Time and Again

One January night in 1970, illustrator Simon (Si) Morley walks out of a New York City apartment and into the night of 21 January 1882. Si is a participant in a secret government project attempting time travel, but he hasn’t given much thought to what the government hopes to achieve with it; he has an agenda of his own: to solve a mystery in his girlfriend’s family history. Her grandfather shot himself, leaving a suicide note scribbled on the bottom of an old letter. The suicide note explains nothing, and contains this baffling, curiosity-provoking sentence:

That the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the entire World …[a word missing where the paper was burned] seems well-nigh incredible.

Si makes several excursions into 1882, following the few clues the grandfather had left. When he identifies the man who mailed the original letter, he rents a room in the same boarding house the man, Jake Pickering, lives in. Si soon finds himself in trouble, in both eras. In his present, the people in charge of the project lean on him to not just study the past, but to change it, and in ways he disapproves of. And in the past, there’s blackmail, accusations of murder, and Julia Charbonneau, a young woman that he quickly becomes very fond of.

Jack Finney’s classic time-travel novel, Time and Again, uses self-hypnosis as its time-travel mechanism, which is patently absurd, but then all time-travel explanations are hand-wavy magic, aren’t they? This is no more ridiculous than walking through a portal between two standing stones (the Outlander series), or a genetic abnormality that makes a person unstick from time (The Time Traveller’s Wife), or any of a dozen other equally nonsensical mechanisms. It doesn’t matter; time travel stories are fun, even without logical explanations.

The book starts off rather slowly. Si’s first excursion into the past takes place a quarter of the way in. (100 out of about 400 pages). The opening chapters describe how he is recruited to work on the project and his immersion in it. The story gets more interesting as he becomes involved in Jake and Julia’s lives, and begins to see them as real people and not just as interesting historical artefacts. The tempo quickens further in as the mystery plot takes over as the dominant story line and Si and Julia tangle with several unscrupulous men, but it never does reach the galloping pace of most modern thrillers. That wasn’t what the author was trying to accomplish, and it is a satisfying story when taken at a more leisurely pace.

Time and Again is primarily a historical novel masquerading as a mystery, with some sci-fi and romance thrown in. It was published in 1970, before cell phones and sophisticated computer graphics, so younger readers may experience it as a sort of two-pronged historical novel, traveling to both the 1880s and the late 1960s.

But more striking than either the mystery or sci-fi aspects is how much this book is also a love letter to New York City. Finney does a terrific job of grounding his story in a particular time and place. The book is studded with dozens of illustrations—sketches, woodcuts, and photographs, most from the 1880s—of people and places in Manhattan. Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, and the Dakota apartment building—a New York City landmark that has housed John Lennon and Yoko Ono, along with many other celebrities—play prominent parts. Despite the passage of nearly a century and a half, and the American fervour for tearing down anything slightly old and shabby and replacing it with new and shiny, surprisingly large chunks of the city are still recognisable (Or were, only a decade ago. I don’t believe it has changed that much since we moved to New Zealand in 2009.)  Your enjoyment of this story will probably depend on whether the Big Apple entices or repels you. If the city appeals to you, this novel is likely to only enhance that appeal.

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Exhalation: Stories

Exhalation: Stories is a collection of award-winning stories (at least five Hugos and several Nebulas between them) by American speculative fiction writer Ted Chiang. These moderately-paced stories are entertaining, but they are also examinations of ideas, touching on such serious topics as religion, meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), and AI. These are stories to take your time over, because they make you think, and in the way of the best kind of science fiction: about what it means to be human.

