Advent 2012—Christ the King 2013

This might be the ignorance of the anecdotalist speaking, but it seems to me that the average new year's resolution fails because people hope to conquer besetting vices with a burst of enthusiastic will that is guaranteed to last no more than two weeks.

On account of which, I save my attempts at conquering besetting vices for Lent. Advent works better as a time to take stock, to contemplate direction and make adjustments as necessary, settling the ideas by the first of January.

So, I've been contemplating and taking stock, and there's been a lot to this year. There were blue pimpernels and giant pumpkins, sweet peas and strawberries and tomatoes, homemade liqueurs and three months of sunshine. Lou and I chanted from the choir loft together and sang Mozart and The Hallelujah Chorus in ensemble; the latter involved practice sessions with a vocal coach, which enabled me to recover more of my voice than I'd thought possible.

There were also... weeks. There was the week I got the most painful critique I've ever received and then nearly lost three members of my family. There was the week I gave up the family cradle. There was the week divided between a courtroom and a funeral. There were others.

For me as a writer, it was honestly a hard year. Most of my original goals got set aside; I spent more than half the year struggling with my first book and eventually lost my vision for it. Be it for good or be it for ill, however, I am thus far unwilling to give up that story—it's too dear and too unfinished. Many a spare moment in the last week has gone to hunting down and securing my original vision: the bright, simple, beloved thing, unencumbered by secondhand doubts or undue weight belonging to What Is Popularly Considered Acceptable. I want the story whole and at rest, settled and finished the way it was designed and intended to be.

We'll see what happens. A new year may look like a blank slate, but at nearly halfway to seventy, I've discovered I'm not the only one writing on it.

For this year, then, I have a few quiet hopes and plans. If possible, I'd like:

to sleep more

to devote myself daily to Mary

...and to Lou

to learn to love the rain

to read at least fifty-two books, at least four of them retold fairy tales for children

to go on developing home and garden

to finish revising and publish the fairy tale retelling

and to settle—and if possible, to finish—A.D.'s story.

There have already been times during the perpetual chilly and wet twilight these last few weeks that I've thought the rain beautiful.

Happy New Year!

P.S. I am sure the formatting on this is thoroughly scrambled in every view except for the ordinary blog post as it appears in Chrome. I'm terribly sorry. The pictures seemed like a good idea until I discovered, halfway through, just how much format hacking was involved. And now it's too much work to get them back out. :P


Christmas 2012

Merry Christmas, everyone!

If you look very closely underneath the tree, you can see Maia photobombing the family picture. She refused to let me catch her to include her properly, of course.

Here's a more legitimate shot of her:

I may put up another post or two this week, if time and inspiration allow; the ordinary schedule, or something closely resembling it, returns after New Year's. In the meantime, I hope your Christmas season is peaceful and blessed and happy.

With love,


A Blip in the Blog and (a few) other stories

Ordinarily I have time to blog because I'm home a lot. That, however, is not expected to prove true this week. It's unlikely that I'll have internet access at all from Wednesday through Friday.

If lucky on time, I'll try and put together some short posts. If not... it might be a quiet week in this little corner of the webiverse. In the meantime, anyway, you didn't get your Maia picture last week.

She has been a very jealous lap kitty lately—ever since it got cold, I suppose. Also, that picture was taken before I got my hair cut off again.

I kind of suck at taking these at-arm's-length pictures,
but you get the idea.
* * *

There are challenges that are a lot of work or frightening or difficult on other grounds, and then there are challenges that demand you do more of the sort of thing you find relaxing and enjoyable. In the latter spirit, I'm signing up for the Fairy Tales Retold reading challenge over at Debz Bookshelf:

Want to join? Flit on over to Debz Bookshelf!
My chosen level: Lady in Waiting, which means reading 4-6 books. Which is just what I could probably do without trying, so if I move up to Fierce Ogre or Damsel in Distress or even Evil Enchantress, I'll be perfectly thrilled.

I'll draw mostly from a few Goodreads recommendation lists, notably Best Girls' Fairy Tale Books and Fairy Tale Retellings: Hidden Gems, but I'll also look over suggestions, so feel free to make them in the combox.

* * *

Off I go to chant the Magnificat and finish the laundry. Enjoy your Monday... and in case I don't make it back this week, your Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and so on, too.


Dona eis requiem sempiternam

I had a little more of a post planned. I'm shifting it to Monday.

* * *

Memorial of St. John of the Cross, 2012

Rest in peace, John St. Hilaire: Knight, farmer, brother, husband, father, grandfather, and to Lou and I, uncle. By every report, a good man. And to those of his family who are reading this, you have my love and prayers.

* * *

Whenever a horror happens to a child—or in this case, children—Auntie Jen thinks of her nieces and nephews and goes a little bit to pieces.

Prayers here for all those who have lost loved ones today.

* * *

While I'd better suck it up because I have a party to throw in forty-five minutes, at the moment I have tears in my eyes, and I think a little music is called for.

* * *

Have a peaceful and blessed weekend.


Currently Re-reading: Sense and Sensibility

12/12/12, 12:12, just for the heck of it.

Fellow readers, I have struck out on two of the last three books I've read—at least as far as finding them amenable to a thoughtful review. One I simply didn't understand, and the other contained morals too shocking for me to speak of with any objectivity. The third, I reviewed last week.

This week, then, I decided to re-read some Austen. After a short dither, I picked up Sense & Sensibility.

Sense And SensibilityWhich I enjoyed and admired more than ever. I can never get over Austen's genius; despite open moralizing and massive quantities of the 'telling' instead of 'showing' so derided nowadays, the beauty and conflict of the characters carries the story perfectly.

Character portrayal is one of Austen's greatest strengths. Edward and Colonel Brandon are both thoroughly good, but the former is painfully shy and prone to stupid mistakes, and the latter is morose. Elinor is heroic but can be annoyingly didactic, and Marianne may be the last character in Western fiction whose straightforward romantic tendencies are played as unsympathetic. And that's just the primary set. There's kind but vulgar Mrs. Jennings, affectionate but mercenary John Dashwood, friendly but thoughtless Sir John Middleton, sour but sincere Mr. Palmer, and Lucy Steele, who takes cold-hearted feminine manipulative tendencies to startling depths.

Oh, and then there's Willoughby—whose appalling confession to Elinor holds a weird honor: it's perhaps the most touching scene of believable human selfishness I've ever read.

For readers who have never read Austen and would like to try, I usually recommend beginning with the shorter, tighter, more emotionally rewarding Persuasion. Sense & Sensibility's storyline meanders a bit, and it champions propriety against indulgence of passions, which makes it generally harder on a modern audience. That's part of why I like it, of course; the critique of common vulgarity comes as a relief, and Marianne's character trajectory and Elinor's example convict me of my own weaknesses in the most encouraging way possible.

But the story has strengths enough. It's more physically detailed than some of Austen's work—the moment where a nervous Edward ruins a pair of scissors by using them to cut up their own sheath never fails to make me smile—and the contrast and interplay between sensible Elinor, whose narrative arc climaxes in a burst of emotion, and passionate Marianne, whose story resolves in the prioritizing of rational choice, is dramatic and beautiful. It's less subtle than Pride & Prejudice, but at moments it's almost more vivid.

Austen paid for the publication of Sense & Sensibility herself, her first published novel and the last one she ever had to pay to produce. That just about says it all.


Top Ten Tuesday: Authors Who were New to Me This Year

This took a little research, because some of my last-January reviews were of books I'd read in December. Which means that I disqualified Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina I reviewed this year, but according to Goodreads had finished reading just after last Christmas Day.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

To my surprise, it wasn't easy to pick ten. I'd forgotten how many good books I'd read early in the year.

