April 15

Retro Recs–GOSSAMER AXE

HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So, confession time: I used to really dig urban fantasy. Of course, this was some time ago, and was often called contemporary fantasy, and didn’t always mean big cities or snarky protagonists who sport trench coats and tight leather pants, often packin’ some ginormous, sawed-off heat.

I’m sure you know what I mean. 😉

So, long before string theory and alternate realities became more science than fiction, I was fascinated with the concept of “otherworlds’ existing side by side with our own reality. I grew up with stories of pwcas and grogachs on one side of my clan, and from the other the Bohpoli and the Kowi Anukasha. When a ‘new’ sort of fantasy mirroring these otherworlds started to emerge, I was there. I wrote it. I read it. (And I have a lot of these titles upcoming on the TBR Retro Recs pile.)

All right, this has been a bit of digression, but I wanted to give some reasons as to why I’m going to stick with the old-school styling of ‘contemporary’ fantasy for some of these types of books I’ll be recommending. Because much of what has become known as ‘urban’ fantasy is just not my bag.

On the other hand, GOSSAMER AXE, by Gael Baudino, is.

Check out the cover, and picture this. A somewhat immortal druid harper has lost her lover to the fae. After several centuries’ worth of hopeless musical stand-offs-cum-rescue attempts, she discovers that this latest century has a secret weapon that should subdue the harp of any faery king: glam rock and electric guitars.

It has a townscape that’s less a noir crime scene and more the kind of town I personally recognise. (Sorry, just not a big-city person, me. Country lass, all the way.) It has a queer protagonist who doesn’t need a sawed-off shotgun or the epithet ‘strong woman’ to hold her power, and stands up as a fully-realised person with not only aged wisdom, but agency. (Though she does end up wearing tight pants—spandex, not leather.) Gossamer Axe also has a cast of troubled, interesting characters, who, with the help of her agency and determination, rediscover their own resilience.

In fact, the only character I found rather insipid was the fae-trapped lover. But sometimes people are, well, insipid.

The prose, though, is NOT insipid:

… pouring out of an ivory-coloured Strat and black Marshall amplifiers… the fat, electronic shriek of circuitry pushing overload, vacuum tubes glowing red hot, speakers vibrating in unnumbered frequencies, innumerable harmonics…

Music had changed since Christa had studied in Corca Duibne. The stately, unmodulated modes had, over the centuries, given way, first to the strict and predictable division of major and minor, and then to the polymorphous fire of chromatics, the black flame of harmonic minor and diminished scales. But Christa had paid little attention. She had had her instrument and her life. The branching, interweaving evolution of classical and popular music could not, would not, affect her.

Until now.

GOSSAMER AXE, by Gael Baudino

While Ms Baudino certainly wields her own axe of good storytelling, she also was (still is, I hope) an accomplished musician. It shows. Not with a ‘see what I know’ egotism, perhaps with the forgivable bits of techno-jargon that simply bleed over with being an expert in your field, but overall with subtle layerings of complexity, ones to suggest competence and comfort with the subject.

(And yes, O youthful readers, the portrayed bigotry and misogyny—not only in the music industry, but life in general—is all too accurate. Unfortunately.)

Also unfortunately, Ms. Baudino has long given up on publishing. While I can’t blame her for making that choice, I also feel the reading public lost yet another unique harper. Gossamer Axe is long out of print, so you’ll have to find it used. But it’ll be well worth the search.

March 10

Retro Recs-SHERWOOD

HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The first time I tried to read Sherwood, by Parke Godwin, I didn’t get very far. I wasn’t sure I fancied it.

This was entirely my own fault.

It had nothing to do with the book or its author. Parke Godwin, even in my younger days, ranked high upon my pantheon of amazing & talented persons of sheer word-craft. And Robin Hood, as you might know, has been a bit of an obsession of mine since I was seven years old.

No, this lay upon my own short-sightedness as a reader, and the belief that having my own expectations confirmed was somehow of more import than letting a well-told story stretch those expectations.

Well. Breaking perceptions needs to hurt us just enough so we learn from it.

So, after giving myself a well-deserved slap upside the head, I tried again. What an experience I would have missed, had I followed my first, foolish reaction!

