Esther-DiamondThe next Esther Diamond novel–in which Esther, Max, & friends confront Evil in its natural habitat, Wall Street–finally has a title: Goldzilla.

Quick refresher, the previous series titles are, in order: Disappearing Nightly; Doppelgangster; Unsympathetic Magic; Vamparazzi; Polterheist; The Misfortune Cookie; and Abracadaver.

And frankly, coming up with a fantasy pun for every Esther Diamond title is a bitch. There are times I could hit myself with a brick for having started this pattern in the first place. But by the time I realized around book #4, Vamparazzi (and I am embarrassed to admit how long it took me to come up with that one), that this was going to be hard to sustain, it was too late. The pattern was already established, and my publisher-and-editor Elizabeth (Betsy) Wollheim of DAW Books was by then adamant and exacting about it.

I spent weeks (maybe months) flinging titles at Betsy for books #5 and #6, all of which she kept rejecting as not clever enough (and sometimes deplorably lacking in even the faintest glimmer of cleverness). At one point, frustrated by how long the work was getting stalled by this problem (because the ED plots arise from the premise implied in the titles), I blurted, “I can’t be clever all the time!” To which She Who Must Be Obeyed replied, “Yes, you can. We pay you to be clever all the time.”

(And, well, speaking from experience, that’s still easier than being paid to clean kennels, wait tables, clean houses, make cold calls, take orders from martinets, or deal with the public during the holidays.)

I finally thought up Polterheist and The Misfortune Cookie during the World Fantasy Convention one year, which Betsy and co-publisher Sheila Gilbert were also attending. So I hunted them down, said each of these titles, and got the right reaction–a quick laugh. (And, finally–thanks be to Fortune!–got title approval.)

That’s how I know an Esther title works, or at least has potential to pass muster with La Wollheim: When I say it to someone, they laugh. (The real challenge, then, is to make my editor laugh.) If I get a puzzled frown or a politely wan smile from my test case, then I know I have to keep searching for a title.

That’s also how I know if someone is a potential Esther Diamond reader: When they ask the title of something I’ve written recently and I tell them, they laugh. That’s someone who might go look for the books now.

In contrast, there are people–including a few dear friends of mine, so this doesn’t mean they’re “bad” people or dumb or anything like that–who look puzzled and say, “What?” And I say, “Doppelgangster” or “Vamparazzi,”  or whatever. And they again say, “It’s… what?” And I repeat the title, and they say, “It’s what?” And when I explain (ex. “it’s the word doppelgänger combined with ‘gangster,’ so the story is about mobsters who are dying mysteriously soon after seeing their own perfect doubles–which is what a doppelgänger is”)… they look at me with pity and doubt. Experience has taught me that that’s someone who’s not likely to become an Esther Diamond reader. (Humor is very individualistic, and the author’s own notion of what’s funny isn’t ever going to hit everyone’s sweet spot–not even the sweet spot of every person she counts as a true friend.)

Anyhow, Abracadaver proved to be an even steeper hill for me. I spent weeks sending titles to Betsy, who never cracked a smile (phosphorically speaking). And after a few weeks, I kept hearing this title in my head, but I didn’t know what it meant, and it had nothing at all to do with the plot I’d been working on, so I ignored it and ignored it and ignored it… Until eventually, in weary desperation, I sent it to her–and got a prompt response indicating, That’s it! That’s your title!!

Which was great, except that… I had no plot idea for the phrase “Abracadaver,” and I had a plot started that didn’t go with it. Arrrggghh!!

However… the exact same thing had happened with The Misfortune Cookie, and I actually wound up with a much better story, as well as a better title, by going along with Betsy’s exhausting standards. Which is why she’s the editor and I listen to her. Every time she has insisted a title wasn’t good enough, then after we finally settle on a title… I look back and see that, yep, she was right, my previous suggestions weren’t very good, and this is the right result. I also don’t even really remember the story ideas I was working on for Misfortune Cookie and Abracadaver before getting final titles, so probably those story ideas weren’t that good, either.

But when it came to Esther Diamond #8, I was really stuck. Even I hated all the titles I was coming up with, most of which I never even showed to Betsy. Finally, since I had to get a move on, I started sending her a few titles, none of which worked. Aware of my ill-concealed desperation, she asked me for details about the story, in which Esther and Max get involved in a Wall Street caper and encounter greed, riches beyond the dreams of avarice, greed, bankers and traders and brokers, greed, corruption, greed, gold and loot and money, greed…

And it was Betsy, praise be upon her name, who came up with Goldzilla, which perfectly fit the still-vague vision I had for this book which is pretty much about (in case you didn’t catch it) rapacious greed–and where it leads. So this, too, is an example of why it’s good to have an editor who really gets what you’re doing. (Compared to some publishing houses I’ve dealt with, where I worked with editors who didn’t even know who I was or why I was bothering them when I tried to discuss my contracted projects with them.)

So that’s where we are–we have a title! And I’m working on the book. I hope that the brilliant Dan Dos Santos will again do the cover (he’s done all but one of the previous Esther covers), but I don’t have information about that yet. I also don’t have a firm release date yet–will post it when I do.

Meanwhile, in related news, I’m very happy to say that Abracadaver made SciFiChick’s Best of 2014 list! Sci-Fi Chick is a reviewer who reads an extraordinary number of books each year, in addition to interviewing authors and maintaining a cool website.

The 7th book in the Esther Diamond series, Abracadaver was released in November. I’m grateful to DAW Books for acquiring the series from me after it was dumped by its previous publisher after one badly-published book (DAW subsequently reissued Disappearing Nightly, the first Esther novel), believing in this series, and doing such a great job with it. And I’m so happy that readers enjoy the books–which I love writing!

