Rose Red Review, Winter 2014: response 1

Living up to my demand that bloggers actually review SFF instead of just telling us how it should be done. Though I am not good at the straight review, more at musing about things… anyway, the boom in SFF short story publishing has apparently not been accompanied by anybody paying the slightest bit of attention to the stories once they are published. So I think it’s important for those of us who read neglected journals to post something about what we found there, even if we’re not the world’s best reviewers.

The winter issue of Rose Red Review contains 6 short stories, one piece of flash fiction, and ten poems. I had no idea fantasy poetry was such a big deal nowadays!

I’ll divide my reviews into several posts, because I am long-winded. And I get off-track and wonder about things that have nothing to do with the stories, so perhaps these should be taken as responses rather than reviews.

Image by Sakimori, from The Art of Animation

Nova and the Moon by Ani King – I read an essay last month that claimed modern fantasy was very heavy on stories that used fantasy as symbolic representation of everyday emotions. Say what? I thought, and then I picked up this story, which the essay could have been written about. That’s not a criticism, as the fantastic elements worked very well to evoke the dreamy, springtime feeling of youth.

This story made me think of Prairie Home Companion, with its deftly sketched small town characters. I don’t often read fantasy set in grocery store checkout lines! I especially liked the forcefulness of the shop owners. Without them I would have lost patience with the two lovers, who definitely needed several good kicks to get them started.

The only fantastic element in this story that couldn’t be viewed as symbolic was the shop owners’ feathers, and they didn’t seem to play a major role in the story – which made them a little uncomfortable-feeling. That element bugged me, because if it were real it would be important and the world would be different.

What did I take away from this for my own writing? Definitely the use of fantasy tropes to evoke the wonder-filled, romantic feeling. But also, that fantasy isn’t a good in itself. Nothing was gained, for me, by putting something in that only served to say ‘yes, this really is fantasy.’ It just raised questions and expectations that had nothing to do with the story’s main point.

The Fire People by Rebecca Harrison – This story interested me from the beginning, since I’ve just finished a novel in which tale-telling is a major point. The child’s response to stories here seemed completely authentic. What struck me most was that the grandmother’s stories aren’t described as having plots, only settings. They evoke the night wind, the slice of desert laid out on a green field. And what the children draw from the stories is also settings and objects, rather than plots. They wait for statues to come to life, or for hidden passageways to open.

I found this tremendously true to my own experience – that stories were more about what was in the world than about what it did. As a child, I felt I could supply all the plot needed if only that passageway would open! And indeed, these children do supply the plot when the fire people they’ve dreamed of actually appear.

The gradual appearance of the fire people is what’s stuck with me a month after reading this story. The hints and sightings, the period when they hovered at the edge of reality…

The second half of the story, the adventure, didn’t entrance me as much as the first part. It had more of a classic fairy-tale feel to it, the clever girl’s plan working without any explanation of why she thought it would work. This gave me a lot to think about, because that is definitely a potential weakness of the fairytale format. In this case, it made the second half of the story feel a little less real than the first half.

This is something I see so often in fantasy, both in written and graphic form. The parts of a story or picture based on our own world are often clearer and more beautiful than the actually fantastic parts. In this story I could see the shafts of sunlight in the weaving room far more clearly than the firelight inside the glass palace. Of course, that’s because I had less memory of glass palaces to draw on, but how can a writer compensate for that most effectively?

Both of these stories reminded me that what we want from fantasy is that sense of something rich and strange, that the wonders of the world are not closed off from us. And that a big part of that sense, at least for me, comes from uncertainty and longing. The tone of a story changes when the fantastic becomes real and has to be dealt with.

Perhaps this is why there are (if there are) so many stories nowadays in which fantasy is mainly symbolic. Perhaps we are trying to re-enchant this world, rather than get out of it into another one?

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You’ve told me how, now show me why

pickled fishes in specimen jars

I am the only person who was ever inspired to go snorkeling by this image (from the Australian Museum)

tank of tropical reef fishes

This, on the other hand, inspires everybody. 'Reef tank' by Janine. Used under Creative Commons License.

