Thursday, 29 November 2012

Happy Birthday to Us

No, in case you’re wondering, I haven’t gone all Smeagol and Gollum referring to myself as “us”. Today is my birthday and I happen to be in good company. While I’m not exactly thrilled to be turning yet another year older, I am thrilled to share my birthday with three of my favourite authors. To celebrate, I thought I'd share some random thoughts about them.

C.S. Lewis (Nov. 29, 1898-Nov. 22, 1963)
My grade three teacher introduced me to C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia when I was eight years old. I still remember the eerie feeling I had while sitting in my classroom listening to Diggory ring that golden bell. Little did I know it then, but someday I’d start reading The Magician’s Nephew to my son on the day he turned eight. Oddly enough, it worked out that we finished the entire series on his ninth birthday. Perfect bookends for a magical year of reading.

We like to turn books into events in our family, so after reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, we transformed our living room into Narnia and watched the movie while pigging out on Mrs. Beaver’s marmalade rolls. So much fun. And yes, we bought the lamppost specifically for this occasion. Too bad Mr. Tumnus wasn't included.

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."
--C.S. Lewis

Madeleine L'Engle
(Nov. 29, 1918-Sept. 6, 2007)
Madeleine L’Engle has probably influenced me more than any author. Her writing reminds me to think beyond the scope of our world, something I need to remember considering my personal world often feels very small. She taught me that it’s okay to take “being” time, to just sit and be calm, instead of getting caught up in the rush. Her unique opinions on faith and art have molded my ideas on writing. I was never a big fan of science or science fiction growing up, but through her writing I learned to see beauty in science: “Peace is the center of the atom, the core of quiet within the storm…” (Sonnet, Trinity 18) And now what do I like to write the most? Science fiction, of course.

If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s apt not to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.
--Madeleine L’Engle (Walking on Water)

Louisa May Alcott
(Nov. 29, 1832-March 6, 1888)

Louisa May Acott's characters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March have been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. My mother read Little Women to me when I was six years old. The night we finished the book, the power went out and we had to read the last chapter or two by flashlight. The story and that moment have stuck with me ever since. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started writing. I only know that I was very young, and I often wonder if Jo scribbling her stories had anything to do with that.

"...When the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh. Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit."
--Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)

All three of these authors have passed on, but they left quite a legacy behind for writers and readers everywhere. So today, I raise my cup of tea and/or wine in honor of these three extraordinary people and thank them for their inspiration.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

RTW: Best Book of November

Out of the books I read in November, I’d have to say the best was Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi. I was a little late to the game on this one, seeing as it’s been out for quite some time already, but I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it.

The voice in Shatter Me blew my mind. (See all that stuff blasting outward on the front cover? Yeah, that's my head exploding from this book.) I found myself rereading lines just to enjoy the sound of them again and to marvel at how creative they were. Tahereh Mafi links words together in such unique ways and while I wanted to know what was going to happen in the story, half the reason I kept reading was to see what she was going to say next and exactly how she was going to say it.

I love Juliette’s thoughts: the way she repeats things to herself, thinks in fragments that trail off, fixates on numbers, or crosses out what she really means in favour of a more acceptable response. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so inside a character’s head before. At times, Tahereh Mafi tossed the rules for sentence structure and punctuation out the window and it adds so much to the emotional effect of the book.

When the comment on the back cover said it was “oozing with romance” this wasn't an exaggeration. Seriously, the swoon factor in Shatter Me was off the charts before…okay not going to finish that sentence because there’s really no way to do that without spoiling anything.

I’m flipping through the book while I’m writing this and I need to put the darn thing down before I get sucked into it again. I have other things to read (and write), but I can say that I will definitely be rereading Shatter Me (likely more than once) and can’t wait for the sequel.

Oh, and while the new covers on this series are really cool, why oh why did they change them right after I bought this copy? Ah well.

Care to share your best November read? Or give your opinion on Shatter Me?

Thursday, 15 November 2012


In my revision travels lately I happened to come across some advice concerning the word suddenly that I found very helpful. Perhaps this is obvious, but in case anyone else can benefit from it, I thought I’d pass it along.

In a first draft, it’s easy to overuse suddenly when you just want to spit the action out onto the page. In the process of weeding out words like this, I went looking for some alternatives. This is what came up:

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, without warning, the next instant, unexpectedly, unpredictably, out of the blue, abruptly, surprisingly, at once, etc.

While there are some alternatives to suddenly that might come in handy, is it or any of its replacements really needed at all? Probably not.

Introducing a surprise with suddenly gives the reader a heads up. You might as well wave a red flag that points out something shocking is just up ahead so that by the time your reader gets to the surprise, you’ve already spoiled it.  This is telling the startling event instead of showing it. Totally counterproductive.

Another thing I hadn’t considered is that if you’re telling your story from a first person point of view (present tense), preceding an event with suddenly turns your mc into a psychic. Your mc can’t see the surprise coming, so how can she preface something that’s happening to her in real time with a word that essentially predicts? Maybe that's nitpicky, but it's something to think about.

Tacking on that extra word to the start of a sentence also slows things down. A startling event happens quickly, so you don’t want to make the description drag.

Instead, it’s better to just let the action speak for itself. Make the event unexpected through a switch in the pace or tone of the scene instead. That’s not to say you can’t use the word properly or sparingly, but you do need to make sure it’s having the desired effect.

Hope somebody else finds this useful as well.

This is where I picked up these tidbits. I can’t vouch for the sources (or the stories they write) because I’m not familiar them, but I think what they had to say makes a lot of sense:

Monday, 12 November 2012

Review: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

Okay, not gonna lie. War Horse made me cry. More than once. That probably has something to do with the fact that I was reading it out loud to my son. It’s always harder to read sad parts out loud, but if you’re an animal lover or a softie like me, be forewarned that this book might make you sniffle.

