Archive for April, 2015

TT: Inside Out and Backwards

April 30, 2015

News Flash: The e-book of Changer is on sale today through May 2 for 99 cents.

JANE: Last week, I mentioned that I had a theory as to why Diana Wynne Jones did so much with parallel universes.  I should have added that I think her gift for magic that works oddly, and with, in general, a logic that doesn’t fit the usual, may be owed to the same source.

Would you like to hear my theory?

Merlin and Hammer

Merlin and Hammer

ALAN: Yes please.

JANE: Several weeks ago, as I mentioned at the time, I read Diana Wynne Jones’ novella, The Game.  I always read the jacket copy and author biographical material.  Here, for the first time, I came across a bit of information I had not known before.

Diana Wynne Jones was dyslexic.  The jacket copy mentions that she knew she wanted to write stories from the time she was eight, but it took her until she was twelve to figure out how to work around her dyslexia so she could do so.

Now, from my adult perspective, four years doesn’t seem much, but put it in terms of her life to that point!  Four years is a third of her life!  Amazing determination.

ALAN: That’s incredible – what a strong will she must have had.

JANE: I agree…

Being me, I decided to put on my researcher hat and see if I could get confirmation for my theory.  I was handed off by various friendly people (Sharyn November suggested I talk to Neil Gaiman, Neil connected me to Tom Abba who went to Dr. Butler).  After talking with Dr. Butler, Tom Abba sent me the following section of an interview by Dr. Butler of Diana Wynne Jones as printed in Reflections on the Magic of Writing, an autobiographical work by Diana Wynne Jones.

With full credit to the source, and many thanks to the many people who helped me find it, I share it with you:

CB: I know you’re dyslexic and left-handed, and in both those ways you’re coming at things from a slightly unusual angle, and I wonder if you feel that has had any relevance to the way you see and therefore write about the world?

DWJ: It probably has, but the trouble is you see that it’s normal for me. All it is is a struggle to try and keep level with right-handed ways of going on. I wouldn’t know about that, because the way I see things is, to me, normal. But I think you’re probably right and I think it probably does.

CB: I was thinking of that part in The Merlin Conspiracy where it turns out that Grundo’s magic is at ninety degrees to the magic of the universe he lives in.

 

DWJ: Yes, he does everything back to front. Yes, that was the bit where I thought, well, there are quite a lot of people who are dyslexic: let’s give them a champion, as it were.

 

One thing it’s very good for, actually, being dyslexic, is solving anagrams. It ought to make me a past master at Scrabble, but it doesn’t – but I’m very good at anagrams in crosswords, because I think my brain stores things scrambled as opposed to ordinary brains.

CB: The unscrambling muscles must be quite well developed.

 

DWJ: I think they are, yes. Though I did fail a driving test purely through dyslexia, because every time he told me to turn right I turned left. And we got lost. The examiner was furious, seething, and he failed me on the spot. Which was reasonable, of course. Goodness knows where we ended up. It was a completely strange part of Oxford to me, and obviously to the examiner as well. He couldn’t wait to get out of the car when we finally worked our way back to civilization.

ALAN: Reflections on the Magic of Writing is an autobiography, cobbled together after Diana Wynne Jones died, and made up of various articles and speeches that she published during her life. By its very nature, it is a little repetitive (she said similar things in many speeches), but it paints a fascinating picture of her development as both a person and a writer. I recommend it very highly.

JANE: Thanks for the recommendation.  I’m definitely going to look for it.  Was there anything in it you found particularly interesting or insightful?

ALAN: Oh, there are lots of wonderful anecdotes in it, but one that particularly struck me was that Diana Wynne Jones’ father was a schoolteacher and so he was well aware that children needed books. But he was also a skinflint. One day he came upon a second-hand set of Arthur Ransome’s children’s novels (known generically as the Swallows and Amazons series). For the next twelve years, at Christmas, he gave his children one volume from the set to be shared between them. Diana records that she was well into her university studies before she received the final volume…

JANE: Skinflint, self-centered adult characters who think they are kind and generous are a recurring motif in Diana Wynne Jones’ works.  One who springs to mind immediately for me is Duffy in Dogsbody.  Kathleen finally tells Duffy off, quite eloquently.  I wonder if the author was letting loose a life-long desire?

