Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Celebrating Canadian Authors

Colleen Mondor of Chasing Ray is heading up a celebration of Canadian authors today. Blogs from around the blogosphere are highlighting their favorite Canadian authors, and Colleen has the complete list here. You'll find my profile of Dennis Foon, as well as:

More entries continue to come in, so check out the Canadian literary celebration to find out about some great Canadian authors.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Spotlight on author Dennis Foon

"...I thought you were a Storyteller, not an actor."

"Anything can carry a story, young Lump. Whether it's a song, a tale, a poem, or a play. Our objective remains the same: to plant the seeds of doubt and righteous indignation in the people."

The quote above, from YA science fiction novel freewalker, could just as well describe its author, Dennis Foon. Foon is a novelist, a playwright, and a screen writer, and his works do seem destined to "plant the seeds of doubt and righteous indignation" in people. His books and plays pack a powerful punch, whether he's dealing with environmental devastation and war in The Longlight Legacy, the roots of male aggression in War and Skud, gambling in Chasing the Money and Double or Nothing, or racism in Skin.

I've been absorbed in Foon's fascinating young adult series, The Longlight Legacy, a blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by environmental catastrophe and war. I reviewed the first book, The Dirt Eaters, here, and the second book, freewalker, here. I'm currently reading book 3, the keeper's shadow. You can also read my son's review of The Dirt Eaters here and freewalker here.

Dennis was kind enough to answer some interview questions:

"The Longlight Legacy" is very complex, with multiple plot threads, shifting alliances, and very rich and detailed world building. How did you keep everything straight? Can you describe your process of planning and writing the series?

I have to confess that I originally planned it as one not-too-long book. But about half way through the first draft of The Dirt Eaters, as I began digging into the characters, cultures and two worlds, I found my outline exploding on me. I always knew the beginning, middle and end, I just hadn't anticipated how much I'd be discovering when I created my own worlds. I contacted the publisher and told them that I needed three books to tell the story. Luckily, they were delighted and I was able to go where I needed. Having learned my lesson, from that point on I worked off detailed outlines.

The Longlight Legacy is science fiction/fantasy, but your other books and plays seem to be more realistic. What inspired you to try writing SFF for a change?

Actually, I've always had a finger in (and great love for) SFF. My very first (Hopwood Award) winning story was pure fantasy. And even in my realistic work there is usually a sprinkling of magic realism or wild theatricality. My television writing has spanned the gamut of SFF, writing multiple episodes for the space show Deepwater Black,(I had the pleasure on that one to work with Richard Manning of STNG and Farscape) and more recently, 2030 CE ( a Brave New World where kids run everything because of the 30 year life span) I co-created and wrote/consulted during its 2 season run. The Longlight Legacy was my first big foray into SFF prose fiction because I wanted a bigger image structure than reality could provide for the themes I wanted to address.

In both your SFF and your realistic work, you don't seem to shy away from dealing with difficult and controversial issues. You've written about topics such as violence, gambling, racism, and, in the Longlight Legacy, toxic waste and organ harvesting, among other things. Obviously your work has been well received; you've won awards and had good reviews. But has this kind of brutal honesty about the world's problems generated any backlash? Do you find that adults tend to react differently to your work than young people?

For the most part, adults have been just as receptive to my work as young people. I try to write the kinds of things I enjoy seeing or reading -- stories that are engaging and thought provoking. Probably because I get bored so easily. But I have had the odd negative experience. My book Skud was singled out by some for being gratuitously violent -- despite the fact that it is specifically about "manhood training" and the roots of aggressiveness in males -- and is certainly not gratuitously violent. But no doubt that theme makes some people very uncomfortable. For example, the play it was based on, War, was banned in one city because of its provocative language. When I asked what words were offensive, I was told some of the slang, like "skrunk" and "skud," were objectionable and I was asked to change those words. I pointed out that these slang words were invented by me. So I had the honor of having imaginary words censored!

You were born in the United States, but moved to Canada at a young age, lived there most of your life, and became a Canadian citizen. What drew you to Canada, and what aspects of living in Canada do you find most appealing?

I spent my childhood summers at Camp Tamakwa in Algonquin Park and it was an oasis from my family and the chaos of the city I grew up in, Detroit. Because of those idyllic summers, I promised myself that one day I would come to live in Canada. When I graduated from the University of Michigan's Residential College, I was offered a fellowship in Playwriting at the University of British Columbia. Theatre was booming in Vancouver at that time, and with some fellow UBC grads we started a theatre company, Green Thumb. I never looked back. Canada is by no means a perfect society, but it does have an intrinsically humanistic bent with a decent system of universal health care and other proper social services. And my adopted city of Vancouver is simply one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

After high school, you studied religion before you became interested in writing and changed your focus. Have your religious studies influenced your writing?

