What books would you rescue from a burning building?

There are novels you read over and over again, books that seems to resonate through you, novels you’d brave fire for. Blogger Alison-Goodman calls them talisman books, those “that ward off the disappointments and insecurities of everyday life.”

There are probably three talisman books I’d rescue from a burning building.
Burning books you'd rescueThe ones I would save

1) Epic dreams

My dogeared paperback copy of Lord of the Rings – yes, I know the book is replaceable easily enough, it isn’t as if it’s out of print or anything like that, and anyway I could probably quote you the entire damned book chapter and verse if you asked.  But sometimes it isn’t JUST THE BOOK.

And this book – broken-spined, tattered, beloved – this book was probably one of the first thing that made me kneel at the altar of fantasy and begin SERIOUS worship there. Tolkien made me realize that the big epic dreams that crowded my imagination were FOR REAL, and were valuable. This book is the physical embodiment of that realization for me. It’s a talisman, not just because of its identity but because of what it represents, the kind of hugeness and wonder and awe and the way it made me cognisant of my place in this world.

2) I’d like to say … 

I’d like to say “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay, because it’s one of the best BOOKS I’ve ever read, genre quite aside, the writing and the story make this book amazing for me, and so does the visceral emotional connection I feel to the underlying themes of the book.

I’d like to say “Nine Princes in Amber”, the now out-of-print paperback edition that made Roger Zelazny lift his eyebrows in utter astonishment when I gave it to him to sign and ask me where on earth I’d got that copy because it had been out of print for YEARS – because of the legacy that Zelazny left me during the writing workshop which he presided over and which I had the privilege to attend (in the year that he died).

I might, in fact, say all too many names and hesitate before my bookshelf too long and burn up with my beloved books before I could decide which of the novels on the shelf would be worth the saving.

In the end I might reach for a volume of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, because all stories live inside that book, and I could read them and dream up the rest of a lost world by his tropes.

3) My grandfather’s scribbles

My third choice would be a book that’s irreplaceable. It’s a really disreputable ancient and ill-favored old-fashioned hardcover book with dull gray covers which give nothing away and which have been chipped away at the corners and on the spine – a broken down book, loved well long before I had my hands on it, with scribbled commentary in the margins and on the bottom of the pages. You’d think it was worthless if you set eyes on it; you might expect to see it for ten cents at a yard sale and probably wouldn’t take it if it was pressed into your hands for nothing at all. You’d think it had no value beyond being something to start a bonfire with.

You’d be wrong.

This is the book that lived beside my grandfather’s bed, the book that he read and re-read and re-read, the scribbles in the margins are his thoughts, and in his hand. He’s been gone more than twenty years. He’ll never speak to me again except through this book, and I WOULD go through fire to get it.

Those are talisman books in the purest and most glittering sense of the word. There are many many books that I love, and have adored over the years.

There were the books which drew my tears – “Les Miserables”, Howard Spring’s “My Son, My Son”, Karl May’s “Winnetou” (although it took me YEARS to unlearn all the “facts” I though I knew about the American Indian culture in general and the Apache in particular after I finished reading his work). Others include Jack London’s “Call of the Wild”, almost ANYTHING by Ursula le Guin, a book not many people reading this will have heard of but whose title translates as “The Time of Death” by a writer of my own tongue and tribe by the name of Dobrica Cosic and another book by one of my own, Ivo Andric’s “Bridge on the Drina”.

Lest you should think that I spent my entire reading life weeping, there are books that drew my laughter – Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, T. H. White’s “Once and Future King”.

And there are the comfort books I return to because I have loved them and  because I know them and because if I am tired or ailing, I know I can go back to them and find solace there – “Song of Arbonne”, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, “Shadow of the Moon” by M. M. Kaye or any fat historical novel by Sharon Penman (but particularly “Here Be Dragons”), Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible”, lots of stuff by Pearl Buck, books by Henryk Sienkiewicz, John Galsworthy, Boris Pasternak, Nikos Kazantzakis, Daphne du Maurier. Of more recent vintage, Catherynne Valente whose poetic vision enthralls me or Neil Gaiman whose dark and sardonically twisted tales and characters draw me in and China Mieville whose surgical command of the English language leaves me breathless and humbled.

