About Me

My photo
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!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Don't think...

Don't think I'm not reading just because I'm not blogging!

I generally read something through at work, or until my 6-year-old son interrupts me at home, or until I fall asleep over it an hour after his bedtime story and the dishes (usually...OK, half the time) are done.

At work, I'm looking for new writers. (I know - I want to write, but I don't have time to write on the schedule we're looking for!) I found a site called fictionaut, and a few stories there really stuck out in a good way. I'm sure there are more.

This one, "Too Old for Their Age," by Liz McClendon, left me wanting more. It feels like a novel starting, to me. I like the characters, and I want their situation explained, and their relationship elaborated. But it ends. And I can't leave a comment till I've been accepted as a member. So I thought I'd link to the story here.

What I like most is that it runs smoothly. I don't notice I'm learning about the characters and their situation until I have already assimilated the information. Is this what "show, don't tell" means? It should.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Literature, Plugged In

This (Literature, Plugged In) is an illuminating look at a digital adaptation of literature to the emerging technologies and markets for literature. I read it with interest for work (I work in school publishing, and we're facing the digital challenge ourselves), but I'm encouraged by the outlook for long-form fiction, which I want to write and read, in a heavily mediated future.

Kodansha Comics Announces New Titles

Kodansha Comics Announces New Titles

This is good news for Japanese-impaired manga fans.

The recent collapse of US-based manga licenser-publishers CMX, Del Rey, and other smaller houses looked like a killing blow for the American consumer. In the absence of licensing, hungry fans turned increasingly to unlicensed scanlations for their fix.

Now Digital Manga and Kodansha are announcing expansions, licensing pickups, and new titles. Very good news.

Scanlations (scans + translations) probably undercut licensing by leeching off the market for translations. They may stimulate consumption long-term by developing the appetite for the content. This does not feed mangaka. And the publishers weren't too happy about it, either, so they got together about a year ago to curtail the illegitimate distribution of existing content with added translations.

I have long been of the opinion that the American publishers should hire off some of the better translators, letterers and cleaners for American licenses of the titles. But Digital Manga's model is one I was thinking more recently was smarter. The iPad especially looks like a good platform for manga. It's about the right size, and with touchscreen and wireless connectivity, comfortable and effective as a viewer. It's color, unlike the Kindle, and it multitasks, with lots of entertainment already associated with it.

Plus, scouting, editing, printing, warehousing, marketing, shipping, reprinting, and later discounting long serial publications with fluctuating and unpredictable markets is a challenge. Adding the translation, licensing, and cross-cultural barriers to that meant that few manga were getting published in the US. And only the proven hits with proven market success were getting here at first.

The presence of titles like Genkaku Picasso (DMP) and Sayonara Zetsubo-Sensei (DelRey, now Kodansha USA) demonstrate that quirkier visions can find market in the US.

Now, American manga fans, it's up to us. We actually have to stop downloading scanlations for these and pay the proverbial piper. I know what Christmas presents I'm asking for.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Diamond of Darkhold - Jeanne du Prau

I just finished the fourth Book of Ember last night. It's a brief interruption of my growing interest enjoyment of Mieville's Perdido Street Station. That's fantasy for adults, and it's like a trilogy of YA fantasies all together. With lots of sex. Alien sex. And decrepit architecture. It's very worth a read, but it requires several, so launch with caution.

The Diamond of Darkhold brings the Ember tetralogy back to the two main characters' arcs. The third book, Prophet of Yonwood, was an enjoyable standalone, an extended diagonal flashback explaining obliquely (kind of a shallow trick, but an enjoyable read nonetheless) how the world of Ember came to be.

It's also on some level an elaboration of du Prau's social criticism, which is not complicated in the Books of Ember, but is appropriate (I think) for the YA reader.

Still, it departs from the storyline, and though enjoyable in its own right, left me a bit cold because I was eager to either find out a lot about what happened to our world so that it became the world in Ember, or what happened to Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow after the end of People of Sparks.

Diamond of Darkhold satisfies the second goal best, and does it in a style that I think may be du Prau's alone. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but the Ember books have a slow/quiet/small feel to them. It's not that there isn't danger, that characters are dull, or that the events have only local significance.

In fact, what I'm feeling may be the afterglow - the dull, orangey afterglow - of the movie City of Ember, which I saw before reading the book. I hardly ever do that, and this is partly why. I loved the movie, and the books, but I can't disambiguate them. The movie has a gloomy, washed-out feel, with dull echoes and worn edges to everything. Bill Murray is brilliant, though physically wrong for the part of mayor, and the screenplay (except for a large creature) sticks very close to the book.

The movie stayed with me when I read the first book. For Sparks, Yonwood, and most of Darkhold, I was able to generate my own visuals, but I am not sure what influence the movie may still have had.

What I mean by slow/quiet/small is really about the characters, anyway. I like Lina and Doon. They are thoughtful, considerate, quiet, and brave. They remind me of bookish kids I either studied alongside or much later taught.

They contrast starkly with a similar age pair from Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry. Lyra is all impulse and anger and bravado, while Will is emotionally shackled to his dependent mother, mentally ill and under her pubescent son's protection. Everything Lyra does is larger than life, and the world is (or rather, worlds are) crowding around Will with immeasurable menace.

Lina (not "Lynn-uh" but "Line-uh," almost rhyming with Lyra) and Doon face dangers and obstacles in an intially much smaller universe. It's almost claustrophobic. But even when they emerge, the wide world is somehow narrow (constrained by travel on foot, their Emberite imagination, the limited horizons of everyone around them?).

I'm not sure I'm putting this clearly. Possibly because I'm not seeing it clearly. I'm anxious to read a book of du Prau's outside the Ember universe to see if that feeling carries over.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

crossing paths: Philip Dick in Marin

Just read a review in NYT about Philip Dick's third wife's memoir/bio, The Search for Philip K. Dick. Anne Dick still lives in Pt. Reyes Station, about 25 miles from where I work, and about the same distance from where I grew up, all in Marin County, CA.

