Sunday, December 14, 2014

Life update: where I've been. Stories sold. Christmas already?!

I disappeared into a medical writing assignment for a few weeks, then crawled out to find the house in chaos and the hurly-burly of the Christmas season well underway. All the neighbors strung lights in their yards when I wasn't looking; Christmas jingles play in the stores, lights and wreaths and Christmas trees are everywhere. Each year this season sneaks up upon me; this year it seemed to wait till the last minute before jumping out, waving its arms, crying Ha! Gotcha! Did you forget about me?

My mind filled with the technical details of a dozen scientific journal articles. . . I nearly did forget.

But the Christmas tree is up, the stockings are hung, and tonight was my daughters’ annual Christmas music recital. Both acquitted themselves well, if I do say so myself. My eldest finished a scarf she’d been weaving for me on her little loom kit, and I proudly wore it to the concert and all evening.  Dinner out (barbecue), bath time, bed. . . Outside the nights dip ever deeper, ever blacker, as the year tilts toward the solstice. But inside all is warm and snug. Throughout the neighborhood, all along the side streets, golden lights glow in bare branches.

I sold two stories recently. I signed the contracts for both this week. These sales make me so excited and happy—I can’t even tell you. I’m dancing inside, like a kid on Christmas.

I turn 40 this week.

In a week and a half, family members will drive hundreds of miles to see us. My kids are practically jumping out of their skin at the thought of seeing their beloved cousins again. My husband the gourmet is busy planning the menus of holiday feasts.

There are terrible things going on in the world. The news is full of them. It’s been full of them for weeks, for months now, it seems--an unending drumbeat of horror. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read the latest news articles about state-sanctioned torture.

For now, I just want to withdraw. I want to push all those news headlines away, to not click on the articles. I don’t want to work or clean the house. For now, I just want to read and write. Write and read. For this last week before the kids’ winter break and the onrush of (welcome) visitors and the true hurly-burly of the Christmas holidays. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Quotes and Links

On doing great work: 

"The real trick to producing great work isn't to find ways to eliminate the edgy, nervous feeling that you might be swimming out of your depth. Instead, it’s to remember that everyone else is feeling it, too. We’re all in deep water. Which is fine: it’s by far the most exciting place to be."

-- from "Nobody Knows What the Hell They Are Doing" by Oliver Burkeman at 99U

From writer Theodora Goss’s twitter feed**:

“I have rewritten this paragraph at least five times. Which is why wordcount is irrelevant, if they’re the wrong words.”

“Authors telling other people how to be authors is like parents telling other people how to be parents. Because all kids are the same.”

*Note: I don't know how to use Twitter. I don't know how to cite (?) it appropriately? I just sometimes use the Web to eavesdrop on other people's tweets.

A lovely essay on a video game and the Asian-American experience

     . . . because it sometimes seems that the world is a horrible place and the news is all Bad Things Happening. . .  and it's just nice to see a lovely, lovely essay like this. And the reader comments are all lovely, too! People are good, after all. 

I haven't played a video game in about 20 years. This essay made me want to play one.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On turning 40 and things I've seen and read: Fate/Zero, A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Magicians. Ways to make yourself melancholy during these gorgeous autumn days. 

It’s two months before I turn 40. But I’ve been mourning the end of my thirties for the last year.

40 is when you have to recognize, finally, that there are doors you’ve passed which will never open to you; there are paths which are forever blocked. “Way leads on to way,” as the poet said, and you will never find your way back to that turning point in the golden wood. Of course, I’ve been realizing this throughout my thirties. It’s just that the finality of that number, “40”—the thudding close of a decade—has a new hardness that drives the point home.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is failure, and of how it is not something talked about in our world. All our cultural narratives are of success. We tell our children that they can do anything, as long as they work hard enough and believe. We encourage people to follow their dreams. We love stories about underdogs, about people rising above adversity. When we read about failure, it’s almost always as a prelude to a story of success: Steve Jobs is humiliatingly ousted from Apple, but eventually returns in triumph to lead it to new heights of glory. A musician or artist or writer or sports star or someone flames out. . . but claws back to even greater achievement. Failure teaches lessons, the business blogs intone. You learn from failure. It’s just a step, a lesson, in the eventual road to success.

We don’t read about the ones who never made it. We don’t tell the stories of the people who left their fields entirely and forever, of the failures that were permanent and career-destroying. We don’t want to read about someone who ruined his marriage. . . and then never got a second chance, never found love again.

I was thinking of this partly because I saw the end of the anime series, Fate/Zero, last week.** And oh my god, it’s probably the most nihilistic thing I’ve ever seen. This action fantasy anime makes Game of Thrones look like lollipops and rainbows. In a way, the series is about nothing but failure. Mages and legendary heroes compete in a seven-way battle for a holy grail. . . and it’s nothing but characters suffering horribly and dying in vain for empty, broken ideals. For love that is not requited. For the sake of loved ones who don’t deserve that love. Characters have the best of intentions, and they sacrifice and work so hard, and all their efforts make things worse. Pretty much all of them fail in what they set out to do. . . and the “success” stories are not what the audience (most of us, anyway) really want to see. These are the heroic tropes of fantasy all turned on their heads and shaken with a vengeance.

