Review: Down Among the Sticks and Stones by Seanan McGuire

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Rating: 5/5 portals to strange moors

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

Review

I loved Every Heart a Doorway last year. It was one of my top reads for the year and I felt it was really important because of all the people it represented. An asexual main character is so rare, and it was so beautifully written.

That makes me feel slightly guilty about saying I liked this one even more. I shouldn’t have favourites!

Except I do, and this has become one. Every Heart a Doorway was brilliant, beautiful, and spoke to a lot of people. Down Among the Sticks and Bones spoke to me. 

I didn’t feel like I knew Jack or Jill well at the end of Every Heart and that’s fine. They weren’t the MCs. I didn’t need to know their deepest thoughts and fears, because it wasn’t their story. It was Nancy’s story.

This book is their story and I discovered that I adore Jack, Jill terrifies me, and they’re both amazing characters. In fact, I immediately picked up Every Heart to see how that changes now that I understand these people better!

The big theme in the book is the ways that parents and parental figures can fuck us up but they can also put us back together again. Sometimes they don’t put us back together right, and sometimes we’re too broken to be put together no matter how hard our parental figures try. Sometimes they helps us to put ourselves together exactly as we need to be.

The theme that really spoke to me, though, was about gender. The idea that trying to fit inside rigid definitions of gender can be damaging and that it’s okay to be a mixture of girl things and boy things and it doesn’t make you any less (or any more) a girl or a boy. It’s not about being trans (I think that should be Kade’s story, if McGuire ever writes it), but it is about finding balance and finding what works for us in a world that can put hard lined around gender expression. It’s about the damage that parental expectations and definitions can do and the ways that rebellion against those expectations can be as damaging as the expectations.

I can’t explain why this book felt so much like my book, because my parents were nothing like Jack and Jill’s parents and I didn’t get transported to the Moors, but it did. I think it’s because Jack spoke to me. I know Jack because a part of me has been Jack, is still Jack in places, and that’s what this book connected to.

Review: Do You Want to Start a Scandle? – Tessa Dare

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Rating: 4/5 demon horses

On the night of the Parkhurst ball, someone had a scandalous tryst in the library.

  • Was it Lord Canby, with the maid, on the divan?
  • Or Miss Fairchild, with a rake, against the wall?
  • Perhaps the butler did it.

All Charlotte Highwood knows is this: it wasn’t her. But rumors to the contrary are buzzing. Unless she can discover the lovers’ true identity, she’ll be forced to marry Piers Brandon, Lord Granville—the coldest, most arrogantly handsome gentleman she’s ever had the misfortune to embrace. When it comes to emotion, the man hasn’t got a clue.

But as they set about finding the mystery lovers, Piers reveals a few secrets of his own. The oh-so-proper marquess can pick locks, land punches, tease with sly wit … and melt a woman’s knees with a single kiss. The only thing he guards more fiercely than Charlotte’s safety is the truth about his dark past.

Their passion is intense. The danger is real. Soon Charlotte’s feeling torn. Will she risk all to prove her innocence? Or surrender it to a man who’s sworn to never love?

Review

This is part of both the Castles Ever After and the Spindle Cove series from this author, but you really don’t need to be familiar with either to read this. I haven’t read any Spindle Cove books and it wasn’t a problem, and I didn’t realise it was linked to Castles until a character was mentioned that reminded me. So don’t be put off by that!

Tessa Dare writes really fun romances. I always end up laughing at some point while I’m reading, because she has a flair for the ridiculous and she’s not afraid to use it. That adds a delightful element to her books and keeps them rolling along merrily. Charlotte and Piers were both characters I immediately rooted for, which helps a lot with buying into a romance, and their situation was both ridiculous and quite plausible, which is a feat. More importantly, the chemistry between them is hot and Dare writes the growing relationship between them beautifully.

The side-plot about discovering who the secret lovers are was so good–and so unexpected in its reveal–that I might have punched the air and giggled wildly. Possibly.

