What are you doing in my nativity scene?

Christmas is coming! Time for visiting family, wrapping presents, eating breads made out of various vegetable and fruit matter, and becoming less enraged at hearing Winter songs on the radio.

I've been a fan of Christmas for a long time. Something that helps me get in the mood (which Winter songs do not!...especially when they start playing them right after Hallowe'en) is reading books and watching movies about the Nativity. It's something I keep doing because I'm looking for those that will make me happy. The results have been mixed. There are good things and bad things - or should I say positive things and negative things - about each book and movie I've come across. I sometimes think I should institute an awards system. Like, the award for negative things could be called the Herod, and the award for positive things could be called the Frankincense, or something like that.

Anyway, here are my results so far. A lot of what I have to say focuses on portrayals of Mary, because she's one of my favorite people ever (in a non-mariolatrous way).

Christmas Books

Two from Galilee, by Marjorie Holmes (1972). My first grown-up Christmas book.

  • Mary is blonde.
  • It's been so long since I read this book that I don't remember much else about it. But I liked it well enough once upon a time to read it twice.

How Far to Bethlehem?, by Norah Lofts (1965).

  • Mary is very kind to animals in this book.
  • Mary is so very kind to animals, she could be a PETA poster child.
  • Too much time is spent on the wise men and their private torments as they converge on Bethlehem. I was privately tormented having to read about them. I don't think I finished the book.
Mary & Joseph, by Robert Marcus (2006). I listened to the audio book while driving across the desert one time.

  • Marcum did a lot of research on the customs and traditions of Jewish culture and the observance of Mosaic law during the time of the birth of the Savior, and it shows in this book.
  • According to Marcum's research, women - even pregnant ones - wouldn't have ridden donkeys back then; they would've walked. So much for that popular cultural image!
  • Contrary to what the title leads one to expect, too much time is spent on "filler" characters, like Joseph's work partner and his family, and not enough on Mary and Joseph.
  • Marcum skips over the Nativity!! I actually want to put about 50 exclamation points after that sentence. It's incomprehensible to me how you can say you're telling the story of Mary and Joseph, and then not focus on The Major Event of that story. He also skips over the annunciation. The basic main stuff about the Nativity is referred to only after the fact. Boo. This probably would have been my favoritest Christmas book ever if Marcum had not shirked his responsibility to his readers in that respect.

From what I understand, Bodie and Brock Thoene have written a series of books called The AD Chronicles, and three of them (Fourth Dawn, Fifth Seal, and Sixth Covenant) have to do with events surrounding the birth of Jesus. I'll have to look for these books and see how they measure up. One thing I've read about them that I find quizzical is that they call Jesus Yeshua, and they call Joseph Yosef, but they call Mary Mary. Why not Miriam? Eh? Why not?

Of course, for me Christmas isn't Christmas without Christmas movies. When I was a child I viewed as a child, with classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas, and several versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (including the one with Mr Magoo, which is probably my favorite). But as I grew older, I started looking for movies that told the real Christmas story. These are fewer in number and harder to come by, especially when you're looking for a combination of 1) authentic portrayal of the times; 2) accuracy (including doctrinal accuracy) of the story; 3) emotional resonance; and 4) good acting.

Christmas Movies

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Not really a Christmas movie, but it starts out with a few minutes devoted to the Nativity.

  • Dorothy McGuire as Mary. Don't get me wrong, I like Dorothy McGuire just fine. She was great as Helen in The Spiral Staircase. But, at the age of 49, she was about three times too old to be playing Mary.
  • Nothing really in the Christmas section of the movie, but I liked Janet Margolin as Mary, Martha's sister.

Jesus of Nazareth
(tv, 1977). Actually, not really a Christmas movie, either. But I watch the first two hours every Christmastime, and skip the rest.

Baby Jesus, out from under the carpet

  • Everything past the childhood of Jesus.
  • Everyone except Mary looks like they're dressed in industrial-strength draperies and carpet remnants.
  • We get to hear Gabriel's voice in Joseph's dream instructing him to take Mary as his wife because she really is telling the truth about where Jesus came from, but when Mary has her annunciation, there is no voice, no angel. Just a wind blowing open the shutter. Mary basically talks to herself there.
  • Mary otherwise has little to say throughout the film.
  • Poor little Jesus is born under some industrial-strength draperies and carpet remnants. Get him out of there, Joseph!
  • One of the wise men - the Zoroastrian one - sounds like he's been at the hashish.
  • The wise men, not Gabriel, warn Joseph to take Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem.
  • Mary and Joseph don't meet Anna at the temple.
  • Olivia Hussey makes a very beautiful Mary.
  • Mary has a cool braid in her hair.
  • Mary gets to say part of the Magnificat.
  • Mary and Joseph meet Simeon at the temple.
  • The wise men show up after Jesus has been presented at the temple, and not in tandem with the shepherds. They even hang out at the little house Mary and Joseph are living in, not at the stable.
  • It has Peter Ustinov as Herod shouting in a strained voice "Kill! Kill! Kill!"
  • Mary suffers labor pains while traveling on the donkey. This is positive in that it seems like an accurate portrayal, but negative in that, ever since I had children, it makes me uncomfortable.

The Nativity
(tv, 1978). When I first saw this back in the day, I liked it a lot. But either I was immature or the film has not aged well.

