Wednesday, March 25, 2015

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: Bear Heart (Klawdia series Book 1) by KJ Colt


“Women serve men, and you must prove that you can be a man before you may lead.”

The Bear tribe have always ruled the Nation of Ruxdor, though with no male heirs to continue the line, Klawdia, the chieftain’s daughter and only child, must compete in a bestial rite of passage against four other tribal boys to retain her family’s sovereignty.

The competition is set amongst the perils of the Death Peak Mountains and pits representatives from Ruxdor's five strongest tribes—Bear, Lion, Wolf, Snake, and Hawgrald—against each other in a race to slaughter their tribe’s animal and return home. Each competitor is overseen by an opposing tribe’s elder to discourage dishonesty.

Klawdia is seriously injured by the bear she must slaughter, and a rival both saves her life and sabotages her chance of victory by cheating. When elders start disappearing from the competition, Klawdia must draw on the last of her strength to expose the truth and save her family’s lineage.

I really wanted to love this novel/novella just from looking at the cover it. What more can you want out of a cover than a girl with a crossbow? Unfortunately, Bear Heart had some problems. The first of which may be mine. It felt to me and other readers that this was actually a YA book though it doesn’t say that anywhere. Since I generally don’t enjoy YA please realize my criticism may not be apt to those who favor such fare.

Another problem is that the blurb covers about 90% of the book’s plot. Okay, maybe not precisely, but there aren’t any twists. What you expect to happen happens. It was unfortunate because there were a few places that appeared near perfect set-ups for a twist and yet no twist came.

Our heroine Klawdia is, of course is madly in love with, Skelkra, the heart-throbby badboy future leader of Wolf Clan and enamored with the idea that the two of them will marry and lead the clans to great prosperity. Also of course has no interest in, Jeykel, the sweetboy leader Hawgrald (a type of colossal bird) clan, though he is trapped in the throes of unrequited love for her and portrayed as the portrait of friendship and loyalty.

Bear Heart’s characters were not surprising, which made the plot is predictable. You’re never are shown a reason why Klawdia is if “fooled” as she calls it by Skelkra. Had there been some history where he had once been something other than what he obviously was, or if he even bothered to launch a sustained campaign of lying and manipulation, then maybe you could see how she was fooled since he was so hot and stuff, but there really wasn’t any of that. It was like watching the scorpion and the frog crossing the river story play out, except the scorpion gets to live and be king if he stings the frog yet the frog is still surprised. I mean Klawdia thinks they could rule together wonderfully while simultaneously knowing she and Skelkra have diametrically opposed visions for the clans and both are proud and stubborn and certain. She doesn’t seem at all fazed by this major dilemma or even notice it. That leads to another problem I had, which was that this was a contest to see who was fit to rule the clans and I wanted to root for Klawdia, but in my opinion she was not fit. Since Klawdia’s father was abusive, blamed her for her mother’s death birthing her, and always wanted a son not a daughter, had Skelkra been clearly modeled after him then, maybe, you could see how she could have been blind to his obvious faults because she was chasing after her father’s love, but they didn’t seem similar to me other than being jerks.

Now, the good part about Bear Heart is that it was well-written enough that I’m interested in trying Colt’s well-received Epic Fantasy series,
The Healers of Meligna,  because some excellent writers don’t excel at the short form, however, I better encounter twists and surprises in the early going.

Judge the novel for yourself on Amazon
: Bear Heart (Klawdia series Book 1) by KJ Colt

Review by Carlyle Clark for Heroines of Fantasy.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ballads and books: The inspirations behind 'After the Ruin'

Louise Turner has invited me here today (Louise, Thank you!) to talk about After the Ruin. You will, I hope, read it for yourself so I won’t spoil the story. Instead, I’ll say something about what passed through my mind as I was writing. Or, to be more honest, revising. I’m very much a-make-it-up-as-you-go-along sort of writer and the final version of any of my stories has very little in common with the first draft.

Only the genre was fixed before the beginning. In another life, I write non-fiction. This requires huge amounts of research to make sure the facts are not only correct but presented accurately. I write fiction to relax and so I don’t want to do this level of research to tell my story. With my type of fantasy I can mix up all sorts of interesting ideas from different times and places without worrying about anything other than internal consistency. Internal consistency, though, is hugely important. Get the details right and plausible and a reader will easily swallow any amount of impossibility.

