Thursday, July 31, 2008
The Needle in the Blood
Snowbooks, Ltd., 2007, 576 pp.
ISBN 13: 978-1--905005-39-3
I first heard about The Needle in the Blood almost a year ago, from some writers for whom I have a great deal of respect. One of them kind of warned me that it's on the "literary" side, and rather "dense", and perhaps the latter is true. I didn't have any trouble following it, although I would say that this writer is correct that the style is "literary".
But it's basically a romantic historical novel. The central male character is Odo, Bishop of Bayeux(d. 1097), and the central female character is one Gytha, an Englishwoman. They meet because she is a skilled needlewoman, and she is more or less persuaded into embroidering the now world-famous Bayeux Tapestry. They end up having quite a relationship. Which, without offering a real "spoiler", just doesn't work.
The idea is interesting. Odo was quite an interesting character in his own right, being the half-brother of the first King William of England(otherwise known as "The Conqueror" or "the Bastard", depending on which side you view him from). Here, Ms. Bower presents Odo as a conflicted character, torn between his loyalty and need to serve his brother, and Gytha, who he really seems to want in his life.
Sarah Bower is a good writer, and this, apparently, is her first novel. She seems to have won a literary prize for it. But the novel itself is, well, odd.
In the first place it's written in the present tense. Okay, I've complained about this creeping trend elsewhere, so I won't go into that here. in this case, it didn't exactly bother me, since I'd been forerwarned. I will also say that Ms. Bower is a writer that may have the potential to carry this technique off. But I kept asking myself: is writing this way really necessary? Could she have told the story iin third person just as well? I think she could, no matter what she may have thought about creating an illusory "immediacy" for the reader.
And there were places that just made me grind my teeth. Ateliers for needlwork in the 11th century? Women carrying lockets with their children's hair in them? The description Ms. Bower gave of this locket, carried by Gytha, sounds more like a Native American "medicine pouch"(I've seen Native Americans wearing these), and carried for almost the same pourpose, than a locket. And there's the little matter of her making claims that Odo --- in his Earl of Kent "hat", goes around supervising road clearances and the like. Early in the book, there is a claim made about a curfew being imposed, and the reason for a large fire, which seems rather improbable to me.
Then there is also another problem that made me grind my teeth: the names some of the (English) characters are given, just wouldn't have existed in that period and place. Margaret? Tom? Judith? These sorts of names came in later in England, although people had names like this in continental Europe. Even her name Gytha might not be quite right: she mentioned that Gytha is really "Aelfgytha". I looked this up in the Pase List of Persons, which is a good source of "period" names. I've made use of it myself, for my own work. But "Gytha" sounds more Scandinavian. This might be possible, of course; by that time, some Scandinavian-derived names had crept into English usage, just as "continental" ones would later. She could have consulted a source like this, if she wanted more authenticity and accuracy.
So I'm left with a decided mixture of feelings about the book. Overall, I liked her brave attempt. As I said, she is a good writer, and she should keep on writing(she apparently intends to). And her style is easy enough to follow, though her use present tense seems to allow her to write a basically "omniscient" point of view which otherwise would be frowned on by most modern editors(one annoyance for me was, she seemed to suddenly shift points of view with no apparent break to "guide" the reader). On the other hand, I'm glad she tackled a subject which few writers have even tried to tackle, and in a way that holds the reader's interest. Despite my criticisms, I think it's a good piece of work, and I assume she'll grow as a writer. I look forward to seeing what she does next.
The Flaw in the Blood
Bantam Dell, 2008, 289 pp.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the local library, browsing around for something worth reading, while waiting for another book(which I'll review tomorrow). I came away with A Flaw in the Blood. Though I hadn't paid much attention, I noticed that she was a mystery writer who wrote a series of "period" mysteries featuring Jane Austen. For the record, I tend to stay away from mysteries centering around real people solving fictional mysteries. To me, there's something kind of "off-putting" about authors who do this kind of thing, that is, having someone like Elizabeth I(yes, I've seen mystery series with her as the detective; I have stayed away from them, too) solve a mystery. I think you would have to be a pretty diehard mystery fan to enjoy these.
