About Me

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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Yellow-Face in Fantasy Audio

Two contemporary audio books I recently listened to while commuting surprised me with antiquated Chinese stereotypes. One of the odd things about this was that both were fantasy books. The characters, names, and concepts which stand out to me this way were not Chinese. They weren’t even Asian. They weren’t on Earth. What they were was “yellow-face.”

In Hollywood near the middle of the last century, Chinese were specifically excluded from permanent immigration to the US, except in miniscule numbers. Most immigration from China was limited to working men. This created a bachelor society that, along with its multigenerational effects, have been well-depicted in literature, especially Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (also a movie), and Wayne Wang’s movie, Eat a Bowl of Tea. These books and movies fill in the missing Chinese side of the Chinese-American experience in mid-century and after.

However, because Chinese were missing, and yet so fascinating to non-Chinese Americans, something was required to fill the gap. The Chinese were missing because they were barred, but in movies (as in audio books), non-Chinese could temporarily become Chinese. Parallel to Anglo-Americans’ adoption of “blackface” to depict black characters (not black people) to audiences segregated by Jim Crow laws, white film actors donned “yellow-face” to depict Chinese characters (again, not Chinese people) to audiences segregated on the spot by Jim Crow-type laws and remotely by the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The most conspicuous Chinese protagonist in American films of the 1930s and ‘40s was designed to counteract negative stereotypes, but was not played by a Chinese actor. Earl Derr Biggers, who has too many r-controlled vowels in his name (a sound appearing, as far as I can tell, only in American English, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean, go figure), may have intended Charlie Chan to counteract the negative stereotypes of Chinese villains prominent in American depictions. These are so comical today that we hardly think of them, so good work, Mr. Biggers.

What we’re left with is a different range of stereotypes, including reflexive subservience, docility (or stoicism, or fatalism), unthinking adherence to tradition, and bad English skills. These featured prominently in Charlie Chan films, and yet the actors in those films were, at first, Japanese and Korean Americans, and later Swedish and Anglo Americans. The Japanese and Korean actors got one turn each, but the films were not successful. Then a Swedish actor, Warner Oland, took on the role and made it a succes. A series of Anglo actors took on the role in subsequent films (after Oland’s death and in radio dramas.

What does that matter for contemporary fantasy fiction? I’ve never seen a “Charlie Chan” film, read one of Biggers’ novels, or heard one of the derived radio dramas, and yet I am familiar with the character because the stereotype is pervasive. I know it through ripples and echoes. All the information above was in my own memory, with the exception of specific names. This is how stereotypes work – participants in a culture transmit them to each other, without reflection.

The two audio books I recently found echoing and rippling with Charlie Chan stereotypes were David Gemmell’s Hero in the Shadows, the ninth in a series I’d never paid attention to before, but not necessarily following on the eighth Tales of Drennai book, and Terry Pratchett’s Snuff, an otherwise entertaining and carefully knit-together continuation of the story of Detective Sam Vimes’s aspects of Discworld, also not required to be read in order.

In both cases, the authors made forceful points against prejudice, and yet included the Chinese stereotypes (rather, stereotypes of Chinese) of subservience, poor speech / understanding, and overadherence to tradition, and in each case the reader multiplied that by choosing vocal characterizations that fit the “yellow face” stereotypes associated with Charlie Chan.

One of the supporting characters in Snuff is a constable whose mother was born overseas, and who therefore has different language and food customs to draw on. Everybody is very complimentary of the mother’s cooking, but Pratchett makes a recurring joke of describing dishes that have very similar sounding names, and generally include the sounds “suck” and “dog.” So we get the dog-eating stereotype, along with mockery of Chinese names. I listened patiently throughout the book for Pratchett to use the names of the food, or the foods themselves, as a plot device, but as far as I can see he just returned to them time and again for what I consider to be a cheap laugh.

What would it be like for Pratchett to have joked about people who eat pickled fish and have names like Weinberg and Silverstein having long noses and being avaricious. Would readers think, “Oh, those merry Jews” and feel good about it?

The oddest thing about this is that overcoming prejudice is the major theme of Snuff. Pratchett introduces an icky characteristic (vessels for collecting substances removed or extracted from the body) of an unloved people (goblins) and makes his alter-ego Sam Vimes and the readers not only come to accept them, but appreciate them.

