Thursday 26 February 2009

myth in science fiction and fantasy

I have spent the last week reading and re-reading various parts of the essay "Myth and Archtype in Science Fiction", from Ursula K Le Guin's The Language of the Night. I was trying to read the entire book for Carl's Sci Fi Experience, but I've decided that there is too much food for thought in this book to rush it.

For me, there is so much to think about, about how science fiction and fantasy is serious literature. I think it has been wrongly judged from its very inception with Lord Dunsany last century, as children's literature, or just stuff about dragons and witches and magic, and therefore to read lightly, with no serious intent. Le Guin challenges that notion in her essays. Each one is thought-provoking, and passionate. It makes me realize how little even today science fiction is thought of. It is still relegated to the realm of geeks and science nerds, of people who can't quite make it in the real world. Yet that is a myth that we can only change when all of us who love it start proudly saying, "read this", or "look at the ideas in this", to people who've never thought of reading it. I don't mean we have to get on a soap box and declare it serious literature, because plenty of it is not, plenty of it is written for fun, and that's good. I just think it's time that we who love science fiction and fantasy, should be able to stop apologizing, as if we've made a mistake and will shortly correct ourselves by reading only the NY Times bestseller list. Personally, I think alot of serious literature is written, as Nick Hornby says in his collection of essays The Pollysyllabic Spree, only for other serious critics of literature. No one else is going to read it! Science fiction and fantasy can be darn good, satisfying as nothing else can be, when it's done right.

And what is good science fiction? Well, in this essay, Le Guin says it's 'the writer who draws not upon the works and thoughts of others, but upon his own thoughts and his own deep being, will inevitably hit upon common material. The more original his work, the more imperiously recognizable {her quote} it will be.........
"The artist who works from the center of his own being will find archetypal images and release them into consciousness. The first science fiction writer to do so was Mary Shelley. She let Frankenstein's monster loose. Nobody has been able to shut him out again, either. There he is, sitting in the corner of our lovely modern glass and plastic living room, right on the tubular steel contour chair, big as life and twice as ugly."

Isn't that a great quote? Frankenstein as myth. And he is. In her nightmare, Mary Shelley somehow plugged into the future where we could literally sew parts of other bodies together, which we do with our surgeries and operations. It's an awesome power, terrible and wonderful, and we haven't quite come to terms with it yet as a society. So there he sits, waiting for someone to tell him - or us - about the mysterious power of Spirit that is the animating force of the universe, which thank heavens we can't control. Waiting for us to recognize him as ourselves, which not even Frankenstein could do. For a long time as a child I was afraid of the monster because he couldn't be reasoned with, but as I became an adult, I began to feel sorry for him because his master, the one who made him, who he wants to love him, rejects him instead. It's an awful, powerful story, and touches a raw nerve that has become a modern myth. That's the power of true science fiction.

This could be said of all literature, of all good books. Le Guin says that (I'm paraphrasing here) the artist who is able to bring back something personal, something out of his or her own experience, brings back something for the rest of the world to discover themselves in. This is something I've come across in all my how-to-write books; that the only things worth writing about is what's inside me, because it's my interpretation that gives the world another insight or view. It doesn't mean I can't write what's around me - that's the stuff we use to create with, but we create out of our dreams and nightmares. That's where myths lie, I think.

I still don't quite understand why fantasy is as neglected in the literature reviews as it has been all these long years it has existed. Books keep getting taken out of the fantasy area and put into classics - The Iliad, and The Odyssey, are both great fantasy stories! - Beowulf, and if The Lord of the Rings didn't have Gandalf the Wizard, I'm sure that somehow that would find it's way onto the best books ever written, instead of getting left off all the time.

I like how she explains the danger of the fantasy archetypes: "Beyond and beneath the great living mythologies of religion and power there is another region into which science fiction enters. I would call it the area of the Sub-myth." She goes on to explain that these are motifs and characters which are alive, but have no deeper meaning associated with them; " - the blond hero of sword and sorcery, mad scientists, detectives who find who done it, brave starship captains.....They have no element of the true myth except its emotive, irrational "thereness". The artist who deliberately submits his work to them has forfeited the right to call his work science fiction; he's just a populist cashing in.
True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry, and artistic renewal. The real mystery is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond hero - really look - and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Opollo, and he looks back at you.
The poet Rilke looked at a statue of Opollo about fifty years ago, and Apollo spoke to him. "You must change your life," he said.
When the genuine myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life."

Isn't that a powerful interpretation of how myths still work on us? Now how many bestsellers on the NY Times book list would matter? Not many.

I read fantasy because it talks to me. Somewhere in me I must have a dragon curled up, and a black cat skulking in the light. I must have a sword that still needs to be claimed, and a unicorn still wanders. Ghosts inhabit my dreams, and so I reach for books that contain them, whether it's ghost stories or fantasy stories, to better understand what ghosts have to say.

I think fantasy reaches that place that ordinary books can't reach, the place that believes that things can be different. I'm not saying fairies exist! Maybe they do, because they were in folklore long before fantasy books ever existed! I think it's a need to explain the unexplainable, the acts of mystery and wonder, the synchronicities and timings that change our lives when they happen. There is also the idea of a calling, which I think the myth of King Arthur captures perfectly - he lifts that sword out so easily - all the hard work of doing what he is called to do, is still to come. Fantasy is all about the call, and the answer, and how the world is changed or righted, by answering that call. So most of it would be sub-myth, easily. So my question to you, my dear readers, is: can you think of a fantasy that might have a touch of myth about it? Is there a fantasy book that has worked on you, so that some element in its story has become part of you? Because that's how myth works, as Le Guin and Rilke show. I may joke about having dragons and cats inside me, but I don't think it is just a joke. I do dream of ghosts, very often. My fantasy story I wrote last year is about reclaiming a power my heroine thought she was forbidden to use. I am not saying it will even be published! I haven't done the second draft yet. In the writing of it, though, and in the 25 years or so that I've been reading fantasy, I've come to know that fantasy tells a story in a way that no other genre can. So, if we need myth to live by, is there a fantasy that you would recommend to someone - other than The Lord of the Rings! - to start with? Is there a fantasy you are passionate about? I'd like to know what fantasy moves you, what book makes you really respond to it.

Being an artist is not easy. As I cruise my way among the fantasy shelves, there have been times when I have walked away with nothing in my hands, depressed because nothing new has been written. What I really mean when I say that to myself, is that nothing meaningful has been written. The danger of fantasy and science fiction is that we as readers will settle for the Submyth, the endless fantasy trilogies and wars that threaten the world, the endless inventing of worlds, without the story bringing something new into being.

The best of fantasy and science fiction? Ah, that has the power to change the world. Look at Fahrenheit 451, which I read last year, and how we are still wrestling with the idea of banning books. Look at The Lord of the Rings, which still towers over almost everything written in fantasy since. Even though not everyone can get through the three books, what the books are about is seeping through our skins into our minds, so we know even if we've never read the books, who Frodo Baggins is, and Gandalf the Wizard. They, and the ring, are moving deeper down culture's unconscious, touching the area of Myth. Le Guin is convinced fantasy and science fiction is a serious subject. She says of Tolkien, "Tolkien did it; he found a ring, a ring which we keep trying to lose...." The story of the ring is something more than itself. There's something there.

