Friday, December 23, 2005

The Kissing Blades by Jessica Hall

Having now finished the White Tiger trilogy with The Kissing Blades, I understand better how Jessica Hall (A.K.A. Sheila Kelly) writes her romances and why I enjoy them. She writes almost a Russian novel with numerous people coming in and becoming part of a complex story that, while sharing elements with an intrigue romance, is more of a big family than terror and tension. Yes, tension happens, lives are at stake, people betray and make mistakes both of the heart and of loyalties but what sticks with me are the people.

This book brought to a romantic conclusion the story of one man who caught my attention from the very beginning and yet never seemed destined for a happy ending. Every time he came close, even in his friendships much less a romantic relationship, something went horribly wrong, leaving him a drunk who only wanted to vanish from view. It wouldn't have mattered if he was less likeable, if Sean Delaney was uninteresting, rude, boorish or anything to make him less of the man that he has been in book after book. Of all the characters in the trilogy, he seems the most abused, the most left with nothing to live for. Yet, here he gets his own book...well, almost ;). And it's a satisfying one.

My only quibble with The Kissing Blades would be that it seemed a little too determined to tie off all threads. Still, it failed in this endeavor because at least one of them of an age to be paired up is alone at the end. And one of the tie ups struck me as a little pushed. It seems like that relationship still has some angst before it gets settled. Had I been reading this as it was published rather than behind as usual, I would be worried that the Jessica Hall persona was hanging up her pen. However, as I have two more from her on my to-be-read pile, I'll just accept that there's more to come...whether from the extensions of this huge, international family she's formed or from some completely unknown characters. I know I'll enjoy those ones too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer

This novel is a Young Adult account of a girl set apart from her family because her parents are both gone: the father ran off and the mother was eaten by a leopard. The atmosphere is strong and the story is well done. She's grandly competent at survival, a side benefit from her avid curiosity and her extended family's use of her as a servant/slave. When circumstances drive her from her home, there follows a lively mix of realistic description and methods of survival tangled into her understanding of and visits from the spirit world. This book was recommended to me as research into becoming feral, and though it ended up being a different kind of feral than I was seeking, it provides a great introduction into relatively modern relationships between the various tribes and racial groups in Zimbabwe and Mozambique as well as giving a real sense of the wilderness areas.

Now in the bigger scope of things, this book does provide a fascinating counterpoint to The Secret Life of Bees. Here you have a dead mother who is still somewhat present and influencing her, an absent rather than ignoring father and a grand, cross-country adventure. Though I had more in common with the Secret of Bees' main character socially, I could identify better with Nhamo. The reason? She suffered her adversity with grace and worked to better her life. She was an active character in her own success while the other girl often blamed others and looked down on those who didn't meet her ideals rather than considering that maybe they had their own place and their own strengths. Is one better than the other? Of course not. But is one preferable when I choose my own reading material? Absolutely. I guess I don't have much patience with whiners when seeking entertainment...must be why so many comedians leave me cold as well :).

Talyn : A Novel of Korre by Holly Lisle

I've come to count on Holly Lisle over the years for a good, easy read. I'm a slow reader at the best of times and so it's rare to find an author who feeds my lust for a complex culture without bogging me down with complex writing. Holly has consistently managed that for me, whether writing in her own worlds or shared ones.

I thought I knew what to expect from Holly, and was happy with it. I was wrong. Talyn goes well beyond what I've come to expect and is even better. Not only does Holly's skilled world building have a place, but also the cultures she's put together are even more tangled and complex than usual while at the same time completely internally consistent. Most books have a single big gimmie that makes the whole thing work. Talyn never asked that of me. I could see how every piece came together based on a rich, dynamic history only hinted at in the book. I can't think of a single thing that I had to accept on faith without foundation and the "big unlikelies" were only that long enough for the characters to discover how wrong they'd been in assuming the easy path.

I read an account from the editor about how Talyn just made her drop everything and say "wow." Now I know why. The characters suffer geographically, culturally and in every other way possible. Nothing is quite what they, or the reader, suspects but when the truth of it comes out, it's stunning.

Basically, I can't say enough in praise of this book. The only bad thing I have to say about Talyn is that it's over :(. I hate when a book makes me want to see the end so much and at the same time I want to drag out each page so I'll never reach it. Talyn did that to me and I couldn't put it down, put it away or anything. It started with extending my short reading breaks for just one more page and worked its way up to stealing the nap that I really need because I'm sick.

Oh, and one writerly comment. Holly does a rather strange thing that took me all of...maybe 30 pages to get used to? Talyn is a first person narrator. The whole book is not told from her perspective and she's the only first person narrator in the book. The odd thing is that her thoughts within the text (unmarked by italics or quotes or anything) are in present tense while the narration is in past tense. In the very beginning, this threw me, not enough to stop me from reading, but enough so I actively noticed it. Then, I just stopped noticing. Did it make her involvement in the story deeper? I'm not sure. But, it was no longer a distraction and Talyn was very much present when she controlled the narrative.

Anyway, if you can, if you like cultural fantasy, if you like anything with a cultural bent, read Talyn. I'd be stunned to find that you didn't enjoy it :).

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Afterburn by S.L. Viehl

I have this accidental tradition that has stayed true two National Novel Writing Months in a row, this one being the second. No matter when I purchased the book in question, one of Sheila's books attempts to draw me away from my words. This time, the book got lost on my crowded desktop where it should never have been but for my husband reading it first. And sure enough, I unburied it just in time for the middle of NaNo. A wise NaNo participant would have set it aside, but is there such a thing as a wise NaNo participant? Needless to say, I just finished Afterburn in half a week, an amazing rate for me. I'm thrilled to have read it and sorry to have done so because I wait ten years or more before rereading. However, she does have a new StarDoc novel, Rebel Ice, coming out in January that I can hunt down :).

Anyway, on to Afterburn itself. Her science fiction novels have a good habit of sucking me in with well-drawn alien cultures along with cross-species romances and relationships all tied up in some desperate situation the characters must resolve. Afterburn was no different while at the same time it was completely different. I do not find any trace of formula in these novels even with certain reoccurring elements, basically those I just described. My husband commented that Afterburn was heavily dependent on having read Bio Rescue, the first in this new series that shares worlds with StarDoc. I personally don't think so. I think a person can come in with only this book and will enjoy it enough seek out the first one, and probably also the StarDoc novels.

There is nothing specific I can say without giving something of the plot away because everything is tightly entwined, and I try hard not to do that. It's fast-paced, adventure science fiction that manages to convey complex cultures and inter- and intra-cultural relationships that make sense. Once again, I found this novel an amazing blend of what I classify sociological SF and adventure SF. So, if you like page turners that keep you on the edge of your seat, you should love Afterburn. If you like complex cultural interactions and conflicts, along with detailed, imaginative alien species, you should love Afterburn. How Sheila manages to take these disparate elements and blend them together seamlessly never ceases to amaze and delight me. And I'm happy to say with this one that, while the story comes to a satisfying conclusion, the novel offers several outstanding elements that cry out for another book or two. I expect she'll offer those up for my enjoyment shortly...probably just in time to miraculously appear during the middle of NaNo when my own, not her, words should be my main focus :D.