David Gemmell is less focused on combating prejudice in Hero in the Shadows, but oddly, his three Asian-ish characters (all from a land called “Chiatze”) all face discrimination by the locals, and get some form of revenge or satisfaction against that. It’s a strong minor theme. These important supporting characters are: Matze Chai (a reliably greedy merchant with “almond-shaped eyes,” an effeminate lifestyle, and a fatalism that helps him endure what he can’t overcome), Kysumu (a small-statured “rajnee warrior,” bred through extremes of technical proficiency and self-denial to carry on an ages-old tradition), and Yu Yu Liang (a “ditch-digger” the reader played like a Hong Kong movie comedy role).

Part of the characterization that made me think of Charlie Chan (though that was from ignorance – Warner Oland speaks quite loudly and clearly in the little scene I just looked up online) was the voice actor’s breathy speech for all of these three “Chiatze” characters. More than the other two, he represents Yu Yu as a bit buffoonish, his speech halting over Ls, Rs, and consonant blends, and his vowel sounds cut back to just five or six. I think the voice characteristics are more in keeping with Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles than with Warner Oland in the Charlie Chan films.

Both authors are pretty much off the hook for stereotyping complaints – Pratchett because the focus of Snuff is overcoming prejudice, and Gemmell because his three Asian-ish characters overcome prejudice, and the voice actor is not the same as the author. However, it feels odd to encounter stereotypes about Chinese in literature that doesn’t have any Chinese in it.

Monday, December 31, 2012

“Ow? Todd? Ow?” THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness planned well. The first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy has a name that you can remember. (The title of the sequel, The Ask and the Answer, similarly balances mystery and familiarity.) In Knife, Ness introduces not only a protagonist but an entire world with a conundrum. In fact, this book is full of conundrums. Even the bad guys have them, as Ness patiently reveals. 

After hooking readers with the title, Ness shoves them into a world that’s immediately as familiar and strange as that title. The narrative is so homey and immediate, written in the first-person perspective of a boy who’s almost thirteen, that much of what’s strange fades until the strangeness builds up and bursts out.

The central premise, obvious in the first page of the book, is that the protagonist, Todd Hewitt, and his dog, Manchee, have a telepathic connection. In fact, Todd can hear the thoughts, referred to as “Noise” throughout the book, of other people and animals, and they can hear his. This was the result, we soon learn, of a germ that made something else happen, something that leaves Todd’s society looking very different from our own.

The first big concept is deceptively simple: on an alien world, people have telepathic connections with each other and animals. The soon-revealed other results of what caused those connections are not simple, but flow smoothly and naturally from the cause. The most remarkable part of Ness’ artistry, I think, is weaving these great concepts into a narrative that jolts the reader with surprising tension, and not a little violence, interspersed with very real human considerations (fairness and justice come up a lot without preachiness on the author’s part).

Ness mercilessly tests his protagnist, Todd Hewitt, with physical and emotional distress. Todd is joined in the book by a few strong and deep supporting characters, and an abundance of antagonists. All of the significant characters speak and act as genuine individuals. For example, Todd’s dog, Manchee, “speaks” (telepathically) and behaves in a way that suits what I know of dog behavior very well. The very beginning of the book reads,

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.
“Need a poo, Todd.”
“Shut up, Manchee.”
Ness indulges in a little potty humor to get the point across, but when Todd gets fed up with Manchee and swats him, Manchee’s reaction (“Ow? Todd? Ow?”) neatly captures the strange and familiar all at once.

There’s plenty more “Ow” to come. The supporting characters are defined by loss, and Ness masterfully parcels out the pace at which these losses is revealed. One character in particular comes to life as fully as Todd, and the workings of narrative perspective mesh tightly with the world and the characters’ relationship. I’m treading carefully to avoid spoiling this, because it’s a clever and significant aspect of the book.

Antagonists, too, get their due – although not necessarily in any moral sense. There’s no hiding who Todd’s enemies are. They come across as enemies at the start, and not only because Todd can hear their thoughts. However, they have complex motivations, some of them almost superhuman abilities, and Ness reveals them as slowly and tantalizingly as he does the protagonist and his allies.

