The Bookshop. THE Bookshop

I am home!

Which, sadly, means that nobody is going to make me a mocha when I lurch out of bed, or offer to cook breakfast for me, or watch the ninja while I sleep until noon. I miss you, kindly mother-in-law! But it does mean that I have my preferred brand of soymilk for my coffee (which the spouse made for me, so I still didn’t have to make my own), my favourite kind of bread for my breakfast toast (the USA does not contain King Henry rye bread, which is a terrible loss for the USA), and I have my own computer again and I have missed it so much!

I have also missed Tumblr. I love you, Tumblr.

It was a pretty great trip, all up. Got to spend time with family, show off my beautiful and well-behaved daughter, and do fun stuff like shop at the BIGGEST BOOK STORE IN THE WORLD. Seriously!

Powells' City of Books

Powells’ City of Books

This is only part of it, by the way – the City of Books is a full city block in size, with many rooms on multiple levels. My personal favourite is the Gold Room, which contains science fiction, fantasy, comic books and manga. Perhaps you would prefer to get some children’s books or YA from the Rose Room, a best-seller from the Green Room, a travel book from the Red Room or a historical tome from the Purple Room. They have everything, and I mean everything.

They buy new and used, so I’ve found out-of-print treasures for a few dollars, including a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Budge’s translation) which I’d been hunting for for ages. It is THE bookshop, the shop of shops, where you really can get lost – seriously, you can get so turned around in there. The spouse tells the story of a man who really did accidentally get locked in there one night at closing – he was sitting in an out of the way corner and had dozed off. There’s a coffee-shop that they let you take books into. There are shopping baskets in bright primary colours and a checking desk, so you can buy an armload of books, drop them off, and keep shopping!

The new and used thing means you should check every copy of a book – some will be much cheaper than others, especially if they’re a little foxed around the edges. There are some amazing bargains – but be warned! It’s possible to spend a lot of money in there very quickly. If you live close enough, you can offset this by bringing old books to sell off, earning yourself some store credit.

If you’re travelling from far away – well, try to control yourself. And make sure you have some spare room in your suitcase. But wherever you are in the world, if you love books, then Powells’ is definitely a place to put on your ‘places to visit’ list. Portland is a lovely city to visit, unless you really hate rain, and I absolutely recommend it a stop – or the destination – on a reader’s literary pilgrimage.

And if you can’t afford that, they have an online store.

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There’s something about a Victorian murder.

I’m not sure exactly what it is – the contrast, maybe, between the prim manners requisite to polite society and the basic impoliteness of murder. Murdering someone really is about as inconsiderate as one can be. And there is a scope available to the clever criminal then that there isn’t now, when evidence is examined so much more minutely and DNA and fingerprints can tell against you.

I’ve always wanted to write murder mysteries – I enjoy reading them and trying to detect the clues to the murderer, which I almost never manage to do. But mystery by necessity requires a great deal of planning, which has never been, as Colon says, my meteor. I keep meaning to try it, but the magnitude of the task is daunting. And anything I can come up with always seems so obvious. Trying to give away only subtle clues is really difficult, at least for me – it always seems so obvious to me, since I know what’s going on behind it.

I like both novels and the recountings of real murders set around the Victorian era. Mind you, I like murders in any time and place – man, that sounds dodgy – but the Victorian ones, being on the very cusp of the changes to police methods and usage of evidence, are particularly interesting. Does anyone else have a favourite time period or place for murder?

 

An Extra Book

So I’m going to the US for two weeks, leaving next Wednesday. It’s going to be the first time I’m travelling with a tiny person – the ninjatot will be turning three while we’re over there – and I am of course freaking out to a truly paralytic degree because WHAT IF I FORGET A VITAL THING. THERE ARE SO MANY VITAL THINGS PASSPORTS AND TICKETS AND TOYS AND SPARE CLOTHES AND WIPES AND DIAPERS AND NNNGH.