I am a certified bookworm, rarely without a book halfway through somewhere in the house, often several in different parts of the house. And if I’m not reading them, I’m writing them.

4) What I am

Would you forgive me if I added #4 to my Talisman Book list, above? One of my own, a hardcover edition of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, the book to remind me what I am,  what the culmination is of all the gifts that all my other books have poured like gems into my waiting spirit.

The truth is that I haven’t actually re-read the whole thing, not once, since it was first published. Possibly I am too afraid to, afraid of what I will find within those pages whose origins lie so deep within myself, afraid of all the things I will possibly – no, probably – find in there that I would have done differently, or would change even now if I could. But even if I never read those words that I wrote again in their entirety I’ll take a copy with me. And show it to people, after, if I lose the power of speech and they ask me who or what I am. Because that is what I am. Will always be. I am the creator of THIS THING, this book, this collection of words, this story… this talisman.

I am someone who loves books. Someone who loves reading them, who grew up to live and breathe writing them. A once-and-future writer – with hands and spirit overflowing with the talismans of language, of words. Someone who was lucky enough to have had poetry poured into my soul when I was just a child, and who was allowed to wander through the wild wood of story unfettered and free to taste of whatever fruit or stream I could find. I grew up in an  Eden of Word – and I still live there today.

With all my talismans safe beside me.

So – what are YOUR talisman books?

Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?- Eileen Gunn

More from Wired HERE


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To Kill a Zombie

At Lit Hub, Rebecca Solnit offers a thoughtful essay entitled

80 Books No Woman Should Read

She doesn’t actually offer such a list. The essay is in response to an Esquire list a few years ago, ‘The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read‘, that keeps “rising from the dead like a zombie to haunt the Internet.”

Woman Reading photoPhoto: DreamsTime.com

The list made me think there should be another, with some of the same books, called 80 Books No Woman Should Read, though of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty

“Scanning the (Esquire) list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness.”

If you’d like to read the whole essay at the Lit Hub site, see the link at the end of this post.

At Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel offers us an infographicTolkien On Writing illustration

I just took a 30-question quiz on Tolkien and got 29 right. So OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a fanatic. (If you are a fellow fanatic, drop me a note and I’ll direct you to the quiz.)

But you don’t have to have a copy of ‘Lord of the Rings‘ that’s so well-read it’s held together by elastic bands to enjoy this infographic.

A link to the whole infographic can be found at the end of this post.

Another story at Lit Hub is an interview by Euan Monaghan with Ursula K. Le Guin, an author I greatly admire and whose influence is evident in my own books.

Most particularly when she says,

Like Joan of Arc, I’m hearing voices!”Ursula Le Guin photo

From the interview which first appeared in Structo Magazine:

Q: Lavinia was your most recent novel. It’s an interesting book to come at this point in your career. I’m interested to know how it came about.

Ursula: I’m not sure how it came about. Okay: I’m reading the Aeneid in Latin very, very, very slowly, with my high school Latin revived as best as I could; sort of chewing my way through. On about the third page of [Lavinia], Lavinia begins talking—“I don’t know who I am. I know who I was,” you know? That paragraph just came and I wrote it down. Like Joan of Arc, I’m hearing voices! I knew who it was, but not quite what was going on—she just went on telling me things, so, okay, I know I’m getting one of these dictated books.

...It was a very odd experience. I wasn’t choosing the way as an author, I was taking dictation, as it were—finding the story as it happened. More and more I realize that in my writing I just find out what happens next. It’s an exploration. I’m not following a mapped road; I’m following a road but I don’t always know where it goes. ...

You can find a link to the whole interview at Lit Hub at the end of this post.

QUOTE of the DayAllende Quote poster

It’s always been like this in my household, since I was VERY young. I was allowed to find my own level. In a house with lots of books, no book was forbidden – if I had the maturity to understand and enjoy it I could read it. If I wasn’t ready for it that took care of itself because I would just lose interest and abandon it. It’s what made me into who I am today, this freedom to read.


To Kill a Zombie….at Lit Hub HERE
Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers … at Electric Literature HERE
Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin at Lit Hub HERE

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When Booksellers Speak

The BuzzFeed staff has assembled 21 witty bookstore signs like this one.
Booksellers SpeakSee all the others HERE

What did they find in SubTropolis?