In the last two weeks alone, I saw three articles on blogs I follow about how to write realistic female characters. But how many of those bloggers review books that contain realistic female characters?

This seems to be a pattern. I wrote to a blogger who waxes large about the need for feminist SFF, asking her to review one of my works, and she responded that she never reviewed feminist novels. Blog posts ask for recommendations of genderqueer fiction, but are the suggested works ever mentioned again?

The fact is, the business of telling writers what to do seems to be way, way bigger than the business of celebrating writers for having done it. So we end up with lots of talk about feminism in SFF, and a whole generation of female SFF writers who have been dropped out of the field’s history. We have people whose image of reading non-traditional authors is based on categories rather than on enthusiasm, who respond to the suggestion that they read non-white-male authors as if they were being asked to slog through social science textbooks rather than being invited to open a new chest of treasures.

And why shouldn’t they feel that way when the articles they see keep presenting the same basic writing advice over and over, as if people can only write diverse characters by laboriously ticking off boxes on a checklist and making sure to avoid problematic tropes? When we keep hearing what we ought to do, instead of how much fun it was to read a book that had done it?

I want everyone who writes an article about how we should be writing women, or any other kind of character, to also write at least two reviews of books that exemplify that skill. Not just tacking on a list of recommended books at the end of another advice column but seriously engaging with one of these works, making it the focus rather than just a tossed-off example of the real topic of the article, paying more attention to the actual characters in all their specificity and variety than to theories and analytic structures.

( Something like this, from nerds of a feather. Now, didn’t that make you want to read something?)

Actually reviewing the books is the only way to convince authors like me that we have anything to gain from heeding all this advice, and it’s the only way to convince skeptical readers that books with diverse characters in them are really enjoyable.

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And to make it even worse…

I was the only person at my club’s discussion of The Worm Ouroborus who thought its ending was horrific. Everyone else had a nice discussion about the history of fantasy and Norse mythology and mountain climbing, while I sat in a corner bleating “But what about all those poor peasants?” at intervals.

I’m still disgusted with the book. Somebody has to have written a follow-up about peasants caught in some noble’s dream of endless warfare, and how they got out of it.

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Cue Bitter Laughter

Well, I did it. I persevered all the way through The Worm Ouroborus, though it seemed endless (yes, I know what I did there).
I said to myself, ‘The writing is so beautiful, and eventually this stupid war nonsense has to end and he will tell us a story worth reading.’
You may all laugh at me now.

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Something English teachers should probably not do to innocent authors

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From Ann Leckie:

“…the “rules” and advice about what does and doesn’t sell and how stories ought to be is safety railings and nets that you think are helping you, except they’re actually keeping you from doing the thing you really need to do, which is to jump off the fucking cliff.”

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Sometimes it all just fits together

Yesterday my class discussed Munchausen Syndrome by proxy.

Then I came home and read an article about how Rachel Swirsky had spit in the faces of working men everywhere by writing a story in which three anonymous characters in a bar beat somebody up with pool cues.

Then I read another article about how Neil Gaiman had spit in the faces of people with PTSD everywhere by naming his newest collection of stories ‘Trigger Warning’.

Then I read a few chapters of Sense and Sensibility and went to bed.

And I thought, “All in all I’ve had a pretty cohesive day.”

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Happy About Sad Puppies

The Sad Puppies are back again, putting forward their slate of nominees for the Hugo awards. I haven’t read any of them, or any of the other slates that have been put forward (except for one story that had absolutely no fantasy or science fiction in it, but was about a lake I’m fond of). I probably won’t read any of them. My book club is doing The Worm Ouroborus, and it looks as if I’ll be enmeshed in that for the foreseeable future. But wow, am I enjoying the Sad Puppies brouhaha!

You see, for years now I’ve been feeling less and less comfortable even on the fringes of the SF community. I have a high tolerance for academic criticism – I write fantasy set in universities, after all – but it has been exceeded. It’s seemed every year as if only certain opinions about things SFnal should be voiced, and I never quite understood what the current versions were.

