Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sweetgrass by Jan Hudson

I discovered Sweetgrass when I was 11 and immediately fell for its vivid prose. I've read it over and over again and still love its mix of innocent romance, medical drama, and Blackfoot culture.

It starts out simple: Sweetgrass just wants to be able to convince her father that she's mature enough to marry, and that her old playmate Eagle Sun would make a better husband than any of the old men of her band who already have several wives. Little does she know she's about to take part in a much bigger struggle, one with life or death consequences that will change her family forever.

Labels: , , ,

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

The Perilous Gard is about a girl who's been sent away to a castle that's full of all kinds of mysterious happenings: disappearing heiresses, pilgrims trekking to a wishing well, and sinister strangers lurking about in the forest.

Kate doesn't really believe the superstitious stories she hears about the "fairy folk" who live near Elvenwood until she finds herself a captive of the People of the Hill - an ancient, mystical tribe who are still practicing the old Celtic religion during the Elizabethan age.

I can't say I'm usually a big fan of this type of thing, but Kate's just the kind of intelligent heroine I most enjoy reading about, and her love interest is just as compelling. It's worth a look, even if you don't normally like fantasy.

Labels: , , ,

The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye

I decided to turn my attention to children's lit tonight and share with you some of my favorite books for kids and young adults. These are the ones that came from the "Books I'm not supposed to like anymore (but still do)" section of my old Poohba's Bibliotèque website.

The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye can truly be called an upside-down fairy tale. There are certain rules and expectations about princesses: they must be blonde, slender, beautiful, and gentle - and poor Amy doesn't fit the bill. At her christening, Princess Amy's fairy godmother decided to proclaim her "ordinary," so instead of growing up like her six perfect older sisters, she turns into a freckled tomboy that no respectable prince wants to marry.

That suits Amy just fine. Being ordinary, she can run off and have adventures her sisters couldn't even dream of - and she winds up with the best husband in the end, just being herself.

I have to admit this book was one of my inspirations for Thorn of the Kingdom - though it's much funnier and more clever than anything I've ever written.

If you've ever read Kaye's The Far Pavilions you might be surprised to know she also wrote this children's book in such a completely different style. I hate this cover art, by the way, because it makes it look like Amy's about 5. She's actually a teenager through most of the story.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Inspiring Abby

Since I provided some thoughts about where the characters of Tholly and Pierre came from ages ago, I thought it was only fair to give you some insight into how the character of Abby developed.

My original concept of Thorn of the Kingdom was that it was a love story between Abby and Tholly. Even after that relationship ends, it's still the driving force of everything else that occurs. But, over time, I've come to see TOTK much more as "Abby's story." Tholly is an important part of it, but he isn't her whole life.

It may surprise you to know that I didn't originally intend to write TOTK from Abby's perspective. I thought the narrative would be mostly about her, but with a few chapters focusing on settings where she couldn't possibly be present. I didn't like writing first-person stories and hadn't attempted one in years.

However, just a page or two in, I knew something wasn't working. The third-person narration was lifeless. To save a story I knew I had to write, I took a deep breath and started writing it a different way. It's strange, once I made that critical decision, Abby's voice was just there. The more I wrote about her, the more I felt I knew her.

... And the rest is history.

In my writing notebook, I keep several pictures of Abby. I think this photo of Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings captures Abby in a wistful mood. Perhaps this is how she looked when she met Tholly in the empty corridor the night of the grand ball, or perhaps she's in the midst of some philosophical debate with Pierre. The only thing wrong with it, is Liv doesn't have enough red in her hair.

Labels: , , , ,

A Mystery Quote

I hate writing. I love having written.

When I went looking for a refresher on who actually said this, I found competing stories. You most often see it attributed to Dorothy Parker, but I've also found evidence that Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Louis Stevenson said it.

Whoever did, knew what they were talking about... though I find it applies to many areas of life.

I hate exercising, but love having exercised. I hate doing laundry, but I love having laundered. I find it can be used in almost any situation.

Labels: ,

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Here's an old favorite to get you in the mood.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

I love the voice of the unnamed narrator in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. She really tells it like it is, calling the Herdman family "absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world."