I especially like this description she gives of a living image of myth that reaches out to touch all of us through the artist's work, and why it touches us:
"A dragon, not a dragon cleverly copied or mass-produced, but a creature of evil who crawls up, threatening and inexplicable, out of the artist's own unconscious, is alive: terribly alive. It frightens little children, and the artist, and the rest of us. It frightens us because it is part of us, and the artist forces us to admit it."

And that's why I read fantasy, and keep coming back to it.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Uh oh, look what happens when I visit people's blogs.....Classics Challenge 2009, and Nymeth's wonderful mini-challenge

So there I was, innocently hopping from blog to blog, trying desperately to catch up with everyone and failing terribly. Unwittingly, I went to Trish at Trish's Reading Nook, and discovered this irresistible button:
This is the challenge, link to sign up here:
Classics: We love them, we hate them, now we are going to challenge ourselves to read more of them. **Choose Your Level (Keep reading for Bonus) 1. Classics Snack - Read FOUR classics 2. Classics Entree - Read FIVE classics 3. Classics Feast - Read SIX classics **Rules/Guidelines 1. Cross-posting with other challenges is allowed (and encouraged!) 2. Audiobooks are fine 3. Re-reads are acceptable, BUT books must be finished after April 1st to count for the challenge 4. Lists don't have to be set in stone; you can change your selections at any time. 5. Have Fun!! 6. You do NOT need a blog to participate. **Bonus!! (Optional) Last year we compiled a list of books that we think might be considered classics one day. I've wiped out that old list so we can start fresh, but to get an idea of what others suggested last year, see HERE. To start off the list, I'm going to suggest Atonement by Ian McEwan.

I do not have my list up yet, nor even which level I'm choosing. I just know that on my TBR this year pile I have at least 3 or 4 classics, which also ties in with Becky's 18th and 19th century women writer's challenge (see my sidebar for the link).

You may have noticed that I have been fairly quiet on the book challenge front this year. I've joined the 100 + challenge, and that is my main challenge this year. That is is a goal I've had for many years, and never managed to reach. This year I am determined. So any and all other challenges I join have to be with this in mind. It's simpler to join a challenge as it comes along, I find, then to do up all the cross-lists I had last year, though they were fun, I must say! And somehow I have joined 4 or 5 other challenges already - Becky's 42 challenge and the women's literature challenge, this one, the 100 challenge, the library challenge, Dewey's challenge......and of course I am waiting for Carl's soon to be announced (I hope) fantasy challenge. Plus my ongoing Book Awards and Canadian challenges...nope, this is not a quiet year as I thought! Mostly, though, I want to be free to read whatever I want, when I want - my goal is to reach that 100 book milestone.

That said, lo and behold, I wander over to my dear new friend Nymeth's blog, to find she is hosting a mini-challenge for March as part of the year-long Remember Dewey challenge:
link to Dewey's books blog, here, and Nymeth's post, here, which are cross-referenced. Here are the rules, which are very simple:

The Try Something New Mini-Challenge
During the month of March, you’ll be asked to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. It can be something Dewey-inspired, like a comic aka graphic novel, a YA novel, a book on feminism, etc. But it can be something else too: poetry, a short story collection, manga, non-fiction, a cookbook, a book on knitting or other crafts, a book on social issues, a play, a horror book, fantasy, sci-fi, a collection of fairy tales or a fairy tale retold…you decide. It’s not mandatory that you have never ever read a book of the kind you pick before…all I’m asking is that you pick something that is still mostly new territory for you.

Well, I thought about it overnight, and this looks fun. What is really fun is that Nymeth has thought an extra twist up:

To make things more fun, the Mini-Challenge is going to work in pairs: you sign up using the Mr Linky at the bottom of this post. If you're an even number, you’ll be paired with the person before you; if you're an odd number, with the person after you , like we sometimes did for Weekly Geeks. Then you and your partner will get in touch by e-mail and talk about what type of book you’re thinking of reading. If your partner happens to be an expert in something that is new territory for you, then maybe they could offer some recommendations. If you're both thinking of picking the same type of book, maybe you could read it together.

I'm going for Graphic novel, since I have managed to pick two up from the library - Swamp Thing and Castle Waiting, and I have never read one as an adult. Failing that, I'm hoping to find a copy of Watchmen to read for the challenge. So, please go sign up with Nymeth if you are interested. She is giving her amazing bookmarks away, some books, and other prizes, but the real prize is getting to email with a fellow book-blogger and discuss what we're reading, which is what Dewey was all about.

and that's what happened tonight. Oh, and Molly at My Cosy Book Nook gave me an award yesterday, which I am delighted with -
I especially like the dog and the style the lady has! I wish!!! Because I haven't been around the blog world in the past couple of weeks to see who has this award, and who doesn't, consider yourself tapped by my magic wand for the award if you've dropped by - because obviously you have fabulous taste for visiting my blog! Just kidding - though do please give it to yourself, because we all have style and class for being book readers.

Monday 23 February 2009

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, chapter 1

I owe big apologies to Nymeth, who posted as we'd agreed on the first chapter of Lewis Byzbee's book The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, last week, here. She picked two things I was going to write about, if my chaise hadn't sucked me into lying down on it last Monday night.....tonight I have remained virtuous and have resisted the tempation to lie back until I post here! So, I commence:

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Byzbee, a history, a memoir. Nymeth and I have decided to read this book together, and post about it chapter by chapter. I missed last week's, so here is my posting on the first chapter. Nymeth already has pointed out some of the best parts of the chapter in her link above, but there are two other sections I really loved:

One of the other clerks, Greta Ray, came up to me me, stroked the book lightly with the palm of her hand, and said, "It really is beautiful, isn't it?" It was beautiful, so I bought it.

Books, I knew then and now, give body to our ideas and imaginations, make them flesh in the world; a bookstore is the city where our fleshed-out inner selves reside.

I love that last sentence. I thought about it for a while after reading it. I realized that one of the things I am doing with my living room as I fill it with bookshelves and books, is surrounding myself with all these worlds and ideas. I can have around me all the world for the asking, by having books at my fingertips, books to open and leaf through, books to treasure, to coo over and show proudly to my company - not so they are envious, but to see if they are interested in getting a copy too. I want to share my love of books with the world, which is in part what this blog is for, and in my private life, I want my house to reflect this love also. Actually, I need it to. Like Lewis, I don't know where my love of books began, though I think mine began at a very early age, since I always seemed to have books around me, lines of books along the wall when we didn't have a bookshelf in our bedroom, and I certainly used the library as a teenager and young adult.

What I love best about books, other than all the possibilities hidden in their pages, is what Lewis says: The bookstore and the coffehouse are natural allies; neither has a time limit, slowness is encouraged. Slowness. I had one of those aha! moments when I read that line, instantly understanding that that is one of the most precious elements of reading for me: books are necessarily slow. Even if we read them quickly, a day or two at most spent with them, time is slowed when we read them. Of necessity then, our lives must slow down enough to accomodate the time to read. Even if it's on the bus, which thankfully we have back, and happily I am reading again every day on the bus! Precious moments back to me. Books, because they engage our mind, take us out of the current of time around us, pull us into another space and time. For me, I have always found this most relaxing and refreshing. It restores my soul, when I read. I come back refreshed. And I bring back something of the book with me, which means I bring back something of the writer, and so even though I have to go away in my current space to read, I bring back the world of someone else with me when I come back. So I am made bigger, my understanding of the world is slightly enlarged, every time I voyage into a book and back. And this can only be done when there is enough slowness in life to read.