There’s failure in real life. But we don’t usually want to see failure in fiction. We want the Hero’s Tale. And we want the Hero’s Tale in our nonfiction, as well—in the inspiring stories on business blogs and inspirational websites and feature articles in magazines. What kind of narratives do we have to deal with failure and the mature acceptance of failure? I think part of the reason Fate/Zero struck me so hard (beyond being amazingly well done) is that it is such an inversion of the usual fantasy adventure tropes. After all, the Hero’s Eventual Triumph (even if in simultaneously tragic or bittersweet form) is practically embedded in the DNA of modern fantasy adventure.

And it’s in pretty much all mainstream fiction, too. Even in most of the “literary” fiction I’ve read.


Another thing I finished last week was Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize winning book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” The “goon” in the title is time itself (“Time’s a goon, right?” a washed-up rock star says to his publicist). The book consists of linked short stories featuring characters who often seem to have only the most tenuous of connections with one another. However, as the book progresses, more connections between characters appear, until one sees at the end that everyone is linked in a complicated and mostly invisible web that even they are not fully aware of. Time itself is the book’s main theme, and the stories leap forward and backward in time in a way that can be formally thrilling. We see characters at different stages of their lives, in non-chronological order. During the course of ordinary life, we see characters fail. And some of the failures are actually more than ordinary—they’re spectacular. A New York publicist at the top of her game throws a celebrity party that goes so disastrously wrong that she ends up in jail. . . and later, at the bottom of her life, accepts a position as freelance publicist for a genocidal dictator, just to make ends meet. A celebrity profile writer fears that his serious writing career is circling the drain. .  and tries to rape the actress he’s interviewing (jail time for this one, too). Washed-up rock stars abound. Marriages and relationships end. Time is a goon, and beats up everyone in the end.

It’s not really a dark book, however, and certainly not grimdark. For one thing, much of it is very funny—particularly the chapter on the publicist and genocidal dictator, which is wonderfully satirical. There’s an often remarkable and formal inventiveness to these tales. And though there’s plenty of heartbreak, there’s no nihilism here. This book is too human for that. Characters lose, and fail, but they also grow and succeed and find redemption. Interestingly, though, that redemption often feels muted. We see characters at the nadir of their lives, but we’re often not shown those moments of growth and redemption; we’re often just told that it’s occurred, years later. We know that troubled kleptomaniac Sasha eventually grew up, married her college sweetheart and had two children . . . but we don’t know how she pulled herself together to do these things. And this book knows that despite appearances, there really aren’t any happily-ever-afters. The chapter narrated (okay, given in Powerpoint format) by Sasha’s daughter shows a family that is loving but also troubled in very human ways. Sasha does grow up, and her life by the end is definitely better than her life at the beginning, but even then “. . .she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her.”

“I don’t know what happened to me,” a minor character says at the end of the book, nearly in tears to a man he barely knows. “I honestly don’t.”

“You grew up,” the other character replies.

And that’s the real story in “A Visit from the Goon Squad”: the story of ordinary people suffering time’s slings and arrows, struggling, growing disillusioned, soldiering on and growing up. It’s a good book, completely deserving of a Pulitzer. It is also, in the end, a somewhat melancholy book. There is a great, triumphant fist-pumping moment of improbable glory toward the end. . . but the book ends on a lament for time’s passing. We’re all growing older, the last pages seems to say; it can’t be stopped, and none of us know what the future will bring.


I blogged about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy before. This is also a story about growing up in our contemporary world, though told with the language and forms of fantasy. But while the characters in “A Visit from the Goon Squad” often seem to grow up merely as an inevitable side-effect of drifting through time. . . something more deliberate seems to happen in the last volume of the The Magicians series. Quentin Coldwater and his friends are seen actively confronting past traumas and taking the steps required to grow up. Quentin is seen in the process of coming to terms with his own limitations, accepting past disappointments, learning to put others ahead of himself and becoming a fully functional, adult human. The ending notes are of wonder and hope. At age 30, Quentin is ready to embark on a rich adult life. He’s not a washed up rock star or record producer on his fifth wife (as in A Visit from the Goon Squad). He’s a bit older than the traditional young adult hero; he’s coming-of-age arc took longer than most. But he’s still young, and there’s still a sense of wild possibility. There is just now the sense that he is mature enough, adult enough, to handle it.


I’m almost 40, and there are many times when I still don’t feel adult enough to handle it. I love coming-of-age tales, yet I don’t feel that I’ve really come-of-age. I haven’t sunk to the depths of some of Egan’s characters in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” but. . . but I suppose I do see my life reflected, partially, in the complicated, light-and-dark patterned lives of her characters. How do we handle failure in real life? How do we handle disappointment and and aging and our own limitations? Most of us, happily, do not live in a hopeless grimdark universe like Game of Thrones or Fate/Zero (not in the modern Western world, at any rate). But do we get to grapple with our issues with the clean, narrative resolution of Quentin in The Magicians? Egan sidesteps some of that hard grappling work altogether, flashing forward and backwards in time, showing us characters at their bottom and then happily married to a second wife years later. The inner work of growing up—how hard that is to depict. How hard it is to do.

**Note that I Fate/Zero is actually a prequel to the series Fate/Stay Night. Which I am watching in the hopes that redemption and goodness will triumph(?) at least a little bit (?) after all. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Thoughts on femininity and a review of the children's book, "Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess"

A children’s book review: "Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess" by M.R. Nelson

My suggested age range: for kids 3 and up

Disclosure: I received this book as an electronic advance review copy from the author. Nelson and I have followed each other on social media for some years now, and I consider her a friend.

The Petunia of this charming children’s book is not a “princessy” girl. She doesn’t like frilly dresses and pretend princess parties. She would rather climb trees and play ball and build towers with blocks. She feels lonely in a neighborhood where are all the other little girls dress like princesses and seem to prefer more stereotypically “feminine” past times.

