Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Canada Day

The great nation to which I currently pay my taxes is celebrating the anniversary of its existence. As with people in countries all over the world, we do this by setting fire to things... like police cars, apparently, but usually we restrict ourselves to rockets. Instead of sticking around for the fireworks, I'll be taking Aeneas to a cottage on a lake where we will torment the local fish population with sharp things. The weather looks like it's going to be good, so I'm looking forward to it.

In lieu:

In the process of converting hydrogen into helium, the sun produces a considerable amount of exhaust, about 2 million tons each second. This exhaust is a superheated plasma (a charged gas) commonly referred to as the solar wind. Traveling at more than 400Km/s, the solar wind is not a gentle breeze and could easily sweep life from the surface of the earth if it weren't for the planet's magnetic field.

An interesting thing happens when high-energy particles encounter a magnetic field: they radiate. As the particles spiral along the lines of magnetic force, they give off a fair bit of light that we call the Aurora or Australis Borealis (in the north or south, respectively). Actually, we don't call it that. We let scientists and weathermen call it that. We call it the Northern (or Southern) Lights.

I've been lucky enough to see the Northern Lights a few times during intense sunspot activity. A curtain of light, shimmering and rippling as though caught in a breeze. It's faint and ghostly and almost transparent, and it never fails to make me shiver at the magnificence and complexity of our beautiful, impossible little planet.

Talk about fireworks...

This is the Aurora Australis as seen from space.

Happy Birthday, Canada.

While I'm depleting the piscine community, you'll be interested to know that the latest winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have perpetrated their crimes on the reading public and been justly rewarded therefore.

I laughed like a hyena. Not like the the Striped or Brown hyena or even the Aardwolf, which isn't really a wolf and is native only to some parts of Southern and Eastern Africa and not at all to Tasmania, which is an island I'd quite like to visit one day. Not at all like those, but more like the Spotted Hyena, like the ones shown in nature films and the Lion King, only I don't think they sound like Whoopi Goldberg but rather more like Bobcat Goldthwait, who once starred with Whoopi in the movie Burglar, which was funny but didn't make me laugh this much. And I don't think they're actually laughing. I think they're barking, but it sort of sounds like laughing. It sounds like Uncle Bernie would if he sucked in a whole helium balloon and then heard a really funny joke like that one about the two lawyers... only not that one, the other one with the bucket of paint and the Orangutan, and boy did I laugh at that too, but not like Uncle Bernie who doesn't laugh at all like a hyena, but then hyenas don't laugh so I suppose that's alright.

I laughed like that.

Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

Last week I had a call at work from Penelope. We've had a lot of construction around our house, and the building's been banging around as earth-movers and pile-drivers and such go about their work. She complained that there had been a really big bang, so big that the whole house shook and Telemachus had almost lost his footing in the shower.

When she went out to see what had happened, she discovered that no work was being done around us. The construction crew had moved up the street about quarter-mile to upgrade the water and sewer.

At first, I was worried that somehow all the construction had destabilized my house. Then a friend sent me this.

It's worse than I thought. They've destabilized THE ENTIRE PLANET!

The Strange Case of the Cereal Killer

Current Reading: Mainspring, by Jay Lake

Inspirational Quote: "People always ask me, 'Where were you when Kennedy was shot?' Well, I don't have an alibi." -- Emo Philips

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a mess. One of the boys, in the middle of the night, had apparently decided to have a midnight cereal snack. Three open boxes sat on the floor, and someone had emptied a nearly-full box of granola into the recycling bin. Weird, but although I have no idea what thought process could lead someone to do such a thing, I rarely understand the thought process that leads my sons to do ANYTHING.

Telemachus denied any involvement. Aeneas has a standing policy of denying everything, especially when he's involved. He's like the CSIS that way. More curious than frustrated, I had them park themselves at the table while I made supper and tried to figure out which one of them was covering up a secret desire to recycle fiber-rich grain products.

Clues? None but the neatness of the crime. The perpetrator had not spilled the box on the floor and swept it up. On those rare occasions when I can force a broom into my sons hands, their efforts are spotty at best, and the floor showed no signs of missed spillage. Moreover, the culprit had been thorough. The box was back in the cupboard, still open, and completely empty. It was as though they had deliberately emptied the box into the bin. But why? Even for a teenage boy, that's bizarre behavior.

"Telemachus, were you up last night?"
"For the last time, no! Both of us went to sleep at one."
"What about after that?"
Telemachus stared at me while the wheels turned. "No, I... Oh, crud. That would explain my phone."
"Uh... What?"
"I had my phone with me in the basement last night before I went to sleep down there. This morning, it took me half an hour to find it. It was upstairs in my room."

