Reviews: AMBERLOUGH, RIVER OF TEETH, MORMAMA, THE CHANGELING

It’s been a while! As I try to line up my notes about all the beautiful things that happened in May, here’s a bouquet of reviews that went up recently.

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Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly for Lightspeed:

As the present US administration’s modelling of old-school fascism dips into self-parody—two days into Passover saw Sean Spicer claim that Hitler “never gassed his own people”—well-meaning folk keep finding new ways to discuss whether or not it’s all right to punch Nazis.

So this month I want to write about Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough.

 

 

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River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey for NPR Books:

In 1909, the United States was suffering a shortage of meat. At the same time, Louisiana’s waterways were being choked by invasive water hyacinth. Louisiana Congressman Robert F. Broussard proposed an ingenious solution to both those problems: Import hippos to eat the water hyacinth; then, eat the hippos.

Luckily for the United States in our timeline, the fact that hippos are ill-tempered apex predators not amenable to being ranched was pointed out, the American Hippo Bill failed to pass by a single vote, and consequently, we don’t have hippos casually chomping on passers-by due to a lack of their usual forage.

Sarah Gailey’s imagined United States, however, are differently fortuned.

 

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Mormama by Kit Reed for NPR Books:

An amnesiac man calling himself Dell Duval wakes with an address in his pocket: that of the Ellis family home, a rambling plantation-style house in Jacksonville, Fla. Duval squats in its undercroft trying to glean a connection to the family, haunted, meanwhile, by the contents of a flash drive he can’t remember and doesn’t dare examine. While hiding around the house he meets Theo, a 13-year-old boy stranded there with his mother Lane, her three ancient aunts, and the ghost of Charlotte Robichaux, called Mormama, who tries to warn the youngest generation of the malice the house bears towards men. Through Mormama’s recitations, old journals and letters, and the aunts’ reminiscences, the Ellis family’s history comes unspooled like so much rotting thread.

 

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The Changeling by Victor LaValle for NPR Books:

Here is more or less what most synopses I’ve seen of The Changeling say: Apollo Kagwa is a rare book dealer and new father, in love with his wife, Emma, and their infant son Brian, named after the vanished father who haunts Apollo’s dreams. But when Emma commits an unspeakable act of violence and disappears, Apollo’s left grasping at the threads of his unravelled life, following them through a labyrinth of strange characters, mysterious islands and haunted forests, all occupying the same space as the five boroughs of New York City.

This is accurate — but the experience of reading the book is something else.

That’s it for now: next on the TBR pile are Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders and Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

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Comprehensively Distinct, or, I PASSED MY COMPS I PASSED THEM

Here’s what you need to understand.

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Wonderer Beneath the Sky of Snow

I’d been having a very stressful week. Worry over performing well in the oral component of my exams was overshadowed by worry for my family and the intense flooding in Gatineau (though house is holding steady, it’s an island right now, with the forests and fields around it submerged, the road to it quite drowned); worry about my cats, who were under the weather; worry about the weather, more generally, because in addition to three times the expected amount of rain for April, we were looking towards snow in May, and everything felt and still feels apocalyptic.

Two days ago, the backpack in which I carry around my laptop and everything I’m working on broke badly enough to need to be retired for repair. Last night, one of the cats was sick all over the bed late enough that we couldn’t be bothered to do anything but strip the sheets and sleep in the spare room. But I couldn’t sleep; I tossed and turned until around 2:00 AM, woke at 6:00, forced myself back to sleep for a little longer, then got up and took myself to campus, figuring I’d find myself some food before sitting down with the committee for two hours.

When I arrived I saw the university centre, aka the building with food in it, was shut down because of a fire alarm test. Also it was snowing — not idle, incidental flakes, but a full on flurry.

I took a long route around to my building (that tall one) on an empty stomach, dropped off my stuff, attempted to go back down for food, waited 10 full minutes for an elevator (because half of them are being serviced), found food and tea, brought it back upstairs with a minute to spare, only to feel the tea leak all over my hands at precisely the moment one of my committee members was extending her own hand to shake it.

This was not the most auspicious of beginnings.

Everyone was very understanding while I ran around finding napkins and took a much-needed bite of sandwich and just generally recovered myself — and then we started talking, and I basically blinked and it was two hours later.

I Passed With Distinction. One week ago I had despaired of passing at all. But the best part was just how organic and easy and wonderful was that conversation; wide-ranging and deep-delving and thoughtful, inviting me to make connections I hadn’t made before, to the point where I frequently forgot I was being tested on anything and just thoroughly enjoyed myself.

