Sunday, December 20, 2015

New Car Attained

To update, we settled on a car last weekend. A local Toyota dealer still had some 2015 Rav4s, and they were willing to go well below invoice price on them. Since there's not much difference between the 2015 and 2016 models, and I couldn't get an outback or Forester for anything close to the price I was able to get on this Toyota, we went with it. The fuel efficiency isn't quite what I would have liked, but there's enough space in the back for the dog crates, and it's got the other features I was hoping to get in a new car. As an added bonus, it's red (not the easiest color to find among the endless parade of silver, white, charcoal, and brown cars everyone seems to prefer these days). My first two vehicles, both light pickups, were red, so I was always a bit disappointed that the best color I could get for my 2001 Legacy wagon was boring whit (the only other color any local dealers had back then was a sort of alligator-colored gray green).

So I'm reasonably pleased so far. I'm hoping that it proves to be reliable and all the fancy electronic features they have on new cars won't be a thorn in my side as the car ages. Only time will tell there.

The new wheels

Austin and Wiley's crates from the rear

Flick's from the right passenger door

Magnetic doggie "decals" duly installed
On the homeowner front, we finally got that toilet flange patched, so the hall bathroom is functional again. And our new heating/cooling system is installed. Doug and I are a good deal poorer than we were this time last month, but driving is much more comfortable than it was, and our house is toasty warm again.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Time To Start Car Shopping

I've had my Subaru Legacy Wagon for almost 16 years, and it's time to replace it. It's served me well for the most part, but it's definitely got some issues that are going to cost more to repair than they're worth. And I can't deny that I've got a hankering for a car with the newer bells and whistles (my Legacy has a cassette deck and no hands-free smart phone interface or anything), and I'm sick of dealing with a manual transmission too. I want driving to be a little more fun, or at least less of a chore.

Room for Flick's, Wiley's and Austin's dog crates is non-negotiable
But it's the car I use to take my dogs to agility in, so I have to be able to fit their crates in its replacement. I can fit three med crates in the back of this little wagon by placing one sideways facing the passenger side door, and the other two facing the back. This leaves about 18" of space between the crates and the lift gate for other gear, plus it's sort of a "buffer" between the back of the car and the rear. It means my dogs' crates (and more critically, my dogs) are less likely to be crushed in a rear-end collision.

Most crossovers have a shorter, taller, and wider cargo box, so I'd have to check if the three crates would still fit in any replacement candidate (the exact dimensions of the cargo areas is something car manufacturers are very coy about, I've noticed). Extra "headroom" above, and space to the sides of the crates is of less use to me than a somewhat longer, but not so tall and wide cargo area.

Another thing I'd like is to get a car that gets better than the 24 mpg my current vehicle averages. I'd really hoped that there would be a selection of small wagons, minivans and crossover SUVs by now that averaged, if not the 40 mpg of my husband's Ford Focus hybrid, at least somewhere in the mid thirties. My car is the dog mobile on the weekends, but it's the car I use for commuting and driving to work the rest of the time.

The vehicles I've been considering include:

Prius v Wagon. Higher mpg, above 40 average. Very sluggish performance compared to the other vehicles on my list (and compared to the Ford Focus hybrid), but maybe worth it to save fuel costs and to help the planet. Not sure if the cargo space is sufficient for my crates, though, and that would be the real deal breaker.

Honda CRV. Decent fuel efficiency and the cargo space looks good on paper (about 71 cubic feet behind the front seats). Generally a well-reviewed little mini SUV. But I've a feeling the cargo area is too short and tall for my crates.

Subaru Forester. A bit worse than the CRV for mpg, and maybe a bit better space wise. A well-regarded car overall, but it may still be the wrong dimensions for the dog crates.

The Subaru Outback. Similar mpg to the Forester with a bit more omph and a slightly higher price tag. Similar to my Legacy Wagon, but taller. The cargo area is longer with less headroom than the Forester.

Toyota Rav 4 hybrid. Brand new, so there's that buying something when it first comes out thing. Plus it's kind of pricey, and there are the same possible space issues as other crossover SUVs.

All-gasoline Toyota Rav 4. The 2015 was panned by reviewers, but rumor has it there are some improvements with the 2016 model. I've noticed the 2015 models are being priced dirt cheap on clearance right now--same price I paid for my wagon 16 years ago. Might be a good deal if the 2015 model isn't a complete pig.

Honda Odyssey. The best minivan on the market, according to many sources. Also rather pricey and cruddy mpg (better than most other minivans, but still no improvement over my current car). It has tons of space, but is rather large for day to day driving and parking.

Honda Pilot. The next crossover step up from the CRV. It costs about the same as the Odyssey and gets similar mpg but has less cargo space (though a lot more than the CRV). So not sure why I'd buy one instead of the minivan.

Ford Transit Connect wagon. It comes in two wheelbases and has more space than a crossover SUV but less than most minivans. It's cheaper than the pilot or Odyssey, more comparable in price to small crossover suvs. But it's ugly as sin (really just a very small work van with windows and kitted out for passengers) and probably klunkier to drive and park than a crossover or smaller wagon. And it gets terrible mpg.

So, the sad truth is, there's nothing on the market right now that really fits my desired criteria: room for three dogs crates with a bit to spare, over 30 average mpg (preferably higher), and affordable (as in less than, say, 28k). So I'll have to compromise on something. The next step is to start test driving. And of course to bring a tape measure to investigate the cargo space dimensions.

And I may have to consider getting the next new car sooner than I normally do if there's some technological breakthrough in the next few years that puts a high-mileage dogmobile on the market.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Tedious Home Owner Stuff

It's been a rough week or so on the home ownership front. A little more than a week ago, I accidentally flushed a washcloth down the hall toilet. Don't ask, but it was in the bucket of mop water. The plunger didn't get it out, nor did the snake. The loo was well and truly plugged. It was either pull the toilet or call a plumber.

So, I got this bright idea; since we've been meaning to replace the old water hog with a more environmentally friendly model, why not go to Lowe's and pick up a new toilet? One was duly researched and purchased.

But when we pulled the toilet up and scraped away the remains of the old wax ring (one of the most disgusting home repair jobs in existence), we discovered that the iron flange was cracked on the right side. So it's not possible to bolt the toilet down on both sides without doing a repair. We made an appointment for a plumber to come by to repair the flange and install the toilet.

