Book Review: Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest

cover of MaplecroftI love being a blogger as opposed to an academic because I can write things like “Holy crap this book is scary”.  When I was an English Lit student, I was supposed to write things like, “Maplecroft uses the matrix of sisterhood to deconstruct the Lovecraftian mythos.  The Monsters are both Freudian and Jungian symbols, revealing the inner psychology of the siblings and the historical framework in which they navigate illness, gender fluidity, sexuality, and sublimated aggression”.

Here’s what you should actually know about Maplecroft:  it’s a fantastic book and holy crap it’s scary.  Do you guys remember in “Friends” when Joey liked reading The Shining but he had to keep it in the freezer when not reading it because it was so scary?

Friends

I did not actually keep Maplecroft in the freezer but I also didn’t keep it in my room when I was trying to sleep.  It was banished to the living room, from which it made shuffling, gibbering noises all night.  I considered the freezer, but the house was really dark and I didn’t want to walk that far because I was like this:

Joey in Friends

Maplecroft opens two years after the famous Borden murders (as in “Lizzie Bornden took an axe and…”.  In real life, Lizzie was never convicted.  In the book, Lizzie did kill her father and stepmother, but only because they had turned into murderous, unearthly monsters.  Lovecraft fans will be pleased to know that there’s a lot of gibbering in this book.  Lizzie and her sister Emma, who is dying of consumption, live in a house called Maplecroft.  Lizzie built a laboratory and a “cooker” in the cellar and she spends her nights killing monsters with her axe (they hate iron) and her days tending to her sister and trying to figure out what happened to her family and why these gibbering slimy monsters with long glassy teeth (they look like anglerfish teeth, which Eeeeeeuuuuuugggghhh) keep surrounding her house.  The sisters live in near total isolation ever since Lizzie sent her lover, a woman named Nance, away for her own protection.

angler fish

No.

The plot quickly thickens as more people get involved.  Nance comes back, and she REEEEEAAAAAALLLLY wants a look at the cellar.  The local doctor investigates terrible, unearthly crimes and wants to help Lizzie.  An inspector from Boston shows up – but who does he work for?  No one knows.  And a scientist that Emma sent a sea creature to has started writing Emma letters like this:

I will come to you and we will meet and you must explain to me as much as you can as much as anyone can what has become of the ocean not the ocean but which lies in the ocean, from whence cometh the sample I have named Physalia zollicoffris I have named it after myself because it came before myself and now it is myself, we are the same now you see or you will see I will see to it I will see to you.

So, yeah, that’ll end well.

I’m sure you could read this book with great satisfaction even if you know nothing about the Lizzie Borden murders but I found that knowing some of the background made the story richer.  A lot of historical details are woven into this book and made to serve the story – most notably, the fact that the Borden family complained of feeling sick, maybe poisoned, for some time before the murders.  Like any good speculative fiction, the outlandish parts of the story work because they are anchored in mundane things.  For instance, Lizzie talks about having problems with her stays creaking, Nance has freedom to explore sexuality because she’s an actress, Emma struggles with consumption, and the women have a realistic if torturous dynamic.

Because of the way the supernatural elements work, you can’t always tell whether people are feeling resentment and hostility towards each other because they are succumbing to possession, or because they are trapped in an untenable situation.  Emma and Lizzie in particular resent and depend on each other.  Monsters aren’t that scary because they are pretend, but sibling conflicts, being trapped by illness as either a sufferer or a caretaker, being kept from pursuing careers and lovers because of gender, and social isolation – those things are scary because they happen all the time.  They were very real parts of Lizzie’s life.  There’s so much tension in the book that it’s almost a relief when she actually gets to hit something.

This is the first book in a series.  It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger but it’s clear that a sequel is on the way and I’m DYING HERE.  It looks like the sequel will come out in September 2015.  In the meantime, I hope Lizzie gets to take a nap, because that woman is exhausted.

Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker

cover of Thinking Woman;s Guide to Real MagicThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is harrowing and lovely – at times dreamlike and at times gritty.  This is one of the few portal fantasies that deeply explores the ramifications of being transported to an alternate world in terms of mundane things.  There’s magic and adventure and romance, but much more time is spent on matters such as how to get boots that don’t leak, and the importance of knowing the nuances of language instead of just vocabulary.  For this reason, the book is slow-paced, but also thoughtful and interesting.

Nora is a graduate student whose thesis on John Donne is going nowhere.  Her boyfriend dumps her, her thesis advisor is poised to do the same, she’s got no self-esteem or backbone, and she wanders into the woods on a walk and finds herself in faerie.  Suddenly she’s beloved and special and going to wonderful parties every night.  She knows nothing makes any sense but it doesn’t seem matter, and the Prince of Faerie wants to marry her.  It would be perfect if she could just shake the feeling that something is not right.

The book takes it’s time with Faerie, and this part is dreamlike and very slow-paced.  The way the author balances the tone between happy dream and terrible nightmare is adroit – you know that kind of dream where you’re afraid it’s about to become a nightmare?  Like there’s a creepy thing at the very edge of the dream so even though the dream is happy you are still afraid?  That’s what Nora’s experience is like.

The book really gets interesting when Nora leaves Faerie.  She’s not in her world – she’s in the land of Ors, which is somewhat medieval in nature but nothing that is too closely paralleled with our history.  This part is also slow-paced, as Nora struggles to make a home for herself in a place where she has no marketable skills, only rudimentary ability with language, no social skills to speak of (people often complain that she ignores propriety) and no status (she’s a woman without husband, property, money, or family).  The moment when Nora, who’s spent her life studying literature, realizes that she’s illiterate in the language of Ors, is heartbreaking.

What’s great is that this part of the book is well-thought out, and it gives Nora a chance to shine.  We meet her at a low point in her contemporary American life, and in Faerie, her intelligence is forcibly muted (she’s basically roofied the whole time).  But in Ors, she has nothing to rely on but her brains, and she builds confidence as she figures out how to survive.

