Thursday, September 29, 2016

September 2016 Short Fiction Recs (and more)

The sun is shining, the world has not yet ended, and I have a free morning to write this. I’m late with my bimonthly list of short fiction recs, but let’s go, shall we?

Stories About Family

Our relationships with our birth families are often the most fraught of all—these ties we did not choose and cannot sever. The stories that have hit hardest for me of late are the ones that look at these bonds.

My Grandmother’s Bones by S.L. Huang at Daily Science Fiction

So much conveyed in such a short flash piece. The gaps between generations, the disappointments and distance and love that endures despite it all. This story is spare, understated, and devastating. I did not know the Chinese term, haau, before I read this, but I think I understand it just a little, now. Of all the “family” stories I’ve picked this month, it’s the one that I most personally connect with.

Some Breakable Things by Cassandra Khaw in the The Dark

Like Huang’s story above, Khaw’s is also about the complicated relationship between a father and daughter. It’s also about unbridgeable distances. But where Huang’s story is quiet, this one is a ferocious scream of grief. A daughter is haunted by the ghost of her recently deceased father. “I didn’t know you were close,” a friend says dismissively. It’s complicated, the protagonist replies. And how. This is visceral and heart-breaking.

With Her Diamond Teeth by Pear Nuallak in The Dark

Ah, and this is a change of pace and setting. It’s a dark, unsettling story of sisters. Taphaothang and Taphaokaew have a prickly relationship characterized by mutual cruelties. But it’s also a relationship of need, of dark symbiosis with no room for a would-be bridegroom. Nuallak offers rich prose in an atmospheric setting dripping with heat. The setting is the old kingdom of Ayutthaya, an ancient kingdom of what is now Thailand. And I admit that I got a special kick out of this story for purely personal reasons: it was a treat to see these cultural references that I recognize in a fantasy fiction setting (My parents are Thai, although I myself was born and raised in the U.S.). If you want something rich, dark, lovely and strange—this is it.

More Darkness from The Dark

The Dark has become one of my favorite regular reads. In addition to the stories above by Khaw and Nuallak, these are some of my other recent favorites from this magazine:

Some Pictures of Monsters by Rhonda Eikamp

The darkest take on Cinderella that I’ve ever seen. One of the darkest fairy tales I’ve ever read, period. An astonishing piece with a plot that twists and an ending that’s horrifying and yet also just right.

Floodwater by Kristi Demeester

Momma sees something in the rain. After a while, the child-narrator of this piece thinks she see something, too. This is an urgent, immersive piece that pulls you in, enclosing you like water.

Wheatfield with Crows by Steven Tem

Another wonderfully immersive, atmospheric, haunting piece. Years ago, Dan’s sister disappeared in a wheat field. Now he and his mother have gone back to the place where she disappeared.

Uncanny Stories from Uncanny and More

At this point, I think I can say that nearly all stories I read from Uncanny Magazine are going to end up on my rec list. It is one of the SFF magazines that most consistently speaks to me. Here are some stories from Uncanny I’ve read lately, as well as an additional story with its own uncanny aesthetic.

Snow Day by Catherynne Valente

I admit that Valente’s stories are often hit-or-miss for me. But when they do hit, they hit hard. I love this wild, weird, almost-impossible-to-summarize story of pulp erotica, environmental paranoia, loneliness, longing, bad art, and Hawaii. Also, there’s a turkey named Murray. I loved Murray. The spirit of Kelly Link is in this piece, but mated with Valente’s distinctive, richly exuberant prose.

A Kelly Link-type weirdness animates this story as well. But it’s also distinctly Isabel Yap’s own voice, a story that’s atmospheric and disquieting from the start. A group of friends just a year or so out of college gather together at a beach resort in the Philippines. But the beach resort is nearly empty, and there’s certainly something strange going on. This story captures the loneliness and sense of being adrift in those first difficult post-college years. It’s about a group of friends trying to recapture the easy rapport they once had, and a unique time they once had together, before the first disappointing, faltering steps into adulthood. It’s a story that takes risks—first-person plural! when was the last time you read that?—and it’s a story that succeeds. Bleak, lonely, lovely, simmering with tensions of both internal and external conflict. The final sentence is breathtaking.

