Windy Wellington

On a fine day, Wellington is a wonderful place to be outdoors. With the sun shining and the air calm, it’s gorgeous. Occasionally, the wind dies completely, and the harbour is as smooth as glass, not a ripple in sight.

And then there are days like today, when the wind rattles the windows and tries to knock you down when you go outside. While stopped at a traffic signal, my little car quivers like a frightened bunny as the wind plays with it, and tries to skitter across the westbound lanes of Cobham Drive when sea water slaps its windshield—water that leapt over the pedestrian walkway, bicycle path, the band of rocks and vegetation between, plus two lanes of eastbound traffic and a grassy median.

Today, of all days, the window washer came by, cleaning the outsides of the windows on the building I work in. Seemed like a futile gesture.

In the eight years we’ve lived in Wellington, the wind has snatched the glasses off my face twice. The first time was at a busy intersection; my husband chased after them into traffic, his arms windmilling. The traffic stopped for him; he and the glasses both made it back unharmed. (I was glad he was with me. If it had been up to nearsighted me they would never have been seen again.) The chip in the lenses is from the second time, when the wind grabbed them and flung them against the side of an office building. Now I hold on to them whenever the wind picks up.

But even with the problems it causes, I love it. I lived for a while in a place where it was warm and sunny, day in and day out for months, and I got bored. I missed real weather. We need days like today to make us appreciate the nice ones. Here, I’m more aware of the weather—the shapes of the clouds, the colours of the sky, the rainbows, the constant changes—than I remember being in anywhere else I’ve lived.

Sometimes, living in Wellington is a real blast.

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Julie and Romeo

Category: Chick lit

Rating: PG-13. Mild sex, violence, and profanity

Can you imagine Romeo and Juliet retold with the two lovers being 60-year-old grandparents? I wouldn’t have either, but I’m glad Jeanne Ray did, because her novel Julie and Romeo is the lighthearted result.

Julie Roseman is a divorcee, Romeo Cacciamani a widower. They are both florists in a Boston, Massachusetts suburb, and when they fall in love things get complicated. Star-crossed lovers aside, this story is as much about tangled family relationships as it is about romance: mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, ex-husbands, and, of course, the generations-long hostility between the Rosemans and the Cacciamanis. When both sets of children act to keep their parents apart, and the 90-year-old Cacciamani matriarch sticks her oar in, the cold feud escalates into war.

The story has a happier ending that Shakespeare’s play. I won’t give away anything more, but I did enjoy this funny, easy read about passion and romance between mature adults—who don’t always act like mature adults. Why should the kids have all the fun?

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The Witches of Karres

Category: Science fantasy

Rating: G. No sex, minimal violence, a few mildly scary bits

The Witches of Karres, a whimsical space opera by James H Schmitz, is an old favourite. I think I must have first read this in high school, but it still appeals.

A young man, Captain Pausert, is on his way home from his first trading run, having made enough profit to begin paying off his heavily mortgaged spaceship. Pausert, while not overly bright, is honourable and kindhearted, and when he runs across a man abusing a teenage female slave, he intervenes. A few minutes later, so does the law, and soon he finds himself with a good deal less profit in his pocket and a troublesome girl in tow. Rescuing her two younger sisters eats up the rest of his profits.

On their way home, the three girls use magic to give his ship a boost to outrun space pirates. When he delivers them to their home planet, Karres, the grateful inhabitants attempt to repay him by restocking his ship with their luxury goods. On leaving Karres with his cargo holds full of contraband, a young stowaway witch, and both legal authorities and pirates after his rumoured new drive mechanism, his troubles really begin. When he finally settles down to read the Space Regulations to find out what he’s gotten himself into, he doesn’t find the information he needs under either ‘W’ or ‘K’. The key word is PROHIBITED.

An adventure follows, in which Pausert, out of necessity, develops his own newly-awakened magical talents, shows more intelligence than was obvious at the beginning, and saves the human race from an alien menace—a feat for which he is unlikely to receive any credit, except on Karres. This is lighthearted, undemanding entertainment, with no grounding in real science, and a plot that doesn’t hold up to hard scrutiny. Don’t expect to be intellectually challenged, just relax and enjoy the ride.