It’s not perfect. I felt a couple of aspects of the resolution got a bit rushed, but not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book. My only complaint is…where is the book about Delia? I really hope Dare writes it, because she was the secondary character I most wanted to know more about.

Dusting off the blog, setting a new purpose

*blows dust off blog*

*chokes and wheezes*

Wow, yes, I’m a very bad blogger. But that doesn’t mean I have to keep being a bad blogger, right? I just need a new plan, an actual blogging goal and purpose, and that will help me stay on track better.

What do I love talking about? That’s easy–books! I know there are plenty of book blogs out there, but one more won’t hurt, and we all love talking about books in different ways, don’t we? What I hated about a book might be what gets someone else reading a book, because that’s their jam and I just sold it to them. Or what I loved could be what someone else hates (I hope it isn’t).

I’m also all for setting a low bar that I can easily hurdle, because then I don’t have so much pressure when my time gets short and my deadlines get close. In honour of that, this is the schedule I will aim to follow:

  1. One book review per week.
  2. No minimum or maximum word counts.
  3. Review books I have things to say about, not just things I loved.
  4. Write more reviews each week if I want

See? Low, easily hurdleable bar, with room to do more if I want to. That’s achievable.

I read mainly SFF and romance. Some of the romance I read is queer, some isn’t, most of it is historical. Some of the SFF I read is queer, some isn’t, most of it is fantasy.

If you don’t read either genre, this isn’t the book blog for you. If you only read one of those genres, maybe I can entice you into the other. I hope I can entice you to pick up a few new things or a few old things that you hadn’t thought to try before.

Because books are the best and adding to people’s teetering piles of books to read is my mission in life.

August writing round-up

Previously in monthly round-ups…

Total new words for July: 12,890

My goal for August was a fairly complete vomit draft of the fanfic project, which I knew would be around 25k. So, er, you can probably guess my goal did not get met. I also admitted that I’d be surprised if I did meet that goal, so I guess this isn’t a shocker. And I probably did better than it feels, baring in mind how busy I was in August. Between prep for my trip and my trip, I only had a few normal days this month. So getting nearly 13k words with all of that going on was pretty incredible, really.

Goals for September

Only one, again: finish the fanfic project and get a start on edits.

I’m not throwing any word goals at that, although I estimate that it will be at least 10k to get a vomit draft done. This time, I’m feeling semi-confident that I’ll make my goals happen. I’m starting to hit all the big action and coming-together-of-plots stage in the fic, and my writing always speeds up when I reach that point. I’m out of the sticky middle of doom.

My dad is coming to visit for three weeks this month, but there will be a week in that time when he and my mum are away exploring the north of the province, and I should have plenty of time to get some writing done. More than usual, if it’s just me and the cats in the house!

So this is me: I will finish this fanfic project and get a healthy start on the edits by the end of September. Watch me put my determined face on and do this thing!

Convention survival tips

In a couple of days, I leave for my annual trip to England, where I will visit family and do sightseeing touristy things and, most importantly, attend a convention. It’s Nine Worlds Geekfest again. I went last year and had a fantastic time, so I’m excited about being there again this year.

As convention season is now in full swing, and my brain is mostly consumed by packing lists and schedule checking, a quick primer on good convention survival tips seems appropriate. After all, you can never have too many tips, right?

Eat, drink, sleep, and be merry!

Add shower to that list. Very important.

Many people will give ratios for the sleep-meals-shower plan, usually in the vicinity of 6-2-1. It’s all about self-care, so the ratios don’t work for everyone. Aim for whatever is your personal minimum for enough sleep to be functional and cheerful for several days of high-intensity braining and socialising. If that’s six, go for it. If that’s eight, don’t accept anything less. It may seem fine to have two hours sleep on the first night of the convention, but you’ll be sagging (and possibly bad-tempered) by the end if you do. To enjoy the con fully, SLEEP.

