Currently Reading: Crossed

Crossed (Matched, #2)This is how Aberrations end. Looking down I see that the water has gone black with the sky. I don’t let go yet.

Citizens end with banquets. Last words. Stored tissue samples to give them a chance at immortality.

I can’t do anything about the food or the sample but I do have words. They’re always there rolling through my mind with the pictures and the numbers.

So I whisper some words that seem to fit the river and the death:

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

Author: Ally Condie

Synopsis: Separated from Ky at the end of the previous book, Cassia puts herself into deadly work in the Outer Provinces to find him. As Ky makes a bold escape with two other young men, Cassia and a girl who seeks the rebellion—the Rising—attempt to do likewise. But even if they’re reunited, Cassia hopes to follow her grandfather’s lead into the Rising, and Ky wants nothing to do with it.

Notes: Dystopia usually intends to criticize some aspect of our own society. Often, as with The Hunger Games, the criticism is forceful, in-your-face and violent. Condie is a gentler writer, however, and despite the horror of what the Society does to the noncompliant, her tale comes off softer, more subtle.

In some ways, the story is more of a romance than anything else—particularly in this installment, which passes mostly at the outskirts of Society rule and beyond. Cassia doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of a world in which there is no choice; she wants to find Ky. And to somehow not hurt Xander in the process. Ky doesn’t bother much with the whys and ways of the civilization he despises; he has his own set of resentments, and as the Society has cast him off, he’s glad to do likewise for them. Cassia is literally his only hope.

As a dystopian societal critique, most of the interest of Crossed is in its context with the first book. As a love story, it’s sweet and nuanced and well-depicted. The love triangle is a heartbreaker, though. Both male leads are such good guys, and Cassia’s feeling for each is entirely believable, though Xander could be accused of having to love the YA heroine simply because she’s the heroine. Ky’s romance with Cassia is developed. Xander’s is somewhat taken for granted.

Readers may wish to be advised that, as with all dystopians, there is some violence; also that at one point Ky asks Cassia for "a night", though Condie leaves it unspoken and debatable whether that night results in a full physical relationship. Overall, however, the book is relatively clean for YA fiction.

Condie’s prose reads like rippling water, quiet and unobtrusive, with a hint of the poetry her characters love so much. It is beautiful, but it had one downfall: Ky and Cassia’s perspectives, which alternated by chapter, read so much alike that I constantly had to refer to the chapter heading to figure out who was speaking.

That said, Cassia is still an interesting character and a nice respite from the world of forceful, independent and angry heroines popular in dystopian fiction. Ky shows his imperfections in this book, managing to be a depressed yet good-hearted young man without turning into a Byronic hero.

The not-so-subtly-named Indie made an intriguing addition to the story. I still don’t know how far to trust her.

Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle returns in this book, accompanied by Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar. I’ll be interested to see how the latter, which is tied to the hope of freedom from Society tyranny, develops.

As for the next book, it should close the trilogy, and will hopefully not end on a painful cliffhanger as the first two have. Condie left herself with a lot of threads to wrap up, including a mostly-unrevealed rebellion that strikes me as having the potential to go very District 13 on its participants. I intend to read it, of course, partly to see how Condie resolves the question of a Society that controls marriage and death and is attempting to cheat the latter entirely, and partly to see how the poetry affects the story. Most of all, however, like any other reader I want to see Cassia happy and safe with the man she loves.

Recommendation: Read it when you have an afternoon to devote to it. There are no good stopping places.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Pair with a Theme Song

This topic is going to be a challenge for me. I don't often turn on the radio. On the other hand, I married a man who does, so this ought to be easier than I expect.

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

Also, books and single songs rarely go together in my head. Most novels need something more like a playlist, if not a score. But I'll see what I can come up with.

1. The Host (Stephenie Meyer) + The Story (Brandi Carlisle)
All of these lines across my face
Will tell you the story of who I am...
Oh, but these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to
It's true that I was made for you

2. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky) + Run to the Water (Live)
Run to the water
And find me there
Burnt to the core but not broken
We'll cut through the madness of these streets below the moon

3. The Testament (John Grisham) + Can't Take the Pain (Third Day)
I can't bear the shame of knowing I was wrong
But I'll take the blame for everything that I've done
But I can't take the pain of leaving you alone

4. The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) + I Blame Us (John van Deusen)
I blame us for tragedy
I blame us for living selfishly
But this is all we've known

5. Persuasion (Jane Austen) + Only Time (Enya)
And who can say if your love grows
As your heart chose
Only time

6. Girl of the Limberlost (Gene Stratton Porter) + Kiss Me (Sixpence None the Richer)
Lift your open hand
Strike up the band and make the fireflies dance
Silver moon's sparkling

7. Austenland (Shannon Hale) + Take It Like a Man (Michelle Wright)
Boy meets girl, it's a delicate thing
So much time spent wondering
If what you see is what you get

8. The Percy Jackson series (Rick Riordan) + With a Little Help from My Friends (The Beatles)
How do you feel at the end of the day
Are you sad because you're on your own
No, I get by with a little help from my friends

9. Matched (Ally Condie) + So are You to Me (Eastmountainsouth)
As the ruby in the setting
As the fruit upon the tree
As the wind blows over the plain
So are you to me

...and please don't shoot me:
10. Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones) + As Long as You Love Me (The Backstreet Boys)
Doesn't really matter if you're on the run
It seems like we're meant to be

It's not a perfect list, but it's something. :)

What books would you match up with a theme song, and what song would you choose for them?


Candle on the Water: The Values of Symbols

"Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes."
~Kurt Vonnegut

For every Mr. O' Brien insisting evil lurks in every image that is not created solely for evangelism, there is a critic finding Christological symbols at the bottom of the book-pile. Forcing symbols either way is a mistreatment of art, an inability to allow the symbol to live its role.

Masha's kickoff post this week, a set of musings upon the direction and power of symbols, referenced A Landscape with Dragons by Michael O'Brien. I've never read the book, though I have a vague recollection of reading a related article by him somewhere—something that gave me enough information to back Masha up when she claims that the author
...argues that the dragon can be nothing but a demonic symbol, and he happily beats the dragon to death in the attempt to prove his point. But no symbol is so limited, and the book becomes ridiculous in its pursuit of demons.
To which I can only say, well, obviously Michael O'Brien never saw this:

Actually, that's not all I could say. If I really wanted to, I could make a bunch of points about how no, the Harry Potter series is not designed upon the idea of salvation by secret gnostic knowledge, but upon the graces of salvific courage and love. And that no, Twilight shows not that vampires are good, but that we all have to control our inner monster by paying attention to conscience. And that no, I really just don't have a lot of use for the idea that Smaug and Elliott are essentially alike in what they represent. Context matters in the artistic development of a symbol.

