Currently Reading: The Princess Curse

The Princess CurseBut then my eyes adjusted to the dimness, and I saw Pa, waiting beside the dragon-kidnaps-a-maiden tapestry, chewing at the ends of his black mustaches.

Every step across the great hall seemed to take more effort than it should have. Pa nodded to Armas and said “I’ve got her.” My heart fell at his tone, and I stared at the tapestry to hide my worry. I wasn’t going to be able to lie my way out of this, whatever it was. Armas, maybe, I could lie to. Armas, maybe, I could trick into mercy. But with Pa, there would be no chance to lie. Or even to stretch the truth into a pleasing shape.

I noticed a snagged thread on the tapestry maiden’s pale cheek. It marred her face, though she was too frightened of the dragon to be pretty—and it wasn’t just any dragon, but a fire-breathing zmeu, trying to kiss her.

Author: Merrie Haskell

Synopsis: Thirteen-year-old Reveka, an herbalist, is determined to crack the curse that has the twelve Sylvanian princesses dancing their shoes to pieces every night. She hopes to earn the money to start her own herbary, but as she gets closer to the princesses’ secret, she discovers that saving them and earning her herbary may cost her life—possibly even her soul.

Notes: It’s odd that I should have read this so closely following Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing, as Romanian-set retellings of The Twelve Dancing Princesses aren't unusually common. It goes to show how differently any two writers will interpret the same basic idea, however, as the stories have little in common beyond the Romanian glossaries, the dancing girls, and the emphatic capability of the young heroines.

Haskell’s Reveka is off-the-charts independent and pragmatic; a confident herbalist, a harsh judge of character, an adept liar, and blatantly uninterested in getting a husband. Her goal in life, stated from the outset, is to join a convent in order to open her own herbary and spend all her prayer time contemplating her craft. All of this combined with the book's middle-grade packaging makes her the very last sort of character I’d have expected to wind up starring in a YA paranormal romance, which was where the book went.

Admittedly, the romance was not particularly romantic, let alone sexy—props to Merrie Haskell for keeping things tolerably clean for her younger readers—but it still came as something of a surprise.

Neither Reveka nor her love interest seemed designed to be consistently sympathetic, though I suspect they may be more so to readers who are more naturally forceful and less devout. Very few of the supporting characters can even be called good, though two or three succeed in being tolerably complex. None of the religious ones have any real idea of faith or holiness or love of God, not even the monk in Reveka’s present or the nuns in her past, and Reveka herself offers up only a token worry about her own soul. The failure to portray any of the religious as religious is a storytelling flaw; the book's ultimate reversal of darkness and light is not, but its spiritual ambiguity can be expected to turn off some religious readers.

Reveka does, however, keep up an interesting narrative. Her nicely imagined herbalist’s perspective sets her voice well above the average middle-grade or even YA narrator; Haskell clearly did her research, and she moves her tale along quickly without sacrificing worldbuilding to plot. The opening chapters are particularly well-written, and though the storyline wobbles a bit after it takes its turn, the echoes of Hades and Persephone and Beauty and the Beast are intriguing.

The book resolves enough to be bearable, but it begs for a sequel, which apparently the publisher has not yet authorized. Readers will be disappointed if it never happens. There is certainly some tale remaining to be told.

Recommendation: Read it for a very determined young heroine with a unique voice.


Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Kick-Ass Heroines

Ah, heroines—a favorite topic of mine. Ten? Why do I have to stop at ten?

The word kick-ass, however, could use some deconstruction.

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

See, the popular emphasis on toughness and independence in women tends to manifest itself as a preference for mouthy, feisty, physically forceful girls. This causes all sorts of problems. At best, the gentler strengths get devalued. At worst, a female character can seem designed as a feminist ideal rather than a real and complex woman, which comes off—to this reader at least—as both distracting and difficult to sympathize with.

This list contains some of my favorite heroines, honored here for a variety of strengths. Note that I'm using the term heroines to mean protagonists or at least part-time narrating characters, not merely heroic fictional women. I could've gone on for ages if I allowed myself to include supporting cast members like Hermione, Luna, and the other women from Harry Potter, Galadriel and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, Daisy Lee from Summer of the Monkeys, and countless others in non-narrating roles.

Oh, and I've limited myself to two per author, because Austen's young women were taking over the list and I couldn't seem to stick with just one.

