Monday, October 29, 2012

ALMA ALEXANDER

Interview with Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist, and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website, her Facebook page, or her blog.

What are you reading right now?

I'm in the middle of David Brin's EXISTENCE - a big, complex, involving book with lots of characters and more plot twists than half a dozen pretzels. Pretty nifty read so far. 
What first sparked your interest in writing?
That question has no rational answer, because I didn't have an "interest in writing" that was "sparked" by anything. I simply...always told stories. When I was a still-illiterate child, I made them up and dreamed them and told them to whoever would listen. When I learned to read and write, I began writing them. They've always been there. I suspect they always will be.

Stories sparked my interest in stories. Words. The magic of the told tale. That's all there ever was - and I think that was something I simply came into this world with, fully in place, just waiting until I had the capacity to express it.
What do you love the most about writing? The least? 
Most - the very concept of being able to create your own world and then to invite other people to come live in it with you, at least for a little while, and watching them react at what they find there. There's something enthralling about watching a complete stranger's
face light up with *recognition* at something you've written, and know that you got it right. There's nothing like it.

Least - rewriting and revision. And yes, I do know it is necessary in order to produce the best story that I can. But I hate going over old ground again and again. Perhaps because I know that, if given the opportunity to do so without an endgame in place, I would never stop. You can tweak and tweak and tweak and tweak ad infinitum and you will never quite get to where you are going because there is always going to be one more thing to fix, one more thing to improve, one more thing to make it better. But perfect isn't a destination. It's a journey. And sometimes the journey won't necessarily be the same for the writer and the eventual reader. And sometimes that is hard for a writer like me to internalize.
Tell us a little about your writing process.

And to that I ask, for which book? Because I don't think I’ve ever written two novels the same way.

For one (the single quarter-million-word epic which became the duology HIDDEN QUEEN/CHANGER OF DAYS) it was a single scene written while I was still pursuing my MSC degree in the lab... and then it took me more than half of the eventual book to get around to where that particular scene fit into the entire story arc (and then it took me years of believing in that book before I got it published).

For another (THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI) it was a matter of sitting down with a page of character sketches for ten characters in search of a story... and getting, out of the blue, a newspaper article about a dying language, a secret written language, of the women of China and then watching an entire novel shake down around that as the characters on that page sat up and took notice.

For a third - what became the YA WORLDWEAVERS trilogy - it was a throwaway comment from a panel at a fantasy convention that sparked the idea, and then we were off and running - I wanted an anti-Potter book, about a girl who was the heroine of her own adventures, and something as American as Potter was British.

One thread in common is that I write without an outline - I have a basic picture of the book's geography but no road map, and I go where the story takes me. I cannot work from a detailed outline because once I write that down I feel the story is already written and it kills my instinct to write out the "full" version.

I tell people that the way I write is to plant a story seed. Until it sprouts and shows me leaves and a shape and a potential size I have no idea whether I have planted a cabbage or a redwood. I find out what happens in my stories the same way that my readers do, sometimes. Gasping in utter surprise at What Comes Next...

What are your passions?

Well, writing...

Also, truth and justice and honesty and honour. Sometimes it feels as though these can be in short supply these days in a cynical and jaded world. And I make it my business to seek them out and talk about them and write about them and make them happen to the best of my own ability. My passion involves being the best human being I know how to be and hoping that other people are trying to do the same thing.

What inspires you?

All kinds of everything.

Snow.

Falling leaves.

A haunting melody.

An odd house on a street corner.

Somebody who catches my eye who happens to be having breakfast two tables away from me at a restaurant on a Saturday morning.

Weird newspaper stories about the strange things people do.

LOLcats.

The howl of a wolf.

Watermelons (the taste of summer) or hot chocolate with marshmallows
(the taste of winter)

Waterfalls.

Candlelight.

Other people's secret smiles.

The world.

Why fantasy?

Because everything is fantasy.

Bad fantasy is lies pretending to be reality. And sometimes succeeds. Good fantasy is always true, in some deeper sense. All you have to do is keep your eyes open and you will see it.

Fantasy is an open door into what makes our own world tick.

How was THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI born?
I sat down at a computer one day and typed up ten short paragraphs - each of which was a character sketch for an as yet unnamed character. My husband asked what this was and I said, "My next novel." He said, "What is it about?" And I replied, "I have absolutely no idea."

(I think this is the point where he said, good-naturedly, "I hate you." He's a writer, too. But he doesn't do ideas this way...)

