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!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Edgy" books for teens - an apologia

I read and appreciated Gail Giles' defense of the darkness in YA literature.

I often think of edginess as an inducement to read, because I'm writing and editing for non-habitual readers. I imagine the 12-year-old reading at a second-grade level feeling frustrated and bored at the same time by the puppies-and-teddy-bears book she can't quite decipher, when her classmates are reading The Hunger Games. 

Giles' approach and reasoning are different. She argues that teens are ill-equipped to understand the consequences to the antisocial impulses they have, and that literature offers them a safe way to explore those impulses, and those consequences. This is the antithesis of the parental clench reaction to anything adult-y, and I find it refreshing.

Please read it (follow the link above or here), and let me know where you stand.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Susanne Lakin writes in her blog Live Write Thrive about the demise of the publishing industry, long live the publishing industry.

I like her take, that words will survive the transition to digital platforms, and moreover that writers will get more direct benefits. 

And this from someone in the publishing industry!

I even think there's good news in there for publishers, however hard the short run adaptation will be.

Because my segment of the industry is school publishing, I have to think of school budgets when I think of changes in our industry. All of the parents at work bemoan the impoverishment of our local schools. We frankly don't see the iPads and smart-screens taking over just yet. Our customers are scraping together change from the couch cushions to buy our products. (Great business model, right? Sell to special ed and resource teachers...)

So, where are all these digital readers? When to publishers need to make the leap?

I think it will a be slow and halting leap, with lots of school publishers falling short of the target, but all market shake-ups are like that. How many "for sale" signs have you seen on real estate offices in the past three years?

Lakin's argument that we need to embrace the change is well taken. My arms (and eyes) are open. Now who's voting to raise their property taxes to buy tablet computers for the LD classes?

Don't all jump at once...

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why there's a James Patterson section at the bookstore

I recently finished reading the first Maximum Ride novel, The Angel Experiment, to my kids. It had annoying stylistic issues, uneven plot structure, and way too many chapters. One hundred forty something? Seriously?

Still, I can see why, when I was shopping for the sequel (at some awful chain store - sorry, Mike!), I found among sections titled "Mystery" and "Young Adult Fiction," one called "James Patterson."

I was wondering about this from a writer's perspective, as well as a reader's. Please excuse the pomposity of what follows. I am opining, and asking for you to read. It is a pompous exercise by nature, and unlike Newt Gingrich, I will own up to my pomposity.

How does a story attract readers and hold them? One attraction is familiarity, which allows for empathy. We like Huck Finn's impish disdain for authority not because it is good, but because we feel the same sometimes, even into adulthood, yearning to kick off our shoes and run away to the river.

Another attraction is exoticism. The strange world of Gethen Ursula LeGuin reveals in The Left Hand of Darkness, beginning with the celebration of the completion of a public works project in the Karhide capital, not only introduces us to the cautious, patient protagonist Genly Ai, but also to the cold, damp, and fusty civilization that evolved there.

There is also the appeal of coming to know someone new, to make a new friend (or a new self) through reading fiction. For me, one of the best was the self-righteous and lethally impulsive Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He is nettled and worried, alone and betrayed, wronged and reckless.

And here's why (aside from diligence, volume, and effective marketing) James Patterson's Maximum Ride succeeds: Patterson takes readers from ignorance of the world and people he created, through knowledge of Max, her family, and their world, into empathy. (Pompous enough yet?)

  • at the stage of ignorance, readers have familiarity and empathy with their own stories
  • at the stage of knowledge, readers acquire familiarity with the protagonist, and are developing empathy
  • at the stage of empathy, readers begin to feel what the protagonist will do next, and to care about the outcome
I've been thinking about making readers care about protagonists a lot. Patterson, to me, clearly has this down. Not only is Max almost instantly empathetic (there's a quick step in Angel Experiment from a tiny bit of knowledge to strong empathy), but the supporting characters are all deeply likeable, though my favorite is Nudge.

I'm a lot like Nudge in some respects, so I think the difference between my identification with her and with the other characters is based on that, whereas with Max, it's more about the convincing empathy of the situation. It's Max's situation in the world Patterson creates, more than Nudge's or even Angel's, that generates empathy.

How does someone like George R. R. Martin do this with a dozen (I've honestly lost count) characters? I'm on the third (have I lost count of that, too?) book of the Song of Ice and Fire septology (wouldn't that be appropriate?), and I am absolutely stunned at how much I yearn for the next bit of news about each of the characters. I'm even hungry for news from Theon Greyjoy!

The reason, or a good chunk of it, for this eagerness, is that each lead character has strengths I wish I had, and weaknesses I feel a need to avoid. Jon Snow is resourceful, but impulsive; Jaime Lannister is a champion, but unfettered by ethics or sympathy; Catelyn Tully Stark is proud and kind, but badly governed by those good emotions; Daenerys Targaryen is resilient and a strategic thinker, but in well over her head, and my favorite, Arya Stark, has the heart of a hero, but the body of a not-quite-ten-year-old girl. (Okay, that's not my problem exactly, but physical weakness is kind of a universal fear.)

