Using Canva to Design Your Own Book Covers

Some time ago, Hugh Howey wrote about canva.com, a tool authors could use to create book covers for their Kindle and other e-book releases. (The site offers plenty of templates for other online uses, as well.)

If you’ve been reading here for a while, you already know: cover art is the big hold-up on pretty much all of my e-books (not to mention the print versions). And if you’ve tried creating a cover on your own, you know the complications go far beyond coming up with an image to represent your story – there’s also sizing, resolution, thumbnails and more to consider.

Canva eliminates about 95% of these worries. Work with their premade templates for font placement and selection ideas, drop in your cover art (easily created with Pixlr and a few copyright-free art searches) and click “download.” You’ll be stunned at what you can create. For example. see the comparisons below: the covers I originally posted for PIC, Mousewings and POST, compared to their Canva-created replacements. (Click on each thumbnail for a full image; if you want to make a purchase, use the links on the right-hand side of the blog)

Evidenced by the above, even the least graphically gifted among us can create something worth showing of with Canva. Think you’ll give it a try? Leave a link to your designs in the comments!

Beyond Disappointed in Dorothy Perkins

As all plus-size ladies know, when you find a clothing retailer who makes outfits that flatter your figure, you stick with them. Such has been the case with me and Dorothy Perkins, a UK-based retailer I discovered nearly 15 years ago while studying in London. Since moving back to America in 2007, I’ve made a point of ordering multiple dresses from the retailer almost every year.

Unfortunately, inept customer service has now all but guaranteed that I will no longer be ordering from the retailer.

Ordering from Dorothy Perkins’ website has never been easy. When I first returned from the UK, the company had no US shipping presence. This meant ordering from their UK website and paying international costs to have the dresses sent from overseas; the last couple of years, they’ve added US distribution. Unfortunately, with the US distribution center, I’ve noticed a steep downturn in the quality of Dorothy Perkins’ service.

It started small: instead of listing the UK sizes (which I was familiar with, given that I’d, you know, lived there and worn the clothes), they listed the US ones (which are typically a size up from UK). Early on, this wasn’t made clear, so ordering clothes from the site started involving a fair amount of guess work. I had a couple of misses, but overall was happy to get a couple of dresses a year that fit far better than anything I could get from US stores. The cuts and fits suited a plus-size figure, and eventually items were even offered in “tall” – perfect.

But the last few times I’ve ordered, I have to say – it’s been a disappointment. And with my most recent order, my faith in Dorothy Perkins has been utterly shattered.

Things started out okay. Midway through December, I took a gander at the sale section of the site, picked a few dresses that looked like they’d be my size, and placed my order. The free shipping option guaranteed that the items would be in my hot little hands by December 31st. Great!, I thought, no need to worry about shopping for New Year’s Eve attire! Maybe I’d be lucky and the dresses would even arrive ahead of schedule, since the 31st was quoted as the latest date the dresses would arrive. But as the days wore by and we passed Christmas, crawling towards 2015, I started to get nervous.

Still. The site had said the dresses would arrive by December 31st. So it wasn’t until the mailman came and went on the 31st that I started to get annoyed.

I tweeted at the retailer’s social media accounts (@Dorothy_Perkins and @Ask_DP, and does anyone else think it’s weird that retailers always have 2 separate accounts for answering customer service issues, with the one that actually responds rarely including the brand’s full name?) asking where my order was. They asked me to follow @Ask_DP and send my order number. I did, and was told that the order couldn’t be tracked (well, yes, I know, because when I got the tracking number in my initial confirmation, it said that orders beginning with the three letter code “RML” were un-trackable). When I expressed aggravation and disappointment, I was told – essentially – to sit tight and wait, and that the company wouldn’t be offering any sort of compensation for the lateness of the package’s arrival because of their terms and conditions.

Never mind that if they hadn’t quoted a definite delivery date of Dec 31st at the latest, I’d have sprung a few extra bucks for faster delivery.