It wasn't until I received, completely arbitrarily and in an unrelated development, a news clipping from a friend that those character sketches sat up and drew a breath and said, yes, that would be us.

The story I was sent concerned nushu, an ancient Chinese written language which was practiced and known only by women, taught by mother to daughter and passed on down through the generations, in which women who were often widely separated from one another geographically used to communicate - women who were not necessarily related by blood but who were sworn friends, something that in my book turned into the jin-shei vow, the sisters-of-the-heart concept.

The rest is history. The story came to me at white heat - I wrote almost 200,000 words in less than three months, and the editing this story subsequently received was minimal, so perfectly formed was the tale as it was being born. It was a gift from the gods of writing, and if I never write another like it I will be forever grateful for being shown what was possible when all the stars aligned...

Did THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI require a lot of research?

It did, and its follow-up book, EMBERS OF HEAVEN - I don't like to call it a sequel because it isn't really although it is set in the same world some 400 years after THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI - needed even more. I pored over biographies, histories, geographical tomes on China. I read up about its languages, its religions, its customs, its myths. Sometimes this was so that I could learn what rules or contexts I could break to make my own story better. Other times the things I needed came to me practically on demand. I remember going in to study Western alchemy and its practices with the idea of playing with them so that I could make them more "Chinese" to fit into my story and being presented, much to my absolute astonishment, with a home-grown Chinese version of alchemical lore which came read-made for me to use. I found original Chinese myths and legends, which dovetailed perfectly with the story I was telling.

It was one heck of a journey. I learned a lot. Much of it made its way into the books about jin-shei, but not all of it did - and I still cherish that part of my knowledge which came to me as a gift from my stories, something for me to keep, a treasure of words and pictures and ideas, all of which affected and changed and taught me.

In general when I tangle with a fat historical fantasy of an idea I feel compelled to research the time period I am writing in pretty thoroughly - even if I then change things within that context so that my story may live inside it. Research is an essential tool in my
toolbox, and I never set sail into storyland without it.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Read. Read, read, read, read, read,

Write and practice. Realize that you will discard 90% of your early efforts. Realize that this is what they are for.

Write some more.

Oh, and did I mention, read? Keep reading. There is no true course or school or diploma that will make you a writer. Experience will. Immersion in other people's excellence will. Reading is how you learn to write.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I write.

I blog (at http://anghara.livejournal.com, at www.StorytellersUnplugged on the 30th of every month, and at www.SFNovelists.com on the 5th of every month).

I have a Facebook page (come along and "like" it if you will!).

I am also (somewhat reluctantly) on Twitter, so feel free to follow me there, too.

I'm on Goodreads as well.

I have two main websites where you can keep up with what's going on in my writing life and my books, and they are at www.AlmaAlexander.org and www.AlmaAlexander.com.

 I'd love to see you there.

Oh, and if you buy any of my books from Village Books, I'd be happy to sign them for you, just ask the folks at the store to call me and ask me to drop in and do it.

I write. I hope you like reading. I hope you'll consider reading my stories. See you at Village Books soon.

Friday, October 26, 2012

TANGLED WEBS


Review of TANGLED WEBS by ANNE BISHOP
(sixth in THE BLACK JEWELS series) 

This installment in THE BLACK JEWELS universe follows Surreal, to my excitement. As much as I love the characters in this series, some of them occasionally blend together with so many similar traits and interests. From her past to her personality to her dialogue, Surreal always stands out. When an enemy takes extreme revenge against the SaDiablo family, she feels the brunt of it by finding herself prisoner in a booby-trapped haunted house. 

QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS paired up most of the characters into heterosexual romances. Surreal and Falonar seemed a happy fit for the brief snippet we saw them together in that book, but in TANGLED WEBS we discover things didn't exactly work out. Surreal knew her past as a whore and an assassin wouldn't make romantic relationships easy, but she's still crushed when she discovers that Falonar's interest lay more in casual sex with a skilled woman than a real relationship and that his ego cannot tolerate being with a woman who outmatches him in magical strength, physical strength, stamina, agility, cunning - you name it. To make the blow worse, he wastes no time picking up with the woman he really loves. This is all background to the plot about the haunted house, but that's yet another of Bishop's writerly knacks: working in plenty of plot threads, including mundane and/or non-magical issues that hit the mark. For example, there's also a string running through the story about Lucivar's shame at his trouble reading (since he comes from a race that values physical feats over intellectual) and his fear that his educated, cultured father and brother look down on him for that underdeveloped skill. 

