Fourteen Years Later

I’ve been sidelined by the flu this week and am still recovering, and then WordPress ate my original post, so here’s just a quick (and late) note to direct you elsewhere.

Here’s what I wrote about my father (died March 14, 2003) over at Turtleduck Press:

I don’t think about him often anymore, except right around this time of year. He died in March, late in a bitterly cold prairie winter. The day he was buried, there was a thaw and, finally, everything began to melt. Ever since then, I’ve found late winter difficult to bear. Some years are harder than others; this one has been easier so far, probably because it’s been so unseasonably warm here. Bittersweet for sure.

He feels now like part of another life, one I don’t remember as well as I would wish to.

Go and read the rest.

And I’ll see you back here on March 27 with a proper post.

 

 

Genre-Bending Books (Redux)

The Passage by Justin Cronin coverI’m a fan of science fiction. And fantasy. And everything in between…sometimes especially the books that fall in between. I’ve written before about science fantasy, about works that blend speculative fiction and realism, and of course, steampunk. But that was all several years ago, and now I’ve got a whole new crop of genre-benders to share with you…

Futuristic Fantasy

Start with the present day. Fast forward a few decades, or maybe a little more. You can see a clear connection to our own world, including geography. The technology level might be similar to ours, or higher in certain areas, or maybe lower, depending on what might have happened between now and then. (Gotta love verb tenses when talking about futures that may never arrive…) But there are also fantasy creatures or tropes–magic, gods, vampires. In this category we have:

The Passage series by Justin Cronin

This is what literary agents call a “high-concept” book with a “strong hook”. Two words: vampire apocalypse. Cronin starts in the present day, where a vampire virus has just been discovered. Then he fast-forwards through time, pausing for a while here and there to dip into the lives of a set of characters, some of whom pop up again and again. The books veer between thriller and literary drama–what agent Donald Maass calls “breakout novel” territory. That’s a lot of genres, but somehow it all works.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinsonblog-brown-girl-hopkinson-cover

Toronto in the future, or at least Hopkinson’s version of the future, is a lawless place controlled by a drug lord. Infrastructure and social safety nets are all but gone. The placenames and layout of the city are still recognizable, though much decayed. But at the same time, the voodoo gods are drifting around, looking for a chance to get involved…

Above by Leah Bobet

Another story set in Toronto, but this one starts out sounding much like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, if the young protagonist had been from the underworld peeking out instead of our own world peeking in. It goes on to deconstruct stories like Neverwhere and a whole lot of other things. I can’t say too much about it without being spoilery, so instead I’ll just give a bonus shout-out to Bobet’s second novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, which is more…

Fantasy with Hints of Technology

A fantasy-seeming world that hints at not being a straight-up secondary world a la Tolkien. Or a world with some futuristic trappings that’s clearly more interested in fantasy tropes and telling fantasy stories. (Think Pern or Dune.) Or some mad blending of the two.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi OkoraforCover of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Like Brown Girl in the Ring, this is a compelling near-to-mid-future story of a young black woman coming into her own magical powers. I’ve placed it here not because it’s set in Sudan (which looks more like fantasy to Western eyes) but because it’s less interested in the tension between magic and technology than Hopkinson’s novel is. It’s a classic fantasy quest story, with powerful sorcerers and training sequences and visions and even a band of misfits trekking long distances. There just happens to be advanced technology here and there.

The Tearling series by Erika Johansen

Girl living a quiet life in the forest learns she’s the heir to the throne and is whisked away to start her new life in the palace. (That’s not much of a spoiler–it’s all in the first few pages.) Another classic fantasy tale, modernized for today’s reader? Maybe…except that the heir occasionally uses words like genetics. The second book in the series delves more into why this is so, losing the tight focus on character but adding worldbuilding context.

The Fey Touched series by Erin Zarroblog-erin-zarro-fey-touched-cover

Finally, I have to put in a plug for Turtleduck Press author Erin Zarro. Her fantasy world looks not unlike ours…except that there are vampire-hunting fey…and occasional evil scientists performing genetic experiments and the like. Intrigued? Book 3 in the series will be out May 1! I’ll be posting more about it as the date draws closer.

 

Are you a fan of genre-bending books? Please share!

 

The Top 5 Most Romantic Places in India

The travel blog returns! In honour of Valentine’s Day, I’m doing a round-up of the most romantic places I encountered during my six weeks in India. If I missed your favourite, please chime in!