So, my thanks to everyone who has been enthusiastic about Esther Diamond!

My newest short story, “Dave the Mighty Steel-Thewed Avenger,” is currently available online for free, for a limited time, at Urban Fantasy Magazine!

Check out this month’s mag cover (based on the story).

UFMv1i4-smIn this story, a disenchanted law student leaves a bar late one night and realizes he may have had one too many drinks when he meets a talking opossum, a Valkslayer, and the Dread Grzilbeast!

You can also order this edition (epub or Mobi) for $2.99 or subscribe to the mag for a year.

I’ve got a short story in the February edition of Urban Fantasy Magazine. I love the mag cover, which is based on my story.

UFMv1i4-sm

 

In “Dave the Mighty Steel-Thewed Avenger,” a disenchanted law student leaves a bar late one night and realizes he may have had one too many drinks when he meets a talking opossum, a Valkslayer, and the Dread Grzilbeast!

You can order this edition (epub or Mobi) for $2.99 to read the story now (or subscribe to the mag, if you like), or/and you can wait for them to post it in the online edition.

typewriterI started writing this in response to a post in a discussion on The Passive Voice, a blog I read regularly, in which a writer whom I respect noted that one of the drawbacks with indie writing (aka self-publishing) in sf/f is that the work so rarely gets noticed in awards venues, seldom getting nominated or appearing on awards ballots. But my response got so long, I thought to myself, you know, this is really a blog post. And now that I have a blog (!), I should post it there. So here goes.

In terms of whether it’s a disadvantage worth considering (when deciding whether to self-publish novels or submit them to publishers) that indie fiction in sf/f gets little/less attention in the awards process… I think sf/f awards ballots are probably both less important and more accessible than they’re usually given credit for being.

The last time I was nominated for an award in sf/f was 1993, when I won the Campbell (best new sf/f writer). So I have not appeared on an sf/f award ballot for nearly 22 years.

Yet since 1993 (when I had no intention of writing sf/f novels), I’ve released 11 fantasy novels from major houses, and currently have 5 more under contract; have released another 50-60 sf/f short stories, and currently have 5-6 more in production or owed to editors; and I was asked to write a column for the SFWA Bulletin (which I did, 2000-2003), though it was then already 7 years since I had last appeared on an awards ballot.

(I have also done other writing in the past 22 years—such as 2-3 more romance novels and several romance novellas, a nonfiction book, about 10 years of a monthly column for Nink—as well as attending graduate school full-time and then working briefly for a news bureau overseas, etc., etc.; but the above is what I’ve sold in sf/f since my last award nomination.)

Writing has been my full-time living most of the time since 1993 (and for several years before that). I’ve worked regularly/steadily as a writer most of that time, and I’ve been working constantly in sf/f ever since I got literary agents out of my career. (Contrary to the popular mythology surrounding them, my own repeated experience was that literary agents were a genuine impediment to getting book contracts and earning a living.) A key reason (apart from my general inertia and disorganization) that I don’t submit short fiction to magazines and still haven’t self-published any frontlist (though I always intend to do both things!) is that I’m always running to keep up with my sf/f book contracts and my obligations to sf/f editors who’ve commissioned short stories from me.

My work is usually well-reviewed, and I’ve had starred reviews and some of my books have made various Year’s Best lists. But my work never appears on awards ballots and, as far as I know, is never even discussed or considered when people are deciding whom/what to nominate. (I state this as a factual observation, not as a complaint, reproach, or plea for comfort and reassurance.)

Moreover, when I saw the promo materials (aimed at head buyers and distributors) for my first-ever fantasy novel, In Legend Born (Tor Books, 1998), it didn’t mention my Campbell Award, so I pointed this out as an obvious mistake that should be rectified. But the publisher told me, nope, they weren’t putting that anywhere in the promo material, because it was irrelevant and no one cared.

I’ve also learned over the years that I make more substantial book advances than some Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree, etc. winners—though less than others, of course. Because book advances are largely based on sales or anticipated sales, rather than on awards.

Betsy-Wollheim

My editor and DAW Books co-publisher Betsy Wollheim receiving a well-deserved Best Editor Hugo in 2012.

So whatever the challenges of publishing indie that ones takes into account… my own experiences ensure that I’m not at all convinced that getting awards and nominations matters that much in a novelist’s career. Not enough, at any rate, to be factored into weighing the decision of whether to self-publish or to submit to publishers.

Which is not to say that awards don’t matter at all. For one thing, who doesn’t enjoy getting such recognition and kudos? Who doesn’t enjoy having a fantastic trophy in their office, as well as a daily reminder, within easy view, that they have published at least one thing that a lot of awards voters thought was the best work of the year in its category? Who doesn’t like subtitling their own name with, “_____ Award winner”? Winning awards is very satisfying, and personal satisfaction rates high in my world view.

Also, in a professional sense, an award is a handy thing. It raises the profile of your name and your work for a while. (For example, I first started thinking in 1994 about writing a fantasy novel because, after I won the 1993 Campbell, people started asking when I was going to write a novel in sf/f. I’d won for my body-of-work of short fiction up until then, and I was writing short fiction in sf/f strictly as an enjoyable sideline, sort of a paying hobby, amidst my book contracts as romance writer Laura Leone, where my career focus had been prior to 1993. But once people started asking, “Now that you’ve won the Campbell, when are you going to write a novel in this genre?” it occurred to me—because nothing slips past me!—that I had a window of opportunity here and should pursue it.)

Dad & awards

My dad, sf/f writer Mike Resnick, whose name recognition grew due, in part, to appearing often on awards ballots (and sometimes winning).

