Archive for July, 2016

FF: Crazy Week

July 29, 2016

Ever have one of those weeks that seem to both race and drag?  That’s been this one for me.

I Stole Jane's Book!

I Stole What Jane’s Reading!  Hah!

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:

The Riddlemaster of Hed by Patricia McKillip.  Re-read of first book in one of my favorite fantasy series.

Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip.  (Second book in “Riddle of the Stars” series.) The first time I read this, I was shocked and somewhat disappointed when the point of view changed from Morgon to Raederle.  Now I think it was a brilliant choice.

In Progress:

Armada by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  About halfway.  I haven’t had as much time for audiobooks this past week.

Harpist in the Wind by Patricia McKillip.  Final book in “Riddle of Stars” series.

Also:

I’m not really sure.  It’s been crazy!

TT: One Book or Many?

July 28, 2016

ALAN: I’ve been thinking about books that are part of a series. I assume they are popular and sell well, because the writers keep on writing them. But from my point of view, I find that sometimes they have significant disadvantages.

JANE: What sort of disadvantages?

Disadvantaged?

Disadvantaged?

ALAN: The idea came to me with the recent publication of The Long Cosmos, the fifth (and last) novel in the Long Earth series by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett. I read and enjoyed the first book (The Long Earth), but when the second book (The Long War) came out a year or so later, I simply couldn’t get in to it.

By that time, my memory of the characters and events from the first book was vague and I didn’t really understand what was happening with the storyline. So I gave up on the series. But now that the series is complete, and on the strength of having enjoyed the first book so much, I decided to give it a second chance. I started at the beginning and read all five volumes, one after the other.

JANE: So, how did you feel about the series this time?

ALAN: I thoroughly enjoyed it! It quickly became clear to me that the reason I’d been unable to read the second book was because it was a continuation of the story from the first one. The second and subsequent books are not stand-alone novels. You really do need to know what has gone before and you need to understand the relationships between the characters. This is one massive story which just happens to have been published in five separate books. I can’t help wondering if the year or so between the publication of each book hurt the sales figures. Surely I can’t be the only reader with a bad memory? I bet a lot of other people gave up on it as well, for the same reason I did.

JANE: Certainly it’s a risk.  I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve heard someone say, “The next book in Great Series I Love is coming out.  I’m getting ready by re-reading all the ones before.”

Probably the most extreme variation on this I ever encountered was a very nice young hairdresser who, when she learned I wrote Fantasy and SF, happily told me she read Fantasy.  She read Terry Brooks.  Only Terry Brooks and, if I remember correctly, only one of his series.  When she finished the newest installment, she’d go back and re-read the others until a new one came out.

ALAN: I can’t imagine doing that. There are so many books that I haven’t read yet. I do re-read old favourites occasionally, but by and large I’d much rather read something new.

JANE: Oh, I’m an avid re-reader, but I can’t imagine limiting myself to one author, much less one series.

I’ve been thinking about the word “series.”  It seems to me that – as with so many other terms – “series” embraces a great deal of variation within the form.

There are the series that are loosely linked by continuing character or characters.  Other than this, there is very little continuity – and sometimes a great deal of contradiction.  Many older mysteries – including a perennial favorite of mine, those by Agatha Christie – fall into this category.

ALAN: Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books are like that. You can read the books in any order (and with some of them you can read the individual chapters in any order as well). They are full of deliberate contradictions, and that’s a large part of their charm. I’m very fond of them.

JANE: These “deliberate contradictions” may be why I’ve always found those books so confusing!

In addition to loosely linked series, there’s the sort of series you mentioned above, where the story may be broken into parts, but it’s really all one book.  Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” was actually written as one book, and only broken into three because, at the time Tolkien was writing, the genre fiction market was not set up to handle a book of that length.  It’s odd to realize that if Tolkien were writing today there might be a single fat Fantasy novel called Lord of the Rings.

ALAN: It has actually been published in that form. I once possessed a gigantic paperback that contained all three books, and I’ve seen a hardback edition as well. It was big and heavy and you certainly wouldn’t want to drop it on your toe.

