Bad Men, by John Connolly

April 21st, 2014 by Marion

It’s rare that the Irish writer of dark thrillers, John Connolly, disappoints me. Bad Men might be the first time, now that I think about it. Published in 2004, this thriller is not part of the fallen angel Charlie Parker series, although it is set in Parker’s universe, and the detective makes a brief appearance.

If anything, Bad Men is closer to another writer, famous for writing about isolated communities in Maine; Stephen King. Bad Men takes place over three days, on an island, in the middle of a terrible snowstorm. Written like that, it reads a little bit like the plot of King’s Storm of the Century.

On Dutch Island, originally known as Sanctuary, Joe Dupree is the local police officer. Melancholy Joe, as he is called behind his back, is an odd-looking man, nearly a giant. His size makes him self-conscious, but the truly unusual thing about Joe is how he relates to the island. He has an awareness of it that goes deeper than just understanding his jurisdiction. Joe’s father, who was also a cop, had this same affinity. Right now, Joe is attracted to Marianne and her six-year-old son Daniel. Marianne is new to the island, but she is fitting in well. She has told everyone, including Danny, that her husband is dead, but this is a lie.

On the mainland, a conscienceless killer plots his escape; and in other parts of the country we see one or two other sadistic murderers. Soon, all these characters converge in Portland, Maine. On the island, meanwhile, strange omens are appearing, including unseasonal moths, apparitions, and ghost lights in the forest that rings an area in the center of the island called simple The Site, where a horrible massacre happened in the sixteen hundreds.

Connolly does manage to weave together all his threads. Part of the difficulty, I suppose, is that instead of Clint Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Connolly aims for The Bad, the Evil and The Supernatural Evil. Connolly’s premise is either that the island recognizes evil and draws it in, in order to deal with it, or that the island causes certain people, or personalities, to reincarnate (or otherwise re-appear) at various points in history. Joe, Marianne and rookie cop Sharon Macy confront the bad men, and the island does, too.At the end, the survivors seem to feel that that island has “purged” the evil from its midst. I’m not sure Connolly completely sold this idea.

Bad Men, by the way, while a catchy title, is not a sexist book in one regard. The “bad men” who travel to Dutch Island to do evil include one bad woman; one ruthless, bloodthirsty, violent woman.

Connolly’s writing is beautiful, as always. The book is gory and dark, and there is a lot of violence against women. Connolly does not sexualize violence towards women, but I hit my threshold with this one. Disappointing, yes, but not bad. It’s just not the best of Connolly’s work.

I have to end by saying, though, that I love the metaphysical justice meted out to the corrupt cop, and the ghost of the murdered boy who waits by the water.

We Used to Be Friends; The Veronica Mars Movie Rocks

March 26th, 2014 by Marion

The Veronica Mars movie, Veronica Mars, is the first theatrical release I have seen that is purely, unabashedly for the fans. This is what happens when 91,000 plus fans support a project on Kickstarter and raise over $3 million. Rob Thomas, the writer, director and producer (Kristen Bell is also a producer), really didn’t have to deal with some studio guy wanting the movie to reach out to a new audience and increase market share.

This means that, for the faithful, this is like an uninterrupted two-part episode of the TV show, which higher production values and slightly rougher language. In other words, it is great.

I was a big fan of the show, and I loved this movie. I loved it so much that I stood up and sang along out loud with the theme song, at the end. Or course, at the 12:30 show on a Tuesday, I was the only person in the theater, so this wasn’t as embarrassing as it sounds.

Back in the “double-oughts” (2004-2007) Veronica Mars was a TV show on the CW a show with a strange and original premise. Veronica, played by Kristen Bell, was a junior in high school, daughter of the sheriff of a small California beach town. Her best friend was murdered, and her father accused one of the wealthy and powerful men in town. He was disgraced and eventually lost his job. Veronica fell from her precarious almost-middle-class niche into a chasm of ostracism. She was drugged at a party and raped. She emerged from these triple tragedies with a strong sense of disillusionment, a white-hot rage and a commitment to solve her friend’s murder.

Neptune was a town with no middle class; it had the uber-wealthy and the people who maintained their landscapes, cleaned their pools, who looked in from the outside at what they would never possess. Wealth, power and celebrity ran Neptune. The town was filled with toxic secrets.

The show was snarky, edgy, self-aware; it bubbled over with pop-culture references and oozed a gritty film noire vibe. It did those bubbling/oozing things at the same time. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Nine years later, Veronica has graduated from Stanford and Columbia Law School. She is with her long-term boyfriend, a month away from taking the bar, and interviewing at major New York City law firms. She is a calmer, mellower young woman, literally weeks away from leaving the hell-hole of her adolescence behind her forever. A call from Logan Echolls, the former angry-bad-boy flame from Neptune, calls her home just in time for her tenth annual class reunion. (This is to explain why all the other characters are there.) Echolls is in trouble. He’s been accused of killing his high-profile celebrity girlfriend. Veronica tells herself and Piz, the understanding boyfriend, that she is just going home to help Logan pick a good lawyer. We know better. We know Veronica.

