Half Sick of Shadows (spoilerish)

HalfsickofshadowsIt is really impossible to say anything about Half Sick of Shadows, Richard Abbott’s newest and most creative book, without giving the whole thing away.

So instead of reading this review first, go out and buy the book and read it— I promise, it’s very inexpensive— and then come back and read this.

If you have already read the book and want to know what someone else thinks about it, go ahead and keep scrolling.

Otherwise, I’ll see you in… however long it takes for you to read and come back.

In fact, if you read the book and hate it, I will treat you to another book of the same or lesser value as an apology for making you read Half Sick of Shadows.

Now that we have established I am biased towards this book, and now that everyone is gone except those who have read the book already, the way is clear to say a few spoilerish things. Spoilerish because I know there are a few lingering readers who haven’t gone away and gotten the book, and believe me, you will be disappointed.

(Shoo! Shoo!)


First, you don’t need to know that Half Sick of Shadows is taken loosely from the British legend of the Lady of Shalott best known to poetry readers in its version by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It’s a fun curiosity to map Half Sick of Shadows on to the legend-- especially the weaving and mirror parts-- but the story stands on its own.

You also don’t need to know what genre the book is in order to enjoy it. The author says it is Historical Fantasy. I would say it’s Speculative Science Fiction. But it really is its own thing.

Now, for the spoilerish stuff: lately there was a flurry of activity on the internet about alien intelligences and whether we would want them to contact us when it is somewhat more or less likely (how does one decide these things?) that they would be hostile to us.

Stephen Hawking has famously said for years, for example, that if intelligent life outside our solar system tries to contact us, we should act as if we’re not there.

"Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well,” he is recently quoted as saying.

Also, there's a new short film by a director I admire, Neil Blomkamp from South Africa, about a yuckfest alien invasion that is our worst nightmare. (I loved the film and I don't like yuckfests, by the way.)

But with all due respect to Stephen Hawking and rousing good stories, I think the proposition absurd that aliens advanced enough to travel through space for light years are as callous, cruel, and greedy as Christopher Columbus and the Europeans who followed him.

I find it much more likely that truly advanced aliens would have no need of exploiting worlds they found, but in fact would be more benevolent than we are, having come to the conclusion that survival depends on creating abundance rather than hoarding scarcity. 

So far in history, all human cultures that pile up resources at others’ expense have fallen hard after no more than a thousand or so years (the Byzantines did a great job for a long time, but that made the Turks really, really jealous).

But to live through the long haul— long enough to develop viable light-year space flight technology— I think you’d need to find a way to make resources abundant enough that people don’t need to fight over them and kill each other off. 

And thus, aliens traveling to earth would know to leave well enough alone.

Unless, of course, they found a way to hang around us without destroying us.

And this is a roundabout way of saying that I think Richard Abbot has that question of alien intelligence absolutely spot on. Half Sick of Shadows is an intricate, delicate story about a Lady who grows through time into something new, both physically and mentally, and how interaction with those she encounters affects that process. But it’s also a wonderfully imaginative take on how we might be-- or have been-- in touch with others outside our ken.

Now is Half Sick of Shadows as fun as Neil Blomkamp's yuckfest with the Texas flag whipping from armored trucks and people exploding and lizard men and squirty goo and methane manufacturing towers?

Yes. Make a movie of it now.

Well, maybe not.

But so few books have that quality of an engaging story that also makes you think. Half Sick of Shadows is one of those few, and it deserves widespread attention.

Why I will never worry about what I write, ever again


Sometimes when I am in the valley of the shadow of self-doubt about my writing, I think, "I write ridiculous things in my novels. Who would ever believe them?"

One book has talking bears and a parallel universe, another a kind of Pez dispenser that does magic if you know Latin grammar. In my latest book, the hero defends a mystical goal against a hockey-puck-spitting pelican.

Weird, right?

But I'm here to declare that I will fear no idea that comes from my muse, ever again. That is because I have just re-read Stuart Little by E.B. White, and I'm going to tell you, he has us all beat.

E.B. White is probably more famous for Charlotte's Web, which has a talking spider and talking pig, but that type of weirdness is nothing compared to that of Stuart Little.