And remember to eat and hydrate. Breakfast is key: take full advantage of whatever breakfast your hotel provides (or buy something substantial if you have to go out) and think of that as your base for the day. If the con gets really busy, you may not have time for three big meals, so make sure you start the day well. Carry granola/cereal bars with you. Stock your room with some snacks you like. Try to stop for another decent meal through the day, but if you don’t, make sure you breakfast well and snack plenty.

And drink tons of water. That’ll help even more than the food. Carry a water bottle and refill it whenever you pass a fountain. Trust me, you’ll be grateful you did that.

At least one shower a day is key, for everyone at the convention. Including you. It keeps the air smelling fresh(ish) for everyone, and a shower when you get up can help a lot if the sleeping thing goes awry. A second shower later in the day is also a great pick-me-up if you’re flagging. I ❤ showers at conventions.

Take a couple of extra t-shirts with you. If you’re tired and sweaty and want to have a freshening up shower, a clean t-shirt to pull on after will feel *amazing*.

Check the schedule before the con

If you’re on any panels, make sure you know the time and location. I always put them in my phone calendar, so if everything fails and I lose my programme and my badge doesn’t list them and there’s no WiFi to check the schedule online, I still get to my programme items on time. Helpfully, putting them into your calendar should also remind you about your programme item if you’ve got alerts set up. (Please do that.) Go to the room your panel(s) will be in early in the con, so you know how to get there and don’t get lost on the way.  Your fellow panellists will be rolling eyes and silently judging if you show up fifteen minutes late, trust me.

Also check the schedule for anything you really, really, really have to see. I wing it a bit when I’m at a con, because people talk me into unexpectedly interesting things, but I make sure I’ve highlighted/calendared/whatevered the stuff I most want to see before I even get to the con. It’s disappointing to realise that talk on dragon biology you really wanted to do was two hours ago and you’d forgotten about it or your mental note had the wrong time.

Socialise! (Which is not networking, nope)

I understand that, for some people, the social aspect of a convention is awful due to anxiety and horrible shyness. If that’s you, ignore this part. Do what you need to do to make the convention enjoyable for you. Conventions with a good accessibility policy have quiet rooms, which are designed for people who need time out to decompress from all the noise and crowds. They’re for you, so don’t be afraid to use them. And don’t be scared to stick to your room when you’re not in programme items. That’s also an A-okay valid choice. You’re supposed to enjoy a convention, and that means doing what you’re comfortable with.

For everyone who does like a bit of social time, don’t get yourself so over-scheduled with programme items you *must* see that you miss out on the social side of a convention. You can make friendships that last for years at a con, because everyone is there to geek out about the same stuff together. My regular con roommate is someone I met at my very first convention and we always have a blast together. If you’re an aspiring pro, don’t look at every bar and con social as a networking event. Everyone sees what you’re doing, believe me. Socialise. It’s not the same. The people you’ll meet may or may not be useful to your career, but that’s not what matters. Conventions are about joining a community of fans. Networking comes after.

Most conventions have some kind of social event on the last night. Dead Dog Party, or farewell picnic, or something. It’s worth sticking around for the last night, instead of going home after the closing ceremony, because sometimes this is when the best conversations of the weekend happen.

If you’re new to conventions and don’t know anyone, don’t panic! Most cons have sessions early in the schedule for new people to meet and socialise. I highly recommend checking them out.

My other tip for meeting people: volunteer. Check out what positions are needed, match your skills to them, and volunteer. Gopher, tech, and registration are all great positions for newbies to conventions. You’ll meet people, you’ll bond with your fellow volunteers and be introduced to other people, and you’ll get the satisfaction of knowing you helped the con to happen.

