Neil Gaiman: Where do I even start?

Recently a friend emailed me saying she wanted to try reading something by Neil Gaiman and asked if I had any recommendations. My first reaction was to be gratified that someone had recognized me for a Gaiman superfan and wanted my expert opinion as such. When the glow of flattery wore off, though, I was overwhelmed. There’s so much to choose from. Where to begin?

After a little dithering, I did manage to send a reasonably coherent email back. I’ve adapted it here for Gaiman virgins and veterans alike. He’s written and contributed to works for all ages and across many different genres, so you can stick with what you know or try something completely new.

 

All Time Favorite: Good Omens (co-authored by Terry Pratchett)

good omens cover

My first encounter with Gaiman’s work was his collaboration with another favorite author of mine, Terry Pratchett. Good Omens is a novel about the Apocalypse, as predicted in The Book of Revelation. Except it’s funny. I’ve given this as a gift many times. I also find opportunities to quote Good Omens in my daily life, thanks in no small part to all the music jokes (If I’ve ever confused you by attributing “Fat Bottomed Girls” to Ralph Vaughn Williams, this is why).

Short Stories: Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders

fragile things cover

I resent 90% of all short stories, but I love the ones by Neil Gaiman. They are bizarre and haunting, full of familiar characters from fairy tales and classic literature reimagined and made strange. Fragile Things is my personal favorite collection of his but Smoke and Mirrors has many gems as well. If you like those, the novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane maintains the folkloric, dreamy feel of his best stories while being a bit longer.

Comic: The Sandman (illustrated by various artists)

sandman cover

This series was what got me into American comics, and I’m very pleased it did. The central plot concerns Morpheus, the King of Dreams. But in a universe where everything you dream exists in a parallel reality, anything is possible, and Gaiman thoroughly explores those possibilities. If you’ve been thinking about getting into comics but are daunted by the sheer volume of complex worlds and stories out there, Sandman is a good place to start. Also it’s available at any library with even a small graphic novel selection. I own the 7 1/2 pound hardcover editions and reread at least once a year.

Adult Novel: Anansi Boys

 AnansiBoysANovelPS_PaperbackPS_1213846389

I recommend this to first-time Gaiman readers since it’s fun and stands alone. The main character, Fat Charlie, discovers that his father is the West African trickster god Anansi. It takes place in the same universe as American Gods, which is obviously a masterpiece but it’s very sad and dense and I need to be in the right mood for it. Anansi Boys is, by comparison, a romp.

Radio Play: Neverwhere (dramatized by Dirk Maggs)

NEVERWHERE-8291

This has also been a novel and a miniseries, but I think the BBC4 radio adaptation really shines. Starring James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, and a host of other notable voices, it’s a wonderfully creepy portal fantasy about a city beneath a city. Highly recommended if you’re into London and its tube stops.

Middle Grade: Coraline (illustrated by Dave McKean)

Coraline 100 ppi RGB

Another portal fantasy, on a smaller scale. Coraline is transported to an alternate-universe version of her home, complete with her “Other Mother” and “Other Father.” At first the new world is wonderful, but soon turns sinister and dangerous. It skips the gross-out factor present in lots YA and adult horror, but it’s still delightfully spooky and suspenseful.

Picture Book:  The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (illustrated by Dave McKean)

swapped my dad

I don’t read a lot of picture books these days, but I delighted and terrified some kindergarteners with this once. The illustrations are quirky and complex, with lots of details that kids love to point out and wonder about. It’s also just scary enough to be fun.

 

Those are my best ones for Neil Gaiman. What do you recommend to people who are curious about your favorite author?

New Books That I Will Actually Preorder

I’m not that good at keeping up with new releases. So many of the books I want to read are already published. Some of them are on my bookshelf. Even if I’m interested in an upcoming book, there’s very rarely one that I need to start reading as soon as it comes out. Most of them can wait.

