Child of a Hidden Sea, by A. M. Dellamonica

Review copy provided by Tor.

I love portal fantasy. Drop somebody through from our world to a different world, and I’m pretty much with you. Cheesy, corny, whatever other State Fair food adjective you like: sure, whatever, don’t care, I’m there. Add to that the fact that I’ve read and enjoyed Dellamonica’s work before, and I was on board for this book from the start.

Which is a good thing, because I will warn you: I found the start pretty rocky. Compared to the rest of the book, the prose is a bit choppy, and I took awhile to care about the character we were actually spending time with (as opposed to the mentioned backstory characters, who seemed frankly more interesting–and did show up later). Sophie’s transportation to the alternate world lands her in the water, and that level of disorientation is difficult to show–especially when you’re trying to throw preceding backstory at the reader. I recommend perseverance, because things improve swiftly.

The premise: Sophie loves her adoptive family like crazy, but she’s still curious about her birth family. When she goes looking, things get wild very very quickly. There’s an angry birth mother who wants nothing to do with her, there’s an aunt who’s slightly more reasonable, there are people attacking the aunt, there’s transit to a watery world of ships and weird magic tech and different species of bug and bird and sea critter, with variable languages and national customs…and the variable languages and national customs matter. A lot. If you’ve ever complained about books where it was raining on such-and-such an entire planet, Dellamonica has your back.

And when you get a whole new birth family, fighting with itself and from more than one culture, you get a whole new set of enemies, free of charge, home grown just for you! Sophie at least gets to go home and get some of her gear and her (adopted) brother Bram to help her out, but mostly she wins through by her wits and her mindset, and the said mindset involves things like collecting and observing evidence. So really, I’m very glad I kept on through the first chapter, because that’s catnip for me. I hope there’s more. I hope there’s lots more. There’s room for it.

Copper Magic, by Julia Mary Gibson

Review copy provided by Starscape Books.

Michigan in 1906 is a pretty easy sell for a YA fantasy setting for me, and I have a feeling it might be for several of you, too. Violet Blake is 12 years old, and her mother and little brother have left her alone with her taciturn cherry-farming father. The small town in which they live has a spiffy resort hotel that has drawn a newfangled photographer–a newfangled lady photographer–and Violet gets to be her assistant.

All this is because of–maybe because of?–a copper hand Violet finds that grants wishes. And is ancient and Indian, but that’s okay, because so is Violet. (Well. Not ancient. Just Indian.) Through her mother’s side of the family. And all the Indian/Native American characters care about nature, in a vague and unspecified way, and….

Look, this book is very readable. It’s fun to read, and there are some pretty good bits, particularly as Violet figures out that intentions don’t actually count for all that much compared to what you actually do–especially when you have no excuse for not following through with real actions. But I really felt like Gibson leaned pretty heavily on her own intentions when it came to the Native American characters in the book. They were very much a string of tropes about Caring About the Environment without a lot of real impact to that. There wasn’t a lot of depth to the old-time photography, or the ecology, or the First Nations tribe portrayed, or any of the elements that the marketing copy touted. I’m having a hard time finding a balance of how to talk about this book, because there were real consequences for Violet’s actions, and that was good, and I sat down and read it without much pause, so really there was that type of appeal. On the other hand, a bit shallow in handling of speculative and cultural elements. Fun, readable, but not amazing. Would like to see whether Gibson goes deeper with later work or whether this is what she was aiming for.

Completely unsatisfying 4th St. con report

Look, folks, I’m terrible at con reports. I never take good panel notes, and I feel like I’m name-dropping if I list the people I talked to. Worse, I feel like I’m name-dropping incompetently, because I’m sure to forget some of my favorite people and make them feel like they aren’t valued, which is just plain unacceptable. So we can’t have that.

But Fourth Street! It was a Fourth Street! And Fourth Street is my favorite con. I am an introvert, and I like very chewy nerdy theory conversations. The single-track mode of programming at Fourth Street sets that up perfectly. Everyone is pretty much in the same place, where you can find them easily, so there is no wandering through hordes and hordes of people looking for the ones who might be talking about things you like. There they are. If you’re looking for one in specific, there’s a very limited number of places that person might be. And the conversation is not limited–it’s very far-ranging, in fact–but it does tend to have all sorts of ready-made entry-points from panels and the little extra things that spring up around the official programming.

