Sunday, November 1, 2015

the lake haiku

between November
storms the lake stretches, settles,
breathes in out in out

Saturday, October 31, 2015


My carvings this year.

And the things that go bump in the night (or day).
The neighbors...
These people go all out. :)

Even the spiders are in the holiday spirit.
Happy Halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Small masterpieces: The stories of Kij Johnson

At the Mouth of the River of Bees is an astounding collection of stories. I rarely read short stories, preferring novels, and although I have loved some shorts, I have never read an entire collection that took my legs from under me like this did. Kij Johnson is without doubt a master of this form.

 Even more surprising is how different all the stories are and how each has a resonance felt after the last sentence. She never loses the thread of what the story is truly about. The emotional payoff of The Man Who Bridged the Mist is a thing of beauty. 26 Monkeys is clever, yes, but not a gimmick--it is deeply satisfying. The stories are so powerful I remember each one just looking at the titles.

Warning: one story, Spar, is definitely way too much for children or prudish adults, but if you are neither of those it is a brave piece of writing, going beyond inhibition into pure being/surviving.

Johnson puts her characters in strange, alien, off-kilter places but never loses the core of what it means to be human, to navigate the waters of life.

Disclaimer: I recently took a Clarion workshop with Kij Johnson, which was a day well spent. I had already read most of these stories and formed an opinion of her powerful skill. Meeting her did not change this review, it just made me admire her more. And, for the record, she brought up 26 Monkeys, saying she wrote it disjointed like grief is, a string of momentary details adding up to something bigger.

A writing snippet from Monkeys: No one seems to know how the monkeys vanish or where they go. Sometimes they return holding foreign coins or durian fruit, or wearing pointed Moroccan slippers. Every so often one returns pregnant or leading an unfamiliar monkey by the hand. The number of monkeys is not constant.

From Wolf Trapping: It was after midnight and nearly pitch dark. There was a full moon somewhere overhead, but heavy clouds concealed most of the sky. The wind was stronger, pushing loose snow along the ground in needling waves. There would be no way to follow her tonight. She would have to find her own way home.

For my writing friends here are a few nuggets Kij offered in that workshop:

Her goals--To change how people see something. Make it immersive enough they are carrying it with them, so they lose track of time and reality and the story comes out into the real world with them.

How weird can something be and still be accessible?
Understanding the mechanics of real life fiction is essential to understanding speculative fiction.
In an estranged, alienated experience, we are playing with the fact the readers know what we are writing is not true. We should start out slow, gathering information. She gave an example of Hunger Games--"We don’t start with Panem, we start with being hungry."

She noted that mainstream fiction also gets the need for setting. The first thing the reader is going, 'oh my god where am I and what do I need to do?'

And that needs hyper-precise focus--for instance, the character isn't seeing the whole spaceship but this moment, this room.

She discussed novum--the new thing that changes things. And that isn't one thing that's different but lots of things. "You have to bring something else, something they haven't seen before or a deeper place they haven't been before."

Friday, October 2, 2015

Collaboration super power

Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti spoke at my local indie bookstore, Third Place Books, last night, and, well, it left me panting to go to a pub with a couple of writer friends and brainstorm. That’s how their collaborative YA book, ZEROES, was born.

“We met at a pub every week for about four hours,” Westerfeld said. “We drank beer and talked about super powers. As you do.”

Okay, I’m all smiles by now.

I’ve long been a fan of Westerfeld’s imaginative storytelling. When I was first learning how to write a novel (as opposed to nonfiction, which had been my career), I studied his three-part organization of UGLIES, a book I adored for its biting view of societal constructs on physical beauty.

And Lanagan’s lush descriptions and haunting tale swept me away in BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND. I can still feel that place somewhere deep in my bones.

I’m not familiar with Biancotti’s work, because she’s published mainly in Australia. All three writers are winners of prestigious awards and come from Sydney.

 Biancotti had worked on a television show and fell in love with the writing room model, where writers bounce ideas off each other. “It was so much fun, so much more energizing and invigorating,” she said. “The ideas got crazier and weirder and more awesome.”