Turns out my favorite book of his, one of my favorite novels, The Man in the High Castle, was from his short residence in West Marin.

I've also lived in Berkeley, which he made his home many years before I did, and in LA, where he preceded me by decades. He sets many of his earth-bound novels and stories in the Bay Area. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" a short story that became an almost equally fantastic movie, was set in an alternate San Mateo.

Dick's writing is unfriendly. He was beset with psychological burdens, famously paranoia and addiction, but I learned from this review agoraphobia as well. He wrote on a typrewriter in a shed in Pt. Reyes Station, a shed he called The Hovel. He remembered in an interview I read awhile back that he had a psychotic break on his way to the shed one day. That was the source of a trilogy for him.

Married and divorced three times, deceased in 1982, his now-adult children coping well (reportedly) with the strangeness of their home lives and their father's posthumous success, addicted to mind-altering drugs...I don't consider the trade-offs worth it. I am confident he did not so much choose to pay so dearly for his art. And he wasn't particularly successful in his lifetime. What would have happened if he had?

The way he wrote - I call it "unfriendly" for lack of a better term. It's not sloppy, but he passes up opportunities to sweeten it. I'm reading a lot of very clever YA fantasy these days. I'm especially happy having read Suzanne Collins. Like Dick, Collins writes in The Hunger Games about a dystopian, bleak future.

So what's different?

I think with Collins, I could see the weave. It's not that it wasn't skillful - quite the contrary. I just felt that I understood what she was accomplishing, paragraph by paragraph. With Dick, it's never very clear. Information is a character. It changes its moods. It gets sick, dies, goes away, or betrays the other characters. The effect is very unsettling.

Was that the result of planning? Did Dick hide the cogs of his plot more effectively than Collins? Did it have cogs? I wasn't the same reader for their works. Maybe I should read Martian Time-Slip. I gave my aunt and uncle my copy of The Man in the High Castle. (They gave me Alas, Babylon - not a PKD novel...damn, I have a long reading list!) I wonder if the difference is in the reader.

Any PKD fans out there want to tell me what I'm missing?

Monday, November 22, 2010

90% creative, not dragged down by 10% derivative/silly

It's not exactly fair of me to criticize Tamora Pearce's Song of the Lioness series. First, it's been out since I was in high school. Second, it's written for 15 year old girls. Third, I'm nowhere near publishing, so she couldn't return the favor.

But this isn't about fair, and anyway, I'm going to recommend it pretty highly.

I just finished the tetralogy. The fourth book is Lioness Rampant, and it struck me about 2/3 of the way through that the way Pearce was tying up loose ends was also ratcheting up the pressure. The ends looked so much in doubt at one point that I actually consulted the publication information in the front to make sure (this was a reprint) that this was the last book.

Cheating, I know! It just made me appreciate how skilled Pearce was back then, and she's written at least a dozen novels in the two decades since Lioness Rampant.

The series is also interesting because the main character ages considerably over the four books. Unlike Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, who each age a year per volume, Alanna of Trebond ages a differing number of years per volume, and grows from an adolescent in the first to a mature adult, about thirty, in the last. Would a YA publisher go for that now? I wonder, because it starts with adolescent concerns and progresses to very adult ones (though in no way graphic).

The genre of the series is swords and sorcery type fantasy, crossed with adolescent romance. Pearce combines them well, for my taste, and weaves in many good stories and believable if not especially creative environments and situations.

In fact, it is the lack of imagination (keeping in mind this is a quarter century old series) that I kept thinking about since I started reading the series. The titles of the books, the names of the people and places, the political organization, the geography... I frankly found it a mark against the book, and "world building" is supposed to be key now (years later) in fantasy fiction.

Did Pearce calculate that the story would be more convincing and appealing - to both editors and readers - if it echoed our world so literally? Was she reacting to a fantasy work (or works) that went too far in the creative scenery direction back then?

The end result is that the story is very enjoyable, but I keep noticing the light skinned people who live in castles in a cool-winter land where women have some rights traveling to the southern deserts where nomadic warrior peoples with Arabic names who war against each other and really oppress their women. People to the east of the northern kingdom raid the borders, like "Huns" attacking the Franks. There's a body of water stretching east to west across (to the south) of which live black people. And in the distant east, there are the tallest mountains in the world, with ancient spirits in the Tibetan Plateau, I mean the highest passes. It's as if the world shrank to half its size, and traded the bulk and space for magic.

So that's what I meant by 10% derivative and silly. And I can't even tell if I should be emulating that instead of mocking it! Pearce is still writing. Maybe I'll ask her.

For my own writing, which I'm putting on hold to take care of a non-writing project through 2011 - or at least I think I am - I wonder how much my world building will help the story. I've imagined a solar system and home planet with very different dynamics and physical features to accommodate an otherwise unlikely celestial event and a distinct story setting.

I wonder if it's a waste of time. (It will be if I never finish, of course, but assuming I do, will the rotation of the heavenly spheres matter?)

Now I think I will finish the adult fantasy novel I'm reading - Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.

I'm also just about finished reading Little House on the Prairie to my younger son. He can only take so much of it before dozing off. I can only read so much about "savages" and wild Indians and their antics before editing as I go. It's nowhere near as racist and misanthropic as Barrie's Peter Pan, but Laura Ingalls Wilder's version of the Euro-American settlement of the Plains gives plenty of opportunities for people of my political orientation to cringe. I've decided mostly to leave in the original language, and try to make clear that different people, even within the story, see things differently. That honesty is in the original, whereas the savagery and shallowness of the "redskins" in Peter Pan is assumed and built upon, rather than asserted and discussed as in LHotP.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jeanne du Prau's Prophet of Yonwood (spoilers)

The third book in the Ember books is oddly satisfying. I read it over a twelve hour period including two meals, playing with the kids, and cleaning the bathroom. It's not especially challenging in length or style, but readers accustomed to the subject of the first two Ember books will be taken for an unexpected ride.

