The Nebula Awards Weekend: Smart People, Good Books, Bacon Donuts

Nebula Award LogoOnce again it’s that time of year where I rave about the Nebula Awards Weekend, hosted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

When I attended the weekend last year, I can truly say that it was a life-changing experience.  Not because of the events or the panels, although they were lovely.  This is a professional convention as opposed to a fan convention, and while the panels were fascinating they weren’t the reason that people were there.  The weekend was life-changing because of how people treated me, not because of any particular thing that I did.

A  year ago, I was already writing but I wasn’t sure how far I would be able to chase this crazy dream.  Last year the authors at the Nebula Awards showered me with so much validation that within twelve months I had started this blog, published one book, and submitted a second to my publisher.  Last year I was so nervous that I was seriously afraid that I might throw up on someone’s shoes and this year I was on a panel.  The assumption people have about me at this event is that I am a peer, and that writing is something that I can do and that I should do.  This assumption shaped my assumptions for myself, just as the work of authors I met reminded me that in order to be a writer, you have to actually sit down and write.

So what’s the weekend like?  Here’s a few highlights:

  • At the Nebula Awards Ceremony, Toastmaster Ellen Klages made us all laugh with her Scary Ham story and made us all cry by reminding us that we are each other’s tribe.
  • At the forensics science panel, we were all reminded that really, you just never should go into a kitchen.  Kitchens are scary.
  • I was able to interview Sofia Samatar, Nicola Griffith, Bennett Madison, and Helene Wecker, all of whom had brilliant things to say, of course.
  • Samuel “Chip” Delaney smiled upon us like a gay, black Santa Claus.
  • Charlie Jane Anders hosted Writers With Drinks and made up elaborate, fictional biographies.  Now we all want one.  I truly feel that if you were to offer me a Hugo, a Nebula, an Oscar, a Grammy, or a bio written by Charlie Jane, I would choose the bio.  No question.
  • At Writers With Drinks, I stayed up until midnight to hear a tattooed woman dressed in black read poetry about horror films beneath this weird tentacle lamp and I leaned over to Helene Wecker and whispered, “I feel so hip!”  Because I’m not, not at all.  The poetry, by the way, was disturbing and moving and haunting and was written and read by Daphne Gottlieb.
  • I missed the bar tending robot this year, although it was in attendance.  However, I did not miss the bacon donuts from Psycho Donuts.  WOW.
  • I sat on a panel about Young Adult fiction with Bennett Madison, Cynthia Felice, Erin Hoffman, and Ysabeau Wilce.  There are few plus sides to having Imposter Syndrome, but one is that when something like that happens, you feel like Cinderella at the ball.
  • I signed my ebook!  I was a signing author at the book signing!  Number of people I signed the book for…one.  Still a fun, fun time.
  • After a year of Internet drama about inclusion in SFWA (the cover of infamy, The Insect Army, etc), it was especially moving to see that the Grand Master this year was a gay black man (Samuel R. Delany) and the fiction winners were all women, including two women of color.  The world is changing, y’all.  As Ellen Klages said, “Keep trying, men!  Someday, if you work hard enough, you can make it!  you may have to publish under  female pseudonym at first, but you can succeed!”

Book Review: A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

12814333Reading A Stranger in Olondria makes me feel a little bit drunk.  This gorgeous book by Sofia Samatar is a love letter to the power of reading to transport, to wound, to heal, to oppress, and to liberate.

A Stranger in Olondria takes place in a fantasy world.  Jevick, the son of a rural pepper merchant, is tutored by a man from Olondria.  This man teaches Jevick how to read.  When Jevick’s father dies, Jevick must make the yearly trading trip into Olondria, to the trading city of Bain.  This vast city is full of books, and Jevick is almost crazed with the freedom he experiences as a teen away from home for the first time, and as a reader with sudden access to all the books he could possibly want.

This is great until Jevick attends a festival called The Feast of Birds.  After the festival, he finds himself haunted by the ghost of an illiterate but ferociously articulate girl who demands that he write down her story. He refuses, because there is no alphabet in her language and because reading and writing are barred to her people.  Their battle of wills and occasional truces embroil Javick in a devastating conflict between two political and religious factions.

This is the time of year when I try to read as many books as I can that have been nominated for either The Nebula Award for Best Novel or The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It’s a great time for me, because it causes me to read a much broader range of material than I normally do, and much of the material is more challenging than my day-to-day fare.  That’s not to disparage the quality or content of the books I turn to most often.  It’s just that I find that many of the Nebula nominees has particularly dense and rich language and or complex plots.  I average approximately three books per week, and it took me well over a week to finish A Stranger in Olondria even though the book is only three hundred pages long.  To be honest, even that seemed much too fast.  I’d like to read this book as a meditative practice, one page a day.  It’s that beautiful in its use of words.