1. Elinor Dashwood. Any girl who can put up with Lucy Steele's cruelty and pettiness without losing her cool has my highest respect. But Elinor, at nineteen, is also a stabilizing influence on her mother and younger sisters. I wish I'd had her maturity at nineteen—or ever. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

2. Anne Elliott. Along with being patient and respectful and dutiful, Anne is wise. There's a strength that's hard to come by; it's worth any ten others, though. Persuasion, Jane Austen

3. Annie Anderson. MacDonald may have titled his book after the young hero, but it's Annie who shines: loyal and loving, pious and independent, neither constrained by nor spoiled by the harsh rules placed upon her. She walks by the law of charity, and the reader pulls for her even over Alec. Alec Forbes of Howglen, George MacDonald

4. Miri Larendaughter. Perky, assertive, resourceful, and funny, Miri is one of the most delightful tough girls I've ever come across in fiction. Princess Academy and Palace of Stone, Shannon Hale

5. Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee. Shy and used to comfort, Ani—also known as Isi—makes the best of her sudden reversal of fortunes with a queen's grace. She bears with hard work and bad weather and lousy food good-humoredly,  makes friends among the poor, and still looks for a way to protect her people and her horse. The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale

6. Wanderer. As Jared said, "Altruism comes more naturally to [her] than lies." She's pure of heart, self-effacing, and strong enough to forgive enemies and make them into friends. The Host, Stephenie Meyer

7. Nynaeve al'Meara. Nynaeve would be one hundred percent determination and power if it weren't for her beautiful vulnerabilities: a passion for healing, love for Lan Mandragoran, and an explosive temper, which is not always beautiful, but keeps her honest. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

8. Egwene al'Vere. What I love about Egwene's cool strength is that she uses it to control herself first and foremost. She also cares about things like humility and unity and tradition, which is nice. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

9. Maria Merryweather. Humble enough to marry a poor shepherd and bold enough to face the Men of the Woods, Maria overcomes her own vanity and sets her whole being to the task of healing her family and her land. The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge

10. Rilla Blythe. All of Montgomery's heroines are wonderful in their own ways, but I've always loved plucky Rilla, who, when her girlhood is disrupted by war, determines to be a heroine. It's hard to be a heroine when your brothers and your young man go overseas to fight and you're stuck at home, but Rilla saves a baby, organizes a Red Cross, learns to accept the consequences of her own pigheadedness, and makes a number of sacrifices of her own. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery

All right, I'll stop at ten and save the others for the next time this question comes around. I could've kept going for another ten with just Austen and Hale and Montgomery.

What heroines would you name, and what strengths do you love about them?


Various Non-Blogalectic Things

Masha gave us the week off, so you get a page full of random today. Especially since we just got our first almost-glimpse of Darcy on the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and Lizzie Bennet fans everywhere are typing in capslock. I won't subject you to that, at least. But seriously. Darcy. (Is it less annoying if I use italics?) This is when the story starts to get good.

First, I'm mostly including this little video on introverts and extroverts because the drawings are so fetching. But also because I go in for nearly everything that recommends making the world a little saner for us reclusive types.

Second, Mythgard Institute. Where you can take accredited graduate school classes on fantasy and science fiction literature, notably The Lord of the Rings—or go through Wheelock and learn your Latin. They've just opened their spring 2013 quarter for registration, so if you're interested, check out the awesome.

Lastly, Arabella just sent this to me. You know how I feel about stars.


Beautiful Precipitation and other stories

Among my goals this year is to learn to love the rain, since I live with it. After all, Bellingham does have incredible amounts of beauty in its default state, especially during autumn. It's just a very wet beauty.

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Perhaps because of the chill in the air, Maia spent most of today showing what passes for affection among cats. Which includes sleeping on my blanket on the couch and following me around during housecleaning.

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Writers' link of the week: Michael Erard recently wrote a fascinating piece on "being a dancer who walks for a living." After reading it, I wonder if perhaps I should stop checking Facebook on my writing breaks. Well. That probably won't happen.

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Music of the week: Practice music. I'm singing alto now, which is easier on my battered voice, and loving every note.

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Random (heh) amusement of the week: Along with everyone else, if Big Six publishers Random House and Penguin do merge, and do not call themselves Random Penguin, I will be so disappointed. :D

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As one of my former bosses used to say, it's Miller time. Except that I'm drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. Time to have a beer and relax, anyway.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The Witch of Blackbird PondKit wrinkled up her nose. "Ugh," she exclaimed, "that sour face of hers will curdle my food."