Moreover, getting on ballots regularly raises the profile of your name, in general, which is very handy. Name recognition is a key thing the writer strives for, so that editors will read the work quickly and eagerly (rather than let it gather dust in some remote corner of the office for two years), and so that readers will buy the work—nay, pre-order it!

And having said that, the good news is that there’s no reason indie novelists in sf/f can’t successfully pursue name-recognition-through-awards without a traditional book publisher in their careers, since most award categories in sf/f aren’t actually for novels, after all.

For example, the talented Kameron Hurley, whose sf/f novels are currently published by Angry Robot, won two 2014 Hugos, one for Best Fan Writer and the other for Best Related Work; both of those awards are for material that originated on her blog (some of it subsequently republished elsewhere). My friend Jim C. Hines, a popular novelist published by DAW Books, won his 2012 Hugo for Best Fan Writer, based on material on his blog. If you look through the Hugos history, you’ll see various other such examples.

Nor do you need traditionally published novels to attract nominations for your “other” work. Ted Chiang’s name appears on the Hugo and/or Nebula ballots almost every time he writes something—and he has never written a novel. Ken Liu, whose first novel will be released in April 2015, has previously won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Awards with his short fiction. There are regularly nominees in the short story, novelette, and novella slots on all of those awards ballots who haven’t published novels, just as there are winners in the related works and fan writing categories every year in the Hugos. And a writer who gets on those ballots can just as easily put “Nebula finalist” or “Hugo nominee” (or winner) on her indie-published novels as a traditional publisher can.

Yes, award-winning short fiction in sf/f is still still usually published by traditional or semi-traditional venues (as per the above examples), rather self-published. If your goal with a story is to get awards attention, then submitting to sf/f fiction magazines is a strategy you should seriously consider. This is business, not ideology, so you should always match your strategy for a given project to your goals for it, rather than burying your goals in unthinking loyalty to The One True Way of releasing your work. Anyhow, the good news there is that the exclusive digital license with most sf/f markets for short fiction is reasonably brief, compared to the decades-long exclusive digital license that major book publishers still present as “non-negotiable” in their contracts.

(For people wondering where these short fiction markets are, check out my Writer’s Resources Page, which includes links to sites with market listings. Or review recent finalist ballots for the major sf/f awards and take note of which publications regularly have stories on those ballots.)

And, of course, if a work of short fiction doesn’t sell after being submitted to every viable market, you can (a) revisit the markets that have changed editors since you got your rejection, or (b) self-publish it, which is an option that didn’t exist in the Jurassic era when I won the Campbell. Whether you do that, or self-publish your short fiction from the get-go, indie release is not a graveyard-of-certain-obscurity anymore in terms of awards, though you’ll presumably have to campaign even harder than a traditionally published short fiction writer does (and let’s not be coy–many people do indeed campaign for nominations and awards in sf/f).

Also, while others may disagree, I feel that I see a significant (not predictable, overwhelming, or universal; but significant) corollary each year between writers who get on  sf/f awards ballots and writers who’ve made themselves very noticeable in the sf/f community through high-profile blogging, Tweeting, and social media, and/or many con appearances, and/or SFWA service.

So I think an indie writer who wanted to raise the profile of her books through awards/nominations would be sensible to employ a strategy of submitting regularly to the sf/f magazines whose contents appear often on the awards ballots while simultaneously writing a blog where she works shrewdly on attracting a large blog audience (note: this requires more than ranting at people to go read your blog), Tweeting effectively, writing a lot of “related works” and “fan writing” material, and perhaps serving in a prominent, visible SFWA volunteer role. It’s an exhausting prescription (which is why I haven’t tried it), but I really do think that if a person’s fiction is good, then her chances of appearing on sf/f awards ballots within 2-3 years, if she maintained that schedule, would be strong, due to having attracted some name recognition, through various means, among people engaged in the sf/f world and likely to participate in nominating works for awards—which is a small, targetable community, after all.

Finally, keep in mind that lots of people read sf/f who don’t attend sf/f cons, read no sf/f blogs or newsgroups, and pay little-or-no attention to sf/f awards. That’s why writers who’ve never been nominated for an sf/f award (or who, like me, haven’t been nominated for anything in over 20 years) can have decent writing careers.

A friend reminded me recently that I used to say that when I finally bought a home and settled down (I used to live a peripatetic existence), I would start filling my house with animals.

Well, I bought a home just over 2 years ago–and, lo, I have filled it with animals!

In May, I adopted two cats from the Cat Adoption Team (CAT), a small local volunteer group which rescues cats and kittens from kill shelters and from the streets, and then fosters them (including providing all necessary medical care, spaying/neutering them, and getting them microchipped) until they’re adopted. (For those who are interested, CAT is a registered 501(c)(3) charity which accepts tax deductible donations. They also always need fosters, volunteers, sponsors, and, of course, people interested in adopting a cat and giving it a permanent, safe, loving home.) You can follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or visit their website.

When researching adoption, I was shocked to read about the plight of black cats, who are much less likely to be adopted and much more likely to be abused, abandoned, and euthanized than other cats. (And most shelters will not adopt out a black cat during October, because there are people who use them in horrific ways to “celebrate” Halloween.)

So I adopted two black cats from CAT in May 2014. We assume they’re brothers. They had turned up together at a rural kill shelter months earlier, after surviving for a few months on their own during an unusually bitter winter here. They seemed like heroic little fellows to me, so I named them after two of the most immortal heroes of all time, Hector and Achilles from Homer’s Iliad. In the story, of course, Achilles kills Hector in combat; but in this household, Hector & Achilles are inseparably close, the best of pals, and do everything together. They’re also very friendly and social, as well as very food-motivated, so it’s a lot like having two tiny labradors in the house, but with less mud or drool.

H&A-05-21-14

Hector & Achilles, occupying my writing chair.

