Jim Butcher and the Human Condition, Reprise

Copyright 2011 – 2015 by Paula S. Jordan

Oh, how I love to disappear for a weekend into an interesting book with characters who catch my heart! Urban fantasy writer Jim Butcher’s people do that for me far better than most, and I’ve been thinking about how he does it.

I had never read Mr. Butcher’s work before a month or so ago, and I am taking his Dresden Files series in sequence; eagerly catching up with Wizard Harry Dresden and his tremendous challenges, both magical and human, in the even-meaner-than-you-thought streets of present-day Chicago. I’ve just finished the fourth one, Summer Knight, and it caught me even better than the first three.

Of course, urban fantasies have a serious edge in earning reader buy-in, set as they are in places and times like the ones we live in. If the baddies attack in the garden department of a WalMart Superstore as they did in SK I am right there in the fray!

But Butcher’s gift goes far deeper than that.

Harry may be the most accomplished wizard actively practicing his craft on the street, but he is no immortal, and he faces adversaries far more powerful than himself on a regular basis. One of the many joys of these books lies in the cleverness and often downright comedy of his magical cheats and inventions.

But it’s in his characters’ inner struggles that Butcher shines brightest. When Harry is conflicted—and he is always having to endanger the very innocents he is fighting to defend—you feel his conflict in your bones. When he’s afraid, Butcher lets you know in ways large and small just exactly why this contest is so much scarier to him than most. Also, Harry is thoroughly invested in his struggles against evil, and when things go desperately wrong, which they sometimes do, he carries vast loads of guilt.

That’s not to say that his world is all dark. Harry is a profoundly human and intelligent man, facing Butcher’s  fiendishly imagined range of inhuman powers. But he faces them just as he does the same frustrations and ambiguities that life throws at us all: with that greatest of all human survival traits, a razor sharp sense of humor.

Still, when he’s confused or hurt or threatened, and especially when he’s thwarted in his efforts by skeptical officials of the mundane world or pigheaded members of his own, he may act out in ways that only deepen their animosity. But you, dear reader, have the inside track to his soul, and are never mislead.

So. A brief look at what Jim Butcher does to pull you into Harry’s life and mind. But as to how he does it so well? That’s his special gift: a clarity and depth of insight that are rare indeed.

Reading Room

A subset of the circle

A subset of the circle

Copyright 2013 by Paula S. Jordan

I would like fo say a word about the pleasures of reading in the company of friends. Particularly long-term friends who are life-long, ardent readers.

I’ve been at the beach this week with a dozen such friends. And while I would not call us a quiet group, there have come times during the days here when I have noticed deep, comfortable silences, and have looked up from my own reading to find a large percentage of us sitting (or sprawled) at ease on the cushy circle of sofas and chairs, intent on some form of book.

Others have also commented on the silences. A word or two about the stillness. And the company. Then we return to our books until the lures of the beach or the hot tub or the luscious meals (we also tend to be foodies) draw us away.

Then it’s back to the books … everything from Jane Yolan’s “Sister Light, Sister Dark,” to Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time,” to Laurel Saville’s “Henry and Rachel,” to an Elizabeth Peters archaeological mystery … until something else lures us (temporarily) away.

This week is ending far too soon.

Photo credit: Rose Simon

Balticon 47 … and GoH Joe Haldeman

Copyright 2013 by Paula S. Jordan


I’ve been going to Balticon off and on since the mid-1980’s and this year, as every year, I loved every minute.

This con somehow manages to cover every fanish interest, from Anime to Zombies, including music (loved your concert, Jonah,) costume, gaming, video, and dance, without slighting the books and the science that have always been its mainstay.

Joe Haldeman shares a first-draft notebook

Joe Haldeman
shares a first-draft notebook

On the book side were Steampunk, character issues, book launches, writerly insights, and a discussion of the value of good writing in a changing literary world. On the science side were talks on dinosaurs, mutant viruses, invisibility, Mars landings, and the possibility of distant Earth-like worlds, all given by practicing scientists from NASA Goddard, the University of Maryland and other institutions in the area. In the overlap between the two were the science for writers panel (where writers in the audience ask the expert panel any scientific question they like) and Joe Haldeman‘s accounts of his decades at MIT teaching scientists to write.

Which brings me to the Guest of Honor.