JANE: Interesting!   Was this Tolkien’s original manuscript, or a compilation of the three novels?  I’m curious because I’ve always wondered how much revising Tolkien did when he learned he had to break his opus into three.

ALAN: It was just a compilation of the three novels. If you are interested in Tolkien’s original manuscripts and revisions, you should seek out the analytical books his son Christopher published after his father died. These contain multiple drafts and much scholarly commentary.

JANE: Thanks for letting me know…  Maybe when I retire.

As you mentioned above, an author is taking a huge risk with the “It’s Really One Book” series.  However, if the readership is addicted to some aspect of the series, the hiatus between books can whet the readership’s appetite for more.

ALAN: That, of course, assumes that there always will be more. Sometimes there isn’t. Robert Jordan died before he could finish The Wheel of Time. I understand that it was finished by Brandon Sanderson, and I’m sure he did an excellent job. But it’s not the same as having the series completed by the original author…

It works the other way round as well. Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who was the first person to climb Mount Everest, was a fan of The Wheel of Time. But Sir Edmund died before the series was complete. I’m sure he must have found that quite frustrating.

JANE: Although I have never read “The Wheel of Time,” I’ve had the pleasure of being on several panels with Brandon Sanderson, including one specifically on writing series.  By the time Sanderson was commissioned to complete the series, it was very long with a huge cast of characters, and a considerable amount of backstory.

The first decision that had to be made was who would be the audience for the books he would be writing: readers in general or fans of the series.  The decision was made to write for the existing fans of the series.   I think this was a wise choice, because otherwise each book would have needed to devote more and more space to recapping what went before.

ALAN: I’ve not read the series, but I do know that it is very, very long. I doubt that a casual reader would be likely to choose a book from late in the series as their introduction to it. So I’m sure the decision to write it for the existing fans was the correct one.

JANE: There’s certainly a lot more to say about series, both from the point of view of the reader and that of the writer.  I have a great idea.  Why don’t we turn this Tangent into a series?

ALAN: That’s an excellent suggestion. Let’s do it!

Whatcha Re-Read?

July 27, 2016

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve read two Patricia McKillip works I hadn’t read before, the novel Kingfisher and the short story collection, Wonders of the Invisible World.

Places and People to Revisit

Places and People to Revisit

While I found much in both books to like, re-reading them made me crave the opportunity to re-read McKillip’s “Riddle of Stars” series (The Riddlemaster of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind).  Therefore, I pulled out an omnibus edition and happily re-entered the kitchen at Akren where Morgon and his siblings were in spirited debate.

As I slid into the story, I found myself thinking how very odd it is that reading may just be the only hobby related to an art form where people question or apologize for the desire to revisit a work of art.

I’ve heard some variation of the following so many times: “I know I have a lot of new books on my to-be-read shelf, but I just wanted to re-read this one.”  What’s very odd is I hear this even from those who read enough new material that they certainly shouldn’t feel a need to justify their choice.

No one would ever say this about repeatedly listening to an album, nor would anyone ever say “But why are you doing that?  You know all the songs by heart!”   Indeed, with music, most people seem impressed when someone knows all the songs by an artist, including the correct lyrics.  Equally, no one questions leaving the same painting or drawing on the wall for years and years.

Do viewers get criticized for re-watching a favorite show?  Movie-goers seem to get praised, rather than otherwise, for having seen the same film ten or twenty times.  In both cases, re-watching seems to be regarded as proof of their devotion, rather than otherwise.

So, why is re-reading viewed differently?  Why is the re-reader regarded as lazy or seeking a “comfort zone,” when repeated listening or viewing is considered admirable?

I have no idea.  All I know is that the reasons I re-read are many and varied.

How about the oft-mentioned and oft-disregarded “comfort” element?  Although I rarely re-read to put myself in a comfort zone, during a few very stressful periods of my life, I’ve certainly done so.  However, actually, I find reading something new is just as able of bestowing comfort, because the twists of an unfamiliar plot can distract me sufficiently that, for a time, I’m not capable of thinking about whatever is stressing me.

