Archive for December, 2015

It’s From Aunt Jane!

December 9, 2015

“It’s from Aunt Jane and Uncle Jim,” my mother reports my nephew Daniel saying one Christmas.  “It’s a book!”

Bookish Christmas

Bookish Christmas

Mom hastened to add, “And he was clearly delighted.  I think I saw him reading it before the evening was over.”

Jim and I have made it a practice to give books to our nieces and nephews since just about the start of our relationship.  Some of the babies we started out giving board books to are now in high school and college.  We didn’t start this out from any desire to be book pushers.  Both of us are avid and enthusiastic readers.   Jim credits a book given to him by his maternal grandmother for leading to his desire to become an archeologist.  He was nine at the time.  He still has the book.

Some of my oldest possessions are books given to me.  In other cases, the original book has somehow vanished, but I’ve replaced the title. Or one gift book (for example Mary Poppins in the Park) led to my reading (and now owning) the entire series.

We decided that since we loved books, we’d share the love with the newest people in our lives.  This weekend we went out and completed this year’s selection.  Since many of the gift recipients are old enough to read this, I’ll going to be coy about naming titles, lest I ruin a surprise.

But I can share some cool stories about what has come from our giving books.  Any of you remember Richard Scary?  His books were short on text but big on words.  No, that isn’t a contradiction.  My youngest sister is eight years younger than I am.  I clearly remember our mutual delight in going through the pages, looking for favorite characters (like Huckle the Cat or Lowly Worm).   The cool thing was that just about everything on the page would be labeled: “Truck” or “apple” or “picklemobile.”  Yes.  Picklemobile.  You read that right.

So when my sisters started producing kids, I figured that a book that had held the attention of a four year-old and a twelve year-old was a very good book indeed, and I hunted out copies of some of Richard Scary’s works.

And one day sister Ann phones and says, “Thank you, thank you for being the wonderful aunt who gives my son books!”

I shook my head in surprise, but I was grinning as I replied, “Okay.  I’m glad.  Any reason for this call?”

Ann continued, “Well, Christopher and I were playing with his playdough, making things for the kitchen.  I’d made some coiled sweet rolls.  Christopher asked if he could have one.  He then took it and said, ‘Look, Mama.  If I unroll this, I have a long French baguette.’  I admit, my first reaction was, ‘Where did my five year-old learn a word like “baguette?”  Christopher looked at me patiently and said, ‘Remember, Mama:  “Able Baker Charlie makes long French baguettes.”’ That’s from the Richard Scary book you gave him for Christmas.  So thank you for being the aunt who gives my kid books.”

I admit, I was pretty jazzed.  Christopher is fourteen now.  For his birthday, I gave him the first of Brandon Mull’s “Beyonder” novels, which he stayed up past bedtime to finish.  He’s getting book three as part of his Christmas present.  Yes.  Three.  Not two.  He’s already reading two now!

My siblings are great about letting me know if a book is a “hit.”  Sister Susan shared the tale of how her youngest, Tim, had fun advancing a class discussion about rocks when he was about ten – and how the next day he insisted on bringing into school the children’s geology books we’d given him earlier that year.  My brother was interested to find out that his daughter’s enthusiasm for hot buttered toast came from the favorite meal of a character in a series of books we’d given her.

Sometimes, now that they’re getting older, the kids tell us themselves.  We were deeply touched when nephew Brian added a line to the thank you note he wrote us after Jim sent him a check for his high school graduation: “Thank you for all the great books you’ve given me over the years.”

In fact, books are a great way to connect with the kids in your life.  Jim and I live a long way from those kids.  Most of my biological family lives “back East.”  Jim’s family is currently residing in Texas which, despite sharing a border with New Mexico, is a long way away.  But when we see the kids, we have something to talk about other than the cliqued, “How’s school?”  “What are your hobbies?”

And don’t fool yourself, kids can have very thoughtful comments about books.  One of the best critiques of The Hunger Games I ever heard was from my (then ten year-old) niece Rebecca.  I asked her if she wasn’t bothered by a book where kids were killing other kids.  She commented that it really wasn’t all that scary.  When I read the book, I had to agree.  I’d expected to be disturbed, but I found the book provided an incredibly sanitized depiction of genocide.  More attention was paid to costumes than to death and dying.