This furnace is 37 years old.
 Then the furnace broke. Not a great thing this time of year. So we researched repair companies, and called one with the requisite rave reviews and ratings. He was able to get it working again, but unsurprisingly, he discovered that the heat exchanger is starting to develop a crack. Turns out our unit dates back to 1978, so it's at almost twice its life expectancy. It's not dangerous yet, but it's only a matter of time. So we're now researching and taking bids on a new heating and air conditioning system. We also need to replace the ducts and put more insulation in the attic.

This isn't going to be cheap.

And to make things more exciting, the plumber came when we were talking to the furnace repairman, and he said he's not allowed to repair the damaged toilet flange. All he can do is replace the whole flange for 700 bucks (this involves crawling under the house and cutting the cast iron pipe and welding a new one in place), or we can do our own easy repair with a flange plate from Lowe's or Home Depot on our own.

The bolts would be in the wrong place here.
 We opted for the latter, but we soon discovered that the flange repair plate from Home Depot didn't line up with the holes in the cast iron flange (which were at exactly 12 and 6) in a way that allowed the slots on the side to be in the correct position for tightening the bolts. There's no way to screw the flange repair plate in the correct position.

So I went to Lowe's this time and found a different plate with different hole positions, but it still didn't work. I did manage to take advantage of a post-Thanksgiving sale to purchase a new washing machine to replace the one that was in the process of dying (no longer draining water properly), so the drive wasn't a total loss.

When I got home, I went online to Amazon and found a flange plate that had the holes in the right place. I purchased it (the hall bathroom has been sans toilet for over a week now), and two days later, the thing arrived and it was the wrong one--identical to the plate I'd already purchased from Lowe's that didn't work. It was not the one pictured (instead looked like this product, which is a different shape and has holes in a different position). So I returned it and asked them to send me the product pictured, and they sent me the same one again! At this point, I gave up and asked for my money back. Clearly they had the wrong picture displayed for the product they were selling.

These two products are not equivalent.
I finally found a different product on Amazon that looked like what I wanted. This time, they sent me what I ordered, and hallalujah, it was the correct one and the holes lined up.

Except now we can't screw the plate cover to the flange, because the holes in the cast iron aren't threaded, and the wood underneath is old and in cruddy condition with what must be old water damage, probably dating back to when previous owners replaced the house's original toilet with ye olde 70s-era water waster (something else that will need repairing/replacing in the future and may push up the date for our projected bathroom remodels). So the whole plate wobbles. Not a good thing unless we want a rocking toilet.

So we're doing what we'd hoped to avoid all along. Drilling holes in cast iron, a very slow process. And it involves another trip to Home Depot tomorrow to purchase some self-tapping metal screws tomorrow.

All in all, it's been an expensive and harrowing week. It doesn't help that this all started right before Thanksgiving, and it's the busiest time in the semester for us, and it's my birthday week (all I want for my birthday is a working hall bathroom and a new and much more energy efficient furnace/air conditioning unit).

It looks like we're having the kind of fun people who own older homes do sometimes. This house was built in 1958, and it's very solid in most ways, but we've had to do repairs over the years--a new roof a few years back, and a replacement sewer main three years ago. Now we have the dying furnace and some issues with ancient plumbing.

And my car is on its last legs too in that it will soon need repairs that are so expensive that we're better off getting a new one, so the search for a replacement is in the works. That nice, secure feeling people get when they actually have savings for a rainy day is rapidly dissipating. This relentless parade of expenses is cleaning out the bank accounts.

Still, we're lucky. For many, dying appliances and plumbing mishaps are expenses they can't handle at all.

Monday, November 30, 2015

New Dog Progress Report

Austin is settling in nicely. He's an energetic, active young dog with a personality that is far more border collie than cattle dog. He's getting on well with Flick and Wiley and shows a lot more ball fanaticism than any dog I've had so far. Flick loves playing ball. It's FUN, and tossing a tennis ball on a rope at the end of an agility training sequence is a definite motivator. But for her, part of the fun is playing a little keep away at the end. Bite, bite, giggle. Come and get it if you can.

You're going to throw that, right?
For Austin, the ball is very serious business. He runs after, brings it back,  tosses it down at my feet, and backs away. If I don't throw it again, he'll nudge it towards me. He doesn't want me to interrupt him with treats in the middle of BALL. Just throw the damned thing. Ball is not a game. He pretty much ignores other dogs when he's playing ball at the dog park. Yes, I finally have one of THOSE boring (to everyone else) dogs.

It's a bit weird, but that's how border collies are a lot of the time. His only issue so far is a bit of cat obsession. He's fascinated with Leo and Merlin and will chase them. It seems more herdy behavior than serious "I want to eat them" predation. But it's still upsetting to them, and intense herding can drift into more predatory behavior. So we're trying to find a way to redirect this obsession.

I've done a bit of jump and tunnel work in the backyard with him so far, and have bought the materials to make a small wobble board for him. He definitely is fast and is going to need to learn how to collect and pay attention to his body when he jumps so he doesn't knock bars. I've ordered a copy of Suzanne Clothier's natural jumping book on Amazon.

He's a nice dog, though, very affectionate. He's pretty level headed and cerebral for a 1.5 year old male BC/cattle dog mix.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy US Thanksgiving

Here's a picture of a Mount Vernon turkey my husband and I saw a few years back when we visited the home of our country's first president. They didn't let us get too close, but somehow they seem like a fitting picture for today's holiday.

Hope everyone celebrating Thanksgiving today has a great feed with their loved ones.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Because We Couldn't Be Sane, Normal People With Just Two Dogs

When Roxy passed, I wondered if I was up for getting another dog in the near future. With Wiley and Flick, we are hardly dogless. And with my late-night writing schedule, I've been kind of bleh about dragging my butt out of bed before dawn on weekends for agility trials lately. And there's no question that walking two dogs is much easier than walking three.

Then Doug started to ask when we were going to get another dog. And I realized that some of the reason I've been less than enthusiastic about agility lately is that Wiley's getting older and slowing down quite a lot lately, and Flick (who is a hyper vigilant dog who occasionally decides she just doesn't like someone or other) will never be the kind of dog I can just relax with in noisy, chaotic trial environments.

