Half-Resurrection Blues
Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Half-Resurrection Blues is the kind of novel that’s somehow more than the sum of its parts. Superficially, it’s the story of Carlos Delacruz, a partially (or previously) dead bounty hunter working the gray area between the world of the living and the world of the dead. There’s a shadowy Council calling Carlos’s shots, a fantastical plot afoot, a lot of intriguing and memorable characters, a love story, elements of noir and mystery and magic and romance and horror all mashed together.

Which all sounds well and good enough, but it’s not entirely fresh on the surface, excepting that for the most part HRB avoids the heavy religious under- (or over-) tones from a lot of other life/afterlife/death urban fantasies I’ve read. But even beyond that, what sets HRB apart is the phenomenal pacing, the expert character crafting, and the spot-on plotting Mr Older manages. There are a lot of events, a lot of characters, and none of it feels overwhelming or sketchy. Each major development is well-earned, the wildly imaginative sequences outside the vibrant Brooklyn he creates are all crisply narrated to avoid the muddled description issue that plagues some other writers in this space. But at no point does the book bog down, belaboring the machine underneath the plot. There is always something happening, something looming, something just about to surprise the reader. Some of this is probably due to the way the plot is delivered primarily through a lot of crisp, real-world-feeling dialogue instead of overblown narration. Carlos is a terrific guide through Older’s world, and even when he’s making mistakes, it’s impossible not to root for him to come out on top.

There is so much to like here, including the fact that even though I was worried the ending would be unsatisfying or rushed based on how much was left unresolved and how quickly the end of the book was approaching, but Older manages a neat trick of hitting the peak of all the major story arcs at once right when it needs to and then tidies up in just a handful of concluding pages. This is a complete book in and of itself, which is a relief even though there is at least one sequel; I’ve been burned a lot recently by series books that, by virtue of their ongoing nature, don’t feel inclined to find a legitimate conclusion.

I heavily recommend this book. It’s dark, fun, spooky, surprising, fast-paced, and wonderful. I can’t wait to read the next in the series, because I can’t wait to spend more time in the world and with these memorable characters.

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Adulthood Rites
Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I’m enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it’s very best, exploring what it means to be human through the lens of wild speculation. It’s post-apocalyptic and full of invading space aliens but it’s not grim, fatalistic or even swashbuckling. It’s about relationships, about potential, about sex and gender and adaptation and growing up. It’s about change. Change happens all the time, Butler points out, but can we—as humans—ever really embrace it?

Compared to Dawn, I kind of missed the presence of Lillith, who is relegated in this volume to a supporting role. Instead we mostly follow her son, Akin, the first male construct (hybrid oankali/human—basically the new generation of oankali) and the first to look almost completely human, at least in his larval stage. Lillith and the other human survivors introduced in the last part of Dawn have been transplanted to a repaired Earth and though some humans are working and breeding with the oankali, others have splintered off into human-only villages. They are bitter at being sterilized, at being at the mercy of the aliens, and early on Akin is kidnapped by a group of them. Fortunately, Akin is a wonderful character in his own right, and is absolutely the right person to see this chapter in the broader story through.

He spends enough time among the humans to develop a fascination with them, which informs the bulk of the book’s conflict. Oankali direct their evolution by “trading” genes with species they encounter. The constructs like Akin will be a merging of the two species but will call themselves oankali. Older branches of the oankali are allowed to continue as part of the alien society, but what of the humans? They are a dead end species and Akin must decide if he should fight to grant them similar protections as outdated oankali branches.

The brilliance of Butler’s work is that despite there not being a ton in the way of action or obvious tension, there is a gripping quality to the story. Much of the driving action is a series of small calamities and momentary dangers. But the underlying concerns are as big as they come, full of the sorts of thought exercises the very best SF can ignite. I loved thinking about this book. Did I sympathize with the Resisters? Would I be the sort of person to see the larger vision of the oankali? What would Akin’s solution near the end of the book mean to the people who were almost convinced but couldn’t get over the hurdle of being forced into breeding themselves out of existence? What did it say about humanity that the people originally selected to be re-awoken by the oankali in Dawn were potentially amenable to re-integration and so many of them chose to be Resisters?