With TV-show Neptune, Rob Thomas anticipated the Occupy movement and the anger against privilege by at least a year. Now, in the movie, things have gotten even worse. The police force is completely corrupt; private detective Keith Mars, Veronica’s father, is a deliberate thorn in their side. The movie expects viewers to know and remember the characters; the selfish, entitled surfer-boy, the conflicted sheriff’s deputy, the cheerfully slimy competitive private eye, Veronica’s two friends Wallace and Mac. Her other friend, a “PCHer” (Pacific-Crest Highway), Weevil, has gone straight, gotten married and has a beautiful little girl. In the world of Neptune, these are not keys to the kingdom, they are hostages to fortune. Most importantly, we all remember Logan Echolls; smart, damaged, passionate,  violent Logan, Veronica’s true love.

As in the show, the movie counts on a lot of voice-over narration by Veronica. Usually, voice-over narration in a movie signals trouble to me. Because this came straight from the show, and because Veronica’s rueful, snarky comments made the show, it fit right in here. Veronica uses the language of addiction and recovery throughout the movie. At first it seems as if Logan is the “drug” she thinks she has kicked, but as the story continues, we realize it’s not Logan, or at least, not just Logan. It’s Neptune. It’s fighting the taken-for-granted idea that certain people just don’t matter. It’s uncovering secrets; it’s facing down the spoiled, insulated, hypocritical people who perch at the top of a very steep pyramid.

As with the show, the mystery is layered. Mysteries in Neptune almost always are the fruit of some other dark, festering secret, and the movie is no different.

Enrico Colantoni played Keith Mars in the show and in the film. While I can’t remember ever seeing him give a bad performance, his interpretation of Keith Mars is one of my favorites. There was a one-second glitch in the film when he sounded a little too much like his character from Galaxy Quest, but I soon got over that. Francis Capra, Percy Daggs III and Tina Majorino are awesome as Veronica’s friends. Frankly, since Logan has grown up and settled down a little, and Jason Dohring has added some acting experience and gotten a bit of polish, I missed the rawness of the “old” Logan, but that is a mild nuisance, not a serious flaw in the film. Jerry O’Connell does a nice turn as a new sheriff more corrupt than the last.

When I watched the show, I remember thinking that the outright meanness of the students seemed over the top sometimes. Since then, I’ve been on Facebook and Twitter, and I see I misunderstood. Thomas nails the viciousness perfectly.

While I think someone who hadn’t seen the show would enjoy the mystery here, I recommend viewing at least the first season of the TV show if you want to see it. Don’t be confused; Veronica Mars is V.I. Warshawski or Philip Marlowe, not Nancy Drew. Neptune is no St. Mary Mead; it’s LA, or maybe Wall Street, in miniature. And this is one fine movie.

The Wind Rises

March 23rd, 2014 by Marion

Yesterday I saw  THE WIND RISES, an animated fictional biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese airplane designer. The film, conceived and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, adapted from a short graphic novel by Tatsuo Hori, is stunningly beautiful, with well-developed if sentimentalized characters and a perfect meshing of sound, color, visuals and story. I do understand why it didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, though. Leaving aside the style of animation, which was slightly more old-fashioned than films like FROZEN, I’m not sure the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is quite ready, yet, to give an Oscar to a film about the life of the man who invented the Japanese Zero fighter.

THE WIND RISES is breathtakingly beautiful and quite complex. The story does not steer away from the politics of pre-WWII Japan as much as try to show those politics from the viewpoint of a brilliant engineer who only wants to build beautiful airplanes. From the time he is a little boy, Jiro has wanted to build planes, and he is visited in his dreams by Giovanni Battista Caproni, a famous Italian airplane engineer. The dream-Caproni is suitably cynical about the use of airplanes. He tells Jiro that he wants to build planes that will carry people, but he knows they will only carry bombs. By the way, the beautiful and completely impractical water-based, multi-winged airplane shown in the film was a real thing: the Caproni Ca 60 Noviplano. and it didn’t fly in real life either.

Jiro is led through his life by two things. His idealized love of Nohoki Satomi, who he meets on a train on his way back to the academy in Tokyo is one. A huge earthquake derails the train, and Nohoki’s maid breaks her leg in the accident. Jiro helps them and leads them to their home, then leaves before they can get his name. The earthquake scene and the subsequent fire scene are terrifying and amazing. The film uses a sound halfway between a sigh and a growl to presage the fires; it sounds like a living monster threatening the people. The “aerial” scenes of Tokyo, with houses made mostly of wood, the streets thronged with panicked people, are amazing.

The second guiding force in Jiro’s life is the vision of a simple, graceful, powerful plane. The film touches on the economics of Japan; the lack of  metals, a contract with Germany that is bankrupting the Japanese, the fact that they bring their airplanes to the test fields on oxcarts. Jiro grouses that they are “twenty years behind” everyone else.

This movie should be seen just for the use of clouds. Clouds represent flight and innocence. Clouds become dark, luridly colored, to represent fire and later, war. The movie also uses wind constantly as a theme (not so surprising given both the name and the topic). We see the wind blowing hats and clothing, rippling the grass, but in one sequence, Jiro is inside drawing and through the window behind him we watch the wind make the awning billow. It’s a lovely touch.

Jiro is sent to Germany to learn more about all-metal planes, and later, at a Japanese resort during a holiday (where he reconnects with Nohoki) he meets an affable German man who is against Hitler, and against the war. In a later scene, the brass at Mitsubishi, where Jiro works, shield him from the Japanese military “thought police.”

The bittersweet romance with Nohoki is a large part of the story, beautifully drawn and richly written, but like Jiro himself, the movie is mostly fascinated by airplanes. The animation here is lush, but at moments it’s painstaking. We watched Jiro make notes and write down equations, and it looks like a live-action scene of  pen and pencil. This contrasts with the stylized scenes at a sanitorium in the mountains, and the beautiful wedding scene where Mrs. Kurokawa leads Nohoki to her bridegroom.