One of the most appealing—to me, anyway—aspects of this romp is the relationship between Pausert and his young witch companion. Once over some initial friction, they treat each other with mutual respect and work well as a team. (In everything I’ve read by Schmitz, his female characters are terrific—smart, competent, brave, and proactive—and he was writing half-a-century or more ago. I prefer them over the women in a lot of more recent fiction. Sigh.)

The worst bit? The end sets the stage for a sequel that Schmitz never got around to writing. A trio of other writers teamed up much later on a sequel, The Wizard of Karres, that I haven’t gotten around to yet. (After waiting decades for it, it lost its urgency. It’s on my TBR pile; I’ll get to it someday.)

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Introductions to SFF, again

Going back to a subject introduced in an earlier post, Introductions to SFF, here are some of the speculative fiction works my daughter (and the rest of the family) enjoyed. The age provided is only a guess at a lower-bound for when children might read them on their own; many of these books continue to appeal to much older readers. Similarly, they may appeal to younger children with a parent reading to them.

  • The Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne (beginning readers),
  • Edward Eager’s children’s book: Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, The Well-Wishers, Seven-Day Magic… (elementary school readers),
  • The Oz stories by Frank L. Baum (elementary school readers),
  • The Dr Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting (elementary school readers),
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norten Juster (elementary school readers),
  • The Silver Crown and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C O’Brien (elementary school readers),
  • The Hobbit (preteens) and The Lord of the Rings (mid teens) by J R R Tolkien,
  • The Mad Scientists’ Club stories by Bertrand Brinley (Preteens. Strictly speaking, these stories aren’t science fiction at all. The teens in them were solving real engineering problems.)
  • The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (preteens),
  • The first few Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer (preteens),
  • Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (preteens),
  • The Harry Potter series (early teens),
  • Heinlein’s juvenile novels, particularly Red Planet and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (early teens),
  • The Witches of Karres by James H Schmitz (early teens),
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin (early teens),
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke (mid teens),
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams (mid teens),
  • Graceling by Kristen Cashore (mid teens),
  • Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson (mid teens),
  • A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony (mid teens),
  • The Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett (mid teens).

By the way, I have to mention that some adults complain children these days have no attention spans, and pronounce that books that appealed to their parents are not exciting enough for the generations brought up on the internet and smart phones. When I introduced my daughter to the Dr Doolittle and Oz books at the age of nine or ten, I felt they were dated and slow, but she loved them, and wanted more. Go figure.

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On Reading Aloud

I began reading to my daughter before she could talk. I’d sit her on my lap with the simplest of picture books and page through, describing what we were seeing, just to get her used to the routine. We worked our way up from there, reading chapter books to her while she was still in preschool. I always assumed that when she had progressed to reading on her own, she would tire of me reading to her.

She never did. I kept reading.

As she got older, some of the books I read aloud were her choice—books she was capable of reading to herself (Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl, among others, in the middle grades) but that she claimed she got more out of from hearing me read them. Other books I chose because they were slightly ahead of her reading level, or were ones I remembered from my own childhood and wanted to pass on.

In hindsight, it seems as if I read to her all the time: at bedtime, while Dad fixed dinner, in the car (Dad drove) on our weekly 45-minutes-one-way trips to my mother-in-law’s. Dad listened, too (he couldn’t avoid it, stuck in the car with us), and would get interested in the story, whatever it was, and started coming to sit on the end of her bed at bedtime so he wouldn’t miss out.

I kept on reading. Now, when she’s home from University, when I call out “story time,” my daughter comes and sits on the end of our bed with her needles and yarn, and knits while I read for 15 to 30 minutes. Then we say goodnight, turn out the lights, close the door, and go to sleep. She stays up for another hour or three, playing video games and chatting with her boyfriend.

When she’s not home, I read more adult fare to my husband.

