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25 September 2011

For years I’ve bought a book series, I read them first back in the 1960s, and still have an ex-library book of one of the earliest in the series from then. They were quirky, funny, witty, and had cats and mysteries, What more could you ask for? And for a number of years I also got the newsletter about the books and author from a nice lady named Helen Mccarthy – until she retired and no one could take over the newsletter, so it too retired.
In the mid-1990s I edited a book of cat poetry written by a friend of mine and asked the author of this series if she’d read it and give me a cover quote. She did in a handwritten letter – sent for a mere limited edition chapbook being published by a VERY small press on the other side of the world. Most of her series that I have are signed not only by the author but also by ‘Koko’. And, wondering casually the other day why I hadn’t seen a new book recently (I’ve been hugely busy with my own writing this past 3-4 years) I googled her to find out that she’d died. In June, with a final book – it would have been the 30th in the series – unfinished.
I was very sorry to hear it. She was generous, kind, hard working, and wrote good books, now there won’t be any more and I’ll miss The Cat Who books by Lilian Jackson Braun (Bettinger) and her adventures of reporter Jim Qwilleran, and his Siamese, KoKo and Yum Yum. She wrote the series for forty years, and I can only wish that she’d lived longer and written a lot more.

a paperback from DAW SF published 2010 – reviewed by Lyn McConchie.
Tanya Huff produces great books! Here and there, there have been ones I didn’t much like, nothing against her writing, just that the characters didn’t grab me quite as strongly as usual. But this book isn’t one of them. Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr has finally left the marines and joined her partner in his salvage business. But you never really leave the marines, not when you find that salvage operators are being raided and murdered by pirates, and especially not when you find out why. Not just for the loot, but for what they know – which could lead to a civilian war in her sector.
It’s possible she’d have overlooked events, but when the pirates attack her ship, leave her for dead and kidnap her partner, Torin sets out to find them, sort out their motives, and make them pay. To help her she calls in old friends from her previous time in the marines. What happens after that is a mad ride of politics, mystery, murder, and a number of characters without which space would be vastly improved.
By the time Torin is through, things are improved, her partner has been retrieved (minus a toe) their ship will be retrieved, (with pirate damage repaired) and Torin has a new official position – which looks like producing a whole string more of great books. I can’t be certain of that of course, Tanya Huff has a habit of writing just so many books about any character, then rounding things off and that’s it. But this looks promising and I really hope that she’ll stay with Torin, Craig, and the others, for a while yet.
This books is Recommended, as is the ‘Valor’ series, also her ‘keeper chronicles’ – for cat-lovers in particular.

Writers who live in big cities and are unknown to their neighbours are unfortunate. Or it may be that they like it that way. I don’t. A couple of months ago I was pounced on by our promotions committe and asked to write a poem for the new troll family carved out of wood and placed between our cafe and the war menorial hall. (Norsewood is ‘home of the friendly trolls’.) I let the idea settle into my subconscious and in a couple of days I sat down and wrote the 8 line poem which will shortly appear on the plinth. If as a writer you don’t like being asked to interrupt what you’re doing to produce something on demand, you won’t appreciate this, but I don’t mind working that way and liked being asked to contribute to something local. There is a solid scattering of trolls in various materials around our village and now all have a poem of mine attached.
Then there are the articles I write for our local newspaper. One appeared last week and over the weekend I had a phone call from a lady who’d read it, wanting to discuss something I’d said and find out where I’d got one of the items mentioned. We had a very pleasant chat, and I look forward to hearing her outcome. See? You don’t get that sort of interaction in a big city.