Nat laughed shortly. "'Tis certain she expects you will curdle hers," he answered. "She has been insisting to my father that you are a witch. She says no respectable woman could keep afloat in the water like that."

"How dare she!" Kit flared, indignant as much at his tone as at the dread word he uttered so carelessly.

"Don't you know about the water trial?" Nat's eyes deliberately taunted her. "'Tis a sure test. I've seen it myself. A true witch will always float. The innocent ones just sink like a stone."

He was obviously paying her back for the morning's humiliation. But she was surprised to see that John Holbrook was not at all amused.

Author: Elizabeth George Speare

Synopsis: Kit Tyler grew up swimming and reading Shakespeare in sunny Barbados, and her adjustment to chilly Connecticut life would have been hard enough without the automatic suspicion. Well-dressed, unfamiliar with Puritan manners and customs, and entirely unexpected by her relatives, she's quickly the target of murmured accusations--murmurs which become shouts when she protects a Quaker suspected of witchcraft.

Notes: They don't often make books like this anymore—straightforward, short, happily resolved, but impressively human for all that. Set among witch trials, slavery, Indian raids, and building rebellion against the king of England, Speare leaves the issues to sort themselves out, focusing in on the handful of characters important to the tale.

Kit is unsubmissive in a time when refusal to submit actually meant something. More, she generally limits her disobedience to meaningful actions: teaching a verbally abused child to read, for instance, or helping an aging and outcast widow. Many a modern youth would think herself entirely right in mouthing off to a man like Matthew Wood, whether or not he provided her food and shelter; Kit learns to respect her uncle even as she disobeys him.

The lack of bitterness among the primary characters is astounding. Even sharp-tongued Judith and domineering Matthew show underlying goodness as Kit gets to know them. Gentle Mercy, bright little Prudence, and Hannah and Nat—the former a victim of horrible abuses, the latter a hardworking sailor—are refreshingly honorable and free from self-pity. With the rule of angst heavy over modern young adult literature, it's nice to sometimes revisit characters like these, who spend less time replicating the worst sides of young human nature and more time behaving in a way that even a thirty-four-year-old finds herself wanting to emulate.

The last few chapters are sweet and romantic, with many a deserving character receiving their due. It may seem too easy for modern readers—but for all that there's a place for depictions of life's complexity, I found it lovely to stop and read something basic, where the tale itself recognizes the rare beauty of a pure heart.

Recommendation: Read it for a simple but beautiful trip into a difficult and complicated time.


Top Ten Tuesday: Best Halloween Reads

While admittedly I'm not a horror fan, I have a great deal of affection for a handful of wonderfully dark books. This topic should be fun.

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

Ten superb Halloweenish books, coming right up.

1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling. Most of the Potter books put some focus on Halloween, but Chamber of Secrets includes a Deathday party, giant man-eating spiders, disembodied voices, a trip down the Hogwarts drains, talking to snakes, words written in rooster blood, attacks from an unseen monster, possession by the soul of a Dark Wizard, and a basilisk. Lots and lots of spooky.

2. Coraline by Neil Gaiman, which contains a she-monster with button eyes and a severed hand that scuttles like a spider. Frankly, anything by Neil Gaiman would probably work for Halloween reading; I've only read Coraline, so that's what I'm recommending. But he has one called The Graveyard Book. So, you know.

3. Lilith by George MacDonald. Ravens and a cold chamber full of sleepers who don't rouse, monsters and cruel giants—and the title character is a child-murderer and vampiress. One heck of a scary book.

4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The living Heathcliff is more terrifying than the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw. This is not a pleasant book, but it's certainly a Halloweenish one.

5. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. Man-eating giants, a witch who turns into a snake, a prince under enchantment, and a trip into the Underworld.

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. The very spirit of this book is liminal and ghostly—much like Wuthering Heights, but with a better ending.

7. A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle. The Echthroi. That scene where Meg has to pick the right Mr. Jennings. Xing. Louise the snake. Even Blajeny and Proginoskes are a little frightening, though good.

8. Dracula by Bram Stoker. Possibly the scariest book I've ever read. Also possibly the most melodramatic, but still, scary.

9. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer. Whatever you think of the inhumanly attractive and also rather melodramatic Edward Cullen, the Volturi are just plain terrifying. And the darkness of Bella's mind during Edward's absence is pretty freakish, too. My favorite of the Twilight books by far, though that's not everyone's experience.

10. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. Nightmares, the Fairy, the whole coldhearted N.I.C.E. with their psychological manipulations, goblins, the reanimation of Merlin, a sort of Tower-of-Babel experience, and the meeting point of Christianity and paganism. Possibly my favorite book on this list. It's the third book in Lewis' Space Trilogy, but can just about stand on its own.

Honorable mention to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which was darkly fantastic when it wasn't excruciatingly dull. It's hard to get much creepier than the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.

Which books would you pick for best Halloween reads?


What, Silent Still and Silent All?: The Artist and His Own Big Fat Mouth

David Roberts, The Great Sphinx and Pyramids of Girzeh
For a long time I’ve largely avoided following anybody whose fiction I read... I want to be able to read and enjoy their fiction untainted by their personal views about anything. I come to them for a story. I don’t care about their politics or their religion or their hobbies or any opinion they have about anything really.... Our culture has a fascination with celebrity and TMI. So we break down all these sane barriers and instead of just wanting a book, we want a book and to know what our favorite author’s favorite color is.
~Zoe Winters

When I've written a post that is fairly opinion-y... I almost always get replies that say something like, "You've lost this reader for good," or "I used to love your books but I'll never buy another one now." Obviously I don't want to run off readers. I think in most of these cases, something I've said has personally hurt that person, and they are trying to hurt me back in some way. That's a natural response, I think, and I can empathize. And they do succeed.
~Shannon Hale

I try not to be harsh about my preferences, but sometimes - like when people claim Dunkin’ Donuts has good coffee, or that The DaVinci Code is a “smart, smart, book,” I do get vocal.

This week's question is one I've tangled with extensively offline. It also goes around the blogosphere every so often, as exemplified by the recent posts by Zoe Winters and Shannon Hale, quoted above.

Hold tight, folks. This is not likely to be a short blog post. I'll rein myself in as soon as I can.

Masha opened the discussion with some interesting and sound commentary:
There’s something off-putting about back-cover photos - they always fall short of the image I’d like to have of the author, and if he goes online to discuss his opinions of the election, praise writers I’m convinced are bad, and update me on his daily weight-loss regime, I might lose the ability to see him as anything but a sweaty jogger in obnoxious t-shirts.
She has a fair point about author photos. These usually begin existence as professional photographs, but often appear little better than glare-infested driver's license mugshots by the time they're printed onto glossy dust jackets.

Worse, old-fashioned professional shots with blank backdrops and direct perspective typically make people look less interesting than their stories might suggest. And it's not just the dull pictures that fall short. If the shot makes an author look too young, all fresh-faced and oozing sexiness, it's hard not to respond, as Mr. Harrison did to Anne Shirley, that:
"You're too young to write a story that would be worthwhile. Wait ten years."
It's a little like watching a new acquaintance's child pick up a violin for a family room performance. Sure, maybe they're a prodigy, but so few youngsters possess technical accuracy, let alone emotional resonance.

All that said, I like to get a look into the eyes of the person who wrote a story I'm enjoying. That interest carries to an author's sense of beauty and perspective on life, too. I will be interested in getting acquainted with them as a person, even if only through the author bio and possibly awkward snapshot.

But now we get to the serious part, the matter of alienation through conflict of opinion. In this world of over-share (in which I partake rather too thoroughly) and polarized public discourse, it's not just what you say, it's how you say it. Even writers often don't notice when they're talking past dissenters or insulting them—or worse, insulting the dissenters' friends or family or religion.

In conversations on the blogosphere, writers often recommend not talking about politics or religion at all. I'm not sure I agree. My open Catholicism might turn off a few Protestants, not to mention some atheists, but I try, however imperfectly, to think and speak respectfully of others' positions. Religion has been central to my life since before my memory kicked in, and it's now inextricably linked with my thought processes; removing it from all conversation would be inauthentic, and all I can do is try not to be stupid or offensive with it.

Antagonistic opinions and proselytizing presentation, however, do seriously threaten reader/author relationships. After all, marketing is everywhere. From television commercials to Google ads, from election debates to politically exuberant Facebook friends, from street protesters to spun media stories, everything and everyone seems to have something to sell us. It begins to feel like an attack after a while.

