The Lady Trent Memoirs by Marie Brennan

While I had read reviews of The Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, they hadn’t really registered on my radar until I heard the author, Marie Brennan, speak on a couple of panels at FOGCon. She piqued my interest and I picked up both books. Because of circumstances, I read them out of order, which isn’t ideal, but didn’t damage things too badly (it did ruin one plot twist in The Natural History of Dragons).

I will probably add comments to the Fantasy Literature reviews, but I’m going to discuss the books generally here. I enjoyed them. They are not twisty, fast-moving action adventures. Brennan is playing with the narrative structure of Victorian travel writing, so the pace is a bit slow, and detailed. The narrative voice of Isabella Camherst is distinctive and inviting.

Brennan did a smart thing; she gave herself lots of room to maneuver by writing these as memoirs set down by Isabella much later in her life. Isabella wrote popular travel books in her youth about her various adventures seeking dragons; these are not those books. Now that she is old and socially secure, she is much more blunt about things; about travel, about society and about herself.

A Natural History Of Dragons gives us a bit about her childhood and her marriage to Jacob Camherst, and along the way tells us about Isabella’s world. She lives in a country that is much like Britain, certainly socially, even to having debutante seasons and high tea. It also has dragons and an intimation that there was, in pre-history, a race of draconic hominids. Brennan throws in some nice touches. The society has made progress with steam as motive power, but the expected technological boom is stymied by a dearth of iron. This explains certain aspects of the world and also sets the stage for the expansionism we see in the second book, The Tropic of Serpents.

Isabella is a smart, curious, capable woman of the upper classes, with little tact and no social graces. She chafes under the restrictions set for “proper” women in her society. When her husband takes her on a expedition to study dragons in a land similar to Romania, she is a useful member of the team, but creates some problems with the impulsiveness to which her curiosity leads her.

The “plot” in A Natural History of Dragons is a bit thin, but the writing and the characters are so engaging that I didn’t care. And I loved the dragons. In The Tropic of Serpents, the nature of the dragons in the equatorial area she is visiting took center stage for me. There are important political machinations of which Isabella is mostly unaware until the end of the book, that that worked well.  By the way, bonus points to Brennan for using menstruation as a plot point. A plot point!

Very enjoyable books, and I look forward to the Voyage of the Basilisk, due out in August.

 

 

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Quote of the Week; From Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I just started reading this over lunch. On page 14, I came across this passage and laughed so loud over my Asian chicken salad that other cafe customers stared:

“A precious performance, Blaine had called it, in that gently forebearing tone he used when they talked about novels, as though he was sure that she, with a little more time and a little more wisdom, would come to accept that the novels he liked were superior, novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness. She had read many of them, because he recommended them, but they were like cotton candy that so easily evaporated from her tongue’s memory.”

 

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@Large; Back to Alcatraz

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I visited Ai WeiWei @Large, the installation on the island of Alcatraz again on Sunday March 15, with two friends, Kathleen and Lillian. This exhibition runs through April 26, 2015. If you can get to it, I highly recommend it.

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To get tickets, go to the Alcatraz Island site. The cost of the ticket includes the short ferry ride from Pier 33 to the island, and back.

From the North bay, the Larkspur ferry landing to the San Francisco ferry building is the easiest way to get there. They run fewer ferries on weekends, but if you go during the week, do not expect to park in the landing’s lot, and allow an additional 20 minutes from your parking site to the landing.

From the San Francisco ferry building, as you go out the mail door turn right (north-ish) and it’s a pleasant one-mile walk/cab/pedicab trip to Pier 33.

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During the weekend it looks like they run a small tram on the island. Otherwise, wear comfortable walking shoes. Dress in layers. The Cellhouse has an elevator available for people with limited mobility.

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That’s not the elevator

If there’s any way you can fit this installation into your schedule, do it.

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FOGCon; The Walnut Creek Conference

Thanks to Terry Weyna for introducing me to this small, literary speculative fiction convention, held at the Walnut Creek Marriott in the East San Francisco Bay. This year, the conference took place from Mar 6 — 8. The guests of honor were Kim Stanley Robinson and Catherynne Valente. The convention also had a Ghost of Honor; Joanna Russ. If there is a Ghost of Honor, I know I’m going to have a good experience.

