Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Around the World With Mouk by Marc Boutavant

I still need to post about the National Book Award events but all week long I haven't been able to get it together to put up a long post full o' photos that somehow does justice to it all. Now I'm typing one-handed with a precious Clementine on my lap, curved like a little comma around my body, so I think I'll just put up a quickie post to rave about a picture book I got yesterday in Seattle:
Around the World With Mouk, by Marc Boutavant, pub. Chronicle Books.

I LOVE this book, so much so that I bought three copies -- one for me Clementine and two for gifts. It's a big colorful book of fun by French illustrator Marc Boutavant, whose art I'd only seen previously on stickers. His style is of the hyper-busy scenes crammed with silly detail that will make kids (and Laini) want to spend many long minutes on each spread. Kind of like Richard Scarry, but way cooler. In the book this little bear named Mouk travels around the world and each spread is a different country, populated by the indigenous species and with dozens of tiny speech bubbles that are both funny and educational, teaching about language, culture, nature and food of places like Madagascar, Finland, China, etc . Here's a spread (India):
And if it's not already cool enough, there are stickers! A couple pages of awesome stickers to put where you want throughout the book. I must confess, I'm just itching to use them. It will be a remarkable feat of self-denial if I manage to save the stickers for when Clementine is bigger! Ha ha!

Love it. I got another book illustrated by Boutavant at the same store -- All Kinds of Families --
-- and I'll be on the lookout for more, like this one:

I'll be back soon with NBA stuff!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry

I read a really lovely book yesterday -- Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry. I bought this at a book signing here in Portland last winter (Parry is a Portland author), and for some reason I just hadn't read it yet. It got tucked somewhere -- it's a slim, unassuming little book, easily tucked. Slim and unassuming though it may be, it is also beautiful and deeply affecting, and served to remind me about the soldiers still serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effect of their absence here at home. Shame on me for having *tucked* that away like I did this book.

"Brother" lives on a ranch in sparsely populated Eastern Oregon. As the youngest of five boys, he is the only one still at home when his National Gaurdsman father is deployed to Iraq, along with many of the able-bodied adults of their small community. In only 161 pages, in Brother's thoroughly believable 12-year-old voice, Parry conveys the loss to the community that this deployment represents. Beyond the question of what a 12-year-old does without his father for 14 straight months looms the larger question: how do ranches get along in the hands of children and grandparents?

I really fell in love with this young boy -- he's the kind of boy you want your daughter to marry when they grow up! Sweet and good, and not in a boring, annoying way. I love to discover a good character who is not boring or annoying. Also, as a non-religious person, I like to find books in which deep faith is related in a non-righteous, non-in-your-face way. I didn't really ponder the title much -- Heart of a Shepherd -- probably because of my total ignorance of ranch life. If I knew more, it might have occurred to me sooner that ranchers are not shepherds, and I might have wondered what the title meant. As it was, I only thought about it once it came up in the story. When Brother is told by the Ecuadorian hired hand that he has the "heart of a shepherd," it's a statement about his true nature and even his destiny: perhaps he isn't a rancher like his father. Perhaps he is something else. What that is comes clear over the course of this book, as Brother struggles to keep a big cattle ranch going while also attending 6th grade, facing set-backs and tragedy with dignity and a quirky, homey 12-year-old voice.

To really bring things home, when I finished the book, I was sitting on the sofa nursing and couldn't get up, so I sat there a minute pondering it, and then I leafed through what was in reach -- first the new November issue of Martha Stewart Everyday Food (I'm so going to make that orzo bake, and yum: pie crust made out of crushed sugar cones!), and then yesterday's Oregonian newspaper. There on the front page was the news that Oregon's largest deployment of National Guard soldiers since WWII has just gone to Iraq. 2,600 men and women who never signed up for active duty have to leave their families, jobs, perhaps even ranches, to go fight a war . . . well, this isn't a place for statements about the right or wrong of the war. Parry doesn't engage in that in her book -- for all I know, these families in Eastern Oregon (likely conservative Republicans) endorse the war. Still, it's good to remember who's there, fighting, and who's suffering their absence, fearful every day that they might not return.

Heart of a Shepherd depicts that wait with dignity and a fair amount of heart-squeezing. It can be read in a sitting, but it really expands to fill up that small space with the big landscape of Eastern Oregon and the beautifully rendered lives of its inhabitants.

Squint, and I can see a Newbery seal on the cover of this book. The big, open sky of the cover image even seems designed to receive it :-)

Friday, October 09, 2009

ICE by Sarah Beth Durst

I haven't done a book recommendation in a while, but I am motivated to do so this morning, having just closed Sarah Beth Durst's new novel Ice!

I love the fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." I have two picture book versions (PJ Lynch and Mercer Mayer), and two novel adaptations of it (East by Edith Pattou and Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George), all of which I love. When I heard last year that Sarah Beth Durst's next novel would be an adaptation of this tale, I admit there was a teeny tiny instant in which I thought, another one, and wondered why, and how it might distinguish itself from the others. Then I read the description of it . . .

When Cassie was a little girl, her grandmother told her a fairy tale about her mother, who made a deal with the Polar Bear King and was swept away to the ends of the earth. Now that Cassie is older, she knows the story was a nice way of saying her mother had died. Cassie lives with her father at an Arctic research station, is determined to become a scientist, and has no time for make-believe.
Then, on her eighteenth birthday, Cassie comes face-to-face with a polar bear who speaks to her. He tells her that her mother is alive, imprisoned at the ends of the earth. And he can bring her back -- if Cassie will agree to be his bride.

That is the beginning of Cassie's own real-life fairy tale, one that sends her on an unbelievable journey across the brutal Arctic, through the Canadian boreal forest, and on the back of the North Wind to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. Before it is over, the world she knows will be swept away, and everything she holds dear will be taken from her -- until she discovers the true meaning of love and family in the magical realm of Ice.


. . . and I was sold and ready to read it. Of course, I had to wait for it to come out! Which it did a few days ago. And I read it at once. And it is awesome.

If you know the fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" you know it's kind of "Beauty and the Beast" with a polar bear as beast and an epic journey that the heroine must go on to rescue him after her own broken promise condemns him to marry the troll princess beyond the ends of the earth. Both the previous adaptations I'd read hew pretty closely to the tale and do so beautifully. Durst does something else altogether. She bring the story into the modern world of an Arctic research station and makes the heroine a scientist-in-training. The bear is no mere enchanted prince, a la Beast, but something much more interesting -- I'm not sure if this is purely Durst's own imaginative invention or if it's inspired by Inupiak folklore, but either way it was a surprise and added a whole new dimension to the story, not to mention a deep poignancy. I won't spoil what the twist is, I'll just say the characters aren't victims of troll caprice, locked in a curse, but are busy doing mystical work that has a vital place in the cycle of life, and it's cool.

Her take on trolls, too, is very different from the traditional tale, and has a great pay-off. I'm not spoiling anything to say that the heroine in this version does not save her lover by doing laundry, as in the original tale.