  • The costumes look like they're made from Sears bed sheets.
  • No angels appear to either Mary or Joseph, no voices, just bright lights.
  • When Mary tells her family about her circumstances, the ensuing dialogue sounds like they have decided to play How Many Times Can You Use the Word "Pregnant" in a Sentence in the Next Sixty Seconds.
  • The three wise men's story is weird. They're not so much following a star as they are following up rumors of charismatic Jewish political leaders. And, for some reason, they show up at Joseph and Mary's betrothal or wedding or birthday party or whatever, several months before they stop by at the Nativity.
  • Short sleeves on Mary. It just looks wrong.
  • The birth was as unbirthlike as possible while still producing a child. Okay, about that: Madeleine Stowe (who played Mary) said in an interview that, when they were filming the part in the stable, the director told her to just lie down in the straw. She asked him if he wanted her to show any pain or discomfort, and he said no, that she should just lie down. So I know who to blame. But...did you know that there are people who think Mary felt no pain when she gave birth? While looking up information about these movies, I came across a comment where someone was criticizing a documentary (that I haven't seen) about Mary by complaining about how annoying it was to be shown yet another woman in labor. This individual then went on to say that "it has been said in the Bible that Mary did not have labor pains during the birth of Jesus." It has been said? At one time or another? Okay, I'm looking in my Bible right now and it's more like it doesn't say anything about whether Mary had labor pains or not. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But...did you know there's an old legend that says Mary didn't actually give birth to Jesus at all? That she just lay down in the straw a la Madeleine Stowe, as comfy as you please, and then an angel descended and placed the infant Jesus in her lap?
  • Except for the "pregnant" scene, good acting overall.
  • Good acting by Madeleine Stowe. Her reaction to seeing Joseph after the sparkling water that passes for the annunciation in this film, her explanation to him of what has happened, and the expression on her face when he rejects her are all brilliant and stick in my memory.
  • Mary gets to say the Magnificat.

Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith
(tv, 1979)

  • Joseph joins the Zealots and keeps shaving off his beard.
  • Joseph and Mary argue politics.
  • Almost none of the story line is based on the biblical account.
  • Mary has a cool braid in her hair.
  • There's a moment, just after Jesus is born and the shepherds have come, when Mary is just a tiny bit reluctant to show Jesus to them, like she just wants to keep him as her own little baby boy for a bit longer. I don't know if she was really that way, but since seeing this film I've sometimes wondered. It reminds me of that line from "Mary's Lullaby": "for you are a king, but tonight you are mine."

Mary, Mother of Jesus (tv, 1999). Another not just a Christmas movie that I now watch only the first part of. Since this is about Mary more than anyone else (meaning there's a lot of invention in it), the Christmas story does get a pretty thorough going-over. In a sense.

  • Very modernized characterizations. Mary may indeed have been feisty and outspoken, but somehow this depiction of her doesn't seem realistic for the time period.
  • Jesus' teachings originated in Mary's bedtime stories to him? Right.
  • Mary isn't relegated to a background role.
  • Joseph is a pretty cool guy, although somewhat older than I believe he was.
  • Joseph and Mary don't argue politics.
  • That's about it.

The Nativity Story (2006). My new favorite Christmas movie.

Teh best

  • Mary seems a little underwhelmed by Gabriel's announcement.
  • The wise men show up at the stable the same night as the shepherds. In fact, the wise men sort of elbow the shepherds out of the way so they can get closer.
  • Elizabeth really scares me when she's giving birth to John.
  • Good acting overall.
  • They get Zacharias right.
  • Joseph and Mary's evolving relationship is very well done.
  • Their trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is also very well done.
  • Jesus is actually born, labor pains and all.
  • The little baby that plays Jesus has his little eyes open in the dark, looking all around, while Mary and Joseph are asleep on either side of him.
  • Mary gets to say the Magnificat, even if it's a voiceover at the end instead of to Elizabeth.
So, one of these years I hope I'll find the perfect Nativity book (outside of scripture, I mean), and possibly even the perfect Nativity movie. It's a fun search.


Prejudice is a time saver

Last week I made the trek up to Vroman's in Pasadena for yet another opportunity to see Brandon Sanderson and have some books signed by him. This time, the books were a set of the Mistborn novels that I wanted to get signed and personalized for Megan.

On the drive up, to pass the time and to keep myself from going insane, I listened to an audio book of Eragon, by Christopher Paolini. When the book first came out a few years ago, I found it hard to accept as worth reading. There were plenty of adoring adolescents and younger fry who loved it, but everyone knows that children have no taste. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself - I used to think the old Batman show (POW! Wham!) was absolutely the greatest thing on television - but that's why we have maturity to look forward to. Anyhow, in my mind, Paolini had three strikes against him: 1) I knew from sad experience that there were a lot of crummy fantasoid books out there, and I figured this was just another one added to the morass; 2) I knew that his age (he wrote it when he was like 16 or something) could make the book more of a publicity stunt on the publisher's part than a legitimate venture; and 3) as a substitute Language Arts teacher, I knew that most high school students couldn't string a coherent sentence together, let alone an entire epic novel. To prove to myself that my prejudices were accurate, I read the prologue, which was so full of cliché evil dialogue hissing from the mouth of a cliché evil character that I felt confirmed in my opinion.

In the ensuing years, though, I continued hearing how good the book was, sometimes even from people whose opinions I respect. So I decided to give it another go. And I found that, once you get past the prologue, it's actually a pretty good book. It's much better written than I had been led to believe by the prologue and by some critics. And there's lots of action and some humor. Sure, there are a few rough spots in the writing and some gender stereotypes (when are there not?). But overall I'm quite enjoying it.

