Friday, March 30, 2012

On tension and stakes and history

I've been reading Lora Innes's fabulous web comic The Dreamer for a while. It's about a modern girl who starts turning up in the Revolutionary War when she goes to sleep. At first she thinks it's just a dream, but then...well, it just seems way. too. real. Could she have really dreamed up that hot guy, Alan Warren, who seems to know her so well? How could she know about Thomas Knowlton, head of Knowlton's Rangers (forerunner of any and all US spy networks) if she doesn't pay attention in history class? When she sees The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumball at an art exhibit, she freaks. These people she's dreaming about? They're real.

There are a lot of great things about this comic. The art quality is one of the very best out there--just fabulous storytelling with small gestures and expressions. Add great dialogue, funny punchlines in the midst of heart-hitting tragedies, and some excellent pacing. Just really well done. But one of the things that gets me most as a writer is Lora's ability to tell a story we all know the ending to--and do it in a way that suspends our disbelief and makes us hope that somehow, some of these tragedies can be averted. And I think she does this by being specific.

A history textbook gives you the facts, the statistics, and the very broad, sweeping picture, in a very 20-20 hindsight point of view. The difference between that and fiction is that in a story, you have to be in the moment. Inside one person's head, not twenty thousand. It's not enough that her characters can't wait to fight back against the British. No--some of them don't really care about the "sides"--they just want the people they love to be safe. Some of them have already lost family members and are suddenly realizing that this could turn out to be much more than a game. That "sacrificing all" is more than lip service, and that "all" is considerably more than they had imagined. Mothers who support the American side are terrified that their vocal sons will be captured and hung half a world away. We might know how it all turns out--but they don't. And just because the Americans won doesn't mean everyone came home, either. From a textbook viewpoint, the Battle of Harlem Heights was a fabulous victory--the first win under George Washington, a victory to give heart to all. But Col. Knowlton was killed. Lora does a great job of making you love Knowlton as a leader, a dad, a friend--so that even though you know this battle was a good thing for America, it is a devasting scene on the page. Likewise, our fictional male lead is just realizing that he has a LOT to lose in this war. Because we know all the people he loves, and so we're scared along with him. (That guy in the painting, General Warren? That's his cousin...)

So, if you're writing historical fiction or battle scenes or even just a book where the reader knows the end from the beginning--you still have to suspend your reader's disbelief. Make them think/hope/beg that the outcome can be different than they know it is. And you do it by being specific. It doesn't matter what the whole country is doing. What matters is what your main character stands to lose on a personal level. Once you get that focus right, everything else comes in clear.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Recent reads

I've been reading a lot, as usual, and these are two that stood out for me this month. One YA and one MG:

The Explosionist
, Jenny Davidson. YA. Wow, that was a very unusual book! Alternate history (Napoleon won Waterloo), Scotland + northern countries = Hanseatic League vs. England + Europe. Dynamite and terrorism, government conspiracies, and…spiritualism?? Very, very different. When I picked it up, I thought from the cover and title that it would be about Irish terrorist bombings, but it's not. I will say, though, that Davidson appears to know an awful lot about explosives. Or at least, knows how to write so that it seems so. I understand there is a sequel?

Cosmic, Frank Cottrell Boyce. MG. Hysterical and heart-filled book about a boy who looks like an adult, even though he’s 12. He convinces a classmate to play his daughter and wins a trip to space from a secret thrill-ride park in China. Only they lose contact with earth and have to fly themselves. I laughed to tears in several spots, and found it heartwarming in others. A great dad book!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Three recent YA books I really loved

A Long, Long Sleep, by Anna Sheehan
YA futuristic fiction

The first book I've finished this year, and really excellent. And also somewhat undefinable. It's a retelling of Sleeping Beauty--sort of. But it's not a fairytaleish sort of telling. Sixteen-year-old Rose Fitzroy wakes up from her stasis chamber after 62 years. It's not the first time she's been put under--but never for this long! For the first time, her parents aren't there, Xavier, the boy next door, isn't there...everyone she knew is long dead, and the world is a different place. Suddenly she's the heir (or ward, depending on who you ask) of Unicorps, her parents' worldwide--no, make that solar system wide--business. She's got to start a new school (again), try to figure out how to make friends (something she was never very good at), and deal with the permanent loss of Xavier, who was always there for her before. And oh yeah--there's this plastine robot out to assassinate her. Bren, the boy who found her in the dusty apartment building basement, and his family are trying to help her physically, but only gradually, with the help of a strange alien boy named Otto who's a friend of Bren's does she realize she needs help in other ways, too. Ways that make her deal with things in her past...

Other reviewers have said this, but I was just so angry at the parents in this story. And even though Rose starts out sort of distant at the beginning (for understandable reasons!), there was a spot in the middle that made me cry. Really excellent worldbuilding with a very human story at its heart. I really hope there's a sequel, because while this story is finished, there is more to be told, if that makes sense. Definitely recommended!