There are so many things we could focus on with this book – the plot, the relationships between people, particularly between Javick and the ghost and between children and parents, and the work-building, which is particularly wonderful because this fantasy does not feel based in the mythology and landscape of Western Europe.  People are described as having dark skin and hair,  and much of the world feels African or East Asian.  I was so distracted by the poetry of the words that I barely grasped the plot, so I’m just going to focus on language.

This is a book about language, both spoken and written, and as such the language is gorgeous and sensual.  I could pick any paragraph as an example.  Here’s one I found by opening the book to a random page:

The house stood on the eastern side of the Yeidas.  It was the last estate, shipwrecked between the farms and the eternity of the desert.  It stood in the sparse embrace of its orchard of plum and almond trees and turned its shuttered eyes on the contours of the plateau.  There was the library, there the terrace with its stone balustrades, there the balconies caged in iron flowers.  I remember even the creak of the gate and the shadow of my hand as I reached for it, in the argentine light of the snow.

That paragraph is an English Lit paper waiting to happen.  In the nostalgia of memory, the house, which was the home of a nurturing mother and terrifying father , is both beautiful and confining, and memory is both concrete and nebulous – I love “the shadow of my hand” and the “caged” iron flowers.

I’m going to close with an excerpt from a really long paragraph about reading.  If this doesn’t make you want to read this book, I don’t know what will.

“A book”, says Vandos of Ur-Amakir, “is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears.”  Fanlewas the Wise, a great theologian of Avalei, writes that Kuidva, the God of Words, is “a taskmaster with a lead whip”.  Tala of Yenith is said to have kept her books in an iron chest that could not be opened in her presence, else she would lie on the floor, shrieking.  She wrote, “Within the pages there are fires, which can rise up, singe the hair, and make the eyelids sting”.  Ravhathos called the life of the poet “the fair and fatal road, of which even the dust and stones are dear to my heart,” and cautioned that those who spend long hours reading or writing hold not be spoken to for seven hours afterward. “For they have gone into the Pit, into which they descend on Slopes of Fire, but when they rise they climb on a Ladder of Stone”.  Hothra of Ur-Btome said that his books were “dearer than father or mother”, a sentiment echoed by thousands of other Olondrians through the ages, such as Elathuid the Voyager, who explored the Nissian coast and wrote, “I sat down in the wilderness with my books, and wept for joy”.



Book Review: September Girls, by Bennett Madison

Cover of book, "September Girls"September Girls is a story that immerses the reader in a dream.  The narrator, a teenage boy named Sam, goes to a beach town with his father and older brother for the summer.  This town has a lot of girls, but it also has The Girls.  The Girls all work in the town, as waitresses or in the gift shops or as housekeepers in the hotels.  They are all beautiful and perfectly made-up.  They are all blond.  Sam become involved with one of the girls, Dee Dee, who turns out to be even more mysterious than girls normally are to teenage boys.

This is a story in which everything feels like a dream.  Sometimes the characters are stoned, or drunk, or both,  Sometimes they don’t know if they are dreaming or awake.  Time passes in the town, but it passes slowly, and people come and go with no set date of arrival or departure.  The narrator is crass and self-centered for much of the book, and yet the language is lyrical and lovely yet simple, especially during sections that are narrated by The Girls, like this one:

First we are alone.  First we are naked.  At first, walking is nearly impossible.  It remains difficult.  We have problems with our feet.  They are always aching.  Our shoes often have blood in them.  We are covetous of the Others’ high heels, especially the shiny, patent-leather kind.  We can only wear flats.

First we are alone.  We’re not sure how we find one another, but we do.  Then we are still alone, but in the way sardines are alone.

For much of this book I disliked the narrator and I thought he was shallow and in love with a fantasy (I was right).  But I ended up loving this book, and how as the book draws to a climax it becomes a meditation on what love is, and how we know if we are in it, and why we fall in love.  Sam’s answers might best be summed up as “I don’t know”.  But he changes a great deal during the narrative, and his feelings towards Dee Dee become less about fantasy and more about appreciating her for who she is.  It’s also a story about letting go.  I viewed the ending as a happy ending, but not everyone will.  It’s one of those bittersweet endings, but very satisfying.

September Girls has been nominated for an Andre Norton Award For Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors.  This is one of the awards given out during the Nebula Awards Ceremony.  You’ll be seeing a lot of nominees being reviewed here in the next couple of months as I’ll be attending the ceremony and I like to have read as many of the books as possible.  This book was a delight, even though it took me a while to understand why.  It’s a beautiful fairytale, and despite Dee Dee’s warnings about fairy tales, it left me feeling happy and renewed and thoughtful.