Sarah Beth Durst has folded an amazing amount of research on the frozen Northern world into this tale, to the point that I emailed to ask her (jokingly), if she had been raised on an Arctic research station. The level of detail into the environment, the mixture of science and fantasy, is absolutely to my taste.

Yeah, and the romance, of course. Like the rest of the tale, it's not standard-issue. Years ago I saw the Disney "Beauty and the Beast" in the theaters, and what I mostly remember about it is that a very young child burst into tears at the end when the lovable beast turned into a dumb handsome prince. What happened to Beast??? Durst doesn't do the usual thing, and the identity of the Polar Bear King is nuanced and unusual, and it works.

I met Sarah close to three years ago at the SCBWI conference in New York when we were both awaiting the publication -- on the same day -- of our first novels, which were both middle-grade and both from Penguin. Now, our third books debuted on almost the same day, are both YA, and not from Penguin. It's kind of parallel evolution :-) We are evolving in the same way, on opposite coasts. Ha ha!

Do read this book. Order it HERE or HERE.

REMINDER: WORDSTOCK!
Portland's fabulous literary festival is this weekend, and I will be appearing at 3 pm Saturday on the Target Children's Stage along with author Sarah Rees Brennan who's coming all the way from Ireland. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

First outing

Aside from the doctor's office and post office, yesterday we took Clementine on her first real "outing." We went to breakfast at the Tin Shed on Alberta St. and she was tucked into her "peanut shell" and slept the entire time.

The above photo is taken outside of the shop Frock, which -- though tiny -- has great clothes and jewelry and T-shirts for women, men, and children. And the owner has a daughter named Clementine! (Have you read Sarah Dessen's newest book, Along for the Ride? The clothing boutique in the book is called Clementine's, in honor of Dessen's baby daughter, Sasha Clementine. Perhaps this name is on the rise?)

There was a new baby in that book, and I have no idea if it was modeled after Dessen's own experience with her daughter, but the baby was colicky and cried cried cried. It was a little harrowing, reading it while pregnant. A little "eek!" Well, I know colic doesn't kick in until 2 weeks or later, so I can't say YET that we've escaped that ("eek!") but I can say that so far all the dire sleep warnings are proving unfounded. Clementine is waking once in the night (at which time I find that after a few hours of sleep I *miss* her already and I'm more than ready to get up and hold her!) and sleeping like a dream the rest of the time. We're well rested and very happy! Yay! May it continue this way :-)

Oh, I just read a good book on Amber's recommendation: The Mercy of Thin Air. It's a literary-supernaturally-tragicky romance, and I enjoyed it SO MUCH. It came up in the context of talking about The Time Traveler's Wife (I've been hearing nothing but bad about the movie so far; anyone like it?) and there is a similar beauty, romance, and poignancy. The main character, Razi, is a vivacious young woman in 1920s New Orleans . . . or rather, she is the ghost of a vivacious young woman who drowned in 1920s New Orleans while at the height of a great love affair that would certainly have lasted a lifetime. Rather than passing "beyond," she has lingered "between" for more than 70 years. Finding it too painful to be near her love, Andrew, she has followed his life at a distance, through news clippings, and is satisfied he's had the life she believed he would. Until his obituary is printed and she discovers she's been following the wrong Andrew O'Connell all these years. What really happened to the man she loved? While she seeks him out -- is he still alive? -- she also finds herself drawn to a young married couple whose own past is haunted with a tragedy not unlike her own. The narrative is a split-in-time story about the loves of both couples. I highly recommend it! (I can attest that it's good to read at 3 am with a baby in your lap :-)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter

Some time ago, when Blackbringer was newish, I got an email from an author who'd recently sold her first book (which would be published in 2009). She told me that when she saw my book, she was afraid that I'd written her book before she did. (And I do know writers who've had that happen, really and truly, as if their fickle muse gave the same idea to several writers at the same time!) I mean, on the cover of my book was a faerie with dragonfly wings and a knife and a crow. Her book at the time was titled Knife, and it too, as the title would suggest, was about a small female faerie with dragonfly wings and a knife, and her book had crows in it too. She said she read Blackbringer while at the hospital late with her son who had (I think) broken his arm, and she was relieved to discover that our books, besides sharing some basic elements, were not alike.

Well, I've finally gotten a chance to read R.J. Anderson's book, which came out last week! It's been retitled Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter (though the UK edition retained the title Knife) and it was really interesting to me to see how some of the same ideas that I worked with in creating Dreamdark are present in it, and yet how, from those ideas and intrigues, arises a completely different story. One that I enjoyed immensely!

In both books faeries live secretly tucked into this real world, humans all unaware of them, and in both books faeries are past their golden age. Their magic is dwindling, and their memories of it too. The faeries of Spell Hunter are much worse off than my own Dreamdark faeries: ever since a mysterious event called the Sundering, they have had no magic. The book begins in an oak tree in which a fading faerie colony is eking out an existence without magic. There are only female faeries, and when they die they leave in their place an egg, from which will hatch a daughter. Bryony is the only young faerie growing up in the oak, and from the book's first line she longs to leave its confines and explore. But it's a world of dangerous predators out there -- crows and foxes, not to mention humans -- and only the Gatherers venture out, to glean food for the rest. And of course there's the Queen's Hunter, in whose footsteps Bryony is destined to follow.

The oak is in a human garden, and Bryony's fate is entwined with that of the human son, Paul, who's a child when she first lays eyes on him, and a young man when they finally meet. I don't want to give away too much about the story, which goes in directions I never predicted, so I'll just say that Bryony is intent on discovering what has befallen her people, leaving them not only without magic but prey to a terrible wasting disease called the Silence. Her quest to understand will bring her into the human world in ways she could never have imagined. It's a lovely story with an unexpected aura of romance and a delicious unfolding of secrets that, in the end, reveal an original vision of the world of faeries. Check it out!

Here's the UK cover, with art by Brian Froud, god of all things Faerie:


Anyway, congratulations to Rebecca for a beautiful debut book. Wishing you a wonderful year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Snow and copyedits

Expecting more snow today! Also expecting, if the UPS truck can get here, Lips Touch copyedits in the mail! I just fed-exed the Silksinger ones back to Putnam yesterday -- it's copyedit season, I guess! It's so exciting that these books are nearing completion at last and will very soon manifest themselves as actual books. Advance reader copies, anyway. One of the most exciting days in the whole making of Blackbringer was the day that box of ARCs came in the mail. I have talked to other writers about this, and it seems many of us remember a scene from the movie 'Back to the Future' that non-writers don't tend to remember: the scene when the Crispin Glover character ('dad') gets a box of his new book from his publisher. Do you remember that? It is a glorious, glorious thing when that happens.