Weird, eh?

Well, we are, but not just because I read out loud to the family. I thought we were the only ones that did that until a friend said she read to her adult family. (Thanks, Lisa!)

In the nearly two decades I’ve been reading aloud, I’ve read, among others:

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (not including the appendicies!),
  • The Harry Potter canon,
  • More of Piers Anthony’s Xanth books than was probably healthy,
  • Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (loved The Golden Compass, didn’t love the others),
  • A hefty assortment of Edward Eager, Bertrand Brinley, Hugh Lofting, Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein, Christopher Stasheff, Mary Stewart, Ellis Peters, Mercedes Lackey, Randall Garrrett, Louisa May Alcott, Rick Riordan, Eoin Colfer, …
  • And, naturally, multiple drafts of the stories I’m working on.

The stories we’ve read—both good and bad—have been jumping off points for long discussions of religion, ethics, science, history, politics, sex, philosophy. You name it, we’ve probably touched on it. And regularly laughed ourselves silly. As a mechanism for family bonding, and passing on our family’s values, it’s hard to imagine anything that could have been more effective.

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Category: Historical fiction

Rating: R. Sexual assault, emotional abuse, and some violence.

If you love huge multi-generational family sagas, meaty soap operas encompassing love, lust, cruelty, murder, and revenge, Cashelmara by Susan Howatch may be for you. This 700-page novel, covering thirty years and three generations of an aristocratic English family, is set in 19th-century Ireland, against the backdrop of the Irish potato famine and struggle for independence from British rule, but the basic plot comes from much earlier events. The story is a fictionalisation and transposition of real events from the reigns of three kings of England—Edward I, II, and III—in the early 14th century. That the novel is a retelling of the lives of real people made it all the more compelling and emotionally wrenching.

The story is told in six parts, each with a different narrator:

  • Edward, representing Edward I,
  • Marguerite, his wife, representing Queen Margaret
  • Patrick, his son, representing Edward II
  • Sarah, Patrick’s wife, representing Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella,
  • Maxwell, as Roger Mortimer, Queen Isabella’s lover, and
  • Ned, Patrick and Sarah’s son, representing Edward III

The narrators are all, to a greater or lesser degree, somewhat unreliable, and believably human, with both good and bad qualities. Their likability scores are in inverse proportion to how hard they try to make themselves look sympathetic. The most honest and self-aware are Edward and Ned (and to a lesser extent, Marguerite), bookending the story and trying to cope with the mess made by Patrick and Sarah in between.

The book starts off with Edward looking like an old fool fallen for the lures of women interested in him only for his position and wealth, but then he slowly reveals himself to be much more savvy, and to have a genuine loving relationship with his young wife, as well as the respect of his Irish tenants.

Edward, Marguerite, and Ned are decent, responsible people struggling to deal with the hard punches life throws at them. The 200-page saga of the relationship between Edward and Marguerite could have been a book on its own, and in some ways a more satisfying one. But the primary plot driver—the conflicts between Patrick and Sarah—doesn’t kick in until a third of the way into the book.

Patrick is a closet homosexual in a culture that considers his sexual orientation perverted. He could have been a sympathetic character, if he hadn’t also been an easily-led man-child caught by accident of birth in a position of great authority. His choices of despicable lovers and his own foolish and irresponsible behaviour does serious damage to dozens of other people, most particularly his wife and children.

His wife, Sarah, isn’t without fault or blame. She’s a spoiled brat, neither she nor Patrick have the slightest bit of self-control, and her affair with Maxwell puts what she claims to value most—her relationships with her children—at risk.

Maxwell seems, at first, the most ambiguous character. I was inclined to be sympathetic towards him, as the underdog Irishman unwilling to bow and scrape before the English overloads. Patrick’s claim early on that he was a murderer didn’t seem to have any facts to back it up. But then Maxwell gets his turn at narration, and shows us what kind of self-aggrandising, murderous thug he really is. But even he isn’t completely irredeemable; he treats Sarah and her children as well as knows how.