Enough said. If you haven't given her SF a try, go ahead. I really doubt you'll be disappointed. I certainly wasn't.

Left Horse Black by S.J. Reisner

Left Horse Black had both pluses and minuses in my opinion, but that's reading as a writer and editor. My son Jacob read this book and he loved it. His first comment was, "where's the next one?" which is just what a writer wants to hear.

The book did not have a clear main character in the way I'm used to seeing, but rather had several characters share that role, each starting from a different place and slowly working themselves toward each other until they ended up in the same place. If you'd described the technique to me, rather than me reading it myself, I'd consider it unlikely to work. However, I found this method highly effective. Not only was I involved with the various characters, but also I didn't feel that any random secondary characters had stolen the lead. Rather, it was almost the way a group shares the point of view such as in the Narnia books, only these characters started a world away. I was impressed by how that all came together.

That said, two things bugged me. First, there were many places where I felt the editing could have been done better. As an editor myself, I'm more picky about such things than most, but I did see that as a failing. The second is that I've grown used to the standalone book. This is an expectation that came completely from me. The book is clearly labeled Book 1 and in no way promises a wrap up ending, so any disappointment that it left me at a cliffhanger is my own. However, if such an ending bugs you, this one has it. I saw ways that an interim ending could have been possible with what was presented. It just wasn't written in a way that treated the ending as conclusive; it felt like I had to wait for the next book to achieve the satisfaction of a plot gone full circle.

My overall impression though, despite my issues, was that Left Horse Black is a strong story. I enjoyed the piece of the tale contained within these pages and the characters that carried it along. While I felt the book showed signs of being a first novel (and I believe it is one), I also thought the writing was well done, sophisticated in some techniques and clearly strong enough to draw me in and keep me turning pages.

Dragonsblood and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew

Okay, I've fallen behind on the posting, but here are a few book reviews I've written.

Dragonsblood by Todd McCaffrey

This book is the first ever authorized Pern novel by another author, Anne McCaffrey's son. She says in the preface how this was difficult for her, but she wants to focus on other projects despite the many stories still waiting in the Pern universe. Is this book identical to the Pern novels we know and love? Not quite. The style is odd, working through a story simultaneously in the distant past and present, and the level of scientific material is greatly increased. Were this book the measure, no one would consider Pern science fantasy as it is now classified. Do any of these changes harm the book? I don't think so. It took me a bit to get used to the past and present thing as I couldn't see the ties between the two story lines at the beginning, but this is no different than a book that explores two POV characters whose stories later blend together. I was impressed by the way this novel retains the sense of Pern. I grew up on the Pern novels. They were among the first science fiction I ever read (and yes, they were science fiction back then, dragons notwithstanding) and formed part of the foundation that is what I love today. I often read shared universe novels, but Pern has never been open to that before. All I can say is this book has definitely not turned me off future novels by Todd McCaffrey or from Pern as a thriving universe with many tales to tell.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool

I told myself that I would not bother putting up a review of non-fiction texts and seeing as I am behind, it seems foolish to do so now. However, this book is a fabulous resource for those who want to understand 19th-century England whether as an avid reader or a writer. It is not definitive as no single book can ever cover everything there is to say about 100 years, but Pool offers the highlights version of the century, focusing not just on what went on in that time, but why. The notes extend from the workhouse of Oliver Twist to the drawing rooms of Pride and Prejudice, using period novels to inform the elements chosen. Nearly half the book is a glossary of terms that is interesting enough in and of itself to read straight through. I learned the original meaning of whip as in Senate Majority Whip while also finding out the difference between a taper and a tallow candle. Though clearly intended as a reference book rather than a good read, based on the amount of times relevant information repeats between sections, I enjoyed absorbing what Pool offers and found several details that will make a historical romance I wrote even more closely tied to the period. An extensive bibliography also offers resources to explore at greater detail. This book was recommended on the Forward Motion forums and, though I read it out of the library, I now have a copy for my shelves. If that doesn't speak to its value, I don't know what would.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Books We Read

Okay, first the question: what is it that people see in characters who treat others in a nasty way for no real reason?

And now on to why I ask. I want to make it clear this is not why I left my book club, because honestly, when I only have time to read one or two books a month, I prefer for them to be my own choice. However, the dichotomy between my opinions and those of the other book club members did have a factor in this question bubbling to the top.

We most recently read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Several of the other readers adored this book while I found moments interesting, the overall well written and a main character that left me cold. This is the same reaction I had to The Kite Runner, another popular and much lauded book.

I started to suspect I had lost my taste for mainstream writing as the majority of my reading has been science fiction/fantasy and romance novels of late. And before anyone says that those are "fluffy" books, they should take on some of my favorite science fiction which explores the political, cultural and social ramifications of change, what I classify sociological science fiction. Anyway, I had a novel recommended to me as research for a character who is going feral. The novel, A Girl Named Disaster, is young adult mainstream fiction about a young girl from Zimbabwe and what happens in her life. Now, if my suspicions were true, this would hold no interest. Instead, I find myself extending the few reading periods I can carve out of my schedule and moving through the book at what, for me, is a good clip.

Being of an analytical frame of mind, I started asking questions about why one novel about a young girl in horrible circumstances who had lost her mother should enthrall me while another leaves me cold.

To add to the confusion, a show I've been watching called Ghost Whisperer had appeared to be changing formats based on the "next on" advertising. I'd been willing to give it one more chance, but if it went the creepy horror route, I would stop watching. As it turned out, the advertising was misleading and the show continues along the path of Dead Like Me or Touched by an Angel where a person with a gift or special ability goes out and helps those in need.

These bits and pieces of information led me to an answer of sorts and the question above. What I didn't like in both those mainstream novels was not that the novels had no fantastical elements, was not that they plodded through "normal" life, but that the characters were not nice. Now, I don't mean to come across as wanting goodie two shoes as the main characters. In A Girl Named Disaster, the MC has nasty thoughts and does things that are definitely not nice. But they are provoked. Not only that, but she feels guilty about it as well. In The Secret Life of Bees, the MC treats her housekeeper like an idiot, is scornful of the woman's lack of culture and rough ways. I was given the argument that she's a product of her times and her culture. I personally believe people have the opportunity when faced with direct interaction that proves them wrong to grow beyond their culture. While it doesn't always happen, I'm not interested in reading books about the people who failed to do so. I see enough people failing to grow and be open to new information and ideas in real life. I don't want to spend my rare reading time with the same narrow-mindedness.

And the same held true for The Kite Runner, where a boy raised by a man who saw beyond the bigotry of his people chose instead to follow the example of his culture, even when it meant lying, stealing and condemning another. This type of behavior is not what I want to hang out with in my friends or in my reading time. With my friends at least, I can point out another perspective. With a book, you have to accept the character as it is written.

Maybe this is why I read so many romances. Though the characters usually start out in opposition because of misinformation, misunderstandings or just unresolved conflicts, as the novel progresses, they grow and change until they can see beyond their prejudice to recognize the other person's value. Now that's something I'd like to see more of in real life as well.