I don't remember reading Stuart Little all the way through as a child, though I'm pretty sure I was impressed by his toy sports car. I just went along with everyone who thought the book was adorable.

Adorable it may be, but it's just straight-up bonkers, too.

Now let me be clear that I'm not dissing the classic status that Stuart has achieved. There's a lot of whimsical fun in the book. It's charming and witty. There is much food for thought and respect and love for those who are different.

I'm just saying what happens in the book strains the boundaries of credulity in a thousand ways, small and large.

First of all, and this has been noticed before, the book claims that Stuart came to the Little family naturally:

When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.

I usually read books before bed, when I'm already sleepy. But this shook me wide awake. I was sure that Stuart had been adopted and was all ready for that fact to be announced in Chapter One.

But no.

So Stuart is genetically a Little, but in substance a mouse. Right there, any New York editor would stop reading and have his or her assistant prepare a rejection notice. But E.B. White wasn't a peon from Peoria. He was in the inner circle of the New York literary world, a respected writer for the New Yorker magazine.

So he got a pass.

Now Stuart gets into a number of scrapes and has a number of charming adventures, but it is natural that a mouse have a love interest, and that love interest is a bird.

Stay with me, here.

The bird's name is Margalo, and she is one of those talking birds you see quite often in Manhattan. Margalo is responsible for a number of charming acts, including saving Stuart's life, but she flies the coop (the Littles' Manhattan apartment) when a pigeon writes her a note warning her that a cat is plotting to eat her.

This motivates the action of the book, which is Stuart's quest for Margalo. He obtains his transportation from his friend Dr. Carey, a dentist, who claims that Stuart will be less noticeable as an anthropomorphic animal driving a toy sports car when he activates the car's invisibility function.

Yes, indeed.

When Stuart tests out that function, hilarity ensues, but the author never explains whether Stuart himself will be invisible when he drives the car, or whether he will seem to others to be sitting in thin air being self-propelled, which would definitely be noticeable.

It's actually more astonishing that anyone in this book would think that anything strange would, in Stuart's words, "attract too much attention".

Are you getting the message, here?

I'm going to pass over the charming scene where Stuart takes over a one-room schoolhouse for a day, although I find it highly unusual any school district would allow such an unqualified substitute to teach children.

Then again, maybe that's not so far-fetched.

But I do have to mention the two-inch tall Harriet Ames, a tiny human equally as tiny as Stuart. How does a local storekeeper explain her presence in the world?

"...All of her clothes are specially tailored for her... Yes, Harriet's quite a girl. Her people, the Ameses, are rather prominent in this town."

Harriet almost but not quite makes Stuart forget about Margalo. Clearly, she is a more suitable partner for a mouse than a bird, but their love isn't to be, mainly because Stuart can't get over the fact that his miniature canoe, in which he was going to take Harriet for a ride, has been smashed, presumably by malicious boys, though this is never confirmed.


Finally, and most incredibly for the story, Stuart Little peters out at page 131 in my edition with this sentence:

But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.

In other words, Stuart never finds Margalo. Not even close. He just drives off into the sunset with the quest still unfinished.

I kept stupidly looking for more pages, as if I'd find another chapter in a hidden trap door of my paperback.


Again, I'd be the first to say, "Whatever! This is a children's book, and in children's books, anything goes. As long as the spirit of the writing is true, children (and adults) will love it."

And so that must be the case with Stuart Little, though I'm going to tell you it creeped me out when I read it this time.

But all of this has taught me a valuable lesson: if E.B. White can write from his imagination and succeed, then by golly, I'm going to write from mine. No more self-censorship, no more self-suspicion. My cup of weirdness runneth over. And I will dwell in the house of--

You get the idea.

Now go out there and write some puck-spitting pelicans into your book.

Image: my selfie with Stuart.

Lyn Fairchild Hawks takes "Wendy" blogging


Every day in the brave new world of publishing, there's something new. 

I don't mean new books. There are a million new books every day, God love every single one of them. 

No, it's an exciting time because independent authors are literally changing the publication world.

Take Lyn Fairchild Hawks. My colleague at True North Writers & Publishers Co-operative hired a group of creative people to make a book trailer to market her novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.

An author. Hired. Creative people. And her book came alive on the screen, if only for a few minutes.