Were there other anecdotes you found interesting?

ALAN: Actually, there was an interesting sequel related to Arthur Ransome. During the war, Diana and her siblings were evacuated to the Lake District where the Swallows and Amazons books are set. Arthur Ransome lived nearby and became very annoyed at the noise the children made while they were playing and he stormed into the house to complain. This was how Diana first learned that writers were actually real people. It was a little bit of a shock to her.

She also met Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame. Diana records that Ms Potter was a crotchety old woman who smacked Diana’s sister for swinging on her front gate.

JANE: She must have been convinced that all writers are permanently bad-tempered.

ALAN: You mean they aren’t?

JANE: Ahem!  Pray continue while I go find my sledgehammer so I can bludgeon you!

ALAN: When Diana Wynne Jones died, she left behind an incomplete novel. It was called The Islands of Chaldea. Her sister Ursula Jones couldn’t bear to leave it unfinished and even though she’d never done anything like it before, she decided to complete it on her sister’s behalf. It was published in 2014.

In an afterword, Ursula records how she scoured the text again and again searching for clues as to how Diana might have wanted the story to go. Eventually she found a small hint, early in the manuscript and she sat down to write the story. She says:

When I started to write, it came easily. It was almost as if Diana were at my elbow, prompting, prodding, turning sentences around, working alongside – and then it was finished, and she was gone again.

I’ve read (and loved) the novel, and trust me, you simply cannot see the joins. Ursula did a wonderful job of channeling her sister. I have no idea what this means in terms of the nature versus nurture debate as to whether writers are born or made. But I’m sure it must mean something.

JANE: I’ll need to read it and see if I agree…  But I’m so glad that writing it was a happy experience for Ursula.

Now I think we should probably stop nattering about her words and turn our readers loose to enjoy the works of this wonderful writer!

<Wanders off, grumbling, still looking for a sledgehammer..>

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Kids and Critters

April 29, 2015

News Flash! April 30th through May 3, the e-book of Changer will be on sale at most major e-retailers, including Kobo and I-tunes.   Don’t have an e-reader?  Changer is also available in trade paperback (although not on sale) from Amazon Create Space or directly from me via my website bookshop.

Now to our regularly scheduled Tangent…

The questions I get most frequently asked in interviews is why I write about animals so often.

Kel and Nora

Kel and Nora

My automatic response is, “Why wouldn’t I?  Animals are fascinating and a lot more complicated than humans give them credit for being.”

This past weekend, we had an excellent illustration of just how complicated animals can be.  Nora Bartel, age six, loves animals and was very eager to meet our cats and guinea pigs.  We explained to her that our cats don’t have a lot of contact with children, so she should be prepared to have them be shy  and take time to warm up to her.

Nora understood.  At first the cats were a little shy, coming up to sniff, but backing away when Nora tried to pat them.  Then Jim went and woke up Kel, who had been napping in the back.  Kel is a gentle soul, but she doesn’t put up with any nonsense.  However, she warmed to Nora very quickly.

Soon I saw Kel inviting Nora to play, prancing away a few steps, them pausing and looking back over her shoulder in an invitation for Nora to follow.  We explained to Nora that Kel didn’t want to be chased fast, but that she wasn’t running away scared.  Within a very short time, Kel had flopped down and was inviting Nora to pat her.

Nora was delighted to oblige, and soon they were great friends.

I found myself wondering why Kel had such a different reaction than the other three.  Kwahe’e is very social, but he was content to watch and take an occasional pat.  Persephone, who, at age three, is the most likely to fling herself into the middle of things, didn’t shun Nora, but she was definitely more cautious.  Ogapoge eventually decided Nora was great, but not until Kel broke the ice.  So why was Kel’s reaction so different?

