June 11

Retro Recs–Stranger in a Strange Land

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.

I grok Heinlein.

I do, and with all that ‘grok’ means. I see all the warts and bumps, all the sharp edges, and all the unavoidable misogyny possessed by men his age and station. I see the lack of atmospherics—important to me, for I want the smell and feel of a place. More, I remember the world that Heinlein’s generation—in actuality, my father’s generation—came from, and mourn that we were so immersed in that world that even science fiction—stories that are supposed to make us question and challenge our own realities—often refused to see past the ingrained, casual “‘isms” that were an unfortunate fact of life.

But I also see a stark beauty in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Despite an admitted surfeit of subterranean glitches—which passed as both unremarkable and seldom remarked upon in earlier decades—it also posed mind-bending questions and challenges. It opened my eyes to some amazing possibilities. The characters were fascinating. Stranger in a Strange Land addressed as many thorny social issues as it disregarded–or unfortunately supported. But it’s also true that it lit another spark in the fires of insubordination against an untenable reality—particularly for ‘a girl who read weird stuff’, and who was growing up in the deep south in the wake of the fifties.

(By the by, why do young women lately insist on dressing up like ‘50s housewives? Do they even know what they’re emulating? Never mind: that’s a whole ‘nother essay…)

SiaSL plays with religion by showing what it can be and what it usually, unfortunately, is. It employs a trope that I find particularly fascinating: the outsider, considered ‘other’ and ‘alien’, brought into what they consider equally ‘alien’ circumstances—and it gives both viewpoints, a startling new addition in its time. It plays with sexual mores—not nearly enough, let it be said—but an impressive amount when one considers the reality it was written against.

And that phrase is key: when one considers the reality it was written against.

Many books are dismissed because they were written in another time, to the (usually grossly inaccurate) standards of that time. I understand the anger that comes from misrepresentation. I have some pretty visceral reactions to The Searchers. History isn’t pretty, and I grew up in the midst of some damned ugly history myself, had much of my own heritage swept under the rug by shame and the dominant paradigm. (With many blessings to my grandmother’s spirit, who kept me in the loop regardless…)

And I fully applaud #itstopshere.

Yet I still recommend this book: subversive brilliance on one hand, warts and too many “‘isms” to count on the other. I refuse to dismiss something because it makes me uncomfortable, particularly when I’m uncomfortable and have the privilege of dismissal before me. Discomfort and failure and horribly wrong paths wended… all of that exists within every journey and experience. Avoiding discomfort means we don’t learn. It means we end up making the same sorry mistakes because we don’t grok what our world and its peoples have endured.

So, you may ask, what the hell is ‘grok’, anyway?

Here’s a bit from the book:

“…but Mike would have agreed if I had named a hundred other English words, words which we think of as different concepts, even antithetical concepts. ‘Grok’ means all of these. It means ‘fear’, it means ‘love’, it means ‘hate’—proper hate, for by the Martian ‘map’ you cannot hate anything unless you grok it, understand it so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you—then you can hate. By hating yourself. But this implies that you love it, too, and cherish it and would not have it otherwise…”

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

This is pretty powerful stuff. And yes, I think Stranger in a Strange Land is worth the read, within a proper context.

Do you grok? Or not?

March 10


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!

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
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.

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!

May 15

Launch bonus for SUMMERWODE!

A sneak peek …

…at a very special bonus for Friends of the Wode!

You can participate in the launch of Summerwode, the newest in the Books of the Wode.
#robinhood @dsppublications #wodebooks
You can receive, as a thank you from me, a set of four limited edition Tarot cards especially designed by cover artist Shobana Appavu.

(And yes, the above is a snapshot of one of them. They are beautiful!)

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~~  The first 15 people who purchase a new copy of Summerwode (ebook or trade paper) AND send me an email copy of their receipt (jen AT jtulloshennig DOT net) will receive the 4 limited-edition debut cards of the Wode Tarot, PLUS the added bonus that all four will be signed by the artist as well as yours- truly-the-author.

~~  The next 30 people who purchase a new copy of Summerwode (ebook or trade paper) AND send me an email copy of their receipt (jen AT jtulloshennig DOT net) will receive 4 limited edition debut cards of the Wode Tarot.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~

I will notify you within the fortnight as to your gift and add you to my newsletter list for notification of future releases & special things. You send me a mailing address so your own set of cards can wing its way to you!
(And please be assured that I do not share any addresses, email or physical, of anyone who corresponds with me)

Tomorrow Summerwode launches!
THANK YOU for sharing my worlds with me!
*throws confetti*