In the end, Petunia learns a lesson about acceptance. But it’s not the lesson you might expect.

Petunia doesn't have to learn to accept herself. She accepts herself and her tomboyish ways just fine. What she learns, when a new princess moves in next door, is an acceptance of others. The new girl wears a flouncy, sparkly dress and a crown. So Petunia dismisses her and runs off in disappointment. But then she learns that the new girl, Penelope, actually likes climbing trees and playing ball and doing all the typically “tomboy” stuff that Petunia likes, too. She just likes to do many of these things while also wearing a princess dress. And then some of the other princesses in the neighborhood also turn out to like some of these things. There are even enough princesses who like sports to have a proper soccer game!

Nelson’s book is a charming story about looking past appearances, and realizing that people are multifaceted. It’s about ignoring the false dichotomy that movies and television and our culture at large often seem to want to impose: that women and girls can be pretty and feminine and vapid, OR they can be serious and smart like a guy, in which case they can’t possibly be interested in shoes or dresses.

It’s the idea that a woman can be a pretty, airheaded cheerleader OR a smart, geeky, badly dressed scientist.** She can be tough and athletic OR pretty and fragile.

She can be a kickass Arya Stark who couldn’t care less what she wears OR she can be a Sansa who sews well and likes dresses.*** She can’t be both.

“The book came out of my frustration with the way our culture seems to write off little girls who love princesses, as if they can’t also love all sorts of other things.”

In another blog post, Nelson wrote of her personal experiences in struggling to integrate her “feminine side” with the career culture of science (she’s a trained biochemist as well a children’s book author). As she wrote in that post:

“. . . maybe we can all work on remembering that most people have multiple interests, and there should be absolutely nothing incongruous about a cheerleader who is also an awesome mathematician.”

Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess, celebrates the idea that, yes, girls can be multifaceted and a “princess” can do anything! As can Petunia, a girl who doesn't want to be a princess. . . and that’s fine, too!

All in all, this is a charming book. The illustrations are adorable and whimsical, and the story moves quickly. There’s lightness and humor, and the story will capture kids’ interest even while parents can ponder (and perhaps later discuss) some of the deeper issues invoked. The book also depicts diversity in more than one way. The titular Petunia is depicted as white, while the princess Penelope (the girl who shows Petunia that you can catch lizards and build towers while in a frilly dress) is black. A number of other characters are shown as people of color, and one of Petunia and Penelope’s playmates is a boy in a wheelchair.

So the big test for any children’s book is. . . what do children think of it? My youngest daughter is seven, and we read this book together last weekend. My daughter is NOT a princess, and has adamantly not been a princess for a while. Did she see herself in Petunia? I think so. But interestingly, it seems that she had already realized that girls could dress like princesses but still play ball and catch lizards. It seems she already knows that people can have a range of interests, and that you should't judge by appearances.

A book is more than a message, of course. What my daughter loved was not any moralizing theme, but the story itself. She loved Petunia and Penelope’s adventures; she laughed at the way that the girls “charm the King of the Forest Lands into joining them for tea.” She loved the pictures and whimsy, particularly the way that Penelope does actually seem to live in a castle.

My daughter was feeling a little ill at bedtime when we read this story together, but she was smiling when we were done. She said she would like the hardcover version. So two endorsements here, from both mother and daughter. My daughter is at an age when she (still) thinks girls can do anything, and this lovely book is one to reinforce that idea with lightness and charm.

**I trained as a scientist (cell biology) and spent years in academic science. It’s true that most of us are casually dressed in the lab, but that doesn’t always mean badly dressed. . . and I did know a few sharp dressers. But the thoughts that Nelson shares in this blog post absolutely ring true to me, too. She's not the first woman I know who was regarded as perhaps being "not serious enough" because she actually liked to dress up instead of wearing the standard grad school attire of jeans and a T-shirt. 

***Of course, many fans hope that Sansa will eventually grow up to kick ass in her own way. I've finished the fifth book and it hasn't happened yet (ducking the anger of fervent Sansa-fans now). 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review : The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

"It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.”
            --Lev Grossman, from The Magician’s Land

Unless you’ve been caught in in an enchanted sleep for the past several years (or just don’t pay attention to book news at all, I suppose) you’ve heard of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. “Harry Potter for adults,” it’s been called, as well as both a deconstruction of and loving homage to The Chronicles of Narnia and other classic works of genre fantasy. It’s achieved widespread critical acclaim and popular success. It’s also received the most polarized reviews I’ve ever seen on Amazon and GoodReads. Grossman’s series is a collision of literary tropes with genre fantasy tropes, all told with snarky verve and crackling Whedon-esque dialogue. Some people can’t stand these books. I love them.

I LOVE them.

I finally finished reading the last installment of the series, “The Magician’s Land,” this weekend. And it was the first time that I’ve ever deliberately slowed my reading, turning back to re-savor passages just to put off the inevitable end. “The Magician’s Land” is a beautiful work, a grand and optimistic and true ending. Taken altogether, the Magicians books trace the satisfying character arc of Quentin Coldwater, a character who started off as a self-absorbed, bitter, confused and often unlikeable teen, and who matures, finally, into a thoroughly decent, functioning adult human.

That might not sound like much to some people. But it’s a lot.