There are exceptions, of course, usually by my favorite authors. Here are three that I will need to have on my Kindle as soon as humanly possible:

obelisk gate

The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin, August 16th, 2016

I read my first book by N.K. Jemisin three years ago, and I haven’t shut up about her since. The Obelisk Gate is the second book in the Broken Earth series. The first book, The Fifth Season, was hands-down the best book I read last year. The story takes place on the Stillness, a continent plagued by natural disasters and social unrest. Unlike most of Jemisin’s books, which tend to be self-contained, The Fifth Season ended on a pretty spectacular cliff hanger. I’m so excited to find out what happens next in The Obelisk Gate.

goldenhand

Goldenhand, Garth Nix, October 4, 2016

It would be difficult to overstate the influence Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series has had on me. I can trace my love of hyper-competent ladies fighting dead things right back to his books. The Within the borders of the kingdom, the dead don’t always stay dead, and a powerful necromancer called the Abhorsen is on hand to put them back in the ground. If that sounds like your jam, you should check out Sabriel, the first novel in the series, which was published in 1995. If you’ve already visited the Old Kingdom, you’re probably also looking forward to catching up with your favorite characters, seeing as it’s been more than ten years since The Creature in the Case.

miranda and caliban

Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey, February 14th, 2017

Jacqueline Carey has many talents. She moves smoothly between high fantasy and urban fantasy, coming-of-age stories and erotic romance, and everything in between. Her newest project is a re-imagining of The Tempest. Shakespeare’s play focuses on Prospero, a wizard plotting revenge on a remote island. The novel will tell the story of Prospero’s daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. I don’t have a lot of strong feelings about The Tempest (or Shakespeare in general, tbh) but I trust Carey’s ability to recognize and tell an amazing story. Also, how gorgeous is this cover art by Tran Nguyen?

Those three are at the top of my pre-order list right now. What new releases are you looking forward to?

Best Vacation Books

This post is scheduled to go up the day after I get back from my vacation, but right now, I’m still in the planning stages. Tickets are bought and lodgings are booked. My last load of laundry is in the washing machine, and I have picked out the books I’m going to read while I’m away.

I have firm beliefs about vacation reading. Traveling is not the time to challenge myself as a reader. Lounging on a beautiful beach isn’t going to make me suddenly enthused about a book I was avoiding before.  I also don’t want anything that’s too dark or emotionally heavy. The stranger next to me on the train doesn’t need to listen to me cry about fictional characters.

My favorite thing to do before a trip is pick up the next book in a series. That way it’s new and exciting, but I know I’m getting into a world I love. Last year on my honeymoon I brought a Bloody Jack (I like to describe these as “Napoleonic Wars but with crossdressing”) and one of Naomi Novick’s Temeraire books (“Napoleonic Wars but with dragons”). Both are longer series that I have been chipping away at for a few years now, neither disappointed.

I have a few other vacation reading staples. Christopher Moore writes smart, funny, irreverent books. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I wanted to give a shout-out to Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, for combining things I loved in first grade (humpbacked whales, Amelia Earhart) with things I love now (weird science fiction stories, dick jokes).

Terry Pratchett is another good traveling companion. A lot of his fantasies riff humorously on real-world scenarios or historical events, but in between the jokes I wind up really caring about the characters. The sheer number of Pratchett books in existence can be daunting, but I generally recommend Going Postal or Monstrous Regiment if you’re a newcomer to the Discworld series. If you’d like something that truly stands alone, Good Omens, a collaboration with Neil Gaiman, is one of my all-time favorites as well.

This trip I’m looking forward to Marked in Flesh, the next Others novel. It only came out a few months ago, but I’m ready for some weird shapeshifter urban fantasy antics, and I don’t have the self-control to wait until this comes out in paperback. Likewise Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which I’ve been avoiding not so much because budget, but because I’m still not over a character death from a previous book. Might not ever be over it, honestly. But I do want to see what Cordelia is up to.

What are your favorite books to read on vacation? My list obviously slants towards sci-fi/fantasy, but so does the rest of my reading. I’m all ears if you have recommendations. We’re already planning next year’s adventure.

2016 Reading Update

Congratulations, everyone, we made it halfway through the year! It hasn’t been easy. The news has not been good. But here you are, six months in, still kicking, still making it work. Nice job. I’m proud of you.

It seems like a good time to check back in with the reading resolutions I set for myself in January. So far I’ve finished 41 books. I have a spreadsheet, you guys.

Books by Authors of Color

My goal is to read at least 35 books by authors of color this year, and so far I’ve finished 23. This is already a huge upswing in diversity from 2015, when I only finished 10. I had some reservations about the wording of this resolution, which I go into in my original post. But overall I think it’s been a good exercise for me. If nothing else, it’s encouraged me to check out authors I haven’t read before, like Octavia Butler and Daniel José Older.

Nonfiction Books

I have read as few as four or as many as seven nonfiction books. I was aiming for five, so okay, but why the discrepancy? Well, I didn’t really think this one through as well as I should have. I didn’t really have poetry in mind at first, but if you want to get technical, it is shelved in nonfiction. Then there’s the issue of books The Water is Wide, which walk a thin line between memoir and novel.

