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Mourning Ursula LeGuin

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Earlier this week, well-known science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin died at age 88. While this was a very long and well-honored life, most of the SF&F community is in some degree of mourning due to how influential LeGuin was on the entire field of SF&F.

Most people who have read any SF&F at all are aware of her best works, which include the Earthsea Trilogy, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, THE DISPOSSESSED, and the gender-bending THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, that deals with a planet where traditional gender roles do not apply and people can become male or female as the situation arises due to a type of estrus. But LeGuin also wrote poetry, short stories (in and out of SF&F), and any number of other things…and in some ways, she was primed from birth to become a writer.

Now, why do I say that? Well, her mother was a writer. Her father was an anthropologist. And she came from a well-read, well-educated household, with three siblings; all of them were expected from a very early age to reason and explain their reasoning to their intelligent parents, along with reading widely and being able to research nearly any subject.

All of these things — reading widely, being able to research, and being able to reason and better yet, explain your own reasoning — are important to writing. If you don’t read widely, you’re only rarely going to be able to produce anything of worth; if you can’t research new things, you can’t possibly explain them; if you can’t explain your reasoning, you can’t tell a story, because the story would ramble, meander, and perhaps wander off on tangents as it would not be properly set up in the first place.

LeGuin could and did all of those things. But her style, even from the first, was unusual. She wrote in a way that was both moving but also passive; she let the words speak precisely because of how they were stated, and let the reader interpolate a lot as to how people felt about whatever was going on in whatever story.

For example, in my favorite of all her works, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, George Orr has a gift: He can dream true, and thus change his world through his dreams. But he doesn’t know what to do with it, and is afraid of it, so he refuses to use it.

Enter a corrupt psychiatrist, William Haber, who believes he can control Orr’s gifts. (Orr has no choice to see the man, either, as Orr was abusing drugs to keep himself from dreaming true and thus altering the world.) And over time, Orr loses nearly everything — his world, his girlfriend, even his psyche — until he realizes he must stand up to Haber once and for all.

The problem is, by this time, Haber has figured out how Orr’s managing to do what Orr’s done. And Haber’s version of a utopia is far worse than anything Orr has dreamed up, all unwittingly…so almost all of the pulse is internal, dealing with how Orr feels (which I like quite a bit), rather than external, though there is some of the latter (in particular, what will this horrible guy Haber do with the power Orr refuses to use?)

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN is the most deeply romantic novel LeGuin ever wrote. The romance between Orr and Heather Lelache (later Andrews, as in different worlds she married, or didn’t, thus changing her last name) is halting but real. Orr is enriched by his love for her, and she is given an unusual type of dignity along with the ability to realize that being soft does not make you weak by her love for him. And thus, they become better, wiser, kinder people…that is, until Haber interferes with the relationship. (Which for those who have read this, and are going, “Barb, you are misstating this,” is exactly what Haber does. Haber doesn’t like Heather at all. And he’s just as happy once Heather’s out of the picture, because Haber realizes instinctively that Heather is the main reason Orr will oppose him, due to Orr’s innate passivity.)

See, what I think LeGuin was saying is that we all deserve to find love. Whether we’re more passive than not, whether we’ve made mistakes (as both Orr and Heather have definitely done more than a little of that), whether we’ve done everything right all the time is immaterial. What matters is that we do our best, and stand up for what’s right, even when it’s difficult — and even when the best solution seems to be passive, rather than active, everything will find a way to work itself out over time if you just keep making your best effort.

That’s why I enjoyed THE LATHE OF HEAVEN so very, very much. I could see myself in Heather, for sure. I even saw a little of myself in George Orr, even though I’ve never been considered a passive sort of person…still, having gifts that you don’t always feel comfortable in using is a theme most people recognize instinctively, as we all have talents we’re sometimes afraid to use for various reasons. (Granted, not everyone wants to admit this. But it is the verimost truth.)