I find my own writing getting darker and harsher as I go along. I am a product of my environment and this is not something that brings me pleasure. Instead, what calls to me are those few souls, both in real life and in fiction, who offer of themselves to make the world a better place. It can be something as simple as my son volunteering to help at the school all on his own or something as huge as Lazette Gifford taking on Forward Motion so writers wouldn't be turned away at the door. I have to wonder how many other people would take these steps if instead of always watching and reading about doom and gloom, their environment reminded them of the good things. Reminded them that sometimes it only takes a smile to make a bad day into a good one, that helping others gives as much if not more than it costs and can cost as little as a moment to help someone figure out a bus schedule. You won't find these self-centered, egotist characters reaching out to help others, but there are enough books out there with people who feel responsible for their failings and who enjoy offering a little bit to others. These leave me with a smile rather than a frown.

Okay, I've given my reasons for my reading choices. How about you? If you like the type of books I'm panning, what draws you to them? (I'm not being facetious. I'm doing market research ;) and trying to understand.) And if not, what kinds of characters do catch your eye?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Special Books

Though not as much now as I wish, I am an avid reader. I'll read almost anything recommended to me (with the exception of the "read this. It's so bad it'll make you cry." books my dear husband pushes in my direction ;)) and I'm just as happy to pass them on to the next person and spread the wealth. The few times I've tried to maintain a collection, fate has destroyed that hope as books ended up filed in different shelves and then passed on at yard sales and used book stores because I didn't have them all, only to find the others years later.

This has given me a sense of books as temporary pleasures, a sense supported by the weird tinge of photographic-like memory I inherited from my parents that allows me to pick up a book within 10 years and everything will come back to me with such clarity that I almost never get the sense of new discovery. I'm a slow, detailed reader. You drop me a clue and odds are I catch it at the first go through, no matter how subtle. The number of books I've enjoyed rereading, I can practically count on one hand and often I wait 10 or more years before rereading. (For the curious, the one that comes most easily to mind in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I still love that book.)

Because of the above, my joy is much more in the passing on of books than collecting them. I figure the ones I want to reread are easily enough found again in libraries or used bookstores long after the publisher no longer has copies. This theory has taken hold of my mind despite the longing for a specific Harlequin romance published in the early '80s, but that's only a problem because I remember the story quite clearly to this day and yet the title and author didn't make it into my faulty memory banks. I want that book because the use of interpersonal tension was fantastic :D.

So, my reasons make sense, my logic (whatever you think of it) is logical. Why am I blathering on? Because all this has changed. I didn't really recognize that it had, or at least to such a great degree, until I went to the bookshelf where I'd placed a very special book and found its spot empty though I had no memory of lending the book out.

My very first special book came from Sheila, of StarDoc (as Sheila Viehl) and now vampire fantasy (as Lynn Viehl) fame (not to mention her romances that my sister just returned with a beg for more ;)). After not writing a book for many years, I was nearing the final 10k of my second novel in just over one year and I couldn't do it. I couldn't get past that end point and had no clue why. Sheila was running the Think Tanks over at Forward Motion at the time and helped me realize that half the problem was I didn't know what I would do next. I feared another chasm of no book writing opening up in front of me if I ever wrote "The End" on Heart's Promise. She told me when I got the book done, she'd give me a carrot...and then wouldn't say what it was. Sure enough, I raced through to the end and started into my next novel, The Queen's Return. I haven't stopped except to breathe since.

My carrot, when it arrived, was a signed copy of Blade Dancer (with a clever drawing of a carrot in the signature :)). This was my first signed copy ever and has extra significance because it gave me the push to keep going. If you want to see it, ask me some time when you are over here, but it is not leaving my library ever (Yes, I did find it a few days later, in a special place so it would not get lost ;)).

I have since received a few other signed copies including one from Holly Lisle in return for some coding work (the progress bar she uses on her site) and so my collection of special books is growing. My signed copies are unique. There is no way that I can simply replace them with a copy from elsewhere. The story would be the same, but the personal meaning would be lost. As much as I have enjoyed the stories, if I want to lend a copy out, I'm going to have to get a second :).

So, having just woken up to this new reality, I have to ask: do you have any special books? What makes them different from any other copy of the same? Or are they (like the romance I mentioned earlier) just too hard to find and so became precious by their very rarity?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Tagged (23rd Post)

From Holly. Thanks for my first tag.

Here's the gig.

1. Delve into your blog archive.

2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).

3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).

4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions. Ponder it for meaning, subtext or hidden agendas...

5. Tag five people to do the same.

Turns out that I have written more than 23 blog posts. I'm shocked! This is from New Feature on Friday, May 13, 2005. The below is actually my fifth sort of sentence and is quite appropriate considering who tagged me:

My current reads:
* Gods Old and Dark, the third in a Holly Lisle trilogy that I have been enjoying.

This entry was the start of a whole new world for my blog, it was the start of a beautiful profusion of new posts, it was a trick to keep me in line and the posts coming at more than one a month.... I glance over at the pile of books read but not blogged as of yet and echo Holly with:


Sadly, my last post was September 18th and it is already October 8th. I have 4 books that I've finished and plan to mention in the blog, notes for comments on three of them and nothing ready to go. I have at least two true stray thoughts written up that I am "planning" to edit before posting but which haven't made it to the to do list for fear of me curling up into a quivering ball of terror. I'm not a great blogger and lately, I haven't even managed to read the ones I like to follow, but thank you all you patient folks who still stop by :).

Oh, and in case you all are curious, the books are:

* Little Big by John Crowley
* Left Horse Black by S.J. Reisner
* Midnight Rain by Holly Lisle
* Ghosts in the Snow by Tamara Siler Jones

In each of them I found something to enjoy and only the Crowley is one I would not seek out more of because it is not to my taste though skillfully written. And no, I'm not counting that as the mention :).

And five people to tag? You mean more than five people read my blog? And who haven't already been tagged? And who blog? Oh okay, here goes :):

* Val
* Maripat
* Ann
* Bonnie
* Erin (who I'll link when I get the link from her :).)

And now to sit back and see if anyone notices. Or rather to scramble over to the pile of things still to do today :).

Sunday, September 18, 2005

What Women Want (Not Quite a Book Review)

I titled this "What Women Want" because I believe that women are the target audience for my examples or at least the primary one. To me, that's a bit scary and you'll see why if you read a bit further.

Of my reading pile, this covers Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik and 2 Harlequin Next books (Riggs Park by Ellyn Bache and Old Boyfriends by Rexanne Becnel).

I'm putting these three books together though I did not read them in this order for a very simple reason: they are all about damaged women. Did I enjoy the books? Yes. I had some issues with them, but overall, they were good reads individually. What struck me most about them though, and this could be a proximity issue, was that the female characters almost all suffered from some kind of spousal abuse varying from being ignored and infidelity to physical violence. Those few that had good relationships got to suffer the death of their spouses or a fatal disease such as cancer, or both. Again, I might have thought it was a chance thing, except that I spent last year, at my husband's request ;), watching Desperate Housewives and now this year the new ShowTime program WEEDS. It shows the same pattern of broken women. The main character's husband died and the secondary female character not only has a husband who ignores her and who is sleeping with someone else, but she also has breast cancer that was discovered late.

