Guest Review: Station Eleven

Sestra Geek Girl Heather Thayer is back with a squeeing review of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel!

I recently finished Station Eleven, and for a long time I couldn’t communicate coherently because I was still so wrapped up in the world of the book that nothing else seemed to matter.

Station Eleven is, at its most simple, a tale of the apocalypse (a flu epidemic), held together by following the pre- and post-apocalyptic stories of a people loosely connected to an actor who dies in the first few pages of the book. In the “bookclub notes” in the back of the book, one of the questions is whether there is a main character in the book. I would posit that there is not, and the book is all the richer for it as we follow the very different characters to or through the end of the world.

It is difficult to describe just why or how this book excels in every way. Looking back on it, the sensation is of being embraced by a warm dream – a vivid dream of the end of everything. A dream of hope and nostalgia; a dream of life, determining what is important, and what we hold on to when everything we know is gone.

If the world ended, what would be important to you? What would you miss? What would you want to preserve? What would you want to teach the children about the world that was? This book asks all the important questions and takes the reader on an exploration of the possibilities, without providing pat answers – other than a line written by Ronald D Moore for a Star Trek episode – “Survival is insufficient.”

Written with prose that somehow manages to be both wistful and gripping, it doesn’t let words get in the way of an exquisitely drawn world, experiences and characters. So many books that win awards (this one has won several, including the Morning News Tournament of Books), have overwrought writing that drown the subject in words, reveling in their own cleverness, but this book is clean and enthralling – letting the story speak for itself. One doesn’t notice the writing as one is carried along by the narrative and the mood of the book. This is the kind of book that makes a person leave a party early so that they can go home and keep reading. Yup, that happened.

Through a compelling narrative with interesting characters, the book explores the ways that people create art, celebrate life, preserve the past, and do more than simply survive. While the larger themes are there, they hover in the background and do not get in the way of the story. It is only afterwards, when it is impossible to stop thinking about the book that one notices that there was all this meaty stuff in there to chew on and mull over.

Find some time, read this book, and marvel at the wonders of the world.

Book Review: AD ASTRA: the 50th Anniversary SFWA Cookbook

AdAstraCookbookI do not like to cook but I sure do love reading cookbooks. My latest treasure is the quirky, funny, delightfully weird AD ASTRA cookbook from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), edited by Cat Rambo and Fran Wilde. This book of recipes by speculative fiction authors is hilarious in several senses and has some recipes I might just use.

Here’s what I find so wonderfully funny about this cookbook – there are no “What to make for your family during the week” type recipes (although most of the potluck dishes would work for that). Apparently, writers do the following things:

  1. We eat the fastest food we can possibly come up with, often while weeping into our keyboards, while trying to meet a deadline – hence an entire section called “Tight on Time or Budget?”
  2. We drink, hence the chapter “Beverages”.
  3. We go to parties, hence all the rest of the book (“Savory Snacks”, “Sweet Snacks and Desserts”, “Brunches,” and “Potluck Dinners”).

I cannot argue with this assessment of a writer’s dietary needs (I’m particularly intrigues by Doom Cookies, submitted by Steven Straus, which combines graham cracker crumbs, chocolate, condensed milk, and coffee grounds). Writers are subject to sudden attacks of joy and despair as the writing ebbs and flows and pieces get picked up or rejected, so there’s a remarkable number of recipes for things like an individual serving of cake in a coffee mug (“Celebrations for One: Writer’s Break Sweets in a Mug” by Ricia Mainhardt). The masterpiece here might be “Toasted Cake” from Tina Connolly, who suggests that you bake a cake, frost one piece, eat it, and each day pop a new, individual piece in the toaster oven for a couple of minutes and then frost it – you get gooey drippy warm frosted cake that doesn’t taste stale.

I’m not sure how many things I’ll actually make from this cookbook but I sure had fun reading it. I got a kick from Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s faintly bitter recipe for tuna salad (“If you’re on a diet, it’s healthy, filling, and painless – and if’s you’re not on a diet, why are you eating tuna salad?”). Connie Willis offers a recipe for Mars Colony Cake, also called Bash Cake. Jane Yolen, who is also a fan of Bash Cake, offers a partial list of occasions in which she had to make it, plus a limerick:

As SFWA president for two years, I had plenty of times to need to bake this cake. There was the John Shirley/Scott Card bash cake. There was the Blue Jay books bash cake. There was the Nebula controversies (redux) bash cake. There was the who-hung-up-on-me-this-time bash cake.

And here’s the limerick:

There once was a writer of trash

Whose insides were knots, kinks, and mash.