So if LeGuin had only written that one, very fine novel, I’d have remembered her and have mourned her craftsmanship and humanity, both of which shone through as a writer.

But as I said, she wrote many other things. And in nearly everything she ever wrote, I found value and worth…which is all you can ask of any writer, really.

And for those who want entertainment and just that in their stories, well, LeGuin could do that, too. Witness the Earthsea trilogy, TEHANU — the fourth book of Earthsea, and THE OTHER WIND, the fifth book. These are all ripping good reads, with heart and pluck and adventures, and kids of all ages enjoy them to this day.

(To clarify, TEHANU is about an older woman as she finds love, all unlooked for, with the former Archmage, Ged from the first three books. But there’s still a great deal of stuff there that younger kids will like, and the romance is certainly not a graphic one.)

So, here’s to you, Ursula LeGuin. I’m glad you lived. I’m glad you left behind excellent novels and stories and essays and poetry. And I hope your family — which includes, effectively, the vast majority of the SF&F community — will find comfort in your memory.

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Jason Cordova’s DEVASTATOR Is Out — And It Is Good…

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Folks, this is the review I just tried to post on Amazon for Jason Cordova’s DEVASTATOR, and couldn’t manage to get it there. (With my luck, though, it’ll post after I put this up here at my blog.)

Mind, I discussed DEVASTATOR, along with Kayelle Allen’s Bringer of Chaos series, last week here at the Elfyverse. So if you haven’t read that post yet, it might be nice to start there…ahem.

(Thus ends today’s try at self-promotion. I’d rather promote someone else anyway!)

So, without further ado, I figured I’d post it here, and I do hope you’ll go read Jason’s newest as soon as you can if you like YA, S/F, or any stories having to do with near-future virtual reality simulations. (Or if you just like Jason’s writing. I mean, really…what’s not to like?)

It’s great to see Tori back in action again in Jason Cordova’s newest novel, DEVASTATOR. She’s a tough customer, albeit a tough customer who’s only seventeen…she’s already had to fight her way out of an insane situation in her favorite virtual reality game known as The Warp in CORRUPTOR (book one of this series), and now been asked to re-enter The Warp to keep an eye on some anomalies no one can quite figure out.

See, things are happening in The Warp that make less sense than usual. For a fully programmed environment to do things that no one understands is just plain wrong; it’s even worse than the previous contretemps Tori defused in CORRUPTOR, as at least there once highly paid programmers were made aware of the issues, they were able to fix them. (What Tori had to do before was to defeat the bad guys wherever possible, evading the rest until she could be rescued and brought out of V/R.) And Tori is possibly the foremost expert on how The Warp actually acts, as opposed to how The Warp is supposed to act, so of course she’s asked to lend her expertise to the problem.

(Lending her expertise sounds nice, doesn’t it? But it’s code words for “murder and mayhem are about to break out here,” really…though I digress.)

Anyway, Tori gathers a bunch of others who are known to her as solid individuals (or at least solid players of The Warp) and all are made referees, more or less glorified Moderators. There’s a tourney going on that will cloak their actions, as the folks who make The Warp absolutely, positively do not want to cause trouble for themselves. And as no one can understand, much less explain, the anomalies that have been observed, discretion is of the essence…thus this subterfuge.

So, they go in there. They have a whole lot of problems. (No, I’m not going to tell you what they are. You need to read DEVASTATOR for yourself, preferably sooner rather than later.) And Tori, her boyfriend Dylan, and many others who’ve risked so much up until now will find their world spun on end, as there are a few plot twists here that I absolutely refuse to spoil.

Great things about DEVASTATOR include an age-appropriate romance (Tori’s a badass, but she’s a more or less innocent badass, which is a refreshing change), a lot of Kaiju-inspired fight scenes, an interesting V/R take on Ragnarok, and much, much more.

Tori’s a fun character, and I rooted for her the whole way. I can’t wait to read the next novel, OBLITERATOR — write quickly, Jason!

