Sunday, June 29, 2014

Phoenix Comicon 2014: John Scalzi Spotlight

As mentioned previously, Scalzi was one of the two author spotlight panels on my schedule that I absolutely did not want to miss. (I had originally planned to have this one and the Rothfuss panel report share a post, but when I realized that together they would end up being a pretty huge chunk of words, I decided to split them.) His was at noon on the final day of the con, and it was kind of the inverse of the Rothfuss panel with regard to structure—he started off the panel by reading some of his work to us, and then followed with Q&A.

I slid in to the panel a few minutes late, but made it there in time to hear the end of a poem Scalzi wrote once upon a time, called “Ode to a Clone.” I missed the context but was nonetheless amused by the poem, especially this phrase: “a Nome clone dome home.” (If that doesn’t hook you, then I don’t know what will.) Later, I wanted to read the beginning of the poem and tracked it down on this website of science jokes (it’s about the 5th one down the page). Check it out if you’re into nerdy rhyming science humor.

Next up in Scalzi storytime, we were given a choice between a piece called “Flaming Babies” and another called simply “Chocolate.” There was some dissent in the audience over which to choose, but the flaming babies won out (and how could they not, really?). So Scalzi read us a piece from when he was a writer at AOL in the ‘90s (I think that’s where the clone poem is from, too), wherein he recounts a tale of calling the Pampers and Huggies hotlines to discuss the chances of diapers catching on fire, as had happened to him when he was a baby. It’s just as funny as it sounds (my favorite bit: “Is there some sort of weird diaper lady cabal?”), and you can read it here on his blog.

After we all vicariously learned to keep diapers away from bonfire pits and intense sunlight, Scalzi decided we had enough time to do “Chocolate” as well, another short piece from his early writer days that addresses the topic of his wife’s passion for the stuff and how though he himself has never been able to appreciate it, he can appreciate her appreciation for it. It was especially funny because his wife was in the panel audience, bearing up well. Later in the Q&A someone asked her if it was strange to hear him read that out loud, and she said, “The moment he said ‘chocolate’ I knew what it was…and I know exactly the dinner he’s referring to.” Again, if you find yourself so inclined, you can read it on his blog here. It’s short. It’s funny. Give it a go. I just re-read it, and now I really want to go hunt down the Hershey’s Kisses I know are in the freezer somewhere.

After finishing off that one, he said, “So that was okay, right? The fifteen-years-ago stuff worked alright.” We agreed that yes, it was definitely alright, and he continued, explaining the worry a little bit. “The thing is,” he said, “I’m being super highly selective, because when I was doing my column for the newspaper way back in the day, I was 24, 25 years old. I was the smuggest twenty-something you ever met, and I thought everything I wrote was pure gold. Then I became an editor for AOL and had to be writing a humor area where every year I had 20 open slots for humor-related material, and I would have 1000 submissions a month, because we did this thing called paying people, which apparently gets a lot of people to actually submit things. After going through all thousand submissions, I would still have ten open slots, because comedy’s actually hard. So I’d actually have to start telling people, ‘Well, here’s what you can do to tweak it and improve it,’ and then give you some examples and all this other stuff, doing what editors do. Then later on I went back to all the stuff that I wrote at the newspaper, which I had thought was gold, and my reaction to most of it was—[choking, horrified noise]—because it was terrible! Whoever thought it was a good idea to let me have a column—they were high.” Everyone laughed at that, and he added, “It wasn’t that they were high, it was just that I made enough noise that they were like, ‘Fine, give him Wednesday.’ I went back to that newspaper to visit at one point and I went to my editor at the time, and I was like, ‘Thank you so much for not stabbing me in the eye during all that time I was writing that column.’ And he was like, ‘I have waited for this day.’ I’m a much better writer now. Thank God. It was only 20 years.”


The reading portion of the panel thus completed, we moved into the question-and-answer session in earnest. After a compliment from an audience member that resulted in a short discussion of Dave Barry and piles of money, the first question he got was if there are any more plans for Scalzorc. “She’s referring to something we did…5 years ago now, which was called Clash of the Geeks, where I commissioned a picture of me as an orc and Wil Wheaton in his clown sweater and hot, hot blue shorts astride a unicorn pegasus kitten, battling each other while there was a volcano behind us. As you do. And we commissioned writers like Patrick Rothfuss, Cat Valente, Stephen Toulouse, and a number of other ones to write very short stories about what the hell was actually going on in that particular painting.”

Feast yer eyes!

“It was actually very impressive. We put that all together, and we put it up as pay-what-you-want with all proceeds going to the Lupus Society of Michigan because Subterranean Press, which was publishing it—the founder’s wife has lupus. We raised about $25,000 with it, which was actually really, really wonderful. Because people were totally down with it—‘I’ll happily pay $5 for this absolutely ridiculous thing.’ It was great, because Patrick Rothfuss did an edda, an actual epic poem, Wil did something, Rachel Swirsky, who has won two Nebulas now…just an amazing amount of talent in that actual, ridiculous thing. We don’t really have any plans to revisit Scalzorc or Hot Pants Wheaton, although Hot Pants Wheaton is the name of my next band. Somebody tweet that now! Done, and done… But certainly I will be doing more charitable stuff because I like doing the charitable stuff. It’s nice to be actually able to sort of spontaneously generate tens of thousands of dollars to worthy causes and not tell them about it until all the money starts rolling in. It’s like, surprise, here’s some money! Cuz we love you! So, yeah, there will be more charitable stuff, maybe not particularly that. Wil and I talk about, like, ‘Let’s get the band back together,’ sort of thinking on that one, but it’s just a matter of time and scheduling and everything else. But definitely I will be doing more charitable things.”

Friday, June 27, 2014

Book Review: Life by Committee, by Corey Ann Haydu

Title: Life by Committee
Author: Corey Ann Haydu
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Read: June 2014
Where It Came From: BEA
Genre: YA-contemporary
Rating: 2.5 Assignments

The Quick and Dirty:

A formerly good girl is obsessed with a hockey player who's been flirting with her online while dating another girl at their high school. When she joins a web community of truth and dares, she gets some action with the hockey player but almost ruins her life and the lives of those around her. The cover is beautiful, the actions of the characters are not.