She should know. She and her younger brother - and all of Woodrow Wilson School - have been terrorized by the six unruly Herdman siblings (who "lie, steal and smoke cigars - even the girls") for what seems like forever. They all have learned the tricks of staying out of the Herdmans' way.

But then little bro, Charlie, tired of having goodies stolen from his lunchbox, tells Leroy Herdman that the minister gives kids all the cake and cookies they want at Sunday School.

Inevitably, all six Herdmans show up at church the next Sunday... And the next thing you know they have the leading roles in the traditional (read: boring) Sunday School Christmas pageant, the fire department has to be called in, and the minister's running around town in his bathrobe.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has been a holiday tradition at my house forever. It's a funny, funny story, but it also carries a deeper meaning. The Herdmans remind us Christmas is about more than just trappings and traditions.

As Gladys Herdman says it, "Hey, unto you a child is born!"

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bill Bryson: Cranky, but Funny

I was just reading that Bill Bryson was recently honored with the Order of the British Empire, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to honor him on the blog.

In The Lost Continent, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, and Notes From a Small Island, Iowa-born Bryson takes us through the absurdities of life and travel in the nation of his birth, and in his adopted country of Great Britain. Nothing is safe from his scrutiny - not vehicle cupholder design, not bad food, and certainly not tourist traps that fail to live up to expectations.

Lost Continent and Notes are basically travelogues. Bryson covers 38-states in the Continental U.S. in the first, and almost the whole of Great Britain in the second. Stranger is more contemplative; a series of essays he wrote on U.S. life to a British newspaper. Some have called them mean-spirited, (and Bryson does come off as a bit cranky now and again), but mostly they're just funny. His snide observations give it to you the way it really is.

These are the only three of his books I have read, but I'm eager to tackle his other travelogues, his books on the wackiness of the English language, and even his ambitious-sounding A Short History of Nearly Everything.

He's a funny, funny man.

< >< >

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Food for Thought

The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.
- Oswald Chambers

Labels: ,

Do I even have an Inner Troll?

I entered Miss Snark's latest Crapometer with a hook for TOTK last night. She posted her response this morning.

Not exactly what I was hoping for - but at least she didn't tell me I can't write. I can see a few place where the hook needs some "punching-up". (There's a sentence I never thought I'd write!)

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Top Ten Books I've Been Meaning to Reread

It's been a busy fall, going back to school and all. Not only has my fun writing fallen to the wayside, so has my entertainment reading. I have a whole stack of unread books by my chair and a list of dozens more that I'd love to find the time for.

Still, as much as I want to read new material, I'd also love the chance to go back and read some old faves.

Here (in no particular order) are some I've been thinking about a lot lately and just haven't gotten to yet:

1. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
3. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
4. Avalon by Anya Seton
5. Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
6. Ride the Wind by Lucia St. Clair Robson
7. The White Mountains by John Christopher
8. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
9. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
10. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

C.S. Lewis once said...

I love this quote:

"You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."
- C.S. Lewis

Labels: ,

Love Books? Need a Good Laugh?

I can honestly say that the Thursday Next books by Welsh author Jasper Fforde are some of the most intelligent gut-busters I've ever read.

Detective stories don't normally do much for me - but crime thrillers set in an alternate universe where characters from famous books can (and do) get kidnapped, cloned dodos and neanderthals wander and people can get arrested for fooling around with Shakespeare - now that's entertainment.

The Thursday Next books (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots and Something Rotten) are kind of a cross between hard-boiled crime novels, literary exposés, and the silliest political statements you'll ever find. Thursday (yes, that's her real name) is a "literary detective" in (as the book jacket copy calls it) "a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985." Her job involves tracking down the bad guys who perpetrate crimes against books - such as kidnapping Jane Eyre right out of the pages of her own novel.

I'm convinced Jasper Fforde must have a very interesting mind to think up all of this stuff. He's recently moved on to a second, equally-loony series based on crimes against nursery rhyme characters.

If you've ever wanted to jump into the pages of a favorite book, you need to give these a try. My favorites are actually number 2 and 3.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Fool's Tale by Nicole Galland

This book is all about the characters.

It could have so easily just been another anachronistic, Medieval love triangle about a Welsh king, a queen he married for politics, and a courtier who fights the growing attraction he feels for the queen because the king is his oldest and dearest friend.

