Saturday, April 30, 2011

This week

I've been busy dealing with all kinds of fiddly things this week, including a zillion medical appointments, but, hey, we're off to the Columbia Gorge for a few days next week, so my outlook will perk up considerably. Not that it's bad now, just mildly tedious. Though, hmmn, nope, not even tedious, not when the trees are all blossoming and the sun is preparing to shine. Again. That will make three times in one week, which is a record so far this year. I think I might pass out. (Oh, wait, that would mean more fucking medical appointments. I think I'll just pass.)

Next month I might have a couple of announcements. There again, I might not. We'll just have to see. Yes, I'm being cryptic, but there's no point talking about stuff until it's ironclad.

Meanwhile, here are some bits and bobs of stuff:

  • Over at Lambda Literary, a complete list of Publishing Triangle Award winners. Particular congratulations to occasional AN visitor, Katherine Beuter, Alcestis, which took the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction.
  • I'd like you all to welcome our friend Jon Anastasio, Leadership Learning expert, to the wild world of social media. His website is here. Guess who did the photos...
  • Sterling Editing has some nifty links for writers, including my favourite, a sketch of how it really feels to be a writer.
  • The Women's Funding Alliance (which I talked about yesterday) raised nearly $400,000 at their event. If you'd like to help them support women and girls in the Northwest, let's see if we can push them the rest of the way.
  • Last, and definitely most difficult: Joanna Russ died yesterday. Locus has a preliminary obit, and over at io9 Annaleen Newnitz explains why you should read Russ's books.

Joanna Russ was a giant. As John-Henri Holmberg points out, one of our Modernist masters. She was witty, she could be savage, she was always honest. She influenced fiction way beyond the intimate gravity well of f/sf. I'd like to see a Modern Library edition of her work. Her most important writing, in my opinion, was her short fiction ("Mystery of the Young Gentleman," "When It Changed" "Picnic on Paradise") and her non-fiction. (How to Suppress Women's Writing, To Write Like a Woman).

I'm not able to explain today just how much her work meant to me, how very important it is. But Ammonite, for example, simply couldn't have existed without her foundation.

Go read Farah Mendlesohn's On Joanna Russ. Perhaps at some point I'll be able to think clearly. For now: I regret that I never met her.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Brandi Carlile made me cry

Last night I went to a private event for the Women's Funding Alliance. We were feasted by Seattle celebrity chefs (including Becky Selengut--who created the insanely fabulous food for our 20th anniversary celebration three years ago). The food was superb. The wine flowed freely.

Brandi Carlile sat at the table next to ours. Later, when someone bid an astronomical sum (five figures) for a request, she played Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'. Just her and a piano, in touching distance. It's a powerful piece--love, lust, longing, loss--and was a favourite of my little sister, Helena. Hearing it unexpectedly, live, by someone who really knew what she was doing, made me weep right there at the table.

There was a moment, as she figured out the range and first few chords (she normally does this song on the guitar), when I could have locked it all down and listened with a perfectly poised and pleasant expression. But then I remembered the point of the evening, which was to raise funds for women and girls who need help. And, oh, Helena had needed help. I had tried to give it, but she died anyway. So I let art do what it does, let it tear through the polite and careful curtain of my public persona, and wept.

At the end I was offered a tissue by an older woman who smiled and waved away my thanks. "When art moves you, what else can you do?" (Thanks, Carrie.)

But I'll be giving to WFA and other organisations who help women and girls. And perhaps next time you see a woman or girl, homeless or hungry or otherwise in need, you will too.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Game of Thrones, Episode 2

It was rather odd watching Doctor Who (my very brief impressions here) and Game of Thrones back to back. They're so different in terms of exposition, pacing, and attitude. DW is fast, short scenes smashed together, whap whap whap. We're dropped in medias res and have to figure out what's going on. (Fortunately, they have a handy newbie characters to whom things are explained, in choppy little snatches.)

Then there's GoH: so slow and careful it verges on becoming ponderous. There are good reasons for that, obviously: only a small percentage of viewers will have read the book. Of those innocents, an even smaller percentage will have any familiarity with medieval fantasy worlds. The producers have to lead their viewers by the hand. At least I assume that's their thinking. I'm not entirely sure I agree: most of us have seen Lord of the Rings, and the Narnia films. We're big boys and girls. We'll cope.

Anyway, here are a few thoughts, more or less as they occurred to me.

The first thing that struck me was Cersei. She's getting more complicated as a character, moving from the Pure Eeevil of the first episode to Bad-but-occasionally-human. This was achieved through brilliant acting in a scene in which Cersei talks to Cat, in the presence of an unconscious Bran, about her own dead baby. (I don't remember this from the book, but saw instantly how it would tie in with later developments, and hope that it's an indication of the writers' willingness to deviate from the holy scripture of the novels and move things along.)

Speaking of developments, I wondered briefly if they were going to do something tasty with Daenerys and Doreah, but then, sigh, they relied on that old lesbian trope, the linked hands. It was interesting, though, to watch the evolution away from the ep's initial doggy style sex (which struck me as very porny) to face-to-face. Clearly they have a plan. Perhaps the next step is to let poor old Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo, actually say something.

Harry Lloyd is still doing a great, great job with his part--though I did wonder how come he didn't get crippled by saddle sores and rein-blisters like his sister. Makes no sense.

At this point I felt a little restless. As I've said, it felt a little slow-moving. Perhaps this is because I already know the story, but I suspect it's that the editing is just a teeny bit sluggish.

The inevitable wolf abuse was handled tastefully. It did occur to me that the fact that the storytellers (book and TV) felt the need to get rid of the girls' wolves indicated a certain failure of imagination. They couldn't figure out how to make a girl suitably helpless if she had a direwolf on her side. Yet another way the storytellers aren't escaping old-fashioned thinking. It was also at this point that I started to hope that they spend some money on CGI when the direwolves are meant to be fully grown. Right now they just look like Alsation/Husky crosses and not at all Other.

Ned seems to be getting progressively more beta boy-ish; Sean Bean isn't playing him nearly as hard and cold as he could (perhaps should) have been. This could be acting, it could be directing, it could be writing. Hard to say. But he's an iron man of the north. He needs to behave that way.

All the acting was damn good this episode, possibly because we saw much less of the bit players. Though, hmmn, the Black Hats (Sandor and Ser Ilyn) leave a bit to be desired--I didn't find them particularly menacing or believable. (The producers seem to be melding the Clegane brothers into one character, though perhaps I'll turn out to be wrong about that.)

