A blog for people who don't want to spend all their free time in the real world. After all, we live and work there. Escape the mundane with books, travel, and writing.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in Arizona

Me on Christmas Day in the Arizona Desert.  NOT a white Christmas.
Me with a saguaro, short sleeves, and a Christmas present

Near Lake Pleasant, north of Phoenix, Arizona
Teddy Bear Cholla, Arizona

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Czech Christmas Tree

I'm not in the Czech Republic now, but Christmas always brings back good memories of my time there.  This was my "tree" from Christmas 2009.

All ornaments are from nearby Christmas markets, made of gingerbread, wood, honeycomb, dough, cloth, and straw.

Veselé Vánoce!

Friday, December 16, 2011

This is what winter should look like

Mid December in the beautiful Czech Republic

The River Bečva, Vsetín, Czech Republic
The lake in the park, under a layer of snow, Vsetín
The view from my apartment, Vsetín, Czech Republic

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Elixir, by Hilary Duff

Elixir wasn't bad, but I'm pretty sure it was only published because of the author's ready-made fan base.  That's rather a kick in the gut to all those non-famous but much better writers out there collecting rejection after rejection. 

The banter wasn't as clever as intended.  Repetition and over-drama weakened the prose.  The rather superhuman characters felt flat.  And why on Earth would a senator's daughter be so easily recognizable in places like Japan and Brazil?  SPOILER ALERT:  The ending felt very "Empire Strikes Back":  the romantic lead kidnapped, the other two members of the love triangle wounded and waiting on the space station (airplane) for the next installment.  Unanswered questions about the father.  The big difference, however? I was dying to see "The Return of the Jedi."  Hilary Duff's next book?  Not so much.     

I really liked the creepy bit about this mysterious guy showing up in the background of all her best photos.  My favorite part of the book was when she discovered this, and tested it by snapping photos around her bedroom.  It gave me chills when she found his image in her closet, staring out at her.  However, it never really explained how this happened.  Nor did it explain (SPOILER ALERT) why Clea and Ben are reincarnated over and over again.  We don't need full explanations of these type of plot elements, but when so much hinges on them, and we have no explanation at all, it feels a little too convenient.  

I'm not the biggest fan of supernatural. I like fantasy better.  Many elements that would be right at home in fantasy just strike me as corny in supernatural.  I suppose that's because fantasy is NOT our world, but supernatural's pretending to be.  Terms like the "Elixir of Life" and a secret society called "Cursed Vengeance" almost made me laugh.  But that may not be Duff's writing.  It may be the genre in general, and my own personal bias.    

Like many other reviewers, I don't really like the message, so common today in YA paranormal, that if you meet a dark, mysterious, handsome, and rather dangerous stranger, who may or may not be trying to kill you, and you decide for some reason that he's your soul mate, you should immediately sleep with him.

The plot was interesting enough, with some really nice details here and there.  It kept my attention.  Like I said, it was an OK book. 

But Hilary Duff, you've already had more than your 15 minutes of fame.  I think it's great that you're trying your hand at writing.  The rest of us, however, have to practice and polish and write and rewrite—for years, sometimes—and then pray that anyone will even look at more than five words of our query.  And we do this all without a co-author.  So if you're really passionate about it, keep writing, but never take for granted the advantage of your name in this highly competitive market. 

My rating:  3

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Isaac Asimov Short Stories

I recently discovered Isaac Asimov.  Now I wonder why I haven't been reading his stories all along.  Conceptual, and not very action-oriented, I often wonder what my critique group would say about all these characters sitting around and talking.  But what I've read has fascinated me, intrigued me, made me wonder—all the things science fiction is supposed to do.  What makes them even more interesting is that all the stories in the collection I'm reading were written in the 40s and 50s, and they reveal a whole lot about the science, culture, and mindset of the time.  From his preoccupation with WWII to his idea that computers of the future will get bigger and bigger, from his lack of strong and intelligent female characters to his dead-on predictions about planned obsolescence in the computer industry, it provides a fascinating peek into my grandparents' world. 

From Isaac Asimov, the Complete Stories; Volume I, here are the stories I most recommend, whether you're an Asimov novice or a die-hard sci fi fan. 

--"The Feeling of Power"—In a computer-dependent future, someone re-discovers how to do math on paper, leading to terrifying military consequences.  Very good commentary on Einstein.

--"The Dead Past"—An emotionally damaged historian tries to develop a chronoscope to look back in time, giving rise to an intriguing exploration of governmental suppression of the sciences.

--"Living Space"—Earth's too crowded, so they figure out how to transport to alternate universes (probability patterns) where each person has their own alternate Earth.  This is quite a popular idea, until one planet-owner hears noises on his supposedly empty planet.  Creepy and fun.     

--"Profession"— People have forgotten how to learn from books and experience.  Instead, all the knowledge for their indicated profession is zapped into their brain at age 18.  This turns out to be a problem for the clever main character, who makes the mistake of studying for his dream profession before his 18th birthday. 