That's just the first chapter! Now, since I am a little behind, I will be posting tomorrow on chapter two, and then I will have caught up with the lovely Nymeth and you, our gentle readers, can go back and forth and please, jump in if you have read this book, and let us know what you loved, enjoyed, learned, or didn't like about this book.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Sunday Salon and Moon Called and Mistress of the Art of Death

The Sunday

A family of 5 + 1 working computer = little computer time for Susan. Add in:
a new leather sofa with a chaise = one woman, asleep on the chaise every night by 10, and you will understand why I haven't been able to post this week!!

The good news is, we are buying yet another computer for all the kids, it should be in by next week. So I will be able to be posting more often again.....if I don't make the mistake of sitting on my new chaise instead! The good thing is, we bought it so I would have a comfortable place to read, and it is lovely. So far in this past week I've read Moon Called by Patricia Briggs and I finished Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin today. I just get on my chaise, open my book, and read until I fall asleep. Literally. The sofa has a recliner at the other end, and that's where my husband relaxes into slumber. Every night. It's fabulous. So now the chair by the computer doesn't look quite so inviting as the chaise does........good for reading, bad for posting!

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs: Book One in the Mercy Thompson series.
This was a fantastic read. Several bloggers have recommended this book, and I had had it for over a year to read. So I finally pulled it down, wondering why I was avoiding it. The cover. I realized I didn't like the girl on the cover. Not that she is sexy, but that she doesn't look friendly. Kind of scary, actually. I'm happy to report that she is the opposite in the book. Well, frightening to others, but not us us, her confidantes in the story she is telling.

I really enjoyed this book on several fronts: Mercy is not part of the werewolf world, she is an observer of it, for though she understands all the rules having grown up in it, she can't be accepted because she's not one of them. She's a coyote, but not a skin-changer, she's a walker, which means she is able to change and remain conscious of who she is, whereas the werewolves become either wolf or man, but are not both at the same time. Coyote walker involves a magic found only on North America, and is not bound by the rules of faerie. How Mercy finds this out, and what she learns about herself, is one of the most interesting parts of the story. I also enjoyed very much the werewolves. They feel real. The changes at the full moon, the society they live under, the rules of co-existing with other fae and the human world, are all well-thought out and realistic. I also thought Samuel, the white werewolf who Mercy loved in her youth, very intriguing, even as a werewolf.

There is a mystery, about how werewolves are made which ends up to be more about Mercy's adopted werewolf clan and their plans to come out to the humans, but I preferred the romance angle - Adam the werewolf next door, Samuel the werewolf who first chose her to mate, and the possibility of a vampire 'friend.' Yes, there are vampires, trolls, gremlins, in this story too. I love how Mercy moves among them, learning more about them as she does, and about how they try to remain hidden among humans, right among us. It's very well-done.

Most of all, Mercy lives up to her name, but she's not a softie. There is killing in this book, some of it handed out by her, but it is life-or-death, and it's pure animal on one level. It is gripping reading, and I read it in a few days. I couldn't wait to get back to it! In fact, I am rushing out to order the next book at my local bookstore!

It doesn't have the depth Lonely Werewolf Girl had, for me, but then not many fantasy books do. Moon Called is an excellent first book in an urban fantasy world that I would dearly like to live in - though I would need a special skill of my own to survive! - and Mercy feels like a really good friend I'd like to have on my side. Highly recommended.

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin is book one of the now called 'Mistress of the Art of Death' series. When it was published two years ago, I began hearing people talk about it almost at once. Last year by friend who is a bookseller recommended it. I gave it to my mother, who read it before I had a chance to, and she also raved about it. So when I picked it up 2 days ago, I was hoping I'd enjoy it. Well, not only did I read it in 2 days, but I stayed up until 2:30 and 3:00 am each of the last two nights to read as much as I could. Seeing as I'd fallen asleep so early in the week on my chaise, this was a miracle, but that's the weekend for me!! I know I can sleep in a little bit!

Where to start? This is the second book I've read lately that's set in medieval England, though this one is set in 1171 England, and Doomsday Book is set in 1348. It is as detailed and realistic as Doomsday Book, which was the first book I'd read so many years ago that really recreated medieval life for me. Mistress of the Art of Death stars Adelia Aguilar as a doctor of the art of death from Salerno, Italy. She is called to England by Henry the 2, who invites through a letter to ask the the King of Sicily to send Simon of Naples, a renowned investigator and also king's spy, who is the one to request a doctor of death to accompany him to England, to investigate the mysterious deaths of three children in the city of Cambridge. "Doctor of the art of death" really means a forensic investigator, a coroner, a medical examiner - these terms don't exist in 1171! - she examines the dead, and they talk to her.

Because this is 1171 england where women were at most midwives or herbalists, and they are not allowed to be doctors, she has to go as the associate of a manservant Mansur who is a Moor and can barely speak English who pretends he is the doctor, accompanied by the real investigator, Simon. It really is rather hilarious, these three in the beginning, because quite clearly Adelia is the doctor, and she is unable to hide that she cares for people. She is a doctor in Italy, has trained at the best school for physicians, so she has a valuable set of skills that allows her freedom to go through all levels of society no matter where she goes. Together these three try to find out in the medieval town of Cambridge what happened to the three children, which quickly becomes 4 victims after the story opens. This is a remarkable mystery because it does cover so much of medieval life and politics, all viewed from a foreigner's eyes, which of course we are also, removed as we are 900 years from that time. Franklin manages to work in the Jews and how they were treated at the time, the people of the Fens around Cambridge, as well as the two priories, the bailiff, the tax collector, and most of all, the people. None of it is boring, either. This is such an intriguing mystery.

The heart of the story is Adelia as she uncovers the truth about the murders, which are the most heinous and terrifying that I have encountered in a mystery series in a while. She also discovers things about herself and the people around her. She learns about love, even as she seeks justice for the dead by discovering what happened to them. The early autopsy scene is gripping:
When Sir Rowley didn't move, she turned and saw his look. Wearily, she said, almost to herself, "Why do they always want to shoot the messenger?"
He stared back at her. Was that what his anger was?
She came outside, brushing away flies. "This child is telling me what happened to her. With luck, she may even tell me where. From that, with even more luck, we may be able to deduce who. If you do not wish to learn these things, then get to hell. But first, fetch me someone who does."

She cannot perform an autopsy by cutting open the bodies, so she can only examine the exterior. The clues are there, and from beginning to end, this is a most satisfying mystery.

This is also satisfying in terms of characters, because by the end of the novel, I cared about all of them, from Adelia herself, to Simon her friend, Ulf the boy and his grandmother Gyltha, to Sir Rowley, and even the King of England plays a mesmerizing crucial part at the end of the book. This is well-written, a gripping, enthralling, mystery of darkness and light. Very highly recommended. Just make sure you have a few free evenings ahead of you or don't mind staying up late into the night to read it!.....

If you have read this book and reviewed it, let me know and I will add a link to your review here.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Happy Valentine's Day and book lust

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! I have a party for married couples to go to, tonight! A 'just because' party :-) to which our children are also invited. I'm making my ginger cookies for the party - the same as on my Christmas Advent Tour post, as the party will have all our friends and they love these cookies too.

