Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sarah's Garden

Gardens grow, as do people.

Sarah King is a young Amish woman who is happiest when tending her plants, but one day her sheltered and routine life changes. I’ve always lived in apartments so I tend to vicariously enjoy other people’s gardens, and I requested Kelly Long’s novel Sarah's Garden from Thomas Nelson as part of their Booksneeze program.

First Sarah has to supervise her family’s roadside stand, bringing her into contact with both an enemy of her family and with foreigners who ask odd questions, such as whether they can buy her dress (!). Then a young veterinarian, Grant Williams, opens a rural practice in her community. He falls in love with Sarah and she begins to care for him.

But while Grant is a good man and as devout as she is, he’s not Amish. Marrying him would mean separation from her family and society. Finally Sarah – despite not being much of a quilter – has to make a quilt for her sister’s first child. She learns to grow, to do what seems too difficult at first, and this stands her in good stead for later events.

This is a sweet and slow-moving romance, with as much emphasis on the daily life of the Amish as on Sarah’s developing relationship with Grant. If you enjoy gardening, you’ll love the descriptions of plants. I had no idea there were so many varieties of tomato – and in a multitude of different colors and shapes (like teardrops).

There were also enough descriptions of food – apple butter and potato cakes and peanut brittle – to make me hungry. The resolution of the plot was less satisfying. Sarah’s father makes it clear that in the past, when outsiders have converted to the Amish ways to marry one of them, it hasn’t ended happily, so it seemed strange that he would give his consent after Grant’s conversion.

It would also have been more realistic to show Grant’s struggle to do without the conveniences he’s used to, like a telephone, an Internet connection and a car. So that part of the story didn’t ring quite true. But if you like a happy rural atmosphere reminiscent of the Little House books, with plenty of cooking, gardening, quilting and even poetry in a community very different from most modern societies, this is a pleasant read.

Just one thing puzzled me. Is it normal among the Amish to have one’s cap strings hanging artistically loose like that?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Toy Story 3

Hello. This review of Toy Story 3 is brought to you by Marian’s oldest toy. My name is Teddy.

I know, imaginative. What can I say, we all thought she’d grow up to write technical manuals. Anyway, back to the movie. Gotta do this quickly before I go back into the suitcase.

Andy, the little boy of the first two movies, is all grown up now and ready to go to college – which leaves the fate of his toys up in the air. He decides to take Woody with him (though even if he did, I’ll bet Woody would be deep-sixed the moment a girl came over for a study date). But the other toys?

After being mistaken for trash, they end up at the Sunnyside Day Care, which turns out to be like Cowslip’s warren in Watership Down. The toys already living there, who know what the deal is, welcome the newbies with open paws. Except it’s all part of a plan on the part of Lotso, the bear who runs Sunnyside.

Lotso come across as warm, avuncular and folksy, but he’s a wolf in teddy bear fur. Cold and cynical thanks to being replaced by his owner, he’s turned Sunnyside into a maximum-security prison complete with patrols, torture and a really disturbing “eye in the sky”. His chief enforcer is Big Baby, who reminded me of Sid’s baby-headed toy in the first Toy Story, except about a hundred times more freakish and scary.

Thankfully I never had to live with one of those; the My Little Ponies were vapid enough.

So of course Woody comes up with one of his plans to break the toys out, which ends with a scene that reminded me of Frodo and Sam poised over the lava in Mount Doom. In other words, maybe not a scene really small kids should watch.

Then again, I don’t think this film is made for them. The Toy Story films have always had fairly serious themes of rejection and loss, but this one underlines the fact that sometimes, change is not only inevitable but irreversible. It’s not like the first film where Andy’s fondness for Woody remains despite his apparently greater fascination with Buzz, restoring the status quo at the end. And there’s a bittersweet poignancy that’s reflected in everything, from Buster the (now elderly) dog to Andy’s departure.

Makes me wonder what would have happened to Hobbes if Calvin had ever grown up. He’d probably have ended up in a suitcase too.

But there’s much more to the film than its sad moments and the whole Sunnyside-as-Dachau concept. The trademark action sequences and the humor are very much in evidence, such as in Buzz’s dance after he’s switched to Spanish mode. My favorite line was when a recovered Buzz asks where they are and Rex replies with delight, “In a garbage truck, on the way to the dump!”