The happy-go-lucky fantasists, who delighted my very soul and left me with the firm intent of reading many more of their works:

1. Juliet Marillier | Wildwood Dancing
2. Sharon Shinn | Summers at Castle Auburn

The exceptional fantasists, who first made me envious and then inspired me to develop thoughtful intricacy in my own fiction:

3. Patrick Rothfuss | The Name of the Wind
4. Erin Morgenstern | The Night Circus
5. Lois McMaster Bujold | The Curse of Chalion

The great middle-grade fantasists and science fictionists (hurrah: new word), who have become literary heroes to me:

6. Lois Lowry | The Giver
7. Jessica Day George | Tuesdays at the Castle
8. Gail Carson Levine | Ella Enchanted

And the happy-go-lucky non-fantasists, whose mysteries I now believe I can count on for good cheer:

9. Mary Stewart | The Moon-Spinners
10. Madeleine Brent | Moonraker's Bride

Have you read any great new-to-you authors this year? Feel free to praise them below. I'll need some new ones to include on next year's reading list, after all.


Homemade Tutus and Too Many Choices

Masha and I are taking the rest of the Advent and Christmas season off of the blogalectic, which should allow us to do things like spend time with family and make Christmas presents. (See below for this week's short post, however.) I celebrated the decision by spending some of my writing time making the first of the tutus for my little nieces.

Craft tip for the tall person: stand chairs on the dining table, string project between them.
In case anyone else wants to try: I combined this how-to with this one and am using ribbon instead of elastic. Also, I used five yards, tops, of tulle for the one pictured. For the littlest of my nieces, I'm using fabric scraps.

Masha's most recent question:
I know that the loss of human contact in our culture is not the fault of the ebook, and I have no problem with it’s existence, I just worry about it’s effect. George, Jenna, does this worry you at all? What do you think, everyone, am I just ridiculous to want a physical thing that can be asked about and then set aside? Is there a way to share ebooks? Do you ever regret having too many choices?
There are so many possible things to say here; this question certainly deserves an essay. Maybe several. But for now:

1. I don't think she's ridiculous at all for wanting "a physical thing that can be asked about and then set aside." Any more than I think I'm ridiculous for wanting chant and hymns at Mass instead of "Anthem" and "The Summons".

2. I don't think ebooks are the problem for most people; it seems likely that Smartphones and social media take countless more heads out of the Real World than books in any form ever do. A determined introvert like myself doesn't often need an ereader to isolate myself from fellow travelers on an airplane.

3. That final question: yes. Oh, heavens, yes. But it's a good problem to have. The overabundance of choices arises in large part from the instant availability of nearly infinite free information, and I love having free information instantly available. I don't know what people did before the internet, but it's a constant source of exhaustion despite its virtues, and I've never learned how to regulate my relationship to it properly. Maybe someday.



Midnight with Sunshine and other stories

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
Pardon me; I felt like some Lewis Carroll. That particular stanza never fails to amuse me, though the poem itself tends to leave me rather emotional.

Like the untimely sun, anyway, I've come to the conclusion this week—with the help of a doctor—that I'm trying to do just a little too much, and not handling my priorities very well. Now, the only reason I'm bothering to mention this is that I'm probably going to be messing with blog rhythm a bit over the next few weeks. It seems wise to let you all know beforehand.

Book reviews may—I repeat, may—change out of the essay format to something that takes less than four hours to produce. And I might not write a thousand-word thought piece on Art every Monday; those might get shortened and/or alternated with, say, links to other people's nice thought pieces—though the blogalectic will hopefully go on, of course. I'm not sure myself how all this will turn out. Feel free to argue for your favorite features in the comments.

What won't change: I intend to keep this place regularly updated, serene, firmly situated outside the everyday world, and bookish. With cat pictures.

* * *

Maia and her favorite toy: a sock.
I swear Maia walked back and forth across us every half an hour all night on Tuesday—whether because it was cold, or because we had to get up early and she wanted to punish us for something, I'm not sure. None of the smart-alecky remarks we made to her about it seemed to trouble her very much.

* * *

A new piece on introversion that I loved: How to Live with Introverts. Via my friend Ashley Thomas, albeit on Facebook.

* * *

Music of the week: The Piano Guys take on the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit soundtracks. It seems timely. Anyway, the Piano Guys are awesome.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: "English Pronunciation." A very thorough depiction of the trickeries of English phonetics. My brain stumbled all the way through it.

* * *
The time has come, the Walrus said,
...to clean house. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Treachery of Beautiful Things

The Treachery of Beautiful ThingsThe queen smiled and Jenny caught a glimpse of her eyes, darkly shadowed and ancient. No longer beautiful. Something else lurked behind the stunning exterior. Something dark and hungry. Something not human.

But then, nothing here was human, was it? Jenny looked back at Jack, at his leaves and his wildwood eyes, at the stone blade strapped to his hip, at the odd cast to his features. He met her stare impassively. Nothing was human here but her. And anything to the contrary was a lie.

Author: Ruth Frances Long

Synopsis: Years ago, Jenny saw the forest respond to her brother’s flute playing by catching hold of him and dragging him away. Now, after the grief and the trouble with her parents, after the psychiatrists and the unbearable terror around trees, Jenny returns to the forest once—just once, just to say goodbye to Tom. But upon getting hints that Tom is still alive, she sets out to save him from getting tithed to hell, a task which demands she both defy and depend upon the unpredictable yet appealing Jack o' the Forest.

Notes: This 363-page YA standalone packs quite a blenderful of myths and literary legends, all in one tolerably cohesive puree. The heroine, apparently called after a Charles Dickens character—or perhaps the Paul McCartney song—loses her brother in an adaptation of something on the Tam Lin/Thomas the Rhymer continuum, is offered the role of May Queen, and winds up in a struggle against Oberon and a Queen Mab-possessed Titania, aided by Puck and a boy of mismatched eyes whose mythology traces from the Green Man through the Jack-in-the-box. And that's just for starters.

The mix contains some religious symbolism, too, and to be honest, I couldn't tell what the author meant by her use of Christianish baptismal imagery and self-sacrifice. At some points it seemed downright sincere, and at others, word choices hinted at subversion. I suspect its presence arises mainly from her college-level study of History of Religions and the fact that she's "a lifelong fan of fantasy, romance, and ancient mysteries", but I could be wrong.

The romance, now that I've mentioned that, was unusually sweet for a paranormal. In a genre nowadays flooded with mouthy, worldly heroines, Jenny came as a pleasant surprise: innocent, devoted, and courageous out of goodness of heart instead of mere physical bravery. Jack departed from the Unbelievable Hotness trope and was physically imperfect, conflicted, protective, and likable. Better yet, he had a quality character arc of his own.

For a modern YA novel, the story is reasonably well written, and the depiction of fairyland is visual enough to be enjoyable. The narrative begins roughly, dark and weird and a little too obvious about the title concept—the more so since the latter seemed to bear less weight on the story later on. Sure, the pretty stuff can betray you—but heck, this is fairyland; everything is a little treacherous, including the goat-legged Puck and the antlered Oberon.

While a few of the details are predictable, the plot turns are angular and unexpected and solid. One could debate that it ends over-perfectly, but I wouldn't. I frankly thought the last bit wonderful.