As the days passed, I kept tweeting about how my dresses hadn’t shown up yet. Each time, @Ask_DP would tell me to follow them and DM them my order number. Each time, I’d say I’d already done that and they hadn’t been helpful, and if they had a different answer to let me know. Each time, they’d fail to reply to that request.

Well, the kicker came yesterday, when the dresses I’d hoped to have for New Year’s Eve turned up on my doorstep almost a week late…and in the wrong sizes.

To clarify, I don’t mean they arrived in sizes that didn’t fit. I mean they arrived in sizes I hadn’t ordered. All three dresses. Still, I know there are discrepancies between UK and US sizing, and I know that different designers have different sizing (though one piece was labeled almost five sizes larger than what I’d ordered), so I tried the dresses on.

Dress number one was a cute maxi dress with a black top and polka-dotted skirt. The sleeves kept slipping off my shoulder. Definitely not something I could wear, and definitely not the size I’d ordered it in.

Dress number two? Well, let me just say I have no idea how a designer would think that someone would have that much on top and that little on bottom. The skirt barely covered my behind, while the bodice of what was supposed to be a form-fitting dress was loose, not fitting at all. If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know I’m not exactly lacking in the bust department, so I was pretty shocked to see that this was the case. Of course, this was the dress that was nearly five sizes larger than I’d ordered, but still. There must be some really short, REALLY chesty size 26’s out there.

Which brings us to dress number three. A gorgeous pleated maxi dress, black. The neck on this one was a bit more fitted than the other maxi dress, and it was a flowy style, so I really hoped it might somehow work out. I pulled the dress on, straightened out all the various layers, and…realized that the cord that was meant to tie it at the waist – the cord that would give the dress some shape, rather than making it a pleated mumu – was missing. It was definitely supposed to be there, because there were small loops to hold it in place and the image on the website showed a shaped dress, but there was no cord in sight.

wpid-0106151658.jpgI tweeted Dorothy Perkins’ accounts and raged about the fact that they’d been so unhelpful in regards to the shipping, then raged some more about how on earth my order could have been so badly mangled. (Remember: arrived late, wrong sizes, BROKEN DRESS.) I got a reply asking me, AGAIN, to send my order number so they could help me work things out.

I re-followed the @Ask_DP account and re-sent my order number. That was this morning.

I’m still waiting for a response.

At this point, I’m glad I held off writing my initial complaint to the Better Business Bureau, because @Dorothy_Perkins provided me with plenty more to include in the letter. (Like, say, a copy of this blog.) At this point, I want them to pay the return shipping on the two dresses that were wildly outsized, and expect some kind of markdown on the third dress – which I can at least buy a ribbon or cord for on my own – since it wasn’t delivered in the state it was advertised.

I’m profoundly disappointed. This is a company I’ve loved and shopped with for over a decade. I have dresses from them that I’ve owned for nearly that amount of time. And yet, they failed so completely to fulfill this order. That could be excused if not for the cavalier attitude they showed when I raised my inital concerns about shipping times, and if they were able to get their website in order so it didn’t promise unrealistic shipping dates to customers.

So, it’s with great sadness that I have to say: I can no longer recommend ordering @Dorothy_Perkins online to other shoppers, unless those shoppers don’t need their clothes within a set timeframe and don’t mind dealing with the hassle of returning incorrect items. It’s a shame, because they’re one of the few retailers whose offerings have been flattering and of decent quality, over the years. If you live in the UK and can get to their retail outlets, by all means keep up your purchasing. If, however, you’re trying to take advantage of the brand from afar…

Well…caveat emptor, because apparently they don’t hold themselves to the standard of fulfilling their website’s promises.

I’m still tweeting @Dorothy_Perkins and trying to get a refund on my items, and a markdown for the one dress that may be salvageable. I’m also in the process of looking for the executive in charge of customer service, as this entire experience will likely lose a loyal customer and informal brand ambassador for the company.

Should the company choose to re-engage with my inquiry, I’ll update this entry to reflect that, the steps they take, and the ultimate resolution of this issue.

2:10 p.m.