I can’t really comment on how accurate the film is because I know very little about Japan’s history during this time. The movie makes Jiro a hero, but he was probably already that. At the end, in another dream sequence with Caproni, Caproni asks him how the last ten years went. Jiro says,  “It kind of fell apart at the end.” Caproni says, “That’s what happens when you lose a war.”  They both look to the sky, filled with graceful white planes that look like birds, and Caproni says, “There are your Zeros.”  Jiro says, “Not one returned,” and Caproni replies, “There was nothing to come back to.”

This seems like a sad ending and the implication is that Jiro is dying. The next moment, though, he sees Nahoki with her parasol, waving to him. She tells him to live.

The theme throughout the movie is the poetic quotation, “The wind rises. We must try to live,” by French poet Paul Valery. This is the theme of the movie; but it’s also about dreams, and the nature of war.

By the way, Jiro did live, until the 1980s. He saw his country survive the American occupation and become a world leader for a time. He missed the “lost decade.” I wonder what he made of it all, the bespectacled boy who just wanted to build beautiful things that took flight.

How Low I’ve Sunk

March 22nd, 2014 by Marion

I’ve missed my Friday deadline, and I can’t think of anything to write… so here’s a kitty.

 

DSCN6123

2014 Nebula; A Buffet of Tasty Novels to Choose From

March 19th, 2014 by Marion

The slate of nominees for the Nebula for Best Novel is a wildly varied group this year; in a way, a buffet of the SFF world in general. There is an internationally best-selling writer nominated, and two debut novelists. In one case, a global publisher has arrayed its entire marketing apparatus in support of the book. In another, the book is self-published, hyped on the writer’s website, at Amazon and by word of mouth/ social media. In addition to newer writers, there are some who have been publishing novels since the 1990s. It’s a wild bunch, and even though the winner is probably a foregone conclusion, this batch of eight cries out for speculation.

I’ve read five of the eight; I’m reading a sixth and have the other two on order. You’ll be able to tell instantly which ones I have not read. I will post an update when I’ve finished them all.

Here they are:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. With The Jane Austen Book Club, Fowler made the leap from SFF to literary, and this book was reviewed as literary. It works well as a mainstream novel, but in one sense this is pure science fiction, as it studies the results of a scientific experiment on the family who were its subjects. No one disputes that Fowler is an excellent writer, but she misses the mark for a great many people. I think this is because her endings are often uncomfortable. With this book, I thought she asked the reader to make a huge leap of faith between the first two-thirds of the book and the last third. I was willing to make that leap, but it certainly jarred me out of the book for a nanosecond or two. Beside Ourselves asks hard questions, provides fascinating characters, and is well-written, but Fowler’s pretty far from genre these days, and the book is probably too quiet to be a winner.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s highly anticipated story about the nature of childhood, heroism and memory is winning plenty of awards. I liked this book a lot. I appreciated the voice; a man in his late forties looking back on a time in his early childhood. It’s brilliant but not perfect; for example, because of his POV character, Gaiman has to veer away from what could be the second-most dramatic scene in the book, and have it recounted to the main character later. Still, the only way it won’t win is if the voters suddenly all decide to go contrarian. I will be happy if it wins, but I won’t be heartbroken if it doesn’t. And, frankly, neither will Neil Gaiman.

Fire With Fire by Charles Gannon. This traditional military SF story has an interesting premise and some good action sequences. The “first contact” element is well handled. Characters are a bit flat, and the hero is a “Gary Stu”—a teeth-achingly perfect individual, never wrong, adored by women, adulated by men, admired by diplomats and chosen – or “Chosen”—by extraterrestrials because even they can see his greatness. The writing is good. At over 600 pages, this book is a bit too long for its story, especially since nothing is resolved at the end since this is the start of a series. This could win if the voters decide they want to return to the spaceship-and-raygun days of the 1960s.

Hild, by Nicola Griffith. Griffith’s historical novel about St. Hilda of Whitby has been well-received by literary reviewers, and gobbled up with delight by readers. I have not read it (it is next on the TBR stack). Griffith immerses the reader in seventh-century Britain and the life of this woman. There might be a question about whether it’s fantasy, which would hurt its chances.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. A debut novel, this is space opera that explores, deeply, the nature of consciousness and awareness – particularly, distributed consciousness. Along the way, it meditates on the uses of spirituality and the nature of empire. If Ocean doesn’t win, I would love to see Ancillary Justice pick up the award, because it uses a conventional science fiction framework to create something original and thought-provoking.

The Red; First Light by Linda Nagata. I have to order this one, too, and I will have to order it from Amazon, since it is self-published and not available to my two favorite independent bookstores. It is well-reviewed, also “space opera” or, more accurately, military SF.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. I’m reading this right now. Here’s what I can say; prose that shines like honey with sunlight streaming through it. There is an interesting story as our main character, Jevick, learns the secrets of the culture of Olondria. It could all fall apart at the end, but I’m betting it doesn’t. It’s beautiful, and it would win.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. The other book I wish would win. Yes, I know I shouldn’t wish for two books to win, but I do. Wecker’s debut novel is historical fantasy, a magical immigrant tale that follows a golem and a jinni in early 20th century New York City. The golem incarnates duty, while the jinni, a fire spirit, is all about desire, impulse and freedom. How these two interact is a beautiful tale written in exquisite language, introducing a cast of fascinating characters who share their own immigrant stories. The book, like Hild and Beside Ourselves, pinged literary radar screens and often got labeled “literary” rather than “fantasy”. I don’t know if that helps or hurts the book’s chances. Nebula voters may decide that they are going to have other chances in the future to award a Nebula to Wecker.

