if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow

So, The Tour is over. I had a lovely, if exhausting, time.

A shout-out to my homies in LA, who are all totally black (or Jewish) enough, even if they sound like pasty-ass white guys and, whatever, I wouldn’t exactly call them people, anyway. (Boondocks is amazing. For some reference, watch the episode with Stinkmeaner.)

I had the fun experience of waking up to the sound of three police officers taking someone down outside the window of my hotel room. “Get on the ground!” they shouted while pointing guns. “Uh…but I am on the ground,” I muttered as I dragged myself out of sleep.

LA is a nice place to visit, but I’ll never understand a city that doesn’t even pretend to have decent public transportation and yet also claims to be cool.

On to San Francisco, which I approached by overnight bus, much to my eternal chagrin. Yet, I say, is it MY fault that our lovely Amtrak is so dysfunctional as to have NOT CONNECTED the TWO MAJOR CITIES on the coast of California by train? Why should I add more CO2 to th atmosphere by taking a fossil-guzzling plane? But next time I think the environment might just have to suffer, because I have never had less leg room in my life, and I include several domestic flights within West Africa.

But once I actually arrived I had a lovely time, visiting with a good friend in Palo Alto, who in fact had just discovered that she has been accepted to academic servitude at UCLA (a.k.a. grad school). We celebrated by going to some docks and buying ludicrously delicious cheese and real SF sourdough, and then bringing the bounty to a wine bar, where we split a bottle of pink champagne. Joy! Drunkenness! Memorable moment: the two of us attempting to totter back to the commuter train in time, I decide to go sprinting down the median strip in the hopes of catching up to the fast-departing MUNI train, as though my desperate desire really could fold the fabric of space-time, I suddenly hear my friend’s voice shouting my name, but I don’t see her anywhere– hey, is that a car pulling up beside me, like I’m a second away from the bad guy capturing me in a thriller? “Get inside!” she shouts, improbably, from the back seat of a taxi. “Hey, how’d you get that?” I ask, getting inside. The cab driver seems disappointed that I am not, in fact, Ethiopian. In consolation, I tell him that I do love injera.

The reading in Berkeley was nice–though not quite a reading, and the bookstore was like crack to a recovering addict. My god, all those books! I need to go back when I’m not toting all my luggage on my back like a turtle. Dark Carnival is a gem.

Then a plane to Seattle, because of course I discover a mere week before I’m scheduled to leave New York that there has been some kind of natural calamity westerners call mudslides that has apparently rendered EVERY Amtrak train impassible until mid-March. Not helpful, I tell you. So a plane, mercifully uneventful, and I’m picked up by my other really good friend (seriously, in high school I had four of them, and one was my sister), who has moved to a swank, HUGE new apartment in Capitol Hill and we proceed to eat ridiculous amounts of good food and swill coffee. Bill loves coffee. I love coffee. We stayed up very late. I had a lovely time. I actually did read this time, and the word on the street is that I was rushing at the beginning but hit my groove a few pages into the chapter.

More food and coffee and food (holy crap, the best crepes I’ve ever had in my life, I’m really not kidding. It’s a restaurant with precisely one employee, who takes the orders, makes the crepes, serves the food and gives the change. I’d go back to Seattle just for that). Yeah, Seattle is a great city. I’m still not sure that it beats out Vancouver for my wholly undesirable trophy of best West Coast city, but it’s close.

Then this afternoon I take the super-secret Amtrak train from Seattle to Portland. Admittedly, it is dark and rainy and I don’t have the slightest clue where I’m going, but Portland is…weird. I ate dinner in an old church that was converted to a brewery and had the singular experience of eating gnocchi (after the waiter stared at me like I’d asked for escargots when I ordered it) while listening to some hard-up musical conservatory student play The Band and Led Zepelin on a church organ. Everyone clapped. The reading was great, though–very nice conversation, and someone who’d bought my book on Amazon after reading the first few pages.

Then the pensioners/drunks/high schoolers bus, where I nearly missed my stop, and nothing I saw from the window did much to improve my impression of the city. HOWEVER, I am now typing this blog post from the free wifi available in the airport, so I guess I can’t complain.

They’re boarding my plane now, so I guess I’ve got to go. Thanks so much to everyone who made my trip so great. Time to go home.