For Sherwood indeed wasn’t what I expected… it ended up being so much more.

It’s another re-imagining that takes the original, twists it just enough to make it cry out with a fresh and meaningful voice… and, all the while, respects, loves… honours the source.

The thing that threw me? Sherwood takes the somewhat-newer concept of Robin Bravely Fighting the Norman Invaders, and puts it in a singular and ultimately proper place: the Norman Conquest, with Robin himself a Saxon landholder fighting the takeover of his homeland.

This was—and still is—extraordinary territory within the growing canon of Robin Hood. And beautifully done. Take this passage:

“He listened and let the forest tell the time. There always came this hush when all nocturnal creatures were back in nest or burrow. First this heavy silence as the rag-end of night slid by, then a wind whispering through Sherwood as a sleeper inhales and sighs before waking, and then the birds piping from cough to bough before black lightened to grey. When he and Will hunted far from Denby and slept in the forest, this hovering silence like a missed heartbeat or the world holding its breath, always woke Robin.
 
“A lonely time of day, night dying and day not yet born…”

Not only the forested or farmstead surround is beautifully drawn; the characters all lay out, and wonderfully so, what it means to be human. Flawed, each and every one, for you equally want to smack them or hug them; you breathe with them, love with them, hate with them, hurt for them. Godwin is also one of the few to give the Sheriff of Nottingham’s character full realisation and his own arc—it is masterful. I also wonder why, when people mourn the lack of agency in so many of Marian’s incarnations, that they don’t mention Godwin’s Marian, and marvel at how she has that agency, and her own strength of character. Indeed, all of Godwin’s women are well drawn, each their own person: from Marion to Matilda, the diminutive Queen (in height only, believe me), to Judith, very much the Saxon queen, to Maud, Robin’s fascinating mother. The ‘Merries’ are also there, but in thankfully unexpected ways: Will, Alan, John, Tuck and some others make their appearance. And while this Robin isn’t my Robyn, he is one of the best: remarkable, down-to-earth, a terrific re-imagining of Robin Hood.

Godwin also knew his historical beans when it came to the period of the Norman Conquest; everything is visceral and authentic. He wrote more than a few books in this timeframe, and I encourage you to seek them out, too. Seek out all his books; you won’t be disappointed.

The main thing I regret? That I never had the privilege of meeting Parke Godwin in this time-space continuum. He is sadly lost to us… but his work will live on.



Another regret—common to many of my Retro Recs—is that Sherwood is out of print and only available as a ‘used’ copy. Try your local used bookstores; I found my own treasure—a beautiful signed hardback of the 2nd book, Robin and the King, at Worldcon just this past year. I have heard, though, that the Godwin estate is planning on re-releasing these—as well as releasing a few works not yet seen, woot!—in ebook. One can hope!

February 11

Retro Recs-All Creatures Great and Small

HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Smallbegan my love affair with Yorkshire.

All Creatures Great and Small also remains the book that inspired me to NOT become a veterinarian.

It wasn’t the bits one would think, like squelching about in blood and dung, dealing with breech births and uterine prolapses, or sticking your arm up a cow’s arse. I’m not squeamish about such things, and with the vet tech & equine reproductive training I needed in my career, I actually ended up doing a lot of that.

No, it was the lack of sleep.

(Well, okay, there was the realisation of college funds and college math—lots of it—that also nixed the vet career. But when the book first came out, Teenage-Me glommed onto it, read it cover to cover, and said, “No sleep? No way!” And then read it all over again, thinking See, veterinarians can still write books…)

It’s that real, that evocative. When opening All Creatures Great and Small, one is soon immersed in the early-20th-century of a Yorkshire country vet.

Check out the cover: he’s rolling up his sleeve! Because that’s what vets spend a lot of time doing, believe me.

The people are the vehicle for getting to know the animals, and refreshingly, none of them are perfect—quite the contrary! There’s a refreshing acceptance of quirks, both human and animal. Many of the animal cast have recurring roles, and in the doing, define their people’s foibles. In the first book (yes, a whole series, and I’ll detail the titles below) we meet James who, as a young veterinary intern, comes to the Yorkshire Dales. He’s newly-employed at a country practice, and that owned by two brothers who aren’t exactly as he imagined—complete with a spoiled pack of delinquent dogs.