This is the story of Joey, a red bay horse that finds himself transported from the pastoral countryside of England to the battlefields of WWI and in the process is taken from his loving young owner, Albert. The book is told from Joey’s point of view, which keeps the story simple and avoids bogging it down in the complexities of war. There’s no talk of politics, and only a very short explanation is given for why the war is happening.  Joey’s voice is sincere and gentle, while also determined, and you can’t help but love him the way many of the characters do.

War Horse deals with the fear and monotony of war, the pain of separation, sickness, and death without ever feeling preachy.  Joey and the other horses deal with all of these issues just as the human characters do and in this way are a metaphor for the soldiers while being presented in the role of brave and long-suffering soldiers themselves.  The horses are portrayed as both a symbol of hope and the standard by which everything in the story is measured:

“There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be? I tell you, my friend, there’s divinity in a horse, and specially in a horse like this. God got it right the day he created them.  And to find a horse like this in the middle of this filthy war, is for me like finding a butterfly on a dung heap. We don’t belong in the same universe as a creature like this.” (p. 112)

In the story, characters are measured by how they treat the horses—with kindness and respect or with a harsh hand, although even the unkind characters are depicted as having reasons for the way they are. The author doesn’t present any cardboard villains, only people hardened by circumstances.

Likewise, Michael Morpurgo shows how the war is a struggle for soldiers on both sides and how really all any of them wants—man or beast—is to go home and live out their days in peace. There’s a wonderful scene involving two “enemies” and their mutual concern for Joey, which highlights how alike they are despite the war.

Without unnecessary or gory description, the author creates a realistic picture of WWI’s horrific atmosphere. Through details like barbed wire, mud, the trenches and no man’s land, he more than adequately communicates the bleakness and devastation faced by the soldiers and the horses. Since this is a middle grade book, I found that to be especially important. Where a topic like this is concerned I’d rather kids understand the heart of the matter than get hung up on the blood and guts of it.

War Horse isn’t a fast moving book, though it would be quick to get through if you aren’t reading it out loud (or stopping to blow your nose and wipe your eyes like me). I found the vocabulary to be fairly advanced for middle grade, incorporating words like peremptory, jocular, convalescence and intermittent, making it a good challenge for the younger set and advanced enough for adults.

My son and I finished reading War Horse yesterday, which was Remembrance Day here in Canada. When we were through, our family also watched the movie together. Both the book and movie were great reminders of those who served and gave their lives during WWI and an excellent way to commemorate the occasion. I’d highly recommend War Horse to anyone looking for a good educational resource on WWI or just a moving read about memorable characters during an important time in history.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Book Review: Starling by Lesley Livingston

Starling by Lesley Livingston was a pleasant surprise for more than one reason. Back in September, I happened to see a copy of it on display at my local bookstore. I hadn't even heard of it at that point, so I was more than happy to pick it up and add it to my TBR list. I'm very glad I did.

Starling reminds me of Percy Jackson morphed with Thor, while still being very much its own story—thanks to a female main character and more kissing. Not a bad thing. The plot largely surrounds Norse mythology, although there’s a sprinkling of Greek, Egyptian and Celtic myth as well.

There was a fair amount of action, but more than anything this first installment sets the stage for the unfolding Starling Saga. Mason Starling begins the story oblivious to the existence of the gods and mythological creatures or any connection of her family to that realm. Book one gradually reveals pieces of information about this, while spending the bulk of its time on the relationship between Mason and her new “friend” Fennrys as they try to figure out who he is.

Of course, what would a book involving mythology be without a cryptic prophecy about the end of the world? Naturally, Mason is tied to the prophecy, though she’s unaware of this, which makes her involvement all the more dangerous.

Mason is a likeable main character, not too girly and not too tough.  Her training as a competitive fencer translates into some pretty decent skills with a sword. She can hold her own, yet the author doesn’t push the limits of believability by turning her into some kickass heroine out of the blue. Sure she slips into a battle frenzy once or twice, but she’s still vulnerable enough to occasionally require the protection of the love interest. Call me old-fashioned, but I like it when the mc has just a smidge of the damsel in distress in her. The fact that she has claustrophobia also makes for some tricky scenarios, and rather than being one of those “flaws” authors give their characters to avoid Mary Sue classification, Mason’s condition actually does play into the plot and character development—quite cleverly I thought.

The love interest, Fennrys  Wolf or more precisely, the Fennrys Wolf makes a rather eyebrow-raising entrance into the story. I’ll let you read those “bits” for yourself (pun intended). No one, including him, knows who or what he is. I enjoyed the mystery surrounding his character. His memory loss makes him a bit of a Jason Bourne, remembering how to fight but really nothing else.  I’m very curious to discover more about his role in the plot and what the future (if there is one) will or won’t hold for him and Mason.

Some of the other characters, though not gods themselves, can be slotted into similar roles. Not too hard to figure out that if you rearrange the letters in Roth (Mason’s older brother) you get the name of a certain hammer toting god. That’s all I’m going to say about that, because I don’t want to give away what’s at play behind the scenes in the Starling clan. I can see the plot thickening in this series with politics and alliances between the various mythological groups involved. It will be interesting to see which side some of the characters end up on.

I thought the end of Starling really delivered in terms of action and suspense.  Knowing what could be ahead for Mason makes me worried. It seems likely that both she and Fennrys will be used as pawns in whatever perilous game the gods are playing and I’m invested enough in their characters that I really want to find out what happens to them. That being said, I’m definitely looking forward to book two in the Starling Saga and would recommend it as an exciting and enjoyable read.