The story takes place in a small, rural town, beginning with the vision of a local woman who becomes a cult figure (in a coma, no less), and the arrival of a city girl beset by the problems of the world (mounting international tension and government repression), the problems of her family (her father is always away on secret business and her mother is stressed out), and the problems of adolescence.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the three goals Nickie has for her trip to Yonwood, when she and her aunt leave the big city (Philly) to clean up and sell her late great-grandfather's house, which has been in the family for a century or so.

Nickie is tired of the inhumanity of life in the city, with its dangers and callousness, and yearns for the good life in the countryside. And the house does not disappoint. It comes equipped with memorabilia, a stowaway with a dog, and plenty of purpose.

And aside from du Prau's depiction of scared people's reckless willingness to believe and follow (reminiscent of The Wave, televangelism, and the early stages of The People's Church), the strongest points about this are Nickie's to-do list, which she completes in due time, and the way the book fits, by the end, into the series. It's not exactly as it seemed on page 1, but pretty close.

City of Ember fit so well into a movie that I was expecting something similar of this and The People of Sparks, but the scenery is less stark and obvious (I mean it in a good way - the setting of City of Ember is one of the appeals to me). This is more subtle, clearly a sequel for interested readers - and it will satisfy them - but not as inherently interesting as the first.

Also, it answers more questions that it leaves open. However, it does leave some intriguing ideas unfinished, having to do with parallel worlds, and the purpose of the Builders.

Having read The Prophet of Yonwood, I'm a lot less sure of what I'll find in book 4 of Ember, but definitely looking forward to it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

denouement: Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea

Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea is the model of a good middle-grade adventure. There's a sympathetic lead character (plucky, troubled, different, kind, resourceful...), a patient, powerful, and wise adult, a few adventurous (eventually) cohorts, and some really petty villains. There's great scenery, the potential for small dangers, and real betrayal.

You could read the book if you were uptight, and never have your buttons pushed. (Well, maybe if you're really, really uptight. I hope not.) And it wasn't boring, slow, or shallow at all. That's a really nice trick.

The cover of the volume I have is like all the other Eva Ibbotson book covers I've seen - a bit soft and impressionistic, somewhat feminine. Clearly the covers are aimed at girls. But the story would be enjoyable by boys a little past the Beverly Cleary level of adventure, and maybe to more adventurous ones as well. Journey to the River Sea is set in a realistic, Victorian past, with scenes in England, on the Atlantic, and mostly in Brazil. The landscapes, riverscapes, and social situations are detailed without being overwhelming or tedious. The plot chugs along reliably like a small riverboat, with sudden turns and eddies that end up changing everything.

I think I'll send a copy to my niece, who's in third grade.

Eva Ibbotson, born in 1925, passed away in October of this year, leaving at least a dozen books for us to enjoy. Start as I did with Journey to the River Sea, and I think you'll follow me to the rest of her works not long after.

Read about a few of her books published by Penguin. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

brief thoughts on heroes, YA, and adult fantasy

I'm at a conference and don't have much time, but I was just reading China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, and things are heating up but slowly. It's been an interesting, engaging, simmering start, with no particular direction.

And, aside from being enormously impressed at the descriptions and inventiveness of the story so far, that is what I noticed. All the (effective, enjoyable, successful) YA fantasy I've been reading has a fast start. The Forest of Claws and Teeth, for instance, starts in the title. There's a confrontation involving two main characters (I'm trying not to confuse them with Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow of duPrau's Ember series, but I just did), and then the world falls apart. Fast.

But that's not even the whole picture. What's missing from PSS and other grown-up works (Years of Rice and Salt, Stone Raft) I've read is the dream. In each of the YA fantasy novels, the main character, the protagonist, has a dream. Lina dreams of her imagined city. Katniss Everdeen dreams of keeping Prim safe. Alanna in Songs of the Lioness dreams of doing great deeds as a knight.

And now I'm late for the exhibit hall. Cheers.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

politics, more Shadow Children, and self-doubt

I wanted to share this article I read about Jerry McNerny's (CA-14) opponent in the November election. Harmer is a Tea Party-branded extremist who, according to this Mother Jones article, wants to abolish public education.

I've said it before, but when will progressives and half-way decent people stop - just STOP - writing dystopian and apocalyptic novels that the right-wing then uses as instruction manuals?
  • Orwell, 1984, Dick Cheney.
  • Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, Christian fundamentalists.
  • Haddix, Shadow Children series, Harmer.
See what I mean? I'm sure you could add to the list.

Finished Margaret Peterson Haddix' third Shadow Children series. Good world creation. Interesting characters. Multiple points of view. Short novels. I like the combination, and she's a serious enough writer to make the short fiction format a powerful vehicle for this drama-with-a-message series.

My own writing is stalled. I'm remaking my world. I was struggling with logical inconsistencies that no amount of verbiage was going to effectively paper over. I needed to resolve (and am still working on) how the world got the way it was, to ease readers' suspension of disbelief.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Haddix' The Shadow Children, et cetera

[This entry contains some partial spoilers for Margaret Peterson Haddix’ Shadow Children series and whatever else I feel like writing about.]

Last night I finished the second of the Margaret Peterson Haddix Shadow Children series. Between them, Among the Hidden and Among the Impostors measure up to the word count and time investment of about one Hunger Games or Percy Jackson novel. Still, they’re good reading, with a believable what-if near-future setting, a sympathetic and complex lead character in Luke Garner, and a structure, so far, of one new person to trust and lose in each book.

