Category Archives: books

Turtleduck Press Cover Reveal: Shards

I’m excited to unveil the new novel release from my indie publishing house, Turtleduck Press. Shards, by Kit Campbell, is an urban fantasy/paranormal romance featuring an inquisitive Latina university student and a handsome guy who’s keeping supernatural secrets…secrets that have to do with her, and with a past she doesn’t remember.

Intrigued? Here’s the cover:

Shards by Kit Campbell

Shards comes out on December 1, and Kit will be guest posting here that week. In the meantime, you can read more about Shards over at Kit’s website.

(Apologies for the brevity of this post. I’m deep in the throes of novel editing…)

YA Gothic Novels

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba BrayJane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. “The Fall of the House of Usher”. All classic Gothic stories from the nineteenth century. But Gothic has never really gone away…or if it has, it’s baaaack (dun dun dun). This week on the blog, we’re looking at recent Gothic novels in YA.

Gothic Tropes

To recap from last week’s post, here are the main Gothic tropes:

  • An old, decrepit mansion in the wilderness.
  • A mysterious, emotionally distant master of the house (or sometimes mistress, if it’s not a romance).
  • A young woman (such as a governess) who is new to the scene.
  • An orphaned/unwanted child or children living at the house.
  • A terrible secret (sometimes supernatural).
  • The mood of horror, usually related to a moral transgression (such as a murder).

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Libba Bray’s 2003 YA novel A Great and Terrible Beauty is a good example of all the main Gothic tropes.

The central character, Gemma, loses her mother early in the book (and her father is unable to care for her, so she’s essentially an orphan) and is sent away to a boarding school in the woods, run by a mysterious headmistress who knows more than she’s saying. There are secrets that Gemma must unravel, an old chapel, and supernatural goings-on. And there’s a mysterious, distant love interest.

There’s even a new teacher to stand in for the governess, although usually the governess is the POV character. In this case, being YA, the story focuses on the (quasi-)orphan instead.

Bray’s novel explicitly explores the theme of last week’s post, the Gothic and the feminine. In the story, Gemma and her friends discover a form of magic that stands in for, and ties in with, their chafing against the restrictions of Victorian society and their awakening as women. They’re curious about love and sexuality, but there’s no approved outlet; they’re desperate to control their own lives and feel empowered, but society won’t permit it. Magic gives them freedom — but with limits and dangers attached, because this is a Gothic novel, after all.

(I should point out that this is the first in a trilogy. Books 2 and 3 are titled Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing.)

A Gothic Reading List

Other recently published Gothic novels for YA readers include:

  • Sharon Cameron – The Dark Unwinding and A Spark Unseen (steampunk)
  • Leanna Renee Hieber – The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, and The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess (another boarding school story, or at least that’s where it starts…)
  • Kenneth Oppel – This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent (retelling of Frankenstein)

Your turn! Do you like Gothic stories? What do you like about them? What books can you add to the list?

The Gothic Novel and the Feminine Touch

In celebration of Halloween, we’re talking Gothic fiction this week. That’s a big genre, ranging from Mary Shelley to Edgar Allan Poe. But what I’m particularly interested in are stories that exemplify the core of the genre — novels like Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw.

What tropes do these stories have in common? Here’s a clue…

This recent edition features Heathcliff at his most, er vampiric.

This recent edition features Heathcliff at his most, er vampiric.

Gothic Tropes

  • An old, decrepit mansion in the wilderness.
  • A mysterious, emotionally distant master of the house (or sometimes mistress, if it’s not a romance).
  • A young woman (such as a governess) who is new to the scene.
  • An orphaned/unwanted child or children living at the house.
  • A terrible secret (sometimes supernatural).

As with all horror, there’s something wrong in the setting — a moral transgression that has resulted in something terrible. The young woman has to solve it and right the wrong. The master is mixed up in it — it’s his secret, though usually some of the servants are helping him keep it. Sometimes the young woman and the master are involved in a romance, which can’t be consummated until the secret is uncovered and robbed of its power.