Not really about the books at all, but this concept of what appeals to the American public and specifically the American woman is a little disturbing to me. What about Shirley Valentine where a woman who stagnated in her life went off to discover adventure? Oh, wait. I think that was a British author. Which leaves me with the grand impression that people are no longer interesting in and of themselves. It is the scars they have, the burdens they bear and how, if at all, they're surviving these things that appeals.

I look back over that last sentence and find myself agreeing with it in general. The problem I have is that the characters all have the same scars, the same burdens. Has spousal abuse became the common thread that connects us? Has it become so prevalent that what provoked responses of "try harder" or "you don't deserve him anyway" so recently is now an automatic sympathy call? Or are people still ignoring the cry for help under lame excuse after lame excuse from their next door neighbor in favor of devouring book after book where the main characters attempt to rediscover life after abuse or to survive it?

Sigh. Not quite a book review or reviews. More a rant. Whether because of this growing discomfort with the setup, or because they really weren't my type of book to start out with, this is the strongest impression I came away with. One of the Next books had a plot thread I really enjoyed and could have read a whole book about that relationship. The concept of a reluctant man being pursued by a persistent woman as a positive thing is rare enough in romance to feel fresh to me. And I liked the ending to another plot in that same book as well. Was the abuse necessary for either of these threads? No. Was it in fact necessary for any of them? Yes, but only the one where the wife believes her husband is cheating on her.

So why the whole abuse setup? Is it a free ticket to character sympathizing? Is it necessary for practically every character in the novel to be suffering some dramatic abuse or disease? Is someone wanting to change, to get their life in order, to recover what was lost no longer remotely interesting? And what does that say about us as an audience? My examples span prime time television, a mainstream novel and Harlequin's new romance/mainstream line.

Someone on Romancing the Blog mentioned how the basic Harlequin has become more and more graphic as time goes on to the point that they cannot be given to 13-14 year old girls with a clear conscience (I looked for the link but can't find it). I see the same trend with the thriller romance and now this.

Romances used to raise girls' expectations, give them hope and discourage settling for the first guy to smile at you. Now? They tell you the world is a crazy, dangerous place in which, if you're lucky enough to survive, you might still find someone who won't beat you, stalk you, or murder you. I have no answers. I just write it as I see it and I'm not happy with what I see.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Way Too Busy

Sorry folks. I've been thinking great thoughts but having no time to put them into pixels. I promise a post on Angry Housewives and another on Little Big will be forthcoming as soon as I can draw a breath.

In the meantime, if any of you are interested in the writing side of me, I've started posting to my livejournal with the life of my next novel. It's not a daily update, but is more frequent than this one. Of course no clever reviews or carefully constructed philosophical arguments either :). Just status, hints and process notes.

You can see it here:

Bring Out Your Dead

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Addendum to the Robin Hobb Review

I recently read an entry on Romancing the Blog about how writers can't be readers. Elsewhere, the question came up about whether writers can produce a negative review of a book they've read and not have it considered just sour grapes.

My perspective on this is that I can read as either and only when the writing is truly awful will it interfere with my enjoyment of the story. I'm not planning to post negative reviews on my blog. If a book didn't appeal in any aspect, then why should I share it with you and encourage you to look at it as well? That said, I suppose if I run into a book that is so awful it would be a public service to denounce, I'd like to think I would be willing to take that step. However, I preselect most of what I read, so this is a highly unlikely circumstance.

Regarding Robin Hobb's Shaman's Crossing, the review I presented was from the reader's perspective. From a writer's perspective, I would add that the book started a little slow for me. There were clear points of engagement and then areas that I just read to get to the next point. The story offers up Nevare's childhood as a way to introduce the world and its contradictions between cultures and realities. Because of this, there are some points that skate on the edge of pure exposition about the world.

The only other technical aspect I noticed as jarring was a tendency to restate what had already been conveyed regarding the world. This either stopped entirely after about the first 100 pages or I no longer cared. As a copy editor, I would have highlighted those restatements and suggested reminding the reader rather than restating the exact information. Still, as you can tell from my review, these technical issues hardly prevented me from enjoying the book :).

It's not that I don't see the technique; it's that I accept it as necessary to convey the story. When the technique falls down in the beginning, I'm more likely to notice it regardless of how the story engages me. Otherwise, as long as the story is compelling and I'm neither editing nor critiquing, I read with a reader perspective. As much as I've always been a storyteller, I've also been a storylistener. I see nothing contradictory or multiple personality in holding on to both of these aspects nor do I have any difficulty separating reading for work or education from reading for fun. While I might enjoy something I also analyze, I do not pick apart books as I'm reading them.

So, what's your take on this issue? Can you read as a reader if you write? And should writers avoid writing honest book reviews for fear of being perceived as envious?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Shaman's Crossing by Robin Hobb

Sometime last year, I started signing up for publisher letters to see what they were publishing and get a feel for book blurbs. Then, I discovered the advance reader programs. Did you know that you can sign up to be an advance reader of books from all genres? In return for 100 or so words, you can read books both for free and before anyone else gets to see them. Needless to say, I've become an addict. It's a lottery-based program, so I don't get books every month, and occasionally I get caught with more than one coming in from different publishers with similar due dates, but overall, I love the program. I found Karen Traviss through it, learned what is published as horror is not anything like my impression of the genre and now I've joined my sister as a reader of Robin Hobb. I'll be tracking down her older books and looking forward to the rest of the series all because of the reader review program.

Even better, I now have a way to spread the joy further. I've included my reader review for Robin Hobb's Shaman's Crossing below. I really enjoyed this book, though writing about it without spoilers is difficult. If you like cultural fantasies, I think this one will please you.

My older sister has recommended Robin Hobb to me many times, but I never managed to give her books a try. Shaman's Crossing has changed all that. Enveloped in a rich and detailed world, I read this novel much faster than I normally would have, not because it was pure fluff, but because I found excuses for devoting more time than usual to reading. The characters are well drawn and appropriate for their environments; even when the attitudes they espouse run counter to my own, they fit so perfectly within this fictional world that any other approach would have been wrong. The main character starts out young and ignorant. Through the book, his eyes open wider and his world expands. A fascinating blend of magic and cultures, Shaman's Crossing shows both the prejudice between peoples and how it paints too simple a picture. Though matured by the end in comparison to his original state, I look forward to seeing how Nevare absorbs and reacts to the rest of his experiences as the trilogy continues. There is no question of whether I'll be reading the next two books. The characters were too fascinating and appealing for me not to learn what happened for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Crucible by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress became one of my favorite authors with Beggars in Spain because she managed to write a story that was interesting on a plot level but also involved politics, psychology and a dozen deeper elements that made me think. I put her into the category of sociological SF even though there is not an alien in sight because she exposes the heart of people and how even the bigger institutions and greater purposes have roots in base human behavior. This makes them understandable when the layers of civilization are peeled back--understandable but not necessarily appreciated.

Anyway, she continued this in Crossfire but tucked in not one but two alien races as well, much to my delight. I read Crossfire some time ago and picked up Crucible solely as a Nancy Kress. To discover it was a sequel was a treat, though with the time between the two, I struggled a bit to remember the context. This book is half heavily dependent on the previous one and half completely free standing, an odd mix. There are two main plots, one involving the previous characters and what they set out to do at the end of the first novel and the other involving the colonists who remained on the planet. Though the threads do intersect and twist together by the end, the dependency on prior knowledge is only present in the thread about the previous characters. Having that knowledge, I cannot say whether someone coming in fresh would be dissatisfied, but I'd recommend reading Crossfire first.

