Month: December 2009 Page 1 of 2

Book Review: Fire and Hemlock

by Diana Wynne Jones.

A modern YA retelling of the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer legends.  Recommended for YA fantasy fans.  Spoilers follow.

DWJ is one of the great YA writers.  She writes stuff that takes complicated family situations that would make most people go mental, and makes them comprehensible to teens.  In F&H, the main character’s (Polly’s) family is breaking up.  The father’s sleeping around and the mother’s so self-centered she blames her daughter for the failure of her marriage.  The father moves in with his mistress, completely ignoring Polly, and fails to share anything with the woman.  The mother kicks Polly out of her room so they can rent a room, then falls in love with the first boarder, who she subsequently pushes away for not being good enough, again blaming Polly.  It’s not just.  Polly is shoved around until finally she’s left homeless, because her parents are such assholes.

But it’s not a depressing book.

Polly meets a stranger, Tom Lynne, who can’t spell but is one of the best cello players in England.  Their friendship, and the help of her grandmother, sustain Polly until she’s old enough to break away from her parents.  Meanwhile, Tom Lynne will be sacrificed by the fairy queen – over and over again, she sacrifices one lover’s life to extend the life of another, or herself.  (The parallels between the fairy queen and Polly’s mom are there but subtle and didn’t hit me until after I put down the book.)

If you were calling the end of the book, you’d say that Polly uses what she learns from fighting the fairy queen to help resolve issues with her mother, but that’s just not the case.  It’s the reverse, if anything.

I think I have read almost everything of DWJ’s.  Maybe?  Some of her stuff I really like (Howl’s Moving Castle).  Some of her stuff is okay, but not something I have to keep around the house in case I need to read it at a moment’s notice (Eight Days of Luke).  I mean, I’ll probably reread it, but I don’t turn to it when I’m having a bad day or anything.  F&H is a keeper.

Book Review: Return to the Whorl (The End of the Solar Cycle)

by Gene Wolfe.

This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but with a recursive whimper.  “Somebody tell me what that was all about.”

I’ve been reading trying to keep up with the Gene Wolfe Solar Cycle Book Club for the last year.  RTTW was the last book.  I put it down and said, “I feel like I missed something.”  To the Internet!  Ten minutes later, my head hurt.  The Neighbors were what?  The narrator was who?  Those two slaves in the basement were…really?  When did she die?

But I didn’t go into the books thinking it was going to be easy.  I’d read the first two books and was completely lost, but liked them.  So when someone (on mentioned the start of the book club, I jumped in.  Finally, a chance to find out WTF was going on.

Normally, I have a low tolerance for WTF mysteries.  That is, I like them, but I tire of most of them quickly, because they’re essentially boring.  Alias, Lost – that kind of thing – meh.  A couple of episodes, and I can tell the ending isn’t going to pay off.  Things are just going to get more and more complex, until the effort to track down what’s going on is going to totally outweigh the ending, which I can guess at already.  (I’m not very good at figuring out whodunnits.  I’m pretty good at figuring out WTF mysteries, because I am the Theme Master, and WTFs often rely on theme.)

But the Gene Wolfe books are pretty impressive, because the core of the WTF mystery isn’t something he hides, really.  The world is more complicated than we know, than we can know, and a creator is behind all of it.  There are so many coincidences and loops in time and place and character that you’re not sure who is whom by the time you’re done.  Narrators lie or misreport, and you only find out about it books and books later.  You meet old friends and don’t recognize them, because the narrator has changed.  Vocabulary is a problem.  Dialect is a problem.  Timelines are a problem.  Hidden clues are a big problem.  And who is the narrator, anyway?  Everything is a problem…

Why would you subject yourself to this kind of thing?

I did it for fun.  I like mysteries, and I like to be around people who are smarter than I am.  I like to read Agatha Christie  for whodunnits, and I like to read Gene Wolfe for WTF.

Book Review: The Atrocity Archives

by Charles Stross.

I highly recommend this for anyone who likes Cthulu and who has ever worked in a cube farm.

So there’s this guy who knows more about computer programming than he should.  When he accidentally writes an algorithm that threatens to destroy his neighborhood, a division of the British Intelligence rips him out of his old life and forces him to take a menial sys admin job for them for the rest of his life  – or death!  (Tough choice.)  The guy manages to use his love of programming and dark magic to earn himself a tough, adventurous job as an agent for the division.

There are two stories in the book, the novel-length “Atrocity Archives” and the novella “The Concrete Jungle.”