But to be honest, I get tired of arguing the point. It never convinces anyone, any more than the opposing arguments convince me. Minds develop, but they don't often change. Word to the wise.

I will give O'Brien and others of his perspective one point, and that's that I do believe in artistic responsibility. I believe we are responsible to avoid calling evil good or good evil. But that's a tricky concept, one in which the artist must reckon with his own conscience, and it neither starts nor ends with the use of images.

Speaking as both a reader and a writer, symbolism is a fun realm to play in. I enjoy reading the Wheel of Time and seeing Jordan throw down loads of Eastern and Middle-Eastern imagery. I love getting a catch of breath when Harry Potter wakes in a place he thinks is "like King's Cross". I adore watching the Sun and Moon Merryweathers progress toward reconciliation in Little White Horse. All of these, of course, would be perfectly good stories even if I'd never noticed any of that. It just gives me one more level at which to take delight in a book.

When I write—and I hope someday to have published books to back this statement up—I don't allegorize. But I'll be laying words on a page and all at once, I'll realize that the story connects to an idea, something I think or believe or love. It's just a glimpse, just one bright moment when the tale or the people in it touch a greater reality. The next moment, I'm back in the ordinary story. Then, later, someone else will read the chapters and pull out something I had never even thought of. I love these experiences more than anything else about being an artist.

But that's just me. There's a whole vast range of reasonable artistic ways to deal with such matters—a fair republic situated between the tyranny of agenda and the anarchy of vagueness.

If we're going to talk about obscuring, though, that leads us to Mr. Pond's post. I was amused by this week's offering, but baffled by the prospect of creating even remotely logical paragraphs in response. Therefore, in the end, all I have to say is look—a kangaroo!

“And who understands? Not me, because if I did I would forgive it all.”
~Ernest Hemingway


An Excuse for Neuroses and other stories

It's Lent, it's raining, the cat is sleeping on my arm, and life—at the moment—is mellow and peaceful. I'll take that.

Inside Jenna's head, it has not been a mellow week. I'd like to come up with a good metaphor for the experience of completely restructuring the first three chapters of a book you've already written a sequel for, but my brain is a bit sluggish at the moment. Maybe jacking up a tall building and redoing the foundation, knowing that a single mathematical mistake could bring the architectural equivalent of a hundred and forty-five thousand words tumbling down around your head.

Emotional interactions are the hardest part. With every sentence at the introduction of a new character, I risk sending reverberations through every other scene involving said character in both books. Now, I hardly need an excuse to get all neurotic, so I have been crazy. But yesterday an important part of it seemed to come together, so I feel good even though my wrist is falling asleep thanks to the cat.

* * *

Speaking of Maia, her favored obsession this week is hopping up on the edge of the bathtub and knocking my nail brush onto the floor. This is comparatively harmless, so I just leave her to enjoy it.

* * *

Readers' link of the week: Katherine Sas on apologizing for your favorite works. Which reminds me of a conversation I had recently with Arabella on the widespread bashing of the Twilight series. Can I say it without a disclaimer for once? I loved the Twilight books. I read all four of them five times. As for "engaged and passionate defense of an artwork’s varied meanings, values, and merits", my conscience is clear, thanks to help from Maria and Masha and Arabella in the single most enjoyable combox debate I've ever had. :)

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Katherine Coble has an interesting take on writing rules like "Show, don't tell" and "Lay off the adverbs and adjectives." She questions whether this is the result of YA fiction's current ruling popularity. The comments are also helpful for clarification and further discussion.

I try to go easy on adverbs—most of the time—but you can take my beloved adjectives when you pry the retractable black pen out of my dead inky fingers.

* * *

Music of the week: Local band Cumulus, which has an appealing sound. Alexandra Niedzialkowski's voice is just lovely.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: I did laugh quite a bit over Jon Acuff's post about whether pets go to heaven. Frankly, I think some dogs have a better grip on faith-hope-and-charity than most people. I don't see a lot of cats working out their salvation with fear and trembling, though.

Which reminds me of that completely made up but completely hilarious church sign war on the subject. Linked on Snopes for your reading pleasure. I don't care that it never happened. It made me laugh a lot. Apologies to any Presbyterian readers—I suspect the choice of church was arbitrary. :)

* * *

And now I'm off to do some more messing with the foundations of my story. Very, very carefully.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Children of the Mind

Children of the Mind (Ender's Saga, #4)Only Wang-mu remained standing, thinking, Why am I here, since I’m no part of any of these events, there is nothing of any god in me, and nothing of Andrew Wiggin; and also thinking, How can I be worried about my own selfish loneliness at a time like this, when I have heard the voice of a man who sees into heaven?

In a deeper place, though, she also knew something else: I am here because I am the one that must love Peter so much that he can feel worthy, worthy enough to bear to let the goodness of Young Valentine flow into him, making him whole, making him Ender. Not Ender the Xenocide and Andrew the Speaker for the Dead, guilt and compassion mingled in one shattered, broken, unmendable heart, but Ender Wiggin the four-year-old boy whose life was twisted and broken when he was too young to defend himself. Wang-mu was the one who could give Peter permission to become the man that child should have grown up to be, if the world had been good.

Author: Orson Scott Card

Synopsis: As a starfleet carrying the all-destroying M.D. Device makes its final approach to Lusitania, Starways Congress shuts down the ansibles to kill Jane. Ender, exhausted and having divided his spirit into three bodies during experimental philotic-bond transportation with Jane, lies ill in the monastery of the Children of the Mind of Christ. His alter egos, young copies of Peter and Valentine as he remembered them, still work to prevent xenocide: Peter attempting with Wang-mu to save Jane and the planet, Val working with Miro to help buggers and pequeninos escape Lusitania. But the only hope for Lusitania is Jane, and the only hope for Jane is the one thing Ender has left to give.

Notes: I am not necessarily a good reviewer for an Orson Scott Card novel. The man is too much my literary hero; if I grow up to be half the author he is, I'll have attained some serious dreams. But I will try to speak fairly, and if all I prove capable of is adoring like a pre-teen fangirl, forgive me.

This novel finishes what Xenocide began; the two books were originally meant to be one. On account of which, this review contains spoilers for Xenocide. If you don’t want to know, please beware.

Said spoilers begin with Han Qing-jao.

Her troubling story, told to the bitter end in Xenocide, takes only a subtle place in this book: the brief prefaces to every chapter, all quoting from The God Whispers of Han Qing-jao. It would take another read or two through this book—reads I fully expect to make eventually—to comprehend the meaning of all of them, both as a whole and as individual chapter prefaces. It appears, though, that despite Qing-jao’s terrible surrender to pride, she did some thinking while brutally disciplining herself to do what her healed genetic code no longer required of her. The quotes include stories and poems, cries of self-loathing and of longing for affirmation, and proverbs, all bringing some relevance to bear on the chapter they precede. At times, they reaffirm the reader’s sympathy for Qing-jao herself. At least twice, they brought tears to my eyes.

