FF: Traveling and Reading

April 24, 2015

I was on the road this past weekend.  This gave me a lot of time for stories – both via audio and in print.

Just in case you don’t know… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

Pack Me, Too!

Pack Me, Too!

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man by Wendelin Van Draanen.  Mystery interwoven with over-the-top junior high politics.  Both were well-resolved.  The author is showing a talent for sneaking in “messages,” without ever preaching.  This time, the consequences of smoking were featured.

A Boy Named Shel by Lisa Rogak.  I knew Shel Silverstein had written rock and roll lyrics, as well as the strange children’s books that are perhaps his most prominent current legacy.  Had no idea he wrote “A Boy Named Sue,” or that he lived in the Playboy mansion or…  Well-written look at a very eclectic and diverse artist/writer.

Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobooks.  Inspired by Alan Robson and my recent Tangents, Jim suggested we listen to these during our drive.  Both are very enjoyable; Castle in the Sky is not a “sequel” in the traditional sense to the first book.

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper.  Fourth in her “Dark is Rising” sequence.  I’d read before, but enjoyed the revist.

Naruto issue 69 by Masahi Kishimoto.  Manga.  Continues the climax to the storyline.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan issue 19 by Hiroshi Shiibashi.  Manga.  Contemporary horror/ dark fantasy.

In Progress:

The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobook. I left this one at home, so I haven’t quite finished.  It’s interesting, though.  The Egg of the title has been found, but that’s clearly not the only Pinhoe secret.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan issue 20 by Hiroshi Shiibashi.

Also:

I’d like to re-read The Tao de Ching.  Maybe make that bedtime reading?

And research has just gotten more complicated.

TT: School Daze and SF Adventures

April 23, 2015

JANE: Alan, last time you pointed out that most of Diana Wynne Jones’ books stand alone. Did you know that one of the books we discussed, The Dark Lord of Derkholm, actually does have a sequel?

Fantasy and SF

Fantasy and SF

ALAN: Yes, I do. It’s called Year of the Griffin. I must confess I was surprised when I came across it because I always felt that The Dark Lord of Derkholm stood alone very well indeed. What did you think of it?

JANE: At first I was hesitant, because, like you, I thought the prior book stood alone quite nicely.  However, when I read the jacket copy and learned it was set eight years later, I was tempted.  I soon found myself completely absorbed.

Year of the Griffin is a fine novel in and of itself, but it also provides Diana Wynne Jones an opportunity to take a swipe at a form of Fantasy novel that, especially at the time this novel was written, was being seriously over-done.  By this I mean the Wizard School Story as popularized by Harry Potter, and imitated repeatedly, usually without J.K. Rowling’s flair.

ALAN: School stories are a very old English tradition which both J. K. Rowling and Diana Wynne Jones adopted, and then adapted to their own uses. Another one of her books based firmly in this tradition is Witch Week, which is one of her Chrestomanci stories. The novel is set in a boarding school in southern England in a world where many people have magical powers. The story begins with a teacher’s discovery of an ambiguous and disturbing note. Should it be taken seriously or not? The note says: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH…

JANE: Ah, yes…  I’ve read that one.  It’s very good.

Now, I enjoyed the Harry Potter novels, but Hogwarts always seemed boringly homogenous to me.  Not so the school in Year of the Griffin.  Students include a dwarf, a half-marsh dweller/half-human, a pirate, a youth from the vast deserts, and Elda, the griffin of the title.  Elda, by the way, has perfectly human parents.  Only Diana Wynne Jones could make this work, but she does.

ALAN: Well of course she does. She is Diana Wynne Jones, after all!

JANE: And in the course of weaving her wild tale (which includes assassins, armies, rogue monsters, an animate coat rack, and a trip to the Moon), Diana Wynne Jones manages to make some pretty cutting comments about educational systems that seem to exist for no other reason than killing the imagination and graduating students who are fit only to perpetuate the system.  Oh, yes, and providing venues for bored professors to teach as little as possible, because all they really want to do is research into their pet projects.

My only complaint was that I felt the novel could easily have been a third longer without the least bit of padding.

ALAN: What an unusual complaint! For the vast majority of modern fantasy novels, the reverse opinion applies. Most of them need to be considerably shorter since they consist mainly of padding! But there you go – Diana Wynne Jones always refused to fit the mould.

Did you know that she’s written SF as well as fantasy?

JANE: I do indeed.  In several of her books – Archer’s Goon, A Sudden Wild Magic – Diana Wynne Jones melds the two quite successfully.

ALAN: Yes, she does happily cross backwards and forwards between the two genres. But A Tale of Time City is definitely SF. It tells the story of Vivian Smith, who is kidnapped while being evacuated from London during World War II. She gets caught up in a struggle to preserve history and, as always, Diana Wynne Jones handles the ideas of time paradoxes and causality very cleverly and wittily.

