Happy Holidays

It’s warm summer weather here in Wellington, with the pōhutukawa trees (also known as the Kiwi Christmas trees) in full bloom.

I don’t expect to be posting as regularly for the next couple of months—I’ve been working too hard, and want to relax a bit and enjoy the fine weather while it lasts. So, for now, I wish everyone reading my blog a safe and happy holiday season, whatever holiday it is you celebrate.

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Turning over a new Leaf

I’ve turned over a new Leaf, and will no longer be burning fossil fuels on my daily trek to work.

To be accurate, my all-electric Nissan Leaf is not new; it’s a 2014 model with 40,000 km on the odometer, but it’s new to me, and I’m enjoying it. It’s fun to drive. Due to technology limitations and trade-offs between battery weight and range, older electric cars had a reputation for being a bit pokey, but that’s no longer true. If you don’t believe it, watch this video of the first electric car to win the Pikes Peak Hill Climb (2015). Don’t watch if you’re prone to motion sickness. (I’ve been up Pikes Peak, by the way. That road gave me the willies even at a crawl.)

The car in that race was a one-of-a-kind, to be sure, but these days high-end electric cars perform as well as high-end conventional cars. My family sedan isn’t a Tesla, but when I stomp on the accelerator, it moves. It’s got more than enough pep for a commuter car, and it sails right on up Tinakori hill, at the end of my homeward journey, with much less obvious effort than my old car did.

Electric vehicles (EVs) may be pricier up front, but are less expensive to run, especially when you factor in lower maintenance costs from fewer moving parts. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that even in the U.S., where gasoline is cheaper than the global average[1], EVs are a good economic choice as well as being better for the environment. As the cost of solar power continues to drop, battery technology continues to improve, and as more EVs become available, the cost of ownership will keep doing down. Here in New Zealand, where most of our electricity comes from renewable sources, the choice will soon be a no-brainer. EVs are the future.

[1] Fuel prices: at around 2 NZD per litre for petrol (gasoline) here in Wellington, and an exchange rate of 1.00 NZD == 0.70 USD, that’s about $5.30 US per gallon. The current global average is about 1.10 USD per litre.

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Gaudy Night

I’ve already written about Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but Gaudy Night, the penultimate book in the series, deserves a post of its own. Gaudy Night does not conform to genre conventions. Yes, it is a mystery, but it is also much, much more: a literary novel containing a story of a woman coming to terms with both her past and her future, a reflection on a writer’s role in giving life to fictional characters, and one of the best romances I’ve ever read, between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane.

Although Lord Peter appears in it, it’s really Harriet’s story. Returning to her alma mater at Oxford for an alumnae reunion (the titular Gaudy Night), Harriet is apprehensive about how she will be received. She has, after all, in the years since she graduated, been on trial for murder and had her scandalous personal life splashed across the tabloid headlines. (Remember that in the 1930s an unmarried woman living with a man would be a social outcast.) On her arrival, she is surprised to find that the dons (the teachers) are glad to see her. Shortly afterwards, when a nasty prankster with a poison pen begins making trouble at the college, they ask for her help. Harriet returns and takes up residence, ostensibly doing research for a book, but really to nose out trouble. She turns to Lord Peter for help as the malicious behaviour escalates, and she herself is attacked with murderous intent.

Anyone looking for a fast-paced thriller with lots of gore, forget it, and if you value plot over character development, this probably isn’t for you either. By modern crime novel standards, Gaudy Night is slow-moving and almost non-violent. One character is driven to attempt suicide and Harriet is injured, but no one dies.

Personally, I remember characters, not plots. If a writer’s work doesn’t include memorable characters, I won’t be back for more, no matter how intricate or surprising the plot is, but this book is one I have reread several times. Part of the appeal, particularly for aspiring writers, is watching Harriet struggle to bring her fictional characters to life, to make them well-rounded, believable human beings. Harriet Vane can be seen as Sayers’ alter ego, wrestling with the same problems Sayers wrestled with, and, we might hope, succeeding as well as Sayers did.

Audience: Teen and up. No sex, minimal violence.

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Reality Intrusions

This has been a spectacular week.

First my car broke down. The muffler fell off on Evans Bay Parade on my way to work, the battery died and needed a jump start, and the mechanic said it wasn’t worth replacing the muffler since the car would fail its WoF (Warrant of Fitness) inspection, due in December. Fixing the rust problems would cost more than the car was worth. My husband had been saying we were going to have to replace it; I just hadn’t wanted to recognise it had become so urgent. But then, you never do, do you?