As with Dawn, the set-up is deliberate but fascinating. The ending where things happen is a bit rushed and a lot of the relationships don’t develop in a comfortable way, which is to say it unfolds in an unpredictable manner and not all readers are really going to cheer for how it shakes out. Unlike Dawn, which felt like it had room to continue but was complete in itself, Adulthood Rites has a much less self-contained feeling. It’s book two of a trilogy, though, so I can forgive it that. Put another way, there’s no scenario in which I won’t read book three. I’m all in with the series at this point.

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Princeton Groups, Diversity_2352

co Nyanda via Creative Commons

A couple of articles have cropped up in the last week or so, mostly stemming from this one about a person who didn’t read anything from white authors for a year. You can see similar themes being addressed with, for example, the #weneeddiversebooks campaign. K.T. Bradford issued a straight-up challenge to skip out on books by straight, white, male authors for twelve months. She even offers a reading list to get people started.

Then I see things like this misguided Business Insider article which tries to suggest seventeen SF books “every real sci-fi fan should read” and can’t even come up with one book by a female author. Plus, it includes Asimov twice.

I decided to do some datamining to understand how insular my own reading world may be. The results were perhaps predictable (in part because I read a lot of “mainstream” books), but disheartening. Of the 66 books I checked—and note that I omitted graphic novels and anthologies because of their multi-creator aspects—I came up with these numbers:

Orientation Cultural Background Gender
Straight: 39 White: 60 Male: 42
LGBT: 2 Non-White: 5 Female: 24
Unknown: 25 Unknown: 1 Unknown: 0

Now there is some margin of error there. I didn’t research very much so this was largely based on my existing knowledge of the authors. But I think the takeaway is pretty clear: there’s not a lot of diversity happening here. Particularly problematic is the extreme whiteness of the authors represented here, which is exactly the sort of thing #weneeddiversebooks and others are talking about.

So now that I know, I’ll be making a much more concerted effort to diversify my literature. I think for the remainder of the year I will eschew a book if it doesn’t fit into at least one of the non-white, non-straight, non-male categories above. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.

I'm beginning to see the light

Matthias Ripp via Creative Commons

2014 was quite a ride. For me, anyway. After all, it’s not every year that you have a baby, move to a new town, get a new job, and make the first wobbly baby steps into a dreamed-of venture in the span of twelve months. And let’s be honest, most of that stuff all happened in the span of about three months in the middle of the year. For awhile there, I was just sort of holding on as best I could, trying not to get completely overwhelmed.

But I’m not complaining. 2014 wasn’t a flawless year, of course, but it was more good than bad and, for that, I’m grateful.

On a personal front, things are far more stable than they were a year ago. My second daughter arrived in the spring, making our family feel more complete. I’m gainfully employed with a company I like, working with people I respect in a job I’m pretty good at. We have a place to live in a town that feels like home. My older daughter started school (Kindergarten) and seems to be thriving there. My wife and I celebrated our 15 year anniversary and couldn’t be happier.

As a writer, I feel like my ten year plan is proceeding along at an acceptable pace. I followed up my very first publication just over a year ago with six new short story publications, including my first print pub. I landed my first pro-paying acceptance near the end of the year. One of my stories received an Honorable Mention from the Writers Of The Future contest. I even earned a tiny bit of money from my writing.

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OR gate

Martin Kenny via Creative Commons

About two months ago I began volunteering as a first reads editor for a small semi-pro science fiction magazine. If you’re a writer who regularly submits fiction to publishing markets, you’ll recognize this role as the “slush reader.” If you’re not a writer, the short explanation is that unsolicited submissions are collected into what is called the slush pile—a stack of stories sent in cold for publishing consideration. The editor-in-chief is usually the person responsible for purchasing stories they want to publish, but in a lot of cases the number of submissions overwhelms the time an editor-in-chief could reasonably devote to reading and making a decision upon.

Many markets use slush readers, almost always volunteers, who comb through the submissions and reject the ones they feel have no chance of being approved by the decision-makers and passing along only those that pass first inspection.

Slush reading has a reputation of being something of a thankless job. Aside from being unpaid, it can take a significant amount of time, depending on the volume of submissions and the current number of active first readers. Plus, there is the perception—true or not—that slush reading means reading a lot of really awful stories.

