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Author: Elizabeth Cady

Liz is a former Academic with interests ranging from Ancient Geography, Philosophy and Ethnicity to neuroscience to Marvel comics. She blogs at Black Gate on all things audio (and whatever else catches her fancy). In her copious free time, she writes the web serial Storm and Ash, which can be found at stormandash.com.
Horror in a Time Of Coronavirus

Horror in a Time Of Coronavirus

The Nightmare Henry Fuseli-small

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781

Horror is a reflection of its times.

All story-telling is: you can read the words of any time and find its birthday stamped in all its pages. Jane Austen couldn’t write a Renaissance novel, Hemingway didn’t write regency fiction, and Shakespeare couldn’t write in the sparse, bare bones prose that Hemingway did.

But horror is rather specifically tied to its own moment. When it works, it grows out of not just an individual’s fear but the atmospheric fear of an age.

Every generation of Horror has its own kind of terroir (a term from wine making that means the taste-remnants of every factor that goes into a bottle, from sun to rain to the trace minerals in the soil to the specific woods in the barrel a vintner uses). Frankenstein is stamped with Mary Shelley’s own biography (the loss of her children, her strained and strange relationship with her father and the ghost of her mother), but also a Romantic-era tension between technology and nature, Humanism and the ideas of divinity. Dracula is most obviously steeped in Edwardian era anxiety about sexuality, women’s role in society, and how rapid social changes are affecting both.

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Tell Me a Story: Upside-down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

Tell Me a Story: Upside-down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

Upside Down Magic-small Upside Down Magic-back-small

When it comes to my own preference, I like my audiobooks dark, spooky, snarky, and full of drama. But I’m not the only person in this house! In fact, I share it with (among several other mammals) a pair of elementary school aged girls for whom I am the staff. I mean mom. They’re five and eight, and some of my favorite books aren’t appropriate to play when they’re around. (I’m fairly progressive but I’m not ready to explain what exactly they’re doing on the movie set in Jim Butcher’s Blood Rites, for example.)

Finding strong, good quality stories that are suitable for them and tolerable to me is a priority. Enter  Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and emily Jenkins’ Upside-Down Magic, a series of children’s novels that are delightful, original, and convey the kind of messages I don’t have to worry about them repeating in school the next day.

The central protagonist of Upside-Down Magic is Eleanor “Nory” Horace. Her father is the headmaster of a prestigious boarding school, and she’s preparing for entrance exams. By studying her shapeshifting. Nory is a “fluxer”, someone whose magic manifests as allowing her to change form. Nory is in most ways going through a normal adolescence in the world of Upside Down Magic. All people develop some kind and degree of magical ability, which manifests around their tenth birthday. Fifth grade, then, means transitioning from general education to magic school. Nory is expected to follow her father and siblings’ footsteps by entering the American magical equivalent of Eton.

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A Dark and Eerie Journey: Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Tree

A Dark and Eerie Journey: Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Tree

The Hazel Wood Melissa Albert-small“My mother was raised on fairy tales, but I was raised on highways.”

Melissa Albert, via her narrator and protagonist Alice, opens The Hazel Wood with these words. The careful reader will latch on to that “but” right away, a particle suggesting that there is a great difference between the two — fairy tales and highways. Alice, raised by a single mother in a series of flights from bad luck, bad bosses and broken leases, believes there is. She is, at the book’s opening, a very typical protagonist in Young Adult fiction of the last sixty years. Outsider? Check. Troubled past? Check. Few or no friends? Check. Alice has recently undergone a drastic change in circumstances, as her mother has married a wealthy New York businessman. This has brought her a stable home, a stepfather who is at least trying to do right by her, and admission to an elite private school. There is a young man with a similar degree of wealth and a troubled past of his own.

And then things take a sharp turn off the well paved streets into new territory.

If you’re a fan of de Lint, Gaiman, McGuire or del Toro, the first line warned you. Alice has grown up on the run, not so much from mundane bill collectors but from her grandmother’s legacy. Althea Proserpine (again, a name that should set off alarm klaxons faster than a Klingon battle cruiser) was a reclusive author who wrote only one book, a set of “Tales from the Hinterlands.” Alice’s mother is dismissive of the book, loathes its cultish fans, and is insistent on forever staying far, far away from Althea’s home, The Hazel Wood.

And again, if you know fairy tales at all, you know what happens next.

No matter how hard a parent tries to keep a thing hidden from her child, it will come calling. So back onto the highway Alice goes, to find the truth of her own origins, of the mysterious book, of its legacy.

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Tell Me A Story: When does the Disbelief Get Too Heavy to Suspend?

Tell Me A Story: When does the Disbelief Get Too Heavy to Suspend?

Tell Me a Story-smallI’m going to pause in my Podcast ramblings to ask a question: When does inaccuracy pull you out of the story?