Meanwhile Nora is under the protection of a magician, and they begin studying Nora’s copy of Pride and Prejudice together.  The magician is a total jerk – rude, arrogant, contemptuous of Nora because of her status, and yet gradually more respectful of her as she shows talent and tenacity.  Could there be some kind of parallel here?  HMMMM?  Note:  I never liked this guy but he’s the kind of hero who is pure catnip to some readers – dark, tortured, and angsty.  There’s an event in his past that I think makes him irredeemable.  Yet I loved watching Nora stand up to him over and over again and I look forward to reading more about him in the upcoming sequel.

This book is being marked as fantasy chick-lit.  I have no problem with fantasy chick-lit (other than the name “chick-lit” which makes me want to claw off my own face) but I don’t feel that description fits.  This is a pretty in-depth, serious fantasy.  I love the way there are dragons and ice monsters but also problems with leaking boots.  Nora spends more time peeling apples than she does casting spells (although once she starts spell-casting it’s pretty awesome).  I found this book easy to put down but a pleasure to pick up again.  There’s a sequel on the way.  Will Nora and the cranky magician get through the second half of Pride and Prejudice?  Will she ever slay that damn dragon?

Emily Croy Barker’s website has a reading guide that includes maps, a list of poems quoted in the book, recipes, and a playlist.

Between the Lines Book Club: The Worst Hard Time

between the lines book club logoThis is our last week with The Grapes of Wrath.  If you are in the Sacramento area, join us at Arden Dimick Library, 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, on September 28, 2014 at 2PM for our in-person meeting.  Meanwhile. share your comments below!

Today’s post doubles as a book review.  The Grapes of Wrath tells a fascinating, harrowing, fictionalized story of those who left the Dust Bowl to come to California.  If you are interested in the history of The Great Depression, than I highly recommend Tim Egan’s nonfiction book about those who did not leave the Dust Bowl:  The Worst Hard Time.

cover of The Worst Hard Time

 

This book is powerful, informative, and memorable.  It will be a long time before I forget how to keep centipedes from invading a dugout home (iron the walls when your wallpaper starts squirming, or douse the walls with boiling water).  This books vividly demonstrates why the Joads are so determined to leave their home and why so many other people were determined to stay.

dust storm hits town

This book contains many helpful tips in addition to the importance of ironing your walls at regular intervals.  To avoid dust pneumonia, keep your windows covered at all times with dampened curtains (a horrifying number of people dies of dust pneumonia, curtains or no curtains).  You can eat tumbleweeds but they aren’t very good – try soaking them or pickling them.  Be friendly with your neighbors – when the bank seizes everything you own, they’ll buy your things at auction and give them back to you.  More importantly, the book points out the human causes of the Dust Bowl, and points to practices today that do further damage to the ravaged plains.

The plains were plowed under by homesteaders throughout the 1920s.  Turns out that sod, that part of the land where grass roots make a mat under the dirt, is essential to keeping the dirt on the ground.  In the 1930’s the dust storms began and by 1935 and estimated 250,000 people had left, having lost their homes.

The worst storm, on Black Sunday, occurred on April 14, 1935.  More than 300,000 tons of topsoil were blown away in one day – twice as much dirt as was dug up to make the Panama Canal.  Egan writes in a matter that is personal (he takes care to include people we come to know and care about) and visceral, as in this passage:

 “Every spike of barbed-wire fence was glowing with electricity, channeling the energy of the storm. Ike and his friends were a few yards out when the dirt got them. It came quicker than most dusters and as deceptive because no wind was ahead of it. Not a sound, not a breeze, and then it was on top of them. They were slammed to the ground and engulfed by a wall, straight up and down, the dust abrasive and strong, boiling up, twisting.”

dust storm aftermath

The Worst Hard Time has the excitement of a Hollywood disaster movie and the intense relatability that comes from the author focusing on the lives of specific people.  It has a story to tell that is both relevant to our past and to our future, as we look at the environmental impact of our activities.  If you enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath, (if enjoyed is the right word for such a moving book) the you will enjoy The Worst Hard Time.

“Nobody knew what to call it, a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top.

“It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard — a black blizzard, they called it — with an edge like steel wool.”

– From The Worst Hard Time

man walking through dust

 

 

Guest Post: 10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Compare the Modern Man to Mister Darcy, by Emmy Z. Madrigal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen my writer friend Emmy and I discovered that we both blog and we both love Jane Austen, we cried, “BLOG SWAP!”  I’m the author of Pride, Prejudice and Popcorn: TV and Film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre.  Emmy is working on an adaptation of Northanger Abbey.  Here’s Emmy’s post, about the problems with holding out for a Mr. Darcy in the real world

1. Mr. Darcy was written by a woman.Yes, Jane Austen fulfilled our fantasies by writing a delicious character, but he is written from a woman’s point of view. He says the right thing (or wrong thing) at precisely the right time and approaches Lizzy with expressive and romantic language real men don’t use. “Hey, wanna take a trip with me this weekend?” can be just as tantalizing from a real guy as, “I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” Read his signs like you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, with care and attention to detail. Asking you to hang out with him, means you are special enough to spend time with. Give him a break on the flowery declarations of love.

2. Even Jane Austen didn’t write the Darcy in your head.

You’ve read her words, but you’ve blown Mr. Darcy into this full-blown fantasy that can’t compare to ANY real man. In your mind he is perfect, much more perfect than Jane’s text could speak of. Remember his faults, like being too uppity and assuming Lizzy is nothing because she is poor and lives with a family of nutjobs. You’ve mentally fast-forwarded through all his distain like you do on the DVD to get to the really juicy bits. Our minds have powerful forgiveness for faults when we’re fantasizing.

3. Perfect men are obnoxious.

Do you really want to be tied to a man so perfect, only his man servant sees him naked? Who knows how many girdles are beneath those perfect suits and that pants bulge might not equal happiness in the bedroom. Will he be as uptight while undressing you, or will his servants do that for him? If you think about it, Darcy is kinda creepy. He follows Lizzy around, being all uppity and superior and then involves himself in a family scandal. No one is that psychic to cater to your every need before you even ask. It’s rare to find that much gallantry in a man, especially one too perfect to be in the same room with your loud-mouthed mother.