My sister and I have often observed something to each other about playing music: the rush of performing, of feeling all that practice come together, leaves us hungry for learning new pieces and performing again. I definitely don’t want to write another comp — but once I was given my grade and floated up the stairs to my office, I looked at the books I hadn’t gotten a chance to read and felt hungry for them. I look at my comps list and want to cover everything, to stitch them into the tapestry of that conversation I felt we were building between us, to grow worthier of the regard and esteem of these incredible women and the knowledge they shared.

It was beautiful. I loved it. I feel so grateful that it all came together — the stress, the anguish, the fear — in this easeful grace.

Last week, while I was deep in the doldrums, terrified of writing the comp, I spent a tearful couple of hours on the phone with my dear friend Claire. She told me she was putting some firebird finery into a box for me, to play dress-up with, even if none of it fit — she just wanted me to open a box of red and gold.

When I arrived home today I found it waiting for me, as if to say here are the clothes and colour of your triumph.

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So I played dress-up.

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That there is my Circlet of Distinction. My friend gave it to me. My friends, my family, give me so much. I feel so loved and grateful I can hardly form the words. I feel like sugar lit on fire and dissolved into tea. But in a good way?

In a good way.

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NPR Review: THE PEARL THIEF by Elizabeth Wein

9781484717165_custom-574a29f40aa28eb2e5652fe9a943a4297c92fb13-s400-c85My review of Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief — a prequel to her 2012 novel Code Name Verity — is up at NPR Books!

I can’t remember who first told me about this on Twitter (was it you, Emily Wagner? I think it was you?) The wonderful Julia Rios first told me about this on Twitter — but while I was excited, I hesitated between circling it warily and pouncing it immediately. I loved Code Name Verity with a love beyond love, and the impact it had on me is one I’m still assessing.

At any rate I tried to talk about The Pearl Thief without spoiling anything about CNV, but I did find it important to talk about the effect that book had on me:

Reading Code Name Verity in one sitting kept me up until 4:00 AM, at which point I had to slip out of bed and into another room in order to sob violently without waking my partner. Its effect hasn’t left me — four years after reading it the words “stuck in the climb” and “Kiss me, Hardy!” still hook my heart into my throat. I love it more fiercely and protectively than any book I’ve read in recent memory. And I was very concerned about what a prequel would do to it.

Read the whole thing here.

In other news — talking of rivers — the National Capital Region has seen three times as much rain as is usual this spring, and there’s a lot of scary flooding, with a further 50 mm of rain forecast for this weekend. I’ve never seen the like. The waters at my family’s home have risen far beyond the 100-year flood line.

It’s hard not to read everything as a metaphor right now. Ten years ago there was a huge, scary fire at our house: a shed burned down, a car exploded, the flames were forty feet high. It was the same time of year, and this fire was burning while the fields around it were flooded, and it seemed impossible that anything could catch — but while the grasses’ roots were drowned, their tips were dry, and the fire spread across them easy as breathing.

Now the river by slow, relentless degrees is climbing, surrounding us, making an island of us, and it seems impossible, because we’ve known this river’s bounds our whole lives, swum in it, floated on it, and how can it behave this way, and how can we protect ourselves against it? There’s nothing against which to put our hands.

It’s strange, thinking on those two things, on fire and water, on the speed of combustion and the patience of flooding, and recalling that the Scots word for a small river is “burn.”

Spring 2017

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Lightspeed Reprint + Uncanny Podcast Reading

It’s a new month, and with it come new issues of Lightspeed and Uncanny magazines!

th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_cover_vertical_schechterLightspeed has reprinted a short story of mine called “Weialalaleia,” about airborne grief-eating leeches, which first appeared in Ann VanderMeer’s Bestiary anthology. It’ll be online on the 23rd, but you can read it right now by purchasing the issue or subscribing.

I wrote about that story previously here, and exulted about the original book’s fun approach to bios here — including the several bios my husband wrote for me. Stu hasn’t written my bio accompanying the reprint, but any mention of the story tends to bring them to mind.

 

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Meanwhile, over at Uncanny, I read Ursula Vernon’s beautiful warm story “Sun, Moon, Dust” for this issue’s podcast, which also features Vernon getting interviewed by the ever-fabulous Julia Rios. It’s such a kind, charming piece, full of gardening and potatoes and the right to not be a warrior.

Also there is a goat. I am very fond of the goat, and of the story’s quite righteous opinions about goats more generally.

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Comprehensive ExBAM

Happy May Day!

Today I sat my comprehensive exam.

I sat at a laptop with no internet access and wrote 4064 words in four hours expounding most of what I know about Romanticism. There are two parts: written and oral. You only go to the oral if you pass the written. I’ll know whether I did in the next two days.