Clearly Gothic stories are highly gendered — think of the young innocent woman (and children) in danger, or the brooding Gothic heroes like Rochester and Heathcliff. But more than that, it’s always a woman coming into the man’s house.

So what’s up with that?

What This House Needs is a Woman’s Touch

Maybe This Time coverThe Gothic house is cold, run-down, loveless…kind of like its master. Only the young woman can turn it into a home and rescue the children (and, if it’s a romance, warm the heart of the Gothic hero). Sometimes she fails — as in The Turn of the Screw or Wuthering Heights. Sometimes she succeeds — as in Jane Eyre or Maybe This Time, Jennifer Crusie’s modern-day retelling of The Turn of the Screw.

(Side note: Maybe This Time is quite different in tone — it’s got heavy romantic-comedy elements — so don’t pick it up expecting a dark, broody psychological horror tale, even if many of the plot elements are the same.)

But the young woman isn’t always a virginal, innocent type. Jane Eyre is virginal, all right, but she’s pretty cold herself, thanks to her own upbringing as an orphan (in a cheerless boarding school run by a harsh master — almost a Gothic mansion in its own right); it takes meeting Rochester for her to develop passion. Andie, the heroine of Maybe This Time, isn’t young — she’s already been married once — but she’s certainly cheerier than the other denizens of the house.

The Maiden and the Crone

Jane Eyre coverYou’ve heard of the mythical three stages of womanhood, yes? Maiden, mother, crone?

If we can accept that the young woman is more-or-less a maiden, who develops into a mother (and wife) over the course of the story, then what about the crone?

Well, as it happens, the young woman usually isn’t the only woman in the story. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Turn of the Screw (and Maybe This Time) all have a housekeeper who isn’t able to keep the house running as it should. Of course, she’s not the mistress of the house. She’s also not young and marriageable — which makes her the crone, and therefore somehow unable to provide a “woman’s touch”.

The Madwoman in the Attic

I love how this cover screams "horror pulp", unlike the Jane Eyre cover, which screams "serious literature". Wuthering Heights has some fun pulp-y covers too.

I love how this cover screams “horror pulp”, unlike the Jane Eyre cover, which screams “serious literature”. Wuthering Heights has some fun pulp-y covers too.

Besides the young woman and the crone, there’s one more female trope in Gothic fiction: the proverbial “madwoman in the attic”. That’s (the first) Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (though interestingly enough, Great Expectations has a male hero). You could also argue to include the governess in The Turn of the Screw, who turns from maiden to madwoman over the course of the story — a common reading is that the ghosts she sees are hallucinations.

So what’s wrong with these women?

In the standard approach, they’re symbols of repressed feminine power. For example, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys retells Mrs. Rochester’s story from her own point of view, which exposes racial issues as well as feminist ones.

They’re also symbols of broken transitions and unfulfilled roles. Miss Havisham’s fiance left her, which is why she wanders around in her wedding gown for decades. Mrs. Rochester has gone mad early in her marriage (which may or may not be Mr. Rochester’s fault, depending on your reading) and is therefore unable to fulfill her role as wife. In Maybe This Time, one of the ghosts plays double duty as the “madwoman” due to her untimely death.

Again, it takes the maiden-turned-mother to put things to rights.

Next week, we’ll delve into Gothic stories for younger readers and examine some interesting edge cases…

Your turn! What do you think of my theories? Am I out to lunch? What’s your take on the feminine and the Gothic? Which Gothic novel is your favourite?

You might also enjoy my review of the Gothic film The Woman in Black.

Best of Turtleduck Press, Vol. 1If you liked this post, check out the latest anthology from Turtleduck Press, which features TWO Gothic short stories — one from me and one from Kit Campbell, whose novel Shards is out next month.

 

Strong Female Characters: Many Ways of Being Strong

The Hunger Games movie posterI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of strong female characters. (Yes, I know, I’m late to the party.) What does “strong” mean? Which characters and traits qualify?

Kick-Ass Female Characters

A lot of “strong female characters” in the media are physically strong – kick-ass women who can fight and take names. Think of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Buffy, Zoe from Firefly, Kira Nerys from Deep Space Nine. In books, you have Tamora Pierce’s Alanna and just about every urban fantasy heroine.