That said, it makes imagining things a lot easier when there’s something real to base them on. I was born in the west of Scotland and, although I’ve lived all over the world since, it’s the place my heart goes back to (and so do I, whenever I can). So After the Ruin is set there, though I’ve mixed and muddled the original places around so much that you’d have to know them well – or else know me well – to recognise them.

And the story? Well, again, it helped to have something to base it on. I listen to huge amounts of folk music. Much of this derives from the Child Ballads, a diverse collection of songs that were – and are – part of the oral tradition of Scotland and northern England, and of the descendants of Scottish and English migrants to Canada and the United States. I didn’t want to retell any single ballad or folksong, though ideas and motifs from many found their way into the book. The chapter epigraphs provide hints, and a playlist. As I was revising, I started to associate each of my three main characters with a particular song: for Marwy Ninek, this was The Bonnie House of Airlie; for Assiolo, Tam Lin; and for Te-Meriku, The Unquiet Grave, which is my favourite ballad of all, at least as interpreted by Lau. These songs largely determined the dominant note of their characters and contributed something to their stories.

The Child Ballads aren’t, on the whole, cheerful. But they are beautiful, honed into shape by a process akin to natural selection. They tell of a world filled by melancholy and longing. Betrayal and violence are commonplace; friends become foes; love begins with secrets and ends, like as not, with death. Although they are often set in real places, and sometimes tell of true events, these songs blur the lines between the mundane and the supernatural, making no clear distinction between the two. That’s the mood I want to conjure in my writing: the real world, heightened.

So there you have it: After the Ruin is a fantasy, riffing off the oral tradition, set in an imagined version of the Scottish Islands and Highlands. It takes its tone from the ballads and is, I’ll freely grant, somewhat melancholy. But I hope it is also, at times, beautiful.

Harriet Goodchild

Here's an extract, taken from Chapter 6.
In Felluria, Assiolo lies dying of the winter sickness. Marwy Ninek sits, despairing, at his bedside when a stranger knocks at the door...

“Who are you?” Marwy Ninek asked. “The gate is locked against strangers.”

“So too it is. There are many ways to open a locked door but the simplest is to ask for it to be opened.” The woman’s voice lilted like a song, patterned with the rhythms of a foreign tongue. “I asked at the gate, as Assiolo did, and the porter let me in, as he did Assiolo.”

Her words and the manner of her speaking were enough to make Marwy Ninek stare; in such a way had Assiolo spoken, before the winter sickness stole all speech and sense from him. “You know Assiolo? You are of his country?”

“I knew his father, long ago. He was a man unlike all other men.” The stranger put back her hood from her golden hair and stepped across the threshold to stand at the bedside. “I am not here too late? He is still living? ’Twould grieve me sore to know Allocco’s son were dead.”

Marwy Ninek bent over Assiolo, her black hair brushing his cheek. “He lives – but that is my concern, not yours.”

A gentle shake of a lovely head, a white hand reaching out to touch his face. “If Assiolo lives, then that is my concern. I have no hope for the dead, only for the living.” This woman’s eyes were blue as the midsummer sky, her smile bright and lovely as the sun at noontime. “I can heal your love and change one future to another.”

“Once sense is lost, there is no healing from the winter sickness.”

“There are ways, my dear, did he not speak of them?” the stranger whispered. “If Assiolo dies tonight, surely he will go before his time.”

That had been her only thought these seven days. Assiolo was her own, her dear, her very life. All she knew of love and hope and kindness came from him. He was a song among the roses, a promise in the night time, I love you, forever and for always. She clung to his hand and felt its chill against her skin, as if he were dead already.

The woman asked, “How old is he? Two score years?”

“Not even that,” Marwy Ninek answered. She did not turn her gaze from Assiolo, lifting his head to settle it more easily upon his pillow though he was past all thought of ease and comfort.

“Too young then to die and leave you lonely, with empty arms within your empty bed, aching with your memories.”