Monday review roundup

First, my reading on Saturday at KGB bar went really well. There were tons of people, and my fellow readers, Matt Kressel and Eugene Myers, were great. Here are some pictures from the event, for the curious.

I figure I might as well make this reviewing thing regular. Thus, every Monday I’ll put up capsule reviews of stuff that I’ve read recently, and maybe a few of my older favorites. This week features…

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey – Well, this book came so highly recommended to me that I could barely wait to get my hands on it. The recommender described it to me as a dark, “anti-Harry Potter” wizard school book, and it delivered the goods. I mean, I like Harry Potter and everything, but there were a lot of unsavory implications about the supposedly “good” side of that world that Rowling never explored. Well, Duey gets down and dirty with it here. The plot follows two apparently independent threads, separated by several hundred years. In one, Hahp, a young merchant’s son, is essentially disposed of by his abusive father into a wizard school. His father knows full well he will probably die. After all, only one boy from each “class” survives to become a full-fledged wizard. This is dark, dark, dark but the imagery is lovely and the relationships very deftly drawn. I adored the slow, creeping friendship between Hahp and Gerrard, his ambitious peasant boy roommate. Also, the magic was oddly enough some of the most realistic-feeling I’ve encountered in fantasy. I’m increasingly fed up with the “wiggle your nose, chant a few Latin words” variety of magic I so frequently see, but I really felt like Duey had thought through her magic system to an unusual degree. The other story line follows Sadima, a young woman with magic in an era where magic was forbidden. She falls in love with the servant of Somiss, a rich lord who wants to resurrect magic in the world. But his desire for power drives Somiss completely insane and their story starts to get darker and more desperate as well. The alternating story lines do eventually find some connection, but not very much, and I was frequently desperate to get back to Hahp and Gerrard. Sadima is an interesting character, and I probably would have enjoyed her story more if it had just been its own book– but not much can compete with the intensity of the evil wizard’s school. I mean, Hahp is in the middle of essentially a medieval, magical Battle Royale, and he’s watching every one of his classmates die. What can compete with that? Still, very recommended. Be warned that this is the first of a trilogy, and it ends on a cliffhanger. I can’t wait for book 2.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – I’ve probably read Ella Enchanted four or five times (it doesn’t take that long) and it’s probably my favorite Cinderella retelling ever. The only other of her books I’ve read was Fairest, a snow white retelling that I liked, but not nearly as much as Ella Enchanted. Two Princesses isn’t quite as good as Ella Enchanted, but it’s vintage Levine and very enjoyable. It’s about two princesses who grow up in a kingdom beset by a strange plague that kills whomever it infects. One is brave and the other timid and domestic, and they both dream of the time when the brave one will save the kingdom and the timid one will marry and have children. But when the brave one falls ill with the deadly plague, it’s up to the shy princess of Bamarre to find herself and defeat all the dragons she never intended to face. A simple set-up, but deftly done and very sweet. Not genius, but a fun read.

The Naming and The Riddle by Alison Croggon – These are the first two books of the Pellinor series, which I’d read good things about and so decided to check out. I was almost ecstatic when I saw how big and fat they were, settling in for a nice and long YA fantasy read. Unfortunately, after a few pages I realized what I’d actually gotten myself into: a big fat epic fantasy novel, for some reason dressed up as YA. I mean, on some level all epic fantasy is YA (there’s a reason why the age almost everyone I know first read Tolkien was between nine and twelve), but I object to people labeling this as different in any fundamental way from, say, David Eddings or Terry Goodkind.