Of the four incontrovertibly, uncontestably nonfiction books I have read, two were about writing craft and two were about feminism. Make of that what you will.

Authors with Different Gender Identities

I was getting a little weary of goal setting by the time I came to gender. I read about an equal number of male and female authors last year, but to my knowledge no trans or non-binary authors. The very low bar I set for myself was a vague sort of “I can do better” statement.

And I’ve done…better, I guess, if you count one book. One in Every Crowd by Ivan E. Coyote is another semi-fictionalized memoir, geared towards a young adult audience. It deals with the narrator/author’s own experience growing up as a gender nonconformist in rural Canada, as well as their adult experiences mentoring queer youth.

Look, I don’t cry a lot. If I type “this made me cry” in a text or a tweet or a blog post, you can read it as “this made me emotional and maybe my eyes watered a little.” But while I was reading One in Every Crowd there were big, wet, I-need-to-stop-and-get-a-tissue-before-I-short-out-my-Kindle tears running down my face. Five stars, highly recommend.

Other Observations

Most of the authors I’ve read are American, with a handful from the UK and a very small number from anywhere else. My most-read genre is sci-fi (11 books) closely followed by fantasy (10 books). Overwhelmingly I read ebooks rather than any other format, although I did have a few audiobooks and paperbacks as well.

So that’s where I’m at as of July 1. I’ll check back in around December and let you know how I did.

How is your reading year going?

Reconsidering Chuck Palahniuk

A few days ago I found a Kickstarter for a film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Lullaby. Or rather, I got a direct message from whoever runs Palahniuk’s Twitter (it’s not him) pointing it out to me, in case I wanted to contribute any money to getting the movie made.

Cover of Lullaby, with the iconic starling
Cover of Lullaby, with the iconic starling

I showed it to my husband. Palahniuk was one of our first shared literary interests when we started dating. We still have duplicate copies of several of his books on our shelves, relics of a pre-cohabiting, pre-Kindle era.

Even though we’re arguably fans, we laughed a little over some of the backer rewards for the Lullaby movie. $15 for a PDF of the shooting script is one thing. But for $500, you can have a leather-bound, signed, limited edition copy of one of one of Chuck’s books. For a little more, you can get a tattoo of the movie’s logo. For two grand, you can be in the movie.

“Didn’t they used to pay people to be in movies?” I asked. “Not the other way around?”

Making fun of the Kickstarter was not classy of me, I’ll admit. Movies are expensive. If fans are willing to put that kind of capital into getting a thing made, they should have something to show for it. I should not mock people for spending money on things that bring them joy.

But I personally am not going to fork over $20k so I can own the prop grimoire from the movie.

Palahniuk’s best-known work is still his 1996 novel Fight Club. By the time I hit puberty, the 1999 film adaptation  was on its way to cult classic status. I can’t shake the sad feeling that this, his first published novel, was also the height of Palahniuk’s fame. Fight Club and it’s rules are a part of the cultural lexicon in the way that none of his other books ever were.

When I was in high school, I got into Palahniuk because that’s what all the cool kids were reading. Maybe not the class president, captain-of-the-sports-team cool kids, but the nerdy, witty, acerbic types. These were the people who started bands and wrote poetry and stayed up to see the sunrise. They pushed boundaries and broke rules, or at least it felt that way to me. They were the ones I wanted to be around and be like.

We worshipped these books wholeheartedly. Palahniuk’s words made their way into our yearbook quotes, and we joined MySpace groups called “Chuck Palahniuk for President.” For my junior year science fair project, two friends and I researched all the anarchic chemistry proposed in Fight Club. We didn’t actually attempt to drill holes in a gun barrel or make napalm out of orange juice, but we did make soap. We used grocery store-bought lard that did not come from humans, as far as we knew, anyways.

There’s a sense now that Palahniuk was something we were supposed to give up after a while. The bizarre, gross details that pepper his books, the inevitable plot twists—it could get gimmicky, overly theatrical. Adolescent boy stuff. We were meant to grow out of loving this.

Confession time: I never actually did.

I couldn’t get through Haunted. It wasn’t just the infamous opening story “Guts;” it was the rumors of auto-cannibalism later, and my fear that something bad was going to happen to the cat in the frame story (no one tell me what happens to the cat, I don’t want to know). I stopped reading his new releases after Pygmy. I probably should have quit after Snuff. The porn industry has its problems, but I’m not sure Palahniuk was meant to tackle them. Pygmy was further out of his experience. It read like a bad episode of South Park, a poorly drawn satire that has transformed into the very thing it meant to skewer.