So I taught him to make

A Delectable cake

Now instead of an ulcer, there’s Bash!

This cookbook also features cartoons by Ursula Vernon.

As general, all-purpose cookbooks go, this one is not the best, but as a cookbook for writers it’s a hoot and also quite useful since I do go to a lot of potlucks and there’s only so many times I can bring my crockpot Butternut Squash Winter Stew before they are on to me. I loved seeing recipes from all over the world and hearing the stories about how people got the recipe from a friend or from many generations of family members. For instance, Elaine Issak’s “Alien Scones”, so very aptly named, got their name by accident because her mother made a cookbook for the family, ran it through spellcheck, and didn’t notice that spellcheck replaced “Elaine” with “Alien”. It’s also a fun cookbook if you are familiar with any of the authors – whether you admire the work or whether you are lucky enough to have met them in person. It’s a bit of an in-joke cookbook, but I had a good time reading it and I am planning to make David Levine and Kate Yule’s “Country Pumpkin Chicken Chowder” just as soon as we get fall weather in California (so…not soon).

A final note, I fear the cookbook may deeply offend members of the alien and elf community. A section at the back gives directions on how to cook elf (step one is “Kill an elf”) and how to stew an alien “Do not, under any circumstances, use broccoli…brocoli is just awful in stew.” So there you go – no broccoli for you.

Between The Lines Book Club: The Sustainable Food Movement

between the lines book club logoHey Sacramento followers – Between the Lines Book Club meets tomorrow (9/26/15) at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM! Not in the Sacramento area? Leave your comments about The Third Plate here!

In The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber talks about the importance of making sustainable agriculture part of elite cooking. Barber wants to make it fashionable to use all the parts of an animal or vegetable, rotation crops like barley and rye, and humanely and sustainably raised livestock.

Every culture has in some way grappled with the concept of sustainable agriculture, a term which basically means how to use land without using the land up to the point where it is no longer productive.. An early example from the Americas is that of the “The Three Sisters.” Several Native American Tribes had a practice of planting “The Three Sisters,” maize, beans, and squash, together. Each plant has components that keep the soil healthy, ensuring good farming in future years. The crops also proved a balanced diet when eaten together.

Sustainable agriculture is described today as agricultural practices that maximize human nutrition and quality of life while also maximizing the health of the environment and its ability to continue to provide food. This means that a farm cannot exhaust the nutrients in soil through over-farming, nor use chemical fertilizer that damages local water sources. My California readers will be most familiar with the concept in terms of water usage. While water is a renewable resource, California farms pull water out of the aquifer much faster than the aquifer can be refilled. The term “sustainable agriculture” became popular in the 1980’s. Other issues to consider are how much land is being used and how much energy a farm uses.

Discussions about sustainable farming can take a low-level approach (using different fertilizers and crop rotation, or a more radical approach (urban farming, vertical farming, and changes in the economy as a whole.

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An Interview with D.J. McHale and Patrick Carman

61lVh+TOLNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_D.J. McHale and Patrick Carman are two of the six authors writing a new series for kids. Voyagers is an interactive series involving books as well as online games and puzzles. The other authors are Robin Wasserman, Kekla Magoon, Jeanne DuPrau, and Wendy Mass. You can read more about the Voyager project at voyagershq.com.

D.J. McHale, author of Book #1: Project Alpha, is better known as the author of the bestselling Pendragon series and TV shows including Are You Afraid of the Dark. Patrick Carman is the author of Book #3: Omega Rising. He is the author of several books for grade and middle-schoolers, including The 39 Clues. In this interview, they talk about working on the series, its connection to their other projects, and how to encourage reluctant readers.

What drew each of you to this project?

D.J.: The last space travel story I wrote was when I was nine years old.  So I figured I was due.

Pat: I was a Star Wars nut growing up. Those first three movies came out when I was 11, 13, and 15 – a very impressionable time for every kid in my seventies neighborhood. There was never anything that captured our imaginations like Star Wars did. We geeked out over every creature, sub-plot, villain, hero – and then, sadly, it was over. And so was my childhood! I’ve been trying to build a world like that ever since. A place the 12-year-old Patrick would go to escape whatever troubles were happening in the real world. A place I could return to, again and again, and just feel like a kid on an adventure, beating impossible odds and saving the day. It took several years to figure it all out, but Voyagers fills that void for me. I’m a kid again!



How much of this project was a collaboration between all the authors? Did you have input on the digital aspects? Did you have input on each other’s stories? Did you have to try to match each others’ writing styles, or do they all have a unique voice?

