Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #96

This Week's Topic:
What are your all-time favorite book covers?

I know I'm a sucker for bound books with hard covers, gilt lettering and softly fraying edges. Those covers are a bit more of a mystery than the ones with bright images, and you have to head inside with nothing but your own imagination.  I really don't like photo-style images of the characters.  I want an impression, or a powerful image from the book.

But I think, in the end, my favorite book cover is the paperback of Mossflower.

This is the version that I own, the one that is pretty beat up on the outside, with worn pages that smell a little dark and sweet.  I love the medieval feel to it, and the illustrations on the back as well.  You pick it up and you just know that it's going to be epic and complex and powerful, and then it is.

"Mossflower lay deep in the grip of midwinter beneath a sky of leaden gray that showed tinges of scarlet and orange on the horizon..."

And it just gets better from there.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Book Review: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Hold Me Closer, NecromancerHold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Okay, this is the third time I'm trying to figure out what I thought of this book. It's sort of like meeting someone, who's pretty weird, and occasionally annoying, and just saying, okay, she's not so bad, and she makes me laugh once in a while.

In general, I'm not someone who really cares if a book follows the rules. I'll do my best to not mess them up too much in my own writing, but I know that every once in a while you need a bit of an infodump, or there's a kind of trite or obvious way to create drama, and you know, why not take it? But the people who can get away with those cheats have a reason for it. They want to tell you something because it's serious, and important, and meaningful, and they've found a way to say it in a powerful and moving way. Or there's something awful that is going to happen, and you're going to fear it, and the easy dramatic moment feels like a punch in the gut.

Lish McBride chose a different path. Instead of using infodumps to build the drama, or horrible dramatic irony to emphasize the seriousness of something, she makes light of it. If she can find a way to make 'basic necromancy instruction' quirky and amusing she'll take it, even if occasionally the joke falls flat. She will even work a joke into a scene that ends with a teenager being beheaded. I'm not making a judgment on this. That's just how it works. And I'm sure it worked really well for some readers. It didn't work for me.

In the end, I really couldn't engage with this book. There were moments that made me laugh. I liked most of the characters... pretty much all of the characters, even Elaine. :) But whenever I put it down I never felt the urge to pick it up again. Finally, near the end, it picked up a lot and I enjoyed the action scenes. But really, there was no impact. It was like running into a pillow. (Not like getting smacked by one. The physics are different there.) I probably wouldn't have made it to the end if I hadn't been reading it for the book group. I couldn't care about it, and the author kept adding more and more complexity that ended up having no meaning.

Before, I said it felt like Lost Girl fanfiction (except with fewer bisexual succubi and no Hot Doctor Lauren :( ) and once I hit upon that attitude I could just take the world as a given. Fine, Seattle contains more Necromancers and werewolves and fey-hounds and satyrs than you can shake a stick at. There's no reason why they're there. They just are. The world building is just 'everything but the kitchen sink.' The plot is boy is born with superawesome powers that are hidden from him until adulthood. Boy defeats evil overlord and inherits mad cash. Inexplicable POV shifts are jarring, but whatever.

Lish seems like a cool person who I'd like to hang out with and talk about Celtic Myth and kick-ass girls. I really did have a strong negative reaction to the first third of the book. I just couldn't figure it out. I didn't get a feel for what it was trying to be or trying to do at the beginning.

I said this before:

"I think it's really hard to present a complicated world in a single story, especially if it's one with a huge amount of variety with it's mythical creatures. It's something I've worried about in my own writing, and perhaps, the huge muddle that I'm feeling when trying to sort it out is a decent reason to be careful with it. Sometimes a little bit of an infodump early on can really assuage confusion later on."

I think what didn't work for me was that there was no unifying statement. Just one sentence, early enough, to give the reader an idea of what to expect. The sudden werewolves were a little like being slapped in the face by a wet towel. (POV shifting didn't help that.) There wasn't even in evoking of the possibilities that the world might be more than humans and necromancers.

I have a tendency to be very easily feel betrayed by books. I really did generally like most of the characters in the beginning, but I felt that the sudden cut to the villain's POV as right outside Brooke's house was cheap. However, as things continue on, it is beginning to feel like the author really does have a good deal of affection for her characters, (even Douglas) which makes a lot of the possibly irrelevant dialogue comforting. The idea that the author may not care about the characters and is just doing stuff to them to emotionally manipulate the reader is something I cannot stand. Which is why I hated it at first. But, in the end, she turned out to be the kind of writer who ends a story with, "and now we're going to be an awesome superpowered team! Superspecial Necromancer, Ghost-Girl, Were-Bear, and ... er... Frank!"