Update: I’ve now received a DM from the company via Twitter, asking me to send a photograph of the missing piece so they can determine an appropriate discount. Since the piece is missing, I’m not sure what they think I have in my possession to photograph, so have sent them an image of the dress as shown on their website. I’ve also finally managed to create a return slip for the other two dresses, without any guidance from the company’s social media team on how to do so. A request for information on how to directly contact their customer service department, also contained in the DMs, has thus far been ignored.

Update: Have just received an auto-return confirmation from the @Dorothy_Perkins website, saying I should allow up to 28 days for them to receive and process my return. Unbelievable.

3:53pm

Update: Repeated requests for a direct email address for the head of customer service have been answered with a catch-all customer service address by @Ask_DP.

Update: A couple of friends have read the blog, and recommended two alternative retailers: City Chic, based out of Australia, and Asos (which I didn’t realize carried plus sizes). Just two ideas for anyone who’d like an alternative! I haven’t tried them yet, but definitely plan to.

 

UPDATE: Jan 7, evening

I received an email this morning from someone claiming to represent customer service at Dorothy Perkins, apologizing for my experience and stating that the company is willing to expedite my return and expressing their wish to follow up on this experience with the the appropriate members of staff. They have said they are willing to pay for return shipment and reimburse costs associated with the return of the items to the warehouse. I’ve been told that I can use the email address as a direct line to a specific customer care adviser. I will be mailing the package back in the next couple days, and will update once the matter has been concluded. I really appreciate everyone who read and shared this account of what happened.

Black Mirror Got Better

Holy crap.

So, a couple of weeks ago I wrote Black Mirror, Blunt Teeth, discussing how much I felt like season one of Black Mirror didn’t hold up to the hype — but I was still going to check in with the second season (and subsequent ones) because I’d been hearing so much about the show.

Well, I finished season 2 over Christmas weekend, and does that show ever warm up in its second season. Seriously, it was almost like watching two different shows: one lukewarm and cartoonish, the other utterly chilling.

We kick off with Be Right Back, which plays with the idea of people preserving themselves via their social media and online history. It’s an idea I’ve been playing around with in a few short stories, so it was kind of cool to see it done so well in this story. A young woman whose boyfriend dies tries to keep from letting go of him – and what happens because of it will give you goosebumps. For some reason, this episode reminded me of British Zombie show In The Flesh; thematically it covers different territory but the tones are similar.

Next up? White Bear. This was the episode all my friends had been talking about, and it was the one I watched on a big-screen TV. It’s also the one my mom walked in on halfway through; she was so freaked out by it that she left the room after a few minutes – but she did ask me, later, how it turned out. While the first season’s episode The National Anthem toyed a bit with the idea of entertainment as the dehumanization of the masses, White Bear took this a step further, showing how terrifying it would if revenge and justice were conflated on a societal level.

Which brings us to the end of season two, and The Waldo Moment. This episode had a different tone; less chilling and more analytical, might be the way to put it. Initially I thought they’d spin in a direction that was completely opposite to where the episode ended up; ultimately it seemed like another indictment of society’s willingness to hand over responsibility for itself to nameless, faceless wielders of power.

I’m not sure I’d recommend that one skip season 1 entirely, but so far, for me, season 2 is where it’s at. Check it out on Netflix for some seriously creepy viewing.

The Inevitable New Year’s Post

First thing’s first:

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Thanks for being here, reading, clicking, sharing, generally being lovely, etc.

This is the time of year when I like to look back and see what I’ve been up to. So here goes, a list of my 2014 accomplishments and 2015 hopes, both professional and personal.

Professional Accomplishments, 2014

  • Became an admin for the site, Calming Brits & Irishmen, which my friend started in an effort to cheer me up after my back diagnosis just over a year ago.
  • Wrote ACE IN THE HOLE, a one-act play with an all-female cast, commissioned by Ingenius Theatre. (Available as part of Short Frictions – purchasing link to your right).
  • Wrote a first draft (which I’ve subsequently revised a bit) of a novella as part of a long-term project with @sareliz.
  • Created new cover art for a number of the books I have available on Amazon.
  • Completed a month of blogging every day.
  • Started a new job in a new city, with more creative freedom and more responsibility.
  • Started a writer’s group on Facebook with a group of very talented people who I’m looking forward to growing with over the next year.

