A Short Rant About ‘Home’

I recently started reading a book where the otherwise fine opening scene was marred, for me, by one little detail: the narrator kept referring to the place she lived as a treehome. This irritated me for a couple of reasons. First, she lived in a village of tree houses. Everyone she knew lived in a tree house. When one option dominates the market, and may be the only option available, you don’t need to qualify it. It’s the oddballs that earn the qualifiers. It’s of interest when a friend or neighbour buys an electric car, but who talks about buying a gasoline-powered (or petrol-powered) car? Or who mentions that their new car has four wheels? You assume it has four wheels unless told otherwise.

In this case, by describing her home as a tree house from the start, the author deprives us of that little thrill of discovery that we might get from figuring out for ourselves from context that the narrator lives in a tree house. Think how much more satisfying that would be.

And there’s another thing: that word, treehome. I don’t like the term townhome either, used to describe the type of structure I call a townhouse. In both cases the writer has fallen victim to the realtors’ spin that tries to make the products they sell (land and physical buildings) more appealing by getting the customers to imagine them as homes. But as the adage goes, a house is not a home. That’s not quite true; it may be a home, but it’s not yours, not until you move in with the expectation of staying awhile.

A house is something tangible, a building that may or may not be someone’s home. A home is intangible; it’s a place where someone lives, which may or may not be a house. A dwelling is only a home in relation to one or more people—my home, your home, our neighbours’ homes—so don’t use it to describe structure, please.

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Cunning Devil

Category: Urban fantasy

Audience: Adults and late teens. Gory violence but no sex.

Ozzy Turner is a man you don’t want to cross. He is a cunning man, aka white witch; a magic user specialising in breaking curses and finding lost items or people. A man dedicated to protecting his community, the town of Lost Falls. What’s the difference between the white magic he uses and black magic? Nothing. The only distinction is in what the magic is used for, and the line between is thin. Ozzy is human enough to sometimes step over that line, especially when given a good, hard shove.

In Chris Underwood’s debut novel, Cunning Devil, Ozzy takes on a charity case, going in search of a stolen family heirloom—an antique silver child’s rattle—after the death of a man’s son. But nothing in this case is what it seems, and instead of thanking him for finding the rattle, the man turns on him. Shot and left for dead, Ozzy makes a devil’s bargain to buy enough life to get revenge. His quest leads him deeper into trouble—literally, in an underground goblins’ lair—as the battle he is caught up in wreaks destruction on Lost Falls.

The story is a fast-paced thriller, focusing on some other preternatural creatures rather than the ubiquitous werewolves and vampires. There’s violence and gore but no sex, and the understated almost-romance has a certain squick factor to it. Other reviewers have compared the book to the Harry Dresden series, but I thought it closer in spirit to the Mercedes Thompson series, which I prefer.

Ozzy is a promising, likeable character, capable of both deadly revenge and acts of great kindness and compassion, including to a creature that had just attacked him and gouged him with its claws. His uneasy alliance with a former enemy makes for amusing reading. The second book in the series, Pay Dirt, has just been released; it will be interesting to see where this series goes.

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Categories: Fantasy, historical fiction.

Audience: Anyone who has the patience to read it. No sex or bad language, the barest hint of romance, and minimal violence.

Imagine a world where a human raised by fairies rules three kingdoms: one in Faerie, one in the human realm of northern England, and the third on the far side of Hell. During his three hundred year reign in the human world, the sky, the trees, the rocks—the whole of the natural world—are his willing allies. But when the Raven King is gone, the magic fades, until there are no practical magicians left, only theoretical ones who meet to present scholarly papers full of theories of things outside their understanding, and to lament the loss of English magic.

No history of England in this world would be complete without an account of the two great magicians of the 19th century and the revival of English magic they brought about. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is that account, beginning with Gilbert Norrell taking up the challenge to show that he can do magic and bringing the stones of York cathedral to cacophonous life.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a crossover tour de force, as much a masterpiece of historical fiction or alternative history as it is an engrossing journey into the fantastic. Fairies and magicians mingle with real historical figures—prime ministers, royalty, generals, and lords of the admiralty—and the story is packed with rich details of everyday life, from the social whirl of the landed gentry down to derelicts asleep under hedgerows. It reads like historical writing[1], too, as if the author was channeling the ghosts of 19th century writers.

The reviews I’ve read have differing opinions on what the book is actually about.[2] The most common view focuses on the complicated relationship between Norrell and Strange, involving friendship and rivalry, struggle for dominance, alienation and reconciliation. That’s certainly a very large part of the story, but to my mind an equally important theme, if perhaps less immediately obvious, is the suppression of marginalised groups: women, non-whites, and the poor. The main plot drivers are the damage the two upper class magicians inflict on the less powerful through their arrogance and self-absorption. This is particularly true of Norrell who, early in the book, makes a devil’s bargain with a fairy, selling something—a woman’s life—that was not his to give. Once invited in, the fairy ensnares one person after another, with only the powerless and voiceless women and servants aware of the danger he presents. By the time Strange comprehends this danger, it is almost too late. The end, with its partial resolution, seems particularly fitting. Mouse over for spoiler.