4. Showing emotion is not a fault.

Being with someone so stoic could drive a person mad. This brings up images of dancing in front of him to make him smile like the royal guard dudes with the big fuzzy black caps. Will he show emotion while bedding you, or will you just receive a nice tap on the head and off you go? You want a man who shows chinks in his armor every once in awhile. You want one you can smile and laugh with, one who shows his passion for you and sometimes makes a fool of himself in the process.

5. No real man is free of fault.

And his faults are never as tame as being so proud he’s prejudiced! Let real men have faults and don’t compare them to Darcy unless you want them to fail every time. Find a man you can love despite his faults. Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to find his faults cute or romantic. If you can adore Darcy’s snobby attitude, making fun of Lizzy, calling her names, and putting down her family, maybe you can let Joe Schmoe’s fetish for baseball cards slide, eh? And just remember, women have faults too. Find someone who thinks yours are adorable and not to be corrected.

6. Times have changed.

10,000 pounds a year ain’t what it used to be. Falling for a man because of his wealth is like signing up for disaster. In the olden days, rich men tended to stay that way and if they didn’t, they still had their title to make doors open for them. In this day and age wealth is something that can change quickly. What if he loses an account, his mansion, or his job? Will you still love him when he’s jobless or his life situation changes? Are you wishing for riches to make your life easier or to truly be happy? Money doesn’t breed happiness and if the relationship isn’t built on something stronger, it’s doomed to fail.

7. Looks are fleeting.

What happens when Mr. Darcy turns 50, has the comfortable couch gut and starts losing his hair? You want someone you love for qualities other than looks. Ten to twenty years from now, do you want to be looking at him thinking, “Geez he WAS gorgeous, but now he’s a bit chubby and has rather odd ears.” Or do you want someone who you can love despite his graying temples and age spots?

8. What will you have to measure up to?

Do you want to be with someone that you constantly don’t feel good enough for? What will be expected of a girlfriend or wife of Darcy? Are you ready to manage Pemberley? Will you be expected to have perfect children before you’re ready? Will you have to raise your children as heirs to vast wealth, thinking only of riches and status? Would you be able to still live your own life, go out with the girls, or finish school? You want someone who appreciates your talents and has just as much fun discussing your interests as recounting his smelly old fox hunt!

9. What’s so great about Darcy anyway?

Does he have any hobbies? Does he do or accomplish anything besides keeping up his family estate? What are any of his accomplishments beyond being born into a rich, titled family? What is Darcy when these days you can have a musician, artist, techy genius, or an architect? An evening at Pemberley seems rather drab, sitting around reading, pretending to enjoy whist… in a corset no less! Wouldn’t you rather be in your comfy leggings, dancing at a concert or strolling the boardwalk?

10. You might be missing out on your Mr. Right.

Just because the guys you date don’t fit your cookie-cutter hero costume, doesn’t mean they’re unworthy. What if Mr. Wrong is Mr. Right for you? What if the jeans and t-shirt guy from the laundromat turns out to be the love of your life? Sure, you don’t want to struggle through life, you’d like to find rich Mr. Darcy, but how do you know that you plus t-shirt guy doesn’t equal success unless you give him a shot?

Emmy Z. Madrigal is the author of the Sweet Dreams Musical Romance Series and Anime Girl 1 and 2. Her love for Regency romances goes back to the days when she first discovered Mr. Darcy and was instantly besotted. Emmy believes that love can conquer all and that sometimes, love comes when you least expect it. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her own Mr. Darcy and son. To find out more, go to: sweetdreamsnovel.com

Book Review: The Guinevere Trilogy, by Lavinia Collins

cover of Day of DestinyI have a love/hate relationship with Lavinia Collins’ Guinevere series.   I loved that I couldn’t put it down and I loved the fact that Guinevere is a whole, complicated, pretty messed up person.  I also hated it the fact that Guinevere is a pretty messed up person, because I was so frustrated with her, although I enjoyed seeing Kay call her out on it.  I like that she is able to love more than one man fully and the critique of forced monogamy.  If any problem could be solved easily, it would be Guinevere’s, given that she would thrive in an openly polyandrous marriage.  I also hated it that Guinevere is so so selfish and frankly so, so dumb on so many occasions.  She is so drunk with love and fueled by frustration at her limited role that she careens around wreaking havoc while everyone says to her, “Hey Guinevere, you want to tone it down a bit?”

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  This series has covers that initially I regarded as simply dreadful and now regard as thought-provoking (except Book 2, which simply dull).  The first book, The Warrior Queen, features a naked Guinevere (I assume) leaning on, or possibly emerging from, a tree.  On the Amazon page, her bosom is artfully covered by strategically placed type.  Other versions don’t include the type, which can be a bit startling.  Behold:

cover of Warrior Queen

Why?  Why is she hanging out in the woods semi-nude?  Is she actually emerging from the tree, like a woodland faerie, or is she just tired?  It’s not that I object to hanging out in the woods semi-nude (although I have to say – BUG SPRAY, people!)  it’s just that it doesn’t connect in any way to the story.  Guinevere has lots and lots of sex in this trilogy but I don’t recall her hanging out in the woods shirtless.  I don’t think the cover matches the content, but I did think that this post by author Lavinia Collins, about the double-standards regarding nudity, is thoughtful and interesting.  She points out that Amazon insisted on the “modesty panel” for the shirtless female, but had no problems with this shirtless male on the cover of the second book, A Champion’s Duty.  I have the same problem here on WordPress – I have to show the Amazon version cover to remain PG-13 as a blog but I can show off Lancelot’s naked torso with impunity.  Here it is:

cover of A Champion's duty

This is your basic, bland, erotic cover of a guy who looks sort of angry and sort of stoned and very wet.  While the first cover is weird and gratuitous, at least it’s creative, interesting art.  I prefer it to the bland quality of A Champion’s Duty.