The God Whispers come from the future, however, and in the weeks during which the story happens, Qing-jao is just beginning her silent life of self-imposed penance on Path. Her former secret maid, Wang-mu, however, is out with Peter trying to save Lusitania and Jane.

The premise of this book depends on another Xenocide spoiler, an explanation of Ender’s division of himself into three bodies. In that book, Card introduced the concept of the aiúa, which probably equates to the soul, at least in Platonic metaphysics. After discovering how the Hive Queen called Jane into being, Jane successfully manages instantaneous transport by taking a stripped-down starship and a few people “Outside” (where non-embodied aiúas dwell) and from thence to a different location in the physical realm. During her test trip, Miro—by envisioning himself whole and undamaged—recreates himself in a healthy body, while Ender unconsciously sees himself as partly his brother Peter and partly his sister Valentine, accidentally granting both aspects of himself their own young, idealized adult physical bodies.

Peter, the incarnation of everything Ender fears in himself, wrestles with his own coldbloodness as he travels with Wang-mu, who doesn’t hesitate to challenge his less-than-noble words and actions. Young Val, despite her altruism, just wants to live. The rest of Ender joins Novinha in the monastery, giving up his connection to Jane for the sake of convincing his wife to welcome him. With that interesting state of affairs, Children of the Mind puts the reader into the last half of the story from page one: suspense, passion, life-or-death moments that stretch for chapters.

The aiúa concept pushes the story near the borderline where science fiction and fantasy meet, and a couple of the scenes have a very magical feel to them. Overall, though, the story sticks to the intellectual sci-fi tradition handed down by the previous Ender books. As with Speaker for the Dead after Ender’s Game, Children of the Mind follows the bittersweet poignancy of its predecessor with an intense, emotive redemption, including two beautiful little romances and a startlingly moving resolve to Ender’s own arc.

Card’s Ender is arguably one of the most wholly and intrinsically lovable characters in fiction. From the first pages of Ender’s Game—where we meet him as an unusually intelligent and aware child, a bullied Third, subjected to the lies of adults and terrorizing from his peers—Andrew Wiggin is heartbreakingly sympathetic. (Personal aside: Speaker is one of my favorite books, but it took me years to read Xenocide for the sole reason that I couldn’t bear the thought of watching Ender suffer any further.) Larger than life in his wrongs and compassion as well as his intelligence, Ender turns his own unbearable guilt into humility, wisdom and understanding—a broken hero, but then, that’s the only kind humanity ever has.

His command over reader loyalty never lessens over four books, yet Card’s great empathy comes forward and lets us also love and sympathize with Novinha and Miro, even as they say the words—lies, really—that let Ender do what he must to save Jane and, ultimately, himself.

It is difficult to talk about the great events of the story without giving spoilers. Card pulls on his development of the nature of philotes and, of course, on the idea of the aiúa, to work toward the salvation of Lusitania and all its living creatures. The ideas of interconnectedness are not perhaps new, but they are beautifully drawn out and intriguing. After all, whether or not something like philotes exist, it is hard to deny the subconscious power of bonding.

The book winds down with Valentine’s perspective, a wise authorial choice that allows us to see the fullness of resolution in ways no other character’s eyes could provide. The last few lines echo those of Speaker for the Dead in several ways, and as with a few other scenes in this book, I have not yet managed to read them—or, apparently, write about them—without tears.

A handful of loose plot threads remain, waiting, no doubt, for a planned future novel conjoining Ender’s quartet to that of the Shadows.

My (mass market paperback) copy of the book closes with an afterword. Card’s essays are sometimes nearly as exquisite and powerful as his novels, and his thoughts on literature are well worth the read. I will gladly consider myself part of the audience he describes in his final paragraph, for I consider his junbungaku a beautiful work indeed.

Recommendation: Read it for “sweetness and light, beauty and truth.” It seems unlikely to disappoint.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Rescue If My House Burned Down

...after getting all the people and pets out, of course.
Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

Most of my favorite books are replaceable. All my Harry Potter and Narnia, my Card and Hale and Lewis books, even my Shakespeare—none of the copies have so much physical worth or sentimental value in the paper themselves that I couldn't go out and buy new ones.

Here are a few that couldn't be replaced. They're not particularly valuable as collectibles, but they've been in the family for some time.

Family Bibles....

...and family history;

the beat-up and incomplete but beloved set of Mark Twain's work,

the little books of poetry,

and I actually am rather attached to my copies of Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Kristin Lavransdatter, the latter of which Lou gave to me.

What of your books would you save?


Lest He be Wise in His Own Conceit: The Artist, Agenda, and Self-Love


"God and other artists are always a little obscure."
~Oscar Wilde

Many good writers fall into the trap of agendas... Is it because they forget to hear the world around them?

Between the polarization of American society and the vast echo chambers we build for ourselves, there's nothing easier than forgetting to hear the world around us. Everybody does it; it's only human, especially when stepping outside our own comfortable exchange of ideas means hearing ourselves belittled and demeaned, sometimes fairly, but sometimes most unfairly. The real wonder is that anyone ever does speak with artistic empathy.

Masha continues our discussion on agenda and the artist this week, making the point that:
Most of us are passionate believers in something, hoping to share the good news that lifts us up with the world. To write without agenda, I suppose the vision must be to share the goodness first and foremost, leaving the news to be discovered by those willing to dig for it...
Mr. Pond separates the artist and his ideals by another step:
A story is its own word. I might know how it works, and I certainly think we have a responsibility to learn how to let a story speak clearly. But the story isn’t necessarily connected with any outside goodness or ideal or belief. It’s just itself. It just is.
I found myself sympathizing strongly with parts of both of these statements. The disclaimers are as follows: 1) I get so exhausted by rhetoric and advertising that, honestly, the idea of "sharing good news" is depressingly unmotivating, and 2) so much of myself goes into a story that I can't imagine its being completely unconnected from the ideals and beliefs and goodnesses I admire.

To counter that, though, I love the idea Masha expresses of sharing "the goodness first and foremost, leaving the news to be discovered by those willing to dig for it." As per Wilde, a little obscuration is very much part of artistic rendering.

Likewise, the qualifying 'necessarily' makes Mr. Pond's statement something I can wholeheartedly agree with. Such connections as he describes can happen organically, rising from the very nature of the story—which, admittedly, comes from the nature of the writer. If the writer feels the need to insist upon the connection, however, he might want to question whether he's being honest in his art.