So, this year, once again, we’re giving books to the nieces and nephews.  Some are getting fiction, some non-fiction.  Especially with novels, we try to make sure we’re at least familiar with the book in question.  After all, how can you have a good book chat, if you haven’t read the book?

FF: Old Friends and New

December 4, 2015

Over the holiday weekend, I indulged in some re-reads, but I’ve now started reading two new (to me) novels.

Starlight Contemplates Uprooted

Starlight Contemplates Uprooted

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation 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 bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. Audiobook.   I’ve read this numerous times, but it didn’t disappoint!

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  Still creepy, even though I’ve read it before.  In fact, maybe more creepy.  Do you know about all the titles this one has had?

A World Without Heroes, “Beyonders” series, volume one by Brandon Mull.  I enjoyed enough that I will look for the next one.  However, I have a bunch on my TBR shelf first.

In Progress:

Lair of Dreams: A Diviners Novel, by Libba Bray.  Audiobook.  Lots of characters being reintroduced.  Also, a strong indication as to what the problem will be.   I also have some strong suspicions about other elements.  Definitely an author who is character driven, since she heavily telegraphs her plots.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  I started this one as audio, couldn’t stand the reader, and am now picking it up in print.  About half-way.


The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes by David Willis McCullough.  Non-fiction look at the world-wide interest in these patterns.  Reading a little at a time.

TT: Mann of the Moment

December 3, 2015

JANE: I’m happily awaiting learning more about Phillip Mann.  Is he a native New Zealander?

Jake Reads Phillip Mann

Jake Reads Phillip Mann, by Alan Robson

ALAN: No, not quite. Like me, Phillip is an expat Yorkshireman, though he is from North Yorkshire and I am from West Yorkshire, so naturally we hate each other. But despite that, we remain good friends…

And, just like Ngaio Marsh,  Phillip Mann also has houses in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere, though unlike Dame Ngaio his Northern hemisphere house is in France. Since his retirement, he has been commuting between the two and he tells me that he doesn’t do winter anymore; he spends the Southern hemisphere winter in the summer sunshine of France and the Northern hemisphere winter in the summer sun of New Zealand.

JANE: Given that here in New Mexico, we’re now getting nighttime temperatures in the 20’s, I completely sympathize with the lure of eternal summer.

What would you say characterizes Mann’s work?

ALAN: He has a reputation for creating some of the most ingenious (and truly alien) aliens ever to appear in the pages of an SF novel. I asked him about this once and he confessed that he found his inspiration in the strange and creepy creatures that he discovered lurking in rock pools.

JANE: Aliens!  Ooh.  Tell me more!

ALAN: If you like aliens, you’ll love his latest novel, The Disestablishment of Paradise. Things are going wrong on the planet of Paradise. As the name implies, once it was a paradise, but now the crops are failing and the indigenous plant life is changing in unpredictable ways. And so the powers that be make the decision to close the planet down, to cut their losses and leave the place to itself. Paradise will be disestablished.

The major strength of the novel is the wonderfully imagined world of Paradise itself. Phillip’s genius for creating alien life has never been better exemplified than in this book. There are no animals, birds, insects or fish on Paradise. All the ecological niches are filled by plants such as the ubiquitous Tattersall weed, the dangerous Michelangelo-Reaper and the fabulous Dendron Peripatetica, long thought to be extinct until the last one in existence walks dramatically onto the stage.

The sustained and consistent vision that is Paradise is beautifully imagined and it brings the whole story vividly to life.

JANE: I’ll need to keep my eyes open for this one.  Do you have a favorite Mann novel?

ALAN: My favourite of his novels is Pioneers. A long time ago, the pioneers set out from Earth to explore the universe. But now the Earth itself has undergone a huge catastrophe and the pioneers are needed back home. Angelo and Ariadne are two genetically modified characters whose job it is to rescue and retrieve the pioneers.

A bald summary like this, while it certainly defines the plot, cannot do justice to the sheer brilliance of the detail. Phillip gives us a beautiful love story, asks what it means to be human (and gives some answers!) and along the way provides poignant descriptions of a devastated Earth and a practically deserted New Zealand. It’s a hugely moving book that works on both intellectual and emotional levels. It never fails to enthrall me.