This particular mystery doesn't really have Queen Victoria solving any mysterie; even Stephanie Barron apparently knows she couldn't quite pull this off. It just wouldn't have been in character for Victoria, from what I know of her. But she does(sort of) attempt to introduce what we understand as science into the story, as part of the solution.
It's pretty well known that Queen Victoria her husband Prince Albert, had a lot of children. The youngest son, Leopold, lived to grow up, but died fairly young. due, apparently, to a cerebral hemorrhage. He apparently inherited hemophilia from her. And she seems to have passed hemophilia on to two of her daughters. Unfortunately, they passed hemophilia on to some of their children, with disastrous results. The best known result of this genetic flaw was Tsarevich Alexei, of Russia(the child of the unfortunate Nicholas and Alexandra, the latter of whom was Victoria's granddaughter). Of course the Bolsheviks probably weren't fully aware of the genetic end of things when all of them were shot, but that's another story.
Which brings me to the problem I ended up having with The Flaw in the Blood. It worked reasonably well as a mystery, until the very end. The blurbs on the back of the book say Ms. Barron is good at historical detail, and they're right: she got the style in which Victoria wrote pretty much right, and the relationships between various "classes", and their various conditions in England, also right, as well as the difficulties women had breaking into any profession(one of the main characters is a rare woman doctor).
Unfortunately, Ms. Barron should also have reread something on basic biology and genetics. If she knew that Victoria passed the "hemophilia gene" to three of her children, and some grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well, she should have known that a man can't pass hemophilia directly to any sons he might have. Because Ms. Barron made the assumption(a) that Victoria herself was the product of her mother, but not the man her mother married(he died before they could produce any more children, which is how Victoria ended up being Queen Victoria). And she implied that the lover passed hemophilia on, because the mystery is "solved" when they find a hemophiliac descendant of the same man.
Unfortunately, genetically speaking, this is impossible. The presence of hemophilia in Victoria was probably something she mutated and passed on, or else her mother mutated it and passed it on to her. Because the gene itself exists on the X chromosome(it's sex linked). This is so well-known that every beginning biology class I've ever heard of --- even in high school --- mentions this --- and often mentions poor Victoria, as well. And unfortunately a man can't passit on himself, because he only has one X chromosome. Women don't get it, because even if they have it passed down to them, they are chromosomally XX. Since it acts as a "dominant", any man who inherits his mother's X chromosome, will have hemophilia, and most hemophiliac men probably won't reproduce. At least they didn't in the past; most of them died too young. So if a man is reproducing chldren, unless something very strange is going on, he won't be passing hemophilia to any of his children. In this case, the woman really is "to blam", though it's really not under anyone's control, even these days.
And that, dear readers, spoiled the book for me. If you can't get the basic science right, either don't write a book with that science in it, and for heaven's sake, don't write something so wrong that even a complete nongeneticist can spot it. And kindly don't ask anyone to read it.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
It's true, there is a lot of very bad "genre" fiction around. One only has to walk into a Borders or Barnes & Noble bookstore, and browse through the science fiction or romance sections, to see this. In the science fiction sections, for example, the astute observer has only to look at the offerings in that section to see this: most of what is there is "Lord of the Rings"-derived stuff about a hardy band of wizards, knights, dwarves, etc., battling some rising evil that's supposed to take over the world. No matter who writes these things, they all seem to have the same basic structure and exist in the same pseudo-medieval world. One gets the feeling that, once you've read one, you've read them all. At least Lord of the Rings was more or less "original" when it first came out. But then, it seems that these things sell, to a lot of readers who demand little else.
The same thing seems to be true of other genres as well: the whole "sexy vampires" bit seems to appeal to a lot of romance reader, and has even seeped int "young adult" fiction: witness the popularity of Stephanie Meyers' vampire series set in Forks, Washington(why would Forks, a place known largely for a rainy reputation that apparently exceeds that of Seattle, where I live, and for battles over spotted owls, attract vampires? But that's another story). Why are there so mnay writers who write mysteries solved by Jane Austen, or Elizabeth I, or some other historical character(and which don't otherwise look all that good)? The answer is, this stuff sells. Never mind that it's probably not all that well-written(with some exceptions). And this is what makes "literary" critics howl.