5. Taking a houseboat tour in Kumarakom

The state of Kerala, on India’s southwest coast, is known as “God’s Own Country”, and it’s easy to see why. It’s lush and jungly, with a higher quality of life than in the north (as Indians themselves will tell you). If you haven’t travelled in India before, it’s also less intense and overwhelming than the north. It’s not as well known to Western tourists as, say, the state of Rajasthan, but it’s popular among Middle Eastern and domestic travellers, meaning that there’s still decent tourist infrastructure. One of the must-do activities is to rent a houseboat (with crew, which is not prohibitively expensive for a day or a few nights) and putter around what’s known as the “backwaters”, an extensive network of canals lined with palm trees. Especially during the off-season, it’s both serene and luxurious.

Kerala backwaters

4. Exploring Old Kochi

Before the British arrived, the city of Kochi was colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch. Today it’s home to a picturesque fusion of architectures and cultures. If you’re up for a splurge, check in to the Old Harbour Hotel–it’s not cheap, but it’s gorgeous, and the food is delicious. There’s even a small swimming pool in the tranquil garden. And it’s located in the heart of Old Kochi, where you can wander down to the harbour to watch the unique fishing nets in operation, or stroll up the narrow streets to admire the beautiful old buildings.

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The Old Harbour Hotel

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3. Camel Trekking in Jaisalmer

Moving up to the northwest part of India, we hit Rajasthan, which I mentioned above. The cities are fascinating, each with its fort towering over the centre of town, but if you’re the adventurous or outdoorsy type, you’ll want to head for Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert (click through for more photos!). It’s much cheaper than the options mentioned above–we stayed in a perfectly respectable hotel for 1500 Rs. (less than $25 USD) per night–and the old fort is fascinating to explore. Except we didn’t stay there long, because we took a camel trek into the desert and slept under the stars. So. many. stars.

Camels, Thar Desert, near Jaisalmer

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How sexy are these curves?

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Sunrise over the desert

2. Exploring Udaipur

Still in Rajasthan, the city of Udaipur is known as the Venice of the East (to be fair, it has plenty of rivals for the name) or the White City. The old part of the city is built of white stone on the shores of a lake, with architecture that tends towards arches and cupolas.

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How much more romantic can you get? Well, actually…

1. Visiting the Taj Mahal

I’ll leave you with this. Okay, it’s a cliche, I’ll admit. But some of the world’s most famous sites are definitely worth visiting, and this is one. The city of Agra is voracious for tourists and skilled at parting you from your money. But I swear the Taj Mahal is worth the visit (click through for more photos!) for the beauty alone, let alone the story behind it. If you want to be ultra-romantic, book a moonlight visit, when it will look even more ethereal than it does below.

Taj Mahal 3

The Taj Mahal at dawn

If you liked this post, you might be interested in my short story “The Raja and the Madman”, set in a fantasy version of Rajasthan. You can read about it here and buy the anthology it appears in, Under Her Protection, from Turtleduck Press.

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On Writing Despite the News

(Warning, politics ahead! This will not be a permanent shift for the blog, but just for tonight, humour me. I’ll try to keep it vague…)

Friends, I come to you tonight weary and wrung out. Like many of you, I’ve been struggling with the news for months, burnt out but unable to look away. Writing was impossible, pointless, indulgent. I started a mini-challenge and kept hoping things would subside. Instead, they’ve gotten worse…and worse…and worse.

I’m not even American, I’m Canadian. But whatever happens south of the border affects us deeply, so we tend to keep a close eye on American news.

Besides, yesterday we learned–beyond a shadow of a doubt–that we’re not immune to the forces sweeping this part of the world, much as we’d sometimes like to think we are.

I’m angry, I’m tired, I’m afraid. Writing seems impossible again.

But…

Words have power. Facts have power, but story has more. We’ve always known that, and we learned it again this election year, when one candidate was brought down by narratives that wouldn’t go away, and the other candidate tapped into the fears and frustrations of his audience and sold them a story they wanted to believe.

When I  write, it’s not a coincidence that I often write about young women who are learning how to be themselves and how to shed what is holding them back. I write about cooperation winning out over fear and hate. I write about people from opposite walks of life who grow to understand, and sometimes love, each other. I write about people who are not white and straight–both to take away the “otherness” for some readers and to give other readers someone who looks like them.

If I’ve done my job right, my readers don’t even notice half of what I just said. They don’t notice…but the story is inside them now, and so are the themes.

In times like these,  here are some reasons why I need to keep writing:

  • to process events
  • to exert a sense of control
  • to escape so I can recharge and keep fighting
  • to provide an escape for readers who need it
  • and–just maybe–to change the world, one reader at a time.