As a good artist of any stripe will do, a good writer just keeps on getting better. Joe Haldeman, who was excellent to start with, has become one of our best.

The Best of  Joe Haldeman will be available soon!

The Best of
Joe Haldeman
will be available soon!

He’s studied science (BS in physics & astronomy) and writing (Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and the rougher side of humanity (a pacifist in Vietnam 1968-69, with a Purple Heart.) But he learned about people on his own, as an interested, intelligent observer of life. In one of his earliest novels, a “… contemplative story of soldiers fighting an interstellar war….” he shows us the disconnection and loneliness at the heart of space travel as a soldier returns home after centuries away. That was The Forever War (now available on Kindle). It won the Nebula, the Hugo and the Locus Award, and became the first of the (now) 73 titles in the SF Masterworks collection.

At the con Joe talked about war in a quiet, insightful way. And about people. And also about the way he writes.

He starts each novel slowly, as a clean draft handwritten in pen and ink in a stitched, hardbound notebook. The subtle friction of nib against paper provides the speed he prefers for this phase, when, he seems to say, the editing occurs before each sentence meets the page. He adds fold-out sheets for rough outlines or sketches or maps. And sometimes, as in the one he showed us, he decorates the front with watercolors.

Later drafts are typed and edited (as needed) in the usual ways.

This way of writing seems almost to define him: a calm, thoughtful man of memories both peaceful and terrifying, violent and humane, whose gift it is to show us all the aspects of ourselves.

Give My Librarian a Hand

Copyright 2013 by Paula S. Jordan

Book Fiesta Kids reading on moon

Image Credits

The terrific librarian here in my tiny town is interested in supporting top-notch SF/F reading, but hasn’t read a lot of it herself. So she has asked me to suggest some authors and titles for her shelves.

I am preparing a list of my favorites, including authors we’ve discussed on the blog, but I don’t know much about books for children and young adults and haven’t actually seen much mention of them here.Book Fiesta 1

The first name I gave her was Ursula LeGuin, for her Earthsea series. And there’re the Narnia and Wrinkle in Time books. But with all the writing going on out there these days, I am sure there are great ones that I have never heard of.

Any good, sense-of-wonder, mind-expanding reads you can suggest for the younger set would be most appreciated!

P.S. In searching for images for this post I came across the following tidbit: seems a West Virginia legislator has proposed a bill requiring schools to add science fiction to their reading lists. He recommends adding grade-appropriate SF into the classroom … to stimulate interest in math and science among students in the public schools…. Bet it would help in a lot of other ways too!

Writer to Readers: A Question of Titles

Copyright 2013 by Paula S. Jordan

Thank you all for a very informative discussion last week on naming characters. I enjoyed it, and I learned a lot.

Spy from cold_So, if you’re willing, I’d like to take the discussion a little further.

For many writers, and I tend to be one of them, “finding” a title is as hard as, or maybe harder, than finding the story itself.

The style of a title is often suggested by the style of the story—tough titles for tough stories, poetic titles for romances and evocative fantasies, gritty titles for down-to-Earth/hardscrabble stories.

But what about this one: The Spy Who Came In  From the Cold?

Or Gone With the Wind?  I’ve read that Mitchell went through many other titles before finding the obvious winner.  How quickly would you pick up these others she considered:  Tomorrow Is Another Day, or Garden of G and ENot in Our Stars, or Bugles Sang True?

And then there is the actually rather simple murder mystery, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Got to admit, the range of characters and sub-tropical mystique of the story did make the mood of that title not so unexpected.

So, what’s your preference in titles? Think of books without cover art and stories without illustrated title pages—what sorts of titles draw your eye and hand to one story and not another?

Ship Who SangIs it the title that addresses the overt action or conflict of the story? Or the one that suggests the deeper driving issues? Is it the explicit or the evocative? The tough, or the compassionate? “Just the facts, Ma’am,” or the poetic? Or are there other titling styles that I have missed all together?

Also, are titling issues the same for short stories as for novels? Or are they the different? And how might science fiction/fantasy titles differ from mainstream work? And from each other?Screamcover

The first SF title that comes to mind: The Ship Who Sang. Both evocative and a literal reference to the story.

Then there is “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

Looking forward to another good discussion!

