The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: a review

For the past few years, I’ve been reading mostly genre fiction. Graduate school and a long string of deathly dull reads had convinced me that the new literary novel was of interest to nobody who didn’t live in New York City and/or worship John Updike (or at least Cormac McCarthy) as a god. But this year, I’ve decided to return to my roots and at least read all the novels that made this year’s long list for the National Book Award. I started with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad because it’s the only one on the shelves at my local library—thanks, Oprah! And reading it has confirmed my faith in the experiment. All kidding and personal prejudice aside, good books are being published every week in every genre, but not so many great ones. The Underground Railroad is great.

I won’t spoil the experience of discovering this story for anybody else by describing any single incident of action—it’s too damned awful and too damned good. It’s an epic saga, a journey of discovery like The Odyssey or Ulysses or Lord of the Rings. The heroine is Cora, an escaped slave who is neither Eliza Harris nor William Styron’s version of Nat Turner but a well-rounded, specific, relatable human being as all great epic heroes are. She moves through the various hellscapes of the 19th-century American “slave states” of the South and Midwest via the Underground Railroad which in this allegorical fantasy is not a metaphor but a literal railway system under the earth and the story’s central symbol. Like all great epics, Cora’s story brims over with poetry; Whitehead uses a clean, caustic prose style and his heroine’s unflinching point of view to create some of the most horrific scenes and incidents I’ve ever read without ever once resorting to sentimentality or melodrama. Again unlike Stowe or Styron, he doesn’t try to tug our heartstrings or even inflame our rage; he’s not arguing a thesis. He’s just telling the horrible truth. The novel is more artful than historical in its structure and approach, but everything that happens to Cora happened to somebody; it’s the history of slavery distilled.

The book directly references Jonathan Swift’s great fantastical allegory, Gulliver’s Travels, and the comparison is apt. I also saw a lot of Dante in Cora’s journey through layers of darkness toward the light. But if I had followed my original career plan and become a lit professor, I’d be assigning my students to read this book alongside Mark Twain’s great contemporary novel of the slave states, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve adored Twain’s book since I first read it as a child, and the recent backlash and charges of racism made against it make me sad. But most of those complaints are aimed directly at the character of Jim, an escaped slave who becomes a father figure to the scrappy, abused, white trash child hero, Huck. Twain has great respect for Jim (his word choice in his naming notwithstanding) and great affection, and Jim is a great character. But he’s not real. Like Eliza and Styron’s Nat, he’s a white man’s fantasy of blackness. With Cora, Whitehead (among other accomplishments entirely unconnected to any other work at all) fills in that gap. He gives us the view from the other side of the raft—or rather, not from a raft rolling down the open air above the mighty Mississippi but from a broken boxcar steaming through a dark hole in the earth. There are also interesting parallels to be drawn between Whitehead’s villain, the slave catcher Ridgeway, and Huck Finn himself, and even Jim’s legal owner, Miss Watson, has her own dark shadow in Whitehead’s tale, a dotty old dear who dies without a will and damns the slaves she leaves behind to hell. A comparison between the two books could make one hell of a paper.

But the point is, it’s a great book. Don’t miss it.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Comma

chasing the dragon coverAs a lot of people know, my sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are pretty much the entire standing staff of Little Red Hen Romance. We both write stories and novels for the press, and we edit one another. There are many advantages to having your beloved sister as your editor. But there are times, particularly for Lexie, when it’s a real pain in the ass.

Lex has just finished a truly amazing Sherlock Holmes novella that should be coming out in the next few weeks, and I’ve been working on the copy edit. Lex is one of the most amazing, original, intelligent writers I know, and her grammar and punctuation are almost perfect. But that girl will party hearty with a comma; she gets it drunk and lets it sprawl naked in the most ungodly places or forgets it entirely and leaves it dead in a ditch. As a former composition instructor, I tend to lose my mind about this on a regular basis. And since this is apparently becoming a hot topic issue (see here: Daniel McMahon for Business Insider 5-2-16), we thought it might instructive or at least entertaining to see our latest exchange on the subject:

THE SAME STUPID COMMA MISTAKE THREE TIMES, ALL FROM THE SAME PARAGRAPH!!!!!!!

Okay, you’re gonna learn how to do this if it kills us both.