This story caught my eye because they delved deep under Kansas City, and I had to wonder — did they wake the dread thing that lies under the earth?

It would be a lesser Lord of the Rings fan than me who did not look upon this underground realm and not have this conversation instantly leap to the forefront of my mind:

“Ai! Ai!”wailed Legolas. A Balrog! A Balrog is come!”

Gimli stared with wide eyes. “Durin’s Bane!” he cried, and letting his axe fall, he covered his face.

“A Balrog,” muttered Gandalf. “Now I understand.”

For those of you not wholly versed in Tolkien lore, a little later Legolas elucidates:”It was a Balrog of Morgoth,” said Legolas, “of all elf-banes the most deadly, save the One who sits in the Dark Tower.”

If I should visit SubTropolis I would be looking over my shoulder constantly for the creature of shadow and fire with his deadly sword… for I have always been an Elf-friend, and the monster would smell their presence in me, and it would be a perilous place for me. But I digress…

Welcome to the SubTropolis of Kansas City

Patrick Clark writes at Boomberg.com about the hundreds of people who spend their workdays in an excavated mine the size of 140 football fields buried under Kansas City.
SubTropolisJourney to the center of the earth—or at least, to EarthWorks, a place where kids learn about the Midwest’s natural habitats. One of the many businesses in SubTropolis. Photographs by Connie Zhou/Bloomberg Business

The walls of SubTropolis are carved out of 270-million-year-old limestone deposits and help keep humidity low and temperatures at a constant 68 degrees, eliminating the need for air conditioning or heating.

Read the whole story HERE

And THIS caught my attention because it is the stuff of fantasy novels.

Chiara Vigo: The last woman in the world who makes sea silk
Sea Silk 1Photographs by Andrea Pasquali

Sea Silk 2At the BBC, Max Paradiso Sardinia reports that while silk is usually made from the cocoons spun by silkworms, there is another, much rarer, cloth known as sea silk or byssus, which comes from a clam. Byssus is mentioned on the Rosetta stone and said to have been found in the tombs of pharaohs. Chiara Vigo is thought to be the only person left who can harvest it, spin it and make it shine like gold.

Read the whole story HERE

13 Bookish Movies

“As book lovers, we tend to be skeptical about film adaptations,” Tolani Osan writes at Off the Shelf, “but we are fans of both the thirteen books on this list and their cinematic counterparts. Read the book, then stream the movie.”

One example:

One DayOne Day, by David Nicholls:

Emma and Dexter meet by chance the day they graduate from college. We meet them on the anniversary of that day for the next twenty years.

At its heart, this is a story about what we hope for and how our lives actually play out. David Nicholls wrote the novel and the script of the charming film.





See the other 12 books and flicks HERE

Found in a Junk Shop: Secrets of an Undiscovered Visionary Artist

MessyNessy reports on the extraordinary story of Charles Dellschau, known in his lifetime only as the grouchy local butcher.

His story is one shrouded in mystery, almost lost forever, intertwined with secret societies, hidden codes, otherworldly theories and seemingly impossible inventions before his time. Unseen for decades and salvaged by a junk dealer in the 1960s from a trash heap outside a house in Texas, his entire body of work would later go on to marvel the intellectual world.
Charles Dellschau 2Charles Dellschau

He had arrived in the United States at 25 years old from Hamburg in 1853, MessyNessy reports, and worked as a butcher.

After his retirement in 1899, he took to filling his days by filling notebooks with a visual journal of his youth. He called the first three books, Recollections, and recounts a secret society of flight enthusiasts which met in California in the mid-19th century called the ‘Sonora Aero Club’.


Read the whole fascinating story HERE



Harvard researchers say light-emitting ebooks lead to next-day grogginess


Orcs of New York Facebook Page Attracts Over 52,000 ‘Likes’

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20 Serial Killers?

Unh… 20 Killer Series?

It’s satisfying to have a stand-alone book. When you are writing it, that’s the story, and when you’re done you’re done. You can go onto something else without a qualm of conscience.

But series are something else again. They don’t let you go. With the first book, they open the door just a crack. But when you come inside, you realise that there are more doors waiting for you, and it’s irresistible, you can’t NOT open them to see what happens next.