I actually love the cover of the third book, The Day of Destiny, but again I don’t think it relates much to the book.  Here you go:

cover of Day of Destiny

Those of us in science fiction, fantasy, and romance know all too well that the cover of a book does not necessarily reflect the quality of the book, and this trilogy is far better than the covers suggest.  It has enough explicit sex to qualify as erotica but it also has plenty of plot.  Guinevere is forced to marry Arthur when he conquers her father’s lands as part of his early days of kingship.  Arthur is a loving husband and Guinevere returns that love.  Initially Arthur welcomes her into his war councils and as a soldier in battle.  When she is wounded in battle, Arthur concludes that he can’t bear to have to worry about her and against her protests he sends her home.  This marks a rift between them and sparks a deep frustration and resentment on her part that never heals despite their reconciliation after the battles end.

While Guinevere’s love for Arthur is warm (they have very comforting sex), her love for Lancelot is blindingly passionate.  It’s fueled by lust and also by Guinevere’s need to rebel, to take some kind of control over her own life.  She is told by an unreliable source that Arthur sleeps with other women while away at war and she believes it because no one expects a king to be monogamous.  Being banned from war, she refuses to be banned from sex with whoever the heck she wants to sleep with.

This aspect of Guinevere was the one I related too.  She’s bored and she’s trapped and she’s lonely and she’s all, “Fuck it, I’ll sleep with this hot guy because it’s my life, yo”.  She wants to be a warrior queen, and for a while she’s allowed to be just that, and then she’s banished to being a piece of furniture.  No wonder she wants some autonomy.

What bugged me is that she’s so freaking self-centered.  She can’t seem to grasp that there is an entire kingdom which will be totally ruined if she can’t control her libido.  She pressures Lancelot when he says no (I did enjoy the gender reversal, in which she is the initiator of a sexual relationship).  She’s callous towards others, including her lovers.  She can’t see or doesn’t care that all these acts of personal rebellion don’t get her any further towards self-determination but they do hurt a ton of people.

I’m confused about why this series is marked as a romance series.  A romance novel carries with it the promise of a happy ending – and not just a happy ending but one in which the primary couple will end up together.  If you know your King Arthur lore, and most of us do, it’s not a spoiler to say that Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot do not end up practicing open love in Avalon while dining on cake.  It’s a tragic romance series, it’s an erotic series, and it’s a love story, but it’s not a “romance” series and it drives me crazy that it’s marketed as such.

Overall, I enjoyed this series – certainly I read it avidly, although that was partly because I was trying to figure out how the author would pull a happy ending out of this particular hat.  I was frustrated by Guinevere but I also enjoyed having a main female character who is neither passive nor perfect, and I loved that the author was sufficiently aware of Guinevere’s flaws to have Sir Kay point them out frequently (I adored Sir Kay).  I’d grade this series as a B- with a strong mileage may vary component.

Between The Lines Book Club: The Banning of the Grapes of Wrath

between the lines book club logoWelcome to another Friday with Between the Lines Book Club!  We’re discussing The Grapes of Wrath this month.  Please join us in person at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864, at 2PM on September 28, 2014 for our in-person book club meeting, and leave comments here so we can have on-line discussion as well!

The Grapes of Wrath was the number one seller in the year it was published, selling 430,000 copies by the winter of 1940.  It received immediate and future critical acclaim.  but not everyone likes it – it was banned and burned in the year it was released and it continues to be banned or opposed in school and libraries as recently as 1993.

The Grapes of Wrath ends in Kern County, California.  Residents of Kern County were outraged that their county was portrayed in a negative light.  The county board of supervisors voted 4-1 to ban the book from libraries and schools.  The board was lobbied intensively by the Associated Farmers, a group of large-scale landowning farmers.  Bill Camp, head of the Associated Farmers, made one of his workers, Cluell Pruitt, to burn the book, as depicted in the photo below.

3ae8ccdaa80b6cd53833d264ae79ca24-orig

 

As stated in an NPR article about the burning of the book in Kern County:

Meanwhile, local librarian Gretchen Knief was working quietly to get the ban overturned. At the risk of losing her job, she stood up to the county supervisors and wrote a letter asking them to reverse their decision.

“It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin,” she wrote. “Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.”

Cover of "Obscene in the Extreme"

 

Kern County was not the only place that banned or attempted to ban The Grapes of Wrath.

You can find a more complete list of all the time The Grapes of Wrath was banned or challenged at The American Library Association page “Frequently Challenged Books”.  It’s been challenged for its political and social views, its language, sexual content, and use of profanity.  It’s been banned in Ireland (in 1953) and Turkey (1973).  It was burned by the East St. Louis Illinois Public Library in 1939 and challenged as required reading in Tennessee in 1993.

Partly because of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck was held under suspicion of being a communist by the FBI.  According to Steinbeck’s son, the FBI could find no reason to legally prosecute Steinbeck so instead they ordered that his taxes be audited every year “just to be politically annoying” (Thomas Steinbeck, in an article for Huffington Post).  Incidentally, one of the books strongest advocates was Eleanor Roosevelt.  She visited migrant camps in 1940 and maintained that contrary to accusations, she did not find that the conditions of the camps had been exaggerated in The Grapes of Wrath.

My sources for this entry were two great articles:  “Banned Books Awareness: The Grapes of Wrath” and “Grapes of Wrath and the Politics of Book Burning” from NPR.

 

An Interview With Sarah Chorn, of Bookwork Blues and SF Signal

bookreadingSarah Chorn uses her blog, Bookworm Blues, and her column, “Special Needs in Strange Worlds” at SF Signal to bring attention to authors with disabilities and characters in speculative fiction with disabilities.  She interviews and hosts guest blogs with people who experience mental and physical challenges and explores how people with disabilities are represented in genre fiction.  I’m so happy that she was able to do this interview!