In the past year alone, far more established and more savvy authors than myself have written about being made to feel unwelcome at conventions because they wanted to openly discuss certain policies, about not attending any cons at all until the infighting died down, about ‘dodging a bullet’ by refusing to comment on what was happening, about being ‘disappeared’ from movements they helped establish. Every year it’s seemed as if there were more career-wrecking mistakes to be made, until I began to feel that the best thing would be for nobody to even notice my books at all.

So to have the Sad Puppies charge in, slamming the doors open and trampling the eggshells with their muddy boots and making raucous, unapologetic demands that we pay attention to their brand of non-cautious fiction — suddenly the SF I once knew is back! By which I don’t mean the particular SF they write, for I haven’t read it, but the SF with the wide horizon, in which you could play with any idea that interested you. The SF where you could find lock-and-load he-men on one shelf and books about five-gender anarchist societies on the next; where unwashed barbarians rubbed covers with witches and dragon-riders and starship designers, and where the authors of all that stuff were treated as individuals with imagination, not exemplars of political positions.

The SF where it was all right to just have fun. The SF where you could breathe.

So I say, go Sad Puppies! But I also say, one Sad Puppies movement is not enough – it’s too easily turned into a binary, progressives-vs-reactionaries story. We need eight or ten more movements like this; a big, colorful, noisy chaos of creativity and invention. After all, shouldn’t a field that does worldbuilding be at least as big and vibrant as the world?

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BookRiot Reading Challenge – BINGO!

One of my FB friends dared a bunch of us to do the BookRiot reading challenge. But her rules said we couldn’t share the names of the books we read until the challenge was over, so it has caused an almost complete shutdown of book discussion.  This was probably to keep the rest of us from being completely crushed by the member who has finished it by now. Still, here I am reading all this stuff that I cannot name till August… plus, it’s taking up the time I might have spent reading stuff I could review on my blog.

OTOH, I’ve pretty much given up naming the books I review. I get all my desire to grade people taken care of at work. So here’s where I am on the reading challenge thus far, with no names. Well, one name.

A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25 – DONE. OMG jejune. So many pages of ranting against the evils of church and state, in almost-iambic pentameter. Tiresome tiresome bored bored bored — but it will also count for the ‘before 1850′ item, if I don’t find anything else I like in there.

So, just to cover myself, I am reading a second book written by a young author. This one is an absolute classic that nobody would believe I had not read yet, and it is just as good as that would indicate.

A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65I found one, I downloaded it onto my kindle, I read the first few pages. It has a setup similar to Suds in Your Eye, one of my all-time faves — but so far the characters have not popped.

collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people) – I have several of these hanging around. One of them looks pretty good, actually.

A book published by an indie press – Having trouble figuring out what counts as indie. Self-published? If so, I’ve got ‘em.

A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ – I found a book that was touted as the first by a trans person for a trans audience. It’s pretty good – though I can’t tell how much of its salient points are trans specific and how many are age specific. The first half was much much angst of the young, and the second half has started out with even more angst and an even younger protagonist… we will see.

A book by a person whose gender is different from your own – duh. I mean DONE. But in case I use those for other categories, I just downloaded something by one of the Sad Puppies authors. Manly fiction.

A book that takes place in Asia - I’m about halfway through a fantasy police procedural set in Singapore. It’s fun, it’s well written, it’s not jumping up and down yelling ‘READ MORE OF ME NOW!’ but I might recommend it for a book group I’m in, so I will finish it sooner rather than later.

A book by an author from Africa – I read several books from Africa over the past few years and was getting this ‘same old same old’ feeling whenever I looked at the reviews of new ones. Am I just unable to find a diversity of books from Africa? I thought, and was mightily relieved to find an African author complaining about the same thing. So I have given myself a pass on reading another book about ‘war/famine/abuse/murder is all that happens in Africa,’ and found a sequel to one of the few feel-good books from Africa I’ve read. I’m sure I’ll read this one and enjoy it.