These three—Patrick, Sarah, and Maxwell—are not nice people. The story bogged down for me in the second half of the book, because I didn’t particularly like being in their heads. Maxwell was the most unpleasant, and far too much of his section was a diversion from the main plot. I would have quit reading then if I hadn’t already invested so much time getting to that point, and I wanted to know how it turned out.

I’m glad I didn’t give up because the narrative momentum picks up again in Ned’s tale, and he is the most appealing character of the lot. From an early age, he shoulders adult responsibilities and faces up to grim choices. As strong as his father was weak, he reduces the animosity between two sides in a long-running local feud by sheer force of will and personality, marries the woman he loves over his elder’s objections, tells his shocked English uncles he is not English, he is Irish, thank you very much, and exacts revenge on his parent’s generation for their follies. All while still a teenager.

I see this book only appealing to adult readers. While large parts of the novel are engaging with fully fleshed-out characters, it is long and rather dark, with some sections that are hard to get through. The sexual assault is not graphic, but the impacts of the famine are. Not an easy read, but with the exception of Maxwell’s tale, an engrossing one.

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Mercy Thompson

Category: Urban fantasy

Rating: R. Violence, a fair amount of it, and a bit gory. No sex in the first two books, sexual assault in the third book. Buyer beware.

In the urban fantasy Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs, our world is awash in the preternatural: werewolves, vampires, the greater and lesser fae, and other assorted oddities. The fae have recently been forced out of hiding; concerned over the pace of scientific discoveries, in a carefully controlled PR move the darker powers have outed some of the more charming and innocuous fae. Despite their non-threatening nature, the humans view them with considerable suspicion, and have forced them into guarded reservations.

Werewolves have not yet been exposed, although in this world they are not inherently evil. All once human, they retain their human capacities for both good and evil, and, for the most part, don’t want to be at war with human society. A newly turned werewolf on his own will attack humans, but the alphas have learned through hard experience to control themselves, and through the pack structure force their members to behave.

Among the others still in hiding is one Mercedes (Mercy) Thompson, auto mechanic, and owner of a garage in Kennewick, Washington state, USA. Part Native American, she can shape-shift at will into a coyote. Raised by a werewolf pack, she has a troubled history with them, and now has an arms-length relationship with her next-door neighbour, the alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack.

That relationship comes under pressure when a newly-turned teenage werewolf walks into her garage, looking for work. Mercy’s maternal instincts kick in, and in trying to watch out for him, she kills another werewolf, and lands smack in the middle of a werewolf power struggle. Pretty soon she has another dead werewolf and a seriously injured one on her hands and an abducted human girl to rescue, and is forced to ask for help from the pack she ran away from years earlier.

As female protagonists go, Mercy Thompson is a winner. She is a responsible adult, and she doesn’t give up, ever. Smart, strong, caring, loyal, and proactive, she has more guts than are good for her. In the second book in the series, Blood Bound, when she is challenged to sing before an audience of hostile fae, she belts out O Holy Night. So maybe not always so smart. She walks a fine line between being forceful enough to keep the werewolves from pushing her around, and being so forceful she pisses them off.

I have read the first three books in the series, and there are at least ten. While each one is a satisfying read in itself, with a neat conclusion, they are part of a longer plot arc ratcheting up Mercy’s involvement with the werewolves, fae, and vampires. Each one picks up directly after the previous books ends, with a large cast of recurring characters. Read them in order.

The supporting characters are well-developed, the pacing and plotting are good, and Mercy’s snarky attitude entertaining, but they aren’t what I would call an easy read. Briggs doesn’t pull any punches on the emotional cost of Mercy’s actions. I got so caught up in the story that the end of the third book, Iron Kissed, was quite wrenching. That won’t stop me from reading more.

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Reader’s Journal

Years ago, when my daughter, now in university, had just started elementary school, my sister gave me a blank book for Christmas. Physically, it is a lovely object: spiral-bound to lie flat for writing in, about a hundred sheets, with a reproduction of Monet’s Water Lilies on the smooth hard cover. Several times in my life I had attempted to keep a diary, but the entries tended to get bogged down in day-to-day trivia, and the truly momentous events kept me too distracted to bother.