This was the first time I’d done anything like the writers’ seminar that precedes Fourth Street. It was basically like being on panels solidly from 9-2:30, with one fifteen-minute break in the morning and one hour-long break for lunch. Lunch was provided–which was good, because by the time lunch rolled around, I was literally shaking with exhaustion/hunger. (Keep in mind that I was really sick for the week preceding the con. Wednesday was the first day I was well enough to shower standing up. Thursday was the first day I was well enough to wear clothes. Then Friday I did the seminar! Um, go team!) So having the lunch provided was great…except that it was with the seminar participants, so it wasn’t really down time per se. I’ve talked to the organizer, and things will be slightly different next year, to allow for value for the participants while still allowing the seminar leaders a minute to themselves.

Every year I try to encourage people to come to Fourth Street. This year is no different. Every year I meet new awesome people. Every year I reconnect with some of my old awesome people, and lament the ones I didn’t get enough time with (both at the con and the ones who couldn’t make it). Seriously: think about this con for next June. There are all sorts of ways to stretch and grow as a writer. Fourth Street is one of them. I came back with six pages of notes for different projects, ideas that had been sparked by things various people had said. It’s that kind of con.

One thing I remember saying on one of my panels that I do want to repeat here: I was talking about how my agent reacted (well! she reacted well!) when I told her I’d been struggling with some health stuff. I said something like, “Everyone in this room deserves to work with people who treat them ethically. All of you. You deserve someone who treats you like a person, with consideration and respect.” That was not actually meant to be limited to that room. Wherever you are in your career–whatever your career is–you deserve ethical treatment, consideration, and respect from the people you work with. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. It matters. There was lots of theorizing and arguing about craft and story and art, and all that is important. It really is. But I really want that point to be heard, because sometimes I think those of us who have been striving for something in the creative professions can want it so badly for so long that we can lose sight of other considerations, including some incredibly important ones.

Anyway. It was Fourth Street, it was lovely, and then I came home and found that I’d sold my 4H kids in space story to Analog. It’s called “Blue Ribbon,” and it’s much darker than it sounds; these things happen. Anyway, it was a great ending to a great con. You should think about coming next year.

No book post this fortnight

I usually do a mid-month book post, but I have been so sick the last several days that I am just now sitting up in 15-20 minute increments instead of 5-10. (Let’s not talk about standing up. Whoever came up with this whole “standing up” idea is a jerk. And pointy food: why is all good food pointy? Argh.)

So! For June, I will do a whole-month book post at the end instead of two for halfway, and meanwhile I will go sprawl on the guest bed with good pillows and reread things and not infect anybody and drink water and continue trying to convalesce in time for Fourth Street.

I am usually crap at this convalescing wisely thing, but I am being handed a complete lack of choice here.

Items! of! Interest!

First, Alec and I have a story in the September 2014 Analog, “Calm.” The author copies arrived late last week (making the fourth pro magazine I had a piece in last week, eep, what a week!), so it should be hitting stands soon-ish.

Next, my Fourth Street schedule. I’m one of the people doing the pre-convention seminar, along with Steven Brust, Elizabeth Bear, and Seanan McGuire, but that’s already closed, so if you’re doing that, you already know about the times and topics. For the convention itself–for which you can still get memberships! June 20-22!–here are my panels:

Saturday, June 21, 2014 11:00 AM – The Influence of Anxiety How do our fears and worries affect our work, and what we can do about it? How does that change when our anxieties are rooted in brain chemistry and the usual run of nostrums and advice to writers prove ineffective?
Sherry Merriam (m), Stella Evans, Scott Lynch, Marissa Lingen

Saturday, June 21, 2014 5:00P – In and out of frame In fantasy, as with stage plays and magic tricks, a key skill is directing the reader’s attention. What are some examples of successful (and less successful) attention direction and sleight of hand and the motivations behind them? Are there certain topics it’s easier or harder to guide readers toward (or away from)?
Marissa Lingen (m), Catherine Lundoff, Liz Vogel, Maurice Broaddus, Pamela Dean

At least, that’s how it was listed when I got the initial email from the programming chair. I believe that Maurice Broaddus had something come up so that he couldn’t make it, and the programming chair was going to ask a member who had bought a membership after he first figured out panelists to take Maurice’s place. As far as I know, the program has been set but has not been posted to the website–but when I saw that Catherine had posted her panels, I thought, yes, what a good idea, so here are mine.

Good things, early June

1. Apex Magazine’s June issue is out, and in it my short story The Salt Path. Go, read, enjoy. This is one of the good times when I went back and reread it and discovered that I actually did write the story I wanted to write. It’s in the same mental framework as my Tor.com stories have been, in case that matters to somebody other than me.