JANE: I like A Tale of Time City for many reasons, not the least of which is how well the characters – some of whom are children who have acted impulsively, some of whom are adults who (in the hands of a lesser author) would simply nag and reprimand.

ALAN: One of the things I really like about Diana Wynne Jones is that the relationships between the adults and children in her books are often very healthy ones based on mutual respect. It gives her characters a maturity that seldom exists in books by other writers. But back to specifics!

The Homeward Bounders, like the titles you mentioned above, sort of straddles the borderline between SF and Fantasy. It is a parallel worlds story (a concept that Diana Wynne Jones seemed to find fascinating. She returned to it again and again).  The parallel worlds are game boards for strange beings that use them to play war games. When 12-year-old Jamie discovers the game that is being played with his home world, he is extracted from the game and made a Homeward Bounder. He must travel between the worlds, searching always for his own, original world. If he finds it, he will be allowed to re-enter the game. But until he does, he is forbidden from playing.

And so the stage is set for a picaresque tale in which Jamie has lots of exciting adventures. He encounters the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman and other semi-mythical beings. The ending is bitter-sweet. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is yet another example of Diana Wynne Jones’ ability to be both poignant and very moving and one and the same time.

JANE: Thanks!  I think I missed this one.  I’ll need to put it on my list.

ALAN: Some of Diana Wynne Jones’ protagonists are quite young children, and the books in which they appear seem to be written to appeal to a younger audience. Two particularly good ones are Wild Robert and The Game. Both are very short, novellas rather than novels. I suspect this is because they are intended for a younger age group. But there is never any feeling of “talking down” in the prose, and she makes no concessions in terms of the complexity of her plots. Consequently this 65-year-old child enjoyed them a lot!

JANE: I haven’t read Wild Robert.  Can you tell me about it?

ALAN: Yes indeed. It tells the tale of Heather who lives in a stately home. She hates the constant stream of tourists and, in order to escape them, she plays on an old burial mound hidden away in the grounds. There she accidentally conjures forth Wild Robert himself. He is arrogant, spoiled, powerful, and 350 years old. For Heather’s sake, he plays pranks on the hateful tourists so as to drive them away. Although Heather is nominally the protagonist, once Robert appears, he seems to take over the book from her! His practical jokes are clever, funny and always very appropriate. It’s a wonderful wish fulfillment story.

JANE: I need to add that one to my list.  I did just read The Game, but I’m betting our readers have missed it.  Why don’t you tell them about it?

ALAN: In The Game, we meet Hayley who lives with an Aunt in Ireland. There, she and the other children play a game in a world they call the mythosphere. The name gives the plot away. The novel is simply (simply? Diana Wynne Jones books are never simple…) a re-telling of many Greek myths in much the same way that Eight Days of Luke was a re-telling of the Norse myths. But because this is Diana Wynne Jones, there’s rather more to it than that.

JANE: Funny, I found there was a lot more to the mythosphere than simply Greek myths…  I’ll leave it to our readers to decide for themselves.  Meanwhile, you mentioned above that Diana Wynne Jones finds parallel worlds a fascinating concept.  I have a theory as to why this might be so.  However, maybe we should save that for next time!

A Small Part of the Picture

April 22, 2015

News Flash! To celebrate that Artemis Invaded is now available for preorder both in hard cover and audio, we’re doing a contest on Twitter to win a signed ARC.  Just retweet the announcement pinned at the top of @ JaneLindskold.  Contest ends 4/26/15.  Open only to U.S. residents.  Want to know more about the Artemis Awakening series?

And now to our regularly scheduled Wandering…

Antelope.  Buffalo.  Armadillo (all dead at the side of the road).  Enormous wind farms.  Sheep and goats. Lots and lots and lots of cows.  Horses, including a higher than average number of pintos and palominos.  Country music as backdrop in most stores and restaurants.

Driving the Thin Dark Line

Driving the Thin Dark Lineand restaurants.

Guessed where Jim and I were last weekend?  Yep.  We were in Texas.  We were visiting Jim’s folks, who live in Keller (which is near Fort Worth).  Because they wanted us to take some stuff home with us, we chose to drive, rather than fly.

Ever since I moved to New Mexico in 1994, I’ve come to realize how few people, especially those who live “back East,” have a sense of just how great the distances are in the American West.

My favorite example of this was when my mom moved to the Phoenix, Arizona, area.  People kept saying, “How nice that your mother has moved closer to you!”  And I’d say, “Well, she’s certainly closer than when she lived in Washington, D.C., but I wouldn’t call a seven to eight hour drive (most of which is done at 75 mph) exactly ‘close.’  You could make it from D.C. to Ohio in that time, and I don’t think you’d call that ‘close.’”