But! There’s an upside!

For the first time, I’ll be travelling on a plane with an e-book reader.

That’s right! No big backpack full of books for me! I’ll have my reader whose charge usually lasts around a week, plus my iphone – which admittedly will mostly be used to keep the kid quiet by letting her play her edumacational games and change my wallpaper repeatedly – my ipod, and Phil, my trusty tablet-with-keyboard-dock. I’m hoping to actually get some writing done, if I can get the ninjatot to sleep. I’ve always had good luck writing on planes. (Phil is named for Phil Coulson, the small, dapper entity who can do almost anything.) I also have a portable recharger for the iphone, which I will undoubtedly need, which can double as an adaptor for charging my devices in the US.

It’s going to be weird, travelling so completely wired up. I’m only going to be taking one paper book! (For take-off and landing. I’ll probably take an Austen, I can always reread those) When I remember earlier trips, with my backpack full of seven or eight books, and the anxious fretting over running through them too fast, it’s hard to believe my reading habits have changed so enormously over the last few years. I bought my first e-reader before my daughter was born, and if you know an expectant mother who likes to read I promise you, it is the best baby shower gift ever. You can work them one-handed, they stay ‘open’ without you needing to hold onto them, the print’s adjustable so you can put it down beside you where the kid can’t see it, and if you’re immobilized by a caesarian you won’t run out of reading material. E-book readers are the mother’s friend!

I find that I rarely read paper books now. I still love them, and I’ll go back to them more when the kid’s a little older, I think – she still rips pages now and then –  but not if I’m planning on leaving the house. Not having to worry about running out of book while I’m out of the house is too awesome to give up. Although now I have to worry about my book running out of battery, which never happened before! And while in theory I have a phone, a tablet and an ipod to amuse me if that happens, my electronic devices have developed a near-uncanny skill at synchronizing their recharging cycles, despite all having a very different battery life.

Oh, well. At least they’re not as heavy as eight books and a laptop, like I had last time!

I hope all of you enjoy your Easter/Spring Celebration/Long weekend, however you spend it!

Following the Language Barrier, The Dialectic

So, let’s talk about dialects.

A dialect, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group’. Dialects within the same language can vary pretty damn enormously. Remember the adorable but barely comprehensible Young McGuffin from ‘Brave‘? He was speaking Doric, a dialect of Scots which may be an obscure subdialect of English or may be simply a very closely related language, apparently that’s up for debate, which I didn’t know, so thank you Wikipedia.

I love Wikipedia. It’s not always perfect, but on average it’s usually reasonably close-ish, which as internet sources go is pretty good.

Anyway. Dialects within a single language can vary hugely and sometimes very subtlely. Varieties within one country can be pretty broad – between different countries, even bigger. I’ve been married to an American for nigh on ten years now, and I still occasionally come out with words or phrases he doesn’t know, despite the fact that we are both English speakers first and only. I comprehend Television American (the tidied up version, like BBC English) reasonably well, but when the slang comes out I am rapidly lost. Although to be perfectly honest I get confused by a lot of Australian slang too because I am a nerd in her thirties and didn’t know the cool things the kids were saying even when I was one.

This is relevant to writing because it is very very easy to get dialects wrong. I’ve been corrected multiple times, when writing Harry Potter fiction, for using words or phrases that are dialectically inappropriate. Ditto for writing American characters, though not as often. If you are writing a story set in a country or area or something with which you are not personally familiar, and you want to publish it, do really try to find someone who knows it to act as a beta-reader for your dialogue at the very least. People will usually do this for unfamiliar languages, but they don’t always realize how wildly dialects can vary among, the most prevalent example I know of, English Speakers Of The World. (I don’t read any other languages, so I don’t know how frequently this problem occurs elsewhere, but from what I have picked up here and there English-speakers are bar-none the worst for not realizing that their language has dialectic variations)

And don’t crack the shits if your source says you can’t tell your bogan from your wanker.