But now I've been talking about ourselves getting into our own tales, and that takes me straight to one of the quotes Masha put forward for our consideration:
"Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art." ~Konstantin Stanislavsky
We artists are a narcissistic bunch, and whether we agree with Gn. Stanislavsky or oppose him—at least as he's aphoristically quoted here—it doesn't seem to me that we're progressing past that tendency. Granted, a little narcissism seems necessary to the artist. It takes great self-importance to believe that one's own words are worth reading; that, for instance, anyone has the slightest reason to trouble their time over a two-bit blog published four times a week by a nobody. Much less a novel, an art form to which many are called, but few are chosen, and even fewer run the race in such a way as to win the crown.

I'll stop mixing Biblical metaphors now. Anyway, my instinctive response to that quote is to say—well, why? Why is it better to love my own ability to write than to love the wisps of authorial spirit and image that breathe life into a story, that make the characters sons and daughters to me? When I look at my own heart, the latter narcissism seems quite harmless compared to the former, and is probably far less likely to seduce me into didacticism.

Perhaps that isn't what the good thespian meant, of course. I'm working from the quote without context, and may be representing his words unfairly.

Either way, my ideal answer to the problem of agenda and the artist hasn't changed from last week. Submitting ego to charity, to the ability to love that which is good in all things—even in our enemies—this is our empathy. This is our humanity. This is our work of art.


Feline Ungrace and other stories

It's 4:30 AM as I write. I am up because Maia decided to climb into the center of one of my plants and jump through the freestanding bookshelf onto the top of the shelf beside it.

Were she as lightfooted and coordinated as she thinks she is, it might have been a silent event. As it stands, she sent books flying off both sides of the shelf, knocked our Holy Family icon down five shelves to the floor, and shattered the clay vase I brought back from an Arizona trip with my sister.

I admit to having very black thoughts about the cat this morning. On the other hand, I'm getting my blog-post done early. So, there's that.

* * *

I have an awesome best friend. Only the awesomest would somehow manage to find a Golden Snitch necklace and send it to me for my birthday.

I'd be grinning widely in this shot if I hadn't
been so focused on holding the camera still.

Thanks, MissPhotographerB!

* * *

Despite predicted rain, the sun came out last Saturday and I planted the baby cherry tree and primroses.

I check on them far too often considering how slowly trees grow, but they're settling in well so far and that makes me happy.

* * *

Movie I must see when it comes out: the Stephenie Meyer/Jerusha Hess adaptation of Shannon Hale's Austenland. I can't speak for Hess, but the ladies Meyer and Hale have clearly been having a blast with it.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Rachelle Gardner's three-part post on publishing, Kodak, and knowing the business you're in. Parts one, two, and three. Simple points, maybe, but I thought some of the analysis made a lot of sense.

* * *

Music of the week: Chopin. I love Chopin.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: Cats as fonts. Maia would have been a good candidate for Impact, I think. Or maybe Hurricane. Or better yet, Destroy.

* * *

Now it's nearly six AM, though this will be posted late because I have to wait till light to get the pictures. In the meantime, I'm going to work on some writing and hopefully keep Maia—who is wrestling one of her toys all over the living room right now—from waking Lou.

Gratuitous cat picture. Too bad I didn't catch her amid the destruction.
Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Xenocide

Xenocide (Ender's Saga, #3)So what Wiggin was describing wasn’t parents, really. He was describing good parents. He wasn’t telling her what the gods were, he was telling her what goodness was. To want other people to grow. To want other people to have all the good things that you have. And to spare them the bad things if you can. That was goodness.

What were the gods, then? They would want everyone else to know and have and be all good things. They would teach and share and train, but never force.

Like my parents, thought Wang-mu. Clumsy and stupid sometimes, like all people, but they were good.

Author: Orson Scott Card

Synopsis: Every known sentient species is up for obliteration—but Ender Wiggin could bear his difficulties until his wife walked away.

Starways Congress has the Molecular Disruption Device aimed at Lusitania, where the Hive Queen once again prepares to save her people from xenocide. The pequeninos, too, intend to take to the stars, but some of them would like to spread the descolada virus to the Hundred Worlds, destroying humankind and every other life form that cannot evolve quickly enough to survive the disease. Meanwhile, a Chinese researcher has discovered Jane and made plans for her destruction as well.

Ender faithfully aids every battle for survival, but grief and guilt over Novinha threaten his own.

Notes: One of Card’s greatest strengths as a writer is in his empathy. Whatever a character thinks or believes or does, he is capable of putting himself into their mind and heart, showing the best of who they are and placing the reader firmly on their side.

This novel opened with the mind and heart of Han Fei-tzu, one of the godspoken on the Chinese world of Path, as he makes a promise to his dying wife despite his own reluctance. That promise and its consequences set the key themes for the rest of the story, meanwhile establishing Han Fei-tzu and his daughter Qing-jao as beloved and interesting people.

From Path, Card takes us to Lusitania by way of Miro’s and Valentine’s starships. There, the Wiggin-Ribeira family has begun under pressure to return to the state of self-destruction in which Ender found it. It would have been nice, thinks this reader anyway, if more of the characters had progressed somewhat in the thirty years since the events of Speaker for the Dead. But as it stands, Grego’s aggression and Quara’s stubbornness are endangering not only the family peace but the lives of humans and pequeninos. Ela remains selfless and unable to rein in her younger siblings, and Novinha returns to distancing herself from everyone who might love her. Miro still has his bitterness, but Miro has lived only one month thanks to time-relative starflight, so he has fair reasons for not having changed much.

Quim, however—now Father Estevão, missionary to the pequeninos—was a pleasant surprise. Angry and holier-than-thou in his early teens, the priest has become a truly good and respectable and even likable man. Likewise, Olhado, the boy with the metal eyes, returns in this book with much to show for his years, despite having little onscreen time to show it.

Ender is still the Andrew Wiggin we know and love, but a little older and more weary. Reunited at last with Valentine, he does everything he can to bring about peace, even after Novinha retreats to the monastery of the Children of the Mind of Christ. His wisdom works against Miro’s bitterness, against the fighting between Ela and Quara and Grego, and against suspicions the Hive Queen and pequeninos share toward the humans.

Valentine aids her brother, both in person and in the character of the writer Demosthenes. Together with Miro and Jane, they fight at the center of the battles of Lusitania and Path.

Amid all this, the novel’s themes play out in both word and action. In a story containing so much threat of death—few books can have objectively higher stakes than this one—it would probably be dishonest to avoid all talk of religion, and Card doesn’t hesitate to raise the subject. While placing his own Mormonism in a symbolic role, Card sets the Catholicism of Lusitania, the ancestral worship of Path, and the agnostic humanism of the scientists into debate over penance, the impact of science upon religion, free will, and the power faith holds over the believer. These questions affected the lives of the characters so totally, sometimes so unsettlingly, that for me at least, they never became dry to read.