The stories start out with depressing verisimilitude, with a bad supervisor who makes the guy’s life miserable, stupid users, and getting written up for coming in late to a meeting after an all-nighter.  The guy’s home life, with two ubergeek roommates and a psycho on-off girlfriend, is a mess.  As the story progresses, our guy transforms himself into a hero, gets a new girlfriend, gets promoted and [SPOILER] ends up having to kill his supervisor, who is attempting to destroy the world!!!11!!

Not terribly realistic.  But deeply satisfying.  Geed FTW.

Book Review: Shadows over Baker Street

edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan. Featuring short stories by Neil Gaiman, Poppy Z Brite, Brian Stableford, Elizabeth Bear, and Caitlin R. Kiernan. Pub 2003, if you must know; I happened to read it in a timely manner with the new Sherlock Holmes movie coming out.

The premise of this book is Sherlock Holmes meets HP Lovecraft. If you like both, read no more – just order the book.

What if the world were a mystery, and not just a “whodunnit” mystery? What if the world were a WTF* mystery, with dark gods and awful things from other dimensions? Would Sherlock Holmes refuse to acknowledge them? Pfft. And you have to know Mycroft has been dealing with this stuff from the get-go.

Only one of the stories was less than memorable. Neil Gaiman’s story (“A Study in Emerald”) was about the royal families of Europe, which have been replaced with interbreeding Elder Gods; Elizabeth Bear’s story (“Tiger! Tiger!”) was a Rudyard Kipling pastiche with Irene Adler; Simon Clark’s story (“A Nightmare in Wax”) explores Moriarty’s true criminal purpose.

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in 1890 and ran until 1927. HP Lovecraft first started publishing in 1905, and didn’t start publishing the Cthulu mythos stories until 1925. (Einstein published his theory of Special Relativity in 1905.)

Coincidence?  I think not.  Also, perhaps the director will raid some of these stories for a SH sequel.

*What the Fuck – as in, “WTF is going on here, anyway?” See Gene Wolfe for numerous examples.


I’m going to work on a bunch of blog posts this morning, then try to queue them up and have them publish themselves automatically throughout the week, because the wonders of clicking stuff and having it do stuff in a only semi-chaotic fashion makes my ovaries twirl.

A Word A Day: Onomatomania

with Anu Garg



noun: An obsession with particular words or names and desire to recall or repeat them.

Via Latin, from Greek onoma (name) + -mania (excessive enthusiasm or craze).

“Every time Ammon Shea came across an interesting word, he jotted it down, desperate to avoid onomatomania.”
Nicole Martin; The Last Word; The Daily Telegraph (London, UK); Oct 4, 2008.

Hello Winter!

Welcome to winter, that season of darkness, cold, and depression.

Last year, I didn’t have any problems – it was so warm and sunny all winter, I barely noticed it.  This year has been darker and colder, and the inability to reach beyond the present moment already hit me with the lack of sunshine.

This year has seen more stress than last year, too – I recently got a new position at work that meant leaving my former group.  I miss them every day.  (Of course, I visit them almost every day, too.)  I just sent a novel out; I’m getting more serious about selling my writing and therefore under more pressure not to fail.  I lost two cousins within a month, kids of people I grew up with.  It seemed like fall was one big sinus infection, sapping my energy.  I rested less, went out more with friends, which was good, but still draining.

When the depression hit last week, it didn’t really come as a surprise.  I took a weekend off, slept in, spent time actually paying attention to Lee and Ray, worked out – and it helped.  Then it hit again yesterday, harder than it has in a long time.  I felt like I couldn’t stand up straight, the world was so heavy.  I read a book all night, and that helped pass the time, but I didn’t feel any better.  I kept asking myself, “What’s wrong?  Why now, when I’ve had such a long streak without walking around like a cow stunned by the slaughterhouse hammer?  What made me do this?”

I never did get any sure answer.  I felt like the most worthless creature on the planet for an evening.  And then I went to bed and woke up and felt better.  A mystery.  Was is the weather?  Too much stress?  Worry?  Do I need to change something in my life?  Reconsider something?  A combination of things?  I don’t know.  I just know it gets worse when there’s no sun, and I hate walking into rooms in the afternoon, because the dimness makes my stomach flop.

I’m glad I don’t have to spend years on end depressed anymore (high school).  I’m glad for Lee, who understands (even when it worries him).  I’m glad I figured out tricks to help, everything from turning on all the lights to working out to cooking (which forces you to feel better so you don’t ruin the taste).  And I’ll be especially glad if I can make through this winter without any “helpful advice,” that is, people telling me all kinds of easy remedies that will magically make it all better, everything from drugs to just…forcing myself not to be depressed.

