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.

October 17

It’s International Robin Hood Day…

And I was pondering how best to honour a Favoured Outlaw.  Some time ago I wrote Some Musings about a few of the reasons Robin Hood always lurks in the collective unconscious, and I could certainly ponder further upon that, but…

Well, it seemed that to list some creative retellings of Robin’s many faces would be a far more fitting tribute. I certainly cannot list them all — nor would I choose to, in some cases 😉 — but here are some of the prose examples that have, over the years, lain very close to my heart.


RobinATKing-GodwinRobin and The King
both by Parke Godwin

Top of my list now, but at first I was hesitant to read them. Not because of the quality of writing (duh, it’s Parke Godwin), but due to the unexpected time frame. Robin Hood circa 1066 ACE? But I was young and foolish. Because why not? and yes!–Godwin took the Saxon/Norman conflict and put it where it truly belonged, with an amazing surround and strong, well-rounded characterisations… which meant, of course, they break your heart in all the right places.

Last of the GreenwoodLotG-Whidby by Sharon Whitby
This one has all but disappeared, which is a shame. (Even the verrry dated cover that really doesn’t do the story justice is my old battered copy scanned in–couldn’t find it online.) I discovered Last of the Greenwood years ago whilst first researching the rest of the then-trilogy begun in Greenwode… and the dark mysticism in it was familiar, compelling… and reassuring, particularly to a young writer trying her own wierd new take on a warhorse of a legend.


The Sheriff of Nottingham by Richard Kluger
Told from the titular P.o.V., this was a refreshing take.  An anti-hero, certainly, but not a shallow villain with no story of his own.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
Robin is, in this book, a minor–and nicely ambiguous–character, but the Wood is the true wonder; a character in its own right, dark and magical and not-quite-friendly.

In all these examples, the prose runs from brilliant to sublime. Beautiful and evocative writing.

Of course, I also must mention the ones that lie closest to my heart.
WodeLogoIf I didn’t care about my own characters, didn’t love and hate and suffer with them… believe in them… even more than I cherish these other examples? There would be little point to living, loving, and suffering with Robyn Hode and his covenant of the Shire Wode.

So to the spirit of Robin and his band, in all their many incarnations — I salute you!

#RobinHood #RobinHoodDay

September 15

I Won’t Begin At The Beginning–

No, I really won’t.  Begin at the beginning, that is, because the beginning was bloody awful. United Airlines, I am looking at you.  Not that I’ll look at you again after this. Stuck in Houston for a day and a half… gah.

Instead, we’re going to merrily leap ahead and take the road to York. Two freaking days late (yes, I am trying to let it go…), but game. I’ll say it again: the road to York. The mere historical implications of it! Traversing the wake of the Great North Road, (with modifications, natch) used since before the Romans came in and, er, remodelled. Signs all the way up that made my ears prick: Nottinghamshire, Robin Hood Country. Sherwood. Blyth. Worksop. Sheffield. Hathersage. Selby, next door to Temple Hirst…

I know, it’s beyond silly. But every time I’ve been to the UK, even the mundane reality of road signs are markers to magic. The beginning forge of Story.

Driving must be mentioned, by the way. There is undoubted exhilaration in that first-15- minutes-of-sheer-terror followed by mind-blowing-rip-hell-out-of-curvy-roads fun that is also known as ‘accustoming oneself to right hand drive’. The little VW Golf we ended up with handled like slick damn–both fun and necessity, between the lovely twisty roads and keeping up with the status quo on the motorways. (Status quo=drive like autobahn, b.t.w.) Refreshing, actually, for one who’s foot often follows the pace of one’s thoughts…  But ’tis time for true confession: Amazing Spouse parked the car the first several nights. Because yes, whilst parking a 12-horse lorry doesn’t faze me, the reality of having to put a tiny car in that even tinier space surrounded by stone walls? Aye, I quailed. Like a puling, quail-y thing.

The road to York, the capital for all that Yorkshire independence and determination, a melting pot even before Robyn’s days. Brigantes, Vikings, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans. Eboracum, Eoforwic, Iorvik, Yeork. The seat of archbishops who proclaimed York Wallthemselves as powerful as the ones in Canterbury. The walls still stand, mostly and miraculously, and We walked the walls of York… all right, we stalked the walls of York, and pretended to hide from our foes behind the sturdy merlons. Stones dating from the 11th century–tell me you wouldn’t have done the same!

We also took in the main gates (or ‘bars’) leading in: Bootham Bar, Walmgate Bar, Mickelgate Bar, and Monk Bar, (pictured) in which lies a museum to Richard III. York is pretty fond of their Richard, not so fond of the Tudor upstart who took his throne. 😉


(So, gather round and tell me true: is it a sign that you are ‘way too much a history geek when you ask a question the tour guide can’t answer?  I really wanted to know, too!)

Our B&B, Chelmsford Place, was run by lovely people, restful, and just a short walk from the River Ouse.   The weather was warm and sunny; we’d little need of our waterproof windcheaters. Time being short, we decided upon something we never do–a guided tour. We prefer wandering for ourselves, usually. But we did get to see things we would have missed. For instance the Roman encampment, complete with crypts, excavated amidst the Medieval Gardens:


The Abbey of St Mary’s, another victim of the Dissolution of the monasteries


St Leonard’s Hospital, known as the largest one in England after the Norman Conquest, which also succumbed to Henry VIII’s marital tantrums (i.e. Dissolution). I dearly wanted to go into the undercroft and couldn’t (it was closed).


And in no way was I going to miss Clifford’s Tower, the remains of which were originally built by William the Conqueror. The stark beauty of the keep is leavened, like most such things, with a bloody and violent history. It was one of a series of motte-and-bailey keeps erected in the area, stony preface to the brutal Harrying of the North. And in 1190, it was the scene of an horrific massacre of a large settlement of York’s Jews, who barricaded themselves in the tower–in vain–against a backdraft of anti-Semitic fervour.


Blood sacrifice always leaves its mark, and a strangely soft and sombre atmosphere remains within the walls of Clifford’s Tower.   It made me think much upon effects and causes; of the underlying atmosphere–the memory–that places can retain, eternal vibrations.

The stones weep… and sing.

Here’s a small snippet from the upcoming book, Winterwode. I’m thinking I might find an apropos bit for each one of these posts; a connection between the reality of research and how it resonates into the creative space.

“This is his,” Robyn murmured. “All of him, and none of me. Gamelyn was born here, was marked with their prayers and incense. Was raised in these walls, taught to walk and run and fight with the steel rendered from their stones and fire, and he… he feels sommat here, sommat powerful t’ fill him.   But all I hear are the stones… weeping.”

Bendith, friends.

Coming Next–
We walked the Wall… and the Wall won!