Delia Sherman's stunning 'The Freedom Maze'

I'm frequently playing catch-up with my reading habits – what book lover isn't? But once in a while, despite my best intentions, my honest desire to read ahead, my particular love for a publisher that I represent, I lose track of a book during the season in which I'm selling it and I never get to read a book all the way through, even though I really, really want to.

Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze has been one of those books. Since it was first published back in 2011, I've been meaning to return to it and find out exactly why it got such great reviews, why it won the awards it won, and to me, find out what Delia Sherman can do in long form. I've only ever read Delia Sherman's short stories before. I'm a fan, but I've never read one of her novels.

After I learned that Small Beer Press, her publisher for the hardcover of The Freedom Maze, had recently sold the paperback rights to Candlewick Press for the Spring 2014 season, I saw that my chance was at hand. I could not only catch up on one of the books I'd long meant to read, but I could get ahead of the reading for NEXT season at the same time!

So, what's it all about? In May 1960, Sophie Martineau is being delivered by her mother from their home in New Orleans to spend the summer with her aunt and grandmother at Oak Cottage, the last remnants of her family's antebellum sugar cane plantation, Oak River. Sophie's mother is divorced, working all day, and starting night school to get her CPA, and needs to have her daughter out from underfoot for a few months so she can establish herself. Sophie is disappointed that she'll be away from her friends for the summer, and sad to learn that she won't be visiting her father in New York City. But mostly, she's nervous about spending the summer with her relations at Oak Cottage - with too many bugs, no air conditioning, and far from civilization and friends.

The entire opening chapters are framed by the troubled race relations of 1960. Sherman's frank language brings alive the generationally-changing attitudes of the times through the way that Sophie, her mother and aunt, and her grandmother each think about, discuss, and speak with "the help", at home and in society.

A big reader, Sophie whiles away some of the early days of her stay at Oak Cottage by delving into the big suitcase of her favorite books that she brought from home. The book that is referenced throughout The Freedom Maze is Edward Eager's The Time Garden. In The Time Garden, the four main characters are sent back in time on adventures by a magical creature they meet called the Natterjack. 

One day, when Sophie ventures closer to the ruins of the Oak River Big House, she explores an overgrown garden maze and discovers what appears to be a magical creature. Under the influence of Edward Eager, naively imagining that her time traveling adventures would be just as simple and clearcut and safe, she wishes herself away. But her magical creature is not a civilized and honorable tour guide of the past - he's drawn from darker stuff.

"... I wish I was dead!"

"Don't you be saying things in front of me, child." The Creature sounded alarmed. "Not less'n you means it."

"Well, then, I wish I wasn't me."

"Who you want to be?"

Sophie held out
The Time Garden. "I want to be like Ann and Roger and Eliza. I want to travel through time and have grand adventures and brothers and sisters and have everybody love me."

The room was very still. "That a wish?" the Creature asked solemnly.

Sophie was in no mood to be cautious. "Yes," she said. "It's a wish."

"Well, now," the Creature said. "Love is something you gots to earn for youself. I might could see about giving you some family, though. And adventures just come along natural with going back in time."

Sophie stood up, leaving The Time Garden on the window seat. "Okay, I'm ready. Is there anything I need to do?"

"You done it," said the Creature. "We's here."

Where is Sophie now? No surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to her tentative exploration of the history and grounds of Oak River. The Creature has taken her back 100 years to 1860, to the final pre-Civil War year of Oak River's existence as a slave-holding, fully-operating plantation. Thanks to her mussed-up appearance and her not-at-all-coincidentally darker skin from her running wild in the grounds back in 1960, she is mistakenly assumed to be a slave.

And so her time travel adventure will not be a romp but a real education in what slave life was like. And this is where the real magic of Delia Sherman's novel takes off. 


Freedom Maze
by Delia Sherman
Big Mouth House/Consortium | 9781931520300 | $16.95 | Nov 2011 (and already OP)

Watch for the paperback coming in early 2014 from Candlewick Press!

It got some great reviews and blurbs (see a comprehensive roundup here)!

“Sherman has created a finely honed work of art, a novel that deals eloquently with complex and intersecting issues of race, womanhood, class and age. In transporting the reader so fully into another time, The Freedom Maze becomes timeless. This is true magic.”
—Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Moonshine

“A seamless blending of wondrous American myth with harsh American reality, as befits young Sophie’s coming-of-age. I think younger readers and adults alike will be completely riveted by her magical journey into her own family’s double-edged past.”
—N. K. Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

“This is an absolutely fascinating story. The Freedom Maze draws you into a world of danger and mystery, of daring and change, at the dawning of the Civil War. Sophie’s adventures in the history of her family’s Louisiana plantation feel real, and lead her to a real understanding of racial truths she would never have caught a glimpse of without magic. Beautifully imagined and told with satisfyingly matter-of-fact detail: pot liquor and spoon bread, whips and Spanish Moss, corset covers and vévés and bitter, healing herbs.  The Freedom Maze is deep, meaningful fun.”
—Nisi Shawl, author of Filter House