Behind all the playful jokes and flights of fancy, the humor and zillions of hip, pop-culture references, The Magicians trilogy is telling a profoundly serious story, and it’s doing it with the forms and language of fantasy. How does a person grow up in our contemporary world? How do we find meaning, how do we confront and move past trauma (because we all have trauma); how do we learn to look past ourselves and care for others, how do we deal with the inevitable disappointments and setbacks of life; how do we come to accept our own limitations, to be resilient, and to survive without bitterness?

How do we grow up? How do we stay grown-up?

In the first book, The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater and his friends are far from grownup, even after they’ve graduated from Brakebills, their Ivy-League college for magicians. They drink, do drugs, and hurt each other. They’re all adrift. They’re all good-looking, brilliant, rich (thanks to a generous stipend provided to Brakebills graduates), and they’re freaking gifted magicians. But they’re also all damaged people, and magic can’t fix that. Even traveling to the magical land of Fillory, the Narnia stand-in which is the land of Quentin’s dreams, a world which he first discovered in the pages of a children’s book and which he had thought just a story—even Fillory can’t make Quentin happy. And Fillory turns out to be far more brutal and dangerous than children’s literature suggested.

By the second book, “The Magician King,” Quentin is beginning to mature and take on responsibility. At that book’s end, he takes responsibility for what happened to his old friend, Julia (even though it wasn’t all his fault) and he sacrifices himself for her. As a result of that sacrifice, he loses what he thought he loved best—Fillory itself, the magical land of which he become king.

The last book brings us full circle. Having lost seemingly everything, Quentin returns to Brakebills and take up teaching. He soon loses that job, too. But even at the seeming bottom of his life, there’s a new calmness in Quentin. He’s grown through loss, and the incessant nattering in his head—the endless doubt and over-analysis and self-recrimination—has quieted. It’s like the difference in Hamlet when he comes back from his sea voyage and battle with pirates. The endless self-doubt is gone. We don’t actually see the moment of change, but we can see that it’s happened. Quentin (like Hamlet) still has more trials and fighting ahead, but there’s a new acceptance, and even serenity, in him. This time, the reader can see that Quentin is actually one resilient bastard.

As are the other characters of this book. Everyone is growing up in the last book, and now we get to hear their stories. Eliot has a couple hilarious chapters. For the first time we hear Janet’s story. She is one angry, broken person, and for the first time we glimpse what has made her that way. We also get to see her live out a thoroughly satisfying badass revenge story which also happens to be heartbreaking.

As the series continues, the books widen in scope and complexity. The first book featured only Quentin’s voice, but the second alternated chapters with Julia, the bitter girl on the outskirts of magic, who had to fight and claw her way to the magical knowledge that was handed straight to Quentin. The third book features so many viewpoints that it can be hard to keep up. A compelling new character, Plum, is introduced. Old characters come back.And this final volume of the Magicians trilogy is fun. Have I forgotten to make that clear? There’s some heavy stuff, yes, but for sheer blessed fun this volume tops all the others. Quentin and Plum turn themselves into blue whales—just for the heck of it! There’s a crime heist with a thrilling flying magic carpet ride. There’s a tender, affecting love story. Grossman lets his imagination fly, and the physical descriptions of Fillory get even stranger and more beautiful as the land nears its seeming end. And near the end of the book, there’s a sharp turn into sheer horror, a cat-and-mouse through a haunted house that had me reading wide-eyed and breathless, thoroughly freaked out.

There’s an apocalyptic final battle and the fate of Fillory hangs in the balance. . . but it was never about Fillory, not at all. Some readers have complained about how thin the world of Fillory felt in the first two books, how it’s just a jokey Narnia pastiche. Despite the increasingly detailed wonders, it still feels a little thin at the end. But Fillory was never really important, not for itself. It was only ever important for what it meant to the characters we’ve come to love. The battle isn’t for an epic fantasy land of dwarves and pegasi and hippogriffs and giants. In the end, this is about the single, individual battles for a human’s soul.

This book is also a reminder, and demonstration, of what fantasy literature can do. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Lev Grossman wrote this:

“For me fantasy isn’t about escaping reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed.”

That’s what he’s accomplished in The Magicians trilogy. There’s a scene at the end that encapsulates it all for me. After all he’s been through, Quentin is reminded of the little boy he once was, who read a series of fantasy novels about an imaginary world and fell in love with them. He’s spent the rest of his life dealing with the fallout of that love, trying to come to terms with fact that the imaginary world he read about is nothing like Earth, nothing even like the real Fillory that he eventually encountered and came to rule. The Magician’s trilogy can be read as a critique of that love, of all of us who have ever gone through the wardrobe and wished to never ever come back. But at the end of the Magician’s Land, Quentin does a surprising thing: he is able to symbolically integrate his innocent, child-like love for Fillory with his new adult life that now moves past Fillory. It’s a beautiful moment that couldn’t be conveyed other than with the fantastical images employed. It’s an example of how an author can use the tools of fantasy, its armamentarium of literal symbols, to achieve an effect that no realist author can.

And it’s a moment that affirms what reading does. People, especially fantasy geeks, often use reading as an escape. And it can serve as an amazing, miraculous escape—the best one I’ve ever known. But when done wisely, it can also bring us home.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Last publication for the year: notes on "The Berry Girl"

When it rains, it pours. Or something like that.

My last story for 2014 came out this week (same week as "Congress of Dragons.") This latest one is "The Berry Girl," up at Lakeside Circus. A podcast should be coming out soon. It was released just as summer ends, which is fitting as the story is an ode to summer.

STORY NOTES (possibly mild spoilers below!)