During the worst period of my life, immediately after the death of Roger Zelazny – with whom I was living, and with whom I was beside when he died, (if you’ve missed that long-ago chapter of my biography) –  I read extensively and obsessively.  But I didn’t re-read.  I read new works, including, most memorably, a huge number of Terry Pratchett novels.

One reason I re-read is because the first time through a book I tend to read as quickly as possible, since I’m caught up in finding out what happened.  For the plot to hold my attention, I need to care about the characters.  But rather than slowing me down, my interest in the characters makes me read even faster.  This isn’t to say that I’m not aware of style or other details, but I’m not as analytic.  Re-reading gives me a chance to appreciate how the story was told, to savor the little elements of characterization or setting that made the story grab my soul and hold tight.  This is a good thing for a reader who is also a writer.

Another reason I re-read is that I’ve fallen in love with some aspect or aspects of the story.  Sometimes these are characters.  More rarely it’s the setting.  In the best books, it’s both.  For example, I love the impossible, richly historical, twisted and convoluted setting Patricia McKillip put together for the “Riddle of Stars” series, but I also love many of the (equally impossible, twisted and convoluted) characters.  As a writer, I appreciate how, in McKillip’s work, the bizarre and outré are gloriously rooted in those characters and places that are completely normal.

Yum.

There are many other books – both series and individual novels – that I have re-read over the years.  Although I buy fewer books than I’d like (Jim and I and the animals need to be able to move through the house), those that I do buy are the ones I know I’ll be re-reading somewhere down the road – and that I don’t want to take the risk of being unavailable when I want to do so.  On my short list for purchase right now are the four volumes of Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Cycle.”

So, do you re-read?  If so, what do you re-read?  Why do you re-read?

FF: Light Monsoons

July 22, 2016

Weather still topping a hundred, but 101 is better than 106.  And we had almost one tenth of an inch of rain between Sunday and this writing…  Maybe the monsoons will establish after all.

Kel Chills with Chi

Kel Chills with Chi

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:

Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip.  Short story collection.  I really liked several of the stories  very much.  Found myself thinking Knight of the Well could have been a good novel, although it was a perfectly dandy novella.

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson.  (“Mistborn” Book 1.)  Audiobook.

Kamisama Kiss by Julietta Suzuki.  Manga. Volumes 10-15.  Translation is a funny thing…  The Japanese title is Kamisama Hajimemashita, which apparently translates more accurately as “I Became [a] God” – a transformation that is much more likely within polytheistic Shinto tradition.  I can see why the English translators went for something lighter, fluffier, and with a romance element, rather than risking offending potential readers.

The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata.  Manga.  Tale of a lost kitten told from the kitten’s point of view.  Translators decided to have Chi’s thoughts be in a sort of hypercute babytalk. (Ex. “gweat” rather than “great”).  Nonetheless, this completely won me over.  Chi is a very believable kitten.

In Progress:

The Riddlemaster of Hed by Patricia McKillip.  First book in one of my favorite fantasy series.  Time for a re-read.

Armada by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  Just started.

Also:

Research, research, research…

TT: Eating it Cold

July 21, 2016

JANE:  A couple of years ago, eating ice became a major trend.  I remember reading about it in The Wall Street Journal, which noted that ice-eating aficionados even preferred ice from certain vendors.

A Refreshing Repast

A Refreshing Repast

One chain’s ice was so popular that they had to start charging for it, because so many people were coming in and helping themselves to large cups of ice without making a purchase.  Turns out that the fans of their ice were perfectly willing to pay for it by the five or ten pound bag.

ALAN: Now that’s just weird. I’ve never heard of the ice-eating habit. Tell me more.

JANE: Gladly!  At the time, I thought this was pretty funny because, when I was in college, there was an urban legend that chewing ice was an indication of sexual frustration…

ALAN: (Sounding smug). Maybe that’s the reason I’ve never felt any urge to eat ice.

JANE: No comment!

Ice eating reached a peak in 2014, when the “ice eating diet” was the newest dieting fad.  Ice, of course, has no calories.  However, eating ice was supposed to have the added benefit of forcing the body to burn calories, because the ice lowered your body temperature.