And with each character-centered chapter, a part of the story is told, and knowledge is gained, but the characters' strengths and weaknesses make them more empathetic. And then Martin cuts us off from the newsfeed, the supply of knowledge. And we're stuck, waiting for more.

So why is there a Patterson section at B&N, and not a Martin section? Patterson tells single-narrative stories in great proliferation, allowing less polish, and inventing less of the world. He has less knowledge to convey (though he has plenty in his world), and fewer characters to bring to life, than Martin does.

I wonder if any of this will be useful in writing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

List or satire: who can tell?

I used to love reading the Harper's Index. I actually read the whole magazine, cover to cover, when I subscribed. (Come to think of it, I might subscribe again. That was pretty good reading.)

The reasons I liked the Index were the latent humor of juxtaposition, the generally progressive message the list of data conveyed, and the heady feeling that there was humor out there, just waiting to be dug up, in newspaper clippings and economic statistics and other modern political detritus.

It's that sort of confusion and humorous serendipity, the feeling that we may be looking at information, or natural events, or something intended to be serious, or we may be looking at a satire of it, and we can't tell at first. 

That's why I wanted to share this list of Republican actions - as Speaker Boehner promised leading up to the 2010 legislative election - to focus on job creation.

My favorite:
(110) 11-18-2011: The House is once again considering the "Balanced Budget Amendment", which sounds almost reasonable until you learn it could cost millions of jobs. Oy vey.
Actually, I just picked that one quickly. I couldn't really decide on a favorite. However, I like having a list of Congress' GOP majority's actions resolutely failing to create, and mostly even failing to address, jobs.

This isn't totally subtle, but it is a list, and it is satire. I think.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Eastern Bantu Prefixes and Stupid Americans

I really meant to write about more than just the books I've finished, and not gotten too busy to write about. (I recently read Rick Riordan's Son of Neptune, the very enjoyable seventh Percy Jackson novel, but nothing irreversible happens in it, and not much is revealed in it, except for two new, kinda fun characters, so I didn't really have any reaction.)

So, in that vein, here's a reaction to something I read while doing image spec research at work. I was looking for a 14 year-old hapa boy (my older son is only 11 but would otherwise suit the character), and found that model-turned-TV-producer (I think) Tyra Banks masterminded a segment of a modeling show (I don't watch TV, and if I did, I don't think I would watch something called "America's Top Model" - I'm not even completely sure that's what her show is called) in which models adopted mixed racial/cultural identities to fit the Hawaiian hapa identity. Only, as one blogger (lost to the mist of ten minutes ago) noted, these were not ethnicities represented in any number on Hawaii. That's stupid, part one.

Stupid, part two is that it all pretty much looks like blackface filtered through a century and a half of increased familiarity with racial and cultural differences and enough political and social sophistication to know that depicting the first not-lily-white president with a bone through his nose is over the top. (Calling him un-American is still OK, though, apparently.) These depictions are very Orientalized (refer to Edward Said, Orientalism) - depictions of people as emblems of cultural and racial difference, posed in costume and makeup to be their identities.

Stupid, part three is the prefixes. One of the models adopted the hapa identity the show called "batswana/polynesian."

Polynesian peoples do have some differences among them, obviously. I felt silly going to the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu over a decade ago for one of their performance/luau evenings. It was fun in a Disneyesque way, but with more poi. The creepy part to me was the way the different cultures were represented as variations on grass-skirts, dancing-and-drums, etc. It was unenlightening at best. Still, there is a word "polynesian," built from Greek roots "poly" (many) and "nesos" (islands).

"BaTswana," however, means "Tswana people." One Tswana person is "moTswana." The prefix gives the number and the noun class, a concept shared by Bantu languages, and not Indo-European ones. The simplest way to avoid stupidity when using a Bantu word in a non-Bantu language context is to strip it of the prefix. That would make the imaginary multiethnic label "tswana/polynesian." This is not that hard to find out. The show aired in 2009, according to the websites I read about it. I think there was wikipedia then. Right?

Which is, of course, stupid part four. Going on TV without spending ten minutes on research.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Woe is... George R. R. Martin's Guilt-Ridden Cast of Thousands

George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series starts with betrayal, execution, and a subtly magical bond between animals and people. After A Game of Thrones and most of A Clash of Kings, I have to conclude that it will not let up. We join the tale when the strands are well enfolded, lines of allegiance and affinity blurred and shifting. I read the story and thrill in the narrative, and despair for humanity.

It is a very human tale, setting and animal intelligence notwithstanding. Sure, there are dragons, but unlike in Martin’s partial namesake and obvious forebear Tolkien’s great works, the motives of people, regardless of access to magical power, are the chief cause of misery.

And Martin shapes that misery like a glassblower, with hammer, tongs, and breath. He twists a character’s fond hopes into wanton disregard for consequences, another’s protective instincts into acts that must be hidden from view at the cost of war and kingdom. There are no guiltless characters. Even the most blameless are wracked by guilt for smaller injuries, perceived and real, to relatives, friends, and allies living and dead.