Right around the time I adopted them, I got very interested in a hard-luck case at CAT. Rescued from the streets as a youngster, he was an extremely shy black-and-white tuxedo cat named Poe (a name I kept, since it suits him perfectly). Because Poe was too fearful to come to adoption events and too feral even to be visited in his foster home (where he mostly lived in hiding), there seemed little hope of his being adopted. But I somehow felt that this super-shy fellow, named after a writer, belonged here, along with my two well-adjusted, gregarious young cats (Poe is terrified of people but very cat-oriented, so he needed an adoptive home with cats who would befriend him). It took his foster a while to catch him and get him into a carrier, but eventually, 2-3 months after I adopted the brothers, Poe moved in here and I adopted him, too. Since then his progress has been slow, and I think he’ll always be a shy, anxious cat who hides from most people, but he has been making strides and settling in well. He’s great pals with Hector & Achilles, he now hides under the bed only part of the day, and he plays with his toys and enjoys his meals. As you can see, he is also quite a handsome fellow.

Poe1-9-16-14

Poe

 

Well, by then, I was really interested in CAT and the work they were doing. This small, well-run group with a tight budget is placing over 200 cats per year in adoptive homes–which is a lot of feline lives for a few volunteers to save. They also vet adopters carefully to make sure the cats they’ve rescued really are going to safe, loving, permanent homes. So when a couple of tiny kittens turned up in a rural kill shelter which had little ability to care for them, at a time when CAT volunteer homes were full-up with recent fosters, I decided to foster these two for CAT. Although a bit of work at times, since the kittens were sick when they arrived and didn’t recover fully for about 6 weeks, it was a great experience–including the support I got from CAT, which provides the food, toys, medicine, and medical care, as well as plenty of constructive advice and moral support. The kittens were little charmers who fit in well here, and who were adopted by a wonderful family soon after getting fully healthy and being spayed. Saying goodbye was hard, but it’s great to see cats who were abandoned and destined for an early death instead go home with a loving family one fine day.

My foster kittens, on their first day here.

My foster kittens on their first day here.

The girls growing up in their forever home.

Now growing up in their forever home.

 

MEANWHILE…. a little over a year ago, before I ever brought any cats into the house, I started fostering puppies for a service dog organization, 4 Paws For Ability, which focuses primarily on providing service dogs to children with a variety of disabilities, including epilepsy, diabetes (seizures), hearing impairments, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, mobility issues, and more. Fostering a service puppy is a big commitment, and (people always ask this, so let’s cut to the case), yes, giving them up is hard. But it’s worth it when you see your puppy graduate from training as a confident, skilled adult dog, and you meet the child and family whose lives this dog is completely changing.

My first foster was Snap, a male golden retriever puppy who lived here for about six months. About a week before I adopted Hector & Achilles, Snap returned to 4 Paws for his adult training. Snap was trained as a seizure alert dog, and he partners a little girl in Florida. He did very well in his training and, at last report, is doing great with his family, who love him and value the independence and security he brings to their daughter’s life.

Snap at 6 months.

Snap at 6 months.

 

During the months after Snap left, I adopted Hector, Achilles, & Poe. Then I fostered my second service puppy, Riona, a female golden retriever–and Snap’s younger half-sister.

Riona 2

Riona at about 5 months.

 Riona recently also went back to 4 Paws. She’s currently doing some additional training, and I’ll check on her in a couple of weeks. At present, it sounds like she will go into the breeding program rather than into service. Dogs in the breeding program live as family pets, and they have 2-3 litters to provide 4 Paws with more service puppies, before being sprayed and living out the rest of their lives with their families. In fact, although Riona is a very gentle dog who loved training and was good with kids, I think this is a good choice for her future, since Riona will make an excellent mother. While she was living here, my foster kittens moved in with us for two months–and Riona adored them. She played with them, napped with them, hung out with them. Although she was more than 10 times their size, she was a terrific playmate for them, gentle and patient. She also came along to adoption events with us and did a great job of comforting and calming them, since being in a carrier in a public place surrounded by strangers is scary for kittens.

Motley-Crew

Riona hanging out with the kittens.

 

With the kittens adopted and Riona back at 4 Paws now, there are currently just three 4-legged beings in residence here–the permanent ones: Hector, Achilles, & Poe. But for a while there, I had 6 animals in my small 2-bedroom townhouse, all of them very young and active (the eldest, Poe, is estimated to be only about 18 months old as of this writing), and 3 of them sick and requiring medications, extra cleaning (vomit, diarrhea, and bladder problems), and extra care. (The kittens arrived with multiple infections, and Riona got very sick as a puppy and needed medication for a couple of months.) And, as a neighbor pointed out when discovering me in a frazzled, babbling state outside my home one day, I had gone from 0 to 6 pretty quickly, without much time to adjust.

So while I enjoyed it all, and it was worthwhile, I’m rather glad to have a break now, with just me and the 3 lads at home. I will foster again for CAT and for 4 Paws, but not immediately–and I think I will try to avoid fostering for them both again at the exact same time...

Photo Oct 09, 2 39 00 PM

Just back from ConFusion in Dearborn (Detroit), Michigan, where I had a very good time, visited with old friends,  made new friends, talked craft and business (two of my favorite subjects), and did not get enough sleep. Same old, same old. 

Came home to find that the interior illustrations are all completed for BLACKGUARDS, an anthology in which I’ve got a new short story set in Sileria. Here it is!

