Friday, June 13, 2014

LitHop PDX 2014

The LitHop's clever banner, with Loretta Stinson reading.
 Last night, Erica and I had the pleasure of getting to do something both literary and extremely local, wandering up to Alberta Street in Northeast Portland to wander about the second LitHop PDX.

Created in 2013, the goal of the LitHop is to gather a large grouping of readers, loosely organized by publisher, and give them a chance to share with an audience for about 10-15 minutes. Listeners can then stay at one station for the entire night or, if they so choose, "hop" around from station to station, sampling everything from zines to memoir to experimental fiction. Basically, it's a wordsmith version of a pub crawl, except this is even better, because not only do you get the beer, you get readings, too, instead of a shitty cover band.

Amberson reads while friend Rachel draws.
Erica and I started at the IPRC's section, which featured three zine readers: Zach Auburn, Joshua James Amberson, and Moe Bowstern. Bowstern quipped that she's been in zines so long that none of the folks at the Portland Zine Symposium have even heard of her these days. She also discussed being an aging radical and the perception folks have of her.

Though I'm a bit biased because he's a friend, I thought Josh's reading was the best, both due to having a friend "improv draw" while he read from his zines and because the quality of his writing is very strong. Josh also has a good reading voice, which helps. Auburn's work, with its Colbert Report satirical bent, didn't work as well in a live reading, and the audience nearly turned on him before he explained it was all a joke.

Justin Hawking reads to a packed house.
Of the locations I visited, the IPRC's was by far the busiest. It was a packed house by the time we left, after Justin Hawking discussed his love for Moby Dick and those who have a love/hate relationship for it.

After that, Erica and I moved on to see what the other publishers has to offer. I stayed briefly at the Eraserhead Press station, but being honest, weird fiction just isn't my thing. Erica remained, telling me later about the story of a haunted wheelchair. I'm almost sorry I missed that one.

The Eraserhead Press crowd.
While Erica was at Eraserhead, I moved on to Hawthorne Books, where I really enjoyed Loretta Stinson's reading from her upcoming memoir. She kept her voice strong while recounting an extremely difficult point in her life, living from place to place across Portland with an addict who wasn't willing to give up. When she talked about desperation moves--like taking sugar out of his diet based on something she'd read--it was very powerful. One of the best readings I heard that night.

I ended my time at the Hop by going over to Publication Studio, which has a mission to bring books they admire to the world via the on-demand system. I didn't get much of a chance to check out their stuff, but I did hear Ashby Collinson read from something she said she's created earlier that day. It was very free-form, which doesn't always work when read aloud, but the crowd was extremely appreciative.

Loretta Stinson reads by firelight at evening comes on.
One of the things that was fascinating to me was looking at the different crowds who gathered for each station/publisher. The IPRC was a mix of young, zine types and a smattering of older, well-dressed folks. Eraserhead featured people with crafted beards, dyed hair, and patches all over jean jackets. Hawthorne was the upper-middle class crowd, clapping politely while eating overpriced food and sipping cocktails and import beers. Publication Studio had the preppy twenty-somethings, unsure of whether they'd fall into the outsider group or move to being young professionals.

It was, in short, a look at some of the different kinds of people in Portland, separated by literary styles. It also marked the only limitation of the Hop itself. Because the readers are all related to each other, folks tended to flock to that which most interested them. I did not see a lot of people moving from one station to the other, even when there were designated break times. It might be interesting for the 2015 edition to mix things up a little bit, combining publishers and alternating readers. That way the listeners could be exposed to something new.

But if that's the worst thing you can say about an event--people only heard the things they wanted to hear--then it's a pretty damned good one. And LitHop PDX 2014 definitely was a damned good one. Everything was organized, stayed mostly on time, had the proper mikes and amps, and the readings I saw all did a great job of telling a complete story, even in their limited amount of time.

I'm not the biggest fan of going to readings, because listening to the same person for a lengthy period of time isn't my cup of tea. A setting like this, however, where the readers rotate and the variety is strong, is just about the perfect way to experience one. I'm very much looking forward to LitHop 2015, and I hope that we are able to attend. If you missed out this year, keep your eyes open for next year. This is a reading series that's highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Outsider Baseball by Scott Simkus

Before a combination of World War II, television, and integration forged the giant monolith known as Major League Baseball into the country-spanning organization we know today, thousands of players across hundreds of teams played America's pastime in various leagues that had no official standing, but were often more popular--if not higher quality--than those preserved in the record books of history.

