Raining Down Joy.

So last night, due to activities for which I cannot be held responsible, because they could have happened to ANYONE, the house flooded.

ANYONE could have started running a bath and then had a wee nap. And then woken to dazedly note that by the sound, it seemed we were having some rain, how nice. And then wandered out to get a glass of water and discovered that the floor was sodden and the rain was in actual fact water pouring downstairs through the heating vents and pounding onto the kitchen table.

ANYONE could have then spent the next three hours with towels and buckets and desperate cursing of oneself. ANYONE AT ALL.

At the time I was somewhat flustered, and when I awoke this morning after not enough sleep and padded out of my room and got wet feet because the carpet was still soaking, my mood did not notably improve. “Why, oh why, are the fates against me?” I bemoaned.

Then the mail came.

The mail contained this:

My spirits lifted. So did the rest of me, in fact. Quite against my usual inclinations, I managed to maintain enough self-control to realise that this was an occasion I might want to document, and I promptly levitated upstairs to grab my cellphone.

And so, dear readers, I am happy to reveal to you this: My First Real Copies Of My Real Honest To Goodness Book Arrive: A Pictorial Journey. Not gonna lie: there was incoherent squeaking such that bats only could hear.

There we go! Note that Oprah Winfrey smiles benignly down on them from my classy newspaper backdrop; a good sign, I believe.

My goodness who is that on the inside jacket IT IS ME.

This version of the back cover I had not seen before and I love it! Trees and stuff! People saying very nice things! I had to stop for a moment to hug my book to my chest and coo at it.

Then I tenderly undressed it:

Oh, baby, don’t be shy! You have nothing of which to be ashamed. You’re GORGEOUS.

I dressed it again and took it into town to meet some writerly friends. We went to a bookshop, as we are prone to do, and I callously covered a book WRITTEN BY one of those friends with Guardian of the Dead so as to see how it will appear on a real shelf, come April.

“Look shocked!” I told Deb, and readied my camera. Unfortunately, Deb is terrible at looking shocked, so tonight the role of being horrified by my cruel narcissism will be played by Tessa Kum.

This was sufficiently moving and I relented, letting Shadow Queen out again:

In conclusion, my carpet still squishes under my feet, I have just discovered that the water seeped into my wardrobe and has been marinating my shoes in its special odor, and I am very, very happy.

You and me, book, you and me. Let’s see what we can do.

Internets, I Am An Octopus

Tentacles EVERYWHERE, internets!

One. The fabulous author/teen lit blogger Steph Bowe does a lovely, spoiler-free review of Guardian of the Dead, with an interview from me.


The part furthest from my experience were the fight scenes, since I can barely throw a punch. Naturally, I decided the narrator would have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Good going, me! Fortunately, my best friend runs a martial arts school and she painstakingly explained how to break a wrist grip and perform a perfect side kick.

Two. I take part in the Australian Spec-Fic Snapshot event, where many many Australian (or in my case, Antipodean) authors are asked five quick questions. My interview is hosted by the lovely Tansy.


My second book, currently called SUMMERTON, has sold to Allen and Unwin and Little, Brown. It’s again set in New Zealand, this time in a small, far-too-perfect, West Coast town where three teenagers try to find the real reasons behind their older brothers’ apparent suicides.

My interview is of course the MOST awesome, except for all the others – I really recommend you check this bunch out and get a look at how many Australian writers are tearing up the field. Last year they had 83.

Three. The incredible and slightly fearsome Justine Larbalestier is running a month of guest posts on her blog, all of which are brilliant. Lili Wilkinson on teenage sex, my fantastic editor Alvina Ling on editing, Randa Abdel-Fattah on writing and identity, Zetta Elliot on race and reviews, Ah Yuan on the importance of diversity – man, I am only scratching the surface. Just go and read them all.

And I wrote about being a neurotic mess waiting for my novel to debut. Because that is how I currently roll. Teaser:

Waiting is far from the worst thing in the world, but I cannot stand it. I am prone to jumping off trams in heavy traffic, though even a momentarily stalled tram will get me to my destination faster, because I long for the illusion of moving, going somewhere, getting closer.

ME: I love that you stuck the whinging tag on this!
JUSTINE: I can remove that if you like?
ME: No! I genuinely love it! Totally justified!