I mean, we love books. Not just reading them, but holding them, having them. And when our words become a book. . . it is magic. I love to make books myself. I used to staple-bind my illustrated stories as a kid, and last spring when we got home from Mexico I was completely obsessed with making one of those snazzy photo books from Shutterfly that makes your trip into a coffeetable book. I keep thinking that I want to make a special book for Lips Touch, a kind of behind-the-scenes, showcasing a lot of the art that Jim has done for it that will not make it into the final book. This was a very brainstormy process, with a lot of styles tried and abandoned, and a lot of cover concepts gone through before the final lovely cover which I can't yet show. Here's a peek at one that is not the cover, but that I love almost as much as the cover:
Isn't it so beautiful and romantic? Jim just posted it on his blog too, along with the first look at a great cover he just did for Simon and Schuster. I have such a talented husband! And he's cute, too:-)

Anyway, I'm really excited by the idea of making this "behind the scenes" book for Lips Touch, including an extra little story about kissing, and maybe the earliest incarnation of the novella "Hatchling". "Hatchling" was the result of the second-ever Sunday Scribbling, for the prompt "real life," and I had so much fun writing it. However, the story in the book bears almost no resemblance to that initial "scribble," beyond the first line, which is:

Six days before Esme's fourteenth birthday, her left eye turned from brown to blue.

So I think it would be cool to print the story that became "Hatchling" and maybe talk a little about the process of turning a short, free, fun piece into a longer and more complex story.

I'm thinking of using Blurb.com for the book, because you can do nice little paperbacks for $20. Just the thought of laying out the pages excites me. I love to do that kind of design! I think it would be great fun to be a book designer, especially for some really creative house like Chronicle Books.

Snow is twirling lazily outside. I was supposed to have a crafty date with Chary and her sewing machine today, but I don't want to drive. The mailman just came by to deliver prezzies and he had chains on his tires, and staying in the house sounds good on a day like this. I might actually -- gasp! -- do some WRITING!!!

But maybe not. I mean, there are Cybils books to hurry up and read before the end of the month, and there are cookies to bake. What's better than reading under a warm afghan in a house that smells like cookies? I ask you.

I just read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and it is GOOOD. It's a frightening vision of what could easily happen if there were another major terrorist attack on US soil and the Dept of Homeland Security was given a free hand to do what they will to *investigate* US citizens. It's also a great read for any techies you might know and love, as it's about a teenage boy who sets out to undermine the DHS using technology, including using Xboxes as untraceable internet providers. The "little brothers" of the title are the kids who are screwing with "big brother," making technological mischief into a whole new form of protest and sabotage. Very cool stuff. It made me feel old, thinking about how tech-savvy today's kids are. And then there's the tag line: "Don't trust anyone over 25." Eeek.

Have I mentioned I am . . . um. . . turning [gasp!] 37 on Monday??? (Don't tell anyone.)

But back to writing. Have I confessed here to falling prey to the newt*? That is, the so-called "slutty new idea," and abandoning (for now) the Bad-Ass Sci-Fi Novel that occupied my November? Well, it's true. It's the same newt from earlier in the fall. I've been seesawing between these two ideas and for NaNo I forced myself to choose one and I chose wrong! Or not. Maybe this was the way things needed to evolve. Because what happened was, while I was forcing myself to slog through the sci-fi, the newt was coming clearer and crisper and ever more exciting in the wings of my mind. And I am SO ready to write it now. So thrilled about it! It makes me want to tap dance, and I don't even know how to tap dance.

I solemnly pledge that this newt will not be overturned by a new newt. This can become a vicious cycle. We all know that. Stephanie, who has done the exact same thing to her NaNo book, has agreed to pledge: No New Newts! We will write the books at hand.

Have a beautiful day! Tap dance in the snow. Write something fun. Eat a cookie. Pet your dog.


*"newt" stands for New Weird Thing, which was what I was calling the fun story I started writing when I was bored with my supposed next book.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Slew of Fairy Tale Retellings

I love a good fairy tale retelling, and we had quite a few nominated for the Cybils this year. Here are most, though not all. There are still a few I have yet to read. Also, I've stuck some in below that are not fairy tale retellings, but that would be enjoyed by the same readers.

Wild Magic by Cat Weatherill. This one's a Pied Piper reimagining, for those of you who've wondered whatever happened to the kids. Hint: it involves a trip through a hill to the land of the elves, plus shape-shifting and curses. Quite lovely.





Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier. Take the fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" and people it with the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice, then set it in a castle in Transylvania. With faeries and vampires. I'm so sold on the pitch, and sold on the book. This is not a Cybils nominee this year (it came out in 07), but the "companion novel" (below) is, so I quickly read this to catch up. It's enchanting and romantic, with lovely writing!

Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier. Okay, this is not actually a fairy tale retelling, but as the *companion novel* to Wildwood Dancing, I'm including it here anyway. A young girl accompanies her merchant father to Ottoman-era Istanbul to bid on a rare pagan goddess relic. Forces both of this world and "the other" try to intervene, as Paula gets caught up in a journey with two very different young men -- a dashing Portuguese pirate and a strong, loyal Bulgar bodyguard. Fun!

A Crimson Thread, by Suzanne Weyn. A "real-world" historical Rumplestiltskin set in the immigrant community of 19th-Century New York. Bertie is an Irish girl, newly arrived, who gets a job assisting the seamstress to a wealthy textile merchant's family. The merchant's dashing son woos her, as does a mysterious fellow immigrant, Ray Stalls (not his real name; can you guess what is, hint hint), who might be a labor organizer, and might. . . spin straw into gold. I really enjoyed this book, which is part of Simon Pulse's "Once Upon a Time" series.

Ever by Gail Carson Levine, is not a fairy tale retelling, but an original story with an invented mythos and pantheon of Gods, but I'm including it here because there are lovely echoes of Persephone's descent into the Underworld. This is a very romantic story, in which the youngest of the gods, Olus the wind god, falls in love with a mortal girl named Kezi who is to be sacrificed in a month, to the god of her own people, one who -- unlike Olus and his fellow gods -- is not manifest in the flesh, and may or may not exist. Together, the two set about thwarting her fate, braving challenges set by the gods to win her immortality.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George. I must love the folk tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," because I have three picture book versions of it, plus the novel version East by Edith Patou, and I still have room for more! The classic story tells of of a young girl who finds herself swept into an enchantment, forced to live in an ice palace with a polar bear, endure the silent stranger who climbs into bed beside her in the dark night after night, and use all her wits and fortitude to rescue the one she loves from the clutches of a troll princess. Jessica Day George puts her own spin on things, and introduces a new twist that adds suspense to a well-loved tale.

The Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriot. This book draws inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson's The Wild Swans, in telling a tale of a princess whose three older brothers are enchanted by their evil stepmother and turned into swans. This book was a delight, with memorable magic, a strong heroine, and a sweet romance.



If you're more into "demon lovers" than fairy tale retellings, check out Charlotte's list HERE.

Monday, November 24, 2008

shopping and a movie and a book

I started Christmas shopping today. . . without leaving the house. I got a little lost in etsy. . . I didn't buy anything there except these funny thought-balloon barrettes (for myself) -- but mine say "Don't make me get my ninjas" and "La la la I can't hear you." Aren't they great?

If you're looking for furry monster boots with claws, or a furry panda bear hat with earflaps. . . (I have an animal hat with cat ears, and last night I freaked my mom's cat out with it. Unintentionally! He thought I was a really big bipedal red and pink cat coming to get him!)