Luke Garner is actually pretty likeable. He reminds me the most, recently, of Carl Hiaasen’s lead character in Hoot. The problem with both is that they’re a bit too “everyboy.” Hiaasen’s character – I read Hoot two weeks ago – is already anonymous to me. The story stands out because I like the situations he gets into, and the supporting characters are pretty interesting. Officer Delinko is probably the best developed, and as he started out the Scarecrow of Oz (“If I only had a brain!”), any changes in his character were almost bound to be for the better.

Hiaasen is well known as a talented writer, and I enjoyed the book a lot, but it’s funny how the main character doesn’t actually change much, and only the villain, Dana, and the inept adult character, Officer Delinko, either change or retain their memories in my mind a month after reading. I bet it’s not Hiaasen’s fault – I have a pretty spotty memory. The real point for me, as a wannabe Hiaasen, is that the book was enjoyable, but not especially gripping or moving, and since that is what I want to write, I want to observe the differences.

Let me try a list of them. In the sort of YA adventure/fantasy I enjoy most and want to write,

  • The protagonist is treated with gross unfairness (a la Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, or Frodo Baggins).
    The reader shares the protagonist’s emotional commitment to outcomes in the book.
  • The stakes are high – not just social but vital. (This corners me in the adventure-fantasy genre, I suppose).
  • The protagonist experiences increasing setbacks, self-doubt, and danger throughout the book.
  • The protagonist cannot escape his or her circumstances except by confronting the dangers as they mount.
  • The protagonist has a special skill or strength that allows her or him to overcome, but it is not sufficient.
  • The protagonist survives, but loses something important.

Luke Garner is partway toward this ideal. Haddix paints him convincingly into a corner, and then teases us into thinking he’ll get out, only landing him from the mixed-metaphor-proverbial fire. I guess the frying pan was in the corner, or something like that. Whatever the semantics, we follow Lee from bad to worse, to tantalizingly hopeful, to the depths of despair, and a faint but costly glimmer of hope, all in 150 YA (that is to say, short) pages. 

I also just read and really enjoyed Jeanne duPrau's City of Ember. It's so calm compared to the Hunger Games, that I almost didn't think I was enjoying it. What a strange feeling! Every page was satisfying to read, and the characters of Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow are really sympathetic. Maybe it was just my reading, but I felt so much less tension than when reading these other books. 

There's also the problem of having seen the very good movie adaptation before reading the book. Does anybody else feel this way?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Parental nonunits in children's literature

Agent Nathan Bransford commented on Leila Sales' Publisher's Weekly post about absent parents in children's/YA literature. He points out that it's common in classic English-language lit, giving examples from Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum, and others.

He also points out the fractured and imperfect nature of other present parental units in literature.

I had noticed something similar in teen demographic mangas. It seems that the first step in almost every case is to eradicate or hobble the parents. They're workaholics, alcoholics, dead, as good as dead, working overseas, divorced and irresponsible, or otherwise irrelevant.

Bransford defends the Rowlings of modern literature (whose teenage characters are orphans) against the charge of laziness by recalling how exciting it was as a young reader to follow the adventures of other young people taking on adult challenges, and winning (or surviving).

He also admits to writing a book about a young character with absent parents. It strikes me I am doing the same. I've decided (after reading The Hunger Games trilogy, with the lead character's parents variously dead, half-dead, absent, or powerless) to base less of my work in progress (wait, that's a stretch...) on orphanhood.

But the lead's parents are still dead and gone, and now I have Bransford's "In Defense of Dead/Absent Parents in Children's Literature" to justify my folly.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Blogure (like failure, only more public)

I started this blog in part because I love to read, and hate to forget. Specifically, I hate to forget where I read things I found interesting.

So it didn’t help when I read Carl Hiaasen’s YA novel (yes, my Indian name is Reads Like Teenager) Hoot. noticed something interesting about it, and then my sister-in-law gave us the Hunger Games trilogy.

(Brief note on Suzanne Collins’ awesomeness for now: [drools] the excitement surrounding her series is justified by the craft in the first 50 pages of the first book. 2nd brief note: I am so glad I didn’t start reading until I had all three books in hand. It would have driven me nuts to have to wait!)

So what’s the blogure about? Hiaasen’s really funny, and Hoot is, well, a hoot. It works on so many levels! (Read that in Homer Simpson’s voice, and if you get the reference, congratulations! You are my loser twin.)

But I noticed something a character did that didn’t make sense. And it irks me, because so much of the book seems so effortlessly good, so effective without resorting to patterns (the overlapping cascade of crises of a Rowling book, or, in a slightly different pattern) Collins’ series that I so want ro finish this very minute). Hiaasen manages to push the conflict in irregular and unpredictable directions – well, I didn’t predict them, any way – without any rupture from our current, real-life way of doing things.

(This is not to detract from fantasy and sci-fi, where coming up with new rules is part of the fun. Sure, it lets the author advance the plot by revealing a rule that doesn’t exist in our experience – the Quarter Quell in Collins’ Catching Fire, for example, or the traditions of the Triwizard Cup at Hogwarts – but that can only work if it’s credible, and if the reader is invested in how the rules affect the characters. Collins and Rowling ace that one.)

So I’m considering contacting the eminent Floridian, Mr. Hiaasen, and asking about this late turn of events in Hoot. It’s going to be awkward for me, because I don’t know is other work, I’m not published (Heck, I can’t even get a pair of chapter past myself!), and it’s a lousy way to introduce myself… [imagines]

Hi, Mr. famous author, I’m some jerk who read your latest book, and I think you screwed up on suchandsuch a scene.

See? Tone’s all wrong. Hard to make a good impression.

So that’s what’s bothering me. After reading Hoot, I thought about this, and then I got all three Hunger Games books dropped in my lap, and I devoured the first two, turned into one of Collins' zombies, and forgot what I meant to insult Hiaasen about.

I guess I'd better just keep my observations to myself.

Testing School Testing

Susan Engel, a professor of education and psychology at Williams College, published an op-ed in the NY Times today calling for, to coin a phrase, data driven testing.