Friendship
This is for a story titled “Friendship,” set two or three years before In Legend Born (Book 1 of the Silerian Trilogy) takes place. In Valdani-occupied Sileria, two powerful waterlords in the outlawed Honored Society are competing for dominance in the lawless mountain regions where the empire’s Outlookers have only tenuous control of the volatile and perpetually feuding population. When someone offers Kiloran friendship–always a very loaded term in Sileria–in exchange for his help with a problem, the shrewd old waterlord sees a chance to outmaneuver his ambitious younger rival, Baran, and so he sends one of his most capable assassins on a dangerous and secretive mission…

This story was commissioned by Ragnarok Publications for their upcoming anthology, Blackguards (for which I don’t yet have a firm release date, but it’s apparently going to be this spring). Funded by Kickstarter, the project raised so much money that all the stretch goals got funded–including commissioning an artist to do an original illustration for every story in the book. You can view the whole set of drawings here.

It’s going to be a very cool anthology with a lot of great stories, and as soon as we have a firm release date, I’ll let you know!

I canceled my cable TV account about a decade ago, quickly discovered I didn’t miss it, and have never had TV-reception since then. Since I don’t go to the cinema*, this means that I don’t see anything until it’s available via DVD or streaming video. Which is fine, because even when something I want to see, like Game of Thrones, takes a year after its TV/cable broadcast to be released, there are over 300 items in my Netflix queue I can spend my time watching, not to mention what I can see on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu.com, YouTube, or from my local library. So, no, I still haven’t seen Joffrey’s wedding and I also haven’t seen Outlander, but since I’ve got plenty to watch, I’m not grinding my teeth about it.

(*I only go to the cinema about once a year, and only because someone else wants to go and I’d be a real spoilsport to refuse. I have terrible luck at the movies, typically winding up seated near someone who insists on narrating the whole movie for everyone else’s benefit, or who has some sort of extremely noisy problem with his false teeth, or who decides that a seat near me is a good place to unzip and expose himself, or who keeps checking text messages and getting calls, or who evidently has dysentery and needs to visit the bathroom half a dozen times during a 100-minute film. Occasionally a basketball player decides to sit in front of me, and sometimes the projector breaks down halfway through the movie or there’s a fire drill. (You think I’m kidding?) Considering that experiences like these additionally require me to attend the film based on the cinema’s schedule rather than my own convenience, and that a movie, drink of water, and serving of popcorn at the cinema cost almost enough $ to fill the gas tank of my car… I’d really much rather stay home to watch a movie. Also, I find that there’s a lot more good TV than good films these days, anyway.)

ANYHOW, here’s what I watched in 2014, listed by title, (year), and country of origin:

Murder On the Orient Express (1974); UK

Saving Mr. Banks (2013); US

Sherlock, S3 (2014); UK

Confucius (2010); China

The Pickwick Papers (1952); UK*

Hitchcock (2012); UK

Les Misérables (2012); US/UK?

Prime Suspect, S3-S7 (1993-2006); UK*

Game of Thrones, S3 (2013); US*

Europa Report (2013); US

Poirot: Murder On the Orient Express (2010); UK

The Hours (2002); US

The Central Park Five (2012); US*

Farewell, My Concubine (1993); China

In the Mood For Love (2001); China

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); US

The Dirty Picture (2011); India

Talaash (2012); India*

Ravaan (2010); India

Chennai Express (2013); India

Jab Taak Hai Jaan (2012); India

Rosemary & Thyme, S1-S3 (2003-2006); UK*

Much Ado About Nothing (2012); USA

Lawrence of Arabia: Battle for the Arab World (2003); UK

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013); US

The Monuments Men (2014); US

Blue Jasmine (2013); US

The Awakening (2011); UK*

The Fall, S1 (2013); UK

Argo (2012); US

The Fifth Estate (2013); US

Too Big To Fail (2011); US*

Twelve Years A Slave (2013); US

The Bletchley Circle, S1-S2 (2012-2014); UK*

Midsomer Murders, S14 & S15 (2011-2012); UK

To Rome With Love (2012); US

Miss Marple: 4:50 From Paddington (1987); UK*

Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side (1992); UK*

Miss Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (1987); UK*

Miss Marple: They Do It With Mirrors (1991); UK*

Miss Marple, S1-S2 (1984-1986); UK*

Happy Valley, S1 (2014); UK*

Sleepy Hollow, S1 (2013); US*

Marco Polo, S1 (2014); US

Broadchurch, S1 (UK); 2013*

Julia (1977); US

30 Rock, S1-S4 (2006-2010); US*

 
(*I’ve put an asterisk next to anything I particularly enjoyed and definitely recommend.)

I watched a number of recent high-profile and/or well-reviewed movies in 2014, and I found most of them so mediocre or bad that I may give up on doing that, since this has been my experience several years in a row now. I thought Les Misérables, Blue Jasmine, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, The Wolf of Wall Street, Europa Report, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Monuments Men, and To Rome With Love all landed somewhere between disappointing and unwatchably awful.  I thought The Fifth Estate, Twelve Years A Slave, Argo, and Saving Mr. Banks were worth seeing, but nonetheless lauded beyond their merits–perhaps because they were good films released in a sea of really bad and disappointing ones.

Looking over my list, I see that my favorite movie of the year (meaning: of the ones I watched in the safety of my own home; not: “of the ones released  to cinemas in 2014”) was Talaash from India. Starring Hindi film legend Aamir Khan, a fine actor who’s made a number of (for Hindi commercial cinema) cutting-edge films, this is a compelling drama about a respected police officer who’s investigating the death of a Bollywood star who drove his car off an empty city street and into the bay one night, for no reason that anyone can discern. His investigation leads him into the underbelly of Bombay, in a story that involves sex trafficking and blackmail, and which ultimately weaves together with the cop’s own repressed guilt and grief over a recent bereavement. The story solution is one I didn’t see coming, but the clues are well planted all along the way. (A similarly well-constructed Indian thriller I highly recommend, with an equally surprising (though completely different) sort of ending is Kahaani (2012) starring Vidya Balan.)