My Body, Herself by Carmen Maria Machado

A strange, spare enigmatic story of death, an after-life/death, and rebirth. I admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to think after reading this, but it has haunted me. It will probably haunt you, too.

The Warrior Boy Who Would Not Suffer by Abhinav Bhat in Apex

I pair this with the Machado story above, because it is also a strange, enigmatic story of death and rebirth, although of a very different tone. A young warrior is dying in the desert, and finds himself questioned by an old man. A commenter on the Apex website describes this piece as “mystical and visceral” and I concur. I read this with a Buddhist interpretation, though I don’t know how much of that overlaps with the writer’s own intentions.

A Grab Bag of More Recs

My Father, the YouTube Star by Kevin Pang in the New York Times

Keep the tissues handy. Like the first stories I discussed above, Kevin Pang’s non-fiction essay is about the estrangement between grown children and their parents, but this is also about how those distances can be (at least somewhat) bridged. In the case of Pang and his father, it’s through food. As someone who is also the American child of food-obsessed Asian immigrants, this essay spoke to me so much. It’s so honest (and also sweet), and yeah, my eyes went blurry at the last lines.

I’ve mentioned this essay before, but in keeping with a theme I just want to link to it again. It is beautiful.

A Genius Book Review: Have you seen Michiko Kakutani’s latest book review at the New York Times?  You should. You really should. I’ve long enjoyed her book reviews, but this one wins them all, as well as all book reviews forever more: it is effing genius and it is also terrifying.  

Puppets to Make You Forget Your Cares: Thunderbolt Fantasy

I’ve been raving about this on Twitter, and this is my blog so I can rave about it here again if I want. Thunderbolt Fantasy is the amazing, bonkers Taiwanese puppet show/wuxia fantasy/Japanese anime mashup you never knew that you needed. Read more about it in this nice write-up here (with gifs!) I started watching this for the pure WTF spectacle (there are some amazing WTF battle moments in this show), but somewhere along the line I found that these characters had captured my heart. The story starts off as a fun but standard Heroic Quest, but then the plot twists and twists again, and you realize that nothing is what you thought. Not surprising, since the show was written by Gen Urobuchi, who wrote such dark anime hits as Magi/Madoka and Fate/Zero (but so far Thunderbolt Fantasy seems at least a bit lighter than his usual fare). The last episode is tomorrow and I will be utterly bereft. My husband and I have been streaming it from Crunchyroll

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings, the debut novel by famed short story writer Ken Liu, is unlike anything else I’ve read in contemporary fantasy. It is “epic” in every sense of the word, portraying the collapse and rise of empires; huge battle scenes, complicated plot twists and betrayals; intimate small moments and a dizzyingly large cast of characters. It takes place in an intriguing, beautifully realized secondary world setting: the world of Dara, an archipelago of what was once seven separate kingdoms. The geography of this world ranges from tropical beaches to misty forests, deserts, plains, and snowy mountains. There are airships, battle kites, and rainbow-scaled whales with horns. There is a variety of cultures and ethnicities, with people described in a rainbow of skin tones and eye/hair color, yet the overall cultural bedrock is plainly that of ancient China. It’s a work that is soaring, enthralling, heart-wrenching, intricate, and almost astonishingly ambitious.

All this said, I will admit that it is also a work that many will not find accessible or to their taste. Liu breaks many of the biggest conventions of contemporary fantasy—and of contemporary fiction in general. You know that old workshop adage, “Show, don’t tell”? Well, Liu stomps all over that advice. There is a lot of “telling” in this work. You know that other bit of advice “Avoid infodumps”? Yeah, there’s lots of exposition here, too.  And he flies against the current trend of tight third-person or first-person perspective, opting instead for an omniscient third-person point-of-view which zooms in and out of detail, flitting in and out of numerous character perspectives. The result is a narrative which can feel markedly more detached than what is usually seen these days, certainly more detached than the tight third-person narratives of, say, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Throne) series. If what you want is pages of sustained, deep immersion in a single character’s mind, you are going to be disappointed by this book. If you are looking for gritty, moment-by-moment psychological complexity—again, you are going to be disappointed.