I have unusual parameters on that one. I’m a Classicist by training, which means I know far more than is healthy about the Roman Empire and Greek Civilization ca 100 BCE. But I can usually set it aside, especially for movies. “Gladiator” remains one of my all time favorites. My first piece of writing for Black Gate was a review of Clash of the Titans, and I had good things about to say about both versions!

In other words, my expectations on historical accuracy are low, especially when the movie is going for “fun”. The more seriously it takes itself, the more likely I am to give it hell for screwing up. If you want to see me apoplectic, as me about The DaVinci Code.

On the other hand, some things drive me up the wall. For example, I was recently re-listening to Blood Rites, book six of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

Anyone who lives in Chicago is already nodding.

Butcher originally wanted to set his story in another city, the story goes, and his publishers required him to set it somewhere better known. He picked Chicago, despite not knowing the city at all. Which isn’t a problem for the most part.

Until you get to a scene at the climax of Blood Rites in which an important even takes place at Wrigley Field. It’s after dark, late in the evening. And Harry Dresden stops to remark how eerie the whole place is. The giant, empty, acres-wide parking lot. The silence. The ghostly nature of a place made to be full when it is completely empty.

That sound you just heard was the needle scratching across my mental track.

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Tell Me A Story: UnSpoiled

Tell Me A Story: UnSpoiled

Unspoiled Podcast

Full disclosure: I’m a little biased on this week’s podcast choice. I first discovered UnSpoiled when my friend, Maggie, was covering Stranger Things with network runner Natasha. In my defense, I’ve got a lot of friends whose podcasts will never be discussed here.

UnSpoiled” has become one of my favorite podcasts: the one I’ll drop everything for. A fandom and analysis podcast, UnSpoiled covers a broad variety of material, but always with the same concept and format: there are two people discussing the work in question. One of them is completely familiar with the material, and one of them is coming to it for the first time, completely unspoiled. They go through one episode, chapter, or movie at a time, discussing the themes and artistry involved.

And it is really good.

Listening to other people talk about Fantasy and Sci-Fi is always a dicey proposition. It can be dull. It can be annoying. But it can also be amazing, and some of my favorite podcasts fit under this umbrella. (West Wing Weekly is a solid standout here, as is The Greatest Generation, which is working it’s way through Star Trek: The Next Generation one episode at a time.) What makes the UnSpoiled family of podcasts great is their choice of hosts and material. Natasha Winters, the founder and editor of UnSpoiled, is a smart and insightful reader. She has the kind of keen eye for human nature that makes for sharp assessments of story, and a true compassion for human foibles that make for both a solid sense of humor and a good base for criticism.

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Tell Me A Story: Levar Burton Reads

Tell Me A Story: Levar Burton Reads

Reading Rainbow

Admit it. You are singing this song in your head right now. And possibly craving fruit loops.

I’m a child of the 80s. And 90s. I’m technically a member of a little sliver generation in between Gen X and the Millennials, and even that depends on who wrote the chart you’re looking at. But the point is, Levar Burton was a pivotal figure in my childhood. First through “Reading Rainbow”, the long running and highly acclaimed literacy program for children on PBS, and then via “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. I still remember the first season of Reading Rainbow: it premiered in 1983, and I was an avid watcher. When “The Next Generation” premiered four years later, I was just at an age to appreciate it. So when I heard that Burton was launching a new podcast series for adults via Stitcher, I was quick to subscribe.

It has been an outstanding addition to my podcast feed.

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Tell Me a Story: What Makes a Good Audiobook?

Tell Me a Story: What Makes a Good Audiobook?

Dolores Claiborne-smallI love audiobooks. I’d go so far as to call them my favorite means of ingesting stories.

It’s partly because of a failing on my part: I am capable of reading incredibly fast, but much like speeding through the countryside in a jet, this causes me to miss a lot. I can read a standard length novel in a couple hours, but I can tell you very little about style, minor plot details, and descriptions. I can force myself to slow down and read carefully. But I usually won’t. Hearing a story forces me to slow down and really absorb all the details of setting and characterization that I would otherwise bolt past. Beyond that, there’s something about the simple joy of being read to that I love. Maybe it’s the happy memories associated with bedtime stories, or my restless mind’s ability to putter about while hearing a book.

Within that affection, it also must be confessed that some stories? Are made for audiobook. Just as not every story is suited to be read aloud (House of Leaves is not available on Audible for a reason), some stories are so fantastic as audiobooks that reading them on the page feels like a letdown.

Dolores Claiborne comes to mind. Produced by Simon and Schuster Audio, Stephen King’s tale of domestic violence, murder, and friendship is narrated by Frances Sternhagen.

Sternhagen has the kind of Broadway and Hollywood resume most actors would murder for: people of a certain age :cough: probably best remember her as Cliff mother, Esther, on Cheers.