One of the further joys of reading The Knife of Never Letting Go is the language. Todd’s first-person narrative is laced with misspellings. This marks his speech as accented, and him as barely literate. However, the publisher (Candlewick) has indulged Ness with a special, loose font (and later, an explosion of fonts) to indicate the feeling of Noise Todd hears from other characters. It’s integrated into the paperback cover design as well, and generally used to good effect. 

The Knife of Never Letting Go is violent, morally rich, and a compelling read. I started to read it out loud to my kids (then 11 and seven years old), and soon realized it was inappropriate. The conflicts in the Harry Potter books are, initially, much tamer and more cartoonish, though they mature as Harry ages, and the fear is more sustained than in the rip-roaring plots Rick Riordan drags Percy Jackson through. Ness is relentless, and for this I agree with the publisher’s age minimum recommended age of 14 on the back cover. I’m way over the maximum of 18, but I think it’s safer to ignore that than the minimum.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Busy is good / summary

I have been busy with work, which is a good thing. And coaching soccer...also good! I have also been busy reading, and actually getting to more of my writing. This is great. However, I have been silent on the reviews and notes, which is less good, if not actually bad.

Here is a list of some of my recent reading, some of which I Intend To Blog About (fanfare):

Anathem, Neal Stephenson (audiobook) = my new favorite / the destroyer of many drafts of my own work

A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter Miller: at long last, not entirely without enjoyment, and an interesting contrast and overlap with Anathem

Deliver Us from Evie, M. E. Kerr: a read-in-one-sitting, something I picked up because of a brief mention in another review, and my new model for pithy dialogue

Night Watch, Terry Pratchet: every bit as good as what I had hoped in a book with Sam Vimes as the protagonist

Journey to the River Sea, Eva Ibbotson: a reread, aloud for the kids, and full of great voices

in process:

Islands of the Blessed, Nancy Farmer: the third Sea of Trolls book, reading aloud to the boys, the second I've read (we listened to #2, first, on audio)--I'm having too much fun with the voices

A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (audiobook): my commute salve, which fortunately the boys only hear parts of - they're fascinated, but disc 12 has a lot of profanity, for some reason

Longitude : the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time, Dava Sobel -- a denser, less sprightly, more focused version of a James Burke look at development of fascinating ideas and technologies by three-dimensional people in exciting times


I've also been reading online and in snippets about geophysics, astrophysics, and plot development. These are connected, for me.

More later.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

All-ahoo, Patrick O’Brian’s THE MAURITIUS COMMAND audiobook, and MASTER AND COMMANDER print book

Curiously, for a book full of action, the two most notable aspects of these, the third and first Aubrey and Maturin novels, are the author’s confidence in the reader’s appetite for period naval jargon, and the long, patient accumulation of personality in the two main characters. Why, then, do readers stick with this lengthy enterprise? How does Patrick O’Brian make it work?

Taken together, the Aubrey and Maturin books I have read and listened to are a scattershot of the first half-dozen in the 30- book series. I have read elsewhere, and come to agree, that readers (and listeners) can view this as less a sequence than a great tapestry of character. There is some term for this that escapes me, romans something-or-other, that means generally this.

One test of this idea is that I entered the Aubrey-and-Maturin universe through the now-decade-old movie said to be based on two of the novels together, Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. Years after viewing the movie, when I first read one of O’Brian’s books, I heard the movie’s actors in my head, and saw them in my mind, especially Captain (or Master and Commander, or Lieutenant, or Post-Captain, as appropriate) Jack Aubrey, Doctor Steven Maturin, and (in the movie and after the second book) Lieutenant Thomas Pullings, a very sympathetic supporting character. However, with continued listening to two different voice actors’ renderings, and with my own readings – and these critically with the aid of O’Brian’s own vivid and idiosyncratic descriptions – I developed my own standards for the principal characters’ speech. Maybe it was just the divergence of readers, actors, and descriptions that freed my imagination to create or choose voices of my own for the characters.

The movie Master and Commander bears little resemblance to the book by the same name, with the exception of those three characters, the setting, and the jargon. It seems that translating the novels into a movie required rearrangement of the events, and some characters, to suit the audience and format. It’s similar to Captain Aubrey’s practice of re-stowing the holds of the various ships he captains, or “raking the masts” of the sloop Sophie, or installing bentinck-shrouds (extra stays on the masts that support again extra sails), against naval tradition and at some cost to his military advancement, in order to eke another half-knot out of whatever assemblage of timber and canvas he currently commands.

