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, 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.