Well, That Was Interesting

In the last few months, I’ve:

  • clawed my way onto the Island Itself,
  • moved house,
  • finished two gigantic book-editing projects and a handful of other gigs,
  • comprehensively overhauled my academic plans,
  • similarly reshuffled my professional life,
  • been quite ill,
  • gotten much better,
  • married off two dear friends,
  • started the most intense and expansive project I’ve ever done for money,
  • sort-of learned to cook, live, and host visitors in an apartment the size of a creme egg, and
  • obtained sufficient shelf space for the NYC branch of my personal library.

Something I haven’t done is write here on or the Hope Mirrlees site. Or much at all, outside academic work and work-work. A part of that is the reality of cognitive side-effects of medication that left me without a functional short-term memory and devastated my vocabulary and my ability to string together simple sentences. That’s behind me, for the most part—I’m back to my usual spoonerisms and faux-Oxonian spaciness, but that’s to be expected as finals approach. (The fact that my academic research this semester centers on Kelly Link, Kathryn Davis, Dracula, and my favorite critical thinkers has been a huge help keeping my brain squishy, but it’ll be good to get back to my personal projects as well.)

It’s wonderful to be living in Manhattan—something I never imagined would be possible until the recession changed things so much. I loved living in Brooklyn and although our relationship was challenging and our breakup ugly, I imagine Queens and I will be friends again. But this is the New York I fell in love with as an 18-year-old kid with a big suitcase coming into Grand Central for the first time and my god, look at that ceiling. There is a machine-holiness about this place, and I don’t expect I’ll ever get over it. (Which isn’t to say I don’t miss Portland and my people there and the City of Books. I do, daily.) But there’s a lot of good here, and I look forward very much to unfurling a bit as Things continue to ease up.

The Amanda Project Wants You

In April of 2008, Happy Cog Studios got an intriguing e-mail from Lisa Holton of Fourth Story Media. That e-mail led us to one of the most content-focused projects I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on, and today, our 15 months of collaboration has turned into a real live site: the Amanda Project. Officially, the Amanda Project is:

…the story of Amanda Valentino, told through an interactive website and book series for readers aged 13 & up. On the website, readers are invited to become a part of the story as they help the main characters search for Amanda.

My own (totally unofficial) elevator/Readercon hallway pitch goes something like this: It’s a book series and a website and a few other things besides. Think Veronica Mars by way of The Westing Game, except that we’re actively soliciting in-character, reader-created stories and art, some of which will be folded into the official printed books and into the online stories. (And if our beta testing period is anything to go on,  these readers are extraordinarily cool.) The first book, by the fabulous Melissa Kantor, is forthcoming from Harper Collins in September; the web stories are live now for members* of theamandaproject.com.

I can never say enough about the people I work with at Happy Cog. They’re amazing. I am so lucky to be working with them. And these Fourth Story people? They’re some of the sharpest, coolest, most delightful clients I could imagine.

Which leads me to my second bit of news. When Lisa and co. invited me to join Fourth Story’s staff to organize web projects and lead community management for the Amanda Project, I said O YES INDEED. I’ll still be working on content strategy with Happy Cog, and I’m still doing freelance editorial work. But now I’m also a key-carrying member of the Amanda Project crew.

Come play with us!


* Registration is free, and is there to help keep our youngest reader-contributors safe.

Readercon 20 Report, Pt II

There’s been some debate, online, about the format of both this and next years’ programming, and about the hierarchical nature of the con, and so on. (Here are two thoughtful posts at the opposite ends of that particular spectrum.)

As a Readercon n00b, I don’t have much to add except to say that I’m a youngish* woman without a PhD and yet I very much enjoyed almost all of the panels and talks I saw. I like to see experts jiggle their brains at each other and I also like intimate group conversations. WEIRD, I know, but true.

I did want to provide a capsule description of my own experience with the programming committee, as it seems to have been outside the expected norm.