People would look very puzzled, as if I couldn’t possibly be right.  I think this is because maps are deceptive.  If you look at a map, New Mexico doesn’t look all that much bigger than the larger East Coast states like Pennsylvania.  However, you can drop two of Pennsylvania into New Mexico with room left around the edges.

All of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut  could be neatly fit inside New Mexico’s borders, a couple of times.  Texas could take all of the above plus Maine, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, without squishing, if you fit it in on a diagonal.

If Jim and I had done the drive to Keller in one shot, stopping only for lunch and fuel, we could have done it in about ten hours.  However, that would have left us fairly useless when we got there, so we stayed the night in Quanah, Texas, which enabled us to arrive at Jim’s folks with energy to go out and have fun.

Visiting Quanah is a little like going back in time.  Except for where the interstate goes through town, most of the houses we saw were older.  Some of the residential areas had brick streets.  The total population was listed as under 3,000.  We didn’t meet all of them, but I will say that those we met were very friendly.  On Thursday, we had dinner at the Depot (which had been constructed from two old train depots).  We chatted with the owners, learning that they’d only recently reopened after a nasty fire, which had necessitated a lot of interior remodeling.  Sadly for Jim, who loves model railroads, it had also destroyed the “G” Scale railroad that used to run around the rooms.

When we checked in at the Best Western, the front desk clerk was mopping the store with the help of her five year-old son.  He went with her behind the desk and solemnly repeated all the check-in instructions before proudly handing us our key.  We were urged to come out and take advantage of the fresh cookies she had in the breakfast room oven right then.

The next morning, the same woman was back on duty, after only a four hour break, but was just as cheerful.  Despite the limited options available in Quanah, especially on a Sunday night, Jim and I thought we’d stop there again if we were out that way, this time making sure we arrived in time to visit the historical museum.

Another thing that maps just can’t show is how empty parts of the west are…  We’d drive for hours through nothing but pastureland.  Keeping an eye on the gas gauge was crucial.  Our vehicle gets good mileage, but when the next gas station is a hundred miles away, you’d better not let the tank get too low.  Running out of gas is a non-trivial event.

One thing I really enjoyed about the drive was watching the surrounding landscape change.  New Mexico’s rocky, arid landscape is very familiar, but I have never ceased to enjoy its sculptured quality.  The plains can be hypnotic, in the way that monotonous flat areas are, but on our way to Texas, several storms were brewing and made for amazingly dramatic clouds.

The further we got into Texas, the more green and lush our surroundings became.  By the time we arrived in Keller, if I’d just been shown a photograph, I’d have assumed we were in southern Maryland, not Texas.  The season seemed to get later, too.  In Albuquerque, we were just out of apple blossom time.  In Texas, roses and other summer flowers were in full bloom.  This seemed all the stranger, since back home we were still concerned about a late frost (which we got, but so far it doesn’t seem to have hurt anything, too severely, except, maybe one crepe myrtle).

Now we’re settled back into our dry home state, where cotton from the cottonwoods is swirling through the air.  Next trip.  New Mexico through Colorado, up into Utah for Conduit in Salt Lake City over Memorial Day weekend…  Once again, the map will only be a small part of the picture.

FF: Making Choices

April 17, 2015

This week, choices – especially on how to live – seems to be a theme.

Just in case you don’t know… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

Awash in Options

Awash in Options

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Deep Secrets by Diana Wynne Jones.  The parts set at the SF convention were fun, but what made this novel work for me were how the various characters thought they knew exactly who they were, where they were going and why.  Yet, by the end, most of them had changed radically.

CryoBurn by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  A good mixture of SF speculation and intrigue, salted with humor.  Is life just about avoiding dying?  And how much life would be “enough”?  Speculation on these and related points gives the novel nice depth.

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud.  Graphic novel.  Talented sculptor David Smith wants to be more than just another “David Smith.”  Haunted by his family’s history of unrealized potential, he fights so hard to keep from being a failure that he…  Well, read it yourself and see what you think!

In Progress:

Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man by Wendelin Van Draanen.  Mystery interwoven with over-the-top junior high politics.

The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobook.  The Pinhoes have kept a secret for a long time.  Can they keep it hidden from Chrestomanci?

Also:

Beginning research for a future project.

TT: The Mistress of Mixy Magicks

April 16, 2015

JANE: Any discussion of Diana Wynne Jones’ work would not be complete without a mention of her “Chrestomanci” books.  I hesitate to call them a “series,” since the term implies events occurring in order and these most certainly do not. Or they do, sort of…  I mean, Charmed  Life is usually listed as the first of the “Chrestomanci” novels, but as I see it both The Lives of Christopher Chant and Conrad’s Fate would come first, chronologically.

Dark Lord Approved!

Dark Lord Approved!