My first series was inadvertent – a 250,000-word novel was picked up by a publisher who demanded that it be split into two more manageable volumes. That became “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days”.

After that, I wrote what was essentially two stand-alone novels which were set in the same world, but 400 years apart – “Secrets of Jin-shei” and “Embers of Heaven”.

And then I stepped into the series world.

The Worldweavers books were born in the aftermath of the Harry Potter mania, and happened when I heard Jane Yolen say that she wasn’t at all sure that she liked the way the Potter books treated girls. And I was off and running with Thea Winthrop and her adventures. That series was a trilogy for the longest time and then I wrote the fourth and final book in the Worldweavers canon. “Dawn of Magic” was published in 2015.

My latest series, also YA, is The Were Chronicles – “Random”, “Wolf”, “Shifter”. The genesis of these books was an anthology about the Were creatures for which I sat down to try and write a story… and discovered that my idea was far too big to fit into a short story mold. It wanted to be a novel. And then it wanted to be THREE novels. And it is possible that the ramifications of those three novels may mean that it eventually becomes SIX novels.

Series. They never let you go.

The Book Depository has come up with their list ofTop 20 SeriesIt rounds up the usual suspects: Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Harry Potter…

What would you add, or subtract, from their list?

Best series ever? HERE


Wolf Cover


WOLF, Book 2 in The Were Chronicles, is now available as an ebook on Amazon.

Other online vendors to follow.




Buy it at Amazon HERE


My first book – the very very first book I sold – was a collection of new-minted fairy tales which were a cross between Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde. The three stories eventually became “The Dolphin’s Daughter”, a book that went into NINE PRINTINGS and still gave me a trickle of royalties more than ten years after it was first published, which speaks volumes about the power of the fairy tale. So I do have a vested interest in the area.

At io9, Charlie Jane Anders offers
10 Books That Will Change How You Think About Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are everywhere these days, she says. They rival superheroes at the movies and TV, and novelists rush to create their own darker, more relevant versions. But how well do you really know fairy tales? Do you know this one?

Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls by Jane Yolen
Jane YolenThe prolific Jane Yolen has been called America’s Hans Christian Andersen, and with this book she hunts down great folktales from around the world and presents them for young readers.

Read the whole story HERE

25 Genre Novels That Should be Classics

At Flavor Wire, Emily Temple notes that there’s a stigma that keeps worthy works of genre fiction (mostly SF/fantasy, with a little historical, mystery and crime thrown in) from reaching classic status: being taught in high schools, appearing on all-time best-book lists, etc.

Some genre novels have already crossed the border into pure classic territory — Brave New World, Slaughterhouse-Five and 1984, for example. Here are 25 genre novels that should be considered classics.

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem



Lem’s weird, surrealist space novel is a classic of sorts for those in the know, but epidemically under-read.

The book vacillates between beautifully ruminative and action-packed exciting, as the inhabitants of a space station deal with the clones of their loved ones that the sentient planet they’re on continually sends their way. Also, best depiction of an alien sea that has ever been committed to print.



Read the whole story HERE


Uhtceare: An Old English word meaning ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying.’

9 other Old English Words You Need to Be Using

Literacy Falling From The Sky In Brazil!

In a part of the world where most adults don’t have books, it’s highly unlikely the kids will as well. Enter the “Stories In The Sky Project”. Brazilian writers donated stories and the stories were than printed on kites and handed out to kids. They would fly the kites and at some point, would cut the string and let the story kites fall to the ground where other kids could pick them up and enjoy the stories. Then those kids would start the process over again. What a brilliant way to give kids the opportunity to read!

See video HERE

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Whence fantasy?

I was born on the same continent that gave us the stories, legends, myths, and fairy tales that underlie things like Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Wheel of Time, and, hell yeah why not, Game of Thrones (yeah, Khal Drogo. But the Dothraki have a definite patina of Here Be Exotics…)

Those, and more, and any number of EFPs (Extruded Fantasy Product).