I’ve been preparing for months, reading and re-reading novels, poetry, non-fiction, secondary material. I did not feel prepared; my practice exams were underwhelming. I can talk about this stuff for hours, and I read swiftly, but I write slowly; I couldn’t seem to adequately complete a question in less than two hours, and I needed to answer three questions in four hours.

I’d been alone in my flat for almost three weeks on account of Stu visiting family in Scotland. I wasn’t feeding myself properly, reading until words blurred into belly pangs. I was really, really scared. I couldn’t seem to make people understand how scared. Of course everyone who loves me knows I live and breathe this stuff, but that only made the very real possibility of failure the more terrifying.

My sister and parents brought me food and a nerve-soothing nephew. My amazing fellow grad students went out to dinner with me and calmed me down after the hash I made of my first practice exam, telling me about their own experiences. My amazing, brilliant, perfect supervisor kept assuring me I’d be fine. Yesterday, when I was in practically a fugue state of fear, Claire and Carlos took turns talking to me on the phone in what felt like a sequence of full body massage for the soul.

I slept fitfully last night in spite of turning in early. I woke at 6:30 and took the morning very slowly. I got to campus in plenty of time. My supervisor — who is literally a goddess from whose steps flowers must surely bloom — supplied me with fruits and nuts and brought me tea during the exam.

And I just sat and wrote.

4064 words, and I keep re-reading what I wrote and thinking, you know, it kind of makes sense? Even the bit where I totally somehow managed to absolutely for real legitimately write Hamilton into my Romanticism comp?

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When I stood up my hands were shaking and my legs were jelly and I kept softly laughing to myself about literally nothing. (I think I made a joke about Scott and Hogg playing tennis doubles? My poor committee.) Stu arrived at the airport at roughly the moment I finished the exam. We raced each other home. My supervisor firmly prescribed a beer and no work for the rest of the day. I sneakily managed to file my taxes anyway. (After cuddling my husband. And drinking the beer. And taking a very long nap.)

I don’t know if I passed yet. But I completed it.

That’s got to be something.

Edited to Add: I passed! On to the oral!

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Max and Amal Go to the Movies: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

Behold! The second instalment of Max and my column for Uncanny is here! Read our thoughts on The Girl With All the Gifts by way of Twists, Buddhism, Decolonialism and Ecopocalypse. Also extreme sillyness.

In other news — literally — I sent out my first newsletter today. If you signed up but haven’t received it, check your spam filter? There are pretty photos in it!

Right. That’s all my socks paired.

Back to the comps.

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Off Social Media Until May 9! Again!

Yes, again.

So, let’s see how last month’s goals shaped up while I wasn’t on Twitter:

  • continue to teach 2 courses
  • read for comprehensive exams
  • read for reviews
  • get my house in order for April visitors
  • write 3 chapters of novel
  • record podcasts
  • play with my nephew
  • commit to getting healthy again

As compared to April’s goals, which — what’s that? There are only 9 days of April left? I didn’t set any April goals here? And am definitely not going to have written 3 chapters?

Hmm. PUZZLING.

It really does disturb and upset me to realize how quickly time passes — unmarked time, time I can’t remember spending — when I’m available to social media. I need restraints on it, and right now a number of other factors are making it uncomfortably all-or-nothing in terms of the attention I give it. So it’s got to be nothing.

May is full of exams, turning in grades, revisions, and travel. I need the extra focus that comes of not having my head full of noises.

That said, I’ve started a newsletter! I’ll send the first mailing out soon. If you’d like to keep up to date with my news and appearances and so on while I’m off social media — and my goodness but there’s a lot of travel coming up this summer — I invite you to subscribe.

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NPR Reviews: Can Xue’s FRONTIER & Cherie Priest’s BRIMSTONE

My reviewing schedule has had to slow down a bit recently, what with comps reading and teaching, but here are a couple that have recently appeared on NPR.

First, Can Xue’s Frontier, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping:

9781940953540_custom-88db26d979bf1a861f016687395f8942f192029e-s600-c85Pebble Town is at the foot of Snow Mountain. There is a grove of poplar trees, some of which are dead; there is a Design Institute, where many people are employed, but few work; there are people, many people, who aren’t certain about how or when they arrived, what they want, how to speak to each other. These people interact at market, or in shops, or in the grove of poplar trees, or in their courtyards and homes, and they sometimes have startling insights into each other that are as brief and ephemeral as blown dandelion seed, catching on to people’s thoughts before being buffeted along the next breeze from Snow Mountain….Reading this book is like trying to solve a mystery in a dream. Like the Pleiades, it’s best glimpsed without looking at it directly.

You can also read Porochista Khakpour’s wonderful interview with Can Xue here.