D.J.:  Being the first author up, I had the freedom to write my story the way I write all of my other stories without having to worry about what came before.  However, as I was writing away, the entire Voyagers team was still tweaking and hatching new ideas.  So I would often get notes saying:  “This has changed now” or “We need you to add this”.  One example of that came with the addition of the Zrks…the small flying robots that maintain the space ship.  I had no Zrks in my original draft so I had to go back and figure out a way to incorporate them into the story.  Working in the other direction, it’s been fun to see how some of the bits I created have found their way into the digital material, like the rock-moss-creature and the ankle-biting varmints on J-16.  Pat created an amazing universe and it was fun to help expand it even further.

Then again, I felt the stress of some of the other authors who were waiting patiently to see what I had done before starting on their own stories.  I don’t like to send out anything I’ve written while it’s still a work in progress, but I understood the time pressure.  They had to get writing!  So I reluctantly sent out a couple of early, rough chapters.  That was nerve-wracking.

Pat: Working on 39 Clues gave me some good experience that really helped with Voyagers. I was able to take the parts about writing 39 Clues that I loved and apply them to the work the team did on Voyagers. First and foremost, you need seasoned, excellent writing talent to make something like this work. And we have that covered with the Voyagers writing team – they brought their A game across the board! I provided a world bible for the series, along with an outline for each of the six books. But it was very clear from the get go that each writer should make their own choices about the book they were writing. For each writer, the outline was a line down the middle of a page, like a magnet pulling the plot in the right direction. But each author was encouraged to swing outside the line with whatever felt right to them.

The digital experience – both the interactive website and the game for phones and tablets – was handled by a completely different team. We partnered with 42 Entertainment and Liv Games, two best in class digital companies, and I think we’ve created a digital world that rivals anything we’ve seen in publishing so far. There’s so much for kids to plug into! The Voyagers world is big enough to hold any kid’s imagination.

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Patrick, you wrote for the series The 39 Clues, which is about solving mysteries in a way that involves the reader interactively. In what ways is this approach similar to that of the Voyager series? Why is it important to make the reader a participant in the story?

I spend a lot of time at schools. 1400 of them and counting. So I get to interact with young readers across the country. I can sit down with them in a school library and ask them straight up: what’s it going to take to get you to turn more pages? More often than not the answer I get has to do with making books more interactive and bridging the gap between the printed page and the digital world they all live in. Voyagers answers that question with a resounding YES WE CAN! The big digital idea here is to allow young readers to join the crew of the Cloud Leopard, the ship that takes our characters out into space. They complete recon missions, collect dozens of robots, and fix the ship when it has problems. They also learn a lot about science, technology, engineering, and math. So the digital part of the Voyagers world extends the reading in a way that makes the whole experience richer and broader. Readers really feel like a part of the story.

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D.J., Your Pendragon series combines fantasy, science fiction, and interstellar travel. How was working on this series similar or different?

D.J.:  All good stories have the same things in common.  They’re about interesting characters dealing with compelling conflict.  That applies whether you’re writing a romance, a comedy or a sci-fi space adventure.  I like to write stories about real and relatable characters who find themselves in a bigger than life adventure.  I don’t like to write about characters with super powers or incredible abilities.  That can be fun, but I want readers to relate to the characters and to imagine themselves in their shoes.   That’s very much what Pendragon is like, and so is Voyagers.  The fun part comes once you’ve done a good job creating those characters.  Then you can let your imagination run wild in creating the various dangers they face.  One thing that was very much the same for me in writing these two different stories is that I like to put my characters into dangerous situations where I’m not really sure how they’re going to save themselves.  It’s like living the adventure along with your characters as you put yourself into the situation and try to find your way out of it.  With Pendragon I created those situations myself.  With Voyagers, I was given some very big challenges that the characters would face.  It was almost as if I was thrust into the situation myself and had a blast trying to figure a way out.

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What advice would you give parents whose kids say that they just aren’t into reading? how has a love of reading enriched your lives, and what sparked it?

D.J.: I have been a reader and a writer since I was very little.  I don’t know what else I would do if I couldn’t write.  Reading helps me to constantly learn new things about the world while challenging my brain to stretch and think in different ways.   The best advice I can give to a parent who has a reluctant reader, is to help them find the right books.  That isn’t always easy, but even the most reluctant reader will sit down and stick with a book if it sparks their imagination.  Here’s a suggestion.  Rather than handing your child a book and saying: “Read this!”, ask them to read their age.  If they’re 9, ask them to read 9 pages.  If they’re 15, get them to read 15.  It’s much less daunting than staring at a thick book, thinking they’ll never get through it.  After reading their age they’ll have a pretty good idea if the book is right for them or not.  If it isn’t, just as well.  Move on.  But if it is, those few pages will grab their attention and hold on tight until the final page is turned.