I’ll do some later postings about individual panels, and there will probably be a post on Fantasy Literature that I will link to, but I wanted to take a few minutes here to create a summary of the event.

Size/Accessibility:

This is a small convention, no more than 150 people, so it all fits neatly in one hotel. The focus is on literary aspects of speculative fiction, so there are fewer cosplayers and few movie tie-ins. There was a game room. Don’t get me wrong; I love cosplay (I mean, hello, photographer) but this convention works fine without it.

Access for all is very important to the FOGCon founders, and this was demonstrated in their access policy and in every panel room, where blue masking tape marked out space for mobility carts or wheelchairs, and seats near the front were designated for speech readers. This worked very well everywhere, I think, but the Dealers Room, which was crowded. The aisles were wide enough, there was just a lot of traffic.

Their anti-harassment policy was well posted and included, along with the access policy, in the program.

Programming:

This year’s theme was “The Traveler.” I loved how they tackled the different aspects of the traveler! My friend Michelle, a biologist, was on the panel for “From Ice Planet Hoth to Mars,” about realistic world building. (Michelle was on four panels and moderated one. “How are you?” I’d ask when I’d see her. “Tired,” she’d say.) They had a panel on the use of language in SF and fantasy, whether it enhances the illusion of being in another place, or distracts and distances. The panel titled “When Your Traveler is My Colonizer” discussed  post-colonialism in speculative fiction. My personal favorite, because I’m not a very good traveler, I guess, was “SFF In Suburbia.”

There were panels on writing “the other,” and one that I’m sorry I’m missed, “Stories Within Stories Within Stories.” I have to say, even with a decent set of thematic tracks, and good spacing between panels, I was still stymied by the amount of counter-programming I faced. What this means, of course, is that every panel looked fascinating and I wanted to attend them all.

Kim Stanley Robinson gave a slide show talk about John Muir the writer, and there was more than a share of silliness; “Catherynne Valente Writes on Your Skin” (one of my favorite events, frankly. She wrote on my arm; she signed my books and she told me she will be starting on the third book in The Dirge for Prester John series). I couldn’t stay up long enough for the “Authentic Fake Folklore” event.

FOGCon offers a writing workshop for $20 extra. I had a short story workshopped by two other aspiring writers with Madeleine E. Robins facilitating. Madeleine is from New York but lives in San Francisco now. She’s published 11 books.

A service the convention offers that I didn’t use, but I think is cool, is the Kid’s Track. It’s not just child care. There were panels and events for kids, including “Let’s build a space ship” and events for parents and kids. This is wonderful and I hope more/most conventions do this.

The Dealers Room was very crowded, but it and the loaded-t0-groaning Free Stuff table meant I came home with plenty of books.

Venue:

Walnut Creek is in the east bay, and easy to reach from the North Bay; about a ninety minute drive for me; with a toll road heading northbound. The Walnut Creek Marriott is right on two busy corners; easy to miss and challenging to get into. Once you are in, all the parking is valet parking. The cost of the conference included the valet parking, but tipping is customary. I found the two valets who helped me to be good, friendly, and cheerful, and I would describe every single person I encountered who worked at the Marriott the same way. Even when we waited far too long for lunch one day, our server kept us entertained. That is probably my only real complaint; somehow they hadn’t correctly staffed (or otherwise adjusted) for the demands on the restaurant.

The convention was in Basement 1 and Basement 2, where are where all the meeting rooms and ballrooms are. The place looked as if it had been recarpeted recently, and the lighting was good. It didn’t feel “basement-like.”

In Sum:

This is an excellent event, easy to get to, and pretty much stress-free. I’m counting down the days until next year’s.

 

 

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Give me Steam; The CalPine Visitor Center

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California has access to an old source of “alternative” energy; geothermal. Lake and Sonoma Counties each have a cluster of geysers and a double-handful of geothermal energy plants. The Calpine Visitor Center in Middletown provides a good overview of geothermal and some history of the evolution of this energy source.