Marwy Ninek watched Assiolo lying in his sleep beyond sleep, silent and still but for the shallow rising of his chest, the little pulse beating slowly at his neck. The woman touched her arm with fingers warm as summer sunshine. “I can give him back to you, my dear, banishing misfortune for a while. I can give him forty years before the darkness takes him.”

“That cannot be done!”

“Oh, but I can! Forty years I can give to him to make of what he will. Or I can leave you, I can go back into the night, and he will die.”

Marwy Ninek cried out of her anguish, “You must not say such things."

“I can heal him, and I will!”

“It is not kind to say such things when they cannot be true.” Bending over Assiolo, Marwy Ninek cupped his face between her hands and kissed his clay-cold lips.

“All I say is true.” The woman slipped her arm around her shoulders. Her embrace was warm and strong, comfort for the comfortless. Gently, she pulled Marwy Ninek away from Assiolo; gently, she turned her around to face her. “There are ways indeed, my dear. Assiolo would not use them but I will: I’ve life enough to save him. I’ve said three times I can heal him. Each time I spoke truly. The only end is death, and Assiolo is not yet dead.” Staring into her eyes, the stranger whispered, “I can turn back the dark.”

Marwy Ninek clutched at her, finding hope in the depths of those blue eyes when all other hopes had slipped away. “Then do so!”

The woman held her hands and told her, “But there is a price.”

“I will pay any price,” said Marwy Ninek.

“For forty years of a man’s life, the price will be a high one.”

“For a year of this man’s life I would give my own!”

“That is not the price I ask.”

“What do you ask?”

“That tonight we make a bargain, you and I,” the woman answered. “Tonight, I’ll give you what you want if, when next we meet, you will give me what I want.”

“What must I give?”

Red lips curved into a little smile. “That, I shall tell at the right time. That is not now, with his life slipping fast away. An you wish Assiolo to live, you must decide, and quickly. Which will you have, Marwy Ninek: life for your lover, or a dark watch into the morning and then to lie him in the stony ground beyond your walls?”

Marwy Ninek thought once, and she thought twice, she looked down at Assiolo and then she did not think again. “You offer a choice that is no choice at all. I will take your bargain. And if you heal him and give him back to me, then you will have my love and gratitude and friendship all the years I am alive to give them.”

The woman smiled. “It is enough for me that you keep to our bargain. Do that, and he will live. Have I your promise?”

“You have it.”

The golden stranger leaned towards Assiolo. She breathed into his nose, she opened his mouth and spat in it, she kissed him thrice, on his forehead, on his cheek, on his lips. Marwy Ninek saw a touch of brightness ’cross his face but surely that was only the lamp light reflected from the golden hair falling down around him. The woman sat beside him on the bed, taking his hands in hers, and crooned a song, its tune a lullaby sung to a sleeping child but the words were like no lullaby sung in Felluria. Marwy Ninek listened, the hairs pricking on her neck. This lady and her song were full of life but there was no love to mellow it.

What is the price of a man's life? An apple? A sword? A kingdom?

There are many ways to leave a life in ruins. But ruined lives go on, and so, after the ruin, there is love, sweet as roses on a summer's evening. But love is such a little thing, no stronger than a candleflame at noontime. For, after the ruin, Averla, fire made flesh, is hiding in the light. She will use lover against lover, sister against brother, father against son, to build again her kingdom of everlasting flame. Love is not enough to set against her fierce desire. As well seek to turn back the tide with a wall of sand.

Amazon UK
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Monday, March 16, 2015

Transition, inspiration, and moving along

"March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb," goes the old saying. Here in New England, no truer statement can there be. The month started with snowstorms and accumulations of over five feet in some places. As I write this, here in snowy Connecticut, no less than three feet blanket my yard. I can't even tell you how high the piles from the plow and snowblower are. I'd need Jack's beanstalk to take measurements.

But it's melting. Even now, it's melting. Temps below zero last week are in the fifties this week. We'll dip again, I'm certain, but the trend is warmer, as it must be, because the lamb, fluffy-tail switching, is on her way.

It's no secret that I love the winter. The sleeping dark. The way snow muffles sound, even as it enhances. Skies grey and moody one day, bright-blue and crisp the next. The stark beauty of a winter landscape inspires me in a way no other does. I'm always a little sad when the season turns to spring and warmer weather. It makes me a little odd, but so does wearing shorts all winter, and the penchant for wearing a tiara as I write.