And when the ship confronts its target, he maneuvers it and presses his advantages to leave it in sad shape. When the masts are compromised, the yardarms and ropes snapped or cut, the sails shredded, the ship’s rigging is “all-ahoo,” one of my favorite naval terms from the series. I have a recollection of the term being applied to wigs and the like, but I won’t wait to confirm that before applying it as needed in my own circumstances.

For example, I have struggled to set aside enough time to write this, but my scheduling has been crowded and chaotic – in other words, all-ahoo. That’s why it took two weeks, allowing me to finish lsitening to Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls in the meantime. While I was listening, I found two of the 11 cds included repetitions of earlier segments of the book after the completion of the sequential segments. It was as if a printer inserted a second copy of pages 121-160 after page 244. This was, it turns out, my first application of the term “all-ahoo.” My second occurred with the realization that I was going to listen to a second book before reviewing the first (actually, first two).

One reason for my difficulty in getting organized enough to write this was coaching. I have struggled to educate myself about the many parts of soccer I never got good at. Sometimes, practices go well, and people have fun. At other times, my players and I wrestle each other for control of a small game at practice. The chaos is, well, evocative of the idea. It’s also pretty inescapable when layering five hours a week of planning and working with “U-9s” atop a lopsided routine of work, home life, and the commute between. Has anybody seen my son’s left cleat?

And a “cleat” is the key. The chaos and rush of life, or of naval warfare, or of constructing or inhabiting a fictional world, relies on a few stable points. Without them, and without them being strong enough to bear the load, the whole project flies apart. We rely on teachers, family, and neithbors to fill the gaps in our own ability as parents,  both to satisfy immediate wants and to provide more generally for the children we cross bridges to support, and again to see. A “cleat” in British seamen’s speech two centuries ago is a piece of metal, wedged into wood, on which a line can be fastened. This is only what I’ve gleaned, but this gleaning helps in reading the stories.

Fastening a few points to hang the rest of the rigging on is a bare essential for readers. Disbelief requires a capacious and sturdy framework (three masts, with stays and shrouds?) for the reader to suspend it. O’Brian’s characters do things we don’t recognize today, not entirely, and think things that are surprisingly alien. (The masts, stays and shrouds of rank in British society at the time are not very distinct to American readers of this time, generally.) Yet when one hauls on a rope (a character, say, Aubrey, encounters a barrier to his advancement based on class rather than accomplishment), the shape of the rigging is indicated by the movement of the sails. This is true for social aspects of the story, for technical aspects, and every other.

Long, slow, careful study—lightened by the fact of its pleasure—is required to generate an understanding of all of the terms in use, and all of their meanings and variations, and of the society and physical world the describe. Locally, O’Brian would have written these books for an audience a half century closer to the language, politics, society, and technology in the books than current readers. He and the initial readers and the current ones all make a substantial leap through time to inhabit that world, however briefly. The cleats, holding ropes fast to keep the masts and sails in place, bear a heavy load.

With so much difference between readers’ experiences inside and outside the novels, the author must have found more durable reference points, commonalities, than the apparent specifics. There’s a diagram of a frigate’s rigging at the front of many of the books, to help bridge the gap, but until I read the story, several of them, I found the diagram unhelpful. What allows readers to bridge that gap, to construct characters over meandering plots in thirty books, to cope with unfamiliar social customs, language, and technologies? How do we hold on and where do we step so as not to fall overboard?

“All-ahoo” is a wonderful term. I am adopting it because it makes sense, it stands out in my memory from reading, and I look forward to my next encounter with it. I have “all-ahoo” in my life because it’s universal, and I can connect with it. The real answer to the question about continuing to suspend disbelief is that there are many points of connection, many fasteners and useful concepts, flashes of recognition closing the gap between reader and characters. I care about Aubrey’s unwelcome innovations with rigging not because I am a sailor (I am not), but because I am hesitant to shake things up in my own career. Maturin’s extremes of social awkwardness are confusing at first, but each layer of details makes his behavior more intelligible. The avid loyalties of lower-ranked men seem strange until readers get a close look at Aubrey’s coxswain, Bonden, or see both sides of the relationship with Thomas Pullings. The ropes come into view a length at a time.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

fun to say: "futtock shrouds"

I've been reading and listening to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin books, and the naval terms are beginning to stick. I liked Bentinck shrouds, but futtock shrouds are even more fun to talk about.