These books are literally by-the-numbers epic fantasy, faux-author’s notes about the discovery of the “lost epic of Pellinor” and an invented bibliography and supplementary materials notwithstanding. Usually I like those sort of metafictional touches, but in a world as basic-generic-fantasy as this one, they struck me as a bit of handwaving, attempting to distract the reader from realizing that Croggon had written an utterly pedestrian fantasy novel. The writing is serviceable, but not much more inspiring than that. Maerad, as the lead character, seems to have some potential at the beginning (typically humble slave girl beginnings, with hints of grandeur in her lost childhood), being very fierce and determined, if utterly humorless, but she quickly devolves into a typical whining teenager. And yes, I know that teenagers whine a lot, but spending over eight hundred pages with one doing it with very little introspection or leavening humor started to make these two books a slog. The one bright spot in this utterly rote tale of the forces of the generic “light” being corrupted by the generic “dark” (replete with plot coupons, lost wisdom in ancient civilizations, wizard schools, evil wizards in deep dark hoods, fierce northerners, lush dark-skinned southerners, pre-literate faux gypsies and every other stock fantasy cliche you can toss in) was Cadvan, Maerad’s mentor. He has a dark past, and his relationship with her does not work quite the way you’d expect. He’s less Obi-Wan Kenobi than an actual three-dimensional human with a checkered past and his own, somewhat contradictory reasons, for wanting to help her. Of course, she’s also The Chosen One ™ and beautiful and and multi-talented and, like, everyone totally falls in love with her. Did I mention that in addition to being whiny, Maerad becomes a bona-fide Mary Sue about halfway into The Naming? I skimmed the end of The Riddle and just gave up. I can’t handle another one of these slogs. I don’t what the hell everyone is praising. Even if you wanted to read generic YA fantasy, in many ways you’d be better off reading Eddings. But really, I think someone should have sent Croggon a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, so she could have spared me all this trouble.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt – I got this on the strength of reviews and the beautiful cover. And, yippee, no disappointment here. I enjoyed pretty much every minute of this ethereal romantic fantasy. In some ways it reminded me of Patricia McKillip’s work, in the way it focuses on a relatively small, almost domestic, story filled with realistic characters in situations that still feel very true to their fairy tale roots. Keturah isn’t “hip” or “kick-ass”– she’s a girl who has grown up as a serf in a realistically detailed medieval village, with those sorts of attitudes and personal expectations. The basic story: Keturah follows a stag too deep into the forest and gets lost. She wanders for three days, and then lays down to die. She sees Lord Death approach her, and she attempts to forestall him by telling him, Scheherezade-like, a tale. This tale sounds suspiciously like her own, and Death is curious enough that he agrees to let her go for one day, if she promises to finish the tale. She returns home, and discovers that if she can find the man she truly loves, she can evade Death’s claim on her. So, Keturah goes through all the men in the village, but her thoughts keep returning to her strange bond with Lord Death…this was lovely. The sort of book you’d like to re-read by a fire over the holidays.

As always, please recommend books for me to read! I actually have a few (gasp!) adult novels coming to me from the library, so next week you will probably have a wider variety of reviews.

The Prioress

(More from the land of the Shift. This turned into a bit of a short story. Unfortunately, I’m not close to good enough at photoshop to illustrate it.)

Her name had been Greta, and she had been raised in Cheruk Syndicate in the days when Fox Speaker ruled the city. Her parents were Fallen—Goyles, as the less devout called them—but she was born healthy and entirely human. Fox Speaker took her on as his lover when she grew old enough, and taught her the ways of the ayahuasca, the peyote, the blue mushrooms which still grew on dung if you dared to brave the Shift. What spirits she touched shook her with their anger, their need for vengeance over what humans had done to their earth.

“How can we appease them?” she’d asked Fox Speaker, young and terrified and trusting.

And he had shown her.

Continue reading

Laughter is one of the two things that makes life worthwhile

If you are, uh, me and my friend Amanda, that phrase is 100% guaranteed to induce manic squeeing, or your money back. It’s one of the best lines from bestselling-author Elizabeth Peters’ (lesser-selling) Vicky Bliss mysteries. We have been utterly obsessed with this series since high school, re-reading and re-reading the sacred texts (Street of the Five Moons, Silhouette in Scarlet, Trojan Gold and Night Train to Memphis), the inspirational works (The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, the Peter Wimsey mysteries) and quoting all relevant lines back and forth to each other so much that we’ve memorized half the books. We are obsessed. And yet, every time I try to get someone else interested in this series, I don’t think they read far enough into it to really get why it’s our favorite thing on earth. Yeah, Amelia Peabody is fun, but no one tops Vicky and John. It’s one of the best relationships in fiction.

No, I’m not exaggerating.

However, the last book in the series–the masterful Night Train to Memphis, which I coincidentally just finished re-reading yesterday–was published in 1994. We had, with reason, given up on any hope that she might continue the series after the utterly unbe-fucking-lievable ending of that towering accomplishment.

So, imagine my reaction when I saw this news.

No, you don’t have to imagine it. Here is my email conversation with Amanda:

SUBJ: I ASSUME you haven’t heard of this…

Because if you have, and didn’t tell me, I would KILL you.