Oh, oh my gosh. . .

Or maybe you have a biology enthusiast in the family. . . Maybe a biology/knitting enthusiast? I mean, who wouldn't want a knitted dissection frog? (Rats available too.)




Scrabble-tile pendants for the Twilight-obsessed? There are about a jillion to choose from, including the Cullen family crest, and "sparkle in sunlight" and stuff like that.




And look at this cute pillow girl! It's easy for me to see how Jim got carried away on etsy for our anniversary this summer and bought me too many things!





But yeah, I didn't buy any gifts on etsy -- YET -- though I most certainly will. I mean, why not just put $$ right into the pockets of artists, instead of shopping at chains? Or, ooh, check this out. When you purchase a t-shirt at Common Threadz (unrelated to etsy; I'm jumping around a little), a school uniform is donated to an orphaned or needy child in Africa. Awesome! And the shirts are really beautiful, with art like this. I, er, sorta sent Jim a link to one I like. tee hee, hint hint. (And, remember the days before sending email link hints?)

I also found a most unusual gift in Portugal today of all places, for Jim, something he will never ever ever guess. Such fun to find unique things around the world! I might never leave the house this holiday season. No, not true. I will go to craft fairs and the Saturday Market, at least. Buy art! Put bread in artists' bellies!

Oh, goodness, speaking of art, I have to evangelize for a second time on behalf of possibly my favorite movie of the year, which is now out on DVD -- The Fall.
It's soOoOoOoOoOoOo beautiful! Check out this list of the film's locations. Amazing! One movie, filmed in Prague, the Maldives, South Africa, Argentina, Rome, all over India, Namibia, Fiji, China, and more. You MUST see this movie. It is not only gorgeous to look at, but a wonderful and compelling story with the most natural and memorable performance by a child actor I've ever seen. SEE IT.

And while I'm in rave mode, I might as well add an effusive book recommendation. Oh, the joy of discovering, within the unpromising covers of a book that would never catch your eye. . . a truly captivating and original story. The part of my day not taken up with etsy and grocery shopping was stolen by The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner, and I am full of total love and adoration for it! Never mind the cover -- don't even look at it. This is not a prissy hairstyle book. It is a menacing and magical story set in Paris and London during the Reign of Terror. The characters are Yann, an orphaned gypsy boy who uses his unusual magical gifts reading minds and making an automaton speak in a third-rate theater; and Sidonie, a motherless and unloved aristocratic girl locked away in an opulent chateau filled with secret passageways. One frigid and fateful night, the magician Yann works for is summoned to perform at the chateau. A murder is committed, and lives interlace. A wonderful historical fantasy that plunges you deep in "the fictional dream" from start to finish. A chilling villain, a beautifully wrought vision of the excesses of the French aristocracy, and the nightmare they brought down on themselves.

Oh, and something I learned by nerdily googling "Dr. Guillotin" while on page 1 of the book -- the physician who dreamed up the "humane" execution device was himself against capital punishment! He didn't even invent the guillotine, but his outspokenness about execution got his name into a comical song, and that's probably why his name is linked to the blade. Isn't that wild? That poor bastard!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Next strategy. . . or How to Conjure 3,800 Words

So, the other day I schemed to "re-inspire" myself on my NaNo book, which seemed to have hit a doldrums? I was going to brainstorm and come up with new ideas that would make the story exciting to me again? Yeah, well. That day, my word count was zero. Well, the "brainstorming" word count was probably 4000, but the actual writing, zero. And I didn't get all that re-inspired. So yesterday, I tried a different strategy, and yesterday it worked. Maybe it wouldn't work every day. Different writing days call for different strategies.

Yesterday, it was "Once upon a time."

That is, I stepped way back from the story, from any attempt at an intimate narrative style that is "inside the scene" with the characters, and instead of trying to "dramatize" the scene, I just "narrated" it. I actually started with "once upon a time" because those words set a certain tone. You know how fairy tales are not told intimately? Details are skimmed over, the tale is painted in very broad strokes? Like this: Snowdrop grew up and became more and more beautiful, so that when she was seven years old she was as beautiful as the day, and far surpassed the Queen. That sentence encompasses a lot of story, with no detail or emotion. We're on the outside, being told something by a storyteller. We're not in there with Snowdrop, experiencing her growing up and growing beautiful.

In the Dreamdark books, I strive to dramatize almost every scene of the story, rather than have an external narrative voice. The storytelling is coming from inside the scene rather than outside it. Does that makes sense? This kind of writing is challenging, especially in the early days of a project when people and places aren't "real" to me yet as the writer, as the people and places of "Bad-Ass Sci-Fi Novel" are not real yet. It's hard to really get inside a scene under those circumstances. It's like standing on the foundation of a house that hasn't been build yet, and trying to imagine you're in a house. At its worst, it can be like trying to walk up stairs that haven't been built yet. You know?

It's much easier to write a scene like it's a fairy tale and I'm the storyteller and I'm watching the events, not feeling compelled to capture emotional truth or great dialogue -- neither of those things are hallmarks of fairy tales, yeah? So that was my strategy yesterday, in an attempt to move forward several "seven-league boot strides" in the story. I backed way up and narrated events from a distance, trying to keep myself in the mind set of writing a fairy tale.

This is more or less a variation of an exercise in Not For Robots called "Bedtime Story" when you write as if you were telling a bedtime story to a beloved child. Things must keep happening, the story must keep unspooling; you don't stop and work on a sentence for an hour; you don't worry if your characters are talking to each other, you just tell what happens, and try to keep it interesting.

So that was what I tried to do yesterday, and I wrote just shy of 4000 words. There were plenty of places where I forgot and "zoomed in" and got in my characters' thoughts, and that's okay. When their thoughts stopped being interesting, I zoomed back out.

So there's a possible strategy for covering ground in a first draft. If you're stuck, try writing it like it's a fairy tale. Start with the words "Once upon a time." It doesn't matter if it is not a fairy tale ("Bad-Ass Sci-Fi Novel" certainly isn't), or if you are picking up writing in the middle of Chapter Seventeen. Just for the sake of getting events rolling, try it. It's a great way to make those seven-league boot strides over the wishy-washy middle of a first draft.

I don't know about you, but this idea of "narration" versus "dramatization" is a recent revelation to me. I mean, I was making the distinction in my writing before I could have explained the difference. It was a little comment in the margins of Lips Touch, from my editor Arthur Levine, that caused a lightbulb to go off. All he wrote there was something like, "Flesh this out; this moment is important enough to dramatize," and suddenly I got it! Lips Touch, by the way, has more of a combo narration/dramatization style than Dreamdark, which are more pure dramatization. I really enjoy both styles, and I am not at all sure what THIS book will be.

Does this make sense, this distinction? I want to come up with examples some time, and add a bit to Not For Robots to make it clearer.

Anyway, the point is: try everything and anything to keep your story moving forward. If one strategy isn't working, try something else. DO NOT GIVE UP.