This is an astounding book, especially for a debut novel, but it has flaws. It starts off slowly, then nearly grinds to a complete halt. I almost gave up on it in the first 100 (out of 800[3]) pages. The first 200 pages relate Norrell’s attempts to make himself useful—and, not incidentally, to build his reputation as England’s finest magician—in the war against Napoleon. Norrell is not pleasant company. Whenever he takes centre stage, the story drags. It picks up when the more appealing character, Jonathan Strange, is introduced, but it doesn’t become compelling until nearly 500 pages in, when tragedy strikes the Strange family. But the tension builds, and by 100 pages from the end, the book becomes unputdownable, and makes up for the tedium that has gone before.

A Cast of Characters would have helped, too. For the first half, I dipped in, reading a chapter or two at a time, and never sat down with it for a long stretch of concentrated reading. Perhaps as a consequence, I tended to forget the secondary characters, especially when they disappeared for 100 pages or more at a time. I had to keep flipping back to remind myself who they were.[4]

Despite the flaws, I’m glad I stuck with it. There are beauties there; the blockade of the French fleet is among the best I’ve ever read capturing the wonder and mystery of magic. There is plenty of humour, too, of a subtle variety. Strange’s encounters with the Duke of Wellington are small comic gems. Wellington isn’t intimidated by the magician in the slightest, or interested in magic unless it can help him in the war against Napoleon.

This is a book I can foresee rereading with pleasure, to revel in details I missed the significance of the first time around, and to recapture the feeling of wonder it inspired the first time through.

[1] Not to mention the footnotes, which lend weight to the feeling that this is a work of scholarly research. Ignore them if you want, but many of them are worth the short detour.

[2] Besides friendship and oppression of the powerless, themes I’ve seen mentioned include the nature of “Englishness”, reason versus madness, and the sterility of modern life cut off from the natural world.

[3] Yes, yes, I know. 800 pages is middling for a fantasy story, but I keep wondering, why does fantasy have to be so ridiculously long? I’ll save that rant for another day.

[4] If you read it, keep an eye out for Vinculus, the street magician, in particular. He’s more important than he first appears.

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Engine of Lies preorder offer

Engine of Lies, the second book in my Reforging series, can be preordered now through the publisher: https://ifwgaustralia.com/2018/04/21/preorder-offer-engine-of-lies-by-barbara-howe/

The offer ends 30 June 2018.

He never promised happily ever after, but Lucinda is still dismayed by how quickly reality intrudes on her fairy tale. Assassination attempts and lightning strikes disturb her honeymoon, but the return home brings no peace of mind. When the discovery of a magical conspiracy shakes her faith in everything she trusts, she vows to expose the Fire Warlock’s most shameful secret and see justice done.

As a hot summer draws towards a violent end, Lucinda teeters between terror and rage. She’d be less angry about risking her life if she didn’t suspect her husband—her hero!—intends to step aside and let her die.

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The Traitor and the Thief

Category: Fantasy / steampunk

Audience: Pre-teens and teens primarily, but a fun, light read for adults, too. Minimal violence and no sex or foul language.

In The Traitor and the Thief, Gareth Ward’s debut novel, a fourteen-year-old boy named Sin is plucked off the streets and given an opportunity to earn a place in the Covert Operations Group (COG). COG is a clandestine organisation dedicated to preventing war, even though it puts them at odds with their own government’s plan for word domination. Despite the dangers, Sin jumps at the chance—anything is better than living on the streets—and soon finds himself at a school for spies. But not all is well at the school. He becomes embroiled in a hunt for a traitor against COG, with one revelation after another making all his newfound friends suspect. Sin has to use his street smarts to catch the traitor, and to find out why he, specifically, was targeted for recruitment.

This book, a fast-paced romp through a steampunk alternate universe, won this year’s Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Youth Novel. It is a bit of a mashup of other sources, including at least Spy Kids, Dickens, J K Rowling, and maybe Girl Genuis (the description of a battle with a training bot reminded me of this), but it’s well done, and the author has his own playful flair for language. He follows in the tradition of Dickens and Rowling in giving his characters entertaining names: Nimrod Barm, the loony genius. The staff at the school: Eldritch Moons, Noir, Stoneheart, and the aristocrat Lillith Von Darque.

The dialog is also very good, and there’s never doubt about which character is speaking:

“Cat got your tonguearooney?” said Zonda.
“You what? I ain’t seen no cat,” said Sin.
“I mean you’re not your usual epigrammatic self.”
“Still not getting your puff.”

I did have some difficulties with the name ‘Sin’. Not because of the religious connotations—I got past those within a couple of pages—but because my eyes kept playing tricks on me, and reading the name as ‘She’, especially at the beginning of sentences. She hauled himself… Wait, what? Oh, that was Sin hauled himself… Having to back up and reread was weird, and distracting.