These stories have already been reviewed by many people; I doubt I have anything to add to the conversation, except to say that I liked them. In order by how much they appealed to me (a totally subjective measure), here are the stories. (Warning, a few mild spoilers ahead):

  • The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate: Time travel in an Arabian Nights-style tale, with stories within a story, and lessons about acceptance of what cannot be changed. An inability to change the past is not necessarily tragic.
  • Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom: Electronic devices allow communication across parallel worlds. A woman with a guilty conscience uses her unethically-obtained wealth to benefit someone else she respects. This story is an antidote to the nihilistic many worlds theory, which says that all choices are equally probable, and cancel each other out. Chiang argues that if an individual’s character is revealed by the choices they make over time, some choices would be impossible for the character to make, even across many worlds.
  • Omphalos: A scientist on a provably God-created world has a religious crisis on discovering that their world was a trial run, and they are not the true centre of creation.
  • The Great Silence: The physicist Enrico Fermi asked where are all those alien civilisations that are theorised to be out there. Chiang asks if we would even be able to recognise them, given our inability to recognise and communicate with the alien intelligences in other Earth-bound creatures.
  • Exhalation: In an enclosed world of mechanical beings, a scientist undergoes a truly dangerous self-examination.
  • The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling: In two intertwined narratives, one examines the impact of easy searchability of recorded video of an individual’s entire life on that person, when that factual record doesn’t match the individual’s unreliable memory. (The conclusion—that people would face up to their failures when confronted with the video evidence—seems rather optimistic to me.) The other narrative describes the impact of written documentation on a tribe’s oral culture, and the tribal elder’s drawing a distinction between the truth of a fact (from the written record or eye-witness testimony) and the truth of a person or group’s narrative of their identity, which may not jibe with the recorded facts.

There were three other rather less-successful stories in the collection, including the longest, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. It drags, unfortunately. It isn’t very successful as a story, even though it is worth skimming as an exploration of an ethical quandary we may face in the not too distant future: if we do succeed in creating self-aware AIs, what responsibilities will we have towards them in terms of their ongoing support and education? Chiang argues that if we expect AIs to eventually become as capable (at least) as adult humans, their consciousnesses will need to be grown organically, and tended and educated just like human children; we won’t get there quickly or by simple machine learning.

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Night Sky

On a dark night in Brittany in March 1943, Julie Lescaux, and her 7-year-old son Peter shelter from the wind and rain in a cleft in the cliffs at the water’s edge. They watch in horror as German occupiers converge on the men below them, shooting or capturing everyone trapped on the narrow rocky beach. The prisoners and dead included their friends and relatives in the French Resistance, Allied servicemen they were trying to help, and the crew of the British naval vessel that had come to spirit them away to safety across the English Channel.

Along with Julie and Peter is a man the Germans are frantic to recapture: David Freymann, a Jewish scientist and expert in short-wave radar. The trio evade the German soldiers, and begin a desperate voyage across the Channel in a small sailboat with the Germans in pursuit. None of them have ever sailed before. David is too ill and Peter too small to be of much help; all three lives are in Julie’s hands.

Julie and David are two of the three point-of-view characters in the World War II historical novel Night Sky by Clare Francis. Julie, the foremost of the three, is English, with a French father. In 1935 she is unmarried and pregnant at the age of 19. At odds with her rigid and controlling mother, she flees to her father’s relatives in Brittany. She seems at first soft and uncertain of herself, but as her world grows more dangerous, she develops a steel spine to protect herself and her son.

The third character, Paul Vasson, is the villain: the collaborator who infiltrates and betrays the French Resistance in exchange for German gold. Vasson is a nasty piece of work and, rather unfortunately, is the first character we are introduced to. He was so repulsive I almost tossed the book out after the first chapter, but I’m glad I didn’t. Julie and David were both much more appealing.

This is a relatively old thriller (published in 1983) with a simple plot: Will they escape? Will the traitor be brought to justice? It starts off slow, introducing us to the characters and their problems before the start of the war. The pace picks up as the war begins, becomes nail-biting with the scene on the beach, and stays intense until the end.

The description of the race across the Channel is impressive for its immediacy and the heart-breaking quality of Julie’s battle with the sea in a small boat. That voyage is not the second-hand distillation of an armchair traveller listening to sailor’s tales. This author has been there, done that. That was obvious, even before I learned that she had twice sailed solo across the Atlantic, and was the first woman to captain a yacht on the Whitbread Around the World Race.