JANE: That sounds really interesting.  Does it have aliens in it?

ALAN: There are some, but they aren’t a major theme as they are in many of his other books.

JANE: You mentioned a couple of other titles last week.  Since these might be ones that our American readers would be able to find more easily, can you tell us a little about them?

ALAN: Yes, indeed. Eye of the Queen consists of selections from the diaries of Dr Marius Thorndyke, with interpolations from one of his professional colleagues. Dr Thorndyke is investigating the language and culture of the Pe-Ellians, a humanoid race with a scaly skin. Every individual has a unique pattern of scale markings. However, like terrestrial snakes, the Pe-Ellians periodically shed their skin and emerge with a transformed set of scale markings which indicate that they have moved on to a higher phase of existence (whatever that might mean). Their personality changes and they adopt a new name.

JANE: Sounds as if this would give a whole new meaning to exfoliating bath gel.    “Scrub your skin into a truly new you!”

ALAN: Not quite, though I think I might have enjoyed reading that story…

Anyway, Thorndyke learns the language and translates some Pe-Ellian poetry. As he learns more about the Pe-Ellians, he starts to suspect that the humans have had a drastic effect on the native culture. This troubles his conscience.

I remember, when I was first reading the novel, that a distinct sense of complacency started to set in. Both Thorndyke and I were certain that we understood the Pe-Ellians. On my part, I began to assume that the novel was just another one of those “aliens are just like us once you ignore the scales” stories that are so common in SF.

And then one of the Pe-Ellians did something so outrageous and so amazing that all my preconceptions were immediately destroyed, and along with Thorndyke, I began to realise that I hadn’t understood anything about the Pe-Ellians. And from that point on, the revelations came thick and fast and the sheer alieness (if that’s a word) of the Pe-Ellians just blew me away.

JANE: Oh, yum…  That is exactly my favorite sort of story with aliens.  I remember being completely disappointed with the much-hyped Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton until the dragons became uniquely dragonish.  This sounds even better.

What’s Wulfsyarn like?  Forgive me, but my immediate image was of a wolf with knitting needles, busily knitting a sweater from the wool of its most recent kill.

ALAN: Oh gosh, what an image! Excuse me, I need to go and scrub my mind…

Like Eye of the Queen, Wulfsyarn is an epistolary novel. However, in this case we learn the story from the point of view of an autoscribe whose name is Wulf.

JANE: Ah…  Image fades.  This is a “yarn” as in “tale,” not knitting.  Sad… Of course, now I’m seeing a great fluffy wolf’s tail.  You’d better tell me about the book before it mutates completely!

ALAN: Wulf tells us about the last voyage of the starship “Nightingale” and about the terrible fate that befell the ship and her captain, Jon Wilberfoss. Wulf admires Wilberfoss and wants to explain just why Wilberfoss has been left stricken by guilt and self-loathing and why he has been condemned as a heinous murderer by the masters of the Gentle Order of St. Francis Dionysos, a benevolent religious sect dedicated to rescuing alien refugees who were shattered by the devastating War of Ignorance.

JANE: Interesting.  Reminds me somewhat of Clifford Simak’s Project Pope in the integration of traditional religious structures to the future.  That, by the by, is a positive thing as I see it.

Does Wulf succeed in his goal?  I’d be curious how an automated personality might perceive human emotions.

ALAN: That’s a good parallel to draw. Does Wulf succeed? Well, it depends…

JANE: Ah…  No spoilers…  Okay.

ALAN: That’s the one!

But right now, I’m getting very bored with the letter M. C is a much more interesting letter.

JANE: C?  I’m already looking forward to next week’s chat!

Shooting the Cats

December 2, 2015

No… This isn’t going to be about murdering my feline co-residents.  It’s going to attempt to answer a question Louis asked (probably jokingly) in the Comments to last week’s Friday Fragments.  It’s also about making the most of opportunity.