A very quick book mention. Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes, is a ghost story set in a Breton chateau, spanning four centuries and told in five vignettes across the ages. Inspired by Edith Wharton's ghost story "Kerfol," it begins with the tragic events in 1613 that *spawned* the ghosts, and then peers into various incidents of haunting that follow, with varyingly tragic consequences. A cool idea, and the writing is beautiful. Lines like this: I saw at once with grave alarm that his lashes were a bleached shade of copper, like snow where the hawk has hunted. . . and he turned and smiled at her, and the smile hurt like a fall on the ice. . . Also, this is a very quick read. Two hours, maybe. Cheers!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Operation Re-Inspire" + a book review + a reverie of magical Prague

The completely expected has happened with the "Bad-Ass Sci-Fi Novel." It has become the most un-fun book ever attempted. At around 40,000 words, I am barely treading water. Just thinking about it makes me want to slump over in a narcoleptic coma. Dreams of "Newt" are dancing around my head, wearing sequins and shimmying. I am a fun book, it is telling me, crooking its finger. Just abandon that heap. Forget it. Here is where the magic is. Oy. So tempting.

NOT going to give in. Just twelve days of November left to struggle through this thing and get some sort of ending cobbled together. Plus, I know what happened a few months ago when I got all fickle and jumped from one w.i.p. to a new one. The new one got all hard and un-fun too! It's just a necessary part of the process -- there are stages of un-fun in the writing of a book. The only way to finish a book is to commit to it until the bitter end, in sickness and in health, in fun or un-fun, until death do you part. The only way.

And I have learned on other books that it is always possible to re-inspire oneself on a w.i.p. It might take hours of brainstorming and coming up with a fairly major change to your set-in-stone notions of the book, but it can rejunvenate you. It can make your book sparkle again. It's true! I went through it on Silksinger plenty of times, when new, sweet books were trying to lure me away from it (namely, Bad-Ass Sci-Fi novel! See? It's just the way things are!) and I could not and did not give in to them. I might have occasionally allowed myself to take notes on the other ideas, but that's IT. Then, I would turn to re-inspiring myself on Silksinger, and as lethargic as I may have gotten at times, as demoralized and filled with despair, I always managed to come up with a way to get excited again. So this morning, that is what I will be doing. Operation Re-Inspire! There will be a lot of "what if" and "suppose that" or "maybe if" etc etc as I try to come up with shiny new ways to make my ideas fun again, for the home stretch.

How are YOU doing on your creative projects?

I'm going to squeeze in a book recommendation here too:
The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski really sang to me, so full of. . . well, of wonders. Cool magic! Gypsies! Prague! I love me some Prague. In fact, four years ago, I was. . . (hey! this unexpectedly fits into my above post!) playing hooky from writing my first novel, Blackbringer and had let another temptress story lead me astray. It was a collaboration with Jim which would be heavy on art and was set in Prague. I had also just gotten my first royalty check for Laini's Ladies, so we thought, heck! Let's go to Prague and really figure out this book! So we did. We rented an amazing apartment just outside Old Town Square -- right behind Tyn Church --
-- for nine glorious days, and we just explored and plotted and dreamed and ate dumplings and drank tea and absinthe (well, we didn't really drink absinthe, but we brought some home to look pretty on the shelf). Oh, man. What a city! But that is a post for another day. Suffice it to say I have not yet written that Prague book (but I vow I will), but I did get back on track and finish Blackbringer. Yay, me!

Prague is a city of alchemy and golems and marionettes, of dungeons and towers and ancient manuscripts, of music and magic and tumbled tombstones. It is so beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful city I've ever seen. Certainly the most magical, and Marie Rutkoski captures that so well in this marvelous book, the premise of which grows out of a grim city legend about the famous "astonomical clock." The legend says that the prince who commisioned the clock plucked out the clockmaker's eyes when he was finished building it, so he would never be able to create anything to rival it. Eww! Well, in this story, young Petra is the daughter of the clockmaker, and her life is turned inside-out when her beloved father is brought home from Prague. . . without his eyes.

Doing what any good heroine of an adventure story would do, she sets out (along with her mechanical pet spider) to steal her father's eyes back from the prince, traveling to Prague and getting mixed up with gypsies and getting a job in the castle, while her own magical gifts are starting to manifest. The fascinating historical personages of Rudolf II and John Dee are added to the mix, and some of the most fun and imaginative magic I have read in a long time. Read it!

The Cabinet of Wonders is a nominee in the Middle-Grade Sci-fi/Fantasy category of the Cybils.

On a side note, anyone who's interested in finding out more about the occult side of Prague, with real-life characters like John Dee, the mad prince Rudolf, and Rabbi Loew who created the Golem to defend the Jewish Ghetto, then try to get ahold of a copy of Magic Prague by Professor Angelo Maria Ripellino (1973). It's not in print here; I got it at a little English bookshop in Prague.



(See the cat marionette in the right side of this pic? It's like my beloved "Snoshti" that Alexandra got me in Prague years ago, and who Jim and I carried with us through Bulgaria, Turkey, and Italy. . . and whose name (which means "last night" in Bulgarian) I later gave to a Blackbringer character! When Jim and I went to Prague a few years later, we were tempted to find Snoshti a husband marionette, but they're crazy expensive now, so Snoshti remains unwed. Maybe next time. . .)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Reluctant Rob Zombie fan? A confession

So I've been disregarding some of my husband's favorite music for years, sort of snorting over it and asking if the washing machine is broken or is that music? You know, the usual derision, the same kind of thing I used to say about my brother's music when we were teenagers. Jim (husband) has very diverse taste (everything but country and reggae) but the music I'm referring to is the heavy end of his spectrum, like Rage Against the Machine and Rob Zombie. I mean. . . Rob Zombie? Whatever! Am I right?

Welllll. . . it pains me to say this, but maybe I'm not right.

Let me back up. That is not a claim that I can make lightly. (snort!) To make a long story short, it's been a long time since I admitted to something rillyrilly shocking, something that makes people gasp and back away. No, it's not about being an atheist, it's that I'm not really into music. I know, CRAZY. . . and IMPOSSIBLE. But it is so. I hasten to add that I like music well enough, but it just sort of sifts through my head, mostly going unnoticed unless it is especially annoying. It's just the way my brain came out of the factory, I guess. As such, I almost never stick a CD in the thingy, and in the car I usually daydream and forget to turn on the radio. I didn't have an i-pod until I got Jim a snazzy new one for his birthday and came into possession of his hand-me-down nano -- for which he sweetly bought me a hot-pink arm band. He also made me a couple of long exercise mixes for the gym. He played it pretty safe, put lots of songs by bands with names like Vampire Weekend and Broken West and Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, just as long as they have a good beat for running on the treadmill.

And then. . . buried in there at song #19 of 89. . . Dragula by Rob Zombie, off the Hellbilly Deluxe album. Uh, thanks sweetie. Doesn't really sound like my thing. . . But you know what? I was WRONG! This song does wonders when you're lagging a little on the treadmill. You can feel the spurt of energy. And it's not just that. It's become a sort of unofficial theme song for my work-in-progress, the one that is named "Bad-Ass Sci-Fi Novel" on NaNo, to conceal its true top-secret name.