There are also archetypes aplenty (which I understand was deliberate on Paolini's part). Some of them do not have exact correspondence with elements of other fantasy novels I've read, and I've read only the first books in The Wheel of Time and The Inheritance Cycle (and who knows how many other connections there are with books I haven't got to yet, in these or other series), but this is how things shaped up into a mental chart while I was driving:

LOTR = Lord of the Rings
EOTW = The Eye of the World, vol 1 of The Wheel of Time
ERA = Eragon, vol 1 of The Inheritance Cycle
WFR = Wizard's First Rule, vol 1 of The Sword of Truth

Young Hero
LOTR - Frodo
EOTW - Rand
ERA -Eragon
WFR - Richard

All-Powerful Evil Enemy
LOTR - Sauron
EOTW - Ba'alzamon
ERA - Galbatorix
WFR - Darken Rahl

High-Level Evil Minions
LOTR - Nazgul
EOTW - Myrddraal
ERA - Shades
WFR - Demmin Nass

Low-Level Evil Minions
LOTR - Orcs
EOTW - Trollocs
ERA - Urgals
WFR - D'Haran Soldiers

Female Authority Figure
LOTR - Galadriel
EOTW - Aes Sedai
ERA - none (yet)
WFR - Confessors

Fatherly Grey- or White-Haired Mentor
LOTR - Gandalf
EOTW - Thom
ERA - Brom
WFR - Zedd

LOTR - Sam
EOTW - Mat/Perrin/Egwene
ERA - Saphira
WFR - Kahlan

Love Interest
LOTR - none
EOTW - Egwene
ERA - Arya
WFR - Kahlan

Supernatural/Mythical Means of Travel
LOTR - Fell Beast/Giant Eagle
EOTW - none (yet)
ERA - Saphira (a dragon)
WFR - Scarlet (a dragon)

LOTR - Sting
EOTW - The Heron Sword
ERA - Za'roc
WFR - The Sword of Truth

Geographical Oddity
LOTR - The Misty Mountains
EOTW - The Spine of the World
ERA - The Spine
WFR - The Boundary

Of course, if it's a really good archetype, you should be able to apply it to just about any book or movie in the genre, and even a few that fall outside it.

Star Wars = STAR
The Matrix = MAT
Nancy Drew = DREW

Young Hero
STAR - Luke
MAT - Neo
DREW - Nancy Drew

All-Powerful Evil Enemy
STAR - The Emperor
MAT - The Machines or Computer or whatever it is
DREW - Some Criminal Mastermind or Other

High-Level Evil Minions
STAR - Darth Vader
MAT - Agent Smith
DREW - Crooks

Low-Level Evil Minions
STAR - Imperial Stormtroopers
MAT - Cypher/Sentinels
DREW - Thugs

Female Authority Figure
STAR - Princess Leia
MAT - The Oracle
DREW - Hannah Gruen

Fatherly Grey- or White-Haired Mentor
STAR - Obi-wan Kenobi
MAT - Morpheus (only he has no hair and even if he did it wouldn't be grey or white )
DREW - Carson Drew

MAT - Trinity and Morpheus
DREW - Bess and George

Love Interest
STAR - none
MAT - Trinity
DREW - Ned Nickerson

Supernatural/Mythical Means of Travel
STAR - X-Wing? Tauntaun?
MAT - Telephone Lines
DREW - Blue Convertible

STAR - Light Saber
MAT - Neo's Mind
DREW - Flashlight/Revolver

Geographical Oddity
STAR - Tatooine Desert
MAT - The Matrix
DREW - Hidden Staircase/Hollow Oak/Moss-Covered Mansion, etc

Anyway, it was a fun way to occupy my time on the way to Vroman's. I got there almost two hours early, so I saved a place for myself (I was third in line) and then went to browse the books for a bit. About 5:30 I went to sit down because more people were showing up, and for the next hour and a half I read for a while and listened to the conversations around me. There were signs posted saying we were in a No Spoiler Zone, and some of the diehard fans were outraged. "I came here to geek out!" said the guy next to me. There was a bit of spoilage anyway, which I didn't mind, but a young woman behind me kept putting her hands over her ears and humming loudly whenever the discussion ventured past The Eye of the World.

At 7:00 pm, Brandon arrived. He gave his account of how he was chosen to finished The Wheel of Time books, and explained why the last book was being split into three, an explanation I'd already read on his website. He was, as his fans know, very funny and very personable. He's quite enjoyable to listen to.

There was also a Q&A, and a raffle (I didn't win anything; I never do), and then we lined up for the signing. After signing my books, Brandon said, "Do you have any questions for me?" Naturally, my mind immediately went blank and all I could say was, "My mind just went blank."

Of course, on the drive home, I thought of an excellent question. I'm saving it up for the next time I see him. And in the meantime, I think it would be interesting to see how the Mistborn books fit into that archetypal pattern.


Through it all you have maintained a moral and good soul

A couple of weeks ago, I packed up all my Runelords hardcovers and hauled them down to a signing in San Diego at Mysterious Galaxy, a pretty cool bookstore. (In case I haven't mentioned it before, that's where I get many of my books signed.) Not only was David Farland there, but he was accompanied by two first-time-published authors, John Brown and Larry Correia. I was a little dismayed to see such a small turnout, even smaller than for Ken Scholes and Kate Elliott. I recognized only three regulars. However, there was still a decent number of people there, and the small size made the gathering more intimate, like it was a group of friends in the comfort of someone's home. Well, maybe not quite that cozy. More like a group of people with common interests who see each other every now and then in the comfort of a pretty cool bookstore.