(Getting any Camelot vibes yet?)

There's where the similarities end, though. Gwirion (the friend) isn't exactly Sir Lancelot. He's more like the court jester; a perpetual adolescent who's always up to some prank or other. Noble (the king) keeps him around because Gwirion amuses him, but also because when they were boys, Gwirion once went through a terrible experience to save Noble's life. The horrors Gwirion survived are alluded to in the prologue, but never really fleshed out. However, the incident does add depth to the men's friendship and go a long way towards explaining how Gwirion and Noble grow to be like they are.

As you might imagine, Gwirion's less than thrilled when Noble decides to marry. There goes all their bachelor fun. What's worse is Noble's bride is the simpery, little niece of his worst enemy. Gwirion doesn't think much of Isabel from the start - and the feeling is completely mutual.

Isabel isn't completely happy with her husband either once she realizes Noble never intended to give up his playboy ways just because she entered the picture. Simply said, she and Gwirion don't stay worst enemies forever. Most of the suspense of the second half of the book comes from whether they can keep their love affair a secret from their friend and king - and what the sometimes-cruel Noble would ever do if he found out.

Just when you find yourself despising Noble for being a callous adulterer - or Isabel, for being judgmental - or Gwirion, for going too far with his tomfoolery, Galland turns around and creates a completely different view of a sympathetic character. It's been a long time since I've read about such three-dimensional people in a novel.

I couldn't put it down. I had to know what happened to them.

And the denouement... Well, it's stunning. I don't think I can say too much more without spoiling it.

Labels: , , , ,

This is why I always liked Captain Picard better...

Now Jean-Luc, he appreciated books. He'd keep his leather-bound copy of Shakespeare sitting on his desk while he worked - even though he could have called up anything he could have possibly wanted to read on the 24th Century version of Project Gutenberg.

But, James T. Kirk apparently was anything but a bibliophile.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, December 01, 2006

It's December 1

So, I failed miserably at NaNoWriMo this year.

It turns out - yeah, I really was crazy thinking I had time to write a novel last month. I had six major class assignments due either in November or the first week in December. And for some reason they took priority...

I wrote 3,767 words on the first two days of the NaNoWriMo quest and then completely pooped out. My profile page bar graph, which is supposed to resemble a staircase, instead looks like a pathetic, weenie plateau.

It's a bummer, because I liked the two chapters I actually completed. My writer's group laughed at all the right places when I read Chapter One to them, which was really quite gratifying. The group members even seemed to enjoy my explanation of why I changed my main character's name from "Mary-Anne" to "Mary Anne". (Well, duh, "Mary Anne" counts as two words, while the hyphenated "Mary-Anne" is only one.)

The "novelette" isn't in my normal "style," for sure. It's just fun. I was looking forward to "writing without a net," so to speak. My plot was wide open and I had no road map - unlike last year when I spent the last couple weeks of October outlining the whole thing.

I guess it just wasn't meant to be - though I hope "someday" I'll be able to add on to The Crazy Grad Student Who Thinks She Has Time to Write a Novel.

But, before then, I want to share what I started. I hope you enjoy it:

The Crazy Grad Student Who Thinks She Has Time to Write a Novel
Chapter One

Mary Anne stared at the empty computer screen, almost certain that it was staring back at her. She tapped her pencil against the case of her laptop and wondered if that could possibly hurt the computer.

Focus, girl, she told herself. Focus. This novel isn’t going to write itself. A sudden whir of the hard disk answered, as if taunting her.

Plot. Characters. That’s what I need, she said to herself. But who am I kidding. I’m in grad school; I don’t have time for this. I should be doing my Shakespeare paper right now.

“To Nano, or not to Nano, that is the question,” she said out loud, and then laughed, feeling quite a wit. No one else was in the room. She could laugh at her own lame jokes if she wanted to.

But just as quickly as it came, her good humor left her. “What I need - is a plot,” she said, flicking the pencil between her fingers, trying to mimic a majorette’s baton. “Can’t have a novel without a plot, after all.”