From the obvious (Negro Leagues) to the lesser-known (a series of barnstorming, bearded men called the House of David) to the strong semi-pro teams in baseball hot spots like Brooklyn and Chicago, there's a lot of baseball history that's been unaccounted for--until now.

Men and women like Scott Simkus, who have a love of the game that dwarfs mine and the desire to research everything from box scores to census records, are putting together an admittedly incomplete (so far) look at these players and their role in baseball history.

You see, these players and teams don't just exist at the fringe of the established clubs. For decades, they interacted, both directly and indirectly. Some players, like Babe Ruth, made tons of money taking his baseball friends around the country, playing minor league teams (which were not bound in an unfair agreement to the majors at this time), Negro League teams, and going off to countries such as Cuba and Japan. Others, like Rogers Hornsby, began their professional careers in these places, and then moved to the majors. Hornsby's first paid baseball work found him in drag, playing for an "all-girls" team, which often used 2-3 men to balance out the team.

This is absolutely fascinating stuff if you love old baseball. Some of these I already knew about, but Simkus leaves no stone unturned, and unearths many little slices of baseball history of which I was previously unaware, such as the attempts to get black players onto the field well before Jackie Robinson. (In one case, they looked to pass off a talented African American as an American Indian, because that was okay. Gotta love the varying degrees of racism in the early 20th Century. No wait, gotta hate them.)

When speaking of the Negro Leagues, Simkus grows a bit apologetic. Because so many are so horrified by the separation of baseball talent for so many years, there's a reverence placed on the games played in the Negro National League and elsewhere. Unfortunately, when you get the actual box scores from these games, it's a bit more sobering. Like modern Japanese baseball, the Negro Leagues, while featuring players who were unquestionably as good or better than their white counterparts, did not have enough overall talent to be a major league. Using a measurement system and head to head records, Simkus shows that while certain teams (say, the Pittsburgh Crawfords) would have been world beaters, about half the Negro League teams were minor-league quality of varying range, ranking more closely to the Pacific Coast League at best or a modern A-ball team at worst.

But before you get too far on his case, understand that using the same guidelines, Simkus shows the Union Association was in no way, shape, or form a Major League, despite its current designation. For that matter, he's of the opinion that the case for the Federal League is sparse as well. Statistics and increased information, while anathema to some long-time baseball fans (Do you know there are people who still think "wins" is the best way to judge a pitcher?), serve to help give us context.

Now stats can do a lot of things, but they do give us ways to discuss things from logic rather than emotion, such as Josh Gibson's probable home run total or whether the "woman who struck out Babe Ruth" really was any good as a pitcher (Spoiler Alert: Nope!). You can argue a bit with the methodology, but seeing how certain minor league teams could dismantle a National League line-up or how the NL's quicker embrace of integration gave it an edge in competition are part of the joy of this book.

But the best parts, without a doubt, are when Semkis takes us into Rube Waddell's marital problems or the crazy schemes of a religious nut who managed to con his way into a financial empire and a baseball franchise that wasn't quite as good as advertised. When you read about how certain players stayed in semi-pro ball because *it payed better* the reality of what life was like before Free Agency, no matter how much trouble it causes now, hits home like a player sliding spikes-up.

This book is a total joy to read, and is breezy in tone despite the focus on stats. Simkus clearly loves his subject and it shows. If you have any interest in old-time baseball at all, run, don't walk to get this book, and start reading about the time John McGraw flipped out because his team was losing to Cubans. This one gets my highest possible recommendation.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski

A young boy caught up in the complex political and religious turmoil of Spain in the late 15th Century discovers that nearly everything he once knew was a lie, and that his own past is tied into a great warrior turned traitor against the Crown. Soon Baltasar is meeting with the mysterious Baba Yaga and sailing across the ocean with none other than Christopher Columbus himself, adding to the dangers of the sea by dark magics that can conjure anything up from the world of legends and story. With a new world to explore and the shadow of a prophecy that readers may understand better than Bal himself, he must find his way among strangers, friends, foes, and family in this solid debut novel from Mlawski.