David Farland

John Brown

Larry Correia

I enjoy David Farland as a writer, but I think he's an even more amazing human being. Every time I hear him talk, I'm impressed. Everyone has such good things to say about him, and he seems like a humble kind of person. He's also talented, as a writer and a teacher. Both John Brown and Larry Correia said they had been in one of David Farland's classes. Incidentally, they named a few other published authors who had also taken his class: Brandon Sanderson, Stephenie Meyer, and Dan Wells.

All three authors did readings, and then there was an interesting and informative Q&A about their books:

David Farland's 8th Runelords novel, Chaosbound (which had a
sporty new cover by a new-to-the-series artist, and looked pretty cool)

John Brown's Servant of a Dark God (the first in a series)

Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International (ditto)

David Farland mentioned that a Runelords film is possible in the future; that's exciting, and I hope it all works out.

I had gone solely with the intent of buying Chaosbound and having David Farland sign my other books, but after hearing John Brown read from his book, I was impressed and intrigued enough to buy that one, too. I've added it to my to-be-read list. (Sigh!) He told us a very entertaining story about how he got the idea for his book. You can read it here.

I also bought the Monster Hunter book because, although it's not the kind of thing I usually read, it sounded funny and clever. And sort of annoying. Like the author.

At one point during the discussion, one of the regulars asked the authors if spiritual matters ever influenced how and what they wrote. All three stated that they were LDS, and then all three agreed that their religion per se doesn't have anything to do with what they write. However, John Brown said, one's spirituality will naturally influence what an author writes. (I tried to take notes on his and the others' remarks by entering them on my cell phone, but I don't know how good of a job I did because I was trying to be both quick and discrete so they wouldn't think I was texting people during their discussion, which would be really rude.) He also said that there has to be a moral core (I know he said "moral" but I'm not absolutely positive he said "core") to a story so that there's a balance to . . . to . . . to something. Yeah. Anyway, he said that's not always the case in every book, but when you're writing fantasy it pretty much is, because fantasy is about the struggle between good and evil. So there has to be some moral core-like thing to it. He also said there has to be at least one character - and it doesn't have to be the main character - who has this moral center-ish type thing so that a reader can sympathize with him or her. Yes! (I say that all the time. I mean, I say that there has to be at least one character I can sympathize with. I don't say "Yes!" all the time.)

David Farland added, among other things, that some people write to entertain, but that he wants his books to be more than that. He wants people to be somehow uplifted after reading his books, even though there may be grim stuff in there. In fact, he knows that he puts his characters through some pretty horrific things sometimes, but in the end there's a positive aspect to it. (I didn't say that as well as he did, but I think you get the idea.)

John Brown also mentioned that there were some places he wouldn't go because it just wasn't something he was interested in. For example, he said he would never write porn because he wasn't interested in porn. Larry Correia said that he wouldn't write porn, but only because he wouldn't be good at it. John Brown said, "You'd write porn?!" Correia said, "Yeah." And Brown said, "You're lying." And we all laughed.

I didn't have much of a chance to talk to the authors whilst I was having my books signed, because there was someone else there having things signed at the same time, and things were a little confusing. I hadn't thought of any clever things to say, though, so it all worked out for the best.

Bonus: David Farland gave a free Runelords mug to everyone.

Now that is pretty cool!


Put on goggles or turn away.

I have watched a LOT of movies and tv (and tv movies) in my life. I once tried to count all the movies I've ever seen, but I stopped somewhere after 930. I was thinking recently about a certain genre of movie and tv show that I watched a lot of in my childhood. Maybe this will give you a clue:

I loved this movie and would watch it every time it came on tv.
I've seen three remakes of it; the one with Brandon Fraser was
okay (mostly because I like Brandon Fraser), but the other two
were deplorable things and full of woe.

Not really the mightiest motion picture of them all,
but a pretty good movie (except for the singing).

I've seen two film versions of this story.

And I've seen three versions of this story. I like this one a lot,
but the 1989 tv miniseries comes in a close second.

Fun stuff! The moon may not be made of cheese, but this film is.

One of my all-time favorite films. I love it so.

Watching this tv show was a weekly ritual during my childhood.

I've also almost always been interested in life and literature during the mid to late 1800s (I was going to say during the Victorian era, but that seems kind of exclusive), some of my favorite books being from that era, such as works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, Emily Brontë, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, and Bram Stoker. Some of those authors lived on and wrote in the 1900s (Kipling and Doyle, for instance), so they are not strictly Victorian, and there are writers from outside Victoria's realm whose works I enjoy, like Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, who I guess aren't strictly Victorian, either. So what's a good alternate word for "Victorian"?

Anyhow, all that information and experience was stored haphazardly in my memory along with many other interests, literary and non, over the intervening decades, but a couple of months ago I saw something that brought all those quietly simmering science fictional and Victorian (for lack of a more inclusive word) loves to my immediate attention and mashed them together into a new - but not really - interest: steampunk.

I'm trying to remember exactly what that something was. I kind of think it was goggles.

Or perhaps it was this video. Or a combination of the video and the goggles. Whatever it was, it served as a catalyst, and I am converted.

Sort of.

There are a few elements of steampunk that make me unhappy. One of them is that one of the principle visual representations of females in steampunk culture is the prostitute. I think I understand where that comes from (the romantic but misguided notion that prostitutes, since they live and work "outside" the mainstream, are somehow freer than other women to plot their own course in life without societal constraints), but it makes me unhappy nevertheless. And it influences my choices when it comes to how I interact with steampunk.