———- (Review ends here)

And then, I gave the novel five stars, said it was highly recommended, and tried to point out I’d received it as an ARC, downloaded it right away via KU and read it again, and will be making a point to buy it to put it in my permanent collection, too, down the line. (What else can I do to point out I enjoyed this book?)

Written by Barb Caffrey

January 11, 2018 at 7:11 am

Jason Cordova’s “Wraithkin” — and Music?

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Folks, it seems to be my week for stories, so let me tell you another one.

Years ago — I’m not sure how many, now — my late husband Michael told me, “Barb, I swear, you think in music, not words.” It was Michael’s contention that every time I wrote something, I was automatically translating it from the music I heard in my head.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, mind. But it was a poetic conceit he enjoyed, and as such, I appreciated it.

For some reason, that came to mind when I recently read an advance reader copy of Jason Cordova’s WRAITHKIN. Something about this book reminds me of a musical suite, and as I’m both a musician and a writer, I thought I’d use that to my advantage to try to explain why I like this book so much.

As I’m having no luck today uploading the cover, here’s the blurb instead:

How far would a man go to protect those he loved? For Gabriel Espinoza, the answer was simple: to the ends of the universe.

When a failed genetic test ruins his life, Gabriel and his fiancée prepare to run to a world where the laws aren’t as strict. There they could remain, in peace, for the remainder of their days, their love unspoiled by the strict regime which controls the Dominion of Man.

But Fate is a cruel, fickle mistress.

Torn from the only woman he had ever loved, Gabriel is prepared to burn the galaxy to get her back.

How far would a man go to protect the empire he was sworn to uphold? For Andrew Espinoza, the answer was a bit more complicated.

Torn between family loyalty and his duty to his country, Andrew must infiltrate a rich and powerful clan to determine if they are plotting against the Dominion of Man, but while undercover he discovers something far darker and more dangerous is lurking in the shadows, and he is the only man who can stop it.

But Fate is a cruel, fickle mistress.

How far will Andrew go to ensure the success of his mission?

One brother must save himself; the other must save the universe. But can either survive long enough to achieve their goal?

Now, here are my musically-related thoughts:

To my mind, WRAITHKIN is like a symphony in four parts. First, we have a slower, quieter, more intense first movement, where all the major themes are laid out. We meet Gabe and Sophie, see their love for one another, see it dashed after Gabe fails a genetic test (technically, he’s supposed to be sterilized right away, but his family is wealthy and powerful and keeps that from happening), and then they attempt to run away.

But Sophie has to pretend to be angry, and leaves her world in feigned grief and despair, meaning she goes out to a lightly defended colony world all but undefended. And when Gabe finds out that world has been attacked, and Sophie is missing, he vows revenge.

Then we have the second movement, which is more about Gabe’s brother, Andrew. Andrew is a spy, pure and simple, or if you’d rather, he’s a chameleon/mole. He has been trained to do what he does, but because of that, he submerges himself in other people’s roles — or, as this is my blog, the music of other people’s thoughts. So while the second movement moves faster, and hints at much, it uses similar themes as the first, but reversed and in retrograde…as befits a symphony, where many things must come together to make a greater whole.

The third movement is about how Gabe meets up with a bunch of guys in his position — they all have failed genetic tests, so are considered expendables, the lowest of the low. But they all want to serve…something. Or at least blow up stuff. So there’s training involved, and a bunch of gadgetry to use, and all the military SF trappings that are required are there for the use…almost as if there’s a template for the third movement.

Still, there are touches of humor. Pathos. Genuine characterization. Friendship, all unlooked for, and camaraderie, too…proving, as if there was any doubt whatsoever, that new music can be reminiscent of older music, but still pack a walloping punch.

Then comes the fourth movement. Andrew and Gabe must somehow complete their joint missions. Will they manage to do this, or won’t they? And what will be the consequences either way?