It worked. The book was a struggle, but the taste of candy at the end made the bad tastes go away, even if it was a little more saccharine than expected.

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Book Review: Terrier by Tamora Pierce

Terrier (Beka Cooper, #1)Terrier by Tamora Pierce

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, long long ago, back in the 1990's, I got burned by Tamora Pierce. The truth was, I was really sure I was supposed to love her books. There was crossdressing, girls with swords, magic, and lushly imagined places. And then, in the first Alanna book, there is this one scene where she begins her menses and goes to a healer/witch to deal with it and gets a charm to keep her from getting pregnant until she wants to take it off. I had a physical reaction to this scene, nausea and fear primarily. I must have been 8 or 9 at the time, and I was clearly messed up in the head (possibly in a way common to children), but 1) the physical reality of puberty was not something I was okay with. 2) the idea that anyone could want sex (with boys) did not even occur to me, so it was clear that this was a protection for if she was discovered and violated, 3) the idea that she would want to get pregnant, at any point, horrified me. After that, I tried again. Not with Alanna, I heard that she got married and stuff, and as that was totally not cool, and violated all my principles, I was not going there, but with Daine. I loved the first two, read them a bunch of times, until I hit book 3 and another of my major squicks, teacher-student relationships. So I stopped. The unrelenting heterosexist normativity of these books, plus certain particular choices and my inability to sympathize with the romances at all, made me give up.

Ten years later, with a bit more maturity and an ability to separate myself from the main character, I tried again. I read the description of Terrier and decided, okay, that sounds pretty good. I had just finished the Hunger Games on audiobook, and I needed another to fill up my iPod. Terrier is a third longer than the Hunger Games, and on audiobook you are really aware of that fact, because every word has to be said aloud. But honestly, it felt shorter. Sure, it took more time to get through it, but it never dragged the way HG did sometimes. Beka was always on task. She wasn't just hanging around trying not to die.

A few issues - at times there were moments that seemed obvious 'police' moments, domestic disturbances, riot gear, all that stuff. But once I got over it, they were just amusing, in a bit of a Terry Pratchett Guards! Guards! sort of way. Policing is policing, even if you're called Dogs and Puppies, or have a werewolf and a dwarf on your squad.

Other things, like having worked out the Shadow Snake before Beka and waiting in agony for her to pick up the clues that she was dropping, would have been fine if I had been reading and not listening. Even listening they were fine. I just groaned a few more times as she ignored the clues again.

But really, this book was awesome. It was fun and engaging. It made me laugh aloud (not difficult) and cry (slightly more difficult), and fall so hard for Goodwin and Tunstall, and Aniki and Cora. And even though it seems that TPeirce's romantic interests tend to leave me cold, I really thought the Rosto bits were handled well, and I'm a bit excited to find out how he will do in his new position, and how that will seriously make a mess of things for Beka.

I think the fact that I did the audiobook made it even better. I loved Susan Denaker's Scanra accent. It was very sexy. All the characters were distinct and really came alive in my head. I definitely wish I could join the breakfast meeting, even if there aren't any more apple turnovers from Mistress Knowles cart.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #95

This Week's Topic:
What themes, settings, motifs, scenes, or other elements do you find recurring in your work?

                Dark Family Secrets.   

It's kind of hilarious actually.  My current WIP is the first novel-length story I've written that doesn't have a dark family secret at the heart of it.

Book 1: Girl finds out her father's a sorcerer who summons demons (and is planning on feeding her english teacher to them!)

Book 2: Girl finds out her family is all part of the criminal underworld of Central California.

Book 3: Boy finds out his mother was seriously injured in a feud between her two sisters, one of whom is only half human.

That's a lot of books to be about the same topic.  And honestly, the whole 'secrets of the past' storyline is really, really hard to write effectively.  Finding stuff out really isn't 'doing things' and doing things is sort of important.  Thank god my current one isn't about that!