Then the plumber we called in to deal with our drainage problems said they’d have to cut a trench across our patio to dig up and replace the decades-old crumbling clay sewer pipe.

And finally, we got to bed this morning (Saturday) at 4am, after having spent the previous eight hours of Friday night in the emergency room of Wellington Hospital. (We’re all fine now, if rather sleep-deprived.)

None of this has helped keep my writing on schedule…

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Dorothy L Sayers

Dorothy L Sayers is the writer most responsible for my ongoing love affair with British mystery novels. Her primary protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey, may not be my favourite fictional detective—Brother Cadfael wins that honour—but he runs a close second. Written between the two World Wars, the dozen or so novels plus a number of short stories featuring him were set contemporaneously in the UK. The cultural backdrop would have been familiar to Sayers’ initial audience, but was far enough removed in both space and time to fascinate me, when I first encountered them as an American teenager in the 1970s. I enjoy these books as mysteries, but as novels of manners and windows into the world of the British upper classes in interwar period, I enjoy them even more.

Lord Peter is, like some other fictional meddlers, sufficiently well off he can afford to be an amateur detective. He has a good working relationship with the police, but solves mysteries for his own amusement or when called on by friends or family. (His brother, the fictional Duke of Denver, is accused of murder in Clouds of Witness.) Lord Peter hides a sharp mind behind a silly, Bertie Wooster-like persona. He is, perhaps, an upper-class British counterpart to Columbo, lulling the suspects into complacency by his bumbling manner.

Sayers’ prose is rich, polished, and full of understated humour. She is a highly literate and intelligent writer, who trusts her readers to be literate and intelligent, too, and she doesn’t deal in plot-induced stupidity—a trait that in my household often earns a book a quick trip to the giveaway box by the back door. Her plots are intricate and detailed, although perhaps a bit too detailed sometimes; The Five Red Herrings gets too bogged down in train schedule minutia to be interesting. Aside from that lapse, the plots are generally good, but plots are not generally what I get excited about. Character-driven novels thrill me more, and characterization is Sayers’ strength.

One aspect of the books I most appreciate is seeing how she develops as a writer over the course of a decade and a half. I’m not fond of the first novel, Whose Body? It’s a fairly standard mystery, and Lord Peter is a rather shallow character, coming across as too supercilious and artificial, with affected speech patterns that quickly become irritating. As the series progresses, she tones that aspect down, and adds emotional depth to him, particularly after Harriet Vane enters the picture in Strong Poison. The characterizations are better in Strong Poison, by Gaudy Night they are excellent. The last few—The Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon—are stories I still enjoy, decades after first reading them, and it doesn’t matter that I already know who did it. Other readers enjoy them, too; The Nine Tailors was on the Crime Writers’ Association’s shortlist for their 2013 poll for best ever crime novel.

If you haven’t read any of Sayers’ books, start with Strong Poison, the short stories in the collection Lord Peter, or The Nine Tailors. Go back and read the earlier ones only if, like me, you get hooked.

Audience: teens and up. No sex, bad language, or gore, and minimal off-screen violence.

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Answers breed more questions

We made a short trip down to the South Island last weekend, and started off with a question: how do we get from Christchurch to Picton, with Highway 1 still out of commission after last year’s earthquake? The standard answer is to swing out to the west via Lewis Pass, drive up Route 65, and head back east via Route 63 along the Upper Buller River. Our answer was to go a little further west, through Reefton, almost on the west coast. It was a bit off the beaten path, but it’s a nice drive up the Buller Gorge, and we had the road to ourselves on Sunday morning, until we rejoined the main flow of traffic near Murchison.

This is where we stayed Saturday night, in part of the Alfresco Historic Villas B&B:

It’s not a great picture—it was early morning, and the sun hadn’t yet peaked over the tops of the mountains—but this house had character, with stained glass panel in some of the windows, polished wood railings on the staircase, and fireplaces in the bedrooms. There was more fodder for the imagination here than in the typical anonymous motel room, and I find myself wondering about the people who built the house. Who were they? What were they like? And what would they have thought of the guests passing through their house a hundred years later?

They were clearly well off; did they make their money in the Reefton gold rush in the 1870’s? The house is across the street from a small building labeled “School of Mines”; was the first owner a miner, or a merchant supplying the miners, or something else? Were they natives or immigrants? Odds are, at that time, they were immigrants from the UK. Did New Zealand live up to their expectations? Were they happy here?

What stories would they have told about Reefton’s early years? If a writer makes up stories about them, will the stories be wildly off the mark exaggerations of ordinary, mundane lives, or would they pale in comparison to the stories the inhabitants could tell of adventures at sea or upheavals in this rugged wilderness?

