My top books of 2017

‘Cos all the cool kids are doing it. Mind, just because I read it this year doesn’t mean it was written this year. And I’ve mixed up fiction and nonfiction just for giggles.

shelf of books: Daughters of the Witching Hill, The Darling Strumpet, Hanging Mary, Marlene, Ghost Stories of Oregon
I even got through most of this year’s HNS haul!

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly: described as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by way of “Cabaret” and it is, in all the best ways. Follow the denizens of Weimar Germany-like Amberlough City’s fringes as they navigate the perils of the hyper-conservative “Ospie” takeover.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn: based on the real WWI network of women spies in occupied France. I love the characters, especially the retired spy Evie, busted hands and all. It’s cliché but this really is a page turner, with a satisfying finish. Run, do not walk.

The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff: recommended for the prose alone-I didn’t know small details could show subtext and stretch tension like this! The story unfolds slowly and is less about Einar/Lili’s transition and more about the supportive marriage that made room for such transition. So very recommended.

Forbidden Science: The Journals of Jacques Vallée 1957-1969: Vallée came in on the ground floor of two mid-century developments: computer programming and government research into UFOs. His journals document a moment in which the government took UFO research seriously while questioning the long-term utility of computer programming – oh have times have changed!-and how he manages to hold both the scientific and the mystical in equal regard. I’m definitely picking up the next volume.

Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in the Digital Age by Kristen Lamb: if you’re an author who’s scared of social media, fear no more. Connecting with readers and potential readers is easy, and [gasp!] fun! Though fluent in Twitter and Facebook this book still provided some good ideas and is a good primer for newbies overall.

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin: come for the fully formed, Ancient Egypt-inspired fantasy world but stay for the murder mystery and conspiracy. A thriller/fantasy in a ‘verse quite unlike any other.

A Song of War: A Novel of Troy by the Historical Fiction Authors Co-op (Kate Quinn, Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Russell Whitfield, Stephanie Thornton, S.J.A. Turney, Glyn Iliffe): how these folks keep taking known stories and infusing them with crazy tension I will never figure out, but every one of these collaborations keeps me on tenterhooks until the very last page.

Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century by Simon Reynolds: I’ve always known more about glam fashion than music and I sought to rectify that. I’ve enjoyed Reynolds exhaustive, entertaining work on rave culture and early 80’s post-punk and this tome (and it is a doorstop) did not disappoint. If you want history and discography and dirt and analysis, this is your one stop shop. Reading it only a year after David Bowie’s death (and Reynolds included a nice eulogy for Bowie in his final edits) made it all the more timely.

biweekly links 12-6-2017

As we go into the Christmas season, how about some devils?

The Bedevilment of Benvenuto Cellini: artist, duelist, and all-round party boy Cellini also dabbled in the black arts with the assistance of a priest. Another example of the extreme effort of necromancy: this ritual required hours of incantations, magical circles, and a virgin sacrifice (well, bait). Cellini did get his devils, but the inclusion of “drugs of fetid odor” in the process is telling.

For a Brief Time in 1978, Italy Had a Televised Satanic Variety Show: Allegedly created at the request of the Devil himself, “Stryx” ran only 6 episodes and appears to have been an eviled-up version of musical variety shows a la “Sonny and Cher” or “Donny and Marie”. Guests included Grace Jones and Amanda Lear of Roxy Music’s “For Your Pleasure” album cover fame.

Commies, Devils, and Mind Control: How the Christian Right Invented Satanic Backmasking: Ooh, I remember this one! I first read about it in Big Secrets and I remember my sister and I trying to play a Beatles tape (remember those?) backwards. Definitely a phenomena that says more about the listener than the music.

Just to round out the “devil” theme of today’s post. I actually prefer the Who Killed The Kennedys mix [YouTube] but this version’s visuals are more on topic (is the singer dressed up like Vlad the Impaler?):

playing in other people’s sandboxes

So I said a couple of weeks ago. I’m not alone in the sentiment if the thread is any indication. Mind, I’m biased. I got my start as a fanfic writer.

Fanfic is often unjustly maligned as the refuge of the lazy and unoriginal. This Imaginary Worlds episode explains well the origin of these stereotypes and refutes them quite well. A good number of published authors got their start in fanfic (DailyDot found these 10; Google will find you many more).

Media franchises are the modern version of mythology. People want to tell and share new stories about characters they already know and love. It’s a wonderful way to interact with other fans, speculate about future developments, offer alternatives to canon, and keep canceled properties alive.

Mind, I’ve not run into much fanfic based on historical fiction (though fic writers love to use historical “alternative universes”). Still, I nurture a foolish hope that I’ll run into Dee/Kelley slash someday. Even more than being on a bestseller list, if my books can involve people that much I’ll know I’ve truly arrived.