ALAN: Well, the stories do take place in parallel universes, which would explain why the “events” take place “out of order,” as it were. It’s actually quite hard to arrange the books chronologically – there are always things that seem not to fit. Consequently my preference is to read the books in the order that they were published. After all, that’s the order in which Diana Wynne Jones first encountered the material, and what could be more definitive than that?

JANE:  That’s as good a solution as any!

One thing I like about the “Chrestomanci” books is that often the Chrestomanci is a very minor character.  Just because there is someone whose job it is to police the uses and abuses of magic does not mean that the main characters are not important.  Far from it.  For this reason, I really like both Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona.

ALAN: Most of Diana Wynne Jones’ books stand alone, though occasionally she did write a sequel to some of her stories. There are two “Magid” novels, for example: Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy. So the seven books that make up the Chrestomanci series are therefore a little untypical of her work.

She did write one other extended series. The four novels known as the Dalemark Quartet are the closest things she ever wrote to a standard fantasy story. Because they are so close to the mainstream of fantasy, of necessity they lack the quirkiness and humour that was her trademark. Probably because of this, I’ve never liked them very much.

JANE: Perhaps because I’ve never expected Diana Wynne Jones to just be a quirky writer, I had no problem at all with the Dalemark Quartet.  I also don’t have your resistance to “standard fantasy,” although I do insist that it be both well-written and non-formulaic.

And I really feel the Dalemark Quartet is worth reading.  The characters come from a wide variety of backgrounds and the problems they face are complex – well beyond the usual clichéd beat the Great Evil Lord of Darkness gakk that you rightly have termed EFP (Extruded Fantasy Product).

Therefore, I’ll go counter to you and recommend the Dalemark Quartet to anyone who doesn’t start out with a bias against Fantasy or a desire to limit the author to one sort of book.

ALAN: Oh I agree! They are certainly complex and clever novels, but they just aren’t my particular cup of tea.

JANE: Although I really liked the Dalemark Quartet, I strongly believe that Diana Wynne Jones herself shared your dislike of EFP.  Certainly, her novel The Darklord of Derkholm takes every single trope of that sort of fantasy to task.  Have you read it?

ALAN: Oh indeed I have!

The story is set in a fantasy world that is dominated by its tourist industry. Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties arranges annual tours from our world to the fantasy world and the tourists expect to see all the fantasy clichés on their holiday – a dark lord, wise wizards, and so on. Everybody always puts on a good show for the tourists and the tourists always leave quite satisfied with their experiences. But the effect can be quite devastating on the people who live in the fantasy world.

In order to give the tourists an authentic experience, farmlands are laid to waste, and people are killed. Querida, the head of the Wizard’s college, wants to put an end to the tours and so she attempts to sabotage the next one by backing an incompetent wizard called Derk to be the next Dark Lord. Derk’s son Blade will be the Wizard Guide for the tour. Hopefully everything will then unravel and fall apart and the tourists will be less inclined to return…

It’s a cunning plan. What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot actually…

JANE: Again, what saves this from being simply a snarky attack fantasy fiction clichés is that Diana Wynne Jones makes her characters very three-dimensional.  Derk is an excellent wizard, in many ways, but Querida is right.  He’d make a terrible Dark Lord.  Querida makes matters worse by creating a rift between Derk and his wife (who is also a wizard).

I don’t want to provide spoilers, but one of Diana Wynne Jones’s greatest talents is the passing comment that makes even the most outrageous fantasy world real.  In this case, it’s a comment that wizards have a very high rate of divorce.

Suddenly, the problems between Derk and his wife seem all too real and divorce all too possible.

ALAN: Yes – it’s these little human touches that anchor her stories in reality and make the world feel lived in, no matter how bizarre it may appear to our mundane point of view.

I have always considered The Dark Lord of Derkholm to be the fictional counterpoint to Jones’ delightfully barbed The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. This is a travel guide to a standard fantasy landscape. In a series of short satirical definitions arranged in an authoritative A-Z , she describes all the obligatory facets of a fantasy adventure.

For example there will be STEW which will be thick and savoury (i.e. viscous and dark brown). There will be BEER which foams and is invariably delivered in tankards. It will be bought at an INN which will be made mostly of wood and which will be larger upstairs than downstairs. Downstairs, there is room only for a taproom and bar (and maybe a kitchen where STEW will be cooked). Upstairs there are innumerable sleeping chambers (not bedrooms) arranged along never-ending corridors so that people can creep through them and break in to search luggage or threaten the occupants with DAGGERS.

It should be noted that despite living entirely on STEW (which never seems to contain fresh vegetables and which is never, ever served with a side salad), no fantasy characters ever suffer from SCURVY or any other deficiency diseases…

JANE: I love the Tough Guide.  In fact, I regularly recommend it to new writers of fantasy fiction as a check against falling into ill thought-out world-building.  You cite the entry on stew, but seem to miss what a great writing lesson it involves.  I quote:

“Stew seems an odd choice as staple food, since, on rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak.”