The Wordy and Spoilery Version:

Tabitha used to be a Rory Gilmore. The now teenage child of teen parents, she lives in a small town in New England, enjoys reading strangers’ marginalia in works of classic literature (with a particular fondness for Frances Hodgson Burnett), and drinks lots of coffee. But Tabitha is not handling puberty well, from anyone’s perspective other than her own. Her book-loving friends felt awkward around her growing breasts and interest in boys, and have left her socially adrift; her parents are expecting a new baby, and have made her feel like a starter-child; and her only interest in the boyfriend department is already going out with a depressed Artiste in their high school. When Tab finds a note at the end of a marked-up Secret Garden, she joins an internet community dedicated to sharing secrets and doing relevant assignments meant to change their lives into something remarkable. The first assignment, to kiss her love-interest, fills her with excitement, but the assignments start to have repercussions Tab isn’t sure are ethical.

Personally I struggled to understand Tabitha, and found myself allied with her former best friends, who wished she’d wash off the mascara and return to literary discussions. So, there, I’m as petty as they are, I guess. But it was really hard to develop sympathy for Tabitha! She’s obsessed with another girl’s boyfriend, she’s moping around her house and coffee shop, and she plays along in a truth-and-dare game that anyone could tell is a bad idea. The only positive thing about Tab is that she’s likely a good portrait of a teenager. I want to shake her, and every adult in the book is on the same page as me.

The actual problem of the book for me is in the resolution. To avoid having her secrets spread as a consequence of refusing a challenge on the website, Tabitha interrupts her school’s morning assembly to tell everyone the secrets she shared on the site. In a scene out of Mean Girls, everyone else takes the opportunity to share his or her own secrets, and the principal lets this go on for an entire school day. I could say that this is a little too close to Mean Girls to feel fresh; I could also say that it’s unrealistic to think that an entire day of instruction would be given up to microphone confessions. But that’s not really what left me wishing for something else.

The ending is dramatic but doesn’t seem to actually resolve much. By the end of the book I was getting the impression that Tabitha’s transformation came from her anxiety about the new baby and the ways that it would change her family. Yet aside from her parents advising her to air her secrets to the school, the family aspect of the plot is gone by the climactic scene. Apparently her father has been able to quit his marijuana habit within a week? And having a family meeting about the online drama means that Tabitha feels parented to the point that she’s okay with a new sibling? And is her mother’s dress more appropriate to wear to school than the clothes that everyone thinks are slutty?

I don’t need my endings to wrap up everything with a ribbon and bow. I like perfectly wrapped up endings, but I also appreciate artfully vague endings (The Spectacular Now stands out in my recent reading for this quality). My problem here is that the dramatic moment of triumph and its aftermath didn’t solve the big issues I saw Tabitha having. Maybe it’s my perspective at a different stage of life than Tabitha, but Rory Gilmore made some crazy stupid life decisions too, and their ultimate resolution (a powerful moment between mother and daughter) seemed to match the conflicts.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Phoenix Comicon 2014: Patrick Rothfuss Spotlight

Plenty of the especially big-name authors attending PHXCC had their very own spotlight panels, in addition to the appearances they made on group panels geared toward various book-nerdy topics (such as “Magic Systems: Urban Fantasy vs. Epic Fantasy” and “Magic and Power in Young Adult Fiction,” two that I wanted to attend but couldn’t make play nice with the rest of my schedule). There were so many spotlights I wanted to attend—Charlaine Harris! Jim Butcher! Laini Taylor! Naomi Novik!—but the two that occupied non-negotiable positions in my schedule were those of Pat Rothfuss and John Scalzi, both very entertaining individuals (and, y’know, not too shabby in the writing department, either). Pat Rothfuss’ was at noon on Saturday, and after a 5 minute walk down the street from the convention center to the Sheraton where the panel was being held (you’d be surprised how long five minutes can feel when it’s 108° F out), we collapsed in the lovely air conditioned ballroom and listened to The Beard share big secrets and the ending for The Doors of Stone. (Don’t freak out. I was kidding about that last bit.)

Patrick Rothfuss Spotlight Panel

Pat’s deep voice and the acoustics of the ballroom did funny things to my recording device (er, iPhone). Additionally, it appears that when you try to take a photo while voice recording on said device, it stops the recording, but makes it look like it’s still doing so, until you end the recording and only however many minutes you got before photographing show up saved in your memos. (Not that that bugged me.) (Or that it took me 3 days to figure out why so few of my recordings were of the entire panel.) So…I don’t have too much of the Rothfuss panel available to transcribe, but that actually turned out okay since he spent about half of it reading to us. Yay story time!

Uproarious applause greeted him when he walked on stage, and after a mike check he greeted us and told us the plan. “I don’t know how these normally go, but I tend to enjoy a little Q&A,” he said, and then added that reading of some things he has written could follow. “I used to write a humor column back in the day. I’ve got some of those that you’ll probably never see anywhere…the dark secrets from my misspent youth. I’ve got an advanced copy of the Rogues anthology. I could read you Neil Gaiman’s story,” he suggested. (Everyone laughed, but he actually did read us the opening paragraphs of Gaiman’s story at his event at a local bookstore the Wednesday before the con!)

Before the Q&A portion began, he had to get the attention of a techie to make a few adjustments to the stage lighting. “I kinda feel like I’m in an interrogation room,” he joked. “‘Where were you on the night of the 27th? Why weren’t you writing book three?!’” (It’s cool that he has a sense of humor about it, since there are some real big jerks online, whining/harassing him about why the third book isn’t done yet.) The first audience question followed neatly on the coattails of that, asking how the progress is on book three. “That’s a good one to deal with right away,” Pat said. “Things are going fairly well. They’re not going as fast as I would like, but it’s going well. I start to get real antsy, like I really wish I had book three to give people, and then I remember what Tim Powers said to me ages ago. When I missed my deadline for book two, I was really sick to my stomach over it, and I called him like, ‘Tim, I’m screwing up my whole career with this…I did 30 interviews and promised to have book two out in a year…but the problem is I was doing 30 interviews and so I didn’t have any time to write.’ And he goes, ‘I’ve never made a deadline in my life. And you know what? So-and-so told me,’ like a person he got advice from back in the day, ‘It’s late once, but it sucks forever.’ And I’m like, ohhh, you’re right—I’d much rather be late once and write a good book than to rush it, get it out on time, and have it be crap. I mean, we really don’t want a Matrix Revolutions.”

