Friday, January 25, 2013

Thursday Adventure: Pyramidenspitze, Austrian Alps

For this week's adventure, I thought I'd break away from New Zealand and head to a different, equally beautiful part of the world: the Austrian Alps.  My husband Robert is Australian by birth, but his parents are originally from Austria and Germany, and he still has many relatives living in the tiny Tirolean village of Epps where his mother grew up.  Robert and I went together to Epps in the summer of 2005, and spent several lovely days exploring the mountains near the village.  One of my favorite hikes was an ascent of Pyramidenspitze, the second largest peak in the Kaisergebirge.

On the road to Pyramidenspitze
Not only was the scenery spectacular, but the route up the peak is a "klettersteig" climb - basically, you ascend cliffs via the use of fixed protection (iron rungs, cables, etc), rather than needing technical climbing gear.  (The more well-known name for this type of route is the Italian "Via Ferrata" - literally, iron way.  The first via ferrata were put up during World War I in the Italian Dolomites; these days, they've become a popular form of sport climbing in the Alps.  The US has very few such routes, since most US climbers hold to a "leave no trace" wilderness ethic.  But in the Alps, where enormous metal crosses already adorn every summit and solitude is a vanishingly rare commodity, the climbing community understandably takes a far different outlook.)

Pyramidenspitze is quite an easy klettersteig climb, with just a few sections of rungs and cables.  More difficult routes require specialized protective gear, and ascending them can be an undertaking as challenging as any technical climb - but this one was just a nice, fun, easy introduction to the whole klettersteig idea.

Me on the trail.  The klettersteig part of the route goes up the cliffs on the righthand side of the picture.  You can't really see the wildflowers in this picture (they're too small), but they were  incredible.  The Alps are far wetter than US ranges like the Rockies and the Sierras, and so have a far greater profusion of flowers and other greenery in the valleys.  
A curious chamois checks us out.  
Impressive cliffs...and this is what they call the Zahmer ("tame") Kaiser.  
Ascending a klettersteig section. Sure makes for an easy ascent compared to scrambling up peaks in Colorado.
Robert on the klettersteig route
Robert taking a break (just look at those cliffs! Oh, how we wished we had our technical rock gear...)
On the summit of Pyramidenspitze.  Pretty much every single summit in the Alps has a massive cross like this one.  Must be deadly in a thunderstorm.
Looking down at the town of Durchholzen from the summit.  
The even more rugged terrain of the Wilder Kaiser is visible in the distance.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book Rec: The Raven Boys (Maggie Stiefvater)

After I read Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races and found it to be one of my favorite YA books of the year, I was eager to try more of her work.  Yet I wasn't at all sure I'd find her other novels as compelling. All the cover copy seemed a mite heavy on romance, and I'm no romance fan.  (I've grown particularly weary of YA novels that spend pages and pages breathlessly describing every last tiny detail of a girl's infatuation with a Dangerous Boy, gaaaah).  Take the The Raven Boys' blurb, which talks about how Blue Sargent, a non-psychic in a family of clairvoyant women, has been told her entire life that her kiss will cause her true love to die - so she's decided never to kiss anyone, but then she meets Gansey, a rich student at the local private school, and she's drawn to him in a way she "can't explain", yada yada.  Doesn't sound like my type of book at all.

But based on the strength of The Scorpio Races, along with an assurance from a friend that The Raven Boys was equally as unique and interesting, I dove in.  I was thrilled to find that The Raven Boys is indeed atmospheric and compelling and perhaps even creepier in spots than The Scorpio Races.  It's also far, far less focused on romance than the blurb would have you believe (whew!).  The novel actually reminded me of some of Alan Garner's YA books, with the focus on Welsh mythology, obsession, and the slowly building sense of tragedy - not to mention the unflinching portrayal of the characters' flaws.  That last bit is better done with the male characters in the story, I will say.  All four of the "Raven Boys," Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah, are fascinating characters, each struggling against their pasts in different ways, and perhaps the strongest moments in the novel deal with their fraught, complicated friendship.  The female protagonist, Blue, comes off a little bland in comparison.