FOUR: The American version of my book has been PRINTED. It has been SEEN IN THE WILD. The wild of the Little, Brown offices.

It has pages and everything!

Internets, I am off to bed. Being an octopus is exhausting. I hope you have a fabulous next time period!

Awesome Girls Being Awesome

Internets, I have read some awesome books!

Karen, you say, that does not surprise us at all. If you must, you may tell us about them, very quickly. We are a busy internets.

Internets, okay!

MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS, Varian Johnson.

BOOK: I am a book about teenage pregnancy and abortion by 1) a man who 2) thanks the Christian God in the acknowledgements.
ME: Divers alarums! Please do not be awful.
BOOK: Actually I am very thoughtful and present teenage sexuality as complex and abortion as an often difficult decision that should be entirely the choice of the affected woman! In between complicated family relationships and lovely banter and discussion about how class affects education in the US. Oh, did I mention I am almost entirely populated by characters of colour?
ME: Awesome!
BOOK: I also have hot make-out scenes.
ME: I like those.
BOOK: AND graphs to illustrate the plot.
ME: Dear book, please be my date to the prom.
BOOK: 1) You are a decade out of high school and 2) You don’t have prom in New Zealand.

DEAR SWOOSIE, Kate Constable and Penni Russon

ME: I should probably take a break from all these vampire books.
BOOK: In the middle of this very sweet Australian story about two generations of female friendship, I have an extremely hilarious subplot about the two main characters being rumoured to be vampires.
ME: AHAHAHAHAHA, I shall never escape!
BOOK: But you love your captivity.
ME: Indeed I do!

THE OFF SEASON, Catherine Gilbert Murdock.

BOOK: I am the sequel to DAIRY QUEEN, that book about the girl who wants to play American football that you liked so much, not least because she is a jock canonically not adept with words who manages to narrate AS someone not adept with words, which made you swoon in admiration.
ME: HURRAH! In this book, will D.J. hook up with Brian? Will D.J. stay in the team and lead it to VICTORY? Will she help save the family farm?
BOOK: One of those things will happen, sort of. Here, you better read.
ME: …
BOOK: Are you okay?
ME: But… Win! And… the scholarship! And… oh NO. You are so good! I am so sad!
BOOK: Would you like a tissue?
ME: Got my sleeve right here.
BOOK: Would you like some hot make-out scenes?
ME: *sniff* Yes, thank you.
BOOK: There, there. I have a sequel.

Nose To The Grindstone

Ah, home, where I have to-do lists and reading piles. Did I leap off the plane and plunge straight back into work? Did I heck. I bought a cube of Diet Coke and read Scarlett Fever* and half of My Life As A Rhombus, that’s what I did. And frankly, the only reason I am not sprawled on my bed finishing the latter right now is guilt; crushing, crushing guilt.

So I’m writing this instead, on the grounds that it is sitting at a computer and typing, and thus looks similar enough to work to fool my laggard conscience. Not a cricket, my conscience. More a very paranoid sloth that wakes up with a start every few days and screams a fearful sound that condenses the very essence of panic.

But I have many things to tell you, internets! Many many things!

First, the Junior Library Guild picked Guardian of the Dead to be one of their Spring 2010 choices.

Fool that I am, and because things are a little different down here, I did not know quite what that was. I was just like, “Oh, that is nice! I like when people like my book.” Then SRB explained it to me, and I was VERY EXCITED. Basically JLG is a school/library book collection development service who look at a lot of books and decide on a relatively few of them that they want to sell to their members. And they chose Guardian!

My excitement was assisted by this visual aid. Pyramids! Who can resist them?

Second, I have very interesting new hair.

Salon straight:

And in its natural state, which is how it will spend most of its time:

I like especially how in that second shot you can’t see my pupils. I look positively demonic. Truth in photography!

Third, I saw Up In The Air and Precious, both of which were very interesting and rather good and superbly acted (especially Precious, holy crap) and both of which I applaud for not deserting their underlying principles to manufacture cheap happy endings.

I ought to do a post about happy endings some time, and why I like them, and why I find overtly manufactured happy endings very disappointing.

Anyway, the point I was getting around to making was that both of them had different trailers for Boy, the latest effort from Whenua Films, which looks choice. (I read a review that was like, “these Māori characters aren’t at all spiritual and in touch with their noble heritage of the earth!” and I was like, American reviewer, the point, you have missed it. The fantastic Sarah Kuhn has a quote from the director illustrating same in her mini-review found here.)