Still, I wondered if it was the right time to start looking. School's kicking my butt this semester, and some nagging and vague health issues have robbed me of my energy and motivation lately. And the universe seemed to be telling us to wait too. We narrowly missed out on a couple of prospective dogs at our local shelters (Other people beat me to the adoption). And while perusing petfinder for kelpies, border collies  and their mixes, I realized that the canine population had really shifted in our state. Herding breeds are increasingly rare (it's nearly all bully breeds and Chihuahua mixes all the time there for some reason).

Not that I'm complaining. It's nice to know that the owners of herding breeds are getting more responsible in our neck of the woods. A friend suggested a McNabb breeder to me and the person who hooked me up with the shelter that had Wiley back in 2006 said she'd recommend me to them. But I wasn't quite sure I was up for buying a dog. I really want to save a life, or at least clear up a slot in one of our local rescue groups that keep dogs out of shelters. So maybe it would be best just to wait for a while.

Then I saw a picture of a 1.5-year-old border collie/Australian cattle dog mix on petfinder. He was at the Wags and Whiskers rescue group down in Modesto, and he sounded very promising. Our application was accepted, and the people were very nice about agreeing to hold him for us on Saturday, so we could drive down without worrying about losing out to someone who got there right before us again. He interacted nicely with Flick and Wiley, and is really just an awesome boy. Evidently, his original owner purchased him from a breeder of what are sometimes called "Texas Heelers," because they intentionally cross cattle dogs with border collies or Australian shepherds for ranch work down there.
Flick seems to like Austin a lot so far
So we adopted him and named him "Austin," in honor of his Texas roots. He's really sweet. Energetic and loves to play ball, but he has an off switch and is willing to lie quietly and chew on a toy too. He's got a nice, sound structure, and he's got a touch of that border collie focus and eye without the over the top edge that some of that breed have, yet he's softer and more biddable than many purebred cattle dogs. When he gets interested in something, like another dog or a cat, he redirects easily. Flick loves him so far (which was a worry I had), and Wiley is slowly coming around to the notion of no longer being the only boy dog.

So life just got complex again.

Roxy would have liked him too, I think.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Goodbye, Sweet Roxy

Doug and I just made a very hard decision today--releasing our beloved Roxy from her failing body. It's not the first time we've had to say goodbye, but this choice was especially hard because there wasn't a sudden crisis or catastrophic diagnosis. She was just growing increasingly feeble, and the arsenal of drugs and therapies we had at our disposal were slowing the decline, but not halting it. She had bad days when she could barely walk, and good ones where she wanted to go out and sniff, but the latter were growing fewer and further between.

Roxy: Feb 2000-Oct 2015
 It's hard to know exactly when to say goodbye to an animal that's probably not in severe pain, yet is growing progressively weaker and takes joy in fewer and fewer aspects of  her daily life. But it was at the point where Doug and I agreed she was becoming a shell of her former self and wasn't having any fun.

Roxy was the first dog Doug and I adopted after we got married. We jumped the gun a bit and went to the Sacramento County animal shelter after we closed on our house but before we'd actually moved into it. Our lease only allowed one dog (Astra), so we fudged a bit on the adoption agreement (it asked if you owned your home, and in fact we did), so we didn't have to get permission from our landlord. We brought Roxy home, and one week later we found Simon. So we moved into our new home in November of 2000 with three dogs and four cats.

One of Roxy's first trials in Carson City.
Roxy was a very special dog, but I'm too broken up right now to describe all the ways. Suffice it to say that she was gentle, loyal, and willing to do anything I asked of her. She was my agility partner for many years, and we earned a NATCH and a CATCH title, but as she got into middle age, she lost much of her enthusiasm for the sport, so I retired her. She's the dog who convinced me to commit to positive-reinforcement based training and to expunge "corrections" and coercion from my training toolbox. I still made mistakes. She was such a sensitive creature, even a sharply indrawn breath on my part felt like a leash jerk to her. But I think our relationship made me a kinder, more patient person overall.

She had a good, long life, but damn, it never seems like enough. Roxy is gone, and she's taken a piece of me with her. My scientific world view has never given me a lot of reason to hope there's anything waiting on the other side, but if there is, I hope she's with her old pals Astra and Simon now, and with my dad and his beloved dog, Florence.

Roxy, Simon and Astra
Roxy running at WAG in Elk Grove

Roxy at the Huntington Dog Beach
Goodbye, dear girl. Thank you for your love and friendship.

Monday, September 21, 2015

More Forgotten Fantasy Classics (with a couple of newer series you really need to read).

This is a continuation of my forgotten classics series (the first installment is linked here) , and it includes some more fantasy novels and series that seem to have fallen (undeservedly, in my opinion) off the cultural radar in recent years. I've tossed in some newer fantasy novels that I think are very good as well. If these entries lead anyone to read and enjoys a book or author they wouldn't otherwise have heard about, then I'll be very pleased.

1. Dragon Prince series (Dragon Prince, The Star Scroll, Sunrunner's Fire) by Melanie Rawn. Published between 1988-1990 by DAW books, these books were well reviewed and popular, and set the stage for a host of intrigue-heavy fantasy with large casts of characters who fall along a broad spectrum in terms of morality.

The story's desert environment doesn't feel like a quasi-Europe, the story has a lot of action, and while gender roles are pretty traditional, the women have agency and goals of their own and aren't just there for the men. The story even shows some of the men through a female gaze, which was unusual back in the 80s, even for female authors. And Rawn does a better job than most authors of her era at exploring the implication of living in a world with large, intelligent predators.

2. The Watergivers Trilogy (The Last Stormlord, Stormlord Rising, Stormlord's exile) by Glenda Larke. The author is Australian, which might be why these books aren't as well known in the US as they should be. They were published by Ace Books in the US between 2010-2011. Set in a secondary world, these novels focus on the power struggles within a society that relies on water-manipulating magic for survival. The core conflict centers around a base born boy who may be the last person alive with this talent and on his attempts to master his unreliable magic and to resist being manipulated.

The story is set in a culture that doesn't feel like it's based on anything that's simply lifted whole-cloth from our world, and the story's two main protagonists are both people of color. There are several pov characters, including some interesting women, and some LGBTQ characters, but it is not in any way an issue story.