My reasoning for undertaking this endeavor is that, having spent a year and a half having my writing read by these pre-screeners, I wanted to get a taste of life on the other side of the submissions queue. I have some designs of doing editorial projects in the future and I felt this was a good way to get some experience in editorial-adjacent work. The other factor, and not an insignificant one, is that I heard from a few writer friends who slush read on the side that doing so was beneficial to their own writing. Seeing common mistakes that got stories rejected was good, they said, for helping them avoid similar mistakes in their own work.

So I answered a call for first readers from Plasma Frequency Magazine. My experience with them was fairly limited; I had read a couple of issues as part of my research project to get a sense of what certain markets accept. I submitted one story to them which passed their first two reading tiers and was, eventually, rejected by the editor-in-chief. I had thought about submitting other stuff to them, but decided to see about the position first (volunteer editors are not allowed to submit to PFM).

Once I was brought onboard I began reading through the submissions queue and making decisions. To be honest, at first I didn’t think too closely about it and just tried to be fair about what I thought had a chance at being picked up by the editor-in-chief.

But over the following couple of weeks I started seeing certain things happen that opened my eyes to what might be going on behind the scenes at markets where I had pending submissions. Obviously I can’t assume that my observations map to anyone else’s, or even that the processes of doing first reads are all that comparable (I have only this experience—and a very small sample of it at that—to go on), but thinking about how this plays from both sides of the fence has been interesting at least, and possibly instructive.

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Halfway House Cafe BBQ

Andrew Morrell via Creative Commons

Just a quick check in today to update a few things.

  • Halfway through the NaNoWriMo month and … well, I’m behind. I don’t think it’s yet at the point where all is lost, but I should be at the 25,000 word mark and I’m about 7,000 words off the pace. Now, that’s not something I can’t overcome: I’ve written 3,500-4,000 words in a day plenty of times. But it’s a daunting place to be in. Looking back on last year, I see that I was woefully behind around mid-month then as well and I ended up rallying and coming through with a strong second half. I hope that’s the case again. I’m still struggling to get into this story the way I would like, which worries me because at least last year I was enthusiastic about the problem, even if I was struggling with having been laid off right around the beginning of the month. Most days this time around I feel like it’s a chore to reach the standard 1,667 words. But I’m still plugging away as best I can, hoping I can find some inspiration somewhere and finish strong.
  • A small part of my NaNo struggles also come down to the number of other related tasks I’m dealing with. I’ve been trying to keep this blog more frequently updated, and part of that involves doing some reading for the Short List series that I’m still enthusiastic about. Plus I’m reading a really good book right now and a lot of my friends keep getting really great stories published which are piling up on me. I’ve also been reading chapter books (not picture books) to my oldest daughter at bedtime, which has been fun and I want to write some new reviews of these children’s books based on the new readings and the conversations they spark with her, but finding time is so challenging. Not to mention I’m still trying to check in on the slush reading gig regularly. And, of course, there are non-literary issues to contend with including a baby who’s teething and not sleeping well, illnesses that keep nagging our family, and a renewed effort on my part to fix some of my health issues by eating better and exercising. These are things every person—and particularly every writer, I’m sure—contends with, but sometimes they seem to pile up a little higher and this month feels like one of those periods.
  • On the bright side, some writer friends of mine turned me on to QuarterReads, a new site for writers and readers that operates a little on the microtransaction model that was sort of hot a number of years ago. Basically you drop $10 into the site and that gives you 40 reads at twenty-five cents. The stories are all under 2,000 words and most of the money goes directly to the author. If you like the story, you can tip up to another seventy-five cents. They do read and vet each submission which gives some quality control to the site so you know you’re not getting unfiltered, unedited garbage. And there are some pretty heavy hitters posting work there now, such as Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, and a couple of people I know and can personally vouch for: Alexis A. Hunter and Natalia Theodoridou. Anyway, I think it’s a really interesting model, and I genuinely hope it succeeds. I even have a story up there now, Corkscrew, which you may recall appeared on the Toasted Cake podcast earlier this year. This is the first print version of the story available, so if you missed it first time around, here’s another chance to catch it.
  • Speaking of publications, it seems that October ended my rather unlikely streak of publications. From April through September of this year, I had a new publication come out every month. I have one publication pending, an anthology I’m thrilled to be a part of and can’t wait to see come out. But even my most optimistic hopes for it wouldn’t permit the streak to stay alive; the publishers are putting out an advance review copy (ARC) and only finalized the contributors list in September. Not too much chance of a one-month turnaround there. Still, I’m amazed and humbled by this past year’s small step forward. Six stories this year was more than I could have hoped for, and in the meantime I’ve continued to write and (hopefully!) improve, so I’d like to say this is only the beginning. For those who have supported me by reading or signal boosting—in particular my ever-patient wife who also manages to make time to be my biggest cheerleader—I thank you. I write for me, but I try hard to be better for you.