This would all be terribly gloomy and uninteresting if the characters did not seem so terrifically human. They are not made human by being equally bad and good, or by appealing equally to the moral compass of any group of readers. They are made human by doing good and bad things for real reasons. Prince Joffrey is an insufferable prick, for example, and hugely more important in his own eyes even than his greatest manipulators’, but the way he became that is hinted at from his introduction. Nowhere is his bad behavior blamed on his parents’ frosty marriage or the laxness of guidance for a firstborn prince, but we know the type.

The good characters, too, are bad. Some make foolish choices (Jon Snow at the Skirling Pass in A Clash of Kings, for instance. Yet they make foolish choices for intelligible reasons. I despair of Sansa Stark becoming a whole person before she is destroyed, yet Martin seems to be developing a depth there, perhaps only later to kill her off or make her a pawn in an evil scheme. (Another evil scheme, I mean.)

The Lannisters are almost wholly awful, but fascinating to watch. The narrative is full without much of the father Tywin, but he looms menacingly throughout the second book in the series, promising at any moment to burst on the scene – and burn it to the ground. The daughter Cersei never seems to begin to promise a hint of humanity without redoubling her utter awfulness on the rebound. Her twin brother is less subtly awful, yet fascinating to watch. I think other readers may like me keep hoping he gets some comeuppance that sticks.

The other Lannister brother is the most interesting by far of them. Along with the Stark bastard Jon Snow and his trueborn sister Arya, he moves the story through switchbacks and over precipices. The way the three of them literally traverse space in the narrative seems brighter and sharper as well. Many characters end up somewhere distant, but it seems Jon, Arya, and Tyrion have the most interesting journeys.

Martin is a master not only of plot twists involving a cast of thousands, but also of descriptions of place. I was looking at a service stairway in a Chicago subway on my way back from a business trip today, and realized that it was grey, grimy and worn, probably cool and dry to the touch. I realized that my own places – the places I’ve written about in drafts and stuttering starts – lack the fullness of detail that allows readers to imagine themselves doing what the character is doing.

It may be this or it may be the contingent and frail morals of the characters, and it is more likely both, that brings the impossible stories to life.

This is a more significant accomplishment in the case of the part of the story that takes place off the map supplied in the front of the first two books. I can’t decide why I think Martin provides a map, in some detail, of the small continent of Westeros, while having a significant chunk of the story take place across the Narrow Sea, as it’s called in the narrative (but not labeled on the map).

Perhaps it’s because readers are to think of the events and people there as more exotic, but that seems shallow when compared to Martin’s other devices.

It may be that Martin’s map reflects the view of many of his characters, that over-the-seas is unknown, and denies us a view of it as terra cognita. It may also be related to the prevailing view of magic.

This is one of the issues that, to me, bedevils fantasy. Because magic is so widely considered a childlike interest in our culture (at least, magic not cloaked in widely accepted religious faiths), can a fantasy writer appeal to mature audiences with stories about dragons and spells and wizards and potions?

I think the answer lies somewhere near the observation that all of these magical story elements and more exist in the Song of Ice and Fire series. However, many characters major and minor disbelieve, or are skeptical, or come to question their faiths, despite the evidence in the books of such magics. It is a world in which, to borrow phrases and concepts from Janet Rowling, the wizarding community and muggles live side-by-side, aware of each other, and often sliding across the boundaries.

I have a few more chapters left, and then I have to make a fateful decision. Do I continue to race through the available volumes in the series, ensuring that I’ll finish reading years before Martin can come out with another epic volume of this epic, or do I break the spell and read the next book in the pile? This is a hard one.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Midnight for Charlie Bone, by Jenny Nimmo

This was kind of a wild guess, and it worked out. And yet...

I can't recall how I wound up with this - a gift, maybe? I didn't like the title, or the cover, and the beginning of the book didn't move me, but I needed something to read that both the boys (3 1/2 years apart) would enjoy me reading to them at bedtime. It hit the spot.

From my perspective, however, the story felt thin. It's hard to not compare two books about a timid, adolescent English boy with magical gifts escaping his unhappy home situation by entering a dangerous and fascinating magical academy. Unfortunately for Jenny Nimmo, Janet Rowling is a terrific writer, and Harry Potter casts a long shadow.

I don't think Nimmo meant to derive from Rowling's books, and there are certainly no wands or explosions, but Charlie is missing one parent, in mysterious circumstances, has unmanageable hair, and quickly makes two friends and one dreadful enemy at the magical academy.

What actually bothered me about the book was that it felt washed out, paler, thinner. It was like being in the shower when the hot water starts to run out. It's not cold, exactly, but you remember how warm it was just before.

None of the conflicts grabbed me viscerally. I felt bad for Charlie, but in a passing way. And when his uncle Paton (the most interesting character in the book) begins to exert himself, it was never heroic, or startling, just kind of a relief, that someone in the story seemed to care.

I think another unfairness in my impression is that I read the book out loud. It's a slightly different experience, and some books fare better than others. Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwick books feature very small events writ large in the characters' consciousness. In Nimmo's first Charlie Bone book, somewhat the opposite seems to have happened. Portentous events slip by, unappreciated.