Historically, Lake County’s geysers and hot springs were better known as tourist draws. From the 1850s into the 1970s, there were several hot springs resorts. There are still a couple that provide mud baths, soaking tubs and massages. People have always believed that the water, which reeks of sulfur, had medicinal properties, and almost everyone agrees on the restorative properties of a hot bath, so there you are. Folks came up from San Francisco, a long trip that involved a ferry ride, a train and a long coach ride. In the 70s, of course, they just drove their cars.

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By the 1930s the resorts were starting to fade. An entrepreneur named John D. Grant pioneered geothermal power in the 1920s, but the power had to be local at that time (no grid) and back then, fossil fuels were much cheaper.

In the 1950s, a company named Magma Thermal bought into the geysers, and CalPine bought them out in the 1990s.

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There are 8 power plants in Lake County. The water necessary to create the steam is augmented by waste water from Santa Rosa, which arrives via a pipeline. The plants recycle by condensing the vapor in “cooling towers” and pump that back into the vents, but in the 1970s and 80s, this process did not replace enough water. The pipeline, a good solution, still damaged some ecosystems in its construction. No energy system, and no energy company, is perfect.

Steam provides 24% of California’s renewable energy.

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The CalPine Center has several nice interactive displays, although I have to say I couldn’t get either lightbulb to shine. I recommend this day trip for anyone with kids or anyone who is interested in alternative energy sources. CalPine also offers tours of the actual plants, and you can find those on their website, http://www.geysers.com/default.aspx The Visitor’s Center provides solid basic information. Science fiction writers, again, take note – useful resource here.

From Santa Rosa or points south or west, Highway 29 is the easiest way to get to Middletown. Follow Calistoga Road out past the Petrified Forest, take the Calistoga grade, and turn left on highway 128, then right on Tubbs Road. At the T, turn left again. This means driving over Mt. St. Helena. Some people are afraid of driving in mountains. The road is winding, but it is better maintained than most roads in Sonoma County, for instance. Robert Louis Stevenson State Park occupies part of the mountain and there are several turnouts for trailheads. Many of the people who drive this road are Lake County locals heading into Santa Rosa for business or errands. They know the road extremely well and may want to drive faster than you do. There are several passing lanes on 29, please be considerate and use them if you are a slower vehicle. It’s not a competition.

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Stop the Presses! The Third Prester John Book, by Catherynne Valente

I spoke to Catherynne Valente while she signed some books for me at FOGCon, in Walnut Creek, CA, last weekend. With a bit of trepidation, I asked her about the third book in the Prester John series. I say “with a bit of trepidation” because I’m sure writers don’t like to be nagged about their work.

Valente was charming. She said it was “heartening” to hear the outpouring of support for those books. (Maybe she was just reacting to my plea to her not to hit me*.) She said she will be starting a Kickstarter Campaign in April to help fund the third book. She promised she would not leave her readers hanging.

Regardless of how I feel about a dynamic, changing publishing industry that has shifted more and more of the risk on a book to its creator, I was thrilled by this news. I will pledge as soon as the campaign opens. Valente is an amazing writer with an almost magical control over prose, and a sense of story that I can only envy. I love all of her work but the Prester John series has me enthralled, especially the second book, The Folded World. I eagerly await the final book in the trilogy.

*Please note for the record that to my knowledge, Cat Valente has never threatened to hit anyone.

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Ripper, by Isabel Allende

Near the end of Isabel Allende’s novel Ripper, a serial killer has abducted Indiana, the mother of the teenaged main character, Amanda. Before getting ready to kill her, the serial killer ruminates on Indiana’s faults; she is stupid and unobservant; she is passive; she is sexually irresponsible and she is a bad mother.

Sadly, I found myself in complete agreement with the serial killer.

This is usually not a good thing in a thriller, unless the book is written from the killer’s point of view, which Ripper is not. It’s more an indication that Indiana, who supposedly is not the book’s main character, takes up way too much time, and is problematic in other ways.

