Friday, February 22, 2019

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS


Review of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by GEORGE R. R. MARTIN
(fifth in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

While I loved this book, I’m afraid I may not have much to say about it, because it feels like more of the same (in a good way). This series skews a little from my usual taste, but I understand the appeal for hardcore fans and am filled with admiration myself for the scope of the work.

I waffle about my feelings on the extreme violence. I agree that it’s period accurate, but it nevertheless feels, for me, at times too gratuitous.

This series features a huge cast and, as a character-centric reader that sometimes frustrates me. I have difficulty remembering everyone or strongly investing in anyone. I tend to prefer a more focused storyline following on one or a few characters; in my opinion, the more character perspectives the less driven the story. More accurately, epic storytelling is a different type of story. By portraying a wide cast of varied people we get more of a sense of humankind overall. Whereas with my preference you form a stronger bond with one or a few fictional people and their individual struggles. That said, for all the names I forget, I’m impressed at how many Martin makes memorable. I know I'm not alone in listing Daenerys as an obvious favorite.

Friday, February 15, 2019

BECOMING A WRITER


Review of BECOMING A WRITER by DOROTHEA BRANDE

This book on writing was published in 1934, but is still remarkably relevant today. It’s slim, but packed with concise and valuable insight, which I find preferable to longer, rambling books.

Most books about writing either focus on: business, craft, or philosophy. BECOMING A WRITER does a little of both the latter two. It addresses the emotional difficulties of writing while also providing some specific exercises. I love when writing books include, well, homework. I find it much more helpful than vague musings on what makes a good book.

Some of my favorite actionable suggestions include walks, self-imposed time-outs, and scheduled writing times. Walks are hardly a new concept for creative professionals, but Brande encourages that while on this walk notice everything. I emphasize that, because it’s easy to read and dismiss without truly considering. Take in the colors. The subtle differences in shade. Assess any man-made structures. Do you know what every part of that structure accomplishes? What each piece is called? Are there people around you? Can you see anything especially interesting about their appearance or body language? As for the time-outs, that’s my word choice. Brande acknowledges that sometimes when we sit down to write, we don’t feel “ready” and it’s easy to procrastinate with others tasks. So instead of allowing oneself to be sidetracked, she suggests that if you aren’t going to write, then go and stand in the corner until you’re ready to write. Odds are it won’t be that long. She also encourages scheduled writing times as a way of training oneself to write on cue rather than becoming too persnickety about the ideal environment for some elusive muse. As she puts it, if you tell yourself you will write every day for ten minutes at 4pm and you find yourself in the middle of a social event at 4pm, promptly get up and leave mid-conversation and perhaps go scrawl for ten minutes on a napkin in the bathroom. While certainly not ideal, difficult experiences like this increase the likelihood that you will plan around your scheduled writing session next time. Treat it like a contract. You said you would write for ten minutes at 4pm. If this is your job, then that is a job expectation. Don’t be an unreliable employee to yourself.

As for the more writing philosophy side of things, I made note of several memorable quotes, not the least of which being: “There is no situation which is trite in itself; there are only dull, unimaginative, or uncommunicative authors.” I cannot agree more.

Don’t write this book off for being old. The content here is relevant for writers today as it was in 1934.  

Friday, February 1, 2019

ABHORSEN


Review of ABHORSEN by GARTH NIX
(third in the ABHORSEN series)

The last book in this series, LIRAEL, felt very much like it cut off in the middle, but that also means that this one, ABHORSEN, jumps right into the action. Whereas LIRAEL started slower, ABHORSEN doesn’t need to waste any time with new set-up and doesn’t relax the tension until we reach the inevitable dramatic conclusion.

Nix sticks out in my mind as an author with a knack for writing content I don’t typically like in a way that I enjoy. Specifically, I’m thinking about action scenes and undead themes. I care most about characters and sometimes find fast-paced novels sacrifice character development for chaotic action scenes. Uninterested in pages of fighting or evasion, I skim ahead for the result. However, when Nix writes an action scene I find myself hanging on every word, invested not only in the outcome but also how we get there. (I think the lesson here is it’s more about balance than sacrificing one for the other. Make me care about the characters first and then I’ll care about their every step.)

As for undead themes, I do not care for vampires, zombies, or ghosts, and find few books that I consider exceptions to that generalization. Perhaps part of why I love Nix’s undead creatures is that they’re not really any of those three things. While it’s fair to call them that (undead creatures), they feel unique, varied, and compelling.

I want to end with a quote from another author about this series, because I agree so heartily. As Philip Pullman put it, SABRIEL is “fantasy that reads like realism.” Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that our heroine in this installment is a librarian.