Pat: It took me awhile to get into books as a kid. I was fine with comic books, but a book with no pictures? That took some real work. I would have died for something like Voyagers when I was 10 or 11! Because like a lot of kids that age, I was into finding adventure in the neighborhood, playing video games, and building forts. So I think if you’re a parent with a kid who is easily distracted by all the fun of just being a 10-year-old, then plugging them into something like Voyagers is going to get them reading. Start by showing them www.voyagershq.com, then download the game app, then hand them the first book. They will be all in! One other note – what did finally get me into reading were very descriptive, adventurous books. The Chronicles of Narnia, stuff by Roald Dahl, The Rats of Nimh – those kinds of books did it for me. And the Voyagers writing team delivers that kind of thrilling, page turning action.

Comic Review: Raising Dion, by Dennis Liu

image00421Last week I shared a trailer for the new comic book Raising Dion. This new series is about a single mom who is raising a seven year old boy who has superpowers. She has to teach him how to use his powers without burning the house down and she has to keep him safe from mysterious forces that seem to be out to get him. I loved the trailer so much that even though I’ve already posted it, I’m posting it again at the end of this very short review. I also loved the trailer so much that even though the first issue of the comic is available for download for free, I bought it anyway because a concept this great deserves my money.

The first issue is in my hands, and here are my first impressions:

I love the art.

The art is very detailed and painter-like and warm. I especially like how different pages have different color tones that help set the mood of the story. We know that the mom loves her son from the very first pages, because of the rich earth tones in the pages (alien stuff that signals danger is icy blue).

I love, love, love that this is is a story about a mother.

Look, I get it, fiction. Moms are a buzzkill. There you are trying to win battles in Narnia and your mom is all, “It’s snowing out there, put on your coat, what have I told you about following strangers around just because they offer you candy, put that sword down before you poke your eye out.” But moms are also badass purely in the sense that we get through every single day. And single moms with special needs kids are Super Badass. So I’m happy to see some mom representation here, and thrilled to see an African-American mom. I also love seeing what parenting is like for her day to day (“Don’t you dare float those cookies into your mouth!”) and I hope we see more of that. Dion seems like neither a horrible brat nor a convenient little angel – he’s a seven-year-old boy to the core.

There are so many places this story can go.

This comic starts off with the backstory – how did Dion wind up with super powers? And it looks like there’s a ton of backstory. Then there’s a ton of, for lack of a better word, forward-story since judging from the cover Dion is being followed by guys in suits and sunglasses (the standard uniform of creepy conspiracy guys).

Here’s the trailer, now go read the comic! I’ve watched this video about ten times and every single time I laugh my head off and then I get all weepy.

Between the Lines Book Club: 3 Chefs Who Changed the Game

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines! If you are in the Sacramento area, please join us at Arden Dimick Library, at 10:30AM on Saturday Sept. 26th. This month we are reading The Third Plate, by Chef Dan Barber. Barber belies that chefs have an opportunity to change the way people think about food. Here are 3 other chefs who did just that!

Alexis Soyer (1810 – 1958)

Soyer was a French chef who moved to England during the French Revolution. He worked for a number of celebrated restaurants, but his most significant achievements were as an inventor and a humanitarian. Sober invented a portable stove for use in the home and later invented the first camp stove for military use. Sober was a tireless advocate during the Crimean War for nutrition and safe food for the troops. He also sold cookbooks for charity and advocated on behalf of the Irish who were suffering through the potato famine. Soyer institute changes in how the government thinks about feeding troops and changes in how kitchens are stocked and organized that are still significant today.

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Chef Ettore Boiardi, also known as Chef Boyardee (1897 – 1895)

Boiardi is the chef who brought us raviolis in a can. He came to America from Italy when he was sixteen years old and worked his way up to become head chef for the Plaza Hotel and a chef for President Woodrow Wilson.  When he opened his own restaurant in New York, customers begged to take home his sauces, so he started packaging them in clean used milk bottles. In 1927 he began a business of selling canned pasta products and sauces. He was commended for helping provide rations to troops in WWI.

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Alice Waters (1944 – present day)

Waters is the owner and founder of Californian restaurant Chez Panisse. Waters has been a hugely successful promoter of organic food and local food. Most recently, she’s been working to make school lunches more healthy and to encourage schools to incorporate gardening into their curriculum. Since the early 2000’s, she’s been active in the Slow Food movement as well. Modern chefs and food writers cite her as having a huge influence on the way people today think about food. She moved the phrase ‘organic’ into the mainstream.