Setting down her pencil, she clicked the Internet Explorer button on her toolbar and Yahoo’s main screen came up. Perhaps she would find some inspiration online. But, as she scrolled through pages at Barnes and, she only grew more despondent. All the good stories had already been written. “Yeah, good luck coming up with the next Mr. Darcy or Rhett Butler,” she sighed. “Heck, I couldn’t even come up with Stephanie Plum. How great IS that anyway - naming all your books in order with numbers in the title.”

She looked at Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and wondered why she couldn’t have a mind that worked like his. Detectives solving fictional murders and disappearances, affecting the outcome of classic books - that’s brilliant. Why couldn’t I have thought up something like that? Why can’t I kidnap Jane Eyre right this instant?

Uh, November would be a good month for plagiarism, she thought. But I don’t want to be the next Kaavya Viswanathan - or even the next James Frey. “Though if I could get an Oprah deal...

“No. Focus,” she reminded herself, but surfed on over to, where she had once had moderate success writing fantasy stories, anyway. “Who am I kidding, I can’t even come up with another K’ Adorna,” she sighed, recalling the heroine of her most popular story and its three sequels. If only she hadn’t killed off K’Adorna and her mate, Galorn, in the last epilogue.

She briefly considered resurrecting them, Sherlock Holmes style, but shot the idea down, vehemently. All she needed was to have to write more about that bratty daughter of theirs, Galorna. Mary Anne hated Galorna with a passion only rivaled by her affection for Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. She wondered why she’d ever listened to reviewers’ demands to see K’Adorna and Galorn’s children.

And then, returning to tapping the casing of her laptop, she wondered why she’d chosen to kill off the parents, when it was the daughter she couldn’t stand.

No matter. What she needed now was a really fresh, really creative idea that would get her through the next 30 days of writing. She knew from previous experience, 50,000 words didn’t seem like an awful lot of words to write in one month’s time - except when you were deep in the middle of writing them. December 1 would hit and she’d wonder what she’d been stressing herself out about all month - unless she woke up Christmas Eve and discovered she’d flunked out of the English program she’d tried so hard to get into. Why, exactly, WAS she doing this, anyway? “I’m insane,” she muttered for about the fifth time since turning on her computer an hour earlier, “Certifiably insane.”

Maybe she needed to build her novel around a deep theme. Oppression. Injustice. Slaughtered manatees.

No. No. A real idea. Something big. Something bold. Something that had never been done before.

“Fairies,” she said, suddenly - and just as quickly took it back. “No, that’s a terrible idea. Everybody does fairies.”

She turned to the battered copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sitting on the desk beside her. “Even The Bard did fairies.”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, pencil still in hand. “It’s not like this is something I’m going to want to publish someday. I just want to have a little fun in the middle off all this stress from school. I just wish I could come up with this fantastic idea, and write something no one else in this competition is even going to dream of.

“I wish,” she said, thinking of Shakespeare - and with one final tap of her pencil eraser on the keyboard, “to write something fantastic and silly and romantic and heroic, all together.”

“Well that’s not so hard to do,” said a very proper-sounding person from within her computer. “Goodness, the fuss you make of it. Why these things practically write themselves!”

Mary Anne scrunched up her nose. She had imagined that, of course. She hadn’t realized she was putting herself under enough stress to begin hearing voices - but perhaps she had a low genetic tolerance for the stuff.

There was a knock, sounding just as if someone was rapping against the inside of a window. “Hulloo dear,” the mellow voice from within her viewscreen sounded off again, “I’m sure you can hear me. Wake up, dear. It’s time to get writing.”

Mary Anne took a deep breath and forced herself to open one eye, and then the other. The web browser had disappeared from her screen, replaced by the head and shoulders of purple-cloaked cartoon character that - for the life of her - looked exactly like Cinderella’s...

“Well hulloo dear,” the figure smiled, “I’m your fairy godmother and I’m here to answer your wish.”

“Exactly what wish was that?” Mary Anne stumbled, trying to recall all the mutterings of the last hour. The reality of the situation had yet to hit her. She was only hoping the cartoon made no mention of the rats and asses she’d mentioned in connection with her least-favorite British lit lecturer.

The round woman’s rosy cheeks beamed with delight. “Why the wish you made just now, of course. The one about your novel...”

“Or lack thereof,” Mary Anne mumbled.