A couple of other stand-alone films I really liked were The Awakening, which is an English ghost story (traditional, not gory, and well done); and The Central Park Five, a very compelling documentary about five young Harlem men who were imprisoned for a brutal rape they did not commit.

Most of my favorite viewing this year, though, was–surprise!–British mystery series. Why yes, this is in perfect keeping with most of my reading this year. Obviously, I’m on a kick here.

Directly due to my Agatha Christie reading binge, I watched all the Miss Marple TV episodes made with Joan Hickson in the 1980s–and I loved them! As has been said before, Hickson’s performance really was the best portrayal to date of Christie’s Miss Marple (though I enjoy the others); and these were the closest to the books of any TV or film adaptations so far.

I also really liked The Bletchley Circle, a suspense series about a group of women who start investigating neglected crimes in their frustrated desire to use their brains and skills in a society that has confined them to a very narrow existence in the backlash years after their highly-classified codebreaking work during WWII. And I found Broadchurch very compelling. It’s the story of how an apparently contented small town full of seemingly happy people starts crumbling when a child is murdered there and police start investigating.

Unquestionably my favorite discovery in British mystery, though, was Rosemary & Thyme, an absolutely charming British “cozy” mystery series about a couple of professional gardners/landscapers who keep stumbling across dead bodies and solving the crimes. It’s a combination of two very likeable lead actresses in their late 50s (an age at which very few American TV shows feature a woman in the lead role), good guest performers, light mysteries (no gore), and gorgeous garden settings for every episode (in France, Spain, and Italy, as well as England). I wound up watching many of the episodes twice, they were so pleasant.

Like many others, I enjoy Sleepy Hollow’s gothic/historical tone in a contemporary setting with paranormal premises, but my big discovery in American TV this year was 30 Rock. (Which series  ended a couple of years ago. I tend to “discover” most things years after everyone else does…) Tina Fey was the lead actress and also the head writer for this series about the head writer of a comedy-sketch show (which was Fey’s previous job, on Saturday Night Live), and 30 Rock is probably the first American sitcom I’ve liked since Frasier. It’s funny, feminist, odd, irreverent, and usually very well written. I was about halfway through the whole series by the end of 2014, am still watching it, and have recently listened to Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants, on audiobook–a good book with a lot of food for thought about being a working writer, about writing comedy, and about being a woman in a workplace  or profession that’s traditionally male-oriented.

So what were some of the best things that you watched in the past year?

My audiobook consumption increased dramatically due to buying a house about 2 years ago. My lifestyle suddenly includes painting, decorating, and gardening, and I often listen to audiobooks while doing that. Then I also started fostering puppies for a service dog organization about a year ago. I live in a small townhouse in the city with a very small yard, and a growing puppy (my first two fosters were golden retrievers who were 60-65 pounds by the time they returned to their training center) needs exercise. So walking those dogs about an hour a day gave me additional time to get through more audiobooks this year, since I usually wear my iPod when I take them out.

So here’s what I “read” via audiobook in 2014, listed by title, author, and (narrator):

Murder On the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (David Suchet)

The Mystery of the Blue Train, Agatha Christie (John Moffat)

The Ocean At the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (also narrator)

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Catherynne M. Valente (SJ Tucker)

A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie (Rosiland Ayers)

Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders, Neil Gaiman (also narrator)

Dead Heat, Dick Francis & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)

Call For the Dead, John LeCarré (Michael Jayston)

Under Orders, Dick Francis (Martin Jarvis)

Silks, Dick & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)

Gamble, Felix Francis (John Keating)

Mysterious Affair At Styles, Agatha Christie (Penelope Dellaporta)

Grave Goods, Ariana Franklin (Kate Reading)

10 Lb. Penalty, Dick Francis (Simon Prebble)

Even Money, Dick Francis & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)

Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell (Eva Haddon); re-reading

The Sirens Sang of Murder, Sarah Caudwell (Eva Haddon); re-reading

The Tuesday Club Murders, Agatha Christie (Joan Hickson)

Cards On the Table, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)

One Two Buckle My Shoe, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)

Death On the Nile, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)

Bolt, Dick Francis (Simon Prebble)

Death of A Bore, M.C. Beaton (Graeme Malcolm)

Murder At the Vicarage, Agatha Christie (James Saxon)

Murder Unprompted, Simon Brett (Simon Prebble)

 

I didn’t even realize until late in the year how overwhelmingly dominant British mystery fiction was in my audiobook reading in 2014. Instead of having a plan or a list, I just kept finishing books and then choosing whatever appealed next–which turned out, in particular, to be a lot of Agatha Christie! I’ve been on a Christie binge for a couple of years now, and having come this far, I’ve decided to set a goal of reading her complete works–which I figure will take another couple of years.

I had tried Christie a couple of times when I was in my early twenties and, for whatever reason, didn’t find her engaging. But I’m really enjoying her books now, obviously, both audio and print. (I am also addicted to the BBC’s radio-drama adaptations of her works.)

For one thing, I think her two separate series detectives, Monsieur Hercules Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, are much more interesting characters in the books than I had expected, since this rarely seems to get mentioned. (I can’t comment on another regular pair of detectives she wrote, Tommy & Tuppence, since I haven’t read any of their stories yet.)

A lot about Poirot and Marple is left to the imagination rather than related to us by the author. How did an early 20th century spinster who spent almost her entire life in a small English village become so shrewdly cynical about human nature and logically deductive about reality versus common misperception and deliberate falsehood? We are left to imagine the possible answers to that for ourselves while reading stories about a character who is very unusual while appearing to others to be the most conventional of stereotypes, a genteel elderly unmarried English lady who gardens and takes tea.