--"The Gentle Vultures"—A race of non-aggressive aliens has been camping out on the moon, waiting for nuclear war on Earth, so they can go in, clean up, and restore a more peaceful society—for a fee, of course.  They've been waiting and waiting, not understanding why nuclear war hasn't broken out, like it has on every other planet that reaches this level of development.  Finally they decide they'd better start it themselves.  One of my very favorite Asimov stories.

--"All the Troubles of the World"—Multivac—the mile-long computer—gets fed so much data constantly that it now predicts all crime that will happen, so the police can arrest people before they do the crimes.  Now, for the first time, Multivac predicts an attempt on itself, and the Central Board of Directors races to neutralize the threat.  Fascinating.  Great ending. 
 
--"The Ugly Little Boy"­—Scientists pull a cave boy out of the past and study him.  He, however, becomes more than just a test subject, which causes problems when they have to send him back to make space for other subjects.  Touching, with interesting ethical debates. 

--"Nightfall"—on a planet with so many suns it's never dark, scientists and sociologists predict a total eclipse, which will plunge the planet into a darkness which will drive the population mad. 

--"Hostess"—A biologist—one of this collection's few strong female protagonists—discovers a sinister conspiracy involving Earth's relationship with the few known intelligent alien races.  Rather ethically terrifying.

My rating:  overall a 4 (some poems a 2, some stories a 5)

Discover this imaginative collection for yourself.  Available here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Just reached 50,000 words

Yeah!  I just finished my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo.  Nanowrimo, in case you don't know, is a worldwide organization to promote novel-writing.  We all try to write a whole rough draft in a single month:  November.  The goal is 50,000 words, and I just reached it!  The only problem is that my story's not finished.  So hopefully I'll get another 10,000 words or so during the next four days, and really do justice to the plot.  To all my fellow nanos, get ready for the final sprint!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tracy Arm, Alaska

Stunning Alaska, on a long--but not long enough--cruise up a blue-green fjord to see my first glacier.  

Tracy Arm, Alaska, in July

Glowing blue icebergs
Tracy Arm

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Znojmo, a forgotten jewel of the Czech Republic

I went to Znojmo despite a guidebook warning about it mainly being a stopover for Austrian businessmen.  That'll teach you to listen to guidebooks.

Znojmo, Czech Republic-a striking skyline
Looks like Italy, but it's Znojmo, Czech Republic
 I spent a lot of time on my pension's balcony, above, eating leisurely breakfasts, writing, and enjoying the fall sun before it turned cold.

More views from my pension, Znojmo

The place I stayed--both visits to Znojmo--was the charming and central Cyklo Penzion U Mikulase.  It provides basic budget accommodations with thin walls and great views.

Great hiking around Znojmo

The old town center is full of pretty squares, churches, and other architectural pleasures.  Quiet and walkable, and almost eerie in its night-time stillness, Znojmo remains one of my favorites small cities.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

"The Thirteenth Tale," by Diane Setterfield

I found Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale by chance.  I pulled it off the shelf at the library and sat for twenty minutes there in the aisle, devouring the fabulous first pages, until I knew I would be late.

It's the story of a popular but reclusive writer, Vida Winter, who has never told a single word of truth to any would-be biographer.  Now she's dying, and wants to finally get her real story down on paper.  Accustomed as she is to telling stories, the yarn she spins is layered with truth and lies:  the tale of the sometimes unhealthy but irreplaceable bond of twins.

After the brilliant beginning, it slowed a little:  lots of big words, long descriptions, repetitions, and slow pretty scenes that didn't quite keep me on the edge of my seat.    

I also have a personal pet peeve about books written as if they were oral stories, told one evening around the campfire, or accounts written overnight by a character who suddenly needs to get it all out.  My problem is that all these things would be rough drafts, and I can't quite suspend my disbelief when I find this polished book masquerading as a rough draft.  Yes, I'm quirky that way.  This novel would have been more believable than most, because the storyteller is a magnificently creative and talented writer and storyteller in her own right, but the problem is she tells the story to Margaret, the biographer, who remembers it word for word by just jotting down a few notes.  Then she transcribes it perfectly later.  Ugh.  Really, this isn't a deal-breaker, by any means.  I'm just not sure why writers insist on this sort of device. 

The plot itself, though sometimes slow, is interestingly dark and twisty, full of neglect and obsession, unique personalities and mistaken identity.

The biographer's preoccupation with her own twin, and her poor-me-no-one-understands-me attitude gets a little annoying.  The end is too perfectly tied up, with a tacked-on romance, but overall it's a good read.

The best thing, however, are the fantastic quotes (mostly in the beginning) about reading itself, and the power of stories. 

Here are some of my favorites, beautiful, profound, or unsettling as they may be:

"I've nothing against people who love truth.  Apart from the fact that they make dull companions.  Just so long as they don't start on about storytelling and honesty, the way some of them do.  Naturally that annoys me.  But provided they leave me alone, I won't hurt them…My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself.  What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?  What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney?  When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails?  No.  When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid.  What you need are the plump comforts of a story.  The soothing, rocking safety of a lie."
—in a letter from Vida Winter, from The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.

"Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter.  (I never read without making sure I am in a secure position.  I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles.  Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out.  I can still feel the scar under my fringe now.  Reading can be dangerous.)"
—Margaret Lea in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

"All children mythologize their birth.  It is a universal trait.  You want to know someone?  Heart, mind, and soul?  Ask him to tell you about when he was born.  What you get won't be the truth; it will be a story.  And nothing is more telling than a story."
—Vida Winter in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

"A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth."
—Vida Winter in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

My rating: 4

For more about why we need fiction, read my blog post here.
For more on Diane Setterfield, click here.
Buy the book here.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

First Day of Nanowrimo: 3112 words

So today, being the first of November, was the start of National Novel Writing Month, where a bunch of us crazy writers write whole rough drafts in 30 days.  I started writing at midnight last night, and got in my first thousand words.

Then, this afternoon, I went to a write-in at Bookmans, where I and about 25 others sat and wrote on our laptops, our notebooks, or--get this--our typewriters.  Yes, one guy had a vintage green typewriter.  Says it helps his creativity.  When I'm stuck, I go to paper and pen.  When I'm in line or in a boring meeting or at the kitchen table eating cereal and have to write something, I certainly do it on paper.  But boy, I'm glad for my computer, where I can cut, paste, erase, erase again, switch things around, search and replace, etc.  Still, the sound of those typewriter keys clicking away was something special.  It even drew quite a few looks from the innocent non-writer bystanders in the book store.

Despite the distractions inherent to a write-in, I got 2000 words down.  And I don't think it's trash. :)  Only 47,000 to go.   Good luck all you other nanowrimos!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Nanowrimo 2011: write that novel!

For all you aspiring writers out there, hold on to your hats:  National Novel Writing Month is nearly here!  November is the month where thousands of writers band together and each pledge to write an entire novel in a single month.  There's no one critiquing your work.  You won't get a publishing contract the moment you finish.  There are no judges giving out awards for the best novel.  What's it's about is motivation, and getting your body into a chair and writing. 

The goal is 50,000 words, which averages to about 1700 words a day.  If you're a writer, you know how many words that really is.  Doable, but challenging.  It's only a rough draft, obviously, so the words don't have to be polished.  They just have to be written. 

Regional groups hold local write-ins and other activities, and the website has great forums where writers inspire and word-duel each other.  It's also one of the few places where you don't have to be afraid to ask a questions like "How much does a tattoo cost in Estonia?" or "How many hippo steaks can you get from an average hippo?"  Even better, after you ask such questions, you'll get answers.  Lots of other fun stuff on the forums will give you plenty of procrastination excuses, but don't forget that the whole point is to work those fingers on the keyboard.    

So, if you've never written a novel but always wanted to, or if you've published sixty-two of them, join us for National Novel Writing Month at www.nanowrimo.org.  It's free, it's fun, and it's yours if you choose to accept the challenge.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pioneer Pass, Arizona

When I was little my Dad took me camping a lot, and my favorite place was always Pioneer Pass, in the Pinal Mountains up a windy dirt road from my hometown of Globe, Arizona. 

Pioneer Pass Campground, near Globe, Arizona
Sometimes it was just the two of us, and he'd make fancy food in the Dutch oven and we'd go looking for deer at dusk.  Once we built little houses out of the sandy dirt at one of the campsites, and he figured out how to light tiny fires inside, so when night fell we had our own glowing little village.  He taught me how to pick the best firewood and how to lay a fire and how to light it with my boy scout hot spark. (I always wanted to be a boy scout...if only they let in girls.)

Sometimes the whole family went.  We'd play Rook, a card game I always associate with the outdoors.  We read a lot.  I remember devouring The Black Cauldron there when I was quite young, sprawled on the big boulders that were so fun to climb around on.  I pretended I was Princess Eilonwy, a character in the book, and made up my own scenes around her.  When I try to think back on when I started writing stories, I often find myself there, clinging to a rock and imagining trolls and bandits around me in the woods.

My brother David has always liked hiking.  The mountains rose gently up and up away from Pioneer Pass, and the two of us would climb, climb, climb up the slope slippery with fallen pine needles.  It would look for a moment like we were almost to the peak, and David would call out "to the TOP of the MOUNTAIN!" like a hiker's battle cry.  We'd reach the point we thought was the top, only to reveal more mountain above.  We never did reach the top, but I didn't mind.

Alligator bark, Pioneer Pass, Arizona
My church had group camping trips there too, where all us kids would have pine cone fights and elaborate cross-country games of capture the flag.  We'd use those pine-needle-slick hills like sledding runs.  Once we went on a magical midnight hike, with the owls and other nocturnal birds providing creepy background music.