The race across the Channel is fictional, but many of the events this solidly-researched book is based on are real, including the importance of the development of radar to both sides and the history of the French Resistance. Vasson, in particular, seems exaggerated—How could anyone be that foul and still get people to trust him?—but he is based on a real person, Jacques Desoubrie, who penetrated at least two escape lines and was responsible for over a hundred British and American evaders being captured and sent to Buchenwald.

In opposition to such traitors, this novel celebrates the quiet heroism of ordinary citizens, and brings alive rural life in Brittany under the Germans. It’s a terrific story, well worth getting past the tedium of the first few chapters.

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A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

Ironically I am publishing this in the midst of COVID-19, when we all started making sourdough at home and then started protesting police brutality. Suddenly a twelve year old book was actually relevant. Go figure.
T. Kingfisher

Meet Bob, the omnivorous sourdough starter. Or perhaps you really wouldn’t want to meet Bob; the only person he shows any affection for is Mona, the baker who brought him to life. He’s quite willing to give her globs of himself in return for her regularly feeding him flour and water. But after the time when the city froze over and she couldn’t get to the bakery to feed him for several days, she came back to find his bucket in a different place in the basement and a couple of picked-clean rat skeletons nearby. Since then even she hasn’t been willing to risk annoying him.

Bob is one of several entertaining characters in T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guild to Defensive Baking, but his is a minor role. Mona is the star. This fourteen-year-old wizard can do amazing things with bread and dough…and nothing else. That’s fine with her. She’s happy working in her Aunt Tabitha’s bakery, using her magic to bake the best sourdough loaves in the city of Riverbraid, and making gingerbread men dance to entertain the customers.

The story opens with Mona arriving one morning at her usual time (4 a.m.) and discovering the dead body of a girl about her own age. A constable is called in, others follow, then the coroner, and finally a man high in the political hierarchy running the city, who promptly charges Mona with murder. That’s obviously ridiculous, but Mona is soon on the run, evading capture with the help of the murdered girl’s streetwise younger brother and a gingerbread man who rides on her shoulder and pats her cheek when she’s upset.

She’s not the only one in trouble. Someone is systematically murdering all the city’s wizards. Before long, Mona is sneaking into the castle to tell the Duchess—Riverbraid’s ruler—news about the city’s condition that her traitorous underlings don’t want her to hear.

In addition, Riverbraid’s army is out in the countryside, following misleading rumours about the location of an army of mercenaries. When the mercenaries arrive at the city gates with the city’s army three days’ march away, the defence depends on the skill of the only two remaining wizards: the madwoman Knackering Molly and Mona, the bread wizard.

What can one fourteen-year-old bread wizard do against an invading army? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Magical talents in this world appear to be both unique to the individual and narrowly defined. Knackering Molly can make dead horses walk. Another wizard, a carpenter, can smooth knots out of pieces of wood. Minor talents, apparently, but the primary limiting factor on what the wizards can do with their talents is the size of their imaginations. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away what Mona does, but I will say the battle for the city was entertaining.

The story is at its best when focusing on Mona’s wizardry. The world building was weak; there were a few things about the city, in particular, that bothered me. (A walled city, riddled with canals? Hmm. And so large it took hours to walk across? Yeah, right. And the bungling incompetence of the people in charge? Well, maybe that’s not so farfetched.) Some of the characters—the urchin sidekick and the formidable aunt among them—felt like clichés, and the villains were tissue-paper thin. On the other hand, several characters—the gingerbread man, Bob, Knackering Molly—were more interesting, and there were some minor characters sketched out in a few lines that left me wanting to know more about them: Mona’s uncle, a scullery maid, and and a problem-solving blacksmith that responded to this teenage girl’s orders with no resentment.