The definition of classical fantasy rests on people taking long journeys on tree-lined dirt roads with European seasons hanging in the tree tops and the clouds, and stopping for bathroom breaks in generic Ye Olde Inns with ale on tap and the generic stew bubbling in a cauldron over the fire. It is entirely surprising that Europe never ran out of rabbits, the amount of stews that were on the boil all the time. And we won’t talk about the Magic Potatoes which make their way into European stews while their real life counterparts still existed only in Hy Breasil or whatever they called that land far beyond the western ocean…

The thing accepted as and feted as classic fantasy is rich but it has been very well mined. And so it is not surprising that so many readers are looking for places and things and stories which *they haven’t seen before* — the “silk road” fantasy oeuvre. Anything that isn’t obviously rooted in the cheerfully misrepresented and romanticized European High Middle Ages.

Embers of Heaven


I didn’t set out to write that, but my “Secrets of Jin Shei” and “Embers of Heaven” were set THERE, a mythical land inspired by imperial China rather than anywhere closer to home.

Yes, it made things more difficult because there was THAT much more research that needed to be done before I could be comfortable telling a story set in a milieu so distant from my own cultural heritage.





Similarly, my Worldweavers books take place in the U.S. and are infused with Native American myths. And my new series, The Were Chronicles, invokes modern life in The New World by Weres far distant from their ancient European roots.

But dammit, it’s worth it, when the resulting stories shine with a brighter glow. It is ALL our world, after all, and it is high time some cultural shut-ins learned that there is more out there than just stew in inns crewed by the likes of jolly red-cheeked Butterbur of Bree.

Speaking from the inevitably Euro-based divide that dictates standards of beauty – which is all too prevalent, in both fantasy and Real Life (TM) – It is high time that it was accepted that a woman whose heritage is South East Asian or Central African, rather than red-haired Celtic, can, should, and must be called beautiful too – and may step up to the adventure gate in her own right.

It is high time that we looked at “other” and saw something worthy of curiosity and honor and respect rather than just the differences that frighten and repel and lead to dehumanization and slaughter. It is high time we all learned… how to  be human together. It is time the OTHER stories get told. Make room by the fire, there – those of you who have had plenty of chances to speak – and learn how to listen, instead.

Paul Weirmer explores the same thing at SF Signal

Silk Road Fantasy and Breaking the Great Wall of Europe

Wolf on the Steppes


Tired of nearly every secondary world fantasy being set in a world that seems to borrow only from Medieval Europe, especially Western Europe? Most especially Northwestern Europe (England, France, perhaps the Low Countries)? … So am I. And I’d like to tell you about fantasy that transcends that barrier.


Read the Article

From Stand-Up to Twitter, a New Generation’s Fresh Take on Storytelling

If we make it through this time of climate crisis and economic upheaval, the new storytellers will deserve some of the credit, Sarah van Gelder writes at Yes! Magazine.

The new storytellers are writers, poets, musicians, documentarians, radio producers, and others who are reporting the story of a new world being built around the frayed edges of the old….a new society is emerging from the bottom up, born of the hopes and hard work of many people who have been excluded from the old society and who yearn for a more just and life-affirming world.

arundhatiArundhati Roy said it beautifully at the World Social Forum in 2003: “Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe.”


Read the Article

Every cliche you know about a woman’s handbag is probably true.

I am just SO not a fashion bunny, not the Duchess of Cambridge who has to have a matching bag and shoes. I have been carrying the same damn bag – season in, season out – for, uh, well, yeah, years.

The other day I decided that I  wanted a change, hauledl out another bag, and started to transfer stuff.

Ho. Ly. Cow.

I found receipts in there dated. 2013. 2012 … 2008, and some so faded that they were blank. At the very bottom of the bag there was a folded piece of paper which was the itinerary for when my aunt came over to visit from Europe… almost four years ago.

There was a charger for a defunct cellphone, and a silver cigarette lighter engraved to my Dad for winning a chess toiurnament which I nicked just after he died as a memento fully intending to put it somewhere safe when i got home. My father has been gone for almost a year now.

I felt a little like Mary Poppins, half convinced that the next thing I was going to pull out was a Tiffany floor lamp.

Speaking of Mary Poppins…
Mary PoppinsAunt Sass in fiction … Julie Andrews in the 1964 film of Mary Poppins. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

The real-life model for Mary Poppins will be published this autumn

The tale of ‘stern and tender’ Aunt Sass appears in a PL Travers story originally written as a private Christmas gift, Alison Flood writes in The Guardian. The resemblance to Travers’ most famous creation, the nanny whose spoonful of sugar made the medicine go down for the Banks children, is no coincidence.