Here's an example: Once I could put a name to this area of interest, I started looking for steampunk literature, a wide category inclusive of everything from way back to the works of Jules Verne and H G Wells up to the most recently published stuff like The Affinity Bridge and The Kingdom beyond the Waves and Boneshaker (about which more anon). In my research, I learned that there are certain authors from the 1970s and 1980s, like Michael Moorcock and James P Blaylock and Tim Powers and K W Jeter (credited with coining the term "steampunk" in 1987), who were writing steampunk stories before the genre had been given its name. I'm still looking for some of those books. Skipping over the intervening years, where you find things like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Perdido Street Station and the Baroque Cycle, we come to the current day and a slew of newly published material by Stephen Hunt, Scott Westerfield, Kage Baker, Cherie Priest, and others.

So, as I was checking out the current stuff, I read this description of Baker's book, The Women of Nell Gwynne's, on the Subterranean Press website:

Lady Beatrice was the proper British daughter of a proper British soldier, until tragedy struck and sent her home to walk the streets of early-Victorian London. But Lady Beatrice is no ordinary whore, and is soon recruited to join an underground establishment known as Nell Gwynne's. Nell Gwynne's is far more than simply the finest and most exclusive brothel in Whitehall; it is in fact the sister organization to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, that 19th-century predecessor to a certain Company...and when a member of the Society goes missing on a peculiar assignment, it's up to Lady Beatrice and her sister harlots to investigate.

Am I bothered? Definitely. Okay, tragedy sent Lady Beatrice home to walk the streets? Really? Like she had no other choice. Yes, I know that occupational choices for women were limited, and that if you didn't get married, and unless you were blessed with a bit of luck or initiative, practically your only other options were to work as a governess (which, I grant, could be pretty miserable) or in service (which possibly ditto) or as a prostitute (which come on now).

I haven't read Baker's book (and from the description of it, I don't plan to), but honestly - Lady Beatrice chose prostitution over being a governess? Over housekeeping? What is wrong with that woman? My great-great-grandmother got kicked out of the house by her mother for joining the Mormons and she didn't go whining half-dressed to lean provocatively against the nearest lamppost. She became a cook. It wasn't the greatest job, but she kept her dignity. And her virtue. And, incidentally, her own pay.

The other thing that annoys me (by implication) is that the men in these stories (in the case of the Nell Gwynne's book, the so-called Gentlemen's Speculative Society - and what were they speculating about? How to use the harlots next door for fun and profit, instead of helping them improve their lives?) - I say the men in these stories get to hang out at the club or the pub and they wear trousers and waistcoats with many pockets and hats and goggles and they get to use cool gadgets, while the women in these kinds of stories get to hang out at a brothel and they wear corsets and fishnet stockings and little else and they must have sex for pay. Which they have to turn over to the madam.

All right, silly harlots aside, the other thing that kind of bugs me about steampunk novels - but probably not enough to make me stop reading them, because they don't show up in every book - is that they frequently include huge doses of monsters: werewolves, vampires, zombies. I don't mind werewolves and vampires so much. Dracula is one of my favorite books ever. (And yay for the original Mina Harker. Only don't get me started on the idiotic film representations of her.) But I don't get zombies. No, I don't.

Zombies, as you know, are dead. Yes, dead. But for some reason (and the reason can vary from book to book) these dead folk become reanimated and start shuffling (or running) after perfectly innocent people who are truly alive, and these reanimated corpses are always very, very hungry. Why are they hungry? Why? Most of them are half-decayed anyhow and no longer have significant and important parts of their alimentary canals. And yet they wish to eat. For what purpose? I understand a vampire needing blood. I understand a werewolf munching on its victims. But zombies? No. Zombies make no sense. Zombies are pointless.

Nevertheless, after looking around at the options, especially those that presented themselves immediately, I finally decided to read Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, not least because it has an awesome cover featuring goggles.

Not only does it feature goggles (yay!), it has airships (another staple of steampunk) and a strong female protagonist. Those things attracted me to the book. I knew going in that Boneshaker also featured zombies, but they turned out to be mostly a convenient (unless they were after you) device to propel certain actions on the part of certain characters. It could just as easily have been aliens or werewolves or rabid squirrels.

Boneshaker was a pretty good adventure: nothing spectacular, kind of fun, a few interesting characters, a few interesting gadgets, an annoying teenaged boy, and a bit of a twisty ending, which I kind of half-suspected, or at least which didn't surprise me at all. As my first (modern) steampunk novel, it was a pretty good place to start, but I'm hoping for more: more adventure, more gadgets, more character development. Oh, and fewer zombies.

Aside from building up a collection of steampunk literature, I'm also seriously thinking about getting some gear. Goggles are first on the list.

P.S. I also am not a big fan of the current trend in mash-up stories, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts, and Zombies, or The Undead World of Oz, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim. I'm not kidding; those are real titles.


That's no compliment, it's a scientific fact.

Some people can not just be happy with themselves. They find ways to berate themselves for something, even if it's beyond their control: if they have straight hair, they wish it was curly; if they have curly hair, they want it straight. They think they are too short or tall or thin or fat or fair or dark. They're always comparing themselves to others and consequently believing they fall short of some ideal. In my case (as you may know if you follow this blog), I keep thinking I don't read fast enough.