On Doing Things That Scare You

I did a scary thing yesterday.

To explain, I need to backtrack a little. See,  I’m part of a social/folk dance community, based around something called contra dance. The short version is “square dance meets swing dance”–there’s a “caller” who teaches the dance and then talks you through the moves, to live music. I’ve written about this several times before, but the easiest way to explain it is through video. An explanation in words is here, more explanation (including why I love it) is here, and a description that’s more about how it feels is here.

Anyway, I’ve been doing contra dance for six and a half years. It’s become one of my passions, I’ve made a ton of friends, and I’ve gone on multiple road trips for full weekends of dance.

It’s also taught me to do several scary things and push my comfort zone in several directions. After first learning to dance in the lady’s role, I then added the gentleman’s role, and now I do both all the time (sometimes both in the same dance, if my partner is amenable to switching back and forth). I’ve gotten better at small talk, which is helpful at my day job. I went to a conference for dance organizers and challenged my feelings of imposter-ness (imposter syndrome), and now I’m one of the organizers for my dance community, doing the newsletters and half the social media stuff.

And yesterday I called my first dance.

Okay, second dance. I did a callers’ workshop last spring, which was awesome, but I tried calling one dance during the workshop, and it confirmed my suspicion that calling was Really Scary and probably not for me (an introvert who hates public speaking).

Then I, uh, published a book and did two book launches and they were Really Scary, but I didn’t die and they were also kind of fun.

So I started thinking about this calling thing again. I started practicing a little bit–I had recordings of contra music (of course), and the “recipes” for the dances are available online, so it’s possible to practice at home. Someone in my dance community started organizing sessions where new callers could come and call for a small group of people. I went to one and didn’t call, and missed the next one, and the third was coming up fast.

This past Saturday night we had a dance evening. The next caller session was to be Sunday. The organizer of the sessions, someone who’s become a friend, said, “So are you calling tomorrow? There’s this really easy dance you could do…”

I looked at it. It didn’t look too scary. I went home and practiced overnight. On Sunday I walked into the session and my friend said “Hey, we need an easy dance right now, do you want to go next?”

So I did.

I taught the dance, going through the whole thing twice, and then the music started and away we went. My friend stood next to me, couched me through it, and rescued me when I got off track. Some of the dancers got lost, possibly because I wasn’t clear enough. But everyone seemed to have a good time. They even clapped when I was done.

And…turns out it was significantly less scary than I thought.

I might even do it again next month.

Or maybe I’ll look for something else that scares me, and tackle that…

 

What have you done that scared you? I’d love to hear your stories!

 

Reading Recap: 2016

blog-the-virtu-monette-coverHi all! It’s time for my annual reading recap, where I look back on my favourite books and also geek out about my own reading stats. *grin*

Favourite Books of 2016

This year it’s a tie between:

  • The Virtu by Sarah Monette, and
  • An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

…and an honourable mention goes to The Fellowship of the Ring (reread) which had a huge influence on me and which I am incapable of judging properly, especially with the movies confusing things in my head. It’s my first time rereading LOTR since seeing the movies. Weird experience, let me tell you. (I ended 2015 / started 2016 with Fellowship and am in the middle of rereading The Two Towers right now – part of a 7-year tradition of starting the new year with an epic fantasy novel. I started my LOTR reread after running out of Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones books. *wink*)

blog-an-inheritance-of-ashes-leah-bobetAll three of these are fantasy novels, two written for adults and one, Bobet’s, for the upper YA market.

What I loved about these:

  • depth in worldbuilding – the world feels real, there are layers and unexpected things and pieces that aren’t about the plot
  • character depth (okay, not so much in Fellowship) – the characters are vivid, they have complicated relationships, they struggle to think their way through the things they want to change about themselves, they fail and try again and fail worse and keep trying, they feel like real people
  • the feeling of epicness – while each story is very much about the struggles and relationships of a few key people, it’s also about enormous danger that affects the broader world, and these two aspects, the intimate and the global, are well balanced throughout
  • beautiful description, which also contributes to the epicness
  • strong narrative voice (or voices, in the case of The Virtu, which has two first-person narrators)

Reading Stats

Cover of Who Fears Death by Nnedi OkoraforI read 20 books last year, same as the previous year. That’s a little lower than I’d like, but then several were very long and took a month or more to read.