And I’ll put my evil Ice Queen hat on for a few months, because sarcasm is a very good medicine for depression indeed.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-12-20

  • @ianthealy Of course it's a brilliant idea. in reply to ianthealy #
  • Rejected 4/6 on the novel, Alien Blue. #
  • Ding ding ding! Grats! RT@ChuckWendig Hey! Holy crap, press release. (Big Awesome News over at #terribleminds!) #
  • I'm learning to love my writer's block: #
  • My condolences. RT@elizawhat I just realized […] that I have less and less in common with the people who were once my friends. #
  • Finished the last of Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle Books. WTF, he pulled it off. #
  • Ray says she's an om-nom-i-vore. #
  • @ianthealy Rejections = form. in reply to ianthealy #
  • @ianthealy Form rejections = frowny face on Query Tracker. Thanks for the advice on using it, BTW. in reply to ianthealy #
  • I am NOT going to the Write Brain tonight: Writer's Block appears to be OVER! #
  • Done: Part 4/8 Choco story. "'Why aren't we running this from the forward cabin where there are seats?' Zady just grinned." #
  • Also: Just pulled two ginger-pecan pies out of the oven. Will the experiment work!?! #
  • The ginger-pecan pie was good, but it never did set in the middle. I wonder why. #
  • @Three_Star_Dave My regular pecan pie with candied 1/2c candied ginger chunks. Not as sharp-tasting as I hoped. Add lemon peel? in reply to Three_Star_Dave #
  • I join the "what is MOOOOOOOD" conversation. What's mood, how to do it, what it's good for: #
  • Unstuck on chocolate story. Time to write! #
  • Blah. Hit by the sick truck. Up from nap. #
  • It must be a cold or sinus infection – I just saw a recipe for steak taquitos and started drooling. #
  • I am the Super Guest Star over at @ianthealy's blog: In which I try to get all Zen about revision. #
  • @amoir Confederacy of Dunces – I know, the ending was painful, knowing what happened to the author. #
  • Dude. I want to write murder mystery games for smartphones. #
  • Halfway through Part 5 of Chocolate Story. Hm…which would be "Seaclaid" in Irish Gaelic. #
  • Ray and I went to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs at the cheap theater. Good farce. I saw a sarlacc 🙂 #
  • @Three_Star_Dave Maybe that's why the ginger pie didn't set – too much extra white sugar vs. egg ratiol in reply to Three_Star_Dave #
  • @Three_Star_Dave I think steeping raw ginger in the honey/corn syrup will be the next step. in reply to Three_Star_Dave #
  • Done: Part 5. Except I forgot to tie the story back to the flavor of chocolate, dammit. #
  • Done: Part 5 Choco Story. "Zady put her hand over Aoife's mouth. 'It's probably going to give me cancer if it doesn't kill us all.'" #
  • Eggnog ice cream: success! Rum raisin eggnog ice cream: super success! #
  • Now drinking a grapefruit-lavender "martini." My mouth says wuahlaa. #
  • Okay, the grapefruit syrup was just too much in that lavender martini. #

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Super Guest Star…

I am a Super Guest Star over at Ian’s blog, talking about learning to love revision.

Writerly Ramble: Mood.

Chuck over at Terrible Minds was writing about mood the other day, and it made something click.  Mood is how the narrator feels about the story.

Not the author (although that’s often the case; see the ouvre of Robert Heinlein).

The idea really only makes sense to me now that I’ve beaten myself up over rewriting Alien Blue.  The POV switches from first person (Bill) to third person in the frame story, and the frame story narrator bored me to tears.  Bill’s a great narrator; he jokes around, pulls your leg, tells outright lies, leaves things out, and switches from despair to bad puns and back again.

I wrote, well, I wrote something on the note I don’t care to repeat, the kind of thing that ought not to be repeated to ladies and wasn’t that funny anyway, and handed it to Miss Dewey. “Sam should be at the bar by now,” I said. “Why don’t you give him a call and have him brew up some coffee for these folks? It might improve their temperament.”

Here are what I think are the elements of mood here:  Bill won’t tell the dirty joke to his audience (a woman), but he will share it with Miss Dewey, who reads the note.  Bill is in the middle of hornswaggling some people, and switches to a redneck speech pattern.  Bill’s remembering this moment with fondness, both for Miss Dewey and for his own cleverness.

The third-person narrator in the frame story started out as just me, flailing around.  Then I realized there was one character common to all the scenes (Mimi).  I used her voice to color but not control the scene – it’s as if she were telling the story but referring to herself in third person.  She’s not as great a narrator; she’s too observant, too unemotional, and too willing to not jump to conclusions.  And Bill’s POV is still coloring the scenes.