Alternative history stories are a tricky thing to get right. Spend too much time in the minutia of the world and you lose sight of telling an actual story. Too little, and it's like, "Why bother doing this, other than to include Queen Elizabeth/Mark Twain/Tesla/Einstein/Etc.?" If you can get that right, then there's the matter of making the characters feel modern without losing the historical sense of place. And if you get past THAT hurdle, there's the small matter of just what happens when you tweak the nose of history in the first place.

It's one thing to be sitting over beers going, "What if there was a magician aboard Columbus' ship?" It's another to turn that into a quality story that feels plausible, yet actually doesn't significantly alter the history we already know.

But that's exactly what Ms. Mlawski does, and it works perfectly. Instead of trying to craft a radically different plan for things, as others might ("Hey look, the indigenous people all have magic, so they kick that asshole slave-monger's ass!"), this story hews pretty close to the actual events, taking some liberties by adding magical explanations for ordinary events--exactly the type of thing that countless generations have done, right down to those who still see ghosts upon the fields of Gettysburg and elsewhere.* Thus as this story unfolds, the ideas that put the speculative elements together, namely that some people are blessed with a gift not only to be a storyteller, but one who can make their stories come to life, fits into the reality of the historical setting far more easily than, say, suddenly being able to conjure fireballs from your fists.

There's also the idea that to some degree, the comparison between writing good fiction and being able to perform magic to bring those stories to life. If you think about it, that's what a good storyteller does metaphorically. I love that Ms. Mlawski takes that idea and makes it literal here.

Because she has such a good conceptual set-up, the execution is strong. We immediately come to like and sympathize with Bal, because his situation is complete unenviable. Here he is, a converted Jew trying to make it in a land where the rulers have made it clear they want to be a "pure" Christian nation. Anyone with just a bit of familiarity with the politics of Spain around the time of Columbus (whose own family history is muddy) will immediately understand the difficulties he faces. When a secret branch of the Inquisition shows up and he learns just how different he is--even from the others in his station--it add another layer.

Once we have the main story started and a twist that finds Bal learning how to perform his new magic even as his world collapses around him, the story holds because it's based not on solving the riddles presented by the Baba Yaga or the discovery of the New World--it's about Bal trying to figure out his place, his role, and his identity. The rest is great fleshing out of the story and setting, but that's the key to making this one work.

Bal is our narrator, which makes the self-discovery all the more interesting. While we as the reader may figure out certain things right away (like how trusting Columbus is a generally bad idea), Bal takes far longer. But because we're inside his head instead of a third person narration, it's okay when he struggles along the way. It also helps that Mlawski gives Bal two strong supporting characters in Jini and Catalina. The latter is a young woman who refuses to be defined by the Patriarchy around her, and has a few things to learn of her own. She's a great addition to the story, keeping Bal humbler than he might otherwise be since she is the superior witch. I really appreciate that Catalina is around to show that women, too, have power in this world (since all the other spell casters we see are male), but it doesn't feel inserted, either. After all, there's a long history of women sneaking off to sea to find a better life for themselves disguised as a man.

The book has a few rough spots, mostly in relation to the islanders. Mlawski wants to treat them with as much respect as possible, but struggles because her narrator certainly wouldn't have extended them the same kindness. She even takes pains to state in the afterword that his views aren't hers. I think it would have been a bit better to have him be just a bit more racist in this regard, for accuracy. That's really the only slip up in terms of modernity creeping in. I also think she downplays the internal struggles of the indigenous people, too. It's okay for them to hate each other just as much as Europeans did from country to country.

Generally speaking, because this is a YA book, it can't get quite as rough as it probably should. Columbus is given a much lighter touch than he deserves, and it seems like the theme of "we're all good and bad" sometimes gets in the way of allowing someone to be the absolute bad guy, until we get to a certain scene that's historically accurate but feels like it's a bit too heavy compared to everything else. This book doesn't really have a bad guy, and while I love me some shades of grey,** this is a narrative that needed a bad guy and even the Inquisition is given a chance to explain itself.