Personal Accomplishments, 2014

  • Despite a bad back injury, I kept a (mostly) positive outlook throughout the year during my recovery.
  • Made some major strides forward in dealing with my own mental health.
  • Moved away from New York City (I KNOW!) and adjusted to life in the country (still in progress).
  • I HAVE A NIECE! (Okay, all I did to accomplish this was be born to the same parents as her dad and then wait around for 30 years, but still.)
  • Lost a bit of weight by making healthy life choices (and a bit by being in too much pain to move, during the first part of 2014).
  • Got my finances more or less under control.

Professional Goals, 2015

  • Revise, rewrite, and finish the aforementioned novella, which seems to be growing into more of a novel-shaped thing.
  • Finish my sitcom pilot and outline the subsequent scripts for the first “season”.
  • Write another play. No idea what. Just write another play.
  • Write three short stories…and send them to actual publications.
  • Stretch goal: experiment with YouTube/vlogging. (Ain’t gonna happen, but you have to aim high, right?)
  • See more theater.

Personal goals, 2015:

  • Maintain healthy habits
  • Travel more
  • Meet my niece (hoping to knock that off the list in a few weeks)
  • Pay more attention to my personal life.

And there you have it! What did you accomplish in 2014, and what are you hoping to do in the coming year? Whatever your answers…congratulations, and good luck!

Black Mirror, Blunt Teeth

Last week, a friend recommended Black Mirror – or rather, they expressed shock when they found out I hadn’t watched it yet. I finally got around to starting it a few days ago, armed only with the notion that it was some kind of modern-day British Twilight Zone.

The first episode of the first season, The National Anthem, had me hooked within minutes. “I’m not going to fuck a pig,” the Prime Minister declares, faced with a list of demands from terrorists who’ve kidnapped Britain’s sweetheart of a princess. While the premise of the first episode is set up quickly, the remainder of the hour-long show feels toothless. Objections to carrying through the terrorists’ demands center largely around whether the cost/benefit balances out, and the story tips dramatically once the kidnapper starts sending non-essential body parts to local news agencies. I know there’s a limit to what can be accomplished in an hour of anthology television, but focusing on the journalistic side of the ethical conundrum comes at the cost of really peeling back the layers of what it means for a human being to weigh ethics and choose to make the decision to engage in sex with a creature incapable of consent. The idea of a journalist willing to exploit her body and her connections for a story isn’t a new one, and the story doesn’t delve any deeper than that.

Fifteen Million Merits, the second episode, evokes Doctor Who’s Satellite Five, (“The Long Game,” “Bad Wolf,” “The Parting of the Ways”) in that it’s set in a world based around a reality-show model of civilization. Individuals go to a gym and pedal on stationary bikes all day (I admit, my attention wandered a little bit, here) and earn credits, which they spend on things like food – and avoiding erotic commercials. They watch a reality competition called Hot Shots, paying millions of credits to compete. Here, our protagonist (who’s conveniently inherited millions from his dead brother) falls for a girl whose singing talent, he thinks, is enough to get her a ticket out of their mundane existence. Ultimately, the corruption of the system swallows both of them whole.

So far (I’m now watching episode three, The Entire History of You), the show seems to set up intriguing premises without fully examining them. While ambiguity is the stock-in-trade of shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (which, I’d argue, this show tracks with more closely), there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being noncommittal, and I would argue that so far Black Mirror is erring on the side of the latter. It’s less stylized than Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place and while its creator, Charlie Brooker, is quoted as saying “Each episode…[is] all about the way we’re living now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy,” I’m not sure that the episodes so far are really being true to that vision.

Might a government official be coerced into an abhorrent sex act? Might we wind up living in pod hotels and generating electricity via stationary bicycle? Who knows. So far, the third episode seems the most realistic – and its conceit actually echos the basis of my story A Fixed Perspective, available in Short Frictions,

I’m not ready to say that Black Mirror is a miss, but so far, it hasn’t hit that sweet spot where, as an anthology show, it becomes more than a collection of brief conceptual exercises and morphs into something truly iconic.