With this blank book I began, instead, keeping a reader’s journal, logging every book I read, either to myself or out loud to my daughter. My intention, then, if memory serves, was simply to record which authors we liked or disliked, to help me remember who to search for or avoid in library or bookstore. In the beginning, the entries were minimal: title, author, date finished, with at most a sentence or two (often not even that) about the story and what I liked or disliked about it. The first year (2003), covering forty-five books, about half of them children’s books, took up all of eleven pages.

But the entries grew as I kept adding to it. Sometimes, a terse statement along the lines of “police procedural, with too abrupt an ending,” wasn’t enough to trigger any memory of the plot or characters. So I started adding synopses, and going into more depth, and outgrew the original blank book. Now, for the first six months of 2017, my reading log takes up fifty-five pages in a subsequent, fatter volume.

But what’s the point, you may ask. Why bother? Putting pen to paper, and forcing a coherent analysis of the good and bad points of any work is always a useful exercise in critical thinking, and the log has helped me hone my own writing. I’ve become a more careful reader, I can more easily articulate what aspects of a story matter to me, and I’ve built a catalog of examples, both good and bad, of plot twists, character development, scene descriptions, etc. to refer to when I need help on my own stories.

Isn’t this a bit too much like writing book reports for school? Well, no, because I’m not being graded on it and I’ve never had any plans to show it to anyone else. My log is all about what attracts or repels me, and what repels me may be—often is, apparently—what someone else is looking for.

Looking back through my log triggers a flood of nostalgia. The lists of children’s books bring back fond memories of reading to my daughter. Notes on other books evoke strong memories of other things going on in my life at the time. I listened to the audiobook version of Sandra Brown’s The Crush on the Garden State Parkway commuting to a job I hated. Watership Down helped us through a case of traveler’s tummy in a guest house in Hyderabad, India. I lay on a leaking air mattress in a rental soon after we arrived in New Zealand (our furniture was in storage while we looked for a house) and read Alison Goodman’s Two Pearls of Wisdom with the Wellington wind whipping clouds past the windows of our flat.

So in a sense I’ve kept a diary after all, measuring my life in units of books read. My only regret is that I didn’t start keeping this log decades earlier.

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Doomsday Book

Category: Historical fiction / SciFi crossover

Rating: PG-13. No sex or violence, but a very high body count, including characters that matter, and a child’s pet.

Doomsday Book is an award-winning* time-travel novel by Connie Willis. It was published in the 90’s, but I only stumbled across it a few months ago.

The plot is straightforward: from the near future (December 2054), a young historian (Kivrin Engle) steps back in time, and things immediately go awry. The story-telling skips back and forth between the 14th and 21st centuries as her friends attempt to rescue her, and she slowly comes to realise she is lost in the past. Normal life in both centuries is destroyed by virulent epidemics, and both Kivrin and her would-be rescuers struggle to cope with fragmenting social networks and a terrified populace.

The SciFi time-travel aspect is limited, and quite hand-wavy. The story is really about how people behave in a crisis, with ordinary people doing heroic things, and about responsibility and altruism, despair and hope, faith, and the natures of God and sainthood. And, despite a high body count, it was, in the end, an oddly uplifting story. (Although not without a certain amount of fridge horror. The survivors are going to need treatment for PTSD.)

The 14th-century thread is the more gripping, with characters recognisable as real people caught up in an apocalyptic event, and Kivrin becoming deeply involved in the lives of the people she came to study. The parallel 21st-century thread includes some not very successful comic relief, the supporting characters aren’t well-developed, and the plot devices needed to draw out the rescue attempt were clunky and annoying. Any reader with any sense will figure out what went wrong, although maybe not how, long before the big reveal occurs. This thread takes much longer to become interesting, but it ends with a degree of poignancy that took me by surprise.