As a wannabe writer, I pay attention to this, which may be why, as a reader, it makes this much difference to me. The kids certainly liked the story, and are looking forward to the next installment.

My older son just woke up and confirmed that he loved the book, and it wasn't boring for a second. So there. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Anne R. Allen's Blog: 12 Dos and Don'ts for Introducing your Protagonist...

For writers, this is worth reading: a short and crisp to-don't list for final-drafting your main character's introduction. I don't just understand the points, I feel them.

Now if only I could write my darned book!

Anne R. Allen's Blog: 12 Dos and Don'ts for Introducing your Protagonist...: I've been dealing with an evil computer virus which first attacked my desktop and now seems to have killed my laptop dead. They're both old ...

Friday, October 7, 2011

update on no updates (blaming an author)

It's not Lesley Hauge's fault that I haven't written about her rewarding and fast-paced book Nomansland. It's a great read. I am looking forward to the sequel. If you want something postapocalyptic about as fresh and creative as Jeanne du Prau's The City of Ember and its sequels, and are willing to get a little more grown up in the topics and treatment, this is an excellent choice. Big ideas. Absorbing characters. Fast pace. Definite room for sequels.

I can't wait.

But I have to. It's George R. R. Martin's fault. (R. R. = Ronald Reuel?) I am losing sleep over A Game of Thrones. If by any chance you have a vague liking for medievalish fantasy, can handle multiple characters and occasional ladlesful of information (mostly doled out in teaspoons), and if you like losing sleep, this is highly recommended. It's got to be about five times as long as Nomansland, and it's definitely for grown-ups, even though many of the characters are quite young, and they don't get spared.

Come to think of it, that's probably really why it's for adults. It's not the sex, or the violence, or the serious matters of state. It's that kids are in the middle of it, in one way or another. (Kids who do read the book will acquire useful vocabulary, including portcullis, bastard, gremkin, and saddle-sore. Only two of these terms are involved in sex, at least in the first 200 pages.)

Frankly, I picked up Martin's book despite the HBO series advertised on the cover, and I'm dreading seeing the adaptation. (I'm safe for now, mostly because I don't have cable.) The book is so absorbing this far that the drama is almost sure to sicken me with disappointment.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

missing "e" complaint

It's raining.

Herman Cain is the Republican favorite.

Steve Jobs is dead.

What am I complaining about? (Warning: I am about to complain.)

I am complaining about a missing "e" in a comic.

I followed a link from deviantart to the amazon page for a comicker I didn't know - Andrew Dobson. His new series Formera has two volumes out, and in the first, the "look inside" sample has a misspelling on the third page included. (It's probably page 2, but I can't tell if the first is a title page, the cover, or page 1).

The error? Boy falls from sky into water. Reaction? "I can't breath!"

Come on. There are twenty words to a page in this comic. Six editors had to have looked at that. The text editor for blogger (TM) highlights misspelled words!

Fer cryin' out loud!

Monday, October 3, 2011

a "makers versus takers" type email

I was distressed that a friend forwarded this email:

Subject: FW: FREE STUFF....

Worth reading.

> I have never heard this said as plain or as well.
> Class war at its best.
> The folks who are getting the free stuff, don't like the folks who are
> paying for the free stuff, because the folks who are paying for the free
> stuff, can no longer afford to pay for both the free stuff and their own
> stuff.
> And,
> The folks who are paying for the free stuff, want the free stuff to stop and
> the folks who are getting the free stuff,
> want even more free stuff on top of the free stuff they are already getting.
> Now... The people who are forcing the people who Pay for the free stuff,
> have told the people who are RECEIVING the free stuff, that the people who
> are PAYING for the free stuff, are being mean, prejudiced, and racist.
> So, the people who are GETTING the free stuff, have been convinced they need
> to hate the people who are paying for the free stuff, by the people who are
> forcing some people to pay for their free stuff, and giving them the free
> stuff in the first place.
> We have let the free stuff giving go on for so long that there are now more
> people getting free stuff than paying for the free stuff.
> Now understand this. All great democracies have committed financial suicide
> somewhere between 200 and 250 years after being founded. The reason? The
> voters figured out they could vote themselves money from the treasury by
> electing people who promised to give them money from the treasury in
> exchange for electing them.
> The United States officially became a Republic in 1776, 231 years ago. The
> number of people now getting free stuff outnumbers the people paying for the
> free stuff. We have one chance to change that in 2012. Failure to change
> that spells the end of the United States as we know it.
>  A Nation of Sheep Breeds a Government of Wolves.
>  I'M 100% for PASSING THIS ON.
>  Let's Take a Stand.
>  Obama: Gone.
>  Borders: Closed.
>  Language: English only.
>  Culture: Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
>  Drug Free: Mandatory Drug Screening before Welfare.
>  NO freebies to: Non-Citizens.
>  We the people are coming....
>  Only 86% will send this on. Should be 100%. What will you do?

And I had this response:

People who do not pay income taxes (because they have little or no income) pay sales taxes. Many of them get “free stuff” in the form of temporary aid. Some of them get “free stuff” in the form of temporary aid that lasts a long time. This is a problem because they are consuming and not producing.