There's something about the endorphins of running that has been making the treadmill a great place for me to have a positive outlook on my novel. Seriously, and I am not one of those chirpy exercise enthusiasts you want to smother with a big slab of chocolate cake. I am a. . . reluctant runner. But less reluctant now. Because when I'm running and thinking about my book (I turn off the built-in treadmill TV and try to sort of meditate on my book) the ideas pump faster like my blood pumps faster, and everything begins to seem cool and full of possibility. And I'm convinced that's a combination of endorphins + music. In the case of this book, songs like the following, which will give you some idea that this is not a light-hearted, sweet-natured book (I swear, ordinarily I'm more of a Loreena McKennitt girl; this is a new development. Eek! What next?):
When I put on this song while I'm running, I can seriously conjure a kind of movie trailer of my novel in my head, and it is so bad-ass that I am convinced every teenager in the world would line up to see that movie. Or, you know, read that book. (That's my chirpy endorphin self, all positive spirit and cockiness.) And when I come home from the gym, I have to go and scribble down all the new ideas before I lose them.

So, er, sweetie, I'm -- *clears throat awkwardly* -- I, uh, I guess I have to admit your music doesn't totally suck. (except when it does.) Thanks for the mixes!

Now that that embarrassing admission is over, a quick book review! I received some merch from Simon & Schuster yesterday, including Wake by Lisa McMann, which fellow panelist Charlotte raved about recently. So I took it to bed around midnight. . . and I finished it at 1:30. It's a fast page-turny read, and it does not permit sleeping! The premise is this: when people fall asleep around Janie Hannagan, she gets sucked into their dreams. She is powerless to resist, and will black out wherever she is -- in the school library, in the nursing home where she works, while driving. . . and find herself a helpless observer to the dreams of others. Nightmares are most powerful; in her high school, sex dreams are perhaps most prevalent. She understandably spends a lot of time trying to avoid sleepers -- the class overnight trip does not go well. But is it possible she might be able to learn to control it? Learn to change dreams from the inside? The brutal nightmares of a certain intriguing boy provide her a good impetus to try.

This book kept my eyes peeled into the wee hours. It's spare, romantic, and creepy, with likeable, believable teen characters. I heard a horrible rumor that Lisa McMann wrote it in a week, which -- if true -- means she is a robot and not to be trusted. But I forgive her, because this book was really fun. ;-)

Wake is a Cybils nominee in the YA sci-fi/fantasy category. The sequel, Fade, comes out in February.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Gypsy Crown -- a book review

Here's a book that I'm sorry to say, until it arrived in a box from the publisher, I had not even heard of. And I'm sorry I hadn't heard of it because it is wonderful and if life were fair, it would have built some good buzz by now. This just goes to prove the arbitrariness of what books get buzz and which ones run the risk of slipping quietly past. This is probably well-known in its native Australia, but it deserves some chitter-chatter here too -- and honestly, maybe it has been getting chitter-chatter; I'm not exactly "in the know."

So, The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth. Set in 1658 England, it's a fast-paced and poignant adventure story of two young Rom (gypsy) cousins trying desperately to figure out how to get their family out of jail, where they've been tossed for the crime of singing and dancing in public, and are awaiting execution. This is during the reign of Oliver Cromwell, a name that buzzed up from some deep well of my forgotten education -- perhaps your English history isn't buried as deeply as mine, but in case it is: Cromwell was a soldier who rose through the ranks and ended up becoming a regicidal dictator during a short period called the Commonwealth, when King Charles I was executed and his heir exiled.

In the book, it's portrayed as a time of staunch Protestant values -- enforced joylessness and rigidity fraught with the fear of spies and snitches, land confiscations, finger-pointing and betrayals. The gypsies are persecuted terribly, and here I think Forsyth has struck a good balance in depicting the brutality of history in a way middle-graders can digest. Violent and at times heart-breaking, the persecution is toned down but not made light of. Young Emilia and her cousin Luka are already victims when the story starts, and throughout they are hunted by a hard, cruel "crow" of a pastor and a heartless "thief-taker," and shown no mercy, though they are only children.

When their family is imprisoned, only Emilia and Luka escape -- with their dog, monkey, Arabian mare, and 600-lb. dancing bear -- and go on a journey to find their farflung kin to a) enlist their help, and b) retrieve the five gypsy charms that once hung from the same bracelet and were split apart, bringing an end to gypsy luck. As the charms are united, Emilia finds her nascent gifts as a drabardi (fortune-teller) are sharpening -- or is it, as Luka insists, merely luck? The children are forced to make heart-wrenching choices again and again, parting with the things dearest to them in the desperate effort to save everyone they love. And you really can feel, throughout, that the consequences if they fail would be dire. The book is filled with people who have lost their families and way of life, who live in fear. And yet there is levity and humor to relieve the sadness -- the animal characters are delightful, and will have kids begging for a monkey. The Rom way of life, their free spirit, their proverbs, are fascinating. Throw in a mysterious spy for the exiled prince, some colorful gypsy families, a glimpse of 17th Century London as well as the surrounding countryside, and you've got a great story.

My favorite kind of story: fast-paced, makes the page disappear as you fall right into the flow of events, and all the while, painlessly (not just painlessly, but enjoyably), you're learning stuff. Neat. Truly, there are many parallels to be made to the Cromwell era with its rigid, enforced morality and repression and intolerance, to things happening around the world today, summed up neatly by these words: ". . . we have our own way of doing things, but these pastors. . . they can't abide anyone not thinking or believing the same way they do." Yeah.

The Gypsy Crown is a Cybils nominee in the middle-grade fantasy/sci-fi category.

The cover above is the US edition; I had to photo it because the online graphics I could find were really stinky. Lovely cover, though, as are these two other editions I found pics of:

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween! Random memory + a book review: The Order of Odd-Fish

We are laming out on Halloween, as usual. No costumes or parties, no jack-o-lanterns, no pumpkin guts on a sheet of newspaper, no skeleton in the window. And I like Halloween. I love the woodsmoke nights of this time of year, the dark, misty mornings, the grim reapers on porches, their eyes glowing red. And I don't mind sinking my hand to the wrist in a gigantic bowl of candy, either, but for some reason, we have no will to participate. Lazy? Preoccupied? It's so easy for life to flash past the lazy and preoccupied. I look forward to [hopefully] having young children some time in the not-too-distant future and getting reinspired to celebrate holidays like this.

But tonight we will just watch a scary movie with a couple of friends. It's John Carpenter's The Thing, which scared the bejeezus out of me -- in a good way -- when I was a kid. I have always loved scary movies, since I was a wee little twig. I remember watching Trilogy of Terror (you know, with the freakish doll that cuts its way out of the oven with a butcher knife?) when I was very small. I can't imagine why my mom let that happen, but perhaps my brain was wired to horror on that very occasion. After that, whenever it was my turn to choose the movie, I chose horror. There were plenty of options. From the age of 9 to 13, we lived in Gaeta, Italy, a small southern Italian beach town with one movie theater, where all movies were in Italian. We saw E.T. there when it first came out ("telefono, casa"), but mostly we rented movies one night a week at the video club held in the basement of the American school. Or better: we watched them aboard the USS Puget Sound, the 6th fleet destroyer-tender stationed in Gaeta.