Genre

Here’s a genre breakdown:

  • 6 of them were adult fantasy (same as the last 2 years), 4 were adult SF (3 last year), and 2 were hard-to-classify adult speculative fiction (1 last year)
  • 2 were non-SFF adult fiction (same as last year): one was magical realism but I decided to classify it as literary instead of genre, and the other was a contemporary gay romance novella
  • 2 were YA fantasy (same as last year) and 1 was YA SF (same as last year)
  • 1 was middle-grade fantasy (0 last year)
  • 1 was non-fiction
  • 1 was an anthology (an 800-page behemoth that I’ve been working on for several years and finally finished)

blog-parable-of-the-sower-butler-cover11 of the books were parts of series – about three-quarters of my (SF&F) genre reading.

For 2017, I’m aiming to finish some of the many series I’ve got on the go. That also means forgoing new-to-me series in favour of standalones. I’ve got plenty of all of those already stocked on my shelf and ereader. Now to see if I can resist temptation…

Authors and Diversity

12 of 19 books were by women (the last was an anthology), which is on par with my reading in most years.

3 of the authors were people of colour, coincidentally all black women – Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower), Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death), and fellow Canadian Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring). I was particularly struck by the writing of Butler, whom I’d never read before even though she’s a major figure in SF&F, and will be reading more of her work in future.

blog-brown-girl-hopkinson-cover6 of the books were by Canadians (5 authors, as I read 2 books by Leah Bobet).

11 of the authors were new to me.

Publishing and Acquisition

Of the 20 books I read, only 5 were published in the last 5 years (11 in the past 15 years). That’s not good for a writer trying to keep up with current publishing trends – must do better this year! The oldest was The Fellowship of the Ring (1954).

Where I got my books: 1 was a reread, 3 were passed on from family or friends, 1 was a loan, and 1 was from when I used to volunteer at a small press (and was allowed to take home free copies). The other 14 I bought.

blog-fellowship-fotr-tolkien-cover9/20 (45%) were ebooks, down slightly from last year but higher than any other year since I started using an ereader in 2012. What I acquired in ebook form:

  • 2 books that are too big to hold comfortably in paper form – that is, they’re only out in trade paperback format, or they’re really thick
  • 2 books that are only out in hardcover, so the ebook is more comfortable to hold and also cheaper
  • 3 books I couldn’t find in the bookstore – either too old, or indie-published
  • 2 books I bought as ebooks for no particular reason

Side note on ereading tech: I use a Kobo Touch primarily, as well as the Kindle app on my iPhone for books that aren’t available from the Kobo store, and sometimes the Kobo app when I’m feeling lazy and/or don’t have my ereader with me. I find my phone slightly too small to read on comfortably, but it’s the right size for my hands, so I’m not terribly motivated to get a bigger phone. Will probably upgrade to a newer Kobo this year, though.

And there you have it! Hope you enjoyed the trip through Siri-reading-land. What were your favourite books last year?

If You Liked City of Hope and Ruin…

Since the time for gift-giving is fast approaching, I wanted to pop back in and share some ideas. (For books, of course–is there any other kind of gift for a reader?) If you liked City of Hope and Ruin, or know someone who would, here are some others to check out.

Cover of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

If you liked the post-apocalyptic/fantasy blend with strong female protagonists of colour then try…

  • Brown Girl in the Ring by Jamaican-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson
  • Parable of the Sower (near-future) by famed American author Octavia Butler
  • Who Fears Death by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor

If you liked the dual-author, dual-protagonist structure then try…

  • Sorcery & Cecelia; or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (YA) by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (an epistolary fantasy, with the two characters writing back and forth to each other)
  • Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer (okay, this isn’t even fantasy, but you’ll still love it, trust me)

If you liked the mixture of urban fantasy with a tinge of SF and the “chosen family” angle then try…blog-an-inheritance-of-ashes-leah-bobet

  • Above (YA) by Canadian author Leah Bobet
  • Fey Touched by Turtleduck Press author Erin Zarro (first in a series, and book 3 is due out May 2017!)

If you liked the demons from another dimension breaking into a fantasy world and the village/rural/wilderness setting then try…

  • Burning Bright by Turtleduck Press author KD Sarge
  • …okay, I have to put Leah Bobet on here again, because her An Inheritance of Ashes (YA) is exactly this (and was one of my favourite reads this year)

If you liked the Eastern European feel of the world then try…

  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone (YA) by Laini Taylor (set in Prague)
  • The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia
  • The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (set in Moscow)Shards by Kit Campbell

If you liked the combination of romance, SF/fantasy adventure, and save-the-world stakes then try…

  • the Erin Zarro and KD Sarge novels recommended above
  • Shards by my co-author, Kit Campbell
  • any of our other novels at Turtleduck Press!

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