Fireside

(OvO) via Creative Commons

For more information about this feature, check out the original post.

Fireside
Issue 16, October 2014
Edited by: Brian J. White
Cost: Free to read online

Because my traipsing through short fiction venues is designed to be one-stop, it’s necessary to note that I won’t be bothering with serialized content. I say necessary in the case of Fireside’s October 2014 issue, because the bulk of the issue seems to be devoted to Lilith Saintcrow’s serialized She Wolf And Cub, including a prologue, and then Chapter One. Which is fine because it makes this inaugural edition of The Short List a rather breezy one, consisting of just three stories to read and a short note from editor Brian J. White. That is absolutely not an indictment of She Wolf And Cub—but if I get hooked on every serialized piece I stumble across, I’ll end up doing nothing but catching up on those by the third or fourth Short List. I’m intentionally avoiding it. And that’s actually something worthwhile to note about reading short fiction publications: feel free to skip over anything that doesn’t grab you right away or that just doesn’t sound interesting. With so many other stories to choose from, there’s no sense getting stuck on one that you won’t finish or that isn’t working out for you.

Anyway. Fireside.

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Reader

Hartwig HKD via Creative Commons

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to improve my writing skills by focusing on short fiction. Along the way I’ve read a ton of it, both to learn from what was out there and to see what was selling as I tried to align my submissions to markets that were (more) likely to buy my work. And in the process I developed a love of short fiction.

I could easily say that liking short stories isn’t particularly a recent development. But considering how well short work scratches the reading itch without the commitment inherent in choosing a new novel, it’s kind of surprising that it took me this long and this particular circumstance to get me truly invested in it. It simply didn’t occur to me earlier to seek out short fiction—other than the occasional author collection or intriguing theme anthology. I certainly never thought about subscribing to or buying fiction magazines.

I recently had a conversation with some other writers in which it was observed that sometimes it feels like short story readers have a 1-to-1 overlap with short story writers. That basically the only people who care about literary or genre magazines which run less-than-novel-sized pieces are people who are writing in that format. Maybe that’s untrue or unfair. But what I don’t think is controversial is the idea that short stories could be getting more attention than they are from pure readers.

My hypothesis is that maybe these publications just don’t get enough non-writer-y attention. Perhaps if someone explored some of the available options with a focus on their value to readers; if there was a concerted effort to get conversations started the way they’re started about books—with the added benefit of more inclusiveness since it’s much easier to get a group of people to read a ten-page story than a 300-page book—the short fiction community might not feel so insular.

Enter The Short List. This will be an experiment. For as long as it feels fun and engaging, I’ll choose a different publication for each installment and offer mini-synopses, reviews, and essays about the selected issue. My intent is to spread the focus around: professional-paying, high-profile publications will sit alongside indie and niche collections. I want to do genre magazines and eclectic anthologies. But more than anything I’m going to focus on these selections from a reader’s perspective. What’s the value like? How fun are the stories to read? How likely is it readers will find themselves sharing their favorites with friends? I specifically won’t be talking about the publications’ submission process or pay rates. Cover price may be a factor, art design might come up. What won’t be discussed are topics like the ease of working with the editors, what kind of submissions they’re looking for, or how frequently they respond with personal feedback.

The format may change and evolve over time. I do want to consider this a somewhat critical evaluation of each selection, but I don’t really care to fixate on ripping apart stories (and authors) I don’t care for. I also don’t have much interest in carefully curating my selection of a given publication based on issue or theme. The way I see it, any reader should be able to pick up any issue and be well-rewarded for their time and money. So I won’t be cherry-picking too much.

But here’s my hope: if you love to read, I hope you’ll read along with me, at least sometimes. I want to start conversations, introduce people who love to read to stories they might not otherwise have seen, connect new fans with new favorite writers, and get people excited about short fiction publications for the joy of reading bite-sized stories.