And sometimes, it is an attack. Artists who share opinions online might do well to remove a few words from their vocabulary: moron, for instance, and all its variants, like nutter and idiot. Even political words like bigot and racist and feminist are dangerous. People use epithets like these because they've learned something in school or church or from their parents or a book, and now they think everyone with common sense and/or education agrees with them. I suspect they don't realize what it sounds like to someone who stands in a politically opposing position and has thought that position through. When those words are used against ideological opponents, they are almost invariably ad hominem treatment and therefore bad form, if not in fact unjust, though they are often quite unjust as well.

There's nothing like the experience of openly revising your own adult-formed opinions to teach you how human nature responds to antagonistic rhetoric and unwanted attempts at persuasion. I'd highly recommend it—especially to artists—as an exercise in humanity, if it weren't so painful for all concerned.

That pain kills off some of the overpowering sense of moral obligation in the face of dissent, the one that demands you correct the wrongheaded thinking of others. It trains you to sigh and shift position when confronted with ignorance, rather than making yourself out to be someone's teacher. You become careful about challenging others' opinions, thanks to firsthand awareness of how easy it is to overlook or rationalize away a few details and come to wrong conclusions. You learn that argument, logical or otherwise, almost universally drives dissenters apart rather than bringing them closer together.

Despite my public openness with much of my life and thought, then, I stand firmly in the camp that claims it's better to be cautious about what you say. And I try to be. For the last couple of years, I've made a point of editing angry opinions out of my blog posts. As cathartic as it is to speak sometimes, comments made out of those burning urges are always made at the risk of someone else's feelings.

It's too easy to forget that the internet is as public as newspapers and television, no matter how small the readership. That when you speak publicly, you don't get to choose your audience.

For help against making angry or snarky responses, especially ones encouraging a narcissistic sense of my own cleverness, I remember Dumbledore. There's a scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where he is faced with a handful of Death Eaters, all intent on killing him and half his students. He greets them by name, with pleasantries of the good evening to you type. One of them sneers something about his "little jokes", and Dumbledore—known for his cleverness—says:
"Jokes? No, no, these are manners."
The point of professionalism is not to be uninteresting or inexpressive. It's about generosity. Manners are about seeing the humanity in the person across from you, no matter what they believe.

It's easy to dehumanize a mob, a demographic opposed to your principles. It's easy to meet a person who embodies the worst of that and find yourself despising them, thinking of them as a monster. And hey, maybe they are low on the scale of beastliness to humanity. But if they're walking and talking and breathing, there's some soul in there left to speak to. One might as well err on the side of kindness.

That's all I ask of an author, regardless of whether I meet them online or in person. And that's the standard I try to hold myself to, with sincere regret for past moments of failure.


Unsettling Wonder and other stories

Friends of faerie, one and all—enter the wood with me, and see what came into being with the turn of the season!

Speaking practically, from the creature's Originator, whom you all know as Mr. Pond:
The new Unsettling Wonder is a publishing imprint of Papaveria Press that includes both an online journal and various print publications. It lives at www.unsettlingwonder.com, and the website will have not only the journal, but regular posts from the editors and guest writers about folklore and fairy tales—including artist and author interviews, book reviews, and so on.
From one of the co-makers, gifted author Katherine Langrish:
Unsettling Wonder has only just been born, and in the way of fairytale parents we, its founders, are still looking it proudly, scratching our heads and wondering what it will make of life. Has it been born in a caul, or under a lucky star? Will its godmother be the Fairy of Good Fortune, or the sinister black-cowled figure of La Muerte?  Is it even a child, or just a bristly half-hedgehog? Anyway, do come to the christening!
And from the creature itself:
Do you remember the first time you read a story that meant something to you? A story that whisked you away to another place, another time, another reality. Not just a place full of everyday things and happy endings—though they were there, of course, and important. But an unsettling place of strangeness and peril and wonder, like a river you couldn’t see across or a forest spreading away into shadows.
Unsettling Wonder is about going back to that place, that troubling, entrancing glimpse into story.
From me, another co-maker... or, more technically, the web journal's Associate Fiction Editor... what this means is that my fellow writer and blogalectic sparring partner Mr. Pond, also known as John Patrick Pazdziora, has started a publishing imprint and fairy tale magazine. I'm helping. There also, mmph murf mumble, might have been an exchange of ink over a certain little rewritten fairy tale, but that's all I'll say for now. At any rate, there will be stories—there will be talk about story—there will even be poetry, though not from me, because I suck at poetry unless I'm allowed to set it to music.

Do come join us in the revelry!

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Did I say something about the turning of the season? Yes, well. That happened.