The story isn’t held together quite as perfectly as its predecessors, but to be fair, that's primarily because it's only the first half of the tale. It leaves a number of threads untied for the next book. Here and there it strained mildly at the all-important suspension of disbelief, and some of the conversations might have stood a little tightening; Novinha’s character could also have used fleshing out, to make Ender’s continued love for her more comprehensible and her own plight more interesting.

The book fills its place in the Ender saga well, though, picking up the thread of suspense left at the end of the previous installment. It sets the stage for a potentially very powerful sequel. And it gives us a little more time with one of the great memorable and sympathetic characters of fiction.

Recommendation: Read it with its sequel close at hand. You'll want the next book right away.


Top Ten Tuesday: Heartbreaking Books

This post topic reminds me of the Valentine's Day a pastor asked my sisters and I to sing for a Valentine's dinner for all the couples in the church... when all three of us were still single. We decided to have fun with that little incongruity and kicked off our performance with a comic routine. Prefacing it with "Here's what we looked like trying to decide what to sing tonight," we sang bits of a bunch of breakup songs, dissing each other's "suggestions". The audience roared. Ah, good memories. I wish I had it on video.

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

The problem with this topic is that if I think a book is going to leave me sorrowful, I will usually run away as fast as I can. Stay away from me, heartrending modern literary fiction! I have garlic and a rosary! I do not like sad stories.

The problem with this post is that I am hopped up on coffee and in a flaming hurry. (Yes, I did just curse in Wheel of Timeish.) Pardon me if I come off more hyper than usual.

1. Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy. Anna, Anna, you may have wrought your own problems but I hurt for you anyway.

2. Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy. Jack Foley, I loved you. And I can't believe what you did. I just. Cannot believe. What you did.

3. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. This was more than heartbreak—it was ravaging. Handle with care.

4. Animal Farm by George Orwell. Mean, mean, mean pigs.

5. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. As far as I remember, this was the first book I'd ever read in which a key character died. I loved the story, but it was horribly sad.

6. Emily's Quest by L.M. Montgomery. Yeah, so it had a happy ending pasted on. I still felt sad for Dean, and for all those years Emily was alone without good reason.

7. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. Heartbreaking because Orual never feels beautiful or loved—but it did have a good ending.

8. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Another happy ending that was reached by far, far too much suffering.

9. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I loved Lavrans, and it hurt like mad to watch what Kristin did to him. Also, I couldn't bear Erlend.

10. Bambi by Felix Salten. Incredibly beautiful and poignant, but not really a happy book—and it's hard not to break one's heart over Gobo.

Ah, so much pain and suffering. I might just have to go re-read the epilogue of Harry Potter to cheer myself up. :D But in all seriousness, this list only contains books that I thought at least somewhat worth the read.

What books have broken your heart?


This Little Light of Mine: The Artist and Agenda

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”   
~Flannery O Connor

"But what of agenda? What of the writer who knowingly whores his talent for a cause? What are we to think of him?"

The knowing whoring of talent for a cause is, I think, both more rare than we believe—your average 'inspirational romance' is probably shaped more by a desire for clean reading material than proselytic zeal—and more common than we realize, as when a well-known literary agent proclaims her intent to "make all her authors include more gay characters."

Authorial intent is difficult to determine unless the author has carefully explained what they meant their book to say, which few have done. Further complicating matters, we have classics like Orwell's Animal Farm, overtly written against Stalinism, and popular modern works of social criticism such as the Hunger Games trilogy.

Ergo, we need to define terms. Where do we draw the line between viable artistic forms like allegory and satire, and the problem of the author so devoted to his ideology that he sacrifices the truth and beauty of art?

Says Flannery O'Connor:
"[A]rt is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made; it has no utilitarian end. If you do manage to use it successfully for social, religious, or other purposes, it is because you made it art first..."
True, but possibly misleading. It's questionable, for instance, whether Animal Farm qualifies by those criteria. It takes a very skillful author to pull off allegory that doesn't feel like it's shoving itself down the reader's throat. Animal Farm breathed its anti-tyranny message on every page, but I'd still argue that it succeeds artistically, perhaps because of its sublime final sentence.

Collins' Hunger Games is another matter. The first book works very well as art; the last reads as if designed to sicken the reader on the evils of war. Whether Collins lost her head to her ideas, I couldn't say, though I suspect that the story just got away from her. A war machine as powerful and technologically advanced as the Capitol will not die without occasioning immense brutality, so of course people melt and burn and get eaten by genetically engineered semi-cognizant lizards. Controlling that outplay on the page is unbelievably difficult. Mockingjay isn't inaccurate, it's just unbalanced, which makes it, I think, less a matter of agenda and more a matter of the horse running away with its rider.

Agenda has two sides, which may or may not correlate. First, authorial will. Second, the story's effect upon the reader—i.e., whether the tale reads as art or propaganda. Both can give us a flawed picture, though. Only the author herself can say what she intended, and even she may be playing coy—or wrong.

Reader perception is affected not only by the story but by personal stance on the book's themes. Too many people interpret The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, as agenda-driven. Both Christians and non-Christians do it, out of passion for or against the beliefs behind it. Lewis' work is colored by his beliefs, but the story is not subjugated to an attempt to paint an evangelistic picture of God; indeed, if it were, Aslan would not be a symbol, but a blasphemy.

The border between art and propaganda is vague at the best of times, and for the sake of charity, it's fair to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain cases. But propagandizing fiction does exist, and Masha points out the nature of the most likely cause near the end of her post (emphasis mine):
Perhaps this is the real trouble with so much of Christian fiction, music, and painting. It fails to be art because the maker put his beliefs so completely in his line of vision that he cannot see by the light they give.
Mr. Pond concurred so heartily with Masha's general points that he simply deferred this week. Perhaps I should do the same, but this point intrigues me and I'd like to explore it.

I should note, though, that agenda is by no means limited to Christian art. The push for diversity in representation, for instance, while often a good thing in and of itself, tends to result in a lot of tokenism. Individual cases may succeed as art, but weak portrayals and overbearing use of "the token ___" have cost me my suspension of disbelief on more than one occasion.

Agenda happens when the would-be artist has focused on an idea to the exclusion of everything that might be the least bit contradictory. Now, his idea might be perfectly reasonable—it's just become narrow by its exclusivity. No one has said this better than Chesterton:
Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner. Doubtless he could be vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically. But it can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity....

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.—Orthodoxy, chapter 5
There is a danger in overdoing any certainty (including, of course, the certainty that nothing is certain). For instance, the idea that adherence to Christian doctrine automatically makes you a better person than your heathen neighbor—or the idea expressed by a character in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, that "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling."* Both ideas are narrow to the point of insanity. Both ideas will force agenda into art, if the artist cannot develop a little charitable complexity.