ALAN: I’m not convinced by that argument.

JANE: Nor were many other people…  If you’re interested, you can read a variety of studies, including ones where people went to the trouble of estimating how much ice you would need to eat in order to sufficiently influence your body temperature.

Given that you can also damage your teeth by eating ice, it’s hardly worth taking up the habit, even if you might lose a few pounds.

Did you know that ice eating may be an indication of a serious health problem?

ALAN: What could possibly be more serious than sexual frustration?

JANE: I thought you had no familiarity with that…

ALAN: I speak purely in a spirit of scientific curiosity!

JANE: Actually, ice eating has been associated with a condition called iron deficiency anemia.  The reason that people with this condition acquire a craving for chewing ice is unclear but, apparently, there can be a connection.

ALAN: That’s a very odd symptom for something so potentially serious. My mother once told me that in England in the 1950s, nursing mothers could get Guinness on prescription as a dietary supplement to try and combat anemia. I would imagine that made it almost worthwhile to have children…

JANE: Indeed!  I’m not a beer drinker, but I’ve always thought that Guinness has a much richer aroma than many other beers.  Certainly, that makes it a health food.

ALAN: Anyway, getting back to ice – New Zealanders and Australians are very fond of having picnics on the beach during summer. Traditionally picnickers take wickerwork picnic baskets with them on such occasions. However, picnic baskets have no mechanisms for keeping the food and drink cold. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen a traditional wickerwork picnic basket in real life – I only know them from illustrations in books…

Anyway, we have sealed plastic units with a blue liquid inside them which we keep in the freezer. At picnic time, we put them into insulated containers together with the food and drink that we intend to consume during the day. The cheaper containers are generally made of polystyrene; more expensive ones are made from polyurethane plastic.

New Zealanders call these containers “chilly bins” which seems a very sensible and descriptive name to me. However Australians call them “eskis.” (I don’t know the derivation, though perhaps it has something to do with Eskimos.) Do you do this and if so do you have a special name for the things you keep your food and drink in?

JANE: Wicker picnic baskets are still common here, probably because they’re so attractive.

I looked on-line and came to the conclusion that what you call a “chilly bin” is what we’d call a “cooler” – short for “insulated cooler.”  They’ve been around forever and ever.  Originally, coolers were made from metal.  My family had one that was so heavy it took two people to carry when full.  Jim and I still have a (much lighter) metal cooler, as well as several plastic ones.

ALAN: “Cooler” sounds like a very sensible name as well. So that really leaves the oddly named Australian eski out in the cold. So to speak…

JANE: Ouch!  What is it about ice and cold that lends itself to jokes?

ALAN: I think we’re just eavesdropping on the conversations the chattering teeth are having…

Of course you don’t want to pack a huge chilly bin if all you are doing is taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party. I have some flexible cylindrical plastic units with liquid inside. Again, these live in the freezer and, just before we leave the house, I wrap them round the wine bottles to keep the wine cool on the journey.

JANE: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen something like those here as well.  They do seem like a good idea.

ALAN: I also used to have some sealed plastic “ice cubes” full of light emitting diodes which flashed red, green and blue until their batteries ran out. They didn’t cool anything at all, but they looked hugely effective when you put them in your drinks at parties. However, because they were a completely sealed unit, the batteries could not be replaced, so once the cubes stopped flashing, they had to be thrown away.

JANE: They may not have cooled your drink, but nevertheless I bet they looked very cool!

Another wonderful advance in freezing technology is the wide variety of packs and wraps that make it a lot easier to chill specific body parts.  Unsurprisingly, a long archeological career has not been kind to Jim’s knees.  A few years ago, he found gel-filled wraps that he can freeze and then fasten around his knee.  This is a whole lot more convenient than trying to keep an ice bag balanced.

ALAN: Or a bag of frozen peas. When I broke my ankle a few years ago, the frozen peas proved very effective, though quite awkward to balance.

JANE: And afterwards, you must eat the peas.  You can’t refreeze to use again later.