Crucible is a strong novel peppered with the interesting characters and tangled motivations that have drawn me to Nancy Kress's work. There are both cross-species and human conflicts and not everything is as it seems. The clues as to what is really happening are there both for detailed readers like myself and for others to look back and say, "I understand how this happened." Even with recognizing the clues, though I found myself in the horror movie screaming, "Don't open that door," the other characters acted appropriately within their nature, never once making me wonder why they didn't see the clues I did. I'm just a suspicious type :).

Okay, I've said what I can without revealing anything (or much). If you enjoy complicated novels that make you think while pulling you into a fascinating story of human failing and success, that makes you look at the heart of human motivation, you should give both Crossfire and Crucible a try. I doubt you'll walk away disappointed.

Oh, and for Nancy Kress fans, there's an in joke from Beggars in Spain that I enjoyed getting :).

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

A Berenstain Bears children's book taught me the exact phrase of the title and it is amazing how often it comes up. You might wonder what this has to do with Dream Mountain by Gena Hale and the answer is a lot.

I'm not going to do a full review, but here's what I'll say. The things I enjoyed as well as the issues I had with Paradise Island continued in the sequel. To me, there were too many POV characters, too much plot and the romance came in too late, at page 126 of 248. That said, the characters were appealing, the romance, once it started, was strong and the story another rough and tumble intrigue with twists and tangles enough to please practically anyone. I suspect the third book will be much the same balance when I read it.

Now on to the title of this piece which is not actually a review, but a stray thought finally. I'm using Dream Mountain as an example, but remember that this part is out of the author's control and certainly not limited to these novels.

I am your typical Harlequin Presents romance reader. I don't read for the formula but rather for the emotions within the story. If the framework has similarities to other novels, as long as the characters are unique and their sorrows and passions make my gut clench, I'm happy. The trend toward mystery and thriller romances is one that honestly has left me behind. Romances are short and the more story that's taken up by things other than the relationship between the main characters the more pages taken from exactly why I read romances. If I want to read something with a world saving plot or a political intrigue, I'll pick up fantasy or science fiction. With romance, I'm looking for interpersonal conflict, relationship obstacles and emotional meltdowns.

That said, Sheila Kelly, besides being a friend (or so I think of her whatever she might consider me ;)), is a writer whose work generally pulls me in even though she doesn't write the types of books I seek out. Her SF is more space opera action thriller than my preference of sociological SF and her romances tend toward the thriller side. Therefore, when I picked up the Gena Hale romances, I thought I'd found a section of her writing (since she writes under so many names) that would not only pull me in, but actually fall into one of the types I seek out. As you can tell from my reviews, they were not of the type I prefer. So why would I think this, having read almost everything else she's written? Simple. That's what the marketing folks chose to convey.

Dream Mountain is written under a different pseudonym than the intrigues by Jessica Hall, the cover is in pastels and shows an isolated cabin on a blanket of snow with sheltering mountains behind, the title is in fancy script with shiny blue letters, and the teaser says: "Where two lost hearts find a love that dreams are made of...."

Step back and think about that description. Where do you see the mobster who buys the coal mine to sell the tailings to the Chinese Tong? Where is the hint that the lost hearts would be one abandoned by her uncle in a mountain cabin with no way to escape and the other is fighting for his life while contract killers try to eliminate him because of what he knows? What? You didn't expect that description? I can't say I did either, though I had a hint of the disconnect between the cover and what lay beneath because Paradise Island is the same way.

If you look at the bottom, there is a quote that does match the contents: "Nonstop adventure, gnarly intrigue, lots of laughs...and a hunk, what more could you ask? -- Catherine Coulter." Still, I have name recognition issues and how do I know Catherine Coulter shares my taste. I rarely read the reader blurbs for that reason, or at least the ones on the cover because by then I've usually made a decision to buy the book already.

I see this disconnect as a problem with expectations. When I read the Jessica Hall books, I knew they were thrillers; the covers made that much clear. With the right mindset going in, the Chinese Tong, family tradition and betrayal, the CIA and others didn't confuse or shock me, nor did they interfere with my enjoyment of the novels. I don't always read the backs of books, and never when I choose a book for the author. So, all I have to go on is the cover itself. In this case, the cover lied to me and affected how I read the book.

The story is good, if a little overloaded, but the lie of the cover made me spend the beginning thrown off and confused. I can't help wondering what the publisher was thinking in choosing to present this novel in this way. How many picked it up only to be disappointed when the relationship doesn't get top billing? How many looked away and toward the obvious thrillers because that's what they prefer, thinking this pastel beauty would be all about the internal conflicts?

This is a topic that comes up every once and a while among readers, but never have I personally experienced such an obvious case. Now I have to wonder how many books have I looked away from simply because of the cover when it could have been one of my favorites had I only given the author a chance? And how are we to judge when we can't trust the publisher to steer us the right way? With so many books published every year, there has to be something to narrow books down to the ones that get further consideration. Suddenly, I understand why word of mouth is more important than anything else.

So, what are your stories? What fantastic books have you almost passed up because of how they were marketed? What book confused you not because of the writing but because of the marketing? What book did you see vanish from the radar despite being a fantastic read because it was pushed in such a way to attract the wrong readers?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Paradise Island by Gena Hale

Paradise Island was published in 2001 and is the first Gena Hale romance novel. As a writer, I'm trained to notice some things that a normal reader does not and in the beginning, some of these types of slips caught my eye. However, soon enough, I was sucked into the story. People often accuse romances of being formulaic and it is true that there are certain elements that show up time and again. However, what makes the stories unique is the handling of specific themes or even events. I can't tell you how many times I've read a romance with either the hero or heroine having amnesia in the beginning, some good, some not. This definitely fell on the good side. The characters were unique and the heroine special in a way I can't reveal without spoiling, but which made the story more enjoyable for me.

I've read many of Sheila Kelly's novels in her other incarnations as S.L. Viehl and Jessica Hall, but this is the first Gena Hale for me. Paradise Island starts a series, but the two involvements that come up in this one are resolved properly, so I wonder who is up in the next. It was a good, enjoyable read with both a plausible plot and a hint of terror as the characters wind their way through international espionage and political maneuvering of which they are only tools, but critical ones. I don't really know what to say without spoiling it, because everyone knows the main story line since it's a romance. I can say that the emotions were realistic, drawing me to the characters and their tales. I had a little trouble with there being so many main characters, POVs and storylines, unusual in a romance, but they are handled well and resolve nicely despite being relatively rare in the genre.

Bottom line is that this is good entertainment. While I am drawn to complex, sociological novels, a permanent diet would be exhausting. I've always read romances as a good break and this one successfully served that much so that I was going to jump back into a heavier book and instead found myself reaching for Dream Mountain, book 2 in the series. I don't think I'm ready for my break to be over yet :).