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Wednesday Videos: Raising Dion

WednesdayVideoHere’s a trailer for a new comic book series by Dennis Liu about a single mom raising a kid with super powers. First it made me laugh my head off. “Dion! You better not be naked out there again!” Then it made me cry. Then I bought the first issue of the comic – which you can also download for free! No pressure, but if this trailer doesn’t make you laugh out loud, catch your breath, and tear up at least a little, you’re dead to me.

An Interview With Brad Beaulieu, author of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai

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Brad Beaulieu is the author of a new epic fantasy series, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. This series follows a woman, Ceda, as she uncovers a secret about the kings that threatens their rule. In this interview, Brad talks about writing female characters, what interested him in desert, as opposed to European-based fantasy, and what we can read while we wait for the next book to come out!

Tell us about your setting. It is refreshing to read fantasy that is not set in a version of Europe. What drew you to a desert setting and a Persian fantasy style?

I’d long wanted to scratch the itch to write a desert story. I can attribute this in part to liking the tales of the Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights), particularly the milieu. In fact, as my last series, The Lays of Anuskaya, progresses, you can see more and more of the Persian-influenced Aramahn coming into the picture, culminating in long stretches of desert scenes in the final book, The Flames of Shadam Khoreh.

So the desert was something I really wanted to explore, and I knew I wanted to steep the history of the city in a nomadic, Bedouin-like culture, but I’d probably (letting my geek flag fly here a bit) give the most credit to the Thieves’ World anthologies for the inspiration for the setting. I loved the city of Sanctuary when I first started reading the anthologies in high school. I loved that it was the “armpit of the empire,” that it was a meeting point of old and new as the Rankan Empire drove into Ilsigi territory, that there were pantheons of gods vying for power, and in fact commingling even as they fought. Above all, I loved the vastness of Sanctuary and the hidden wonders it contained.

The feel of that is what I wanted to explore with Sharakhai. Sharakhai is in some ways a mere city state. But in effect it controls trade throughout a massive desert bordered by four powerful kingdoms, and because it controls trade, it has amassed incredible wealth and power. It hasn’t done so without making enemies along the way, however. The twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai are hated by many. And the roots of the story are buried deeply in that hatred.

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Why did you choose a woman as your protagonist? Was it challenging to write from her point of view? What advice would you give authors who struggle with writing characters of other genders and/or races?

It’s always difficult to pinpoint exactly why characters turned out like they did. But I can say this. I grew up in a somewhat female-dominated household. This not to minimize my dad’s influence. He has played and still plays a big part in my life. But he was the breadwinner in the family, and so it’s just a simple truth that I saw my mother and twin sisters (one year older than me) more. My mom was very caring and understanding and patient (perhaps more than I had a right to expect). I’m not afraid to admit that my sisters and I fought quite a bit, but we loved each other a lot too. So while it wasn’t a conscious thing on my part, I know that they played a role in the formation of Çeda’s character and her mother’s as well.

I didn’t find it particularly difficult to write about Çeda. And I think the reason why is linked to the advice I would give young authors struggling with writing certain characters (whether it’s because they’re a different race, sex, religion, or what have you). To me it boils down to knowing them well enough to make them real. We all have stereotypes in our heads for how a segment of our society acts. It’s inevitable. It’s how humans work. But it’s up to you as the writer to do the hard work of understanding the social strata of your world more deeply, and then to make individuals out of the characters that inhabit it. It’s only by knowing the world and the characters intimately that they move beyond stereotypes and start to become real people with a life and breath of their own.

I often find that when a character feels dull to me, it’s because I haven’t dug deep enough, explored enough. That’s when I stop and flesh things out. I figure out who they really are by giving them real experiences (backstory), which in turn answers some key questions. It tells me about their hopes, their desires, their fears. Inevitably I find that doing that work brightens the character for me, and I can then return and inhabit them more fully, which in turn lets me (one hopes) tell their true tale.

This is the first book in an epic fantasy series. Do you know how many book will be in the series? Do you know how it ends? Can your fans bribe you to reveal the ending on a person-by-person basis, and if so, do you prefer food, precious stones, or rare books as currency?

I’m planning on it being a six-book series. As for how the story goes, I can say this: I don’t know all of the details, but I know the main purpose of each book.

I was on a panel at Gen Con a few years back and Scott Lynch was talking about series that tell larger tales, but where each book in the series takes on a different aspect of it. Scott used the example of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, but I’ll use Scott’s own Gentlemen Bastards series, which explores different aspects of thievery. In The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott has the eponymous Locke crafting a grand heist, a scam to top all scams. In the second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies, he explores piracy. In the third book, he explores politics and the cheating and scamming that therein lies. In his forthcoming fourth book, The Thorn of Emberlain, it looks to be espionage.