“Fantastic, silly, romantic and heroic,” the cartoon, marked them off on her fingers, one-by-one. “Why that’s no trouble at all.”

Mary Anne arched a brow, and leaned her elbows against the desk. “Fantastic, silly, romantic and heroic? That’s impossible. No one could do it. That doesn’t even sound good when you say it a second time. It sounds like a ridiculous book no one would ever want to read.”

“Well, certainly it would be a silly one,” her fairy godmother admitted, nodding rather earnestly.

Mary Anne shook her head, “Forget it. I don’t really want to write that book. In fact, I don’t think I even really want to do Nano anymore. Forget everything.” Her eyes were drooping - and she hadn’t even begun taking notes for the Shakespeare paper yet. Her noon class the next day suddenly loomed before her. “I knew this was a stupid idea,” she said, snapping the lid of her laptop case shut with a decisive “click” and turning to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“What fools these mortals be,” she quoted rather ironically, flipping to Act I, Scene II and the play’s introduction to Bottom the Weaver cum actor.

But before she could even focus in on Quince’s first line, “Is all our company here?” a blinding flash filled her living room.

“That was rather rude,” said the voice at the center of all of it. “I travelled all this way - through Fairyland and Neverland both - to get here to help you, and you won’t even bid me a proper goodnight?”

It took Mary Anne some time to gather her chin off the floor once she realized the rather plump and dowdy figure of her fairy godmother no longer inhabited her computer screen - but was now standing - all five feet of her - a few inches away from her couch. “Y-y-you’re real,” she finally stammered, “but how?”

The fairy waved her wand, sending a cascade of sparks down into the pile of Mary Anne’s carpet. “It’s complicated - and of no matter to our present situation. I am here to help you write a better novel - by any means necessary.”

“But,” Mary Anne said, staring downward to make sure her carpet didn’t start smoldering. “I didn’t even KNOW I had a fairy godmother.”

The figure - who had become decidedly more lifelike once she was no longer pixelated - sighed. “Most people don’t, dear. We don’t show ourselves until we’re desperately needed.”

“And - coming up with a great idea for Nanowrimo counts?” Mary Anne felt her voice rise in pitch, uncertainly.

Her fairy godmother put her hands on her wide hips. “Well it certainly does if you’re protege is going to become a world-famous authoress.”

“It does?” Mary Anne felt herself sit a bit taller in her chair. “I am?”

“Well, if I have anything to say about, you will,” the fairy said with a satisfied nod, “Now, where to begin.”

Shakespeare was still open across Mary Anne’s lap. “Well, I’d love to start writing this world-famous blockbuster - but right now I’ve got other things to do. My paper’s due at noon tomorrow and I haven’t even started. I was just procrastinating earlier. It was better not being able to come up with a topic for some dumb Internet challenge than not being able to come up with a topic for a paper that’s worth a quarter of my grade.”

Again, the wand sent sparks dangerously close to Mary Anne’s upholstery. “Plenty of time for that, love. You’ll have all night to write your paper. But, first thing’s first.” The glittering light emanating from the wand changed colors from white to a strawberry pink.

“Um, how can I spend all night writing my paper if you’re going to show me how to write my novel first,” Mary Anne questioned.

The fairy’s laughter changed the color of her wand sparkles from pink to blue. “Oh my, I do have some explaining to do,” she tittered. “I nearly forgot to tell you that time as you know it has stopped - and we have all eternity to make sure we get your book EX-AACK-ET-LY right before your life resumes and you need worry about class.”

“All eternity?” Mary Anne gulped.

Her fairy godmother nodded knowingly. “These things take time. We can’t expect to craft the Great American Novel without some work, you know.

“Now, where to begin... And where is my other wand?” She began waving the sparking wand dangerously close to Mary Anne’s face as she searched for something up her voluptuous sleeve. “Ah, there it is. Now...

She winked at Mary Anne and withdrew a wand that was twice the size of her original. Drawing it about her in a circle, she enveloped both of them in a light even brighter than the one she had appeared in. “Kafkaesque!” she shouted above the sudden roar of a thousand voices. “Dickensonian!”

And then, Mary Anne and fairy godmother both, were whisked out of the comfortable living room and off to lands unknown.

Labels: ,