On both Bookworm Blues and SF Signal, you feature guest posts and interview by authors with disabilities and/or authors who feature characters with disabilities.  What led you to focus on this aspect of writing and representation?

A few things, really. Two of my brothers introduced me to fantasy when I was a teenager, and my brother Rob really kept me involved in the genre for quite a while after that. We’d always trade books and talk about what we read. My brother Rob is disabled. He was born with part of his brain missing. He has seizures and now he is paralyzed as well. A few years ago Rob had a horrible seizure that really ripped his mind apart, and rocked his body into temperatures of 107 degrees for five days. It was terrifying. As a result of that, he can’t read anymore, but we still talk about books a lot and he still loves the genre despite the fact that he can’t really participate in it the way he used to. A few years ago I was talking to him about one thing or another and he said, “I really wish that someone would talk about how people like me can be important in books, too.” That sentence is where the whole idea for my column sprang from. I did some research after that, and I realized that there are lots of people talking about gender, and race in the genre, religion and other aspects of diversity, but I really couldn’t find anyone talking about disabilities in the genre, and how people like my brother Rob can be important, too.

I decided to change that.

And I’m beyond thrilled that so many authors and bloggers and readers are willing to help out.

Can you talk about one particular post that really got your attention – something that made you see things in a different way or have a new idea?

It’s hard for me to pick a few that stand out because they all move me so profoundly. This is an incredibly complex topic, and the more people write about it, the more I learn. However, if I had to choose one piece that really sticks out to me the most is an interview I did last November with my brother Rob. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/11/special-needs-in-strange-worlds-a-conversation-with-my-brother/It was neat to be able to talk to him, to see why reading is so important to him, and how he uses books as a way to inform and educate others, as well as to get out of his own skin. Reading isn’t just about escape, for my brother it is a lifeline, and it really took me having that candid discussion with him to grasp that.

Jim C. Hines wrote a piece recently about writing with depression. That also really touched me because he was so open about his struggles, but he also candidly talked about how he was trying to integrate it all into his writing. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2014/05/guest-post-special-needs-strange-worlds-jim-c-hines-writing-depression/ Struggles aren’t just physical, and Hines really did a great job at delving honestly into some mental and emotional issues, but also showing readers how, despite his battles, there is always hope. It was really touching, and quite empowering.

Contributors to Special Needs in Strange Worlds (on SF Signal) talk about a huge range of disabilities.  Are there any common threads you observed?

I am truly amazed at the strength of the human spirit. Each article that someone writes absolutely astounds me by how strong, how positive, how hopeful that person is, whether they are disabled, or know someone who is. People in general are amazing. It truly humbles me to see how many people are willing to participate in my column, and support my effort to keep a dialogue going. A lot of people open up about a lot of personal, emotional, deeply touching details when they write for Special Needs in Strange Worlds. That takes very real strength, and it takes a kind of courage that really boggles my mind.

That’s probably what has stood out to me the most while my column has run. People are so much stronger than they give themselves credit for. I find myself constantly inspired and enlightened by the email I get, the articles that have been written and are being written, and the subjects people talk about. You are all so amazing and so strong. Every last person involved in Special Needs in Strange Worlds has touched me profoundly, and inspired me.

In your experience, is SFF more or less open (or about the same) as other genres of fiction when it comes to talking about people with disabilities in a sensitive way?

I think it’s a work in progress. In general I tend to think that speculative fiction is a progressive genre. The whole purpose of it is to play pretend, to explore things that might not be, and see how life would change if those things existed. What if we had magic, or space ships, or governments that spanned species and planets, or could shape shift? It’s a progressive genre, but I think that we have our issues just like anyone. If we didn’t, there would be no reason to have people fighting for diversity, or equal representation.

That being said, I do think that things are getting better. It’s the natural flow of progress. I see fewer authors inserting the token disabled person in the books they write. Fewer are fixing (or curing) disabilities unnecessarily. It seems like more authors are realizing that it’s okay for their character to suffer from depression – that’s realistic. It’s okay if their protagonist has asthma – it doesn’t need to be fixed. It also doesn’t need to negatively impact what those characters are capable of achieving. Someone with asthma can be important, too. Someone in a wheelchair, as Stephen King proves in his Dark Tower series, can be just as badass as anyone else.

We read for a number of reasons, and we write for a number of reasons. We like to see bits of ourselves in the books we read, but we also like to get out of our own skin and live someone else’s life for a time, face different challenges, see the world through different eyes. I am loving this trend of authors really embracing that, and realizing that the world (ours or a secondary one) isn’t homogenous. Diversity is beautiful, and vibrant, and oh-so-important. Diversity makes a book real. It’s important to insert that in the books we read and write and I’m thrilled that so many people realize that.

Though as a genre, there is room to grow. That’s part of what I love about speculative fiction. There is always room to grow, room to improve, and room to change. Speculative fiction is always changing. That’s why it’s such a fantastic, exciting genre to be part of.

However, I do get disappointed by how frequently disabilities get overlooked and underrepresented in important genre discussions on diversity and equality. I’m not sure how to fix that, and I guess that’s a big reason why I started my column. I want to get the discussion going. I want people to realize that diversity is so important, and so is equality, and there is a huge group of people who really almost never get a seat at the table, or a voice in the conversation when these discussions are raging. These are people like my brother who just wants the world to realize that he might be paralyzed, but he can be important, too. It breaks my heart. It’s about tolerance and understanding, about realizing that limitations don’t necessarily mean that the person is limited and incapable, and certainly not helpless. We need to see that in the books we read, just like we need to understand that in real life. It isn’t about glorifying anyone. It’s about realizing that the world isn’t homogenous, and everyone can be important. Everyone is important. We are all the protagonists in our own novels.

People keep meticulous track of how many books written by women they read each year, and while I truly and honestly applaud that (never stop!), I look forward to the day when people pay as much attention to the representation of disabilities in the genre. Occasionally I’ll hear someone say, “At (insert convention here) there was a diversity panel and (insert author here) talked about disabilities” – I don’t hear it often enough. Change happens slowly, and I really hope that eventually disabilities will get as much attention and discussion as anything else.