See? See what I mean? And I don’t even speak Strine! I’d be confusing you all if I could, I can tell you.

Seriously, English is not just English. Check your dialects, especially if you’ve set your novel in a country other than your own.

 

And Now For Something Completely Different

My daughter has been very slow to start talking, which is both worrying and deeply frustrating. It’s getting to the point where we need to make an appointment to take her to a specialist to try to find out what the problem is.

And that makes me think about language barriers. My little ninja (she’s seriously stealthy and agile for a two-year-old) woke up in the middle of the night last night and had shrieking hysterics when put back into bed… and I don’t know why. She can’t tell me. I don’t know if she had a scary nightmare, or if she had a stomach ache, or if she’s just upset because she has the flu. I can try assorted things – drink of milk, bottle of chilled water, cuddles, songs, letting her curl up in our bed instead of her own – but they’re semi-informed guesses at best.

Language differences are often handwaved in fiction. Universal translators are a science-fiction staple, ‘common’ or ‘trade-talk’ ditto in fantasy. Magic can ease a linguistic barrier, or maybe a babelfish in the ear.

Which bugs me, a little. Language is the medium in which novels communicate and yet they hand-wave and simplify it to the point of  non-existence. I really think characters can handle a little in the way of basic linguistic inconvenience. It also ignores the fact that even now, let alone in the days before pocket dictionaries, people often know more than one language, especially if they’re likely to need to. Lady Jane Grey famously spoke and wrote French, Greek, Italian and Latin fluently, in addition to English, and she was still in her teens when she died. There is no reason why characters in high fantasy shouldn’t speak multiple languages… even a Farmboy Protagonist may have picked up a few words here and there, if he happens to have grown up near a trade-route. In fact, the idea that everyone in a fantasy world speaks the same language is orders of magnitude less likely than Farmboy Protagonist happening to have happened on a few words of Exotic Foreign.

I’ll concede that in science fiction, this is harder. A mechanical translator is a pretty reasonable solution to the fact that not only are there whole worlds full of new languages that possibly haven’t been encountered before, but that a humanoid vocalizing mechanism probably isn’t going to be up to producing all of them. Even so, it would be nice to at least see some token difficulties.

One of my favourite depictions of this is in the beginning of the movie ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’, in which the poet Ahmed ibn Fadlan learns to speak Norse over the course of a journey, by listening to the men around him talking. Words slowly become clear, and eventually he’s able to communicate, though his use of grammar is noticeably different, which I thought was a nice touch. (Yes, I know it’s a terribly cheesy movie. I like it anyway.) David Weber in his War God series does acknowledge the existence of different languages, and gets around the problem tidily enough by having his protagonist being a somewhat well-educated noble, the son of a prince, who like Jane Grey has learned multiple languages as a matter of course. He doesn’t speak them all perfectly, but he can get by.

In science fiction, the best example that leaps to mind is a very old book called ‘The Dancing Meteorite’, by Anne Mason. I loved this book when I was younger, and as an adult I hunted down a second-hand copy so I could have it forever. It features a young ‘e-comm’ xenolinguist, who runs into trouble several times not only because learning multiple alien languages – some of which are nigh-impossible for a human to produce the sounds for – takes up all her time, isolating her from her peers, but because it takes up all her study time. She doesn’t have enough scientific grounding to know that a meteorite shouldn’t change direction spontaneously, let alone all the other information her peers think is elementary. Anne Mason showed very clearly what a huge barrier language can be, including having Kira explaining to the members of her exploratory team when they protest that handling languages is her job, not theirs, that they will all be in different parts of the alien ship they hope to travel on, and that she will only be able to translate for one of them at a time, and in addition is required to do her own work as well as acting as the diplomat for the team and suck it up and learn your shit, princesses. Not that she says that, but oh, it would have been delightful if she had.