Overall, though, the description is lush, the plot is extremely tight, and we even wrap up nicely, with room to expand should the book do well enough to get a sequel. The dialogue is very natural and I really felt like I was in Bal's head, not a book. His interactions with the others, particularly Catalina, are perfect for his age and time period. You can see him struggle and grow, and combined with an amazingly seamless alternative history, this is a book I'd happily recommend to anyone. I am seriously looking forward to Ms. Mlawski's next work.

*I'm not saying that seeing a ghost is as unlikely as a half-genie, mind you, but the general point holds.

**No, not THAT Shades of Grey.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Love is the Law by Nick Mamatas

Crowley and Communism combine in this fast-paced mystery set in the shadow of a changing political dynamic. Dawn Seliger is an aimless late ‘80s punk dabbling in Marxism and magick on Long Island. When her mentor is killed, she’s the main suspect, and must test the concepts she’s learned to bend others to her Will and balance the scales.

Mamatas brings his signature style of wry dialogue to this cynical look at life in suburban America, using Dawn’s quest as a way to comment from a radical perspective. I was really impressed with Nick's knowledge of Crowley and his accurate portrayal of his philosophy, rather than the gross exaggeration a lesser writer might have used to goose the plot. Instead, Mamatas takes in the ideas whole-cloth, using their positive and negative aspects to drive the story, without passing judgment on Crowley's magickal manipulations, leaving up to the reader to decide if Dawn's usage of them is valid, real, or ethical.

Another thing that really stood out to me was just how well Mamatas creates the world of Long Island and the feeling of living in America in the late 1980s in general. I felt like I could see the places Dawn visited in my mind, and that's extremely rare when I'm reading a book. As a person who grew up in the 1980s and was painfully aware of the anxiety and transitions it required, Nick's look at how it might drive a socialist mad and push others to desperate measures to keep even a sliver of power are completely accurate. I've no doubt some of the people who were $20 an hour miners who became $4 an hour baggers at the grocery store would easily give into the idea of dark magick to restore their status.

But I mostly read fiction for the characters, and the ones in Love is the Law are as engaging as they come. They include William Selger, Dawn’s crack-addled father and Crowley wanna-be, Robert Riley, a businessman with secrets to hide, and Dawn herself, who is just rotten enough to be likable as she tries to figure out the truth.

This tightly-plotted neo-noir shows Mamatas knows his history and the occult, mixing them together to form a successful mystery with a satisfying, if downbeat, ending. This might be the best fiction book I've read in years, freely blending between genres to tell the story the author wants, not what a reader might expect.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

storySouth's Million Writers Award Finalists Announced

If you ever talk to me personally about my reading habits, you'll know that I have a strong love for short stories. I love the format, both because it strips things down to only its most essential parts and because, quite frankly, I can read a story or two and move on with my day, without feeling like I've stopped in the middle of something important.

storySouth recognizes the value and importance of short stories with its annual Million Writers Award, and it's time for the final winner to be voted on.

I was unaware of this award until this year, when I heard about it on Twitter. I had the great privilege of being one of the first found judges this year, culling a group of the open nominations into a smaller list. These finalists are eligible for cash and prizes, which are donated to storySouth and currently run up to a little over a thousand dollars, according to the website.

Imagine how pleased I am to learn that one of my selections, "All the Things the Moon is Not" by Alexander Lumans, was picked to be a finalist! It's impossible to read every great short story published in a given year, but of those that I read published in 2012, this story is by far the best one I encountered, in my opinion.

storySouth makes it really easy for potential voters, giving access to all the finalists via hyperlinks back to the original story (one of the rules for nomination is that a story cannot be behind a paywall). I strongly encourage you to go there, read the nominated stories, and pick your favorite. I guarantee it won't be easy, but it will be some of the best reading you'll do here at the end of 2013.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Capclave 2013

Jesus Saves So Should Writers Panel at Capclave.
Just about a month ago, Erica, our friend Kelly, and I took a short drive down to the DC Beltway to take in Capclave 2013, the DC Science Fiction Convention.

The first thing Erica and I learned is never, ever, try to leave Baltimore on a Friday night. The less said about our journey the better, but suffice it to say it meant we didn't get to enjoy Friday as much as we'd planned.