TANGLED WEBS has quite a different feel than previous BLACK JEWELS novels. The premise makes it more of a thriller story, for starters. Surreal and other characters find themselves trapped in someone's sick game and impeding obstacles will pick them off one by one until they find an escape. 

MINOR SPOILER ALERT 

My only qualm is that I wish Surreal played a greater role in rescuing herself and the others. There's so much talk in this book, and its predecessors, about Surreal as a competent, capable, and flat-out dangerous fighter that it's a bit of a let down when someone else comes along to save the day.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Art of Reading: Series


The Art of Reading: Series

All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post's theme: series. Do you read series? (You know, duologies, trilogies, quartets, or those so long that we just call them series.) What do you do when only part of the series has been published? Do you wait for all the books to come out? Or do you read them as they’re available? Do you re-read the old ones to ensure you remember everything when a new book’s released?

I try as much as possible to read series straight through: wait for all the books to be published before starting number one and then read the entire series consecutively. I treat a series as a large book. If the work's done well, that's what it should feel like, an extra long story that has been artfully separated in terms of smaller stories. (Whenever possible, I like to buy omnibus editions so it really does feel like one big book.) I've mentioned before that I don't like to re-read books, so that's part of why I do this. When I wait too long between books, I forget too much, leaving me with the unsatisfying choice of either re-reading a book at the loss of time to read a new one or forging ahead and most likely struggling through the latest in the series with a foggy memory of characters and events.

I'm not as firm about this habit as a I used to be, though, mostly because I have access to advance reading copies now and if a publisher, editor, or author takes the time to send me a copy of their book before it's released I feel an obligation to read it, or at least try, before the release date rather than stashing it away until the rest of the series is published. However, with books that aren't advance reading copies I still hoard the series until I have the last one before I start reading.

Obviously, this system has its drawbacks. Take George R. R. Martin's A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. I own all the books published so far, but haven't started the first one. I believe there are two more books expected to come out, but Martin takes a very long time writing each one and there's speculation that he might not even finish the series. This touches on a couple of issues with my habit. First, there's a ton of buzz about these books right now; they come up in readerly conversations often and I'm missing out. Second, there's a television adaptation, but I don't want to watch that before I read the books. Another issue occurs if you wait to buy the books until they're all published: that's less supportive for the authors. What if the first two books in a trilogy don't sell well and the publisher cancels the third - your purchase would have been helpful in ensuring the third's publication. When I know without a doubt that I want to read a series, I do still buy the books as they come out; I just don't read them yet!

Despite these flaws, I still find reading an entire series straight through preferable. This way there's no "settling" period at the start of each book as I recall the characters, past events, and the tone of the story. I already remember those things, because most likely I just finished the previous book that same day, probably minutes earlier. I also find it easier to slide into the fictional world, to actually invest in characters as well as their relationships and choices when I don’t leave big gaps of months or years between returning to their story.

On this topic, I've met some people who simply refuse to read series at all. They give various reasons, but I've picked out a few common trends. First, they, like me, worry about forgetting too much in between books but also don't want to re-read all the old ones every time a new installment comes out. Second, series can be confusing! Some publishers make it blatantly clear that a book is in a series, how many books are in that series, and the order of the books. (I applaud those who choose that approach!) However, other publishers sometimes make an active effort to conceal the fact that a book is part of a series in hopes of "hooking" readers with the first one, perhaps even readers who normally avoid series. (That technique drives me crazy: I feel like I'm being lied to and manipulated when I would have bought the book anyway.) Many readers have had frustrating experiences when they read a book and discover halfway through that it's the second in a quartet or they finish a book they thought was a standalone only to read a cliffhanger ending and find out the next book won't be published for a year or two. Experiences like these turn some readers against series in general - it's just too much work to figure out how many books you need to read in what order.

What about you? Do you read series? If so, do you try to read them straight through? If not, do you need to re-read all the old books when the latest comes out?

Friday, October 19, 2012

UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS


Review of UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS by LAUREL SNYDER
(review based on an advance reading copy)

While I read plenty of young adult literature, I don't often venture into middle reader ground. I tend to find anything below YA a little young for my tastes. However, skilled writers prove again and again that with the best stories, target age becomes irrelevant.