As an aside, one thing that didn't bother me one whit about the female protagonists in Stiefvater's novels - Blue in The Raven Boys, and Puck in The Scorpio Races - is that they're both a bit on the loner side, and don't have the "strong female friendships" that are sometimes held up as a litmus test of good female characterization these days.  (Blue, unlike Puck, does live with a whole host of female relatives, but they're all adults while she's a teen, and the relationships are not the same as those between peers.)  The "female friendships" litmus test kinda bugs me, if I'm honest.  Not all women have close female friends.  As a teen, I certainly didn't.  Even as an adult, there have been plenty of times in my life where my close friends were all guys.  Granted, it may be more common for women to have a network of female friends; I know it's a blind spot in my own writing, that none of the primary female characters so far in the Shattered Sigil books are shown on the page as having close female friends.  (I'd always meant Cara to have just as many female friends as male ones, but I ended up cutting most of the scenes that showed her interacting with said friends, oops.)  But I just don't agree that it's unrealistic for a female character to be a loner, or have primarily male friends.

Back to The Raven Boys...I loved many, many things about it, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a YA fantasy that's both unique and full of complex characters, difficult friendships, and some intriguing magic (including a really interesting ghost).  One warning: it's the first in a series, the other books haven't yet been released, and my one area of dissatisfaction with the novel was the ending.  Not because it's a cliffhanger - it's not, really - but the very end felt like Stiefvater was trying too hard to provide a sense of closure, and skipping over some significant emotional consequences as a result.  But that's a minor quibble in the grand scheme of the story, and one that I may not feel as strongly when I see where she takes the characters next - something I'm quite looking forward to finding out.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Thursday Tidbits

Another busy week, so no time for a full adventure post, alas.  (I'm sure you'd rather I was working on Labyrinth of Flame.  Right?)  I do have a few tidbits of news to share:
So in honor of all that, I leave you with two pics representing my authorial mood upon seeing links like the above show up via google alerts:

Cartwheeling for joy in the Grand Canyon
And again, in Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Big Reveal, and a Few Thoughts on Gender in SFF

As promised, today Teresa Frohock revealed the results of her "Guess the Author's Gender" experiment!  I wrote sample #9, The Sea-Folk's Price.  (In case anyone's curious: I wrote the story specifically for Teresa's experiment, but I didn't attempt to alter my usual style in any way (consciously, at least!).  Heh, it was quite interesting to write a piece of fiction *not* involving Dev and Kiran.  First time since November 2007!)

The numerical results of the experiment are interesting to see, but I think the most fascinating part was reading the reasons people gave for their guesses in the comments to each writing sample.  (My personal favorite comment?  The person who voted "male" for my piece because it reminded them of George R. R. Martin.  My husband now wants to know when I'll be making zillions of dollars like George.  Had to inform him that would be Never.)  I'm hoping participants will now comment on the reveal post with their reactions upon seeing the truth of who wrote what - I'm quite curious to know what people think.

If I'm honest, I was surprised that so many people guessed "male" on my piece, and I'll admit that the experiment's results did indeed challenge some of my own assumptions.  See, I've long thought that there *is* often (but not always) a difference in the writing of male vs. female authors.  Not in terms of quality, but of focus.  After all the thousands of SFF books I've read, I feel there's a grain of truth in the old saw that female authors are more likely to focus on character, while male authors are more likely to focus on plot. Deep, well-rounded characterization is first and foremost on my list of what I look for in a book, and I find the majority of my favorite SFF authors are female.  Dorothy Dunnett, C.J. Cherryh, Emma Bull, Carol Berg, Martha Wells, Elizabeth Bear...all their books feature wonderful characterization, and the heart of the story (as I see it) lies in the characters' various internal arcs rather than the specific events of the plot (even when the plot is fast-paced and exciting!).

That's not to say male authors can't pull off the same.  Guy Gavriel Kay is an excellent example of a male author with incredible skill at characterization; or even Mark Lawrence, whose novels work beautifully as a character study of damaged, near-sociopathic young Jorg.  Yet when I look at my shelves - I only buy paper copies of books I truly love and intend to re-read a hundred times over - I'd say a good 70% or more of the SFF books are by women.

Anecdotal, I know.  Yet after reading much discussion of the "male gaze" vs. the "female gaze" in recent months (see Kate Elliott's excellent post on the subject at SF Signal, as an example), I can't help but think there is sometimes a difference.  The gazes that Kate discusses are of course potentially independent of gender - a woman can write with a "male gaze" and vice versa - yet the cultural component of it makes me wonder.  Perhaps we can't always so easily cast aside our culture and upbringing and gestalt of experiences; perhaps all these things flavor our stories, and it's not out of the question to think that people of one gender in a given culture might share enough experiences to affect our personal "lens" in similar fashion.  A subtle effect, not always easy to discern (especially in short samples), varying from one author to another...but still potentially there.  And if it me, that's not a bad thing.  One gaze isn't better than the other; they're just different - and one reason I love to read is the chance to experience the world through different eyes, so hooray for a diversity of focus.