I don't recall how often my father had "duty," which meant he had to spend the night aboard the ship, but when he did, we would go down to the harbor in the medieval quarter of Gaeta and go aboard the ship for dinner with him in the officer's mess (I only remember the terribly watered-down red drink that was called "bug juice") and a movie either with the sailors or alone in the Admiral's wardroom, which in my memory is a place of leather sofas and masculine luxury.

If you've never been aboard a Naval vessel, they're labyrinths inside; I don't know how sailors learn to find their way! My brother and I could find our way from the officer's mess to the Admirals' wardroom, and every once in a while we'd go it alone, to find the "head" or whatever. And once I didn't pay attention to some alert siren that had gone off signaling a security drill, and I got held at machine-gun-point by some poor confused young sailor for several long minutes before my father came to find me. I was probably ten, and the sailor was above me, pointing his gun down through the stairwell, so I didn't really realize what was happening, and when he told me to halt or whatever, I just sort of hung out there, leaning against the wall patiently. It was only when my dad came that I realized the sailor had a gun on me the whole time! Maybe ships aren't good places to play. . .
This is Old Gaeta, by the way, where the ship was harbored. There were great festivals here every August for Gaeta's saint day, and a fireworks *battle* with Formia, the town on the far side of the harbor. This was a great place to be a kid. Halloweens weren't great, to try to bring this back to topic, but we would have an American carnival in the school gym with candy and booths and a cake walk (man, as a kid, I really wanted to win the cake walk and have a whole cake to myself! In fact, I still want that!). School festivals are most memorable for the awesome Filipino food that the Filipino Navy wives would make: pansit and lumpia. Yum! That's something that's not so easy to find, Filipino food. I wonder why. It's so delish, and I'd wager that any Navy brat probably knows it well.

A book to mention, in honor of Halloween, though it's not exactly horror, it is squeamishly gross at the climax, like icky read-squinting-through-your-fingers gross. My lastest Cybils read. But first, do you want to see the Cybils reading list in my category, Fantasy & Sci Fi? Here's the middle-grade list, and here's the YA list. Wowza. We will come up with a short list of 5 in each category and pass that up to the judging panel. (Can you imagine the blogging prowess and powers of concentration it took to put that post together with all the links and nifty formatting?)

Okay, The Order of Odd-Fish, by James Kennedy. This book is very difficult to describe. The word "wacky" wants to be used, but I'm scooting it aside with my shoe because it's not quite right. "Wacky" is a little distasteful to me, because it carries with it a hint of "zany" and nobody likes zany, right? Or madcap? Zany and madcap are trying too hard, and wacky is kind of like a clown with a manufactured laugh. . . So let's say that this is. . . a carnival of odd. When Jo Larouche was a baby, she was found in the washing machine with a note pinned to her blanket that read, "This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a DANGEROUS baby." For 13 years, Jo has been about "as dangerous as milk," but at her Aunt Lily's annual costume ball, an adventure is kicked off that will unveil to Jo her true provenance, and the nature of the DANGER within her. Okay, if I had to give a one-line "elevator pitch," I suppose it would be something like that, but I'd have to follow it with something like, "The imagination, whimsy, and humor aren't like anything else you've read before." Truly.

You know how it's better to watch a comedy with somebody, that somehow the humor is riper and deeper when shared? Well, the whole time I was reading this I wished I was reading it with someone, so I could elbow them at particularly bizarre moments, or chortle, or read passages aloud and savor them. I don't recall having that kind of reaction when reading a book before, at least, not so consistently.

The adventure that Jo embarks upon with her Aunt Lily, a fat Russian named Colonel Korsakov, and a giant, vain cockroach butler named Sefino, carries them (in the belly of a fish) to Eldritch City, which is not exactly of our world. I love the word "eldritch" (I think I first fell in love with it when Kelly Link used it to describe an oddly upholstered couch), and to my mind Eldritch City joins the ranks of China Mieville's New Crobuzon and Scott Lynch's Camorr for mind-bendingly imaginative, sprawling weird cities. Only, it's less disgusting than New Crobuzon and Camorr -- but not entirely un-disgusting either. To make a complex story simple: Jo finds herself a squire to the knights of the Order of Odd-Fish, and she has to hide her true identity while seeking to thwart her hideous destiny, all this while riding flying, armored ostriches to fight duels, exploring ancient, drowned cathedrals buried deep beneath the city, drinking fermented centipede milk, fueding with other squires, sneaking around through secret passages, and soothing the oft-wounded vanity of a posse of cockroach butlers. Oy!

And the villains! Ken Kiang, who has studiously shaped himself from a do-gooder philanthropist billionaire into the vilest (he thinks) of super-villains: "He devoured books about evil; he interviewed terrorists, serial murderes, and dictators; he dabbled in strange and wild diabolisms, slit the throats of shrieking beasts on stone altars in far-off lands, drank kitten blood, and sold his soul no fewer than twenty-thhee times to any supernatural being who cared to bid on it. No price was too low: the fifteenth time he sold his soul for a bag of barbecue-flavored potato chips. Ken Kiang had eaten the chips with indecent glee as the demon looked away in embarrassment."

But Ken Kiang's most industrious efforts at wickedness pale in comparison to the astonishing depths of evil of the tale's true villain, a mysterious character known as The Belgian Prankster, who dresses, if my memory serves, in goggles, a cape of furs, and a ragged rawhide diaper.

Ancient devouring goddesses; weird creatures; ritual exchange of insults; wars fought entirely with sarcastic apologies; a musical instrument that is a giant worm one climbs inside of (lubricated) and squeezes its internal organs to expel air through its 41 orifices; gods with names like "Nixilpilfi, the Gerbil Who Does Not Know Mercy" and "Zookoofoomoot, the Maggot of Dismay." And did I mention the climax is really squishy-gross?

This book is too much fun. If you read it, let me know, so we can mentally elbow each other at all the weird parts :-)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Explosionist -- a book review

You know I really only mention books I loved, and I loved my latest Cybils read: The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson. I'll describe it as "an alternate history supernatural mystery" set in 1938 Scotland. With terrorists, dynamite, seances, and creepy government secrets. Intrigued? You don't know the half of it yet.

You don't see that much alternate history. I loved Jo Walton's Farthing, an English country-house murder mystery that just happened to take place in a world in which the English had made a truce with the Nazis and changed the course of history. In The Explosionist the turning point wasn't World War II but the battle of Waterloo in 1815 -- in which, instead of losing, Napoleon won, consolidated his power in Europe, and later conquered England as well. Scotland is now allied with the "Hanseatic States" -- the Scandinavian countries and Russia -- and maintains an uneasy autonomy through manufacture of the weapons with which Europe fights its wars. So, that's the backdrop, but the author never overwhelms with exposition; the history comes in just how I like it, in small, fascinating doses where relevant, and it never slows the story.