Ripper was marketed as Allende’s first thriller. I think the books works better if it is read as a classic Allende novel with thriller sprinkles on top. The pacing of the book is not right for a thriller, and in this case, making the “detective” character a teenager is unsuccessful, although the circle of Amanda’s game-playing friends (they gather via Skype to play Ripper, before Amanda introduces a set of real murders in San Francisco) is wonderful. I wish we had seen more of the young people and that those set pieces had more impact on the plot. Usually, the players pontificate on various aspects of serial killing, Amanda gives them an “assignment,” and the session ends. We rarely hear back on the progress of the assignments until near the end of the book.

Amanda’s grandfather, Blake, (Indiana’s father) is part of the circle. He has practically raised his granddaughter, since his daughter is so irresponsible, but within the game he is her obedient minion, never speaking without her permission. Blake is almost a fantasy father-figure. He is a retired policeman. He lets his daughter, who works at an Alternative Healing Center as a massage therapist, live in her own apartment above the garage, while Amanda lives with him in the house. Amanda’s paternal grandmother pays for Amanda’s tuition at a local Catholic boarding school. There is no reason for Amanda to go to boarding school except that it frees Indiana from having to be a mother.

Indiana, who Allende describes in an Afterword as a “white witch,” is very compassionate and intuitive, but her intuition has a huge blind spot; herself. She is an infantilized character; an “independent” woman who depends on men for everything. In her mid-thirties she lets her father support her. Her ex-husband gives her money in addition to the child support, but more tellingly, when she thinks she has had a break-in, her ex (also a cop) comes to her apartment when she isn’t there and changes the locks for her, without asking. Indiana sees this as okay. Indiana’s contribution to child-raising is that she always has Friday dinner with her daughter.

Indiana also makes bad choices in sex partners, which really isn’t surprising. Her relationship with the sleazy Alan Keller never makes sense. At one point she stands up to him and calls him out for objectifying her. They break up, but two weeks later, when he offers her a Bulgari diamond ring, she reunites with him. Later, we find out there might be a reason for doing this, but it is much too late.

Indiana really impeded my ability to enjoy many of the aspects that make an Allende novel so much fun. The descriptions of San Francisco’s North Beach, with Italian restaurants and coffee places, is lush and lovely. The eccentrics who work at the alternative healing center are completely convincing. Allende’s sly wit pokes through at the right moments, and her larger-than-life characters like Ryan the damaged Afghanistan vet and his half-titanium-cyborg dog, are vivid and wild. Towards the end of the book, Allende takes advantage of the surrounding San Francisco Bay area, describing parts of the east bay and San Pablo bay with delightful accuracy.

The killer, with an almost superhuman ability to change appearance and identity, and to manipulate people, would be right at home in a Jo Nesbo novel. The weirdness of the different murders and the “game” of finding what the victims have in common, is pretty good too. Like most thrillers, the way the law and police procedure is tortured to make the story work is hard to watch sometimes. For instance, working police detective Bob Martinez brings home files, crime scene photos and autopsy reports to show his adolescent daughter. Oh, please! But seriously, this is pretty common in thrillers, and I could have lived with it.

Allende does mis-step in my opinion, in several places. There is one gay male character in the book, who is also a drag queen. Isn’t that convenient? At a show at the drag club, Ryan, who suffers post-traumatic stress, has a meltdown and lands in jail. It’s because there is too much noise and too many people … It’s not homophobia. No, sir. Not at all.

But Indiana is the biggest problem. Perhaps I was supposed to take her with more of a grain of salt, but to me she was like the self-involved, loud person you just met at a social gathering, who keeps going on and on about her stuff, while you’d like to get to know some of the other people at the party. She was a killjoy, and she dented my reading enjoyment.

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One Thousand Words

I’m trying to write a piece of flash fiction. Flash is usually 1,000 words or less. To use an old-fashioned metric, it’s about four full pages, double-spaced, with a point 12 font and one inch margins.

It’s hard to write a complete story in 1,000 words.

You can usually pull off a story with a twist ending. You can’t really create a gaggle of characters, unless a gaggle of characters is the story in some way. My story has two characters.

I’m trying to write about the implosion of a marriage, using an extended metaphor that becomes literal in last couple of paragraphs.