But I am not without comfort...

May brings Virginia Beach Week with my dollbabies, a group of writing women who gather in a beach house for one week every year. Whenever I'm sorry to see the winter go, I think of VAB and all is well. The beach, the women, the writing, the cake and wine and hours of chatting about everything from our families to books to things-that-shall-not-be-mentioned to, of course, writing. It's not just being by the sea, but being by the sea with this group that inspires in a way even a winter landscape cannot touch. It's my solace as the days lengthen, warm, and winter slides away.

I'm not a complete freak. I do love the spring and the smell of soil coming alive again. Flowers, birds, spring peepers in the marsh across the road. Summer is on Spring's heels, and with it, more outdoor time to enjoy, sunshine, swimming with the grandbabies, growing tomatoes. But it's the advent of autumn, my favorite time of all, that pulls me along. That anticipation starts in August, when New England nights are crisp and the cricketsong, glorious. September...October...November...December. Then comes my world's deep and cathartic sleep, that coasting glide after the holiday's rollercoaster hill.

Year after year, these transitions inspire me, and move me along. How about you? What season inspires you most, and why do you think that is?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

REVIEW: The Three Body Problem

Title: The Three Body Problem
Author: Cixin Liu translated by Ken Liu
Genre: SF
Price: $25.99 (hardcover, list)
Publisher: Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-7707-7
Point of Sale: Amazon 
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

The Three Body Problem is a best-selling novel in China, and now that Ken Liu has translated it into English, I fully expect it to hit the best-seller lists here.  It’s really good.

Three Body opens during “the madness years” of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Ye Wenjie’s father is being beaten by his former students, now Red Guard members, because he won’t renounce Einstein.  Things go from bad to worse, and Wenjie (Chinese names are written family name first) ends up in a logging camp.  Then she gets commandeered as a low-level worker in a Chinese SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).  Alas for humanity, the search succeeds, but the information never gets up the political chain and is lost when the radio station is shut down.

Part Two of the book opens up in the present, a few years from today.  Wang Miao is visited by the police.  He is taken to a “War Command Center” where they appear to be investigating the suicides of several notable physicists.  Over the weekend, Miao indulges his hobby of photography, using an old and completely mechanical camera, yet every picture he takes has a weird, and impossible, countdown on it.  This leads him to a computer game, Three Body, which was being played by some of the suicides.  Then the universe “blinks” at Wang and things get really interesting.

There’s a lot of crossover between readers of mystery and science fiction, largely because both types of fiction are puzzles.  Three Body is unique in that it is a science fiction mystery, with possibly the survival of the human race at stake.  Ken Liu, a great writer in English, does a wonderful job translating the book.

The world of Three Body is fascinating.  It’s our world, except as seen through Chinese eyes, and an alien world presented for us in allegory to allow us to understand their reality.  Cixin Liu has thought long and deeply about aliens and technology, as well as taken a harsh look at his own country’s recent history.  The book appears to end on a down note, but thanks to a secondary character we get hope for the future.

I for one also hope to see the sequels!

Monday, March 9, 2015

What is Sparta?!?