“Sherman’s antebellum story exposes a wide sweep through a narrow aperture, where the arbitrary nature of race and ownership, kindred and love, are illuminated in the harsh seeking glare of an adolescent’s coming of age.”
Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing

“A bold and sensitively-written novel about a supposed-white child, Sophie Fairchild returned magically to a time of her ancestors who were slavemaster and slaves in the old South. This book puts the lie to those today making loose political statements about happy, comfortable slave families of that brutal era while telling a strong story that will not let the young reader stop turning pages to see how things will work out for Sophie and her fellow slaves, especially the cook Africa, and house slaves Antigua and Canada. I was mesmerized.”
—Jane Yolen, author of The Devil’s Arithmetic

“A subtle and haunting book that examines what it means to be who we are.”
—Holly Black, co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Freedom Maze won a few awards!

More, elsewhere:

Delia Sherman: twitter | web

Read an illuminating interview about The Freedom Maze with Delia Sherman at SF Signal.

And she wrote a guest post at the Diversity in YA Fiction blog.

And finally, you can read an extended preview of the book here – via Scribd – about half the novel.

First Lines: "The Naturalist", from Maureen McHugh's After The Apocalypse

"Cahill lived in the Flats with about twenty other guys in a place that used to be an Irish bar called Fado. At the back of the bar was the Cuyahoga River, good for protection since zombies didn't cross the river. They didn't crumble into dust, they were just stupid as bricks, and they never built a boat or a bridge or built anything. Zombies were the ultimate trash. Worse than the guys who cooked meth in trailers. Worse than the fat women on WIC. Zombies were just useless dumbfucks."

After The Apocalypse: Stories
Maureen F. McHugh
Small Beer Press/Consortium | 9781931520294 | $16 | Oct 2011 

You can read a sample at Small Beer's site.

Just arrived: Kelley Eskridge's Solitaire (Small Beer Press)

Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge
Small Beer Press (Consortium) | 9781931520102 | $16 | Jan 2011

I know it's early in 2011, but I got a finished copy today of a newly reissued book that has one of the most perfectly-apt covers I can recall. Best cover of the year? Maybe it's too soon to call, and probably a bit hyperbolic. But still. Check it out!

You can read a sample first chapter at author Kelley Eskridge's web site.

When I first read the manuscript of this reissue edition, I was just blown away. There are three distinct sections to the book, and each one has its own flavor and energy – all adding up to a dark but wonderfully described future. It was absolutely one of my favorite novels from the Fall 2010 Consortium catalog.

Here's a snippet of catalog-y descriptors from Small Beer Press:

"Jackal Segura is a Hope: born to responsibility and privilege as a symbol of a fledgling world government. Soon she’ll become part of the global administration, sponsored by the huge corporation that houses, feeds, employs, and protects her and everyone she loves. Then, just as she discovers that everything she knows is a lie, she becomes a pariah, a murderer: a person with no community and no future. Grief-stricken and alone, she is put into an experimental program designed to inflict the experience of years of solitary confinement in a few short months: virtual confinement in a sealed cell within her own mind. Afterward, branded and despised, she returns to a world she no longer knows. Struggling to make her way, she has a chance to rediscover her life, her love, and her soul—in a strange place of shattered hopes and new beginnings called Solitaire."

Harper Eos published Solitaire back in 2002, and it's been OP for a couple years at least.  Somehow I missed it entirely the first time around.  Luckily, Small Beer Press has stepped into the breach to bring us a beautiful new edition of a modern deserves-to-be-classic.

FURTHER READING & RESEARCH: 

Booksellers can order Solitaire from Small Beer's distributor (who I represent): Consortium Book Sales & Distribution: homepage | twitter | Solitaire @ CBSD

Individuals can find Solitaire in bookstores everywhere, and presumably in ebook formats everywhere too, though my favorite source of ebooks has to be Small Beer's homegrown storefront, Weightless Books – source of DRM-free editions of their own books as well as a clutch of other cool indie publishers' books: homepage | new book update via RSS | Solitaire @ Weightless

Author Kelley Eskridge can be found online here: homepage | blog | twitter

She and her partner, author Nicola Griffith, also own Sterling Editing, an editorial & authorial consultancy for writers.

New fiction picks from 3 Consortium publishers

I've been making lists of potential blog post topics since before I started publishing my3books, and I've been making further lists of possible books that would fit the potential blog post topics, too. One of the most challenging lists that I've been working on, adding to, subtracting from, editing, restarting, etc was the possible fiction picks from the Consortium catalog.