Those are the things I had to tell you, internets! What about you? How have you been? Do you have new hair? Tell me stuff, internets! I’m trying to sort of ease back into work.

* Conversation with SRB, also known as the worst spoiler in the history of the internet, who used to tell people the plot to her book The Demon’s Lexicon by starting with the twist revealed at the end:

SRB: Spoiling is for when I DUNT HAVE THINGS. Spoiling happens b/c otherwise I HAVE TO WAIT. But I HAVE SCARLETT FEVER. SO DUNT SPOIL.
Karen: Well, all I am saying is that scene where Spencer rises from the chocolate fountain is worth it. Although maybe ten pages of describing how chocolate runs down his chest is a bit much, coming from a sister’s PoV.
SRB: If you are lying I will be so cross!
Karen: Of COURSE I am lying, it’s like you don’t know me at all.
SRB: Hey, with MJ you never know
Karen: Actually that lie is less crazy than some stuff actually in the book, so I concede your point.

I Get Them Everywhere

1. My bestie, Robyn: Jimmy just found our batarangs.
Me: Woo!
Me: … you know, some people would find that statement bemusing.

Several years ago, as I attended my second WisCon in the company of people Robyn and I had inveigled to join us through sheer strength of enthusiasm, our friend Rachel greeted us with batarangs. Not plastic toys from a Batman movie tie-in kiddie meal. Small, heavy, edged weapons. In the shape of bats. With cute ears.

I slung mine in Robyn’s suitcase, since Japan frowns on the importation of heavy, edged weapons. Robyn and Jimmy moved, got married, moved again, and now, Jimmy has found the batarangs!

2. Last night, as my new sister-in-law tossed the bouquet, it arced over the heads of many women on the dance floor and fell towards my unsuspecting sister, who automatically caught it with the grace of the natural athlete she is.

Then, face suffused with horror, she shrieked and flung it from her like unto a burning brand. I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my stilettos.

3. This was the song of the first dance, accomplished by my brother with his broken ankle in a moon boot, hopping, swaying, and held up by his wife:

Batarangs, bouquets, and the first sway. How can people ask me, where do you get your ideas? The world is so full of little wonders.

My Love Lies Bleeding

If this book by Alyxandra Harvey has a flaw, it’s that some of the action scenes are kind of sketchy – not the actions in which best buds and alternate narrators Lucy and Solange take part, which seem very solid, but those they observe often come down to things like, “And then there was flipping and kicking in a deadly ballet of stakey death!” instead of going into detail on the flipping and kicking. It’s hard to really worry about these characters when I can’t get a good grip on what’s actually taking place. I sympathise, though, because action scenes are the very devil. Sarah Rees Brennan and I have had a conversation several times that goes like this:

SARAH: I hate action scenes, Karen. I hate them very very much.
KAREN: Writing action scenes is awful, Sarah! Just awful!
SARAH: I wrote this trilogy where one of the main characters is a master swordsman and another is a crack shot.
KAREN: My protagonist has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Karen, you say, we do not care. Tell us more about the deadly ballets of stakey death. Do you imply… vampires?


As ever, spoilers ahoy.

I like vampire books where vampires are not all the one thing – where there are varying groups with different aims and philosophies. If your book has vampires where some of them are crazy sociopaths, and some of them are snooty aristocrats and some of them are Just Trying To Get By and some of them are upstanding members of the community with an unusual diet, I will be more inclined to read it. My Love Lies Bleeding does this in spades, and really well – several vampire groups, often with competing agendas, who all combine in the final spectacular showdown.

But the focus of the novel is the relationship between Solange, who is the only female vampire born, not made, and is thus in hot demand, and her human best friend, Lucy. Y’all, I love paranormal books about close female friendship SO DAMN MUCH. But don’t despair, het romance fans! Not only is this book about how awesome these two girls are and how much they love each other, but there is bonus cuteness, to wit:

SOLANGE: What’s up?
LUCY: Your older vampire brother Nicholas is SO ANNOYING, with his snarky comments and his tousled hair and his great smell and all that fake kissing to lull our enemies that turns into real kissing and-
LUCY: Huh? Nothing! What’s up with YOU?
SOLANGE: That vampire hunter boy Kieran is SO ANNOYING, with his erroneous belief that my family killed his father and his heartbreaking confusion and his irritating habit of risking his life to save mine and the way he watched over me while I slept in bloodchanging stupor-
LUCY: You’re kidding.
LUCY: You mean we’re two awesome girls with crushes on two different awesome guys over whom we’re not going to fight in a stupid love triangle?
SOLANGE: EW, like I would fight you for my BROTHER?
LUCY: GOOD POINT. Want me to help you crank call your crush?
SOLANGE: Yes, please!