I’ll probably never know. For every historical character whose life is recorded, there are millions of others whose stories are lost, or not widely disseminated. That doesn’t mean the stories aren’t worth telling.

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Rivers of London

In the first chapter of Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, probationary constable Peter Grant of the Metropolitan Police Service tries to take a witness statement from a man he doesn’t realise at first is a ghost. Pretty soon Grant finds himself assigned to a secret branch of the police force dealing with magic and the supernatural, apprenticed to a wizard, and witnessing a man dying after his face falls off. Throw in Londoners going berserk, a series of brutal murders, vampires, a turf war between the minor demigods Mother and Father Thames, more faces falling off, and things get even weirder. And then there’s Molly. I don’t know what kind of a being she is, but she’s awesome, and she’s got teeth.

This urban fantasy, published in the US under the title Midnight Riot, is by turns gory, strange, sad, puzzling, imaginative, geeky, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. It is also deeply immersed in contemporary London, larded with British slang and references to London neighbourhoods and 21st-century culture. I love London, but I’ve never lived there; I know the city only as a foreign tourist, so I’m sure there were some jokes and references that went right over my head. Even so, it’s approachable by someone who isn’t familiar with the city.

The story bogged down a bit in the middle, and some of it was confusing, but it kept me entertained, despite the faults, and most of it moves along at a brisk pace. Aaronovitch is a master of throwaway lines and understatement, and sometimes the scenes he describes are better for what he doesn’t say than for what he does. He trusts us, his readers, to be willing to work a bit to read between the lines and fill in the gaps, especially for emotional content, and I appreciate that.

Rivers of London is the first in a series, with another six or seven entries so far, plus several related graphic novels. Be warned that it is rather dark, and this entry in the series does not have a happy ending for one of the main characters. Whether that character recovers or not I don’t know; so far I’ve only read the first book, but liked it enough to put the second book, Moon Over Soho, on my holiday wish list.

Audience: Adult. Gore, lots of it, and adult situations.

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The Moonspinners

Nicola Ferris, a young Englishwoman on holiday from her job at the British embassy in Athens, goes for a walk in the White Mountains of Crete, and stumbles onto a badly wounded young Englishman, Mark Langley, and his Greek guide. Mark’s injury? He had been shot and left for dead. The two men are badly frightened and worried, revealing in a hurried conversation they don’t expect Nicola to understand, because it’s in Greek, that a third member of their party, Mark’s younger brother, is missing, possibly dead.

This is the start of The Moonspinners, one of my favourites of Mary Stewart’s  romantic suspense novels. Published in 1962, it is set in then-contemporary Greece. Disney released a movie version in 1964, starring Hayley Mills, based loosely on the book. Very loosely. I saw it on TV long after I read the book. I can’t say whether the movie was any good on its own merits—I didn’t like it, because in my opinion it diminished the qualities of the main characters. In the book, they are independent, resourceful people, doing their best under difficult circumstances. Characters, in other words, I can enjoy reading about.

In the book, Nicola’s conscience won’t let her abandon the two men, despite her own fears. The men don’t want another victim caught up in their troubles; they persuade her to leave them and go on with her holiday, unwittingly sending her straight into the proverbial lion’s den. Naturally, she is instrumental in unravelling the mystery of who shot Mark and what happened to his brother.

One of the pleasures of this story is watching the macho hero having to reassess his opinion of Nicola, more than once, after she proves her worth through intelligence, pluck, and determination, without ever getting strident over being dismissed as a girl.

The story is a bit dated, but not badly so. It’s a light, fun read, easily digested over a weekend; just the kind of thing to cheer a person up after a tough work week.

Audience: Adults and teens. Some violence, mostly off-screen. Understated romance; no sex.

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The Lymond Chronicles

I had intended to write on a different topic this weekend, but I made the mistake of looking at Facebook, saw this link to an article in The Guardian about Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and got derailed.

My Georgia Tech roommate introduced me to the Lymond Chronicles years ago. (Thanks, Letha!) The six books in the series, historical novels following ten years in the life of the fictional 16th-century Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond, are packed with action, drama, romance, and vivid characters. They are the best historical novels I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few.

It’s fair to say I love them; my husband and daughter don’t. Sigh.

The reasons for our different reactions is at least partly due to how we approach a novel. My husband reads slowly and thoroughly, and hardly ever re-reads a novel. He wants to understand everything as he goes along, and in these stories, that’s not easy. Besides the indirections the author throws in around the central mystery, the books are littered with phrases and verses in foreign languages and allusions to 16th-century or older literature, all appropriate to the well-educated aristocrat Lymond represents. They are also crowded with dozens of real historical figures. Even with The Dorothy Dunnett Companion at hand, trying to keep track of who’s who or what this character meant by that quote is difficult, and seriously annoyed my dear husband.