A butterfly that literally flew into my camera frame, Pioneer Pass

Arizona wildlife:  a sleepy black rattler
When I was in high school, one of those years so dry we were all praying for rain daily, the heavens answered, pouring water for days, flooding low-lying towns and saturating the normally parched ground.  The Pinals, soaking with moisture, finally gave way into mudslides, one of which crashed right through Pioneer Pass, grinding boulders through the campsites, destroying the water system, burying picnic tables in rubble, washing out the road.  I cried.  Pioneer Pass had been such a part of my childhood.  Though the Forest Service slowly began to rebuild, I couldn't stand going back for years.  Finally, Dad took me.

The old-fashioned water pumps are gone.  The sites have rearranged themselves.  I can't recognize where we hung the pinata on one church campout, or where Dad and I made the village of sand and fire, or where I and all the characters from The Black Cauldron fought off the bad guys.  But I remember the feel of it.  The quiet happiness.  The times I spent with my dad.

And at night, in the crisp mountain air, the stars still shine as bright.
     

Friday, October 14, 2011

Recommended Fantasy Literature for Teens

Enjoyed by generation after generation for its adventure, its grandeur, and its dragons, fantasy can also provide interesting social commentary. Much is written of children's fantasy, but sometimes young adult fantasy slips through the cracks.

For a list of my favorite YA masterpieces, like Hilari Bell's fantastic Fall of a Kingdom, and Victoria Hanley's The Seer and the Sword, read my whole article on Helium.com 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Recycling Plot Lines


There are only so many plotlines in the world, and stories often borrow elements from each other.  I don't mind that.  Authors reuse story lines because we like them.  I love tomatoes, and could eat them every day of my life.  So I'm not going to reject a meal with tomatoes in it just because it's not original enough.  But some books take this too far.

Recently I read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  A young, semi-orphaned, misfit boy, around whom mysterious events sometimes happen, discovers that he's not normal.  He has magic powers.  So he goes away to a sort of school for other people like him, who are divided into different houses.  Once there, he makes friends with a smart, rather know-it-all girl, and a clumsy, somewhat cowardly boy.  He learns of prophecies surrounding him—the Chosen One—and discovers he is the only one who can avert the upcoming doom.  Hmm…  Sound familiar?  Really, Rick Riordan, can't you at least make the male friend the brainy one and the female friend the clutzy one?  Or give him three friends?  Or NOT divide the school into houses?  Or make Harry…um, I mean Percy...less of a misfit to begin with?              

Haven, by Kristi Cook, features a girl who goes to a new school and there meets an incredibly hot guy.  Instant mutual attraction.  All her new friends are like, "What?  He never even looks at girls!"  One day he's perfectly attentive.  The next he disappears for days.  It turns out he's super fast, super strong, and cool to the touch.  Everyone's attracted to him.  He can read minds.  Her blood drives him wild.  Oh, yeah, and he's a vampire.  Kristi Cook, couldn't you at least not make him a mind reader?  Or make him rather warm to the touch?  Or make her blood smell bad? 

Midnight for Charlie Bone, by Jenny Nimmo, is the story of a boy who has unpleasant relatives and magic power, a legacy of his ancestors.  He goes to a special boarding school, finds Ron and Hermione-like friends, and solves a magical mystery.

Of course, I guess none of that's as bad as the book I saw on the shelves in the Czech Republic, showing a boy with a lightning scar, a girl with frizzy hair, and a red-headed friend.  I think it was called Harry Trotter, but I can't find it on the internet.  I find Barry Trotter and Harry Pouter and various other spoofs.  A spoof, I appreciate.  A book that is not a spoof, yet borrows so heavily…that's just sad.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Cinderella Story

I have a new story published in Enchanted Conversation:  A Fairy Tale Magazine.  Each issue is based on one specific fairy tale.  This issue retells Cinderella, and my story, "Ethereal," appears among them.  If you enjoy it, please add a comment.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why we need fiction

Some people claim they don't have time for fiction, for something that's not "true."  Others may prefer news and science and biography to a good novel.  That's fine.  But I need fiction in my life.

I don't know anyone who's said it better than Vida Winter, a character in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.  Vida, a reclusive writer, never answers questions about her own life with anything but a beautifully constructed story.  Here's what she says about truth and fiction:

"I've nothing against people who love truth.  Apart from the fact that they make dull companions.  Just so long as they don't start on about storytelling and honesty, the way some of them do.  Naturally that annoys me.  But provided they leave me alone, I won't hurt them.

"My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself.  What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?  What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney?  When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails?  No.  When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid.  What you need are the plump comforts of a story.  The soothing, rocking safety of a lie."
                                      -From The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I don't agree completely with Vida Winter.  Truth is important, and has its place.  But just as vital to mental health are the "plump comforts of a story."

Within fiction we can love and grieve and feel, all the while knowing it's not really true.  We explore dark crevices of the soul and enjoy triumphs we might never experience in reality.  We can escape from our own boredom or fear or heartbreak, long enough to regain our strength for the real fight.  And hidden in the "soothing, rocking safety of a lie," there awaits a great deal of truth, told in a way that is easier to accept than hard, cold reality.