I found the tone of UP AND DOWN THE SCRATCHY MOUNTAINS playful and humorous. The story moves quickly. Of course, it has to with the shorter format! Young Lucy rides a fine line between adventurous and egocentric, though I gave her extra wiggle room when she forgets to consider others before taking action since she's much younger than most protagonists I encounter. When her friend Wynston, a local prince, abandons their usual play-date in favor of studying potential brides, Lucy runs off up the mountain in hopes of an adventure, an escape, and maybe even finding her mother - since her father never elaborates on what exactly "she's gone" means.

I enjoyed every page, but the more serious, stirring ending steps away from the fun, lighthearted romp of the rest of the book for the better. Readers will likely figure out this final revelation long before Lucy, but her reaction still cuts to the heart. The child in me, though, isn't content with the explanation of what happened to Rosebud!

Monday, October 15, 2012

DREAMS MADE FLESH


Review of DREAMS MADE FLESH by ANNE BISHOP
(fifth in THE BLACK JEWELS series) 

This book compiles four stories set in THE BLACK JEWELS universe. Lighter in tone than the original trilogy, the tales provide a chance for readers (and the writer) to play a little more with beloved characters. "Zuulaman" aside, the stories have a sweet and comforting feel that balances out the despair and tragedy overwhelming the initial trilogy. 

First: "Weaver of Dreams," an abstract look at the magical spiders who spin tangled webs. Told in tiny snippets, this little bit of a story makes more sense combined with the last one, "Kaeleer's Heart." Readers have been informed time and time again that Jaenelle - or rather Witch, which isn't her entire identity - embodies "dreams made flesh." Witch only comes in times of great need and these peculiar spiders gather the longing dreams and yearning fantasies of everyone wishing for a larger than life savior with a sense of honor and tradition and a kind heart. If the spiders have enough material, they can spin the dreams together into something real.

Second: "The Prince of Ebon Rih," which takes place between the events of HEIR TO THE SHADOWS and QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS. In the third book of the trilogy, Lucivar's suddenly married, so this story tells how he and Marian met and fell in love. Bishop has always walked the genre line between romance and fantasy, but this story's the first of her work that struck me more as romance. She's mentioned in previous books that Blood males can go into "ruts." Like many aspects of the Blood, this concept comes from real nature. When a Blood male goes into a rut, his aggressive instincts overpower all else and he becomes a dangerous threat. He picks one woman and focuses his more or less insatiable sexual needs on her for a few days. If he can't find a willing woman whom he desires in turn the need twists into violence. (Sounds like a useful writer's tool to skip over a long courting process and throw a man and woman in bed together, huh?) I've always admired Bishop's talent for juxtaposing the dramatic against the mundane and that skill’s sharply pronounced in “The Prince of Ebon Rih.” Right now I'm thinking of cold toes. Read the story and you'll know what I mean. The ending comes off a little hurried and abrupt, but all in all a warm (and, yes, I mean warm-sweet and warm-steamy) story that shows Lucivar and Marian fit well together. 

Third: "Zuulaman," the exception to the upbeat tone of this collection. Fair enough, since the story takes place before the original trilogy, during the darker times. Now this tale is verrrry dramatic. For those who read the trilogy, it's along the lines of Jaenelle's statement, "I’ll adhere to the Council’s decision when the sun next rises." Some will likely find Saetan's actions (and the fact that he can do that) overdone, but Bishop's a skilled writer and she always wins my adoration, even with the stuff I would find indulgently dramatic in a less capable writer's hands. Saetan’s still married to Hekatah in "Zuulaman.” Not happily. She married the High Lord of Hell for the power she assumed such a position would grant her, but Saetan rules his people with a wise and compassionate hand and won't indulge his pretty new wife if the outcome will hurt innocent people. So Hekatah uses their son as a bargaining chip and discovers the temper behind Saetan's calm exterior. 

Last: "Kaeleer's Heart," which takes place right after the end of the trilogy. I treasure this story, because QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS had a happily-ever-after type ending, despite being bittersweet. By adding all these sequels, Bishop shows readers what happens after the happily-ever-after, and in the process gives her characters more depth. In "Kaeleer's Heart," Daemon and Jaenelle's relationship teeters on a cliff edge. They're drifting apart, and, thanks to poor communication on both their parts, neither knows why. It's refreshing seeing such strong characters show their insecurities and a liberating reminder that even the happiest couples don't have a perfectly smooth ride. Aside from her troubles with Daemon, Jaenelle, "dreams made flesh," also feels the weight of everyone's expectations crushing down on her. She saved the world in QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS, but she sacrificed her tremendous power to do so. She's lucky to be alive at all, but still her former court mourns the loss of her immense power. No one knows what to think of her new jewel, Twilight's Dawn, which fluctuates in its strength - most of the time falling on the weaker side. Only Jaenelle appreciates the silver lining. Her Ebony power was so great that she couldn't do simple craft; she could perform impossible, remarkable feats but she couldn't channel a small amount of magic. Now she can! Her gleeful realization that she can now summon her shoes with magic made me laugh out loud. Another sweet ending and this one ties into "Weaver of Dreams" with a comforting and moving revelation.

