Wednesday, March 30, 2016

GoodReads Review: Living With Ghosts by Kari Sperring

Living with GhostsLiving with Ghosts by Kari Sperring
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did not have a neutral experience with this book.

(This review may be more spoiler-ish than usual, though I've tried to be as circuitous as possible. You have been warned.)

Old powers threaten the city of Merafi, and a handful of its denizens - from a noble lord to a guard captain to a foreign spy - struggle to deal with the forces that have been awakened. There were parts of this book I loved; there were parts I hated, and I can't entirely pick out what is wholly personal taste and what is an objective issue ... though, of course, reviews are always to some degree subjective.

The world here is beautifully realized with a deep, rich history and a nice iceberg effect: you have the sense of more that isn't shared with the reader. Unfortunately, while the worldbuilding is generally good, for me there wasn't enough of it given in the right places. I had trouble getting through the first quarter of the book because, though I felt the looming doom, I didn't feel like I understood enough of the magic / situation to get a) an idea what the stakes were or b) a sense of what the main characters might be able to do about it. That made their efforts feel a bit pointless. Later in the story, I thought the wide-view descriptions of power sweeping over the city were striking ... but I also found them somewhat opaque, and once more, I didn't feel as if it was well explained how the characters could respond and why. There's a lack of specificity, and with some magic systems / plots, that works, but for me and in this book, it didn't.

Another great effect of the book is how the characters are woven together. They are interconnected as one would expect with the movers and shakers of a large, pre-modern city, which allows some great crossing of plotlines and shared (or missed) information, without straining credulity - everyone doesn't know everyone, and two characters might be only connected thirdhand. (Let's play six degrees of Yviane!) Sperring also does a great job of using this setup to increase tension, without confusing the reader about what each character knows, or boring the reader by repeating the same information. It's always a little different, a little near.

And I loved some of the characters: outwardly flighty but inwardly brilliant Miraude; insouciant ghost Valdarrien; and the cool, mysterious Iareth. But notice these are all more peripheral characters I'm mentioning: it was the central cast that disappointed me. It took me a while to engage with Gracielis; I just didn't care that much for the character. I found the exaggerated femininity to be unsuited to his role / supposed gift for seduction. I would think, if you're a male prostitute and the majority (if not all) your clients are female, you'd be better suited to the appearance of picture-perfect masculinity. At least show him swapping back and forth between modes (as it were).

Then there's the problematic fight between Thiercelin and his wife, which is exasperating from the first act. It would be quickly defused by honest communication, but they keep coming up with increasingly strained reasons not to do so. It's the most exasperating part of a romcom strung out over a couple hundred pages ... and the only reason I can really see for it to exist is to excuse Thiercelin so he can have thoughts of infidelity. For me, that fails: I don't see their relationship as estranged enough to justify it. Further, I don't see why Thiercelin needs to gravitate towards Gracielis this way: all the emotional energy between the two men can certainly stand without physicality.

That aside, the climax of this book holds some really interesting episodes and surprises. I can't be more specific without giving the game away. In summary: there are some stark images and wonderful occurrences in this book, but I also wanted to tear my hair out at points.

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Wednesday Wanderings

Lately, it seems I've seen a number of contemporary fantasy authors catching heat for misrepresenting a specific ethnic or minority group.  J.K. Rowling is perhaps the most prominent example:  people were very unhappy about her use of the Navajo skinwalker stories.  Since my old notes for my next novel project included skinwalkers, this one particularly caught my attention.  (For myself, I've decided to work the concept from a different angle.  The way magic works and entered my setting - via public consciousness and imagination - makes this more appropriate, ultimately.)

One thing stands out to me in these missteps and their criticisms, however, and I'm always a little surprised by it, because it's one of the things that, as a secondary fantasy writer, you learn early on:  no culture is monolithic.  People show cultural tendencies along a spectrum; mutations, one-offs, misfits are an intrinsic part of every group.  To assert that a trait is always true of a group seems to be an inevitable railroad to inaccuracy and oversimplification.