In which people are nice

When I saw that Hope Mirrlees was going to be Readercon 20’s memorial guest of honor, I wrote to the e-mail address listed on the site for those interested in volunteering (aka inviting themselves) to be on panels. I explained that I was a graduate student with a strong academic interest in Mirrlees, and that I wanted to volunteer for Mirrlees-related programming if the con hadn’t already invited someone to speak from that perspective.**

A few days later, Eric Van sent me a warm, welcoming e-mail and invited me to send in ideas on what I might speak about on panels. I wrote up some stuff, and one huge questionnaire later, I was on the Mirrlees panel and also an “Invention of Fantasy” panel*** that Eric tells me was inspired at least in part by my e-mails about Jane Ellen Harrison and the Folk Revival.

In short, my experience with Eric (and through Eric, the programming committee) was both friendly and encouraging. Given that my academic credentials are all but non-existent, I imagine I’d have had much the same reception if I’d written in as a passionate fan who happened to have done a year of research on Mirrlees and her work, though that is, of course, speculation.

Accessibility / humanity fail

I wish I could end on that positive note, but yesterday I saw another post that makes it perfectly clear that, whatever your position on con programming styles, some Very Bad Shit went down viz at least one person with a disability at the con.

This seems to be less a question of insufficient attention from con leadership than of vile behavior on the part of some attendees. It’s now clear that the con has the potential to be a miserable place for people with disabilities, so I hope those affiliated with the con (as leaders or longtime congoers) will step up and make a point of welcoming and accommodating people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.


* Not quite as young as people tend to think, though — my hair is apparently confusing.

** It may be useful to note that the invitation to volunteer was buried quite deeply within the site—though I make no assumptions about intention vs. accident on that account, and that without the encouragement of Veronica Schanoes, whose seminars have been a highlight of my experience at QC, I might not have written in at all.

*** If you scroll down a bit in this post, you can see a photo of this panel, apparently taken at the very moment I did some kind of meerkat (Thriller?) dance move at Sonya Taaffe.

[Edited to add: This post shouldn’t be taken as a defense of anyone’s behavior during the post-con online kerfluffle. I just want to add another data point.]

Readercon 20 Report, Pt I

Readercon 20 was my first, and my first con of any kind in about ten years. The list of this year’s guests of honor—Elizabeth Hand, Greer Gilman, and Hope Mirrlees—made my decision to go very easy. (It would be difficult to understate the influence of Elizabeth Hand’s work on my fiction, Hope Mirrlees’ novel Lud-in-the-Mist is the subject of my MA thesis, and I genuinely believe that Greer Gilman is Our Joyce, except cleverer and kinder and more relevant to my interests.)

Half a dozen highlights:

…having the beginnings of really interesting conversations with so many of the people, including Helen Pilinovsky, Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, and Veronica Schanoes, who are doing my favorite academic and literary work. (Though alas, I missed Theodora Goss almost completely.)

…briefly meeting some serious, old-school masters in the field, including fergodssake Gene Wolfe, who treated me with great kindness and offered pertinent and practical advice, and John Crowley, whose Aegypt books hit me like a cyclone this winter, and whose talk on his imaginary life in theatrical set design was worth the trip all by itself.

…encountering John Clute’s brain in real life. The “SF as the Literature of Things” and “The Nature of Evil in Horror Fiction” panels were both interesting all-round, but my scribbled notes seem to consist mainly of Clute. Most memorably, he mentioned that the “supernaturally vacant” villain of No Country for Old Men killed his victims by “creating a shopping mall in the center of the forehead.” My Barthes-loving heart went doki doki and did a little tap routine.

…seeing the “Excellent Foppery: The Use of History in the Fantastic,” which was stellar, and which was also my first encounter with Graham Sleight, whose insights also took up a lot of space in my notebook. Same thing happened on the Readercon Book Club discussion of Mieville’s The City and the City, where Sleight and Jedediah Berry were especially on and Clute delivered a thunderous and (to me) welcome denunciation of the idea that readers must at all costs be protected from spoilers. I don’t think his claim—that the fear of spoilers is lazy and corrupt—holds true in every case (The City and the City, for example, is best approached cold), but I enjoyed his rant nonetheless.

…catching “After the Cover’s Closed,” the panel on endings moderated by Lev Grossman. It was densely packed with awfully pertinent advice based on both analysis and reflections on craft, and I really wish I’d raised my hand in time to ask the question I had about the relationship of satisfying endings to genre expectations, and the panelists’ sense of those expectations within the genres in which they work. (This relationship was at the heart of the arguments I got into on the intertubes years ago about Grossman’s The Codex, which I really liked, and which the readers on Amazon really didn’t.)