Example Number One:

As written by the brilliant Lexie Christian:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

This sentence is two independent clauses joined by the conjunction “and.” As are all of these examples. And it’s the EASIEST FREAKIN THING IN THE WORLD TO IDENTIFY!!!!

So, what are our two clauses? How do I know we have two? We start with the verbs. What are the verbs?

1) offered

2) managed

Okay, so who or what offered? The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat – so there we have the spine of clause number one, “coat and hat offered.” Everything that tells us information about the coat and hat (whose it was [the doorman] and what he was like [unfortunate]) and what they offered and how [an easy disguise]) are part and parcel of that clause. So Clause Number One is:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise.

So our next verb is managed. Who or what managed? He, Sherlock, our intrepid hero. Everything about him and what he managed is Clause Number Two:

This time [when he managed] he managed [there’s that spine] to pass through the doors [what he managed to do] without incident [how he did it].

Because neither of these clauses begins with an adverb like when or as or because or anything else that would turn it into a dependent clause/super-adverb supporting the other that can’t stand alone, these are two independent clauses joined with nothing more than the most common and beloved of all conjunctions, and. So you put a FUCKING COMMA IN FRONT OF THE AND!!! And thus after edits it becomes:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

SIDE NOTE ON DEPENDENT CLAUSES WHICH YOU ALMOST NEVER USE AND USUALLY GET RIGHT WHEN YOU DO: To make these the joining of a dependent clause to an independent clause, one of these clauses has to become a super-adverb. If it comes at the beginning, you need a comma:

Because the unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

But if it comes at the end, you don’t:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise when this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

Your way, the two independent clauses is MUCH BETTER; it’s stronger and gives the reader chunks of easily visualized information. It was Mark Twain’s favorite sentence construction. AND HE ALWAYS PUT THE DAMNED COMMA IN IT!!!

So on to Example Number Two. As written, thus:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What are the verbs:

1)had been set up

2)had been moved (accommodate is also a verb, but by adding the “to” to it, you’re using it as part of an adverb modifying had been moved; it tells why the moving was done. Lesser minds would be confused by this; I know you can see it.)

What had been set up? Stage

What had been moved? Chaises

So our two clauses are:

1) A small stage had been set up along the back wall.

2) The cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What is joining them? There’s our lil buddy and again.

So our edited sentence becomes:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall, and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

And finally, coming to you live from the exact same descriptive paragraph, I bring you Example Number Three:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Verbs?

1) was swathed

2) hung

What was swathed? Room

What hung? Musk

Two clauses then?

1) The entire room was swathed in red and gold.

2) The heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Add our friend and and the comma it should have rode in on:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold, and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

If you could ever just absorb that this is WHY this comma needs to be there, I promise, you’ll just put it there naturally without having to go through this half-assed diagraming of the sentence. But just saying, “Fuck it, I can’t do commas; sue me,” looks like a consistent, habitual amateur mistake, the kind of thing that can make less imaginative editors who don’t love you and your writing like I do dismiss you as a lightweight. And that just is not acceptable. Every one of these sentences is brilliant; you’ve compacted massive amounts of vibrant information into just a few words and created a whole scene. So just get the commas right!

Rise Up, Kittens! Or at least stop lying down . . . .

Without writers, publishing as an industry would not exist.  Well, duh, you may well say; how obvious; how trite; how could any sane person not know that?  And I would agree.  But I begin to suspect that this truth we declare self-evident is in fact the greatest of mysteries to the rest of the monstrous machine.

One of the great traditions of traditional publishing is treating the people who write the product they sell like galley slaves, a necessary inconvenience that whines too much and smells kind of funny.  Myself, I’ve spent immense slabs of my professional life waiting around on some agent or editor to give me an answer on something even when they called me first.  Hurry up and wait and don’t ask for anything has always been the order of the day, and writers have had the choice to either take it on the chin or head on back to grad school.

The brave new world of independent and self-publishing is supposed to give us another choice.  Small presses can be more responsive, more enthusiastic, more nimble in their protocols, and for the most part, from what I’ve seen, they are.  As for self-pubbing, who could care more about getting your book out in the world and collecting golden lucre for it than you do yourself?

But over the past couple of months, I’ve seen more and more evidence that writers are still getting slapped around by the very people who live off their art.  A major independent press founded on the premise that women’s fiction could be erotic without being skeevy recently paid a huge advance for and spent big wads of cash promoting the memoir of an amateur porno princess who can’t even spell just because she’s a “reality star.”  And when some of the authors on their roster, many of whom have made them a great deal of money and very few of whom have ever received any advance at all dared to protest, they were basically told to suck it up, buttercup.  And by the way, where’s your registration fee check for the conference?