So: could you, would you, have you written fanfic? If so, in what ‘verses (you can probably guess one of mine)?

biweekly links 11-22-2017

Happy thanksgiving to those who are celebrating! Given that we are now entering what a friend calls the “eating season” this week’s links are food and table themed. Imagine passing these around with the mashed potatoes:

How to Make a Homunculus: “That the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a sealed cucurbit [a pumpkin-like gourd] for forty days with the highest degree of putrefaction in a horse’s womb”…and it just gets more appetizing from there. This article covers the Renaissance concept and creation of homunculi (including the wild claim that John Dee created some to serve as spies – that’s a new one on me) and winds up with some intriguing YouTube videos of modern homunculi (the contents of which I shudder to think).

photo of small plaster figure under glass, surrounded by alchemical apparatus and tools
Homunculus amidst the other props in the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague. I’m guessing they used plaster instead of an, er, period recipe. Photo author’s own.

A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries, and Sasquatch: it’s no secret that Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” has a folkloric basis but this is the first book I’ve seen that meticulously catalogs food offered by all sorts of paranormal entities. Disclaimer: I’ve not read it (yet).

The Renaissance Knives That Will Have You Singing for Your Supper: “notation knives” combine music, food, and metalwork. Likely created more for presentation than hard use, the Victoria and Albert Museum translated the notation on the knife in their collection and posted the results. If you simply must have one for yourself, an enterprising armorer created a gorgeous reproduction based on the VAM knife.

First (Contraband) Corned Beef Sandwich in Space 50 Years Ago: oldie but goodie about the Gemini 3 prank. Turns out crumbs get everywhere in zero gravity, and food doesn’t taste as good in space anyway – though I can’t imagine corned beef tasting any worse (eww!)

the cutting room floor

As I’ve discussed before, history isn’t tidy. I made some strategic cuts to the story at the outset, mostly for my sanity. Now I’m cutting even more as they don’t add to the story I’m trying to tell, which is a damn shame as Dee and Kelley generated So. Much. Weird. that begs exploration. Just not by me:

Dee and Kelley’s possible ties to Shakespeare – interesting if true, but not relevant to my story

Nuances of alchemical process and symbolism – you’ll get your furnaces and flasks but not painstaking detail because I’m not a chemist.

Dee and Kelley’s sojourn in Poland courting the patronage of Stephen Bathory (yes, cousin of that Bathory). It’s not the story I’m telling and someone already has anyway.*

A series of incidents in which Kelley apparently conjures demons and poltergeists outside of his actions with Dee – and this breaks my heart because I so, so want to play with what was going on here! I found this delicious story in the footnotes of part 9 of I.R.F. Calder’s thesis but it’s so divided from the rest of the spiritual actions that I can’t justify including it.**

The possibility that Jane Dee was from a recusant family. I could only find one reference (since removed), and there’s more narrative tension if Jane is solidly Protestant in Catholic Bohemia.

And there’s probably more. What are you cutting, and why?

animated gif of little girl and men in suits sawing/drilling away on a piano
Hacking away. Courtesy gfycat.

*Looking forward to reading this after I finish the WIP.
**Actually, I might do a short story based on this.

biweekly links 11-8-2017

Tom DeLonge on JRE: “You Don’t Know What I Know About UFOs (But I Can’t Tell You): Um, yeahhhhh. I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to have The Truth™, especially when they claim they can’t share it – such people are either selling something or being sold something. In DeLonge’s case it might be both: he’s promoting a book that claims to reveal true secrets via fiction, while his unnamed “top government advisors” may be using him for…who the hell knows what. Or maybe the controversy is just fueled by jealous veteran UFO researchers resentful of a newbie with fame and connections. Should I bother to read this, just to figure out what the fuss is about?

screenshot from Raiders of the Lost Ark of government official. Text: Who's looking into the issue? Top...men.
DeLonge’s contacts. Via Memegenerator.

Top 4 Revelations From the New JFK Files: Just the four? From the FBI’s surveillance of MLK to Oswald’s ties to the Soviet Union to wild attempts to kill Castro, there’s something for everyone with a taste for Cold War-era paranoia, and people are still going through these with fine-toothed combs. NPR has put out a call for citizen journalists to share their findings so if you’ve got the time and inclination, go for it.

Religion vs. Superstition: Subtitled “Is Religion Just Organized Superstition? Is Superstition Always Religious?” And yeah, I know I’m wading into a minefield. Talk amongst yourselves.

Reformation “What Might Have Been”s: on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses it’s worth asking: what if the Catholic hierarchy had listened? And did the Reformation ultimately fail because they didn’t?

necromancy: why, how, and why not to do it

Coincidentally, it’s just when the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest that I passed the point in my book where the Papal Nuncio accuses Dee and Kelley of necromancy. Mind, they probably didn’t do it (or Dee didn’t–too goody goody for that), but why would anyone want to raise the dead, and how would they do it anyway?

Black adn white engraving of two men in a nighttime churchyard standing in a magic circle, a skeletal ghost before them.
Fanciful nineteenth century portrayal of “Edw[ar]d Kelly, a Magician. in the Act of invoking the Spirit of a Deceased Person” from Astrology, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly, M.D. F.R.H.S., Embellished with Curious Copper-Plates, London, 1806, courtesy Wikipedia

Technically early modern Christian necromancers weren’t trying to raise the dead–that was seen as something only God could do. No, they just conjured demons who looked like spirits, and used them for a variety of things including finding lost objects, telling the future, controlling other people, or creating illusions.