I didn’t try to understand it all. When I first read them, I didn’t care what most of the literary allusions meant, and largely still don’t. I got caught up in the story (and what a story it is!) and rolled with it, getting enough clues from the context to keep up, or making mental notes on the things I didn’t understand, and waiting for them to be cleared up later. I read all six, back to back, in one heated rush over summer vacation, and then read them through again, more slowly, immediately afterwards, savouring details and fragments I’d skimmed over the first time. These books not only benefit from multiple readings, they practically demand it. (And they get easier to read as the series continues. She does show off a bit in the first book.)

This swashbuckling epic sweeps across Europe and the Levant, taking in Tudor England, France, Malta, and the Russia of Ivan the Terrible. Saying a novel or movie brings history to life is such a cliché, but in this case it seems fitting. I’m left with memories of living, breathing, human beings. Some books are instantly forgettable; a week later it’s hard to remember any details. This series is the opposite; nearly forty years after I first read them, a mere mention of them evokes a flood of vivid images, among them a chase across the rooftops of Paris, a grim card game with a man’s life and reputation at stake, a chaste and uncomfortable night in Suleiman the Magnificent’s seraglio, and a brilliantly-narrated sword fight* between two brothers. And that scene where Lymond, arrow nocked and bow drawn, is determined to stop a man carrying a deadly message. He stands unmoving, waiting for a clear shot, despite seeing another man with an arquebus closing in on him. Who will get the first shot? Will either hit their target? Read The Game of Kings and find out.

*That sword fight was in the first book she ever wrote! These are the kinds of books that make us lesser mortals aspire to try our own hand at writing historical fiction, at the same time leaving us in despair that we could ever be good enough in a genre where the bar has just been cranked out of reach.

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Role Models

We hear about the underrepresentation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, and one of the strategies always discussed for dealing with that disparity is by providing good role models. The number of non-traditional role models, both real and fictional, for women has expanded hugely since I was a child. Many of the more recently published books I’ve read in the last decade or so have women in such roles as engineer, mechanic, mathematician…

And yet, there is still something missing.

I didn’t realise what it was until recently. In looking back over the books I’ve read to my daughter and the books she brought home on her own, I can’t find one—not a single one—that has a teenage female character in a real contemporary setting excited by science and mathematics.

Probably I’ve just missed some gems. I’m not a librarian or teacher; I can’t keep up with the publishing world. But it isn’t just the lack of girls; there weren’t very many with boys, either.

From my own youth, I vividly remember two books that were, to me, empowering, despite the lack of girls: The Mad Scientists’ Club by Bertrand Brinley and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein.

I wrote about The Mad Scientists’ Club in an earlier post. I’ll post about Have Spacesuit, Will Travel some other time. What was significant about both was that the protagonists were kids close to my own age, in circumstances not too far removed from my own, who were tackling real problems I could understand, and having to acquire the technical skills needed to solve them.

These were not adults who had already had the benefit of years of tertiary education and on-the-job training, nor were they characters in science fiction set so far in the future the technology they had available might as well have been magic. They weren’t tackling classroom problems for a grade, and they weren’t doing connect-the-dots with pieces of technology they didn’t understand the guts of. These were kids like me (or close enough) who were digging into the nuts and bolts of engineering and mathematics because they were excited about them.

If they could handle them, so could I.

Now, I admit, I was not typical. I had parents and grandparents supportive of non-traditional interests, an older sister who went off to university to study mathematics, and good grades and test scores across the spectrum. I went to a technical school (Georgia Tech, you’re the best!), discovered computer programming, and never regretted my choices.

But I still needed those stories, because it’s hard to picture yourself an expert in some subject ten years from now if you’re not exposed to and excited by the basics today.

The only book I’ve seen since that had the same effect was the non-fiction memoir, October Sky. I read all of these books to my daughter. She’s now at university, studying civil engineering. That’s not a direct result; again, she’s not typical. Between her parents, aunts, uncles, and two older half-siblings, she has ten adult role models, half of them women, in STEM fields. She couldn’t have avoided an immersion in STEM subjects if she had tried.

But this is all the more reason we need stories like these, for the kids who aren’t as well-blessed with role models and supportive families.

Are there other, more recent books like these for young adults, male or female? I’d like to hope there are. I’d love to hear about them.

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