Here are the to-be-read books I keep on the bookcase in my living room:

It has not shrunk at all in the last six months. Indeed, it has only gotten taller.

Here are some more to-be-read books and a few in-progress books I keep on the nightstand:

And those stacks don't include books I've ordered, like the new Connie Willis book coming out in February, or the Robert Redick book (the sequel to The Red Wolf Conspiracy! Yay!!) that hasn't arrived yet and I'm starting to wonder why; nor do they include the numerous sequels to the books currently in those to-be-read stacks; nor do they include the copy of House of Leaves that I have checked out from the library for the second time and I'm trying to finish before it's due back tomorrow, but I don't think I'm going to make it. Again.


There is no particular order to the books I want to read. I'm thinking, though, that as soon as I finish The Wheel of Time I'll have to read Ken Scholes' Canticle, because I rather enjoyed Lamentation and I'm eager to learn about the further adventures of those characters. Especially since I got a bit of a preview last week when I went to a signing for Scholes and Kate Elliott.

Kate Elliott

Ken Scholes

Scholes read a selection from Elliott's book, and Elliott read from Scholes' book. It was quite nice to see them appreciating each other's work.

The signing was more lightly attended than others I've been to at that venue. Those individuals I've come to think of as The Regulars were there, plus a few others I'd never seen before, but we didn't even fill up all the chairs, and the Q&A was a little on the short side, alas. I say alas because I think these authors deserve wider audiences. Of course, I, like many people, am seldom satisfied with the way things are: when the audience is small, I wish for it to be larger. And when it is large, I wish for it to be smaller. Because the good side of a smaller crowd is that I didn't have to wait in line very long.

Highlights of the evening were:

1. When I went up to the counter and requested a copy of Canticle, the store manager (or perhaps he's the owner) asked if I already had Lamentation. "Yes," I said, and he said, "Okay, you pass." I suppose I'm glad I passed his little test, but I wonder what would've happened if I'd said, "No." I sort of wanted to go buy another one so he'd ask me again, but he would've recognized me. Maybe next time, when the third book in the Psalms of Isaak series comes out, I'll bring a disguise. Or maybe next time I'll just say, "None of your flippin' business."

2. Ken Scholes (pronounced 'skoles') borrowed a handy guitar from somebody and sang us a lovely song about his wife giving birth to their twins.

3. Kate Elliott didn't have much to say, comparatively speaking. She explained her lack of volubility by saying that she was tired. Nevertheless, she did have some interesting observations to make about book covers. Authors usually have absolutely no control over what goes on a book cover. Artists don't always even read the entire book that they're doing the illustration for. I've noticed that sometimes the picture on a cover has very little to do with the actual story, and I think an artist does a disservice to an author when that happens. But I've heard that publishers will request anything on the cover that will get people to buy the book, regardless of how accurate the artwork may be in giving you insight into the contents.

4. Scholes made it clear that there are going to be five (5) and only five (5) books in the Psalms of Isaak series. Rumors have been flying, and someone asked him about them during the Q&A, that there would be seven (7), but this is altogether WRONG. He asked all the bloggers to go home and say that Ken Scholes himself said there were only five (5) books in the series. So there.

5. He also said he would like to write other books taking place in the same universe, but they will not be part of the current series.

6. I actually was fairly articulate and sensible when I spoke to both Scholes and Elliott. I think maybe it's a little bit true that things get easier as you repeat them. Of course, it also helps that I had prepared a little comment beforehand so that I wouldn't be blankminded at the moment of encounter. And it helps even more that Ken Scholes is such a good writer that it was easy to come up with a little comment beforehand. And, although my compliment was prepared, it was also entirely sincere (I told him I was awed by his writing), so I don't feel any comparison can be drawn with my behavior and that of Mr Collins.

Scholes said he appreciated my remark because he was a little amazed by what people were telling him about his writing; he just didn't see it. So I said, "But don't you, when you've finished writing a book, sit back and say 'Okay, I can live with that'?" And he said, "No, not until I was done with the third book. When I finished that, I finally had the feeling that it was good." That kind of surprised me and made me think that Ken Scholes is a rather humble sort of writer.

So that is why I want to read Canticle next. Except that I also want to read Leviathan next, and The Affinity Bridge. And I'd like to finish House of Leaves before it leaves the house tomorrow morning. I just have to learn to read faster.


The Hamster of Time spins round on the Wheel of Eternity

Waiting in line is one of the least exciting ways I can think of to pass the time, but waiting in line for a book signing has its little amusements, and waiting in line for a book signing when it's the release party and when the book is The Gathering Storm (book 12 in the Wheel of Time series) - well, that can be a memorable experience...if you remember to bring warm clothes and a blanket. And a chair to sit in. And some snacks. And something to do. Oh, and also if some friends or family members come by to help you pass the time while you sit there for TEN AND A HALF HOURS until the thing finally starts.

So that is what I did. First, I drove all the way to Utah: eleven hours and fifteen minutes. It would've been a little shorter, but there was traffic in Las Vegas (when is there not?), and also I was approached at a rest stop by a distraught young lady who had run out of gas. After I ascertained that she was not actually a psycho serial killer in disguise, I drove her to a nearby station so she could get some gas, and then I drove her back to her car at the rest stop, where her equally distraught friend (also not a psycho serial killer in disguise) was waiting. They invoked several blessings upon me and then I continued on my way.