Wilmar H(ouse) Shiras was born in Boston in 1908, and died in 1990.
She married her husband when she was 18 and they raised five children. It was for them that she began telling the stories that would ultimately become her single great work. There are some authors who appear to have only one good book in them, and Shiras may have been one of that sort, since she never produced another although she lived for many years after publication, first of portions of the book, then of the whole book.
But in 1948 she submitted a novella, In Hiding, to John W. Campbell, the novella appeared in the November issue of Astounding and made an immediate impression. Shiras had tapped into the angst of the time about atom bombs, radiation and mutation, and her story, about a boy who is a genius well beyond any human before, far from playing on those fears, showed the essential terrible loneliness that such a child would suffer who has no peer even amongst most adults. It became an instant classic, and readers eagerly awaited more.
They received it with the publication of the next novella, Opening Doors, in 1949, followed by the third, New Foundations, the same year. Shiras then added these together, and they became the first three chapters of her five-chapter book, and the entire book, Children of the Atom appeared from Gnome Press in 1953.
The book is a tour de force, at a time when many authors were writing work that indicated all radiation-produced mutations would be inimical to human life, hideous, or a dead end, Shiras wrote about children who were none of these things. (The Midwich Cuckoos is a good example of the other type of book.) In her work the child is both a genius and a rather lonely boy. Raised by his grandmother, he is quiet, introspective, and a loner in less obvious ways. He secretly writes and corresponds with adults who believe him to be an adult. He has articles published in scientific journals whose editors believe him to be highly educated and a scientist.
But it is not until a local psychiatrist befriends him and discovers the child’s secret that the boy finds a genuine friend who can know and accept him as he really is. Inspired by the possibility that there may be more children out there created by the same event as produced this boy, the doctor gradually discovers more of these children and, understanding their deep needs and the dangers that will beset them when/if they are discovered, he establishes – with financial aid from the boy’s grandparents – a place where they, he, and several other sympathetic adults, can live, work and learn together.
It is clear from the start that the children have already outstripped him in everything but emotional maturity, but he knows the problems they do face now and will face later and accepts that in a few years he will be as a child to their adults. He believes that the human race needs them, and that only with what they can do and bring will humanity reach emotional maturity themselves and only with the children’s later leadership will humanity go to the stars without destroying themselves.
When this book appeared in the 1950s, it was said that its intellectual analysis and the writer’s deep knowledge of people and the philosophical foundation of the writing were another step in SF’s coming of age. That may sound like a great deal for an SF novel, but Andre Norton in discussing it with me in 1991 soon after Shiras’s death praised it in similar terms. She had known Wilmar Shiras, and said that in her opinion the book was one of the best ever written in the genre.
There are still copies of this book to be found. In 1959 the UK SFBC published it in hardcover in England, (the copy I have – passed on from a friend’s estate) and looking at it on Amazon last year I saw that they had nine copies available, and in a different edition again for those quoted in this piece. In some ways this book may appear simple to modern readers, in its time it was hugely innovative, but other writers have since used the theme, however mostly they didn’t deal with it as well, and this original work is still a great read and worthy of a place on anyone’s shelves as forerunner of a new sub-genre. Highly recommended.

19 September 2011

As the poet said,
the rain it raineth every day,
upon the just and unjust fella.
But more so on the just because
– the unjust hath the just’s umbrella.
(and no, I don’t know who wrote that, it has many attributions including Shakespeare.)
But what made me think of it is that it rained here all last night. More than an inch of rain, leading to a disgusted cat, my discovery that I have a leak in the woodshed roof, and happy geese. It was just sufficient for them to enjoy it and not enough to swamp nests. Nests? Yes, two of the three girl geese are broody. If the eggs are fertile there could be goslings within a week. Not that I’m counting goslings before they’re hatched. The gander hasn’t ever been that productive as a gosling-producer, but he’s hell on wheels as a ‘watchdog,’ and given those options I prefer the latter.