My prediction: Of course, I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane will win. It’s Gaiman. It’s cool. It’s another book that crossed genre lines and was well-received for the most part in the mainstream world, while hewing closely to its magical, fantastical roots. That may make it more attractive than the books that are shelved consistently in Fiction (Beside Ourselves, The Golen and the Jinni, Hild.) Beside Ourselves and Hild were published and marketed as literary novels. I don’t know what SFWA thinks about that. Wecker’s book had a more tentative identity, kind of a like a low-calorie snack; “It’s fantasy, but it’s literary! You don’t have to be embarrassed to be caught reading it!”

Of the old-fashioned space books, it’s hard to have an opinion without having read The Red; First Light, but I think the question is whether the story is well-realized enough and original enough to transcend a military SF genre.

The beauty of a buffet is that you can try little bits of new things and not be stuck with only one order. Except, how do you judge a buffet? The Nebula Weekend should be interesting this year.

Five Minutes

March 16th, 2014 by Marion

Friday was my first day with the writing group from VOICES, the youth drop-in center in Santa Rosa. I’ve been around VOICES since they opened a center here. I worked with some of the youth doing farmers’ market events, and I’ve walked for VOICES in the Human Race a couple of times.

Leading a free-writing circle is different though, and I was nervous. I took the indirect approach, just sitting with a pile of journals, some pens, and an open notebook in front of me, in the resource room, a long wood-floored room on the first floor of the Victorian the center is housed in.

It was hard to compete with Facebook, which is what most of the youth were checking on the three PCs that are available there. Jaye (I’m going to call her Jaye) joined me for the first timed writing – five minutes. She made it to four and a half, but Jaye is on staff there, and she got called away to lead a tour for a pair of social workers who had stopped by. A little bit later, Amber, the director, wandered through. She politely but firmly directed one of the boys, Alan, my way. Alan* had already been hovering around the perimeter. He is a writer, he told me, and a science fiction reader. Alan decided he was going to round up a few others (safely in numbers!). He and Amber went after the boys who had finished checking the internet and were hanging out in the hall. “Hey, get in there and do the writing workshop, why don’t you?” Amber said. It was an interesting approach, and apparently successful, because three young men, including Alan, came back.

I thought they might be resentful since Amber ordered them in, but it didn’t seem like it. Lee likes music and writing lyrics. He’s a big fan of rap. He wanted to write lyrics. I said that the point of a timed writing was that you could write anything you wanted. Kyle is a visual artist and “cook,” (not a chef, he was clear he was a cook). He dove right in when I set the timer and wrote away steadily (because, yes, I did cheat and look up now and then to see what they were doing). He didn’t want to share his work, which was fine, but he was willing to talk about the process.

Alan shared a couple of sentences, and so did Lee. Jaye rejoined us for a few minutes before she got pulled away again. I said later joking, that I had three and a half participants, and Jaye was the half, because work obligations kept intruding.

I had printed out five writing prompts, cut up the paper into strips and put the strips out face down. I let the kids chose. Surprisingly, we ended up with all the prompts that are more introspective and philosophical in nature: “In the Next Five Minutes,” (five minutes was the length of the writing); “Why I Write,” and “The Blank Page.”

Jaye’s take on “In the Next Five Minutes,” was about the nature of procrastination. The next five minutes turns into five days, five weeks and so on. As somebody who only completed her tax planner document today, I can relate! Lee took the approach of the number of thoughts and idea that fly in and out of his mind in five minutes, how he can’t keep up with them. Kyle said he imagined five minutes in the future, later in the day. Intriguing!

The timer I bought has a shrill beep that I don’t like. I told them we may have to put up with it for a while, unless I want to use my phone (or just do plain old-fashioned timekeeping). We got two done, and because we’d started late, I was at the end of my time. I said, “Well, that’s when I’m supposed to end, so…”

Lee said, “Can’t we just push through one more? It’s only five minutes.”

So we did.

The professionals at VOICES warned me to expect a slow start. I said I’d be happy with two and thrilled with three, so I think Amber might have taken that to heart when she was rounding up “volunteers.” I hope that they enough of a good time that they come back next week, and talk about it with their friends. It was an exhilarating experience, even if picking prompts is hard!
*All of these names are made up to protect privacy.

Anne, an Immigrant’s Tale

March 10th, 2014 by Marion


anne manley

Anne came to America with her father and sister when she was six. It was 1929. She had some memories of Germany. She told me about wanting to play outside in the winter and pestering her mother until she wrapped Anne up in sweaters, mittens, scarves and coats. Anne’s arms stuck out from her sides. It was hard to play, but Anne didn’t care. She wanted to be outside.

 

Anne’s mother left the family, apparently sometime after the move, since she is buried near Imola, California. Anne never spoke of her mother being with them in San Francisco. “She wasn’t able to be a mother,” Anne said to me once. “She left us.” She didn’t die until 1945, so I know Anne didn’t mean that. Anne’s father Arno was a patriot, a loyal German, the Kaiser’s man. In 1929 he could no longer stay in Germany. He told Anne and her sister Ermgard, who everyone called Emmie, that Hitler and his associates were thugs. The German people would not tolerate him for long, Arno knew. The move to the US, to San Francisco, was temporary.