Poirot’s background is a little more colorful, though almost equally vague. We know he was born to a large, poor family in Belgium, served for years as a distinguished police officer, and arrived in England as a war refugee; and we never learn much more than that about his life prior to his first case in England as a private investigator, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, set during WWI. Poirot is an investigative genius, relying on minute observations, a shrewd understanding of human nature, and deductive brilliance to solve cases. He’s a deepy moral and often empathetic man, but his flaws are part of what make him a compelling character rather than a tiresome paragon. Poirot is extremely arrogant about his own abilities and so vain that it’s vital to him that others should know who he is and admire him professionally. He is also extremely vain about his personal grooming, as well as very fussy about food, tidiness, decor, other people’s toilette, etc. On numerous occasions, when Poirot has all the characters gathered at the end of the story to reveal whodunit, people with lives to lead keeping saying some version of, “Stop recounting to us every excruciating step of your investigation and how incredibly clever you were, and just tell us who the guilty party is!” And Poirot always refuses, because making sure others know how brilliant his investigation has been is as vital to him as exposing the killer to justice.

For all that the author was a person of her own era and not ours, and this is often evident in the text, Christie was obviously well aware of the insularity of her own society, since Poirot, throughout many books and stories, regularly encounters English people (of all classes) who are suspicious of foreigners, express xenophobic views, and judge him negatively because he speaks with an accent or dresses in an urban Continental style rather than like an English person.

Ironically, for all that I enjoy the settings, characters, and stories of Christie’s novels, I’m not always impressed by her mystery plots, which often strain credulity too far or just don’t work for me. For example, Murder On the Orient Express, one of her most famous novels, is like that for me. I find the characters and setting very appealing, and the way Poirot goes about figuring out what the murder is actually about and who all the characters really are completely holds my attention. But when we get to the denouement… (Semi-spoiler alert!) The plot solution involves far too much planning and organization among too many people, and just seems completely unbelievable if you’ve ever even tried to plan a weekend with friends or a family vacation. It also requires a bizarrely inexplicable level of obliviousness in the victim, who apparently doesn’t recognize any of the other characters, despite having good reason to recognize a number of them. And yet… apart from thinking the mystery solution was absurd, I really, really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone.

In particular, Christie’s novels work very well in audio format, probably because they’re plot-driven, so they keep moving along briskly. Of the narrators I’ve listened to, actor Hugh Fraser is the best–you forget you’re listening and just fall into the story, he evokes it so well. (He played Hastings, Poirot’s frequent sidekick, in the long-running British TV series starring David Suchet as Hercules Poirot.) However, Agatha Christie being not just a bestseller but a veritable legend, her books generally get top level actors as narrators, and all of them are good.

Several years ago I started keeping an annual list of what I read (as well as what films & TV shows I watch). I was partly inspired by my friend Don Wenzel’s annual list, since I enjoyed seeing if any our reading overlapped when I looked at his list.

I had also recently been asked on blogs or interviews, two years in a row, to name the best books or films I’d consumed that year… and, being me, I went blank both times and couldn’t remember anything I’d read or seen all year. So I decided I should start keeping a list. This has effectively prevented anyone from asking me again–so it’s working!

And, finally, I found that I was ordering, reserving, buying, opening, and/or starting various books and films twice, and only realizing after a few chapters of reading or twenty minutes of viewing that I’d already read/watched this story–or had already tried it once and hadn’t liked it enough to keep going. This is especially easy to do when you’re on an Agatha Christie binge, as I have been lately, since it’s hard (for me, at least) to remember all the titles.

I didn’t read as many books in 2014 as I had intended (though I almost doubled my “reading” with audiobooks, coming up in a near-future post). Given the size of my To be Read pile, my goal for 2015 is to double my reading.

Anyhow, here’s the list:

  • The Silence, Sarah Rayne (iPad)
  • Fortunately, the Milk [children’s book], Neil Gaiman (iPad)
  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (iPad)
  • Death Ain’t But A Word, Zander Marks (iPad)
  • In and Out of Character, Basil Rathbone
  • The Oldie: Jennifer’s Diary (by One Fat Lady) [collected columns], Jennifer Paterson
  • The Love Talker (re-reading), Elizabeth Peters (iPad)
  • Be the Monkey, Barry Eisler & Joe Konrath (iPad)
  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” [novella], Ted Chiang* (iPad)
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” [novella], Ted Chiang (Subterranean online)
  • “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” [novella] Ted Chiang* (Subterranean online)
  • The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight [Kindle Single], Andrew Richard Albanese (iPad)
  • “What the Hell Is Going On With The Debt Ceiling?” [Kindle Single], Stephen Dove (iPad)
  • “Wakulla Springs” [novella], Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (iPad)
  • The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, Matt Baglio
  • The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed & Lorraine Warren, Gerald Brittle (iPad)
  • “India Dishonoured: Behind A Nation’s War On Women” [Kindle Singles], Sunny Hundal (iPad)
  • Ghost Song, Sarah Rayne
  • The Dark On the Other Side (re-reading), Barbara Michaels (iPad)
  • Death Comes As the End, Agatha Christie (iPad)
  • Here I Stay, Barbara Michaels (re-reading)
  • Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Agatha Christie (iPad)
  • Agatha Christie’s The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah (iPad)
  • This Is My Letter To the World: The Omikuji Project, Cycle One [short stories], Catherynne M. Valente (iPad)
  • Break In, Dick Francis (iPad)
  • The Hollow, Agatha Christie
  • Hickory Dickory Dock, Agatha Christie
  • “The Three Monarchs: A Sherlock Holmes Short Story,” Anthony Horowitz (iPad)
  • “A Plague of Zombies” [novella], Diana Gabaldon (iPad)
  • The Honey Month, Amal El-Mohtar (iPad)
  • The Day Diana Died, Christopher Anderson
  • Third Girl, Agatha Christie (iPad)


This year was the first time I ever read Ted Chiang, and now I understand why he appears on awards ballots almost every time he releases a story. His “Lifecycle of Software Objects,” in particular, has really stayed with me.