(Okay, in case it matters to somebody other than me and Alec and Timprov.)

2. Speaking of Timprov, now that the Kickstarter has succeeded, those of you who didn’t get in on it–or possibly didn’t order enough copies of the book or prints–can pre-order copies of the book or order copies of prints here.

3. Speaking of things that are shiny and gorgeous, Elise is having a shiny sale. I have already bought some of the wonders, but I generously left some for you! See how I am nice to you and want you to be happy? Go. Be happy.

Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century: Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, by William H. Patterson, Jr.

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

You would think that Robert Heinlein was a writer who could, if he chose, offend plenty of people all on his own without any help. But he has not been left to his own post mortem devices in this! Oh no! No, he has the assistance of William H. Patterson, Jr., to make sure that no stone is left unturned if it might have creeping, crawling things under it that represent stomach-turning levels of ignorance to pass off on the reading public as somehow relevant to the first SFWA Grand Master’s career.

Oh, sorry, maybe I should start this review more straightforwardly: I did not like and do not recommend this book.

Let’s go with the paragraph that brought actual tears of rage to my eyes:

They [the Heinleins] had both fallen in love with the northern countries on their earlier trips, but Finland (which does not consider itself to be “Scandinavian”) was special even among them, with a national character of fierce resoluteness–sisu–that precisely suited their mood on this occasion. The Suomic “do what must be done” was the only attitude that a free people could possibly take, living next door to the Soviet Union. The Baltic states–Latvia, estonia, Lithuania–did not have it, and they had been eaten up by the USSR.

That last piece of toxically inaccurate drivel, friends, has no footnote. No. Footnote. That is not Robert Heinlein talking in any sense. That is William Patterson slandering the people of the Baltic states–using Finland to do it, no less!–on his own hook. For fun. Because it suits his own political agenda to declare, ex cathedra, that if only they had wanted it badly enough, the facts of geography and political support of the 1940s would have been different for those small countries. He knows less than nothing about the Singing Revolution. Nothing about the resisters who went to the camps or who lived in the forests resisting Soviet rule for years and in some amazing cases decades. He knows nothing about what the west did on behalf of Finland–“brave little Finland”–that it never once considered doing for any of the Baltics. No. William Patterson was an American of the Baby Boom generation who decided that what a biography of Robert Heinlein most needed–what people reading about Robert Heinlein most needed–was to have lies about these people just tossed into their reading material for giggles. Because, you know, most people who pick up biographies of mid-century science fiction writers read reams about the history of the Baltic region and can easily have this kind of blatant falsehood countered rather than lodged in the back of their brain as the truth about the people of this region.

Most of my regular readers know that I am a serious Finnophile. I find it all the more offensive to have Finland used as a club on other countries that did not have the advantages of geography and political support. This is just wrong. I used up all my obscenities on this yesterday when I was reading, and believe me, I used many. Today I’m left drained. Today I can just say: this is so very wrong.

I wish that was only one thing. I wish that was the only time that the staggering arrogance of Patterson’s ignorance made itself known in this volume. But alas. If I was the sort to write in books, the single most common thing I would have written in the margins of this one would have been, “Who asked you?” When Patterson was reporting that Heinlein decided to vote for Eisenhower in 1956, he notes, “He was not a Republican, but he voted for Eisenhower–probably the least harmful choice that year.” Who asked you? Seriously, who needed this bozo to be patting his biographical subject on the back at every turn? And on what grounds? What research did he do other than reading Robert A. Heinlein on the subject? Here’s another of Patterson’s un-footnoted long-winded political digressions:

Perhaps there had been embedded in Roosevelt’s New Deal the seeds of this current leftism that was softening the brains of otherwise bright and well-intentioned people, who seemed not to realize that they had conceded important intellectual and moral ground to that stunted and malign child of socialism, as Wells had called Lenin’s and Stalin’s Communism. America’s leftism now had no room for that strain of American progressive optimism and benevolent patriotism that married love of country to love of the great ideals of the Founders, that went back to the last century, through Emerson and back even to that old Puritan thunderer Jonathan Edwards.

This is notable because 1) again, this is all Patterson, not a word of it Heinlein; 2) Heinlein was himself a New Deal Democrat; 3) citation, please? What exactly makes Patterson an expert of any kind on the state of the American left or the Democratic Party as an institution at mid-century or in fact at any time? He can tell you how Robert Heinlein was feeling or at least writing about it, certainly; he had unprecedented access to the letters that would do that. But to just bloviate about what America’s leftism had or had not room for: pics or it didn’t happen, basically.