It's hard to tell from the shot, but it's currently raining.
The day before the wind and rain blew in, I had a sudden apprehension. It was a Wednesday, and Wednesdays are made of crazy, but I knew that if I didn't get the beets and potatoes dug and the pumpkins in, wet fall weather would make it much harder.

The tomatoes came in on Saturday, when a windstorm ripped their plastic covering off and refused to let me put it back on. All the fruit that looked like it might ripen, with time and help of course, wound up on the table for several hours, drying out.

Maia thought that she'd never seen so many cat toys gathered, but she could tell by the way her human slave was stalking around and making huffing noises that looking out of windows would be a more satisfying use of time.

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Writers' link of the week: I liked Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules of Writing so much that I copied them off the web and pasted them at the top of a reference document.

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Music of the week: The Lonely Forest made it onto a Vampire Diaries soundtrack! Way to go, Anacortes boys!! I've never seen the Vampire Diaries, but I always liked this song.

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Random amusement of the week: Reader Shaming. Brand new website, but it looks like it could be fun.

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The publishing of this post was delayed due to the immediate necessity of making beet soup. Which is currently boiling away on the stove. We'll see how it tastes. I needed something to do with a 1 1/2 pound beet.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Briar Rose

Briar Rose"Aunt Becca, tell us a story."

She opened her eyes. It was Benjamin, his fair hair cut in low bangs. He looked so much like his father, she smiled. Imagine trying to tell Mike a story! But Shana's two little girls were right by his side, their eyes pleading. "All right. But only one. What should I tell?"

"Seepin Boot," whispered Sarah. Benjamin punched her arm.

"Not that one. That's Gemma's!"

"I'd like to tell that one," Becca said. "Because it's Gemma's."

"Won't she be mad?" asked Susan.

"Don't be silly," Benjamin said. "She's dead."

"Well, ghosts could get mad," Susan countered.

"Jews don't believe in ghosts," Benjamin stated with great authority. Then he looked over at Becca. "Do we?"

She shook her head, not because she didn't believe in ghosts, but because the conversation was obviously frightening Sarah, who leaned against her.

"Even if Gemma were a ghost," Becca said, "she'd be a loving ghost. And she would want me to tell Sleeping Beauty to you. In fact, the very last thing she talked to me about was Briar Rose."

Author: Jane Yolen

Synopsis: Becca and her two older sisters grew up hearing their grandmother's unique version of Sleeping Beauty over and over again, but they never understood why Gemma believed herself to be the protagonist of the tale. At last, acting on a promise made at Gemma's deathbed, journalist Becca goes looking for the truth of the story—a quest that takes her to Poland and the site of some of the Holocaust's most devastating horrors.

Notes: It's rare to find the lightness of a children's magic story blended with the darkness of real historical evil—with obvious reasons, as it's a little hard on the reader. The word 'Holocaust' on the cover gives some warning, but nothing ever entirely prepares one for graphic, emotive description of such inhuman brutalities as are described toward the end of the novel. It comes as a particular shock after the tender and playful beginning.

On the other hand, the beginning provides the primary hope of the narrative. It is, in the overarching scheme, the end.

Yolen has the artistic prowess to pull off both humor and horror with equal strength. The translation of history to fairy tale is brilliantly done, especially for such a short novel; the mass market paperback is only two hundred pages long, which doesn't leave a lot of time for developing complexities—or characters, for that matter. With that latter fact in mind, I'm tempted to forgive the few small failings—e.g., Becca's sisters apparently existing only as comfortable, hypocritical foils to her exquisite compassion and her potentially less sympathetic fresh-out-of-university ideologies—and note the quality realization of Becca, Josef, and even a handful of minor characters like the Avenger and Magda.

I don't have specific knowledge enough to speak to the accuracy of all the historical details, but Josef's story was painful and poignant, revelatory and horrifying. And this seems like the moment for an advisory: Briar Rose isn't a book to hand young children willy-nilly, as it contains numerous vivid depictions of violence and one single-sentence, non-detailed, but nonetheless startling description of a consensual but abusive gay sexual encounter.

As noted before, the primary hope of the tale is in its beginning, but the beginning is brought back around at the end for the reader's sake. It is the main redemption, but not the only one. Though not everyone in the tale could have a happily ever after, those who could not have it for themselves bequeathed it to a child and her children and grandchildren. And Magda's final words to Josef are the sort of thing to inspire tears—the tears that come with healing.