This fourth movement ties up all the themes of the book nicely, and lays hints for books to come…kind of like how if you’ve heard one symphony by Haydn or Brahms or Mozart, you want to go hear another one if you’re smart. They all have things in common, sure, but they’re all a little different and they all have much to teach you, much for you to appreciate, and much to savor, time after time…

Anyway, I liked Jason’s book quite a bit, in case you couldn’t tell. I think it has a little bit of everything. Slam-bang action. Romance. Family. Friendship. A big canvas, with a dystopian government to be alternately fought and defended…Jason’s writing keeps getting better and better, and this is a story to immerse yourself in fully.

That’s why I compared it to music, and I hope you’ll understand why, once you read it.

(And do go read it, will you? If you like milSF, you will love this book. And even if you don’t, but like big novels full of life and vigor, you will still love this book…)

Written by Barb Caffrey

December 16, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Where Have You Gone, Judith A. Lansdowne?

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Folks, it is no secret that I’m partial to romance novels.

As such, I’ve been asked often what I like about them. Because these are often the oldest stories in the world — boy meets girl, boy either takes to girl right away or can’t stand her (or vice versa), and in the end the couple walks off into the sunset.

This is the case in ninety percent of traditional romances, whether set in a historical period like England’s Regency, or in the current day.

But some romance authors add more. They add wit, charm, style, a certain zing — it’s hard to quantify, but it’s very easy to spot.

Judith A. Lansdowne has this extra ability. From her very first novel, AMELIA’S INTRIGUE (which I recently read via Inter-Library Loan) to her latest, JUST IMPOSSIBLE, Ms. Lansdowne found a way to weave in suspense, intrigue, humor, genuine pathos, and anything else anyone could ever want in a story.

Ms. Lansdowne hasn’t been active as a novelist since 2004. I’ve heard rumors that her husband was not well, or that there was some sort of family health crisis that took her away from her writing.

I have to assume that this is the only reason why her books haven’t re-emerged as e-books in the intervening eleven years. Because these are truly excellent books; they make you laugh, they make you think, they make you wish that every romance had this much charm.

In my own case, I often look at these romances between difficult women — too intelligent, maybe, or too forthright (as they used to put it in the Regency Era, “not quite in the common way”) — and prickly, dangerous, or a bit off-center men and find bits of myself and my late husband in there.

Even in the more “tame” romances, such as MUTINY AT ALMACK’S or JUST IN TIME, there’s always something different, something intriguing, to hold my interest.

Anyway, I don’t know where Ms. Lansdowne is. I’ve never met her. I do know that she, like myself, is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. (She was class of ’75, while I was class of ’94.) And because I know that at least some of my readership consists of Parkside graduates, my hope is that this little blog post will find her.

Because she may be thinking, at this late date, that no one wants to read her writing. And that’s just not true.

Or that her writing didn’t matter, which isn’t true, either.

One, final thought: Over this past week, when I had many disappointments — including the realization that I must push back the release of CHANGING FACES as despite my efforts, it is far from complete — Ms. Lansdowne’s words have given me hope, and have reminded me of what’s important in life.

My husband Michael believed in me, and believed in my writing. Just because I have a lot on my plate right now, that doesn’t at all mean I can’t get it done…I just have to believe in myself, and keep going.

And for the moment, Ms. Lansdowne’s work is helping me stay focused and centered.

So, wherever you are, Ms. Lansdowne, know that you’ve got a new fan in me…eleven years after your latest book came out.

Just Reviewed “Station Eleven” and “Timebound” at SBR — and more Hugo Awards Commentary

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Folks, I’m happy to report that I finally got a couple of book reviews up today for both Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN and Rysa Walker’s TIMEBOUND. This took me a little extra time, so I decided to make them a 2-for-1 SBR special (with SBR meaning “Shiny Book Review,” as per usual).

Now, why did I like both of these novels so much? It’s simple. There’s hope there. Desperate situations, yes — two very different ones. But there’s legitimate hope, and there are people doing the best they can to foster that hope.

I am very happy I was able to review both of these today, and I do hope you will go check out my review forthwith.