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

My older sister is adamant about reading books in order, something I've never paid much attention to, but suddenly, I'm faced with exactly why she feels this way and it is very frustrating. I have just finished City of Pearl by Karen Traviss, a debut novel of exceptional quality that has the complexity of characters and themes that first drew me to sociological science fiction and keeps pulling me back. Now I swear only coincidence led the first two books I mention to include ecological themes, but while Gods Old and Dark touched on the theme, City of Pearl is steeped in it.

The story starts out with an EnHaz (Environmental Hazard Enforcement) officer ready to retire who is given an offer that she can't refuse--or remember thanks to a technology called Suppressed Briefing which is a chemical "need to know" memory suppressant. She agrees to travel 75 years in cold storage with a team of marines and scientists to find out what happened to a religious group that attempted to colonize a distant planet, taking with them a genetic storage of all the unique plants and animals on Earth with the intention of recolonizing Earth after Armageddon.

You learn most if not all of that in the first few chapters, a set up rife with enough conflict to keep anyone happy. Does Karen Traviss leave it there? Of course not. Not only are there multiple types of aliens on the planet each with very specific agendas and unique philosophies, but the humans are living happily in the equivalent of a zoo. And that's not telling it all, but I'm stopping here with the plot and story hints because I think I've said enough to pique your interest.

What I will say is that the characters are real, their backgrounds affect who they are and why they behave the way they do, and they're not always right. They have both fallibilities and a strength of purpose that drew me in. The planet is complex, the people are more so and the conflicts are all plausible. The enemy isn't always obvious either because of conflicts between perspectives and moments of weakness that have consequences I could both see and hope would not come about. In case my description didn't make it clear, this is not a pure entertainment, adrenalin-rush, 2-hour read. Her language is approachable and comprehension was never an issue, but I read this book slower even than my normal crawl because there was so much to absorb and I didn't want to miss a bit. This is my method of reading, but another equivalent would be to say this is the type of book that has enough depth to be read again and again. Each time you would find another telling phrase or something that you missed the first time through.

Oh, and in case you're curious, I read the second book first, Crossing the Line, because I was selected as an advanced reader. I've been signing up for the book lottery every month at several publishers. It's a good way to be exposed to new authors or genres you wouldn't normally read and though I haven't been chosen in a while, the effort led to Karen Traviss, making it definitely worth while. I read the second book, recognized the skill and how I enjoyed the way she writes. Took me a while, but then I picked up City of Pearl and, though her first novel-length published work, it has not disappointed me at all. The only disappointment I felt was that in coming to the end, I'd already read the next one. However, I just went to her website, , and discovered she has a third coming soon :).

For those who are curious, here's my reader review:

Crossing the Line is an intensely complex novel told in a direct, approachable manner that drew me right in. It twines the lives of five different species, each with both unique and familiar traits, showing where common interests and desires can lead to conflict and disaster both within and between species. I've never read Karen Traviss before but I plan to find her first novel, City of Pearl, just to experience the history of these characters in her own words. That said, this novel stands alone, not requiring anything more than you'll find between the covers. It sparks a desire to know the past and future of those characters introduced in this book merely because they become real, each with their own desires, failings and needs. I will certainly put her on my list of authors I seek out and keep track of. It's a pleasure to find another author along the lines of C.J. Cherryh, who explores aliens neither as carbon copies of humans nor cardboard cutouts and who takes the time to generate a full philosophy and approach to life that is coherent, cohesive, and distinctive.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Day in the Life Take 2

And for your pure enjoyment, another day in my life:

My kids had an interesting assignment a few years ago called unfortunately/fortunately. They have to write a story in which fortunate and unfortunate events happen that accelerate something simple into something excessive. That's what my morning felt like. Let's see if you agree.

I work until midnight or one every night/morning and require a ton more than 4 hours sleep. Fortunately, my boys are old enough and responsible enough to get themselves ready for school. I'm usually awake before they leave, but often just barely. After they leave, I go do my wash up, which I do in the altogether.

This morning, unfortunately, Jacob forgot his school backpack. Even more unfortunately, his backpack has the key to the house that the boys share. He pounds on the door and I finally connect that it's not the boys playing another silly door game. So, I throw on my knee-length, hot pink, washed-silk robe (looks like a smoking jacket and is really soft) and run for the door as he starts ringing the doorbell.

I open the door with a reasonable expectation that he's waiting on the other side. But no! Rather than waiting, they're trying to break into the back yard (how that would have helped I don't know since the house is still closed up in the morning). Anyway, into that wide open space, our indoor escape artist slipped, prompting me to say VERY loudly *SHIT* and run out in my pseudo-sexy robe and bare feet to chase after him. I glance across the way, and there's one of my neighbors and her daughter staring back at me. LUCKILY, I unlocked the door first or we would have been in a pretty, pink, pickle.

Yes, I got the cat back in. Yes, I got the boys off to school. And yes, I took my blushing self (now matching my robe) back into the house to finish washing up and facing the day.

At least no one almost died this time...other than of embarrassment that is.

My dear friends tell me I should put this is a novel, but I don't write chick lit and why would I torture a character like this? Wasn't it bad enough in real life? :)

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Gods Old and Dark By Holly Lisle

A sort of lead in to this review:

I found Holly Lisle as I find many authors, through joint books with authors I already know and trust, in this case with Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mercedes Lackey. I'd been reading her books for a while before I found Forward Motion because I recognized Holly's name. I now consider her a friend, but that doesn't change the fact that for years I've known that I can turn to one of her books for a good read that absorbs me in Story with a capital "S". Therefore, when I hadn't been reading fiction for a while, which book do I choose from my to be read pile? One of Holly's. As usual, I was not disappointed.

So on with the review:

Those who know me well know the truth of this statement and those who don't will have to accept me at my word: I am a workaholic. I set push goals for myself and then move heaven and earth to achieve them. I give myself little leeway for basic needs like food and sleep and demand of myself that I earn every bit of pleasure, every break I take. Accept that as a given and then know that while on a writing marathon in a desperate scramble to meet the goals I set for myself, I stole 18 minutes, not much, but enough to count, just so I could read the end of Gods Old and Dark.

This book left me both satisfied because the arc is nicely resolved and frustrated because Holly has told me that, at least for right now, there will not be another in the World Gates series. I have enjoyed this world and see more tales waiting to be told. Maybe someday, a publisher will feel the same.

I think of all of the three World Gates, Gods Old and Dark is the strongest. The characters have a greater depth than they had in the earlier books because they went from driven, even if conflicted, to tottering on the other side, no matter which side of the battle they started on. I'm trying hard not to spoil anything here, and it is difficult, but I'll tell you all this: the series has characters you'll love and love to hate. The troubles they face are fantastical and at the same time so familiar to me, coming from a world torn between easy selfishness and the desperate need for people to take a stand for more than what they want to eat for dinner.

I know from her articles that Holly doesn't want to save the world with her writing, and the book certainly doesn't preach in any way, but there are messages there if you care to see them. A simple example is at one point a minor character says all technology must be evil and Molly replies that technology is not the problem but rather how we choose to use it. It may sound preachy, but it isn't. It is completely true to the characters and the moment. If they had reacted any other way, they would have seemed false. This is the strength of the characters, even the minor ones.