But everything that came before…

Lullaby, the book that is being kickstarted into a movie, is heartbreaking. It’s about a mysterious poem that’s really a spell. Saying it aloud or even just thinking it kills people. Lullaby is also about families, both biological and found. It’s about guilt and grief and how easy it is to do harm, even when all you want to do is help. There’s also a necrophiliac coroner and a real estate agent trying to sell haunted houses. Someone gets gum in their hair, or maybe it’s boogers.

Palahniuk has written some of the most memorable things about boogers I’ve ever read. The only other author who’s come close is Charles Dickens. Both the phrase “pendulous excrescence” and the nose picking in Rant will haunt me to my grave, so thanks for that, Chuck(s).

Invisible Monsters was a personal favorite, reread many times. The events that kick the story off are horrific—the main character has lost most of her jaw to a gunshot wound—but it somehow manages to evolve into a hopeful, chaotic road trip story. It asks how much we sacrifice when we obediently fill the roles others have chosen for us rather than following our own passions. “Find what you’re afraid of most and go live there,” the narrator urges.

There were others, too. Diary, with it’s creepy parody of both art school and small-town living, is my husband’s favorite. I’m least-fond of the protagonist in Survivor, but it’s absolutely worth a read for the counterpoint structure alone. I consider Choke to be the worst-of-the-best, but it’s surprisingly charming for a book about an amoral conman who’s addicted to sex.

These books got into me in a very real way and never left again. They colored the way I looked at the world. The stories are full of ordinary things transformed into fateful objects. IKEA catalogues, birth control pills, suicide hotline stickers, Easter eggs. The cap of a restaurant ketchup bottle, a letter opener, an email password. After you finish one of Palahniuk’s books, it’s like you’ll never feel the same about these things again.

Maybe this is nostalgia talking. I’ve that most people will like the music they liked at age 13 for the rest of their life. They might not listen to it on a regular basis, but when one of those songs comes on, they won’t change the radio station. Palahniuk is literary equivalent to that, at least a little bit.

If the amount of money the Kickstarter has raised is any indication, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I still believe there was something valuable in those books, though. Hidden beneath the shock value exterior was truth and beauty. Many of them have happy endings. Our younger selves might have pretended to be cynics, but it turns out we were romantics all along.

Taking a Break

Lately I’ve been a little frustrated with my own writing progress. I’m still in the enviable position of being able to make my own deadlines, but the flip side of that is that I can procrastinate endlessly with minimal consequences. Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on ways to give myself more time and motivation to write. I’ve decided that the best thing to do for the time being is step back from this blog a little. I am going to be slowing down the posting schedule pretty significantly. I’m not sure what the new schedule will be, or if I’ll be sticking to this format.

Thank you all so much for hanging with me so far. This isn’t the end, not by a long shot. The best way to get updates about the future of the blog is to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

A little more about my thought process behind this decision, and about how I am trying to take better care of myself:

When I started this blog back in December, I meant for it to serve my writing. It was a way to build a platform and gather an audience, but also an opportunity to work on my short-form writing. Blogging would be a welcome break from noveling.

I didn’t know what the blog was going to be, in terms of content. I had a general idea—I wanted to write about books, definitely, but also have the flexibility to discuss writing or food or whatever else I was working on at the time.

Now, five months later, I’m still not sure what it wants to be. I don’t feel like I’m creating the kind of content I would want to read, which means it’s time to step back and figure some things out.

One thing has become clear: this blog, as I originally envisioned it, is a huge time commitment. Researching, writing, editing, posting, and promoting a post can take up a whole morning or afternoon. That’s a potential day and a half of my workweek lost from fiction writing time.

When I first decided that I wasn’t going to teach this year, I had so. Many. Goals. There is an actual page in my journal from the end of August where I wrote down all the stuff I was going to do in the next twelve months. It’s kind of funny to look at now. Not only was I going to finish my novel, I was going to do it in a very short amount of time, writing for a lot of hours every day. In between that, I was going to get SO MUCH BETTER at all the other stuff I do. Run faster, practice instruments more, keep the apartment clean, crochet a ton of blankets, learn to speak Italian. Then I tossed the blog on top of that.