Of course, now the perverse in me wants to point out that there are probably exceptions to that, too.  In a secondary world, you can "cheat" by making a trait constant through supernatural means.

Fellow fantasy writer Nyki Blatchley said something in one of his blog posts a while back that really stuck with me.  I'm going to paraphrase it mercilessly here.  Imagine you have two neighboring kingdoms, and each kingdom has a string of border villages.  It's very likely that a person in one of these border villages will have more in common with their neighbor across the border than they do with a person in their capital city.

We humans may draw lines and apply labels, but life itself has little regard for borders.  It's analog, not digital:  a continuous sliding scale rather than an orderly sequence of distinct numbers.

It applies to science, too:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. – Arthur C Clarke

But that's getting a bit far afield from the original premise.  I think we writers instinctively see this diversity and search for that exception to the rule:  how many stories are written about the character who doesn't fit in?  Yet when talking about cultures beyond our own, we reach for the imprint of the familiar.  It's worth keeping in mind:  no group is as homogeneous as it might look from the outside.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Wednesday Wanderings

Picking up the train of thought from last week, I learned a lot from writing short stories.  With fewer words comes the need for sharper focus:  I had to develop the skill of building a story around a single moment, a single decision, and making that complete.  It's probably this process that built my liking for the "yes, but ..." ending - the conclusion that fulfills the story goal, but sets up ongoing complications.

Short stories also helped with my sense of plot.  Working on the micro level (comparatively), I had to figure out the direction of the tale before I began, or I risked wandering ... and wandering into novelette or novella territory.  I know there are other writers who can start a short story without an ending or outline, but I was never one of those writers, and in a few cases, I found out the hard way.  Those rambly tales are best forgotten.

I also learned quite a bit about incorporating worldbuilding into fiction ... and some about faking it.  Many of my short stories have allusions to cultural, physical, historical elements of the world - brief glimpses that show the workings beneath the surface.  Except, in almost every case, it's an illusion:  the glimpse is the only truth, and the reader knows as much as I do.  Well ... almost.

But it's not all faking it.  Again, space is at a premium in a short story, with less room - and reader patience - for extended descriptions.  Sentences setting the scene often do double, even triple duty, contributing to the plot or understanding of character.  An example I often like to give is instead of just stating that a character is tall, something like, "She was obnoxiously tall, looming a head and more over the locals," also gives some information about aforesaid locals ... and a hint of snarkiness in the narrator, perhaps.

All of these skills, this learned economy, translated back into my novels - or at least, I hope it has.  Even if that's not the case, I enjoyed the ability to dip my toe into far more worlds than I might have, had each demanded a novel of its own.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Another Game of Words and Music

I've mentioned before that I have an older car and am limited to listening to CDs, but music is a critical part of keeping the errant parts of my brain focused/distracted/plotting appropriately (take your pick) while driving ... so I make themed CDs.  One of the sets I've enjoyed doing is via word association, where the titles or persistent lyrics lead me from one song to the next.

Here's my current list, with explanations where the thread isn't in the title:

I To You - Leona Lewis
This Time - Celine Dion (both songs about abusive relationships)
Time Machine - Ingrid Michaelson 
Ghost in the Machinery - Sarah Brightman
Ghosttown - Madonna
Nobody Home - Amy Grant
Clear The Area - Imogen Heap
Shelter - Eisley
Umbrella - Rihanna
Today the Sun's On Us - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
Brighter Than The Sun - Colbie Caillat
Blinding - Florence + The Machine
Just Want To See - Cowboy Junkies
When He Sees Me - Sara Bareilles (the line "he could be criminal ... some kind of psychopath who escaped from an institution somewhere where they don't have girls ..." plus this is actually in tango rhythm)
Cell Block Tango - Chicago soundtrack
Security - Joss Stone
Hot Cop - Village People
Heat Rising - September
Swoon - Imogen Heap
Falling in Love (Uh-Oh) - Miami Sound Machine
Ex's & Oh's - Elle King
Blow Me (One Last Kiss) - P!nk
Sisters in the Wind - Laura Powers
Little Sister - Jewel
13 Little Dolls - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
Not Big - Lily Allen
Thin Line Between Love and Hate - Annie Lennox
Push Pull - Purity Ring
Disappear - Sahlene (this song is all about a push-pull kind of relationship)
She Used To Be Mine - Sara Bareilles
Say You'll Be Mine - Amy Grant
Don't Say A Word - Ellie Goulding 
The Last Words You Said - Sarah Brightman
Isobel - Dido (both songs about someone who probably died, but it's never stated outright - and the line "the last day leaving" leads into the next on my list)
The End of a Perfect Day - Kirsty MacColl
Loose Ends - Imogen Heap
What Have We Started? - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
Begin Again - Purity Ring