I studied the phenomonology of religious experience. The Longlight Legacy is one of my first developed attempts at exploring some of my mystical obsessions. But those early, intense studies most certainly filter through the rest of my work.

What are some of your favorite books and authors?

At the moment I'm thoroughly enjoying Tom Holland's excellent history book, Persian Fire, Martin Kemp's Leonardo and am about to crack open Lukyanenko's Nightwatch. I'm addicted to Jasper Fforde who is pure, unabashed guilty pleasure, bow down to Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridien was a big inspiration for Dirt Eaters) and Philip Pullman, adore Ian McEwen and David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas blew my mind) and love having my brain messed with by Haruki Mirakami. And I'm currently adapting Allan Stratton's Chanda's Secrets as a screenplay, and Michael Ignatieff's Scar Tissue for the stage. Both terrific, heartfelt novels.

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You can read a biography of Dennis Foon here.

Book Review: freewalker

by Dennis Foon
The Longlight Legacy, book 2

In The Dirt Eaters, Roan and his sister Stowe were the only survivors of Longlight, a town living by principles of peace and hidden away from a world devastated by war and toxic waste, until it was destroyed by raiders and its inhabitants massacred. Roan escaped, but he was unable to save Stowe, who was captured and taken away to the city.

Now Roan is living in Newlight, a sanctuary where he is attempting to start a new life, along with friends he met in his travels: Lumpy, a Mor-Tick survivor, and Alandra, a healer. The three of them are caring for fourteen children that they rescued from being sent to the city to be used by the Masters of the City. Like Roan and Stowe, the fourteen children have special abilities, which Alandra has cautiously begun to explore. Alandra has been taking the children to the Dreamfield, a dimension of the spirit that can be reached by eating Dirt, a substance mined from an asteroid impact site which conveys special mental powers to those who eat it. Then disaster strikes, as all fourteen children simultaneously fall into a coma. When Alandra is unable to awake them, Roan and Lumpy set off to try to find a way to save the children.

Meanwhile, Stowe has been deified in the city as "Our Stowe," an idol created by the Masters to control the population through worship. Stowe is no longer the frightened child she was when she was brought to the city; her training and her experiences have made her wise beyond her years. She plays her roles well - loving adopted daughter to Darius, the Eldest, as well as the idol Our Stowe, but she knows that she is being used and manipulated by Darius. Stowe's growing powers are formidable, but she is as yet no match for the Masters and Darius, so she meekly bides her time until she can find a way to escape.

It's impossible to try to describe these books in a few paragraphs, and my description above barely scratches the surface of this rich, complex book. As I was reading this book, it struck me that it reminds me in some ways of one of my all-time favorite books, Frank Herbert's Dune. Beyond the obvious similarity between The Longlight Legacy's Dirt and Dune's melange, both addictive substances with mind-enhancing abilities, there's a complex web of politics and shifting allegiances and secret orders and spies and traitors and mysticism here that evokes a sense of Dune without being derivative.

In spite of these similarities, The Longlight Legacy is a highly original series. Foon has done an amazing job of creating a richly detailed world populated by a variety of cultures and characters. In this second book of the series, we finally get to know Stowe, and she's quite a compelling character - in some ways she's still a young girl, and a girl wounded by her experiences, in other ways, she's as wily and manipulative as the Masters who trained her. Stowe is also addicted to Dirt, an addiction that sometimes drives her to extremes.

Then there's Roan, who is wrestling with both the demons of the past and prophecies of the future. Roan must confront his own demons of guilt and loss before he can help the children. Along the way, his preconceptions, and those of the reader, are shattered time and again, as people turn out to be different than Roan has come to believe.

The story is intense and holds your interest, although I did find Stowe's story to be the more compelling of the two in this book. This is definitely a series that I'm going to want to go back and read again.

There are some horrifying things in the book, such as organ harvesting from children to keep the Masters alive, so this isn't a book for sensitive readers. Although there is a summary of the first book at the beginning of this one, I highly recommend reading The Dirt Eaters first because of the complexity of the series.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917 - 2008

By now, you may have heard the sad news that science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke has passed away. Clarke was one of my favorite writers as a youth, and his writing had a big influence on me. Besides being one of a handful of science fiction writers whose work inspired a life-long love of the genre, he also had a lot to do with my teenage dream of being an astronaut. While I grew out of wanting to be an astronaut, his stories, with their optimistic view of technology and of mankind's future, influenced my worldview.