This book is a quick, easy read, suitable for middle grades and up. It is quite funny in places, but there is darkness lurking under the humour. It does, after all, deal with murder, betrayal, and the imminent destruction of the city by rampaging barbarians. Mona starts out as a naive, trusting girl and becomes disillusioned as she is forced to accept adult responsibilities the adults in charge can’t or won’t. The first chapter reads like a murder mystery, but it soon turns into a coming-of-age story, with Mona learning the hard way how painful, both physically and emotionally, being a hero can be.

Trigger warnings: death (human, animal, and animated cookie), violence, hate crimes, contact with excrement.

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The Wordsmith reminder

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with the book launch for The Wordsmith, the fourth book in my high fantasy Reforging series, coming up this weekend. If you want the link to the zoom event, contact me and I will send it to you.

Besides getting ready for the launch, I’ve also done a blog interview with Australian author Maureen Flynn, and a podcast on Castle Talk with Jason Henderson. Check those out if you’re interested in learning more about The Wordsmith.

The book can be ordered from most online booksellers. Here are links to Amazon, Kobo, Book Depository, and Barnes&Noble.

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As Ellie Bride’s cousin Trevor lies in hospital, dying of injuries from an automobile crash, he appears to her in a dream, saying he has been murdered and begging her to protect his family: wife Lenore and baby Gregory. The police rule his death accidental, so clearly it is up to Ellie (Elatsoe) to investigate. Trevor named his murderer; the mystery is in why and how. And equally important, what can a 17-year-old Lipan Apache girl to do prevent a wealthy, White, politically-connected doctor from killing again?

Elatsoe, Dr* Darcie Little Badger’s debut novel, is a middle grade-to-Young Adult fantasy that draws heavily on the author’s Lipan Apache mythology and culture. One of the things I really like about this book is the interjected stories about Ellie’s heroic 6th-great grandmother, also named Elatsoe, who fought monsters and raised an army of ghost dogs from the dead. Ellie has inherited the secret of raising ghost animals, and has her own ghost dog, Kirby, who was her pet English springer spaniel before he died of old age.

The world Ellie inhabits is close to our own, with pistachio ice cream, movies, minivans, and goth neighbours’ plastic skull Halloween decorations. Important clues are exchanged in text messages, but there are also paranormal elements out in the open. The incident that starts the action is the collision of a car with a tree, but the book is full of metaphorical collisions: Native Americans with colonisers; Apache ghosts with European magic, including vampires and fairy rings; familial love with a thirst for vengeance, and both with a White, privileged mindset that instills a casual disregard for the lives of the less favoured.

Besides the stories about the 6th-great grandmother, there were a few other things I particularly liked:

  • Strong friendships and family ties. Ellie wasn’t on her own. Parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a university women’s basketball team all lend their support. Ellie’s parents are competent adults who understand her abilities and believe her claim that her cousin was murdered. They walk that fine line between giving their teenager enough freedom to do what she needs to do, while still trying to protect her from harm, and Ellie respects them for it.
  • Evocative illustrations by Rovina Cai.
  • Friends and family accept that Ellie is asexual. There’s no fuss about it, and there’s no messy, distracting romance in this mystery.

Unfortunately, Elatsoe doesn’t seem to be quite sure where it stands. It’s advertised as Young Adult, but it seems written for a more juvenile, middle-grade audience. The investigation has a certain Scooby Doo flavour, and the dialogue between Ellie and her best friend feels too young for 17-year-olds. (And for having been best friends for years, they have some shocking gaps in what they know about each other.)

Those are, I hope, first-timer problems that will be ironed out with more experience. I picked up Elatsoe because I had read and liked several short stories by Darcie Little Badger. These three, in particular, I highly recommend:

You can read these and several others online for free. Check out her bibliography here. I’m looking forward to seeing more from her, particularly stories geared towards an older audience.