Hi, it’s Louise Turner here.  I’m back again – can it really be six months since I was last posting on Heroines of Fantasy? 
         A lot has happened since then.  My second novel’s  been dispatched, and I’m now engrossed in writing my third novel.  This means I’m having some time out from the trials and tribulations of late 15th century Scotland, to concentrate instead on a novel set variously in modern England and Wales and Ancient Sparta.
    For those who aren’t acquainted with it, it's a time-slip novel, but right from the outset, I approached its writing more as a piece of speculative fiction.  True, there’s the conventional element of girl goes back into the past where she meets boy, but the main thrust of the story follows what happens when the boy gets brought forward into the future and ends up seeking the girl.
     The boy’s from Ancient Sparta.  You know, one of those Death or Glory warrior types that wanders about in leather underpants and shouts, “Freedom!” in a Paisley accent (apologies to Gerard Butler here, I did enjoy ‘300!’). Except he isn’t like that at all.  Because, being a proper historical fiction author, I wanted to get behind the ‘Spartan mirage,’ as the academics call it, and to try and recreate a ‘proper’ Spartan. And this wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
      The Spartans were very good on the propaganda front.  They had this carefully-constructed facade of what it was to be Spartan which they used to impress their fellow Greeks (and their potential foes from further afield).  It’s this image which springs to mind today when we think of the Spartans.  The result is Spartan cliché: you know, the bellicose warrior who despises learning and culture as being ‘soft’ and looks down his nose at other Greeks because they waste their time idling instead of working out down the gymnasium every waking minute of the day.
        After reading up on countless academic books upon the subject, written by such august figures as Paul Cartledge and others, I realised that this wasn't the impression I'd been given by my source material at all.  I suspect that the Spartans viewed themselves as Ancient Greeks par excellence, the guardians of Greece, more Greek than Greek.  They never rushed into war, and often had to be pushed very hard before they actually took part in any military engagement. They relished the arts, particularly music and dance, and they were very, very religious.
       This is, of course, a very generalised view, and Spartan society, like any other, was always in a state of re-negotiation and change. In general terms, it was a very rigidly structured, highly militarised and also very xenophobic system. Sparta's women were unusually empowered for the ancient world (they had the vote), but on the other hand, the city state's soldier citizens were supported by a labouring class made up of an enslaved indigenous Greek population. Which, quite understandably, made the Spartans rather unpopular with their neighbours...
       Spartans in literature and film can be very cliched, so what I’ve been trying to do is to try and explore what the impact of living in this kind of society might have on those within it. And it's been fascinating to see how such an individual might react to life in an entirely alien environment: that is, modern Britain.  My hero is, in effect, a former child soldier who ends up seeking political asylum in the future.  So one of the major themes of the book is whether he can adapt to our alien world (and whether indeed he even wants to) and following him on this journey is turning out to be quite an adventure, believe me!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Wednesday Review: Shall We Not Revenge

Title: Shall We Not Revenge
Author: D.M. Pirrone
Publisher: Allium Press of Chicago
Publication date: 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
Price: Paperback $14.40; Kindle $6.99
Where to purchase: Amazon and Barnes and Noble
Reviewer: Cybelle Greenlaw
From the cover: In the harsh early winter months of 1872, while Chicago is still smoldering from the Great Fire, Irish Catholic detective Frank Hanley is assigned the case of a murdered Orthodox Jewish rabbi. His investigation proves difficult when the neighborhood's Yiddish-speaking residents, wary of outsiders, are reluctant to talk. But when the rabbi's headstrong daughter, Rivka, unexpectedly offers to help Hanley find her father's killer, the detective receives much more than the break he was looking for.
Their pursuit of the truth draws Rivka and Hanley closer together and leads them to a relief organization run by the city's wealthy movers and shakers. Along the way, they uncover a web of political corruption, crooked cops, and well-buried ties to two notorious Irish gangsters from Hanley's checkered past. Even after he is kicked off the case, stripped of his badge, and thrown in jail, Hanley refuses to quit. With a personal vendetta to settle for an innocent life lost, he is determined to expose a complicated criminal scheme, not only for his own sake, but for Rivka's as well.
Good afternoon! This week I had the pleasure of reading D.M. Pirrone's carefully researched novel, Shall We Not Revenge.  The author, a Chicago native, creates a vivid portrait of the city and its inhabitants in the months following the Great Fire. Much of the city has been brought to ruin. A variety of ethnic groups struggle to survive, and tensions run high among them. When Rabbi Kelmansky is found murdered in his synagogue, Detective Frank Hanley fears accusations could cause an escalation of hostilities.

 Kelmansky's daughter, Rivka, discovered the body, and Hanley is immediately impressed by her determination and steady nerves. Against the wishes of her elders, Rivka volunteers to help Hanley, first as a Yiddish translator, then as an unofficial investigator in her father's murder. Hanley soon learns that the rabbi was well-known and loved even by those outside the close-knit Jewish community, but he hid a great secret even from Rivka. With the help of a few close friends, the rabbi had become a sort of Robin Hood, stealing supplies from the Relief and Aid Society to give to the poorest of the poor. The Aid, created to help victims of the fire, was run by prominent, extremely snobbish members of society, who frequently refused aid to those who most needed it, generally on spurious grounds of moral turpitude. The discovery of the rabbi's covert activity deepens the mystery of his death and opens the investigation to a range of suspects, including thugs from Hanley's checkered past and members of high society.