But that’s not the only kind of strength. In fact, it’s a masculine strength. Alanna is celebrated because she becomes a knight – she’s “as good as a boy” at masculine pursuits. One of the books in the series is even called The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Alanna, and I don’t mean to single out Tamora Pierce, who was writing girls in fantasy at a time when not many were.

Other Ways of Being Strong

Sansa Stark in "The North Remembers"But what about other ways of being strong?

Women and girls whose strength takes a different form — one might even say a non-masculine form — are often not seen as “strong characters”. For example – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – in A Game of Thrones, everyone loves Danaerys Targaryen and Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth, but who likes Sansa Stark? Not me.

Yet Sansa is learning to play the women’s role in the “game of thrones” better than any of the other young women whose POVs we get – and she’s learning from the best, Cersei Lannister and, in her own generation, Margaery Tyrell.

Maybe she deserves a second look.

(For a great article about Sansa, read In Defense of Sansa Stark. And another: Sansa Stark Does Not Kneel.)

Being Yourself

Pippi Longstocking coverI grew up reading girl characters, and you can probably guess some of them. Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, Pippi Longstocking, Ramona Quimby, Trixie Belden, Menolly from Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Each of these is quirky, unafraid to do her own thing, resourceful and clever, rebellious against society to some degree (although several of them “settle down” in the end, or show signs of heading that way), and often flawed (like, say, real women). Some of them are more “girly”, others are more “tomboyish”, but they all dance to their own drummer.

Notice something else? The only one in the above list who can literally kick ass is Pippi Longstocking, who is so strong she can lift her horse above her head. And that’s only one of her character traits. Her general quirkiness and independence are far more predominant. She’s not particularly feminine, but she’s not masculine either. She just is.

And that’s the way it should be.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend the following articles:

Women in SF and Fantasy – my own recommendations of female characters and writers. (YA version coming soon!)

I Hate Strong Female Characters – Sophia McDougall explains why the term itself is problematic.

On the Subject of the “Strong Female Character” – Chuck Wendig argues that strong just means “well-written”.

Strong? Weak? How About Women with Agency – Shoshana Kessock proposes a different measuring stick.

What’s in a “Strong Female Character”?” – Juliette Wade celebrates “feminine traits”.

Your turn! What’s your definition of a strong female character?

Book Review: A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

I don’t usually do book reviews here, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I’m not up on the latest releases — I’m always scrambling along a couple of years behind. For another, it’s just easier to put out a list of books on a theme with short descriptions for each.

But I recently read one that I loved so much that…well, I finished it and immediately flipped back to the beginning to start again. (I’ve only done that once before.) I’ve been avoiding writing this because it’s difficult to put into words why I loved it so much, but I have to try.

A Companion to Wolves coverThe book is A Companion to Wolves, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. Both of them are solo writers as well: Bear is a prolific writer of all sorts of speculative fiction, while (to date) Monette has published one four-book fantasy series and a couple of anthologies. I haven’t read all of their stuff, but I heartily recommend both of them to anyone who will listen.

With A Companion to Wolves, they take several well-worn fantasy tropes — telepathic animal companions, small groups of magic-users living apart from regular society, young protagonist drawn to magic despite disapproval from his family, society under siege from magical beings — and twist until the tropes are fresh again.

If you love these tropes, don’t worry. They’re not warped until they’re unrecognizable; rather, they’re treated with reverence. Monette and Bear clearly love these kinds of stories too. They just want to know what makes these tropes tick, what happens when they are really, thoroughly explored.

They’re also interested in running quickly through the obvious to get to the interesting stuff. So yes, the young protagonist — Isolfr — is drawn to the magical sub-society, leaves home, bonds with the coolest animal, and faces opposition from some of his new companions who have been there longer. That’s all a given. What about the real questions that arise from this setup?