Trigger warnings: murder, death of a pet, violence, grave description

* Darcie Little Badger is an earth scientist, with a PhD in Oceanography

Posted in Children's Fiction, Fantasy | Leave a comment

The Wordsmith Book Launch

For The Wordsmith, the 4th book in my high fantasy Reforging series, I will be having a virtual book launch, via zoom. You don’t have to be here in Wellington, NZ to join in.

The event will be on Sunday 21 February at 1:00pm New Zealand Daylight Time, which translates to (pick your timezone):

  • Sunday, 21 February, 8AM AWST (Perth)
  • Sunday, 21 February, 10:30AM ACDT (Adelaide)
  • Sunday, 21 February, 11AM AEDT (Sydney)
  • Saturday, 20 February, 4PM PST (California)
  • Saturday, 20 February, 5PM MST (Utah)
  • Saturday, 20 February, 6PM CST (Illinois)
  • Saturday, 20 February, 5PM EST (NY, NJ, NC)
  • Saturday, 20 Midnight London

If you are interested, send me a message, and I will send you the details about the zoom meeting.

The book itself will start shipping from 15 February; you can preorder from Amazon, Kobo, Book Depository, or Barnes&Noble.

Posted in A Writer's Life | Leave a comment

Arctic Dreams

I learned this week that Barry Lopez, the American scientist and nature writer, died on Christmas Day 2020 at the age of 75. His magnum opus, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire is a Northern Landscape, is a classic work of nature writing, and won several awards the year it was published (1986), including the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Arctic Dreams drew on his experiences over five years working as a biologist in the Canadian Arctic, but as one literary critic* said, it “is a book about the Arctic North in the way that Moby Dick is a novel about whales.”

In his own words, Lopez described Arctic Dreams as a narrative with three themes:

The influence of the arctic landscape on the human imagination.
How a desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it.
And, confronted by an unknown landscape, what happens to our sense of wealth.

What does it mean to grow rich? Is it to have red-blooded adventures and to make a ‘fortune,’ which is what brought the whalers and other entrepreneurs north?

Or is it, rather, to have a good family life and to be imbued with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of one’s homeland, which is what the Tununirmiut told the whalers at Pond’s Bay wealth was? Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?

The book covers a large range of topics in its 400-odd pages. The early chapters focus on the wildlife (narwhals and right whales, muskoxen and polar bears, snow geese, …) described in carefully observed and finely written detail. The middle chapters talk about the impacts of the landscape on vision, imagination, and the arts. Physics and geography get their turns, too, with explanations of the season-long days and nights; aurora borealis, mirages, and sundogs; stages in the development of pack ice. The final chapters turn to the history of Western (European, American, and Canadian) exploration and exploitation. The native peoples, their adaptations to the harsh environment, and their relationships to the other inhabitants and the newcomers are woven throughout. Woven throughout, also, is Lopez’s own relationship with the arctic and what it meant to him.

I read Arctic Dreams soon after it was published, 35 years ago, and it burned in my imagination for a long time afterwards. Revisiting it now, with global warming bringing irrevocable changes as the polar regions warm faster than the rest of the globe, it reads like an elegy. I’m sure there have been many books and essays published since then that update the science or cover individual topics in more depth, but I doubt there has been anything that ties them all together so nicely, or that surpasses its descriptions of human relationships with the natural world.

The prose is dense and beautifully written, the kind that benefits from a slow, reflective read to let your imagination roam and to ponder the questions Lopez raises.

*Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times

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2021 TBR

Before the holidays I owned five of the books in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London/Constable Peter Grant series. I had added the next book to my wishlist, and my family gave me four books in the series (from three separate people). They had not coordinated with each other or checked on which ones I already had, but there were no duplicates among either the old or new ones. How awesome is that? That stack should keep me entertained for a while.