Oh, I love these girls. Solange is a slobby cargoes and tees girl who loves making pottery and hates the fact that being the only female vampire born makes her pheromonally irrresistable to all her non-family male vampires. There’s a prophecy that she’ll be queen of the vampires one day. She regards this prophecy with weary horror, not least because it marked her for enmity by the current queen the moment she was born, but mostly because she has not the least desire to fulfill it. She has loving vampire parents, and seven older vampire brothers, who are all insanely over-protective.

Lucy is an only child with peacenik hippy parents who counsel love and tolerance for all beings, including their bloodsucking neighbours. She LOVES cool dresses and jewellery, and also loves weaponry. The scene where she roams around the vault of weapons drooling at all the goodies is totally hilarious. Plus, she likes to slay enemy vampires in style, like so:

NICHOLAS: Is that stake decorated with… pink rhinestones?
LUCY: Yup! And this one has a skull and crossbones in black marker!
NICHOLAS: You are so awesome.
LUCY: Oh, I know.

In fact, both girls are accomplished fighters, since they were trained by Solange’s fierce mother. There are physically adept women are all over this story, on several different sides. I approve!

Also, Nicholas, Nicholas, Nicholas. This is one of those relationships where he has obviously has a crush on his little sister’s bestie for years, and has striven to nobly ignore it by acting like a sarcastic twelve year old in her vicinity. Lucy, on the other hand, is blithely ignorant of his crush until WHOA fake kissing turns into real kissing* and what are all these feelings she is suddenly having?

Oh, little vampire boys, bless! Born vampires are more or less human until they go through the somewhat dangerous bloodchange at sixteen, an age Solange is rapidly approaching. Nicholas has already undergone this ordeal, and a worried Lucy asks him to talk her through it.

NICHOLAS: Well. You have to sort of um. Have to have something to cling onto. To make yourself get through the change. You need a reason.
LUCY: What was yours?
NICHOLAS: Um well.
LUCY: You’re stalling!
LUCY: Suddenly that picture of me in your room makes much more sense.

I like how this relationship proceeds with limited angst. They work out that they like each other without too much drama, but they don’t really have time to do much about it because they’re too busy trying to keep Solange alive. But when they can be, they are cute. INCLUDING an awesome bit where they are being dragged to meet Big Enemy Vampires! And Nicholas is all, “Don’t bump my girlfriend!” And Lucy’s response is, “Oh my gosh, he thinks of me as his girlfriend!” And then she is an awesome fighting badass, because proximity to a cute guy she likes does not actually remove all her brain cells.

In conclusion, I hit the end, saw that the sequel isn’t out until July, and howled my impatience to the uncaring fates. Highly recommended.

* I love this trope so bad. It is my dearest hope that some day I will be able to press someone cute up against a wall and hiss, “Kiss me if you want to live!”

Why Modern Technology Is Important

When you need to walk down a gravel track in the middle of the night in order to lie on your back in a grassy meadow and stare up at the great cloak of stars spread across the dark mass of the sky, while the stream burbles quietly to your left and the native owl tells you its name, “Ru-ru, Ru-ru, Ru-ru”, you can use your iPod to find your way back to the street.

And that’s why!

I’m in New Zealand for my brother’s wedding – the first child married for both immediate families, which is all sorts of exciting. My mother made me a beautiful dress; I have sparkly shoes; I have fascinating new hair. Bring on the free bar.

(Justine Larbalestier will try to tell you that YA writers never drink. Justine Larbalestier wrote a book from the point of view of an accomplished compulsive liar. I allow you to draw your own conclusions.)

Thumbnail by 57Andrew under CC license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


So angel books are turning into the Big New Thing in YA – when will patupaiarehe and taniwha books be the big new thing, that’s what I want to know – and I read one of the forerunners yesterday, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Eternal, which is about a fallen guardian angel and the girl he was supposed to be guarding who becomes… a VAMPIRE.