3. Chosen of the Changeling duology (The Waterborn and The Blackgod) by Gregory Keyes. Published in 1996-1997, they've recently been reissued for kindle. The story focuses on Hezhi, a princess from a magical family. It contains many traditional fantasy elements, but the author's attention to world-building detail and his knowledge of linguistics and fencing, give this story a depth and authenticity many lack.

4. Rojan Dizon Trilogy (Fade to Black, Before the Fall, Last to Rise) by Francis Knight, published in 2013-2014 by Orbit books. A secondary world fantasy noire, the story's setting, the magic tech city of Mahala, is a bit reminiscent of Blade Runner. The city is ruled by priests and has a rigidly hierarchal class system. Among its many themes story explores outsider issues and the disconnect between the religion practiced by the privileged wealthy and the impoverished masses.

The reluctant hero (a snarky womanizer who must hide his magical talent) is evocative of many well-loved UF protagonists, but his costly magic and social ineptitude keeps him from ever approaching the wish fulfillment archetype. The pace is brisk and the twisty, turning plot keeps the reader wondering how the story will end.

5. Wayfarer Redemption series by Sarah Douglas. This consists of six books (Wayfarer Redemption, Starman, Sinner, Pilgrim, Crusader) that were published in the late 1990s by Harper. They are very popular in the author's home country of Australia, but they've never gotten the attention they deserve in the US. Unfortunately, Ms. Douglass passed away in 2011, which might be another reason they haven't been promoted as aggressively as they should be over here.

The novels meld elements of SF and fantasy, as they incorporate space travel, stargates, and demons known as Timekeepers, but it takes place in a pastoral, non industrial world When a plague of monsters threaten their homeland, a noblewoman and a military leader must learn the truth about the history of their world.

6. Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward. This stand-alone book was published in 1996 by Tom Doherty Associates. This humorous novel subverts many familiar tropes, as it centers around a band of traditional fantasy villains (an assassin, a thief, an evil sorceress, and a dark knight) who must save the world from a fatal imbalance after evil is banished.

As far as I can tell, Forward has only written one other novel (by this name, at least), Animist, which read like the start to a promising series that never materialized. It's a shame, because she is a good writer who has a knack for twisting familiar tropes.

7. In a similar vein, though written with a different style and execution, Grunts, by Mary Gentle. First published in the UK in 1992 by Bantam Press, it was reprinted in 1995 by Roc books. This satirical book takes place in a cliche-ridden fantasy world based on the basic D&D mode. The plot revolves around a band of orcs preparing for the last battle between good and evil, one they're destined to lose. Things change when they find an artifact that turns them mentally into 20th century US soldiers.

The book is filled with camp and over-the-top humor and references to tropes that should appeal to anyone who ever played fantasy games or simply got tired of tired rip offs of JRR Tolkien's works.

8. Vows and Honor trilogy (Oathbound, Oathbreakers, Oathblood) by Mercedes Lackey published in novel form between 1988-1998. These books tell the tale of Tarma and Kethry, who make a cameo appearance in at least one of her Heralds of Valdemar books. These books are unusual in fantasy, because they focus on the friendship between two female adventurers who are seeking to avenge the slaughter of Tarma's clan. It's fun to see a good old fashioned "mismatched" buddy S&S-style adventure fantasy told from a female perspective. And the acerbic "Need" is probably the coolest take I've seen on the sentient sword trope.

8. Alan Garner's the Weirdstone of Brisingamen is considered to be a children's novel, but it has plenty to offer adult fantasy fans too. It was well-received when it first came out, but fell into relative obscurity, perhaps because the author decided he didn't feel it was a very good book.

First published in 1960, this novel is based partially on a Cheshire legend tells the story of two children, Colin and Susan, who are staying with some friends while their parents are overseas. Susan owns a bracelet that contains the weirdstone of the title. The minions of the dark spirit Nastrond who, centuries before, had been defeated and banished by a powerful king, wants this item back.

9. Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy (Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, Oath of Gold), published in 1988-1989, were the first volumes in the Paksennarion series. It is fairly classic high fantasy, set in a quasi medieval world with elves, dwarves, and paladins. The story follows the character of Paks as she joins the army to flee an arranged marriage. This may be why it's faded from view in spite of being popular in its day--the Tolkien and D&D-inspired high fantasy of the 70s and 80s has largely run its course. But the excellent characterization and well-developed religious themes (unusual in a genre where characters often have the mindset of citizens of 20th century secular democracies) make it stand out from its peers. The author's military experience shows as well.

10. The Morgaine Cycle (The Gates of Ivrel, The Well of Shiuan, The Fires of Azeroth, Exile's Gate) by CJ Cherryh. Published by DAW books between 1978-1988. I discovered these on my parents' bookshelves when I was a kid, and they helped foster my lifelong love for speculative fiction. Strictly speaking, these are SF, as the author has stated that they are set in the same universe as her Union-Alliance novels. But the stories have a sword and sorcery/quest fantasy feel, and the characters travel on horseback for most of the series. CJ Cherryh is one of my favorite authors, and she was one of the first SFF writers to employ a closer, character-focused narrative style in SF and F.

Though Morgaine is the plot-driving character, the story is told through the narrative perspective of Vanye, a disgraced bastard. Outcast for accidentally killing his brother, he accepts food and shelter from Morgaine, and is bound to assist her in her quest to close the travel gates left behind by a star faring empire. The Gate of Ivrel is Cherryh's first novel, but the world building and characterization are phenomenal. Why these don't end up on any of those "best and influential SFF lists" is beyond me.

11. Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. Published in 1954 by Abelard-Schuman (currently available in the US for Kindle from Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. This is another fantasy novel  remember finding on my parent's bookshelves when I was a kid. Michael Moorcock declared The Broken Sword superior to Tolkien (though that's not saying a lot, since Moorcock isn't the biggest Tolkien fan in the universe), calling it “a fast-paced doom-drenched tragedy in which human heroism, love and ambition, manipulated by amoral gods, elves and trolls, led inevitably to tragic consequences.”