A few years ago, when I developed a severe case of plantar fasciitis, we discovered that these same wraps are perfect for cooling my feet.  I can rest my feet on them and the frozen gel shapes to the contours of my feet.  Bliss!

ALAN: At the moment it’s the middle of winter here and all this talk about ice is having a bad effect on me. I think I’ll go and huddle in front of a heater with my dog for a while. I’ll talk to you again next week when my fingers have unfrozen themselves.

My Story Challenge

July 20, 2016

Last week, my writing was centered around a self-imposed story challenge.

Forever Secret

Forever Secret

Some years ago, I bought some beads with words printed on them.  I always meant to write something using them.  However, other projects got in the way.  Eventually, the beads ended up forgotten at the bottom of one of my boxes.  Not long ago, while looking for something else entirely, I rediscovered them.  Since I’ve been in experimental writing mode lately, the idea rekindled and caught fire.

First I sorted the beads, then shifted them around into sample sentences.  Immediately, I found a problem.  Although the set had some interesting words, it was remarkably short of articles.  It is almost impossible to write anything vaguely grammatical without “a” and “the.”

Jim suggested we try Michael’s craft store.  There I found another set of word beads, not only on the same scale, but even printed in a similar font.  This set proved to have the articles I lacked, as well as some useful conjunctions and prepositions.

As I re-sorted, I discovered a new, very interesting, problem.  Even with two sets to choose between, there were almost no words that could be used for conflict situations.

“Love” and “peace” appeared repeatedly, but not “hate” or “war.”  “Believe,” “always,” and “forever” showed up on numerous beads, but not “doubt” or “never.”  “Friend” was very popular, but not any word that could be construed as “Foe.”  “Kiss” and “flirt” were in the assortment, but not “slap” or “shun.”

There was one “not,” but that’s not a lot to build on.

As I’ve written elsewhere, conflict is one of the elements that separates a full story from a descriptive vignette.  Moreover, I was determined that I wouldn’t take the easy way out and write a romance story.  I would write something more demanding.

In addition to the words mentioned above, there were a smattering of nouns, among them princess, sun, star, dancer, girl, boy, secret, song.   The verbs were equally limited: learn, run, sing, and dream, for example.  The verb “to be” was mostly represented by “is” and “am.”  Of course, some words could be used as either noun or verb: love, dream, and flirt immediately came to mind.

Making the challenge even more interesting was that some of the most dynamic words only occurred once: magic, power, pure, wild, true, student, tough.  Since I was resolved to use only those words for which I had beads and only as often as I had beads, this meant I’d need to do some careful placing.

A friend to whom I mentioned my project suggested that I search on-line for more word beads, in that way expanding my available vocabulary.  I agreed that finding more beads would probably be possible.  However, I felt that doing this would transform a story-writing challenge into a bead-finding challenge.  Instead, I sat down with my sorted beads and started shuffling.

I lacked any proper nouns, so decided on a first person narrator.  Homer and Whitman gave me inspiration for using the verb “sing” to mean “tell” or even “celebrate,” and I was off.  Mostly I avoided the temptation to fall into the much easier form of free verse, although I did allow myself two short lines, a total of eight words.  Since I have included free verse within other of my prose pieces, I didn’t think that was cheating.

Punctuation was not included in either of the bead sets.  I considered leaving it out, but decided it was necessary for controlling the flow.  Therefore, I pulled out my Sharpie markers and added commas, periods, and one exclamation point.   I debated whether to capitalize as well, since none of the beads other than “I” contained capital letters, but decided that would change the sense of the beads I’d had to work with.

The end result was a six paragraph, 166 word narrative.  Originally, I’d planned to sew it onto a piece of felt, but the holes in the beads were not evenly drilled.  Instead, I purchased a piece of craft foam and glued down the beads.  As a flourish, I decided to follow in the tradition of medieval scribes and illuminate my manuscript using faux gemstones.

Here, for your amusement, is “forever secret.”  While I’ve preserved the lowercase element, I have not preserved the line breaks, since they were less a part of the composition, more necessitated by “typesetting” considerations.