People who do not pay income taxes (because they have a lot of money, and spend a small portion of it to shield a greater portion from taxation) pay sales taxes. many of them get “free stuff” in the form of access to roads and bridges, fire and police protection, clean water, hurricane warnings and the like. This is a problem because the system that everyone else pays for allows them to benefit enormously without contributing to the system.

People who do pay income taxes make up the majority of Americans. They also pay sales taxes. Their tax payments educate the vast majority of the future doctors, engineers, and construction workers – of all of us. Their tax payments allow governments to build and maintain roads and bridges, test cantaloupes for dangerous bacteria, and inspect cost-cutting/profit-maximizing airlines’ planes before takeoff. They also own the airwaves that the government they pay for licenses to broadcasters. This is good because the people who pay the taxes by law make the decisions, however indirectly, in government.

This is where it gets interesting. The people who don’t pay income taxes (because they have enough money to shield their money) own a lot of broadcast media. They do it as individuals, as corporations, and as interest groups. They are a bit scared of the people who do pay most of the income taxes. They have a choice: fight us (hard) or co-opt us (not quite as hard). They have tools for fighting (bloody) and tools for co-option (less bloody).

I’m glad they chose the easier, less bloody route of telling you what to think. Now I am still alive to tell you what I think. I think they are filling your head with misinformation.

If there’s a class war, who won? The people who are out of work and hopeless and still sitting on their hands, or the people who are comfortable and well-fed and in control of media and government? Or, to use the original writer’s metaphor, the wealthiest are the wolves.

I have to get back to work if I’m going to continue supporting public education (my kids are in school right now), the interstate highway system (how I get to work and how my food gets to the grocery store), the public utilities commission (which helps keep electricity rates down so my boss can keep the lights on), et cetera, ad nauseam.

Stay well,



I think I was very diplomatic. Now I really have to get back to work!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Origin of "Humpty-Dumpty" - the coolest thing I read today

In a book packager's newsletter, the origins of "dead metaphors" was the topic today. Specifically, that of "Humpty-Dumpty," which, in my coarse reckoning, isn't a metaphor until we make it one. Still, the origin - involving bad haircuts, empty theological disputes, and medieval artillery - was fun to read about, and the explanation - involving mollusks, literary references, and a drink recipe - was almost free of grammatical errors.

And afterward, Darn that Lewis Carroll! (Read the linked post. This will make a bit of sense afterward.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Erik Asphaug's two moons hypothesis, the coolest thing I read today

This is way cool. A UC-Santa Cruz Earth and Planetary Sciences professor and his grad student created a computer model to explain the mountains on the far side of the moon. 

The model involves a second moon around the earth, back when earth was very new and still mostly molten. The collision that created the moon may well have created a second one, and as the moon receded from the earth, it may have come into the orbit of the smaller moon. A slow collision would have spread the material of the smaller moon around one hemisphere of the larger body, creating the mountain ranges on the far side, and possibly triggering the orbital "lock" that keeps the older side of the moon facing earth.

Astrophysics is really, really cool.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why Steve Doesn’t Like to Watch the Movies Made from Them Before Reading the Books. [Sigh]

Diana Wynne Jones’ beautiful rendition of Howl’s Moving Castle, a Studio Ghibli film I have enjoyed several times with my sons, suffered from comparison.

Miyazazi Hayao (the elder Miyazaki at Ghibli) has the advantage of order here. His version is canonical to me. Jones’ more complicated plot evokes most of the locations and characters of the film, but I can’t remember them as well as I can the ones from the film.

Maybe the problem is that I was reading the book aloud to my sons at bedtime, over a two-week period. I struggled against sleep (I’m a very good sleeper, despite lack of practice), against distraction (I’m coaching soccer now, too, and needed to climb a steep learning curve there, as well as attending training sessions and evening meetings), and against my own involvement with narratives as an editor with a messy desk in a messy office.

Whatever the cause, the result is that I remember Miyazaki’s plot from Howl’s Moving Castle, and not Jones’.

For the first half of the book or so, this is not a problem. The plot matches closely, and the differences are of sequence or degree more than of kind. For instance, Sophie’s cleaning spree inside the castle occurs in a different order in the book, but it covers much of the same ground. In fact, however much I love the film’s version of Howl’s absurdly messy bathtub, the book’s version is much richer, more interesting, and significant.

The real problem is that I can’t get the images and connections from the movie out of my head. The nightmarish vision of what’s happening out through the black door – aerial bombardment of unknown, distant cities –  sticks with me, and I expect it to come back in another form in the novel, but it doesn’t. In the novel, the black door goes to Wales, which is mostly peaceful, except for a well-disguised arch-nemesis. The significance and symbolism are totally different. The black door leads to Howl’s greatest challenge in each case, but the difference is as great as the origin of the fire demon, and the character of the ending, in each form of the story.