While I like her points about the narrow "read" of standardized tests on student's abilities, and agree that better measures of students' abilities and teachers' effectiveness could be used, I have three problems with her solution.

Professor Engel is realistic about this, in an offhanded way. She scolds the reading public for accepting "expediency" as the reason for sticking with the current tests. She calls them easy to administer, which would mean that they're also cheaper than less easy alternatives. (Probably - except that testing companies are for-profit enterprises, and the schools have been their captives, especially since NCLB.)

In the current slashing and burning of school funding, I think the case for more expensive tests will be laughed out of the court of public opinion, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors.

When I was teaching, I remember being scolded about how I just didn't understand parents' concerns, and that standardized testing was a way to be fair to parents and allow them to correct problems in their children's education. I've seen it used as a bludgeon by the state, and by other sources of funding dependent on test scores, but not as a tool by parents. 

The testing methods Professor Engel proposes sound great to me, as a former teacher, but nearly impossible to score equitably across states, districts in a state, or even schools in a district.

With so much currently tied into score comparisons (teacher promotion and retention, school restructuring, to-the-top racing), there's little realistic expectation that the standardized test will go the way of the carbon-dated.

3-range of skills testable in multiple-choice
Professor Engel makes one more assertion I'd challenge. I could enumerate more problems with standardized, multiple-choice testing than she does in her piece, because that's not her point. However, it is possibly to test higher-level cognitive functions than simple memorization.

The way she puts it, "students are quizzed on the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year," but I used to work in assessment, and I am pretty sure we managed to design assessments of other cognitive functions than memory.

By allowing students one correct choice, two viable distractors, and one clearly wrong choice, and by asking students to do more than remember the year of the Gettysburg Address, it is possible to access their judgment, understanding, analytical skills, even a portion of their creativity, in tests that - to repeat the professor's accusation - are expedient.

I don't think that describes most tests public school students take for their states, and I don't like them to come only at the end of the year, so I'm hardly an advocate of the status quo in testing. (In fact, I used to work for a very good little company that sold formative testing services - helping teachers track student achievement throughout the year - until it was swallowed up by one of the big five, no - four, wait - now it's three major educational publishers in the US.)

I think I will talk about these "alternative" - maybe the term I'm looking for is "better" - tests with my kids' principal. I bet the good teachers are already doing things like this in their classrooms, and since there's little to no chance of the states and federal government replacing completely-filling-in-the-appropriate-circle with Professor Engel's much more interesting and educationally meaningful tests, I think that's where the better testing will stay for now.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tamora Pierce, In the Hands of the Goddess

A couple of weeks ago, I finished In the Hands of the Goddess, the second of Tamora Pierce's vintage (but not tired) tween swords-n-sorcery fantasy series Song of the Lioness. As with the first book, I found world-building and names to be unimaginative, and description inexplicably weighted toward eye and hair color.

Still, the story succeeds on its own terms. Alana continues to learn how to become a knight, and works toward the feared Ordeal that will mark her achievement. That makes a nice structure for the book and for the series. She also has interesting developments with various royalty (all interesting individuals!), rough soldiers twice her size who come to respect her skills, and a goddess.

The outcome of her various concerns is never assured, and the quality of every main character's -um- character is well more than two-dimensional.

As an adult, and a wannabe YA fiction author, I read this with a critical eye for craft, and come away pretty impressed. It's not high art, and it's not as good or original as much else you'll find, but Pierce really nails her character development, and once she gets past the decorative descriptions, they really come alive. I'm especially fond of Sir Miles, whose intentions are opaque to me, but whom Alana trusts at every turn, and of the knight Alex, once squire to her archenemy in this book.

Pierce also does a great job with battle scenes. She doesn't dwell on numbers and formations, but focuses believably and vividly on personal experience, including a very effective rendering of the fog of war. Maybe if you study Medieval crossbow tactics as a hobby, or reenact Hastings every even year, you'd be dissatisfied, but from a general fantasy perspective, this really stands up.

Alana is disguised as Alan for most of the book, and manages to juggle budding romantic interests (I won't say with who) despite this. It's a real balancing act, and the stress of it is worked nicely into the plot.

This doesn't crackle with freshness or originality on many levels, but the series offers a believable and positive female lead, one I would have gladly read about had I ran into this series when I was of the right age.

A few years before Pierce published the first of these, I was reading Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series, to which I compare this. McCaffrey invested more in world-building, which I like, but less in character development than Pierce in this series. Both are very appropriate for tween readers of fantasy.

There is a bit of graphic violence and (socially accepted) teen drinking, though not to excess, in Pierce's series. I know this can be an issue for some parents. I would feel comfortable with my 9 year old son reading this. (He just finished the Eragon trilogy (Paolini), is close to finishing the Amber Spyglass (Pullman) - which has gay angels, and the Hobbit.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Muslims versus Jews" email

I love my aunt and uncle. But they watch Fox.

They recently sent me an email you might have seen going around comparing Muslims and Jews, centering on the number of Nobel prizes each group has won, and on vague, misleading or inaccurate, and ridiculously decontextualized generalizations about propensities toward violence.

Have you seen it? Here are a few gems:

The Jews are NOT promoting brain washing children in military training camps, teaching them how to blow themselves up and cause maximum deaths of Jews and other non Muslims. The Jews don't hijack planes, nor kill athletes at the Olympics, or blow themselves up in German restaurants.

There is NOT one single Jew who has destroyed a church. There is NOT a single Jew who protests by killing people.

Note the artful use of capitals, the clever repetition of the phrase "NOT one single." Just in case the meaning of "one" was unclear.