That's not to say that there aren't frustrating misconceptions around gender in SFF fandom.  There are two in particular that drive me up the wall:

1) A female name on the cover means a book with a lot of romance.  No. Just...NO.  The romance genre might have a huge female readership, but trust me, guys, there are plenty of women like me who prefer stories with a different focus.  I said that 70% of the SFF books lining my shelves are female-authored.  None of those books are romances.

2) Women don't write epic fantasy.  This one simultaneously boggles and frustrates me.  Most people saying this are using "epic" to mean secondary-world fantasy, but even if you restrict the definition to sprawling multi-volume grand-scale stories, there are plenty of excellent female authors to choose from.  (Janny Wurts, Michelle Sagara/West, Helen Lowe, Robin Hobb, Sherwood Smith, Elspeth Cooper, for example.)  If you open it up to secondary-world fantasy in general, the list expands exponentially.  Yet this bizarre blind spot remains, in certain segments of fandom.  Why?  I don't know.  I figure all I can do is talk loud and long about the many awesome female-authored secondary-world fantasies that I love, in hopes new readers will discover them.

So I certainly hope Teresa's little experiment might help to challenge the participants' assumptions, as it did mine - and maybe even convince some to give a few new authors a try.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Thursday Adventure: Sleeping God Canyon, New Zealand

Hope everyone had a wonderful New Years!  Before launching into this week's adventure, a reminder: today is the last day to participate in Teresa Frohock's little "Guess the Author's Gender" experiment!  All 10 writing samples are up - comment with your guess as to the author's gender, and you've got a chance to win a pile of free books.  But hurry, because comments close tonight at 9pm EST.  The Big Reveal will happen on Monday Jan 7.  (And hey, because I love my blog readers, I'll even give you a hint: one of the samples is mine. Can you figure out which one?)

This week's adventure continues the Hobbit-inspired theme of Spectacular New Zealand.  Last time, I shared pics from kayaking on Milford Sound on the South Island; this time, I'll jump to the North Island, and share pics from a canyoneering trip my husband and I did in Sleeping God Canyon.

Sleeping God Canyon, from the bottom.  
Sleeping God is a steep and dramatic canyon with lots of waterfalls, pools, and abseils (rappels).  It's about 2 hours from Auckland, over on the Coromandel Peninsula in the Kauaeranga Valley.  My husband and I were particularly excited to give NZ canyoneering (or "canyoning," as Aussies and New Zealanders call it) a try, since "wet" canyoneering involves a bit of a different skill set than the dry Utah canyons we usually descend.  Since we didn't want to haul all our canyoneering gear from the US to NZ (our baggage was heavy enough as it was, with all our backpacking equipment!), we signed up for a guided trip with CanyonZ. Our two guides, Neil and Bertrand, were great - they treated us as partners rather than sheep to be herded, and gladly shared their knowledge of tips and tricks for wet canyon descents.  Oh, and Neil in particular had  a wicked sense of humor - always a plus. The group was nice and small, too: only 4 paying clients.

Suiting up at the start of the trip.  We wore full-body wetsuits, harnesses, and helmets while descending the canyon.  The water is pretty freaking cold!
The trip starts with a brisk 40-minute hike up the Kauri trail to the head of the canyon.  Then you pick your way down along the river to the first waterfall, and the fun begins!

Setting up for the rappel of the first waterfall.  The views out over the valley are spectacular.
Woo hoo!  Nothing like rappelling next to (or sometimes IN) pounding water.
You have to step carefully, because the rock is insanely slick
The rock has all these interesting "stair-step" features
Rappelling down the second fall
Fraenzi demonstrates the faster way to get down. (She's doing a flip. Don't worry, she didn't land on her head.)
Rainbows abound in the canyon
So many beautiful waterfalls!
It's important to practice setting "guided rappels" when descending large waterfalls - you don't want to land directly in the water beneath the fall, as you can easily get sucked under and drown.
I had to do this rappel with my eyes closed, lest my contacts get washed straight out of my eyes.  Made for a bit of an extra challenge. 
Zipline descents are fun, too.
Our little gang at the end of the trip: Chris, Neil the Guide (would you trust your life to this man?), Andre, Fraenzi, me, and Robert.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 in Review

I always love New Years Eve.  I love the chance to reflect on the year behind; to look at my old goals, and see which I achieved, which I didn't, and which have changed.  Even more fun to set new goals for the year ahead - I love the sense of possibility and the renewal of motivation.