For purists, the best thing would be to read Jones’ book first, and then perhaps its sequel, before watching the movie. For people who have great concentration and visualization skills, any order would be fine. The only wrong thing to do would be to avoid either one.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ambiguity, not ambivalence: Fall of a Kingdom (Farsala series), by Hilari Bell

Book Review: Fall of a Kingdom (initially released as Flame), by Hilari Bell
(Farsala series, book 1)

From the opening hint of mythology, through the interwoven tales of characters drawing together in the narrative fabric, to the devastating end and the protagonists’ reactions, Fall of a Kingdom resists easy judgments and moral alignment. While reading, I was impressed with Hilari Bell’s careful balancing of three main characters’ narratives, both against each other and together against the incrementally constructed mytho-historical background of the book’s events.

(In a nice twist, Bell uses a real mythology to explain the fictional characters’ story.)

Bell names the chapters after the protagonist whose narrative point of view is represented in it. I recently read two novels set in space that did something similar; Bell’s version of this is the more natural feeling, why I can’t figure. (Please leave a comment if you can help me figure this out; the other two were Beth Revis' Across the Universe and Amy Kathleen Ryan's Glow.)

Two of the three protagonists – the male ones – begin as sympathetic characters; the female protagonist, Soraya, is introduced in a male character’s chapter, but soon thereafter has her own internal monologues and is shows equally appealing characteristics. This begins the complications of judging Bell’s characters, as an appealing protagonist develops faults, and a faulty one strengths.

This was the aspect of the story that most struck me after reading Fall of a Kingdom. (That, and the small matter that the library copy I read had the initial release title, Flame, making it the second book I’d read in a few weeks that had a title I couldn’t justify on its relationship to the story.) Not only did the characters interact, often without knowing, and not only did they seem to be converging on a conflict shrouded in myth, but I was sure I wanted each to prevail against the others, or better, to somehow betray their essential differences and join forces against…what?

However simplistic Bell’s world creation may prove, Farsala is a land without persistent bogeymen. Kavi hates the deghans (nobles) for their exploitation and disregard for the lives commoners, but deghass (noblewoman ) Soraya develops conscience and consideration through her hardships, and more particularly through her encounter with the desert-dwelling Suud; Soraya nurses a resentment against her peasant-born half-brother Jiaan, whose noble father (he’s Soraya’s as well – nobility passes from mothers to children) elevated him above many of the high-born; Jiaan resents the deghans he serves, but develops a modicum of respect for some of their eccentricities, while distancing himself in distaste from the peasants out of whose milieu he rose; and so the conflicts thicken.

Many of the secondary characters also appear Janus-faced in this manner, including the commander of an invading army, a child pickpocket, and a deghan who shows common sense. I look forward to meeting these six and many new characters in the sequels.

Fall of a Kingdom is a book “for young readers,” printed something like 12-on-20 points (almost double-spaced), and written without frivolous violence or “provocative moral situations.” There is the slightly uncomfortable sense that a romance may develop between half-siblings Soraya and Jiaan, but that’s an element of many myths, from Izanami-no-Izanagi, a Japanese origin myth, to Star Wars. I think any kid in the double digits who likes adventure, magic, intrigue, and battles in good balance would like Fall of a Kingdom.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


I am an editor who likes translated cartoons.

This is a form of self-torture. It's not only the translations that irk, but the ad copy as well.

Today I read this sentence as part of a series review on SF-based Crunchyroll (online licensee and distributor of Japanese anime):

Throughout the series he has sudden flashes of inspiration that take over his psyche at impromptu moments causing him to behave erratically. 
About a decade ago (okay, and counting, sheesh!), when I spent many happy hours grading undergraduate history papers at UCLA, I recognized this style of writing as pretense. (I was prepared, having practiced it earlier in life.)

The pretense is twofold: first, that the writer has something important to say, and therefore must use important words; and second, that the writer knows what the words mean.

I considered writing to Crunchyroll's newsletter editors about this. Taking time at work to find their email address yielded nothing useful, so I'll take a moment here to suggest the following:

  1. It is unusual for a "flash of inspiration" to be anything contrary to sudden. 
  2. If "psyche" stands for "mind," then "mind" is a better word. (A corollary: "Psyche" means "mind.")
  3. "Impromptu" and "inopportune" share many letters but not a lot of meaning. 
  4. This is the sort of writing that makes university teaching assistants think longingly about careers in sewer maintenance, but take the short cut of shredding students' hopes for graduating within four years.

On another note, I devoured Hilari Bell's Flame last weekend, and I've been contentedly rubbing my psyche's belly ever since. I think I'll write about it soon, and look for the sequels.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Amy Kathleen Ryan, Glow (Sky Chasers, vol. 1)

Glow is one of the reasons I love my job, and it has very little to do with it.

I get promotional emails from Publisher's Weekly, in order to keep current with teen literature, in a niche of which I publish. My niche is small and isolated, and I need PW to help me take a look around at what the age-mates of our intended readers - struggling, teenage readers who need exciting, accessible literature to help them become successful, habitual readers - are devouring. I want to know that makes them excited to read more, and what they wish they could read because of peer pressure and inherent interest.

One of the recent ones offered an advance reading copy of Glow, the third novel my Amy Kathleen Ryan. I read the first chapter or two, free online, with great interest. It coincided so closely with the setting and tone of first-time novelist Beth Revis' Across the Universe, which I read, and reviewed here, earlier this year.