The human ego, including that of the artist, makes us generally all too ready to believe ourselves like St. Michael, slaying the great Satan by means of our perfect beauty and jaw-dropping strength and razor-sharp wit. It's a dangerous little feeling, and we all experience it—there's no use pretending we don't. An artist is better served by humility, by understanding that some battles are better left to St. Michael, and most of all by developing the complexity, the mysticism, the love that allows us to see the real good even in those who stand against us.

That alone can free us to unite truth and beauty in art.

* Quoted from The New Yorker, Far from Narnia by Laura Miller, 12/26/05. I haven't read His Dark Materials and am not quite willing to guarantee that a quote from a character, even when generally aligned with the author's ideology, is an exact representation of what the author himself believes. And yes, I probably should have made a bit of a disclaimer on my challenged Lewis quote last week, too.


Flowers in Hiding and other stories

After a week of incredibly cheery and un-Februaryish weather, today it rains. But I hope the sun peeks out a little tomorrow, because I'd really like to plant this:

Baby cherry tree!
 and these:

Sheer loveliness! Hiding on the washing machine, where they're
theoretically safe from Maia.
They're going in the front yard, which currently looks awful thanks to dandelions taking over the grass and an awkward cutout mini-garden full of weeds on either side of the walk. But all that will change, oh yes.

* * *

The difference between revising a NaNoWriMo novel and revising a work written more carefully is astounding.

I wrote my NaNo novel three and a half times. Start to finish, one word at a time. With my novella, that would simply be a colossal waste of time. I'm rewriting scenes, but not nearly all of them, and have gotten through whole chapters with hardly more than line edits.

Part of me misses full rewriting, which makes it easier to keep changes consistent. The rest of me has begun to understand how some people actually manage to put out a book a year.

* * *

Something I loved this week, which I came across by way of Matched author Ally Condie's site: No Good Stopping Place. Written by a Mormon, to Mormons, so it contained an occasional sentence that Catholic Jenna had to read twice to comprehend—but readers of all spiritual sorts can wholly sympathize in its joy of literature.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: this comment by Teresa Nielsen Hayden on the question of agents (i.e., the importance of getting a good one, not just any one.) Also of interest: Ms. Nielsen Hayden's original post, which contains a list of reasons authors get rejected. It encouraged me—which I desperately needed—because I know I score above eight. And I am reasonably (and, I hope, rationally) convinced I score above ten, if under eleven one includes something like "...because mildly old-fashioned books are just goshdarn hard to guarantee in today's young adult market." Via Mr. Pond.

* * *

Music of the week: I feel like some Disney. Song starts at about 1:55, if you don't care for all the commentary.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: The Three Little Pigs as told by Shakespeare, by comedian John Branyan, via Rachelle Gardner. Utterly hilarious.

* * *

And now I have a novella to finish revising, so I'm off. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio RacesI warm Dove up in easy, trotted circles. I keep waiting for my body to relax, to forget where I am, but I can’t. Every reflection on the water makes me jerk. My body is screaming at me about the threat of that black ocean. I remember the story we’re all told as soon as we become teens, of the two teen lovers who met illicitly out on the beach, only to be dragged into the waves by a waiting water horse. It was considered a good cautionary tale to all the youth of Skarmouth: That would teach us to kiss.

But that story never seemed real, told in a classroom or related over a counter. Here on the beach, it feels like a promise.

Author: Maggie Stiefvater

Synopsis: Kate “Puck” Connolly wants to save the remainder of her family: her brothers, her little horse Dove, and the home they once shared with her parents on the island of Thisby.

Sean Kendrick wants his own roof over his head and the rightful ownership of the deadly red capall uisce (water horse) with whom he shares a powerful bond.

Puck and Sean ride in the often-fatal Scorpio Races for different reasons, but situation and similarity of passion and courage draw them together. Without Sean, who knows and can handle the dangerous water horses, Puck wouldn’t survive. Without Puck, who understands fierce and desperate loyalty, Sean could lose everything he loves. But they can’t both win.

Notes: In a breath-catching take on water horse mythology (of which kelpies are perhaps the most well-known name), Maggie Stiefvater gives us the rocky, stormy island of Thisby—a reasonably modern setting with strong overtones of fantasy and magic. Every year when the rains come to Thisby, the capaill uisce (CAPple ISHka, as per the author’s note) climb from the sea. They’re horses in form and color, but large, predatory, and always drawn back to the waters from whence they came.

And on this island, where man-eating horses roam in the storms and are captured, trained and raced every November, Stiefvater gives us Sean and Puck. Puck reminds me a little of Suzanne Collins’ Katniss, partly owing to her temper and partly to situation, but she’s a trace younger and a good bit less sure of herself. More to her credit, however, she’s an observer, and her unusual thoughts were one of the best aspects of this story.

The book’s usual marketing synopses focus on Puck as the first girl to ride in the Scorpio Races, suggesting something of a feminist undercurrent to the tale, but Puck’s actual position is a bit foolhardy and very dependent upon Sean’s aid. While giving us an undeniably strong heroine, Stiefvater apparently refused, appreciably, to force her story into political correctness. Instead, Puck's true power lies in her depth, her loyalty, and her personal victories, all of which are more important on a human level than the outcome of the races.

Sean was another of the best things about the book. He’s a rare find in young adult lit: a male lead who isn’t high romantic fantasy, who loves his horse nearly as much as his girl, and who speaks—when he does speak, which isn’t often—with the voice of Sean Kendrick and no one else. Little and dark and severe, Sean is the name everyone calls when there’s danger on the beach. After spending his nineteen years working with an animal that will nuzzle up to you one moment and rip your throat out the next, he knows how to be wary without being afraid, and he’ll need every flicker of that instinct to deal with the hatred of his wealthy boss’ son.

The novel’s third great success was the mythology of the capaill uisce themselves. Stiefvater portrays them with all the beauty and mystique of a horse, all the danger of grizzly bears, and all the magic of the Pegasus. They run better than Thoroughbreds and rise from the sea to steal fishermen off boats. Puck and her brother hide from one in one of the most terrifying little hold-your-breath scenes I’ve ever read (which kept me awake one night, hours after I read it). Riders use endless tricks to convince them to run down the beach in a straight line instead of turning to attack or carrying them out to sea; Sean controls his red stallion with spit and iron, numbered knots and red ribbons, and intense love and loyalty.

Owing to the nature of the beasts, as it were, the book has its violent points and may not be for the squeamish. It’s no Mockingjay, but there are several deaths and attacks that significantly out-gruesome, say, Harry Potter, bloodwise.

Stiefvater’s prose, observation and nuance of character rank among the best of current young adult literature. As a general rule, I don't care for present-tense narrative (but see this article for a defense of it, if the topic interests you) and am picky about first-person; Stiefvater triumphed over both flawlessly.