I did wish Tom had played more of a role in the story; the beginning signs of hardness in him, pre-abduction, were never explained as I recall. That's a small critique, though. There's a lot in this short, ostensibly light work, and to weave all the above in and leave only one plot thread noticeably loose is success indeed.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wouldn't Mind Getting from Santa Claus

Dear St. Nicholas,

December 6 is just around the corner, which means expensive shipping. I'm terribly sorry about that. Also, I don't think any of these books will fit into my shoes. Even if I do wear a size eleven. Maybe if I put out my old riding boots...

Oh, all right. I'll write this letter to the popular Americanized version of the legendary character.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Dear Santa,

NB: Our chimney has been long since blocked off by one of those tin plates, now painted over in a rather ugly brownish lavender. But since you've the magic to be everywhere at midnight, I don't doubt you can find your way in.

Do you like your chocolate cookies with coffee grounds in, or without? If I don't hear otherwise, I'll put them in. I am convinced that coffee has magical properties. Oh, but if anyone in my state leaves you brownies, I recommend caution. We just legalized marijuana.

All right, here's the list.

1. The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. I read all these from the library, and am madly in love.

2. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. A classic I adore but do not own.

3. The last two Bean books by Orson Scott Card: Shadow Puppets and Shadow of the Giant. These I have not read, but must.

4. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. No, it won't be here by Christmas, but I wouldn't mind having it on pre-order. And just as a hint—eventually I'd like the whole series, and I've only got 8, 10, and 11 thus far.

5. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. A book so lovely that I'd like to have a copy.

6. The Shannon Hale fantasy novels not yet on my shelves: Enna Burning, River Secrets, Forest Born, and Book of a Thousand Days.

7. I'd love to get ahold of something else by Brandon Sanderson. Maybe Mistborn.

That's only seven list items, but it's well over ten books, so I'll stop there. Thanks! I can leave you some oats for the reindeer if you think they'd like it.

Very truly yours,


* * *

Now you all should post your Christmas lists. :)


Texture and History: Why We (May) Need Print Books

Masha's turning the discussion to last week's question #5: Why does the world need books? But this week, she says, we're not talking about books in the abstract, but ordinary, old-fashioned, printed and bound books.

That being the case, let me start off with a disclaimer: I have nothing against ebooks. Or rather, nothing except that there's no flipping around in one. I am the sort of reader who constantly turns back and forth through the text, cross-referencing, remembering important quotes, or re-reading sections.

Electronic texts are useful in their own right; I have a Kindle—one of George's old Kindles, actually; thanks, George!—and it's great for getting free classics, finding book club books inexpensively and easily just days before book club meets, fitting more than two books into a purse, and the like. I always miss the flipping around, though.

But the question of the day is the hard-copy printed word, and why we need it, to which I say: We more or less don't. According to Wikipedia, the first known literary texts date to around 2600 B.C., and the world was around for quite some time before that. Which is not to say that books haven't been a necessary part of progress; of course they have. But information is preserved in a lot of ways, and whether that involves printed pages and glued or sewn binding is a matter of practicality, not of morality.

The print book will have its defenders for some time yet, however, on some grounds. For starters, even if all mainstream reading went digital tomorrow, the book as a physical item would be part of history and worth preservation as such. I've got lovely memories of peering into dimly-lit glass boxes and reading Hebraic letters—I couldn't often translate the words—from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Likewise, of trying to chant songs from bright and beautiful hand-illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. It's from this same instinct that I've one shelf dedicated almost entirely to carefully-bound and especially to old books, some of them almost too fragile to read.

As a matter of everyday reading, the difficulty is that I learned to read on print copies and my comfort lies entirely within that zone. It's in the above-discussed flipping around, in questing for a line by memory of what quadrant of the page it fell upon, in what Masha described as "a sensual connection to the words":
I really like the feeling of holding a book. I like the texture of pages - thick, cream-colored journals or barely there Bible pages. I like the scent of books, old and new.... I don’t have an emotional connection to my laptop like I do to my books, I can’t fold down page corners and write in notes in my margins. I think we need books to continue connecting our minds to our senses and to have something meaningful that lasts when technology fails.
I think you can dog-ear and make margin notes in some electronic formats, if you're less of a Madam Pince than I am. But while I do have an emotional connection to my pretty pink and gray laptop, which holds the books I've written myself, for reading I prefer to get away from screens and buttons and slick plastic and instant searchability. It's nice to feel plain paper in my hands, to re-read parts and keep fingers in various places, to not have to wait that blink for the page to turn, to simply escape the computer and revert to my childhood understanding of the universe.

But that's just me, after all. It says nothing whatsoever about future generations—or even, necessarily, about my own. Not everyone spent as much of their childhood as possible snuggled away somewhere with words printed in black serif font on white paper. Nor does everyone read in such a non-linear fashion. The Kindle fire burns brightest among those who read books once straight through, and it feeds on books designed to be read that way—crime fiction and category romances being among the popular examples. There's something to Kit Steinkellner's question of whether the genre you're reading changes the medium you read in.

Perhaps children born these days will reminisce in their thirties about cuddling down in a fleece throw and brushing their fingers across their ereaders' touch screens. Perhaps technology will have progressed to the point where they can flip around in their electronic books as easily as we do in print copies. Or perhaps no one will care about flipping around the way I do, not having learned to read that way.

If they ditch our print books, though, they'll have to find new ways of decorating their homes. As for me and my house, we preserve the family library. If our heirs decide they don't want the burden of it sitting around their living room someday, I ask only that they treat history with respect.


The Importance of Sanity and other stories

Normally, I settle down with coffee and computer on a Friday morning and try to get the blog out first thing. But this week I needed sanity first: removal of the post-Thanksgiving mess from the house, cleansing of some less-than-savory stew from mind and spirit, relaxation after a week tiring enough that—shamed as I am to admit it—even your ritual-happy blogger broke rules and went to bed once with teeth and hair unbrushed and full makeup still on.

This morning, then, I took my coffee to the couch with the cat and a novel, and didn't get up till I'd finished the book. After that, I went to work on our little house and didn't stop till it came clean. Now it's 4:30, I've finally got my computer open, and...

...and I've still got a birthday present to wrap for a niece, and a shelf to hang so I can get some plants into sunlight and out of Maia's reach, and potatoes to bake for tonight, and I've neither written nor played the piano. Though I did sing an aria (Caccini's Amarilli, mia bella) while scrubbing the kitchen. Multi-tasking is handy, when possible. It was nice to rest for a while, though.

And now I'm rambling. But that's what blogs are for, right?

* * *

Maia: "Pleeeease let me sit by you. You have toys in your lap."

Me: "They're not toys. I'm sewing, and you're not sorry for pouncing on my thread and tying a giant knot in it. I know you're not. And I see you coming."

Maia: "Yes, but I'm SO CUTE. And I'm upside down. Look at me."

* * *

Writer's link of the week: Sarah Clarkson's lovely "With Bach's Resolve" would do as well for any artist. Questions of lacking audience and of the obedience of creating beauty apply to all of us. Thanks to Sharyn Sowell for the link.

* * *

Music of the week: Cecilia Bartoli, outdoing me enthusiastically at the aforementioned aria.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: a double feature of BookRiot. First, secret passageways via bookshelves, and second, excellent reading nooks. (Yes, I did find the first one after discovering it linked in the second one. How could I not follow that link?)

Of the secret passages, my favorites are the Gothic one and the whimsy one. Of the reading nooks, I'd definitely take the hide-from-people one, although I also like the one with all the pillows and the one in the window. A window's presence would be ideal in any case. What would you pick?