I wrote this story last year, in the thick of summer. The new raspberry bush in our front yard was giving us its first harvest. Every day my youngest daughter checked the bush for ripe berries. It was her greatest delight to pick the berries, bringing them one or two at a time into the house in a little yellow bowl.

One morning I was in the shower when my little girl entered the bathroom. She slid open my shower door to proudly show me her harvest--her bowl full of ripe berries. And she sang, "I am the Berry Girl! I am the Berry Girl!"

So I sat down to write a story about a Berry Girl.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Worth reading: review of One Throne Magazine, Summer 2014 issue

There’s so much good reading online these days. My reading (and writing) leans toward the speculative fiction genre, and I struggle to keep up with the journals in that field. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Apex, Strange Horizons. . . The list goes on. Aside from clicking to Brevity when a new issue comes out, I rarely look at “literary” or non-genre journals.

But a little while ago, one of the editors at One ThroneMagazine e-mailed me asking if I would consider reviewing his magazine. Just before Labor Day weekend, I finally read the Summer 2014 issue straight through. I’m glad I did. 

First off: the layout of this magazine is gorgeous. It is a slick, professional-looking online journal, and lavishly illustrated. Each story and poem is accompanied by artwork, and I was surprised at how well the pictures went with the text. I found most of the illustrations intriguing and lovely on their own, but when combined with powerful prose or poetry something truly resonant occurs.

The Summer 2014 issue features three pieces of fiction, one flash-fiction piece, and eight poems. The pieces are diverse in content and style. While many of the poems center on love and relationships, there’s a great range in tone and approach. The first poem, “This City, She Loves Me” by Mary Carroll-Hackett, is a wonderful, sexy, sultry, bluesy piece. “Desert” by Lesley-Anne Evans also takes on love, but in a bleaker, lonely register. “Adagio” by Sarah Feldman also addresses the pain in relationships and love, and “The Web” by Emma Paulet speaks of overt violence in this context (this last poem feel a bit too overt to me, but eh, that’s my personal taste). Switching things up, “Dog Years” by Ryan Favata is a charming, whimsical piece reminiscent of Billy Collins. Other poems take on other topics and themes. I’d like to note that “Dog Years” and another poem, “Many Things Live Backward,” are listed as first-time publications for both writers. Congrats to both, and it’s nice to see a journal taking on the work of new writers, as well as established ones!

The eclecticism seen in the poetry selection carries over to the prose. “Voracious” by Ilana Masad is an eerie little piece that hovers on the border of speculative fiction—slipstream, perhaps? “Abi |Abbey Abbie Alexander” by Matt Jones is an anguished story of grief. “Wonderful” by Jenny Wales Steele is a sly tale of black humor and two very, very naughty children (the accompanying illustration--of angelic-looking children playing in Victorian garb—is perfect).

But the stunner of this issue is the long prose piece by Timothy Ogene, “Notes from a Discarded Memoir.” Although labeled as fiction, this piece indeed reads like memoir--a non-linear, episodic memoir. An unnamed narrator relates his memories of growing up in in the city of O, Nigeria, in a crowded set of buildings known as “the blocks.” This piece is, simply, devastating. It is an unsentimental depiction of urban poverty. The narrator viscerally evokes the smells, the squalor, and the physical discomforts of his childhood.

“Burst pipes were left unfixed. The zinc roofs leaked like baskets. When the walls or floors cracked, they were patched with a mix of cement and sand. No one complained. My parents never complained.

The cardboard ceiling bulged with dirt and dust, including rat excrement collected over time. Septic tanks overflowed into clogged drainages. And when it rained, the drainages surged and became rivulets that stopped at our doorsteps.”

There is a horrific description of the pit latrines, and the recounting of a child’s almost unbelievable fate in such a latrine.

Yet despite such specific, searing details, “Notes from a Discarded Memoir” is more than a voyeuristic look at African poverty. The fears and loneliness expressed by the narrator evoke the universal anxieties of childhood, when all of us (even the most coddled) were ultimately powerless and at the mercy of adults. The children in this narrative grapple with dread mysteries in a way that I think must be universal to children. When his parents are asleep, silent, in the next room, the narrator wonders in terror if they’re still alive. An elderly neighbor (who to the reader’s eyes appears utterly harmless) is a figure of utter dread to the narrator’s sister. The children suffer petty injustice when they are beaten by a prefect for being late to school. A man with a macabre sense of humor tells the narrator a story that gives him nightmares.

There is little of lightness in this story. By the end, it is clear that books and education will be the narrator’s escape from this place. As an adult, he has no desire to return to the dilapidated “blocks” of his childhood. Yet he knows that he is forever marked by them.*

In summary, One Throne Magazine offers up a range of fine prose and poetry. Some pieces spoke more to me than others, but the ones that did hit me, hit hard. The editor who e-mailed me suggested that this journal would be of interest to someone who likes beautiful writing, and indeed, all the pieces—even the ones that didn't resonate much with me—were beautifully written. It is also worth noting the diversity of writers featured. The Summer 2014 issue included writers from Nigeria, Israel, South Africa, Canada, and the United States; the issue also included a mix of new and established writers.

At the start of this review, I mentioned that I don’t generally read “literary” or non-genre magazines. While One Throne Magazine has the appearance of a “literary” magazine, it apparently does not turn up its nose at speculative fiction. The “About” page states that the journal aims to span genres, “running the gamut from elegant prose and poetry, to plot-driven stories, to speculative fiction.” It will be interesting to see where this journal goes in the future. If this issue, and particularly if  the selection of Timothy Ogene’s work is an indicator, I think this journal will go to very interesting places indeed.