I was ambitious, which is not a bad thing! But I have a lifelong tendency to overload myself. It usually works out okay for about a month. “This is great!” I tell myself. “I’m creating art and enriching myself, this is what I’m meant to be doing.” Then, I start to get tired, or I’m not progressing as much as I think I should be. Angry at this show of human weakness, I push myself harder, which leads to burnout. Eventually I freeze up, terrified of failure, and do nothing, which is the worst possible outcome.

I was getting pretty close to the freeze-up-and-nothing stage not long ago, and here’s what I’m doing to prevent that from happening:

  1. I hired a cleaning service to take care of our bathrooms, floors, kitchen, and dusting. Having a clean, organized space to work and live in is so so important to me, but I am very bad at keeping it that way on my own. I know hiring someone to clean isn’t an option for everyone, but I can afford it right now and it’s already doing wonders for my mental health. Two professionals take two hours to do what would take me two weeks.
  1. I’m waking up earlier. Or, more accurately, I’m actually getting out of bed when the alarm goes off instead of just snuggling back down and playing on my phone for an hour plus. Seriously, that’s become way too much a part of the routine. Deleting a bunch of apps and not sleeping with the phone right next to me helps, too.
  1. I’m going to spend less time working on this blog, as discussed above.

None of this is to say that I haven’t enjoyed this blog. It’s been so much fun. I love hearing from people who are reading it. I treasure the discussions I’ve had, online and off, that started from posts here. When I see that one of my friends has added a book on Goodreads after I review it here, it fills my heart, it really does. Yelling about The Magicians was really fun, like so fun I am actually contemplating buying the DVDs so we can yell about the extras together (I haven’t bought a DVD since 2012, the last one was City of Lost Children). After I wrote this, my husband’s aunt and uncle sent us a box of Godiva hot chocolate mix, which was honestly the best and nicest thing. Not that I’m saying I need people to send me presents in order for an endeavor to be worthwhile, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

That’s why this isn’t goodbye, it’s just the beginning of a bit of a transition. Hopefully on the other side, there will be more, better content for you to read, and also a novel full of words and characters and a plot by yours truly. Keep in touch in the meantime, and thanks for reading!

Workshop

Last weekend I went to the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville to take a class called “Writing the Novel.” People have asked me about this and other writers’ events that I’ve done, so I thought I would do a post. I’ll give you an overview of the types of stuff I’ve been up to, and then I’ll talk specifically about Asheville.

A little background: Up until recently, writing was strictly a hobby for me. I wrote for my own enjoyment, and for my friends. I took three writing classes in college. Four, if I count the English 101 from freshman year. Only two of those classes had anything to do with writing fiction, and it was always short stories. I was taught zero things about how to write a novel during my formal education. I read a bunch of them, for sure, but that’s it.

Lately, I’ve been seeking out chances to learn more about writing craft. Doing NaNoWriMo back in November was actually a great way to get started. The municipal liaisons in Wilmington organized weekly write-ins at libraries or bookstores. All the participants would go hang out for a couple of hours and write.

After November, I started going to local workshops and a critique group. A writers’ workshop is taught by one person and geared towards a specific topic—something like “writing your memoir” or “editing your work.” The participants write, share, and discuss their work during the allotted time. A critique group, on the other hand, is a little more free form. Members bring completed work to read, and the group gives them feedback. Every workshop and group can be different, but that’s the general idea.

The benefit of all this, for me, has gone beyond just learning to be a better writer. Before moving to North Carolina, I was a teacher. Before that, I was a student. I was used to spending my days surrounded by people and constantly getting feedback about my performance. Suddenly being alone all day was a bit of shock. Writers’ groups are a way for me to meet new people and get feedback on my work. They also keep me accountable, especially the critique group—I want to get the most out of it, so I have to read, so I have to write and revise between meeting.

This blog is good for accountability, too. Thanks for reading, guys!

Okay, back to the Asheville workshop. “Writing the Novel,” the class I attended, was taught by Brenda McClain (her website is down right now, but there is some information about her next book, One Good Mama Bone, at the bottom of this page). The workshop was held at the workshop’s Asheville headquarters, which are in a beautiful old farmhouse. After coming home I found out the house also serves as a bed and breakfast, which sounds magical. A little more character than the Holiday Inn Express I stayed at, probably.

There were seven people total in the workshop. There was a pretty broad range of experiences and interests. Some of us were just getting started on a novel, others were moving towards publication. We shared excerpts of mysteries, paranormal fiction, historical fiction, novels-in-stories, and humor.