If they've explained for the non-readers who Theon is, I must have missed that part.

I'm getting more and more fond of the music; more impressed with the acting and the production values. I still don't like the Steampunky title sequence, though.

But I'm still, most definitely, looking forward to more. I'm enjoying this.

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Dr Who

I watched the Season 6 (or 32) premiere of Dr Who last night. My first Dr Who in years. Wow, the pace has changed! Talk about in medias res. Whap, whap, whap: the writers/producers were certainly not catering to the lowest common denominator. Lovely! But the special effects haven't got anymore sophisticated (sigh), the theme music is quite dreadful, and the UK actors definitely need dialogue coaches to improve their US accents.

But, oh, what fun! And with a definite emotional kernel. I will be tuning in next week. Go watch it.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Just arrived

These books arrived this weekend. I'm looking forward to all of them. I love my job! Less fond of crapcam, though. Just in case you can't read them, it's The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama, Aerotropolis, Karsarda/Lindsay, Homeschooling, Guess, and Day of the Oprichnik, Sorokin. Two fiction, two non-fiction. My TBR pile is often a bit more upmarket than my TBV list (which is full of Dr Who, Game of Thrones, and Babylon 5).

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

At left is what the place looked like yesterday, all sunshine and birdsong and flowers (I think they're some kind of hellebore). Mid-sixties. Pure delight.

Below is the forecast we woke up to:

But I didn't care. Part of my breakfast was a Cadbury's chocolate Easter egg, stuffed with chocolate buttons. I love those things! So now there will be loud music and much beaming--followed by a sudden crash (at which point I'll have a wonderful long bath and a huge lunch, so, hey, it's going to be a good day).

May your day be as fine.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011


I had planned a gorgeous series of photos to show you how the garden has suddenly leapt into bloom. And that the sun is shining. Really shining. (It will reach the sixties today for the first time.) Spring really is here. (For a while.) But then, eh, the camera died, so this is all you get:

It's the front garden, the border by the driveway. The rest will have to wait for another time.

I'm off to Hild world. Though I'll be taking a lot of breaks today to sit in the sun and muse over a cup of tea while the birds sing and the occasional bumblebee hums. Aaaaah...

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Anglo-Saxon gods

I warn you: this is not a terribly coherent post. My frustration level is high.

Before I started writing Hild I read a little about Anglo-Saxon cosmology/mythology. It didn't do me much good. Everyone seems to disagree. No one seems to know anything. They just hem and haw and hedge. So for the first draft I took what I could from philology--from Bede, place names, Norse myth and A-S poetry--and...skated.

Now that I'm rewriting, I find that a hand-waving, don't-point-at-this-ice approach won't work. It's time to get it exactly right. Except, hey, everyone still disagrees. And they're still just guessing (and timidly at that). So I'm stumped. For example, was there an Eostre or not? If so, what was she god of, exactly? Ditto Hreðe. (The only place these two gods are mentioned is in Bede's HE. Some scholars insist he was making those names up. I want to know what those scholars have been smoking. Why would Bede make up stuff about a belief system he abhorred?) Where do Tiw and Frig fit? (An older pantheon? A parallel pantheon?) How were they worshipped? (Were they worshipped, in our sense of the word?) What did an Anglo-Saxon grove (or temple, or holy well) look like? Who looked after it? How were those priests/guardians sustained?

So far I've made some tentative decisions about two gods, Thunor and Woden.

I think of Thunor as the big Sky Daddy, the one flinging the thunderbolts. A Zeus figure (though less involved in human affairs and, well, completely different). Worshipped in oak groves, most likely. Represented by a hammer. Maybe married to Eorðe (hey, if there was an Eorðe).

Woden is the warrior's god. The carrier-off of the dead. The god later Anglo-Saxons kings claimed as their ultimate ancestor. (For a variety of reasons--foremost among them the Hey, no one knows anything! excuse--I'm moving those claims up to the seventh century.) I'm positing he would be represented by something triplicate: complicated, confusing, a variation on the valknut (top) or triskele (bottom):

both images from Wikipedia

Woden is the leader of the Wild Hunt. I think of him as being a risky kind of god, a gambler. Impulsive. Unpredictable. A do-or-die, death-or-glory kind of god.

Having said that, it's possible (if you follow some of the linguistic trails) that Hreðe was also a god of glory, which makes me think she might be some kind of war deity. But she has a month (Hreðemonath, or March) named after her--according to Bede, anyway. So what was that about? And is she connected in any way with Eorðe, an earth mother type? It's a mystery.

Eostre is celebrated at Easter. April. So if I decide to include her, she'll be represented by the hare. (Easter. Bunnies. The folk magic that clings to hares--who get v. feisty in spring. Who could resist?)

Ah, you might say, but what about all the Brittonic (Celtic) gods? I think these gods were hyperlocal. Every stream, well, wall, grove, and hill seemed to have some resident deity--though many were probably cognomens (cognomina?) of more widely recognised gods. (See, for example, Esmeralda's post about Luguwalos.)

Then there's the more general belief systems. Who believed in what kind of afterlife? Were their gods terrible and wrathful? Capricious? Bargainers or tyrants? Interested in people or not? Where and how does the concept of Wyrd fit in all this?

And what about giants and hægtessan and etins and wights and ælfe?

I'll just be over here, beating my head bloody. If you know anything about this, please take pity on me and at least point me in the right direction...

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ammonite art prints

Today I'm cross with gods. Anglo-Saxon gods. I've been researching them for Hild. They are slippery little bastards. That is, scholars seem to disagree about all the particulars. No one will be definite about anything. So I'm feeling frustrated.

During this irritable phase, I've found it soothing to gaze at a present I got for my fiftieth birthday last year: two lovely prints (from copper etching, on Japanese paper--I think) made by Vicki Platts-Brown (who also made Petalville). These are the photos Kelley took of the prints before Vicki framed them. (I tried taking a picture of the finished product, both prints, one above the other, framed and matted, but the glass made it difficult. So here are the raw prints (click to enlarge):

And now back to wrestling with gods...

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

More Aud?

From: Cindy Thoreson

I love the Aud Torvingen series! Always, the last novel in the series, was published in 2007. I've been waiting and waiting for the next installation, and finally decided to ask when it will be released.

Thank you for portraying a strong, conflicted but emotionally strong heroine. The story lines are always intriguing, but for me the real attraction is the authenticity of the characters.