*After reading “Notes from a Discarded Memoir,” I immediately googled Timothy Ogene, as I do with all writers I admire. He has written thoughtfully on the dilemma faced by African writers when trying to write honestly of their countries—and in particular, of the concern that a story about African poverty feeds into stereotypes and into the perception of a “single story” about the continent. His essay on this, “The African Writer’s Dilemma,” and an interview with him at The Missing Slate are both well worth reading.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New publication at Mirror Dance!

I wrote a story about dragons.

Because, hey, dragons.

If you want to know more, head on over to the current issue of Mirror Dance, a lovely magazine put together by award-winning writer Megan Arkenberg. My story is "Congress of Dragons," and it's the first piece I've ever had that is accompanied by an illustration. I'm thrilled by the artwork that Megan selected. I think it catches the mood and fits very well. I never thought to see my character, Erran, like this, and I actually love it that the dragons aren't depicted.

I haven't had time to do more than skim through the magazine and read the first story ("The Frost Queen Requests Your Support" by Aimee Picchi--an unusual take on a frost queen story, with prose as sharp and gorgeous as ice), but as always the entire thing looks sumptuous. I'm looking forward to settling in with this one. Thanks to Megan for reading and publishing my story, and for the work that she does in putting together all these stories.

Friday, August 8, 2014

New publication up at GigaNotoSaurus!

Okay, I'm a week late posting this, but. . .

My novelette, "Between Sea and Shore," is live at GigaNotoSaurus! You can read it online or download it as an ePub from the site!

I am so thrilled to be appearing in this publication. I first fell in love with this journal when I stumbled across C.S.E. Cooney's amazing How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One. My love has continued since that day; just look at some of the other stories on the site and you'll understand why.

So I'm completely psyched to find myself published in the journal (founded by Ann Leckie of Ancillary Justice fame) that has published so many authors and stories I've loved. Huge thanks to editor Rashida Smith who plucked my story from the slush pile and then worked so hard with me to polish and sharpen the story, catching every typo and inconsistency along the way.

Thanks also to all my beta-readers! You know who you are, and I'm grateful to you all.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Notes from our family vacation in Thailand

The food. Oh my god, the food.

Food is everywhere. Steps from my parents’ house in Bangkok are the street vendors and open-air food stalls. Little coconut-rice pancakes sizzle on the corner; a woman walks down the street pushing a cart with vats of sweet tapioca noodles in coconut milk. There’s satay and curries and noodles and fruit everywhere I look. Mounds of fresh fruit for sale—rambutan (ngoh in Thai), mangosteen (monkut), longan, jackfruit, durian and more. Every time a relative or friend came over, they brought food. Every time we stopped at someone’s house, they brought out food. God forbid—the thinking seems to be in my family—that anyone go hungry for more than five minutes.

Needless to say, I ate well.

This is an example of the generosity I met and the Thai concern about food: One of my mother’s friends knew that my parents were hosting a full house for the week in Bangkok. This friend was worried about how my parents would provide breakfast. So nearly every day of our stay in Bangkok, my mothers’ friend would get up early and drop off a breakfast feast. She would buy breakfast items from a market (I assume) and leave the plastic bags of food tied to the bars of my parents’ front gate for us to find. Each day we woke to bags of congee, puffy golden-fried Chinese crullers, crisp fried chicken wings and drumsticks, sticky rice, plain jasmine rice, rich green curry, Chinese jung, and/or more. . .

I dream about those crispy chicken wings now.

Our trip was about more than the food, of course. It was my first trip back to my parents’ homeland in twenty years. It was my children’s first trip to their grandparents’ home country, ever. My first trip there with my husband (he’d been to Thailand before, though not with me). We were joined by my husband’s mother and, briefly, by his brother who is based in Asia. I met with relatives I hadn’t seen in 13 years, not since my wedding. A cousin I hadn’t seen in 20 years.

My parents played tour guides and plotted an itinerary: there was a flight to Chiang Mai, there were floating markets and temples and a trip to a zoo to see a panda and a trip to an elephant camp. Oh my god, watching my children feed bananas to a baby elephant. Riding an elephant through the lush countryside. Floating on a bamboo raft down a muddy river, green mountains rising in the distance.

Then back to the chaos of Bangkok. Daily trips to the malls—high-end malls with European and Japanese luxury brands I’d never heard of, and “bargain” malls where you wander a maze of stalls, haggling with vendors over scarves, clothes, crafts, t-shirts and souvenirs.

(Both types of malls have awesome food courts by the way). 

Banquets every night with The Relatives.

It’s hard to pick and choose among memories, and I’m leaving so much out. The heat and the rain and the sea and a walk down the main tourist drag of Pattaya city, which my husband likened to “Bourbon Street on steroids.” The discombobulation of being in a foreign country, a country which is not mine although it is the country of my parents and ancestors. The strangeness of being able to understand a language better than I can speak it, and the way that conversation around me zoomed in and out of my comprehension level. I speak Thai on the level of a toddler. But as the vacation wore on, I found myself using more and more phrases in Thai to my relatives (who all speak  English), much to their delight and praise.

Two weeks with my family in Thailand. We’re home now, and my mind is still bleary with jet lag, and I’m wondering when and how we’ll be able to do this again—all the logistics involved with work and children and aging parents.

Last night my husband attempted to recreate the pandan custard my oldest girl and I enjoyed in a Chiang Mai hotel. This morning I spent time researching recipes for the crisp-fried chicken wings sold in street markets throughout Thailand.

