters referred to by several names meant keeping track of them was difficult, mystery plot seemed secondary to the game (and was often forgotten by the protagonist)

Dream Park is the Disneyland of the Future.  With one difference.  For $100 a day - as long as they survive - players can participate in real life role playing games.  Created from a mix of sets, actors and holograms, these games are real for the players and a way of advancing in points with the International Fantasy Gaming Society and having fun.

When a security guard at the park is killed and an experimental formula stolen on the first night of the South Seas Treasure Game, park security chief Alex Griffin must join the game to see if one of the players was the culprit.

Griffin has 14 suspects to watch while the game becomes increasingly real to him.

I had to remind myself that the book was originally published in 1981 (and republished in 2010).  It's definitely a campy, fun read.  There's some science to explain how the game works, but the book doesn't focus too much on the how.

I was a little disappointed that the game wasn't medieval inspired.  But the post World War II New Guinea mythology the authors used was fascinating once the game got moving.

The murder/theft plot seemed oddly unimportant, almost there as a way to get Griffin into the game more than because the authors wanted to write about it.  Griffin seemed to forget his purpose quickly and got caught up in the game.  Having said that, the authors provided a very satisfying wrap-up to the mystery, involving all the clues I started to think were red herrings.

My biggest beef with the story was in characterization.  First, there were too many characters for them to all be fleshed out, so, with them sometimes called by first name, others by last name and still others by game name, I had to refer to the character list a few times.  And the ones who were fleshed out seemed very two dimensional.  Acacia especially waffled a lot in terms of personality, flirting with Griffin while, apparently, trying to get back together with her boyfriend.  The gamers also took the game a little too seriously at times, cursing the Lore Master when they died and threatening revenge.  One would think they'd expect to die part way through (while aiming to live to the end).  Still, if you're going to curse someone, why not the Game Master who's throwing all the monsters at you?

In the end it's a fun, if sometimes exasperating, read.  The ideas are great.  If someone ever creates a role playing park like this for fantasy adventuring, count me in!

Friday, 7 January 2011

Author Interview: Nancy Holzner

Peace, Love, and Murder (A Bo Forrester Mystery)


Tell us about the world of Deadtown and Hellforged

When a mysterious plague hit Boston, turning two thousand of its residents into sentient zombies, the quarantine zone became Deadtown, home (by law) to Boston's paranormals. It's also home to Victory Vaughn, a shapeshifter who kills other people's personal demons for a living. In Deadtown, Vicky does battle with the Hellion who killed her father. In Hellforged, she struggles to protect her friends and prevent a long-lost relative from unleashing an ancient power more terrifying—and deadly—than anything she's encountered before.

You were an avid reader as a child.  What kind of books did you read?  Have your reading habits changed over time?

If you put something down in front of me and it had words, I’d read it. (I’m still that way.) I was crazy about fiction. (I’m still that way, too.) Fairy tales and fantasy stories. Historical fiction, especially if it was set during the American Revolution. I went through a phase when  I’d read anything with horses in it. But I particularly loved mysteries: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, those short Encyclopedia Brown solve-it-yourself mysteries. 

In college, I majored in English and my tastes became more literary. I love the classics. But I still love mysteries and of course urban fantasy. It’s an incredibly fun genre, and I know my younger self would have approved.

What made you want to be a writer?
Because I read so much as a kid, I think it was natural for me to want to try my hand at writing. I got so much pleasure out of reading stories, I wanted to write them, too.

In the books you’ve written, who is you favourite character and why?  
I’d have to say Vicky from my Deadtown series is my favorite. She’s smart, resourceful, and brave (a lot braver than I am), yet she wrestles with anger and with guilt from her past. She’s someone I’d like to go out for a beer with, even though she insists on drinking that flavorless stuff labeled “lite.”

Would you want to live in the zombie, werewolf, etc. infested Boston of your books?
Only if I could have some cool ability like shapeshifting to make up for all the hassles. I’ve got some pretty loud neighbors right now, but I’d take “loud” over “gee, your blood smells yummy” any day.

What was the first novel (published or unpublished) that you wrote and how long did it take to write it?

