Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

One of the "rules of writing" that gets drilled into you if you write mystery fiction (and I believe it holds true for romance as well) is that no two characters should have names beginning with the same letter. The theory is that readers will confuse characters named John and Jim or Ellen and Edna. The suggestion is always to rename one of them so that Jim becomes Bob and Edna becomes Sandy.

Apparently George R.R. Martin, and possibly fantasy writers in general, never heard of this rule. Now I suppose that with the huge cast of characters in an epic fantasy you'd have to reuse the first letter. Otherwise you'd end up with some incredibly odd scenarios that would be less believable than having John and Jim talk to one another. However, not only do we have Brandon, the son of Eddard Stark, but also Brandon, Eddard's deceased older brother and Jon Snow, Eddard's bastard son, as well as Jon Umber and Jon Arryn. Admittedly, each Point of View (POV) character has a unique name and in real life a man would name his son for his brother, but it did make it a bit difficult to follow who was who in this lengthy book.

Add to the same-name problem the fact that characters have not only a given name (Eddard Stark), but a nickname (Ned), a title (Lord of Winterfell), and a position (Hand of the King), which can all be used to reference the same person and I found it very difficult to keep them straight, especially in the beginning.

As I inferred above, there are multiple POV characters in this novel, at least six or seven, and chapters are told by each of them in turn. In fact, Martin must have realized that having so many would have made it difficult for the reader to know whose POV she was in, so the chapters are merely titled with the name of the character whose POV this is rather than numbers or some other title.

My point is (and there is a point, I promise you) that I found it a tough go to get into this novel. I'm used to sitting inside the head of the main character and possibly one or two others, and following the story along from what they know. I didn't identify with any of the characters, got confused as each new chapter began, and wondered why I was reading this? Aren't there a lot of other books I want to read that would require less effort?

I even put it down one day, intending to start something a little more familiar, a bit more immediately enjoyable. Except, a few hours later, I found myself wanting to know what happens next, even though I wasn't sure what had happened so far. Martin had already sucked me in to this multi-threaded tale. Once I realized that I was enjoying it even though it was so very different from what I usually read, I kept going to the end. And it was a bang-up ending.

I don't think fantasy novels can be looked at as standalone stories. They are episodes in one much bigger tale. Once I accepted that this book was not going to move along at the breakneck pace of a thriller or even the fast pace of a mystery, I tried to stay in the moment rather than rushing to the end to find out what happens. In fantasy, the journey is as important as the destination.

I went from wanting to put this book aside, to wanting to follow the story to the end, to wondering what happens in the next book as I read this. I can see how you can get involved with this series and it's tempting to read all the books one after the other, but there are so many other books I want to read that will take less than a month to finish. I think A Song of Ice and Fire (the series title) will be like the Outlander series for me; I'll want to read them all, but will take them in small doses with lighter fare interspersed.

I realize that I haven't said much--well, nothing--about the plot. I rarely do. I figure you can read the publisher's summary on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or in any of a hundred standard book reviews. Why should I regurgitate that information in a blog post? I suppose that if I want to be a book reviewer (which I'm not sure I do) I should follow more of the standard format. But I'm more interested in how I feel about a book after I finish it than analyzing it. So I'm going to call these Book Impressions rather than Book Reviews from now on.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Day of Rest

There was an article in yesterday's paper that told of a study that proved working women whose husbands helped with housework were healthier and happier. Well, duh . . . I wonder who pays for these things anyway.

As the child of two working parents and a woman who was working while married with a young child, I didn't need any study to tell me this. But it did offer scientific proof by measuring cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system, decreases inflammation (which I think is related to the immune system's reaction), decreases bone formation, and increases the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. (Which sounds to me like there isn't much left to NOT metabolize!) All of this is related to the famous "fight or flight" reaction that allows the human race to survive when danger threatens.

But the normal and necessary decrease in cortisol levels in the evening is impeded when the woman is running around doing dishes, bathing the kids and putting them to bed, and maybe throwing in a load of laundry or two while hubby sits in front of the TV clicking the remote. If he helps her with these tasks, her cortisol levels decrease faster. Of course, his increase compared to sitting with the clicker.

There was no mention of single women and cortisol levels, but I can hazard a guess . . . particularly for single women with a full time job who are trying to write a novel while keeping up with the maintenance of a house and yard. I think the only way to do this is to give up sleep entirely. Of course, that would lead to screamingly high cortisol levels and the other ill effects of sleep deprivation.