It was influenced by H. Rider Haggard’s 1891 Viking adventure The Saga of Eric Brighteyes. It's definitely worth a read if you'd like to spend some time with elves that aren't at all like the ones from most role playing games. It's a product of its time in that it's somewhat sexist, but still a good read.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Some Great Fantasy Novels or Series That Rarely Make Those "Must Read" Lists

The web is a great place for learning about books and authors, but sometimes it seems like there's a "rich get richer" element to the various "must read" and "best of" or "top" lists that get linked on various sites. The same books and authors we've heard of already tend to come up. So I thought I'd toss some books out there that were either well-liked in their day but have fallen off the cultural radar or had a cult following of sorts but never made it into the fantasy "mainstream" (whatever that might be for the genre). In order to keep this from being just a list of my own unsung favorites, I've been picking the brains of my fantasy-loving friends as well, and some of their suggestions are included. This is not a complete list by any means, and I've got many more titles I'd like to discuss, maybe in a future entry.

1. Deryni Rising and sequels, by Katherine Kurtz. Published by Ballantine Books in 1970, reissued by Ace books in 2004. This was the first book in her Deryni series, which was fairly popular with fantasy geeks in the 70s and early 80s, but even though she is credited with influencing authors like Guy Gavriel Kay and George RR Martin, this novel and series are rarely included on "recommended" or "Must Read" lists today.

Set in the fictitious kingdom of Gwynedd, the fantasy society Kurtz created is much closer to a historically accurate medieval setting than is typical in epic fantasy. The stories focus heavily on magic, intrigue, and politics as Prince Kelson seeks to learn the truth about the not-so-accidental death of his father, his own magical heritage, and to put down the plot to steal his throne by sorceress and pretender Carissa.

2. Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn, Riverhead Books, 2003-2005. (Across the Nightengale Floor, Grass For His Pillow, Brilliance of the Moon). This story takes place in a world inspired by feudal Japan. The protagonist, Takeo, a member of a persecuted religious group, is nearly killed when his village is destroyed. He's saved by the Otori clan an falls into a world of intrigue, magic, and warfare.
This novel is actually fairly popular, but it doesn't seem to be well known in fantasy circles. It seems to be shelved with general fiction in bookstores, in spite of its magical elements and alternative world setting. The first book in the series takes an unusual approach to narrative viewpoint, with one point of view character being shown in first person, and the other in third

3. White Crow Sequence by Mary Gentle. First published in the UK by Bantam in 1990, it's not easy to find a paper version of these books in the US, aside from used books. Kindle editions of the series (Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Left to His Own Devices, and White Crow).

This story is about Valentine the White Crow, a scholar-soldier who has fled from her suitor to a vast city at the centre of the world. The city's humans are ruled by an aristocracy of humanoid rats, which are themselves subject to immensely powerful gods who mostly sleep but are growing restless. Aided by various allies, Valentine must face the gods, defuse the conflict between humans and rats - and decide how she really feels about her suitor. Gentle writes beautifully, and her world and story are far from run-of-the-mill fantasy.

4. Jack Whyte's Dream of Eagles series, six books in all. Published between 1992 and 2005 by Forge books. It's the authors take on the Camelot legend. It's sometimes billed as historical fiction, but falls more into historical fantasy. He's a wonderful writer with a fabulous command of language and a penchant for researching to the nth degree. Want to know how to forge a sword using Dark Ages techniques? He's got it.

The series starts with the first person account of a character named Pubilus Varrus as he retells his own history and that of the Roman withdrawal from Britain, but new characters narrate the later books in the series, which ends with the fall of Camelot.

5. The Witcher Series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Not actually novels, the first book in this series was originally published as a collection of five short stories by Wiedźmin, in 1990. Four of the five have since been translated from Polish released in an English-language edition, The Last Wish in 2008. Other story collections in the series include The Blood of Elves, Sword of Destiny, and Baptism of Fire.

Many Americans were introduced to Sapkowski's world and character via the video games by this name. The stories center around the character of Geralt, a monster hunter struggling to maintain his own ethics while operating in a very "gray" universe that should appeal to people who like darker fantasy. The stories are very influenced by the legends and mythology of Eastern Europe and are filled with subtle humor.

6. Lighthouse Duology (Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone) by Carol Berg, published in 2008, 2009 by Roc books. This story takes place in a fairly typical early-renaissance sans gunpowder fantasy world, but the writing and characterization are phenomenal in my opinion. The protagonist is a rebellious mage who has been hiding from his family for more than a decade, which is a big deal, because in this world, magi are pampered chattel, controlled by their families and expected to live by rigid set of rules. His situation is complicated by a strange malady that's afflicted him since boyhood, which he self medicates with a forbidden magical ritual that is as addictive as it is agonizing.

The story has a slower start than is typical for modern fantasy, but the author introduces information about the world and the protagonist's situation in a way that keeps the reader guessing until the end. I think it should appeal to fans of writers like Robin Hobb, but it has a tone and style that's all its own.

7. The Book of Words Trilogy by J.V. Jones (The Baker's Boy, A Man Betrayed, Master and Fool). Published by Aspect Books in 1995-1996. The story centers on the adventures of a young woman who refuses to be a pawn in a political marriage and an apprentice baker who has powerful but uncontrolled magical abilities, and it incorporates many familiar fantasy tropes--evil twins, scheming sorcerers, and idealistic knights. But the world building, dialog, and intrigue elevate it beyond run of the mill fantasy. A fun read. The paper book appears to be out of print, but it's still available as a kindle edition.

 8. Tamir Triad by Lynn Flewelling (The Bone Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, The Oracle's Queen). These novels take place in the same world (in the land of Skala) as her long-running Nightrunner series, but centuries earlier. They tell the story of Tamir, Skala's greatest Queen, who was magically disguised as a boy at birth in order to hide her from her Usurping uncle. Although the novel uses "prophecy" and "chosen one" tropes, it handles them an interesting perspective--the cost of assuring that they come to fruition.

Though there are several viewpoint characters, Flewelling focuses on the character of "Tobin," who is a shy, lonely, and somewhat peculiar boy who is haunted by the ghost of his twin brother. Flewelling writes compelling and fascinating characters, and the ones in this book have stayed with me longer than most. The main flaw (one I didn't not think so much about the first time I read it), is she missed an opportunity to explore the issues faced by transgender children and teens in more depth.