Follow the convention Twitter feed and hashtag

Don’t be glued to your phone, but do check the con’s Twitter feed every now and again and take a peek at the hashtag. Theoretically, any changes or announcements should be posted on pieces of paper somewhere around the convention. It’s a good theory. It doesn’t always work, and announcements like “I lost my blue water bottle! Has anyone seen it?” rarely make it to the boards. So, take a quick gander at the Twitters when you have a couple of minutes, just to see what’s going on around the con.

Be respectful

Read the convention’s code of conduct or similar policy. Respect it. If you think you’ll have trouble following it…I don’t know what to say to you. Because it’s not actually *that difficult*.

Don’t be the person who ruins someone else’s day with a thoughtlessly cruel remark or a cosplay that takes cultural appropriate to the max and then some. If you wouldn’t say it or do it around your friends, family, and work colleagues, think about whether it’s appropriate to say or do at a con.

Lastly…have fun!

I’m not sure I need to explain how to this, do I?

Weekly reading, 3 August 2016

Last book finished: Rise by Mira Grant. I’ve already squeed a fair bit about this, but it’s worth squeeing again. The Newsflesh books are great–fun, intelligent books about the post-zombie apocalypse rather than the actual zombie apocalypse. Rise is a collection of short stories set in that world, and they’re terrific gap-fillers. The stories set during the Rising are amazing–heart-wrenching and real, in a way I didn’t expect because they’re about ordinary people rather than the superheroes. Or about ordinary people and the way they become heroes. Grant examines the mythology of a hero in most of these stories, which is fascinating to me.

Many of the other stories examine the recovery process and the ways having zombies as a constant threat changes society. The story that breaks my heart every time is “The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell”, because it’s about schools, and somehow, that cuts even deeper than the story of the final San Diego Comic Con. It’s not a story for the fainthearted, and you won’t be able to sleep easily after reading it, but it’s important for too many reasons to count. Reading all those stories in one swoop, instead of bit by bit as they were released, made the breadth of what Grant has done really stand out.

There are two never-published-before stories in this collection, too, and they’re both terrific. Oddly, it was the story about the elder Masons that caught me the most. I expected it to be the story about Georgie and Shaun, the protagonists from the original trilogy, which really got me, but no. It was Michael and Stacy Mason, recovering from everything they’d had to do to survive Berkley during the Rising. They’d been characters I actively disliked in the original books and although this story doesn’t make them nicer, better people, it makes me understand them and feel sympathy for them. That’s an impressive feat and may be why I took more out of “All The Pretty Little Horses” than I did from “Coming to You Live”. Not that Georgia and Shaun’s story was bad or weak–far from it–but I didn’t feel I learned anything new about them, while I did with Michael and Stacy Mason.

This is definitely a book where you need to read the original trilogy first, but I highly recommend it, which means you probably need to get onto the Newsflesh books if you haven’t already.

Current read: Still working on Russian History: A Very Short Introduction. This will always be my status. I’m setting myself a deadline: must finish it before I go to England next month. Argh, only a week to go!

I’m in kind of a fluffy phase right now, and simultaneously reading two books by the same author: Class and Sweetshop of Dreams by Jenny Colgan. Hugely enjoying both of them.

And like the rest of the world, I’m also clued to The Cursed Child, which I was lucky enough to score from the library on release day. I’m going to need my own copy…

Next read: I have Imprudence by Gail Carriger sitting on my coffee table. As soon as my current library read is done, it’s mine!

What are you reading this week, and would you recommend it?

July writing round-up

Previously in monthly round-ups…

Total new words for July: 26,654

My only goal for July was 25k new words on the big fanfic project. That was it. And look at that! I got 26.6k!

I should confess–almost 3k of that was actually on the first chapter of a new book. Woops. But I still got a huge number of words on the big fanfic project and it felt good to really get into it at last.

The new book? I’m loving it and itching to focus on it, which should provide the motivation I need to get my arse in gear and finish the big fanfic project by the end of this month, so it can be my sole project for a while.