I was watching a long, undoubtedly very expensive film last night and once it was finishing I watched the credits to see who a couple of the characters that I’d liked had been. The cast list was in such small lettering that I couldn’t read it, and I wondered what is it with movie companies? They spend a fortune on the movie, on the stunts, the explosions, paying the stars, on locations, and everything else. And after all that they can’t afford to run the credits a few seconds longer and have them in legible writing? If I was a movie star I’d want people to know I’d been in the movie – or, considering some movies I’ve seen, maybe not…

16 September 2011

Sterling Edmund Lanier was born on the 18th of December 1927 and died on June 28th 2007. However, like many of the other authors in this series, his writing output was small, and he has often been overlooked by readers who started reading after Lanier’s heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. Lanier was a man of many talents, which may have contributed to his low writing output. He was a Harvard graduate, served in the army in WWII, was an anthropological/archaeological researcher in the Winterthur Museum for several years, and then worked as an editor – his great claim to fame in that being that while he worked as Editor at Chiltern Books in Philadelphia he strongly backed the publication of DUNE, a work that had been continually rejected by many other publishers. Lanier began selling his SF in 1961, with six books and a number of short stories appearing before he stopped writing in 1986. Lanier was something of a Renaissance Man, who took up sculpting after he ceased to write, and some of his sculptures are exhibited in major venues like the Smithsonian.
His first novel is regarded by some as his most important work (although personally I prefer Menace Under Marswood) but Heiro’s Journey is a reader-seizing book set on a 5000 years post-holocaust Earth, it was followed eight years later by the sequel, The Unforsaken Heiro. Both works were forerunners of common themes today, being a battle between ecologists (The Eleveners) and those who want to bring back the earth-polluting practices of the distant past (the Unclean) with other groups caught in the middle, some intelligent bears, and what seems to be a society of dryads. This duo of books is a well-thought-out pair, with Lanier clearly utilizing his background in anthropology and archaeology to build credible long-term outcomes after the destruction of our original civilization and what might then spring from the ruins after long-tern radiation and bacterial warfare have ravaged the world.
Two further books, actually short story collections, are excellent, they follow very much the same format as Tales of the Black Widowers, Tales from the White Hart etc. in that they are a series of stories being told by a club member to other members, and they are pithy, amusing, and often very clever. His final two books were standalones and also compelling reading. I feel that it was a huge pity Lanier stopped writing and took up sculpture – although art-lovers may disagree. But he had the ability to take a previously superficially used theme and turn it inside out, producing something new and fascinating.
At least one of his short stories – Join Our Gang? – is free from the Gutenburg Press and other works may be in free download elsewhere since as was common with writers working in the 60s/70s, at least some – if not most or all – of their work was often not re-copyrighted after the initial 28 year period and ultimately fell into the public domain. My recommendations are the Brigadier Ffellowes stories, and Menace Under Marswood. The latter book is a gorgeous hotchpotch of Kipling undertones, with perhaps Leinster’s The Forgotten Planet (Ace 1953) as overtones. This book called out for a sequel if not two, but never received one. A great pity as I’d have loved to hear more of Mohammad Slater and his pet, Grabbit. Lanier produced 13 uncollected short stories, two collections, and four books in his twenty-five year writing career and almost all he did was quality. I can only wonder, if he had continued to write, what other outstanding SF books and stories we would have had.
Eric Flint has, over the past decade, been making a habit of re-collecting work by earlier writers and reintroducing them to the Sf/F reading public via Baen. I believe that Sterling Lanier would be an excellent writer for him to consider. The six books fall naturally into pairs, and the 19 short stories that were published could probably been assigned to similar categories. So three volumes would neatly cover Lanier’s output if they are either all in the public domain by now or if Lanier’s heirs would agree.

Bibliography
Books:
Hiero’s Journey (1975)
The Unforsaken Hiero (1983)
The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes (1971)
The Curious Quests of Brigadier Ffellowes (1986)
The War for the Lot (1969)
Menace Under Marswood (1983)

Short stories:

A quick trip down to our village yesterday to pick up a few things and drop off lemons. I have a Meyer lemon tree, there’s only a short period around early spring where that fruits really prolifically, but for most of the year it fruits steadily. Far more than I could ever use unless I went mad making lemon honey, lemonade, and lemon-juice ice-blocks. So mine go to good causes. Just about all year – for about the past 12 years – I’ve kept a small basket filled with lemons in the waiting room of our local health clinic. Those attending with colds, sore throats or flu, anything where a nice hot drink of lemon and honey would make you feel better, are welcome to take a few of the lemons. And around September where the tree has the major burst of fruiting, I pick anywhere from 200 to 300 lemons over 3-4 weeks and they’re put out in a crate in front of our local dairy, which sells them for some good cause. They usually make about $60+ – painlessly for all concerned. That to me is far better than having a circle of rotting fruit under my tree. The only thing that puzzles me is why some people do seem to prefer that to sharing the unwanted fruit.

TAILS OF WONDER AND IMAGINATION edited by Ellen Datlow.
Trade paperback, Night Shade Books, 2010. A reprint anthology of 40 stories about felines. 464 pages.
Reviewed by Lyn McConchie.

To put this review in perspective. I grade theme anthologies in two ways. There are the stories, how many of them that, for that single story alone, I count my money well spent? Most theme anthologies will have 2-4 stories of that quality in a total of 15-20 stories. And the other way is where, while no single story quite reaches that level, all are good enough and blend into such a harmoniously chosen whole, that I still feel my money was well spent.
Tails falls into category one very solidly. Of the forty tales, I noted fifteen for which each alone would have sold me the book. That puts it into the excellently edited quality too. Editing an anthology is an art not a science. The very best anthologies are those that have a large number of wonderful tales, but which also have a sort of internal flow that leads you from tale to tale unable to put the book down. Such perfection is vanishingly rare, and I can think of only a handful of anthologies purchased over my 55 years of reading that would fall into that list – the S&S of MZB’s, most of Andre’s, and one or two from back in the 1950-60s.
“Tails” doesn’t quite make that level. I found that the stories didn’t seem to be more than 40 very good works on a theme. But I can say that I found no story that was not very well written, no story that did not have an interesting plot and intriguing characters. There were stories that I didn’t like, but that was personal preference rather than any lack in the writer and other readers will probably prefer different works.
The list of writers is a fine one, ranging from the very well-known, like Charles de Lint, Carole Nelson Douglas, Lucy Sussex, Peter S. Beagle, Nancy Springer and Neil Gaiman et al, to the lesser known who have still produced great stories. The lengths of the works too are well varied, making it easy to find something to read quickly, or a longer read when you have the time.
Of the stories that seized me by the throat as I read, I would mention A. R. Morlan’s “No Heaven Will Not Ever Heaven Be,” and Dennis Danvers’ “Healing Benjamin.” Both stories brought me to tears – yes, I’m a sentimentalist – from the sheer poignancy of the writing.
There are a number of horror or dark fantasy tales in the anthology. Some are really horrific like Graham Joyce’s “Candida”. The story of a man who finds himself in Candida, where he must stay, losing time in patches and wandering the streets drunken and unfed until he can strike a deal that will allow him to leave. Nancy Etchemendy’s “Cat in Glass’, an unpleasant psychological story of mental delusion and torment. And George R.R. Martin’s story “Guardians” where humans on a planet they have settled are informed by an outsider that they have been murdering sentient beings. That was one of the “Tuf” stories and while it is distressing, I like that series and found it a fine read.
The stories have come from such a wide range of sources that it is unlikely any reader will have seen more than a few of them before. (I’d previously read three.) The price of this anthology too – perhaps because it is an anthology of reprints – is surprisingly low. The trade paperback I received from a friend is listed as $15.95US, and to those reading this review I can say that it’s honestly worth the money.

13 September 2011

Some time ago a friend who had a website asked if I had any Handy Hints I could write for her to post. I did several and found it was quite fun writing them. To cut a long story short, I continued to write articles on ways to save money and offered them as well (on a one time only/to them only basis) to the small daily newspaper in my area. They must like them because when I opened my copy of the paper last night I see that they’ve published the twelfth thus far. Does this mean that, in addition to being a farmer and an author, I can claim to be a journalist as well?

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