But to be fair, there is literary fiction that is not all that good, either. The critics, mainly those who have an "English major" background, don't see this, because they tend to be trained to look at literature, and writing, differently than most of us. They want a story, soemthing that has a beginning, middle, and end, and a resolution, usually either a "happily ever after" or at least a hopeful one. Literary critics, at least the kind that mediate between the public and the book, have a different orientation, and that is, they look for "deeper" issues, either what is called "character development", or some sort of "coming of age" and "adjustment" to ""real life". Literary novels often emphasize these, and resolution generally does not happen, becase, well, that's not what happens in real life.
I have nothing against such novels; gifted literary writers have a lot to contribute, in their own way, to the ongoing cultural conversation that takes place in the world. But most wirters of literary novels, though sometimes praised for their efforts, simply aren't that gifted. Their writing may be dense, "experimental", and heavy with "character development" to the exclusion of much of anything else. Which is why a lot of people don't read these kinds of books. But it's also why "literary" critics and some others, don't read science fiction or other "genre" books. Basically, both groups inhabit their own worlds, oblivious to the others. Which is sad, because there good authors of both "genre" and "literary" fiction out there. And even more unfortunately, a lot of people who don't, but might read more, get information only on the "literary" side, which might also be offputting for these people. For myself, I wish each side would give up their prejudices and promote good writing everywhere.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
I should add that while I don't think Robert Sawyer did enough research about Neandertals(his picture of them is rather more one-sided than the latest research about them would suggest is the case), he's very good at integrating what he did learn into a decent, readable set of novels. Elizabeth Chadwick's research is more or less ongoing, since she has made a kind of specialty out of her investigations into the family of William Marshal, which seems to be leading to some very interesting and readable stories.
But the point here is, there is a process; any aspiring writer would do well to look at these two blogs, for in both cases, the process that is going on is quite similar.
I started blogging after some writers on a writer's e-mail list suggested this was a good way to begin getting a "presence" that agents or editors or publishers might notice --- eventually. They also suggested starting a website. But I'm not ready for that. Yet. I will only be ready for that when my book(s) get into something approaching publishable form. One of them may be approaching that point, but I haven't finished a complete revision yet, let alone cast around to inquire if anyone would be willing to try to sell it.
While Hawks has a somewhat different purpose from mine(he was angling for tenure at the University of Wisconsin), what I call the conceptual nature of his blog is similar to mine. Hawks is a biological anthropologist. He writes about human evolution, genetics, populations, fossil humans. Not only that, he's funny! At least, he puts humorous posts into his blogs from time to time. And, from time to time, he comments on the connection between "popular culture" and representation of prehistoric humans. One would not normally expect a "scholar" to do this. But he does. And it works, for he has been mentioned on other, similar blogs, as well as been noted some print media. He definitely has a "presence". It took a while.
I've only been blogging for about a year. I get visitors and comments from time to time, and I have a growing list of links to blogs that are relevant, one way or another, to my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece(s) With Neandertals(hint: some things I have "on the shelf" have Neandertals, but they're set in the near future, not in medieval times). So I post what seems to be a mixture of things: if I see something interesting about medieval life or medieval England, I post that. I have lots of stuff about Neandertals, obviously, since they play a very important part in my work(s). My work is fiction, but I've tried to keep up with the more recent developments re Neandertals, "modern" humans, evolution, and genetics, so that my fictional story has a bedrock of some scientific plausibilty, though the scenario is obviously "fantastic". And there are times when I just have ideas about good writing.
None of this relates directly to what I'm writing about. For one thing, I don't feel entirely ready to share. For another, I think it's more important for me at this stage, to blog my opinions about things and ideas that relate to some of these subjects. It's even more important for me right now, to explore various aspects of the writing process, either from the work of other oauthors or from the point of view of my own struggles. So sometimes I write about such subjects as how "historically accurate" can a historical novel(set in any period) actually be? This stems from discussions I've had with readers of historical fiction, some of whom demand a lot of "accuracy", and others who would rather have "just a good story". Oddly enough, this helps me in my own writing process, though not directly.
