18 February 2010

The fate of humanity depends on Shakespeare.

Reading Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons is a glimpse behind the scenes of a horrid future, and backstage of the workings of the universe. Dystopian novels of a world undone compel me to read them; a story of a whole metaverse gone haywire was irresistible.Muse of Fire

The story is narrated by young Wilbr, an actor with The Earth's Men, a traveling performance troupe that specializes in Shakespeare. Their travels take them from planet to planet, entertaining the enslaved humans who toil for their alien overlords, the Archon, a race so alien they seem to take no notice of the humans, except for their work output. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, after a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, the alien's interest manifests itself for a performance request. The performers oblige with the Scottish Play. And then, the overlords of the Archons appear with a request for a performance of their own...

William ShakespeareBy the end of the tale, the performers have given the performances of their lives, and perhaps more than that: they are told that the continued existence of humanity depends upon their skill. Have they passed the test? Or was there any test at all - was the outcome predetermined?

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11 February 2010

The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth

I recently finished reading The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth. She's an author I wasn't familiar with before, and I'm glad to have met her through this blog tour. For other stops on her blog tour, check out the list The Bookette helpfully put together.

The novel concerns protagonist Hannah Rose, who discovers by accident that her mother had spirited her away from a birthright in Scotland. The strong willed lass immediately demands that her mother return her to Scotland, and succeeds. Hannah then begins a relationship with the great-grandmother she didn't know she had; she investigates the mystery of her father's disappearance; and she sets out to break a curse that's doomed her family for over 400 years... which takes her back to that very time.

As a girl raised on tales from Nancy Drew and C.S. Lewis, the cadence of the story and the reliance on a child to do the work of an adult were a comfortable fit for me. I'd recommend the story for any young girls interested in the supernatural, especially if it keeps them away from sappy vamp lit. The plethora of mythical and magical creatures - selkies, blue men, imps and the Unseelie Court - reminds me also of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon,

I particularly loved the portrayal of the past as not a romantic tourist promenade, but a dangerous and uncouth time in which people lived very differently than we do now; eating rarely, and storing clothes near the toilet. As a traveler to the past, Hannah's reflections on the distance separating her from her present and on how terribly her manners suit the time she finds herself in are beautiful expositions which further the story. These reflective moments on Hannah's part also serve as proxy to her transition from childhood to adult.

Thanks Scholastic for the review copy, and thanks Kate for the time for the interview!

I asked a few questions of Kate Forsyth to better understand the book:
Scottish history is, like that of many countries, full of bloodshed and horror as well as heroes and glory. How much did you think about representing both aspects of this history - the proud moments and the desperate?
It was very important to me to try and make the history seem as real as possible. One of my strongest dislikes has always been fantasy that sets its story in a quasi-medieval world that somehow does not smell like medieval times. I think fantasy must be rooted very deeply into the real if it’s going to work well. There’s always a balancing act between keeping the pace moving strongly and giving enough vivid detail to bring the world and the times to life, and so I hope I managed to keep all the balls in the air. I wanted to show just how very dangerous it was for Hannah and her friends to go back in time, because the world of the 16th century is far more barbaric, ruthless and fraught with danger than the world of most middle-class teenagers today. Also, for me, it was important to show both the high points and the low points of the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, herself. Her story is so compelling and so tragic because there is such a contrast between her days as the most beautiful and powerful women in the world and the end of her life as a poor captive who has her head cut off by her cousin.

There are a few subtle references to elitism in the book; for example, Hannah's mother Rose is unhappy by the way her mother in law treats her household help, and scorns the prospect of taking on the title she is entitled to by marriage. After a few references to this, though, Roz never mentions it again. I'm left with an impression of her character as being somewhat indecisive. Can you speak about this characterization of Roz?