* * *

After a brief blog interruption, the potatoes are in the oven. The four biggest that grew in our garden, as they're destined to be twice-baked. And now, to wrap my niece's present—I got her books; I hope she loves Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie as much as I did—and see about rigging that shelf so I can get my orchid and the unhappy kale and the even more unhappy aloe into sunshine, and pull out one or the other of my simultaneous revision projects. Life is good.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Hobbit

The Hobbit"Very pretty!" said Gandalf. "But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone."

"I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk, and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them," said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring.

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Synopsis: Bilbo Baggins loves his cozy little dugout home and his six meals a day and his smoke rings. Therefore, he is not very pleased when the wizard Gandalf invites twelve unexpected visitors to tea and then bundles him off on a miserable and dangerous adventure. But there is more to Bilbo than he himself knows, and he finds himself burgling, riddling for his life, and even facing a dragon to help his friends.

Notes: The Hobbit belongs at the top of its fantasy/adventure category—clever, funny, artistically written, and containing the very unlikeliest of unlikely heroes. From his cartoonish name to his combination grumpy-old-man and adorable-puppy-dog personality, Bilbo Baggins is far from the standard handsome young farm boy who can usually be expected to venture forth on a quest, yet the story succeeds mightily as a heroic tale. And now you can all scold or mock me for the fact that I got thoroughly bored with this book despite its excellence and almost put it down.

The book is not to blame for my lacking the gene that creates Tolkien fandom—though I approximate that fairly well as a fantasy fan, which requires acknowledging a debt to the Professor—but then, I don't think I can be quite wholly blamed for the fact that the characters didn't walk off the page and take up residence in my heart. I'll admit, of course, that plenty of people find Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Bombur, and the rest in a circle around their inner hearth. I just couldn't get attached enough.

Objectively, Bilbo is a fantastic character, complex and plucky and likable. Gandalf, however, while amusing, lacked the sense of power he exudes in The Lord of the Rings. Most of the dwarves were just alliterative names, though a handful were sometimes admirable and sometimes annoying—by authorial design, of course. Gollum and Bard and Beorn all proved interesting in their places, as did Smaug.

The action is more or less flawless. Goblins, terrifying wolves, fires, dark forests, giant spiders, disappearing Elves, a barrel-ride down a river, and a dragon-battle are a lot to fit into one small book, but Tolkien pulls it off. I'd like to say there was never a dull moment; if Rand al'Thor had been the protagonist, I would've been able to mean that. But those with the Tolkien gene—or at least a Y chromosome—should have no trouble staying hooked on the adventure.

Speaking of that Y chromosome: there are no named female characters in this book, as far as I can recall. Now, there are comparatively few named characters at all, and I'm no feminist by modern standards, so I'm not going to attribute any kind of ulterior motive to the author for that. Probably no female role occurred to him, or seemed to fit, especially considering that Tolkien lived and died before women really started running things in England. The lack may make the story harder for the average girl to get into, however. I wouldn't necessarily know; I'm an unusually girlish reader, which made things much harder for me.

Difficulties aside, The Hobbit is a brilliant, thoughtful little tale. Even I can comprehend why so many people love it. It's clear, for instance, that Tolkien loves his own protagonist; the little guy is treated with a great deal of fatherly tenderness, and from his unlikely beginnings Bilbo becomes a hero of the very best sort. It's hard to fault a tale containing that kind of glory, no matter how much my own emotions failed to invest themselves in it.

Recommendation: A near-perfect book for boys, as well as for girls who are less hung up on their own feelings than I am. Highly recommended.


Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Books of 2013

This topic requires me to confess something: I pay limited attention to upcoming releases. Not because I don't want to support authors, but because I find the average synopsis repellent. Strange, I know—but all the drama is exhausting. I feel the same way about kick-you-in-the-teeth first paragraphs. Pull me in with pretty language, show me signs of lovable characters. Don't tell me the book is about some wild, gutwrenching, apparently unresolvable situation, and then start off with "The one thing in life I can never seem to remember is that I'm dead."

Though, until the Target Audiences for Popular Novels resemble me more closely than they do now, the publishing industry is probably best served by ignoring that advice.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

That said, there are a handful of 2013 releases I already know I'll be interested to read.

1. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. The final installment of The Wheel of Time. I'd actually wait in line at midnight for this one.

2. Transparent by Natalie Whipple. Because I've been reading the author's blog with much enjoyment for a couple of years. Her House of Ivy and Sorrow looks more interesting than Transparent to me, and I expect to be very excited to read it, but that one's not coming till 2014.

And... well, shoot. I was going to say Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger, but that's already out! Which means it's time to get my hands on a copy. She has a YA debut—Let the Sky Fall—coming, too, but the more I'm around the categories, the more I generally favor middle grade and young teen stories over the young adult ones. Keeper looks like especial fun. Though I just may wind up reading Let The Sky Fall, too.

More will come up as we progress through 2013, of course. I'm vastly more susceptible to reviews than to synopses.

What soon-to-come books are you looking forward to?


Blogalectic Holiday: Random Q & A

In honor of the holiday, Masha gave us an easy topic: a list of questions to answer. To veteran bloggers, listing comes almost as naturally as speaking, and I'm thankful for the comparatively light work after a cheery Thanksgiving weekend that was rather too busy for much blog prep.

1. If you could escape into just one story, what would it be?

Escape? I'm usually my own biggest problem. Finding a way directly into a story wouldn't be likely to change that. :P But if I just need a vacation in a fictional world, well—I've already answered that one.

2. What book do you think should be mandatory for writers?

People write and think in an immense variety of ways. Therefore, I say: go find your own mandatory book. For me, it was probably the Harry Potter series, but it'll be different for everyone.*

And no, I don't often read books about writing. For me, they've never proven quite as helpful for writing fiction as has the generally more enjoyable act of reading fiction.

3. What movie do you think should be mandatory viewing for writers?

See above. Only I'm no film connoisseur, and off the top of my head, not one movie of my acquaintance has had a noticeable impact on my writing. Several TV shows, on the other hand, have been influential. The Gilmore Girls is great for dialogue. The Wonder Years is great for narrative. And The Dick Van Dyke Show is great for comical character interplay.

That said, I like artsy but accessible movies like The King's Speech or the Ang Lee Sense and Sensibility. They're beautiful enough to inspire me artward, and might fairly represent the sort of novel I'd like to write: lovely storylines and scenery, thoughtful characters and relationships, happy endings. They're only missing the magic and unicorns.

4. Do you ever take drugs, smoke, or drink to ‘encourage’ your imagination while writing?

Hah. I'm at my most creative when all my faculties are present and accounted for, thank you very much.

If I need wackadoodle inspiration, I can always go to sleep. Of course, I've not got a lot of use for psychedelic Big Birds, tone-deaf people in denim singing in a porch swing at Mass, impossibly large house parties with the drinks table arranged according to the color wheel, and the zombie apocalypse, all of which have figured in my dreams in the last few weeks. But I most definitely do not need any stimulant to provide me with more such dreams.

5. Why does the world need books?

Because so many of us love them. And for other reasons, which are far too many and too complex to bother listing right now. That question could probably inspire its own blogalectic series.

6. What part of the [writing] process do you find most difficult?

Marketing, even to agents and editors. My default emotional position reads as follows: if perchance someone sincerely wants to hear from me, they'll ask. This is not a comfortable way to go about life, let alone marketing.

7. What books have scared you the most?

The single most terrifying book I've ever read, at least in recent years, was Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Closely following on its heels (creeping silently through the jungle, peering at it with a giant eye) was Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Horrid books, both of them, as far as I'm concerned.** I might never have forgiven my first boyfriend for making me read them if he hadn't also loaned me all his Harry Potter books and introduced me to Nobuo Uematsu and Orson Scott Card.