He expanded on that idea a bit as he discussed his process of revisions and making the books as excellent as they can be. “The thing people have is really kind of flattering…they’re like, ‘It’s great, we’re sure it’s great!’ I know that you’re sure it’s great, but what happened is you saw the end result of 14 years of revision in book form. You did not see the 400 other versions of that book. All of which were not good enough to get published. Well…some of them were good enough to get published, but they weren’t a book that was really worthy of love. They weren’t as perfect as I could make them. Those early versions…the very first didn’t have a frame story. There was no inn, there was no Chronicler, there was no Bast. Later versions, there was no Devi. No loan sharking. No Auri. A book with no Auri. That’s not a book I would really like to write. So yeah, it’s coming along well, it’s just not coming as quickly as I’d like. There’s a lot of things I need to get absolutely right.”

The next question asked about other things he may write after he’s done with Kvothe’s story. “It’s a little far out in the future, because I kind of have to always keep one eye on book three no matter what, but I had an idea for an urban fantasy for about ten years that I didn’t pursue. I think that’d be fun,” he said. He continued, “There’s another story…a story that happens in Modeg. It’s the story of a different hero—the beginning of that hero, Laniel. I started that, thinking it’d be a novella, about 15,000 words…because I owed somebody a novella, I thought I’d write it, fulfill this obligation…and when it hit about 60,000 words…[bad muzzy audio here, sorry]. It was a really great experience writing that because it wasn’t first person. I was learning a lot about how to do third person, and it’s really interesting for me writing a story that’s what I think of as a short little simple story, which means it’s, like, 120,000 words. [much laughter] It’s not part of this great metafictional framed story narrative like The Kingkiller Chronicle. So you’ll probably see that reasonably soon as well.”

Next up was a question about his writing process. “Boy, what’s my process…” he mused. The girl started to amend her question and he joked, “See, yeah, that’s the better question—‘Do you have a process?’ I don’t think I have a process.” She amended further to ask if he bases his characters off people he knows, and he replied, “That I can answer—I do not model characters after people I know.” He asked for a show of hands of aspiring writers, and then explained why he’d advise against creating characters that way. Following that, he continued, “I would steal pieces of people. And pieces of people, like for example, Kvothe eats an apple, and he eats all the way around it, and eats the core. I had somebody come up to me and say, ‘I know where you got that. That’s the way Sarah eats an apple.’ He was so smug. I was like, ‘You got me. Now you know how I wrote my book.’” He explained further, saying, “It’s like a little true thing. A little true thing that adds a little texture.”

He looked like he was going to leave it at that, but then he continued: “Okay, now, saying that, because I’m kind of a scrupulously honest person…I did kind of base one character in the book off someone. But I don’t know if you want to hear about that. Do you want to hear about that?” The answer was an obvious and unanimous YES, and he began telling the story. “There’s nobody here from Madison, is there? Have you guys heard about Tunnel Bob? There’s somebody in Madison that people know of as Tunnel Bob. Tunnel Bob, he’s one of our local crazy people, not to put too fine a point on it. Every city of a certain size has crazy people. And if they’re sufficiently colorful, they become characters in the city. There’ve been a couple write-ups about Tunnel Bob in the local papers. I came to know Tunnel Bob because my dad had run into him at work. Under Madison there are steam tunnels, and access tunnels to the university, for all the pipes and everything…and my dad worked at one of the major hospitals.” He continued, explaining how Tunnel Bob, though there was no harm in him, would continually get arrested for hanging around in these tunnels. So Pat’s dad set up a volunteer shift for him at the hospital once a week, where it would be okay for him to be down in the tunnels under the hospital. After 3 hours in the tunnels he would come out of them and talk with Pat’s dad for a bit, and then Pat’s dad would share stories with his son about Tunnel Bob. “Apparently once he was in the university’s tunnels and he got arrested, put in jail, and for his phone call, he called my dad because he was going to have to miss his volunteer shift. He’s like, ‘This is the one place that lets me go in their tunnels,’ and he didn’t want to jeopardize that. Dad’s a very clever guy—that’s the secret here: you give him a time where he can be in there, and that’s acceptable. And he’ll do whatever he can to not jeopardize that. He’s not going to be knocking around when he shouldn’t be. So my dad would tell me these stories about Tunnel Bob. He’d say, ‘So, Tunnel Bob, we’ve got Christmas coming up. Are you doing anything for Christmas?’ [deep voice] ‘Nope.’ ‘Get any presents for Christmas?’ [deep voice] ‘…Nope. Just coal.’ Dad’s like, is he…making a joke?”

In another conversation with Tunnel Bob, Pat’s dad tried to find out what was up with the tunnel thing, anyway. “He said, ‘What do you do in the tunnels?’ [deep voice] ‘Well, the first hour I kind of cleans up a bit. And the second hour, I kinda rolls around. And the third hour, well…that’s just for me.’” [so sorry, that’s the closest I could come to deciphering what the first and second hour were from the recording, and I don’t know if it’s right!] Pat went on, “And I hear this story, and all he wants to do is be in these tunnels. Of course, when I’m working on the book, which is kind of always, something happens and I’m like, ‘Ohhh yes, I’ll take this, thank you.’ I learn something in anthropology class and I’m like, ‘Oh, thank you, yes. I will have this for later.’ Oh, so Constantine in the Roman Empire married a prostitute? I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s awesome, I’m going to bring that in.’ Once a week they put her up on a stage, naked, scattered grain over her, and let geese eat it off her. And this was, like, quality entertainment. And Constantine, he saw this and went, ‘That’s the woman who will be my empress.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, thank you. I could not have made that up. I’ll save that for later.’ Tunnel Bob…of course he doesn’t fit [in my story]. He fits in Madison, Wisconsin—even then not very well. He’s like something someone would make up if you were writing a story about Madison. And so what I did was I just put one piece of him, and then a character kind of accreted around that seed crystal. You know who that character has to be, right? It’s Auri. And Auri really has nothing to do with Tunnel Bob, so I did not take Tunnel Bob and put him in the story, but that’s where Auri started. And I think that when you do that, when you build a character around a tiny little kernel of something true, they end up being a different sort of character.”