The explanation at wikipedia is barely adequate, but at least put an image in my mind to go along with one of my favorite new phrases.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

preview, VESSEL, by Sarah Beth Durst

I got sidetracked at work and followed a link to the sample chapters of a new fantasy novel, Vessel, by Sarah Beth Durst.

The book is due next month from Simon & Schuster, which continues to impress me with the quality and quantity of their YA offerings.

The premise is compelling: What if you prepared your whole life to become a sacrifice to a goddess that would save your people, and then the goddess did not accept your sacrifice?

The sample reads very well. The pace is great, and the descriptions draw a solid world, full of textures, smells, sounds, and characters. I have small quibbles with the dialogue and the use of alliteration. Small quibbles indeed.

The protagonist is a girl, about 16 years old, and I think the crossover appeal to boys would be less than for The Hunger Games, but it's still possible. Then again, I'm not a teenage boy, so I don't mind. 

The invitation that drew me in includes high praise from Tamora Pearce. If you're a fan of hers, as I am, this will certainly appeal.

Oh, and nice cover design.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Fans of the extreme physical action—violent, visceral, and wrenching—of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy now have something in common with fans of Philip K. Dick’s philosophical, alt-future ruminations about the nature of humanity. 

It’s a strange mix, but the way Paolo Bacigalupi does it, it feels natural. The child protagonists of Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities leave hooks deep in the willing reader. The world falls apart, and yet the kids are still kids underneath their adaptation to their environment.

The natural environment is only the first of the changes affecting the characters. In the wake of extreme climate change, the political unity and economic base of the United States have vanished. Scavengers and soldiers prey on the dead and the living, respectively. Bacigalupi writes child protagonists entirely native to this post-apocalyptic world. They adapt or die, and many die despite adapting. For the survivors, characteristics we think of as childlike are a luxury that could get them killed.

Bacigalupi also introduces adults also shaped in varied ways by the environment. Some are hard, cruel, and outwardly strong. Others are kind, generous, and outwardly weak. There is a fairly strong valuation of adult behaviors in Bacigalupi’s two books, but nothing so uninteresting as judgement. The cruel, hard adults are neither excused flatly for their circumstances, or blamed flatly for their actions. When doing right gets people killed, how are we to judge those who do wrong to survive? There are distinctions—cruelty for entertainment versus extreme violence for survival—that teenagers and adults will be better able to parse than kids. These books are definitely for those readers.

There’s an interesting structure to these books. Whereas Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has one protagonist and a fixed set of support characters, Bacigalupi’s Drowned Cities trilogy (only 2/3 published with the title book of the series coming second) has different protagonists in each of the first two books. 

At times, reading the second book, I felt that Nailer, the protagonist of Ship Breaker, would show up in a few pages. In a sense, he is the ideal companion of Malia, the second book’s protagonist. Bacigalupi kept me anticipating his reappearance for most of the book. However, Ship Breaker shares only one character with the sequel, and the discovery was so unexpected, I’ll leave it to readers to discover.

All of these characters—the culled and calloused children, the scarred and scary adults, and the human-animal hybrids Bacigalupi invents—explore some of the same ground where Philip K. Dick left tracks. What counts as human? It’s not easy to answer. Like Dick, Bacigalupi leaves the argument (for now) inconclusive. The answers aren’t simple, and having opened the can of worms, the humans of Philip Dick’s worlds with their un-welf-aware androids and diembodied intelligences, those of Bacigalupi’s with their hybrids and “nasty, brutish, and short” lives imposed by constant war argue it out inconclusively, through words and deeds.

One difference to note: as much as I like Philip K. Dick’s books, Bacigalupi is the more polished writer of dialogue and character. The standards of science fiction writing have changed. Challenged by Dick’s generation and their successors to come up with better ideas and smoother prose, Bacigalupi’s antecedents and peers created stronger and more literary works. For some reason or reasons, the science fiction I’m reading this decade or so features more young people, whereas the sci-fi  I grew up with featured mainly adults.