I can testify to the fact that stress begets more stress. The more I try to keep up with everything in my life, the crazier I seem to get. Couple the above responsibilities with activities such as parties and club meetings and volunteer work and going to church and there really aren't enough hours in the day. There are times when I just have to allow myself to NOT DO IT ALL. So this weekend I skipped the Friday night party, the Saturday RWA meeting, and Sunday church.

This doesn't mean I did nothing. Hardly. Yesterday I spent two hours pruning in the front yard, followed by doing two loads of laundry. When the Red Sox collapsed in the later innings of last night's game, I got a notebook and a thesaurus and looked for interesting nouns and adjectives to use in writing my current WIP. I know that I'll wash the kitchen floor today at a minimum and, hopefully, develop a character or two and some plot points.

But I'm still fantasizing of a two week vacation that does not involve traveling to visit relatives, catching up on housework, or writing 1667 words a day. I'd like to visit a seaside or mountain retreat where I could just put my feet up and read for a while. Go out for meals without worrying about calories or cost. Have someone else make the bed every day and clean the bathroom. And get my cortisol levels down to a point where I don't notice the stress I'm not feeling.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Belated Mother's Day Post

I suppose I can be forgiven for missing a post last weekend. I was busy with cleaning on Saturday and spending the day with my son on Sunday. I enjoyed every minute of it, including cleaning the bathroom. Okay, maybe not cleaning the bathroom.

When asked what I wanted to do for my day (other than eating out), my first thought was to go to Saguaro National Park East. The park is split in two, one on the east side of Tucson and one on the west side. The west half of the park has the more spectacular views of saguaros, but I live very close to the east side and I wanted to explore it. I'd been there over a year ago, driving the loop in a rental car on one of the free weekends the park service has each year, and always intended to go back and hike some of the trails. One in particular, which passes by the remnants of an old mine, intrigued me. I don't know what it is about mines. We all have those touchpoints that light our imaginations and mines seem to be one of mine.

However, my son didn't seem too enthusiastic about what the U.S. Forest Service Ranger described as "a few rocks on the ground" because the shaft had been filled in by the Civilian Conservation Corps long ago for safety reasons. The ranger suggested taking the trail to the remains of the Freeman Homestead. He said there wasn't much there, just the remains of the foundation, but it was a destination.

But there is always the beauty of the desert against the backdrop of the mountains in Tucson. One of the highlights of our short hike was seeing an owl. If you look closely at the tree in the upper part of the picture, just right of center, you can see him (or her) perched among the branches. The owl kept watching us as if wondering when we'd continue on our way and let him go back to his nap. Here's a close-up if you still can't pick him out in the larger picture.

It's late spring in the desert and that means the cactus are starting to bloom. One of the great joys of living here year-round is seeing this every year. Tourists come mostly in the winter, so they miss all the marvelous colors.


 The saguaro blossom is our state flower. It grows at the tops of the arms, a pure white that stands out from the green. By the end of June, the flowers have given way to bright red fruit which can be harvested. The Tohono O'odham have an annual ceremony centered on the harvest of the fruit of the saguaro. You can read about that here.





The saguaro is not the only cactus in bloom this time of year. There's also the prickly pear (top left) and the cholla (bottom right).




You can see that this is just the start of the bloom season. In a week or two, they'll be covered with vibrant blooms.







So that was my Mothers Day. It was perfect!

Note on book reviews. I've been reading "Game of Thrones" lately, inspired by the HBO series (which I haven't seen since I don't get HBO) and the fact that it was a Nook free book not too long ago. This is another 700-plus page book, so it will take me a while to finish it. As soon as I'm done, a review will appear on the following Wednesday.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Book Review: Fault Line by Barry Eisler

I'd never read anything by Barry Eisler before "Fault Line." Over the past several years I've mostly read cozies since that was the kind of mystery I was trying to write. However, when he announced that he was turning down a $500,000 book contract to self-publish, I knew I just had to read something by him.

Now, there have been other well-known writers who have recently decided to go the self-publishing route. Famously, there is J.A. Konrath. Joe Konrath, deservedly known as the king of promotion, decided to self-publish his Jack Daniels mysteries at least a year ago. I've never cared for these and, to be honest, believed the rumors that said he made the decision because he wasn't offered a new contract with a traditional publisher. Joe vehemently denies this rumor. Norman Spinrad is another well-known author who announced he was going the epub route last year because he was a victim of the publishing death spiral. But I don't think either of them turned down the kind of money Barry Eisler did. In fact, I'm ninety-nine percent sure of that.