“forever secret”

I will sing to you of my best friends & me.  she is a divine star princess, always laughing.  he is the crazy cool sky dance.  I am the wishful student of love and dreams.

I am learning to live out of time with my best friends.  together, boy, girl, & I flirt with learning to make special, secret power. it is tough, but I believe.

go!

run to the sun/dance on a secret/love to be wild/sport a beautiful smile.  now give loud sweet singing from the heart, not perfect, but strong & gentle, happy and sad.

when the happy princess lets in starshine, the dancer laughs like crazy & dances a wish, and I sing lovely dreamsongs from out of time.  she, he, & I learn to make dreamtime peaceful & sweetly true.

imagine kissing the great future.  see us being a pretty cool team.  she, he, & I have the best bright dream forever, & now & forever are pure magic.

Hope you enjoyed!

FF: Summer Reading

July 15, 2016

Weather still topping a hundred!  And I’m still reading.

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.

Ogapoge Chills with McKillip

Ogapoge Chills with McKillip

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:

Onion Girl by Charles De Lint. Audiobook.  A gritty, even bitter, tale.  Excellent audiobook reader.

The Forgotten Sisters  (Princess Academy Book 3) by Shannon Hale.  I enjoyed.  However, Miri seems to have an emotional “reset” button in each book.  I’d like her to develop more.

In Progress:

Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip.  Short story collection.  Reading before bed.  Gives interesting dreams.

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson.  (“Mistborn” Book 1.)  Audiobook.

Kamisama Kiss by Julietta Suzuki.  Manga.  Neat use of Japanese supernatural elements.

Also:

Still catching up on magazines.

TT: Ice Is Nice!

July 14, 2016

JANE: So, Alan, I promised you more about ice cubes.  Here you are.

Ice cube making experienced its first revolution when I was a kid.  My first memories of ice cube trays are of cumbersome aluminum things with removable dividers.

Trays Cool

Trays Cool

One filled the tray with water, put the divider in, and set it to freeze.  Theoretically, when the water had frozen, you were supposed to pull a lever in the center of the divider and the cubes would pop free.  This rarely happened (often because the water in the tray had expanded while freezing and jammed the lever).  Therefore, one would end up running water over the tray to loosen the ice enough to raise the lever or break the cubes free.

ALAN: That’s right! I remember now. We had those same aluminium trays. Sometimes you had to run so much water over them that the ice you retrieved hardly seemed to be worth the effort.

JANE: Those are the ones!

When the first plastic ice cube trays came in, we adopted them with enthusiasm.  Not only did they stack better than the metal ones had done (that lever often got in the way) but since the plastic was slightly flexible, you could give the tray a twist and the cubes would pop free.  Occasionally, one might need to run a little water over the bottom of the tray to help this along but, even so, it was a vast improvement.

A variation on this sort of tray is what Jim and I use today.

ALAN: That’s what we’ve got as well. Interestingly ours have two different designs. One makes ice in the traditional cubic shape and the other makes triangular ice, a bit like a slice of pie. I much prefer the triangular ice cubes (it sounds silly to call a wedge shape a cube, but that’s how I think of them) because the tray flexes much more easily than the cubical tray does, and so it’s easier to get the ice out. I’m sure that’s because of the differently shaped ice.

Fortunately, both shapes cool the drinks equally well…

JANE: I’ve never seen a tray for the wedge-cube.  I’ll need to look for one.

These days, many Americans don’t use ice cube trays at all.  Instead, they rely on built-in ice cube makers on the front of their refrigerator/freezer units.  These supply both chilled water and ice.  Since the door to the unit doesn’t need to be opened, these devices are considered energy saving.  However, since they are also the part of the unit most likely to break, I’m not sure how cost effective they really are.

Given what you claim is a British aversion to ice, do you guys have automatic ice makers there?

ALAN: I’ve no idea what happens in the UK (remember I haven’t lived there for more than thirty years) but certainly fridges with built in ice makers do exist in New Zealand. They tend to be quite expensive. When we moved to our new house, we bought a new fridge.  We considered getting one with an automatic ice maker, but we couldn’t really justify the extra few hundred dollars so, in the end, we just went for an ordinary fridge-freezer. We have four ice trays in the ice making compartment. Four! Luxury!