Since I have family members in Utah, I planned to get there a little early and do some family-type activities with them, which I did. Looking forward to Monday, 26 October, with a flutter of anticipatory delight, I intended to relax during a leisurely morning, have lunch on the BYU campus with my parents (it was their anniversary) and my son, perhaps run a few errands with my daughter, and finally get myself over to the BYU Bookstore by about 6:00 pm, a good six hours before the midnight start time. So, there we were enjoying our lunch and each other's company, and I thought to myself, "I'm just going to slip over to the bookstore and see if anyone's got in line yet." I wasn't expecting anyone camped out in a tent city or anything, like for some important concert or some Harry Potter release party, but I just wanted to make sure. I was wrong! Well, sort of. There was only one tent. But it had two or three sleeping bags in it. And there were perhaps a dozen people already in line. I could see that my plan of waiting until a fairly reasonable hour like 6:00 was not good enough. I should have known. People in situations like this, while not exactly psycho serial killers, are not entirely reasonable.

My mom asked why I was planning on getting in line so early. I explained the whole Wheel of Time 12th book situation, and she suddenly went into Preparation Mode (at which she is very effective). As we got back to her house, she told me to get my car and bring it around to the front of the house and she told my dad to go get her small rolling suitcase. "I feel a sense of urgency," she said. Then she went off in search of blankets, gloves, a coat and scarf (it was rather cold at the time), protein drinks and bottled water. We loaded up the suitcase and I got my bag of books that wanted signing, and off I went.

As I said, I wound up standing (or sitting) in line for 10.5 hours. Part of the time Shannon came to visit with me, and Ian was there, too, for a while. They brought me food and drink and companionship, but soon it got so cold that I sent them home. I couldn't stand to see them shivering. Most of the time while on my own, I read my book or fiddled with the preferences on my laptop, and listened to the comments of other people in line.

The front of the line at about 6:30 pm.
The tent had been taken down a couple of hours earlier.

The first people in line, the small group that had pitched a tent, were pretty vocal and seemed like hard-core fans. A girl in the group had dressed up in a sort of Renaissance Faire outfit, accessorized with a white shawl that had a flame design on the back of it. She also wore a grey hooded cloak while we were out in the cold, but she shed that once we got inside.

I'm not sure who she represents.

I couldn't quite figure out who she was supposed to be. I'm only in the first book, and I don't remember anyone wearing flames on their shawls. The Children of the Light, an obnoxious and unlikeable lot, wore white cloaks with sunbursts on the back. But a flame is not a sunburst, so I freely admit I lack understanding. There was also a fellow who had a sword, and another with a battle axe who I was pleased with myself to recognize as Perrin.


Behind them in line was a small group of weaponless young men who spent a great deal of time discussing the merits of the battle axe and proclaiming loudly and with great longing that they really wished they had such a thing in their private arsenal.

This guy (who wouldn't hold still for the photo - this was about
the third one I took of him and it's still blurry)'s friend brought this ball
made from rubber bands. The friend said it took him six years to make.
Who says standing in line is the most boring thing ever?

Ten point five hours don't generally fly by, even at a book signing. There were frequent breaks in the monotony, though. From the time I got there at 1:30 pm until 7:00 pm or so, some passerby would stop about every two-and-a-half to three minutes and ask "What's this line for?" One girl asked if we were protesting something. Yeah, we're protesting having to stand in line for so long. A couple of guys in line after me got so tired of answering the question that they started saying we were in line for Free Candy. I don't think anyone believed them. The girl next to me said if she'd charged a dollar for every time she answered that question, she would've been pretty well off by the time we were allowed into the bookstore.

At about 8:30 pm, I walked down to the end of the line, just to see how long it was. At that point, it stretched to the southwest corner of the bookstore building, and I think I counted about 200 people. (It's not an exact count, because there was some fluctuation in the composition of the line and because I got distracted a couple of times.) I'm pretty sure more people showed up closer to the opening time, because there seemed to be more than 200 inside the bookstore.

The line stretching out to the crack of doom, or in other words,
to the end of the building.

Anyhow, it got colder and colder and darker and darker, until a little after 9:00 pm when Megan arrived to keep me company for the rest of the evening. She brought hot cocoa to warm my body and a sense of humor to warm my soul.

At 10:00 pm, they let us into the bookstore.

When I got in line at 1:30 pm, I was 16th in line. By the time they numbered us
for purposes of book distribution prior to entry into the bookstore, I had,
without moving from my spot, magically become 25th in line.

The people ahead of us

To ensure that we all experienced the "party" part of "Release Party", volunteers came by at 15 to 30 minute intervals, passing out candy, and bumper stickers, and bookmarks, and little quizzes on the previous Wheel of Time books, and there were drawings for prizes. I didn't win anything (I never do), and I knew a total of two answers to the Wheel of Time questions, so Megan and I filled out the quizzes and the crossword puzzle with clever and spontaneous answers. We thought our answers were excruciatingly funny. Because we were having so much fun, each hour seemed like a mere 50 minutes.

Answers to trivia quiz #1 - mine are first, Megan's are second

Answers to trivia quiz # 2 - Megan's are first, mine are second

Answers to trivia quiz # 3 - Megan's on the left. Some random
guy next to us gave us his pencil, so we were able to fill out the
quizzes simultaneously. Thanks, Random Guy!

Answers to trivia quiz #4 - Megan's once again on the left

I think this girl was using a lifeline to get the answers.

Around 11:00 pm, Brandon Sanderson came by and asked if anyone had any of his previous books that we'd like signed, so I hauled out my cache and he signed them all, commenting that I certainly had a lot of books. We took a few pictures and thanked him, and he in turn thanked us for reading his books, and then he went on his way.