The best stories are simply truth cloaked in pleasure, be it sword and sorcery or harlequin romance, murder mystery or tough-guy western, literary fiction or space travel.  In their safe, comforting way they reveal our own truths.     

Once I heard a beautiful quote.  I have no idea who said it, though similarly profound words appear in V for Vendetta.  Here's the version I live by:

"Politicians use the truth to tell lies.  Writers use lies to tell the truth." 

Long live the Story!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Czech September

Ahh, the open road. 



Here's what I'm missing by not living in the Czech Republic this September.  
Blues, greens, a cool breeze.  
Freedom. 



Photos from the red trail between Dušná and Vsetín.

  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Grammarians Beware: Dangling Prepositions

I hate stupid rules.

I'm a writer, a linguist, and a teacher of English as a Second Language.  In descriptive linguistics and in teaching ESL, we talk about English as it's spoken, not as it's "supposed" to be spoken, according to grammar textbooks from the 50s.  I'm a stickler for the important rules, but it really bugs me when people get on their high horse about things like how you should never end a sentence with a preposition.    

Sometimes, I agree it's more elegant.  "I want to go" is cleaner than "I want to go with."  This, however, is simply a case of an extra word.  When you have to start doing linguistic gymnastics just to avoid a preposition at the end, that's where I draw the line.  "Where are you from?" is quite preferable to "from where do you come?" 

I think one of the reasons people think it's improper is that in Latin and other Romance languages, it's either impossible or incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition.  We—and especially our 18th and 19th century grammarian predecessors—seem to have this strange idea that Latin is the most wonderful language ever.  But guess what?  English is NOT a Romance language.  It's Germanic.  And Germans dangle their prepositions all over the place.

Another thing about Germanic languages is the prevalence of phrasal verbs, something native speakers rarely hear about because we all instinctively know how to use them and what they mean.  However, they give learners of English nightmares.  Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and one or more prepositions, like break up with, hang out, and get over.  They often have meanings unrelated, or only loosely linked, with their base verbs.  Hanging out with your friends doesn't generally involve any actual hanging.  When a building blows up, it doesn't lift its mouth to the sky and exhale. 

When an intransitive phrasal verb comes at the end of a sentence, there's rarely a good way to avoid that final preposition, and there's absolutely no reason to try.  "The White House blew up!" or "Up blew the White House!"  You tell me which is better.  How about this:  "Let's get this over with."  If there's a way to naturally rephrase that, I can't figure it OUT.

So, if you insist on never dangling your prepositions, start speaking Latin or Spanish, because terminal prepositions in English are something grammarians are just going to have to deal WITH.  Here's a link to a great video on the topic from Merriam-Webster.  Check it OUT.   

Monday, September 5, 2011

"A Great and Terrible Beauty" by Libba Bray

In my research of literary agents, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray came up several times, always in a good light.  Many internet reviews recommend it.  So, because of the build-up, I felt my disappointment quite strongly.  It's the story of Gemma, an English girl raised in India, who goes back to a Victorian boarding school after her mother's mysterious death and the onset of her own strange visions.  There she struggles to find her place and learn about the magic of "The Realms."   

One of my pet peeves in the fantasy genre is unclear, inconsistent, corny, or overly powerful magic.  This had it all.  The many mentions of "The Order" and "The Realms" felt almost spoof-like in their grandeur, especially since I never got a handle on what the Order did or what exactly the Realms were.   Because of this hazy magic, I didn't even really understand what happened in the end, and I didn't care enough to re-read.

I found most of the characters unsympathetic.  I sort of liked Gemma, when she was being spunky, but she was often whiny, and made very dumb decisions.  I really didn't like her friends.  They were by turns shallow or cruel.  They got greedy and betrayed her toward the end, yet that didn't seem to change their strange friendship.  Her lustful dreams and possible romance with Kartik felt tacked-on.  I most liked the one kind teacher, who was dismissed because of the irresponsibility and selfishness of the girls.    

The anachronistic language bothered me.  I don't have a problem with modernizing speech in historical fiction or fantasy, as long as it stays neutral and doesn't get slangy or too modern.  If you try to write it "accurately," it sounds stilted and pushes the reader out of the story.   This balance can be hard to find, but your handsome knight shouldn't call his squire "bro."  Nor should he boast that his steed is faster than a speeding bullet.  Libba Bray didn't go quite that far in A Great and Terrible Beauty, but many phrases and ideas felt too modern.  I believe that was intentional, but it really didn't work or me.

And seriously, who wants to read a book written entirely in present tense?  I've read about three, and hated the gimmick every time.  I admit that Bray does quite a good job of it, and I eventually got so I could ignore it, but…why do it?  What does it add to the story?  And can whatever benefit possibly outweigh the annoyance readers feel?          

I did enjoy some of the social commentary about the inequality and hypocrisy of Victorian (and other) society, and the horror of facing your own future as the meek, speak-only-when-spoken-to property of your husband.  Some of the commentary got pretty heavy-handed, but it was still thought-provoking.