Then I remembered.  When Kel was a kitten, our nephew Christopher came to visit with his mom.  Like Nora, Christopher was very interested in getting to know our cats.  As with Nora, Christopher was told that he’d probably need to wait until the cats got to know him before they wanted to be patted.  He showed superlative restraint, even when Kel (who was an impossibly cute fur ball) came right up to him and put her paws on him.

We told him it was okay to pat her, since she’d “patted” him first and before long they were great buddies.  A six-year-old (especially one who loves baseball) will patiently throw balls for a kitten to chase for much longer than even indulgent adult cat lovers will do.  Kel would play until she literally fell asleep on her feet.

However, this was a long time ago.  Christopher is now in junior high.  Kel is seven.  Kel’s encounters between with small children have been limited.  But, based on her behavior, she remembered that a small child could be a lot of fun.

Yet “everyone” – including scientists who study animals – will tell you that animals have no long-term memory.  That certainly a few days in the life of kitten Kel would not be remembered seven years later.

Oh…  And despite the widely believed “fact” that cats are anti-social and only care about humans as sources of food and comfort, all four of our cats spent the evening hanging out with us in the living room.  All four looked to interact, including settling into bits of furniture to be part of the party.  They didn’t need to be fed or indulged.  They just wanted to be there.

One thing I think gets in the way of people writing about animals is that even those who live with animals often don’t really see them as they are, they only see the human-imposed stereotypes of behavior.

Cats are standoffish, selfish, and aloof.  Stereotypes applied to dogs vary and are often highly contradictory.  Some of these are because different breeds behave differently.  This really complicates the picture when the traits bred into one breed are applied to all dogs.

The same is true of wild animals.  Human-imposed stereotypes are applied, as if animals are instinct-driven computers.  The worst thing is that these stereotypes are often highly incorrect, based on insufficient information and a generalized series of behaviors.

A great example of this is the hyena.  Everyone “knows” that hyenas are filthy, cowardly scavengers.  They don’t hunt for themselves.  Instead they skulk around, eating what lions leave behind, and carrion when other animals drop dead.  They laugh slyly and, despite being cowards who don’t hunt, are – oddly enough – often represented as highly dangerous.

Guess what?  Just about all of this is completely wrong.  High-tech studies using devices that could capture animal behaviors on film, even at night, provided a completely different dynamic.  Interestingly, initially, the studies weren’t of the hyenas, but were of lions – because lions are (in human stereotype) the dynamic “king of the jungle.”

Turns out that the scavengers aren’t the hyenas…  It’s much more likely to be the lions.  Hyenas have long front legs and shorter back legs.  They have heavy heads, especially around the jaws.  The combination of these traits make them seem to skulk when human body-language is imposed on them.  Leaving out human prejudice, they’re actually excellent hunters.   Lions (especially those noble “kings”) are more inclined to get a meal the easiest way possible.  Because lions live in groups (prides!), they can chase the hyenas from their kills.

And the evidence was there all along, but was ignored, because it didn’t fit the superimposed pattern.

Fascinating stuff!  The fact is, most animals, even those we assume we know “well,” including domestic animals, are very different from the stereotypes imposed on them.

The same is true of children.  It seems a pity to me that children are so rarely included in fiction, unless that fiction is written for children.  If children are included in fiction written for a presumably adult audience, far too often, the child characters are treated much as animals are – not as three-dimensional characters, but as collections of stereotypical traits.

Those traits have much more to do with adult perceptions of children than the reality.  The other day, a friend solemnly explained that most boys bond with their mothers and girls with their fathers.  Certainly there are “mommy’s boys” and “daddy’s girls,” but the reverse is as often true or those terms wouldn’t exist at all.  We’d just accept the pattern as normal.  In fact, there are plenty of kids who aren’t either.  They find traits in each parent that create a bond.

I don’t know why it is that many people – including writers, who I would like to think should be a bit more observant – find it so much easier not to see what’s around them and to instead choose to impose simplistic patterns.

Me?  I’ll keep writing about animals and including children in my adult novels because, despite the adult human prejudice, animals and kids are as much – or more – a part of life as adult humans!

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.