But there is abundant recompense in Liu’s chosen approach—at least for me. There’s a building scale of grandeur, of huge scope, of pure epicness in this book. The Grace of Kings draws upon the real-world history of the founding of China’s Han dynasty to tell the story of the forging of an empire. The main story line follows the adventures of Kuni Garu, a charming ne’er-do-well of common birth who becomes an unlikely hero of revolution. His path eventually intersects with that of Mata Zyndu, a mighty warrior of noble birth who was raised to greatness and groomed to overthrow the corrupt emperor who destroyed his family. Together, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu work to overthrow a brutal tyrant. . . and then must face the dissolution of empire and struggle to create a new empire and world.

Interspersed with the main plot are numerous secondary stories and characters. It can feel overwhelming, but these secondary stories work beautifully to build up an entire world. And within such subplots, Liu’s famed skills as a short story writer shine: within just a few pages, and with just a few well-chosen details, he can evoke a minor character’s life and death, and tear your heart to shreds. I am still haunted by the fate of a certain minor character, whose entire story was told within seven spare pages. Kuni Garu is the charismatic, winning center of this story. . . but the real story is much larger than him. It is the story of an entire world at war, in collapse, and then struggling to be reborn.

Reading this work, there was a real excitement for me in sensing what seems the resurrection of older forms of narrative (The Illiad came to my mind) combined with a modern sensibility and concerns. This is a narrative deeply concerned with questions of power and politics: Kuni argues political philosophy with friends, quoting famed scholars of his world who have devoted their lives to the subject. Dara is a world that is at the beginning of a “steampunk” revolution in technology; it is a world that seems to teeter at the brink of modernity, and Kuni appears to be the man (and conqueror) determined to drag Dara over the threshold into a more modern world. Even if it’s at the point of a sword.

Not everything worked for me in this story. I didn’t particularly care for the squabbling, interfering gods of Dara, for instance. They did provide nice flashes of imagery every now and then, and pretty homages to fallen heroes; however, they also often felt out of place to me, and their interventions often a wholly unnecessary deux ex machina. Kuni’s escape and second rise to power also seemed to come about too quickly to me, with multiple technological innovations perfected on an improbable time scale. Yet in a work of such stunning ambition and power, these are small missteps. 

The Grace of Kings will not be for everyone. It’s a doorstopper of a novel (over 600 pages) and it demands attention and focus. But I would urge the serious reader to at least give it a try. I admit that the first few chapters read a bit slowly to me, heavy as they are with world-building and exposition. But this novel builds steady momentum, and soon I was unable to tear myself away. I haven’t been so raptly immersed in a book—staying up far too late to read, forgetting to talk to my husband and children—since first encountering George Martin’s Game of Thrones. The two books tell stories about power in very different ways, in very different worlds—yet both swept me away. I’m beyond thrilled to be reading the next installment in Ken Liu’s series, debuting sometime next month.

Note: Writer Max Gladwell has a wonderfully smart analysis of The Grace of Kings’ narrative form on his blog here. He nails it when he describes how the small details in The Grace of Kings really land. And now, after reading his analysis, I want to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Interview with the small press, Annorlunda Books

Annorlunda Books is a small press specializing in short books (novella length or shorter), including both fiction and non-fiction. The company’s tagline is “Books to inform, entertain, and make you think.” It is a division of Annorlunda Enterprises, which also creates designs for T-shirts, bags, and other print-on-demand projects, and also runs a short ebook review site called Tungsten Hippo.

This year I was very lucky to work with Annorlunda Books on the publication of my fantasy novelette, The Lilies of Dawn. All around, it’s been a wonderful experience. I realized that I had a number of questions on what it’s like to start and run a small press, and I figured a number of other writers and readers might be interested, too. Melanie Nelson, founder of Annorlunda Books and Annorlunda Enterprises, was gracious enough to appear on this blog to answer my questions in detail.

Okay, first question that popped into my head for this interview: What does the name, “Annorlunda Enterprises” signify? How did you come up with this name? Oh, and how did you come up the name “Tungsten Hippo” for the related book review site?