It’s a topic I know nothing about first-hand.

There are no SF or fantasy elements, although the final paragraphs should have a surreal quality.

I pare away. I embellish. I delete. I add back. I walk away. I return.

It becomes a quest for the exact word, in some ways, I guess, like poetry. Writing should always be about the exact word, but when I am writing 10,000 words, I feel like a have a safety net. There’s no safety net here.

The challenge forces insight on me. As I visualized the main character’s house, it looked stylish but empty. I couldn’t fill it with the right knick-knacks and stuff. It seemed like that couldn’t be right. Then I saw that it was. Lilah’s marriage is an empty house.

That helped, but still, I struggle to fit a simple story into a 1,000 word box.

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The Negative Review

When I started this blog, I tended to approach reviews of books that weren’t very good the same way I approach Syfy Original movies; with a maniacal glee. Syfy Original movies, are, after all, fair game; nobody (not even Syfy) expects them to be good. I felt the same way about many of the genre books I read and discussed here. I could be snarky and mean to my heart’s content.

This week I posted a negative review of a well-promoted hardcover book by a famous genre author, Michael Moorcock. The book is The Whispering Swarm. Here’s a link. Writing this review was not fun. There was no dark glee, just a sense of despair — similar to the despair I felt reading it, watching hours of my life tick away and realizing the book was not going to get better.

I don’t blame myself. I hold 75-year-old Moorcock completely responsible for making this book a failure. I felt bad for myself that I had to read it, and I swore to myself that it would not be a Did Not Finish. I felt bad for Moorcock. Not as bad, but bad.

The book is an unsuccessful mix of an autobiographical novel of Moorcock in the 1960s, when he and a handful of writers (they weren’t all male, although you’d think so if you read the book) created the New Wave movement; and an alternate-world fantasy. Moorcock’s hero, a first-person narrator named Michael Moorcock, wanders into a place called Alsacia, on the River Thames, presided over by the White Friars. Alsacia (a variation on Alsatia) exists beyond the timelines and “branes” of M-theory, which the kindly monks discuss and which goes over Michael’s head. Michael’s life is part undisguised Michael-Moorcock’s-life and part hanging-out-in-a-cool-fantasy-precinct. Unfortunately, nothing much happens in Alsacia until the last hundred pages of a 480 page book — and was does happen is anticlimactic.

Still, it was hard to compose an unflattering review of someone whose work I had enjoyed, and someone I do think of as a mover and shaker, an artistic leader in his own right. And the prose, especially in the first fifty pages, was glorious, a glowing love letter to the post-Blitz city Moorcock loves. This actually made things worse, because I had been seduced by a writer who knows exactly how to sell a book on 50 pages and an outline… how to fool the readers and editors alike with a bait-and-switch.

So, I should have had some mean fun with the review, right? I didn’t. Writing it just reminded me how disappointed I was.

Now I’m going to go watch Snarknado versus Mega-Croc. That should make me feel better.

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Greg Van Eekhout at Copperfield’s, Petaluma

Greg Van Eekhout, who wrote last year’s urban fantasy California Bones, is on a “mini tour” as part of the release of Pacific Fire, a sequel. Copperfield’s in Petaluma was one of his stops. He said he had been happy to see it on the schedule because he had enjoyed stopping there on his big book tour last year.

Ross Lockhart, who works at Word Horde and has published horror anthologies like The Book of Cthulhu,led the conversation with Van Eekhout. I will have more about the event at Fantasy Literature, and I’ll update here when it is posted.

The Petaluma Copperfield’s has an author event series it calls “Other Worlds,” and they are making an effort to bring in more fantasy, SF and horror writers. Ross told me he thought it was an “uphill battle,” but I think they’re almost there. In 2014 they had Anne and Christopher Rice, John Scalzi, and Cary Elwes. Christopher Moore is a regular there. They are getting the reputation as the speculative fiction destination in the north bay. (At the Scalzi reading, I sat next to a man who had driven over from Sacramento, two hours away.) They also have a rep with authors for being a fun and relaxed stop on a tour.

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Van Eekhout, (left)and Lockhart discuss books.

 

 

 

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