Can you tell us some more about your other projects in the writing and blogging world?

There isn’t much to say, really. I wish there was, but there isn’t. I’m pretty boring. I continue to write reviews on Bookworm Blues, and my column Special Needs in Strange Worlds will push forward on SF Signal until people run out of things to say. I hope that never happens. I’m currently working with Shaun Duke (Of The Skiffy and Fanty Show podcast) on a Special Needs in Strange Worlds anthology where all proceeds will go to charity. Occasionally someone will ask me to podcast, which I always welcome. I have a few writing projects in the fire, but until I have a set publication date and all that, I’m keeping my lips sealed rather tight. Other than that, I’m anxious to start participating in conventions, and whatever else comes my way.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Sophia Jex-Blake and Margaret Todd

Sophia Jex-Blake

Sophia Jex-Blake

This may be the most personally exciting History’s Hidden Heroes installment ever.  Why is the story of Sophia Jex-Blake and Margaret Todd not a series on BBC?  Can I make it one?  Can David Tennant be involved somehow?  Seriously, how is this not a movie?

Sophia Jex-Blake was born to traditional parents who refused to allow her to attend college.  Once she overcame their objections, she attended Queens College, alongside future education reform leader Dorotha Beale.  Sophia befriended leading feminists and suffragette.  She decided to pursue becoming a doctor, but had to go to the University of Edinburgh because British medical schools did not allow women to attend.  Sophia was one of the Edinburgh Seven – the first seven female students at the University.  The seven women faced great opposition including being barred from the gates and attacked by a mob.

Once Sophia passed her exams, she was forbidden to practice medicine in Britain because of her gender. In 1877, Russell Gurney convinced parliament to pass a law that empowered medical school to issue degrees to both male and female students.  Sophia became a practicing doctor in 1877 and opened a clinic that served low-income women.

Margaret Todd became a student at the newly opened Edinburgh School for Women in 1886.  while she was studying, she was also writing a novel: Mona Maclean, Medical Student.  She graduated from medical school in 1894, and Mona was published under the name Graham Travers in the same year.  Margaret was a friend of chemist Frederick Soddy and she provided him with a word that is vital to discussion of radioactive particles today:  “isotope”

Margaret Todd

Margaret Todd

Margaret and Sophia were romantic partners until Sophia’s death in 1912.  Margaret died shortly after publishing a biography of Sophia.

For a great article including political cartoons of the time and some excerpts from Margaret’s book, go to Women in Science.  I cannot wait to read Mona Maclean, Medical Student!  I also used the site Celtic Life International, which pointed out the injustice in the fact that Margaret Todd, medical practitioner for years and author of six novels and a biography, is only remembered for a word she suggested to a male friend.

Between the Lines Book Club: John Steinbeck

between the lines book club logo

This month on Between the Lines we are discussing The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Leave comments here, or better yet join us at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, CA at 2PM on September 28, 2014.

John Steinbeck’s life and writings are deeply tied to California.  Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902.  He attended Stanford University on and off for six years before officially dropping out.  After trying to earn a living as a freelance writer in New York City, he came back to California, married Carol Henning, and became a caretaker at Lake Tahoe.  During the Great Depression, he moved to Pacific Grove, where he fished and crabbed and wrote with paper and money provided by his parents.

Steinbeck family home

The home in which Steinbeck was raised is now a museum and restaurant.

Steinbeck’s first hit was his fifth book, Tortilla Flat.  This book concerns a group of friends who live in an impoverished  neighborhood on the outskirts of Monterey.  Although the book was a commercial success, Steinbeck felt it was misunderstood, claiming that he did not mean to belittle or patronize his characters.  Steinbeck’s next three novels, In Dubious BattleOf Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath directly addressed the Great Depression.  His next book, Cannery Row, was a fictionalized description of life in Monterey.  The character “Mary Talbot”, the depressed wife of a struggling writer, is based on Steinbeck’s wife, Carol.  The character “Doc” is based on Steinbeck’s best friend, Ed Ricketts.

Carol and John

Carol and John

Steinbeck was a war correspondent in WWII.  He travelled through Europe, North Africa, and Italy, writing human interest pieces about the lives of soldiers.You can read more about his service in WWII in this article from San Jose University.  Steinbeck also covered the war in Vietnam.  Despite his life-long leftist leanings, Steinbeck was in favor of the Vietnam War, which two of his sons fought in.

Steinbeck in Vietnam

Steinbeck died at the age of 66 in 1968, of heart failure.  He had written 29 books as well as plays and screenplays.  He cited William Faulker and Ernest Hemingway as the authors he most admired.  He is buried at Salinas, California, home of the John Steinbeck Museum.

You can see a short video about Steinbeck’s life on biography.com

Science With Julia Child

WednesdayVideoThis is sweet, funny, and thought-provoking.  Julia Child teams up with Phil Morrison to teach us something important about Carbon.  This was for his six part miniseries, “The Ring of Truth:  An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know”, which he produced and wrote for PBS.

Morrison was a physics professor who worked on the Manhattan Project and later became a prominent speaker against nuclear proliferation.  As a child he has polio, and he wore a leg brace until the later part of his life, when he used a wheelchair.  As an astrophysicist, he pioneered gamma ray astronomy.

One hopes Julia Child needs no introduction!  Here’s Julia and Phil:

 

First Impressions From an Outlander Virgin: A Guest Post by Heather Thayer

poster for Starz Outlander seriesI’ve been reviewing Outlander at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, along with my fellow Smart Bitch reviewers.  We have a blast watching the show, but we’re all influenced by having read the books.  I’ve been dying to get the perspective of someone who has never read the books, and Heather was kind enough to share her thoughts.  No spoilers in the comments – we don’t want to ruin her fun!