JANE: Four is what we typically have in our freezer, too!  Gee, we’re really in sync.

There’s been an amusing new technological development that may threaten the primacy of the built-in ice cube maker – at least for those who like to entertain in style.  This is the silicon ice cube tray.  Have you seen them?

ALAN: I don’t think so. Tell me more.

JANE:  Okay.  These are really very nifty.  (I was going to say “cool,” but feared I’d be accused of punning.)

Instead of being limited to ice cubes in the shape of rectangles, these trays make ice “cubes” in various interesting shapes.  One of the most common is hearts (for Valentine’s Day, romantic dinners, or weddings), but I’ve seen smiley faces, fish, shamrocks, and even shark fins.

ALAN: Ah, those! Yes – we got given one as a present. It makes ice in the shape of Pac-Man sprites. However, we put it away in a drawer and forgot about it because the individual Pac-Man ice shapes were far too small to be useful.

JANE:  I have noticed that many of these “cubes” do seem to be smaller.

Another newly popular trend is for reusable ice cubes.  These are liquid-filled plastic shapes that can be refrozen repeatedly.   Spheres seem to be the most common shape, but I recall seeing a mixed fruit assortment and, I think, stars.

The obvious advantage to these is that they will cool a drink without diluting it.  This makes me wonder – maybe the British aversion is not to ice, but to diluting perfectly good spirits!

ALAN: Well indeed. Why would you want to dilute them? Mind you I’m talking from ignorance here. I seldom drink spirits apart from the very occasional post-prandial brandy. And anybody who chills brandy is a barbarian!

JANE: I do know that single malt whisky is supposed to be slightly diluted, because this releases the “esters,” whatever those are.  Jim puts in a cube or so of ice, but many people simply add a little water.

ALAN: A friend of mine who is a whisky drinker always puts in a few drops of water for that very reason, so I suppose that it must be effective.

We used to have some of those solid shapes, but eventually I threw them away. They were long skinny things which I think were supposed to be used as swizzle sticks, stirring and cooling at one and the same time. But they kept falling through the holes in the freezer trays (our freezer trays are a wire mesh design) and that annoyed me.

JANE: That would annoy me, too!

There’s another trend related to ice I want to tell you about,  but I think I need a tall glass something cold with lots of ice.  How about next time?

Luck of the Dice

July 13, 2016

Warning… This one is going to wander a lot!  But, in some sense, it’s a direct sequel to last week’s discussion of jinxes.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a gamer.  Although I certainly play computer games, my favorite form remains the pen and ink, dice rolling, role-playing games (hereafter RPGs) that I’ve been playing in one form or another since I was a freshman in college.

Random Luck Generators

Random Luck Generators

(My preferred system for those of you who wonder about these things is GURPs, Third Edition, but I’ve played most of the standards.  My preference is for skill-based, not character class-based, systems.)

I’ve played diceless RPGs.  Erick Wujcik, who promoted diceless RPG’s in a role-playing game set in Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” multiverse, was a friend.  I have many fond memories of the times I played diceless games with him.  Heck, I’ve even run a couple, including a memorable one where my husband, Jim, and our friend Walter Jon Williams, played ravens.

But, in the end, I prefer using dice. For one, rolling dice provides an unbiased moderator for action – especially in those critical situations where a character’s life is on the line.  In these circumstances, the dice provide a buffer between the player and the game master.

Let’s face it, it’s never fun to have a treasured character severely injured or even killed, but it’s easier to take when luck simply wasn’t on the player’s side.

But there’s another reason I enjoy using dice in my RPGs.  This may sound crazy, but sometimes Luck seems to manifest through these polyhedral avatars, stepping in to become another character in the game.