The bottom line for me is this: While I'm a writer, not a professional paleoanthropologist, I find much to admire in the Hawks blog, and have tried to structure my blog in a similar manner. The only thing I haven't done, is put in much humor. I guess I'm not "good at" humor. Or maybe I just haven't tried very hard. I don't know. But, like the Hawks blog, there is a "core" from shich subjects to blog about, spring. Most writers' blogs(and this is not a criticism) don't do this, as far as I can tell. The "promote", and they tend to write reviews. And they don't blog very often. I assume they're too busy writing, which is as it should be For myself, I'm going to try to do both ---that is, write and blog about whatever is of interest to me, in the "core" around which I've structured this blog.
Monday, July 21, 2008
Monday, July 14, 2008
Saturday, July 12, 2008
The reviewer makes things worse, in my opinion, by then comparing Sarah, Plain and Tall(and a number of other YA "historical" books) to classics like Anna Karenina and Little Women. But she forgets that Anna Karenina and Little Women were written as "contemporary" novels in their time. They only became "classics" later. And jeez, for heaven's sake! Tolstoy was actually critical of the society he described in Anna Karenina. True, Anna did "flout convention" in her time, and paid for it, according to Tolstoy, but that, too, was a criticism. Louisa May Alcott was less obviously "critical", but even she wrote sympathetically of women trying to make their way, more or less "unconventionally". What reader who has read Little Women, does not, at some point, identify with "unconventional" Jo? Which is exactly, I think, what Louisa May Alcott meant us to do.
Apparently Ms. McLeod, the reviewer of these books, both modern and "classic", has the idea that a novelist writing about a historical period must portray whatever historical period they are writing about, as a "mirror image" of that period. Yet she seems to forget that these writers are writing novels, not history. And she also seems to forget that while there were "mindsets" that were different from our own in any given historical period(for example, people in the Middle Ages didn't marry for "love" as they do now, but for "lineage" or "property" reasons, and their families generally controlled who they ended up with), this does not mean that everybody just blindly went along with the dominant mindset of the time. Furthermore, writers like to write about possible "exceptions", not the "ordinary" people who accepted the "mindset". Nor does she seem to understand that there were probably as many individual "mindsets" in any given historical period, as there were people living in that period. Some were more conformist than others, but they were individuals, not an undifferentiated mass. Ms. McLeod"s ideas exalt "historical accuracy", but she seems to have a pretty snobbish attitude toward those writers who "violate" what she considers to be sufficiently accurate about their writing. As ai said, historical accuracy is necessary if you're going to write about a historical period. But please, if a reader wants that much accuracy in their reading, perhaps they should turn to a history of whatever period they're reading about, not novels.
Friday, July 11, 2008
He was described as having been buried, and the picture above shows this quite clearly. Furthermore, someone must have cared for him in some way, before he died, since he had only a few teeth left. He was also arthritic, but this was not noticed or noted until fifty years after his discovery. Unfortunately, this oversight resulted in some pretty ridiculous portrayals of Neandertals, but I'll go into this in another post. Interestingly, it also spawned more "reasonable" reconstructions as well, but that's also for another post.
Anyway, if any reader happens to be in southwestern France between July 25 and August 8, they might want to drop by and at the very least, view the fossil, which will be on display. There are also a bunch of lectures and presentations during this time.
These tool types are called "asinopodean" and are what archaeologists call "microtools" They are, as one would expect from their designation, rather small, flaked tools. These are of a type usually associated with "modern" humans, however and the archaeologists who are currently superivising the digs there, seem to think such tools may be present at other Neandertal sites, but either overlooked or unrecognized. In any case, there are a variety of these scrapers and "denticulated" tools, presumably used for a variety of tasks. There are a number of pictures, too, at the dig site. Here is one of them:
Note the tool that has a sharp point in the middle of the bottom row. This looks as if it might have been used as an awl or something similar --- perhaps to punch holes in skins for garmeents(n0, I don't think Neandertals wore fur kilts all the time, despite whatever pictures you might have seen) or to make skin bags for carrying, etc. If you look closely, some of the tools have notched "denticulate" appearances, as if they were used for smoothing wood. I wonder what that might have been for? I can guess, but I'll let you use your imaginations!