9. Barry Hughart.  The Bridge of Birds, Del Rey, 1984.  It's a novel of ancient China that never was - but ought to have been.  There are two sequels ( Eight Skilled Gentlemen and The Story of The Stone), but this novel stands alone with no trouble at all.  When the children of his village are afflicted with a mysterious plague, Number Ten Ox heads to the city and recruits a sage to help find a cure, and together they go on a quest. Along the way, they discover they are stuck in the middle of a plot by the Heavenly Emperor of Jade himself.

The book is written in a lyrical, fairy tale style that should delight lovers of classics like The Princess Bride and The Last Unicorn.

10. A Crown of Stars Series by Kate Elliott: This seven book series (starting with King's Dragon) was published between 1997-2006 by DAW books. It is set in the fictitious land of Novaria, and story follows the stories of two young adults, Alain and Liath, as they are drawn into the war that starts when their home is invaded by an inhuman race called the Eika, who had nearly destroyed the world more than 2000 years before.

The author based her world and cultures on real-world medieval kingdoms. The excellent writing and epic scale of the conflict should appeal to fans of Tolkien and George RR Martin.

11. The Witch World series by Andre Norton (first novel Witch World, 1963). Andre Norton was a brilliant writer of both SF and F (the first woman to be awarded the SFWA's Damon night Memorial Grand Master status). and for reasons unknown, she seems to have fallen off the cultural radar in SF and F circles and her books are rarely included on the lists of classics. It's possibly because she was such a prolific writer that no one book or series stands above the others. She was a consummate world builder who often melded SF and F elements. This could also be a reason why her work is often overlooked--people aren't always sure where to categorize it. She also was one of the first speculative fiction writers to include LGBT characters in her work.

Magic is considered to be the sole property of women in this world, and witches lose their powers if they have sex, but the male protagonist has some magical ability, and when he marries a witch woman, both their powers are amplified. This creates some problems with the society's rather conservative ruling caste.

The next installment in this series is available here:

Saturday, August 1, 2015

But It's Realistic! The Delicate Issue of Rape in Fantasy

If the title of this post isn't a warning, I'm talking about a very unpleasant topic today, one that can be a trigger for some people.

Rape is an unfortunate and disturbing facet of human behavior. In a world where a significant percentage of women (and a number of men too) have been subjected to one form of sexual assault or another, it makes sense that it would make its way into fiction, including fantasy.

It is a real thing, for both men and women. It happens in war, in prisons, on the streets, and even in people's homes and private lives (in fact, with most sexual assaults, the victim knows their assailant). I don't think it should be off limits, either as a story focus or as a plot device. I learned about how horrible it was by reading some stories where characters were raped (a couple were even issue books, aimed at teens) and also learned something about the problems victims have with shame and self blame and so on. These novels dispelled some myths about rapes, gave me some information about how to protect myself from it, and helped me develop more empathy for victims.

However, it's a topic that is rife with misconceptions, and it is often handled badly in fiction.

In the first draft of the novel I'm querying now, my female main character was a rape victim. It felt so natural to do this. My story isn't set in a sugar-coated fantasy world. I wanted a bit of grit and realism. Plus, a past sexual assault gave her a reason to be hyper-vigilant, focused on her work, and leery of intimacy. And it gave her a traumatic past that would allow her to empathize with the male main character's outsider status.

But then I started to think about my choice in more detail, and I began to wonder if my unthinking gravitation to rape as backstory for this character wasn't problematic. Here's why:

1. It's the ultimate crime of erasure and un-personing, and it's just about the worst thing a person can do to another without killing or mutilating them. It is a very powerful thing, and it shouldn't be trivialized. Yet is often is in fiction. Did I want to make the issue of rape a specific focus of this novel? No, I really didn't, but if it's handled in passing, then it suggests I think it isn't all that weighty.

2. Adding insult to injury, rape (or other indignities) committed against a female character are often used as a motivator for a male character. It's not about her, it's about the "real" character, who happens to be her lover, husband, father, brother or whatever. It's a form of the infamous "women in refrigerators" trope first identified in superhero comics, but also in movies, video games, and books. Was her rape really there to be something the male main character would have an emotional reaction to later? I didn't like the answer to that question.

3. It's often used as a cheap way of showing how evil someone is: cardboard villain rapes character (or threatens her with rape). It's just been done so darned many times. Same for using it to show how dark and unjust one's fantasy society is. But aren't there other ways I can make a villain thoroughly unpleasant or show the reader how gritty things can get in my world?

4. There are a lot of real, live people walking around who have been victims of sexual assault. Reading about it in a book can cause them to relive their own experience. My character's rape was "off screen," and of course every victim processes his or her experience differently, but even so, did I want to dredge up those emotions in some readers if it wasn't necessary for the story at hand? Not really.

When so many of one's potential readers have been a victim of sexual assault, it's a good idea to consider how it's portrayed, because it will affect them. Graph from Sarah Kliff's Blog.

5. It's often misunderstood. It's a planned crime of violence, humiliation and control, not lust that got carried away. This has been known since I was a kid at least, yet many people haven't gotten the memo yet. Rape is sometimes portrayed as something raiders or soldiers do simply because they haven't been with a woman for a while. It's also one of the only crimes where the victim is routinely blamed.

I did address victim blame, both self blame and blame by others, as problems for the character in the story. But did I really want to explore how that would play out and spend the time to make it clear this rape was a crime of control and anger, not misplaced passion, even if most of the characters didn't realize it? Again, the answer was no.

6. If a character who is meant to be sympathetic rapes or is accessory to a rape, then he/she will cease to be sympathetic to a large number of readers. If the writer wants a redemption arc for a rapist, their work is cut out for them. I call this the Thomas Covenant problem. It wasn't relevant in my case, since the proposed rapist was a villain, but it's definitely an issue in some stories. It's not impossible to make a rapist relatable to a high percentage of readers, even if he isn't on a redemption arc (Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange is a great example of this, as is Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns), but it's a hard needle to thread.

7. Rape portrayals might be titillating or erotic to some readers, or at least read like they're meant to be. This is a particular problem when the assault is shown as part of an actual scene, rather than summarized or recounted as back story. This wasn't really an issue for me in this particular story, but it's another thing that can come up. And more problematically, what's horrific for one reader might be titillating for another.