I was not disappointed by this book. That's an understatement. This was a well-crafted thriller and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. (There was one violent scene that was not my cup of tea, but it was not so violent that it made me ill.)

Alex Treven is an up-and-coming lawyer in a high tech patent law firm. When Richard Hilzoy, inventor of the encryption software called Obsidian, becomes his client, Alex is certain this will be his breakthrough to partner. Then Hilzoy is murdered and the thrill ride begins.

Fearing for his life, Alex contacts his estranged brother Ben, an operative who considers killing all in a day's work. Ben is tempted to ignore the message, but can't resist bailing his little brother out of trouble one more time. Throw in Sarah, an Iranian lawyer who is the love interest for both brothers, and you've got all the elements for an excellent read.

Most of all, the software aspect did not make me want to throw this book across the room. I can't tell you how many books have made me feel that way because of the unreality of the technology. Eisler tells us just enough about Obsidian to make it believable, but not so much that we're bored with the technology or laughing because it's so unbelievable.

I've already added the sequel, "Inside Out", to my wishlist.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Seduced by Research

When I was in college, I often wondered if there was some way I could become a professional student. I think I got the concept from a science fiction book. There was a class of people who were paid to go to school. It sounded like my dream occupation. There are just so many things to learn!

Recently I've felt the same way. I got the idea for my most recent Work In Progress (WIP) from an article in the Arizona Daily Star on sites you could visit to see petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are pictures on the rocks created by prehistoric residents of the Southwest. You can see them in many places, including Signal Hill in Saguaro National Park West. No one knows exactly why the ancient peoples created them. Theories range from religious purposes to mere graffiti. But they are intriguing.

These mysterious images etched in the rocks were just the jumping off point. (Writers get tired of answering the question "Where do you get your ideas?" The problem really is how to you make time to write about all the ideas you get!) I knew I wanted to write some kind of fantasy, but I didn't want to write the same old Tolkienesque or Medieval trope. I wanted a different kind of world, something that hasn't been done before. So you rub together the two sticks of petroglyphs and fantasy and you come up with a world of Hohokam and Anasazi. These are two peoples who vanished around 1200 AD. Some say they didn't actually vanish, but became the modern Native American peoples of Hopi and O'odham. I prefer to think that they vanished. I've got a whole novel or three I can write about how that happened.

Can you see where this is leading? Did you learn about the Anasazi, or "ancient enemy" as it's translated from the Navajo, in school? Did you study rock art? Neither did I. I did take a class in anthropology in college and, for a while, thought about becoming an archaeologist, but traveling to places without indoor plumbing and soft beds didn't seem to be like something I wanted to do.

My first step was to reserve three books for the Pima County Public Library: "Life on the Rocks" by Katherine Wells, "A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols" by Alex Patterson, and "Canyon de Chelly; Its People and Rock Art" by Campbell Grant. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay") National Monument is a place famous for petroglyphs left there by the Anasazi.

I first "read" "A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols" because I wanted to see the kinds of pictures the native peoples had drawn. Although I've been to Signal Hill, my memory of those drawings is fuzzy. As can be expected, there were hunters and animals and bows and arrows. There were also stars and the moon. But one picture, which I sketched in my notebook, was really intriguing. This was described as a drawing of a shaman with lines of power emanating from his head and spirits between them.  Tell me you can't think of a story based on that drawing!

And this is just the start. I want to read more about these cultures, find out how they lived, what their beliefs were like.

I've never written a fantasy, so I want to read a bunch of those to get the flavor of how they're put together. I've never done worldbuilding, being content to use the world I live in for the mysteries I've written in the past, and have to figure out how do I create a whole culture or three with all that that entails. There are weapons and pottery and religious customs and ceremonies. There's music and dancing (I know they danced, because there are several petroglyphs of dancers in a line) and storytelling.

And I want to start my story in the present day on a ranch. I've been to the rodeo and had dinner at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch, but I think I need to learn more about what life on a ranch is like.

And you know what? That's all fun! I love poking into all these things. I love learning about them. I can spend hours on the web or at the library or wandering around parks and trails and ranches. The trouble isn't exploring it all. The problem is in knowing when to stop.