The historical details and interesting settings, along with the always-entertaining boarding school power struggles, satisfied me enough that I kept reading, but it felt a bit like a chore.

My rating:  2+

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mendenhall Glacier


Just outside of Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is one of the more accessible Alaskan glaciers.  Somewhat dirty at the face, it's still impressive, a frozen flow into a lake dotted with icebergs, surrounded by rugged mountains and greenery. 

Mendenhall Glacier 
Hikes of various difficulties span the park.  For an easy walk, take the boardwalk trail around Steep Creek, where you might see salmon spawning in July or August, or the flat walk out to Nugget Falls, which crashes into the lake and dwarves the spectators.  Information on various longer hikes can be found at the visitor center or online.          
Kayaking on the Mendenhall Lake
Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
Steep Creek Trail, Mendenhall Glacier
Practicalities:

To get there, you can take a shuttle bus ($16 round trip) from the cruise ship docks, or catch a much cheaper city bus, which will drop you off a mile or so short of the glacier.  Entry is free to the glacier, and the visitor center charges a modest fee.    

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Summers at Castle Auburn" by Sharon Shinn

I love the romance in Summers at Castle Auburn.  People talk of love triangles, but Sharon Shinn creates an infinitely more complex love square here, all accomplished with tingly romantic tension and no graphic love scenes.  As a big fan of Jane Austen and similar works, I find this pleasantly drawn-out style of love story much more to my taste than the lets-hop-into-bed-two-minutes-after-meeting type of story so common today. 

After all, Summers at Castle Auburn isn't just a romance.  It's a fantasy with themes of slavery and independence, and lots of interesting but not overly-complicated, hard-to-follow court intrigue.

I like the main character a lot:  a somewhat tomboyish girl, raised to be a witch (herbalist), but thrust into the world of nobility and royalty when she discovers her dead father was a nobleman.  She makes friends just as easily with the rich nobles and the rough guards and the captive servants. 

Also intriguing is the attraction between the main character's uncle, a renowned hunter of the alluring, fairy-like creatures used as servants in rich houses, and the queen of these ethereal creatures.  Hunter and hunted united in a strange dance of hate and love, desire and fear.

The writing is good, and a whole lot more happens than in The Safe-Keeper's Secret, another of Sharon Shinn's works.  See my less enthusiastic review for that book here.  I'm not sure, however, that men would enjoy the tale as much as women. 

My rating:  4+

If you're looking for a clean romantic fantasy, read Castles at Summer Auburn by Sharon Shinn.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Alaska Nature


Here are a few photos of the natural beauty I discovered
on my recent Alaska Cruise. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Beginner's Publication Luck—or Curse

I recently had a poem published on diamondsandtoads.com. 
If you don't count high school literary magazines, this is the first poem I've submitted to anyone, and it earned publication!  Now, if the pattern holds true, I only have to submit about 25 more poems before another one will be snatched up.  That's what happened with my short stories.  

I used to be so scared to show my writing to anyone.  I had a few stories published, again, in my high school literary magazine, but they were almost accidental:  the first one I didn't even submit, but wrote overnight for an assignment in English class.  My teacher was also the literary magazine advisor, and she submitted it without me knowing.  I'm the first to admit it's not a masterpiece.

For a few years after high school, when I went to university and realized how much I didn't know, I hardly even talked about my writing to other people, though it was a huge part of my life.  Finally I saw a short story contest at my public library and decided to enter.  I labored over my story for weeks.  Then I took it to the library, where I had previously worked and thus knew all the librarians.  Terrified, I shoved it at Greg, red-faced, and said, "Don't read it."  Which seems rather self-defeating.

Weeks later the call came:  I had won the contest.  "Beautiful," they called it.  Boom.  Instant confidence.  My first venture into the real world of writing turned out roses.  So I joined a critique group, which I'd been afraid to do.  I started submitting to literary magazines.  The first rejection I took with pride.  The second, third, fourth…not so much.  I kept submitting, though slowly.  Rejection.  Rejection.  It took me 24 more short story submissions before I received my first acceptance, into THEMA Literary Magazine.  (Summer 2011 issue--available to buy at Thema's website.)

The first three travel writing pieces I submitted?  Accepted.  Then a dry spell of rejections.  Do we see a pattern?

Too bad it wasn't the first novel submitted which won acceptance.  Of course, then I'd be on every writer's "that's not fair" list.  So I guess I'll plod along on the novel front with everyone else.

Writing takes time, patience, and skill.  Getting published takes more time, more patience, just as much skill, and lots of luck.  So this month, I'm really going to work on my submitting goals as well as my writing goals.  Good luck to everyone else doing the same!   

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ruby Beach, Washington

The beauty of the rugged North Pacific coast.  