Whereas ATU gripped my viscera at the beginning and subsided a bit into a simmering intergenerational confrontation and murder investigation aboard an interstellar space ship carrying humans from a battered Earth to a new home for their descendants, Glow built up from the hopes of appealing main characters into a thrilling intertribal confrontation and coming-of-age story aboard two interstellar space ships carrying humans....oh, you get the idea.

First, I am fascinated at the never-rains-but-it-pours aspect of this. I wasn't aware of any novels with such scenarios in the past decade, when I got swept up into Potter-mania, a bit late in life and in the timeline of Potter-mania. Now, with apparent suddenness, there are two.

Second, I loved the building tension of Glow. Similar to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games, Glow starts by introducing deeply likeable teen characters, one male and one female, in an exotic setting that feels natural and whole, and then tears them apart. But whereas Hunger Games maintains Katniss Everdeen at the center of the narrative, Glow like ATU shifts the narrative  between the two main characters. In ATU, the main characters are less positively appealing. We feel sorry for them in many ways, but we never saw them at their best. We never had the chance to get to like them, to look forward to meeting them again.

In Glow, protagonists Waverly and Kieran seem like people I would have liked when I was their age. Their reactions to events evoke sympathy, emotional investment, because they are founded on a previous identification, a founding emotional investment. Even the dangerous and damaged  supporting characters look like people I got caught up with, cared about, and suffered with or because of when I was that age.

This means that when the climactic conflict occurs, so much of the reader's emotional investment is riding on it that it feels real. I felt my pulse quicken (just as advertised on the ARC back cover with the trite but applicable phrase "pulse-pounding"), even though the actual physical aspects of the confrontation were smaller than the conflicts at the opening of the second act of the novel.

After reading and enjoying Across the Universe, I was thrilled to read something in the same genre and in a very closely related setting, but when the book ended, I was caught off-guard. My wife figured this out first. "It must be part of a series," she said. (She's right, it's called Sky Chasers: http://us.macmillan.com/author/amykathleenryan.) However, it felt unfinished to me.

The Potter novels all (but one) end with the denouement of Harry returning to Privet Drive. The first two Hunger Games novels end with the tension ratcheting up in a new area. Glow ends differently, as if fifty pages had been left off the end. The conflict at the beginning isn't resolved. The new conflict is intriguing, and will probably draw me to reading the sequel. But I'm confused about the title's significance, the series name's significance, and the abruptness of the first novel's ending.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Optipressing" - Mark Morford looks at our insides, and finds we lack guts

In "How to Eat a Dead Terrorist," SF Chronicle columnist Mark Morford finds both solace and menace in our current military commitments.

Our military's frequent involvement in Abbotabad-like operations, to the tune of hundreds each year, is a stain on our moral character. The balance of drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan is itself balanced in the Know-Nothing/Bomb-Everything eschatological rhetoric of the top Republican presidential contenders and media darlings.

They revel in bombing first and never asking questions.

Morford restrains himself from tut-tutting about how we should learn more about the world in order to chart a saner course through it. He seems to doubt we'll ever get there, not as long as our leadership (and budgets) prioritize extreme violence as an everyday means to an end.

To a country with a trillion dollar off-the-books defense budget, every task seems like a Global War on Terror.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

It was hard to put the book down, but some of Lev Grossman's writing in The Magicians bothered me.

This post has SPOILERS

First, there was the problem of Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist. He developed from a sympathetic nebbish into the kind of imminent sociopath who, after he snaps and murders a dozen people, the neighbors describe on TV as "quiet, I dunno, always kept to himself, and stuff."

He does this because he has just lived his dream, and still feels empty. Quentin comments on this himself, long before the full extent of the failure of his dreams is known. I wanted to feel bad for Quentin, but he kept reacting peevishly to events, which is, I take it, the author's intention. However, it made for an unlikeable protagonist, a non-hero (because he actually tries to be the good guy, only he doesn't really care about it, so he's not an anti-hero, and not a hero). 

Second, and this is my chance to be peevish, there were all the typos and discontinuities. I know, it's not cricket for someone in publishing to go on about this, and in truth, my company's much shorter books often end up with similar, shall we say, features. It may have bothered me as much out of a desire to avoid the busman's holiday (marking up a novel I'm reading for fun) as out of any real critique of the author or, more deservedly, the editor. I wonder if the sequel (don't think I'm not ordering it later tonight from Pegasus Books) will be any different in that regard.

Third, what really bothers me is the feeling I've been successfully played. A large part of the plot concerns another set of fantasy novels, collectively known as the Fillory Books (after the fantasy land in which they partly take place), by an author named Plover. Now, it all sounds totally plausible, and there's even a bit of story about the (plain as the almost Aquiline nose on my face) interactions of Plover with CS Lewis, whose Narnia series closely parallels the Fillory books in so many ways.

There's a Christopher Plover website, wikipedia entries on Fillory...it's just so fishy. 