The book is a bit unusual in that there isn’t a villain. There are a few characters with less than stellar motives, who do irresponsible things, but they are plot devices, not major characters. This is humankind against the forces of nature, events not under our control.

Now for the major flaws:

  • The premise that Oxford dons would send an undergraduate back to the 14th century alone is ridiculous. Absurd. If they were so eager to study the time period, one or more of them should have gone along. If they weren’t going because they recognised it was dangerous, then at least one of them should have realised they could and should be held liable for, at a minimum, criminal negligence. At the very least there should have been established procedures that wouldn’t allow anyone to go alone, unless, perhaps, they had already proven their levelheadedness on some number of previous accompanied excursions to the same time period. The odds of someone living to report back on problems is much higher if they go in pairs. Similarly, there should have been contingency plans in case either side failed to keep the rendezvous. The whole thing was much too amateurish.
  • The story is long (nearly 600 pages in paperback) and drags in places, with far too much time, in Kivrin’s case, spent in the fog of delirium, or, in the 21st-century thread, listening to the technician’s fever-induced mumblings or playing telephone tag.
  • And the telephone tag was another annoyance. This book was published in 1992. Answering machines were in common use by then. There is no excuse to make a character sit by a landline phone, simply to take a message, in 2054. Willis completely failed to anticipate the impacts of cell phones or, to a lesser extent, what can be done with computers. Her Oxford wasn’t even up to date with 1992, much less 2054.

Despite those flaws and some other minor quibbles, I’m glad to have read it. The story packs a serious emotional punch, the kind that will keep it popping up in my memory long after some more recently-published/recently-read books have been tossed in the giveaway pile.

* Doomsday Book (the novel, that is, not the survey of England ordered by William the Conqueror in the 12th century) won both a Hugo and a Nebula, although it isn’t clear to me why it won either award. The SciFi aspect is the weakest part.

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Lord Darcy

Categories: fantasy / mystery / alternate history

Rating: PG

The time: the 1960’s. The place: the bustling port of Cherbourg. A nobleman in the Anglo-French Empire, engaged in a sensitive international inquiry, is missing. Lord Darcy, detective, and Master Sean O Lochlainn, forensic sorcerer, have been summoned to investigate.

This is the setup at the start of A Case of Identity, one of Randall Garrett’s classic Lord Darcy stories. In this alternate world, history diverged with Richard the Lionheart’s return to England. The Plantagenets still rule an undivided empire. The Americas are still colonies. And in the 13th century, the laws of magic were discovered, and the foundation laid for an academic discipline as sophisticated as our physics. Science and engineering, as we know them, are not well-developed in this world, since attention is instead focused on understanding and applying the laws of magic.

The eleven stories (10 short stories, plus one novel, Too Many Magicians, all available in one omnibus volume, Lord Darcy) are interesting enough as Holmesian mysteries, mostly of the locked room variety, but to me the most entertaining aspect is the magic, and the ways in which it both parallels and diverges from the technological marvels of our world. Long distance communication devices are magically-powered telesons, not telephones. Preservator chests keep food fresh. There are no automobiles, but there are steam trains. (This world feels more 19th-century, plus magic, than 20th-century.) And in the forensic sciences, the laws of magical relevancy can be used to determine if a bullet was fired from a particular gun, or to separate dye, deliberately spread, from the accidentally spilled ink it was intended to cover.

The stories aren’t entirely successful. The characterisations are shallow and the dialog often rather wooden. They are repetitious, and suffer from back-to-back readings. Too Many Magicians is too long, and has too little focus on the magic. And the whole premise of the alternate history is preposterous. An unbroken succession of benevolent and wise kings maintaining social cohesion and smoothing out all serious problems for more than 700 years? Yeah, right.

Some readers will be put off by the world’s political implausibility and excessive formality—all references to a person include their titles, the more the better. For other readers, like me, it’s possible to dip into them occasionally, accept their limitations, and enjoy a light, fun read about a world where magic is as real and essential as science.

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