Ruby Beach, Washington
Just a short walk from Highway 101, on Washington's Olympic Penninsula, Ruby Beach is a hot spot for sunset photographers.  Without tripod and fancy lenses, I felt a little underdressed, but the spectacular scenery compensated for my little point and click.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska

Disenchantment Bay, Alaska

Over six miles wide at its face, Hubbard Glacier appears small until you realize how far away it is, until you sail slowly toward it through icebergs and eerily blue water and mountains scarved in mist, until you realize that it's dwarfing this ship of yours, this ship that itself can dwarf a town.
Hubbard Glacier vast in the distance
Hubbard Glacier much closer--just the very end fits in the camera.
The most beautiful thing about Hubbard Glacier is how alive it is, one of the most active glaciers in the world, and one of the few still advancing.
300-foot high walls of Hubbard Glacier, calving modestly in the center.
The ice chunks that fall off can be as tall as 10-story buildings. 
As you stand at the rails in Disenchantment Bay—possibly the most inaccurately named bay in the world—watching the 400-year old ice at the glacier face break off and crash into the water, creating a sound the native people describe as white thunder, you'll marvel at the diversity this planet so generously offers, and how very small we all are in the face of it.    

Click here for an awesome time-lapse video of Hubbard Glacier on a sunny day.  Watch for calving at about 45 seconds.  The second video is a cloudy day, where the ship doesn't get half as close.  Thanks, Jeff Birmingham (radiofreebc), for the great videos. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My story on the Helium home page

Helium.com is a site where people can post articles on all sorts of topics, and creative writing in many forms.  Today my flash fiction piece, "A Summer Storm" appears on the Helium home page.  It will probably disappear from there tomorrow, but you can read it any time here.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Travel and Patriotism

Sometimes I cringe when people say the USA is the best country in the world.  I think, perhaps, these people have never been to any other countries, or they've only been to the ones we're fighting wars in.  Or perhaps they've traveled, but never really left home.

I think the USA is a good country, more or less.  But out of nearly 200 countries in the world, can we really say it rates number one?  Certainly not in all areas.  Certainly not for all people. 

I've travelled to many different countries, and had long, thought-provoking talks with travelers who have spent time in far more exotic and culturally distinct places than I've ventured to.  One of the things I've learned is how very many definitions of "good" there are in the world.     

I'm proud of many things about my country.

You can do a great deal to change your life for the better here.  Opportunities abound.  But that's true of many other countries too. 

The justice system is less flawed than in many nations.  More flawed than some, true, but less flawed than many.     

I remember during the presidential election of 2000, when for days we weren't sure who would be president, I wasn't particularly afraid it would turn into a bloody coup or a civil war.  That's saying something.  But if a similar event happened in Portugal, say, or New Zealand, I'm not sure their people would worry about anarchy either.

We have very little of the starving-children-sewage-in-the-street-no-way-out sort of poverty very poor countries suffer with, and that makes us very, very lucky.  However, we're also one of the only first-world countries I know where a huge proportion of the middle class can't afford health care. 

I often disagree with our foreign policy or the foreign wars we interfere with or even instigate.  But I'm not afraid of saying so, and that means a lot.  And even if I disagree with our wars, I still believe—perhaps naively—that it's mostly well-intentioned, if often misguided.     

Despite our problems with racism and prejudice, I think we have managed to integrate more cultures with less day-to-day strife and more harmonious diversity than any of the other four countries I've lived in.  My sample size, however, is quite small, and I believe there are countries that do it better than we do.    

We enjoy a great many freedoms, and I'm grateful for them, but we're not the only citizens with these freedoms.

In case I somehow haven't made it clear, we enjoy many rights, privileges, and luxuries in the US.  But it is by no means the ONLY free country.  It is not the ONLY country with democracy, or the ONLY nation where a poor child can grow up to be a successful businessman, and it's certainly not the only place where people are happy.

Mark Twain once said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."  Sometimes I think travel can be fatal for patriotism, too.  And perhaps that's not such a bad thing.        

It's not that I don't love my country.  Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" can still make me cry.  It's just that I love a lot of other countries too, and have seen first-hand how we might benefit from imitating different models from around the world.

Of course, I wouldn't mind if other countries imitated a few of our best ideas either.  After all, I'm proud to live in the land of free ice water in restaurants.

Happy Fourth of July!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Magic Can Be Murder" by Vivian Vande Velde

Magic Can Be Murder opens strongly. In a world where witches are hunted down, young Nola doesn't realize she's special until she accidentally shows her friend the magic she can do.  After that all she and her mother do is run, never able to put down roots.  Then her mother goes half crazy, hearing voices in her head, believing a baby is living in her thumb.  I read the first few pages of this short YA novel and knew I had to read the rest.

Unfortunately, the pace slowed down after that.  It's basically a murder mystery, with some magic and a lot of cleverness.  After spending the night in the household of a man who later turns up murdered, Nola goes back to the scene to hide the fact that she and her mother are witches, even though they've moved on and would likely be safer just fleeing.  The reasoning is explained, but it still feels a little contrived. 

In the process of trying to destroy the evidence of her witchhood, she pretends to be someone else, and everything careens quickly out of control when she finds herself a suspect.  The ending's a bit too convenient. 

Overall, it's still a fun read:  very smooth writing, creative characters and world-building, nice romantic tension, witty dialogue.  I haven't read anything else of Vivian Vande Veld's, but after this, I believe I will.