Yesterday I shared my favorite books read in 2012.  Today, I'm looking back at last year's final Night Bazaar post, where I talked about my goals for 2012. How'd I do?  Let's see...

2012 Goal 1: Finish The Tainted City in time for the October publication date.

Yes.  Yes I did. The book made it to shelves on time...and I can't possibly express in words how deeply satisfying it is for me to check off that goal.  The first half of this year was pretty much All Tainted City All The Time for me.  I burned through all my vacation days from work, had to beg friends to help with childcare, sacrificed my pleasure reading time and sleep and my social life and made my husband very, very, VERY grumpy.  And even then, the book ended up getting crashed through publication to meet the distributor's deadline.  What does that mean?  Well, ordinarily the editing/revising/copyediting/proofing process takes months.  For Tainted City, all of that happened in about 10 days.  My stress levels during those 10 days? INSANE.

Especially because the tight timeline meant I didn't have the chance to seek outside feedback on the final version, as I usually do.   Nobody but me and one editor read my final draft.  The editor said the draft was fine, no changes needed, it's going straight to copyedits...but I worried.  A lot.  Had I truly translated the story in my head properly onto the page?

When reviews started coming in, and they were good - oh, you guys.  I can't even tell you what a relief that was.  Seriously, I think I broke down and cried (and I don't cry often).  And now, to get reader emails saying they loved the book, and to see The Tainted City appearing on year's best lists, like these:

I am so, so happy.  (The more so because Whitefire's gotten a little love on 2012 year end lists too: #11 in Fantasy/SF on Bookflurries Twelve Months of Best Books, and an honorable mention on Angels of Retribution's Best of the Best.  Hooray!)

I'm also determined: I want to finish The Labyrinth of Flame in 2013.  But I want to achieve that goal without nearly killing myself to do it.  That means I need to figure out how to write more efficiently.  I intend to try some of author Rachel Aaron's suggestions on increasing writing productivity, which certainly appeal to the engineer in me.  

How about my 2012 non-writing goals?  Well...

2012 Goal 2: Climb one new peak over 14,000 ft.

Damn it, didn't make this one (see above for why).  I did have some excellent days on not-so-new peaks once Tainted City was done, including an ascent of Torreys Peak via Kelso Ridge and Longs Peak via the Keyhole Route.  

2012 Goal 3: Take my son on his first trip to Utah's canyon country.

Success!  My husband, son, and I had spent a wonderful Thanskgiving hiking and biking in Moab.  My son loved it, and asks all the time when we'll go back.  (In other parental firsts, we also took him to Disneyworld for the first time - another big hit.)  

2012 Goal 4: Ski the fall line of the Spiral Staircase mogul run at Telluride without stopping.  

Sigh. We didn't make it to Telluride last ski season.  I barely skied at all (think I made only 4 days.  Lame!). This will change.  My son's old enough for ski school now - I've already got him taking lessons on a little indoor ski slope in Boulder - and we WILL go to Telluride this ski season.  If they ever get any snow.  

I also mean to get serious about reclaiming my fitness.  I let that slide along with everything else last year.  Oh, I didn't turn to total flab, thanks to skating once a week (and I'm genetically lucky: my body hangs on to muscle).  But I'm nowhere near as fit as I once was, and I don't like it.  Fortunately, that's not so hard to change.  I just started a 60-day fitness program that's worked really well for several of my friends.  Based on the workouts so far, I think it should kick my ass back into shape in no time.  

2012 Goal 5: Return to competition in figure skating.

Yeah...this is where I've had to make a hard choice.  I love skating.  But if I want to keep writing (and I do!), I simply can't spare the time to skate 3-5 times per week, as would be needed to train properly for competition.  I'm just going to have to plug along in "maintenance mode," skating only once a week, until my son is old enough to go to school full time.  That said, my coach has choreographed a new freestyle program for me, and I'm practicing it as I can, along with my double jumps, so hopefully I'll be ready when the time comes.

So, there you have it.  2012 has been one heck of a year - lots of stress, but lots of joy, too.  Here's hoping 2013 will be better yet.