…having the opportunity to sit on a panel with Elizabeth Hand and on two with Greer Gilman. Both are some of the sharpest writers I’ve ever listened to, while also being astonishingly approachable. I did, on the second day, confess to Ms. Hand that I’d met her once before, about 11 years ago, on which occasion I was so star-struck that I turned pink, stammered something about transcending genre, and slinked away. I hope I redeemed myself a little by not falling off the stage or swallowing my microphone during our panel. (My other fellow panelists, including Faye Ringel, Sonya Taafe, Michael Swanwick, and Donald G. Keller, were also incredibly on the ball.)

Two things I didn’t expect:

That the level of analysis would be so stratospheric, and the amount of bullshit so correspondingly small. I had expected that the con would feature a lot of very smart people, but I hadn’t expected that the kinds of smart I most appreciate would be so pervasive. Yes, John Crowley and John Clute and Greer Gilman and Elizabeth Hand and Chip Delany and cetera were there, and yes, they’re ridiculously well read and quick on their brains, but dear lord, so was practically everyone at the pub. Though not all of them had actually read the OED from cover to cover like Greer.

That leaving would feel like being booted from fairyland with the taste of that goblin fruit still on my tongue. (I’d never quite grasped the fairy food trope on an emotional level, but when I got out of the car at a truck stop on the drive home, I got it all at once.)

Excessive Candour, rescued

If, like me, you’ve been distressed at the disappearance of John Clute’s years of Excessive Candour columns from the web in the wake of SciFi.com’s idiotic, deck-chair rearranging rebranding to “Syfy”—or if you’ve simply never had the pleasure of reading through Clute’s extraordinarily literate and witty book reviews—I have some links for you, courtesy of the divinities at the Wayback Machine.

It’s more than a bit upsetting that the archives of a magazine that has published much of the best criticism of Anglophone Science Fiction and Fantasy literature have been tossed away like fish wrappings. We’re very lucky to have the archive.org people fighting to save these first few decades of internet culture from being erased by shortsighted fools.

Reviving a zombie blog

Turns out that if it’s been three years and two web host moves since you last logged into your Movable Type blog, things are likely to be a bit ahoo when you finally return.
I got back from Readercon earlier this week and wanted to write a post or two about it, but that simple task led to a Lovecraftian horror of database repair, software upgrades, and interface trouble. With a bit of data recovery help from Peter, the thing’s back online and now features type large enough for humans over the age of 20 to read.
The web-tech geeks among us are advised not to view source, as the markup’s a right old mess that I’m disinclined to fix, since I want to move the whole business to WordPress soon. Bug reports solicited at erin at this domain or in comments.

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City

This review was written in 2006 for an older incarnation of Blissbat.net.

book coverby Kirsten Miller

The mere sight of an official-looking person seals men’s lips. These youngsters however, go everywhere and hear everything. They are as sharp as needles too; all they want is organization.
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

Kiki Strike a twelve-year-old girl with no pigment in her skin and a collection of improbably skilled girl-scout-reject companions called the Irregulars. (The Conan Doyle callouts don’t end there.) This first book in the series sends them scurrying through a forgotten city beneath Manhattan, a restored castle on Roosevelt Island, and the halls of a private school on the Upper East Side. Interspersed throughout are a series of narrative narrative asides explaining useful things like:

  • How to Follow Someone Without Getting Caught
  • How to Take Advantage of Being a Girl
  • How to Plan an Escape Route
  • How to Tell a Lie

It’s cute. If I’d had it around when I was nine, I’d have read it till the covers fell off and copied the helpful asides into a notebook to keep by my bed. (I’d probably also have a record.) The book’s quick pace glosses over events that strain credulity, and the combination of espionage and urban archeology is clever and engaging.

But does it work for older readers? I blew through it in a few hours and enjoyed myself while reading, but the slickness that makes Kiki Strike go down like a fresh, sweet oyster left me a little unnerved after I’d finished. As a grownup, I can see the work that went into making this book so marketable, and I’m not sure it doesn’t do the book real harm by making its edges so smooth.