Dolores Claiborne is written as a monologue. The entirety of the book is conceived as Delores’ statement to the police on the death of her elderly employer. The circumstances under which Vera Donovan and Dolores are found upon the former’s death raise suspicion that Dolores has killed her. In addition, her fellow townspeople have long suspected that Delores had murdered her own husband decades before. The book is her attempt to set the entire story straight, from the 1950s to the present day.

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Tell Me A Story

Tell Me A Story

Tell Me a Story-smallMy resolution for 2018 was to write more.

(Me and almost every other writer on the planet. If there’s one thing writers fight doing, it is actually getting the words down. I don’t know why that is, although therapists make millions off the question.)

To that ends, our noble and fearless leader has allowed me a tiny corner here to once again regale (or torment, depending on how you feel about such things) you on what’s tickling my brain. In the past we’ve talked ancient myth, and I imagine we will be on the playground a bit.

But currently, I find most of my time these days absorbing different media. I don’t read as much as I would like (although I could read 18 hours a day and I would say the same thing), but the Mom Life means I spend a fair bit of time listening.

I’m not alone in that. The Audio Publishers Association reported last year that they’d seen three years straight of growth in sales above 30%. Audible doesn’t release membership numbers but did report in 2016 that they’d logged over 1.6 BILLION listening hours in the previous year.

It’s the age of the audiobook. Our ubiquitous phones mean that listening is easy and portable, and interfacing between devices means that it is almost seamless. I can pick up my phone, read a book for ten minutes while dinner is cooking, then switch over to the audiobook and let the narrator read the next chapter while I do the dishes, then switch back to the printed format to read in bed. And I’ll never lose my place.

For myself, audiobooks and podcasts fill a valuable function. I spend a lot of time in fairly mindless, rote tasks that are, for lack of a better word, really boring. I manage a household of two elementary kids, a husband with demanding work hours, two cats, and a dog. The laundry alone is a job, and let’s not talk about how many hours I spend in the car.

So I turned to audiobooks at first to confront boredom. Laundry is much more likely to be folded if someone will tell me a story while I do it. But I quickly fell in love with them as a form of art all their own. The performance of an audiobook can make or break a story. Bad readers can butcher even Shakespeare. An excellent reader can take flat, cliched dialogue and make it lively.

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Lost and Found Treasure

Lost and Found Treasure

Sword and Sorceress VII-small Sword and Sorceress VII-back-small

A few weeks ago, I was cruising Facebook when I stopped up short at a familiar image.

It was on our esteemed editor John O’Neill’s wall. And as is often the case with such things, I was struck by a wealth of memories. I received Sword and Sorceress VII as a gift for my 12th birthday. It was probably bought at the B. Dalton in College Mall in Bloomington, IN, one of two easily accessible bookstores on that side of town back in 1990. (Before anyone does the math too fast, yes, I’m celebrating a big birthday next year. It’s in May, if you want to send gift cards for more books.)

I couldn’t tell you exactly which stories were in this volume. I know it had one of Mercedes Lackey’s “Tarma and Kethry” tales in it, but beyond that none of them stand out alone. But as a whole, that volume changed my life as a reader. While I’d feasted on the The Chronicles of Narnia, Robin McKinley, and Susan Cooper, this book was my first exposure to fantasy for grown-ups. And it was full of women.

When I think casually, 1990 doesn’t feel that far away. But in terms of the way women were portrayed in fiction it was another era entirely, and in ways I can’t even begin to explain unless you were there.

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A Bittersweet Twist on Conventional Fantasy: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

A Bittersweet Twist on Conventional Fantasy: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

every-heart-a-doorway_seanan-mcguire-smallThe closing months of the year always bring a host of “Best of…” lists. This year I was delighted to see one of my personal top five making those lists: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. A departure from McGuire’s usual fare, Every Heart a Doorway is a bittersweet twist on conventional fantasy that neither shies from more dwells on the darker side of our encounters with the fantastic.

The premise of Every Heart a Doorway isn’t exactly new. Out in the countryside exists a boarding school for unusual children.These children are all children living in the “after” part, the “after” that comes after The End. Each student at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children has accidentally stumbled into an otherworld and then returned home to find themselves so changed that they can no longer fit in at home. Some of them are heartbroken at being kicked out of paradise. Some of them are traumatized by what they experienced there. Most of them hope to return to their individual worlds, somehow, by finding their Door again.

We find our own Door into this school through Nancy, a young woman who has just returned from one of several Lands of the Dead. Shortly after her arrival, another student is found dead and Nancy, along with her newly made friends, must find the killer before the school is closed or they become the next victims.

As a murder mystery, the plot itself isn’t innovative. It is well plotted and paced, but there are no real surprises here. It doesn’t need to be, though. The real strength comes from McGuire’s characterizations and the subtle, quiet tone to the work.

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