Oh my lord I loved it. I am about to spoil the heck out of this book, so if you absolutely cannot stand knowing anything about a book turn away, and if you want to be spoiled a little bit but don’t want to know the end, I will white that out so you can risk it.

Okay, so pervy guardian angel Zachary is invisibly guarding Miranda Shen McAllister – hi, protag of colour! – who both narrate the book through alternate first person, and when I say pervy, I mean he starts the book by talking about how he’s always watched her dress, undress, shower and bathe. IT IS HIS JOB, OKAY.

Not his self-appointed Edward-esque job. Appointed by the big guys Upstairs. Apparently every human has a guardian angel (regardless of their particular religious faith or lack thereof, which creeps me out, but that’s probably my hangup) and presumably they all totally watch bathtime.

Anyway! He sees her come under the shadow of death! The next night, she visits a graveyard with her best friend, and is just about to topple into an open grave and break her neck when he breaks the rules and reveals himself to her in all his angelic radiance. She starts backwards, doesn’t fall into the pit, and then, oh my god, it’s so great, as she runs towards the sound of her best friend’s scream, she is attacked by a master vampire.

Then the archangel Michael turns up.

ZACHARY: Oh dude.
ZACHARY: I am SO sorry! At least I saved the best friend?
MICHAEL: I am taking your wings! And your powers! YOU ARE ON PROBATION, YOUNG MAN.

Zachary spends the next two months on a huge sex and food bender. Miranda spends them on learning how to be a vampire princess and eating lots of people. I highly approve of this. Get your bad self on, kids!

Eventually they hook up again when Zachary applies to be Miranda’s personal assistant, and then a thing happens that I usually dislike, which is where the dude is rude and snarky to the girl, and she would normally object, but he is just so good looking that she doesn’t want to in case he doesn’t like her. But in THIS case, he is rude and snarky about the fact that she KILLS PEOPLE AND DRINKS THEIR BLOOD, which is totally awesome. Also, there are delightful teen misunderstandings, that go a bit like this:

Miranda: *kills vampire dude for planning to kill a human girl outside the approved targets*
ZACHARY: She killed him because he was going to kill a human girl! THAT’S SO NOBLE.
ME: Ahahahahahaha beautiful.

Anyway, they join forces, save some helpless humans and face off Miranda’s vampire father, who is a very Bad Dad. I am now about to totally spoil the ending.

ZACHARY: My powers are back! But it’s all my fault you got vamped! If I hadn’t scared you-
Miranda: He would have vamped my best friend instead. I LOVE my best friend. THANK YOU SO MUCH.
ZACHARY: Wow, you are so noble! Hey, so I think you can overcome your vampire nature and we can be together forever, what do you say?
Miranda: AHAHAHAHAHA no, dark hunger still rages within me. I need you to kill me with your angel radiance before I snap and kill again.
Miranda: I WAS going to plunge into this pool of holy water, but some idiot drained it.
ZACHARY: … But you might go to HELL.
Miranda: Yeah, but come on, don’t I sort of deserve to? Three month killing spree, yo! Get your glow on.

Break for your eyes!

Okay, more spoiling: It turns out that in making that choice Miranda a) redeemed her soul b) proved that vampires can be saved and c) is now in heaven. Zach can join her once he saves all the vampires that CAN be redeemed and then they will be totally cute together for all eternity.

And it was my favourite book about a pervy guardian angel trying to save his vampire girlfriend’s soul and then she totally saved it her own self I ever did read, THE END.

Bones: I Love It So

Internets, I love Bones. It replaced Criminal Minds as my favourite crime show right about the time CM did an episode about evil child-stealing gypsies, and bonus, there’s generally only one victim!

I love many, many things about this show, including interesting and improbable crimes, gender role trope inversion, the presence of women of colour (men of colour, not so much, but improving), the presence of women fullstop (it passes the Bechdel test in the first scene of the first episode), the fact that it is consistently funny, and lashings and lashings of Unresolved Sexual Tension.

Usually UST will make me stop watching a show after a season or two in frustration, but I am so in thrall to Bones that I have just finished Season Four. Which is where I am going to introduce you to the show via its most important asset; the marvelous characters.