So that's the current list.  As another point of possible amusement, I have a "Marriage" themed CD as well ... and I just about fell over when I realized that I'd followed "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on The Roof with Beyonce's "Single Ladies" ...

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Wednesday Wanderings

I still distinctly remember the exact moment I decided to stop reading short stories as a kid.

I was reading a shared-world anthology, and one of the stories described a fortress as, "a rectangular square."  I was incensed by the redundancy.  (I was a weird kid.  I'm sure I've established this by now.)  It must have been the straw that broke the camel's back for me.  I don't recall if I finished that specific story or just stopped right there, but that was the last short story I read for a very long time.

When I came back to short fiction, it was for mercenary reasons.  No, I wasn't trying to kill people:  I had just started submitting novel manuscripts, and had been told that short story sales made editors more likely to consider your work.  So, of course, to write short fiction, I had to read it ...

The short fiction world had changed a lot since my first foray, especially in SF/F.  When I was young and reading short stories, one had a pick of magazines on the newsstand in every bookstore.  (All the bookstores.  I weep.)  I have several old Realms of Fantasy issues, and I had a subscription to MZB's Fantasy Magazine for a while.

When I returned to short fiction, the pool of magazines had dried up, and of those that remained, most couldn't be picked up by simply walking into a bookstore.  (This was before bookstores started crashing left and right.)  Electronic magazines had started to pop up, but weren't nearly as numerous as they are today.  Postal submissions were still very common, too.

What I found instead were anthologies.  I loved - and still love - anthologies on any theme.  I am less fond of "best of" collections, simply because part of the pleasure, for me, is to see different authors interpret the main thought in a variety of tones, worlds, and possibilities.

I had started reading short stories for business reasons, but I discovered a deep love for them - both the reading and the writing.  I also learned a lot that I never expected to that translated back into my books ...

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Wednesday Wanderings

For those of you not involved in the realm of the writer, two quick definitions, typically used to describe the type of writer one is: 

1.  Plotter - someone who uses outlines, plot diagrams, and other tools to extensively map their story before writing.
2.  Pantser - someone who just dives in and wings it.  As in "by the seat of your"

I've always considered myself more of a pantser than a plotter, though I have elements of both.  My process is to do extensive worldbuilding and character creation, figuring out details, societal elements, past history ... though that doesn't mean that all of these will remain fixed when I start writing.  With all this framework built, however, I already know the sources of conflict and likely reactions, so when I get down to the business of writing, I can wind it up and watch it go.

When I started plotting for Unnatural Causes, my first novel length work that was also a mystery, I was inspired by a panel of mystery writers I had seen.  All of them claimed that they didn't have a firm idea whodunnit until late in the writing.  This sounded like an awesome idea to me.  I would build characters with solid motives, come up with a passel of clues ...

... and find that it utterly didn't work for me.  About a quarter of the way through, I got completely stuck.  I couldn't continue the characters' investigation and trickle out further clues without knowing where they were leading.  So I stopped, thought it through, and made some choices.

Now I'm doing my first readthrough of the manuscript, and I realize how much "pantsing" hurt the opening portions of the book ... and even later on.  I'm going to have to do more extensive editing than I typically like to do, tearing some stuff out, including a red herring that doesn't even make sense any more ...

So I think I have to concede:  I'm more of a plotter than a pantser, if only because I would much rather have the story going in the right direction to start with.