Telemachus is an occasional sleepwalker, and his behavior during those bouts shows the heavy influence of dream logic. That night, he'd gotten up, searched through the cereal cupboard for just the right thing, then poured himself a nice big recycle bin of granola before putting his phone away in his room and heading back to bed.

I'm just glad he changed his mind before pouring the milk.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Current Reading: Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott

Inspirational Quote: "Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I'll waste no time reading it." -- Moses Hadas

It's been six months since I consigned the Magnus Somnium to the tender mercies of the Critters writing group. When I offered up the work, I had 10 interested parties. That's a decent response, and gives me some high hopes for the effectiveness of my pitch, which will someday form the heart of my query.

However, in the six months since then, I've had only one of those readers actually complete the novel and provide feedback. Some have let me know that life had intruded and they wouldn't be able to honor their commitment within a reasonable time. I'm fine with that. Life makes its demands. Most of the others, however, have just dropped off the radar.

Unfortunate. I was hoping for some good critique.

It seems most readers, even motivated by personal gain, were able to put the manuscript down AND WERE NOT SUFFICIENTLY MOTIVATED TO EVER PICK IT BACK UP.

Or, if they did pick it back up, they didn't feel moved to critique it.

And, of course, this is critique of a sort. I want my work to be the kind that grabs and compels, not the kind that lies limp on the coffee table until the next cleaning day.

Obviously, I won't be able to achieve that by blogging about it...

Monday, June 14, 2010

They're Paving Paradise...

Current Reading: Nothing.

Inspirational Quote: “Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans.” -- John Lennon

Greetings from my front porch. Thanks to the miracle of my netbook, I'm capable of reporting from the front lines, writing out in the fresh air although not in the sunshine because it's cloudy right now and because too much sunshine makes it impossible to see the screen. Stratus clouds are blowing in from the northwest with a scatter of cumulus underneath. Rain's coming. Probably tonight.

Anyway, right now I'm watching a cement mixer do something cement-ish to the road allowance in front of my house. See, back in 1998, a builder got the bright idea of creating a sub division in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, right about the time he was ready to commit, the economy tanked and people stopped buying. He ended up with a couple of show-houses facing a road allowance and a dozen acres of marshy ground. He sold the houses, and went off to wait until things got better.

The Kingdom of Ithaka occupies the northern most of the show houses. The grounds of the kingdom are quite extensive, if by “extensive,” you mean, “small,” although we make up for it by living on the edge of a small village surrounded by forested hills and farmer's fields.

Things got better, because the moment the frost was out of the ground this year, surveyors showed up on my property and began tagging everything from gas mains to children's toys. Two weeks ago, a portable lumber mill moved in and reduced the swamp thicket to pulp. Last week, a back-hoe, bull-dozer, something that looks like a steam-roller with cleats, and a dozen men with hard hats moved in and turned the swamp into a landscape that wouldn't look out of place on the moon. They've buried sewage tanks and lines and torn up the street nearby. I'm told I'm getting anywhere between three and 200,000 neighbours in the next few years.

My joy at the prospect cannot be measured.


Yesterday, I read a book. A whole book in one day. I'm rather pleased about that. I'm a little disappointed in the book itself, but the accomplishment was nice. I haven't read a book in a day since I was a teenager with no responsibilities. I'd sprawl on my bed and read for hours. Now, I can't sprawl anywhere for more than a few minutes before someone steps on me, or comes to tell me that I should give them a ride somewhere or that the cat's thrown up / Aeneas has decked Telemachus / Cassandra's speaking in tongues... you know, the usual father stuff. But for a few hours on a Sunday, everyone was elsewhere, silence descended on the kingdom, and I read.

I wouldn't trade fatherhood for anything, but sometimes it's nice to have a day wherein one can read an entire book.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Report: I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak

I was all set to love this book about a loser who begins receiving playing card in the mail with names, addresses or clues to people he's supposed to visit and help. It's a great story about a young man whose life is going nowhere and how one chance encounter opens him to the possibilities inherent in his own existence. It's told in first person, which seems to be common in YA books, and the voice is compelling. It's well plotted, with him starting to affect the lives of strangers and gradually spiralling in to affect those closest to him, ending with himself.

Admittedly, I had some trouble with his wholesale acceptance of the role the cards assume he'll take, and with the ease his friends just came to accept his decision to follow the destiny they lay out for him. In a book with the grit of realism, these things just seemed too unrealistic. In addition, somewhere around the half-way point, the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly.

For me, both things wreck the immersive experience of a good book, but I was willing to live with them.

If you intend to read this book, stop here, because spoilers follow.

The problem I had with this was the ending. The mystery of where the card6s come from is a constant all through the book. It's not central to the plot because the protagonist never really tries to find out, and it doesn't affect his various assignments. It does crop up frequently, though, and as a reader, I was looking forward to finding out. Whoever they were, they seemed to be omniscient and omnipotent.