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

The story, for those who just want to read a book: every fall, horses come out of the sea onto Thisby Island. People catch them and train them for a year, and then race them the next. (Or however long it takes to train such a horse.) They are extremely fast, and they are also deadly. They have a tendency to run back into the sea, thus drowning the rider, or more likely, they see people, sheep, even regular horses, as food. It's extremely dangerous. Seventeen-year-old Puck Connelly is racing so she and her orphaned brothers don't lose their house to the richest man on the island (who also owns a racing stable and whose horses participate in this yearly event). Nineteen-year-old Sean Kendrick is racing because he wants to own the killer horse he trained, he's won on, and who he loves. Except that that's the hold his employer (and technical owner of the horse) has over him. (The employer is Puck's landlord.) Both have to win--but only one can.

The writing in this book is all kinds of gorgeous. It feels very natural (ie not too flowery), it's very nice to read aloud, but it's very specific to the characters in question as well. Take this from page 334: "I wasn't prepared for it to be Sean, and so my stomach does a neat little trick that feels like either hunger or escaping." Or this: somewhere (I can't find the page now), I think it's Puck who tells her brother he "looks like homemade sin." I could go on--but between the writing and the fact that you're very much inside the heads of two otherwise very private individuals, and the tension the plot sets up between them, there is no way to go wrong. And the Printz committee recognized that this year. Yay!

Ultraviolet, by RJ Anderson
genre-bending YA mystery SF

I loved this book! I read the first third of a rough draft a number of years ago, and have been waiting rather anxiously for it to sell and then for it to come out. And the rest of the story did not disappoint.

Alison's always been extra-sensitive, something she keeps quiet about, ever since she told her mother about seeing sounds, and her mother thought she was going crazy and freaked out. But when she wakes up in a mental institution and everyone thinks she killed a girl in her class after a fight, she is terrified that she IS crazy--and guilty. But really? Even though she saw it happen--how could Tori have disintegrated? Then a neuroscientist comes to the hospital and Alison learns she's a synthesete. Dr. Faraday says she's not crazy. And, he believes her story.

The book is science fiction (you should pick up on that by the whole I-saw-her-disintegrate thing at the beginning), but that aspect unfolds gradually. It's a warm *people* story, as opposed to hard scifi, and carries wisps of L'Engle and Dr. Who--except that it's really different from anything you've read, too. I highly recommend it!

More books!

Hooked, by Les Edgerton
NF writing education

My critique group is discussing this one. It's all about beginnings, which are the hardest part of writing, IMO. A lot of his points were things I'd already considered, but one point I'd never thought about was his comment that your story starts at the point where your internal plot (he calls it the "story-worthy problem") starts. Yes, it starts the Day Everything Is Different, and yes, it starts with something happening--but once you're there, the exact moment it starts is when that Thing That is Happening starts to have meaning in an internal way for your main character. If you're looking for a good book to just focus on beginnings, this is a good one.

Liar's Moon, by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Upper YA historical fantasy/mystery

The sequel to Starcrossed. Digger's a thief, but she's got quite a bit more to her than just that--dangerous relatives (and friends), and her own secrets to keep that could land her in extreme trouble. The last book featured magic and intrigue at a snowed-in castle; this time, Digger's home in the city, where she finds that an old friend has been accused of murder. This is one of those books that is YA today, but in a past decade might have been shelved in adult--it's on the line and can be enjoyed by both, I think. Combines the best of fantasy and the best of mystery!

Magic Under Stone, by Jaclyn Dolamore
YA fantasy
releases April 2012

The sequel to Magic Under Glass. I think you may need to have read the first book before this one so that the connections between characters makes the best emotional sense, but having done that, I really enjoyed this! And I'm not sure how to talk about it without spoilers for the first one. Let's say...there was once a fairy prince trapped in a clockwork body, and only Nim the circus dancer had the courage to try and help him. But her efforts only partly worked, and now they're on a quest to find the answer that will make him truly alive. I loved the feel of the world in this, like you could go to that place if you could only find it. It's an interesting mix of fantastical and down-to-earth, which is what I really love about Jackie's writing. Also, the characters aren't the same ones you always see in fantasy novels, just with different names. They're different, and I like them! So here's your chance to catch up on the first book before the second one comes out.

Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George
MG fantasy for girls

Jessica George came to my town and spoke at my son's junior high last fall. I was dying to go to her author talk at the public library, but our children were multi-scheduled in things that could not be missed (required concerts for school grades), and I did not get to go. Waa. It sounds like she was fantastic--my 14YO son, who is the LAST person to pick up a girly fairy tale book, loved her school visit. I haven't read this to my girls yet, and I'm thinking of giving a copy to my upcoming 7YO for her birthday. I know they'll love it! It's about three royal children who's parents are ambushed on their way home from the oldest brother's graduation from wizard school. Meanwhile, a bunch of royals and their nasty attendants move into the castle and try to take over. It's up to the three kids--and their magic castle, that changes rooms according to how much it likes the residents--to save both castle and kingdom. Very fun story!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Books read recently

1. Sweetly, Jackson Pearce. Well-done re-imagining of Hansel and Gretel, paranormal creature style. I liked how the “witch” was a person we could see a lot of good in. And I liked setting it in South Carolina! YA