Short answer: I don't know.

Long answer: I have a contract for the fourth Aud novel, and I know exactly what happens, but I haven't written a word of it. Why? Well, because three novels is a long time to spend in the head of a slightly unreliable narrator. Because the currents novels form a lovely arc and to continue would mean at least two more novels. (I know exactly how book five goes, too--and it's a beauty: Aud to the nth power). But mostly because my writing brain got invaded by Hild.

Hild is even more of a challenge than Aud. She talks a lot less, but she thinks in much longer sentences. She lives in more exciting times. She changes the world.

Hild will get three novels, too. I've finished the first draft of the first one and am rewriting. As soon as that's done I'll start on the second. Or maybe I'll write a couple of short stories and publish that short fiction collection I've been threatening readers with for years. Or maybe I'll write a bit of my sword-swangin' fantasy.

Writing novels is probably the best job in the world, but it's not like other jobs. To sustain myself during the Gobi-desert phase of a novel (nothing ahead but dust, nothing behind but dust...) I need to believe, deep down, that I have something unique to say, a story no one else in the world could tell. And that is not in my conscious control.

I can't speak for other writers but I think of my creative reservoir as a well. Every novel drains it to the last drop. It refills slowly: ideas, phrases, events seeping in little by little. If it fills with Hild I can't write Aud. Well, I could, but it wouldn't sing with Audsong. It would just be wooden little words all in a row.

But one day, one day when I can get the rights to The Blue Place, Stay, and Always back and persuade someone to publish them coherently, yes, one day I might write the last two Aud novels.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Arf! My Game of Thrones: Episode One review

It's good. I enjoyed it. And it took me a while to work out that I'm a little disappointed: I was hoping the writers might be bold and improve the book's dialogue and treatment of women as a class.
Last night, immediately after I'd finished watching, I went off on a conversational tear about how I would title my review "Tired of Doggy Style." But Kelley's blink rate shot up, and she laughed that Really? No, really? laugh that means I've said something that needs rethinking.
So, no inflammatory headline. But I'm not happy. I had hoped HBO would take the adolescent fanboy aspects of Martin's books and, for this lavish production, grow them to adulthood but, sadly, they have left the Manly Epic Fantasy (MEF) notion of women-as-sex-toys-for-savages-and-rich-people (mostly men) unchallenged. In episode one, women get naked, men don't. Women are objects, men are subjects. All the sex is doggy style (except for the sex with Tyrion, who is serviced by a gaggle of whores). This is meant to be a multi-cultural milieu, but all the straight people (and, so far, even all the background players are straight) have sex the same way. Failure of imagination.
Eh, let's move on.
I've noted elsewhere that the writers made an interesting choice by beginning with Red Shirts. As the episode progressed I began to wonder if it was, in fact, a choice. I began to wonder if, contractually, the producers are locked into being slavishly faithful to the books. If it's not a contractual obligation, I'd love to know why the writers are taking this approach.
A great big MEF can get away with workmanlike prose and some off-the-shelf components. The point is to create a world where the mind can play, where the reader can dwell on the bits s/he likes and skim the bits s/he doesn't. But a visual medium is much less forgiving. In a novel, I can flick through exposition at lightning speed. On TV, it's much more obvious when characters are standing about telling each other who they are and What Happened Last Season. When Jaime Lannister says, "As your brother I must remind you..." and Cersei replies "When you were seven, you..." it sounds horribly like As You Know, Bob dialogue. (Lena Headey is good enough to just about pull it off. Sadly, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau doesn't come close. I think he should have spent more money on a dialogue coach.)
Other thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Every time I watched Mark Addy (King Robert) I thought: Wow, he's come a long way from The Full Monty. Not the creators' fault, but it kept popping up.
  • Harry Lloyd, who plays Viserys, does a really great job. Which means the writers have written him well. Score!
  • Peter Dinklage, as Tyrion, also does a pretty good job, although because of his 'brother's' Danish accent, the super-arch toff tones seem a little overdone. Plus, you know, the serviced-by-whores thing.
  • Of the Stark kids, the actors playing Arya and Robb are the most believable. I couldn't tell about Sansa--her character's such a cliche to begin with--and poor old Jon Snow staggers about under a mass of exposition that would crush any actor. But this, I'm pretty sure, will improve.
  • What's with the steampunk title sequence? It's pretty, and the maps are an excellent idea, but really, the technologies don't match. It sets up a world-building dissonance. (Sort of like the women-as-chattel but women-are-powerful-queens paradox.)
  • I'm not really a canine fan, but, I admit, I was won over by the direwolf pups. My guess is that as soon as these critters are old enough to be played by adult dogs, we'll be seeing a lot more of them. I'm surprisingly okay with that. There again, I dread the two abuse-the-wolf scenes we'll have to deal with later.
Despite all my caveats, I will be watching the series. It has a lot to recommend it: good actors (mostly) and very high production values. My main problems: the way they portray women, and the exposition-heavy dialogue. The latter will most likely cure itself as the season progresses (and, I hope, strike into bold new non-book territory). The former? That I don't know.
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What film, what novel do you wish you'd written?

A few days ago at Go Into the Story Scott Myers asked what screenplay viewers wished they'd written. For me that's easy: Galaxy Quest. It does everything I want a film to do: moves fast, blows shit up, flings in a couple of jokes, makes me feel, is light and knowing and kind, and, once you accept the basic premise, makes absolute unswerving sense. The characters are true to themselves. The acting is good. The sets and costumes are great. A practically perfect genre package.

If you'd asked me twenty years ago, I would have said: Die Hard. Again, practically perfect in its genre. A blast (yes, a pun) from start to finish. (I wish I could say the same for the subsequent films in the franchise.)

The day someone does a sword-and-pony epic as good as either of those two, I'll transfer my allegiance. (I loved Lord of the Rings, all three films, but there's a fair amount in them I'd fix, whereas GQ and DH are, to my mind, unimprovable.)

By the bye, speaking of sword-and-pony fun, George R.R. Martin lists his ten favourite fantasy films over at Geeks of Doom. We agree on many (Ladyhawke!) but by no means all.

Anyway, I got to thinking: what novel do I wish I'd written? And the answer isn't nearly as simple. I know an awful lot more about novels than I do about films. Writing novels is something I'm really, really good at. When I look at a novel I compare it to perfection, not others of its kind. Consequently, I see flaws in even the very best novels, in every genre (I count litfic as a genre; it has its tropes, its conventions, just like f/sf and crime fiction).