The fun of the alternate history is in the little references to how the world is different. Small things, historical personages turned upside-down. We learn in passing that Oscar Wilde is the famous Irish obstetrician who invented the incubator; Freud is a crackpot radio-show host nicknamed "Thanatos"! Alternative energy sources have been developed, because Scotland didn't have access to oil reserves -- "You'll find a few fuel cell enthusiasts in the Americas, of course, but most of their motorcars are powered by a filthy and wasteful method called internal combustion. All very well if you're American and sitting on top of huge petroleum reserves, but that kind of reckless comsumption doesn't suggest a very sensible attitude toward the future!" And how! There's also a chilling reference to the unnamed European chancellor having a "toothbrush mustache." And aside from the historical differences, there is one major way that the world of the book differs from our own: spirits commune freely with the living in all manner of ways, notably through radio waves and photography! Spiritualism is a respected scientific field, and when 15-year-old Sophie is warned in a seance that she is in danger, she has good reason to be afraid.

But. . . what nature of danger? The city has been rocked by a series of terrorist bombings, and she can't help but suspect the teacher she has a crush on might be involved. The medium who delivered the warning turns up murdered, spirits are sending Sophie messages, and as if that's not enough, a new and sinister threat emerges from a source much closer to home: her own aunt. To tell what that is would be to spoil a very creepy revelation, but I'll say this: it raises the question of what sacrifices a country can, in good conscience, demand of its citizens, and it takes the role of woman-as-selfless-helpmeet-to-male-power to the most devastating extreme.

Only as I try to convey in some simplicity what this book is "about" do I really realize how complex the story is, and I mean that in a good way -- while reading, all the threads are woven so well that you don't feel like you're in the midst of a labyrinth of plot. To be extremely simplistic, here's what the book is about: it's the story of Sophie and her Danish friend Mikael trying to unravel the mystery of who murdered the medium, and while they're at it, who's behind the bombings in Edinburgh, and what are the political stakes. With the help of dead people, and sort-of dead people. While the country ramps up for war. Whew.

Okay. I can't do it justice. Just read it. It's a great book-group book. Much to discuss about power and resistance, armed deterrance, government abuse of power in the shadow of war, and more. I liked the way the author showed Sophie's perspective on her own country slowly shifting as she begins to see familiar things through the eyes of her foreign friend, and questions them for the first time. Like here, in response to the "suicide machines" in the public library:

"I don't see why you're getting so worked up about it," Sophie said, uneasily conscious that it had taken Mikael's reaction to reveal what was troubling about the familiar practice. She suddenly wondered whether she might be blind to other things about Scotland as well.

I think about that a lot -- the way people are blinded by their indoctrination, whatever it might be, religious, political, whatever, and with the most recent discussion on my blog, this seemed particularly appropriate. It is terribly difficult to see beyond one's own indoctrination, particularly if one doesn't travel or meet a wide variety of people. It is through connection with people of different experience that we have a chance of broadening our own vision. But first, you have to open yourself up to it, and not cling to the things you've always blindly believed.

The author, Jenny Davidson, is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, and hey, she blogs. I have only just this second discovered her blog, andI see that she has a post about "Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures," accompanied by a photo of a vampire bat in action. Oh joy! It's like she wrote it just for me! I must go and read it. . .

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hugs to Mark Twain; a book recommendation; plus McCain goes Maori?

I love the silly sense of validation that comes from finding out a Genius Writer shares or shared my particular creative process. It is silly, because it's not like process = genius. But anything that makes me feel less cuckoo as I scritch-scratch away at my writing, I hug it. Like this, which I found via Robin Brande's blog. She links to a New Yorker article about creative late-bloomers, and it's a good read, but the part I want to hug is this:

“[Mark Twain's] routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again. Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on “Huckleberry Finn” so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete. The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition."

Thank you for that. Thank you. That so well describes my "process" of writing a novel, and when I am in the midst of that process, it can feel like lunacy. Like there is something wrong with my brain. But if Huckleberry Finn was written in that way. . . well, again, process does not equal genius, but this just goes to show that writers must work with the brains they have. Master your own unique brain as best you can, do what you have to do, waste no time wishing your creativity were of a different variety, but just knuckle down.

Here's a quote from Mark Twain:
"There are some books which refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn't because the book is not there and worth being written -- it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and if you fail to find that form the story will not tell itself."

Thank you. Great picture, no?


Latest Cybils read: Allegra Goodman's The Other Side of the Island. Liked it very, very much. Zoomed through it. It's middle-grade fiction as written by an erudite, National Book Award-nominated adult author, and it is clear, swift, disturbing, and beautifully crafted. Perhaps not a highly original concept, but so well-executed, and besides, what is a highly original concept? The book takes place after the polar ice caps have melted, and only scattered islands remain where once were continents. "Earth Mother" and her Corporation rule what remains, and have even (they claim) conquered the weather. It's your usual totalitarian regime, no books allowed in homes, watch towers in the neighborhoods, etc. Into this world, a small family comes: 10-year-old Honor and her parents, who were found living free on a Northern Island and have been relocated to Corporation-controlled Island 365 in the Tranquil Sea. Early on, there are disturbing hints about their memories vanishing, and it soon becomes clear that the Corporation puts chemicals euphemistically known as "Planet Safe" into everything, the water and food, the laundry detergent, the plant fertilizer, to subdue people's memories and individuality. And when people fail to fit in properly, they disappear.

"No one ever knew how parents disappeared. They would go off to work as usual, and they'd never be heard from again. Or you could go to sleep at night, and in the morning your parents' bed would be empty." What worse fear, for a child? In one horrible case in the book, a girl is trying on a school uniform in the dressing room of a store, and when she comes out, her parents are simply gone. They are taught to accept that their parents no longer are. And then, under the influence of Planet Safe, in due time, they will forget them.

Honor's free-spirited parents are making no effort to "fit in." They even do the unthinkable and have a second child, and then, even worse -- refuse to give him up for redistribution within the community. Second children are such a taboo that the words "brother" and "sister" have become insults. Honor lives in constant fear that her parents will be taken, even as she herself tries desperately to "fit in." Through the whole narrative, the title looms -- the other side of the island -- an ever-present reminder of the secret of what lies on the untamed side of the mountain. (But you'll have to read it to find out.)

Much opportunity for discussion in this book, about the nature of thought and freedom, about global warming, and what price one is willing to pay for "safety."

[On Allegra Goodman: she graduated from Punahou School in Honolulu, as did Barack Obama and. . . my sister! She then went on to Harvard and to a PhD in English Lit at Stanford. Her father was a prof of philosophy, her mother of genetics and women's studies, and her sister is an oncologist -- and was the inspiration for the laboratory of cancer researchers in her novel Intuition. Smartypants family!]

And apropos of absolutely nothing, how great are these stills from the last debate?

My personal theory is that John McCain is attempting to practice Maori intimidation:

And at any moment he might just break into a fulll-on ha-ka:
Is that not spectacular? I don't think it would quite as awe-inspiring as performed by McCain!