Stay tuned for the first edition of this feature coming very soon.

d-221 books

az via Creative Commons

It took me over nine and a half months to get through a single novel this year. To put that in perspective, I read 59 books last year, and 44 the year before.

To be fair, I did spend the first four months of the year unemployed and looking for work. Just as I began to zero in on a job prospect, my wife gave birth to our second daughter. So for a lot of the year I’ve been busy and somewhat sleep-deprived. And then there is the fact that I’ve been reading a ton of short fiction. Some has been for research purposes as I comb through samples of various magazines and sites that accept unsolicited submissions; some has just been because most of what I’m writing these days is short fiction and it feels worth it to study the form. And I recently became aware of a big gap in my literary headcanon as I have little to no exposure to poetry, so I’ve read a bunch of that lately, too.

But none of this quite explains my sudden decline in reading books.

I think a big part of it has been that I’m very routine-oriented when it comes to some things. Over the past few years I did a lot of commuting on public transportation, and it became a reading haven for me. Once I no longer had that job, reading needed to be carved out of different time periods. Other activities like writing, exercising, chores, they all competed with reading. It isn’t easy for me to adjust activities from one niche in my day to another, especially when a previous slot seemed to really work. Ask me how good I’ve done at exercising since I stopped being able to squeeze it in alongside my lunch break at work.

Another part of it may be that I tried to tackle two large novels right around the time my regular reading time disappeared. One was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which I picked up because I wanted to read a romance novel to expand my horizons and I thought some of the speculative elements I’d heard about in the series might make it easier to digest. And I was enjoying it, but it didn’t have that stay-up-all-night-reading hook to it. I gave it too long before dropping it. Then the other was the fourth book in the Song Of Ice And Fire saga, George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. The first three books, despite being rather hefty in size, took me a month or so each. But this book is a slog. It’s not bad, necessarily, but it’s kind of a series reboot and it ignores a lot of my favorite characters from previous books and adds a bunch of new ones I have a harder time caring about. So it’s been tough to get into the groove with it, and I still haven’t quite given up on it, mostly because it’s hard enough to keep all the characters in my head when I read a chapter a week. I’m afraid if I tried to come back to it, I’d never finish.

And really that is the thing that has kept me from finishing books, and it’s a lesson I had learned a few years ago. The more aggressive I am at putting books down that don’t hold my interest, the more I read.

The book I finally finished was John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which I listened to on audiobook while I did chores around the house. It’s a neat trick, but it turns out it only works for a certain kind of breezily-paced book. I’ve been trying to do the same with Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay” and while I’m very much enjoying the book (and the narration!), its literary style and fairly somber tone and pacing makes it less effective at helping me simply pass the time.

Hopefully I’ve broken the seal, though. A couple weeks after finishing Redshirts I tore through Octavia Butler’s Dawn and decided to give A Feast For Crows one more push and I actually made pretty significant progress. Maybe I’ll finish it and somehow this year won’t be a huge reading disappointment after all.

Chemistry Spectacular

Wellington College via Creative Commons

Aspiring Voices is going on a short hiatus through the end of the year, but we’re stepping out on a high note with the spirited and unique Alexander Chantal. I spoke with Alexander about his unique take on forms, the scientific perspective he brings to crafting a narrative, and the eclectic array of authors that have influenced him.

Paul: Tell me a little bit about how you got started writing. Was it something you always enjoyed, or did you come into it at a later point in time?

Alexander: When I was young, I enjoyed writing little bits and pieces here and there. My mother got me a “My First 500 Words” book when I was very little. I read it all in little or no time, it was fun. Then I was given eights volumes of an encyclopedia, at that point in time I realized three things: I wanted to write small stories with the stuff I already knew, I loved science and reading was like alcohol, once you’re addicted, there is no way out.

I didn’t start off writing like most people, writing small stories on a notebook, but rather making board games with ridiculously elaborate stories and rules. It was crazy, but then and there I realized I loved Sci-Fi. What really got me writing was the Left Behind series. I was’t much of a religious person, but the story was so interesting, then my love for anime grew in intensity.

Initially, I started writing poetry. Didn’t think for a second I’d try and become a writer. A poet, that’s what ran through my mind. Seven years ago, I started writing my first story, I never gave it a name, and then my recent work-in-progress: Adagio for Canon.

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