Recently, the UK debated whether to remove The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it 'offends' the Muslim population which claims it never occurred. It is not removed as yet. However, this is a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving into it.
OK, I'm not sure it's metonymy, but I wanted to show off by using the word. Probably the above phrasing is just laziness. The whole UK debated this? A quick search online turns up debunkers and promoters of this meme. I guess people just pick a side and run with the facts that fit their conclusion. The analysis on Snopes does a good job of confirming the predictable - that this is a tempest in a teacup, and a much more interesting and less alarming piece of news than the fantasy version. It boils down to one school reconsidering the teaching of controversial topics in a history class in light of a study on the effects of such teaching methods.

It's almost comforting to think of the world in Glenn Beck diagrams instead. Certainly, it's easier to understand between commercial breaks. It settles my stomach to compare my commute, my sore knee, and my credit card debt to Adolf Hitler.

Back to my massive wimp-out. I wanted to send this reply to the whole mailing list, but I really hate getting emails like that, so why send one? .

So here's the reply I didn't send.


I feel that the intended conclusions of this email are unworthy of anyone with humane intent. I am sure I will see the contents recycled and repackaged as part of an equally loathsome accusation of the imaginary international Jewish conspiracy.

And in the meantime, several thousand emails will be concocted and forwarded around the circles that receive these contents gladly, condemning me for my beliefs, calling me inhumane, stupid, a coward, a criminal, un-American, and counting the achievements and crimes of people somehow like me, and what will that prove? (After all, I am a member of the most despised minority in America!)

Remember, you and I are citizens of the only nation in the world to have used nuclear weapons against humans, and in both cases the targets were, or were surrounded and outnumbered by, large cities.

Our nation recently launched a war to bring down a dictator it had supported and armed, in reaction to an attack with which he was in no way connected, predicated on the spurious charge of a direct connection, killing a million or more people, and displacing tens of millions.

Our nation legalized, regulated, and promoted slavery, and for a hundred years after the end of slavery, resisted legal equality for the descendants of slaves.
Our government practiced genocide against the original inhabitants of the land, and confined the survivors to tiny, resource-poor outposts.

Men mistreated women, Europeans mistreated non-Europeans, Christians mistreated non-Christians, Catholics mistreated non-Catholics (and other Catholics who were unable to defend themselves), and Californians produce more trash, smog and greenhouse gases per capita than almost any other population on earth. What right have I to even live with such a record as a male Californian of European and Catholic descent? 

Some Irish in San Francisco murdered Chinese laborers a century ago. My children are Irish and Chinese? Should they hate themselves, fear themselves, or forgive themselves?

Thinking of people as groups first and individuals second is the source of too many problems to count. Please find in your heart, draw from your belief system, or discover in the support of your friends and family, the will to be better than this.

Practice peace.




OK, tell me, was that "practice peace" just a little to goody-two-shoes? Yeeikes!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Can’t Remember All That! – Working Memory Deficits

Adrienne Akinsete posts on a Special Ed group on LinkedIn, and had a nice post about working memory and comprehension I just read today. She describes usefully the exchanges between working, short-term, and long-term memory that go on in successful readers' minds. It made me think about the conceptual load I'm trying to control in my development of high interest-low readability books for struggling readers. She cited a lot of research that now I feel obligated to chase down... I mean, intrigued. 

Found in Translation: Soccer and Basketball Manga

Phew! Brief hiatus, in which I read another Tamora Pierce book (comments TK) and attended a Scottish cutural festival without drinking any ale.

For today, I just read Jonathan Bethune's Found in Translation: Soccer and Basketball Manga, where I left the following, incriminating comment:
I didn't know Captain Tsubasa had such a long history. I agree - the eight year run sounds like a good addition to manga libraries.

For my part, the sports series I would love to see licensed and translated in the US is Urasawa Naoki's tennis drama, "Happy!" The main character Umino Miyuki's grit, shown wonderfully in her facial expressions and body language, and her frustrating stoicism both make for a great combination of sports and drama.

It's definitely a seinen manga, but there's a romantic theme that probably cut into the purity of its fan base in Japan where, I read, it suffered by comparison with Urasawa's immediately preceding sports series, "Yawara."

Umino's name, Miyuki, which means "happy," gives the series its somewhat overbearing irony, in that (as far as I've gotten with the amateur translations), she isn't.

If I win the lottery, I'm going to have somebody translate this for me. It's that good.
I'd welcome more sports manga that looked and read different from "Eyeshield 21," which has a silly name and a skimpy premise, with underdeveloped characters, little story line, and spazzy art, or "Beach Stars," which is cheesecake volleyball (hmm, the word "skimpy" applies here, too), and exploitative of short people! (I'm tall, but I still disapprove...maybe not enough to keep from looking, but still I disapprove.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beth Revis, Across the Universe, first chapter

Not sure where I got this, but it was last Friday, and while cleaning up my computer desktop, I stumbled across chapter 1, "Amy," a kick-in-the-guts first chapter by Beth Revis (visit her blog here) that has me looking up the author, linking to her website, and trying to figure out why I have wasted my time with the milquetoast that passes for sci-fi in the rest of my reading list. I hope the rest of Across the Universe satisfies like this chapter.

Her website links to the publisher's page, and it seems it's due in Spring 2011, part of a three-book deal.

Nice! I can't wait.

On word counts and novel length.

I slept last night, so no reading or writing. It's been hot, and I just can't do weather-changes, work-and-commute-and-kids, and writing all in one day. Most of the year east of San Francisco is just fine, but we finally got some summer, and it's killing my writing.

Just to throw what remains of my writing goals (I'm suppressing a "Ha!") into further disarray, this interesting piece by Colleen Lindsey about length of fiction manuscripts. The long and the short of it is that my (see the writing page - go on, click the link at the right) writing goal of 100,000 words by year's end might be either WAAAAAY off, or dead-on. I was planning to revise, but I decided on 100k words because that's the approximate length of the first Harry Potter book, and I thought I would be hard-pressed to find a better model for the breakout YA fantasy novel than Janet Rowling's.