The book is highly engaging and moving. The overwhelming poverty and desperation of Chicago's newly homeless citizens is heartbreaking. One of the most memorable minor characters is a child selling souvenirs from the fire. Though starving and cold, the boy is reluctant to accept more than he asked for a pair of half-melted scissors. The reader can imagine his family's embarrassment at the prospect of asking for charity and how they must emphasized the virtue of hard work. Throughout the book, the city's poor manage to prove themselves more noble than the members of The Aid, and it is very difficult not to be angered by the injustices they are forced to suffer.

Needless  to say, I highly recommend this book. It's a well-constructed mystery in a gritty, historically accurate setting. The unusual partnership between Rivka and Hanley is touching and rather inspiring. Indeed, I very much hope there will be a sequel!

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Call to Keep Writing...

Mark here! As we start a new month at HOF, I thought I would take a back seat to my guest blogger early rather than later. I'll have something pithy, hopefully, before we hit April.  Today, I would like to introduce everyone to Jeff Charbonneau.  Jeff was a former student of mine, is a current colleague and great friend, and teaches our upper-division Science classes at Zillah High School. Jeff was also the National Teacher of the Year for 2013, and has spent the bulk of the last year traveling the globe, interacting with educators, serving as an ambassador, champion, and liason for learning. While our blog's name implies a fantasy focus, I thought it could still be instructive to get Jeff's perspective on what we do and how it impacts what he does. Everyone: Jeff Charbonneau.

I am a science teacher.
I teach chemistry, physics, and engineering. I teach about quantum mechanics, wave-particle duality, and relativity.
The irony is that I am not really concerned with the actual content of my courses. Don’t get me wrong, content is important. My courses are rigorous; so much so that every course I teach to my high school students, counts for college credit.
However, content is the method, not the goal. Content is a tool that we use to teach with.

The actual goal of education is to help students develop the ability to use all of their combined skills and resources to solve problems.
My science classes can certainly help students add to their problem solving tool box. Learning how solid metals undergo phase change and ionization during the ionic bonding process allows my students the opportunity to take a complex set of data, break it down and identify trends to predict future outcomes. At least in theory, anyway.
Far too often, though, the science lab can get reduced to performing experiments with predetermined outcomes that the student has already learned about and are being “confirmed” by completing specified tasks.
What we need more of in science is what scientists used to get us here; a good dose of imagination.
How many of our advancements in science came straight out of the pages of science fiction novels? From Mary Shelley to Isaac Asimov, our science fiction writers have served up countless ideas about how we might one day alter the universe around us to meet our needs.
To end the story there, as so many do, would be a travesty. You see it is not the science fiction that is important to future generations, but the fiction itself.
The ability to imagine an entire world or even just a single event is vital to the problem solving cycle that we are so desperately trying to teach our youth.
The subject itself is less important than the shear act of looking at the universe and altering it, even if only slightly, to match our needs.
Some of the most influential courses on my teaching practices were literature courses. From reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis to The Brothers Karamazov to The Hobbit, one learns that the power of fiction to describe reality is, perhaps, without equal.
After all, as a chemistry and physics teacher, I am often faced with trying to describe what can sometimes only be perceived as strange and magical worlds of protons, neutrons, and quarks. If I can tell the tale of quantum mechanics using similar techniques as my literary colleagues, then my students will be better for it.
One the most impactful lessons in my physics class is when we study the screenplay, Copenhagen. It is a fictional retelling of the meeting between two of the most important quantum physicists of the 20th century, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Without the humanizing tale of Copenhagen, my students would struggle to tie together the politics, science, and personal relationships that helped shaped the outcome of WWII and the world as we know it.
Simply stated, without a fictional play, my physics class would have less impact.
At the end of the day, STEM education is vitally important; but the arts and literature are just as important.

So do me favor…

Keep writing.

Jeff Charbonneau
2013 National Teacher of the Year
ZHS Science Teacher
CWU/EWU Adjunct Instructor in Chemistry/Physics
STEM Coordinator for ESD 105