2. The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Rae Carson. This was a really interesting book. I liked the main character, and how she grew more healthy (feelings about herself, as well as her physical health), and how she ended up stronger than anyone else she worked with. It was interesting how Elisa viewed certain people at the beginning (kind and strong, in one case) and how her perception changed at the end, after she'd grown up a bit (the same character seems weak at the end). I’d like to see a sequel, because Elisa sure gave up a lot in this book, and I want to see her get something in the end. The story: Elisa is the chosen one, with a Godstone in her navel, and that means she is to do a great work for her people. But the Invierno—the evil, sorcerous nation to the north—is trying to take over. And a lot of people would love to have just her stone, who cares about her. She marries the king of a neighboring country as a political move to ally and fight together, but is kidnapped midway through and becomes truly a queen with the desert people. It’s only with her faith and power that she is able to destroy the sorcerers of the Invierno and turn the tide on the war. YA

3. The Swan Kingdom, Zoe Marriott. A retelling of the swan fairy tale, where the brothers turned into swans and the sister has to make the tunics for them to turn them back. Nicely done; I think I'll look up more of her books. YA

4. The Alloy of Law, Brandon Sanderson. Fun fantasy-western cross. I especially liked the banter between Wax and Wayne—so often, characters are alone in books, and I loved the best friend element. But—it’s not a stand-alone! I went into the book thinking it was, and then there are developments in the very last chapter that make me go--what?! So I'm looking forward to another book with these guys. (BTW--if you've watched any of The Piano Guys videos on YouTube--Jon Schmidt and Steven Sharp Nelson--the way they interact reminds me huge amounts of Wax and Wayne. Or any Sanderson duo, actually. They all live in Utah--maybe it's something in the water??) Adult

5. Inventing Elliot, Graham Gardener. Chilling story of a boy who is bullied—violently—and changes schools. Turns himself into someone else, and the bullies want to admit him to their group. And he has to decide what he’s going to do. Author handled things well so the boy didn’t seem weak or whiny—we saw what happened to him, how violently he was bullied, and then had an echo in the gang that jumped his dad. And there were frequent recurring visions of the initial bullying thing, so that we felt his fear over standing up to the Guardians. Sometimes when your character is making a wrong choice because they’re too afraid to make the right one, you have to let your reader live through some of their fear so they believe and have sympathy. YA

6. Wisdom’s Kiss, Catherine Gilbert Murdock. It was light and fun, but also unusual with all the different narrators and playbills and letters and stuff. Some kids love this, though. Her two different styles are interesting. I wonder if readers feel attached to either the realistic or the fantasy books more than the other, depending on which they read first (she also wrote Dairy Queen). Upper MG

7. Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell. Interesting adult NF book about how people who are extraordinarily successful got there. A lot of it is about opportunities they got that other people didn’t—the reason being, it gave them a chance to get more practice than anyone else. If you need 10,000 hours of practice at something, but you don’t get the chance to do that, you won’t get as far. Cultural issues can be a help (you know how to navigate interpersonal situations and feel you have some degree of power in a situation to mitigate things for your good) or a hindrance (you don’t speak up when you should, you get thwarted because nobody at home cares enough to encourage you and look for opportunities for you).

Recently read to my girls:

1. Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. It's their first book of an Austen flavor. They enjoyed it, despite the fact that I keep having to explain terms and cultural issues to them.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling. My older daughter has already read them, but my younger one wanted me to read them, as she was too small last time we did a read-aloud to remember anything. The books have obviously sucked her into the story more than the films, because even though she's seen bits of the last film, she was still really worried when Hagrid shows up with his motorcycle at the beginning of book 7: "Oh, no. Hagrid's going to die!"

3. Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones. I would hate to be married to Howl, but he is so fun to read about! Especially aloud. Green slime! Enchanted suits! Guitars he can't really play, but which make a good show! Yeah. BTW, if you love Howl, might I recommend Alexandra Bracken's Brightly Woven? Or Deva Fagan's Circus Galacticus? There's no green slime in either one--but some of the feeling you get when you read Howl's Moving Castle is in both of those as well.

Arrow, by RJ Anderson

I've been reading RJ Anderson's faery series (the first book is called Knife in the UK and Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter in the US). The first two books are out in the US but the series continues on past them in the UK. We just finished this one, which sort of closes the first subseries, and my girls are already pestering me to order the next one, Swift, which apparently was just released in Britain.

What liked most about this book: 1) the feeling of being in a different culture, and 2) Timothy. We've seen Timothy's anxious side in the last book (Wayfarer), but now that he's worked through those issues and come out the other side, we're getting a whole new view of him. I love seeing the cheerful, slightly hyper, active side of him--just a very likable character! As to the cultural issue, Rebecca's put her finger on exactly that exhausting feeling of trying to navigate a culture that is similar but different from your own, of misinterpreting people, and of trying to fit into a new set of expectations while all the while holding very much to your integrity. (I guess that's actually two culture clashes, then--the clash between different faery cultures and the clash between the world of integrity and...the World in a religious sense.)

I'd recommend this series to your daughter/niece who likes some seriousness to her faeries.