This has been a very difficult week in many respects. It saw the shooting of two young journalists while on the air, which is by far the worst thing I’ve seen in many years. It also saw a lot of SF&F infighting due to the fallout after the Hugo Awards because of five categories (including the two that normally reward editors) giving out “No Awards” instead.

I prefer to talk about good things that inspire me rather than talk about distressing things that upset me. Yet it’s often the distressing things that seem to draw people to my blog for whatever reason. And the Hugo Awards controversy has drawn people like nothing else in recent memory. Only my posts on the Wisconsin recall elections rivaled the attention my little post on editing and how I felt the Hugo Awards should not have given out “No Awards” in those two editing categories received.

I wish I knew what the answers were to help heal the divide in SF&F right now. Life is so short — we saw that earlier this week in Roanoke, VA — and we need to make the most of it. Do positive things. Do creative things. Enrich ourselves. Maybe even make the world a better place because we were here.

I fail to see how the SF&F controversy does any of that.

There are good people on both sides of this who have their backs up something fierce. But to even say that, I get dismissed by the long-term SF&F cognoscenti — not the Sad Puppies, not even the Rabid Puppies, but those who’ve been in publishing the longest.

Those are the ones who seem to be taking the gleeful attitude of, “If you aren’t with us, you’re against us. Nyah, nyah, nyah.” And that is just not acceptable for adults.

Edited to add: Before anyone else says it, I know Vox Day is also gleeful over the five “No Awards” at the Hugos. He believes he’s won. Which, if true, means this is possibly the unholiest alliance ever…but I digress.

As SF&F authors, we want people to read our books and be inspired, or taken out of their lives for a small instant so they can reflect on something else. Space travel. Worlds where Elfys, Trolls and Dwarves get along (much less Humans). Post-apocalyptic worlds. Time-travel. Machinery gone wrong. Machinery aiding space travel. What happens to the human condition when advanced biology allows a ninety-year-old woman to give birth via something akin to Lois McMaster Bujold’s uterine replicator. And so forth and so on.

I’d rather talk about what’s uplifting. Positive. Meaningful. Even educational, as bad of a rap as that gets.

Instead, I’m still talking about the Hugo Awards, because I know so many who’ve been hurt badly by this mess. (Most of them are on the Sad Puppy side. A few are on the traditional publishing side.)

I’m little-known. It may always be this way. But I write, too. I edit, too. And I have a perspective on this.

No one should be getting death threats for his or her opinion on this matter. No one should be gleeful that so many people are angry and frustrated. And no one should be happy when a bunch of authors who are skilled with words end up having to defend themselves or their positions rather than creating interesting new worlds for readers to discover.

All of this takes energy, folks. All of this takes time. And while I believe in creative dissent — how not? — I am very tired of the childishness I’ve seen. (Edited to add: I hate childishness, except from a child.)

While I still do not align myself with the Sad Puppies (and will never be a Rabid Puppy), I think it’s time to admit that at least some of what the Sad Puppies were talking about was the truth.

And that truth — insular authors shutting out fans or other authors they don’t particularly like or get along with — is extremely heartbreaking to see.

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 29, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Just Reviewed “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” at SBR

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Folks, I wanted to point your attention toward my latest book review of Charles Leerhsen’s TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty, which is up right now over at Shiny Book Review (SBR for short, as always).

Now, why am I so proud of this review?

I think it has to do with two things. One, Mr. Leerhsen’s baseball scholarship is superb. And two, I was pleased to realize, after reading Leerhsen’s  book, that Cobb was not at all the virulent racist he’d been portrayed to be.

See, all of the stuff I thought I knew about Cobb was wrong — well, except for the actual baseball facts. (I knew Cobb hit .367 as a lifetime batting average, for example, and was the all-time hits leader until Pete Rose moved past him in the mid-1980s.)