 Lanagan, who’s a literary writer of spec fiction and winner of four World Fantasy Awards and two Printz Honor books, said she spends most of her time writing alone, sometimes coming to the end of a draft to find it’s flat. But with this collaboration she said, “You have this sort of instant testing lab. You watch ideas disintegrate…or float rather beautifully.”

 Westerfeld calls collaboration a super power of the human species, and said when the three of them worked together it was like a hive mind. And that resembled somewhat how the characters in the story they were creating worked.

 In ZEROES, six teens have powers that set them apart, and they need each other to survive.

Each of the three authors wrote two of the characters, and they are proud that readers who know their styles couldn’t figure out who wrote what. “We did kind of breakdown each other’s styles,” Lanagan said. “We referred to it as the fourth voice,” Biancotti added.

One of the characters, Anon, is particularly interesting, because no one, not even the other Zeroes, can remember him. Westerfeld described him as the character from the film Momento turned inside out so that instead of the character having short-term memory loss it happens to the people around him.

All the characters were born in 2000, hence being zeroes, and they’re “internetty,” according to Westerfeld.

Will the three authors return to writing alone after they finish the Zeroes trilogy? Well, they all have projects of their own but plan to use skills they’ve learned working together. Biancotti said she’s a lot braver now. “I’m playing dare with myself.”

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Laini Taylor's epic storytelling and glorious writing

At 613 pages Dreams of Gods & Monsters could easily have been divided into two books, but I’m not complaining because this final book in Laini Taylor’s trilogy is epic and touched me deeply.

Epic as in heroic, majestic, and legendary—masterful world-building and character arcs. And on top of that it retains the joy, whimsy, and gorgeous lyricism of so much of Laini’s writing, including the playfulness of the relationship between teen friends Karou and Zuzana that began the trilogy.

 The moments when characters say or think funny asides breaks the darkness and feels authentic despite the otherworldliness of portals in the sky, warring angels, and killed chimaera brought back to life with stolen teeth and bone and the personal pain of the resurrectionist, who is Karou. In another life, she had saved the angel Akiva on a battlefield and fell in love with the enemy, starting a shift in the world.

The story tackles the impossibly huge concepts of good and evil, of bigotry and learned hatreds, of the steely strength of love (of all kinds) in the face of pain and horror. We’re talking torture, rape, genocide.

 And all the while, despite treachery, betrayal, and gut-wrenching loss, the characters dig inside themselves and keep moving forward, sometimes utterly alone and sometimes with the help of others.

A great way to get the scope of this journey is from the simple (and simply devastating) lines that open each book in the trilogy:
 Book 1: Daughter of Smoke & Bone: “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.”
 Book 2: Days of Blood & Starlight: “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil held a wishbone between them. And its snap split the world in two.”
 Book 3: Dreams of Gods & Monsters: “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil pressed their hands to their hearts and started the apocalypse.”

Upon the structure of those lines are built intricate societies and worlds beyond imagining (well, not beyond Laini’s imagining). And love that is truly epic.

I don’t want to give away the story, but I recommend the series to any reader who loves fantasy with deep layers and gorgeous writing.

 (My Goodreads timeline says I started this book a year ago, and although I bought the glorious hardback then I didn’t read it until now. Life was beyond busy, and I didn’t want to start such a long book until I had time to read it through. I’m glad I waited because I was able to lose myself in it.)

 Here’s a sample of Laini’s lyrical and unsettling writing: ‘In the Far Isles it was night, and the new bruise that blossomed in the sky would not be visible until dawn. It wasn’t like the others. Indeed it soon engulfed the others—all of them lost in its dark sprawl. From horizon to horizon it spread, deeper than indigo, nearly as black as the night sky itself. It was more than color, this bruise. It was warp, it was suction. It was concavity and distortion. Eidolon of the dancing eyes had said the sky was tired, and ached. She had downplayed the matter.’

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Secrets of Selkie Bay, middle grade built of love

I wish I could be about 10-years-old again so I could discover Secrets of Selkie Bay as a kid, curled up with the book, lost in the magic on the pages. I did that anyway even though I’m long past childhood (on the outside only). This latest middle-grade novel by Shelley Moore Thomas stole my heart.

On the first page Cordie Sullivan’s hollow pain is clear as she says her mother is gone and her father can’t or won’t say where she is because “there just aren’t that many words left anymore.”