Speaking of conferences . . .  just this week, I saw a posting from a delicate flower who makes most of her book-related money from other writers who pay her to promote their work.  In this very public address, she employed the f-bomb with wild abandon to bully and castigate the writers WHO ARE PAYING HER for a conference for daring to book rooms outside the conference hotel.  Putting together a conference is a lot of work and very expensive, no question.  Organizers are certainly within their rights to encourage guests to help with costs by booking rooms on site whenever possible.  And from what I understand, the conference in question is “kind of a big deal” in the genre it promotes.  But NOBODY has the right to use that kind of abusive language toward the writers who, for lack of a better word, are their customers.  No product is that good.  I love chocolate, but if the lady from Godiva calls me an effin bitch on a public forum, be it me individually or in toto with all chocolate lovers everywhere, I’m going to make do with Hershey’s kisses from then on.  And I would strongly advise all other chocolate lovers—or conference attendees—to do the same.

Which brings me to my point.  Things are tough all over; making a living as a writer is harder right now than it’s been in more than a century, I suspect.  With traditional houses going corporate crazy and Amazon wanting to give it all away for free, anybody who says they can help can seem like a haven in the wilderness, your only hope for any kind of success, even if they’re treating you like crap.  But I’m here to tell you, it ain’t so.  You will have to be patient.  You will have to compromise.  You will have to get outside your comfort zone to promote your work.  But nobody, and I mean nobody, has the right to treat you like their bitch.  No publisher.  No agent.  No editor.  No promoter.  Because what you do is magic.

And I promise you, I absolutely swear, there are people in every one of those fields who, if you’re talented and willing to work for it, are ready to help you, not out of the kindness of their hearts but because they believe in good writing and they believe in you.  I’ve sold my last two books to Purple Sword Publications, Strange as Angels which is out now, and Alpha Romeo which is coming soon, and everybody there has been smart and professional and kind.  And Seventh Star Press has just announced a new imprint called Seventh Starlight that is going to publish truly amazing speculative romance.  I know this because under my real name, Jessica Glanville, I’ll be their editor-in-chief.  I’ve talked to a lot of writers who have written for them; I’ve seen the great books they publish, and I’ve seen the way they operate, how they acquire work, how they package it, how they promote it.  I never thought I’d ever work in the publishing side of the process; I love just writing too much.  But I’m proud to be part of their team.

In short, my kittens, there are good people out there in the dark, scary jungle of the marketplace.  Respect yourself enough to hold out until you find them.

When One Demon Lover Just Isn’t Enough – Behind the Red Door by Alexandra Christian

BehindTheRedDoor_72dpi

Just in time for lazing on the beach (or hiding your Kindle from the kiddies at the beach house), my baby sister, Alexandra Christian, is releasing all three novellas in her Behind the Red Door series from Mocha Memoirs Press in one hot and handy volume.  But here, I’ll let her tell you all about it:

Welcome to The Oubliette.

Cali Barrows has had it with love.  After wasting three years with the man she thought was the love of her life, she finds out that he’s been sleeping with his boss.  Broken-hearted and bored, Cali’s life had become a string of TV dinners and tawdry romance novels. She wondered where her life was going until she followed the mysterious stranger through the red door and enters a world that few would everknow existed.

The Oubliette is a safe haven for all those creatures that go bump in the night.  They cater to a very particular clientele and only those who seek it out may find the red door leading into a dark paradise of otherworldly delights.  Together with her vampire hosts, André and Leo, Cali becomes a matchmaker for the undead and unwittingly gets herself into all sorts of mischief, all the while slipping into a decadent world where every sensual desire is fulfilled.

One reviewer on Amazon wrote about “Three to Tango”:  “Two vampires, one human: many possibilities. I adored this story. It was shorter than I would like, to be honest. Just enough heat to spice things up without ruining the story.”

