Miss Mabel’s School for Girls, Katie Cross

I have been getting ready to start writing a new book, and in the process, I’ve been doing a lot of research on an issue close to my heart – that of representation in fiction. At this point, I’ve read probably hundreds of articles about what that means to different people, and I’ve come to this conclusion. While my view of the word is necessarily influenced by how I look and the experiences I’ve had, my ability to write a range of diverse, realistic characters is only limited by my desire to empathize, to imagine life outside of my own skin. If I want to read more stories about blind mermaids, and Indonesian girls who climb magic beanstalks, and sixty year old asexual men winning knitting bees, then I have to write characters like that.  If I want more novels that celebrate the fact that being different is normal, because it is normal, I have to make sure my work reflects that too.

There’s nothing – and everything – special about having a sister who’s an alcoholic, or juggling sole custody of children from two different marriages, or not hitting puberty until three years after your friends have. It’s lucky to be conventionally beautiful, but it’s just as special to know that the people who love you think your big nose and hairy knuckles and flat bangs are perfect. Personally, I love how weathered my hands look after years spent rafting without quite enough sunscreen, because when I look at them, a part of me remembers how strong I feel out on the river, and yet, I’ve never thought about the hands of the characters I write.

I haven’t paid enough attention to the schedule a character might have for shaving, or what it could mean for one to buy something as simple as a deodorant intended for the opposite gender. I haven’t considered the types of food each of them might eat, or whether their skin is so dry it must be rubbed with oil after every shower – what it could mean to have parents of different races, or a family so big, no secret can survive in it. I certainly hadn’t considered what it would be like to read a fantasy novel where the only men in the story are a chauffeur, a priest who’s heard but not seen, and a beloved, absent father. When I picked up Cross’ book, I wasn’t expecting to start thinking about the power dynamics of a situation – a family, a school, and a government – filled only with women. I don’t know whether she planned it that way when she sat down to start writing Miss Mabel’s either, but regardless of whether it was a conscious decision or an incidental one, I was fascinated by the result.

Although the story and genre are very different, this book reminded me of watching the first season of Orange is the New Black. If you’re not familiar with the show, it takes place inside a women’s prison, and it does a brilliant job of creating a novel cast of female characters. It was special for me to find a show like that, and a book like this, because one of the things I personally long for in fiction is representation of interesting women. It’s not the only thing I want to read or watch, but when I find myself immersed in a story about women – not just a woman, but a community of women – I feel a part of something larger than myself. The United States, especially, is a culture defined more by individualism than the larger group, so I don’t often acknowledge or appreciate the influence women have on me, but when I have a reminder thrust upon me, the desire to do so bubbles up.

Cross manages to create a world where men exist alongside women, but are not the focus of the story. Much of the novel takes place inside a school for girls, where the teachers are exclusively women, but in addition to that construct, our protagonist, Bianca, is also deeply tied to her mother and grandmother, and the government of the country they live in is matriarchal. Nothing about this feels forced or intended as a slight to men; it’s simply the natural expression of this particular woman’s journey for justice and revenge.

I ended up spending almost as much time  thinking about my own perceptions of the world Cross has created as I did reading the book, and in doing so, loosened some important ideas for myself about what I’m searching for in my own writing, and in the books I read. I want more novels like this, stories in genres I already love with an unexpected twist of truth.


For more about Katie Cross, go here.

The Day the Saucers Came, Neil Gaiman

The Day the Saucers Came
That Day, the saucers landed. Hundreds of them, golden,
Silent, coming down from the sky like great snowflakes,
And the people of Earth stood and
stared as they descended,
Waiting, dry-mouthed, to find out what waited inside for us
And none of us knowing if we would be here tomorrow
But you didn’t notice because

That day, the day the saucers came, by some coincidence,
Was the day that the graves gave up their dead
And the zombies pushed up through soft earth
or erupted, shambling and dull-eyed, unstoppable,
Came towards us, the living, and we screamed and ran,
But you did not notice this because

On the saucer day, which was zombie day, it was
Ragnarok also, and the television screens showed us
A ship built of dead-men’s nails, a serpent, a wolf,
All bigger than the mind could hold,
and the cameraman could
Not get far enough away, and then the Gods came out
But you did not see them coming because

On the saucer-zombie-battling-gods
day the floodgates broke
And each of us was engulfed by genies and sprites
Offering us wishes and wonders and eternities
And charm and cleverness and true
brave hearts and pots of gold
While giants feefofummed across
the land and killer bees,
But you had no idea of any of this because

That day, the saucer day, the zombie day
The Ragnarok and fairies day,
the day the great winds came
And snows and the cities turned to crystal, the day
All plants died, plastics dissolved, the day the
Computers turned, the screens telling
us we would obey, the day
Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars,
And all the bells of London were sounded, the day
Animals spoke to us in Assyrian, the Yeti day,
The fluttering capes and arrival of
the Time Machine day,
You didn’t notice any of this because
you were sitting in your room, not doing anything
not even reading, not really, just
looking at your telephone,
wondering if I was going to call.

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Neil Gaiman read this poem aloud. I had read it myself, years ago, and I never really liked it. I felt the same way about it that I did most of his short stories and about his graphic novels – they were well-written, but not meant for the likes of me.