8. Men get raped too. It's actually quite common in warfare and torture situations, yet rape of adult men seems to be omitted from most stories where authors justify female rape for its realism. Funny how my "go to" rape victim was female. I had actually considered rape of a male character at one point, but I abandoned the idea, because I feared it would make him too unsympathetic or unmanly in the eyes of some readers. Why is this, and why didn't I fear the same thing might be true for my female character? The answer is pretty uncomfortable.

9. And it's been used by so many writers (especially in fantasy) in such lazy, clichéd ways as the life-defining trauma for female characters. Or it's presented as a sort of comeuppance or life lesson for adventurous, naive, or "careless" female characters who presume to go out and risk themselves in a man's world. "Silly girl! Don't you realize all these rules and restrictions that hamper your freedom and agency are really there for your protection? So now you've been raped (or threatened with it). Hope you've learned your lesson and find a man to protect you!" I absolutely, positively did not want to send anything approaching that message.

For all these reasons, I realized that even careful and realistic portrayals of the rape trope can feel (to female readers, at least, but maybe to some male ones too) like being poked over and over in the same patch of deeply bruised flesh.

I decided it might be fun to write a story where the main female character has some other past trauma or dark secret for once

And I really think the one I ended up going with actually works a lot better for her as a character and for the way things unfold between her and the male main character.

I'm not saying rape should never be used by authors, of course. There are too darned many rules out there to baffle and confound new writers. However, I do think it's best to proceed with care and to carefully consider one's reasons for including it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Are the Little Differences So Hard to Imagine in Fantasy?

A fellow writer recently asked (on an online fantasy site) how people had sex in the olden days, when most people lived in one room cottages or huts. Surely the presence of a couple's children, in the same room, or perhaps even the same bed, would have put a damper on things, he reasoned.

As someone who grew up loving the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, there as a point (sometime around my own pre-adolescent period, probably) when I wondered something similar. How did Ma and Pa have sex when Laura, Mary, and Carrie were sleeping in the same one-room cabin on the prairie?

The answer, of course, is that people in different times and places did not (or do not) share our modern, post-Victorian sensibilities about having sex in front of the children. They probably waited until they thought the kids were asleep and had at it. And maybe, when the weather was fine, couples found ways to steal moments alone together in barns, thickets, haystacks, even churches.

Nowadays, many people think it's immodest, or even potentially harmful, for kids to overhear, let alone see, their parents making the beast with two backs. That attitude has hardly been the norm throughout history. Parents probably didn't sit down with their kids and  have "the talk" back then. Kids simply learned about sex via osmosis (and of course, most people in agrarian, nomadic, or hunter-gatherer societies were around animals a lot while growing up, so they almost certainly made the connection there too).

This article does a great job of discussing sex in the middle ages. In fact, people really weren't as prudish back then as many suppose.

In spite of what some people have been insisting (in light of the recent SCOTUS ruling legalizing and legitimizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states), sexual morality is a very fluid and variable thing across history and cultures.

This question got me to thinking, though. There are numerous fantasy novels that show people living in societies with attitudes where the big things--slavery, torture, sexism, public executions, a rigid class or caste structure--are very different from ours. Yet the things that we have trouble envisioning as writers and readers are often the little, everyday differences (like people mostly living in a single room and parents thinking nothing about having sex while their kids are present).

Imagine a romance or fantasy novel with a love scene where the couple is holding back their cries of passion so they don't awaken their toddler, who is sleeping in the bed with them.

Another example of a fact that freaked me out when I learned (sometime around middle school age, I think) it was that women didn't wear underpants under their dresses until fairly recently. The thought of walking around all day with one's most personal and vulnerable parts open from below, gave me the heebie jeebies.
Fragonard's The Swing: What is this fellow looking at?
Of course, I've since figured out that those heavy skirts and petticoats were unlikely to blow up or reveal one's nether regions, even when it was windy or their owner climbing ladders, but it still feels a bit odd to me. On the plus side, the idea that brassieres didn't exist before the 20th century turns out to be untrue.

One thing that's very hard to relate to is differing attitudes about personal hygiene. I admit I was very relieved to learn that all those tales about how no one ever bathed in the olden days were rather exaggerated (though, interestingly, westerners were at their most foul during the early modern era, not the middle ages), and in fact, clothes washing and periodic bathing have been the norm throughout history, even if people didn't always live up to modern standards of cleanliness.

Given how itchy and stinky I am after just a couple days of days camping, I'll admit that a character who bathes but once a year and never cleans his/her teeth is harder for me to relate to than an assassin who kills people for a living. Brent Week's Durzo Bint? I had more problem with his garlic-chewing habit (I have a very low tolerance for garlic, even in food, and the smell of it on someone's breath makes me physcially ill) than I did his talent for slaughter. No fangirl crush on that character!

And speaking of bathing, anything resembling the Japanese tradition of families bathing together doesn't seem to be something that comes up terribly often in fantasy novels. I suspect that many modern authors have too much trouble stepping away from the notion that nakedness is an inherently sexual condition.

A print of this painting hangs in my hall bathroom.
Another social convention that few modern fantasy writers explore in their worlds are communal latrines. Outside of boot camp, modern western bathrooms tend to have locking doors or screens around the toilets, at least. Yet the Romans had communal latrines and public piss pots where people of both genders "went" in front of one another, and even socialized whilst they did. Especially revolting to me, however, is the concept of the shared sponges.

Toilets are definitely one of those intimate, everyday things with which we like to take for granted. Anyone who has been camping, or traveled in a country where facilities are designed differently, knows how disconcerting it is to adapt to a different way of answering nature's call.

Moving to the other end of the alimentary canal, I also have a hard time getting my head around the idea that toothbrushes seem to be a very recent invention (though unsurprisingly, the Chinese might have had something similar). However, people did indeed have ways of cleaning their teeth in the old days, and some research suggests that tooth cleaning sticks made from some kinds of trees or shrubs do an excellent job of promoting gingival health.

Habits of grooming or beauty aesthetics that are different from ours can be a jolt also. It's hard for me to imagine being attracted to a man with a tonsure, for instance, though those have existed in various times and places in history (and not just for monks). And when I saw the Kurosawa movie Ran many years ago, I was put off by the way the women plucked their brows to nothing and drew fake ones in way above their natural position. These looked odd to me. It's another one of those "small things" that wouldn't be very comfortable for me to imagine in a protagonist in a fantasy novel.