I don’t quite know how it happened that a geeky girl like me who is a sucker for romance somehow missed the whole Outlander phenomenon. Perhaps I was so busy lusting after Conall Maccon from Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series that I missed that other Scottish object of carnal desire– Jamie Fraser. The first time I ever heard of Outlander was in the episode of Orange is the New Black where two characters are working in the library and one of them picks up a book and says, “Outlander! You ever read this? Lady travels back in time to Scotland, hooks up with this big, sexy, outlaw type, and they be gettin’ it … day in and day out. Yo, it’s hot!” I had it mixed up with Highlander, so while this summary bemused me, I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Thus, when the word out of Comic-Con was that Outlander was the show to watch, I noted it in passing, but didn’t put it on my calendar or check to see if Starz is part of my cable package. The fact that Ronald D Moore was involved was the biggest draw, since I knew nothing about Outlander, but BSG is one of my favorite shows in the history of ever. When Starz posted the first episode online for viewing, I decided it was as good a way as any to spend a rainy afternoon. Well played Starz, well played.

Outlander, Claire

Now we are five episodes in, and this has become my favorite show, and yes –of course I am madly in love with Jamie, although I note that he is in some ways too perfect. He is kind and funny and smart and educated and brave and noble and handsome and strong. He always says the right thing at the right time. He looks dashing in a kilt and I could happily spend hours contemplating his muscled chest by the firelight. His smoldering looks and deep voice with its Scots burr make me lightheaded and a bit swoony. As a love interest, he is ideal, but as a character, I am starting to find him a little bland. Does he have no flaws? I do like that in the episode “Rent” he is protective but critical of Claire – not quite the “boy with a crush” mooning about as in earlier episodes. He also is not careful with Laoghaire’s feelings (one senses that there will be fallout from that), but that aside, one might wish for less perfection and more complexity from the character.

Claire and Jamie

Dougal, Colum, Geillis and Ned Gowan, on the other hand, are quite interesting characters and I want to know more about each of them. Dougal is strong and ruthless, sensitive and loyal, but is potentially dangerous to Claire and Jamie. Colum is smart, direct and powerful – commanding loyalty despite his physical infirmity. Geillis obviously knows or suspects a great deal more than she is letting on about Claire’s situation. One wonders if she is a druid, a forebearer of the women dancing around the stones while Claire and Frank watched, or whether she knew someone who fell through the stones. And Ned is just plain interesting.

Geillis also provides an example of something that puzzles me about the show. Sometimes the people in the series do something that is anachronistic and I am not sure whether it is a plot point or a mistake. For example, in one scene Geillis tells Claire that the key to having freedom for a woman is to get married. The problem is that in that time, that would have gone without saying – that is something that every woman would have known. So is this a plot point showing us that Geillis knows that Claire needs to be told this, or is it a gaffe? Since there are other slip-ups in the show, such as a plot point turning on mistaking Lily of the Valley for ransom but the plant shown doesn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to either of those plants, or Claire having a new outfit in every scene at a time when most women would have had only a few dresses, I don’t know what to make of Geillis telling Claire this obvious thing.

Gellie Duncan

Which brings us to Claire. I like that Claire is a strong capable character who speaks her mind – often when she shouldn’t – but the incessant voiceover drives me to distraction and makes me think she’s not very bright. Also, “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ” is too annoying for words. If the show would just let us experience Claire through her actions, I would think better of her character, but the plodding narration sometimes makes me think she is dimwitted. Without the voiceover we could impose a myriad of possibilities; we could experience Claire’s experience for ourselves and put our own interpretation on things — but the pedestrian narration doesn’t allow for that. It would also be more interesting for me to see what is different about living 200 years ago through Claire’s eyes, but as far as we know, everything is pretty much identical except for having to wear a bum roll and a lack of understanding about infection control.

One interesting thing about the voiceover, and one that has gotten me thinking a lot, is the issue of “show, don’t tell.” In a book, the words have to guide us through. In television and movies, it is the dialogue, the visuals and the actions. Contradictory words in a voice over cannot overcome what we are seeing on the screen. Claire keeps telling us that she wants to return to Frank and her own time, “or die trying.” The problem is that as a viewer I see her adjusting perfectly well to Castle Leoch, forming friendships and a rapport with a man who is perfect in every way. Although Frank seems like a perfectly nice if dull fellow, Claire didn’t seem particularly connected to him, thus, as a viewer I have hard time believing Claire’s absolute need to return, notwithstanding the voiceover’s insistence upon it. Perhaps more flashbacks showing Frank as a loving husband (like the scene from the train station) would help convince me. I do like that as Claire goes about the castle the music playing is from the 1940s, which gives us some clue that she is a woman lost in time. Unfortunately, that is the only clue. I wonder if in the book Claire’s desire to return was more believable without having the pictures and actions to belie the words.

Claire a

So, why do I love the show despite the criticisms above? Bear McCreary’s music and the beauty of the Highlands themselves are a start. The acting is great, all of the actors inhabit their world and their characters, making us believe that a woman really could fall through time and find herself in a real, if younger, world. Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe and Graham McTavish are particular standouts. Even Angus and Rupert are no longer just comic relief but starting to feel like real people. I am worried for them and the upcoming Jacobite wars. I like that the show is took its time introducing the characters – the payoff is in the later episodes where things are actually happening, particularly in “Rent.” Now that we are finally set in history and things are happening that have larger implications, I can forgive some of the earlier plot points that seemed contrived. Since we feel like we know these characters, their dire situation now resonates, and Claire’s competing loyalties and priorities truly draw us in. The cliffhanger at the end of “Rent” has me on the edge of my seat wondering what Claire will say to the English soldiers. All that said, it is Jamie and Claire’s relationship that is the overwhelming draw. Their chemistry is palpable and the slow burn as they draw closer is irresistible. As I said, I’m a sucker for romance, and Outlander delivers more than just a handsome man in a kilt.

What do you think of the show?  No spoilers, please!

Book Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine

cover of The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThis is the most magical non-magical book I’ve read in a long time.  The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a loose retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”.  The Girls is set during the Roaring Twenties, and although there is not a single supernatural element to the story, the flitting setting and the fairy tale imagery create a beautiful magical atmosphere.