Because it’s all too true: animal practitioners don’t always practice what they preach. 😉

And oh, the countryside! In these books, northeast Yorkshire maintains its own character—and it should. You drive through the heartbreaking beauty of the Dales (sometimes in an old beater with holes in the flooring and less-than-adequate brakes!) and open an endless supply of gates; you lie on frosted cobbles with the wind icing your veins to save the life of a cow and twin calves—and sometimes, receive an invitation to warm yourself by the fire with a fine tea. Moreover, you hear the sometimes-incomprehensible, essentially-beautiful dialect that inspired the language of elder texts like Gawain and the Green Knight or The Tale of Gamelyn.

Immersive and real—if that’s your bag, the entire series is well worth a read. Myself, I really miss books like this. It’s lovely to revisit them and find, not less, but more of a treasure.

All Creatures Great and Small
All Things Bright and Beautiful
All Things Wise and Wonderful
The Lord God Made Them All
Every Living Thing

August 15

Worldcon!

Today on the way to San Jose (cue music) with #RobinHood and the #wodebooks!

I’ll be signing on Monday at 2pm. Bring a book to sign and you’ll receive a special thank you. I’ll also be at the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading on Saturday at 5pm along with a lovely and lively group of writers. Between times you can find me and the books at the BU table. Stop by and say hullo!

June 14

Retro Recs Redux–THUNDERHEAD

HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Since it’s only seems right to have these first Retro Recs posts feature authors who have one way or another deeply influenced both my reading and writing, then Mary O’Hara makes up the third, but certainly not the least, of my Three Hail Marys. O’Hara is perhaps best known for My Friend Flicka, a novel that has spawned several movies–few of which, unfortunately, do justice to the rich layer cake of characterisation that is O’Hara’s work. Not as many, however, realise that Flicka was the first of a trilogy; a coming-of-age tale concerning a boy named Ken McLaughlin, his family, their ranch in Wyoming and, most of all, the horses that rendered so many truths of living. The titles are, in order:

My Friend Flicka
Thunderhead
Green Grass of Wyoming

These books are often marketed as ‘children’s books’, true; but when they were published, there wasn’t the same demand to classify everything into overly-simplistic categories. Whether we as readers (sorry, I refuse to use the word consumers–like books are cereal! Hardly!) have learned our over-entitlement through such rabid labelling is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, when growing up I thankfully didn’t have sharp-cornered boxes indoctrinating what was ‘proper’ to read. My library shelves were separated by reading levels and topics and… really, that was about it. A prodigious reader from the age of four (that’s what my parents told me, anyway), I read books. From every shelf in the library I could reach.

And, like almost every ‘children’s book’ of that era, these wonderful novels contained something for every age of reader. Naturally there were things in the text that as a child I didn’t comprehend and glossed over. They are a product and a slice of their time. That was–and is–the delight. So many little gems contained in these paragraphs and this story; so many layers upon layers of sheer characterisation and storytelling brilliance. The whole trilogy is the kind of book you want to keep on your shelves and reread. Each time you do, you glean something more.

As I’m sure you can tell by now, I dearly love these books. I have the first set in early edition hardcovers (c) 1941, given to me by a dear family friend when I was perhaps eleven.OHaraHardcovers

So, after a hard choice from three examples of mind-blowing and amazing craft, it was Thunderhead that came to the fore. Granted, I do tend toward the middle of many trilogies; perhaps because that’s where the emotional stakes ramp up the most and things spin out of control. In Thunderhead were all the pivotal points of any good bildungsroman: insubordination, a family crisis amidst the hardships of ranch life, thwarted hopes and stubborn dreams… and a focus upon which to fasten one’s love and pain and hopes.

The latter in particular is an ugly white colt named Thunderhead, called the Goblin and as much an outsider as his abstracted young master, Ken.  Ken has, in the colt’s birth, set his heart upon raising a race horse that will bring his parent’s ranch out of overweening debt. Both colt and boy come into their proper destiny in ways neither can foretell. But the story isn’t just about Ken. His mother and father, his elder brother, the ranch hands, even the brilliantly-described countryside itself… all are living, breathing individuals. None are perfect… and you care about every single one of them.