Naming things is really hard! You want something easy to remember, easy to say, and easy to spell, but it has to be unique enough that you can get the URL. Tungsten Hippo predates my decision to get into publishing. It started as a learning project: I wanted to update my technical skills around HTML and CSS, and wanted to try building a site that runs on Drupal. I am the type that needs an interesting project to learn something new, and I’d recently gotten hooked on short ebooks… and so the idea for a site dedicated to short ebooks was born. And then I spent days trying out various ideas for names before settling on Tungsten Hippo. Since it was just a fun learning project, I didn’t mind giving it such a quirky name. None of my ideas that had anything to do with books had URLs I could get, and eventually I just came up with “Tungsten Hippo”. “Tungsten” has a certain resonance for me: it was the joke name my husband and I used for our first baby before she was born. I think I picked “Hippo” for the second part because I thought I could draw a hippo for the logo.

Annorlunda Enterprises came from a similarly random process. I was searching for ideas for a name for my new company when I came across a list of words in Swedish that we should have in English, or something like that. Annorlunda was on it, and I liked it. “Annorlunda” means (roughly) “different, in a good way.” I decided I could use a Swedish word because the ancestors I know the most about are Swedish (they came from Småland in the 1800s), and I liked the meaning for what I was trying to do with my company. I couldn’t get, but there weren’t any other prominent Annorlunda’s on the internet, and I could get… and so my company got its name.

Like me, you have a background in science. You have a Ph.D. in biochemistry and worked for a number of years in the biotech industry. As I understand it, you still do consulting in that field. How did you decide to branch out and start a small press publishing a range of eclectic books? Why did you decide to focus on shorter books? What kind of niche do you see Annorlunda Books occupying?

Yes, 99% of the money I make still comes from consulting in my original field, which is scientific informatics. I also provide training classes in time and project management, and do some management consulting. The money I make from those activities essentially funds the publishing work right now. That was always the plan. I wanted to start a company that had space to grow beyond just me, and books felt like a natural place to start.

My hybrid business model is a bit unusual, but it gives me time to learn more about book marketing, and figure out how to grow the market for Annorlunda Books’ niche, which is interesting and entertaining short writing. I absolutely plan to make Annorlunda Books profitable on its own, but realistically, that is going to take time. My other sources of income give me that time.

So far, Annorlunda Books has put out quite an eclectic list! Is there a particular genre or subject matter that you as a publisher are drawn toward? Is there something that you wish you saw more of in the slush? Something that you dream of publishing, but just hasn’t turned up in your submissions box yet?

I am drawn to publish the same sorts of things that I like to read, and I like to read a range of things. So I’ve ended up with an eclectic list. That presents some marketing challenges, but also some opportunities. I’m sure I’m not the only reader out there with eclectic tastes! I hope that Annorlunda Books can become known for quality writing that makes you think, and that we’ll pick up some fans who will try new books on new topics on the strength of our brand.

I would love to get the chance to publish some great general audience science writing. There aren’t that many non-fiction short ebooks about scientific stories out there. There are a lot of people putting out short history ebooks, and I love them. I love the chance to learn about a new topic without having to commit the time it takes to read a big, 400 page survey of the topic. I think it would be great to have the same opportunity for science topics.

The other thing I’d like to do is publish more books from people whose voices aren’t well-represented in traditional publishing. I’d like in particular to make a push to find stories (fiction or non-fiction) from writers of color. I wanted to build a bit of a track record as a publisher before I went out recruiting authors, but I think the time has come to start actively looking for diverse voices instead of just letting the submissions happen on their own.

I’ve had the great fortune to work with you on the publication and sale of my fantasy novelette, The Lilies of Dawn. But I wonder if you could, for our readers, walk through the typical process of acquiring a book and then working with a team to bring it to publication.

Since Annorlunda Books is still 100% me, the acquisition process is pretty straight-forward. I read the book, and if it meets my publication criteria, I offer to acquire it. I’m small, so I can’t offer a large advance, but I do offer an advance in most cases.

Once I’ve signed the paperwork acquiring the book, I find an editor and cover designer to work with. I work out a production plan and pick a target release date. And then I just try to keep the pieces moving. Once the manuscript comes back from the initial edit, I do the formatting work and then send it out for a final proofread. As we get closer to the target release date, I start executing the promotional plan I’ve put together for the book.

What has been the most challenging aspect of running a small press for you? What has been the most surprising aspect? The most rewarding?