After introductions, we got into some reading. The group gave positive comments only. In the past I might have been a little more cynical about that—how am I supposed to improve if no one tells me what’s wrong? But there are plenty of voices telling me what’s not working in my writing. Many of them originate in my own head. And when I really need that tough-love criticism, I have people I can get it from. It was refreshing and affirming to have people tell me what makes my style work so I can be energized to do more good writing.

We broke for lunch, then came back and did some writing prompts that Bren had prepared. Most of what I wrote during this time was developmental. It probably won’t make it into the novel itself, but it helped me sort out some things about my characters that I’d been struggling with.

For the last hour or so, we discussed publication. It was an open question-and-answer type of talk, and there was a lot of talk about how to pitch a novel to potential agents. Bren covered everything from how to write a query letter to the etiquette of meeting an agent in person (i.e., never, ever pitch your work in a public restroom). That was great for me, since my goal is to start querying agents by the end of 2016.

So, that was my experience at the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville. Every workshop is going to be a little bit different, but if you’re in a position to get to Asheville or Charlotte, you should check out their website. I also got to spend the night after the workshop barhopping downtown, so if you ever find yourself in Asheville, I have a couple restaurants/bars/breweries I can recommend.

Hope everyone’s having a wonderful week. I’ll see you in a couple of days with an update on what I’ve been reading.

Books That Made Me Want to Travel

A good book can transport you to a new place, sometimes literally—with a few intervening steps, like packing, of course. It’s immensely satisfying to see places after reading about them. There’s a flash of recognition, a feeling that you’ve been there before, if only in your mind.

I’ve been lucky enough to get my passport stamped a few times in the last decade, and my travel bucket list is heavily influenced by my reading list. I read a lot of fantasy, so sometimes I wind up visiting the real-world inspirations for imagined worlds. I’ve been known to pick up more realistic fiction and nonfiction, too, though. Here are some cities I’ve visited and the books that made me buy the plane ticket:

Istanbul, Turkey—The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

historian

This sprawling novel about academics chasing after a vampire takes place in several different countries, but the sections set in Turkey made me yearn to go there. Kostova describes Istanbul in the 1950s as a place that mixes the modern with the ancient. The two empires that ruled the city, Byzantine and Ottoman, both left their mark without managing to erase the cultures that came before. It’s all still there today: the Hagia Sophia, the mosques, even the skewers of grilled meat and locals selling talismans against the Evil Eye to tourists.

 

Athens, Greece—The Queen’s Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner

thief

Part of what drew me to The Thief and its sequels as a teenager was my already-established obsession with Greek mythology. Attolia, the fictional setting of the books, isn’t Greece, exactly. It’s not Turkey either, although Turkish history also influences the novels. It’s more of an alternate history where neither the Roman Empire nor Christianity reached the region, and the culture mixes ancient governing systems with Renaissance technology (like primitive guns). All these disparate elements work together smoothly. The result is kind of like visiting Athens. Above the very modern city sits the Acropolis and some of the most iconic ancient ruins standing today.

Florence, Italy—Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King

dome

Kind of cheating here, because this book was gifted to me in college after I’d already decided to spend a semester in Florence. I had a nannying gig that spring, and while the kiddo napped I would sit at the kitchen table with this book and daydream about my upcoming trip. Filippo Brunelleschi was chosen to design a dome for the Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s grandest cathedral. No one in living memory had built a dome that large, and Brunelleschi had to solve the problem of how to do it without buttresses or scaffolding. Knowing the history of the Duomo made living in its shadow more exciting. The best part was climbing to the cupola and knowing that I was in the same spaces the builders used hundreds of years ago.

Venice, Italy and others—Kushiel’s Legacy Series by Jacqueline Carey

kushiel's chosen

The characters in these alternate history/erotic fantasy epics are well traveled. In the first book alone, the protagonist goes from living in alternate Renaissance France to being enslaved by a proto-Germanic tribe to negotiating a marriage treaty in England. I might never catch up, but I did go to Venice after reading Kushiel’s Chosen, the second book in the series. I was fascinated by the history of the old Republic and the contrast between the opulent masked balls and the wretched life of the state’s convicted criminals (although Carey’s prison, La Dolorosa, is markedly more isolated than Venice’s real-life Prigione Nuove, for plot reasons). Venice is very much in the business of preserving its Renaissance grandeur for tourist consumption, so I was able to get a mask, take a gondola ride, and peek at the Ponte dei Sospiri.

So far most of my trips have taken me to Europe. Even in Istanbul, I never crossed to the Asian side of the Bosphorus. I’d love some recommendations that would give me the itch to go to some new cities, countries, and continents. What books have influenced your travel dreams?