Here’s hoping it hits that sweet spot soon.

Black Mirror is available via Netflix streaming service.

 

Edit: After writing this last night, I went on to start series 2; one episode into that and all I can say is, HOLY JUMP IN QUALITY, BATMAN! Looking forward to the rest of the second series, and hoping the quality keeps up!

Cleaning Up A Sweepstakes Mess

The first point where I knew something had gone wrong was when I signed into my email and saw a note from the winner of my Short Frictions/Think Geek giveaway.

After a brief sweepstakes entry period, I’d Rafflecoptered for a winner and sent a $15 gift code to a reader who’d faithfully liked, shared, tweeted and retweeted a brief message about the book almost every day. Now, she wrote, she was having trouble redeeming the code. The Think Geek site was telling her it had already been used. Which it hadn’t, because she’d been saving it to shop for the holidays.

My heart sank. I logged into Think Geek and checked the code, and sent it to her again to confirm there hadn’t been a typo, but she was right – the balance on the code was showing up as zero. I really didn’t know what had happened, especially since another code I’d sent out the same day had been redeemed without a problem.

Finally, I decided to check in with the Think Geek team. I’m always hesitant to start talking to customer service. I find it incredibly stressful and frustrating, particularly after some of the experiences I’ve had with other companies this year, but without getting in touch with them there was no way to figure out what had happened.

It took two tries to get a customer service rep to respond on the Think Geek site. I’m not sure what happened the first time, but I spent several minutes typing in an explanation of what had happened and waiting for a response that never came. I logged out, logged back in, and tried again. This time, after five or so minutes, a rep came online and asked me to describe my problem. After confirming she could read and reply to my messages, I explained, and she started to investigate.

My hope was to confirm with Think Geek when the gift card balance had been used, in case there had been some kind of technical glitch; I wasn’t sure if they’d tell me the date and amount of whatever purchase tracked back to the giveaway gift code, but I figured the best idea was to get as much information as I could before I sent the sweepstakes winner an update.

After five or ten more minutes, the customer rep sent a message that far surpassed my expectations: she had added the credit back onto the gift code. I’m not sure if she found a glitch in the sale or if there was some kind of error, or if Think Geek just decided that such a small amount wasn’t worth haggling over (which I’d already decided was going to be my approach if it turned out they couldn’t reinstate the credit, because the giveaway winner had put a lot of effort into spreading word of Short Frictions on social media). But I was relieved that the matter was resolved so easily.

Once I had confirmation from the customer service team, I emailed the winner and let her know that everything should be up and running and she could make her purchases; I haven’t heard from her since, so am assuming everything went well.

From start to finish, resolving the situation took about half an hour, but I was shocked at how stressful I found it.  As self-published authors, being in charge of marketing and PR is a huge part of what we do – and when something goes wrong, there’s no PR rep to hide behind, no publishing house to help defray the cost of issues like lost prizes and credits. Plus, it’s our name out there on the line. This contest winner was extremely understanding and patient as I worked to resolve the gift code issue, but just as easily could have been someone far less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

I’m lucky enough, currently, to be in a position where I could have afforded to replace the prize if need be – but what if I wasn’t? What if the prize was something bigger, or Think Geek had turned replacing the credit into more of a production?

When you self-publish, you’re taking control and ownership of every aspect of sharing your work. The buck stops with you. Making sure you’re mentally and financially prepared (not to mention knowing you have enough time on your hands) to represent your work to the best of your ability is an important part of being a self-published author. And it’s not something to take on lightly.

Thankfully, in this case, the mess that had to be cleaned up wasn’t a big one. Hopefully (knock on wood) it never will be. If and when future issues arise, no matter what area of self-publishing they might be in, I’ll handle them as quickly and smoothly as possible, and hope for the best.