Dr Temperance “Bones” Brennan

Brennan works at the “Jeffersonian” Institution as a forensic anthropologist who regularly consults with the FBI on baffling cases. She is an excellent shot! (no) And an excellent driver! (no) And a great martial artist! (yes!) But her best skill is being completely brilliant with bones and working out who killed someone from gruesomely mutilated remains.

Sadly, she is terrible with people, which is especially hilarious to me because she is also a bestselling fiction writer (about a crimefighting forensic anthropologist). I imagine her sitting there typing out an examination in detail and then trying to work out what the characters do. What do people do? And why? They are so irrational! And when you explain that their behaviour is irrational they get irrationally angry! And that is why she needs:

Special Agent Seeley Booth

Booth, or as everyone I know calls him, “FBI Agent Angel”, is an emotionally adept Army Ranger sniper turned FBI agent who really is an excellent shot. You can’t see it clearly, but the comic he’s reading in that tub is Green Lantern. This is entirely appropriate; Booth would probably like nothing more than to become an intergalactic space-cop, where he could protect the whole universe.

He regularly throws himself in the path of bullets, explosions and aggressive ice hockey players to protect his people. His people include the Jeffersonian folks, his family (especially son Parker), his FBI colleagues, and anyone he has enjoyed talking to for five minutes.

He has been in love with Brennan for at least three seasons now without doing anything about it and it is driving me insane. INSANE. It’s okay, honey, if you sleep with her you won’t lose your soul! The proof in that pudding is:

Dr Camille “Cam” Saroyan

Cam is magnificent. A doctor and former New York City Chief Coroner, she is in charge of the lab, and yes, she had a relationship with Booth before and slightly after joining the team.

But that is not why she applied for the job! No, she applied because she wanted access to the world’s best equipment and smartest lab rats. She got that. She also got the profound privilege of babysitting a bunch of people who regularly do things like push bodies made of spam off buildings or shoot dummies in the chest with cannons. Or have sex in the Egyptology storeroom.

She has come to like them very much, but if Cam puts her hands on her hips and smiles brilliantly at you with wide, wide eyes, it might be a good idea to freeze in place and not make any provoking motions. Frequently merrily inciting her ire is:

Dr Jack Hodgins

Hodgins is the bugs and slime guy, a scientist with degrees in biology, geology, and the one that’s about bugs but I always misspell as being about word origins. He is able to pinpoint time and location of death with awesome (if completely unrealistic) ease, and he regularly blows things up for fun for science! Formerly a conspiracy theorist, now not so much for reasons we won’t go into, his specialties include sarcasm, suspicion of his enormous inherited wealth, and flirting with his ex-fiancee:

Angela Montenegro

A brilliant artist and computer scientist, big-hearted Angela can sketch a face from a smashed skull or reconstruct a body and method of death in her hologram of Vastly Improbable But Entertaining Fabulousness. She’s Brennan’s best friend, and frequently winds up explaining the mysteries of human emotion to her.

That Booth and Brennan are obliviously in love has been clear and incredibly amusing to her from day one.

Also secretly assured that Booth and Brennan are MFEO is:

Dr Lance Sweets

Sweets is an FBI profiler/psychologist who joins the crew to fish around in Brennan’s brain after a case that she was personally involved in and stayed because he is adorable and basically made them adopt him. He has a traumatic childhood, longs to dig into the traumatic childhoods of Booth and Brennan, and ships them harder than anyone in the world, except me.

You guys, he just wants a mom and dad! Sadly, mom doesn’t believe in psychology and dad thinks he’s too young to shave, much less sit there and pry, prying boy. But he will PERSEVERE! Occasionally he is rewarded by a manly slug in the shoulder or a backhanded compliment of his skills, and then his face turns into one shiny lightbulb of joy.

So those are the Bones people.

They! Fight! Crime!

Cover Talk

Recently there has been a lot of talk, and quite rightly, about the publishing practice of whitewashing covers – that is, taking a character who is described in the text as not being white and then putting a white-appearing person who is meant to represent that character on the cover. Most recently, the blogs have been talking about MAGIC UNDER GLASS, by Jaclyn Dolamore, where the publishers Bloomsbury did this very thing.

Responders were generally outraged by this, although there were a few people of the “but white people are the only people who sell on covers so therefore making a dark-skinned character light-skinned on the cover is okay” stripe who I do not want to bother with (which is why comments on this post will be screened). Even were this true, which no one has proved to my satisfaction, economics do not equal ethics. There is no way for the putative economic benefit of whitewashing to justify the ethical harm it does in visually erasing people of colour from the fictional worlds they inhabit.