Friday, October 12, 2012

FURY'S FIRE

Review of FURY'S FIRE by LISA PAPADEMETRIOU
(sequel to SIREN'S STORM, review based on an advance reading copy)

Starting FURY'S FIRE felt distinctive from starting any other "second book in a series." When I considered why, I realized most authors leave, if not a cliffhanger, an established setup/problem for the next book. Sure, we have a sense of the main conflict in FURY'S FIRE, but little more than a sense. After the dramatic conclusion in SIREN'S STORM, we know Gretchen isn't quite human, but we don't know exactly what she is (the smart money's on "Fury," though) or what this twist means. Even if we run with the idea that Gretchen's obviously a Fury, that territory isn't nearly as well-charted as sirens/mermaids, leaving the reader with much fuzzier predictions about Gretchen’s potential gifts, curses, capabilities, background, etc.

Once again, Papademetriou takes a realistic approach to fantasy. The story’s shrouded in mystery and suspense, but the fantasy element remains downplayed while the focus steers towards emotions and powerful sensory detail. I read plenty of authors skilled with sensory description and plenty of works that make me pause my reading and admire an especially beautiful or accurate portrayal of a minute detail, but every now and then you discover an author who raises the bar higher than you knew possible. Lisa Papademetriou and Janni Lee Simner hold the record for best sensory detail I've read, both able to bring the world to life in my mind with impressive layers and depth. I'm not just talking about liking the book, or understanding or relating to characters' emotions, or picturing the setting in my mind. Papademetriou and Simner are the only two authors who can actually make me feel like I'm there; from smelling the air to hearing inflection in dialogue, both these authors know how to say a lot with few words.

The romance in this story also feels satisfyingly different. The slow build creates a stronger sense of genuine, layered love than shallow or temporary infatuation. Love in literature can often be extremely demanding, perhaps for drama and conflict, but what's between Will and Gretchen feels more healing than draining, a refreshing change! Also I'm a big believer that the best romantic relationships have a strong friendship underneath the romance and Will and Gretchen fit that model.

It's easy to say that the story builds to an intense climax, but that's not quite right. "Building" or "climbing" suggests a metaphorical hike up towards the peak of a cliff where the climax takes place. Rather we meander around the base of the mountain for most of the book until all of a sudden, the ground falls away and you're on the cliff with no recollection of how you got there. Yes, this style doesn't work for some people, but I personally loved it and found the abrupt, breakneck endings of both books unusual and fun. When much of literature can be summarized in trends, I always admire authors who do what feels right for their story.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Retold Fairy Tales


Discussion Topic: Retold Fairy Tales - Keep 'Em Coming or Enough Already?

I'm a guest blogger for Random House's blog - Random Acts of Reading. In July 2012, they asked us for retold fairy tale suggestions. This immediately put me in mind of the people I've met at conferences who groan and roll their eyes whenever someone describes a book as a "twist" on something or other. "I'm so sick of retellings," I've heard more times than I can count. In contrast, others like myself can't get enough of them. I love when an author can transform stale, familiar material into something new; I consider such works one of the many miracles of great storytelling. I agree about disliking retold fairy tales that aren't...retold enough.  What's different and special about this version? I always ask. What exactly the author changes and how opens up entire new worlds and discussions.

One can, and many do, argue that no story is unique. Everything builds off that which came before. The layers, however, distinguish each retelling. The question remains: how many new layers conceal the story's roots? People who dislike retold fairy tales might find the influence too obvious. Not to mention that sometimes describing a book as a retold fairy tale becomes a spoiler in itself! Well, I already know that story, someone might think. Why not try something new? As I've already said, I dislike retold fairy tales that haven't been reworked enough, but what I love about well-executed retold fairy tales is the evidence that there's always another perspective or angle we haven't considered. Humanity will be retelling the same stories again and again until the end of time.