Makes sense, right?

Colleen's piece shows why it doesn't, but leaves wiggle room for me to keep striving.

Maybe some iced coffee tonight after the school open house will get me back on track.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fantasy cover chart (from Orbit)

I love this. This is a chart of fantasy cover art topics. Bad news for unicorns, good news for the new category "Damsels (no distress)."

For work, I sometimes review cover art of popular books to help plan our covers. I've never yet seen someone else indulge in statistical abstractions based on the same thing. A kindred spirit!

(And all I can think is, "What a loser!")  :)

Monday, August 30, 2010

America's Honor is Found In Its Ideals

I was checking out the political sites today and liked America's Honor is Found In Its Ideals by Ed Brayton at scienceblogs.

Brayton spells out the familiar but timely premise that America's ideals have been the goal, and our execution of them an imperfect but generally improving reality.

I like - but I'm not sure if I agree with it exactly - his assertion that America is living up to its ideals better than before. While we do have more widely and evenly spread and more formally defended rights, we also have taken increasingly devastating military actions abroad. I'm pretty sure sending a disproportionately large number of our second-class citizens to first defend colonial rule and then institute a new protectorate in southeast Asia was in keeping with the high ideals on which this country was founded.

Anyway, you should check it out, too. It's like a salve, which I need after having my honor so ineptly restored.

just picked up from the library...

I was at the library Saturday, and I started reading...

- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (out of nostalgia for history of science, and because it's been so long I've forgotten which arguments are Kuhn's)
- David Macaulay, Castle (I've been wanting to read this for years, and since the kids are sharing a room, it's good to have material that bridges their age gap)
- Tamora Pierce, In the Hand of the Goddess (because I just finished the ineptly titled and yet very enjoyable Alanna: the first adventure, the first Songs of the Lioness book)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

online manga going legit?

I read manga. A lot of it, actually. I recently started buying it again because I was looking at so much free online manga. The group of publishers who organized to stop free distribution of manga have it right. I'm hooked - now it's time to start charging me for content. (Before the web, I collected manga. I have boxes in the garage. Maybe I should sell...)

I hope they'll start paying creators better in the same move.

Manga creators and fans may get an interesting break from the publishers' stranglehold, though. In After Scanlations: Manga Publishers Look to Offer Legal Digital Access, Kai-Ming Cha tells about several publishers' (Yen, Viz) and distributors' (Crunchyroll) plans to offer paid access online.

This is where the publishers have it wrong, I think. Yen's "Yen Plus" will only offer Yen titles. Viz will offer the much more appealing (to me) catalog of Viz titles.

Would you pay a fee to a music label for access online to its signed artists' work?

That's why I think the iTunes model (I've been going on about this for awhile) - which I'm encouraged to read Crunchyroll (currently distributing eons of anime content for low to no fees) is building a manga reader. They're not publishers, so they just license the content they think will work and for which they can get the rights.

Best of luck to 'em.

By the way, since computer screens are landscape, and manga pages mostly portrait, will the reader be capable of rendering the page legibly in the space available?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Alanna (Song of the Lioness, book 1)

by Tamora Pierce

I read stuff written for kids. Well, teenagers. I find a lot of it more satisfying and worth my effort than littratoor written for adults. I not only slum around in genre fiction, I choose what's published for people less than half my age.

Tamora Pierce's name leapt out at me from the teen fiction shelf at the library Saturday. I'm a regular because my house doesn't have any good spots for tutoring, and as much as I like my students, I don't want them sitting on folding chairs next to my slumping, half-full rice sacks.

My own kids were busy using the computers to play a mind-numbing dragon-fighting game the library staff have given up on banning, so I had a few minutes, and found a fun read.

Cons before pros:

Ms. Pierce does not waste her writing talent on creating interesting names - not for her characters, nor places, nor objects, nor the books themselves (though agents and publishers may have had more of a hand in enforcing the dull verbiage squatting on the cover of this book). That said, there is considerable storytelling talent inside.

Alanna: The First Adventure is the opening salvo of four novels. My guess is they're adventures. And feature Alanna. Really - are there no more interesting things to call the book?

Too little other than hair and eye color is disclosed about characters when they are introduced.

Oh, and there were three typos.

The Pros:

This was a fun, fast read, with well-defined and interesting characters doing things that mostly mattered. Pierce put in a lot of plot twists that, while not shocking, kept my attention, and didn't fall into too much of a pattern.

Yes, it's a story about a plucky girl, magic, sword-play, thieves, horses, ruins, knights, and cross-dressing, and who hasn't read a dozen of those this past year, but at least there are no vampires!

The pacing is just about right for an upper elementary to middle school reader, and the words and situations are suitable for anyone whose parents got over what's in the Harry Potter series.

All in all, a bit formulaic, but successful anyway because the author had a clear idea of her characters and their stories.

An admission:

I might not have borrowed and read this book if it hadn't been about twelve year old fraternal twins who get separated and have adventures. That's about the extent of the commonality between this book and what I'm writing (if you can call 300 words a day writing), but it was enough to snag me. It might not mean the same to you, but if you have a ten to thirteen year old girl (or boy - Alanna's a good character for both) in your life who is looking for an adventurous read, and who hasn't said she (or he) was sick of fantasy, this is a promising start to the series.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

satisfyingly wonky Foriegn Policy article on Chongqing

I get Foreign Policy magazine updates monthly by email, and if you are anything like me...

Wait, let's parse that. Twentyish years ago, I taped NPR programs and stored them, cut out foreign affairs and public infrastructure news stories and stored them in binders, categorized and underlined, and wrote lots of (mostly unpublished) letters to the editor of the SF Chronicle. 

...then you'll be able to appreciate this cooooool one - "Chicago on the Yangtze" -  on the growth of Chongqing in western China, and what it means historically, economically, and for the evolution of national politics in China.