Get yer own here:

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=Alexandra%20Christian&search-alias=books#/ref=sr_nr_p_n_feature_browse-b_2?rh=n%3A283155%2Cp_27%3AAlexandra+Christian%2Cp_n_feature_browse-bin%3A618073011&bbn=283155&ie=UTF8&qid=1349328622&rnid=618072011

Barnes and Noble:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/strange-bedfellows-alexandra-christian/1113051106?ean=2940015623277

All Romance eBooks:  http://www.allromanceebooks.com/storeSearch.html?searchBy=author&qString=Alexandra+Christian

Bookstrand:  http://www.bookstrand.com/alexandra-christian

Smashwords:  http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/234701

A nifty holiday gift from Purple Sword Publications

purple sword samplerPrefer to taste before you buy?  Purple Sword Publications knows you do, you naughty minx, and they’ve put out a sampler o’ sexy reads just for you.  Excerpts from all their best paranormal and fantasy erotica and romance from 2013, all in a pretty purple package, all for free.  (Including a few hot bites from my own Purple Sword book, Strange as Angels (https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-strangeasangels-1297349-340.html)

Get your (free -did I mention it’s totally FREE?) sampler here:

https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-purpleswordsampler2013-1374862-166.html

Fresh Blood: VWSG Anthology Vol. 1

Psssssttt!!!! Wanna read 13 AMAZING vampire stories? Wanna get the e-book REALLY CHEAP?!?! From now through Halloween, Smashwords has the Vampire Writers Support Group’s very first anthology, Fresh Blood, on deep discount. All kinds of vamps, romance to pure horror, from some of the very best writers I know – including me. 🙂 From Smashwords copy

Some end of the year housecleaning

tenderbitescoverHey kittens, guess what?  We survived the end of the world!  And with any luck, we’ll survive the end of 2012 altogether.  Just a few things before we do . . . .

First of all, thanks again SO MUCH to everybody who entered our Ho-Ho-Holiday Giveaway.  (Check out the text box to the right if you still don’t know who won.)  We had such a blast putting it together and such a good response, we’re already planning the sequel.  (Watch this space!)

Secondly, if you want to read my free-here-on-the-blog Christmas story, “Kissing Noel,” but you haven’t gotten around to it yet, hie thee hence, my darlings.  Come January 2, 2013, it’s gone . . . for-EV-AAAAAHHHHH.  Well, okay, gone until I put together another anthology at some point, but right now it’s free.  (Kindle & Nook & iPad lovers, if you really really really need a pdf, drop me a line at lucybluecastle@gmail.com before New Year’s Day, and I’ll see if I can hook you up.)

And finally, my vampire romance anthology, Tender Bites, is still very much available from Amazon for the shockingly low price of $2.49 – if you know somebody who got a Kindle for Christmas, my vamps will be more than happy to help them warm it up.

And unless there’s something somebody else wants to talk about, I think that’s it.  Thanks so much for reading this year; you guys know you all rock out.  I can’t wait to see what’s coming up for all of us in 2013!

Everybody’s got their sexy . . . .

When I first heard that the Bound in Darkness series was being translated and released by foreign publishers, I just assumed they would use the same covers as the original American version from Pocket.  Boy howdy, was I wrong.

Here’s what the first book, My Demon’s Kiss, looked like at your local American Barnes & Noble store (or similar outlet in the U.K. or Australia or wherever English-language paperbacks were sold):

The story takes place in medieval England, but this is very much an American romance cover – it’s all about the torso, baby, all about that chest.  (A straight male friend, who is understandably immune to the charms of such an image, dubbed this gorgeous hunk of man flesh a member of the Medieval Village People.)  Subsequent installments featured the same model with even more flesh showing – not a bad thing at all.

The Germans went for a much more understated look, I think – much more like what we Americans would think of as women’s fiction.  It’s beautiful; I love it; but I’d never peg this as a romance.  (And yes, it’s exactly the same book.)

 

I love the castle, and the model is gorgeous, but would you think this was a medieval romance?  To me, it looks more like a ‘woman’s thriller’ – she looks like a beautiful American tourist whose just been swept up in an international intrigue by a dashing Eurotrash dude who may or may not be a spy.

But far and away the most striking for me is the Italian version.  Remember those dudes on the covers of Johanna Lindsey and Bertrice Small books in the 1970s?  Amateurs – understated banker types by comparison to this guy.

It’s the Pagani Zonda F super car of romance novel covers – the chest hair!  The lace!  I just adore it -and I just know he can’t believe it’s not butter.  (Stupid in joke – sorry, Fabio.) 