Travers writes in the previously unpublished story about the moment she heard of her aunt’s death. “I thought to myself, ‘Some day, in spite of her, I shall commit the disrespectful vulgarity of putting Aunt Sass in a book.’ And then it occurred to me that this had already been done, though unconsciously and without intent. We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit. I suddenly realised that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet,” wrote the author. “You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins.”

Read the Article

Sergeant Milunka Savic stands her ground

In 1912, when Milunka Savic was 24, her brother was called up to serve in the first Balkan War, Therese Oneill writes at Mental Floss.

We’re not sure if Milunka took his place or just went along, but we do know that she assumed a male identity and became a highly decorated soldier in the Serbian army.

Sergeant Milunka SavicShe apparently kept her gender a secret through the First Balkan War and into the Second, when a Bulgarian grenade wounded her so severely that her gender was revealed to the field surgeons.

Sgt. Savic was called before her commanding officer. They didn’t want to punish her, because she had proven a valuable and highly competent soldier. The military deployment that had resulted in her gender being revealed had been her tenth. But neither was it suitable for a young woman to be in combat. She was offered a transfer to the Nursing division.

Savic stood at attention and insisted she only wanted to fight for her country as a combatant. The officer said he’d think it over and give her his answer the next day.

Still standing at attention, Savic responded, “I will wait.”

It is said he only made her stand an hour before agreeing to send her back to the infantry.

She fought for Serbia through World War I, receiving honors from several different governments for her distinguished service. Some believe her to be the most decorated female in the history of warfare. She was decommissioned in 1919 and fell into a life of relative obscurity and hardship. She died in Belgrade in 1973 at the age of 84.

Read the Article

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What did your first tweet say?

My first tweet wasn’t exactly profound.

“Hello world”

was all it said.

Flavorwire looked up “The First Tweets of 25 Writers We Love” and none of them were actually profound, but some some were … er, interesting. For example:

I did it. I’m here. Consider this a trial period, like a trial separation, or bisexuality. If I’m not famous in three months, I’m gone.— Rachel Shukert

hi, i’m gary shteyngart, a furry 39-year-old immigrant man trapped in a young dachshund’s body. LOVE ME!!!!!!!!!!! http://t.co/RgLBxjYO— Gary Shteyngart 

First author tweets


I bet you didn’t know that….

Tom SawyerVia books.simonandschuster.com.au

‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ is the first book written with a typewriter.


A  Christmas CarolCharles Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in six weeks.


50 booksJ.R.R. Tolkien typed the entire ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy with two fingers.

Justin Carissimo of BuzzFeed offers us “50 Books You’ll Never Read The Same Way Again” after reading these odd facts.

Believe it or not


22 Strong Female Characters In Literature We All Wanted To Be

BuzzFeed recently asked their editors “Who was the first strong female character in literature you related to?”

If I had to pick from their choices, I’d go with Jo March from Little Women.

Out of AfricaBut I was struck by the illustration from Out of Africa. Karen Blixen’s book has always spoken to me because of its powerful opening line:


“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”


Since the first time I met Karen Blixen, I’ve been transfixed by that first line. This is someone writing from love and memory, a sentence steeped in the scent of regret and remembrance, looking back at something forever lost.

My own foothold in Africa was not a coffee plantation on the slopes of a Kenyan mountain – but I walked those metaphorical dusty roads anyway. I touched Africa, and it touched me, and there is a mark where it touched me which will never go away again.

An essay I wrote about it some time ago is linked below if you are interested.

But first check out BuzzFeed’s choices of strong fictional characters. What is your favorite?

Strong females in literature

And then read my essay on Africa HERE


Wow, Kelly Barnhill’s blog posts always leave me awed.

 “When Light Balances Dark: on wrong numbers, new life, certain death, and the slumbering spark.”

 Balance the unbalanceable


How Mark Twain became Mark Twain

Mark TwainBen Tarnoff tells the amazing story of the lectures that made Twain a superstar. He was broke, tired of being a freelancer and bored in California. One trip and some lectures changed everything.