I have an unpublished “practice” novel that’s a combination of historical novel and contemporary ghost story. I spent a couple of years working on it part-time. I learned tons from writing it. Occasionally I wonder if I should pull it out and see if I can do anything with it. But it was a learning experience, and I think that novel will remain (rightfully) hidden away.

Does having an English PhD help with your writing?
Rather than “help,” I’d say it doesn’t hurt my writing too much. Academics approach writing very differently from novelists. When I began trying to write a novel, I suffered from “the anxiety of influence” (to steal a phrase from Harold Bloom). I’d studied great works of literature, and that context made trying to write paralyzing at first. On the other hand, I’d spent years reading and thinking deeply about how stories work. Once I shook off my sense that writing was an unspeakably audacious act, I could use my sense of story to structure my own writing.

You started your career as a medievalist.  Why did you turn to writing urban fantasy rather than medieval-based fantasy?
I was reading urban fantasy for fun when I had an idea for a protagonist: someone who kills other people’s personal demons for a living. The character seemed more suited to a contemporary setting than a medieval one, because of modern ideas about psychology and also the instant gratification of hiring someone to resolve psychological problems. When I was doing early character work on Vicky, one of the things she said about her job was “I’m a lot like a psychoanalyst, except instead of a couch I use a flaming sword.” But Deadtown’s roots are medieval; the mythology behind Vicky’s race of shapeshifters is based on the Mabinogion, a collection of 12th- and 13th-century Welsh legends. In Hellforged, Vicky delves further into this mythology.

When and where do you write?

I write in three places: my living room (mornings), my home office (afternoons), and a local coffee shop (evenings). In the summer, I’ll sometimes write on our deck. Mixing it up among different locations helps to keep me from getting stuck in a rut.

What’s the best/worst thing about writing?
Worst thing: The Muse doesn’t care about deadlines, but my editors do.

Best thing: Getting paid to play with my imaginary friends. And also the feeling of deep satisfaction that comes after a good writing session. There’s nothing like it.

What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published?
My day job is freelance editor and nonfiction author, so I’ve been familiar with the publishing process for a while. When I sold my first novel, however, I wasn’t prepared for how slowly fiction publishing moves, as compared to the technical books I edit and write. Let me explain it this way: In the eighteen months that passed between the time I got an offer for Deadtown and the time that novel was published, I proposed, sold, wrote, and published six nonfiction books.

Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?
Write every day, just as you’d practice the piano every day if you hope to become a professional pianist. Read widely, both inside and outside your genre. Join a critique group; it will give you feedback from readers, thicken your skin to criticism, and sharpen your sense of structure, pacing, character development, and dialogue. And persevere. Publishing isn’t a game for people who give up easily. 

Any tips against writers block?
Write something--it doesn’t matter what. There are websites that offer writing prompts, for example. Set a timer for five or ten minutes, pick a prompt, and go. Lower the stakes. This isn’t your novel, it’s not the big scene--it’s just a writing exercise. One trick I use is to write a dialogue with myself about what’s going on in the book. I ask myself questions about a scene, and during this “discussion,” I often come up with answers and ideas that just weren’t flowing as I was trying to write. Whatever you do, though, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Inspiration arises through work. Only when you’re wrestling with a problem will the answer come to you.
How do you discipline yourself to write?

The Internet makes it much easier for writers to do research, to connect with readers and other writers, and to promote their work. It’s also a huge distraction. I find I do best when I stay offline until I’ve met my word count for the day. After I’ve pounded out the words, then I can check my email, see what’s happening on Twitter and Facebook, write a blog post. To my amazement, those things really can wait. 

How many rejection letters did you get for your first novel or story?
When I started writing fiction seriously, seven or eight years ago, I got lucky with the first story I finished. I submitted it to a small literary journal, which accepted it. I was thrilled and thought, “Maybe I really can be a writer.” I held onto that thought as rejection slips rolled in for later works. I queried 50 or 60 fiction agents before one offered representation. And then it took her a year to sell my first novel, a mystery, to a small press. With Deadtown, I got lucky again; the first publisher that saw it offered me a two-book deal and later bought two more in the series. And I hope to keep Vicky’s story going beyond that, as well.