 

Audiobook Review: The Crystal Singer Trilogy

Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer Trilogy– Crystal SingerKillashandra, and Crystal Line might be the only space opera to feature an opera singer as the main character. In an opening scene that speaks to my music major soul, music student Killashandra Ree has failed a crucial test. She will not be able to realize her dreams of becoming an operatic soprano. Devastated but still in touch with her theatrical side, she flounces off campus, determined to find a new career and be the best at it.

Fortunately for Killashandra, singing has other applications in the Federated Sentient Planets. Space operas need interplanetary communication. That’s accomplished with paired musical crystals that resonate with each other across great distances.

This was the cover image on the box of cassette tapes I had.
This was the cover image on the box of cassette tapes I had.

Crystal singers are the highly trained, highly paid professionals who mine the crystals. The only job requirements are (1) perfect pitch, since singers use voice-controlled laser cutters (2) willingness to relocate to Ballybran, the only planet where the crystals occur. Killashandra has both.

Crystal singers attain a sort of rock star-superhero-politician status. They get paid ridiculous money for cutting crystal, and living in Ballybran’s unique ecology gives them heightened senses, accelerated healing, and an extended lifespan. That’s if they don’t die in the adjustment process. Oh, and the crystal affects their memories, essentially dooming all singers to forget their loved ones as they enter old age.

All that risk seems worth it to Killashandra, who is desperate to prove herself. The first book is really about her decision to remake herself and how she finds her place as a singer. By the second and third books she’s developed enough to be concerned about problems beyond her own (she investigates human rights violations and new sentient life forms on distant planets), but her own emotional growth is always paramount to the story.

What sets Crystal Singer apart from most space opera is the lack of a larger conflict. There’s no war, no resistance, no ideological struggle. Killashandra isn’t out to make the galaxy a better place. She just wants a sense of purpose, and if she gets rich and famous in the process, that’s fine too.

She pursues her goals with single-minded, mercenary dedication. Minutes after finding out that a senior singer has perished in a crash, she’s trying to track the location of the vein of valuable crystal he was mining before he died. When her peers grow jealous of her early success, she starts sleeping with her boss. Romance is generally an afterthought for Killashandra, who approaches her attachment-free flings like an interstellar James Bond.

Nice haircut, Killashandra
Nice haircut, Killashandra

I discovered this trilogy as a pre-teen, and revisited it many times in the next few years. I wasn’t particularly interested in what the books had to say about sacrificing your personal life for your career or the damaging effects of untreated mental illness. I was interested in Killashandra being a badass. She goes on adventures, frequently risking her life but always rescuing herself at the last moment. At least twice a book she leaves for a trip without packing, because she can just buy new stuff when she gets there. She orders a beer like she knows what she’s talking about. So cool, you guys.

After many listens, I lost track of the cassette tapes. However, some years later, they showed up on Audible.  The audio is sometimes scratchy, but still easy to understand. All three books are abridged, coming in under three hours. Usually I prefer unabridged books, but it’s never bothered me in this case. The only crystal book I’ve read on paper is Crystal Line, and I didn’t notice major omissions from the long version to the short. I think it’s nice to have an audiobook that I can finish in just a few sittings.

This is my all time favorite audiobook performance. Adrienne Barbeau brings just the right mix of melodrama, humor, and compassion to Killashandra’s story. Everyone is from non-Earth planets, so every accent works. She drawls, lilts, and purrs her way through the dialogue. Physical descriptions are kept to a minimum, usually one or two traits—red hair, wrinkles, tall and tan. I don’t know if that was the author’s stylistic choice or a victim of the abridging process. Still, the strength of Barbeau’s voice acting gave me a clear mental picture of how each character looked and moved.

This is my first focused listen-through in a few years (mostly I just pop one of these on when I want something to fall asleep to). There are things I never noticed before, like the lesbian space ship in Killashandra. It’s a ship with an all female-crew that only takes female passengers. The captain warns Killashandra not to flirt with any of the crew because most of them are already dating each other. No one wants that kind of drama when you’re stuck together in outer space.

Blond, all of sudden? I am also just becoming aware that the title of this is a play on "crystalline," good noticing, Andie.
Blond, all of sudden? I am also just becoming aware that the title of this is a play on “crystalline,” good noticing, Andie.

Oh, and then there’s the way that as soon as Killashandra gets to a new planet, she starts insisting that singers need to consume a certain amount of alcohol to keep their modified metabolism working. I’ve always taken that at face value, but it doesn’t come up until the second book. Now I’m not sure it’s not Killashandra trying to trick her hosts into buying her drinks.