And, yes, stew does seem like an odd choice for a staple food, but since it also can, well, “stew” for a long time, stew makes perfect sense for a low-budget dish in an inn or tavern, because a pot can be kept warm on the hob and served up quickly to newly arriving guests.  However, it’s a lousy choice when camping out, yet many writers don’t make the distinction.

ALAN: Perhaps the writers have never tried to cook anything over a camp fire.

JANE: Oh… yes!  Good point.  There’s something to be said for building upon actual experience.

Another great entry for the prospective world-builder is the one on embroidery.

Again, I quote:  “A lot of it is beautiful, and there is so much of it that there must be the equivalent of factories devoted to making it…  The only people the Tourist will actually see engaged in Embroidery will be ladies of high birth.  And they can’t do all of it.  Can they?”

ALAN: The definitions are trite in themselves but taken together they amount to a devastating destruction of the fantasy cliché, and if you have ever read any of those horrible novels, you will laugh in delighted recognition at her witticisms and truisms. And, as an added bonus, you will know exactly how not to write a fantasy novel.

JANE: I firmly agree!  One can write in the context of a tradition – such as High Fantasy – without falling into the worst errors.

I keep thinking of things I want to add, but reality is knocking at my door, in the form of reminders that I really DO need to get some fiction writing of my own done.  Shall we continue next time?

Twenty-one Tomato Salute

April 15, 2015

On Saturday, Jim and I planted twenty-one tomato seeds.  Our goal is to have twelve plants bearing tomatoes by the end of the summer.  We’ll be happy with six, especially if five of them are romas, because romas are good both for eating fresh and for cooking.

Tomatoes: Getting Started

Tomatoes: Getting Started

Later that day, it occurred to me that once again gardening had provided a very good metaphor for writing.

Tomatoes are to Seeds as Stories are to _______.

If you filled in the blank with “Ideas,” you can pat yourself on the back.   Every writer has more story ideas than they do stories.  Even non-writers have lots of story ideas.  “What if?” is a very prolific producer of seeds.

There’s a reason that tomatoes produce so many seeds.  That’s because the likelihood of any one seed germinating is very small.  Even if the seed germinates, there are a lot of things that can keep the plant from producing mature fruit.

When the plant is small, weather conditions are probably the biggest enemy.  A newly germinated tomato plant is tiny.  It has two little leaves and a thread-like stem.  A heavy rainstorm can bury the baby plant in mud.  Out here in New Mexico, the burying agent is more likely to be windborne sand.  End result is the same.  Death by suffocation.

Even when plants are large enough survive being buried, the challenge isn’t over.   Cutworm grubs can girdle the stem of a young plant, cutting it off just below the soil line.   A myriad of diseases, carried both in the soil and by insects, can infect your plants.  Tomato hornworms (also called tomato worms or just “hornworms,” for short) love how tomato plants taste.  I’ve seen a vital vine stripped bare in a few hours, holes drilled indiscriminately in both fruit and the stems of the plant.

Tomato plants are remarkably picky about the temperature range in which they’ll set fruit.  Where I live, daily temperature shifts of thirty degrees are usual.  Forty degrees are common.  That means you can have a day in the eighties, dropping down to forties at night.  This is very confusing to the plants, who can’t decide whether it’s summer or winter.

Uneven moisture can lead to cracking (sometimes called “cat-facing”) and blossom-end rot.  In both cases, with some judicious trimming, the tomato is usually edible, but it isn’t very attractive.

So why bother?  After all there are lots of tomatoes out there.  You can buy pretty good ones for as little as ninety-nine cents a pound.  If you want to spend more, you can buy some really flavorful tomatoes.

I guess the only answer, whether you’re talking about tomatoes or stories, is you do it because you enjoy the process, even when the end result of the process is a deep sigh and a hope that things will work out better next time.  If you don’t enjoy the process of planting the seed, seeing it sprout, feeding and watering the young plant so that it grows strong, watching the flowers develop, looking for the first blush on the green fruit, there’s no crime in letting someone else grow the tomatoes – or write the story.

But if you do enjoy the process, then the experience – not just the end result – is worth all the effort.  And the flavor of something you’ve grown yourself is exquisite beyond belief.

P.S.  I was just reminded that tomatoes once provided the seed of a story for me.  It’s called “Between Tomatoes and Snapdragons” and will be reprinted in my forthcoming short story collection Prime Curiosities.

FF: Enjoyably Mixed

April 10, 2015

This last week, everything I’m reading is because someone recommended it to me!  So far, no duds.

Lilies Toil Not.  Do They Read?

Lilies Toil Not. Do They Read?