And on that sweet note about Auri’s emergence from a guy in Madison who likes tunnels and the stories Pat’s dad told about him, I tried to take a photo of Pat up on the stage and cheated myself out of further recording of the panel. It’s not even a good photo! In it, Mr. Rothfuss has somehow morphed into a glowing blue blob…

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After the Q&A finished up, Pat read us one of his humor columns from college (about keeping pets in dorms illegally, and whether a guinea pig can be considered a fish), and it was really very funny. I don’t know if you can track those down on the internet anywhere, but if you can, you should do it. After that, he read us the second in his series of not-for-children children’s books, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Dark of Deep Below. [EDIT: While Pat did read us some things after the Q&A, apparently my brain had reached saturation point and, lacking a memory or audio recording of what was actually read to us at this panel, filled in the guinea pig story, which had actually been read to us the previous night at the Paul & Storm concert. So while I can’t tell you what reading(s?) came before, I can confirm that he did in fact finish off the panel with a reading of Princess/Mr. Whiffle 2. Sorry for the confusion!]

To our chagrin, the panel ended before we could finish the book, and of course we were left at a very cliffhang-y moment. Such a tease! But it was a good, albeit unplanned (I think?), marketing technique—the next time I found myself in the vicinity of Mysterious Galaxy’s booth in the dealer hall, all the Princess/Mr. Whiffle books were sold out. And now that I know what they’re about, I’ll probably buy them for myself someday. Overall, it was a surprisingly spoiler-free panel (for a panel related to a fantasy series this beloved with two massive books in stores, I figured there would be at least a few minor spoiler-type-things coming up!), and it was a lot of fun. I tried to find a YouTube video of it to link you to for interested parties, but I’m not sure there is one to be found! If you ever hear Pat Rothfuss is in your neck of the woods (or weeds, as I first typed), make a point to get to that event—you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time.

Have you read The Kingkiller Chronicle series yet? How about the Princess/Mr. Whiffle books? Do you know Tunnel Bob? Hit the comments and let us know!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Genre-ally Speaking: The Secret Diamond Sisters, by Michelle Madow

Title: The Secret Diamond Sisters
Author: Michelle Madow
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication Date: February 25, 2014
Read: June 2014
Where It Came From: BEA
Genre: Teen Romance
Rating: 1.5 Diamonds

The Quick and Dirty:

Rich teens in Vegas have adventures in love and family over the course of a week. The characters may be the most selfish people ever to have have moved from a run down apartment to a penthouse suite. The book may be the most repetitive book I've read in a while. And to think, this is only the beginning of a series!

The Wordy Version:

There are quality reads, good reads, guilty pleasure reads, and then there’s whatever category this one falls into. To be perfectly fair I’m sure it could fall into many people’s guilty pleasure pile. Just not mine. This is a book that, like wearing a ruffled pinafore, belongs to girls younger than myself.

So why did I read it? Yeah, yeah, good question. (1) I picked up a complimentary copy at BEA. (2) It’s from the HarlequinTeen imprint, and I’ve been hearing that HarlequinTeen has more plot than traditional Harlequin. (3) I thought the story could be frothy fun.

Three teenage sisters have been living with their single mother in a small apartment until their mother’s alcoholism forces their father to reveal himself to his children. As it turns out, Daddy Diamond is a Vegas casino owning billionaire with no parenting experience to suggest that instantly handing them all limitless credit cards and access to parties on the Vegas Strip could be a bad idea. Within literally a night, all three girls have crushes on guys who range from off-limits to predatory. Over the course of one week they burst into tears, lock themselves into their condo from embarrassment, and see each other transforming into new (more selfish) people.

I never read Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars, but I am guessing the series The Secret Diamond Sisters is starting will be very similar. I also imagine that seeing attractive 20-somethings playing these teenagers will be a lot more fun than reading their repetitive and often vacuous thoughts in this 382-page book.

Trust me about the repetition. Here’s an example I found almost as soon as I opened my book to prove it to you. Within all of three pages, we get, “Peyton couldn’t believe it. What an arrogant jerk to say that” (256), “Peyton was amazed at how full of himself he was” (257), and, “His face twisted with arrogance” (258). I think the guy may be arrogant, don’t you?

Not that the other characters are substantially better than him. The first point of view character is Savannah, the youngest Diamond sister, who in her old life wants to fit in with her volleyball team and wishes she could be a pop star. Savannah pouts, stomps her feet, blinks away tears, and—in better moods—plays with her hair/clothes/accessories. My favorite Savannah moment is when she spends a paragraph worrying about how her family is a target for kidnapping, before we read, “But Savannah had other problems—like figuring out what to wear tonight.” LOL

Oldest Diamond sister, Peyton, is a punk rebel because when she was in ninth grade her boyfriend cheated on her by dirty dancing with some girl and an ice cube. Still angry at the ex-boyfriend she tries to have short-term sexual relationships with boys now. And resentful that her super-wealthy father abandoned the girls to live with an impoverished alcoholic, she refuses to dress like anything but a hooker. Best Peyton moment: she vows to keep track of Savannah and the predatory douchebag Savannah likes, and then two paragraphs later, she’s off to pursue her own guy. (Bonus fun: she LEAVES her sister at the club with the predatory douchebag within pages. That is taking sisterly responsibility seriously.)

Middle Diamond sister, Courtney, is meant to be very sympathetic. She’s the quiet good girl who, in their pre-Vegas life, was having trouble finishing her homework because she was so busy working a minimal wage job to pay the family’s bills. She does seem less self-absorbed than her sisters, but it’s not totally clear whether that is because the bar is pretty low or because she actually has stuff going for her. She spends much of the book wistfully thinking about her soon-to-be step-brother, Brett.

Brett may also be a sweet person, as his ideas of dates to have with Courtney are genuinely cute. Brett makes a big deal about how he doesn’t like to hang out with the wealthy kids at their private school, and how he’s still friends with his public school buddies from the time before his mother got engaged to Daddy Diamond. And yet Brett is driving a brand new Lamborghini, flashing his black AmEx around, and planning jaunts to Europe. I can’t help thinking that Brett is protesting a bit too much about how little use he has for the high society of Vegas.