Getting new words out is the part of writing I love best (I can hear so many other writers cringing because they love editing, but I’m sorry, I’m a new words girl), and after months in edits, the chance to just let fly and *write* has been glorious. July was a resounding success, one I didn’t expect to get because I had so much going on at the same time.

I’m crediting part of my word glut to Scrivener for iOS. It’s already making that much of a difference to my workflow–I can see it in my day-to-day metrics, where there’s a sudden jump in productivity since I installed it. Hopefully that’s not a temporary bump!

August goals

My goals this month are simple: write the big fanfic project and have a vomit draft pretty much done by the end of the month. That means this is another 25k goal month. If I’m on track with that, I’m allowed to goof off a bit every now and again with the next couple of chapters of my book, because I need to let myself have a treat 🙂

The potential roadblock is my upcoming trip: I leave next Wednesday for England, where I will spent several days at Nine Worlds Geekfest in London (such fun!) and then a couple of days with a friend in Jersey, before spending my remaining time until August 27th at my dad’s house. Based on previous experience, I may not get much writing done at the convention. And even my dad’s house may not be uninterrupted writing time: I’ve got family to visit, a Prom concert to attend, a day trips to Oxford and London planned, and a day at the Harry Potter studio tour.

So while my goal is 25k and a completed vomit draft, I’m going to be kind of stunned if I achieve it. Make that, incredibly stunned. Cross your fingers for me?

Camp NaNoWriMo Winner!

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I’ll do a proper monthly round-up for July on Monday, but last night I hit the 25k mark (my goal) and this morning I validated it, and I have officially won Camp NaNoWriMo 😀

Now, how many more words can I achieve between now and tomorrow night? Hmm…

Hacking the writing process

One of the things most writers learn early on is how they work best. What environment they need and how they need to approach a story to make progress on it. It’s something we learn through trial and error as we go, developing our process as we develop our skills at plotting, pacing, world building, and characterisation. When you read a lot of writing books, they talk about the importance of finding your process and sticking to it. They’ll advocate particular processes and extol the virtues, sometimes explaining (in detail) why their process is the only way to work.

Plotter. Pantser. Distraction-free environment. Free-writing. Coffee shop writing. Group writing. Solo writing. Detailed research. Research on the fly. Placeholders to do the research later. MICE quotient. Structure. No structure. Scene-sequel.

There are so many parts of the process we develop, and when we find one that works, we stick to it. Sometimes to a degree that’s ultimately unhelpful. Kameron Hurley talks about hacking her process on her blog: being unafraid to change it up and try something new. We can get stuck in a rut of “this is how we should write, because it’s what we do and it’s what has previously worked” and that can hold us back. It’s important to try new things, even try things we can’t imagine working, because it might lead us to something that works even better than what we were doing.

And ruts are usually a bad place to be, right?

I’ve always been a pantser. I’ll go in with, at most, the milestones on the way worked out and that’s it. The idea of outlining has always made me nervous because it hasn’t worked with me–I’ll write the outline and then I feel satisfied because I know how the story goes, and I can’t actually write the story. I’m starting to suspect this is a holdover from writing fanfic: you’re writing about characters you know so well already, often in settings you know (unless you’re writing an AU), and if you know them, the arcs they’ll take, and the detailed plot, what is left to discover? You need need to have something new to find as you write, or it becomes mechanical and passionless.

I guess one of the things I’ve realised is that I’m a discovery writer more than a true pantser. As I edited the book I finished earlier this year, I found that most of the big structural issues it had would have been caught and fixed before I ever began if I’d outlined it first. I went in with some research–characters sheets, some world-building, a really highlights-only idea of the plot direction–and I ended up with a mess. Most of the edits were dealing with the huge structural issues, the plot problems, and the missing character arcs–most of which could have been cut off at the pass with an outline.