Arno is buried in the same cemetery as Anne, in my home town in California. He never did return to the country of his birth.

Anne did manage to maintain ties, although they were tenuous, to Germany. She corresponded with some cousins, and later with a pen-pal. The letters were in English, in both directions. Anne no longer spoke or read German.

Anne and Emmie grew up in San Francisco during America’s Great Depression. They had it better than most. Northern California, particularly the San Francisco Bay Area, was never hit as hard as other parts of the country. Arno always had work. Both girls, though, grew up with habits that seem characteristic of the “children of the depression.” Anne sewed and made her own clothes all the time her sons were growing up. She saved things, reused things, made things works. The led to annual jokes about the reused wrapping paper, which was folded up and put away after the holiday, brought out in late November, ironed, and used again.

At the house, I filled two 13-gallon garbage bags with old wrapping paper, ribbon and stickers. I could feel the urge to keep some of it. It was pretty. I could use it. I utilized a brute force technique to shove it into the garbage bags so that I didn’t bring it home.

Her husband Ray was fourth generation American of English heritage. Ray and his brothers were hellions, and the navy was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. Anne, who was practical, beautiful and had a job, was probably the next best thing that happened to him.

Anne was careful with her money and when she and Ray got married, that carefulness continued. Some of it was required. They were trying to raise a family on a federal employee’s salary in the 1950s and 60s. Some of it was just their natures. They were frugal, Do-it-Yourself people. The result was this; at the end of her life, Anne had enough money to be able to make some decisions about her own care.

In 1942, Anne, her sister and her father were required to register as “enemy aliens,” a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. They had to carry papers and abide by a curfew. Her father, Anne told me, was shamed by this. He felt he was being tarred by the same brush as Hitler. “And I guess he was right,” she said. “We were.”

She and Ray moved to Sonoma County in the late 1940s, and bought the house in town in 1953. She lived there ever since, raising her sons, seeing her husband through his final illness, until the last year of her life.

Anne was the type of woman who took her identity from her husband. “I will be Ray’s wife until I die,” she told me once, about a year after he passed away. I nodded politely, sure this was the kind of thing widows said at a certain stage. In Anne’s case, it was true, and that was by her intention. Anne liked being the “Mrs.” of a “Mr. and Mrs.” couple. When Ray got involved with the Twin Hills Fire Department, she took on certain activities, such as answering the “fire phone” and calling the phone tree, in the days before 911 and automated tone-outs for volunteer firefighters. At her memorial service, one of the volunteer firefighters recalled a time he had stopped by the house to visit. He was talking to Anne when the fire phone rang. “I was scared,” he said. “My chair was between her and the phone. I didn’t know if she was going to go over the top of me, or through me.”

The volunteer fire department, especially the years that Ray was the chief, held some of Anne’s best memories. Of course, the memories of her boys were the ones closest to her heart. She filled scrapbooks with pictures, first black-and-whites from her little Brownie camera, later color from a Kodak, of all the early vacations. She loved pictures of wildflowers. Her older son had an entire scrapbook devoted to him originally, and Anne put in a picture of just about everything. By the time Spouse came along, that scrapbook had become pictures of “the boys,” and not every moment had to be memorialized. Spouse definitely got the better part of that deal.

*

Anne and I didn’t agree on everything, but we changed each other’s opinions on some things. We had a long talk one day about what I called marriage equality and she called gay marriage. “If they want to be recognized,” she said, “why is it that when two women get married, one always wears a man’s tuxedo?” In some weird way, that question made sense, in context.

I said first of all that she didn’t know that all women did that. She only knew the ones that made the papers; maybe scores of women couples got married and both wore pants, or both wore dresses, for that matter. She decided that was possible, but she doubted it. She did agree, though, that they should be treated just like other married couples. Three things contributed to this decision; my discussion with her of how different my finances were when Spouse and I got married; the influence of her two long-term neighbors, gay men, who were her friends for twenty years; and Anne’s innate sense of fairness.

In turn, she persuaded me that baseball might be fun to watch, especially the SF giants, and especially if it were the World Series.

Anne’s nephew spoke at her service about Anne and her sister (his mother) demonstrating the classic American immigrant story. They came here from a country devastated by war, on the precipice of another war. They endured hardship, but they worked hard and lived the virtues they were raised with; honestly, integrity, responsibility, charity. Anne ended up with two sons who are good men, and a circle of loving friends. I’d call that success.

Imagine My Surprise Update: Copperfield’s Book and the Nebula Nominees

March 8th, 2014 by Marion

(Note:  Chad Hull added some interesting, useful and slightly disheartening information in a comment to the original post. Chad*, thanks!  good stuff.)

I sent an e-mail to someone I know at Copperfield’s Books, talking about the Nebula nominees and how difficult it was to find them (any of them) at the brick-and-mortar stores. I was kinder than I was in my blog post. Vicki, my contact, who, among other things, plans the events for the chain (including the Neil Gaiman event last year,) replied in less than an hour.

She checked with the adult buyer and went through the list. While the Gaiman and the Wecker and Hild by Nicola Griffith are heavily stocked, they will probably order some more of Fowler’s book and the others. One, the self-published The Red; Station One is not available to them. That’s an interesting comment on the nature of self-publishing.