(Also, awkwardly, in Book 3 I kept having long descriptions of whatever they were eating.  I really enjoyed making up meals that really felt exotic enough to be fantasy food (you need fantastic food to go along with your fantastic castles!).  Sadly, most of my delicious scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Fiction-Linguistics Interface

Hi.  My name is Cara, and I write YA fantasy.  I'm also a grad student.

Being an aspiring novelist and having a blog seems to be par for the course these days.  And though book reviews and writing updates are all well and good, they aren't all that interesting in and of themselves.  But trying to be funny or intelligent or engaging all the time is tiring.  What I often find interesting is when my two lives collide, not my secret life as an internet pornographer (oh wait, I wasn't going to mention that!) but my life as a writer and my life as a linguistics grad student.

Basically, I fell into Linguistics entirely by accident.  During college I was busy learning Japanese, taking classes on Buddhism and Musical Theatre, and hitting people with swords five days a week.  But the one thing I did not do was take Linguistics classes.  (Okay, I took one.  I learned about punctuation.  It was kind of cool.  Did you know that there used to be a combined exclamation point/question mark?  That would have been so useful, I thought.  Now I'm beginning to be glad that you have to make the choice.)

I was also taking creative writing classes where I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I can't say I was a great writer (because that would be a lie) but I was prolific, if unpolished, and I gravitated to genre fiction.  Mainly I stuck out because of the fact that I tended to submit stories that actually ended, rather than just hung around with a premise and a setting, and because most of my stories played with Mafia elements, or fantasy, or anime references, or teenagers.  That was when one of my writing profs said, in her inimitable way, "Some people just have YA voices."  This stung bitterly for the rest of college.  I wrote a lot of things with an excess of eroticism and violence afterwards.  Including my thesis, which was a novel, and the first time I every really figured out how much work goes into writing a novel.  Did I do all this work?  No.  Of course not.  I wrote and revised and edited and basically floundered around, knowing that it wasn't good enough but not having any idea how to improve it.

This sucked.

So when I graduated college and went home - with an impressive degree and no job, nor prospects for one - I had a plan.  I would revise my novel and become a novelist, and it would all be awesome.  Unsurprisingly, this brilliant plan did not pan out. I revised and rewrote and reorganized, and at the end of the process I looked at my result and went, "damn, this is worse than what I started with."  And I gave up.

I mean, I thoroughly gave up.  I wasn't writing anything, except maybe the occasional piece of fanfiction, which only made it worse, because no one was reading it, and my dad was glowering down on me and telling me I was wasting my (lack of) talent writing unoriginal schlock.  I read a lot of Law and Order fic, and considered, very seriously, the prospect of taking the civil service exam and working at the courthouse or sheriff's department.  I shot out a couple of applications, none of which I heard a word of response from.  I wanted to work for Pixar, but my attempt at teaching myself computer animation didn't really go all that well.

At the end of the summer  I was so miserable, that I realized I needed something, anything, to get me out of the house.  So I started sitting in on classes at the local University.  I took a film class, and realized that I didn't really like movies very much.  I took Hinduism and Queer Theory.  And then, the next semester, the only classes that struck me as interesting were all in the Linguistics Department.

The idea that understanding more about the structure of language would help me with writing definitely hovered in my mind for quite a while.  The fact that I had been writing and speaking for over twenty years without ever realizing that there was this huge amount of underlying structure to what I was doing was quite a shock.  I was curious, and I wanted to know more (and I needed health insurance) so I actually enrolled in a few classes.  I did pretty well, and the professors said I was good at it.  So, when I found out that my grandmother and my cousin were both moving into my parents' (two bedroom) house, I realized it was time for me to go to grad school.

I should have just gotten a job as a line cook.  Grad school is not just an easy wonderful place where they give you money to mess around and take classes.  There are expectations.  I realized that, right after I accepted a school, and spent the next six months frantically writing and revising a new novel.

Grad school, for me, is basically a crash course in learning tightrope walking.  I want to be a good student and I want to be a good writer, and although these things are not particularly compatible, they aren't mutually exclusive either.  But I can't just let either one slide, or I will slip right off that rope and be eaten by the tigers below.

My intention for this blog is to talk about the moments where writing fiction and where doing linguistics intersect.  There have been quite a few of them, and I hope having a place where I can think and talk about these moments will let me solve the one big question: does knowing what you're doing actually help you do it?