Gone the days of the author as a solitary, lonely misfit locked in a garret, producing brilliant things but on the road to depression and worse.

Now we have the Author as Executive Producer.

And it's amazing. Just watch. And then get the book, enjoy, and see if your vision of Wendy matches with this one.


Sign up to get Wendy free: a Rafflecopter giveaway

It's not only time for authors to break out of the traditional slaughterhouse mode of submission to traditional publishers. It's also time for authors to join with other artists and celebrate the fact that our brains are teeming with colors, people, and whole worlds.

And it's never a bad time to share one's work-- of course, in the hopes of making a dollar, but also just because we're human. 

I'm optimistic about the future of books. I know it's rough for a lot of folks. But it's going to shake out.

In the meantime, I look forward to more collaborations between word and image. 

Find Lyn on








The Mill and the Cross, Borschic?

Road-to-calvary-bruegel-sm1This summer I've taken much time with the second book in my Borschland Hockey Chronicles series, and after a while, everything seems to come up Borschic.

But "The Mill and the Cross," a Netflix streamer we saw at a local museum recently, engaged me both because of its Borsch-ness and its attitude towards faith.

First, about the film.

The movie is about Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting, "The Way to Calvary," an oversized canvas that shows the procession of the cross on Good Friday to the hill where Jesus was crucified.

It's one of those European paintings where the artist visualizes the event that happened in Israel centuries ago as occurring in his native land in contemporary times. Which is to say, the landscape looks like Bruegel's native Flanders (northern Belgium and southwest Netherlands today) and the people in it are dressed like 16th century people.

The filmmaker, Lech Wajewski, creates the world of the film by having the painting come to life: that is, the initial shots meld live action with the painting itself, and the painting fades in and out in the same way throughout.

There is no plot per se; the film follows the artist (Rutger Hauer) as he explains his vision for the painting with his patron, Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York). The other characters in the film (except for one-- more soon on her) have little or no dialogue. There are a lot of static shots of people staring into the middle distance, and with those shots a lot of quoting of paintings that I have probably seen but don't remember.

The action revolves around the idea that Jesus' death at the hands of the Romans parallels the deaths of Flemish heretics at the hands of the Spanish who had conquered the Netherlands in those days. There is an ingenious melding of the pathos of contemporary people who die for their beliefs, and of Jesus' undeserved suffering and death.

This trailer gives a good idea of what happens in the film, which is not for kids. It's not rated, but it's an R for general earthiness, frankness, and uncomfortableness that is best handled by grown-ups.

How does this relate to Borschland? Among the first settlers in Borschland in the 17th century were followers of a sect called the Familia Caritatis; the beliefs of that sect influence the nature of the Borschic church today. In the film, Nicholas Jonghelinck mentions that he is a member of this sect, which was presumably persecuted by the Spanish, and according to this entry, Bruegel seems to have been a sympathizer of the sect as well.

The patron also says something about the painting, "So, this could be a group of saints returning from the past to mourn the present state of Flanders." He means characters like the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, the Apostle John, and so on, who are depicted in the contemporary landscape of the painting.

I thought about the second Borschland book, which also has "saints" (not Biblical but Borschic) coming back into Borschland, not to mourn, but to try to save the country.

BorschlandmapcoloredMy Borschland books are meant to be fun-- recently it came to me that the adventures are in the spirit of Tintin books, beloved Belgian comic books that I read to my son when he was young.

But the nature of Borschland as a place of moral imagination lies just beneath the surface, and it's something I want to continue to explore. 

"The Mill & the Cross" spurs that exploration.

The painter explains in the movie that faith is an elusive thing. It takes work to maintain. People spend so much time just living their lives. The idea of something unseen but yet important is both part of our very natures and yet foreign to us.

So the movie spends a lot of time on showing ordinary people doing ordinary things. And yet, woven into all those shots of kids playing and fighting, women scrubbing doorsills, millers checking the quality of the meal they're making, there is a continuing monologue of the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling) who is contemplating what the death of her son means.

Mary is shown as the archetype of the human being who wrestles with her faith amidst the ordinariness of all the ordinary things of life.