There are plenty of other "little things" that have changed throughout history and that vary between cultures. Taboos, habits of personal hygiene and grooming, even table manners (like using fingers to eat instead of utensils). Even though it can be a bit uncomfortable, I think authors sometimes miss opportunities to use these kinds of small differences as a means of reminding their readers that their characters aren't simply modern people wearing costumes. It's challenging, though, because for some readers, the ability to connect emotionally, even romantically, with a character is an important part of the experience of reading.

Feel free to comment and chime in on some of your own blind spots about history. What kinds of small, everyday differences have you tried to incorporate into a fantasy culture? Which ones put you off so much it's hard to relate to a character who practices them?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

An Article on The Lost Legacy of Many Female Fantasy Writers

This is a fantastic article on a topic I've been trying to get my head around for a while--the way great female fantasy and SF writers seem to fall off the cultural radar faster and more completely than male ones.

Most people remember Terry Brooks and other popular male writers from the 70s and 80s, but fewer people seem to remember writers like Katherine Kurtz, or even ones like CJ Cherryh and Mercedes Lackey, who are still writing today.

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I'll post a link to the article here:

Fantasy, Female Writers, and the Politics of Influence by Tansy Rayner Roberts.

And as an interesting aside, did you know that Australia actually has more trade-published female writers of adult speculative fiction (and fantasy) than male?

Britain seems to have fewer, while the US is in between these two countries.

It's interesting how different English-speaking countries can be in this regard, but it does suggest that there's nothing innately different in the abilities of men and women as writers of speculative fiction.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Old Dog Stuff

My husband and I adopted Roxy back in the fall of 2000 to celebrate closing on a house. We already had one dog, Astra, and she was a social pup who loved canine company. But as habitual renters, finding places with even one dog (and a clowder of cats) was challenging.  I remember all too well the pain of falling for a dog and really wanting to adopt him but being told no second dog by a landlord.

So the first thing I wanted to do once we became homeowners was to adopt a dog. I was training Astra in agility by then, so I also looked forward to training a second dog in the sport.

When we went to the Sacramento Animal Care and Services shelter, I almost missed Roxy, since she was in a kennel with three other dogs. Doug pointed her out, and we fell in love at once.

Roxy doing agility: Ann Clayton Photography
She's a border collie-chow mix, and in spite of the bad reputation chows and chow mixes have, she's always been the sweetest, most tolerant dog imaginable. When she was younger, she was a fairly enthusiastic agility partner and won some titles, including a NATCH and a CATCH. But as she became middle aged, her enthusiasm waned. Unfortunately, chows don't have the most athletic build, and the sport was starting to take its toll on her knees and shoulders.

So I retired her and concentrated on doing the sport with Wiley, my kelpie.

But she remained our special baby. After Astra passed away, we adopted a younger dog, Flick. Flick is a bit of a, well, the name for female dogs applies as a commentary on her character. Lovable but mercurial in her moods, and nervous enough we have to be careful with her and strangers. But Roxy, even as she grows old and creaky, never shows anything resembling temper.

And this is part of what's making it so hard as she gets older. With a dog who is so calm and undemanding, how can we tell when her quality of life has passed into the unacceptable. It's pretty clear that Roxy, at 15 1/2, is in her final approach. It's not just because her old peer group of dogs (ones who were in beginning agility class and were at their peak at around the same time as she was) have been dropping like flies lately. She's been arthritic for a while, and her muscles aren't as strong as they once were, but it's gotten worse lately. Until recently, she got enthusiastic about her walks, though they'd become shorter and slower than they once had. And painkilling and anti-inflammatory meds (Adequan and Metacam) seemed to help.

Roxy as of about a month ago.
But over the past week or two, she's been pretty reluctant to get up when she's been lying for a while, and if Flick jostles her (which Flick does often, being a galut), she falls over. She can still get up with help. I've tried one of those dog harnesses that allows us to assist her, but she really doesn't seem to like it much. She's still got a good appetite, but she's not always so keen to get up and out of bed in the morning, even though she's hungry. She's never been one for playing with toys, so that's not a very good gauge of her overall level of enthusiasm for life. She still likes having her ears scratched.

The hardest thing is travel. We cancelled a planned trip this summer because of the uncertainty over arranging for her care (she can't be boarded and needs a live in pet sitter who will be around a lot, but most leave the dogs for 8-10 hours and are only there at night), while Flick must be boarded in a special care program at a kennel that has trainers to work with stranger-wary dogs that can't just be tossed into their twice daily group play mash up. So needless to say, arranging for pet care for a week-long trip is astronomical--greater than our hotel costs would be, actually (Wiley is sitting here saying, "I can go either way, Mom, I love pet sitters and don't mind boarding kennels!")

And we have a day trip to Carson City coming up, because some relatives will be in town there we never get to see. For normal people, popping across the pass for a day is nothing. But with one dog who can't come for a visit because she's not reliable around kids (and so must be day boarded, since we also can't have them in our yard when we aren't there to supervise), one who can come along cheerfully, and one who can't be left home alone for 10 hours but may find the long car ride and extra stress very unpleasant, well, argh! Roxy is coming, but we'll have to be gentle with her.

This is nothing to what most people have to deal with re caregiving for kids or seniors in their human families (especially special needs family members), since we can at least go out and leaver her for 3-4 hours at a time, but since Roxy is "only" a dog, people tend to be less understanding when we say that traveling is challenging right now

So we're making a vet appointment later this week for assessment and hopefully suggestions about how to keep her quality of life acceptable, and also, when to know that it isn't. In her case, if it gets to where she just can't walk anymore, I think we will know it's time for sure. There are carts and so on, but I don't think one would be comfortable or easy to adapt to for a dog her age.

The hardest part is not simply being to ask them what they want. Doug sometimes jokes that Roxy is still alive because of her separation anxiety issues (this was something we had to deal with when she was a pup, though it became manageable as she matured). She simply doesn't want to leave us. But in all seriousness, when do the aches and pains of being so old overtake the pleasure she derives from our company? I wish we could ask her.

It's the hardest thing about having animals.