I don’t speak Thai, not really. I grew up in America, and I’ve always felt a certain estrangement from my Thai heritage—the typical legacy of second-generation immigrants. But I think I might well be as obsessed with food as any Thai.

Monday, June 9, 2014

New "official" website

Okay, I finally got around to making an "official" writer's website at Wordpress. This is the site I want to pop up when people search for my name.

But I'm still keeping this one at Blogger for sentimental reasons (and linking to it from my official site).

And of course, I need to do some fiddling/customization/prettying-up of all these sites. . . But damnit, I'm a wordsmith, not a website designer!

Anyway, head on over if you're curious to see what I've been up to this weekend.


It's been a long day, the first real day of summer break. Some light editing work and business e-mails this morning, then a whole afternoon at the pool with my little ones. Dinner and homemade strawberry ice cream for dessert. I'm tired, but all in all, life is pretty darn good.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Short story sales!

I've signed the contracts; I've even been paid! And while they won't be out for a while, it's still a personal Big Deal for me to announce two short story sales.

1) "Congress of Dragons" is forthcoming in the Fall issue of Megan Arkenberg's lovely journal, Mirror Dance. I always knew I would have to write a story featuring dragons one day. Because, dragons.

2) I am also very excited to announce the sale of "Between Sea and Shore" to GigaNotoSaurus. This story was difficult for me in a number of ways. It pushed me in new directions. It's the longest thing I've ever written (nearly 9000) words. I love it, but its very length made it hard to sell in the current short sci-fi/fantasy market. I am so thankful that a venue like GigaNotoSaurus, dedicated to longer fiction ("longer than a short story, and shorter than a novel") exists. It was also a pleasure, and eye-opening, to work through the editing/revision process with editor Rashida Smith.

These two stories mirror each other in interesting ways. They are the last of a series of stories I wrote which are thematically linked--fairy tales about transformation, identity, the quest for home and belonging.

I'll write more about those links later, after these tales are published. But I do think I've finally tapped out some of these themes--at least for now. It feels like I've exorcised something (if only temporarily). My most recent finished story is something completely different, and I hope to keep moving on--new themes, new structures, new styles and stories.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Lackington's Magazine: Prose and Plot

Lackington’s is a new online speculative fiction magazine with a focus on beautiful prose—what the editors refer to as stylized prose. I’m a sucker for beautiful prose, so the concept of this journal appealed to me from the start. Then the introductory forward to the first issue drew me in and whispered star-lit promises.

The world isn’t built on hook-plot-epiphany, and it isn’t experienced in digestible, everyday language. One might argue that literature doesn’t operate the same way the world does, but nor should it operate as if it came out of a box, complete with instruction manual. An epiphany isn’t half as valuable when it’s as dependable as the tide, after all.”

Editor Ranyl Richildis argues that the conventions of genre fiction—the story-telling “musts” that are taught as basics to beginning writers--constrain the literature produced and read. Does a character really need to change over the course of story? Does every story need its epiphany? Can a slice-of-life depiction ever be enough? (i.e. does something always have to “happen?”)

I’m enormously sympathetic to these concerns. I know that some of my own stories don’t fit neatly into the standard frameworks of plot and character, and these stories have been difficult to place as a result.

So what did I think of the first issue of Lackington’s and the editors’ grand experiment to break free of convention?

First, the prose is all gorgeous. They got that right—nearly every story is made up of incredible, textured, frequently startling words and images. As a collection of prose-poems, this issue was a success.

But what happens when you dispense with conventional plot? Interestingly, despite my love for beautiful words and my sympathy for the editors’ goals, the three stories that most held me were the ones with the clearest plot lines. One of my favorites, “Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta” by Helen Marshall, differs from the others in that it doesn’t have particularly stylized prose at all. The prose is fine, but it isn’t poetic or flashy or especially memorable; it doesn’t draw attention to itself in any way. It serves the story, rather than being the point of the story. And it’s an utterly charming, wry, clever story.

On the other end of the prose spectrum is one of my other favorites, “Balloons” by Christine Miscione. This is an example of writing that is riveting at the sentence-by-sentence level. Here is the first sentence:

“At twenty-two years, Callie’s cysts ate her ovaries, and twisted tubes into malignant spiral staircases.”

See? Can you stop yourself from reading after that?

What happens in this story unfolds in a seemingly clear, linear manner. Callie has surgery to remove her cancerous ovaries and uterus; she is devastated by the loss of her fertility, but eventually recovers with the help of her new dog, Virgil. The piece is narrated by Callie’s spouse(?) lover? The plot seems straightforward, but even in the first paragraph there’s a sense of mystery; the vivid, heightened prose imparts an air of magic to the nominally mundane. The ending is truly enigmatic.

The last story I want to highlight is "A City on Its Tentacles" by Rose Lemberg.


The writing in this piece is all that was promised in the magazine’s foreword: lush and gorgeous and filled with beautiful images.

There is an octopus in the heart of the Undersea; its every tentacle carries a street, a city, and at night when its people light their reading lamps the octopus shimmers. Sated with shining and the sound of the waves it floats in the centre of the sea, and one day a ship will come to it, tugged to shore by the struggling music of my heart. This ship will carry a hope…

Luba is both a mother and storyteller. She dreams wonderful tales and grows within herself a magic pearl. But her daughter suffers from a mysterious illness, and the only way for Luba to save her is to periodically enter the Undersea and give up her pearl and all the storytelling/dreaming power which is tied to that pearl. She doesn’t give it up completely; the pearl will grow back, and while Luba’s storytelling powers return her daughter again declines, until Luba has to return to the Undersea and give up the new pearl for her daughter’s health, again and again.