As religion comes into the thought processes of both narrating characters—Puck as a Catholic, Sean as someone who “believes in the same thing they do” but doesn’t believe “that it can be found in a building”—I’ll say that the tale offers an interesting, if shallowly-explored, side-by-side portrayal of the old island paganism and the still-old but newer Christianity. Both are shown as imperfect but beautiful. A couple of the comments made by the characters suggest a rather inaccurate understanding of the latter. But Stiefvater created the priest, Father Mooneyham, as a gentle, praying man who understands grace—someone rather like the real priests most of us Catholics know and love. This is much harder to find in modern fiction than in modern life. For such a fair treatment, the author has my appreciation.

The ending took me by surprise at a few turns and a few details probably could have been more clearly resolved, but it was beautiful overall. Anything else I can think to say about it would involve spoilers, and I wouldn’t recommend those. It's worth letting it come to you itself.

Recommendation: Read it by the sea, if you can get there. If not, read it wherever suits you. But probably not before bed.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Give Someone Who Doesn't Like to Read

Hard as it is to imagine someone entirely disliking my own favorite pastime, I suppose it happens. After all, from the way people talk, one might assume that everyone naturally likes parties and rock concerts—but I beg to differ. Give me a book any day.

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

The difficulties in making this list are twofold. First, faced with a person who didn't like reading, I'd want to consider more about them than that fact alone. What do they enjoy? They might have a better time with, say, a novel featuring that subject.

Second, I do like to read. A lot. And I read books written for people like me, by people like me. Good luck getting someone non-bookish engrossed in The Wheel of Time or Jane Austen, or possibly even the suspenseful but also introspective and intellectual Ender books.

Here are a few that might generally work, however.

1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. There may not be any novels with broader appeal. There are, however, plenty of stories about people, especially children, who didn't take to reading until they met Harry.

For the ladies:

2. Twilight or 3. The Host by Stephenie Meyer. Anyone can read Meyer, and she's particularly challenging to put down.

4. Princess Academy or 5. The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. Flawless, fascinating, vivid and lovely with brave, appealing, good-hearted heroines and adorable young men. Easy to pick up, hard to let go of.

For the guys:

6. Redwall by Brian Jacques or 7. On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson. I'm going to assume you've already tried Grisham and Clancy and found that sort of thing didn't suit. These are heroic, humorous and not overly long.

For someone who got through high school by means of cliff notes and now wants to say they've read some classics:

8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Beautiful, but easy to read and very engaging.

9. The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. By far the easiest and shortest of Dickens' works (and easier and shorter than most other classics, too.) A thing of beauty and a joy forever.

For someone who thinks reading is a good idea but really, they prefer the movies:

10. The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Utterly hilarious and surprisingly not too unlike the movie.

11. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. Diverges somewhat from the superb old Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour/Ian McKellen film, but the characters of Sir Percy and Marguerite are the same. Besides, it's delightful.

All right, I cheated and went one over. But really, this could go on forever. I could see myself recommending Ender's Game to the kid everyone thought couldn't read well when he was really just bored by easy material, Maeve Binchy's work to just-too-busy women, Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients to the cook and Pat McManus to the outdoorsy type.... and on and on and on.

What books would you recommend?


And With My Childhood's Faith: The Artist's Investment in His Work

"There's nothing to writing...all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed."
~Ernest Hemingway

Jenna writes that her "inkpot adamantly refuses to give forth its contents unless a bit of my own flesh goes in"... but what comes out?

There could hardly be any matter more personal than the specifics of an author's self that come out in her own writings. I couldn't think of a good example that I dared share on the Internet.

To be fair, Masha—and Mr. Pond after her—ask and speak in generalities. They had some profound answers. From Masha:
In a way, writing people is a pursuit of understanding, an attempt to really know the people around us, to understand their motives. To love them simply for being. 
From Mr. Pond:
We do not write with flesh but with thoughts and images. And when we cross into that Unworldly, eternal, imagined space, we find no material to build what we have imagined unless we are willing, Horcrux like, to weave together the immortals with the torn and weary shreds of our souls.
Horcrux like? No, I won't go there. But before I get into my own answer, I'd like to clarify one thing: what we, what I at any rate, do not put in:

1) I do not cut and paste from Real Life. Truth is too often less believable than fiction, and that's only the first of many problems that may arise from an attempt to portray life or people as is.

2) I do not write fiction with an agenda. To be honest, I don't even quite buy that famous Lewis quote about the power of fantasy to take up the truths of Christianity and "steal past watchful dragons". That may work, so long as you retain the element of surprise. But then, it may not. You might get past a few dragons, but good luck when you meet the joker who simply applies the concept of ultimate good and evil to his favorite political battles. ("Republicans for Voldemort", anyone? It's funny—if you're a Democrat. It also entirely misses the point of the Potter books and unjustly demonizes half of American voters.) Anyhow, marketing of every sort drives constantly at everyone these days, and the slightest hint of agenda in entertainment can be enough to rouse ire. And most of us can be found out or at least suspected, thanks to Internet conversations.

The converse, of course, is that writers who hold passionately to any belief system—religious, political, social, etc.—will not be able to keep the spirit of it out of their books, and I am no exception. I would claim that a work organically grown from the author's own devotion is subtly but powerfully unlike a calculated effort to Win Friends and Influence People. But for readers who don't share the passionate belief, it can perhaps be hard to tell the difference.

So what does come out of the inkpot?

I posit that it's nothing more nor less than a long-simmered potion made up of our innermost thoughts and beliefs and emotions. The things we may keep off our blogs, sometimes off our lips, sometimes even out of our journals. The keen regrets, the unspeakable joys, the shames and heartbreaks, the silent paranoia, the ever-desperate struggle with ultimate questions.

It's what you'd see in the Mirror of Erised, and what a boggart would turn into if it saw you. It's what you whisper behind the confessional screen or send to PostSecret. It's what stirs in you when you look at your lover, your friend, your child—anyone you'd enslave yourself to for sheer adoration. It's usually stewed beyond recognition (OK, gross metaphor) by the time it turns into novels and stories, but it's there all the same. It turns into what we might call empathy. And it powers the works themselves.

"A character is never the author that created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously," says Camus. Yes—and his settings and themes and storylines as well. As Mr. Pond points out, "The profound skill of the author is the ability to balance an entire, imagined world, and all its inhabitants and their personalities." All these things grow from the author's soul and experiences and perspective on life.

And yet, the work is not the author. Masha expresses this well with a comment about a favorite of ours: "Levin isn't boring because he isn't idealized, and despite being almost Tolstoy, he isn't." Something changes in the act of creation; the storyline goes someplace unexpected and broadens the author's experience, and characters do things the author never could.