Just in case you don’t know… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  Audiobook.  A fascinating, complexly structured novel.  I’m still considering how I felt about the last twenty-five percent or so.  Still, if you like post-apocalyptic novels, this is a good one.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.  I really liked this one.  Although marketed as “fantasy,” probably because the two races involved are called, for no apparent reason I could figure out, “elves” and “goblins” – Are pointy ears enough? – it’s a solid novel of political intrigue with complex characters.  Ms. Addison runs counter to a current trend in political fiction that assumes everyone will be as nasty as possible.  There’s plenty of vinegar here, but she doesn’t forget the value of honey.

Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief by Wendelin VanDraanen.  A mystery series that bridges the middle-grade into YA age group nicely – and still had a lot of appeal for this far from YA reader.  I’ll be continuing to read about Sammy and her adventures.

In Progress:

Deep Secrets by Diana Wynne Jones.  When Alan mentioned this one to me when we were writing our Tangents, I realized I hadn’t read it.  I’m about half-way in and enjoying.  A bonus is the lovingly realistic – although not at all snarky – depiction of the complex culture of an SF convention.

CryoBurn by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  A good mixture of SF speculation and intrigue, salted with humor.

Also:

The beginning of the month always brings in new magazines…

TT: Diana Wynne Jones — Quirky and Wise

April 9, 2015

JANE: Alan, last week you told me that you wanted to discuss a writer whose work I’ve been reading quite a bit of lately. When you indicated that this writer was Diana Wynne Jones, I was thrilled. Why don’t you start?

My First Diana Wynne Jones novel

My First Diana Wynne Jones novel

ALAN: Probably the first Diana Wynne Jones novel that I read was Howl’s Moving Castle. I was absolutely blown away by the subtlety and depth of the plot, the witty writing and the complete weirdness of the central concept of a castle that is constantly on the move.  The dialogue between Sophie and Calcifer, the fire-demon was brilliantly funny and Howl, the wizard, was suitably eccentric.

As I explored more of Diana Wynne Jones’ worlds, I quickly learned that this was typical of her stories – her plots were generally very convoluted, her prose was consistently witty and often laugh out loud funny and the situations in which her characters found themselves were often extremely bizarre.

JANE: I had a very different introduction to her works.  Have you ever read her novel, Dogsbody?  It is quite dark, incredibly moving, and deeply mythic in the absolutely best sense of that term.

The final sentence is full of beauty and I can rarely tell anyone about it without choking up.  That said, this is not a downer of a book.  It is the absolute opposite.

ALAN: Yes, I have read Dogsbody. Like you, I found it very moving and I was really impressed by the richness and depth of the plot. Taken at face value, it’s a simple story – Sirius, the Dog Star, has been convicted of murder. His punishment is to live as a dog on Earth. He will die there, unless he can find the Zoi, though he is not certain what that might be,

On the surface, that’s very straightforward and it is full of elements that the children she was writing for can appreciate and enjoy. But there’s so much more to it than that.  Her books were always marketed as “Young Adult” stories (and were sometimes aimed at very young children). Nevertheless, her stories often had very adult themes and they were always full of references and allusions that probably went right over the heads of the children. Not that the children would care. They’d be far too wrapped up in the story; her plots were never less than enthralling. But it’s that extra depth, cleverness, and subtlety that make the books so satisfying for adults as well.

JANE: I do like Diana Wynne Jones’ quirky elements a great deal.  However, if it wasn’t for the depth and cleverness – Howl’s Moving Castle is also a brilliant commentary on aging – I would not find her books as wonderful as I do.  It’s easy to be quirky, almost TOO easy, as the boom in repetitive and stupid “humorous” fantasy in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, demonstrated.

It’s humor with heart that has staying power…  Diana Wynne Jones had heart in – well, I can’t resist the pun – spades.

ALAN: She’d have liked your pun. She always enjoyed a good joke. A sense of fun is usually bubbling away just under the surface of even her most serious stories.

JANE:  Yes.  I agree.  For all that I would classify Dogsbody as one of Diana Wynne Jones’s more serious works, one does need to accept a book in which one of the main point-of-view characters is simultaneously and completely a puppy and a stellar intelligence.  I guess that’s quirky.

 Diana Wynne Jones’ gift is that she makes this work so well that I accepted this as easily as I accepted the elements of the plot that focus on Sirius’ human owner, the young Irish-born Kathleen, who lives with her horrible English aunt, her benignly neglectful uncle, and two boy cousins.

ALAN: Yes, that’s exactly correct. One of Diana Wynne Jones’ great strengths was that she could take stories set in the here and now, full of characters you can recognise, and then tie them together with mythological (or in the case of Dogsbody, cosmological) elements and make the stories work without losing the sense of reality.