In Borschland, the church has evolved into a place that is quiet and off to the side. Deacons are the practitioners of the faith, praying and giving counsel. People of Borschland do not attend church as a rule, but keep up with the lay traditions of the faith and respect the deacons. There is a sense that the people have made a deal with the deacons: if the deacons will maintain the relationship with God and the saints, then the people will feed, clothe and house them.

So there's a sense that the ordinary has won in Borschland, and yet the presence of the church is always there.

I'm not saying it's an ideal fantasy world for a Christian; I wrestle with my faith daily and I believe God wants that so. But it's a depiction of a situation that I think is true for many people of many religions.

One day it's possible I'll write a book about a spiritual awakening in Borschland. It is a place apart and asleep in many ways. It is a place that comes from that part of me that prefers predictability and resists change.

Yet it is also a place of deep hope and spiritual strength. I'll continue to write in hopes that that comes across in the books.


Oz and good stories

Princess_Truella_on_a_stork_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16529"It's steampunk." "No, it isn't." "It's pretty steampunk." "No, it's not." "You have to admit, it has steampunk elements." "Well, it's not steampunk."

A discussion about my novel, Skater in a Strange Land, which can be categorized as "steampunk lite"?

No, an exchange with me and stepson, who is apparently a big genre purist, concerning the movie "Oz the Great and Powerful."

We hadn't seen the movie yet, but from the trailer it was clear that the time period (late nineteenth or early twentieth century) and period technology the movie did qualify as steampunk-y if nothing else.

But once I saw it, genre considerations took second place. Was it a good story?

I don't think so, and technology, I think, doesn't help.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" has a prominent 3D element. I am not a big fan of 3D. I saw "Up" in 3D, and it made my head hurt and added exactly nothing to the story. I would argue, in fact, that 3D takes away from the story by distracting you from the progress of the action.

Storytelling is about action, not effect.

Now I saw "Oz" in 2D by preference, so that I could concentrate on the story. It was still a spectacular feat of technology, but it felt like a feast that wasn't warranted, like having Easter dinner on Maundy Thursday

Again, did the appearance of the movie contribute to the storytelling?

Not so much.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" concerns the "man behind the curtain" from the 1939 classic movie, "The Wizard of Oz." It asks the question, how did the wizard get to be who he was?

The movie starts with a black-and-white sequence in Kansas, like in "The Wizard of Oz." It also has a tornado that whisks you away to the fantasy world. And, as in the other movie, the whole screen is filled with brilliant color and effects after the fantasy world is entered.

What is that made this cinematic strategy so fun and story-appropriate in the original? Dorothy, the girl from Kansas, knows nothing but a very bland, boring, and yet menacing world. When she enters Oz, we feel her awe. She has truly come somewhere else and other.

James Franco, who plays the main character, Oscar Diggs ("Oz"), is a womanizing con man and sleight-of-hand magician. He himself is master of many special effects in the grayish Kansas he inhabits. When he enters the kingdom of Oz, his reaction is bemusement, but not wonder. He is too cynical to be amazed by the new world. And he cynically manipulates the first person he meets in Oz, the naive witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who resembles very much the naive woman he manipulates while in Kansas.

3D does not help this type of story. You don't believe the world because the main character doesn't believe the world. One strike against.

As the story progresses, the audience is asked to believe that Oz, this charlatan, is going somehow to save the world that coincidentally has the same name as he. In fact, we are asked to believe that three powerful and intelligent witches (Kunis ends up being quite formidable) somehow need this man to unite the kingdom. The more power they show (and the more the technology shows them using it), the less we believe that Oz is the man for the job of CEO.

Talk about a glass ceiling.

One part of the movie does ring true for me. When Oz and his sidekick, talking monkey Finley (Zach Braff), enter "China Town," a village made up of porcelain houses and porcelain people, he uses common glue to heal the broken legs of the best character in the movie, the China Girl (Joey King). Her reaction of wonder to technology we take for granted is magical. And the special effect of her walking after being healed is affecting. That was worthy of an ooh and an ahh.

L. Frank Baum wrote a whole slew of beloved Oz books, with a bunch of strange technology (including visions of robots, television, and laptop computers), and in a world full of wonder.

This movie really made me want to go back and read those books, and use my imagination to create the special effects.

(Movie poster from here)

(Link below contains a review with a bunch more plot details, if you need them.)