A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans,Aboriginals, etc.)

microhistory – OOH OOH I FOUND THE PERFECT ONE. Somebody in my field! Somebody from a fantastic time in my field! Somebody who created one of the coolest museums ever!

YA novel – It would be harder to avoid reading a YA novel.

sci-fi novel – DONE. And I found a medical/physiological one, so there. Nobody’s tricking me into reading about spaceships.

romance novel

National Book AwardMan Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade

A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.) I have one on my kindle. Actually I have two. I could have fifty if I wanted, but two is enough. Take my word for it.

An audiobook - I got one of my book club books on audio, so this will happen at its appointed time. Gotta love scheduling!

A collection of poetry - Found one – a poet I’ve never read a whole book by, but I’ve loved everything he had in anthologies.

A book that someone else has recommended to you – DONE, and enjoyed and irritated by and even blogged on.

A book that was originally published in another language – DONE, and that is the very last time I get a book recommendation off of Jezebel. 400 pages of unadulterated meh.

A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind – more of a challenge than I expected. If only a new Castle Waiting book would come out! I just do not feel like reading any of the mildly sickly near-horror steampunk things that seem to have taken over so much of the genre, nor do I want to read something earnest about Real Life ™. I have read enough graphic novels to be sick of most all the tropes, and all the manga I follow are done except for Skip Beat

I updated to remove a recommended author’s name here, because I read the newest book and was so not happy. But at least this category is now DONE.

A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure – DONE. Is it cheating if it’s a rediscovery of something I read parts of when I was 10 and browsing through 1890 issues of ‘Harpers Young People?’ If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

A book published before 1850 – DONE. So, so done. See above.

A book published this year – I have two on pre-order. You don’t get any more this year than that, do you?

A self-improvement book – sort of done. And actually acted upon! … though it lost me when it got to the part about standing my socks on edge.

So, there I am. Further than I thought, and six months to go! Eat my dust.

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NOT meaning I have too much to do. The artistic kind of over-working, where something is touched up with a fine brush until it loses its brio.

I spent my vacation in a seaside town, which meant I got to visit lots of galleries of seaside art, both by amateurs and professionals, and what struck me most was the difference between over-worked art and confident art. Confident art identified the most important aspects of the image and put them on the canvas or paper with skilled, straightforward strokes, left to stand on their own. In over-worked art (like most of my own paintings) you can see where the artist went back and corrected, corrected and corrected again, usually with a too-fine brush.  Instead of a shape caught on paper, the painting becomes about the paper itself and those little tiny brushstrokes.

The same thing applies to writing, especially to characters – and most especially to protagonists, and most of all to female protagonists.

I just finished reading a book which I enjoyed a great deal, mainly for its brio. Its dangerous beasts moved so fast you could feel their speed as they slashed open their prey! Its villains struck before you could think, and the consequences were real and drastic. Its settings were blocked out just enough to show their beauty and difference, its secondary characters surprised me in delightful ways… but its female protagonist was over-worked, doubtless in the interest of making her likable.

Villains, dangers, settings and secondary characters are, you see, allowed to be what they are; but female protagonists must be Good and Likable. You can see the teeny tiny brush strokes all over them. Has she considered her own class and how it advantages her? Let’s have somebody give her a little lecture on it. Did she pay any attention to the plight of the servants? Let’s have her future self look back at her attitude with condemnation. Shouldn’t a good woman have tried to get to know the people in that village? Let’s add a subplot in which she realizes they would have benefited from doing so! Did she really kill things to study them? Yes, and her older self will explain why that’s acceptable. Is she sexually liberated? Let’s put in an aside about her prudish editors.

Little by little the woman’s shape is obscured by all this tinkering and improving and what could have been a fascinating character becomes a surface of little brushstrokes, where the author’s attempts to fix what probably never needed fixing are more noticeable than the original idea. So I end this novel not sure if I want to read the sequel, because I really don’t understand who the protagonist is or how she might grow and blossom.

If only she had been put down in broad, confident strokes, allowed to stand on her own and take whatever judgment the reader made!

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