The Brother Grimm version of the story goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a king with twelve daughters.  He kept them locked up at night, but every morning their dancing shoes were worn out as though they had been dancing all night.  The king announces that any man who can solve the mystery can marry one of the princesses, but the princesses, who are cold and heartless, drug the princes so that they sleep all through the night.  At last a soldier successfully follows them for three nights and collects a souvenir from each night.  When he presents his evidence to the king, the princesses confess and the prince marries the eldest princess.

In The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, the princesses are the daughters of a wealthy businessman in Manhattan during the 1920s.  Their father wishes to conceal the fact that he has only daughters, so he keeps them on the top floor of the house and forbids them to leave it.  Jo, the oldest daughter, becomes the de facto parent to her eleven siblings.  When the siblings threaten to run away, Jo begins sneaking them out of the house every night so that they can dance all night in the speakeasies of the city.

Then language of this novel is simple, yet poetic.  Here’s a quote:

By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess. “Hey, Princess, dust off your shoes? It’s the Charleston!” The men would have called them anything they wanted to be called, Dollface or Queenie or Beloved, just to get one girl on the dance floor for a song. But in that flurry of short dresses and spangles and ribbon-tied shoes, Princess was the name that suited; it seemed magical enough, like maybe it was true. Wild things, these girls; wild for dancing. They could go all night without sitting, grabbing at champagne between songs, running to the throng at the table and saying something that made them all laugh, light and low together like the parts of a chorus. It wasn’t right, all those women sticking together so close. Something about the wall of bob -haired girls scared the men , though they hardly knew it. They just knew they’d better dance their best with a Princess, and no mistake. No need to worry, though, as long as a man could dance. The nights were long and drink was cheap, and sometimes the Princesses’ smiles were red-lipped and happy and not sharp white flashing teeth, and there were so many that if one of them turned down a dance, it was easy to wait and try again with another one.

I loved the language in this book, and the images of the barren attic, the opulent downstairs which the girls so seldom see, and the speakeasies, some of which are dark and grimy and some of which sparkle like the spangles on the girls’ dresses.

What I loved most was the character of Jo, and the relationships between the sisters, who fight “like wolves” but stick together in times of crisis (or when a man attempts to “get fresh”).  In this story, it’s up to the women to save themselves from captivity.  Men may be enemies or allies, but they are never the focal point of the story.  The father, who is unbearably horrible, has no idea that he’s horrible – he thinks he’s provided a good home for the girls, with ample pampering and protection.  A dreaded suitor who comes calling is actually quite delightful (others are as dreadful as expected).  The men are layered, complicated characters, but they are always off to the side, while Jo struggles with how to keep her sisters safe from her father without actually becoming her father.

The heart of the book is Jo, who fiercely loves her sisters and whose efforts to make a life for them usually go unappreciated.  In her attempts to protect them from their father’s wrath, she is strict and unyielding:

Never tell a man your name. Never mention where you live, or any place we go. Never let a man take you anywhere; if you take one into the alley to neck, tell one of your sisters, and come back as soon as you can. Never fall for a man so hard you can’t pull your heart back in time. We’ll leave without you if we have to.

Jo’s journey from a  helpless child, to the iron leader her sisters refer to as “The General”, and ultimately to a sister instead of a dictator, is the heart of the book.  I wept for Jo and I rejoiced in her victories.  What a gorgeous book.

 

Between the Lines Book Club: The Grapes of Wrath

between the lines book club logoHey everybody, welcome back to Book Club!  Between the Lines is a virtual book club that meets every Friday.  It’s also an in-person book club that meets monthly in Sacramento, California at the Arden Dimick Library (891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95864).  Book Club meetings are at 2PM.  Here’s the Fall schedule and theme:

Rising Up:  Personal and Political Struggles for Freedom

All Meetings at Arden Dimick Library, at 2PM.

Sept 28:  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

October 26:  The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

November 16:  The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath was a long, passionate project for Steinbeck.  In 1936 he wrote a series of magazine articles for the San Francisco News.  The paper published the articles alongside photos by Dorothea Lange and the articles were later collected in a book, Harvest Gypsies.

cover of The Harvest Gypsies

Steinbeck gee up in California and did some farm labor while putting himself through college.  He found writing and researching  The Grapes of Wrath to be a nerve-wracking experience.  He kept a journal, which is still in print.  In the journal, he agonizes over his “lack of genius” and his “nerves”.     In addition to being passionately committed to telling the story of migrants, he was worried about war and personal matters as well.  According to The Telegraph, when he finished the book he said, “It isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book.”

cover of Working Days

 

The Grapes of Wrath was instantly beloved and loathed.  We’ll talk more next week about the haters –  Grapes of Wrath was banned and literally burned.  It also became an instant best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for best novel.  In 1962 he won the Nobel prize for his collected writings.  Here’s an excerpt of the presentation speech.  you can find the full speech at Nobelprize.org.  You can also see a video of Steinbeck’s banquet speech after the ceremony.

Among the masters of modern American literature who have already been awarded this Prize – from Sinclair Lewis to Ernest Hemingway – Steinbeck more than holds his own, independent in position and achievement. There is in him a strain of grim humour which, to some extent, redeems his often cruel and crude motif. His sympathies always go out to the oppressed, to the misfits and the distressed; he likes to contrast the simple joy of life with the brutal and cynical craving for money. But in him we find the American temperament also in his great feeling for nature, for the tilled soil, the wasteland, the mountains, and the ocean coasts, all an inexhaustible source of inspiration to Steinbeck in the midst of, and beyond, the world of human beings.

The Grapes of Wrath is taught in high schools and in universities around the world and has inspired plays as well as the famous film adaptation directed by John Ford.  Grapes of Wrath has had a lasting impact on the way people think about poverty and about migration.  In California, the book stays relevant throughout the years.  While the demographics of California have changed, migration and farm labor remain controversial, vital issues.