Consortium Book Sales & Distribution is the home of more than 100 great independent publishers, from established indie icons like Seven Stories, Copper Canyon, and Feminist Press at CUNY to brand new startups like the (previously featured on my3books) Exterminating Angel Press and Two Dollar Radio.

Every season, I get manuscripts and galleys and sales kits for hundreds of their books. It's far more than any one person could read, really. So now it's a kind of parlor game, trying to spot the books that will make for the most entertaining reading. It's like walking into the backroom of any bookstore and gazing upon the bookshelf of galleys in miniature - there's literally something for every taste.

These are three of the many, many books coming this fall from Consortium's publishers, three that caught my eye, and kept my attention.

The Cry of the Sloth
by Sam Savage
Coffee House Press (Consortium) | 9781566892315 | $14.95 | Sept 2009

From Sam Savage, the author of Firmin, the tale of a rat who learned to read by digesting his way through his cozy nest of books, comes the story of Andrew Whittaker, another type of lowlife. After reading Firmin, a reader coming to The Cry of the Sloth might well suspect it's the story of another kind of rat - a pack rat. It's a shocking understatement to call this an epistolary novel - it's told by way of letters, yes, as well as shopping lists, angry notices to tenants, complaints to the local paper, pieces of Andrew's attempted fictions, and entries from his diary.

Andrew Whittaker is the ne'er-do-well editor of a midwestern literary journal that he's struggling to keep afloat. He's also a poorly financed landlord of a depressing assortment of rental units, a sad sack ex-husband, and the would-be artistic eminence behind a not-yet-launched literary festival that he hopes will save his career and his standing in the local arts scene.

Over the course of an increasingly frantic few months, we read over Andrew's shoulder as he accepts and rejects queries from potential contributors to the journal, sends pitiable letters to his ex-wife, tries to rope in possible big name authors for his literary festival, and tries to fend off the amorous advances of one of his tenants.

Andrew Whittaker is a character ripped from the Community News pages of any small town's newspaper, a man who bears the weight of the local arts scene on his thin shoulders and his outsized ambition. I loved The Cry of the Sloth for bringing such an unloveable character to life with such honesty and charm.

***

How to Rob an Armored Car
by Iain Levison
Soho Press (Consortium) | 9781569475997 | $15 | Oct 2009

We've all seen hundreds of hours of Law & Order and watched the films of Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino dozens of times, so it shouldn't come as a surprise when one of your friends thinks he could become a crime kingpin. We all know what NOT to do - don't leave your uniquely identifiable shell casings at the scene, don't charge the getaway car to your credit card, don't blab to your girlfriend in Queens, etc. The only question left, of course, is coming up with the right plan - what TO do and how to do it.

Mitch is the "brains" of the operation, of course, as he is the one who had the assistant manager job at Accu-mart until he quit. Kevin is the recently-paroled buddy who's running a dogwalking business to give him an excuse to get away from the disappointed gaze of his wife. And Doug is the shy one who holds down a job as a line cook in a ratty diner. Though they dream of a big score, all they really want is enough money to keep them well-supplied in pot and video games. Of course, they end up in way over their heads.

Watching these three smalltown Pennsylvania friends make all the classic mistakes and still soldier on cluelessly is what makes this new novel from Iain Levison (author of Since The Layoffs and The Working Stiff's Manifesto) so darkly funny and disturbing.

***

The Poison Eaters And Other Stories
by Holly Black
Big Mouth House / Small Beer Press (Consortium) | 9781931520638 | $17.99 | Feb 2010

How does Holly Black get everything done? She's behind two big-time fantasy series (her urban faerie trilogy that began with Tithe, and a little something called The Spiderwick Chronicles), a graphic novel series from Graphix/Scholastic called The Good Neighbors, and she's edited a new anthology for YA readers called Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd (with Cecil Castelluci). Oh, and there's this collection of her short fiction, The Poison Eaters.

I've read a few of her short pieces already, some from anthologies like The Restless Dead and some in the advance materials that Small Beer sent me for this collection. The Poison Eaters also features two stories that bring readers back to the world of Tithe.

The standout story so far is "In Vodka Veritas," which was first published in the anthology 21 Proms in 2007. If you've ever wondered what might happen when a rogue Latin teacher and the Latin Club decide to make a private school's prom a LOT more like a true Roman Bacchanalia, then you'll want to read The Poison Eaters. It warmed this former high school nerd's heart to see a member of the gaming club save the day.

***

> Consortium Book Sales & Distribution distributes the books that these publishers create to bookstores around the US. You can download their Fall 2009 catalogs here. Follow them on Twitter and befriend them on Facebook.
> Coffee House Press is on the web, on Twitter, and on Facebook
> Soho Press is on the web, on Twitter, and on Facebook.
> Small Beer Press is on the web, and on Facebook.  Holly Black is on the web and on Twitter, too.