Then it struck me. I - the fantasy book reader, the former devotee of Plover's contemporaries Lewis and Tolkien and also of McAffrey, and admirer of LeGuin and Aldiss and Atwood and Mieville and Rowling - had never heard of Plover, or Fillory. I practically lived in Middle-Earth (in middle school, of course), and dreamed the craggy mountains of Pern, and goggled at the scale and detail of Helliconia, and returned in awe after two decades' absence to the subtle chills of Gethen, but never had I heard of Fillory.

I think that's weird. I think there was never any Plover, no Fillory Books, no Chadwick children in literature.

Maybe I'll try to order The World in the Walls and see what arrives. Maybe I'll be the first to fall for it, and get a handwritten taunting from Grossman. Or maybe I'll get a dated fantasy novel too much like Narnia for me to enjoy (one of the kids enters through a grandfather clock!).

Fourth, the ending doesn't seem to fit the beginning. Maybe I'm not understanding it right. It feels like not the ending at all, which suggests that Grossman means for The Magicians and its sequel to be read as one book in two sets of covers. It's a small point, but I've read repeatedly that a novel ends with the question its readers are led to ask at the beginning. To me, this doesn't. I hope Quentin Coldwater snaps out of his funk and finds happiness. The thing is, the way his life has been going, his only hope may be a sharp blow to the head with a 2x4.

Penguin releases the hardback of the sequel, The Magician King, tomorrow.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Excuses, excuses... and manga (Toradora vol. 2)

Most of what I'm reading is the middle of things, so the past tense of my blog name more or less rules out reporting on it. I did also commit the folly of buying a book last night and starting it before going to sleep. It's Scene and Structure, by Jack M. Bickham. I never heard of him before last night, but I found the contents immediately informative. It's from 1993, part of a series called Elements of Fiction Writing. If you're like me, you've seen the shreds of various such series drifting about used book stores. I don't like to buy them, but I do anyway, when I feel they answer my questions. I have been struggling lately with just the sort of problems Bickham addresses, and reading only two chapters got me working on a new angle on my book.

I'm still reading (and close to finishing) the very entertaining and disappointing fantasy novel the Magicians, by Lev Grossman. It's not the novel that disappoints - it's the main character. I decided that I really don't like Quentin, and I hope he gets his ass kicked a bit more. Actually, based on what's happened in the book so far, I think the last 50 pages of the book will be very painful for him, and for me, because as much as I dislike him, I identify with him.

Work is keeping me busy as well. We just acquired another publisher in our niche, and are reviewing all of its materials in detail. We need to work all of the series - both existing stock and revisions - into our catalog and into our development calendar. In the end, I think we'll be working them into our philosophy as well. They pose a number of challenges, about reading level, about interest, about trends, and about the value inherent in the act of reading (as opposed to the content one reads). Much promise to fulfill, and much work to do.

I meant to review the hi-freakin-larious manga Toradora (story by Takemiya Yuyuko, art by Zekkyo), having just finished the second volume. The tone has changed since the first volume. There's plenty of silliness, thank goodness, but a serious consequence of the two main characters' actions in vol. 1 has arisen. The action has been replaced a little by dialogue, reflecting the change from character establishment in vol. 1 (much based on physical characteristics) to relationship building in vol. 2, which requires talking.

The setup is unoriginal for manga. There are several current or recent series with all or most of these elements. A student who looks different from the norm is treated as if his or her personality matches appearance. In this case, Takasu Ryuuji has "angry eyes," and everyone thinks he looks like a yakuza. (It doesn't help that his late father was yakuza). Ryuuji is actually a very nice guy. He lives with his inept and childlike mother (this is a theme in manga: get rid of the parents), doing the cooking and cleaning for the household, even hassling her about taking off her makeup before going to bed at night, and heating up the food he leaves for her instead of eating it cold. However, when he walks to school, people spread rumors about violent exploits and a terrible temper. It's so unfair! (another manga theme).

On the first day of school (exactly 78% of manga start then), Ryuuji runs afoul of Aisaka Taiga, a petite girl with an even more violent reputation, which she partly deserves. (Whatever her nickname is in Japanese, in the Macmillan translation, it's "Palmtop Tiger." Silly, and fitting.) However, the two soon discover they are neighbors, and that few other people will talk with them, so they develop a weird friendship that provides most of the humor from vol. 1.

The humor is raised a notch by the fact that each of them has one friend. Taiga's is the girl Ryuuji desperately loves, and can't form words around, and Ryuuji's is the boy Taiga even more desperately loves (himself a manga theme: the competent nerd). The two of them, in turn, are good friends and co-captains (another manga theme: weak plot movers) of the softball team, requiring them to bail on almost all occasions in which the four of them might socialize. This leaves Taiga and Ryuuji even more dependent on each other.

Macmillan's subdivision Seven Seas Manga picked this up, and did a nice job with the tankoubon (usually a 6-8 chapter volume) releases. The covers are appropriately shiny and keep the original design (a plus for manga fans who rely on translations), and the printing is crisp and well laid out. Many manga and comics are printed over the gutter or trimmed too far out on one side of the sheet, cutting off text and pictures. Macmillan are pros, and the difference in quality makes this a lot more fun to read. The series itself has no redeeming social value, shows pictures of teenage girls in impossibly short skirts, and makes fun of people for how they look. What's not to like?