The final point-of-view character, Madison, is the smart, beautiful, popular nemesis to the Diamond girls. We’re supposed to hate her because she can manipulate guys using her feminine wiles, but I don’t see how she’s actually worse than Diamonds 1 and 3. She appears to be smarter than all the Diamond sisters put together, and she’s managed to claw her way to the top of the social ladder in the private school despite having parents who earn only a small fraction of what the casino owners do. In fact, the only thing I really fault Madison on is explaining how few calories she can afford to eat in every one of her chapters, or how much exercise she must do to burn off the drinks she indulges in at night. Perhaps one of the later books involves a twist of a Diamond sister revealing to Madison’s parents just how starved their daughter is, thus removing Madison for a few months to go to rehab. Drama!

Specifically teen soap opera drama. I was expecting a more formulaic romance novel from any imprint within Harlequin, and I commend the book for going past that. But this series isn’t wish-fulfillment for me. Call me over for a drinking game if the CW starts airing it, and in the meantime help me find my way back to classic Pride and Prejudice fanfiction when I’m looking for fluff to bring to the pool.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Phoenix Comicon 2014: Authors I Met

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Authors at a YA panel! Laini Taylor is easily recognizable by her vivid pink hair. :)

I think one of the coolest things about Phoenix Comicon is all the opportunities for interaction with authors and publishers. There are so many chances to see your favorite authors, whether at a panel or performance of some sort, and to also meet them, gets books signed, and chat for a bit at the PHXCC-sponsored signings, publisher signings, signings at Mysterious Galaxy’s booth, or at the author’s own table in the authors alley. There were so many cool writers this year that it was at times a challenge to plot out our panels-and-signings schedule!

I always feel kind of like a book-obsessed weirdo when I recognize an author on sight. While I was waiting in line to get my media badge on Thursday, I passed the time locating points of interest on the dealer hall map and taking in all the passers-by in all their cosplayish glory. (The coolest was seeing a family of Jedi getting interviewed by a news outlet. Nerd families are so awesome!) After about 20 minutes of this, I started to zone out a bit, and I was staring off into the middle distance when I registered pink hair. I thought to myself, “What bright pink hair! How nice.” Then I registered the person it was attached to, and also that she was walking with a man and a little girl, and I realized that it was Laini Taylor! That was my first in-the-wild author spotting. While in line I also saw Lynne M. Thomas of SF Squeecast (and Editor-in-Chief of Apex magazine) and Django Wexler (whose book The Thousand Names I’ve been meaning to get to) wandering about. Later that night, when I was navigating the crush of people exiting the Books and Authors Kickoff Panel, I noticed someone moving against the flow, trying to get toward the table at the front of the room. I registered that this person had pink hair, and I again thought to myself, “My, what bright pink hair! How nice.” I then, of course, realized that it was Laini Taylor, again. And because I was so surprised by this, I squeaked, “Laini Taylor!” at her when she was standing right in front of me (as if she didn’t know who she was). She said hi and shook my hand, and then it was a little awkward because I was trying to move toward the door and she was trying to move toward the front table, but neither of us could go anywhere because the crowd was in a bit of a traffic jam. That’s me, always smooth and sophisticated… XD

Del Rey had a cool thing going on during the con (in addition to all the free books, of course), where they encouraged you to take selfies with all their authors and tweet them with the hashtag #RHAuthorHunt to be entered to win a box of books signed by Del Rey authors. This sounded like an acceptable challenge to me, and I managed to take photos with all five authors. I also apparently blocked out the selfie part, however, and press-ganged my friend into taking the photos for me (don’t worry, I returned the favor). Here’s who I found in the scavenger hunt!

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Left to right: Pierce Brown, Jason Hough, Scott Lynch, Kevin Hearne, & Naomi Novik.

No word yet on if I’ve won the box o’ books, but I’ve still got my fingers crossed!

Here’s a bullet run-down of the weekend’s greatest hits, author-wise:

  • Pierce Brown made me feel a little guilty about not being sad when a character dies early on in Red Rising. (He also pantomimed being hanged. I promise this makes sense in context.)
  • After we warned him that my friend’s name is hard to spell, he wrote as the dedication in her book, “Your name is strange.”
  • Jason Hough, whose books I was unfamiliar with pre-con, was very nice! I’m looking forward to reading The Darwin Elevator.
  • We ended up seeing Scott Lynch twice, first to sign our Locke Lamora books, and then again the next day when we discovered that the Rogues anthology was mysteriously and fortuitously on sale early at a booth which shall not be named. We then had to of course get it signed, too. The first time we talked about humidity in the Minne-consin area (inspiring this awesome dedication in my friend’s book: “The Minnesota swamps miss you!”) and the second time we somehow ended up discussing whether or not George R.R. Martin is an omniscient being.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Phoenix Comicon 2014: Angry Robot Preview Panel

In my lap around the exhibitor hall on Thursday evening, I stopped by all the publisher booths to say hi and make an effort towards the whole networking thing. Though they didn’t have books to give away like the others, the people at the Angry Robot table were super nice to me as a blogger (the nicest, in fact)—very friendly and happy to tell me what they’re all about, which books of theirs I might be interested in, get me signed up on their mailing list, etc. I told the man I was chatting with that I had heard about them via a recent episode of the SF Squeecast podcast, and was surprised to find out I was speaking to none other than Mike Underwood, who had been on that particular podcast episode and is also the author of Geekomancy, which I have yet to read, but have heard only good things about! We talked a bit about their YA imprint (called Strange Chemistry), cover design, and some of their authors who were in attendance at the con, and I promised to come back later to pick up a few of their titles. Which I did!