Vicki was delighted to see Helene Wecker’s debut novel on the list and said she might write something for the store’s website. I will have to check. Copperfield’s loves Wecker (and rightfully so), so I know they will do her justice.

In general, Vicki sees the problem of the books not being on the shelves as a symptom of the fact that every single genre can’t have an in-store champion. I agree with that assessment. SFF is a small genre compared to non-fiction, mystery or even romance/popular fiction. YA and children’s are hot markets and get a lot of attention. The issue of women’s SFF books being unavailable, then, is not one of misogyny directly; it’s about a distribution and sales system. This is exactly why it’s so hard to fight. If someone in Copperfield’s just thought that women had no business writing (no one who works at Copperfield’s thinks that, or ever thought it, I’m betting) then you could go talk to that person and show why that was wrong. You could persuade. You could march up and down outside the store. You could do something.

When it’s “the system,” it gets harder to address.

There is one thing some of us can do though. We can go into our local Copperfield’s and request books by the SFF writers we love. For many of us, many of those will be women writers.  I don’t see this as an ideal solution because Copperfield’s has seven stores. When there were two in the county, if six people asked for a book, it got noticed. With seven, if two people each go into their local stores, it’s still so diluted that I wonder who notices. The book-buyer, maybe, eventually, if they are ordering six or seven (or ten) more of a particular book. Well, it can’t hurt to try. Perhaps social media, like Facebook or comments to Copperfield’s via their website, would boost the signal a little bit.

Just as a start, in case you haven’t read them all, here is the list of Nebula nominees for 2013:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Ocean at the end of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Fire with Fire by Charles Gannon

Hild, by Nicola Griffiths (probably still in new releases)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The Red: Station One by Linda Nagata

A Stranger in Olandria by Sofia Samatar

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (newly available in paperback).

*And check out Chad’s blog, Fiction is so Over-rated, here.

 

Right as I Watched

March 4th, 2014 by Marion

“The Dark” is one of the stronger short stories I’ve read recently. In a collection with a number of strong ones (Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See) “The Dark” is still a standout.

I don’t know why this story moved me more than the title story, or the strange and wonderful “The Last Worders,” a story about a set of twins who travel to a mysterious European (or Central American?) country to force  a man they don’t know to choose between them. Both of those stories hold elements that recur and are expanded in Fowler’s latest novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. “The Dark” is gentler than the harrowing “The Pelican Bar,” Fowler’s meditation about what North Americans do to children they have labeled “out of control.” Maybe it’s just a more conventional story, more of a fairy tale and less of a puzzle, although it’s hard to call “conventional” a story that blends tales of feral children, plague epidemiology and the tunnel wars of Viet Nam.

The story begins with the report of a couple and their young son, Paul, gone missing in Yosemite in the mid-1950s. Neither they nor their remains are ever discovered, but other campers during the early ‘60s experience theft of food, attributed mostly to raccoons. The narrator is a doctor, an expert in epidemiology – pandemics, specifically. He and his team are studying a case of bubonic plague in Yosemite park. He has interviewed Caroline, the teen-ager who came down with the disease, and she tells him she saw a feral boy in the park. He doesn’t think much of this, until he sees the boy himself. He and his colleagues capture the boy, who can’t be more than thirteen and is small for his age, and turn him over to experts in Sacramento. He visits the boy a couple of times, but when he begins to investigate Paul’s original disappearance, he is told the boy died suddenly of a seizure.

The story shifts to Viet Nam, where the narrator is immunizing American soldiers who go into the network of tunnels between Viet Nam and Cambodia. The tunnels are filled with rats and there is a theory that the North Vietnamese are releasing infected rats, a kind of biological warfare. All the soldiers, who are also “tunnel rats,” have stories about someone called Victor, not Victor Charlie, military slang for the Viet Cong, but a small Caucasian man who appears when a soldier gets into trouble. The narrator is understandably skeptical until, in the tunnels himself, he encounters Victor in person.

Fowler provide fascinating tidbits about how plagues move (killing off rats means only that the infection-bearing fleas move to other hosts, like humans, driving the plague deeper into the human population). It seems as if this shouldn’t have much to do with a modern retelling of a feral child story, until the very end, when the narrator brings in a tale about a German village in the 14th century, bringing the story full circle.

Fowler’s images are powerful for their precision and the lack of fanfare that accompanies them:

“I saw the coyote on the fourth day. She came out of a hole on the bank of Lewis Creek and stood for a minute with her nose in the air. She was grayed with age around the muzzle, possibly a bit arthritic. She shook out one hind leg. She shook out the other. Then, right as I watched, Caroline’s boy climbed out of the burrow after the coyote.”

The voice of the narrator, a wise and good man looking back with regret, perhaps, to a time when he thinks he was neither, drove this story. He stays with me, as he looks back, examining a life that was changed by events he cannot explain.

Imagine my Surprise

February 28th, 2014 by Marion

I’m not a crusader. I’m an observer. When I get involved in an issue, I usually try for reason, persuasion and incremental change. Often I just stay on the sidelines and watch with ill-disguised amusement.

That’s where I started during the last Science Fiction Writers of America dust-up. The Petition Affair started as a meal of poorly reheated leftovers from last year’s scandal. One quick skim of the “chef’s” eight-page treatise was enough to convince me that he was the kind of person I’d dealt with way too many times in my job; a person desperate for attention and relevance with no way to get it except try to fluff up a fight about an issue already resolved.