The work is more like our offspring than ourselves. But whatever matters most to us is what finally shapes our work from the formless and void of its origin. Our central beliefs and passions consider the darkness over the surface of the deep, and search for a way to let there be light.

The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.”
~Eleanor Roosevelt


Strange American Pastimes and other stories

Of all the odd things we Americans do to ourselves, I particularly loathe working out. Plain old work is often more fun. Unfortunately, as I spend the vast majority of both work and leisure hours seated with a computer on my lap, I succumb to the need for regimented exercise—at least on days when it's too wet outside to walk or work in the garden. Which, in the Pacific Northwest, is far more than half the time.

The usual ways of tricking the mind into enjoying the process haven't worked for me. The thought of listening to music won't get me off the couch, and we don't have television. People read on their exercise bikes, but what we have is a rowing machine.

"Now if we could rig up a way to read while rowing, that would be real motivation," I told Lou.

One music stand, one clothespin and five minutes later, and now rowing is a really good excuse for getting in some reading time. I notice the Ender books have more motivational power than Utopia, though.

My husband is a genius.
Also, that is Ally Condie's Crossed.
I finished the Ender books, and loved them with my whole heart. Reviews coming soon.
No, I still have not finished Utopia.

* * *

Blue sky in February.

Beautiful, unutterably glorious blue sky.

It probably means we'll get rain from Lent through midsummer again—that's what it's meant the last two years—but it's oh, so lovely.

* * *

I do not like talking politics. I don't have the energy to deal with outrage—my own or anyone else's. So I have a rule: no politics on the blog or Facebook most of the time, just because there need to be some quiet havens from such things on the Internet.

But I am helping spread this petition around, because it's protesting a truly lousy precedent that won't be satisfied with forcing my church into noncompliance. If you will, here's a way to speak for freedom of conscience.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: I loved Kristine Kathryn Rusch's post on writers and publishers who forget the reader.

* * *

Music of the week: Commenter (and Yellow Pencil Stub blogger) Sarah recommended the Kleine Orgelmesse on a post a few weeks back, so I went hunting for it on YouTube. Turns out, it is very hard to find a good recording of it on YouTube—but here's a quite decent amateur soprano singing it.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: What does the Internet think? This has been around a while, but I never tried it out before. It's strangely addictive. Turns out, the Internet gives stupidity a 61.4% positive rating (at time of search). Which explains a lot. Or so I say. On the internet.

* * *

All right. Time to fix myself a little lunch before cleaning house, and over that break I think I'll make myself read Utopia. I'll save Crossed for rowing, because otherwise I'll disappear into the book and wind up playing triage with my afternoon work in the last hour before Lou comes home.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Like Mandarin

Like MandarinMy tote bag slid off my shoulder onto the ground. I could still feel the imprint of her hand on my shoulder, still smell the faintest trace of smoke on my clothes. Mandarin Ramey had spoken to me.

And not only that...

Mandarin Ramey knew my name.

I gazed out the window across the hall. Great sheets of earth swept into mesas furry with sage, then tumbled brokenly into valleys. The only color in the landscape was an early patch of Indian paintbrushes with blooms like ruby shards. As I watched, several red-winged blackbirds startled and took flight.

Author: Kirsten Hubbard

Synopsis: Everyone in the tiny town of Washokey, Wyoming knows two things about seventeen-year-old Mandarin Ramey: first, she’s beautiful, and second, she’s a slut. But for fourteen-year-old good girl Grace Carpenter, Mandarin is the ideal—carefree, sensual, noticed everywhere she goes. When Grace is asked to tutor Mandarin so the latter can graduate, the two strike up a tenuous, passionate friendship on the premise that both of them are searching for freedom. As Grace attempts to emulate her idol, she must face the reality of who Mandarin is, and the fragile bond between them is tested by betrayal from both sides.

Notes: Four times in the past two years, I’ve driven long, straight I-25 between Montana and Colorado through Wyoming’s vast stretches of hills and plains. For love of that drive, and for love of a well-written sense of place, I’ve long wanted to pick up Hubbard’s debut.

There's a danger in working from a premise like this book's, in that an author portraying a discontented small-town teenager can do an injustice to such places and the people who live in them. It is not uncommon for young people in the process of self-discovery to unjustly devalue aspects of their lives they've taken a dislike to, especially if they can defend their dislike on some kind of principle. Hubbard, however, rises beyond that danger by giving Grace some comprehension of “the beauty of the badlands” and a character progression that allows her to see the worth of the people around her.

But Grace is no older-and-wiser narrator looking back on years long past; she speaks with a young teenager's voice. This authorial choice for this storyline perhaps introduces another dangerous possibility: that of inadvertently normalizing, if not glamorizing, promiscuity. To Hubbard's credit, though, most readers will recognize from the early pages of the book that Mandarin’s lifestyle doesn't do her any favors, and that Grace’s naive idea that she’d gladly follow Mandarin’s lead is destined to fail one way or another.

The story focuses on characters over plot—though it is by no means plotless—and the characters provide plenty of interest. Mandarin primarily evoked compassion rather than fascination, but Grace’s little sister Taffeta had my attention several times, and I liked Davey every time he came onscreen. As a former small-town girl, I saw a lot of my younger self in him: awkward, hopeful but shy, painfully clueless about what to wear or how self-presentation should work, softhearted and trying hard to be someone people might like but not yet aware enough of what would improve the odds... that was Davey, and he was portrayed with loving accuracy by Kirsten Hubbard despite Grace Carpenter’s disdainful narration.

Grace herself attracts interest and sympathy, if one only remembers that she’s fourteen and will grow out of some of her flippancy and blindnesses. Which leads me to the book’s advisory: Grace makes one offhand anti-Catholic comment, and there’s quite a lot of swearing. There are no actual sex scenes, however. The Tyler experience was darkly uncomfortable and more than a little horrifying, but in context, it needed to be; there was nothing gratuitous about it.

The book is written beautifully, if I might be allowed one quirky little complaint: though similes are a perfectly acceptable literary device, I tend to dislike them. Unless the like/as comparison blends into the rest of the story’s imagery, it jolts me out of the scenery. The similes in this story make themselves a bit too noticeable. Otherwise, Hubbard turns both prose and flow of thought with a fine hand.

Apart from Grace stringing us on a little about an important plot point, the last few chapters were splendid. A lot of young adult authors start strong, writing a lovely first half of the book and then losing their grip on setting and character development when the tension really picks up. If anything, Hubbard’s storytelling grew stronger as the tale went on, culminating in meaningful new understanding for Grace and the three people she most cares for. The story keeps a firm hold on attention and the ending satisfies, and those things, in and of themselves, are achievement enough nowadays.

Recommendation: Read it when the wind blows, and you may find yourself loving the beautiful badlands yourself.