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Because they were so nice to me and so many of their books that I’d perused sounded intriguing, I decided to check out their preview panel the next morning. It ended up being the only publisher preview I was able to fit in my schedule, and it was perfect as a nice, low-key-yet-entertaining chaser after the fun-yet-also-a-bit-on-the-terrifying-side Improbable Dystopias panel I had attended the hour before. The panel consisted of Lee Harris (Senior Editor), Mike Underwood (North American Sales and Marketing Manager), Chuck Wendig (Blackbirds), Wesley Chu (The Lives of Tao), Danielle Jensen (Stolen Songbird), and Jay Posey (Three). Here’s a bit of Angry Robot 101 from the panel:

  • Launched initially in the UK, with their first books hitting the shelves in July 2009
  • Humorously self-described as a publisher of “SF/F/WTF?!”
  • Has three different imprints: Angry Robot (Science fiction, fantasy, and the aforementioned WTF?!), Strange Chemistry (YA), and Exhibit A (Mystery/Crime Thrillers)
  • They publish their books simultaneously worldwide, so if you’re looking forward to a book coming out, you don’t have to wait months for it to become available in your country after its debut in the UK
  • They publish e-book, paperback, and audio (where possible) formats on the same day
  • They offer e-book subscriptions where you can pay one flat, discounted price and receive monthly downloads off all e-books released during the period of your subscription (pretty neat idea, eh? You can get more info on it here!)
  • They also have a nifty e-book and paperback bundling program called “Clonefiles.” It’s a simple yet brilliant idea—you buy the paperback, you get the e-book version free. Lee Harris stated, “It makes absolute sense. I don’t understand why everybody isn’t doing this, because the readers want it and it costs next to nothing to provide that service.” Hear, hear!

Mr. Harris then turned it over to the authors on the panel to talk a bit about themselves and their books. Chuck Wendig talked about his various works, such as the Miriam Black series and the Mookie Pearl series, as well as his blog at, where he talks about writing (Lee Harris gave Terrible Minds a whole-hearted endorsement, too). Wesley Chu introduced us to his Tao series and may have let slip a few spoilers for the published volumes, but was careful to keep a tight lid on anything related to the third volume in the series, out this December. Danielle Jensen, the sole representative of the Strange Chemistry YA imprint, discussed Stolen Songbird, the first book in a trilogy that debuted in April. Opera divas! Trolls! Underground cities! (You can see why I purchased that one.) Lastly, Jay Posey told us a bit about his Legends of the Dustwalker series, and also a little about his work on video games and as a screenwriter.

The panel was then turned over to Mike Underwood to share with us some upcoming and buzz-worthy Angry Robot books. Here are some of the ones I thought sounded exciting and will be adding to my TBR list:

Arriving: 6/24/2014

In a land riven with plague, inside the infamous Walled City, two families vie for control: the Medicis with their genius inventor Leonardo; the Lorraines with Galileo, the most brilliant alchemist of his generation.

And when two star-crossed lovers, one from either house, threaten the status quo, a third, shadowy power – one that forever seems a step ahead of all of the familial warring – plots and schemes, and bides its time, ready for the moment to attack...

Assassination; ancient, impossible machines; torture and infamy – just another typical day in paradise.

“A great adventure for anybody who likes The Lies of Locke Lamora, or if you like the Romeo and Juliet story,” said Mr. Underwood, also noting that it’s got some of the fun flavor of Assassin’s Creed 2.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Big Box o’ BEA

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled PHXCC coverage with this look at the box of awesomeness Susan sent my way after Book Expo America. It arrived in the middle of all the Phoenix Comicon fun, and between the two I find myself overwhelmed by books! A pleasant state, I do aver. So many great things to read—I’m going to have to fill a jar with the titles written on slips of paper and allow chance to guide my hand in choosing what next to read! But first—

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Here is the leaning tower of books that emerged from the extraordinarily well-packed box S sent me. I’ve got them all arranged by release date, so there’s at least some semblance of organization in my read-and-review-all-the-ARCs plan.

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This is the lovely collection of cookbook samplers S gathered at BEA. They all look great, but I’m especially excited about Will It Waffle? (a question I often ask myself) and Seriously Delish. Time to get cooking!

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This is some of the random assorted swag that accompanied the books. I love the stuff related to Wonder, and the Hello Kitty poster is now hanging on my wall! How did it escape my notice that Hello Kitty Reading Day is a thing? There’s also a cool rhinestone tattoo thingy that S couldn’t remember what book it was a promotion for, but it occurs to me now that it would make sense if it had come with the ARC for The Jewel (which I think she did pick up).

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Here are some of the ones I was SUPER anticipating that made their way into my hot little hands! Scalzi, Holly Black times two, Westerfeld, and CLARIEL!!!!!

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I think this will be my first foray into the pile, though—it sounds really cute and whimsical, and it has a blurb from Norton freaking Juster on the cover! (I love The Phantom Tollbooth, so I’m willing to go with anything he recommends.) Here’s what it says on the back:
What if a riddle could save your life?

A tangle of ingenious riddles, a malevolent necklace called a torc, an array of menacing birds, and a writing desk that won’t reveal its contents: these are just some of the obstacles that stand between Gabriel and his father, who has vanished from their Brooklyn brownstone without a trace.

When Gabriel rescues an orphaned baby raven named Paladin, he discovers a valuable family secret that may ultimately lead him to his father. Along with Paladin and three valiant friends, Gabriel sets off to bring him home.

Here is an epic fantasy filled with unforgettable characters, seemingly unanswerable riddles, and astonishing bursts of magic at every turn.

What do you think?

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And HERE we have the galley-est galley that every galley-ed! Or at least that’s what I’ve been calling it—Susan will vouch for that. (Really, I’m strangely fascinated by it.) I read the first book in this series earlier this year and I liked it, though it wasn’t as much as I’d hoped it to be. Still, when Sus called me from the Javits Center to ask if I wanted her to snatch this one up, I said YES because a) it’s about all-new characters, and b) another pretty cover. Also, it’s the roughest ARC/galley I’ve ever laid eyes or hands on, and I guess it’s not really either of those things because it says “bound manuscript” on the cover. You know what adds to the fun? THE FACT THAT I CAN’T USE IT FOR REVIEW PURPOSES. How amazing is that?! I feel like I’m getting a super special sneak preview. :D

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And that, bookworms and moths, concludes this installment of “Fun Stuff in the Mail.” Heard of any of these upcoming books? Which ones look good to you? Let us know!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Phoenix Comicon 2014: Improbable Dystopias?