So, for example, I love LotR--but Tolkien gets a bit stiff here and there, and there's way too much poetry and song for my taste (Tom Bombadil and the ents both drive me crazy). Brazzaville Beach (William Boyd) is a tour-de-force of POV and structure, but, deep inside, leaves me unmoved. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson) is wickedly funny, playful, moving and hilarious, but not something I wish I'd written: in the end, its foundation is memoir. (I could say the same for Rubyfruit Jungle, with the added note that Rita Mae Brown is probably to blame for the now-clichéd lesbian coming out tropes--see, for example, the arc of Tipping the Velvet.) Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, starting with Master and Commander, is brilliant. His specificity and generosity, his particularity and brio blow me away. But every now and again his lens trembles and the focus wavers and the burning pinpoint of light spills into a wash of self-indulgence. (And the last few novels in the series are, to put it politely, thin.) I used to hold Mary Stewart up as the queen of noble-sword-and-pony novels (The Crystal Cave is the nest I crawl into when I need go away from the world) but sometimes the blue pencil in my head twitches. Then there's Mantel's Wolf Hall--which, like O'Brian, is fiercely particular and powerfully imagistic. But her POV choice is not wholly successful...

So it's not easy to point and say: There, that one. Wish I'd written that! How about you? What film or novel do you wish you'd written?

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Message from a viajera

From: Kida Valérie Charavel

Hello, just wanted to share something... Discovered Aud in The Blue Place, and since then, just kept following your books one after the other...

Last time I had this hunger was for Marion Zimmer Bradley and her great Darkover series.

Lately, I'm on Jeep with Marghe, and I wanted to share this : You've put a name on what I am... I just found my name... a Viajera. Can't explain how much it fits me...

Forgive me this pitiful English, I'm French, but still, I read your books in English... From Monique Wittig and from Helene Cixous and her Amazon Tales, I used to call myself "porteuse de fables" (a kind of "fable carrier"). I also enjoyed "La que sabe" from Clarissa Pinkola Estes... But you definitely stole the first place with this simple word: Viajera.

Which applies to me in so many ways... I'm a nomad, lived in Mexico, Morocco, Egypt, France, now Belgium... travelled a lot... Lover of myth, old memories of goddesses and earthly and natural ways for caring, healing, planting, building, creating, playing, dancing, chanting...

Well, I wanted to thank you so much for this beautiful word Viajera.

May we all be viajeras...

Keep telling stories Nicola

Ammonite is the most consciously mythic of my books. In some ways it's about storytelling, about the beginnings of myth, about the power of words and memory and the artist's journey into the unknown.

First novels, I think, are the purest expression of a writer's beginnings and hopes and dreams. Ammonite is certainly the bucket I sent deep into my story well, over and over. I gave my very last drop, everything I had.

One of the many graces of being a writer, though, is that the story well refills. Ammonite was the book that taught me to be unafraid of giving everything I have. I hope, every day, that I can keep doing that.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes trailer

This looks as though it might suffer story problems. The beginning made me think, Oooh, creepy! but then the whole thing seemed to devolve--as though, sigh, the writers didn't know where to go once they'd got the basic premise sorted.

Anyone know anything about this one?

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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Hobbit preview and start of production

I loved The Lord of the Rings, book and film. (Not perfect, but damn good.) But I've never been excited about the prospect of The Hobbit on the big screen because I've never been excited about the book. But then I watched this, and got all nostaglic for the rush of seeing LotR for the first time in the theatre. So, hmmn, I expect I'll go see it after all.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Camelot, a rant

I've been waiting to be in a calm, reasonable, orderly frame of mind before writing about Camelot, the new epic mini series on Starz, but, eh, that's not going to happen anytime soon. My brain is too full of Hild and my body too ravaged by virus. (Okay, it's a cold. What's your point?) Here's a disorganised rant instead.

Camelot has a great setting, some truly fine actors, and built-in marketing*. Also, to use a technical editing term, it's a big spaghetti mess.
The biggest problem is the story, or lack of it. That is, the writing. For a clue how bad it is, read this snippet from the official website:

In the wake of King Uther’s sudden death, chaos threatens to engulf Britain. When the sorcerer Merlin has visions of a dark future, he installs the young and impetuous Arthur, Uther’s unknown son and heir, who has been raised from birth as a commoner. But Arthur’s cold and ambitious half sister Morgan will fight him to the bitter end, summoning unnatural forces to claim the crown in this epic battle for control. These are dark times indeed for the new king, with Guinevere being the only shining light in Arthur’s harsh world. Faced with profound moral decisions, and the challenge of uniting a kingdom broken by war and steeped in deception, Arthur will be tested beyond imagination. Forget everything you think you know…this is the story of Camelot that has never been told before.