And just because we love books, I found a post about bookshelves, at Stephanie at Stephanie's Written Word, here. I went to the link she provided, and found these ones also, which I fell in love with: this one:
not only are there green leaves on trees, which my soul is starting to feel starved for, but the books look old and loved, and the corner has lovely natural light for reading by. And it looks quiet. (As I write this my children are leaping around on the floor. Shouting out loud. Excited because we have the party to go tonight, so they get to stay up late again and have lots of cookies and finger foods there.) What a lovely quiet corner for reading.

and this one - I really like these ones. I'd make it my library, not hidden away in a bedroom, though it would also be fun to have a spare room with bookshelves for visitors to pull out books and read! Gorgeous bookshelves! as always, whenever I see a bookshelf filled with books, I have to go see what the books are. So I'd end up moving the beds away from the shelves - and I have to admit that I have done this, in real life! and see if I've read any, and are there any I can read that night......Untold treasures.....

Nymeth and I are reading Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop together. I'm still on the first chapter, and we'll be reviewing each chapter on our blogs on Mondays, or possibly Sundays if the chapter doesn't lend itself to a long post. I did find this one little paragraph though, that I though perfectly describes most of us and our piles of books to be read, lists of to be bought, and the books lining our already crowded shelves in our homes:

"For the last several days I've had the sudden and general urge to buy a new book. I've stopped off at a few bookstores around the city, and while I've looked at hundreds and hundreds of books in that time, I have not found the one book that will satisfy my urge. It's not as if I don't have anything to read; there's a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I've been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that's afflicted me most of my life. I know the course of my disease enough to know I'll discover something soon."

The best thing about the book blogging community is discovering that I am not alone in my book lust. And the book is the perfect partner because it never ever talks back, hurts, it's always there, never leaves.......soothes, comforts, makes me laugh, and lets me journey all over the world, universe and time, with a cup of tea and a cookie by my side.

Is there a book sweeping you off your feet today?

Friday 13 February 2009

Friday thoughts and memes

Eva has a fabulous post on why she's not buying any books right now, and she would like to know if you do, or don't, buy books, and the reasons why. I commented on her post, but I thought it was a topic worthy of mentioning here: I buy books. I buy a lot of books. For a long time, I could only buy a few here and there, so when I was made permanent in my job - after years and years of being part-time and working two jobs at the same time - I decided that it was time. I was rich enough to buy books again. I have a sort of book allowance which I set myself, and tend to go over if we can, but at the bottom of my heart I realized that if I can buy books, then I feel I am wealthy. I have enough. We don't have lots of luxuries and I hate shopping unless there's a reason. Except for books. There are times though when I have bought enough (as in my TBR pile as a complete full bookshelf in itself!!), and then I go to the library to try new books and authors first. I think there is a place to be both a buyer and a borrower of books, at the same time. Let her, and myself, know what you think.

Kailana kindly gave me a letter in the Letter meme going around. My letter is "m". Here goes:

1. magic. I love reading fantasy books about magic, and' real' books on magic also. I say that with quotations marks because my definition of what's magical in life is my own. Life is magic. So is love, and the seasons changing, and all the things we each love, and chance meetings that lead to life changes - which I have also experienced, and the magic of creating something - a book, a painting, a song, a sweater, a garden, a beautiful meal. I think magic and beauty, and magic and nature, are intertwined. I think that 'magic' is something we all do; it involves being clear to ourselves about what we want - and why, and once we have really decided it's good, then the Universe turns to meet us. I still like the idea of being able to wave a wand or click my heels though!! And a lot of hard work on my part too, to make it happen. There is magic all around..... maybe I really mean a sense of wonder, of being surprised by life, too. Anyway, it's one of my favourite 'm' words and almost always the first one that comes to mind! We always joke at work about our private 'happy places', I think I've just given you a glimpse into mine!

2. mountains. I have loved mountains since I lived in British Columbia at different times in my childhood: Vernon, in the interior in the Okanagan Valley between the Rockies and the Selkirk mountain ranges, twice; Victoria, and Nanaimo, where we could look across at the Rockies on the mainland in both BC and Washington State. There is something about the grandeur of the mountains, their presence, that I am drawn to.

3. marigold - One of my favourite flowers. I missed planting them last year, and I felt so sad. They are so cheery and bright, and the bees love them. I like planting flowers that the bees and butterflies feed on. They also keep the slugs away!
flower picture

4. mystery - another of my favourite words. Mystery books are my second favourite genre, after fantasy, to read. I love the idea of setting the world to right after a crime or some form of chaos. I also love this word because life is a mystery. We don't know everything, we can't know everything, and that leaves room for wonder and magic and mystery to be part of our lives. I also love it because it connotates exploring something unknown. I found more ways through the city centre of York when I lived there than my husband did in the four years he had lived there previously! I just love how when I say 'mystery', anything could be happening, and it could be about anything.

5. Moxy Fruvous, a Canadian music band, authors of one my favourite songs about books:
"My Baby Loves A Bunch of Authors" - there's 3 m's in this sentence! lol, I'm giving the M for two! Moxy, and the song title beginning, 'My' ....

I will add that I don't have a huge music collection, and I tend to like only a few musicians, but it covers a wide range from classical music to Duffy, the new blues singer from Wales covering everything from the 1960's to 2009. I use music when I'm feeling blue to cheer me up, to destress, to sing along to, to dance to with my children. I don't listen to enough of it, and that's one of my goals this year, to increase the time I spend listening to music. I hope you like the video and the words are priceless, to 'My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors'!

6. Blind Melon 'No Rain" I saved "m for music' for this one! Another long-time favourite song. I've just discovered You Tube and that it has videos from the dark ages! (according to my eldest who's 20) Does the second part of the band's name count as an M word? I think it does. I've included this because this was a video that came out way back in the 1990's and it's about a little girl looking for someone like her. It sort of describes most of my childhood, because I so rarely met anyone who even read books (outside my family). If you listen to the lyrics near the end, you'll hear what she does to escape....It's an odd video, and it's so cool that now I can see it whenever I like!!!

7. moon. Did you know that I plant my garden by the sign the moon's in? that according to the farmer's almanac, the best moons for planting are the water signs - Pisces, Cancer and Scorpio, followed by the earth signs: Taurus (that's me!), Virgo and Capricorn. It works, too. My peonies, notorious sensitive plants, both flowered the first year they were planted, which is almost unheard of! and my rose bush is thriving even though I keep forgetting to cover it in the winter.
I try to watch eclipses when they happen in our area, they are so fascinating. I love how the moon goes from new to full to old. I usually try to see where the moon is every night or day. I was born when the moon was very old, right at the end of the cycle when it is called balsamic. This is supposed to make me ahead of my time, mystical because I'm on the cusp of the new so I can see what's coming (I'm still waiting for this one. I'm awful at predicting trends, seeing ahead, guessing what changes are coming.), and subject to sudden changes and endings in relationships because most of them are karmic in nature. It is of course, the least understood of any of the moons, which makes me mysterious to some, and crazy to others. Did I say that my nickname at work is Crazy Susan, to distinguish me from the other two Susan's who work there?