The first panel on my schedule on Friday was “Improbable Dystopias?” (“A look at dystopian fiction—what makes some worlds believable, and others not?”), featuring authors Janni Lee Simner (The Bones of Faerie), Jason Hough (The Darwin Elevator), Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone), Pierce Brown (Red Rising), and Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant (Feed and Parasite). They probably also could’ve called it, “Most Terrifying Panel of the Con.” Seriously, the takeaway from this one is that WE ARE LIVING IN A DYSTOPIA RIGHT NOW! When I left the panel I had a strong urge to purchase hand sanitizer and not eat chicken for awhile. But in all seriousness, it was a great panel—lots of ideas, lots of audience interaction, and lots of time spent digging deep into many different aspects of the theme. As usual, I arrived 10 minutes late, but made it there in time to catch the tail end of some discussion of utopias giving rise to dystopias. Seanan McGuire then brought up the idea that there are also dystopias that didn’t start out as utopias, but rather as a frantic bid to fix things. She built on the idea by saying that if you want to see how a dystopian future could come to pass, you should go to the airport and have a look at TSA—lots of people doing what they’re told, in a pretty arbitrary way. She noted that over the course of 15 years, we’ve gone from being able to walk up to the gate to meet arriving friends and family, to getting manhandled by strangers, having our liquids thrown away, being subjected to the radiation box, etc. “What do we do when they start putting in those steps where the TSA takes over the buses? Who’s going to stand up and say no, I’d rather risk terrorism than have TSA agents at the Greyhound station?” she asked.

Laini Taylor also thought the airport example was a good one. She mentioned how when she’d been at the airport recently, she’d flashed back to the scene from The Pianist (“unfairly, exaggeratedly,” she added), when people are being herded out of the ghetto and they’re going along with it simply because they didn’t believe anything extreme could happen. Pierce Brown also had an airports-as-the-beginnings-of-dystopia story, mentioning how when he’d been sitting in the airport to fly to Phoenix, he was listening to the broadcast and realized that it sounded like something straight out of Total Recall or Robocop—“Due to increased security measures…” It was like all the sci-fi movies he grew up with in the ‘90s are real!

The panel agreed that as things escalate incrementally, you’re afraid to say anything about it or rock the boat. Janni Lee Simner added, “Dystopia gets out of control when we believe in the illusion of safety,” which I thought was a really compelling, and scary, idea. Talk then turned to the concept of the “boiled frog dystopia.” Apparently, if you try to put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out. No surprise, right? It’s not going to tolerate that. But if you put it in a pot of room temperature water and slowly turn up the heat, it will allow itself to be boiled alive because it won’t notice the tiny incremental changes in the water around it. (How this was all discovered, I do not want to know.) Seanan thought that these kinds of dystopias are the ones that feel the most realistic to her—the situation where something bad has happened, be it a bio attack or a terrorist attack, and we put in all sort of new measures that help us feel a little safer, and now we’d feel unsafe without those things. And if people want to look like they’re doing something about terrorism, they have to do something more extreme and go a little bit further, because you can’t dial it back. People would start to feel unsafe, even though their state of safety would be the same as it was before.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Phoenix Comicon 2014: The Books and Authors Kickoff Panel

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Hello, internet! It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve seen you! After an intense-but-awesome weekend, Phoenix Comicon has come and gone, until it swings around again in 2015. It was just as amazing as last year (if not more so!), not least because there were even more authors I completely adore in attendance. That alone would’ve been enough to make the event spectacular, but there were some fun surprises in store, too—like free books! I believe last year the only publisher in attendance was Tor, but this year Del Rey and Angry Robot also had booths and panels. And maybe because Phoenix Comicon is gaining a higher profile thanks to all the word-of-mouth buzz generated by author guests and attendees, there was a bit of a BEA model in place this year. When I walked into the exhibitor hall on Thursday night, Del Rey was handing out free copies of books by authors in attendance and some who were not, and they hosted signings for those books during the rest of the convention. Tor also had books to give away and signings for some of their authors, and all sorts of other swag. Angry Robot wasn’t tossing out any free books, but they were very friendly and recommended which of their books you might be interested in based on other books you like. Between the publisher giveaways and signings, the comicon-scheduled signings, and the time authors spent hanging out at their own tables to sign books, it was a busy weekend with many opportunities to interact with the writers you fangirl or -boy over.

After picking up my badge on Thursday night and doing a pass around the (huge) exhibitor hall to get the lay of the land before the masses arrived on the morrow, I headed over to the Books and Authors Kickoff Panel. This was high on my list of must-see panels because the one last year was frikkin’ hilarious, and because I thought it would be a good opportunity to see some of the authors interact who wouldn’t have panels together later in the con.

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Scalzi gesticulating while Pierce Brown, Naomi Novik, L.E. Modesitt, and Carrie Vaughn wait for the panel to start.

The room filled up and the panel moderator got things underway, joking about how some say Phoenix Comicon has become “Author Con,” and then introduced Paul & Storm. Scott Lynch noted that his niece loves them, to which Paul replied, “Beloved of nieces everywhere!” They then introduced themselves and said, “We’re gonna do the song that makes all the people sitting up at this table mad at us… But it comes from the heart, and it probably comes from your heart, as well.” And so they launched into “Write Like the Wind,” which I hope you’ve listened to by now. If you haven’t, here’s that video again:

DID YOU WATCH IT?!? If so, good. If not, you don’t know what you’re missing…

Moving on. Everyone found the song to be hilarious (as well they should’ve!), and after we’d all recovered from our laughter, the moderator introduced the panelists: Seanan McGuire, whose recent books include Sparrow Hill Road and Parasite (the latter under a pen name, Mira Grant). John Scalzi, writer of the Old Man’s War series and Redshirts (he greeted us with, “hello, nerds”). Scott Lynch, who, when the moderator mentioned he writes the Gentleman Bastard series, replied that he also has “a forthcoming book called The Doors of Stone,” the first of many good-natured digs at Patrick Rothfuss over the course of the weekend. (Pat responded, “Oh, so it’s going to be one of THOSE cons!”) Pierce Brown, who debuted as an author earlier this year with Red Rising. The moderator said she’d heard it would be a trilogy, to which he deadpanned, “Yeah, everything is a trilogy now.” Naomi Novik, author of the Temeraire series featuring dragons and the Napoleonic wars. L.E. Modesitt, who has written many things, including the currently-17-volume Saga of Recluce series (someone, probably Scott Lynch, joked, “It’s a trilogy!”). Carrie Vaughn, author of the Kitty Norville urban fantasy series. And lastly, “the beard himself,” Patrick Rothfuss, author of the Kingkiller Chronicles (“More or less,” he amended).