The second thing we learned was that cars will blow apart on the worst night possible. Our faithful Hyundai was about ready to go, but midnight on a Friday on I-95 in the rain while I was in the left lane is not ideal. Thankfully, Kelly was just behind us, and all was well, if a bit nerve-wracking. Plus, now I get to tell everyone how fan fiction saved my life.*

I'd be lying if that didn't ruin the mood a bit, but I will say that Capclave was so good that it more than made up for it by the time we drove home on Sunday. As promised to me by a staff organizer, the convention is firmly focused on the literary side of speculative fiction. While I have nothing against those who love anime and want to talk about the differences in the various incarnations of the starship Enterrpise (and if we're hanging out together, I might even get into the discussion), a con where that is a fair amount of the programming just isn't for me.

I prefer to talk about the books, the theory of genre fiction, and the practice of writing it, with maybe a bit about other things along the way. In other words, I wanted exactly what Capclave had to offer.

Writer and Editor Alex Shvartsman
Friday we only made it to two panels, starting with one I really wanted to catch, about putting together anthologies. I am very interested in the editing side of the writing business, and hearing the perspective of someone as notable as Gardner Dozios and others who have done work with Kickstarter and standard publishing was enlightening. (Tip: Be active about seeking royalties, if you're eligible!)

The second thing we did was listen to our friend Alex Shvartsman read three of his short pieces to an appreciative audience, and sit in the most comfortable chairs I've ever been in at a con. Alex is a great reader and took time to talk about his work as a writer and editor.  We then hit a local Chinese restaurant for dinner with Alex and some other folks, in which Erica yet again failed to get the dish she'd hoped to eat.

Then the car thing happened. Did I mention again how this was on I-95 and people were doing 70MPH while I went from 65 to 35 in about 2 seconds?


White Out Panel
Back on Saturday as a trio, Kelly, Erica, and I spent the day hitting panels, talking to friends new and old (I am especially impressed by how many people Kelly came to know by the end of the con), and socializing at the massive author signing.

There were a lot of great panels on Saturday, and I sometimes had to make hard choices on which panels to attend. We started the morning listening about transitioning from small press to a major publisher, which featured, among others, our friend Lawrence Schoen. Perhaps the most interesting thing said on that panel was that while a small press might not pay much--perhaps even less than self-publishing--it shows a major press you can handle deadlines, work with an editor, promotional team, etc. Interesting stuff.

Despite this being a "book book" con, I was pleased to find a panel about comic strips and science fiction, run by artist Steve Stiles (who also did the convention booklet cover). Stiles blew me away with his slideshow presentation, which began with strips I'd never heard of dating back to the turn of the 20th Century, running through the EC books, and more. It was by far the best comic book panel I've ever attended. He was informative, funny, and engaging. I wish every comics panel I attended was that good.

That was definitely my highlight for Saturday, but the panel on why genre fiction is overwhelmingly white was a close second. Speaking rationally and with facts, the panel discussed their experiences writing characters of color, keeping their covers from being white-washed, and what happens when people who mean well crash the party. The idea of "fear of getting it wrong" was discussed for white writers, as was how books featuring African American authors or characters get thrown into the corner of the bookstore, regardless of their suitability. Panelist Day Al-Mohamed ended the panel by challenging the writers in the room to try harder to make the future reflect the present and show people of all kinds--and not just filling racial quotas or typical roles. It's great advice, one that I'm trying to take to heart going forward.

Erica Satifka reads at the Broad Universe Panel
Saturday ended with Erica being a part of the Broad Universe reading. They're an organization for female genre fiction writers, and they schedule readings where any of their members attending the con can have a few minutes to show off their work.

It was a great selection of writers who showed a wide variety of styles and really proved (yet again) that women are able to write science fiction, no matter how many Old Dinosaurs claim otherwise, either overtly or covertly. Sadly, the audience was also pretty much women-only. Someday, this will change.

I will admit that by Sunday, was I dragging a bit. After going to the panel on saving work, which was a lot more than just "keep hitting the anachronistic floppy disk on Word," I took a significant break to just hang out and talk to people who were around. It's always fun when folks introduce you to other writers, and you can talk a little shop. Writers are nothing if not talkative, let me tell you.