8. maps.
I like maps. We have a wall map of the UK, and of Canada, downstairs in the basement, so we can look at all the places and remember where we've been. We sort of collect maps haphazardly, when the mood strikes us. So we have two smaller ones of York, one of the North Yorkshire Moors, a walking one of the Cleveland Way (in the UK), one of Ottawa, one of the recreational paths in Ottawa, one of Ontario, the South Pennines, Quebec City, A-Z Guide to Northern England, AND we own the National Geographic World Atlas, a huge book that was a gift to my husband one year, and that answers alot of our questions like, GNP (with a son who questions democracy, this does come up!), when the Berlin Wall came down, how far Ottawa is from everything else. My husband and I love to travel, and he loves to pour over maps when we are planning a trip. For London, we now own 6 specific guide books, complete with maps, of the city. It's not a large collection - yet. It will be, one day. I like to see where things are, and the shape of the world. The children do too.

9. Mint dark chocolate - mmm. More chocolate. The very best kind comes from a little shop in Stratford Ontario called Rheo Thompson Candies. This is all they make, various forms of chocolate and other candies. They are online, here and this is what they look like. Yum. My very favourite mint dark chocolate in the world. They also make the very fabulous dark chocolate covered salted peanuts, which I usually eat much too quickly because they are so very very good. MMMM. Getting hungry now.

10. myth What's the myth you live by? Michelle at Fluttering Butterflies has a marvelous post here on her Tlinglit heritage, giving one of her creation myths. Do you know what your family's creation myths are? Culture's? I have Polish, Welsh, Irish, English, and Scottish myths to look at. The hard part is that a myth is just a story until we find a way to bring it alive in our lives, and unless we leave bread out for the fairies, or carry a stone with a natural hole in it - and I found one long ago on a beach, and I gave it away about 10 years ago, still not quite knowing what I'd found! - or watch Raven or Wolf or Bear when they come into our lives, it's hard to know how to make a myth be a part of our lives. King Arthur is a good example, so is the Mabinogion for Wales, and that's just two. There's all the ancient gods and goddesses of Rome, Greece, China, the Aztecs, the Mayans.....the world over. Is there a myth you particularly like? The closest cycle of stories that really resonates with me is the story of Persephone and Demeter.
I always imagine how it was for Persephone to be taken away into the dark of the underground by Hades, and be surrounded by the dead, and why she chose to stay for part of the year. I also like that
spring is associated with her return.
This is a fun romance/fantasy that is about Persephone:
Goddess of Spring by P.C. Cast., link to publisher here. This is a fun romance/myth retelling of Persephone and Hades. I particularly like how Linnea relates to the ghosts in the underworld.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Doomsday Book - Connie Willis

The current cover and edition, the one I just bought two weeks ago.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

Every once in a while you come across the perfect book. The one that takes your breath away, where every word is perfectly placed, where the story comes alive for you, and there is nothing else in your world as you read. Doomsday Book has been that book for me for well over 15 years. I have to admit to some trepidation when I bought a replacement copy two weeks ago (I lent it to someone and it's never come back), and decided it was time to revisit it. Would it hold up? Would I still love it? I think I was almost holding my breath when I opened it last weekend. And then I was swept away, and when I resurfaced late Monday afternoon (I was home sick but well enough to read!), when I put the book down, my eyes were red and puffy from crying and it was still a perfect book.

So what makes it so good? you ask. How can a time travel book back to the Middle Ages, from 2050 AD Oxford, be thrilling, moving, gut-wrenching, and sometimes funny reading? When you have strong characters who seem like they stepped out of life onto the page, when you have a story that is filled with love, and curiosity, and human errors, and determination, all that's best about people, and the very interesting idea of time travel and how it could work - in the hands of one of the US's best science fiction writers, it becomes a luminous novel.

What? you ask. A science fiction novel that's luminous? How can that be? Doomsday Book concentrates on people first, how they relate to one another, their relationships, and then how their actions affect others. The science is there, an integral part of the plot, but isn't the reason the book exists. The book exists because of Kivrin and Mr Dunworthy and what happened when Kirvrin travelled back in time to 14th century England. And this part is very well thought out; how could someone go back in time and not upset the time they landed in? How could a person be prepared for this kind of travel? How do you cope when you land there? Doomsday Book answers all these.

Most of all, 14th century England comes alive, specifically life in a tiny village. The first time I read this book, I had only a hazy idea about life in the Middle Ages and how people lived then. Since reading this book I have lived in England, and I have seen first-hand surviving 14th century houses and streets, so I have a much better sense of what life was like back then. Once again, Doomsday Book surprised me with its recreation of the Middle Ages in the characters, the locale, everything is thought out and planned and covered for.

The book takes place in 14th century England - to say any more would be to give a way a key plot point, so I won't! and 2050 Oxford. I certainly wish that half of what Willis envisioned, especially the phones that are actually video screens, would come true! All of the characters are wonderful, people that talk to each other, and are funny, or proud, or determined.

Here are a few of my favourite passages:
'She had been wrong about not recognizing anything - she knew these woods after all. It was the forest Snow White had got lost in, and Hansel and Gretel, and all those princes. There were wolves in it, and bears, and perhap's even witch's cottages, and that was where all those stories had come from, wasn't it, the Middle Ages? And no wonder. Anyone could get lost in here.'

"None go to Bath," the boy said. "All who can, flee it."

She put the lists at the bottom of her sheaf of papers and began passing the top sheets, which were a virulent pink, around to everyone. they appeared to be a release form of some sort, absolving the Infirmary of any and all responsibility.....
She handed Dunworthy a blue sheet which absolved the NHS of any and all responsibility and confirmed willingness to pay any and all charges not covered by the NHS in full and within thirty days.....
The sheet was distributing now ws green and headed "Instructions for Primary Contacts." Number one was, "Avoid contact with others."
"Record your temp at half-hour intervals," she said, handing round a yellow form. ...
She handed Dunworthy another pink sheet. She was running out of colors. This one was a log, headed "Contacts," and under it, "Name, Address, Type of Contact, Time."
It was unfortunate that Badri's virus had not had time to deal with the CDC, the NHS, and theWIC. It would never have got in the door.

Did I mention the lovely sense of humour like in the above passage, and for example, the head of the department who has gone away for the holidays, and can't be found? Most of Willis's books have this wry laughter along with a sense of sorrow. For me, this is some of what makes her books accessible to everyone. You don't have to understand any math or science to know how time travel works in her worlds!

Cover, 1st edition, hardcover. I used to have a copy of this version also, and it was lent out and got damaged. I love this book so much that I want everyone to read it! However, I've decided that from now on, I will just buy a copy when I want someone to read it!

This book is such a satisfying read that I haven't really been able to pick another one up yet. I can't recommend this highly enough. It's still, one of my favourite books.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Interview Me Meme

I was so lucky! I asked her to interview me, and Nymeth sent five questions she really wanted to ask me, for the 'Interview Me' meme. This is how it works:

The rules are:

1. Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

Here are the five questions Nymeth asked me:

1. What's the one place in the world you'd like to visit the most? Why?
Great Britain. It was easy. I've lived there, and I still haven't seen all I want to see. Why? I love so much about it. The history, the old buildings, the landscape, they all fascinate me. My ancestors are from Wales and Scotland, and I'd really like to go visit them one day. York, London, Whitby, are three of my favourite places in the world. The North Yorkshire Moors has some of the most stunning landscapes in the world, and I swear that on the moor, there is nothing between you and the sky itself. It's all you and nature. If I could I would spend six months of the year here in Canada, and the other six in England, every year. My husband is in full agreement. We just have to win the lottery now.

2. Share a really good reading memory with us! It could be discovering
a favourite author, being really impressed by a book you had no
expectations about…anything.