And this is sprinkled throughout, sometimes in a phrase or two and sometimes at far, far greater length. We are treated to an expansion of Heinlein’s view of Joe McCarthy in which, Patterson opines, “the worst that happened was that some people had reputations blackened, possibly deservedly if they had in fact been engaged in treasonous activities.” (Loss of livelihood to Americans exercising their Constitutional rights of free speech and free association: eh, whatever, no big, as long as William H. Patterson Jr. still finds them suspicious. Nor does he feel the need to actually look into what happened. Reading one single reputable book on the matter would be too much to ask; he’s got pontificating to do.) His citation of Emerson is particularly hilarious given that he’s not at all clear who and what Fourier influenced in American politics, even given a footnote to expand on the matter, and the surrounding material about European liberalism or lack of same is not worth the paper it’s printed on. And again: who asked him? As fascinated as we all are with the 1848 revolution, why on earth does it belong in a Heinlein bio that is already bloated in two volumes?

Various places in the book, Patterson cites Heinlein’s letters feeling that America had moved to the left without him after the Second World War. However, Patterson expands upon this at length and adds his own feelings about it without citing a single political position that would support it. I spent a pretty good chunk of yesterday reading platforms and campaign speeches for Adlai Stevenson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just to see if I was completely mad, and the single place that I could find where Roosevelt looked considerably less “leftist” was on the matter of race–where Patterson is careful to cite letter after letter showing that Heinlein was pleased at the direction of the Democratic party away from segregation. So what would a responsible biographer do here? At most, a responsible biographer merely says that this is how Heinlein felt. It’s also responsible to interrogate that feeling–to say that this is how Heinlein felt but to note an inclarity as to why he felt that way. Patterson does not. He takes it as given that everything, everything Heinlein felt must be right.

Even in non-political issues (or inter-field political issues), this leads the biography to be a lesser work than it could have been. For example, in writing about a falling-out with Ben Bova over an Alexei Panshin review of Expanded Universe, Patterson does not apparently contact Dr. Bova for any memories he has of this incident. Last I saw or heard, Dr. Bova was alive and well, and his perspective could at least be noted. If it was so “clearly polemical” and “simply malicious,” why did Bova commission a “hatchet job” of one of the most notable writers in the field at the time? Patterson doesn’t care to know–even to dismiss the point of view directly. For him Bova’s point of view simply doesn’t exist. The only place that Patterson notes anywhere that Heinlein might have been wrong is in a dispute with the L5 board over SDI, where he notes that the situation was “more complex” than Heinlein was predisposed to see it. Everything else gets a rubber stamp–not only does Heinlein apparently learn better, he never fails to learn better.

That’s not biography, it’s hagiography.

And the worst of it is, some of this stuff is going to get attributed to Heinlein. Some of this stuff is going to get attributed to Heinlein by the people who think he could do no wrong, and some of it is going to get attributed to Heinlein by the people who think he could do no right, and especially it will be attributed to Heinlein by people who think that he is a symbol of everything right-wing about America today, whether they personally love it or hate it, whether he actually said or thought any such thing. Patterson had unprecedented levels of access to Heinlein’s papers. He could have written a real biography. With the first volume, it almost looked like he was going to. And instead this. It has immensely detailed information about what Heinlein wrote when, which drafts were called what and how they developed. In places there are the sketched outlines of a touching portrait of how a married couple can work together as a team for the benefit of the career of one of them. It’s just interspersed with a pointless, ill-informed, and occasionally sickening slog through What William H. Patterson Jr. Thinks Of Every Damn Thing (Without Actually Looking It Up).

(The most hilarious line of WWHPJTOEDT(WALIU): when he was shocked, just shocked, that even some figure skaters might not be nice people. Golly. Even some figure skaters? If you can’t trust the profession that brought us the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal, indeed, what profession can you trust? That was twenty years ago. No one has any excuse for still thinking that figure skaters are all sweetness and light. Twenty. Years. Yeah. We’ve got some real depth going here, people.)

Books read, late May

Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History. This is one of those wrenching books that you want to think hard about whether you want to read or not. It’s a history of the gulag system in the Soviet Union. It does not pull punches, and it’s well-researched, and…I already said it does not pull punches. Some people should hold and perpetuate this knowledge. I am glad this book exists. But it is very much not an easy book. If you think that what you’re writing is dark and grim, go read this book and find out what a piker you are compared to Stalin. Otherwise…well, think it over. (A note: Applebaum has a habit of falling into the language of the people she’s writing about, so occasionally there will be a reference in authorial voice to a “Chinaman” or a “Balt,” which, seriously, Applebaum, cut that out. But still generally worthwhile.)

Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross, The Children of Kings. It’s been years since I read a Darkover book, and I fell right into this one like it was yesterday. The Dry Towns! Not enough about the Dry Towns previously. This one skimmed the surface a bit, I felt, but still, fun time, felt very retro.

Alice Cholmondeley, Christine. Kindle. Technically this was from early May but got left off the list accidentally. It was a piece of propaganda for the British during WWI, purporting to be letters from a young British woman who had been studying violin in Germany before the outbreak of hostilities, exposing the deficiencies in the German mindset. It was…interesting that way, very overt. Apparently it was not believed very long in its pen name (Alice Cholmondeley) even at the time; the real author is Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, which really gets to be a lot of names for a handful of letters to Chris’s dearest little mother.

Deborah Coates, Strange Country. Discussed elsewhere.

Paul Cornell, The Severed Streets. Discussed elsewhere.

Helen Cresswell, Bagthorpes Battered and Bagthorpes Besieged. The last two books in the Bagthorpe series, and they are not a patch on the early ones. Now there’s only one I haven’t read. I still recommend the early ones (they’re British comedic family books), but these are fairly skippable. They’re also an object lesson in setting a time period and sticking with it. William, the eldest YB (Young Bagthorpe) is a ham radio operator, which had very different characterization implications in 1977 when Ordinary Jack came out than it does for Bagthorpes Battered in 2001–having them stay “roughly contemporary” just doesn’t work. The Bagthorpes do not have cell phones and the internet. Just…no. Also, the more phoneticized Daisy dialog we get, the more it’s clear that her personal idiolect is not at all how a 4-year-old would talk or consistent or even very funny. And these are fairly extensively Daisy-filled. Should have left us with more Grandpa, Jack, and Zero. Ah well. I’m not sorry I read them, but I’m a Bagthorpe completist. They’re hard to get in the US, and the rest of you will not be missing much if you stay with the first six or so.

Gavin Francis, Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins. There was a little bit of too much monkey, not enough penguin here, proportionally, but there was enough penguin in absolute terms to keep me happy, and also I don’t mind polar monkey stories. I actually sort of like them when they’re not getting in the way of penguins, especially when they’re not a rehash of the same explorer tales. This is short and reasonably pithy. And, y’know: penguins.

Ursula LeGuin, Searoad. Reread. I remembered liking these stories about various people in the same small town in Oregon, but I didn’t remember much about them. I think it will probably be the same again in a few years–people run seaside town motels, people get into and out of relationships, and having lived in Oregon the summer before I read them the first time gave me a pleasant grounding in place for what she was trying to do, but none of it bit deep for me. Worth keeping and revisiting but never going to be my favorite LeGuin.

Sharon Kay Penman, A King’s Ransom. About halfway through I began to wonder whether it was a sound notion, basing a book around the portion of Richard the Lionheart’s life when he needed ransoming. But spoiler alert: he is not still languishing in need of ransom. Whew. More seriously, the book did pick up despite a sagging middle, and I’m not sorry I read it, but probably you won’t want to start here; there are plenty of other Penmans that are better places to begin if you’re looking for a thumping big historical thing.

Melanie Rawn, Elsewhens and Thornlost. Discussed elsewhere.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Planet on the Table and Other Stories. Reread. These sort of prefigure the things he’s done since, and they were pleasant enough to read, but none of them really jumped out at me individually. I don’t think I’d recommend Robinson mostly as a short story writer, at this point. If you’re feeling completist, there’s nothing wrong with this collection, but if you’re not already familiar and enthusiastic, this is probably not the place to start; they’re very much of an era, and the themes get better developed in novels later. Also, despite the title and his later career, it does not look from this vantage point like a very strongly environmentalist work.

Patricia C. Wrede, Wrede on Writing: Tips, Hints, and Opinions on Writing. Kindle. Pat’s blog is substantially more focused than this one. It’s about writing, and pretty much only about writing. This book, Wrede on Writing, is the refinement of years of blog posts, organized and revised for your edification and set forth to be an actual book on writing. I read it in part because I’m one of the seminar leaders for Fourth Street this year, and I wanted to be able to talk knowledgeably about it for the seminar. I expect it will be particularly useful for the beginning writer, who will find all manner of things, practical advice on actual work but also how to run writing as a business and things like that.