Ogapoge Inspects an Invader

Ogapoge Inspects an Invader

But, before I get to those things, I want to thank everyone who dropped by Page One Books to visit during Small Business Saturday last weekend.  I very much enjoyed having a chance to just settle in and chat – something I don’t get to do enough of during typical book events or even at conventions.  I even helped a few people find books they needed – and maybe evolved an idea for a future project.

All in all, a very fine time!

Afterwards, Jim and I went out and visited a couple of other small businesses.  One of the great things about Small Business Saturday is how many of the businesses turn the day into a party.  We were offered cookies and cider at one place, and coffee and chocolate at another.  Oh!  And we bought things, too, including the super cute cat figurine by Dana Pomroy featured in this week’s photo, and some beads I hope to weave into a winter bracelet.

Now to shooting the cats… and the guinea pigs!

Last week Louis said: “…it occurs to me that you could easily devote a Wandering to getting your models to pose for the title photos for these posts. They don’t even nibble on the titles in question!”

Certainly, nibbling on the title in question is an issue, especially when working with Persephone the cat and any of the guinea pigs.  Guinea pigs divide the world into “edible and not-edible.”  Anything is potentially edible until proven otherwise, so we do need to watch carefully.  That’s why, sometimes, there’s a carrot or bit of greenery also featured…  Guinea pigs are firm believers in the saying “Lead me not into temptation.  I’ll definitely follow.”  So we don’t tempt.

Persephone, who is our youngest cat at age three and some, has had a thing for biting paper since she was a kitten.  We’re growing accustomed, if not precisely resigned, to having her bite through the edges of magazines.  Her sharp teeth often “staple” pages together.  Then, when reading an article, I need to pull the pages apart.  Persephone has a particular attraction to shiny paper, so you’ll rarely see her posing with a paperback book or magazine.  That’s simply asking too much…

We hope Persephone will outgrow this trait eventually.  Ogapoge, who is now a dignified twelve going on thirteen, also bit book covers when he was younger.  However, he no longer thinks this is cool.  We’ve tried to get him to explain this to Persephone (who thinks he’s wonderful) but so far she hasn’t gotten the message.

When searching for a model for the Friday Fragment, we first check who hasn’t been featured for a while.  We then patrol to see who looks in the mood to hold still for the camera.  However, we’ve also learned a few tricks to getting a good photo.  This is where I segue into the importance of taking advantage of opportunity… and not just for finding the right model in the right place.

Jim is definitely the photographer in the family.  I don’t think I’ve taken more than one or two pictures in the nearly twenty years we’ve been hanging out together, and those were pictures he set up in advance but needed to be in.  I really appreciate the many photos he takes for me, not only for my various social media sites, but as research references.

One day some years ago, we dropped by a camera store so he could consult about a piece of equipment he was considering buying.   I drifted (as is my wont) over to the books and magazines.  I started browsing through one about getting the best out of animals as models.  From this I picked up a few tips we still use.

 The first tip was that animals react a lot better to having their picture taken if they are used to seeing a camera pointed at them.  Otherwise, the camera (Jim prefers an actual camera, digital these days, although he does like film, not a phone or tablet) can be scary since it masks the photographer’s face.

With this in mind, Jim started going out of his way to take pictures of the animals when they were awake, not just adorably cuddled up in a basket sound asleep.  By combining this with lots of praise, our cats have come to accept that this strange practice of holding up a clicking, flashing monster is just another of the weird things that humans do.  The guinea pigs simply anticipate a treat.  They’re optimists.

Even when an animal is accustomed to being photographed, getting the model to look where you want can be a challenge.  This book recommended that the photographer have an assistant who stands where the animal should be looking and does something to attract the animal’s attention.  That’s my job.  I’m not always needed, but when necessary, I can clown with the best.

Those tips may seem like common sense, but they’d never occurred to either of us.  (That’s the way with so much “common sense,” isn’t it?)  If I’d decided to fidget or not to come along to the camera store, because cameras aren’t “my thing,” then we’d never have learned them.

Opportunity lost, because it wasn’t looked for.  That’s an important lesson, especially for writers, because it’s easy to think of research as something focused on a specific project, not as taking advantage of chance.  My experience has been that some of my best work has come from being open to opportunity.

And certainly, some of our best photos as well!