My favourite reading memory is how Anne Frank saved me. When I was 12, I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I remember being gripped by the book. It was how I discovered about the Holocaust, about the Jews and Germans and WW2. And she wrote in such a chatty teenager way, that it was just like she was there, talking to me. I read the book in a few days, and was devastated at the end, when she died. I remember crying and crying, and thinking it was so unfair that she, who had believed so much in the goodness of mankind, had died so close to the Armistace. Across the years, she reached out her hand, and clasped mine. I even started a diary, in the same manner as she did, addressing it as Dear Kitty, though I very quickly thought that was copying and changed it to Dear Misty. And though things were very bad in my life over the years, it still was nothing compared to hers. What she survived for so long, gave me the courage to keep going in my own life. She really was, and still is, one of my heroines for my entire life. She is one person I do want to meet in the afterlife, and say thank you to.

3. You've mentioned a few times that you're also a writer. When did
you start writing? Do you find that writing you own fiction changed
the way you read? If so, how?

I started writing when I was about 11. At first it was poetry and short stories, and for a long time that is what I wrote. Recently I finished my first draft of my very first full-length novel. I don't think writing has changed how I read; but I have to be careful about what I read while I'm writing, because if I really like the author it might end up influencing my writing temporarily, although that is usually because I'm not certain about what I'm writing at the time - tone, or character, or setting. I did find last year while writing my novel that what i read didn't seem to affect my writing, so I'm hopeful this means my vision of the book is clear enough to keep influences out.
I usually know if reading a book is working for me if I don't rewrite a scene in my head! If I'm really unhappy with the book I'll rewrite the entire ending in my mind, or imagine what the characters could say or do instead if they are acting out of character for me. I don't like being jarred out of reading because something isn't right in the writing, and a really good book is one where everything is seamless and fits.

4. If you could pick one fiction character to be friends with, who
would it be? (I don't mind if you pick more than one :P)

-Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. She is so lively and opinionated, so caring and kind, and so honest and generous, that I would dearly love to be her friend!
-Thursday Next from the Next series. Her sense of humour, her frailty, her love for her husband and crazy family, and the wonderful job she has in books! I love her dodo too, and how she earns the respects of the Neanderthals, and how she outwits Goliath every time. she's clever, she's funny, and she never gives up.
- Anne of Anne of Green Gables. How could anyone not want to be her friend? I hated Ruby and Josie and all the other girls who made fun of her at school. Actually, I think I wanted to be Anne while I was growing up! She was chatty, imaginative, friendly, and as open-hearted a girl as anyone could have for a friend.
- Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. Fiery, outspoken, determined, just, and ethical - she sounds frightening, and she could have been, except she is gentle and caring and soulful, and I know why Will fell in love with her.

5. If you had the chance to talk to a favourite author for a few
minutes, what would you tell them or ask them?

Well, if it was Neil Gaiman, I'm not sure I could get any words out. I'd be fanning myself and trying not to blush too hard. When I get near an author I truly like (and a good looking one at that) my brain freezes and I say the most inane things. It's really awful. I get really nervous and start giggling so I look slightly crazy. Just the idea of being in the same room with Neil makes me hyperventilate. So I'd have to pass him a note, before I passed out, and I'd ask: do you find, that having lived in two different countries, that you have to alter the words you choose sometimes? that you use words that are English in your books set in the US, and vice versa? (see I told you, even the idea of communicating with him via paper, all intelligent questions have left the building).

My second author would fare no better. This would be Stephen King, and I'm afraid I'd fall to the floor and look like I was bowing, and once down there I wouldn't move until he'd left the room. Stephen King! *tries to breathe*

Next choice: ok, she's dead. So I can imagine this would work better: Jane Austen.

Except I can't ask the normal things people who don't write, would ask: how do you get your ideas? etc, because I'm a writer, and I know very well where ideas come from - everywhere. Conversations, words on a page, some scenery, an idea that someone else ruined - you pick it up and make it the questions I would be most likely to ask any author, and that would be: have you dreamed anything that made it's way into your writing?

Charles de Lint: I can add here that I am not completely hopeless. I have had the honour of meeting and actually chatting with Charles de Lint over the years. He is a charming, sweet, very friendly, quiet man, whose writing I thoroughly enjoy. He is one of my favourite fantasy writers, and I love the Newford books. In all the times I met him I didn't embarrass myself too much, although once at a writers' meeting - he was guest of honour at our small group, as a favour to myself and my friend Jennifer, who he was really friends with - I scared everyone by saying that having pictures of dead people on the wall would be creepy with the eyes of the dead people always looking at you, following you around the room. See? He didn't say much to me that evening either, as I recall, after that! To be honest, he was writing a horror novel, and somehow the topic got on to dead bodies from crime scenes. Honest. So I thought I was making a valid point! Jennifer said after that he looked a bit scared of me.
He is someone who I would like to ask now, "has anything you dreamed made its way into your writing?"

Probably it's better if I don't try to go near any authors.

I very much enjoyed this meme! Nymeth asked me some very interesting questions, and I hope she - and you, my Gentle Readers - enjoyed my answers!

Now, if any of you would like me to ask you 5 questions, just leave me a comment, and I will contact you by email with the questions, as the meme says at the top. I'd love to interview someone!

Saturday 7 February 2009

another essay, and Dark is Rising and Greenwitch

This is The Language of the Night, the book of essays by Ursula K Le Guin that many of you have been asking me about. I have the 1979 edition, which is trade paperback. I'm not sure if it is still available, I don't think so, at least according to, it is only available used. This book has a collection of essays and speeches given by Le Guin over her early career as a writer, because of course she has continued to write these past 30 years since this book came out!

I have been reviewing - or rather, writing about - the essays in her book, in some of my posts this month, because each one is so important to understanding why we all (or most of us in the book blogging community that I have met) read fantasy. In the wider world, of course, we are reading a genre that is treated as only slightly above horror, and barely tolerated as literate, never mind as great literature. This despite the efforts to recognize within the fantasy and science fiction book world excellence in writing. She extends this to children's literature as well. Le Guin addresses all of these concerns in her essays. She also talks about the act of writing. She writes about writing, and reading, and what we find when we go on a voyage into these books. Because I love fantasy first and foremost, her books seem to talk directly to me, affirming to me what I have long ago thought in my heart about fantasy, and what I discover in my soul every time I venture into a fantasy book.

Here is what I discovered in today's essay, "The Child and the Shadow". I read this over a toasted bagel with cream cheese, and a cup of tea, and about half-way through the essay I realized I had eaten most of the bagel without tasting it, because there was so much other food for my mind in the essay.
She opens with a quick retelling of one of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, about a man and his shadow. The essay asks, Is it appropriate for children to read? Because society - parents,school boards, etc, are always asking what is 'good' or 'appropriate' for children.
She writes about the Andersen story: "I don't know. I hated it when I was a kid. I hated all the Andersen stories with unhappy endings. That didn;t stop me from reading them, and rereading them. Or from remembering that after a gap of thirty years, when I was pondering this talk, a little voice suddenly said in my left ear, "You'd better dig out that Andersen story, you know, about the shadow.
At age ten I certainly wouldn't have gone on about reason and repression and all that. I had no critical equipment, no detachment, and even less power of sustained thought than I have now. I had somewhat less conscious mind than I have now. But I had as much, or more, of an unconscious mind, and was perhaps in better touch with it than I am now. And it was to that, to the unknown depths in me, that the story spoke; and it was the depths which responded to it and, nonverbally, irrationally, understood it, and learned from it.
The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious - symbol and archetype."