For example, the telepathic animals in question are wolves. They live in a pack, they act like wolves (as opposed to humans in wolf form), and most pertinent to the themes of the story, they mate like wolves. Without going into detail, this isn’t an easy path for their human companions to walk, especially for Isolfr, who was raised to believe that the wolf-bonded men were unnatural in their inclinations, but who can’t bear to reject the she-wolf — the “queen wolf”, destined for leadership — who has chosen him as her own.

(Don’t worry. It’s not as unnatural as you might be thinking. Remember how telepathic animal bonding stories work?)

Against these themes of coming-of-age and questioning of sexual identity, the bigger story that plays out is the society-under-siege plot. In this case, the society is more or less pre-Christian Scandinavia, if you squint, and the danger — the reason the wolf-bonded men exist — is from marauding trolls and wyverns from the north. Winter encroaches, the danger grows more grave, and Isolfr is put to the test.

But there’s more. I won’t spoil it, but this is one twisty book, with some masterful plotting and worldbuilding. As a writer myself, I wish I knew how the authors pulled off some of what they did, because wow.

Monette and Bear also do a truly fabulous job of showing the close friendships that develop among the men, making the wolves feel like wolves (and, at the same time, companions worthy of love and respect), and differentiating among a large cast of characters. Their sentence-level writing is beautiful and evocative without calling too much attention to itself — unless, say, you happen to know a little something about this stuff, in which case you might want to drink it all in on multiple levels.

A Companion to Wolves is the first in a planned trilogy. The second book is called The Tempering of Men, and I’m saving it because sadly, the third book isn’t out yet. I wish it were. I can’t wait to spend more time in this world.

Book Release: Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

Black Wine by Candas Jane DorseyI’m signal-boosting today, with whatever power this blog has.

I’d like to draw your attention to a book I once loved: Black Wine by Canadian author Candas Jane Dorsey.  It’s speculative fiction, not easily categorized as either fantasy or SF. I read it in university, and I remember it being a literary novel, a rather difficult read both on the level of narrative and for its sometimes brutal imagery. But I persevered, and was rewarded by beauty. The author is also a poet, and it shows.

(Full disclosure: I know Candas from way back. I used to volunteer for her back when she ran The Books Collective — a variety of imprints that included the venerable Tesseract Books, now part of Canadian publisher Edge Press — and I count her among my writing mentors.)

But it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, so I’m turning to others to fill in the gaps of my memory. Cheryl Morgan, Hugo Award-winning SF critic, blogger, and publisher, has this to say about it:

Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey, follows the lives of three women in three very different societies. It is clear from the start they have some connection and are therefore probably in different parts of the same world. Slowly but surely, we see how their lives are intertwined, and they unravel the secrets of their past.

The world that Dorsey has created is very interesting, being just on the cusp of becoming technological. On the one hand there are castles and taverns that make the place seem almost mediaeval. On the other there are airships which bespeak a certain level of engineering sophistication. Best of all, as the book proceeds, Dorsey uses increased evidence of technology as a signal that time is passing and that the societies she describes are evolving.

Read the rest at SF Mistressworks.

And Jo Walton, author of last year’s multi-award-winning Among Others, says this:

It’s fantasy, but it might just as well be science fiction. There are some small insignificant magic gifts. There are some prophetic cards which seem to work. It’s another planet, anyway, a whole planet with as many cultures and climate zones as you’d expect, and a moon that rotates. There’s some technology, airships, medical imaging, but it’s unevenly distributed. There doesn’t seem to have been an industrial revolution, most of what you see is handmade. They know about genes, but children are as often conceived between two same-sex partners as two opposite sex ones. Against this world we have a story of travel towards and away from, of  mothers and daughters, quest and escape, horizons and enclosures.

It’s beautifully written at all levels. The language is precise  yet lapidary—literally. The words are like stones, sometimes sharp and sometimes jewel-bright, and all of them essentially placed in the structure of the novel.

Read the rest at Tor.com

As you can see, it’s not for everyone; it requires a reader who enjoys working for meaning. But don’t let that scare you off. If you’re a fan of China Miéville or other literary-leaning speculative fiction writers, you’ll probably like this.