But there was one response from people who were justifiably angry that I do not think was practical, and that was the expectation that the author should have spoken up publicly and denounced this cover. Even if, these people said, even if authors really have no control over their covers and it’s all the publisher’s doing, she should make a stand!

This is roughly equivalent to expecting someone who has just acquired their dream job to curse their boss for doing something wrong. In front of a packed press room. While the boss is standing beside them on the podium.

Economics do not equal ethics, but I think it is important to consider how much we demand of people who could endanger their livelihood and their futures by speaking out. Great change has been made by brave people who have spoken out on social injustices committed by their employers, but they paid and paid and paid for it. There is real and substantial risk, and it is sometimes hard to gauge the cost-benefits to society of taking it, especially when we are talking about someone who wrote a story about a woman of colour who could well end up unable to do so ever again if she is decided to be a troublemaker not worth publishing.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Following the outcry of determined and entirely justified people who spoke out against racism, Bloomsbury will republish the cover, with a new model who resembles the description of the main character more closely. I applaud this decision, even as I am disappointed and angry about the terrible mistake that made it necessary.

Anyway, I do not so much want to talk about Jaclyn’s cover as to discuss mine. I know, I’m such an egoist! But I thought I could perhaps shed some light on the process of cover creation and the social justice implications and authorial control thereof via the creation of my Australian/New Zealand cover*.

Okay, so that’s the cover that will appear on shelves. (There are some things to note about this being a slim, white-appearing, sort of unclothed girl, which I will get to later.)

Just to remind people, or inform newcomers (hi!) Guardian of the Dead is a book set in New Zealand/Aoteoroa that depends a great deal upon Māori mythology as the guiding supernatural force of the land (there are others – it’s an “all stories can be true depending on belief” narrative – but that’s the major influence). A lot of the book is concerned with how the white protagonist handles the reality of those myths.

Here was the first potential cover I saw:

My screams, they were heard from space.

Here is the email I sent my editors after I had run up and down the stairs gibbering for a while.

I hope you can put this diplomatically to the designer, but I’m going to be direct here, because it makes me very uncomfortable: there is absolutely no way you can put tā moko on an apparently-white girl’s face, especially with a pattern he just made up, and have that not be incredibly racist. Moko is something people earn the right to wear; women don’t traditionally get full-face tattoos; they’re traditional designs usually applied by someone who has trained in the art, conveying ancestry and achievements (not random patterns); and Pākehā desires to wear moko or “Māori-inspired” body art are controversial at best. That cover is really inappropriate.

Then I clicked send and had an anxiety attack. Good times!

I was freaked, readers. I have alluded briefly above to how much control first-time authors have over cover decisions, and the reality is, none whatsoever. Sometimes publishers give authors some say, but they are very rarely obliged to by the terms of their contract, and often they don’t. Every imprint of every publisher will have a different response, and often it’s not even the publisher who has the final say – the book buyers for big chains might want something different and then BAM new cover ahoy.

I know authors who have provided a cover brief and get something almost exactly like or even better than they wanted. I know authors who have got the first look at their cover after it had gone to the printers (sometimes they were happy, sometimes not), or who were shown a cover and told “It’s going to be our catalogue cover! The catalogue goes to press in three days. ANY COMMENTS NO EXCELLENT.” Ursula LeGuin had to cope with crappy white-washed covers of her books for years until she was in a position where, as a bankable talent, she was able to leverage a little more control over what went on the book.

My point is that my publishers could have made me eat this cover, and then my choices would have been to swallow and say “mmmm!” or vomit in public and get branded as a disloyal spew monster, who, incidentally, had already signed a contract to deliver a second book. I cannot even imagine how uncomfortable that could have been, much less the damage it could have done to my career, and I honestly don’t know what I would have chosen to do. And I knew all this when I wrote that email, and I was really, really scared.

But my editors, who are awesome, wrote back and said thank you for explaining! They would go in a different direction. Afterwards they confirmed that they had already been uneasy about the implications of using tā moko, and would have consulted with an authority before proceeding in any case. But my explanation had made it sufficiently clear that this design would be a bad idea. That was the end of the racist cover.