Then a male employee from MacMillan Publishing weighed in on sff.net, attacking one of the women members of SWFA (a former board member); referring to her as “nobody you need to have heard of.”  Well, there are lots of writers, and lots of science fiction/fantasy writers, and you may not have heard of all of them, it’s true. This particular one, Mary Robinette Kowal, in addition to being an articulate assertive woman with strong opinions about equality, fairness, and openness, also happens to be a Hugo winner and Nebula award nominee.  If you read the field or plan to write in the field (especially, but not only, if you’re female) it wouldn’t hurt to have heard of her.

When I read his comments I felt that old, all-too-familiar pinch in my gut. Honestly, I haven’t felt it in a long time, like maybe a couple of decades, but you never forget it. It means it’s personal.

He said a lot, but here’s what he meant; “She’s a woman. She dared to disagree with me. She should be silenced, her work shouldn’t matter.”

So, in 2014, when I carry a Star Trek communicator in my purse and can watch the crazy antics of cats from as far away as China, we’re back to this.

*

sebastopol sff section

All of this is a long way of saying that I decided in March I would focus my science fiction and fantasy reading on women writers. I know, I know, why not writers of color, immigrant writers, gay writers, etc? Because I have a short attention span and can pretty much only focus on one group at a time, that’s why.

I thought about recent award winners and good writers (and sellers) in the field and decided I’d go looking for the following:

Rachel Swirsky

Aliette de Bodard

NK Jemsin Jemisin

Mary Robinette Kowal

Catherynne Valente

I added a few more names to my list as backup and walked down to my local independent bookstore, Copperfield’s, to buy a few books.

Imagine my surprise when I could not find a single book by any of those writers.

They did have a reissued edition of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a book so dated it would probably read as a parody now. They also had the omnibus reissue of The Man Who Sold the Moon and The Sky Orphans, which is ranked at 51,515 on the Amazon Best Seller ranking.

So, classics then, right? No problem. I’ll just go over here to the L’s and see how many Ursula LeGuin classics they have. Oh. Well, there’s one, Wild Girls.  Left Hand of Darkness, ranked 14,973 at Amazon, not here. The Dispossessed, ranked 14,370 on Amazon, not here either.

The impression a person might have, browsing the Sebastopol store’s SFF section, is that not many women write fantasy or science fiction.

(Wild Girls, LeGuin’s Nebula-award winning novella, (thank God for PM Press, a small San Francisco based press that keeps things alive), was faced out. This is a bookstore merchandizing ploy and it means someone at Copperfield’s knows how important LeGuin is to the field and to readers. Connie Willis’s award winning novel Blackout was also faced out. The store has at least one fan on staff.)

Those Amazon rankings are based on Amazon sales of total books, not by genre. For example, Fifty Shades of Gray is ranked 55. The King James Version Study Bible (leather cover) is ranked 8,650. The Land Across, by Gene Wolfe, is ranked 452,829. It is a long way from a complete picture, but it is a handy snapshot.

Let’s look at those classics, though, especially this nostalgic desire to sell us Heinlein books. Heinlein was a SWFA Grand Master. So was LeGuin. Heinlein won 3 Hugo awards and 1 Nebula. LeGuin won 1 Hugo award and 4 Nebulas. LeGuin’s book are ranked higher than Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, which Copperfield’s had on the shelf. They are not ranked higher than Stranger in a Strange Land, but I didn’t include Kindle rankings, so actually, that could be closer than I thought. (Stranger came in at 8,300 on Amazon.) Anyone who thinks that LeGuin and Heinlein were equals at their art should re-read both of them. Heinlein was great fun, especially his juveniles. LeGuin created realistic, exquisitely crafted worlds and asked questions about the human experience that we are still pondering.

Sebastopol is a great town for books, but not a great town for science fiction, so perhaps it wasn’t the best sample. Copperfield’s has seven locations: Calistoga, Napa, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol and San Rafael. I wasn’t going to visit all of them. This is a rant, not a piece of investigative journalism. Next stop, though, was Petaluma.

petaluma leguin

Petaluma is the book chain’s flagship store. Where Sebastopol’s SFF section is two gondolas, Petaluma has four. Their large graphic novel section comprises another two gondolas. Because the section is better in general, women writers do better here. For example, I could buy The Dispossessed, Left Hand of Darkness and Lathe of Heaven at the Petaluma store. (I bought The Dispossessed; definitely time to re-read.) I couldn’t find the Earthsea Trilogy in this section, though. There was one Kowal book; Glamour in Glass.

No Swirsky, no Valente. They did have Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois Macmaster Bujold. They had a recent CJ Cherryh novel. Petaluma also had Ilona Andrews, the pseudonym of a husband-and-wife writing team, so that’s 50% of a woman writer. No Jemsin. No Aliette de Bodard. They had the third book of Anne Lisle’s fantasy trilogy set in Elizabethan England. They had those same two Heinlein reissues.

They had Wesley Chu’s fun techno-fantasy, The Lives of Tao.  So did the Sebastopol store. The Lives of Tao is ranked  27,187 on Amazon. That’s pretty good. There’s a science fiction novel called Ancillary Justice that’s getting a lot of buzz right now. It’s nominated for a Nebula. It’s ranked 7,800 by Amazon. A woman named Ann Leckie wrote it. None of the three stores I visited had it. About this time I dropped Aliette de Bodard out of the list, not because I’m not interested in reading her, but because the list was getting unwieldy. And her books did not show up anywhere. If they had, I would have included them.