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
What a lot of people complained about on this list was his "bad writing". This, BTW, is a writer's list, so I guess the people are unusually sensitive to what they conceive to be "bad writing". Quite frankly, I can't remember anything much about his writing style. I do remember the rather silly premise, and while I think by now Brown is "laughing all the way to the bank", as they say, it spawned a lot of "Templar-themed" look-alike books, often written much worse, again IMO, than The Da Vinci Code.
Be that as it may, the concept of what is "good" and "bad" writing raises some interesting questions. What, exactly is "bad writing"? Many people think that overuse of adverbs and adjectives falls into this category. And it's true, but. . . . How many adjectives and adverbs are "too many". What if you are trying to introduce a character, and want to describe his/her appareance, for example? Stephen King says he doesn't do much that way; he is more interested in the character's psychological state and their surroundings. King is a true heir, in some ways, to Edgar Allen Poe. He is, IOW, a storyteller. Some of his early works are better than some of his later ones, but he has mastered his craft. And he uses adverbs and adjectives when necessary.
One more reliable sign of bad, or at least "novice" writing, is too much use of "conversation tags".
Conversation tags are "he said", "she said", etc. But again, it's necessary to usee these "conversation tags" sometimes. However, it may be easier, with practice, to cut a lot of these. Editors and others often tell new writers to "show, don't tell" the character's actions or emotional states. This is good advice, but how does one do this?
Melissa James, a writer originally from Australia, has a very good article that shows several ways to do this. She calls this "deep POV", and says it is quite hard to do. I think she is probably right, but even if, like me, you are a novice, you can still learn a great deal by reading the relevant article here. What she does, falls under the rubric of "showing, not telling". True, she uses some admective and adverbs, but she shows by using the noun-verb core of any sentence. In other words, she describes her characters doing an action. Just using this technique is immensely helpful in cutting down on the number of "descriptive" words that often contribute to "flabby" writing. And "flabby" writing is what a lot of "novice" writers are prone to. To be honest, I'm prone to it myself. That is one reason why I have a writing partner and an online critique group. They catch things that didn't occur to me while I was writing whatever section of my novel I'm working on. But then, writing is a lifelong learning process, even for someone as experienced as Stephen King. Or it should be, if the writer is any good at all.
Going a little further down the line of "bad" writing, I doubt that Dan Brown uses a lot of "passive voice" in his writing. Good writers avoid this generally, unless the character has reason to recall or review some past action. "Passive voice" is something that some people often speak in. I know a woman who constantly says things like "I had gone to the farmers market to buy some veggies". It's fairly characteristic of people who are from "less educated" backgrounds, especially if they were lucky enough to become "educated" in some way. Apparently such people consider it more "erudite" or "refined".
But it's a no-no in writing. At least it's a no-no in modern writing, and I can see why. Too much "passive voice" sounds "flabby" too. The book I'm reading right now, The Golden Tulip, is a wonderful story by Rosalind Laker, but it was written some time ago, and the version I'm reading is a reprint. She lapses into this kind of writing all the time(plus uses a lot of adverbs and adjectives). I doubt the book would pass an editor today. On the other hand, her name isn't Rosalind Laker. Her real name suggests that English isn't her native language, so perhaps she can be forgiven for these lapses.
I think "good writing" or "bad writing" is in part, a matter of taste. However, the above examples should suggest to the aspiring writer, that there are some things he or she should guard against in writing. I may lapse into these "faults" in a first draft, and I may have situations that are unclear, but that's why a writer should be prepared to write several drafts before they send their work of art out to an agent or editor. Agents and editors spot such things awfully quickly. And reject them. And we writers don't want that(though realistically, we get lots of rejections!)
Gentle reader, and aspiring writer, we can at least help ourselves by cutting out "flabby" and "passive" writing. We may see awful examples(as the complaints about The Da Vinci Code seem to suggest), that get published, and are even popular, but we don't have to copy them. All writers need to be true to themselves, and do everything they can, to produce the best possible result of their efforts.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
We writers, even those with WIP's, such as my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiecw With Neandertals, are not "publicity shy". So I, at least, consider this a humble beginning. And I look forward to more mentions from time to time!
Friday, July 4, 2008
I was reading one of those "For Dummies/Complete Idiot's Guide to. . . " yeah, blogging, a week or so ago. Most of the stuff was things I'd alread figured out. most of those guides usually are, though some of them can be quite entertaining, for example, The Complete Idiot's Guide to British History. The part about the earliest Scottish kings was pretty funny. But I digress.