Isn't that somehow perfectly said? As if Le Guin herself had bypassed all the reasons why we should read fantasy, and said why we do read it - because it speaks to something deep inside us, the place in our hearts and souls that other books that are 'reasonable' and 'good' for us don't reach. I think the idea of morality is very important, and Le Guin goes on to make a much deeper connection between fantasy and morality in this essay: she says that instead of dividing good from evil, that we must learn, what our souls know, that good and evil are intertwined. Not mixed, but rather, in order to live a whole life, we must face the darkness in ourselves, in order to contain that darkness. If we don't face it, we become lonely, because we are cut off from our deepest source of creativity and understanding about the world. If we do face it, we show the world that evil can be contained in ourselves, and we show the way for others - for children, in our stories, how to do this. How to face our shadow, and win. She also makes the important statement that we can't cut off the shadow, we can't forget about it, or ignore it; it just grows stronger, until we, the conscious self, becomes the shadow of the Shadow, which is now corrupted with the evil we wouldn't admit to. It's not easy to say, I can be like her - the worst crimes committed, but if we can find a way to acknowledge the seed of the idea might possibly exist in us, no matter how dark, we are saved.

So how do we find our way to our shadow? "How do you get there? How do you find your own private entrance to the collective unconscious? Well, the first step is often the most important, and Jung says that the first step is to turn around and follow your own shadow."

And children, I believe, instinctively know this. Le Guin makes this point again and again: they see with an uncluttered mind, uncluttered with reason, logic, all the ways adults use to stop themselves from seeing. Even if the child doesn't understand all the facets of the story, they instinctively know it's true in its depths. Not just the battle between good and evil, which we all face every day as adults, but how we live our lives. They know if someone or something is true. So my favourite Andersen tale,

is one that I have both feared, dreaded and loved dearly. All at the same time. As an adult, I can acknowledge that the Snow Queen lives in me, that I have the fearsome and awesome capability to freeze my emotions if I have to, in order to survive. If I am in danger of doing this, my dreams tell me - I'll dream I'm in the arctic, or ice or snow is all around me. And the way home for me is to love, is to feel again, to be passionate. So, fairy tales are true. How did my child-self know all those years ago? The fairy tale is my guide and my instruction home again. So is The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, so is Beauty and the Beast, so are the best fantasy books and fairy tale books and our cultural myths we tell. Le Guin says fairy tales give children the chance to see yes, the world is full of danger, and yes, there is a way to survive. We do have to be careful with children, to not shatter them with too much knowledge too early. What we can show them, she says, is this: "And it seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to a child about both good and evil is to talk about himself. Himself, his inner self, his deep, the deepest Self. That is something he can cope with; indeed, his job in growing up is to become himself.....He needs to see himself and the shadow he casts. That is something he can face, his own shadow, and he can learn to control it and be guided by it......
Fantasy is the language of the inner self."

Anyway, that's why I forgot what I was eating for breakfast, because her essay swooped me away into my deeper self, where I remembered that going within is the most important journey each person makes, and necessary to the well-being of the world. So, what is your favourite Andersen, or other, fairy tale? Is there a relation between that story and you?

So, with all that in mind, how does a classic children's fantasy series measure up?

The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, books 2 and 3 in the Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. This is a fantasy series written for children, and won two Newbery Awards - for The Dark is Rising volume, and The Grey King.
I read Over Sea, Under Stone last year, and my review is here. The next two volumes are even better.

Dark in Rising
introduces Will Stanton, and what happens to him on his 11th birthday. It is a true fantasy story, filled with Old Ones, magic, items to find, protecting the world from Evil, and in this book, the wonder of a Christmas with the Stanton family with their 10 children. This is a classic book of good vs evil, with a delicious sense of danger and malevolence that I love: 'And then in a dreadful furious moment, horror seized him like a nightmare made real; there came a wrenching crash, with the howling of the wind suddenly much louder and closer, and a great blast of cold; and the Feeling came hurtling against him with such force of dread that it flung him cowering away.'
I love this bit, which Cooper does in all the books: weave in a bit of local lore, that grounds the books in Cornwall (Over Sea) or The Thames Valley (The Dark is Rising), using existing magical lore to deepen the connection of how to find your way in the land of magic and dream:
"Here," Old George said, appearing suddenly at Will's side as they all pushed the cart out of the gate. "You should have some of this." He thrust forward a great bunch of holly, heavy with berries.
"Very good of you, George," said Mr. Stanton."But we do have that big holly tree by the front door, you know. If you know anyone who hasn't -"
"No, no, you take it." The old man wagged his finger. "Not half so many berries on that bush o'yours. Partic'lar holly, this is." He laid it carefully in the cart; then quickly broke off a sprig and slipped it into the top buttonhole of Will's coat. "And a good protection against the Dark," the old voice said low in Will's ear, "if pinned over the window, and over the door." Then the pink-gummed grin split his creased brown face in a squawk of ancient laughter, and the Old One was Old George again, waving them away. "Happy Christmas!"

This book is filled with danger, and evil, and goodness, and light, and those that stand eternal guard against the dark. It's a wonderful story, and I really enjoyed it. I also really wanted to go and put some holly and berries over my doors and windows!!

Greenwitch brings together the children - Jane, Barney and Simon Drew from Over Sea, Under Stone, with Will from The Dark is Rising. They are again in Cornwall, and they are brought there under the guise of a week's holiday in April (a school break time in England). Really, they are looking for the Grail, which at the end of Over Sea, Under Stone had been placed in a museum. It has been stolen, and Merriman, the Old One who is the Merlin-like figure of aid to Will in the stories, knows they have a small window of time to find it before it is lost forever. Being the Grail, it is indispensible in the fight against evil. This story took a while to find a balance; it read more like an adventure in the Enid Blyton style, then when it was involving Merriman and Will, suddenly it had the more mythic overtones that The Dark is Rising contains. Over Sea, Under Stone had the same juxtaposition of adventure fun with mythic overtones. Cooper is a good enough writer that she in the end pulls it off, and Greenwitch works on a much deeper and better level than Over Sea, Under Stone does.

I think this is because Greenwitch is based on a Cornwall ritual of making an offering to the sea. Whether this is based on a real Cornwall ritual, I couldn't say, but it feels like once upon a time, it could very well have been done. It is very simple, the creation of statue of branches - for those who know their trees, rowan and hawthorn especially are used. How the Greenwitch figures in the story, I don't want to give away, but I do want to say that this is again a magical story, with old magic and Wild Magic, which are two different things. I like this too, that there are different kinds of magic in the world. It works especially because what Jane does crosses the divide between the Wild Magic and Old Magic, something no one else is able to do because it doesn't come from knowledge, but understanding, and sympathy. So often, the greatest fantasy stories are about this act of sympathy - remember, Bilbo doesn't slay Gollum when he has the chance, and so he saves the world. What Jane,Simon, and Barney do, make up the bulk of the story, and it is believable in the way adventure stories must be for children, as well as full of wonder, as magical stories must be. Will and Merriman are more watchers, seeking the Grail specifically; I think their story is the whole of the 5 books put together. I think Cooper put ordinary children into a mythic story to see what would happen, and it is fun, exciting, and dangerous, just like the best stories for children are.
"Barney felt again the power and the nastiness that had leapt at him from the canvas he had seen the man painting in the harbour; up on this ceiling too he saw the particular unnerving shade of green he had found so unpleasant out there. He said suddenly to Simon, "Let's go home."
"Not yet," said the dark man. He spoke softly, without moving, and Barney felt a chill awareness of the Dark reaching out to control him."