Other than that little glitch, and one place where I was jolted out of my willing suspension of disbelief (Mouse over for spoiler.), I enjoyed it, and look forward to the sequel.

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Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body

Category: Hard Science Fiction/ Mystery

Audience: Suitable for teens and up. No sex and minimal implied violence.

In Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body by New Zealand-born author Simon Petrie, hard science fiction intersects with another of my favourite genres, crime fiction. In a mining colony on Titan, Saturn’s moon, a young woman, Tanja Morgenstein, walks out of an air lock and takes off her helmet. Psychologist Guerline Scarfe is simply doing her job, as required by the local law, in investigating the reasons for Tanja’s suicide. She is not, at first, overly surprised by Tanja’s wealthy parents’ resistance—they are, after all, in shock over losing their daughter—but her concern grows as she probes deeper and their hostility turns to threats.

Throw in a dead brother, a traumatised boyfriend, pressure from Gureline’s boss to drop the investigation, and a nail-biting nighttime flight across Titan’s frozen landscape, and you have a classic detective story with a savage, high-tech twist. It’s no surprise to me that the story won this year’s Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Novella. I look forward to reading more about Guerline Scarfe.

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ConClave3, New Zealand’s 39th National Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, was held this past weekend in Auckland. I did not, as I had hoped, win a Sir Julius Vogel award for either Best New Talent or Best Youth Novel (for The Locksmith), but simply being a finalist was a good thing, and losing to Gareth Ward is a respectable outcome. I’m a third of the way through his The Traitor and the Thief and quite enjoying it.

I came back loaded with enough suggestions for interesting authors and books to read that exploring them all will probably keep me busy until next year’s convention, GeyserCon in Rotorua. Along with all the others already on my To Be Read pile, I’m unlikely to ever run out of new books to read.

We indulged ourselves a little on Monday and did something we’d been talking about doing ever since we moved to Wellington: we took the train (the Northern Explorer) home from Auckland. It made for a long day, not helped by the delays introduced by work crews taking advantage of the reduced traffic on the long Easter weekend to make repairs on the rail lines, but it was a pleasant, relaxing way to travel. The weather was good, giving us many panoramic views, including this nice one of Mt Ruapehu.

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Engine of Lies

He never promised happily ever after, but Lucinda is still dismayed by how quickly reality intrudes on her fairy tale. Assassination attempts and lightning strikes disturb her honeymoon, but the return home brings no peace of mind. When the discovery of a magical conspiracy shakes her faith in everything she trusts, she vows to expose the Fire Warlock’s most shameful secret and see justice done.

As a hot summer draws towards a violent end, Lucinda teeters between terror and rage. She’d be less angry about risking her life if she didn’t suspect her husband—her hero!—intends to step aside and let her die.

Engine of Lies, my second novel and the sequel to The Locksmith in the Reforging series, is scheduled to be published in July.

Seeing something that started out as daydreams turning into a real book is exciting, and I love the cover art, by Catherine Archer-Wills! I am really looking forward to seeing this actually in print.

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In Memoriam

Two weeks ago, the world lost a wonderful teacher.

In her ninety years, Sarah Lucinda Davison Howe touched many lives. As a professional, early in her career she taught in the public schools and later gave music lessons out of her home. She taught reading as a volunteer for the Gaston County Literacy Council and Sunday School as a volunteer for her church. Those weren’t her only volunteer efforts: she served as a Certified Lay Pastor, she sang in the choir, and seemed to have a hand in just about every facet of church life.

She slowed down as she aged, but well into her eighties she was still playing piano for Sunday services in the retirement home where she spent her last years.

She was never loud or pushy or self-aggrandising. When others recognised her efforts, she didn’t quite know what to do with the praise. The Rotary Club honoured her for her years of volunteer labour for the Literacy Council, but the plaque naming her a Paul Harris Fellow never got hung on the wall; her walls and dresser tops were filled with photos of family and her older daughter’s paintings. She was one of the legions of quiet, dedicated, extraordinary ordinary people who go about the hard work, day in and day out, year after year, of making their community, and the world, a better place.

We’ll miss you, Mama.

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We were down on the South Island this past week, taking a short family vacation before delivering our daughter to the University of Canterbury for the start of the school year. For me, the highlight of the trip was the WOW museum in Nelson, and getting to see some astonishing examples of creativity and craftsmanship up close.

My daughter and I both came away inspired, with our heads full of ideas. Over the next few days, while we rolled through the gorgeous South Island countryside or soaked in the thermal pools at Hanmer Springs, I dreamed about what one could do with quilting and appliqué; she hunched over her laptop, drawing costumes involving scale mail and dragon wings, galvanised by ideas from a different WoW (World of Warcraft).

Will either of us ever have the time and skill to pursue any of these ideas and bring them to fruition? Maybe. More likely not. But it’s still fun to dream.

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