* * *

All right, that was fun. What about you? Feel free to answer any or all of the questions in the combox or on your own blog.

* Disclaimer: This presumes, of course, that writers have studied a fair helping of the classic works in the language in which they intend to write.
** Yes, I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek. And Then There Were None was a fantastically structured murder mystery. Jurassic Park was at least an engaging story. I'm still thoroughly sorry I ever read either.


Happy Thanksgiving!

Things Maia is thankful for:
  1. tummy rubs
  2. socks
  3. dark corners to hide in
  4. anything that rolls
  5. houseplants to play in
  6. most definitely not the black and white cat that sits in the back yard and stares into the windows
  7. also not the camera flash
  8. also not strangers
  9. warm laps
  10. cabinet doors that open when batted at
  11. warm laundry
  12. windows
  13. hands to play bear trap with
  14. tasty, tasty cat food
  15. the rocking armchair in the living room
  16. small battable things on shelves and tables
  17. blankets to burrow into
  18. her two people, when her two people are providing the prompt and obedient service properly due a kitty
  19. shelves and furniture to play on
  20. her tail
  21. spiders to catch
  22. chin rubs
  23. cushions
...and I am thankful for all of you. :)

This blog returns Monday. Happy holiday weekend!


Currently Reading: Wrecked

Wrecked“Sorry. Just swimming,” Miranda called, willing Eleanor to leave her alone.

“Miranda!” Eleanor shrieked again, her voice piercing the air like a siren. From far off, Miranda could hear a dog bark. “Don’t do that. You know if you need to go swimming, you should have Louisa watching you.” Eleanor shook her head. “I’m worried about you. This isn’t normal. Dr. Dorn says that this isn’t healthy. You need to get back into your routines, into your life.

Miranda swam over to the side of the pool and blinked up at Eleanor. “I said I was sorry,” she said in a low voice. In the semi-darkness, she noticed that her fingers gripping the gutter of the pool were ghostly white. The air was chilly, even though the water was a temperature-controlled eighty degrees. “I’m fine,” she repeated, a steely edge to her voice.

Author: Anna Davies

Synopsis: Born on the mainland and orphaned young, Miranda has always been out of place on tiny Whym Island—but when she’s involved in a boat wreck that takes the life of several of her friends, she goes from out of place to outright ostracized. Her only comforts are in swimming and in Christian, the stranger who saved her life the night of the wreck. But Christian has his secrets, and Miranda doesn’t dare believe in who he claims to be—nor in the sea witch who intends to kill both of them.

Notes: The cover and premise of this book caught my attention recently, and I made a point of tracking down a copy. The mythology Davies created around her setting—a touristy South Carolina island with strange, unchartable tides and a lot of local legends about a sea witch—is laid out in a beautiful prologue, which immediately hooked me on the storyline. I plunged into the first chapter, intrigued by the ominous feel.

To my surprise, the rest of the book read like a rough draft, suggesting that the author has good ideas but lacks technique. The first chapter showed strong signs of potential character development, but most of the interesting characters died at the end of it. Thereafter, inexplicable behavior progressions and disjointed dialogues were common. Occasional bits of story were summarized rather than narrated. The plot was woven neatly in the first chapter, but threads eventually worked free of the narrative and flapped aimlessly in the sea breeze. It became obvious halfway through that the overall setups were much too frayed to be tied up properly at the end.

My experiences with teen paranormal romances suggest that this sort of thing is fairly common. More startling, though, is how unedited the work is, especially coming from a top-tier publisher like Simon & Schuster. One small church is consistently referred to as “Cavalry Chapel”; I’m at a loss to know who or what to blame for a mistake like that. And I have spent years scolding fellow aspiring writers for capitalizing pronouns combined with dialogue tags after terminal punctuation and close quotes. This is all one sentence, and should be treated as such:
“Sephie!” He called as the wind whipped his face.
These, and similar, errors would have been overlookable if they’d occurred once, but they iterated throughout till I gave up trying to read and began skimming. Unless the copy I got was pre-copy edit and final print run, which is unlikely but possible, I find this hard to excuse.

I felt bad, though. I liked Miranda very much at first; I would have liked to have understood her latter motivations better. Christian fascinated me, not least because of his very un-mythological name, but I never could decide what to make of what seemed like obvious but inept attempts at Christian symbolism—or, considering that the author couldn’t spell Calvary Chapel, possibly a subversion thereof.

Finally, the book bears two clear influences: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Regarding the latter, overt homage—often juxtaposed with overt scorning of the more un-P.C. sides of Meyer’s story—is unbelievably common among current paranormal romances and urban fantasies, and is nearly always distracting. It certainly is in this case, the biggest offense being Christian’s “sparkly” skin, which, as he was an underwater creature, could have passed muster had it been done with any subtlety or logic or even thoughtful description.

Regarding the Andersen tale, I’m not sure whether to praise the author for having the courage to stick vaguely to the original in the end, or whether to express a very non-vague frustration at how badly the ending to the original sucks. There’s some redemption to Davies’ finale, but it’s not the startling visions of wonderful things that might have made the turbulent ride seem bearable in retrospect.

It’s really too bad. It was a great story idea, and Davies’ latent talent could surely have developed enough with time to give the concept and characters what they deserved. Maybe her next book will be better.

But I still like the cover. And the prologue.

Recommendation: It’s like me playing sonatinas on the piano: enthusiastic, sometimes expressive, but uneven and inaccurate and prone to jarring chords or abrupt halts in the more difficult passages. Read as you choose, just don't expect technical perfection.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books and Authors I'm Thankful For

Hurrah for a topic full of happy thoughts! How am I going to limit this to ten?

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Looks like I'm going to have to cheat.

Books and their authors:

1. The Harry Potter series and author J.K. Rowling. For helping to stabilize my mind and heart in my time of darkest confusion.

2. Little Women and author Louisa May Alcott. For dwelling so closely to my own family, ever exemplifying and supporting the intimate friendship I now have with parents and sisters.

3. Orthodoxy and author G.K. Chesterton. For putting a finger on my own madness, and then pointing the way to sanity.

4. The Divine Comedy and author Dante. For pointing to the stars.

Authors whose claim on my gratitude is less tied to a single great work:

5. Clive Staples Lewis. For the countless times you've talked me free of Plato's Cave.

6. J.R.R. Tolkien. For being at least half the reason that fantasy fiction, such as it is, exists today.

7. St. Thérèse of Lisieux. For showing me that my weaknesses are overcome-able, no matter how often I submit to them. And for the prayers.

8. All the authors who gave me my childhood companions. Frances Hodgson Burnett for Sara Crewe and Mary Lennox, L.M. Montgomery for Anne Shirley, Johanna Spyri for Heidi, Laura Ingalls Wilder for herself, Madeleine L'Engle for Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, and ever so many more.

9. The authors who have taught me how and what to write. Jane Austen, Orson Scott Card, Shannon Hale, Elizabeth Goudge, Charlotte Brontë, Robert Jordan, and most of the authors previously mentioned.

10. A handful of yet-to-be published authors whose frequent encouragement, example, and critique of my own work has helped me immeasurably. Mr. Pond, Masha, Christie, Josh Richards, Jana G., Annie O'Connor, Jessi S., Laura B. and Ryan H. who are website-less, and hopefully I haven't missed anyone... You were credited here first. I'll see you in the annals of celebrated writerdom someday.

Which authors and books are you thankful for?