Brandon signing one of my books

Signing another of my books (there were several)

Brandon Sanderson with Megan

Brandon signing Random Guy's book

Finally, at midnight (or I guess 12:01 am was the official start time), the fans all cheered and then the bookstore crew and volunteers began passing out books according to number. I got my #25, plus two other copies in the 1600s (they let people get only one copy according to their place in line, and if people bought any others, the numbers were from way high to leave room for lower numbers to be used at other venues - which I guess is okay, but...1600s? That seems a bit overdone. Oh, well.) Then the crew folk started herding us up one aisle and down another into a long snaky line to get our books personalized. By this time, all I really wanted was a couple of more pictures, so I sauntered right up to the front of the line and took a couple. No one murdered me for taking cuts because I had no books in my hand. I then made my way back to Megan and we departed, out into the cold October night, across the darkened and mostly deserted campus to Megan's car, and thence to our various homes, where we could dream on the events of the preceding hours. Or not.

One last photo: signing The Gathering Storm

Mission accomplished!


...just because some watery tart threw a sword at you

Last week I went to a book signing for R A Salvatore, author of many popular novels - among them those featuring the beloved character from The Forgotten Realms, the dark elf Drizzt Do'urden - as well as a couple of Star Wars books, including Vector Prime, in which Chewbacca is killed off.

I had an enjoyable time at the signing. Mr Salvatore is a very engaging speaker, funny and gracious, and he seemed genuinely interested in what his fans had to say. He was friendly and approachable during the hour or so he spent actually signing books, and never looked at his watch (maybe because he wasn't wearing one) or wondered how many books a person had left to sign.

R A Salvatore

During his talk, he said a number of things that I found quite interesting. First, I learned how to pronounce "Drizzt Do'urden", which had been puzzling me for some time.

Second, he talked a lot about the difference between the writing business and the publishing business, a significant difference that many would-be writers fail to appreciate. He also talked about how the various editions of the related RPG affect the direction the books take. Since I'm not a gamer, I hadn't realized they weren't independent products.

Third, he talked a bit about writing the death of Chewbacca. (Did you know he got threatening letters from distraught - or should I say deranged - Star Wars fans for killing off Chewbacca, even though it was George Lucas's decision, not his?) He mentioned that some people are still in denial about the death. He said he didn't understand how there could be any question because basically he dropped a moon on Chewbacca and everything was vaporized. "But they didn't find his body!" the fans will point out. He also said that, if he was faced with the decision to kill off Chewbacca nowadays, he wouldn't do it.

Fourth, he said that when he was 29 years old he thought he knew everything, and his job as a writer was to tell everyone what they needed to know. Now (he said) he's 50 and he doesn't know anything about anything, and all he does is ask questions so that people can answer those questions themselves. I liked that. I know how he feels.

The most intriguing thing he said, though, was during a discussion of other authors. I can't remember if someone asked him what authors he liked, or who influenced him, or maybe what were his favorite books, but among others he mentioned Mary Stewart and said her Arthur books (he means her Merlin trilogy) were "outstanding".

I meant to ask him more about this when I was having my books signed. I brought it up and said that Mary Stewart was one of my favorite authors, and he said something again about how good those books were, but then his wife, who was helping facilitate the signing process, asked if I'd read Bernard Cornwell's books about Arthur, and we got into a short discussion about those, which somehow evolved into a discussion of energy bars (which Mr Salvatore insisted all tasted like dirt), and we never got back to Mary Stewart.

I think it's fascinating how Mary Stewart, who is sometimes dismissed by the ignorant as a women's author of Gothic romances, has had a profound effect on some people. I'm not saying her effect on Mr Salvatore was profound, but he obviously was quite impressed by her trilogy.

I remember once, about 15 years ago, going into a little strip mall bookstore when I was out scouting one morning, and being approached by the owner, a short, white-haired, pot-bellied old man. He asked if I was looking for anything in particular, and I told him I was interested in Mary Stewart first editions. He led me to a small collection of her books and then, in the course of conversation, mentioned that Mary Stewart was responsible for his opening the bookstore. In response to my "How so?" he said he had read the Merlin trilogy and was so impressed by it that he began seeking out other books about King Arthur and that era. He started collecting books, both fictional and historical, and, as he branched out more and more, his collection grew and grew. Not long passed before he had thousands of books. Finally, his wife said "Enough" and told him he either had to toss the books or sell them, but that either way the books had to go. With that ultimatum, he decided the best and kindest thing to do would be to sell the books, so he opened a bookstore and called it "Camelot Books". It was pretty much a general kind of used bookstore, full of the usual stuff with here and there a hidden treasure, but he had a special section of several shelves devoted to books on the legends of King Arthur.

When Mr Salvatore said Mary Stewart's trilogy was outstanding, it would've been interesting to hear his response to the question "How so?"

Incidentally, there were other interesting comments to be heard that evening. One of the more entertaining things about going to signings or book sales or whatever is overhearing other people's conversations while waiting for the event to begin. So, as we all sat there in anticipation, I heard this exchange between two young men so stereotypically geeky in appearance I thought they must have been role-playing:

Geek 1: Hey, you saw Twilight once, didn't you?

Geek 2 (after a short pause): No.

Geek 1: You liar!

Geek 2: I'm not a liar. I said I didn't see it once.

General laughter.

P.S. I'm glad Chewbacca's dead.