My last visit, since I had to go to Santa Rosa anyway, was the Copperfield’s in Montgomery Village. This is a small store, and the SFF section is no bigger than Sebastopol’s, with almost identical results. No Cherryh, no Swirsky, no Kowal, no Valente, no LeGuin. They had the Heinlein books, though. They get bonus points for having one Caitlin Kiernan book, under her pseudonym of Kathleen Tierney.

I wasn’t going to drive all the way to Healdsburg in the rain, but I did make a call. Katie was very helpful, running down a list of books I requested. Because she can look system-wide, she could tell me if any store had the books I was looking for.

Here’s my list and her responses:

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. No, but they’ve had it in the past.

The Bread We Eat in Dreams, by Catherynne Valente. No, no one in the chain had it.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois MacMaster Bujold. No, but the Petaluma store had it.

How the World Became Quiet, by Rachel Swirsky. No, no one has it, and it’s not a book they would carry, although they would special order it. Thus the mystery of why this smart young writer’s books aren’t showing up in my home town is solved.

Anything by Mary Robinette Kowal? Why, they just sold Glamour in Glass and she could get it for me from another store.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula LeGuin. Yes, they have it.

Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. Yes, they have it.

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu. Just sold the last one.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Yes, they have it.

I’m not picking on Copperfield’s. Copperfield’s is still an independent bookseller. They do better than Barnes and Noble, which is the other choice in our county. B&N has an entire row of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy, which seems to be where they think women writers belong. Ancillary Justice and Glamour in Glass are Nebula nominees, written by women, and you won’t find them if you drop into these bookstores and just browse the shelves.

But it’s just market forces, right? Apparently not, not when the male writers who are represented are outranked on Amazon by the women who aren’t represented. No, it’s not market forces. It’s bias. It’s probably unconscious bias, but bias nonetheless. Subconsciously, men and women both feel that the space for SFF, already tiny, belongs to certain men, and that only token women (or anyone else) should be allowed in. The name of this unspoken assumption that men are entitled to the space is actually called “entitlement,” and it explains why certain men get so angry when a woman in SFWA dares to suggest that all writers in the organization should be represented.

If some daring Copperfield’s clerk secretly back-roomed a few  of the multiple copies of a George RR Martin novel, or some of the Jordan pastiches, and added enough women writers so that the percentage was, let’s just say, 30%, how do you imagine customers would react? I have a pretty good idea. It would not be positive.

Who does this hurt? Well, it hurts bookstores.

Yes, of course it hurts women and anyone else who has been designated as “other” by the entitled few. Yes, of course it hurts young writers, and readers. More about the readers in a moment. Primarily, it hurts brick-and-mortar stores and I’m not sure why they don’t see that.

I’m a woman who wants to read women science fiction and fantasy writers; maybe just the ones who are nominated for awards; maybe for political reasons; maybe on a lark, like, “I loved Patricia McKillip when I was in college, do you have anyone like her?” My bookstores do not, although they’ll gladly order something for me if I already know what it is. If I’m going to go home and check around online, browsing review sites and Amazon instead of walking through my bookstore, which, by definition isn’t a “community” bookstore, since it has excluded such a large part of the community, why wouldn’t I just order the books that intrigue me online? Why go back to a store that doesn’t offer what I want?

How does it hurt readers? Because you’re being cheated out of good books. If you enjoy military science fiction or space opera, why shouldn’t you have a chance to read the Miles Vorkosigan series by Bujold? If you love epic fantasy, shouldn’t you be able to find Paladin of Souls, by the same author, or The Killing Moon by NK Jemsin  Jemisin?

If you love China Mieville’s playful juggling of language, you owe it to yourself to read Swirsky or Valente, if you can find them.

If you liked Mark Hodder’s alt-Victorian steampunk adventures, you should get to read Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, which combines crackling adventure with a study of the real social, political and economic changes that flow from one simple change in history; the length of the American Civil War.

Speaking of Priest, if I can find Chu’s The Lives of Tao in every Copperfield’s I visit, why can’t I find Priest’s urban fantasy, which blends the action and banter of Chu’s books with well-defined characters and good prose?

Guys – and by “guys,” in this context, I mean males – this is about you losing out. Why are you putting up with this?

I’m sure if I took this question public I would get all kinds of explanations about 1) how my experience is wrong, and 2) it’s all market forces, and 3) Amazon is not a valid source (well, duh!), and 4) publishers/distributors/booksellers are just giving people what they want, and 5) women don’t want to read/write SFF anyway… or the books aren’t science fiction, or they aren’t good, or something. None of that is true. By all available yardsticks; awards, sales, and reviews, women’s science fiction and fantasy books are as good as men’s. They still don’t get on the shelves.

But the books were there, they just sold! They just all sold out. Maybe that is true. If I go into one of those stores next week and find the shelves in the teeny-tiny SFF section stocked with women award winners and nominees, I will be sure to update my blog.

What’s the solution? For me, maybe the solution is a local one. Maybe it’s an e-mail to Copperfield’s, asking them why women SFF writers don’t get shelf space.

Or maybe we could do more. Maybe in March we could make more phone calls like the one I made to the Healdsburg store. Maybe several clerks in several stores, having to say, “No, we don’t have that Ursula LeGuin title,” will make an impression.

Of course, as part of my three-store quest, I bought books. Two were by LeGuin. One was by Anne Lisle. One is a short story collection edited by John Scalzi. One is by Richard Kadrey. I’m not an absolutist. I’m asking a question. I just want an answer.