Mark Twain, superstar


Never Before Uttered

“Last week a former Royal Marine who is the boyfriend of the model Kelly Brooks crashed into a bus stop while driving a van carrying a load of dead badgers.”

 “I mention this, “Geoffrey K. Pullum writes in Language Log, “solely to remind you that linguists are not kidding when they say … that your command of English enables you to understand sentences that have never occurred before in the entire history of the human species.”


 Never Before Uttered


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 “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” ―Nora Ephron


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The books that shaped a writer

John Scalzi uses a personal milestone, the 12th anniversary of his first pro publication in Science Fiction, to write about the works of Science Fiction and Fantasy that shaped his life and career.

I’m impressed that he knows the exact anniversary of his very first pro publication. I’ve been writing since Methuselah was a boy and I don’t even know what my first pro published story was never mind when it was. Writing has always been a part of my life.

But there were, of course, formative works in the genre in which I write. So here are mine,  a random number in random order. These are the things that mattered to me when I was growing up and learning to live and love and write.

1. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R.Tolkien

tolkien, LOTR cover 2This is the cover of the paperback edition I own of the full trilogy in one wrist-breaking volume. This is a book which has been LOVED, my friends. I have read and re-read it until I know it by heart. I can get lost in it. And every time I think I can go back and figure out what it is about this world and the way that Tolkien rendered it that makes it so deeply magical for me I fail at that task miserably because by the second chapter I’m into it again, the story closes over my head, and analysis becomes irrelevant.

In today’s world of fast food and fast fixes, many readers say that they ‘can’t get into’ LOTR because it is too dense or too complex or too slow or too *somethihg*. There can be no greater recommendation than someone calling a book “complex”. I can have shallow any day – I am frequently SWIMMING in it – newspaper headlines reeking of selfishness and greed, bestsellers such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” – I need my dose of complex to survive it all. And LOTR delivers on that. It has always delivered.

This is the thing that taught me that an imaginary world can be more real than reality could ever be. This is the kind of thing that made me WANT to create worlds of my own. Tolkien once spoke of “desiring dragons with a deep desire” – well, his story made me desire to write one of my own, with just as much depth and substance, with a desire fully equal to his own for his dragons. This book taught me to dream with my eyes open.

We will NOT talk about the movies.

2. The Amber Chronicles, Roger Zelazny

AmberIt’s way too long ago now for me to remember details, but at some point I received a box of books which contained, amongst other things, the five books that now form the First Amber Chronicles. The illustration, above, is of the first book in that series. I was a teenager, young, inexperienced, still searching for direction, when I cracked open “Nine Princes in Amber”… and fell in love.

I was astonished by so many things in these books. The fact that they fyve books interlocked and made a seamless whole – which ended, in the final volume, at the very place where the first volume began. It was possible to simply put the fifth book down and start reading again from the beginning (which I did…) and realise immediately that one was now reading a different story, because of all the background knowledge that had been gained from that first innocent “cold” read. The complexity of the story – are we starting to see a pattern here? – blew me away, the realism of characters born of pure undiluted fantasy fascinated me; the whole idea of the Family Tarot Pack and all that it represented made me positively giddy.

Amber satisfied so many different longings that it is almost impossible to be coherent about any of it.

From that moment on Zelazny was a must-read author and I gathered up his books zealously until I owned an entire shelf of them. He wasn’t ALWAYS transcendent, but when he was good he was brilliant and a complete nonpareil and he quickly became one of my personal literary gods.

I was fortunate enough to meet him, only a few months before he died. I brought THAT book, the first Amber book, in that oriignal well-loved paperback edition, for him to sign. He took it into his hands and turned it this way and that, looking genuinely mystified for a moment and then asked me just how long I’d HAD that particular volume because that edition had been out of print for years. (He told me other things, too. Things I greatly treasure. But that’s another story…)

Amber. How I love Amber. Its weird architecture, its dysfunctional family, the possibility that hero might turn into villain and vice versa, that you never really knew what you could expect next, the sense of storied history and legend that underlay it all, the beauty and the occasional ugly betrayal, the glory and the sorrows. All of it. How did this change and inform my own writing? It made me realize there is ALWAYS something going on behind the curtain, and that it is an author’s gift to his or her readers not to reveal EVERYTHING. A little mystery matters.

3. Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay

TiganaI don’t actually remember if this was the first book by Guy Gavriel Kay that I ever read, although it might have been. I know that I’ve had a couple of favorites since “Tigana” – “A Song for Arbonne”, for instance, or “Lions of Al-rassan” – and I know that I consider him a master of the historical fantasy genre.

But “Tigana” was one the best books I have ever read. Not genre, I go beyond that Anne McCaffrey blurb on the cover. Yes, it was a great fantasy – but its power, for me, lay in its stark and raw TRUTH.

I don’t know how a white middle-aged Canadian male knows what it means to lose your country, your soul, the core of your being… but he does. Oh, he does.

“Tigana” ripped my heart out because it viscerally conveyed something that I could not believe that anyone could understand about me — the fact that I am adrift because my anchor has been destroyed.

The country I was born in no longer exists; it has been dismemembered into several sqaubbling warring statelets, some of whom would sooner cut my head off than admit that I was once a part of the same nation as they were. And just like the fabled Tigana of this story, there will come a time when living memory will fail and nobody will remember any more the land in which I was born, in which I grew up and learned to see the world, to love people and places, to dream big dreams. I find myself remembering a place which simply no longer exists, which is as much of a fantasy as any novel, and it’s *my own past*. And this is the thing that “Tigana” touched so deeply, in so raw a fashion – it made me scream and weep and sob and pray.

Some day I can only hope that I can write something with the power of this book.

4. Dune, Frank Herbert

DuneI wrote about “Dune” already, here – I invite you to go read that in its entirety. But – hey – pattern – why did I fall in love with this book? Can you say “complexity”? “Depth”? A sense of three-dimensional truth that informed the very fabric of it – sure, perhaps none of this was true, none of this could ever be, but dear GOD it felt like it was.

How did it inform my own writing…? Well, aside from the obvious (this was a masterclass in worldbuilding…) here’s what I said in that article I linked to, above:

“The themes of this work are enormous and wide-ranging — from Machiavellian politics to ecological change and its consequence, to mystical religious transformation. Many of these ideas took me years to fully take in — fourteen or fifteen is far too young for some of the ramifications, unless you’re one of Paul Muad’dib’s children — but they have percolated through my own visions, since. When I wrote the desert sequences of The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, for instance, they may have owed much to what I knew of places such as Morocco, which are firmly in our own “real” world — but the roots of my own world, without the spice or the great worms or the sheer breadth of Herbert’s vision, are sunk deep into the mystic sands of Arrakis.”

Greatness matters. You know it when you see it. And I saw it, the first time I reached for a book called “Dune”.

5. Songmaster, Orscon Scott Card

SongmasterYes, I know. And it’s been a really long time since I’ve actually picked up anything by him at all; the last thing that I did was so preachy and stultifying that I couldn’t get into it at all. And even this particular book has its problems – but let me explain.

I read the first part of this book as a stand-alone story somewhere in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or the like, I don’t recall now, and I was shaken by its insight and its power and its beauty.

When the book came out, I bought it immediately – and yes, that first part, the part I had read before and loved, that part was still wonderful. The second part… had its moments, had its ideas and they were perfectly adequately explored…. but… it left me colder. The second half of the book had a whiff of Message to it, something the author wanted to Convey and to have the reader Understand. It jarred. It marred the beauty and the power of that first part, the part I had loved, the part that had moved me.

What did it teach me? That the author’s personal soapboxes really should go into storage when a work of fiction is attempted. Things work just fine if the author is exploring an idea and inviting the reader along on the journey. Things work less well when the author is convinced that he has already been to the place where this idea lives and has the maps and the blueprints to prove it. The author has grasped The Only True Truth and is going to TELL you about it, dammit, and you’d better accept it if you know what’s good for you.

It taught me not to think that I am in any way superior to my readers, or know more, or know better. I let THEM read into the story the things that I think I have put in there. I don’t bludgeon them with those things.

6 and beyond – “Elric of Melnibone” by Michael Moorcock; almost anything at all by Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Judith Tarr, Ray Bradbury, China Mieville, Tamora Pierce…

SO many books. SO little time. And I am still reading and learning, every day.

What books have shaped you?

Alma Alexander

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