And the horses. Oh, the horses!

O’Hara had a way with them that was sublime. They weren’t cutesy, overly anthropomorphic cartoons, their thought processes just understandable enough, yet alien, too. Horses are not humans. That very difference should be given honour. O’Hara does, as can only someone who has spent their life around horses and beneath the wild skies of a barely-tamed land:

When Goblin caught the unmistakable strong scent of the stallion he trotted out from the herd to find him. He saw him up there on a hill–just where Banner would have been–and with a joyful nicker, started toward him.

The Albino came down to meet him.

Goblin, a creature of fire and magnetism himself, felt the oncoming stallion in terms of voltage, and it was almost too much to be borne. Goblin came to a stop. It occurred to him that he was going in the wrong direction. But he held his ground.

He watched. He had never seen or felt anything like that before. The stallion was so contained, his power was so gathered and held within him that he was all curves. His great neck was arched, his chin drawn in and under, the crest of his head was high and rounded with long ears cocked like spear-points. His face was terrifying–that ferocious expression! Those fiery eyes! And his huge, heavily-muscled legs curving high, flung forward so that the great body floated through the air–then the massive hoofs striking and bounding up from the earth with sledge-hammer blows that made the hills tremble and echoed like thunder in the valley!

The Goblin held his ground. The Albino slowed his pace, came closer–stopped. Their noses were about two feet apart.

For as long as a minute they faced and eyed each other.

They were the same. Trunk and branch of the same tree. And from that confusing identity–each seeing himself as in a distorted mirror–there flamed terror and fury.

No self-respecting stallion would deign to attack a mere yearling, or even to take him seriously enough to administer heavy punishment. But suddenly the Albino raised his right hoof and gave one terrible pawing stroke accompanied by a short grunting screech of unearthly fury. And in doing so, he both acknowledged and attempted to destroy his heir.

thunderhead-by-mary-ohara~~~~~~~~~~~~~
From these books and this author, I learned that words could give animal the souls I knew they possessed. From animals–and lifetime of being around them–I embarked upon the never-ending process of acquiring that all-important skill set of speculative and historical fiction: writing Other. More importantly, I gained empathy and the stark, important realisation: that Other isn’t separate from an undeniable semblance of Self, yet it still possesses–and must maintain–its own rights, honour, and presence.

Not so bad a legacy from a ‘children’s book’, methinks.

A mere thank you is not near enough, Mary O’Hara.

May 21

Retro Recs Redux–The King Must Die

HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
———-
In my own pantheon of The Three Marys, there is one whose Historical Fiction was greatly instrumental in prompting me to plunge into the writing of said genre. Mary Renault didn’t need to adopt the detached, oft-pontificating tone in which historical fiction can sometimes indulge. Her works possessed a profound gift–the storyteller’s art in motion. Her characters were real, passionate, often deeply flawed… and you were right in there with them.

My choice for today, out of many excellent novels, had to be The King Must Die. This cover image is from my bookshelves and the mass market edition circa 1979, but the original date is 1958, and my first read was from the public library. TheKingMustDieThe King Must Die was my introduction to Ms Renault’s works–I think I read it when I was eleven or twelve. (We didn’t have or read ‘YA’ when I was of that age–we read books!) Already more comfortable with mythological and speculative worlds than any contemporary reality, I’d not yet realised how fascinating history was–no doubt in consequence of the dry dates and statistics to which public school curriculum rendered it.

This book began to change all that for me. A retelling of the myth of Theseus, it had an undeniable and firm grasp upon the historical personalities and realities that birth legends. It was that seemingly effortless mix that truly comes only with serious application of craft. Gritty and sometimes unpleasant, yet nonetheless magical in every sense, the novel makes an impassioned appeal for both the fantastic and the historic–together. It was bildungsroman (woot!) at its finest, warts and all, with an oft-unreliable narrator as hero, displaying both the arrogance and virtues of a deeply inculturated young man. Not much is shied away from or glossed into comfortable platitudes. You root for Theseus, as well as long to give him a good spanking. 😉

It takes little guesswork to hazard that The King Must Die is responsible for my plunge into a lifelong fascination with Sacrifice and Sacred Kingships from all cultures. It also made it difficult for me to be satisfied with a lot of first person narrative. It’s a form that not many can achieve with the same effortless grace as Mary Renault. (Or my inaugural Retro Rec author, Mary Stewart, for that matter.)