Speaking of the end of time, this tradition of building off each other goes back to the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of humanity. Humans wouldn't accomplish nearly as much if we didn't frequently add onto work someone else completed. I remember, back in junior high, being rather annoyed with a school project. Students had to research and present about the inventors of certain modern technologies or appliances. It didn't even take that much research before I noted a significant flaw in this assignment. We were expected to present on the one inventor of individual items, but, even in cases where we commonly attribute credit to one specific person, almost all creations/inventions/discoveries are a collection of different accomplishments. If we look at television, Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of selenium, and Paul Nipkow invented the scanning disk, but those are only two pieces necessary for that invention puzzle.  Or take the lightbulb. Thomas Edison or Joseph Swan most commonly receive single-name credit for that creation when in truth historians can pinpoint many scientists prior to both Edison and Swan with their own variations or contributions to a now common technology. Collaboration is essential in scientific fields, but what some people don't realize is how equally vital collaboration is in creative fields. Have you ever read something and then your imagination took the worldbuilding a step further? Wow, that detail's intriguing, but what if...? A new story is born.

Consider dystopian fiction, a current trend, from the point of view of an editor or literary agent. When a dystopian manuscript comes across your desk, the very first thing you want to know is: what makes this one different? The same can be said of retold fairy tales. There's nothing wrong with building off established stories (or writing to trends), as long as you build something new. Complex worldbuilding, for example, runs through all the retold stories I love. It shouldn't feel like the author has intruded on someone else's imaginary world, but like they've discovered an alternate universe bearing similarities to the original and still completely its own.


Curious for examples? ASH by Malinda Lo jumps to mind, especially since Lo's so open about what inspired this story. Short version: because it's one she wanted to read! Readers often describe ASH as a lesbian twist on Cinderella, but I feel that description's still too simplistic, implying that difference alone makes ASH unique. Not true. Lo also makes the fairy godmother figure male and otherwordly and as creepy as he is helpful. His gifts come with a price and his magic doesn't feel pure and self-sacrificing - try sinister and self-serving. Then there's Ash, our Cinderella, a heartbreaking and more realistic portrayal of how someone with her childhood might behave.

Gail Carson Levine's Cinderella twist ELLA ENCHANTED earned readers' admiration and devotion over a decade ago. In this case, the universal morals and themes about helplessness and taking control of your own life become far more important than the recognizable fairy tale influence. Working from the model of Snow White, Levine also wrote FAIREST, an exploration of how we value ourselves. While lacking in beauty (what sometimes seems most admired and coveted), Aza possesses other gifts, but even those could prove curses if she only uses her talents for others' wishes.

Mette Ivie Harrison, a thoroughly underappreciated author in my opinion, has also crafted a striking Snow White twist, MIRA MIRROR (sadly, now out-of-print). The magic of that story has stuck with me. While so many authors gift their characters with almost limitless power or only focus on the positives and ideals about magic, Harrison has a real knack for balancing perks and sacrifice. If you can track down a copy, MIRA MIRROR is definitely worth reading! Thankfully, though, THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND and sequels, also by Mette Ivie Harrison, are still readily available. THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND plays with another fairy tale, The Beauty and the Beast, although I hesitate even mentioning the inspiration stories for Harrison's work, since she forms such striking, compelling worlds and tales that the influence almost becomes lost within the retelling. Those looking hard for a predictable Beauty and the Beast storyline in THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND will find themselves confused or disappointed. Harrison strays far from the original fairy tales and sometimes her stories feel like retellings only in a phantom sense, but that's exactly what makes her books so incredible!

Gregory Maguire is most well-known for WICKED, his twist on Frank Baum's Oz world. However, he also wrote many other fairy tale retellings, including CONFESSIONS OF AN UGLY STEPSISTER and MIRROR MIRROR. In this case, I don't think one reads Maguire's work because they're looking for a twist on a classic. His writing makes his books distinct and, in fact, has a rather polar effect on readers. Some love the vivid description while others find his style too dense and wordy. This demonstrates that sometimes it's not even a particular plot twist that makes a retelling unique. It could be the writing, the setting, one vivid character, a new outlook/interpretation, etc.

Margo Lanagan's retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, TENDER MORSELS, isn't for the faint of heart! I read an interview with Lanagan in Locus magazine and she mentions her motivation for writing TENDER MORSELS: she didn't find it believable in the original fairy tale that this mother and her two daughters just get their own personal, perfect, saccharine heaven. So she imagined what kind of trauma might make someone need a metaphorical "other world" to which they could retreat and heal. Emphasis on the word trauma and a repetition of my warning: not for the faint of heart. The ending, though, elevated TENDER MORSELS far above average and made all the violence and horror serve a purpose.