The six girls who make up the Irregulars are a suspiciously multicultural crew, each with her own specialized skill; they feel a bit like literary Bratz dolls. Miller emphasizes the book’s girl-power message enough to be perfectly clear to her youngest readers, and her narrator, Ananka, is neither too good nor too bad at anything. The Irregulars even have their own marketing-friendly icon, which is reproduced all over the book’s website. All told, the book feels as though it’s been edited a hair too heavily.

The book is a piece of openly commercial fiction, of course, and if it’s a smarter, more engaging work than most of the terrible girly YA franchises around, then great—right? Thing is, there are glimmers of something more interesting throughout. The spooky early scenes in which Ananka follows Kiki through a silent, snow-covered Central Park (where Kiki serves up Buffy-style justice in a plot thread that’s never really resolved) promise something luminous and strange that never fully materializes. In some of the moments in which Ananka’s fragile trust is shaken, you can feel her growing older and more careful in the space of a few sentences, but the pace at which the book careens toward its guessable ending prevents these moments from blossoming.

Miller’s book performs beautifully as a high-speed, stylish adventure and doubles as a girl’s guide to adventure and self-defense. (It even avoids the obligatory adolescent romance subplot I expected to see shoehorned in near the end, so woo for that.) I suspect that the author will be able to offer even more by stepping back from her publisher’s marketing plan and crystalizing the moments that could make her next book a classic.


Research on Amazon, buy from Powell’s.

Valiant

This review was written in 2005 for an older incarnation of Blissbat.net.

book cover
by Holly Black

Valiant came out this week, and Holly Black’s her best yet. Its narrative balances on a twisting web of connections to folklore, literature, and modern pop culture, and Black’s reassuringly strong grip on the adrenaline-rush wonder of encountering those connections for the first time makes the whole weave sparkle.

This isn’t the kind of book that synopsis suits. There’s a runaway girl who takes fairy drugs, and there’s a war on among New York’s magical creatures. But Black’s book isn’t really about those things.

It’s about obeying the insane suggestion to go just go that your lizard brain whispers when you’re standing at a an airport, and about the grimy magic of New York wrapped around a girl with a broken heart, and about following a pack of beautiful people down the alley at 4am instead of finishing your watery coffee and catching the morning train north from Grand Central. And in the middle of all that, a schoolgirl becomes troll-defender, knight, and protector–valiant. It’s one of those rare stories that bangs out space for girls whose brains are wired in ways that make them jump between predator and prey.

The same feel for the surreal within the ordinary that made Tithe, which is set in the same world, so successful is even more apparent in Valiant. The exiled fairies scattered across Manhattan are no stranger than the perceptual disconnect between the normal adults strolling through Greenwich Village and the gutterpunks they step around without seeing. Black’s monsters can be brutal and deadly, but no more so than the heroine’s own friends and family.

This time around, though, the descriptions of the magical world are integrated with the world we know: a goat-footed beauty lives on the Upper West Side, and Central Park, of course…well, I can’t spoil that. Black hits the right details all the way through, from the frigid filth of a squat in an abandoned subway station to the euphoria of temporary invincibility. A gathering of fairy exiles echoes Tithe’s astonishing underground revels, and an alchemical laboratory inside the Manhattan Bridge seems feels perfectly plausible.

As with Tithe, I wanted more of some of the secondary characters, but this book felt more emotionally substantial and more complete in the final accounting.

Oh, and can I get a hell yeah for Holly Black’s unrepentantly nonstandard love stories? I spotted the love interest the moment he entered the story, but I wasn’t sure until much later that we’d actually get follow-through. Well done.


Research on Amazon, buy from Powell’s.

Tithe

This review was written in 2005 for an older incarnation of Blissbat.net.

book cover
by Holly Black

My problem with much urban fantasy is this: no matter how many fantastic characters come and go, if Detroit still feels like a cardboard cut-out of Detroit plus a colony of fairies, I’m going to throw the book against the wall. Without getting shirty, I theorize that this has something to do with the difficulty of balancing the emotional weight of magical and non-magical realities, and of pinning down and opening out the sparking, shifting moments that can bind the two worlds together. Terri Windling pulls it off, as do many horror writers, but it’s rarely done as well in YA.