Basically, Ty Cobb, since his death in 1961, has been the victim of a shoddy narrative. Apparently his “biographer” Al Stump was no such thing; instead, Stump invented the wildest flights of fancy about Cobb, figuring that as there was almost no film or still pictures or even radio accounts of Cobb’s play, Stump could do as he liked and no one would be the wiser.

Besides, monsters sell. So Stump made Cobb a monster.

Leerhsen proved just how fallacious Stump’s account actually was by going back and reading all of the various newspaper reports, which were readily available in the archives. (Thank goodness for archives, eh?) Stump made so many erroneous assumptions that it’s hard to believe Stump didn’t know what he was writing was dead wrong; in fact, Cobb himself was in the midst of a lawsuit at the time of his death, because he’d gotten wind of what Stump was about to do to him in the guise of Cobb’s “autobiography” (which was ghost-written by Stump), and wanted no part of it.

The most egregious fallacy of Stump’s was to paint Cobb as a racist. Cobb was anything but — in fact, according to Leerhsen, Cobb used to sit in the dugout with players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige during Negro League games, and famously remarked that “The Negro (ballplayer) should be accepted, and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly.” And Cobb was a big fan of Roy Campanella’s, plus he enjoyed Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson.

And as far as being a mean, nasty, vicious old cuss — well, how mean, vicious and nasty could Ty Cobb have been if he was willing to help the young Joe DiMaggio out when Joe D. signed with the Yankees? (Cobb understood baseball contracts, and young Joe didn’t.) How mean was Cobb when he helped Campanella and his family out after “Campy” became paralyzed? And how vicious was Cobb when, after his playing days were over and he had nothing at all to gain by it, he and Babe Ruth became fast friends?

Leerhsen has dozens of stories about Cobb, and very few of them depict anything close to the man Stump portrayed (and Tommy Lee Jones later masterfully acted in the movie version, Cobb).

While Cobb was a difficult man to know — he was prickly, quick to anger, and settled things with his fists more than once — he was not a monster.

Instead, Cobb appears to be the victim of one of the worst narrative frames in the history of all narrative-framing.

So do, please, read my review of Charles Leerhsen’s book TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty. Then please, if you have any interest whatsoever in early 1900s to the “Roaring Twenties” Americana, baseball history, or just want to find out what’s actually the truth about Ty Cobb, go read his masterful book for yourself.

My Fifth Blogiversary — and a Great New Review for “To Survive the Maelstrom”

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Folks, this is my fifth “blogiversary” — that is, the fifth anniversary of my blog, affectionately known as the Elfyverse. (Or Barb Caffrey’s Elfyverse, if you prefer.) Here, I’ve talked about everything that interests me, whether it’s baseball, politics, current events, music, writing, or something else — whatever it is, I’ve probably discussed it.

(Writers do that, y’know.)

Anyway, today I have a special treat for you, in that Pat Patterson of Papa Pat Rambles reviewed my story “To Survive the Maelstrom” over at Amazon — and he gave it five stars. (Thank you, Pat!)

Maelstrom3Here’s the blurb for “To Survive the Maelstrom,” which was written in my late husband Michael B. Caffrey’s Atlantean Union universe (and thus he is credited):

Command Sergeant-Major Sir Peter Welmsley of the Atlantean Union has lost everything he holds dear. He wonders why he lived, when so many others died at Hunin — including his fiancée, Lydia, and his best friend Chet.

Into his life comes Grasshunter’s Cub, an empathic, sentient creature known to those on Heligoland as a “weremouse.”

Weremice are known for their ability to help their bond-mates. But how can this young weremouse find a way to bring Peter back from the brink of despair and start living again?

So if you want to read “To Survive the Maelstrom” in honor of my fifth blogiversary — or just because you like solid military SF — please go to Amazon and grab yourself a copy. (I do intend to get this story to Barnes and Noble and Smashwords within the next ninety days, somehow, but for now it’s on KDP Select. So if you have Kindle Ultimate, you can read “To Survive the Maelstrom” for free — right now.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 10, 2015 at 2:21 pm