Clarke's most famous work is the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he wrote with Stanley Kubrick based on Clarke's short story The Sentinel. My favorite of his novels was always Rendezvous with Rama, in which a team of astronauts explores a strange, unoccupied, 30-mile long alien spacecraft traveling through the solar system. I loved the mystery and the ambiguity as they attempted to decipher all the strange things they found in Rama before time ran out. However, to me, Clarke's best works were his short stories: they were clever, pithy, and often ended with a surprising twist. They often displayed both his concern about the world's problems, and his optimism that mankind can rise above our petty differences and evolve to a new level.

Clarke is famous for his three laws, the last of which has been widely quoted:
  • When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The world has lost a brilliant man and a great writer.

Other references:

The New York Times Obituary

A bibliography of his work at

Edited to add:

Galley Cat Post.

LiveJournal tribute by rpk (Brian Siano).

Colleen Lindsay shares her remembrances of Sir Arthur.

Matthew Cheney muses on the end of an era.

IEEE Spectrum: Final Thoughts from Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Monarch buttefly deforestation

Anyone who knows me, knows how important the monarch butterflies have been in my life. My family started raising monarchs together as a family project six or seven years ago, and every summer we search for monarch eggs, nurture them through all the stages, and release the butterflies. These little creatures are a miracle, and we never get tired of watching them make their amazing transformations. Several years ago we started planting milkweed to encourage the monarchs to come around our house. My husband was inspired by our experiences with monarchs to write a book, The Dark Dreamweaver, which includes a monarch wizard. If it weren't for the monarchs, I probably wouldn't be here, blogging about children's books.

One amazing thing about the monarchs is their annual migration. Every year in the Fall, they migrate to Mexico, where they spend the winter. In the Spring they migrate northwards again. There are several generations between the northbound butterflies in the Spring and the southbound ones in the Fall, yet somehow those southbound butterflies know where to go, and they go to the same places year after year. Unfortunately, those places are under attack by loggers. Now, a new satellite image recently published shows that in spite of Mexico's creation of protected zones, illegal logging continues to devastate the monarch buttefly overwintering grounds.

Click here to view a pair of satellite images of Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in central Mexico. The first image was taken in 2004, and the second one was taken on February 23, 2008. The image clearly shows large areas that have been clear cut inside the protected zone, where logging has been illegal by presidental decree since 2000.

If this deforestation continues, the monarch migration could be disrupted. If that happens, this beautiful and inspiring creature could disappear from the earth.

Butterfly image © copyright 2005 Sheila Ruth; all rights reserved.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Book Review: The Key to Rondo

The Key to Rondo
by Emily Rodda

It all started when Leo inherited Aunt Bethany's music box. The music box is beautifully painted with tiny, detailed scenes that Leo loves examining with a magnifying glass. It also comes with rules: never wind the box more than three times; never turn the key while the music is playing; never pick up the box while the music is playing; and never close the lid until the music has stopped. Aunt Bethany left the box to Leo because she knew that Leo is the responsible type who will follow the rules. But when Leo's obnoxious cousin Mimi Langlander comes to stay, the rules get broken and the unexpected happens.

Mimi and Leo discover that the music box is the gateway to the land of Rondo, and together they travel to Rondo to rescue Mimi's dog Mutt, who has been kidnapped by the evil Blue Queen. Leo doesn't even want to be in Rondo. He doesn't want to risk his life to help Mimi find her annoying dog. But Mimi is determined to rescue Mutt, and Leo can't just abandon her. But what Leo learns in Rondo convinces him to stay; he realizes that they must do more than just rescue Mutt. Rondo needs their help, and Leo isn't leaving until they do what needs to be done.

Accomplishing this won't be easy. Leo and Mimi are in an unfamiliar land, and knowing whom to trust is as difficult as navigating the dangers of Rondo. But the two children find friends and help in unexpected places, and, more importantly, learn to trust and care for each other.

The Key to Rondo uses many standard fantasy elements, but it's saved from being cliché by the imaginative way that Rodda develops those elements. The land of Rondo is beautifully detailed and peopled with interesting characters who sometimes turn out to be more than they seem. There are many imaginative details that make the book a delight to read, from the cameo appearances by fairy tale characters, to the infestation of "dots," a pest species in Rondo that look exactly like Aunt Bethany's gingerbread men. (Although I loved this latter detail, I admit to also being annoyed that it wasn't more fully developed; I wanted to know how this obviously invasive species was introduced to Rondo, and if they were indeed related to Aunt Bethany's gingerbread).

Sophisticated readers may find that The Key to Rondo doesn't have enough depth to hold their interest. However, it's a gentle fantasy that's perfect for younger readers, especially those who find many YA, and even middle-grade, fantasies too intense. There's enough tension and conflict in The Key to Rondo to keep it interesting, without being overly frightening or violent.