I really loved that take on a series when I heard him talk about it, and it was timely, because I was in the middle of writing Twelve Kings. I decided that I was going to do the same thing, tackle a different aspect of life in the desert with each book. In the first, we see much of what life is like on the streets of the Amber City. In the second book (without getting too spoilery), things move closer to the Kings. In the third book, things may drift toward the desert. In this way, I hope to keep the story fresh, and to reinvent Çeda to a degree from one book to the next.

I’m nearing the end of the second book now, and things are going mostly to plan. As for how much I’ll reveal? Hmm. I could be coerced, but it would take some mighty fine chocolate to do it…

What other works of fantasy would you recommend for readers who love your book and need something to read between installments? 

I enjoyed my time in the pages of Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed. It was a very interesting take in this age of, ahem, doorstop fantasies to go with a more svelte, sword-and-sorcery approach. The interplay between the old, cantankerous Doctor Adoulla Makhslood and his younger, more energetic companions, Raseed and Zamia, was great. And I loved the way he painted the city of Dhamsawaat. It was a rich place, and one brimming with a history and culture all its own.

By the way, if any of your readers are curious to learn more about Saladin and his work, I run a podcast with my partner in crime, Gregory A. Wilson, called Speculate! We do short series of shows called triptychs, in which we review a work in one episode, interview the author in a second, and discuss writing technique based on the work in a third. You can find Saladin’s episodes here: Review of Throne of the Crescent MoonInterview with SaladinWriting Technique show.

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If readers want another Arab-esque tale, I can also recommend Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls. The thing that attracted to Howard’s debut novel was the setting (8th century Baghdad). But I also loved the notion of having a mash-up of sorts with a Sherlock Holmes sort of character in Dabir, along with his trusty comrade, Captain Asim, the Watson to Dabir’s Holmes. It was a fun combination of ideas, but don’t think that this semi-historical fantasy is not its own tale. It is. And Howard really brings Baghdad to life through his meticulous research of the period.

One last set of books I’ll mention is C.J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun trilogy. It was my first exposure to a spec-fictional world based on our own Arabic cultures, and I loved it. I devoured these books, a science fictional tale that spoke to cultural identity, individuality, sacrificing for the common good. It’s one of the tales that spurred me, at least in part, to tackle a story set in a vast desert with a massive city at its center.

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As a small aside, there are some books where the artwork really nails the feel of the book. That was true for the gorgeous pieces of art that went with the individual books, especially the one by Michael Whelan for Kutath (re-used for the trilogy as pictured above). I remember flipping to that cover often, just imagining the world, what it would be like to live there, to meet those people.

Book Review: 5 Ways That the Skyrider Series Blew My Mind

51ECW7DPS8L._AC_UL320_SR190,320_The Skyrider series is a series by Melisa Michaels. Prior to writing this review, I was convinced that the only two people ever to have read the series are myself and the friend who loaned my the books back in high school. Imagine my delight to learn that Michaels has her own TV Tropes page and won a Locus Award in 1986. I’m not the only fan out there! To me, my sisters!

Michael has written several series and stand-alone books, but the one that won my heart was the Skyrider series, which consists of Skirmish, First Battle, Last War, Pirate Prince, and Floater Factor. In the future, Earth has colonies in the Asteroid Belt. Most people in the Belt are miners or pilots. Melacha, AKA Skyrider, is the most famous pilot of them all. I avoids close attachments to people ever since her lover died, but she can’t avoid flying with  hot-shot pilot Jamin and getting to know his kid, Colin. As the books progress, Melacha gets drawn deeper and deeper into the conflict between Earth and the Colonies and deeper into the problems of Jamin and Colin.

I discovered these books in ninth grade and they had a huge influence on me. Here’s how these books blew my mind:

The Heroine Is Not Your Sex Toy

All the books except Pirate Prince are told from the point of view of Melacha. Melacha is, essentially, Han Solo. She was the first female character I encountered who could even come close to that description. I adored the fact that she enjoyed sex but did not crave romance, was decent with kids but did not want any herself, the fact that she is not presented in a romantic or sexual light, and the fact that she is absolutely the protagonist – not a stand-in, not a trophy, not a side kick, not a sexual object.