The Four Things that Make You a Better Writer (and a bunch of sub-things that have helped me)

When I saw Christie's recent list of three things that have made her a better writer, I considered hinting to Masha that it might make a good blogalectic topic. I never got around to it, but Masha needed no hinting. She listed her "Three Things that have Made Me a Better Writer", and I was all prepared to do likewise until I started thinking about it.

Because—it seems to me, anyway, after pondering their lists—there are really four basic activities that improve a writer's skills. Between Christie's list and Masha's, all four received mention in some form or another. Both Christie and Masha also credited some activities that were subordinate to the main, which is more the point of the original idea. I like to be excruciatingly thorough, so I'm going to do both.

The four things that help a writer improve in his craft:
  1. Reading and studying good literature.
  2. Practice.
  3. Tutelage and/or critique.
  4. Life experience.
For once I'll restrain my hyperexplanatory self and let those stand. Here, however, are a handful of secondary items that have made a difference in my own writing. Oh, and there's no way I'll keep it to three.
"...she only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all."

"Oh! very well," exclaimed Miss Bates, "then I need not be uneasy. `Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body's assent)—Do not you all think I shall?"

Emma could not resist.

"Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once."
Sorry, Emma.

Under the subheading of study:
  • Re-reading. Not just once, but absorbing myself in a book until it's practically infused into my bloodstream.
  • Reading conscientiously. Getting out of fantasy—and getting further into it. Regularly searching out classics. Looking for the best in any genre or category.
  • Writing book reviews. This has forced me to read more widely and more actively. It also makes me more conscious of the books I choose (most of the time; wait till you see Wednesday's review), and allows me to see my own strengths and weaknesses in analyzing another author's.
Under the subheading of practice:
  • Private journaling. I have hundreds of pages of journals, most of them quite ridiculous (that's all part of growing up, right? Right?) and still add entries to a private journal when the mood strikes. Journaling allows me to be creative in new ways, or to blow off technique long enough to get some overbearing emotion out of the way. It's also provided countless hours of practice translating thoughts and feelings into words.
  • Blogging. It forces me to write to deadline; also, to write to be understood by—and interesting to—others besides myself. Nearly seven years and over 950 posts in, I've probably got three or four thousand hours in this little site alone.
  • Finishing those first novels. Not just starting them. It's important to learn how to complete a story arc. When I was nineteen, my mother ordered me to finish that story about M. the teenage ice skater, which I did, and but for that I might have never finished anything to this day. NaNoWriMo 2009 was good for me for similar reasons.
  • Remembering I'm a writer, even when doing menial work such as emailing. Working for clarity, for good phrasing, and for interest and humor when appropriate.
Under the subheading of critique:
  • Having a wide variety of readers. That NaNoWriMo novel has been read by my mom and sisters multiple times, Lou twice, a round of beta readers, a round of gamma readers, two trained poets, and my in-laws. Of these, some read fantasy and some don't; some read juvenile fiction and some don't; some read novels, and some don't. Every reader has added something to the value of the work.
  • Learning how to take criticism. How to pull the real implications out of a tangle of suggestions, which may in themselves be vague, confusing, or emphatically contradictory. How to distinguish between tough truth and dangerous conflict with the story's direction. This is one heck of a deadly fairy dance under the moon, and learning to do it properly is much of what proves your mettle as a writer.
Under the subheading of experience:
  • Suffering. Which develops empathy, range, and can also build wisdom. We don't get good at storytelling without persevering through and processing pain of our own, which is why—I'd posit—there are so few truly successful child writers despite there being numerous musical prodigies. For me it's been depression, terror, exhaustion, childlessness, conflicts, heavy internal wrestling over various political and intellectual issues, and just not being the most emotionally stable cookie on the platter.
  • Religion. No, I'm not joking, or exaggerating, or claiming that religion inevitably makes better writers than atheism or agnosticism. In fact, my agnostic tendencies have worked positively against some of the artistic stunting caused by early, heavy influence of weak and moralistic Christian fiction. Being Christian, however, supports my sense of wonder, of hope, of love beyond sentiment and goodness beyond plain decency, which every great novel I've ever read, including the ones by atheists, has successfully mirrored somehow. Those things are, I believe, the core of whatever beauty exists in my own work.
Being neither infallible nor necessarily good at big-picture thought, I may have missed something. If so, point it out! And I'd love it if you share what builds and strengthens your own creative powers, in the comments or on your own blog.


Priority Dilemmas and other stories

* * *

Maia: "YES! You're finally sitting down. After a flipping HOUR of me following you around and meowing. Ahh, a nice warm human lap is the best place on a cold day. Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr."

Me: "My coffee's still in the kitchen..."

* * *

Rarely as I make it to movies, this week set me fangirling over three.

First, I made plans to see The Hobbit with a group of friends. Yes, I'm terribly skeptical about it on numerous grounds, and I'll probably re-read the book beforehand in order to prepare myself to fume at Peter Jackson like a proper nerd. Or to sympathize with my fuming-proper-nerd friends, at least. But I'm sure I'll find some things to cheer for. Cinematography! Martin Freeman! Gandalf!

Of course, Les Miserables is coming out within days of The Hobbit, so I had to look that up again to check on things—and it purports to be one of the rare Hollywood offerings that could be worth the price of seeing it in the theater rather than waiting for it to turn up at Crazy Mike's or on Netflix. Besides, it was directed by Tom Hooper, who directed The King's Speech. Presumably everybody knew that but me... anyway, that movie looks unusually un-missable.

Lastly, I discovered yesterday that a trailer was just released for the adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's The Host, which is coming in March and which I must see. If it's as good as the first three Twilight movies—I haven't brought myself to watch Breaking Dawn—I'll be satisfied.

* * *

Oh, and while we're on Twilight, consider my heart officially warmed. H/T Arabella.

* * *

Reader's link of the week: Anthony Daniels' remarkably self-aware essay on one book-lover's attempt to survive the apocalypse as bibliophilia—or book-publishing, at least—goes digital.
"Whether the book survives or not, I am firmly of the opinion that it ought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise. The heart has its beliefs that evidence knows not of."

* * *

Writer's link of the week: Being unpublished is better than being badly published. Which is an oddly encouraging, if irrelevant, thing to remember when I'm stuck in all kinds of revision.

* * *

Music of the week: I've often said that I think Palestrina's "O Bone Jesu" is possibly the most beautiful piece of art in existence. But Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus" comes awfully close. Lou and I are singing it in an ensemble for a concert this weekend.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: The Postmodern Essay Generator. It's a bit scary how close this comes to making sense. Or as much sense as a postmodern essay can make, anyway.

* * *

Possibly owing to Murphy's Law, what with the concert coming right up, I've got a touch of a cold, which has sapped all motivation. Clean house? Whatever. Practice concert music? Meh. Get any real writing done? Why, when there's a whole internet full of mind-numbing available?

But I can procrastinate no longer. Even though Maia's being cuddly.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Summers at Castle Auburn

Summers at Castle Auburn“Corie! You’re back!” Cressida exclaimed, coming over to kiss me on the cheek. My sense of well-being increased a hundredfold. She pulled up a small stool and sat before us, taking my hand in hers. “How was your trip?”

“Bryan kissed her hand,” Andrew informed her.

Cressida looked amused. “Ah, then it was most successful,” she said. “How is it that you have not died of the ecstasy?”

“Perhaps she believes that if she lives, she will experience the ecstasy again,” he suggested.

I shook my head. “Oh, no. I know whose hand Bryan should be kissing, and it is not mine. But it was wonderful all the same.”

“And the purpose of your journey? The hunt? How did that go?” she asked me.