I know it’s tempting to insert a convenient lingua franca into fiction, so that you don’t have to waste time on explanations or translations, but I do think it’s something that should be given real thought, not just brushed off. Language barriers are so utterly frustrating, they make a wonderful source of tension in a plot – and one that doesn’t require willful misunderstandings or being Stupid-In-Service-To-The-Plot. I would love to see a fantasy novel in which the group of travellers Brought Together By Fate don’t all speak the same language, and have to rely on those members who know both or all three languages to relay information. The possibilities for complications just abound! And when The Group Gets Separated, as it traditionally does, well, then things could get really interesting.

Does that story already exist? If it does, please let me know!

EDIT: If anyone is wondering, the trouble with the Tiny Ninja was an ear infection. We have antibiotics for it, and she’s much happier already.

2013-10: The Alchemist Of Souls by Anne Lyle

Book two of the 2013 ten – ten books I haven’t read before, by authors I haven’t read before!

Alchemist of Souls was good…. but.

There’s nothing like damning with faint praise, I know. But that was definitely the feeling I came away with. “It was good, but…”

The prose was good, but the pacing was off.

The characters were likeable and engaging, but their motivations often weren’t really explained.

The idea was first-rate, but the climax was disappointing.

The title was good, but was only barely relevant to the story.

The history was good, but the Plot McGuffin was huge and unwieldy.

Honestly, I enjoyed reading it at the time. I liked the characters, the portrayal of Elizabethan England was realistic and engaging, and I do always enjoy alternate histories. But when I finished the book, I found myself feeling kind of unsatisfied. The plot wasn’t resolved well, and too much of it had just leaped up out of nowhere in the last third of the book. I’m sure a lot of people would read and love this book – I like to see the gun on the wall in act one, before it gets used in act three, but people who don’t mind the author holding back would no doubt enjoy the twist.

Nevertheless, the prose and characters were excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to read more by Ms Lyle.

Multitasking

I hate multitasking.

I really hate that it’s expected of me because I’m female.

Some women multitask just fine, and good for them. But if you’re insanely forgetful, like me, multitasking rapidly turns into ‘wait, was I doing something else? What am I doing now? Did someone just talk to me? What?’ and getting distracted and having a half-dozen half-done tasks instead of four finished ones. I have learned that it is a very bad idea to go put the kettle on while the laundry tub fills, or to answer one email while the kettle boils, or just play one little flash-game while I think about what to write next in an email, because I will invariably forget what I was doing, and then I’ll flood the laundry, realize an hour later that I still don’t have any coffee, or realize two days later that I never finished answering that email.

I can mix related tasks just fine. I can make Kielle’s lunch and my coffee simultaneously. I can answer work emails while answering the phone. But I usually can’t leave the room and remember to come back. And it drives me mad when I get yelled at because of it, as has happened often both at work and at home. My sister once took shameless advantage of the fact that I don’t register sound very well or very fast while reading to walk up to me and say quickly and loudly ‘Hey, Sarah, can I hit you?’

I looked up and said ‘yes?’ because all I’d heard was my name.

She punched me in the arm.

I responded with “OW! Why did you… wait (her earlier words finally registering)… that was mean!”

Our dad, who’d seen the whole thing, nearly passed out laughing and refused to punish her for hitting me because she’d asked permission first.

I have no idea why, but it’s very difficult for me to read and process verbal input simultaneously. My mother has the same problem but even worse – she is literally incapable of reading and talking at the same time (she reads out loud just fine, but can’t read and talk about something different), and has to stop and do a mental reset every time she’s interrupted.

So if you have trouble multitasking, and have been told that you’re just not trying, or not paying attention, or whatever, then I am hugging you in my mind right now. Because I feel your pain.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to the bathroom, put my e-reader on the charger, and find my phone. I am confident that I can get at least one of those done before I forget what I was doing and wander back to the computer.

Edit: I got distracted and played five games of Candy Crush before even getting up, and only just now remembered to charge the e-reader, but I got there eventually.