Holly Black clearly remembers the viciously high resolution of childhood, and Tithe, therefore, completely succeeds. The “urban” part of the fantasy is handled with as much attention to the darkly weird as the scenes that take place in more traditional settings, so when a fairy knight shows up in a New Jersey diner, neither he nor it feels tacked-on—and his scary, magic-bound behavior makes him more real and more terrifying than the airbrushed vampire/werewolf/magicky boyfriend companions of so many urban fantasy heroines.

Black also allows her teenage characters an ambiguous, often electric sexuality and complicated motivation as well as absurdity. This is precisely the stuff, so dangerously close to the id, that much YA fiction either shies away from or overplays. Tithe handles tricky sexual interactions with style, whether Black is dealing with drunken teenagers or jealous pixies. (A casual coming-out conversation between two friends delighted me so thoroughly I had to go find someone to read it to.)

The book isn’t perfect. When the protagonist, Kaye, undergoes a kind of transformation, we don’t get to see enough of the impact it has on her psyche. And when something un-fantastically bad befalls one of her friends, we don’t get to see it soak in: the plot drags us on before we’re ready, robbing us again of needed weight. When, having loosed such vibrant and interesting characters on us, Black steps away so quickly from the emotional repercussions, it feels like a dodge. Tithe is sharp and sleek and utterly engaging, but I wanted more of Kaye’s pain and curiosity and desire.

Black does a magnificent job, though, of making the Unseelie court and the Jersey shore flicker convincingly past and through each other. In this, Tithe reminds me of a Weetzie Bat wiped clean of cloying whimsy or a flash-flood version of Elizabeth Hand’s crossed-over realities—and that’s high praise, from me.


Research on Amazon, buy from Powell’s.

The Cup of the World

book cover
by John Dickinson

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them…that denseness and that strangeness of the world is absurd. — Camus

In a valiant effort to pin down the essentially elusive, science fiction author Bruce Sterling once labeled as “Slipstream” the kind of writing that:

…simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.

It’s not a very useful definition, but it does bring up an element of fiction that receives less attention than it deserves: the ineffable quality of strangeness. The strangeness that marks Wolf’s Book of the Long Sun, but also Woolf’s The Waves; L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, but also Winterson’s Art and Lies. Frequently surreal, often numinous — a near-physical strangeness particularly rare in children’s fiction. Used well, it can keep a book alive in the mind long after plot details have faded.

The Cup of the World drips with strangeness, thanks to Dickinson’s formal and often lovely prose.

The book’s real riches are hidden beneath the façade of a medieval teen gothic novel; its consistently uncanny tone is more important than the specifics of our heroine’s adventures. This lends a blurriness to the flow of time and the protagonist’s emotional states as she makes a series of dubiously motivated choices and spends the remainder of the novel coping with their consequences. Which leads to the book’s second great strength: cleverness of plot.

Now that I’ve said that, you’ll be expecting plot twists or a shockingly original storyline. In truth, The Cup of the World offers neither. Dickinson’s cleverness emerges in his treatment of the gothic convention.

To recap for those of you who didn’t grow up reading bags full of 1970s gothic romances, the modern gothic novel typically follows the heroine through her arrival at a gloomy mansion-cum-castle where she discovers a series of increasingly menacing clues about the lord of the house that lead her inexorably to a dramatic conclusion in which she discovers — just in time — that the dangerous man in her life is actually quite nice, though tragically misunderstood. For reference, Hitchcock’s film of duMaurier’s Rebecca perfectly illustrates the gothic story arc.

The questions at the core of the gothic novel (“Which instincts should I follow when both fear and attraction speed the heartbeat?” “Why are masculine suffering and cruelty so attractive to so many women?” “Why have you stopped loving me?”) cut to the gruesome heart of human sexual relationships.

When the brooding-but-sweet vampire lover on Buffy the Vampire Slayer literally lost his soul after Buffy had sex with him, viewers understood — just as Rebecca‘s readers recognized the ache of a lover’s inexplicable emotional withdrawal.

The Cup of the World, for all its fantasy trappings, turns on the same fundamental human problems, and Dickinson achieves some beautifully eerie moments made all the more chilling by their emotional familiarity.

And damn, that’s a lovely cover.


Readers interested in slipstream or the examination of otherworldly wonder may wish to visit this related thread at Chrononaut.

Those more inclined to ponder the fuckupedness of sex as expressed by fictional teenage girls may prefer this Salon article.

Research on Amazon, buy from Powell’s.