Cleaning up when something goes wrong is something every self-publishing author has to be prepared for, whether the hitch happens in writing, editing, publishing, art directing or publicity. Be prepared, keep your cool, and think your options through, and hopefully your next hitch won’t throw you for a loop.

 

 

Buy your own copy of Short Frictions on Amazon or Smashwords.

“Jagannath” by Karen Tidbeck

Twitter friend @johannthors1120140705 recently went on a “diet” of all-female authors, and one of the books he discussed on his blog was JAGANNATH, by Karen Tidbeck, featuring moody, Scandanavian stories of the fantastic. Since I had a day full of flights a week or so ago,  and my phone at hand, I decided to write a few thoughts on each short story in the collection.

The first story, BEATRICE, would be at home in the magically surreal worlds constructed by China Mieville. Eerie and infused with steampunk flavor, the piece tells the tale of two love affairs. The first is between a doctor and an airship; the second between a clerk and her steam-powered stove. The conclusion reminded more a little of themes I touched on in my own short story, SWEETHEART, namely the idea of relationships that exist between creatures of unequal power.

The second tale is an epistolary story, SOME LETTERS FOR OVE LINDSTROM. From a daughter to her alcoholic father, these letters paint a picture of their life after the disappearance of the daughter’s mother. This absent maternal figure reminds me a little of a Kelpie, although the creature referred to here is a vittra. I didn’t find this story as compelling as BEATRICE, but I’m willing to give it a second reading to see if there’s anything I missed.

MISS NYBERG AND I is an utterly charming tale that starts with a balcony full of poisonous plants and ends with a tiny creature taking up residence in a young woman’s apartment. Told from the point of view of a writer friend, the story explores how authors fictionalized their lives and the lives of those around them, asking questions about how we represent the lives and adventures of those we love. While plenty of authors joke about including people and events from their lives in their fictions, Tidbeck capture the particular ethical dilemma of creating a future for someone you know in real life.

Next up is REBECKA, and here things get dark. The story of an abused woman who can’t escape the pain her tormentors caused her, who tries to get God’s attention after repeated, failed suicide attempts. Tidbeck’s sparse prose does a service to this stark, fatalistic tale, drawing out the titular character’s anguish and desire to end her own pain in the wake of trauma. Why does God let bad things happen to people, the story asks, and does He ever answer their prayers for solace? In REBECKA, the answer is more disturbing than reassuring. If God doesn’t step in unless it’s to punish, what must one do to catch enough of His attention to be relieved of life’s pains?

HERR CEDERBERG is another miss for me, about a man who builds a flying machine. There’s something here that ties into a metaphor using bumble bees, but I’m not sure of the overarching meaning of the story. Worth a second reading, and hopefully that will uncover hidden depths. One of the frustrating things about reading books by authors in other cultures is that at times one feels as if one may have missed something through a lack of cultural literacy, and this story does give me that feeling.

Recalling both METAMORPHOSIS and a few other Kafka tales whose titles I can’t quite put my finger on, WHO IS ARVID PEKON? gives the reader a glimpse inside a rather unorthodox call center. The titular character fields a number of odd calls, but had one client in particular whose inquiries grow increasingly bizarre. Anyone who’s felt themselves disappearing into a job will recognize the deadliness of corporate culture in this short piece.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that so far most of the stories are only a few pages long, and the mood of each piece flows well from one story to the next.)

Stories about writing are always tricky, and my feeling was that NYBERG captures the dilemmas of process more aptly than BRITA’S HOLIDAY VILLAGE, about a writer who retreats from the world to finish a couple of projects (sound familiar, anyone?) and instead cross paths with distant family. This is one of the longer stories so far, and part of me wishes there were more depth and detail about the family members. Since I’m reading this on a plane, I can’t look up what a ‘pupa’ is, but I have the feeling it may be integral to the plot.