Anne McCaffrey did have some musical training in her youth, so what she incorporates here is all factually accurate. Still, you don’t need to understand music theory or history to appreciate the books, since most of Killashandra’s singing is applied to crystals and not performing. There is one lightly tossed off joke about Beethoven in the second book that I’ve never liked, but I’m totally behind any universe where “I made a killing in dominant thirds” is considered a smooth pick-up line.

 

Review: The Xenogenesis Trilogy/Lilith’s Brood

Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis Trilogy consists of Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Imago, published as separate novels in 1987, ’88, and ’89. In 2000, the whole series was released in one volume titled Lilith’s Brood. In our internet and ebook age, it’s possible to find the series either way.

I decided to write one post to cover all three books. Each novel is distinct, but together they tell one story about first contact and the future of the human race. By the time I finished Dawn I knew I wanted to get my hands on the other two books and find out what happens next.

dawn cover
I almost posted a picture of a Lilith’s Brood cover but then I found some Palencar art for the trilogy, so that’s what you’re getting

Before reading the books, I had heard Xenogensis described as “hopeful” science fiction. Lilith, a human woman, wakes up on a spaceship with no idea how she got there. The ship belongs to the Oankali, aliens who rescued Lilith and other humans from a war-torn, dying Earth. The Oankali are willing to help restore the planet and bring the survivors back, on one condition—any human who wants to have children has to mate with the aliens, producing a new hybrid race.

At first Lilith is frightened by the Oankali, understandably so, since for the most part they’re gray humanoids with lots of tentacles and a varying number of arms. After living on the ship for some time, she comes to understand and even love them. It could be read as a parable about racism. We can become familiar with the unfamiliar. We can find common ground despite our differences.

That’s a great message, but I think there’s more to Butler’s vision. Racism isn’t about perceived differences and personal fears; it’s about power. I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of the significant human characters in these books are people of color. Before the war, Lilith is a black woman living in 20th century America. She understands what it means to feel powerless. After the war, the dynamics shift. Oankali have power over humans. They assert that power peacefully, and with the best of intentions. Nonetheless, they control the future of our race.

In cooperating with the Oankali, Lilith does what oppressed people have done for centuries. She survives at any cost. She assimilates into the culture of the oppressor in the hopes that she can help other humans. To break the system, she has to get inside the system.

This isn’t to say the Oankali are villains. They want to help, and they do, in their own way. Lilith does genuinely care for them, but sometimes she feels that she’s betrayed her own people. Then again, without the Oankali, humans would have gone extinct, so were her actions really wrong? It’s that kind of moral and emotional ambiguity that makes this series so much more than just a simple allegory.

The second and third books focus on Lilith’s part-human, part-Oankali children. In Adulthood Rites, her son Akin concerns himself with the plight of the humans who have chosen not to mate with Oankali. Imago is about Jodahs, the first human-oankali hybrid to develop into an ooloi, the Oankali third gender.

Introducing a third gender is cool, even as a science fiction concept. The ooloi can change their appearance and alter any living being’s gene structure. Still, the books treat sex and gender as immutable biological facts. Oankali society isn’t so much accepting of nonbinary genders as it’s…used to having another one, I guess?  Jodahs doesn’t read as gender non-conforming to me, it just has the body of an ooloi. Also, the use of the pronoun “it” for the ooloi seems dated, kind of like the hermaphrodites in the Vorkosigan Saga (which started around the same time period, The Warrior’s Apprentice introduced the world to Bel Thorne in 1986).

I have so many questions about the gender and sexuality politics in this series. What happened to all the gay humans? What happens to anyone who doesn’t want to have children? I don’t think the books create a believable representation of the range of human gender and sexuality, but it does introduce an alien culture that thinks about these concepts differently.

The Xenogenesis Trilogy came out right around the time I was born, but it still felt fresh and relevant to me. Sometimes the forward march of real life science and technology outruns science fiction and makes it obsolete. Even books that avoid being dated can seem diluted after a couple dozen other writers have remixed and riffed on the original idea. Maybe it’s because the science fiction I read mostly doesn’t have aliens, so I’m not familiar with the tropes. But maybe it’s because Butler took a truly unique idea and built a timeless world populated with complex characters.

Either way, these books deserve their status as classics. Highly recommended, especially if you love sci-fi but need a break from the bleakness. If you’re feeling dystopia fatigue, Xenogenesis might be the cure.