Recently, I heard a writer at a convention recommend Mary Renault–with the caveat, however, that ‘she is old-fashioned’. I was rather appalled at anyone attempting excuses for someone who had more talent in one nib finger than most writers possess in their entire repertoire… but, after all, we all say a lot of silly things when we’re baby writers. Though I truly don’t think I had the brass to assume myself capable of taking a mammoth with a BB gun. 😉 Not with prose that glides like this:

The Great Court was empty under the moon. Tier upon tier rose the pillared balconies, dimly glowing. Lamps flickered behind curtains of Eastern stuff. The pots of lilies and of flowering lemon trees shed a sweet heavy scent. A cat slipped from shadow to shadow, and a Cretan who looked as if his errand were the same. Then all was silent. The great horns upon the roof-coping reared up as if they would gore the stars.

I stretched out my hands palm downward and held them over the earth. “Father Poseidon, Horse Father, Lord of Bulls, I am in your hand, whenever you call me. That is agreed between us. But as you have owned me, give me this one things first. Make me a bull-leaper.”

————-
No question in my heart, I would encourage everyone to read The King Must Die. Or any of Mary Renault’s books. And come on, I read it at the age of eleven; surely it isn’t that insurmountable an experience. If it is, indeed, ‘old-fashioned’, then bloody DAMN but we need more ‘old fashioned’ in this world!

April 20

Retro Recs Redux

For various reasons, I haven’t done any Retro Recs in quite some time. I’d the best of intentions, but life happens. So I’m reinstating it, here and now, with a re-posting of the originals to start it off.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

HERE’S the plan: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
——–
To choose Mary Stewart was a no brainer, actually, though it was difficult to pick between what I call ‘my rosary of three Marys’ (Stewart, Mary Renault, and Mary O’Hara). But once I decided which Mary, it was a little easier to pick the book. I’m sure others will come into play at a later date, but this time, it had to be The Ivy Tree.

The cover is from those aforementioned bookshelves, (c)1961, this is the first US printing in 1963. Isn’t this cover just deliciously (and a bit painfully) ’60s gothic? From the sweeping cape and hair to the Barnabas Collins coat and the uphill, defiant pose?

Back cover copy: If Mary Grey looked so much like the missing heiress, why should she not be the heiress? To the lonely young woman–living in a dreary furnished room–the impersonation offered intriguing possibilities… So plain Mary Grey became the glamourous Annabel Winslow. Only someone wanted Annabel Winslow missing… permanently.

I love old gothics. I miss them. Brain candy, of course, but a specific type of tweak and treat for those doomed with a brain that stubbornly refuses to totally check out. Gothics have their own formula, tiresome as any when cranked out with little skill or craft… but the good ones were complex, character driven, and subtle after their own fashion, with the formula in service to the craft, not the other way ’round. The Ivy Tree was a very, very good gothic.

Mary Grey is, like most of Stewart’s heroines, a real person: independent and capable, conflicted… and with a secret that could be the death of her, if she’s not careful. Inheritance of a small estate, a dying, over-controlling grandfather, and a few sociopaths scattered into the mix, turn a chance meeting on Hadrian’s Wall into a madness of plot and counterplot… did I mention I love gothics? A good one has as many twists as a North Country back road. And the language Stewart uses!

“If you stood on the low piece of crumbling wall that enclosed the trunk, you could just reach your hand into the hole. I held on to the writhen stems of the ivy with one hand and felt above my head into the hollow left by some long-decayed and fallen bough. I put my hand in slowly, nervously, almost as I might have done had I known Julie’s owl and seven mythical young were inside, and ready to defend it, or as I might have invaded a private drawer in someone’s desk. The secret tryst; Ninus’ tomb; the lovers’ tree; what right had a ghost there, prying?”

What right indeed? Well, you’ll have to read the book and let me know what you think. You won’t be sorry; it’s a thumping good afternoon’s read.