Kind of mundane, considering the spiritual sketchiness of necromancy and the sheer inconvenience of performing it. You had to consider magic circles, moon phases, and offerings before you even got to the incantations. Check out this bit from Reginald Scot’s 1584 best-seller “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”. Though Scot rejected the reality of witchcraft bits of it read like a how-to, with a surprisingly pious bent:

…I conjure thee spirit by the living God, the true God, and by
the holie God, and by their vertues and powers which have created
both thee and me, and all the world. I conjure thee by these
holie names of God, Tetragrmnmaton Adonay Algraniay
Saday Sabaoth Planaboth Craton Neupinaton…

…etc. What happened if you forgot or mispronounced a name isn’t recorded.

But why did Kelley perform necromancy, if he did it at all?

The story goes that long before he met Dee he was arrested in Walton on Dale for conjuring a spirit, but a local squire named Langton managed to get him released. Given that so much of Kelley’s history is legend I’m unsure how seriously to take this, and even the legend doesn’t have much about Kelley’s’ reasoning.

So I’m just making something up. It’s historical fiction, remember?

biweekly links 10-25-2017: the fear edition

These first two links refer to Chapman University’s Division on the Study of American Fears’ report America’s Top Fears 2017. My extremely broad takeaway is that fearful people do and say stupid things, but it’s more complex than that (isn’t it always?) Do check out the site for more details though – it’s a fascinating, if sobering, read.

What do Americans fear most? Researchers release 4th annual Survey of American Fears: the top three are actually pretty rational: corruption of government officials, Trumpcare, and pollution of water. Once you get into the weeds though things get…contradictory. For all the fear of natural disaster, most citizens have no clue what to do in an emergency. Almost a third think Americans need to give up civil liberties to protect themselves from terrorism while an apparent completely different third think exactly the opposite.

From the same study we get Paranormal Beliefs. Roughly 3/4 of the population believes in some unexplainable phenomenon, the top 3 being ancient civilizations, hauntings/ghosts, and ancient aliens. I could be glib and blame the History Channel but:

How America Lost Its Mind: The Atlantic breaks down the reasoning for these apparent irrational fears and beliefs far better than I ever could. There’s a lot to unpack here but the gist is: the 1960s “do your own thing” ethos and conservative fear of the same combined with American exceptionalism to create a present in which subjective belief is considered on a par with objective reality. No one is immune, either, not even the “reality-based community” derided by Karl Rove.

I’d like to think myself a champion for the validity of subjective experience, but I have one strong caveat: those experiences are only valid to the experiencer – you can’t demand everyone else play along. In order to do anything in this world people have to work with an agreed upon “baseline reality”, if you will, and that doesn’t include that which can’t be proven. Belief in something doesn’t make it so.

But yeah, we live in a world where that needs to be said aloud.

fizzle to a bang

The third act. The moment of truth, the home stretch, the part of the book in which I bring the reader to the climax of the story by throwing everything I have at my protagonist so he has no choice but to face his demons and cut them down.

Which is great when your historical timeline fits nicely into a three-act structure but when it doesn’twell.

Most fictional treatments of the Dee/Kelley partnership fudge the timeline, I suspect because thumbnail biographies of Dee imply that he parted ways with Kelley right after they swapped wives–a well timed climax (ha!) if ever there was one.

In reality they–and their wives– limped along in the same house for another year and a half and I really want to milk those 18 months for all the dramatic tension they’re worth. Unfortunately, this is the part of the book where I’m supposed to tie up loose ends and race for the finish.

So I have to either make this drawn out angst into a rollercoaster or cut it completely. If the latter it’ll break my little black heart but I’ll do it in the name of art. Besides, I can write short outtake vignettes if I still feel the need to punish my characters just that little bit more.

How about you? If you write based on real events, how do you work with (or against) the timeline? Or if you’re a reader, how much accuracy do you want in your “based on a true story”s?

biweekly links 10-11-2017

Sylvia Plath and the Occult: Interview with Julia Gordon-Bramer: I leave it to the experts to determine how serious Plath was about tarot cards but to my inexpert mind Gordon-Bramer may be onto something.

New documentary is a magic portal into a weird and wonderful library: this 90 minute doc on the Ritman Library explains what they mean by “western esotericism” with abundant gorgeous shots of historic tomes from their collection. Available free through Amazon Prime (at least last week) if you love magical history and/or illustrated manuscripts, check it out. Should I ever get to Amsterdam this library is on my list of must-sees.

Borley Rectory animated documentary: the trailer evokes early horror films and steampunk but I’m willing to see if it winds up being more substance than style. As this “most haunted house in England” burnt down in the 1930s, I wonder what the most haunted is now?

writing on wall:
Ghostly(?) writing from the wall of Borley Rectory. I always found this image deliciously eerie. Courtesy Tumblr.

You Can Now Visit a Witch Museum in Cleveland: the Buckland Gallery of Witchcraft and Medicine has bounced around the states for years and is currently (permanently?) attached to a record store. Advertising is minimal (they’re concerned about how they’ll be received) but open during some regular hours and by appointment.