If I were teaching, I'd set this as a rewrite exercise because, damn, even a beginner should be able to do better. (To those of you at home who want to have a go at fixing this: using high-impact words like 'profound' and 'broken' to hint at story isn't enough. Readers/viewers need evidence of clear anchor points and an emotional arc. This is about Arthur--and Merlin, and Guinevere. Saying he's young isn't enough. Is Arthur a hero or a horndog? Smart or stupid? At this stage, before I've watched a single scene, I begin to suspect the writers don't really know.)
Ten seconds into the first episode I knew we were in trouble. Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays Arthur, stands around with his mouth open like a trout. Perhaps this is meant to indicate breathless emotional engagement, perhaps he has sinus trouble, but it doesn't inspire confidence. Arthur, the Once and Future King, the man who rallied a kingdom in the Terrible Times Previously Known as the Dark Ages**, should not be a gormless mouth-breather who looks as though he's been sawn off at the brainstem.
But then we meet Merlin, played by Joseph Fiennes, and I perked up a bit. Merlin, in this reimagination, is a cross between a shaven-headed Hard Man and a wise and mysterious Life Coach. Fiennes is a good enough actor to pull this off--or would be, if he had good, risk-taking writing to build from.
But, no, Michael Hirst and Chris Shibnall, the creators, plump every time for the cheap choice. So, for example, we get gratuitous female nudity. I'm not one to complain about seeing luscious naked women--unless it makes no sense. (The writers don't even try.) And unless there's a serious lack of gender parity. (The men don't show any skin except face and hands in the first two episodes.) In Camelot, all the girlie goodness does is make it clear to the viewer that women are objects and men subjects.
This is most obvious with Eva Green's part, Morgan, the evil temptress, sloe-eyed and dark-haired (of course--another cheap shot the writers couldn't resist; Guinevere is blonde). Green is, in my opinion, a truly fine actor, but she's given nothing to work with here. Morgan is an unevenly and rather sulkily written ragtag collection of tropes and mannerisms. She consorts with mysterious misty things with voices for which she wears conveniently drop-at-a-touch dresses (always, for some reason, see-through). She's emotionally unstable. She is not in conscious control of her powers.
This women wouldn't have survived a minute in TTPKDA. I think the writers, in some dim way, understand this. Sadly, their attempt to finesse this inconsistency just makes everything worse. They show Morgan foiling an attempted rape by King Lott (on the battlements, in front of his whole army) by turning it into jolly public sex. He rips off her clothes and she says, Come on, big boy, let's get it on in front of all your men! Lott then can't get it up (I assume. It's hard, no pun intended, to tell because he's wrapped head to foot in iron and leather, nothing peeking out). He retaliates by dragging Morgan off to a windswept moor and tying her to a (convenient, well-maintained, otherwise purposeless) stake in the middle of nowhere and abandoning her overnight.
I used to earn my living by teaching women's self-defence. One of the options I taught was (if you can't run) to ruin the assailant's power fantasy. So, intellectually at least, the writers were on the right track for Morgan to turn Lott's rape power trip to consensual sex. But if, in a public setting, a warlord couldn't get it up, I bet you a gold armring he'd kill his victim out of hand. He couldn't afford not to in front of his men.
That tiny detail aside, you can't treat a woman as a thing, a naked sex toy, one minute and then persuade the viewer the next that she's a powerful, shape-changing sorceress in league with otherworldly creatures. (Why didn't she summon a demon to eat Lott's face? Why didn't she change into something else? Why didn't she fly away?)
Let me be clear, I'm not saying that women who have been sexually assaulted can never again have agency. I'm saying that a writer can't take away a woman's agency when convenient to the plot and expect the viewer to believe it when, without explanation or apparent struggle, it is magically restored. Everything has consequence. These writers are displaying not only a fundamental misunderstanding of gendered sexual violence but of how story works.
Woman-in-jeapardy is no substitute for plot and character development. With this kind of pointless sexual game the writers have just lost the trust of 51% of their audience and, for the rest, destroyed their belief in the story's antagonist. They don't understand the basics.
If I were teaching these writers, I'd help them understand the notion of Show and Tell, and when to use which.
They do a lot of telling. The first couple of episodes are littered with As You Know, Bob dialogue that could have been lifted from a day-time soap: Yes, adopted brother of mine, who will come with me to scary places. And Why, hello, magician with a mysterious past whom I don't trust very much. And Oh, hey there, you brute with a sword, who has armies and doesn't like my dead dad and can help me take the kingdom.
When they do just show, the scenes don't make much sense. For example, in episode 3 there's a scene in which Merlin, tied up by Morgan, says, essentially, Well, I could free myself if I wanted to; but I don't want to use my magic... And then when Morgan wanders off (why? no idea) he just sort of wiggles free without magic. By just, y'know, tugging vaguely at the manacles. The viewer has no clue what's going on: Did Morgan do a really bad job? (Subtract a point from the characterisation score.) Is it just lucky coincidence? (Lose a point for plotting.) Did he use his magic after all--if so, why? (Burn and destroy any accumulated trust in the writers' consistency.) Then there's the scene in which Arthur and Guinevere stumble across a just-that-minute-dead deer (arrow still poking from it's chest) that no one, in economically hard times, has bothered to come and collect despite going to a lot of trouble to kill it. I'd discuss the ridiculousness of the following scene in which the boys clearly got so squicked out at the girlie particulars that they couldn't think straight, but I don't have the heart to go on. And I haven't even mentioned the awful anachronisms...
Anyway, after suffering (profoundly, bitterly, brokenly) three hours of this series, I'm convinced that the writers of this big-budget blockbuster epic don't know what they're trying to say or to whom. Camelot is a hopeless muddle.*** This kind of crap gives sword-and-pony epics a bad name.
* The Arthurian Cycle, part of the Matter of Britain is the English legend. It has huge brand capital. I'm sure it can survive this. (If you want to know how it should be done, read Mary Stewart's quartet of novels, starting with The Crystal Cave, and then Gillian Bradshaw's trilogy, starting with Hawk of May. Brilliant stuff, both of them. Go read.)
** Now termed, depending on what school you follow, Late Antique, sub-Roman, or early Medieval Britain.
*** For contrast, see the brilliant clarity of the Game of Thrones Making Of programme: everyone involved is sure as sunrise about their characters and/or mission. I am positively drooling with anticipation.
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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Don't attack the nice man"

Conversation in our house yesterday afternoon:

"Hey, hon, you know that flooding issue we've been having..."
"Well, the city's sending a guy out to check the water flow."
"So if you see some stranger poking about in the back yard--"
"Don't attack the nice man?"
"Right. He's from the government. He's here to help."

Take from that what you will.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Save the date

If you live anywhere near Seattle, save this date: May 8th, 5 pm. I'll be MC'ing a reading of Lambda Literary Award finalists at the Elliott Bay Book Company. I don't have any more details right now, but I'm hoping we can get a good crowd to meet and applaud these writers in their moment of triumph. And, then, who knows? Maybe we can go drink beer afterwards. Stay tuned.

ETA: The readers: Carol Guess, Tom Schabarum, Elizabeth J. Colen, Jen Currin, and Anna Swanson.

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Greening leaves

Yesterday I promised you a review of Camelot. I lied. The review will be a bit of a rant, I think, and will have to wait a couple of days.

Meanwhile, for your delectation and delight, here are two photos I took yesterday while the sun shone. That's right: The. Sun. Shone. In Seattle. It got to 53°! I'm surprised you didn't hear the roar of celebration all the way out to where you are. It's grey here again today, of course, but spring really is coming. I submit as proof the greening of our alder and curly willow:

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Friday, April 8, 2011

The blog post of technological triumph!

We got our new AV set up running at last. The nifty new TiVo Premiere that allows for streaming from Netflix, YouTube, and more. That lets us get season passes and so on while we're at our desks. That means we can use real HDMI cables now instead of doing ridiculous split signal crap via... Ah, but I've detailed tech tales of woe before. So the hell with moaning, back to the fabulousness!