The Heroine is Always Competent

She’s a famously amazing pilot. She’s good at fighting hand-to-hand. She’s also a good planner, although she sometimes fails to consider subtle plans if she thinks she can just blast her way out of something. She likes to save face, which can be incredibly irritating yet totally consistent with her character. Oh, and by the way – Melacha is mistrusted because in a time rife with conflict between the settlers of the asteroid belt and the people who still live on Earth, Melacha has ties to both sides. She’s not mistrusted because she’s female. Nobody cares.

The Snark is Strong With This One.

Melacha is the Queen of Snark but she’s not alone in her snarkdom. Everybody in this series is snarky. Even the sweet, innocent kid has moments of snark. I love snark, and I’m especially fond of Melacha’s go-to response to award questions: “‘Shut up,’ I explained,” or, alternatively, “‘Never mind,’ I explained.”

The Flight Scenes are So Shiny and Chrome

Gorgeous fight scenes. Incredible. The cover art is great, too. You’ve no idea how desperately this series made me long for a Sunfish of my very own.

Melacha Gets Paid.

Melacha drives Jamin crazy because she won’t do anything for free – but with her money she tends to buy things like medication and supplies for colonists. She insists that she’s not a do-gooder, and she certainly keep a lot of money around for herself – but it’s amazing how much gets spread around to people who really need it. Meanwhile, it’s nice to see a female character who isn’t afraid to talk about money or to demand to be paid what’s she’s worth, which is a lot.

A final note: I also love the world-building and the build-up of conflict in the series. The colonies are made of people from all over Earth. They speak Company English, their native languages, a kind of grammatically mangled Company English, and pidgin, also known simply as ‘Rock’. When people use one of these variants, it’s clear that this is a cultural and contextual choice, not a sign of illiteracy or ignorance. Most of the story is told in standard English, which is too bad, because I’d love to read a whole book written in this mangled Company English, as laid out by a minor but memorable character of Romany and Asian descent:

He looked prim. “Usually what people do, what polite people do, when for some reason if they want to talk about those so-called racial characteristics such as what you call slant-eyes, usually what they say is they say ‘Oriental.'”

And I’d love more pidgin dialogue, as in this conversation between Melacha and an older miner:

“W’at you t’ink? Eaters make war already?”

“Da kine wen take all our rocks, hey, risen, maybe? All Belters down Home Base come, t’row one party, so des ka? Maybe say who knees rock, yeah? Who knees? I one rock need, ‘ass who. All my family knees one rock already. Da kine wen take, you be one war!”

My Schedule for Con-Volution!

So excited to be returning to Con-volution this year! This convention has become a home away from home for me. I made os many friends the first year I attended that now I can’t imagine missing it, whether I attend as a guest or as a visitor!

Happily, I am a guest again this year and that means PANELS. My light schedule means I’ll also be attending the Diplomat’s Ball and the Masquerade, and I’m pretty sure I heard a rumor about karaoke. Here’s my list of panels:

Legacy of Lovecraft

Friday 14:00 – 15:15, Harbor B (Hyatt Regency SFO)

Usher in October with this panel discussion of the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft. Can Cthulhu really be cuddly? Will we ever get that Mountains of Madness movie we keep waiting for? Why has Lovecraft stayed so compelling through the years? Come for scary stories and great conversation!
Carrie Sessarego (M), AE Marling, Matt Marovich, Chuck Serface

Women of Marvel

Friday 15:30 – 16:45, Oak (Hyatt Regency SFO)

From Sue Storm to Gamora, the women of Marvel have been complex and controversial. Whether they are in the lead or supporting characters, Marvel women have a range of personalities and goals that defy simple categorization. Let’s talk about our favorite Marvel women and why we love them!
Carrie Sessarego (M), Tyler Hayes, Sumiko Saulson, Linda Kay Silva, Ms Brianna Wu

Secret Panel

Saturday 11:30 – 12:45, Harbor B (Hyatt Regency SFO

)If we told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, now would it?
Steve Libbey, Matt Marovich, Steven Mix, M Christian, Jennifer Nestojko, Emerian Rich, Sumiko Saulson, Linda Kay Silva, Frank Wu, Carrie Sessarego

Non-Super Hero Comics

Comics and graphic novels that go beyond the superhero.

Saturday 13:00 – 14:15, Pine (Hyatt Regency SFO)Christopher Erickson (M), Branwyn Bigglestone, Carrie Sessarego, Ms. Amy Sterling Casil, Landry Walker

Liar’s Panel

Saturday 21:30 – 22:45, SandPebble C (Hyatt Regency SFO)”I know you know that I’m not telling the truth…” Our panelists will tell you anything! Anything at all! Believing it is at your own peril.