I’d say the most challenging aspect is marketing. This is partly due to my own background and personality: marketing does not come naturally to me, and it is not something I had mastered before I started my company. However, I think it is also partly due to the nature of marketing: it is hard to do well.

The most surprising aspect is how wrong I can be about whether or not a book will sell. When I started out in publishing, I decided my acceptance criteria would be: I like it, I think it is well-written, and either I learned something or it made me think. I have stuck to that. This means that sometimes, I acquire a book even though I suspect it will have a hard time finding a market. I have been surprised by how wrong I’ve been about that on some occasions! I’m sure I’ll get better at predicting what will and won’t sell as I get more experience, but I hope I can always make it financially feasible to take risks on things I like but think won’t sell, because I think there will always be surprises.

The most rewarding aspect is definitely seeing people read and love books I’ve published.

What is your approach to marketing? In your experience, what marketing techniques have been most successful?

Like I said above, marketing is hard. I don’t think it can be made easy, but one thing that makes it harder for a small press like Annorlunda Books is that I can’t really afford big, splashy marketing gambles. Therefore, I don’t worry much about having a huge release week. Instead, I try to grow readership slowly and steadily. I still run marketing for my earliest releases, and if I learn something that works on one book, I am likely to go back and try it with my earlier releases, too.

I’ve had a lot of success with getting book bloggers to read and review my releases. That can really help. Even if their post doesn’t directly move many books, if they will write a review on one of the retail sites, they are very important. People are more likely to buy a book if they see some reviews. Pay attention to your own book buying and you’ll probably see that it is true for you, too! Also, most of the book marketing mailing lists (like BookBub, BookGorilla, or The Fussy Librarian) require a certain number of reviews in order to consider your book, so those reviews open up additional marketing possibilities.

I have also experimented quite a bit with social media ads. These are difficult, because the margin I get from selling a single book is not high, since short books can’t generally support a high price. So it has taken a lot of experimenting to find a social media strategy that works. I have been surprised to find that Facebook is my best platform for ads, and while I can’t say that my ads always pay off in terms of bringing in more money than they cost, enough of them do and the others come close enough for me to continue investing in that platform. If you run Facebook ads, though, you have to invest the time in learning how to effectively target audiences on that platform. My early attempts were very naïve, and failed spectacularly. I’ve learned a lot, and now my ads do better.

I’ve also been looking for other low cost ad options, but those tend to be specific for each book. For instance, it might make sense to place an ad in a science-related newsletter for my Navigating the Path to Industry book, but that would be a weird choice for The Lilies of Dawn!

Another piece of my marketing strategy is a long term one: I am working on growing the reach of Tungsten Hippo, specifically its mailing list. I’ve run ads trying to grow that list, and I’ve also done some guest posts trying to get new readers. My subscriber list is growing, but a little more slowly than I’d like. I haven’t focused on growing the Annorlunda Enterprise mailing list yet, although I do post all upcoming and new releases there. I am working on a growth plan for that list, and will probably focus more on it soon.

Finally, I have a low key effort to grow the organic reach of Annorlunda Enterprises on social media. I post a daily interesting article to the Annorlunda books facebook page and Twitter feed. As I grow, I may put some more resources into growing my follower counts, but for right now, I’m just letting it happen as it happens.

Annorlunda Books’ first publication came out in 2015, so it’s still a very young company. Where do you see it headed? What kind of projects do you have in the pipeline? What are your ambitions for it?

I have another Taster Flight of classic short stories in the works. It will be a collection of short ghost stories that have kids in them, and I’m aiming to release it before Halloween. I also have a great sci-fi novelette that is in production now. It will be out in January, if all goes well. I’ve got a couple of submissions to read (hopefully this weekend) and one or two of those might enter the pipeline. I’m toying with an idea for a themed collection of short stories, but will need to do some research about how authors are compensated in those before I commit to doing it. I really like the idea, though, so chances are I’ll put a call out for submissions for that at some point.

Annorlunda Books is the name of the imprint, but I gave the company a more general name (Annorlunda Enterprises) on purpose: I have plans beyond books. The unifying theme is that it is fun to learn new things, and I want to make products that will help people learn things they’ll feel good about knowing.