Even my inner SimCity geek (filed away so long now I no longer see every freeway interchange and building crane as something I can affect with a sweep of the demolition tool or the zoning tool) loved the bit about the land pressure, multiple bridges, and swallowing up of suburbs (impossible, for the record, in any version of SimCity I've played - are you listening, Electronic Arts?).

Anyway, the current edition of FP also has intriguing articles I might yet read on urban versus suburban futures, how cities are replacing nation-states, and prospects for economic development and diplomatic gamesmanship in the Arctic.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hotel California

Ever have a song you liked decades ago flit through your mind for a moment and then stay there, gnawing at your every thought process, till even breathing became hard to accomplish, and you simply had to find out what the lyrics were, or meant?

Yeah, that's what the Internet is for.

For me, it was the Eagles' "Hotel California," at least today. Tomorrow (if I'm not so afflicted more than once today) it will be something else, probably from MC-Lyte or Iron Maiden or Daniela Mercury. I have been an ardent fan of all of these. Fortunately, I have never subjected myself to the discognitia (my new word!) that would inevitably result from listening to more than one of them in any single day.

The nice folks over at Wikipedia (Hey! That includes me!) inform me that the Eagles had something specific in mind when writing the lyrics, and it appears I should be sorry I missed it, or maybe not. And that dopey interviewers got smacked down for trampling on art by asking what the lyrics meant.

Which is another thing the Internet is for. (Not getting smacked down for asking a question. I hate that.)

Anyway, if by this time you are not already humming along to the same internal soundtrack I've been enjoying for the last couple of hours (do people raised with only digital music technologies repeat the same lyrics in their heads like a broken record as we analog babies do?), then there's no point continuing about this, because you're not likely to care. And if you are so afflicted, then you'll be motivated to look it up on your own.

Just don't follow any of the links to covers of the song, or you're done for the day, no matter what you were up to - working, studying, breathing...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley ROBINSON

This was a great read, long but worth the effort. I was pleased and not surprised to find that my fellow San Francisco Bay Area resident Kim Stanley Robinson earned a Ph.D in History. After all, I had been slogging through his series on sudden climate change (or Science in the Capital) series, in which his attention to philosophical and cultural connections and distinctions almost overwhelm his palpable descriptions of place. (His descriptions of place would be cinematic if they did not also trigger the sense of heat or scale or sound that they do - they're beyond cinematic.)

While I was impressed with his character and plot development in Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below, something about the protagonist, Frank Vanderwal, nagged at me. It was as if he were more than one person - not inconsistent, but too busy and inventive. I've struggled to figure this out for a year now, and only after reading The Years of Rice and Salt am I satisfied with my own explanation. I think our discomfort with change and violations of convention - our inherent, visceral conservativism - makes it unrealistic that a person could withstand, never mind thrive on, as much thwarting of social norms as Vanderwal seeks out and/or causes.

My reading list is long, and my hours short, and my distractions many and effective, so I have little tolerance for books I am not enjoying. (That's where all my bookmarks go - the middle third of books I regretfully gave up reading, like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood or The Stone Raft by José Saramago.)

But Rice and Salt was a different matter. For one thing, it's an alternative history, and despite the odiferous sludge I've forced down my optical gullet because it was classified as such, I have a soft spot for the genre. It's also fantasy on a grand scale - like The Lord of the Rings or Anne McCaffrey's Pern books. You can read it just for fun - that is, if you're a weirdo like me who is entertained by philosophical discussions and historical (or alt-historical) narratives. The fun part is the thrill-ride adventure many of the characters experience.

In a way, Robinson has packed a roller-coaster into an encyclopedia. It's a pretty cool read.

The book begins with the premise that the bubonic plague has killed 99% instead of 33% of the peoples of Europe. It covers over seven centuries of the subsequent history, and occupies six of the seven continents. (Okay, five of the six, since a depopulated Europe is even less of a continent than the Europe of our reality.)

How Robinson weaves this into a narrative is the second premise. At first, the reincarnation scenes - which are all fascinating, and used to move a meta plot along - struck me as a little too enthusiastic, as if Robinson wanted to share the joy Buddhism with his readers. I now think I was hypersensitive to a fault I am guilty of - becoming a fan of what I study - and that Robinson treated all of the characters and cultural traits and civilizations he touches with balance and fairness.

Okay, maybe not the Hodenosaunee. I can cut him that much slack.

The Years of Rice and Salt is divided into ten "books," each the length of a novella (I think), for each of the reincarnations of the group of characters. My favorite were the first book, which prepares the reader for the sweeping geographic scope of the novel, "The Alchemist," which I think collapses a bit too much of our real history into a few characters in the alt-history, but does it in a compelling and enjoyable way (I especially like the parallels to Niccolo "Tartaglia" Fontana, intended or otherwise), and "The Widow Kang," which is a bit long, but seems to have been the first written.

There was a point in the middle, set in Mecca, at which I realized how much I appreciated the research and thought that had gone into Robinson's work. And he published it during a time in America when thinking critically and openly about Islam, about empire, about the justifications for war, about the interplay of civilizations, was considered unpatriotic and dangerous. And it was probably partly from this consideration that I gained an appetite for the rest of the book, about 400 pages then remaining, of which all were a rewarding read.

There was also, for me, a personal/geographical indulgence. Robinson and I live near San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, where he sets a few key sections of his narrative, including the most straightforward part of an exciting and nuanced chapter, an odd and perhaps unintended echo of Gavin Menzies' idea about Admiral He's treasure fleet. The section in question seems to have been set within a few miles of where I grew up. As with the use of Mount Tamalpais as a location in the fourth (?) Percy Jackson book, this made me feel an unearned and silly pride, but it was still fun.

Poor Frank Vanderwal. I couldn't believe the range of actions he took in the parts of the Science in the Capital series I read. If only he were reincarnated, I could apparently have accepted almost anything!

This was my favorite book in years.