Another good example would be Eight Days of Luke where David Allard, at home on holiday from boarding school and feeling somewhat bored, accidentally rescues a young boy called Luke who has an odd ability to control fire, although he assures David that he cannot raise the dead.

Soon other strange characters turn up looking for Luke. There’s Mr. Wedding who only has one eye, for example. It soon becomes clear that David is trapped inside a Norse myth – Luke is Loki, of course, and he is as mischievous, a source of trouble as always. The gods are locked in a struggle that will prepare them for Götterdämmerung. But meanwhile they have some problems. Mr. Wedding in particular is not happy with Luke. Perhaps David can help…

JANE: Oh!  I remember that one!  A friend loaned it to me, so I don’t have a copy.  Now I feel a great need to find one.  That’s the problem with Diana Wynne Jones’ books.  They’re like an addiction.  Jim recently went on a binge where he systematically read every one we had in the house.

ALAN: What a wonderful time he must have had! One thing I’ve noticed (and I’m sure Jim must noticed it as well because of reading so many books one after the other) is that even at her most light-hearted, there is always a serious undertone to Diana Wynne Jones’ stories.

In Deep Secret, we meet Rupert Venables who is the junior Magid of Earth. Magids are powerful magicians charged with maintaining the balance between positive and negative magic (presumably white and black magic in our terms) on the worlds they supervise. They seldom act overtly, but they do use their powers to push people into doing the right thing at the right time to make the right things happen. As the story opens, the senior Magid of Earth has just died and Rupert, helped by the ghost of the senior Magid, must choose a new junior Magid. He decides to conduct the examination of the candidates at an SF convention. After all, those things are so peculiar that nobody will ever notice any extra oddities introduced by his examination of the Magid candidates.

And so the stage is set for an, at times, somewhat squirmy tale. Read it, attend the SF convention and recognise yourself and many other people who you know. Diana Wynne Jones tells her story with deep affection and understanding, but she never misses an opportunity to make a barbed remark! The book is an utter delight from start to finish.

But despite all the fun (and it is great fun, make no mistake) there is a real and serious concern at the heart of the story. The magids may be metaphorical in real world terms but when you look at the news headlines, you sometimes wish they were actually here and doing their job.

JANE: Hmm…  I’m not sure I’ve read Deep Secret.  I’ll need to add it to my list.

There are several really important things about Diana Wynne Jones and her work I’d hoped to bring up but the novels – as they should – took center stage.  I’ll save it all for next time.

Maps: Limiting or Grounding?

April 8, 2015

News Flash: Artemis Invaded is now available for pre-order as an audiobook from Audible.com.  When the book is released on June 30th, it will be in your library and available for download.

And now, To Map or Not to Map…  a writerly question.

Roger Zelazny's Map of Amber

Roger Zelazny’s Map of Amber

As many of you know, over the last couple of Thursday Tangents, Alan Robson and I have been discussing street naming conventions – or rather, lack of conventions.  At one point, I mentioned the map that appeared in the Firekeeper novels.  This led to me being asked how much time I put into mapping out an area before beginning a story.

The answer is simple.  Very little.  Sometimes none at all.   The “map” I used when writing Through Wolf’s Eyes and Wolf’s Head, Wolf’s Heart was scribbled on the back of an old envelope.  Its main purpose was to make sure that I was consistent when referring to directions.  I guess it served because when my editor (Teresa Nielsen Hayden) approached me, requesting a map that could be included in the novel, she clearly assumed that I had one.

Happily, for me, Jim is a fine cartographer.  He drew the map (complete with contour elevations) that was adapted for the novel.

Nor am I the only writer to work this way.  Steve Brust was recently asked if the rumored maps that would be accompanying a forthcoming work would be based on his “real” maps.  Steve’s response was interesting:  “I have maps of some stuff that I use so that I only contradict myself on purpose. But I don’t like to let them out of the house.”

(I particularly like the bit about “contradicting myself on purpose”!)

Roger Zelazny had an elaborate poster-sized map of Amber printed, but this wasn’t because he felt he needed it in order to write the novels.  It was simply because it amused him to do so.  (He could be quite whimsical.  He also had pencils printed with something along the lines of “Property of Castle Amber Library.”)

When The Visual Guide to Castle Amber was commissioned by Bill Fawcett and Associates Inc., Roger spoke with the writers, artists, and cartographers.  A detailed map of the castle, including floorplans for many of the individual rooms, was included in the book.  Then, in the next novel, Roger arranged to have a very violent battle take place so that large portions of the castle’s interior would need to be rebuilt – freeing him from having to construct his stories according to a map.

On the other hand, I’ve known writers who lavish considerable attention on the maps of their fictional realms.  Every mountain range is detailed, usually with little triangles.  (I’ve lived in the midst of two different mountain ranges, and I’ve yet to see a mountain that looks like a triangle, especially up close.)  Every river is named (sometimes three or four times, especially if the mapmaker is a fan of Tolkien).  Major cities are indicated and minor towns…   Forests.  Oceans.