Mental illness gets a closer look in REINDEER MOUNTAIN, about two sisters and their mother cleaning out a family home. Here, another absent matriarch – in this case, the family’s great grandmother – appeared as if from nowhere with a sense of being touched by the fairy world. The story talks about mental illness, nerves, anxiety and depression – and worse – being passed down through generations of a family, and how desperately the family tries to ignore the signs when one of their own begins a faster slide into depression and delusion. Called ‘uncanny’ in the book’s introduction, there’s certainly an air of the unusual, here. Taking on the mythic feeling of Nordic folklore, one truly feels the encroaching darkness in this unsettling tale. Family heritage is tied directly to mental illness by an old piece of clothing; it’s ultimately kept as a souvenir of the fantastical occurrence at the story’s climax.

CLOUDBERRY JAM is a fast, fey tale that once again touches on the pregnancy theme Tidbeck brought up in BEATRICE, that of women having unconventional, fantastic pregnancies that lead to odd, not quite human children. Here, the protagonist creates a child for herself, loving and nurturing it until it begins to grow in its own direction. It’s at this point in reading that the mismatched jigsaw of familial puzzle pieces starts to emerge as significant throughout the collection: human oddities, connected by blood and mythology.

With PYRET, Tidbeck strides straight into otherworldly horror. Structured as a report on a mythological creature, this story pressed all the buttons necessary to make the hair on my neck stand on end. The story ends more abruptly than one might prefer, but the lurch it leaves the reader in helps feed a gnawing sense of umease. The imagery Tidbeck creates here is truly chilling.

Next up is AUGUSTA PRIMA, an odd little Alice-in-Wonderland style tale (or maybe i just think that because of the croquet) about beings living in a world without time, and what happens when one of them finds a watch. It feels like the allegory/concept may have gotten a little ahead of the story; more development of the idea would have given the story greater impact. The characters don’t feel as sharply drawn as in some of the collection’s other stories, though the conceit of playing an endless game of croquet in the garden of memory is an alluring one.

With AUNTS, we return to themes of childbearing, family and unnatural pregnancies. Consumption, too, plays a role in this story, where we watch the ritual of three ‘aunts’ who seem to exist simply to eat and procreate in a seemingly endless cycle. Over and over they consume themselves, finally bursting open full of new life, only for the cycle to be repeated again. Attended by three ‘neices,’ in a secret garden, what do the aunts symbolize – if anything? This story seems to take place on the fringes of the world created in AUGUSTA PRIME – an added wrinkle of complexity that makes me want to go back and look for other connections to other stories.

With JAGANNATH, the final story in the collection, Tidbeck’s theme of unnatural reproduction is turned inward. Now we see from the perspective of a great mother’s offspring as they watch their caretaker, a “mother creature” that protects them from an unspecified disaster out in the real world, run down – along with their entire way of life. Dystopian and claustrophobic, JAGANNATH takes place in an isolated and self-contained environment that would be at home in Margaret Atwood’s MADDADAM.

I’m not typically a fan of author’s notes and afterwards, but in this case reading Tilbeck’s final notes was highly illuminating. She discusses her process in terms of the language she uses, the curious mash-up of British and American English, and how she chooses which phrases to translate from Swedish and which words must remain in her native tongue. As someone who struggles with speech patterns thanks to five years spent living abroad, it was fascinating to read how another writer deals with the challenge of locating her stories in a place where a hodgepodge of languages and dialects create their own distinct flavor of storytelling.

JAGANNATH isn’t a hard read, or a long one, clocking in at 134 pages. It took me two airplane rides to finish it, including writing these thoughts on my phone. It’s atmospheric and linguistically engaging, and the writing itself shows an artfulness.that often feels missing in newer works. By the end of the book, the stories do feel as if they often don’t quite end, instead lingering, like the concept of liminal sun mentioned in Elizabeth Hand’s introduction.

Moody and dark, the stories nonetheless hold hope for those who want to believe in an onionskin otherworld. Tidbeck has a novel coming out soon, and it will be interesting to see what she does with the longer form.

Some authors you might also enjoy:
Julian Barnes
Margaret Atwood
China Mieville
Franz Kafka
Charles de Lint

 

PS – now that the holiday shopping season is here, would you like to check out my collection of short stories, SHORT FRICTIONS? It’s currently available on Kindle and other e-readers.