Rather than retell one story, some authors create mash-ups of familiar tales, such as Adam Gidwitz's Grimm books: A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and IN A GLASS GRIMMLY. By their nature, mash-ups already have more potential for uniqueness rather than redundancy. In A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, each chapter twists a different fairy tale while Hanzel and Gretel connect all the smaller stories with an overarching narrative. IN A GLASS GRIMMLY proves an especially strong example of a twist/retelling that stands on its own with an original and heartwarming moral.

MERMAID by Carolyn Turgeon fits into this discussion nicely, though I hesitate mentioning a book I haven't yet read! Why this novel made my to-read list, though, ties into an earlier point. I already explained that part of my fondness for retold fairy tales stems from the concept that there's always another perspective unexplored. Turgeon's book describes itself as a twist on The Little Mermaid. However, this story follows "the other woman." You know the one. The one the prince marries in the real Hans Christian Anderson tale. The one Ursula disguises herself as in the Disney version. The one who finds the prince on the beach after the little mermaid saves him. In most versions, she's a secondary character if she receives that much attention, so I am mighty curious how Turgeon played in this underexplored territory.

Last, if we stray away from fairy tales, we still find a bounty of retellings. NOBODY'S PRINCESS by Esther Friesner spins the Helen of Troy legend. I love that duology, since Friesner balances sticking to the original story with giving Helen more personality and spunk. True to mythology, Helen doesn't escape her captors. However, in NOBODY'S PRINCESS that's not for lack of trying! You know what else winds up retold again and again and again? That's right: Shakespeare. Both DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor and ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE by Tamora Pierce, among countless others, contain Shakespearian roots (from Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, respectively), although both stories weave in so many layers and twists that the Shakespearian influence becomes buried in the new story.

Whether fairy tales, mythology, Shakespeare, or something else entirely, people like retelling stories. We like looking at something someone else created, but adding our own perspective. That new perspective then creates new conversations. In literature specifically, what the author changes in each new version makes its own point. Starting with a known story presents established storylines, characters, and morals, but also challenges the author to subvert, rather than confirm, the reader's expectations. Writers, keep the twists coming, because I for one doubt we'll ever run out of brand new ways to tell the same story.

What about you? Do you like retold fairy tales? Hate them? Why or why not?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Random Acts of Reading - Banned Books



SCORED


Review of SCORED by LAUREN MCLAUGHLIN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This is one of those rare books that ranks highly in terms of both entertainment and intellectual value. I had already heard of McLaughlin. She wrote a book called CYCLER that made it onto my to-read list, but, sadly, went out-of-print before I made time for it. However, I enjoyed SCORED so much that I'm going to track down all McLaughlin's other novels, out-of-print or not!

The voice hooked me from the start. McLaughlin's characters pop with unique, complex, realistic personalities, and she's notably skilled at working in important information exactly when the reader needs it, without detracting from the story, of course. The reader in me jumped into this novel headfirst and loved every moment while the writer in me analyzed and learned from an impressive talent. Also - since some books might have great openings but then can't live up to that implicit promise - let me specify that SCORED only becomes more engrossing, more intriguing, more impacting as the story unfolds.

Let's put a pause on the gushing so I can describe SCORED. McLaughlin's world is a near future to our own. Frustrated with the inability of GPA and SAT scores to realistically measure a student's future potential, tech geniuses created highly intelligent software that can analyze everything about an individual - including tone, word choice, expression, body language, etc. - and then estimate their potential on a 0 to 100 scale. In scored towns, cameras are everywhere, monitoring the teenagers for their monthly score posting. Score high and life will be smooth: any college will take you on a full-ride scholarship and you can handpick your career path. Score low and doors start closing. Thus, scored teenager's lives become devoted to improving, or at least maintaining, their score. 90s only interact with other 90s. 80s with 80s, etc, out of fear that acknowledging someone with a lower score than your own could cause yours to slip by negative association. So that's the world. Enter Imani, our protagonist, and her best friend, Cady. As kids, Imani and Cady made a pact: a pact to stay friends no matter how their scores changed. Unfortunately, loyalty doesn't score high and, as Cady's score starts plummeting, Imani must decide whether loyalty's worth sacrificing her entire future or if she should wipe her hands of Cady before her own score becomes irredeemable. I hope that alone intrigues anyone who hasn't read the book, but I'll add that I'm only covering the first few chapters. The dynamics of the score and Imani's worldview will make more than one remarkable shift before this book reaches its end. 