Black Wine won Canada’s top speculative fiction prize, the Prix Aurora Award, for best novel in English, as well as the Tiptree Award for best novel about gender, and the Crawford Award for best first fantasy novel.

It was out of print for some time. But it’s just been re-released, in paperback and ebook, by the Canadian press Five Rivers Publishing. If it sounds like your cup of tea, you can also buy the new edition on Amazon.

Guest Post by Erin Zarro: Opening a New Window

Erin Zarro author photoThis week I’m on a blog hiatus, so my fellow Turtleduck Press author, dark SFF and horror writer Erin Zarro, is here to fill in. Please give her a warm welcome!

They say that when a door closes, a window opens.  And that has never been more true than it is right now.  Long story short: in February (8 months ago to the day), I began having severe, excruciating pain in my left eye.  I was checked out, poked, prodded, and tortured by 3 MRIs (hello, claustrophobia!) and as of right now, no one can conclusively say what precisely it is.  The closest thing is optic neuritis, a painful inflammation of the optic nerve.

I’m not a wimp about pain of any kind, and I usually write through everything (including migraines and recovery from surgeries), so that was my first instinct.  Problem was, I had severe vertigo that made it impossible to stay focused on the screen.  After that went away, it was just too painful to work on the computer.  (I do have a day job, and I *have* to look at a computer screen most of my day).  Soooo I took three months off writing, and that nearly drove me insane and made me wish I were dead.  Not writing was like not breathing to me.

At some point, I determined that maybe I *could* do a little bit of writing, just not the novel revision I’d planned to do.  (Revision is tough, even under the best of circumstances).  So I thought, hey, I’ll just write 100 words a day.  When it’s flowing, and I can bear the pain, I’ll roll with it.  But surely I can crank out at least 100 words, right?

So I did.  And it felt amazing.  It was like coming home after a long time away.  It was sunshine and autumn leaves and Christmas all at once.  It was just what I needed.  But something was missing.

I’d done this for about a month or so when I discovered Holly Lisle’s How to Write Flash Fiction that Doesn’t Suck class (yes, that’s the actual name).  It was free and short-term, just 3 weeks.  I’ve always been curious about flash fiction, but never considered it because I’m a novel writer, and I write long.  How could I write a story that feels like writing haiku? I figured I’d give it a whirl.  Worst case, I suck and no harm done.  Best case, I learn something new and can use it in the future to write flash fiction.

So I signed up and waited for lesson 1 with trepidation.

Long story short: Holly Lisle is a genius.  Seriously.  She has an actual methodology for determining what to write about, what to throw at the character (s), and how to end it, usually with some type of twist.  It was broken down so easily and went so smoothly that it felt like a dream.  But most importantly, I really, really enjoyed it.  And writing 500 words in the span of 2 or 3 days was just enough to get me back to writing with purpose.  It felt amazing, and I discovered that I’m actually pretty good at those twist endings.

There was also a board set up where students can talk, mingle, and critique each other.  I met some wonderful people, and learned a lot from the critiques. My stories are so much better for it.

One of the things Holly talks about is self-publishing, and getting people to start the process — just dipping their toes in, starting small, nothing too intimidating.  And she suggested we take the flash stories we wrote in class (I wrote 7) and put them into an anthology.  I decided to put mine up for 99 cents as a gateway into my writing.  I figured no one will turn down 99 cents.  But hopefully they will enjoy it, and maybe I’ll get some sales of my other stuff, too.

Cover of In Flames by Erin ZarroIt took me about a month to get my anthology, In Flames, put together and up at Smashwords.  It was a learning experience.  I’m very happy with it, and I did everything myself, even the cover!  I feel good.  I feel like the months I spent not revising were put to good use.  But even more importantly, it kept my hand in it even when I wasn’t feeling up to anything intricate.  It saved my sanity, too.

So, if you’re curious, you can download In Flames at Smashwords at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/349458.

I’m still in pain, but I’m back to writing fully again.  I still don’t have a diagnosis, either, but that really doesn’t matter.  I was able to come back to writing, opening a window I never knew existed.  And that’s enough for now.