When I heard him read it though, a piece of me came alive. I was captivated by the rhythm of his lines, the imagery he so deftly invokes, and the absolutely stunning ending. A poem is nothing without its ending, and this one is just exceptional. I found a video of Gaiman reading it for you because, really, his voice is magical and it makes the piece that much more lovely. I recommend listening to it once without watching the video, and then once with, because the person who made it did a fun job putting the piece together.


For more about Neil Gaiman, go on over here.

A Skeleton in the Family, Leigh Perry

When my mother was visiting a few weeks ago, she brought a novel she’d picked up at Boskone, a cozy mystery that was perfect for reading under the nap blanket she had made me last Christmas. (Yes, I have a nap blanket. What can I say? I appreciates naps and all things nap-adjacent.) It’s been grey almost every day for far too long now without the rain we really need, and while I love wet weather, I’m much less fond of the general air of gloominess that has settled over us here.

The perfect remedy for such weather, and for the air of melancholy that descends on our entire household after too many days without sunshine, is a book like Perry’s. It’s sweet, funny, and has a hint of the supernatural without going all sparkly vampire on me. Not that I mind vampires, sparkly or otherwise; I’m in favor of all manner of monster being converted into friend, ally, and when appropriate, love interest. (Of course, in this case, her “monster” is a skeleton, and I was the one falling in love with him.) Perry’s book, in fact, hit a couple of sweet spots for me, including a protagonist who’s a single mother with a realistic(ally good) relationship with her adolescent daughter, several relationships between said protagonist and men that weren’t romantic, a quirky friendship between a woman and her supernaturally reanimated skeleton buddy, and a sisterly dynamic that was both tense and loving  (in other words, completely believable).

After I finished the book, I was thinking about all of these characters, and about how hopeful I was that Perry would write another book about them, and I realized the reason I’m drawn to series’ like The Dresden Files or Sookie Stackhouse is my obsession with lovable characters. Even in my own writing, I’m never nearly as interested in the plot as I am the motivation behind a character’s actions, or the connections people build when put under pressure. That isn’t to say a well thought-out plot is a waste – not at all – but it’s less important to me than the people who are driving the story.

When it comes down to it, I will always come back to an author who writes characters who have been altered by the Velveteen Rabbit affect – the people on the page who have been lugged around and played with until they spring up, animated by the love of those who have created them. Those are characters I can engage with, who I can think about long after I’ve put a book away on the shelf. As a reader, it’s important to me to find stories that are motivated by the people in them rather than books that could almost be myth – an important story, but with any number of people substituted in on a whim with the same results.

This isn’t true for everyone, and I’m glad of that. I would hate to walk into a library and know that every single book on the shelf was exactly what I think I want. It wouldn’t allow for any growth as a critical reader or as a person. It’s wonderful to find a great read totally outside of what I already love, of course, but there will also always be a place in my heart for novels that fit into my heart from the first few pages. Those are the books that get me through long winters, and sleepless nights, and sunny afternoons by the shore. Authors like Perry will always be the ones I search for on a whim in little bookstores because I know I’ll find comfort in their stories and friends in the characters they write. They will be good company no matter the season, and that is not a gift to be taken lightly.

For more about Leigh Perry, head over here.

Satan’s Short, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Well, the wait is finally over, and I can say I came in second place in Ten to One! Thank you so much to everyone who supported me and sent votes my way on Facebook. I’m very happy I no longer have to beg votes from family, friends, and strangers, but that won’t keep me from pimping the book itself when it comes out in the fall! It’s a fun read, and I’m really proud of what we’ve put together…which doesn’t mean it doesn’t still need plenty of editing, but that’s okay. I actually enjoy the editing process. I mean, who doesn’t prefer to start with raw material rather than an empty page?!

At any rate, I needed a palate cleanser after last week, and I was finding it difficult to get into anything long. My mother was visiting from New Hampshire, my husband was sick, and my brain was still half in grieving mode from Young Widower. The rest of me was trying very hard not to think about that final round of voting for Ten to One. It turns out, not thinking about something requires nearly as much energy as thinking about it does! Funny how that works, isn’t it?

It seemed fortuitous, somehow, that in the midst of all that not thinking and not working (because between my mum’s visit and playing nurse, there was zero actual work happening), Goody and Grant’s collection of shorts about Clovenhoof was released on Amazon. It was a year ago, in March, that I sent off my audition packet to Grant, and only slightly less than a year ago that I decided I wanted to read his work before I got really excited about the possibility of being invited to join the project.

I read Clovenhoof in a Starbucks in London, and it killed me. I didn’t think its follow-up, Pigeonwings, could possibly hold a candle to it, and then I loved it just as much. Goody and Grant are just dynamite writers, and now that the contest element of Ten to One is over, I can rave about them without worrying about whether it’s a conflict of interest! Instead, I can just be thrilled that they decided to write a few more stories in this universe and then only charge me a dollar for the pleasure of reading them.

Honestly. It’s March – the one month a year that has neither the benefit of a three-day weekend to break up the monotony of the work week, nor the redeeming quality of long lazy summer days (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, in which case, August is your March, so save this series until you need it). This is the perfect time to curl up with unrelentingly funny books. They may not change the dreary weather or help you kick that inevitable St Patrick’s Day hangover (even if you don’t drink, I have to imagine corned beef and cabbage takes time to recover from), but they will bring much-needed light to this slow month. And hey! Since I’ve already read them all, I’m open to suggestions in the comments for other novels that might perk March up for me. Sure, I have a huge stack of books I should be reading, but none of them really screams “escape.” I’d be grateful to hear about your favorite winter break reads…