Charlotte Ashley in her positive review read this story as a narrative about addiction. My interpretation is more literal: I take at face-value the sacrifice that Luba has to make. She’s not giving up cocaine, or alcohol, or some other addiction in metaphorical form. No, she’s actually, literally, giving up her story-telling powers; she’s giving up her art. For me, this story was a meditation on the conflict between art and life that a mother-artist faces. The artist/writer might want to spend all her days dreaming and creating, but she has a daughter to care for. In Lemberg’s story, Luba has to literally suppress her artistic self to save her daughter. But she cannot suppress it wholly; it always comes back, and she has to give it up again and again in an unceasing tug between familial duty and artistic joy.

I don’t think that the author of this piece is saying that a mother-artist actually does have to suppress her art to be a good parent. I think this piece is, rather, a focused illustration of one character’s struggle between art and life. There are hints that Luba and her daughter might not always have to live this way. There are hints that they may one day be able to break their terrible cycle. At one point Luba meets a cellist (a fellow artist!) in the Undersea who urges her not to give away her magic pearl, her stories.

Are you a parent? she asks the cellist bitterly.

He admits that he is not, and she turns away from him.

But before she turns away, he has time to tell her that there must be another way for her.

And at the conclusion of A City on Its Tentacles, after Luba has returned, drained, from the Undersea, the daughter asks Luba for a story. At first Luba resists, but the daughter prods her and even adds her own ideas about the magical octopus story her mother had been writing. Luba is able to reach inside for the remnants of her gift, and share it—a story—with her daughter.

All in all, this was a gorgeous read that became even complex and powerful for me on reflection.


Can you have a great story without plot? Every reader will have her own answer to that. For me, I’m not sure that a plotless prose piece can be properly called a “story.” I do enjoy poetry, and lovely descriptions. But for me, lyricism without “something happening” works best in smaller doses—flash pieces, if you will. “Balloons” is utterly gorgeous, and also quite brief. Although enigmatic, it also has—compared to most of the other stories in this issue of Lackington’s—a relatively clear plotline. The stories I didn’t review here were all beautifully written, but in the end were just a bit too opaque for my taste.

But I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this market.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Winter update: Snows days, laundry, the Snow Queen's eerie expanse

 It’s been a long winter.

The polar vortex (what a marvelous term! When I was a kid we just referred to it as a winter storm or “cold weather”) comes again and again. Snow piles past the height of our mailbox, buries shrubs and half-buries small trees. In between freezing spells the ice thaws; mud and slush puddle in the streets. Sun teases us with longer daylight hours; we hear robins in the trees. And then it all freezes again, hard and glistening. Snow swirls outside my window, and I feel I could just stare out the window all day, hypnotized by its falling patterns.

Polar temperatures have kept us housebound; snow days have taken off a week of the kids’ school year. I let them watch too much TV. There’s paid work to do; there’s the struggle to find time (and will!) for personal writing; there’s always laundry to do, unrelenting as the snow.

Last week we returned from a trip to Chicago, where my family had gathered to celebrate my father’s birthday. There was great excitement as young cousins reunited: my kids and my sister’s kids. There was good food and company and cuddles with babies and small children running up and down stairs and spinning through the house and laughing in games comprehensible only to themselves.

My kids’ first visit to a Thai Buddhist temple, where we went for my father’s birthday blessing.  My niece and youngest daughter crawling and sliding under the pews as a jolly monk lectured us—in English, for the benefit of us second-generationers--on Buddhism, seemingly unperturbed by the childrens’ antics. (“Do not try to control your children,” he offered as parenting advice at one point). Thank god he (and Thais in general) are so laidback with small children.

Then the long drive back home. We stopped off at a small resort town on Lake Michigan for dinner. Husband parked on the beach by the lighthouse. The sun was beginning to set, and the lake was frozen past the pier, frozen for as far as we could see. People were roaming the lake tundra, this strange new landscape that we knew as a place of blue waves and sun. I hesitated—should we really go out there?—but my children and husband took off. The girls were delighted, stomping and climbing over blocks of snow, arctic explorers along with other puffy-coated sightseers on the ice. There were strange tumbled piles and bluffs of ice; a now smooth and now broken, rippling surface underfoot; a spot where someone had cleared away snow to reveal the opaque black ice, impenetrable, beneath. Out in the distance I saw frozen undulations. “Are those really frozen waves?” I said. “I don’t think so,” my husband replied. (They were not).* “How did these things form?” I said, staring at an isolated ice-bluff higher than my head, rising abruptly from a flat surface.*

We climbed from the lake’s surface up to the pier.  Back to the car, as the setting sun glowed red on the ice behind us and the lighthouse flickered on. Dinner in a warm restaurant. Onion rings and sandwiches and fries. And then, as we started on the last leg home, we saw an eerie blood-red moon low on the horizon. Look, I told the kids, and we watched the moon follow us home.

*The ice formations along northern Lake Michigan's shoreline are even more spectacular than the formations we saw on its southern shores. I've seen friends' photos, and pictures of the"ice caves" near Traverse City are now Internet-famous. As this news site explains, such ice caves and formations" ... are formed by the wind and wave action. Westerly winds push slushy ice up along the shoreline. Layer after layer freezes on top of each other and forms the caves up to 30 feet high."