There are several other books I’m particularly looking forward to this year:

    • A Curse of Ash and Embers by Jo Spurrier: I read Spurrier’s Children of the Back Sun trilogy a few years ago, and loved it.
    • A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine: Due out in March, this is the sequel to 2020’s Hugo Award-winning novel, A Memory Called Empire.
    • Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger: Monsters and magic based on Lipan Apache mythology.
    • Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells: The next instalment in the Murderbot Diaries, due out in April.
    • The King of Faerie by A J Lancaster: The fourth and final book in the Stariel series, due out in August.
    • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T Kingfisher: Just because it looks like fun.

And of course there will be new books by New Zealand writers, and lots of books already in my TBR pile by writers like Lois McMaster Bujold, Zen Cho, Anne Perry, Dick Francis, Elizabeth George, W R Gingell, Georgette Heyer…

Somehow, my TBR list only seems to get longer, never shorter. So many books, so little time.

Posted in A Writer's Life | 2 Comments

2020 Recap

The Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóðið (literally, Christmas Book Flood) warms my heart, since it involves settling into a comfortable spot,eating chocolate, and reading books. The custom, as I understand it, of giving books (books are, apparently, the default Christmas gift) comes from both Iceland’s long literary history and, more recently, from limited imports of nearly everything but paper during World War II.

Christmas is almost on us, but it’s still not too late to encourage spreading this tradition, and given the state of the world, enjoying Jólabókaflóðið may be the most sensible thing to do in 2020.

With that in mind, here are the books—some old, some new, some well-known, some obscure—that were most memorable for me this year. In no particular order, they include

  • A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: A superb science fiction novel exploring questions of identity and cultural imperialism, with a likeable, competent, and proactive female protagonist.
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: An enchanting story about the shock power of kindness upending a rigid, Byzantine court when an unwanted, unloved heir ascends to the throne.
  • Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda: Middle-grade fantasy filled with good stuff: unusual creatures, challenges requiring cooperation and trust to overcome, heroism and self-sacrifice for the greater good, and puzzles.
  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: Highly atmospheric mystery/courtroom drama that’s a deep dive into bigotry against Japanese-Americans during and after World War II.
  • The four-part Murderbot Diaries and the full-length novel Network Effect by Martha Wells: Action-packed roller-coaster ride with a protagonist who is easy to relate to, despite being a cynical, traumatised, paranoid part-organic/part-machine A.I.
  • From a Shadow Grave by Andi C Buchanan: Several variations on a ghost story, all derived from a real 1930’s murder in Wellington.
  • The Prince of Secrets and The Court of Mortals by A J Lancaster: Books 2 and 3 in the Stariel fantasy series (along with book 1, The Lord of Stariel, which I reviewed last year), continuing the saga of Henrietta Valstar, Lord of Stariel.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Lovely, hallucinogenic, and non-linear story about two unwilling competitors trapped in a years-long contest, taking place in a magical circus.
  • The Silver Path by Caitlin Spice: Fourteen fairy tales for adults, full of loss, regret, guilt, terror, obsession, and horror.
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsin Muir: Lesbian necromancer murder mystery/space opera with swordplay.
  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: Historical novel set in 1895 Britain exploring the conflict between reason and faith in the context of mass hysteria over a supposed monster.
  • Provenance by Ann Leckie: Science fiction set in the same universe as Leckie’s Imperial Radch/Ancillary Justice trilogy, exploring questions of identify and social cohesion.
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow: A portal fantasy focused on the creation and control of the portals themselves.
  • The Clockill and the Thief by Gareth Ward: Further hair-raising steampunk adventures of Sin and his fellow trainee spies as they take to the skies to retrieve a stolen airship.
  • Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix: A Georgette Heyer-inspired romp with a stolen magical emerald, mistaken identity, romance, and a cross-dressing protagonist.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho: Another breezy Heyer-inspired Regency fantasy with a farfetched plot and a lovely romance.
  • Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang: A collection of mind-expanding sci-fi stories using high tech to explore human nature.
  • The Black God’s Drum by P. Djèlí Clark: A female-dominated steampunk-flavoured atmospheric novella set in an alternate late 19th-century New Orleans.
Posted in A Writer's Life, On Reading | 1 Comment