“They captured none of our people,” Andrew said before I could answer. Cressida’s hand, which had been tight on mine, relaxed a little. I frowned slightly, for it had not previously occurred to me—

I shook my head. I was too content and happy right now to worry over odd little moral dilemmas. Like what my friends the aliora thought about my hunting trip to trap more aliora.

Author: Sharon Shinn

Synopsis: Since childhood, Coriel Halsing has spent her autumns and winters and springs as apprentice to her witch-woman grandmother—and her summers at Castle Auburn. The illegitimate daughter of a high-ranked lord, Corie lives for the visits to her adored half-sister Elisandra. But in the last few summers preceding Elisandra’s wedding to ladies’ man Prince Bryan, Corie’s innocent enjoyment of the royal life is darkened by the dangers and moral difficulties of knowing too much about castle politics—and by the fear that she cannot save sister or friends or slaves or anyone she loves from the ever-tightening snare of political finagling and fate.

Notes: Good worldbuilding is supposedly the high point of fantasy, and it’s still one of my favorite discoveries to make in a new author or book. Shinn’s quasi-medieval Auburn is not particularly expansive or inventive, but, through narrator Corie’s eyes, it’s beautifully realized. The fairylike aliora, the plethora of (as far as I can discover, imaginary) herbs, the layers of politics, and the little details of Corie’s upstairs-downstairs life are endlessly interesting and well-drawn.

Possibly better even than the worldbuilding, however, is Shinn’s rare capability for character advancement through plot and time, age and revelation. Corie’s perception—and therefore the reader’s—of various characters develops and changes throughout the book. The reader will see and anticipate more than Corie does, but the developments were well done, sometimes surprising, and in a couple of cases, downright creepy.

Corie fascinates as heroine; a shade too flawless in her fantasy herbalist role, perhaps, but human enough to go through that absurd crush on charismatic bad news that nearly all of us seem to get at some point in our youth. She holds the odd mix of morals more likely to belong to today’s neopaganism lite than to an actual medieval: strong distaste for slavery, cruelty, and mistreatment of women, but irregular convictions toward sex and lies, and no qualms whatsoever about meddling. The latter makes her weirdly unsympathetic at moments, but only moments; her bravery and openness keep her favorable overall.

Her ability to talk on free and equal terms with regent’s son and apothecary, guardsmen and lords alike, lets her fill out the plot with a dual perspective that’s just plain fun to read. She's also generally smart. The reader will spend half the book begging her to do one important work—scruples over meddling be damned, in this case—but she thinks it through and handles it wisely, although that storyline did involve the plot’s most obvious resort to herbalist ex machina.

While I rarely predict more than the basic ending of a book, I’m also rarely so confounded at every attempt to discern how things might resolve. Of Corie's two potential lovers, either seemed equally likely to become her final choice; either would have been acceptable, too, though I did wind up with a clear favorite. (Kent, if you must know. There stands a hero and a man.) As for the Elisandra plot thread, I saw none of those payoffs coming, though some were fairly obvious in retrospect.

The fact that Corie never figured out her own heart till she was asked for it made the romance feel a little underdeveloped from her side, but she gets the ending that’s right for her. And as one might expect from a book where the fairylike beings were shamelessly ethereal and the wise woman’s knowledge was shamelessly infallible, the ending was shamelessly cheerful. I certainly enjoyed it without shame. In fact, I’m anxious to track down some other Sharon Shinn works and read them, too.

Recommendation: It's brain candy made with quality ingredients—it's rather like going to the top chocolatier in town and discovering that dark chocolate with a hint of balsamic vinegar is startlingly delicious. Enjoy.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Want on a Desert Island

Looking at this week's topic, I'm struck by the fact that if I were stranded alone on an uninhabited island, the books I'd want wouldn't necessarily be my favorites. Even the best novels seem insignificant when stacked up against that level of isolation. What I'd want would be the bedrock-works of culture, community, and religion: the books that would best convince me I wasn't entirely alone. The books with the ideas that would help me stay sane.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Here, then, are the reminders of communal reality I'd want around me if I ended up alone with the coconut palms and the four winds and the tides.

1. The Holy Bible. The full Canon of Trent, please, and heck, if I could get the rest of the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha appendixed into the back, I would. I would want as much reading material around as possible. But all that aside, I'm not interested in a life of solitude that doesn't include the Psalms and the gospel of John.

2. A great big volume of the Desert Fathers' writings. They were all hermits. Their thoughts might prove helpful.

3. The complete works of Shakespeare. No, this is not cheating. We have two of these volumes lying around our house. I'd learn off whole sections and quote Beatrice to the toucans and shout Hamlet at the monsoons.

4. Bulfinch's Mythology. With a fair amount of spare time on my hands, once I'd learned how to harpoon fish with a sharpened stick, I'd catch up on my classical education. And then I'd have a more thorough understanding of the next book on my list, which is:

5. Dante's Divine Comedy. When I got tired of reciting Shakespeare, I could start on cantos of this. And should the island eventually be rediscovered, and my skeleton found in a cave with a trunk of carefully preserved books, I suspect the Purgatorio and Paradiso would be almost illegible from wear. (The Inferno, maybe not so much.)

6. The biggest, most thorough dictionary existing in the English language. Because coming across an unknown word and not being able to find out what it means would just be unbearable.

7. A solid language course, possibly Wheelock's Latin, although I'd also take Spanish or French or Russian or Italian or Greek or Hebrew or Mandarin or Japanese or, or... or even Quenya or Sindarin.

8. A great big book of astronomy. Because the one benefit to being on an uninhabited island would be the view of the stars.

9. All right, maybe I would take one favorite with me. Like the whole Harry Potter series, or the Space Trilogy, or The Chronicles of Narnia, or even The Lord of the Rings. Something epic, anyway.

10. Lastly but not quite leastly: the biggest book of blank pages available to mankind, and an endless supply of pens. Nobody said anything about how many pens I could take, right? I'd want a bushel of them. Then, when that island-rediscovering party comes along and finds my cave, there'll be one little contribution to human society left for them to find: hundreds of pages written through in tiny, tight handwriting. I won't guarantee that it would be an important contribution. But with all that spare time and solitude, it would seem wasteful to leave nothing.

What books would you want with you?


Artist and Analyst, Critic and Fan

Analyzing the texts we love is a big part of loving for many of us... So when we analyze how often do we critique? Or is it just all affirmation? How do you analyze your favorites? What aspects do you find most intriguing? How does it develop your relationship to the text?

After a cheerful week talking about fandom, Masha took this week's conversation in the direction of textual analysis—an important aspect of both the writer's work and the reader's. Love it or hate it, we don't learn to read or write well without it. I, fortunately, happen to love it. Most of the time.

There are—to get the annoyances out of the way first—forms of literary analysis that frustrate me to no end. The modern tendency to judge older texts (or authors) by the moral or stylistic standards of today is plain chronological snobbery. I've little patience for deconstructionism and none whatsoever for Freudian psychoanalytic attempts to see into the sexual stirrings of the author, though my interest picks back up when we get around to Jungian archetypes and Campbell's hero's journey.

I also wish that current works weren't so heavily subjected to shallow criticism based on use of the passive voice or adverbs. Likewise, that textual studies and conversation everywhere could move away from being quite so issue-centered. And I won't even get into how baffling and frustrating it is to deal with the fact that the default position for literary culture nowadays is flat disrespect for so much of what I've always considered good and true and beautiful.

Set all that aside, however, and textual analysis is good clean fun. Masha's questions are all interesting, so I'll take them one at a time.

When we analyze how often do we critique? Or is it just all affirmation?