Holly uses this world, this time, this place as a jumping off point and blends it beautifully into a magical world. Her world building meets the requirements of keeping the explanation simple so well that you have to think twice before you say that it can't be so even though most people don't really believe in magic. And then, within the book there are some statements spoken by characters in appropriate times that just make me want to cry out in agreement, that encapsulate how I approach the world and the person I wish I could be. The above example on technology is only one of them.

I could tell you about the skilled world building that has a sentient creature who stands at the right hand of greatest evil and yet who cannot conquer his biological defense mechanism of upchucking his stomach even though it makes a fool of him. I could tell you how emotion lays down boundaries and barriers and at the same time sweeps them away. I don't know all I could tell you. Bottom line, I had other things to do and some still need doing because of how this story drew me in, which is not to say that I am unhappy with the time spent by any means. Reading a book that is good enough to absorb me, strong enough that I don't want to put it down, worth every spare minute I can pour into it brings back to me why I read and why I write. It's worth it. For those of you who read quickly, this book, this series is such a small time commitment, but if you're anything like me, the words, the worlds, the people will stick around for a lot longer than those few moments. Give yourself the right to enjoy something that may make you think, may make you hope, but for darn sure will keep you entertained and reading until the sad moment that you turn the final page to find nothing more.

Friday, May 13, 2005

New Feature

Okay, this is a little different than what I normally put up on this blog, but I'm playing with the concept of a new feature that will both encourage me to read and maybe expose you all to some new books for you to enjoy. I'll put what I'm reading in the side bar, and when I finish the various books, I'll drop a post in that will say how I reacted to the item in question. Now you can see just how long it takes me to finish a book :). The books/magazines are linked back to places where you can purchase them, taken from the author's website where possible.

My current reads:

* Gods Old and Dark, the third in a Holly Lisle trilogy that I have been enjoying. This is my first time reading it (I don't generally reread books) and I'm already having the "oh, I'll just read to the end of the scene" issue with hanging out on breaks longer than I should.

* Zeotrope - All Story, a mainstream fiction magazine that I've been considering for a market. I picked up an old issue at a book faire.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Beneath the Bridge

Sorry it has taken me so long to post this month. Nothing horrible happened; I've just been unbelievably swamped and am still working at dragging myself out from under the load. Anyway, this post has been percolating since my last one and you'll soon discover why.

First, a little history. I grew up in the diplomatic community overseas. This community is unique from what I've been able to tell because it absorbs both locals and diplomats from other countries. We shared company at parties, priests at mass and generally made a group of broad perspectives that came together at every opportunity. Add to that my parents, and this group of people ends up including wandering artists, poets, writers, a variety of expatriates from all over, and what have you that happens to cross their way.

It was a wonderful way to grow up. I had the opportunity of a liberal arts education spread before me as a banquet. All I had to do was learn how to act and sound like an adult and pretty soon they forgot who they spoke with (it helped that at ten I was the size of many adults in our Middle Eastern community ;)). I succeeded in this adaptation so well that my next door neighbor (25 years old?) came and asked my father about the fascinating woman he met at their party. It took some doing for my father to realize he meant me. I was 14, maybe?

Anyway, I took to a liberal arts college like a fish to water. I would spend hours just talking with people, starting with one topic and then following linked threads (sometimes barely linked) on to the next topic and the next, exploring philosophy, art, science, psychology, literature, what have you, much like I had with the poets, diplomats and foreign dignitaries whose company I had enjoyed in my younger years.

Since leaving college, I've missed that coffee house atmosphere. People around me now are too busy with life (as am I) to explore random thoughts just for the fun of seeing where they end up. There is something about unbridled intellectualism that gets eaten up by the real world, taken over by the need to pay rent, feed kids, hug your husband and crash exhausted in front of the television to get a desperately needed nap.

But, just because I didn't have the energy for unbridled intellectualism didn't mean the desire went away. I can't very well spend my time hanging out in college coffee houses. If I did, I'd probably bring my laptop and just ignore everyone. Without being a college student with a group of friends crafted by the classes I'm taking, I'm much too introverted to burst in to someone else's conversation. Besides, even the more outgoing of college students know they have to offer something before just bursting in on someone else's gathering, though of course not all understand the basic politeness that should govern civilized society.

So, in a sideways attempt to evict these thoughts without having to leave the comfort of my current life, I created Stray Thoughts. That's right. This blog was created out of the desire for uncontrolled, tangential discussion crossing philosophical and other boundaries for the pure enjoyment of considering those questions that we don't face in day-to-day life.

And thus I come to the meaning of this long trail through my history. When I asked about what we really need, I limited the scope to material needs because I was making a specific point. One of the replies expanded the discussion to non-material needs and referred to a controversial political and moral issue. I checked with a couple people who are more Internet savvy than I am and they confirmed these were the classic signs of a troll. Somehow, my little corner of the universe had garnered a troll.

Wait a minute. Expanding the topic beyond the original scope, following tangential threads, exploring political and moral questions. Doesn't this sound like something familiar? Maybe even what I described as what I missed?

Okay, that was just a teaser. Here's the full and complete story.

Despite having all the characteristics of a troll, my troll wasn't one. My troll was in fact my father...who just forgot to sign the post. I discovered this in a very awkward moment discussing the intrusion of my very first troll with, among others, my father. It actually took a day or two for my gut feeling to drive me to do some checking and that was the only answer. Just imagine the apology letter I had to send. My father, a relative innocent in this whole thing (similar to me), had no idea what a troll was. He'd forgotten the specifics of his post and so didn't even realize I had accused him so wrongly. I pointed out the same characteristics that I mentioned above...twice. Since then, the tangle has gnawed in the back of my head until I had to say something.

The World Wide Web has done so much to expand our universe, to allow for conversations on a variety of topics with people from all over the world. Along with this has come the unwelcome but familiar college student who chooses to intrude on others' conversations with out so much as a "may I?"

The sad part is that grand opportunities for fun discussions get lost. Those of us who enjoy such discussions for their own sake don't want to start up on the Web for fear of attracting the bottom feeders. So much is lost to those whose activities under the bridge have little to do with a fishing pole, a sandwich and good friends having a chat. Instead, they seek the rush that comes with scaring off anyone brave enough to walk across to see what might be fascinating on the other side.

This is not the only thing we've lost to those who cannot behave reasonably, but I for one will mourn it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

What Is Luxury?

The other day, my husband told me that he'd turned off the heat because the power bill had been higher than he'd prefer. To him, wandering around in a t-shirt and occasional sweatshirt, heat is a luxury. To me, in my turtleneck, sweatshirt, jacket, leggings, pants and lap blanket, it is not.

Okay, before you reach for the mouse, let me assure you this is not a rant against my husband. I was planning to rant to him personally, but I was in the middle of something that gave me time to think. What I came up with was this stray thought.

Bear with me. I don't normally give assignments, but I think this will be an interesting one.

Take a pen and paper, or computer notepad, and jot down the things you can't live without. And I'm not talking emotional, be materialistic please.

(Pause while you all do your assignment....)

Okay, pencils down :).

Now, how many of those lists contain three items? What? None?

The only thing you need is food, air and water. Anything else is a luxury.

Now those writers reading this will say: a pencil and paper must be on the list.

The readers: a light and a book.

The game players: a Game Boy or game board (depending on generation ;))

But stop for a moment. Do we really need anything but food, air, shelter and water? Need?