I certainly don’t see Roz as a particularly forceful character – she gives in to her daughter Hannah on almost every front – but I also think she had a very hard time, losing her husband when Hannah was only a day old and living in a house in which she felt like an outsider. I think Roz was always rather overwhelmed by the Countess of Wintersloe, who is a very strong personality, and who, besides, believes in all sorts of strange uncanny things that Roz believes firmly to be complete and utter rubbish. The two are diametrically opposed which makes for great conflict. I think that Roz is gradually won over by Lady Wintersloe, and by the warm and loving relationship she has with her cook, and by the magical atmosphere of the house itself. Roz went to Wintesloe Castle very reluctantly – she had sworn never to return there – but after a while she stops protesting so much and by the end I think she is glad to be there.
The scenes written with Queen Mary were fabulous; I loved the contrast of her as the glamorous life of the party with her later appearances, crying and captured. I admired very much how you distilled what is a long and complex tale of her life into very few references that still gave substance to her character, and provided interest without overwhelming Hannah's tale. Are there other historical subjects you would like to cover in future stories?
Mary, Queen of Scots in "white mourning"Oh, absolutely! So many stories of the past that intrigue me. In my earlier novel, ‘The Gypsy Crown’, the action is set during the English Civil War which was just as fascinating and dangerous. All the action takes place in the last three weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s life, and I’d love to write a sequel to that which looks at England in the time of the Great Fire and the plague. Then, I’d also love to write more Puzzle Ring stories – I can see Hannah and Donovan and Max and Scarlett meeting Bonnie Prince Charlie ... or perhaps being caught up in the Highland Clearances, a time of great grief and trouble ... or even, perhaps, helping Robert Louis Stephenson come up with the plotline of ‘Kidnapped’ ... I have so many ideas!
I previously read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander and enjoyed the time travel and magical elements in her writing, but they were much more in the background of the story rather than being center-stage as they are in The Puzzle Ring. Is there something about Scotland that is drawing such literary attention?
Scotland is a storyteller’s dream. So much history, so many fairy tales and battles and love stories and ghosts. I was brought up on them all, thanks to my Scottish forebears, and love the idea of bringing some of them to life. Why are stories set in Scotland so popular? Perhaps because there are so many people, scattered all over the world, who have Scottish blood in them. Perhaps because it still seems like a wild, lonely, mysterious place when so much of the world is built over with cities and fast food joints. I don’t know - I only know that I love to read books set in Scotland!
I would have really enjoyed this story when I was a tween - it would have fit right in with my collection of Jane Yolen and Narnia books. Reading it as an adult, it seemed like a very feminine book; there's few men in Hannah's life, she concerns herself with "typical" girl concerns of hair and makeup and fashion, and her dynamics with Scarlett aren't ones I've seen my sons endure with their friends. Do you think a boy might enjoy this book as much as a girl, and why?

I’m glad you enjoyed the book and I love you comparing it to Jane Yolen & C.S. Lewis as they are two of my all-time favourite authors!

I’m intrigued, though, by your comment re the femininity of the book. There are as many boys as girls in the story – Hannah and Scarlett versus Donovan and Max – while Hannah’s father and the old gillie Angus help balance out the Roz/Linnet/Lady Wintersloe triangle. And I don’t really see Hannah as being very interested in hair and makeup and fashion at all – I think Scarlett is, definitely, but Hannah very much goes her own way. Apart from liking to wear a beret, of course.

I do like the idea of both boys and girls reading my books. I remember when I was a child, my sister and my brother and I all read the same books and we all played the same games – pretending to be in Narnia, or to be the Famous Five, or having sword fights in the back garden. I worry about the modern trend to write books about princesses and fairies for girls, and spies and gadgets for boys – children that don’t read the same books and play the same games will not have an imaginative landscape they can share. Certainly lots of boys read my books, because they come along to my public appearances and ask me questions and bring their books for me to sign. Though now I come to think of it, I get a lot more fan mail from girls!

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08 February 2010

Blog tour: The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth

Steampunk Jewelry made by CatherinetteRings : ...Image by Catherinette Rings Steampunk via Flickr
I received The Puzzle Ring as a gift from Kate Forsyth - thanks, Kate! It was a great read and kept me up past my bedtime for a few nights.

Forsyth has many books listed with Amazon but in the US, this one is not listed, so you'll have to go further afield to find it. One option is Amazon UK and another is the Book Depository.

I'll be hosting Kate Forsyth here on February 11th to answer a few questions about the book as part of her blog tour. 

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07 February 2010

Animals Make Us Human

As a volunteer foster parent with the Humane Society of Indianapolis, I bring into my home dogs that aren't read for prime time - for whatever reason, they can't go out for immediate adoption. I'm nowhere near as dedicated as most of the shelter workers I've met, but I think I do a pretty good job doing my part to help animals. My family usually takes in dogs who have social problems - too shy, too scared or too ignorant of humans to understand how to interact with us. I wonder often how best to help these dogs and read Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson to see if I could pick up some ideas.