Advocates of maps say that charting out their terrain in advance of writing helps keep them grounded, to visualize the realities of the landscape.   However, what too many mapmakers forget – especially those born into this era of fast and easy transportation – is that distance is not just a matter of miles, it’s a matter of, well, as a certain hobbit put it, getting “there and back again.”

Especially if you’re writing a story set in a low tech environment, travel conditions matter as much as miles as measured.  Muddy roads will slow you down.  Paved roads will speed you up.  (There’s a reason the Romans built so many roads… )  How heavily encumbered you are is crucial.  Pack and riding animals don’t speed you up.  They may actually slow you down – but if weather conditions are good, they may increase how far you can go on a given day.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a gamer.  My favorite gaming involves dice, paper, and a group of compatible souls.  What I’ve learned from gaming – both from running numerous games and from being a player – is that when telling a story the macrocosm matters a lot less than the microcosm.  That is, the precise distance between you the nearest city matters a lot less than who is standing closest to you when trouble hits.

When writing, I’m much more likely to make a quick sketch of who is where when combat or some other conflict is an element.  I’m more likely to sketch a map of a small town or the interior of a building than I am of a continent.  Part of this has to do with the fact that I rarely write from an omniscient narrative point of view.  Instead, I take pleasure in seeing a scene close up and personal, just as my characters would.  Sometimes this means knowing where, for example, Brenda’s bedroom is in relation to Pearl’s.  Or who is sitting across from whom during an acrimonious debate.

There are times, however, when I agree that a detailed landscape map is very useful.  One of these is when writing in collaboration with someone else.  Especially for Treecat Wars, David Weber and I used maps to make sure that each of us were visualizing terrain elements in the same fashion.  You don’t know until you’ve attempted to write with someone else how relative words like “close” and “far,” or “just a short walk,” can be.

Another time when a map is crucial is when writing fiction set in an actual setting.  This applies whether you’re writing in a contemporary setting or hundreds or even thousands of years earlier.  Writers of contemporary fiction have some interesting tools available to them.  Resources like Google let a writer “see” a location as it is at a given moment.   This can be very useful and a lot faster than getting someone to run over there and take a photo for you.  Since “given moment” is just that – a moment – there are drawbacks, too.

Long before Google, I wrote a short story where I described a local museum, including the statues out front.  By the time the story was published, the statues had been moved.  The story still worked, thank goodness…   However, I had several local readers comment about this discrepancy.  Now, courtesy of the web, anyone can be the equivalent of a local reader.

Should this paralyze you?  Make you spend hours on researching your setting?  Honestly, I don’t think so.  As long as you don’t have rivers running uphill or major avenues running the wrong direction, readers will understand that transient details (which, in my case, included huge metal statues of dinosaurs) can change.

As I mentioned above, stories set in a historical context may also demand maps.  One of the first resources I go to when working on a story in a historical setting is Shepherd’s Historical Atlas.  While not perfect or all-inclusive, it is clear and useful – especially for making sure that the name you’re using for a given location or geographical feature is correct for the time period.  These maps can’t give you travel times between two points, but at least they can give you an idea of the miles involved and the terrain features.

So what about SF?  Why does mapmaking seem to be more associated with Fantasy than SF?  I think one reason is that while Fantasy is often set in some form of imaginary world, SF is likely to be set in some variation of reality as we know it.  Even if the story touches down on an alien planet, the contact is often restricted to one area (a starport city, for example).  If it isn’t, high tech transportation makes the question of whether a forest or river or even an ocean is in the way not a matter for consideration in the story.  Take a look, though…  The closer the story comes to creating a new world and exploring it in detail, the more likely it is that maps will show up!

So to map or not to map?  My answer would be map as much as you need to tell your story, but never make the mistake of thinking that the map is the story, nor that having a map available to the reader means you are freed from the responsibility of writing prose that makes your setting live and breathe.

FF: Landscapes of Change

April 3, 2015

For those of you who are new to this piece… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Kel Attempts to Keep Me from Reading

Kel Wonders What I’m Reading

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  I liked this one.  Bujold deserve praise for the skill she shows  in writing a later book in a series, in which characters from earlier in the series are reintroduced.  So many authors would either fall into info-dump or so little detail a newer reader is confused.  She walks the balance with grace.

Beyond the Blast: Wasteland and Shelter in Nuclear Fiction.  A Master’s thesis by my friend, Rowan Derrick.  Fascinating and intelligent treatment of a complex topic.

In Progress:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  Audiobook.  A fascinating, complexly structured novel.  I’m really fascinated.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.  Just started.  Already has violated clichéd expectations.  That’s good.

Also:

Still spending a lot of time reading my own stuff…


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