Trying to expand my abilities a bit, I went to an afternoon panel on romance in science fiction. An all-female panel discussed the differences between the romance structure and SF structure and how the two could be combined. They did address how some Old Dinosaurs don't like that "girly stuff" gets into their genre fiction, and I loved the one author's reply, which I am paraphrasing: "They'll be dead soon! Just keep going and don't let them stop you."  Good advice, but I was a little disappointed the panel wasn't more about specifics on how to make a sex scene flow naturally into a narrative without feeling dropped in.

My last panel of the day was on alternative histories, and it got quite academic, perhaps the most analytical of all the panels I was at during Capclave. Howard Waldrop, who is one of the funniest panelists I've ever seen, rightfully bemoaned the fact that ridiculous books like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter are sucking the air out of the room for more serious takes, such as those in the vein of Man in the High Castle. Ironically, it's alternative history's popularity that is causing it to become something tagged more to the lowest common denominator instead of trying to work out the complexities of applying the Butterfly Effect on a larger scale. There was talk of how you "modernize" things like Roman society or where you choose to branch off, as well as why one tries the sub-genre in the first place.

Capclave 2013 was a great time, and if I weren't planning to move across the country in the near future, I'd definitely plan to be back in 2014. The overall con atmosphere was pretty good, perhaps just a bit more dude-centric than is ideal, but I didn't observe any skeezy behavior (and I do watch for this) and there were volunteers everywhere, should a problem have occurred. The AV work was excellent, with almost no sound problems, and the rooms, even when packed, were comfortable, especially in terms of temperature (though those who get cold easily may want to bring a light jacket or sweater). I'd definitely recommend Capclave to anyone who loves genre fiction and can make the trip next year.

You can see more pictures from Capclave here. They aren't the best, my phone had a lot of trouble in the rooms.

*Kelly stayed for a panel on fan fiction, otherwise she'd have not been able to help us get home. Thus, writing about the characters of others ensured Erica and I didn't get stuck in Columbia, MD for the rest of our lives.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween Horror Extra: The Creature Recants by Dale Bailey

This is a special edition of my Halloween Horror series, which is running on my comics blog, Panel Patter. If you love horror, go visit! You can find all my entries by following this Halloween Horror tag.

I am a huge short fiction fan, especially in the realm of speculative fiction. I even write stories myself, with a publication upcoming in 2014. Among those of us who read and write short spec fiction, Clarkesworld Magazine is held in very high regard.

Each month, Clarkesworld publishes free short fiction online, usually three new stories and two reprints. They range from haunting tales that will make you cry to raunchy, irreverent stories with sexual themes.

The "third" story this month (named because they are read week by week in podcast form, also free) is The Creature Recants, by Dale Bailey, and I can think of no more appropriate story to recommend here in the best Holiday season, Halloween.

In this story, the Creature from the Black Lagoon is real, and working in Hollywood, getting advice from Boris Karloff in a brilliant cameo, and dealing with how his life changed the day he was brought into the world of humans by Amazon poachers.

The life of the Creature is a tragic one, as portrayed by Bailey. He knows he will be forever typecast and no matter how refined, human society cannot--and will not--accept him. He tries to make it work, but ultimately, the reader and the protagonist know that it cannot. When the story reaches a climax that is restrained yet brutal, we know what the Creature must do.

Bailey has a long trail of short story sales, including stories published in Lightspeed and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, with a new story upcoming on It's easy to see how he's become so successful (including a few novels and a short story collection), as his prose flows off the page easily, each paragraph building upon the other to craft a full and complete story that leaves the reader satisfied.

Filled with nifty asides about being part of the Universal Horror machine towards the end of its life, the gimmicks of the movie industry, and the idea of identity, place, and perception The Creature Recants is not only a great Halloween-themed tale, it's an amazing short story that is one of the best I've read this year.

Check in out in prose form, but if you're of a podcast mind, Kate Baker really outdoes herself in the audio version. Either way, read this story today, and you'll soon see not only why I like it, but why Clarkesworld should be a part of your regular online reading rotation.