I’ve always liked entertainment that teaches me things, but once I hit the time crunch that comes from having young children, I struggled to find this type of entertainment that would also work with everything else in my life. It was no longer realistic to tackle a big, meaty non-fiction book. I just didn’t have enough uninterrupted reading time to make progress on one. When my kids were really young, and I was still dealing with the sleep deprivation that comes with babies, I couldn’t even get through a novel. I’d start one, read a few pages before going to sleep for a few nights, and then someone would have a sleep regression or get sick and I wouldn’t read for weeks. Then I’d pick up the novel and have to start over. So I gave up on novels, and was just reading magazines, but so much of that was like junk food. I love junk food now and then, but I need a balanced diet. And the same thing was true in my entertainment. I like a fluffy fashion magazine or a relatively mindless TV show from time to time, but I missed having a more “nutritious” entertainment diet. Then I discovered short ebooks, and they just fit what I wanted.

So, I want Annorlunda to make products that are like the healthy snack of the entertainment world. The first focus has been books, but given my technical background, I’ve got ideas around apps and other things, too. I have big ambitions, but have chosen a bootstrapping business model that requires me to grow slowly. I hope it also gives me some staying power, though, and plan to keep publishing books and exploring other product ideas around my “learn something you’ll feel good about knowing” theme for a long time.

You are a writer yourself, as well as a publisher. You’ve published two career advice books (based on your experiences as a project manager in biotech) and two children’s books, The Zebra Said Shhh and Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess, under the name M.R. Nelson.  (Note: I bought both children’s books for my girls when they were young and they loved them!) Do you have plans for writing more books? What are your ambitions for your own writing? Where do you find inspiration?

I do have some more books in the works! I have a couple more children’s books that are sort of “in progress” right now. I don’t publish children’s books through Annorlunda, so once I write a story, I have to find a publisher for it. The publisher of my first two children’s books, Xist Publishing, was focusing on chapter books for a while, and so I had some stories build up… but they’re doing a few picture books again, and I have two in the works. I also have a third book that may or may not get published by a charity I support. That is still up in the air. I keep writing the stories as the ideas come to me, and then I look for someone to publish them. This is probably not the smartest way to go about it, but I don’t consider my own writing a career focus, so I confess to not thinking about the market for my kids’ stories at all. I just get an idea and write about it.

I have had a few people ask me to turn my project management training class into a book. I might tackle that at some point, but it would be a huge amount of work. I am working on another writing project of my own, though, for Annorlunda Books. It is still too early to disclose much about it, but I can say that I want to tie it in with an app and that I might use a pseudonym for it because the “M.R. Nelson” writing “brand” is getting a little unfocused! I haven’t decided if that bothers me or not.

Finally: what advice would you give to someone considering getting into small press publishing? Do you have any advice for writers as well?

I think my advice for someone who wants to open a small press is to make sure you have the money to support it through its growth curve. No matter how much you love the books you publish, they won’t sell as many copies as you think they should! It is a hard, crowded business. But if you decide to do it, make sure to take risks on books you love. Otherwise, why bother?

The main thing I tell authors who ask about publishing is that it really helps to know what your goal for publishing your book is. Do you want to see your book on the shelves at Barnes and Nobles? If so, your best bet is a larger publisher. If you just want your book to find an audience, though, small presses may be a good bet for you, particularly if you’re publishing something (like shorter works) that big publishers shy away from. Of course, you can always self-publish, and for some people that is absolutely the best choice. If you decide to self-publish, be prepared to do it “right.” You’ll need to learn the technical side of putting together a book, and you need to have the money to pay for quality editing and a good book cover. And you have to be willing to do the marketing. People won’t just find your book.

If you’re thinking of working with a small press, I’d recommend looking at the contract to see what happens if the press folds. It is OK to ask about that!

Finally, expect to be an active participant in book marketing. There are a lot of bloggers who will respond more positively to a pitch from an author than a publisher. There are some social media opportunities (like Twitter hashtags such as #ownvoices) that are more appropriate coming from the author than the publisher. People connect with authors more than publishers, so some types of marketing work best coming from the author.

Thank you so much, Melanie, for being so giving of your time here!

You can visit the Annorlunda Books website here. And you can also follow the company on Facebook and Twitter