I'm going to leave off the usual Recommendation, not because I don't recommend the book, but because the subject matter cannot be spoken of lightly. Briar Rose is a beautiful read in many ways. It is not, however, an easy one. Reader, be aware.


Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Authors in X Genre

It's tempting to pick a genre I spend less time talking about. Contemporary fiction, say, or historical romance, or steampunk. The only difficulty is that there are exactly two categories of fiction from which I've done extensive reading enough to pick more than one or two favorite authors, and "classics" doesn't technically qualify as genre.

That leaves me with fantasy.

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

The difficulty in fantasy, of course, is picking only ten. On account of which, I'm excluding Shakespeare and Dante for writing plays and epic poems instead of sticking to the novel format. I'm sure they know I worship the ground they used to walk on. Not that I've ever seen Florence or Stratford-upon-Avon, but still.

1. C.S. Lewis. That Hideous Strength is at least as much fantasy as science fiction. And then, there's Narnia.

2. Shannon Hale. I've enjoyed everything of hers I've ever read, but Princess Academy and The Goose Girl are the most fully realized and the most beautiful. Forest Born and Book of a Thousand Days deserve a fair second place.

3. Madeleine L'Engle. Her work usually has a fantastic element, and though the Time books get called sci-fi, there are unicorns. And a cherubim.

4. George MacDonald. For Lilith, The Golden Key, and The Day Boy and The Night Girl. Oh, and I'll admit Phantastes to be good, even if it didn't make a lot of sense to me.

5. Cornelia Funke. The Inkworld books are a little unevenly plotted, and painfully suspenseful, but the characters—ah, the characters. They are wonderful. The worldbuilding is lovely, too.

6. Robert Jordan. The realization of the world in which Rand and the other ta'veren operate—the cultures, the magic systems, the politics—is something I've rarely seen matched and never surpassed. Plus, he writes characters the reader just can't stop rooting for. At least, this reader couldn't.

7. J.K. Rowling. The Wizarding World has unicorns and a sense of humor. That combination is tough to beat all by itself, but I love Harry for a lot of other reasons. I probably talk about him enough, too.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien. It's true that I could wish for a greater number of interesting girls in Middle-Earth, and it's true that the Council of Elrond is as hard to get through as the Book of Leviticus, but I'd have to credit the good professor for the Elves and their dwellings even if every other aspect of his books bored me to tears. Which they don't. They're ripping good yarns in places.

9. Robin McKinley. For an unerringly beautiful voice, and fantastic characters.

10. Here's where things get tricky. Do I choose Elizabeth Goudge for The Little White Horse, though I've read nothing else of hers? Juliet Marillier for Wildwood Dancing under the same circumstances? Brandon Sanderson, whom I've only read when he's been writing Robert Jordan's story? Stephenie Meyer, all of whose books I've enjoyed, though the sci-fi novel is my favorite of hers? Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose books have a magical feel to them but technically aren't fantasy? I can't decide.

Who are your favorite authors in your favorite genre(s)?


Mind over Matter: The Artist and The Choice of Tools

Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing
Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence as you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.... Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm[.]
~C.S. Lewis

I think typing everything on the computer leads to a more transitory relationship to the words themselves, they are so easily deleted, they haven’t ‘bled’ on the page the way written words do, but that impermanence gives the writer more freedom while editing to completely transform the piece.

This week, the blogalectic has taken up an endlessly-debated question: should writers prefer pen and paper as native to the literary art, or is it all right to upgrade to the typewriter or—heaven forbid—the computer?

The difficulty with this question is that it's impossible to answer with general finality, though Lewis may be right about the typewriter. Alongside the clacking keys, all typewriters I've ever known interrupted the typist at the ends of lines with the bell and mechanical racket of the carriage return. If my choice were between writing by hand or by typewriter, I'd certainly stick with the former.

Thanks to basically holistic ideals, I'd like to believe in a firm, earthy connection between working materials and quality of the art produced thereby. To a certain extent, I do; it's just that the computer works better for my writing than anything else.

C.S. Lewis never used a non-clacking laptop keyboard. Nor did he have access to a backspace key, which turns out to be useful for those of us who rarely finish sentences the way we intended to when we began them. Writers who favor pen complain of losing digitized thoughts to deletion, but I've almost never had to; if a cut phrase or scene becomes necessary, it's usually preserved in a spare file. My deleted-text document for the last few drafts of my NaNoWriMo novel is over 70,000 words, nearly as long as the novel itself.