The blogging guide suggested some things that I think a blogger ought to pay heed to, if he or she expects their blog to be get attention in the blogosphere. One of them was to have strong opinions. Duh. Why blog if you don't have opinions about anything? I mean, there are blogs out there that detail every aspect of somebody's personal life, and I understand some of them fascinate people. But I think reading such a blog would be pretty boring. I mean, who wants to read something about somebody's day-to -day activities from showering and brushing their teeth in the morning to getting ready for bed at night? Unless, of course, they can connect these day-to-day activities with something more profound. What's the point?
The second thing that leaped out at me here was that the author(and don't ask me who he was), suggested that the blogger blog often. Which brings me to my own situation. He did say that it isn't necessary to blog every day, although there are many blogs that do. I've listed some that do. But the ones that blog every day tend to be news commentary of some sort, or else they're "political commentary". The kind of blog readers who read these kinds of things tend, I think, to come in two varieties: one, "news junkies" who like a lot of commentary, and two(and far rarer), certain types of reporters or trend watchers who scan these blogs to see which way whatever wind they're reporting about, is blowing. Political bloggers often turn up at political party conventions, too, and serve as reporters for what is going on. There are plenty of these kinds of bloggers and they come in all political stripes.
But what about bloggers like me, or like the innumerable "writing site" or "theme" bloggers such as the ones I've listed in my blogrolls? I think it depends. on what they're writing about. Two of the best in this category are Greg Laden's Blog and the John Hawks Weblog. Both of them blog every day, about something. Hawks in particular is getting recognition in all sorts of quarters, and I salute him. But OTOH, they are both science and anthropology writers, and they write about science-related subjects. Changes in the "science sphere" happen all the time. For me, this is important, since my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals touches on issues in science and human evolution.
OTOH, there are a bunch of writers out there, and a number of professional medievalists who also have blogs, some of which, again, are listed in one of my blogrolls. And they don't blog every day. One of the best of these is Elizabeth Chadwick's blog, Living the History. She doesn't blog all that often, but when she does, she's always telling about her travels, and their connections to the books she's writing.
Yet these too, are important links for me, since they often suggest sources of information or have information that helps me improve my own writing. But these bloggers --- the medievalists and the writers --- don't blog every day. They may not even blog all that often --- they don't really need to. Besides, if you're a writer, you may be busy writing, revising, critiquing someone else's work, or keeping up with your personal life. Sitting down at a computer and opening up a blog takes time from other things. The same is probably true for the professional medievalists.
And it's not that these people don't have opinions. They do. They have books or sites that they like, opinions about, say, the way aspects of medieval history are taught, or about the way people in general understand any history. For a writer, these are all valuable POV's, since they give some insight into the states of mind among these folks.
Of course, they cater to a far smaller audience than "political" or "science related" blogs. But even if the authors of these blogs don't blog all that often, they're still out there and waiting to be explored, for those interested.
My own situation is kind of in between these two poles, so to speak. Because of the nature of my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece(s), I basically straddle two worlds: one, I'm very familiar with, simply because anthropology was my major when I was in school. This is the archaeologh/prehistory world. I can navigate around it with ease and know some of its conventions. I'm less familiar with the worlds of the medievalists and their research, but I learn from them every day, which is why they merit a blogroll of their own here. And the writers? Well, all I can say is, if you're a writer, you never stop learning. I've found just about all the writers with whom I've communicated, to be a friendly and basically helpful lot. So even if I hadn't learned some things from them, their friendly demeanor alone would be enough for me to include them on my blogrolls.
So, as I said, my situation is kind of "in between". I may not blog every day, but I'm definitely not going to be of the "occasional" variety, either. And I have lots of opinions. Some readers who wander here may disagree, which is fine. I don't mind disagreement at all. I definitely agree with the "For Dummies"(or whatever it was) guide that any blogger should not embrace "neiutrality"! After all, my opinions are my own, not anyone else's. I will have a presence! So stick around folks. I'll stop by and blog often enough so that you should. And some of you may even find the waits between --- since I can't necessarily blog every day --- worth your while. I will certainly do my best.