A Reader’s Quest: The British Library

Copyright 2012 by Paula S. Jordan

This may just be the greatest library in the world: 14 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 58 million The British Librarypatents, 3 million sound recordings. 130 million items in all, spanning 30 centuries and originating, as Philip Howard* puts it: “from almost every country and language since man stopped building the Tower of Babel.”

Texts both ancient and modern, world-renowned and rescued from obscurity. Works of music, art, mathematics, the sciences, and every known branch of literature. The earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, from 686 A.D., found buried along the edge of the Gobi Desert. Maps, letters, and manuscripts. Technical drawings, patents, and musical scores. A vast collection of contemporary material in an ever-expanding range of electronic media. Jane Austin’s writing desk. And one white ‘60’s- era envelope with Paul McCartney’s first scribbled lyrics for “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

King George III's Library

King George III’s Library

The Magna Carta, Beowulf, the Lindisfarn Gospels, the Codex Sinaiticus, beautiful early Qu’ran and Jainest texts, Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio, a Leonardo daVinci notebook, Sherlock Holmes, Alice’s Adventures Underground, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. (More on some of these in later posts.)

The largest single “item” may be King George III’s 65,000-volume, 19,000-pamphlet library, collected from the mid- 15th to the early 19th centuries and considered one of the most significant collections on the Enlightenment. It occupies a specially-designed six-storey UV-filter glass tower at the heart of the Library.

My personal favorite? Bill Woodrow’s bronze sculpture in the lobby. A book big enough that I could actually crawl into it! And weighted with a ball and chain lest it fly away.

Finally! A book I could actually crawl into!

Finally! A book I could actually crawl into!

But, for most of the world, the coolest thing of all has to be the British Library web site.  You can search the main catalog. The online gallery section lets you see 30,000 items from its collection. And its virtual book feature allows you to browse 32 of the Library’s greatest treasures online. The entire book. Every page. And you can turn the pages yourself.

* The BRITISH LIBRARY: A Treasure House of Knowledge, by Howard, Philip; Scala Publishers Ltd, 2008

A Reader’s Quest

Copyright 2012 by Paula S. Jordan

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the British Library

Ken and I are finally, after some years of wishing and planning, taking off soon on a European adventure! There will be some time in Italy (mainly Tuscany, visiting with a friend.) Then Rome, London and Bath (I’ll finally get to see Stonehenge!!) And Paris. Yea!

And it occurred to me: I’ve scheduled the ruins (the forum and coliseum, prehistoric British and Etruscan sites) and the art (The Sistine Chapel, Florence, David! The Louver!) and the archaeology, and the food, and the Theater (The Globe! Shakespeare’s London!) but the only thing at all book-like … though I’ll be excited to see it … is the Rosetta Stone.

So now, a dream list of historical documents to be visited. The entries are all British, so far:

The Magna Carta — very early copies in the British Museum and British Library.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle — British Library, together with Chaucer, Shakespeare, ancient maps and sacred texts of many religions (including the Lindisfarne Gospels and a Gutenberg Bible), illuminated medieval manuscripts, a daVinci notebook, and … the Beatles. (Sadly, the Chronicle doesn’t seem to be on display and my email has gone unanswered.)

The Domesday Book — said to be in the British Archives, but the web site doesn’t mention it. Again, my email unanswered.

The Bayeux Tapestry — not technically a book, of course, but a document all the same — is unfortunately in Bayeux, in France, and far from Paris.

I’ve done no searching yet for bookish treasuries in Tuscany, Rome (the Vatican Library for one), or Paris, and have fewer ideas of what to look for in non-English literature. So … any thoughts? If I am able to see the books you suggest, I will do all I can to send pictures, of the buildings if not the objects themselves.

My thanks for all suggestions!

The What Are You Reading Log

You can find this page in the tabs, above.

For new Darkcargo-goers, this is a page of running comments wherein we all chime in and log what we’re currently reading. It’s fun to see what books everyone else is taking up, how frequently different readers begin and finish books, and serves as a great way to get recommendations.

This is the fourth edition of this page which started in August 2010, and over 250 comments: that’s a lot of recommendations!

24 October 2011 to 15 February 2012

11 April 2011 to 24 Oct 2011

August 2010 to April 10, 2011

Harry’s Side Jobs, Part One

Copyright 2012 by Paula S. Jordan

Side Jobs

Stories from The Dresden Files

by Jim Butcher

ROC Books, 2010

There are eleven stories to review in this excellent anthology – all but three or so of the shorter Dresden pieces written to date – and there’s a good bit to say up front about the collection itself. So I’m going to take this in two parts; anthology comments and the first three stories now, and the rest next time. Unless it takes three parts. Butcher’s stories are that good.