Rating:  4

Explore her website, or buy the book.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Literary Magazines with Themes

Magazines with themes or prompts fascinate me, as they expose the many, many ways our minds work differently to produce so many stories from one kernel of an idea.  Here's a list of theme magazines, if you want to read some good stories or take on their writing challenge.  All listings are paying markets.

Magazines:

-THEMA Literary Journal—This print magazine publishes quarterly.  Upcoming themes:
            "Who keeps it tidy?" (Due November 1, 2011),
            "White wine chilling" (March 1, 2012). 
                                    Submissions Guidelines.    

-The First Line—Each story submitted to this print magazine must begin with the same line.  Next first lines:
            "Edwin spotted them the moment he stepped off the train." 
            (Due August 1, 2011)
            "It had been a long year."  (Due November 1, 2011)
                                    Submissions Guidelines


-Enchanted Conversation:  A Fairytale MagazineEach online issue explores a single fairytale in the form of poetry or short stories (less than 1500 words preferred).
            "Little Red Riding Hood" (Sept 30, 2011)
                                    Submissions Guidelines

-10 Flash Quarterly— As a speculative flash fiction e-journal, they only accept submissions between 800 and 1000 words, in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and suspense.    
            "It's the end of the world as we know it."  (October 1, 2011)
                                    Submissions Guidelines

-Wily Writers—Another speculative magazine, posting short stories (up to 5000 words) in text and audio format.  Submissions must fall into specific subgenres
            Halloween Horror.        (July 31, 2011)
            Mythpunk         (August 31, 2011)
            Lovecraftian Horror      (September 30, 2011)
            Young Adult Post-Apocalyptic (October 31, 2011)
            High Fantasy Adventure            (November 31, 2011) 
                                    Submissions Guidelines 
 
Other prompts:

Easystreetprompts.com posts video and photography prompts, as well as random words to get you thinking.  Click here for my favorite picture. 

Nanowrimo.org has amazing forums.  The site is most active in November, which is National Novel Writing Month, 30 days in which thousands of participants try to write an entire novel of at least 50,000 words.  The forums, however, get traffic all year round.  You can find everything from plot doctoring to hilariously bad mock science fiction story lines to questions—and answers—about how many giraffes you could fit in a submarine, or what the term for "food fight" is in Greek.  On the "word wars, prompts, and sprints" forum, you can read and contribute to various threads where people leave creative premises or first lines, and pose intriguing "what if" questions.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Best Czech Republic Travel Websites

I'm travel-obsessed.  The Czech Republic, where I've lived twice, has a great website for their centralized train and bus system:  www.idos.cz. It's super user-friendly and efficient—better even than Germany's—and when I lived there I found myself playing with it like a toy, planning trips from one destination to another, checking out prices and the best routes and times.  Crazy, huh?  Well, I'm crazy about travel in the Czech Republic.

If you're planning a trip to Eastern Europe, or if you're an expat in the Czech Republic, read my article at Helium.com about online resources:  Best Czech Republic Travel Websites

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Rogue's Home" by Hilari Bell

When I finished Rogue's Home:  A Knight and Rogue Novel by Hilari Bell, I flipped over to the author's biography on the book jacket.  There, hardly believing my eyes, I read how the Knight and Rogue novels are her favorites of all she's written.

I by no means dislike the two I've read:  The Last Knight and Rogue's Home.  The two main characters' distinct personalities play well off each other, there's just enough wit to make it light-hearted without losing the good drama of a more serious piece, and I always enjoy watching a story unfold from different points of view. 

I quite like the odd friendship between Michael—a disinherited nobleman with unrealistic ideals and an often-inconvenient sense of honor—and Fisk—a street-wise and self-preserving former con man and thief. 

The banter is fun, the characters unusual, and Bell showcases the effects of prejudice without sounding preachy.

The mystery is somewhat hard to follow, due mainly to Bell's introducing too many persons of interest at one time, then not referencing them well enough when they come up later in the story.  I suspected the villain from early on, but had no idea about the motive, which turned out fairly convoluted.  I'm not the biggest fan of the fantasy/mystery genre mash, so perhaps that colored my view of the book.  I enjoyed it, but nothing more. 

So when Hilari Bell claimed the series is her favorite, it shocked me.  I've also read The Prophecy, The Goblin Wood, Fall of a Kingdom, Rise of a Hero, and Forging the Sword, all by Hilari Bell, all of which I enjoyed more than the Knight and Rogue novels.  The last three comprise the Farsala series, which is without question my favorite:  a clever, engrossing, wow-I-couldn't-write-that trilogy played out on a beautifully imagined epic stage where the cast of characters is still small enough we really get to know them.  The historical and social commentary is fascinating too.  One of my favorite sets of books ever.  Far and away superior to the Knight and Rogue novels, in my view. 

Isn't it nice the world has space for so many opinions?  

My rating:  3+

Check out her website, buy Rogue's Home or discover Fall of a Kingdom.