I can't speak for everyone, but in most contexts I don't hesitate over a little fair critique. Though I love The Lord of the Rings, I get bored with stretches of it, owing to the overall lack of interesting female characters, Éowyn notwithstanding. I'm also not afraid to chuckle at Victor Hugo's interspersing his beautiful Les Misérables storyline with some of the longest, dullest rants possible, though I'll grant that his topics were probably of some interest to the nineteenth-century French, and will even admit that they should be more interesting to me.

Harry Potter is usually criticized for the wrong reasons, so I tend to speak of him with lots of affirmation and occasionally a touch of defensiveness. It's not often that I bring up the real flaws in the story or even my personal conflicts with it, though both exist. And I find almost no fault whatsoever with Jane Austen's three strongest novels (Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion, which I believe are her best in terms of narrative wholeness and technical perfection; feel free to challenge me on that, if you like), though certain aspects of modern Austen fandom trouble me.

How do you analyze your favorites? What aspects do you find most intriguing?

That depends on the nature of the book. The first thing I did with Harry Potter was check out the witchcraft accusation. I did happen upon a couple of incredibly sketchy websites trying to use the Potter stories to make witchcraft appealing to kids—and by sketchy, I mean disreputable fonts, absurdly loud color schemes, and in one case a claim that Moses was a Parselmouth, which suggests that the site's writers scored appallingly low on the reading comprehension section of their SAT's. But it became very clear very quickly, on the testimony of pagans and ex-pagans and Rowling herself, that Harry had nothing whatsoever to do with neopaganism or New Ageism.

Sir Frank Dicksee, Romeo and Juliet
Beyond that, I developed a fascination for the source mythologies, including medieval Christianity, the Greco-Roman pantheon, and alchemy. The latter was an entirely new concept to me, and though it's often used in young adult literature nowadays with no more apparent depth than the color changes, I love the way Elizabeth Goudge used it in The Little White Horse and Stephenie Meyer used it in the Twilight saga, and it made an immense difference in my understanding of and appreciation for Romeo and Juliet.

My own analysis nowadays tends to focus on the depth of world and character development, the writer's mastery of prose and storytelling skills, the narrative unity of the work, the philosophies of key characters and—when relevant—the author, and when I know enough about it, the tradition in which the work is written and the work's relation back to that tradition. Those are the critical points that most frequently turn up in my reviews, and those are the points I focus on as a writer.

How does it develop your relationship to the text?

Everything a reader learns about a text can affect the relationship between the two. Most of the time, I find the effect of new understanding to strengthen the bond between me and a story I love, though certain things can occasionally detract from that—well-thought-through critique, say, or someone's reasonable praise on philosophically antagonistic grounds.

Ultimately, I like getting in on a book's secrets and developing a good strong intimacy with my favorites. After all, the ones that teach me the most are the ones which stick around to influence my thought patterns as well as my further reading and writing endeavors. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that's much of what analysis is for.


Roaming the Milky Way and other stories

Some Fridays I can find a lot to write about, but then, some Fridays I'm alert and focused. Today, it's sunny and cold, and I'm sleepy. I'm also oddly prone to dropping things, and I keep forgetting what I'm supposed to be doing in favor of, say, contemplating whether to give one of my young novel characters a short man ponytail or a faux-hawk instead of generic "cropped hair". Really important stuff like that.

[The tenth of my brain which is actually awake is muttering, "A faux-hawk, really? Leave the poor kid some dignity." But the somnolent nine-tenths have me almost convinced it's the logical choice.]

Fortunately, posting cat pictures doesn't take much brain power. Less fortunately, I don't have a nice long cat-photo series, since Maia has decided to spend the chilly day burrowed in the bedclothes. But here's the amazing camouflaged creature in her natural habitat—my fleece throw:

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Three-year-old niece: “Auntie Jen, you have bumps on your face.”
Me: “It’s unfortunate, but true.”
Niece: “Why?” (yes, she’s in that stage)
Me: “Because Auntie Jen’s face, like her soul, has never realized that she’s not a teenager anymore.”

Hey, as Mr. March said, if she’s old enough to ask the questions, she’s old enough to receive true answers. :)

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Writers' link of the week: All right, as much as I hate .gifs, the tumblr Title To Come made me laugh and laugh during the inevitable procrastination this morning. The two that arguably made me laugh the hardest, in the first twelve pages at least: "When people tell me writing isn't a real job" and "When someone points out a massive plot hole in my manuscript." Advisory: language. Sometimes very funny language... that last .gif comes from The King's Speech. If you've seen that, you may be able to guess which scene was used. :P

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Music of the week: A lovely Celtic rendition of the Ubi Caritas.

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Random amusement of the week: Funny, I've been saying "hold down the fort" my whole life, without ever thinking about how silly it sounded. No more! Vlogger David Mitchell has corrected me. But at least I knew not to say "I could care less", right?

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And now I should go clean house, which task, in my current half-dreaming state of mind, is probably going to resemble this scene of Anne Shirley's:
"I don't like picking fowls," she told Marilla, "but isn't it fortunate we don't have to put our souls into what our hands may be doing? I've been picking chickens with my hands, but in imagination I've been roaming the Milky Way."

"I thought you'd scattered more feathers over the floor than usual," remarked Marilla.
Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow (Jacob Wonderbar, #1)Jacob went and sat in the larger captain’s chair, and when Sarah reached the cockpit she pressed her lips together. “You think I can’t drive a spaceship?” she muttered.

“I got here first! He gave me the keys. Please?” Jacob adopted his best pleading face, which didn’t often sway the sympathies of Sarah Daisy, but on this occasion he had to try. He was reasonably sure he would be the first sixth grader ever to blast off into space, and he imagined that it would result in a great deal of fame. If he was listed in a history book he might even be inclined to read one someday.

Author: Nathan Bransford

Synopsis: When Jacob and his best friends trade a corn dog for a spaceship, the first thing they do is break the universe. Their search for a way to fix the problem and return home gets them captured by terrifying space buccaneer Mick Cracken, stranded on a world that smells like burp breath, and chased by a crowd of substitute teachers on Planet Paisley. They even get to meet the King of the Universe! But most of all, Jacob hopes to find his long-lost dad—who, it seems, just might be out there somewhere.

Notes: It’s hard to imagine young boys—and girls—not loving Bransford’s Jacob Wonderbar, terror of substitute teachers and adventurer extraordinaire. Jacob has a lot of heart underneath the bluff, and his best friends are just as much fun: forceful Sarah Daisy, who believes she can do everything, and gentle Dexter, who doesn’t understand how to make decisions when other people’s feelings are involved. I loved Dexter.

The plot details have middle school boy written all over them: the burp breath planet, goofy space people, talking spaceships, over-enthusiastic scientists who can be distracted by a math problem to solve. Not to mention the corn dog (though I must admit that I love corn dogs) and the challenges of school. It’s not a particularly challenging storyline, but it’s the sort that even kids who otherwise care little for reading might enjoy—playful, funny, suspenseful, and punctuated with lively illustrations.

Fortunately for its older and female readers, it's not all young boy humor. Sarah Daisy's independence is played for light comic effect without undermining her strengths; Dexter is treated with honest sensitivity, and Jacob is allowed to be very imperfect without losing the reader's sympathy. And if Jacob's teacher doesn't warm the hearts of teachers everywhere, I don't know what will.

It wraps up cheerfully, but leaves some threads open for the sequels. And in the end, it’s hard not to like a book that takes a little time to gaze at the stars.

Recommendation: Children of the right age and/or reading level can be expected almost universally to enjoy it.