For better or for worse—possibly for both—the modern computer interferes little with thought, rhythm, or idea. There's no shift or clanging at the end of a line. The writer can absorb himself directly into the text, provided he doesn't have to concentrate on typing. Worlds and characters take form in the mind; digital technology simply removes some of the barriers between creation and the record thereof. Pen-defenders argue that handwriting forces the writer to slow down and think through things, but the pen is not an editor, and the important matter is that the thinking through happens.

Best of all, the computer-written draft stays neat and orderly; there's no scratching out half a page and having to pore over the lines to figure out which words are still part of the work and which aren't. Additions can be inserted without tight scribbles in the margins or attached sheets of paper. Spelling and grammatical errors are easily fixed, and if the writer—like Oscar Wilde—spends all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in, he can accomplish the operation without eraser crumbs or Liquid Paper.

All this fails to answer the question generally; it only shows what works for me, though perhaps it may also help explain why so many of us go on using the computer when so many authors argue forcibly for the old-fashioned pen. But Masha offers one further question:
I do wonder, in my more judgmental moments, whether writing solely on the computer has contributed to the huge number of badly written, barely edited books coming out on the market. I know I edit less when I see my writing on a screen instead of a page, and I know that the ability to put so much down, so quickly, with no fear of running out of space has encouraged me to over-write at times. But I don’t know how much of this is due to my own personal weaknesses as a writer and how much is due to the influence of technology.
Through work in a department that revived and digitized old texts, I've seen amusingly dreadful stuff that made it into print ages before the coming of Smashwords, Amazon, or high turnover at publishing houses. Badly written books are too funny to trouble me, or history, very much. Barely edited ones are more irksome; ideally, editors would have the time, numbers, and longevity to stop more authors from using "may" where they mean "might", and to order more rewrites on books that start out strong and fade in the middle. I doubt those troubles are directly due to working on computers, though the many indirect effects of technology upon the pace of life may be involved.

I suggested this topic, but now that I sit down to write about it, the debate over pen versus computer just seems unimportant. The prima materia is in the artist's mind. The influence of mind and body upon each other may naturally work out to a preference for certain tools, but preference comes secondary to proper care and training of the main instrument.

If the artist knows his craft, puts in rigorous hours and years of practice, and becomes so intimate with the work of creation that the practical aspects come as easily as walking or driving a car, it won't matter how he works. And when he has his choice, he'll work the way that works for him.


[mostly] wordless week: broken

This little laburnum always reminds me of the lightning-struck tree in Jane Eyre.

Andy and Lindsey gave us this statue of the Pietà. Just this past weekend, we finally cleared out the back garden and got it settled into place. I'm hoping to surround it with ferns, lily of the valley, hyacinths, and other flowers, but much of that will need to wait for spring.

[mostly] wordless week closes with music, for which I went hunting for the unusually splendid and came up with Palestrina. The text comes from Psalm 42, the psalm which begins "As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God."

Regular posting resumes with the blogalectic on Monday. Happy weekend!


[mostly] wordless week: her royal cuteness

The other day, Maia watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries with me.

Lizzie (and Charlotte)

Since I found it impossible to take a picture that took in computer, cat and me and made any of the subjects but Maia and the computer look decent, here's a pretty one. Of Maia, of course.


[mostly] wordless week: flowers and sunshine

In all my years in Western Washington, I cannot remember a single sunny October. Let alone one in which the flowers were still going.


[mostly] wordless week: fall symptoms

Owing to a few busy weeks and the overbearing need to rest as well as to catch up on many things, including prep for this blog, I'm taking a week off the regular schedule. And I thought that while I went searching for a little silence and peace, you might like some, too. Rather than go entirely blogless, I'm introducing [mostly] wordless week. I say "mostly" because the chances that I'll say nothing at all are next to nonexistent.

Here's today's offering: a few of the signs of fall around house and garden. The sumac, turning colors...

an unknown flowering shrub, doing likewise:

a fallen rose:

tomatoes, ripening with the aid of window and banana:

...and one of Bellingham's sunsets.

Here's to a restful week for all of us! Normal posting returns next Monday.


Spontaneous Peace Offerings and other stories

Dear everybody, much as I would've liked to write a normal blog post today—to tell you about how it's frosted twice when the weather channel said it would only get down to forty, and post pictures of covered tomatoes and homemade salsa, and all the usual things—I spent the day hiking with family instead.

I can think of only one way to make it up to you.

There was no dialogue; Lou and I were laughing too hard.

Happy weekend!