We get all the HD channels! And the picture is beautiful! And the sound! I am thrilled. (As an indicator of my delight, I'd insert a picture of kitten playing deliriously with a piece of string, if I could figure out a way to do that with dignity...) Instead, here are two pix of the TV in action:

They're bad photos but, trust me, the screen quality is exhilarating. It's such a blast to be able to use the whole screen without catastrophic loss of quality.

So this pix are from the show we watched last night. Guess what it is. It's something I've been looking forward to for ages. That is, something I had been looking forward to. But, huh, now that I've seen it, I'm not only disappointed but pissed off. So, hey, now you get to guess what tomorrow's blog post will be about...

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lift your face to the sun--and get beaten bloody

According to my calendar, this is what April looks like:

Sun, scent of flowers, the zuzz of bumble bees, birdsong, blue skies... And, astonishingly, deliciously, that's exactly how yesterday morning dawned. All the trees in bloom and half our shrubs; birds flying about anxiously with beaks full of food for their cheeping young; two bumblebees trying to understand why the fence is suddenly three feet higher than it was last year; a woodpecker banging its beak against our cedar siding until it was semi-senseless. (It makes a fine hollow drumming sound, which, apparently they feel obliged to create for their lady friends. Hey, who am I to get in the way of courting?) Lunch!, I thought, and set off for Julia's wearing sunglasses and no jacket (and, y'know, other stuff).

On the way home, the sky turned black (seriously, a wall of charcoal clouds came boiling out of the north), the temperature plunged, and ice hissed from the sky. By the time we pulled into our driveway, hail was cracking itself on the windscreen like diamonds poured from a great height. I took this photo with crapcam:

I stayed in the car a few minutes to avoid being flayed. But as soon as the hail turned to sleet, I shot out and took this photo of the back deck:

The chives took a beating. (Eh, they'll be fine by tomorrow. They're tough.) Being wise in the ways of Seattle weather I didn't put the camera away but took it to the back deck and waited four or five minutes, and took this:

Yes, really, five minutes (that white stuff at bottom left is unmelted hail). It happens that fast. It always does. I know this. As I've said, I am wise in the ways of Seattle weather. Yet I still left the house without my jacket. Why? I was sun-mazed after a winter (and autumn, and spring; this cartoon will explain everything) of grey days, rain and wind. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Geek out to the history beat!

Music, video, wit, and scholarship combine to bring you three-minute history primers on iconic subjects (aaaand you can dance to it). Via Þæt Eald-Ænglisce Blog (That Old English Blog), I offer you some fabulousity from @historyteacherz.

In reverse chronological order, we have:

It's probably the strongest, musically. (Imagine me saying that with a straight face.) Plus I actually learnt some nifty factoids about the number of colours of the Bayeux Tapestry (which is, of course, not a tapestry but embroidery).

This one's a teeny bit slow, but I'm such a sucker for all those old-time filmic epics that it made me feel quite misty.

I'm particularly fond of how the horsemen in the Beowulf clip jog up and down to beat...

If you like these, there are a zillion more on the historyteachers's YouTube Channel: Cleopatra, Attila the Hun, Theodora, Charlemagne (based on the music of Blondie, The Beatles, Smashmouth, and more).

I am geeking out! And beginning to have notions of a Hild book trailer...

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Slow River reprint

For those of you who have been waiting a week or so for Slow River to ship from Amazon, I've been assured that the new printing* is in train and that fulfillment will restart next week. That's all. Carry on.

* The tenth--or something like that. I forgot to ask. But it looks just the same as the last lot, so, hey, what does it matter?

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wrestling with technology

Today will be wrestle-with-televisual-technology day at the Griffith-Eskridge household.

We got our first TiVo in 1999. We were the only people we knew who had one. It changed our viewing lives. For a while, it even changed my understanding of time.This notion of just...watching a TV show whenever I wanted really jarred my orderly notions of the universe. For a while I was confused. (Me: "Let's watch Buffy now." K: "But it's not on until Tuesday." Me: "What's your point?")

TiVo meant that I started watching less and less television. When I could get anything I wanted, and then watch it whenever I wanted, I stopped feeling that watch it! watch it! urgency. Also, it meant that I could enjoy my secret passions (Antiques Roadshow and science/history educational programming) without worrying that I was frittering away my precious time with Kelley on something she wasn't terribly interested in.

So, anyway, TiVo rocks. We bought a lifetime subscription right at the beginning. We upgraded every time there was something worth having. Currently we have a TiVo Series 2 Dual Tuner: recording two shows at the same time! An upgrade from omnipotence to omnipresence. We like that...

But the Dual Tuner feature became useless when Comcast stopped playing nicely with TiVo a while ago. (Why did Comcast stop playing nicely? Because they could. Because they are, essentially, a monopoly. And they want their subscribers to use their proprietary DVR. Given that Comcast's UIs are, to put it kindly, primitive, we've eschewed it.) This means we've been bending ourselves further and further from Standard to get both cable and TiVo without spending a zillion dollars on upgrading everything every year. This involves splitting the signal in weird and complicated ways, feeding it in two steps through... Ah, never mind. Here's a photo instead:

As you can see: a big spaghetti mess of cabling. We're tired of it. Also, we're tired of the degraded signal. Tired of not being able to recored two shows at once. Tired of not being able to stream programming from Netflix, iTunes, all that stuff. (It's embarrassing to be a science fiction writer--at least sometimes--and not be able to watch stuff from the intarwobble.) So we finally caved and have shelled out for the nifty new TiVo Premiere. And an M-card from Comcast. Now we should be able to get rid of our cable box and watch anything on the planet. More specifically, we should be able to record Camelot and Merlin at the same time, in glorious HD. Assuming that, y'know, today's wrestling goes our way.

You'll notice that I've been using the magisterial (and occasionally godlike) 'we'. But when it comes to technology the Griffith-Eskridge household doesn't operate as a team. This is because we have a different process, different approach, and very different attitude towards following instructions. Which we discovered when we bought our first some-assembly-required furniture. In other words, when it comes to technical instructions, working as a team leads to madness (and grumpiness, and glares). So now one of us does it. And Kelley is the TV cable queen. On this one, my job is to stay out of the way. Mostly. And when I do appear, to simply offer encouragement, and a few 'Those bastards!' and promise a splendid evening at the pub when signals are flowing, the last boxes and bits of cable have been put away, and the divots in the wall replastered and painted. (Just kidding. K never attacks the house. That's my speciality.)