But then the book turns metatextual: the source of the cards is the book's author. At this revelation, I tossed the book across the room and uttered an expletive. It's as though the author had written himself into a corner and couldn't come up with any other explanation that fit the observed facts. As a reader, I felt cheated. I'd have felt better if the mystery had remained unresolved. I'd have felt better if aliens had done it. Or time travellers. Or vampires. Or God. Something which could, conceivably, exist within a fictional world. As it was, I got up from the closed covers feeling I'd been the victim of a stealth preacher. That everything which had happened in the book was the will of the author came as no surprise (the same is true of every book), but using that as justification for the story offended me. If I want that kind of thing, I'll read Job.

Ulysses Rating: 4 – I loved this for most of it. -1 for the ending, though.

Book Report: The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett's books are never just fantasy, and they are never just comedy. They are always something more: social commentary, coming-of-age story and/or, as in most of the Guards books, a good mystery. In this one, a theft and murder in Ankh-Morpork arise from intrigue in a country far away where werewolves, vampires and dwarfs form an unstable political triangle. The plot is compelling, and although the characters are sketchy and often mere caricatures, the Dwarf society around which the mystery revolves is fascinating. It encompasses mysticism, opera, and tradition colliding with the demands of an outside world that can no longer be ignored. The parallels with the Arab world are many and obvious, but the social commentary never gets in the way of a great mystery adventure.

Ulysses Rating: 5 – I'll read this again and again.

Book Report: Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

I came to the Dresden files the long way around. I caught a few episodes of the short-lived T.V. Series a couple of years ago. It was interesting, but I don't watch much television, so I never really got into it. Then I came across Jim's LiveJournal, where he spent a great deal of time talking about the theory and practice of writing a novel. I found it practical and inspirational and I found myself thinking, “Here's a man who understand the science of novel writing, not just the art.” I thought that any novel this man wrote would be interesting to check out.

The other day I went to a bookstore because I could find nothing on Penelope's shelf that appealed to me. I skimmed the shelves, but nothing jumped out at me until I saw a stack of Butchers and was surprised to find the first Dresden (usually, when I look for the first book in a series, it's either out of stock or out of print).

It's meticulously plotted. You could set your watch by this thing. We start with a bit of introduction and then straight into the first event that sets up the plot (a client coming to Dresden's office... very Philip Marlowe). Then the police ask for his assistance with a grisly double murder, and in the course of his investigations, we're drawn into Dresden's world, his romantic entanglements, his shady past... everything needed to make the story interesting.

The tension never flags and the action builds nicely. It's said that you should place your character up a tree, surround the tree with alligators and have your character get out of the situation in clever, imaginative and above all exciting ways. This book does that almost literally. In each encounter with the antagonist, Dresden finds himself at more and more of a disadvantage, gradually stripped of allies and tools until in the climactic encounter, he's forced to face his antagonist with nothing more than his wits, and a pair of handcuffs.

This is a textbook on commercial novel writing, and it had me hooked from the first page.

Ulysses Rating: 4 – I loved this.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Current Reading: The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett

Inspirational Quote: "I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose." -- Woody Allen

Laughter is one of the few invaluable things we can give each-other that costs nothing. What follows is intended as a parody of Conan that Robert Howard never envisioned. My gift to you. May it make you laugh.

The Temple of Ee

Zarek-Amun had just finished the pyramid temple’s six-hundred and thirtieth step and was looking forward to the last stretch leading down to the cracked stones and tangled creepers of the ruined city. It was a good day. Warm sun, nice breeze. His broom made a shush-shush-shush as it pushed dust, dirt and small stones off one step and onto the one below it. He smiled and pursed his lips to whistle.

That was when, with an incoherent shout, a barbarian crashed into the temple clearing.
Zarek stopped sweeping and propped his chin on the top of his broom. The barbarian was tall and broad, tanned and muscled. He glared dramatically and raised a sword that gleamed so brightly the light itself could have cut flesh. He opened his mouth, no doubt to shout some obscure oath from his homeland.

Zarek cleared his throat. "Can I help you?"

"Er." The Barbarian's sword wavered and he glare dissolved into a squint. He'd lost his momentum. "I'm Kor of the Northlands?"

"Is that a statement, or are you looking for some kind of assurance?"


"I don't know if I can do much for you in the way of identity crisis counseling. The Temple of Self-Actualization is a couple of miles that way." Zarek pointed off to the east.

"Oh. Uh. Is this the Black Temple of Ee?"

Zarek looked up the long staircase to the temple proper, which sat squat and dark, covered with vines at the top of the pyramid. An enormous tentacled monstrosity had been carved in shiny black stone around the temple entrance. "I'm not sure. Let me go check."