Cordie, 11, is left to watch over her two younger sisters, one still a baby, while her father tries to find enough work to keep food on the table. She takes on responsibility beyond her years: “Someone had to pick up, since Da left his things everywhere—socks that were on the floor and never found the hamper, and waterfalls of blankets that trailed down the side of his unmade bed.”

After a couple of months, Cordie finds a letter addressed to her from her mother tucked in an old copy of A Child’s Book of Selkies, a collection of folklore about seals that sometimes become human. The letter says Mum doesn’t want to go but must. And here the magic weaves into the story. Are selkies real? Is their mother a selkie gone home to the sea? Is that why she had to leave?

The fishing village where the Sullivans live cashes in on selkie lore during tourist season, but Cordie is skeptical. Her sister Ione believes fervently that their mother has gone to the secret island she once tried to show them. Aside from the mystery, the story delivers realistic sibling relationships, parents with flaws but lots of love, and a nudge toward respecting nature.

 I love so much of the writing—crisp, moving: “Facing west toward the waves, we stood and did the only thing we could think to do . . . Just us, the three Sullivan girls, crying our seven silver tears into the sea and letting them float atop the foam, hoping they would bring our mum back to us.”

 There is a surprise at the end. I could easily have read more, but I’m pleased that the magical elements remain elusive, leaving the reader to wonder and question. There is no question at all about the power of love, which is the heart of the story and shines on long after the final page is read.

Highly recommend for middle-grade readers. Disclosure: Shelley is a friend I met through blogging, Twitter, and face to face at SCBWI.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Crooked River, great title, satisfying read

Crooked River is such a great, evocative title for the debut YA novel by Valerie Geary. The setting of this story is a strong character in its own right taking the reader to a secluded meadow along a river in Oregon where two suddenly motherless girls live with their eccentric father in a teepee.

 The story is deep and crooked and wild like the river, opening with the girls finding a dead woman floating near the “best swimming hole this side of anywhere.”

Beautifully written, it’s told in alternating chapters from 15-year-old Sam’s perspective and 10-year-old Ollie’s. The girls have been traumatized by their mother’s recent death and seem detached at first. Sam finally decides they should do something about the woman. Ollie says nothing at all.

When Sam tries to pull the woman from the water she loses her grip and the body is sucked away. “I splashed in after her but stopped when the water reached my knees. Heavy spring rains and melting snowpack had turned Crooked River into a thundering flood. Boulders protected our swimming hole from the violent current, but past that, where I stood now, the river gathered itself up again...”

 After the woman disappears, Sam thinks maybe she hadn’t been real. “But my heart was thumping so fast it hurt and the hair on my arms stood on end, and I could still feel her cold flesh under my fingers, still see her face, her hollow eyes staring up at me. She was as real as real gets, and we had lost her.”

 Loss is a recurring theme in the story. The girls’ father disappeared from their lives for years without explanation. Their mother died without warning. They are confronted with violent death, as well as a real threat of losing their father again as a murder investigation focuses on him. Sam is torn between her love for him and a distrust born of past experience. Ollie is battered by something no one else knows is happening—she sees the ghosts of the dead, following, clinging, whispering.

 I was captivated by this atmospheric story start to finish. There are moral dilemmas, secrets, lies, heartbreak, and trauma. Sam trying to protect her father by withholding evidence makes the case against him stronger. The girls sometimes are crazy reckless trying to prove their father’s innocence, but I understand the desperation and that kids learn as they go, making costly mistakes, as we all have done.

The ending doesn’t tell the reader what happens to all the players, but it doesn’t need to. What it does is deeply satisfying, bringing us back to family, love, and a special place where nature continues its cycle of renewal, as do the humans who dwell there.

 I can’t complete this little review without mentioning the bees. Sam helps her father care for his beloved hives and sell the golden honey, which sent me to my honey jar with a spoon more than once. (The Secret Life of Bees had the same effect on me.) All that talk of honey. “…warm and fresh from the hive when it tasted like all the best parts of summer melting sweet on your tongue.”

This story is going to stick with me. I highly recommend Crooked River for teens and adults. (Disclosure: I’ve never met Valerie in person, but I know her through blogging and Twitter)