Ethical publisher, awesome editors, happy ending! But wait. Wasn’t there a thing about implications I wanted to talk about?

Right. This is a conversation slightly different to the one I was participating in above, and I want to make that divide clear. The one above is about racism; the one below is going to be about the tyranny of conventional beauty standards (which intersect with, but do not solely comprise, racism).

As you can see the cover of the book features a slender red-haired lady whose visible skin is white. She is the antagonist. The protagonist, who narrates the story, is a fat blonde white girl who is not viewed as pretty in the society she lives in. Ellie is six feet tall, overweight, flat-chested, and pimply, with skin she describes as “more skim milk than cream”. She does not have the sort of features conventionally regarded as deformities (scars, facial growths, etc), but neither is she anything but (again, conventionally) plain. She has long, straight blonde hair that she regards as the only pretty thing about her.

(It is incidentally difficult to accurately convey her appearance to readers because the story is told from her PoV, and most readers who have spoken to me about this have assumed that a lot of her self-assessment is based on typical teenage-girl low self-esteem about her body image. In my opinion Ellie is more or less accurate regarding her looks. She is also more or less okay with them, and becomes more so – she has moments of doubt, because when you’re a non-attractive woman in a culture that prizes very narrow beauty standards it’s hard not to, and she sometimes worries about how much space she takes up in the world, but she is on the whole more concerned about other things.)

The person on the cover does actually exist in the book, so this is not a case of pretending that this skinny person is Ellie and thus misrepresenting a character who is not attractive by Western standards. Although the cover person is not actually white, she textually appears so and passes as such for half the book, [SPOILERS] being half-Māori, and half-patupaiarehe, (but identifying as patupaiarehe) a species that is canonically pale-skinned. So it’s not whitewashing either. (Though it also doesn’t actually help correct the lack of visible characters of colour on book covers.)

But what it is is a very conventionally attractive woman (by Western standards) on the cover of a book told from the perspective of a young woman who is not. I, and my editors, and a lot of people in the book world, think this is in general very problematic. I am going to explain a little bit about how it happened in this case, but I want to establish that I am not trying to excuse what the cover is. It’s right there; pretty lady on the cover to entice the potential reader.

We wanted Ellie on the cover.

The first problem was that a search for “strong+girl” in the picture libraries brought up many many pictures of girls in bikinis hugging their boyfriend’s biceps.

The second problem was that organising a photo shoot with a model would have been both expensive and risky – it’s hard to get something like that right, and it’s hard to throw it away if it’s not right when you’ve spent so much on it already.

The third problem, which I kept in my heart, is that I did not believe a model could be found through any customary channels – even one of the right physical proportions – who wasn’t pretty. I felt that putting a big woman who was pretty on the cover and saying “This is Ellie” would have been a misrepresentation and a betrayal.

So my publishers showed me the cover, and said, do you like it? And I said yes, because I do. It’s creepy and mysterious, just like the woman it features, and like the mood of the book. We would all have preferred big, strong Ellie on the cover, but the entirety of established cultural expectations was working against it, and frankly, we gave in. Mine is a debut novel, from a non-established author. No one ever told me this, but I suspect a search for the exactly right cover might have taken more money than was worth risking on my work.

As far as visually standing against tyrannical and misogynistic beauty standards goes, this cover is a failure. What I hope is that the cover, which is very pretty, will help get a fat, not-pretty protagonist into the hands of readers who will find a book where she is shown to be worthy of love, friendship, and respect (and hopefully think she is as awesome as I do). Economics is not ethics, but sometimes we compromise, trying to be as ethical as we can within economical demands.

I have nothing but respect for my Australian editors (and my American editors!). I think Allen and Unwin is a fine house, and that I am lucky to be with them, not least because as soon as I sent my objections to the moko cover, they said, “You are right.” I am disappointed that this cover is not something else, but I am happy with what it is, especially in comparison to what it could have been.

The US cover, by the way, avoided all of these issues entirely by going with an iconic cover featuring the mask that plays a big part in the book. I like that cover a lot. But I hope that my talking about the ANZ cover has exposed a little of the complexity and compromise in the ethics of cover creation.

* Incidentally? When I started thinking about writing this post, I emailed my Australian editors telling them that I planned to do so, and asking if they had any concerns. I am not so brave that I will stand on a podium and shout either.