For this reason, gamers may be among the most superstitious people in the modern world.  In my gaming group, Tori is known for her above average success rate.  Let me just clarify for all of you who are wondering if  Tori sets her dice or if her dice are in some way worn or deformed; the luck holds even when she’s rolling someone else’s dice.  It holds if she needs to roll high – as for damage – or low, which is what is needed for a success in GURPS.  Therefore, when Tori rolls poorly or – worse – fumbles, the impact vibrates through the story.

Rowan, by contrast, has a much lower than average success rate.  Except for one area…  Ask her to roll for anything to do with attracting romantic attention and her dice will be off the charts.  Her character, Olive, has had more romantic entanglements than the rest of the group combined.  Many of these were not part of my initial story.  People just fall for Olive.  Clearly, Olive is lucky in love, if not elsewhere.

Then there are players who roll right within the normal curve except for one particular skill.  Walter Jon Williams had a character who, if he had to climb, would fall.  Walter kept raising the level of the skill, but it didn’t matter.   Ed would still fall.  Or there’s Dominique’s character, the lady knight, Persephone, who, when combat demands that she roll for a random hit location, will nearly always roll eleven.  Eleven or “The Eleven,” as it has been dubbed by my group, is low on the torso.  Very low, if you get my drift…

Superstition begets more superstition…  Most gamers have far more dice than they would seem to need.  This is not just because dice can be very pretty…  It’s because if a set of dice goes “bad,” it needs to be retired and a new set chosen.  A regular background refrain during a heated battle is something like “Well, that’s it for you.  You’re out!”  Or sometimes, in really desperate situations, “Tori, can I borrow a couple of dice?”

As an aside…  Early in our history of gaming together, Tori gifted me with a pair of her spare dice.  Honored, I added in one of my own hoard, and made the “Tori dice” my dice of choice when gaming.  They do seem to have retained some of their giver’s luck.  Tori has been known to say, in a voice both deep and glum, “Worst gift I ever gave…”

When we were discussing dice and dice luck at our last game – a conversation that evolved out of my WW on jinxes – Cale confessed that when someone in the group’s dice seemed completely out of whack it was “not unknown for them to be subjected to salt purification.”  Salt, you see, has a reputation for neutralizing psychic energy.

(At this point, I should probably mention that my gamers are not the maladjusted troglodyte nerds so beloved of the mass media.  They are lovely, socially adept young adults — or in Jim’s case, older adult – most of whom hold advanced degrees – the majority of which are in the biological sciences, although Rowan is a paralegal who shares my love for Lit, while Cale is a multi-lingual sign language translator.)

During our discussion, my gamers also told me about a new ritual for making dice “behave.”  This is called dice shaming.  “Shaming,” as you may know, has a long tradition as a form of social control.  Remember what poor Hester went through in The Scarlet Letter?  That’s shaming.

Apparently, someone with a sense of humor updated the tradition to apply to dogs who were photographed with a picture of the pillow they’d torn up or the shoe they’d chewed, with said picture posted to the internet.

From there, it wasn’t much of a jump to shaming the dice that had let you down…

So there’s another example of how superstition is alive and well in the twenty-first century!

FF: Hot Weather, Cool Reads

July 8, 2016

The weather keeps topping a hundred, but I can escape into a good book.

Hot Weather, Long Fur

Hot Weather, Long Fur

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:

Negima! Magister Magi by Ken Akamatsu.  Manga, volumes 24-30.  (I’d read the first 23 of these, then a gap in library holdings caused me to stop.)  Complicated story proves that additional information sometimes complicates matters, rather than simplifying!

In Progress:

Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip.  Short story collection.  Reading before bed.  Gives interesting dreams.

Onion Girl by Charles De Lint. Audiobook.  A gritty, even bitter, tale.  Excellent audiobook reader.

The Forgotten Sisters  (Princess Academy Book 3) by Shannon Hale.  Once again, Ms. Hale builds a believable political backdrop for her novel.  More than anything, Miri wants to go home.  But if she doesn’t do what the king demands, she may not have a home to go back to.

Also:

Archeology magazine.  An article on a recently discovered Scythian treasure hoard both delighted and annoyed me – and showed once again how often people don’t see what’s right in front of them because they superimpose their own preconceptions.