As regular readers of the Dresden Files Series know, Jim Butcher lets some time elapse in Wizard-Detective Harry Dresden’s world between one novel and the next. Gives you the sense that Harry’s always out there somewhere, making his way in the really-mean streets of Butcher’s urban fantasy Chicago, and not bothering to tell you about it unless it’s something notable even for him. Something like a more-or-less friendly zombie T Rex running loose in the streets. And all that time, between the books, Harry is living a human life as well as a magical one. Maturing. Growing in magical knowledge, power and skill. Meeting adversity. Collecting scars.

With these stories Butcher gives you a few vivid glimpses into Harry’s life between the books. You get to see him grow.

The first story in the collection – and they are given in the order of the Dresden Files chronology – is a treasure for any reader who is also a writer: the first Dresden piece Butcher wrote and, in  his words, “an anxious beginner’s first effort” at marketable fiction.

Restoration of Faith takes place some time before Storm Front, during Harry’s apprenticeship at detective Nicholas Christian’s agency, Ragged Angel Investigations. Nick (who also appears briefly in Ghost Story) specializes in finding lost children.

On this occasion the lost – actually runaway – child is Faith, the smart, feisty, ten-year-old daughter of rich but unloving parents. After hiring Nick’s services to find her, they decide they’d rather not be known as the parents of a runaway. So they report her to the police as a kidnap victim, giving Harry’s and Nick’s descriptions as the perpetrators.

Two things impressed me about this story: the remarkably detailed backstory that Butcher had developed at that early stage and the level of writing skill he’d achieved in “only the third or fourth” story he’d ever written. Granted, he wrote it as a class assignment at the University of Oklahoma’s Professional Writing program, so he was not untrained. Even so, his ease with the language and keen insight into his characters’ inner lives were surprisingly good for a student writer.

As to backstory, a great many of the props, behaviors, and characters of the Dresden Files are already in place. Harry has his black canvas duster and a prototype of his power ring. He has a workable tracking spell and other dependable magical skills, complete with evidences of the system’s drawbacks and limitations. His intelligence, courage, sense of humor, and soft, self-sacrificing heart are already recognizable as the Harry of the later books. He encounters a powerful and nasty inhuman opponent out of fairytale who has violated the Unseelie Accords, and defeats it with the help, at first meeting, of a short, blonde, female ‘uniform cop’ named Murphy.

I call that a satisfying beginning.

Vignette, a brief piece written for a sampler handout at a convention, takes place between Death Masks and Blood Rites. For its length, and its quick midnight creation just before deadline, it gives some good, amusing insights into Harry’s life at that point in his still-developing career: the kinds of every-day distractions that could interrupt his studies, his relationship with Bob the Skull, and his cluelessness about certain aspects of the mundane world.

Something Borrowed takes place between Dead Beat and Proven Guilty. It came about when Butcher was invited to write a piece for Pat Elrod’s anthology My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding. He took it as an opportunity to explore the changing lives of the Alphas, the pack of young werewolves who were, at that point in the series, completing their college years and embarking into adulthood.

It’s a werewolf story almost – but not completely – without fur, exploring the impacts of both the mundane and magical worlds on the human lives of Alphas leaders Billy and Georgia on their wedding day. It is not, however, without magical challenges. Those come in the form of a powerful Winter Sidhe bent on avenging the Alphas’ involvement in the battle of the fairies described in Summer Knight.

Butcher’s character skills make for especially good reading in several insightful scenes:  Billy’s response when a hung-over, post-bachelor-party Harry, at his snarky best, confronts Georgia’s snooty stepmother; Harry’s slow realization that Billy is no longer a kid; the first encounter between Murphy and Bob the Skull; and the maturing team-of-two trust between Harry and Murphy.

All in all it is a well developed, satisfyingly suspenseful story of search and rescue, deadly magical tricks and traps, a foray into Chicago’s treacherous undertown complete with Harry’s special brand of pyrotechnics, and the multifaceted power of a kiss. A good read.

That’s it for now. See you next time for more of Harry’s Side Jobs.