The moderator started off the questions by asking for how many of them was it their first Phoenix Comicon, and how many are returning guests.

(Someone): Do we raise our hands?

Mod: You can raise your hands, go down the line…just talk. That’s what John does.

John Scalzi: What did I do??

Seanan McGuire: There’s a reason we didn’t let you sit at the table! (There weren’t enough chairs at the panel, so Paul & Storm sat on the floor until chairs were found for them, Scalzi was seated further back from the table, and Rothfuss was standing at the end of it.)

Scalzi: I’ve got a tattoo that says “born to lurk.”

L.E. Modesitt: Which he does superbly.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Phoenix Comicon is coming!

Hot on the heels of Susan’s exciting BEA adventures (over 100 books hunted down?! Day-yum, girl! You show ‘em how it’s done!), I will be heading to Phoenix Comicon this Thursday through Sunday. I’m really impressed with their books and author track this year—lots of authors from across all the subgenres of SFF, many of them super highly acclaimed, and more publishers in attendance than last year! To say I’m excited would be an understatement. You can find the full run-down of guests and programming here, but here are some of the people and events I’m most looking forward to:

Patrick Rothfuss!!! Arguably one of the most famous names in the pantheon of modern fantasy writers, I was jaw-drop shocked to see he would be coming to Phoenix. So amazing!!! I’ve been hearing about him since The Name of the Wind first came out, but I didn’t get around to reading his books until fairly recently. He made it onto my list of early 2014 favorites, and I hauled ass to finish up the second (and most recent) book in the Kingkiller series last week, because I wanted to be able to attend his panels spoiler-free. Mission accomplished! I’m interested in hearing him talk about Kvothe and his world, and also about upcoming projects like the Bast short story coming out in the Rogues anthology later this month and the Auri novella dropping in the fall.

Scott Lynch!!! As if Pat Rothfuss alone wasn’t reason enough to attend to PHXCC, yet another of the most popular fantasy authors of our age will be there! Again, I’d been hearing about how great he is pretty much since The Lies of Locke Lamora first came out, and, again, I was slow to get around to reading it. When I saw he’d be at the convention I tracked down a copy to read in preparation, and it was AWESOME. Clever con artists pulling off the heist of a lifetime in a Venice-flavored setting? Yes, please! The book is seriously non-stop action and crackling writing—I pretty much read for two days straight because I couldn’t put it down. I haven’t read the sequels yet (it took all my strength of will to read a book by another convention guest rather than diving straight into Red Seas Under Red Skies), but I am so so SO excited to meet the guy whose brain produced this series! Richer and cleverer than everyone else!!!

In the realm of awesome YA authors, Laini Taylor will be attending! The WordNerds book club read Daughter of Smoke and Bone a couple years ago, and I think I was the one who enjoyed it most out of our group. I love lyrical writing and vivid imagery, and those are both things Laini Taylor excels at. I saw her at my local indie bookstore when the second book in the trilogy, Days of Blood and Starlight, came out, and she was very personable and a lot of fun. Though I haven’t gotten to that one or the final installment of the trilogy (out a couple months ago), it’s going to be interesting to hear about her thoughts on YA and writing during panels like “Improbable Dystopias?” and “True Natures, Hidden Identities in YA Fiction.” I know I’m probably courting spoilers by going to those without having finished the series, but I’m feeling BOLD, I tell you!

And a big hooray for Seanan McGuire!!! Yet another awesome, awesome author. I nommed all seven books in her Toby Daye series in about two weeks. Slightly shameful on my part, but that just goes to show how completely addictive they are! I’ve been describing that series to friends as “Holly Black for grown-ups!” By which I just mean they’re well-written and engaging urban fantasy about the fae. Holly Black’s and Seanan McGuire’s writing styles and narrative voices are very different, but their books are similar in that a) they involve faeries, b) their writing is very evocative, and c) they’re FANTASTIC. Seanan McGuire also writes horror under the name Mira Grant, but I haven’t made it that far through her back catalogue yet. It’s only a matter of time, though! It’s always so nice to a find a new-to-you author you really enjoy, and even better when they have a ton of books for you to work your way through.

Catherynne Valente, another lyrical writer I adore, is coming back to Phoenix as well! Her writing is so poetic and deeply rooted in myth and folklore, and I absolutely love it (her first Fairyland book was my #1 read of 2013!). She’s another one I’ve caught on tour at my local indie book shop, and I remember she had all kinds of interesting thoughts and opinions to share with the audience (though she did not manage to diminish my affection for A Wrinkle in Time). It’s going to be fun to see her during the live recording of SF Squeecast (a great nerdy SFF podcast, if you haven’t checked it out) and at a panel with female authors talking about Doctor Who.

There are plenty of other famous, up-and-coming, and otherwise popular authors on the PHXCC guest list as well. Any of these books look familiar?

I was super into Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books for awhile (y’know, the ones they adapted into the TV show True Blood). Jim Butcher is hugely popular and famous, though I’ve somehow never tried out the Dresden Files (just grabbed the first one with my credit at a used bookstore, though!). I’m currently trying to read Pierce Brown’s debut novel, Red Rising, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to finish it by the time the con rolls around. Can you believe there are going to be even MORE authors in attendance beyond those represented here? Like I said, the books-and-authors track is truly impressive this year.

Oh, and Paul & Storm will be playing a concert there with guest appearances by John Scalzi, Pat Rothfuss, and Seanan McGuire. You may know them from this hilarious song exhorting George R. R. Martin to speed it up on the Song of Ice and Fire front:

All in all, it’s shaping up to be an epic weekend. I’ll be reporting on panels and such like I did last year, so keep an eye out for that. Who would you be most interested in seeing/hearing about at Phoenix Comicon this year? Are you a fan of any of the authors attending? Hit the comments and let us know!

All author photos are from the Phoenix Comicon website, and all book cover images are from Goodreads.

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