Very highly recommended. I have to buy the last two in the series, and that will be later this month. I have to know how it ends!

Friday 6 February 2009

Battlestar Galactica, or, simply the best television

The world ended with no warning, and all that was left … was hope. opening description of Battlestar Galactica.

Ok, I can see you, rolling your eyes. "Gah!" you say. "Not that show, not the remake of the science fiction tv show from the 1970's."

Well, actually that was my original reaction when I heard 4 years ago that they were remaking Battlestar Galactica. I had watched the original show - my sister and I had even fought over the two leading actors, Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict (I got Richard Hatch). But it was cute, and not very serious science fiction, even with Lorne Greene's deep, sonorous voice leading the way into the stars in the flight from the Cylons.

Cue the 21st century. As usual, I think I missed the very first episode, and my then 16 year old son asked me to watch the next episode with him. And since that very first episode that I watched, I have fallen in love with a great tv show. Note that I say 'great tv show', not 'great science fiction show'. I think BSG (as it's really known to those who watch it, much easier to say!) transcends the genre in every way possible. In tonight's episode, for example, "Blood on the Scales", there is a coup and it all looks very normal and fairly bloodless at first. Then, in true BSG style, every coup trope is turned upside down: a soldier breaks down as the episode progresses. What does he do? The President, dying of cancer, decides to fight back even though she has been told the Admiral (her lover) has been killed. I sat there and admired her fighting words, then as the commercial rolled, I thought, uh-oh, has she just doomed the rest of the human race to sure death by staying to fight the coup takers, rather than fleeing with the remnants of those who follow her, and the Cylons? Meanwhile, the small band of rebels take the ship back. And the one who was going to be killed by firing squad, executes instead those who removed him from power, in the last scene. It's not horrible, it's awesome story-telling. 55 minutes of 'don't look away' television. From beginning to end, it's breath-taking, on the edge-of-my-seat watching. Literally. I almost fell off at one point, and when Roslyn (the President) makes her stunning very short speech, I had my hands on my face for a full minute after, trying to think through all the directions the show could move now.

Every scene is fraught with tension - what will the characters do? Even now, 4 years into the show, Starbuck (in this updated version, she's a woman and quite a woman too) stays with her ex as he is critically wounded, even though they are still trying to take the ship back, for the first time revealing how much she still cares for Sam, even though he's a Cylon. And the vice-president in a very chilling scene, shows exactly why he was in prison for all those years.

This is the link to what the show is about, here , from Scifi.Com, a great website about science fiction media.

This is tv that goes where all the really great shows go, right into the heart of what it means to be human,and what it means to be in a state of war, and what trying to find a home does to a civilization. The writers don't blink from asking the hard questions, like in a state of war, should the military make civilians expendable? Who leads? What happens when you meet the enemy, and you can't tell yourself apart from the enemy? What if the enemy split apart and some wanted to make a pact with you? would you? What if you fell in love with the enemy? And all, all of the characters are fully rounded, written with depth and sensitivity, and the acting is so good, that every character is different, and every death means something. Life on board the Galactica and in the fleet feels real,even though it is set in the future, it seems to be happening right before our eyes.

I know i will not convert anyone, and I'm not trying too hard to! I wanted, while Carl's Sci Fi Experience is running, to write about Battlestar Galactica while it was still on the air. This is its last season, and I think it is a pity that more people haven't found their way to it, because it is some of the best writing on tv, and best acting. Oh, and Richard Hatch is back. And not a hero!!! In ironic recasting (and very deliberate on the part of the show, which I like!), he is most definitely dangerous and unpredictable. Still kind of cute, though.

So here are my top 10 reasons to watch Battlestar Galactica while you still can:
Susan's Top 10 Reasons to watch Battlestar Galactica:

1. Adults only. This is for adults. No cute robot dogs, no talking animals (which I do love!), this is a show about life and death in space.

2. Well-written, and gripping. What do you do with a science genius who discovers how to tell Ceylon from human, and then lies about how it works? Because he carries around a secret guilt that slowly eats away at him as he watches the fleet battle the Ceylons to stay alive.

Or when the human survivors discover that the Cylons have discovered a way to make themselves look human? Or the board that marks down the number of survivors left in the fleet, and if there are any deaths in the episode, the number changes in real time? Births too.
Storyline is continuous and refers to the past: actions in the beginning have repercussions later. Decisions have immediate results. And the characters refer to what they were doing before the Cylons came. They talk to each other, listen to one another, respond. The coup tonight is a direct result of Adama refusing to deal with the revelation of who the final 4 Cylons are, all of whom have infiltrated the ship and their lives. If someone is your friend for 25 years, how do you turn your back on that? what if they don't hate you at all?

3. Fabulous love stories. Some are very hot,

Oh, and it's also twisted. Very twisted. They argue, they fight, they hurt each other, they make up, they love each other.
In the midst of war, life goes on, and that mystical, magical ingredient that makes life worth living, love, is present in spades in Galactica.

4. Characters are people you probably grew up with: The range of characters is fantastic. Good characters, bad characters, characters who change sides, characters whose side you aren't sure they are on.....and they grow and change before your eyes.
Here is Starbuck coming to terms with her past:

5. Life in Space. How they adapt to life on the ships is fascinating. And realistic. They need water, fuel, to resupply, time to repair.

6. The theme song is haunting, and the opening montage is a riveting, no matter how many times i see it, I love watching it.

7. Admiral Adama. Tonight's episode made me realize that Edward James Olmos is the soul of the show. As admiral, he is the Battlestar, aged, a relic, and refusing to give up. He is man's best chance to survive. And he finds love in the unlikeliest person, the unlikeliest place, at the unlikeliest time.

8. Forgiveness. Love. Survival. All the human emotions, pitted against a pitiless enemy who reveal surprising capacity to feel, to need, despite being machines. Confused? Try being a Cylon! Or a human on this show! So are they, the characers don't have any answers, they learn as they go, so we learn too what it's all about as we watch it. This is what I consider one of the best characteristics of science fiction, that it reveals us to ourselves. This show presents all that is good and bad in the human soul. It's fascinating storytelling.

9. The ships of BSG.
Wouldn't you like to fly one of these:

I know I do!!! I really want to fly one! and this is who they fight:

Very cool ships, graphics, the fight scenes are realistic. What life in space would be like.

10. Adventure! Fire Fights! Lots of flying! Things move, it's fast-paced, and the hour never ever lasts long enough. Actually, this spot is reserved for all the actors and actresses on the show. If they didn't believe in the work, in the story, it would fail miserably. The actors have brought a high level of craft and commitment to their work here, and I wish it would get noticed by the Emmy committee. Oh, too late. Figures. If this had been on mainstream tv it still wouldn't have gotten a look at, because it's science fiction. So, this is my part to say, hey, science fiction is capable of the best writing; in television, as well as in books. I wish it would be taken as worthy literature/television/storytelling. Isn't it about time a science fiction writer won the Nobel Prize for literature? When the writing is this good, why is it overlooked?

There you have it. 7 shows to go before the series ends. Catch it while you can.