My newest project (er, the one I’m tinkering with when I have spare time after my NaNo words) is different. The idea happened, I developed it, and I ended up with a one-page outline that felt fairly complete. All the major and minor plot points, right there on the page. I worked on it a bit more, added more details. When I set up the Scriv project, I set up chapter folders and added more details to the outline as I sketched in the chapter descriptions. I caught a few issues, found places that needed more thought and worked on them, and now I’ve got an outline that feels pretty solid. The main characters have arcs, the plot isn’t filled with logical inconsistencies or impossibilities. It’s an outline that, hopefully, won’t leave me with the level of mess I’ve been cleaning up for three months in my other book.

I’ll probably expand it as I go. Some of the chapters I outlined feel too full, so they’ll probably be turned into multiple chapters. An outline isn’t a line-by-line recipe, after all.

What I’ve learned is that for this book, with this outline, I’m still discovering it as I write. I’ve just finished the opening chapter, and I already feel like I’m finding out new things with each new scene. The outline is there, but it’s the details I’m discovering, so I’m still excited to find out what happens next.

Perhaps my old pantser ways only really work for the way I write fanfic, and my process for original fiction had to change. I’ll know better when I finish this book and see how it turns out. Hopefully it will be less fundamentally flawed and messy.

The other part of my process I’ve been playing with is environment. I’ve never been very particular about where I write–sometimes I’m at my desk, sometimes I’m on my iPad elsewhere in the house, or in a coffee shop, or in the lunchroom at work. It’s the reason Scriv for iOS has been so good–it’s fitting in with my habits really well. But for years, I’ve been writing in silence. No music. Having someone else’s words in my head made it impossible to hear my own words.

I’m also really easily distracted and I’ve been finding it difficult to get myself into the word space, which impacts on productivity. If I’m writing 50 words, checking twitter, writing 100, checking email, writing 25, checking twitter…you can see how that’s not really working, can’t you?

So I decided to try something. One evening, I downloaded a ton of classical stuff on Spotify and plugged in, and it’s working. No words, just orchestral–mainly violin or cello concertos, or symphonies–and suddenly, I’m actually getting a fair amount done each time I sit down. I get into the right wording zone and everything zooms along. At a certain stage, I stop hearing the music, but it’s okay because it’s become a background hum helping me to concentrate. It was the one part of my process I refused to consider changing for years, and it’s made a huge difference.

Finding a process that works for our writing is important, but so is trying new things. Sometimes, we need to hack our process and find a new way of working. It might not always work, a change you try might even sound counter-intuitive to everything we’re told by ‘experts’, but we should be open to experimenting.

You never know what you might learn and yourself and your writing.

Weekly reading, 27 July 2016

Last book finished: Hounded by Kevin Hearne. It’s the first part in his Iron Druid series and I found it a lot of fun. Not the best book I’ve read this year, but definitely entertaining and with enough promise to add the next one to my wishlist. Actually, it was a character introduced late in the book that really got me interested in continuing, but that’s because she grabbed me in a way the viewpoint character hasn’t (yet). I’d say it’s a fun distraction for an afternoon, particularly if you like your urban fantasy with some Celtic influences, but don’t go in expecting huge universal insights into humanity. This is strictly a magic and adventure book.

Current read: Still working on Russian History: A Very Short Introduction. This will always be my status. I’m setting myself a deadline: must finish it before I go to England next month.

I’m onto the never-seen-before short stories in Rise, by Mira Grant, and OMG SQUEE. A story about Michael and Stacey Mason and suddenly they make so much more sense. I’m loving this. I also finally started Justice Calling by Annie Bellet, which was free a while ago and has been sitting on my Kindle ever since. It’s another fun distraction, on the short end for a novel, and I’m enjoying it more than I expected. If you’re an RPGer, particularly DnD, I suspect this book will be even more entertaining.

Next read: I have Imprudence by Gail Carriger sitting on my coffee table. My Hugo reading is almost done and I’ll have done my vote by the weekend. Yeah, I’m diving into steampunk joy next.

What are you reading this week, and would you recommend it?