My mom recommended Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song to me, which I really enjoyed when I got around to it. Since I happened to come across a copy of The Silence first, I read that initially. I enjoyed it, but would agree that Ghost Song is the better novel and the one I really recommend: A surveyor in contemporary London starts uncovering a dark and complex mystery when evaluating an old music hall that’s been boarded up for nearly a century.

I’m a huge fan of a writer and Egyptologist named Barbara Mertz, who wrote bestselling fiction under the pen names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, and it’s my habit to re-read a few of her novels almost every year. The Dark On The Other Side is one of my very favorite Michaels novels and I’ve re-read it a number of times.

Thanks to getting an iPad last year, I’ve started reading Kindle Singles, a “curated” program (meaning, there’s an editor) which has become a new home for long form journalism. I highly recommend “The Battle of $9.99” to anyone who wants a better or more informed understanding of the collusive price-fixing scheme for which the Department of Justice filed antitrust charges against Apple and five major publishers. I also found “India Dishonoured” shocking and eye-opening.

I started reading Agatha Christie a couple of years ago, an author I had tried and not particularly liked when I was younger. For whatever reason, that has changed with time and now I’m really enjoying her books. I found Death Comes As the End memorable, since it’s set in ancient Egypt, whereas everything else she wrote was set in the era she was writing it (which means her fictional world covers more than fifty years of the 20th century).  Anyhow, between print and audio, I think I’m about halfway through Christie’s body of work, and I intend to keep going and read it all.

So what were some of your favorite reads during 2014?

Esther Diamond: Abracadaver by Laura ResnickAbracadaver, the seventh Esther Diamond novel is out (as of Tuesday, 25)!

As readers may remember, at the end of Esther Diamond #6, The Misfortune Cookie,  Esther and her friend Alberto “Lucky Bastard” Battistuzzi suddenly suspect something is mystically suspicious about Quinn, the new police partner of Esther’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Detective Lopez.  They’re alerted to this by the peculiar reaction that contact with Quinn sets off  in Dr. Maximillian Zadok’s trusty familiar, Nelli (a dog who is the size of a small moving van).

Confession: When I wrote that scene, I had no idea what was strange about Quinn or what Nelli had sensed. I delivered The Misfortune Cookie to Betsy Wollheim at DAW Books and started pitching titles for the next book, still not knowing what was “wrong” about Quinn.

In writing him as a minor character in The Misfortune Cookie, Quinn had come across to me as a quintessentially regular, ordinary, standard-issue guy. So I wound up feeling his very ordinariness meant he must be really out of the ordinary in some way. Nelli can sense what the rest of the characters can’t, so she would be the obvious candidate to notice something “off” in a seemingly ordinary guy about whom Esther has no suspicions whatsoever. And since Nelli can’t talk, Max, Esther, and Lucky can’t simply ask Nelli what’s worrying her about this person. So they’ve got to determine how to find out on their own—and to do so without arousing Quinn’s (or Lopez’s) suspicion, since it’s possible that whatever Nelli has sensed about him makes him very dangerous.

Editor Betsy Wollheim

Betsy Wollheim of DAW Books accepting the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Editor.

So that was as much as I knew about Esther Diamond #7 (ED7) when I started pitching titles to La Wollheim.

Although the way I usually write most books (and short stories) is to start working on a story and wait for the title to emerge from that process, the ED titles are all paranormal puns, and these are such a bitch to think up (made all the harder by a monstrously cruel demonic demanding editor who keeps turning down proposed ED titles until we come up with one that’s good enough), I usually start an Esther Diamond novel by trying to find the title first, then I plot the book.

Before I have a title, I already know certain things about the next book, such as the main events that will occur in Esther’s personal and professional life, probably which of the series’ regular or semi-regular characters  will be in it, and probably what sort of setting the book will have (ex. Chinatown, or an Off-Broadway theatre in the Village, or Harlem, etc.). But I usually figure out the story’s specific supernatural menace and the storyline based on the title that’s finally approved.

However, since it can take weeks to come up with a title that She Who Must Be Obeyed approves, I often start thinking about a plotline before I have a final title. And this usually goes badly. I had to throw out my plot ideas for both Polterheist and The Misfortune Cookie after I finally got title approval—because those titles had absolutely nothing to do with the ideas I was working on. (This was meant to be, obviously; the final stories I came up with are better than what I was working on, which stuff I barely even remember now. And this is an example of why, even when I want to drum my heels, I let Betsy have the last word on my Esther Diamond titles.)

Well, we went so long without a workable title for ED7 that, behind the scenes, the book was becoming known as Erectile Dysfunction #7.  And then after a while, this word—abracadaver—kept popping into my head. It had nothing to do with the story idea I was working on for Erec… Esther Diamond #7, and I had no idea why it kept coming to me. But since it did, and since I was getting desperate, I emailed it to Betsy one night around 2AM—and got an immediate reply indicating THAT’S IT! THAT’S YOUR TITLE!

Cool! So now I had a title! At long last!…

And absolutely no freakin’ idea how the hell I was going to get a story out of the word “abracadaver” that would explain why Nelli thought something was alarming about Quinn.

I finally figured it out about two weeks later. And when I did, it was one of those forehead-slapping moments. It seemed so obvious to me, I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t seen it instantly.

But as my friend Mary Jo Putney often reminds me, if this job were easy, everyone would do it.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy Abracadaver!