Wish us luck. I'll let you know how it goes.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Game of Thrones -- my review

Last night I watched the preview of Game of Thrones. The showrunners, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, made a couple of interesting choices with the opening sequence. One, we open on three men from the Night's Watch, redshirts who duly get the chop. (An opening is valuable real estate. Writers usually use it to fuse viewer to protagonist/s, create that all-important--supposedly--identification with the hero/s.) Two, the first few minutes are without dialogue.

This worked for me: the snow-filled quiet; creak of gate; flutter of flame; clop of hooves. Even if I hadn't read the book, I'd know Something Was Coming. The something turns out to be the White Walkers (with icy blue eyes that, unfortunately, look at bit like glass doll's eyes; perhaps this will improve).

The sets are great (except for the dead bodies which did not convince me). The costumes meticulous (though, again, not quite the choices I would have made, especially the women's clothes). The acting stellar. So far, at least, no words are wasted. The preview lasts fourteen minutes and we learn a lot: creepy things are happening at the Wall. House Stark isn't entirely at ease with itself (with particular attention to the fraughtness of Cat and Jon's relationship). Sansa and Arya are femme and tomboy, respectively. Eddard and Catlyn love each other (and are essentially Good Eggs). Bran is sensitive and his older brothers are Lads (ditto). The Old Ways, harsh ways, are there for a reason. And, of course, Winter Is Coming...

I like it so far. I just wish Sean Bean would survive for the whole series. Oh, and I hope, I sincerely hope, there are some lighter touches at some point. Variety is the spice of life: light moments cast the dark in sharp relief.

But, yeah, this looks as though it might be epic fantasy done right. My appetite is undimmed.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Game of Thrones 15-minute preview

Oh, this is pretty fine. Two more weeks to wait for the rest.

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

If you like the Aud books you might like...

From: Alicia Leggett

I love all your books. They are amazing, especially the ones about Aud. Are there any books that you would recommend for someone who likes The Blue Place, Stay, and Always?

Tricky. It's difficult to make a recommendation based on only one set of preferences. It's like trying to triangulate location based on one signal. But, hey, okay, let's give it a go.

If we consider Ammonite and Slow River as one preference set, and the Aud novels as another, I could make a list of things you might enjoy. Perhaps you like novels that:

  • are about lesbians
  • occur in other times, places, and/or mindsets
  • involve water (frozen or free-flowing)
  • spend an inordinate amount of time among the trees
  • feature women who grow and change
  • linger lovingly on food and drink
  • often revolve around journeys, internal and external
  • delight in parsing systems
  • enjoy educating the reader
  • characters learn to trust each other (and are sometimes betrayed)
  • in which people fight (and a woman always wins)
  • who characters think about (and indulge in) good (and bad) sex
  • use sly humour (which, sadly, slides right by many readers)
  • aren't shy about throwing bad situations at the protagonist
  • end on a hopeful note (mostly)

So here are some books that do most of that. First among equals (today, anyway) are Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, twenty of them--which are basically one long novel, set during the Napoleonic wars, about the friendship of two very different men, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. It's set during the Napoleonic wars. Battles. Lots of water. Brilliant language. Humour. Love. Idiocy. Friendship and trust. Betrayal. More nature than you can shake a stick at. Amazons (in the South Seas, on a raft). And one lesbian affair (very late in the series, when Jack's wife's mother runs off with her best friend--blink and you miss it). Start with Master and Commander.

Then there are the Modesty Blaise books, by Peter O'Donnell. (Read my thoughts here.) No lesbians, but the woman always wins, there are fights, sex, good clothes, plenty of excitement and a wonderful friendship between Modesty and her male sidekick. Female James Bond, complete with 1960s supervillains and nifty weapons.

Anything by Robin McKinley, though my particular favourites are three fantasy novels: The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Spindle's End. Again, no lesbians--but swords, magic, dragons, women who win, lots of friends, some good food, and brilliantly humane.

Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed: SF with aliens, gender shenanigans, women who win, fights, and general awesomeness. Just don't read Ancient Light, the sequel because, if you're anything like me, you'll get so cross you'll fling the book through the window.

Lee Child's Jack Reacher books, starting with The Killing Floor. Set in modern day US. Reacher is a loner, ex-army cop, a kind of straight boy Aud: he fights a lot, and always wins. Always gets the girl, for a while. He doesn't change, doesn't grow as a human being, and they could be better written, but they certainly clip right along.

Barry Eisler's Rainn novels: lots of covert ops, body-language-and-martial-arts stuff. Set in Japan.

A couple of Sara Waters' books: Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. Lesbians, lesbians, and more lesbians, gambolling about in the Victorian underworld. Fabulously plotted. Melodrama on purpose. Excellent reading.

David Stone's Micah Dalton novels, starting with The Echelon Vendetta. These are witty, off-kilter, eccentric covert ops stuff, set in Europe, stuffed with sex and ghosts and bombs. No lesbians that I recall, not many trees, but lots of water, lots of fighting, lots of humour.

Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre. 1970s SF. One of the books that went into the making of Ammonite. Wonderful novel about post-apocalyptic Earth, with a woman who heals.

The Watchtower, by Elizabeth Lynn. 1970s fantasy. This is probably where I first heard about aikido. Fabulous book (with two others in a loose trilogy): lesbians, swords, fights, honour, destiny, woo hoo!

Then, ah, hell, look, here's a list of many excellent books I like, many of which influenced my work, and so which have a fighting chance of being aligned with something you might like. Knock yourself out:

Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel (comic strip covering close to twenty years, now, of dyke life; if you plan to read this, begin at the beginning--there are ten or more collections, I think--and you'll end up with a very clear notion of the history of a certain kind of lesbian community in the US and--with slight differences--UK)
Patience and Sarah (earlier title=The Two of Us) by Isabel Miller (pen name of Alma Routsong), lovely romance set in 19th C. America, full of hardship and love and stubborness. I wept shamelessly (in a cathartic way) thoughout the last chapter.
Olivia, by Olivia (real name: Dorothy Bussy), the semi-autobiographical tale of an English girl sent to a French (I think) finishing school; full of yearnings, largely unspoken and delicious
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde (yeah, memoir is non-fiction, I know, but it was my first brush with African American dykeness and I admired Lorde's clear voice)
Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault (real name=Mary Challons) (yeah, I know, it's about gay boys, but this is her best; Alexander and Hephaistion's relationship felt familiar and thrilling. I read this book and thought, If I could write a book as this one day, I'll know I haven't wasted my life)
(Extra)Ordinary People (short science fiction by Joanna Russ, with what to me is probably the most fun hey-gender-is-a-game story ever, "The Mystery of the Young Gentlemen")
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (the only fiction of Woolf's I've read and enjoyed--her non-fiction is great--the story of a woman who is a man and a woman and a man etc. and yet manages to remains her(him)self throughout)
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeannette Winterson (a first novel, and, in my opinion, her best--unselfconscious, committed, touching, wickedly funny, and full of Northern English dykeness, which I'd never seen written about at book-length before)
A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, by Amy Bloom (short fiction about love between various people in various situations--much of it lesbian, but not all; I don't like her other stuff very much, though)
The Needle on Full, Caroline Forbes (short science fiction, written very much from the late 70s/early 80s lesbian feminist milieu and extrapolated therefrom--but wrenching, in parts, and fun in others, and much better written than, er, certain US dyke sf of the time)
Benefits, Zoe Fairburns (this was a very scary book when I read it, in the early 80s, much scarier and more realistic than, say, The Handmaid's Tale, but less grim, too; I enjoyed the book and will reread it one day)
Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule (this was probably the first Real Fiction by and about a lesbian that I ever read; it made me sit up and think, "Okay, this is the goal, then"--also it has a happy ending)
Trash, Dorothy Allison (talk about emotionally naked. Wow. As I read I kept thinking, You can *do* that in fiction?? you're *allowed*?? A good lesson in the outlawry required to Really Go There in writing.)
Moll Cutpurse, by Ellen Galford (pure fun, the story of Moll Cutpurse--rogue, dyke, slapstick humourist in the sixteenth century: there's love, gypsies, theatre, plague, and lots of high jinks--and nicely written throughout)
Hothead Paisan, by Diane DiMassa (angry, funny, true, frightening, wicked, delicious comic book about a dyke--and her cat, Chicken--who has a caffeine-fuelled rage against the world)
Les Guérillères, Monique Wittig (the first theory-as-fiction I'd read, and it worked--it changed my understanding of Normal and Other, and alerted me to the existence of a whole body of theoretical work I'd never suspected)
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (a sexually friendly utopian novel--or not, depending on your POV; this was the first Buffy-is-really-in-the asylum novel I ever read; another novel, Small Changes, is also very good)
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a collection of science fiction stories by James Tipree Jr (aka Raccona Sheldon, real name=Alice Sheldon; some of these pieces will rip your heart out; some will make you think; some will help you see the world anew. Tiptree does love and science, dire warnings and the real world in equal measure, and she has no peer)
Walk to the End of the World, and Motherlines, by Suzy Mckee Charnas (all about dykes and gay boys by an ostensibly straight writer--but she gets it right. I couldn't have written Ammonite if this book, and work by Tiptree and Le Guin and Russ, hadn't come first; it's unsettling, not to say terrible in places, but not claustrophobic like Atwood's dystopia, and a ripping good read)
Twilight Girls, by Paula Christian (two novels about lesbian lurve in the 50s or 60s, poignant and anguished in that delicious thank-god-it's-not-me way)
The Work of a Common Woman, by Judy Grahn (I loved the strength of this poetry, along with the acknowledgement of the possibility of frailty)
The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone (non-fiction; I've no idea how relevent it would be today, it's one of the few books on this list I haven't reread, but it was an early, elegant, impassioned and intellectually rigourous--or at least appeared that way to me--headlock forcing me to pay attention to feminism and its underpinnings)
New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (she writes about nature, and her response to it, with awe that inspires awe in me; almost as good as walk in the woods)
My Ántonia, by Willa Cather (I understood instantly that though this novel of the nineteenth century prairie was ostensibly narrated by a man it was a lesbian novel through and through; it made me yearn for...something, I still don't know what)
Six of One, by Rita Mae Brown (this, I think, is RMB's best novel--funny (like Florence King, but without the nastiness) and mature, with a plot, and acknowledgement that not all dykes are the same)
• E.M. Forster's short fiction (yeah, gay--and pretty subtextual at that--but it felt like the things I'd felt, it meant something, and "The Machine Stops" is an excellent SF cautionary tale on the dangers of shutting out the real world)
• Sappho (I've read a zillion versions of these poetry fragments and prefer Mary Bernard's translation; good poetry is like climbing a mountain, or reaching that ecstatic part of a hymn as the sun is setting and pouring through the stained glass window: it's like understanding the entire world at once, like swallowing god)
Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (the first novel I remember carrying even to the toilet: I wouldn't let it go until it was done; the first novel about which I remember thinking, "Now if I could do *this*...")
• the OED (what, you thought I could get through a whole post without mentioning the fount of everything?)
Kindred, by Octavia Butler (this is the novel that taught me most, taught me viscerally, about race in America--and, by extension, the UK; read it)
• Sir John Masefield's poetry, various sagas, and Homer (I'm a wide-screen kinda gel, love those epics and exotics, and this is where I learnt that love)
She, by Rider Haggard (the next step in exotic adventure, and, oh, I wanted Ayesha, I wanted her, all that power and loveliness, and she was rich, too)
Brazzaville Beach, William Boyd (the book that taught me you could fuck with time and POV; Slow River would not exist without this novel)
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (I read this when I was ten--most of it went over my head, of course, but when I was done I had begun to grope my way towards and understanding of History and how it worked)
A Shortened History of England, by G. H. Trevelyan (this history was written in the 40s, way before academics got so careful they wouldn't speculate at all--it's conversational, stirring, brilliantly written and, even though I know parts of it are wrong--moulded my notion of the formation of my native land)
The Golden Strangers, by Henry Treece--anything by Treece, really, I just picked this one at random (his novels are set in England in times past, anything from the bronze age to the Vikings; he writes of woad and wood, mist and menhirs; he eschews the Great Man view of history for scrappy, gritty realism that, at the same time, feels majestic and mystical; from Treece I first learnt that history happened--and is happening now--to real people)
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (this novel about the formation of Merlin is still one of the best historical-with-fantasy fictions I've ever read; I can smell it, see it, taste it, understand the whys and hows; fabulous)
Asterix the Gaul, by Goscinny and Uderzo--trans. by Anthea Bell, though sometimes I read the French (hey, it's a comic, it's not hard...)
Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (my first brush with any kind of counter-culture, read as a teenager; I loved it, though haven't seen any of it for fifteen years)

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