Holy fucking crap. I think I might cry.

Amanda to Me:

Oh my GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ahhhhh!

How could this be? Joy! Happiness! But Night Train was SO PERFECT, so I hope this as amazing. Eeeee!!!!

So, dear friends, fellow readers: do yourself a favor and pick up these books. If you have ever enjoyed any of the inspirational texts mentioned above: run and leap to your nearest library. Incredible pleasure awaits. They might seem sort of pedestrian at first, but it’s deceptive. Just wait until John shows up. Then start laughing.

Look, ma, I can read!

So, the whirlwind life of a bestselling YA fantasy author continues…

Oh, sorry, for a moment there I thought I was Tamora Pierce.

Whew, back to earth again. So I’m going to be slogging across the West Coast soon in pursuit of fame, fortune, and audiences to hear me read. Did I mention that I need an audience? I’d really like to avoid that ultimate humiliation of reading excerpts of my book to the janitor and book store clerk. So, listen one, listen all– here is my West Coast tour schedule, plus one neato group reading right at home in New York City. The deets:

Saturday, February 9, 6:45pm, KGB Bar (85 East 4th Street , 2nd Floor): 3 members of the Altered Fluid speculative fiction writers group will read. Matthew Kressel, Alaya Dawn Johnson and E.C. Myers. Sponsored by ducts.org. Click on the link for our bios and stuff.

February 15, 5:30. Dark Carnival Bookstore, 3086 Claremont Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705.

February 19, 2008 – 7:00pm. University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, WA 98105

February 21, 2008 – 7:00pm. In Other Words Bookstore, 8B NE Killingsworth, Portland, OR 97211

Spread the news to friends, neighbors, enemies…just help me make sure some people show up!

And I will probably be gracing the national airwaves around that time soon, but can’t release the details until it’s confirmed.

Goyle Green

(The Shift began its life as a proposal for a SF television show, but I’m now in the process of turning it into a graphic novel script. The world is post-apocalyptic and sprawling, and I’m going to post various bits of things I write about both the world and the characters from the series. This helps with my creative process, and even better if I can interest other people in the project. At some point, I hope to find someone willing to work with me on sketching the characters and certain key locations.)

goyle-dissection.jpg

Jade Syndicate doesn’t throw their trash in the wasteland. Boss Jade is the only female syndicate head—and no woman with power takes for granted what she doesn’t understand. No one understands the Shift, that charred, virus-ridden stretch between the human protective force of teeming North City and the high, old-technological walls of Delphi University. Everything that isn’t City or University is Shift. Every part of the Earth, maybe, but no one in North City knows shit about geography. Pre-virus humans glorified their civilization, forgetting that without their supermarkets and computers and customer service centers, the majority of people on earth had a roughly stone-age grasp of technology. And when a virus eats up the land and kills 85% of them? The climb up that hill suddenly looks pretty damn steep.

So she doesn’t mess with the Shift, but Jade still has to do something with the living carcasses, the mind-bleached leftovers of her Goyles. Their power comes from the Shift, and until it drives them insane, she can use it to help control her corner of the city. Jade is grateful for your service, the disposal managers like to say to the incoming loads of gibbering half-humans. The Goyles are dispatched in a nominally humane way—no warm baths and soothing music, but sharp blades and a speedy efficiency that minimizes both pain and mess. Boss Jade tolerates pain; she hates unnecessary waste. Most bodies are kept in a giant cold room deep underground, protected by three levels of University-grade technological security. On any given day, as many as sixty Goyle bodies are laid out on identical silver gurneys. Jade Researchers use scalpels and saws and pickaxes to hack through the variegated hides of scales, feathers, rock and skin to see what lies beneath. Something in the Shift, the virus, has profoundly changed these humans; turned them into Goyles. With typical pragmatism, Boss Jade reasoned that she might gain an advantage over the other syndicates if she learned what else changed when one turned Goyle. In the cold room, anatomical anomalies are catalogued, photographed and detailed. Their bodies resemble animal carcasses if you squint in a certain way that all Researchers have learned to squint. And when these blood-drained cadavers have fulfilled all possible function, they’re shipped to a meat processing plant on the outskirts of her district, providing Jade with a hefty discount on the costs of producing glue, pet food and hot dogs.

Goyle family members are not notified.