Jon Del Arroz (M), M. Todd Gallowglas, Tyler King, Steven Mix, Susie Rodriguez, Carrie Sessarego

Women Who Rarely Make History

Sunday 14:30 – 15:45, Sumac (Hyatt Regency SF)
Sumiko Saulson (M), Kyle Aisteach, Carrie Sessarego, Ms. Amy Sterling Casil
Con-volution is at the Hyatt SFO in Burlingame, California, Oct 2 – 4, 2015. See you there!

Between the Lines Book Club: Dan Barber talks about Sustainable Eating

Tbetween the lines book club logohis month in Book Club we are talking about The Third Plate by Dan Barber. Barber is an upscale chef in New York, and he believes that the trends set in more fashionable cuisine trickle down to set the food trends in grocery stores and on people’s tables. Barber is fascinated with the idea that sustainable food is also often tastier and healthier.

Barber is the chef and owner of the Michelin Star Rated restaurant Blue Hill. There are actually two Blue Hills, both owned by Barber – one in Manhattan and one at Stone Farms. People wanting a more casual experience can stop by Stone Hill’s ‘Cafe and Grain Bar’. This blogger feels that we have reached peak hipster-ism with the phrases “Cafe and Grain Bar” and “Farm fresh lattes.” But it can’t be denied that the jam looks fantastic. He was appointed by President Obama to work on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. He’s received multiple awards from the James Beard Foundation, including Top Chef in America in 2009.

Two of Barber’s passion projects are his book, The Third Plate, which took him ten years to write, and his pop-up restaurant, which took over Blue Hill in Spring 2015. The pop-up was called WastED, and it served food that would normally be thrown out in a high-end restaurant for reasons of style and appearance (not food that was rotten). In this mini-restaurant, Barber wanted to make a point the chefs and home cooks have always used things like bruised fruits and broken clams, but they might not tell you so. Barber wants to make reducing food waste (and resource waste as he is interested in sustainable gardening and animal husbandry) as stylish as anything else in a restaurant. Dishes included fried skate ray cartilage with a dipping sauce infused with whitefish heads and charred pineapple core with lime ice cream. Want to see the menu?

Barber has done tons of interviews. Here’s one where he talks about WastED, writing the book, and that time he got fired because he couldn’t make decent bread, from eater.com

Here’s his TED talk about how to raise sustainable seafood:

And here his is talking about the possibility of cruelty-free foie gras:

Wednesday Videos: Stephen Colbert and Neil DeGrasse Talk Pluto

WednesdayVideoMy husband and I had a super romantic date and we spent a large percentage of it having a passionate debate about Pluto. I just don’t know about us. Anyway, here’s Stephen Colbert and Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking Pluto. These guys are just the best. But Neil is wrong – I know he’s brilliant but PLUTO IS A PLANET. You can’t take the sky from me, dude!

Guest Post: Speculative Fiction from an Aboriginal Point of View, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

cover of Invisible 2

Ambelin Kwaymullina’s essay for Invisible 2 (edited by Jim C. Hines), “Colonialism, Land, and Speculative Fiction: An Indigenous Perspective,”, challenges a common science fiction theme of colonization and first contact. She was kind enough to elaborate here on looking at common science fiction themes from an indigenous perspective. You can read my review of Invisible 2 here.

I am a writer of speculative fiction. That means it is my job to look to the future. I am also an Aboriginal Australian, and that means I am all too aware of the nightmares the future could contain. My people, along with other Indigenous and colonized peoples of the globe, have lived through the great injustices and terrible violence of the colonial project. So when I hear tales of human spacefarers seeking new frontiers, my inclination is to cry out a warning to any alien peoples to run while they can. But I know, too, that there is greatness in humanity. Except I think realising that greatness requires a breadth of vision that in turn requires hearing the stories of the many diverse people of this earth.

The many barriers to diverse writers have been the subject of extensive comment in the US as part of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I have written of some of the issues in an Australian context, and in relation to literature, I want a future that is different to the past. I particularly want an end to the misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples and the taking of Indigenous stories, and I know I am not alone in this. It is why there are many protocols and guidelines in Australia, including in relation to ethical publishing of Indigenous stories and producing Indigenous Australian writing. So I am hopeful that we are moving towards a future where all those who seek to write of other cultures and other peoples will be aware of when those stories are not theirs to tell. And I look forward to equitable collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers – for when such collaborations are based in fairness and respect, I believe there is no end to the futures we can generate together.

Ambelin photo

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Australian Aboriginal writer and illustrator who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She is the author of the YA dystopian trilogy, The Tribe: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, The Disappearance of Ember Crow, and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider. When not writing Ambelin works at university teaching law.