There’s also a Japanese version from a publisher best known for anime – I can’t find it, but if anybody else can, pleeeease send me the link. 

So tell me this, kittens – if all three of these books were in a language you were comfortable reading, sitting side by side on a shelf, and you had to buy one, which one would you pick? 

Sanguine Kiss by Alexandra Christian – read it!

Today I’m turning over the crunchety, chocolatey blogness to somebody else – romantic erotica goddess Alexandra Christian.  Lex’s latest e-book, Sanguine Kiss, comes out today (September 12), and I trapped her in a small room and made her talk to me about it and her writing life in general. 

LB:  In 50 words or less, what’s your book about?

Sanguine Kiss is about a woman, Gillian, who is ditched by her lover in a most unsavory way.  Feeling rejected and replaced, she walks out on a bridge with the intention of jumping.  Before she can do it, she’s confronted by the sexy and arrogant Seth.  He offers her a better way of escaping the bonds of her mortal life.  He’s a vampire, bored with eternity and longing for a companion.  Gillian is all too keen on accepting his gift, but first she has some unfinished business.

 LB:  Is this your first vampire story?  What inspired you to write about vampires right now?

This is my first vampire story to be published.  I’ve always been a fan of the genre, both in literature and film.  Vampires are the ultimate sexy anti-hero, but in recent years, like many vampire enthusiasts, I’d become disillusioned with the whole genre.  Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and other books that are basically “My Big Fat Vampire Wedding” have been essentially de-fanging vampires by not letting them be the brutal predators they are.  It’s disappointing because you’re cutting off your hero’s testicles before the story even begins.  I became determined some years back to write a romance that had a ferocious vampire who likes blood and sex, yet still has a moral compass and isn’t afraid to rip your throat out.  Vampires should be scary, and there are several times in Sanguine Kiss where Seth is not only sexy but damned scary.

 LB:  Do you have a favorite vamp from literature or popculture? 

There are so many, it’s hard to choose.  Anyone who has ever met me is very much in touch with my love of the cheezy ’80s movie The Lost Boys.  The character of David in that movie is the epitome of the sexy vampire.  He likes girls, he’s fuckin’ scary, and he’s a killer.  He also has this joy about being immortal.  He doesn’t sit around whining about how miserable he is.

LB:  So why are we going to fall madly in lust with your vampire hero?

Seth is, at first glance, the ultimate romance novel hero.  He’s muscular, long dark hair and these incredible piercing eyes.  He commits his first heroic act by page five, but quickly dispenses with the boy scout routine.  He’s beautiful, arrogant, rich beyond our wildest dreams, and has this hyper-intelligence that is at first unnerving.  He has this inherent dominance that lets Gillian know he’s an Alpha from the first time they speak, but it isn’t something that he has to assert.  It’s simply a fact that we just accept. 

LB:  What’s your writing ritual?  What’s your favorite place and/or way to write?

I try to write every day, though sometimes it doesn’t work out.  My usual place is sitting on the couch with my dog, Murphy, sleeping at my side.  I have to have music in my ears, and I ALWAYS have a playlist to go along with each story.  In fact, any of my readers that subscribe to Spotify can listen to my “Dark Sexy” playlist, and they’ll be listening to the Sanguine Kiss playlist.  My favorite place to write, though, would be a coffeeshop with my writing buddies.  We have a weekly group that goes to our local Starbucks faithfully every Thursday night.  Those nights are usually my most productive times.  I don’t know if it has something to do with the pressure of knowing I have to be out by 10 pm or the unconscious competition with my peers or maybe just the double shot of espresso in the White Chocolate Mocha.

 LB:  What are you writing right now? 

I have several projects in the works right now.  I have another vampire story coming out this month with Mocha Memoirs Press that’s actually the beginning of a series about a nightclub that’s kind of like a singles’ bar for the paranormal.  I’m working on another series that involves different fetishes. I hope to be able to announce more about that one later this month.  I’ve also got two novels in their early stages:  a pirate adventure with mermaids and a voodoo retelling of the obscure French fairy tale, “The White Cat.”  I’m also collaborating  on a steampunk novel with the amazing Lucy Blue.  I’m really excited about that one!  At any rate, I’m a busy girl these days. 

LB:  It all sounds amazing – very best of luck with all of it.  And yeah, you have my sympathy about that co-writer of yours . . . .  

So there you go, kittens – new vampy delectable!  I can’t wait to read it.