Bill said, “God damn it” and beelined over to the man, jerking him upright and hissing angrily at him. The man, whose filthy, ragged shirt and pants were smeared with either wood stain or blood, grabbed Bill’s arm hard. Bill sagged at the knees, wincing, and the man had to hold him steady. Bill passed a hand over his heart and shook his head, then pointed the man toward a side door. The man slumped away, almost tripping over his own feet, pulling himself along table by table.

Mood:  Mimi isn’t as experienced a storyteller as Bill; she’ll tell instead of show.  She’ll use adverbs.  She doesn’t know whether the goop on the guy’s clothes is blood or wood stain and is unwilling to judge until she finds out for sure (although where or why the guy would have been in contact with wood stain is anybody’s guess).  She sees action, not emotion, and doesn’t react as much to what’s happening, even though what happens here surely upsets her.  At this point in the story, she’s at her limit.  Her sense of humor has been sucked out of her (not that the reader can know this, at this point, but the reader will find this out later).  All she has left are the facts, with which she’s trying to figure out what Bill’s up to.

So what’s the difference between POV and mood?  Here’s Bill again:

I was upstairs in my bachelor pad sleeping off the celebration for passing my inspection when the phone rang down in the bar. I didn’t stay awake for more than a few seconds, just glanced at the clock and yelled at the drunks to go to bed. The next time the phone rang, I was having this dream about knocking the inspector on the floor and making him eat fruitcake, so I ignored the noise and went back to sleep, smiling.

My guess is the narrator depends on the POV and mood depends on POV, so POV and description are like a hurricane and flooding, like a blizzard and frostbite.

Mood is a great tool for foreshadowing, too.  Here’s Bill’s next paragraph:

The next time the phone rang, I wasn’t smiling, because the inspector had turned into a zombie after I fed him the fruitcake. And when I went back to sleep, I dreamed the inspector’s fat zombie wife was chasing me with a hook on a rope, and I was up a tree. The phone rang again, and I’d fallen into a river, but the zombies had floated down after me. I bet you didn’t know zombies float.

Fruitcake is no good for you, by the way.

I didn’t write this section because I needed a way to show what the story was going to be like (foreshadowing), but it worked out that way.  I actually had that dream (sans fruitcake), and it sounded like exactly the kind of thing Bill would dream about (but with the fruitcake).  Also, I wanted to show Bill not getting out of bed when the phone rang.  That’s what answering machines are for, right?  I know you’re not supposed to start out a story with a dream.  You’re also not supposed to put a story in a bar.  And there are any number of other “rules” I broke, okay?

Bill knows how the story is going to go.  And, at this point in the story, he wants to tell the story, knows it’s unbelievable, knows his audience has to sit there and listen, yet wants to impress her.  So he’s trying to make her laugh, trying to set her up for just how strange this is.  He knows who is audience is and wants specific things from her, wants the story to do specific things to her.  And he’s determined to push through the situation, live or die, until he can’t go any further.  (I’m a sap for perseverance.)

By the end of the story, his attitude has changed a little; he’s drawn strength from telling the story and is comforted that everything he’s done won’t just disappear, even if what he’s planning doesn’t work.

The lines went on and on, and we were down to champagne glasses and coffee mugs. Mel wove through the crowds and picked up what empties she could find and ran them through the sink. In the end, I had to send a couple of people over to the courthouse to pick up styrofoam cups, two per customer. But we made it.

Mimi, too, has changed by the end of the story.

The heat held through September into October, with day after day of 90-degree heat. Already-dead grass turned gray. The wind ripped like a blizzard across the gullies and brush, calling up dust devils and making people wince every time they went outside. The fire department volunteers froze every time the phone rang.

She’s done.  She doesn’t know what’s happened, but she feels overwhelmed by failure nonetheless.  She’s doing the wrong thing.  But she isn’t limited to what she’s seeing, moment by moment.  She uses metaphor instead of adverbs.  (I didn’t do this on purpose; I just tried to see things from her POV.)

Mimi’s attitude changes again, but I couldn’t find anything that didn’t give away the plot.  That’s right – just the feel of the description, the mood, gave away how things were going to go.

In conclusion – mood comes from the narrator, and how the narrator feels about the story, which the narrator communicates via what the narrator notices and doesn’t notice.  Two people seeing the same scene report it differently; how they report the scene is the POV, which is made up of the narrator’s mood coloring or flavoring and even selecting the events reported.  Mood can change or not throughout the story, depending on whether the narrator’s feelings about the story change.  In the end, mood is the narrator telling the audience how to feel about the story.

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