The Barbarian lowered his sword and fiddled with the rough cord wound around the handle. Zarek propped his broom against the side of the staircase and made the long climb up to the temple. A font stood just inside the entrance, a black and bubbling cauldron from which a cup dangled on an old string. Zarek grabbed a drink. It was said that the water within oozed up from the deepest hells. It must have been quite a place, because the water was excellent and always cold.

"Who is that?" Echoed a voice from the inner sanctum. “A worshiper come to praise my dark majesty?”

“It's just me, lord.”

"Lord Ee, Dark God of the Netherhells, Herald of the Apocalypse, Beast of Ruin, I'll thank you to remember. A god is nothing without adjectival titles.”

“Of course, Great Ee.”

“I see we have a visitor. A worshiper?”

"A barbarian, lord," Zarek said, still sipping his water.

"Seeking to loot the treasures of the temple? Lay waste to the altar? Slaughter the priests? When I assume my dark dominion over the world, his suffering will be truly terrible."

Zarek emptied the cup and dropped it, letting it dangle from its string. Within his dark sanctum, the Beast of Ruin sighed.

"Fourth one this week isn't it?"

"Third. That other was a tax collector."

"Humph. I should have scourged his soul. Doesn't anyone believe in the separation of church and state anymore?"

“Modern times, Great Ee.”

“Modern times,” muttered Ee. “When I begin my black reign, I’ll show them ‘modern times.’ Tax collectors. Barbarians. Traveling salesmen. They’ll all know my wrath.”

“Yes, Great Ee.”

“Great and Terrible Ee, please.”

“Of course, Great and Terrible Ee. I’ll just see him on his way, shall I?”

Great Ee’s muttering echoed in the shadows of the temple. Occasionally, Zarek could make out arcane invective hurled against barbarians, tax collectors, traveling salesmen and small children who rang the temple gong and then ran away before anyone could answer. Zarek left the temple and made his way down to where the Barbarian still waited. Kor had sheathed his sword and was now delicately excavating one nostril with a pinky. When he saw Zarek's approach, he smiled and surreptitiously wiped his fingers on his leggings. “Ah. There you are. Well?”

“Still not sure.”

"Wait. Aren't you a priest?"

"Do I look like a priest?"

Kor looked down at his feet, then tilted his head to one side and squinted at Zarek. "You've got the robe and the scepter."

"Scepter." Zarek picked up his broom and shook it. Dust rose from the bristles in a cloud that made him cough. "Are you sure you’re not Kor the Nearsighted?"

"There's supposed to be priests here and naked ladies and heaps of treasure." Kor waggled his heavy eyebrows and grinned. "You know."

"I don't know about that," Zarek said. "We've got dust. And rocks. And a bit of dried mud that someone dragged in last week. I don't know why I bother putting out the boot scraper when nobody uses it."

"Could I go look?"

"Are your boots clean?"

Kor lifted first one foot, then the other. "Um," he said. "No. The forest is kind of damp, and there are lots of animals, if you understand me."

"Then kindly stay out."

"But..." Kor seemed to recall himself. His voice grew deeper. "I'm Kor the Northlander, the Warrior, the Reaver. I tread the jeweled thrones under my feet..."

"Fine, but don't do it here. I just swept."

Once again, Kor's fire faded. "Look. I'm here to pillage and slay."

Zarek smiled. "Oh, well. You should have said. I'm afraid we were pillaged last week, and it's going to be at least a month before anyone comes by who'd be worthy of a good slay."

"Really?" Kor's shoulder's slumped. "By the sons of..."

"Language, please. This is a temple."

"Right. Sorry. Look, is there anything you could do for me?"

"Well, I could point you to the Ancient Brotherhood of Soth Yogurt in the Forbidden Forest."

"They sent me here."

"Oh, they did?" Zarek gritted his teeth. Toth Azor was going to get an earful at the next poker game. "Well, then, have you tried the Eldrich Grotto of Murku? North side of the Dark Tower, fourth temple on the right."

"Is it worth the trip?"

"I hear the high priestess doesn't go in much for clothing."

Kor brightened. "Ah! A foul temptress?"

Zarek pictured the high priestess of Murku, mentally trying to reverse the ravages inflicted by eighty years of tending to an incontinent god in an unlit cave. "Something like that," he said. "You're half right."

"Wonderful! By Tigram's Ba... Sorry. Look, thanks for the help."

"Don't mention it." Zarek waved at Kor's retreating back.

The undergrowth rustled back into position and Kor's squelching footfalls receded into the distance. When silence once again reigned, Zarek-Amun went back to smiling as his broom swept dirt from the stones. It was a good day.