Second, Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, which I decided I needed to review after having the pleasure of hearing Priest read from it at ConFusion this January:

9781101990735_custom-e8ad156a32207405b092a6932ccf0511ace7cb66-s600-c85Brimstone is a deeply loving book. Cassadaga is a real place, with a real lineage of devastating fires, and the respect and affection for its history and residents glows from each page. Alice and Tomás are wonderful, warmly drawn characters: Alice’s cheerful vivacity and Tomás’ weary grief fit beautifully with each other, and moved me a great deal. Tomás, especially, often made my breath catch with sympathy, as he tries to make sense of life without his wife, and slowly grows obsessed with the possibility that she may be communicating with him through random acts of arson.

I’m very glad to have read these — reading very different books back to back feels like brain exercise and nutrition all at once — and am really excited about the things I’m covering in May, which include Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth, Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief.

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A Week with Max Gladstone in Ottawa

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The above photo is from the joint reading Max and I did earlier this week from our novella (tentatively titled These Violent Delights). It accurately captures most of my experience of said week: scheming to put Max in situations where he gets to talk and I get to enjoy both listening to him and watching other people enjoy listening to him.

I don’t think I’ve ever put the origin story of Max and my friendship into writing. This is for the best. But in brief: I heard him talking on a panel and decided we had to be friends. Eventually I informed him of this decision, and the rest is history.

The trip’s been a bit of a whirlwind. Max and Steph arrived on Saturday evening, having the distinction of being the first guests Stu and I have received in our new flat together. After a day or so of settling in and walking around Ottawa, we all got down to our various businesses, not least of which were reading events.

img_2755On Tuesday night, Max read from his upcoming novel, Ruin of Angels, at ChiSeries. On Wednesday afternoon, he and I read from our novella (for the first time ever! It was great!), and in the evening he did a Q&A with my short fiction workshop students. Both events were absolutely wonderful, with enthusiastic, kind audiences; many thanks to everyone who attended! Reading from the novella was especially fun — I’m still revising my parts of it, and getting to read it out loud and play it against Max’ reading offered a really neat perspective shift into what I need to address. I’m forever telling my students to read their own work aloud as they’re revising it, so it’s good to get a dose of my own advice and feel the rightness of it.

img_2797Friday evening, we appeared on CBC Radio and chatted with Alan Neal of All in a Day about footwear in fiction, the Hugos, and our novella. You can listen to our eight minutes of radio fame here! (Also admire our “wait what photo but we’re on the radio WE DRESSED FOR RADIO” faces!)

Saying goodbye to Max and Steph yesterday kind of involved crashing from a sugar-high of the soul. It was a lovely visit, full of good food and great chat and deep heart-comfort. It was also the first of what I hope will be many more visits from my US-ian friends, as borders and bans make travel prospects from this side more fraught than usual. Until then, the work waits, and while the first week of April’s been glorious, the rest of it looks likely to live up to its moniker as Cruelest Month where deadlines are concerned.

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Hugo if True

I write this while sitting on a couch next to Visiting Author Max Gladstone, who is also writing a post that will go live on April 4 at probably the same time as this one, on the same subject.

Friends, we’re both Hugo Award Finalists. Both of us for the first time.

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Seasons of Glass and Iron” is on the ballot for Best Short Story. Max’ Craft Sequence is on for Best Series. I haven’t actually seen the ballot yet, though, so maybe it’s all a trick?

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I’m writing this post and I still can’t believe it. Besides the fact that it’s the first time — besides the fact that I’d long been dreaming of having written something worthy of nomination by the time of this Worldcon, the first bid I’ve ever supported, in a place I’ve been excited to visit for years — besides the fact that it’s a story I love and feel proud of, about friendship and love overcoming unstoppable forces and immovable objects — a story that Max, by the way, helped improve —

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I get, completely serendipitously, to celebrate in the city of my heart with my dear friend who’s also nominated.

This trip had been planned for months! Max and Steph are in town for a week! Tuesday night Max is reading at ChiSeries! Wednesday afternoon he and I are reading from our seekrit novella! It’s maple season! It’s end of term! The fact that we get to toast each other in this thing is immense and beautiful and good and I’m so grateful to everyone who shares my views of Max’ important, gorgeous work enough to nominate it, and so grateful to everyone who read and shared and cheered my story, because — well — you make it possible for me to do this, and you’re wonderful, and thank you so, so much.

When this post goes live, I’ll be in the penultimate class of the poetry workshop I’m teaching this term. Max will be working on copyedits. It’s the nature of the business — we have to keep working when what we want to do is party. But if you’re in Ottawa, we hope you’ll join us at one or both of our events to help us do just that!

Because we’re Hugo-nominated Authors, and we’re going to Helsinki, and it’s spring!

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Thank you again, and good night.

 

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