Assume you are on a desert island with a decent size group of people. The grace of God, or the local television producer, has provided basic food staples and potable water while air is self-evident--the basic necessities.

The writers want to write but don't have paper; the readers want to read but don't have books; the game players want to game but have no boards or game machines.

The writers can tell their stories to a captive audience; the readers can have tales told to them in the author's own voice and intonation; the game players can play word games and build scenarios with their imaginations (/me slaps the hand of the game player who reaches for a stick and rock to form a map).

Sure, would our lives be different stripped down to the bare essentials? Absolutely. If you look at the list produced by your significant other or your children, will many of the elements be different? Of course. But none of that changes the common thread that crosses all of us and brings us together. Though different, even in the direst circumstances, those differences would aid and support each other...if we only gave them the chance.

So, going back to the main question: what is luxury? Practically everything. Though I've never been in the depths of poverty, I can imagine human food seems a luxury when what's available is dog food or even rats. When you need a blanket to get warm, would you shy away because of filth, or because you had to share? If forced to tell your stories rather than write them, would you stay silent?

I guess this is a reflection piece, asking all of us to take a moment and count our blessings while at the same time to recognize our luxuries. If money gets tight, as it has for so many of us, there's a lot of space between where we are now (a grouping based purely on the fact that you're reading a blog on a computer ;)) and food, air and water.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Finally another stray thought!

I've got a couple thoughts I wrote up then put aside and, feeling guilty, I was going to post one just so I kept to at least one post every month, but my mind found a moment of peace in a chaos of largely self-imposed deadlines to throw out a bone.

So here's the question: Is it hypocritical, or at least contradictory, to aggrandize a culture that has little time or inclination for reading in, well, books?

Now as usual, providing an answer is just a bit too easy, so instead, I'm going to muse on the question.

First of all, though the original spark came from a comment about fantasy, I think it may relate to the majority of stories out there on some level or another. Do books support living vicariously, or do they actually encourage a life without reading? Here are a couple completely fictional scenarios, but who knows, they could happen.

Say a child grew up reading the Marguerite Henry horse books and absolutely fell in love with horses. Given the opportunity, would she choose to read more books, thus continuing the reading tradition? Or would she throw away her vicarious fantasies in favor of becoming a show rider, a master breeder or an equine conservationist?

Same with fantasy. What if some children grew up on fantasy, the medieval cultures, armor, swords, good mead, and then found out about the Society of Creative Anachronism? Would they give up the chance to wear armor, battle, and generally behave like the characters in their favorite stories to just curl up and read about them?

A similar question comes up with role playing. Does it provide what books can only imitate, that of a voice in the story?

While I'm definitely not suggesting writers should stop writing tales where the heroes and heroines do anything other than read (absolutely not!), it doesn't hurt to step back and consider the implications. The art of storytelling began as a teaching tool around the fire to pass on the wisdom of previous generations in the only way we knew how. Now, all pretensions aside, fiction has become just another form of entertainment along with the TV, video games, and actual outdoor activity (the last becoming even rarer than reading at least among the younger crowd).

I guess this thought is more stray than most, but it struck me as odd how fiction seeks to absorb people into activities, some of which they could experience in real life but which would take time away from the very reading that opened their eyes to that possibility. Now, with you all wishing I had posted one of the thoughts I have in my backlog, I'm going to go curl up with a book ;).

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Out of the Box

Most people have run into the phrase thinking outside the box a time or two in their adult lives, usually in business situations where business as usual has failed to produce the desired effect. While I am an advocate for a more creative approach to problem solving, sometimes it feels like this has become less of a driven philosophy to seek out new and innovative ideas and more of a ploy to avoid rewarding hard work. Those who keep things running are rarely recognized, while those who come up with new shiny objects are rewarded whether or not those solutions have any grounding in reality.

This is never truer than when a company is in transition to a new system (computer or process). During the transition, who are the most important players? Those designing, implementing and training users on the new system or those working with outdated equipment and little to no support to keep product rolling out the door so the business doesn't collapse while making its leap into the future? For me, they both have critical roles to play and therefore equal importance, as do the users who provide crucial information and feedback to ensure the new system achieves even a portion of its goals.

However, most reward structures ignore those holding the business afloat and rarely recognize the users' contribution either. Once again, the business engine focuses on the bright future with little interest in the monotony of the present. Does the phrase been there, done that ring a bell?

So, the lesson learned in this experience is if we want our children to succeed, we must pass to them this elusive ability, opening up a life of rewarded innovation. Sounds easy, right? Teaching innovation and making your children stand out as models for all others to follow. How hard can it be?

Take a look around the world and see what kids are doing? Few bother to create their own worlds for fantasy play. Instead, they reenact scenarios from the latest video games, television shows, or if we're lucky, books they've read. Schools are forced to teach to the test to ensure their doors are kept open, training the students in bubbling and selecting between multiple choices rather than actual problem solving. Add that to subjective essay evaluation as part of the testing process and teachers throw up their hands, finding the last element of creativity crushed out of a grading system that has lost its context of learning. This does not seem like an environment to foster innovative thinking while efforts outside the school system are crushed by peer forces: bullying and exclusion make fools of those who try to step beyond the cookie cutter design.

But wait, before despair takes hold and the outlook becomes grim, let me tell you a story about my youngest son.

Gales of laughter drew me away from my work one afternoon, the sound too enticing for me not to investigate. I found my 10-year-old at the computer, playing yet another strategy game that teaches players, through a series of guided training scenarios, what strategies are effective and how to best employ the various pieces. While on the surface, this type of game may appear to teach critical thinking, it provides such a fixed set in which to enact constructed battles that the opportunities for innovation are limited. Often, if the player fails to make a required move, the scenario becomes unbeatable. Similar to chess, each piece has a role and particular movements. A player wins by thinking faster and farther into the future.

In chess, a player cannot innovate by declaring the queen can now turn corners. Everyone has to stay within the bindings of tradition. This rule system carries over into the design of strategy games. Every piece has a part to play and if you can figure out that part faster than the other player, you win.

So what caused the hilarity? Where had he found humor in this simple game where both players build up their forces then try to eliminate each other with a combination of tactics and numbers? He broke the rules. He made his queen turn a corner. This 10-year-old refused to accept the basic understandings. He thought outside of the box, even when the box penned him in on every side. Instead of building a foundation for military development with his initial peasant characters, he reenacted the American Civil War. His farmers and builders and miners took up their hammers, pickaxes and hoes, but did not start to mine, build and farm. Instead, they crept across the board and destroyed the other player's infrastructure and peasants, preventing the war from ever starting.

The laughter came as he watched supposedly ineffectual peasants slowly demolish a complete town, cutting off ability after ability until the computer player could do nothing but sit and be destroyed. Would this strategy have worked against a human player? Maybe, maybe not, but the cookie cutter world kids are offered failed to contain one 10-year-old and so maybe it will fail to contain others.

Though we might not be able to teach our children how to innovate, we can show them in our own refusal to "be like everyone else," and reward it when they show the same, whether with our laughter, hugs, or privileges. At the same time, remember who brought my son his victory. The peasants. Maybe our children will have a better understanding of the values in both those who maintain and those who innovate. For me, it is enough to hope.