While one can turn their brain off and simply enjoy SCORED as an entertaining story, I'm not sure why you'd want to with this bounty of timely, urgent issues. Two in particular leaped out at me (though there are plenty of other obvious and more subtle themes, such as wealth and economics). First, scored teenagers learn to value themselves only in terms of their score, a trend mirrored in reality with GPAs and other academic measurements. They sacrifice any other sense of self-worth for a high academic standing. As someone who loves learning, but has many problems with structured education, this underexplored (at least in YA lit) theme is near and dear to my heart and I was thrilled when I realized it's the core of McLaughlin's story. Second, peer pressure, which might be explored to death in YA lit but never grows old. McLaughlin approaches peer pressure from the less common long-term ambition angle (rather than immediate gratification about being liked right now). For those who take their score seriously, all relationships are expendable. Cut 'em before you go down with 'em.

I hope this book makes its way into the education system. High school and college English classes alike could significantly benefit from discussing these themes.

Monday, October 1, 2012

THE PILLARS OF THE WORLD

Review of THE PILLARS OF THE WORLD by ANNE BISHOP
(first in the TIR ALAINN trilogy) 

So far, I've adored everything I've ever read by Anne Bishop and only her TIR ALAINN trilogy remained on my to-read list. It far exceeded even my high expectations! The story grabbed my complete attention early on and wouldn't release me. I tore through all three books in about five days (already busy days at that). 

I never read the description of this series; I bought all three books simply because Anne Bishop has wowed me every time. So it pleasantly surprised me when I realized the story deals with the Fae, some of my favorite fantastical material. Bishop's take on the Fae hits that right balance of unique but familiar. Certain themes carry through many fairy stories, but Bishop makes these characters and their world her own. For a short description: the Fae live in their own beautiful, magical world called Tir Alainn with bridges between clans as well as the human world, which they only consider worthy of the occasional novelty visit, often in search of human play things. However, those bridges are fading, cutting Tir Alainn off from the human world and sometimes from each other. They don't understand why, but human witches like Ari might hold the answer. 

What I've read of Bishop so far frequently fixates on gender and this trilogy follows that trend. However, rather than the more common dynamic in literature of an already male-dominated society that persecutes women, the females in this world are originally recognized as equals until an antagonist comes along who intends to change that. 

I'm not a big fan of love triangles, mostly because I consider them easy drama and they're rarely handled to my satisfaction. However, Bishop can go on my exceptions list. (Also, I don't think I've noticed her write a love triangle in her other work, which suggests it's certainly not her go-to drama bomb.) The triangle in this book riveted me...however, perhaps not for the reasons one might think. Honestly, I don't think either guy is right for Ari and I kept crossing my fingers that she would wipe her hands of both and go her own way. If you're curious for specifics, Lucian has no respect for Ari and no interest in her outside the bedroom. As Fae, he clings to the belief that he's her superior, beyond measure, and she should weep with gratitude that he would want to bed a simple, dull human like her. Yes, what goes on in the bedroom is steamy, but I don't want Ari stuck with a man who clearly views her as a possession, to be discarded once he's bored with her. Neall, however, seems a perfect fit on paper. He's sweet and he cares about Ari as an individual. They've been friends since childhood and he always considers her well-being, sometimes over his own. Unfortunately, I never sensed a single instance that suggested Ari feels anything towards Neall other than lukewarm friendship. I didn't want her settling for a "paper-perfect" guy towards whom she feels zero attraction, either. Kind of depressing when the setup suggests: "You can have a nice guy or you can have one you find attractive. Not both. Don't be greedy, now." 

I loved Bishop's take on the Fae. They're the embodiment of arrogance. This isn't a new interpretation of these timeless beings, (Full disclosure: I'm currently working on my own book that features fey with intense superiority complexes.) but Bishop hits the emotions smack in the bullseye. Such arrogance (and pride) could be the flaw that leads to the Fae's downfall. Not to mention that such characters serve as a metaphor for any human group that separates themselves out from the rest and looks down with haughty sniffs on "the others." 

The last detail I want to mention is that Bishop pulls off one of my favorite twists in stories. Friends turned foes. It's not an easy turnabout, but the result is incredible when an author succeeds. It near breaks my heart when characters I've come to love turn against each other, especially when I can sympathize with both but still recognize the unnecessary or, even more tragic, unavoidable division between them. 

And, yes, the end had me scrambling for book two.