Grandin interviewed with Amazon recently:
Q: How will this book be useful to people working with cats and dogs in animal shelters?
A: People often don't recognize emotions in these animals. I went to a very nice animal shelter recently that had group housing for cats that had tree-like things with platforms and cubbyholes for the cats to get in, and a very astute worker there noticed that you can have a situation where a cat seems very calm in a shelter, but he's not really sleeping, he's constantly keeping an eye out for another cat. And people need to watch for that kind of situation, because even though it looks peaceful, that one particular cat that never sleeps is going to be stressed out.
Also at this shelter, I was very pleased that the amount of dog barking was way less, and I think one of the reasons for this is that every day, every dog is taken out for an hour of quality time, playing and being walked and interacting with a person. That's going to help lower the stress. Dogs need to be taken out every day for quality interaction with a person, exercise, and fun play.
Photo of a dog behind a chain-link fence at th...Image via Wikipedia

One lesson I got from this book was to think about how an animal can become conditioned to respond to certain things in a certain way and how that conditioning is very hard to alter. Any dog owner knows that picking up the dog's leash can cause the dog to be very, very excited! That's a positive association, but it is just as possible for negative associations to form. For example, we fostered a dog who hated to be crated. I'm certain in retrospect that the crating experiences this dog had before were probably awful. We worked with the dog to replace the negative crate associations with positive ones. Eventually, going into the crate did not cause the dog to shiver in fear, although the dog was never happy about it. I think applying Temple Grandin's ideas might have helped rehabilitate the dog faster and more completely.

And, relating to my professional life, I also found a reference to animal welfare in a presentation at Dreamforce 2009: Data, like Pigs, like to be clean. Thanks again Paul Young for the engaging presentation!

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01 February 2010

Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

gargoyle detail - detalle gárgolaImage by Xavier Fargas via Flickr
Gargolyes, longing to live free from the bonds of stone. A robot, with a vulnerable ticking heart. A reclusive AI inventor, with a fearful past in a bleak orphanage that specializes in cage-raised children. A consumer of souls, an outcast, unsafe to any but the soulless.

Any one of these creations would have been enough material for an ordinary author to build a story. A superb author might have dared two of these elements. But Ekaterina Sedia dares to work with them all, and more, and makes a book that appears so effortlessly wonderful, so delightful, that substantial efforts must have gone into her novel, The Alchemy of Stone.

What ultimately pleased me about the work is how each of the characters was so utterly right in their actions and motivations, and how each of them ends up harming the other inevitably. There is no dithering and no simpering in this lot. The gargoyles' pursuit of their determined salvation is absolute - and correct. The inventor's mistrust of his creation is, in the end, merited. The robot's vulnerability is exploited to bad result. Upon reflection, the trajectory of each character appears to have been plotted out with mathematical precision. Counter-motivations balance and oppose one another; and the shape the entire plot makes is deceptively simple until it cascades together at the end.

I read Alchemy based on Carl's recommendation from Stainless Steel Droppings. This fellow drives way more than his fair share of my book purchases than is logical for someone I've never met. He's like My Own Private Oprah.

This comment from Carl was what put this book in the read category for me:
Despite being an automaton, she is a remarkably human creation, and in that sense very easy to relate with. One particular passage made me smile, discovering that Mattie was a clockwork girl after my own heart:

“…Mattie decided to stop by a bookshop near the paper factory. It carried some books she had lusted after for as long as she had been on her own, after she had ended her apprenticeship with Ogdela–small, trim books with thick paper and ragged pages, books bound in cloth and leather, books with faded drawings painted with a thin brush dipped in ox’s blood.”
Reading this book for myself, I flagged a section of prose to share with you, wandering readers-
“Mattie’s memories had shapes--some were oblong and soft, like the end of a thick blanket tucked under a sleeping man’s cheek; others had sharp edges, and one had to think about them carefully in order not to get hurt.”
And isn't it like that sometime? I reflected on the passage and considered that in Mattie's case, what is a simple human metaphor is dangerously real for her. What would it be like to be made with a kill-switch inside, to have the capacity to sabotage oneself and not know that it exists? In further reflection, I considered that we all are already, and that believing this is only true of robots is simplistic - automaton or not, the sentiment is human. For the author to so subtly include such wellsprings of metaphysical thought with such a careful sentence is masterful.

I'd recommend this book to readers of fantasies, cyber-punk, philosophy and fairy tales. I hope this is not the last we'll see of Mattie and the gargoyles in the city of stone.
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