And I’m not surprised Ken was won over to the good side after hearing Barbie’s reply to Lotso: “Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!” She’s come a long way since “Math is so hard!” Rowr.

I hope they let the series end here. Let it go out on this high note, with the symbolic torch being passed on to a new generation. The toys have more than earned that.

Now I’m off to organize a mass escape from the suitcase.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Review roundup

Almost three months since Before the Storm was released, and it's got some great reviews!

Janicu's Book Blog:

I enjoyed the way their relationship progressed. It happens slowly so you see the beginnings of respect and attraction that turn into more. It was refreshing that Alex doesn’t find Robert attractive until she gets to know him.

That's exactly what I wanted to show in the story. Not only is Robert plain to look at, he's well aware that the woman he cares for is used to men who are far more handsome and experienced.

Vivian Arend at Romance, Hot and Wild:

I really enjoyed being able to take in the land in bite-sized pieces. To be able to try and balance in my mind the twists I could see coming and the delightfully unexpected. For example, there is a trap laid near the start of the book, but you’re not sure until it springs what exactly the consequences will be.

This was a very inspiring review because I'm halfway through the sequel, During the Fire, and trying to make that even more twist-y, since it's a fantasy/murder mystery.

Finally, from The Long and the Short of it:

As a “mare”, the polite term for a woman who is used for sexual gratification, Alex has spent eleven years in servitude to Stephen Garnath.

Women can be owned and abused, but there must be a polite term for that! Dagre is wonderfully messed up in its priorities.

Then again, so is the rest of Eden.

But the character I enjoyed the most was Alex: watching her go from The Black Mare, Stephen’s most favored “servant” to a strong, independent woman who finds the first real desire she has ever felt with Robert.

She was fun to write - snarky, manipulative, utterly self-controlled but vulnerable underneath. I'm glad readers enjoyed her. And there's also a Book of the Week poll at The Long and the Short of it. Vote for this review the best review!

Now, back to writing. Which reminds me of a LiveJournal icon I have:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Animals with wheels

I read a discussion about why it’s highly unlikely that animals would evolve wheels.

From what I gathered, the wheel and axle are not only composed of several different parts but the wheel would need to revolve in a way that’s not compatible with muscle structure. I might handwave my way past that in fantasy, but there’s a further concern. The wheel does best on flat smooth surfaces. It’s difficult to imagine wheeled creatures achieving any great speed in forests or plains or marshes.

Bacteria do have wheel-like structures which power their flagella (tiny whip-like tendrils that rotate rapidly and permit them to swim, swarm, tumble, etc). But they’re working in a fluid environment that permits them much more freedom of movement.

On the other hand, there are wheeled creatures in both science fiction and fantasy. I watched Return to Oz years ago, but still remember the Wheelers – humanoid beings with wheels for hands and feet – because they ended up harnessed to Mombi’s chariot and whipped to even greater speeds.

They were unnerving enough as-was. But they could have done even more if they had the ability to move or retract their wheels and allow hands to emerge.

Of course, wheeled creatures would be best adapted to roads or road-like structures, but given the popularity of urban fantasy, there’s no reason such mechanimals couldn’t turn up in futuristic or fantastic cities. They’d fit right into a place like New Crobuzon.

And I’ve read that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has creatures which “use natural roads on the planet's surface formed from cobalt ribbons. Their wheels are also a tool rather than a body part.”

Animals could also create such roads. If they have wheels, why shouldn’t they also have the magic to lay down roads just before them? Such roads could wind through an environment or could float just above the surface of a marsh or desert, like the path in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”.

Being magical rather than physical structures, they would also dissipate after a few seconds, so they would offer no advantage to any predator pursuing the wheeled creature.

The other advantage of wheel-like structures is that they can be damaging. Not only a la the chariot race from Ben-Hur, but similar to flywheels with serrated edges. Such a creature might not even need speed; its sheer weaponry would be enough to keep it safe.

What are your thoughts on wheeled animals?

Image from: http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/91805515

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Free books (and exposure!)

Lynn Price's blog had a post about people who ask writers for freebie copies, inspired by a post on The Intern. The comments section for the latter has many suggestions on what to do if you can't afford a copy but would really like to read the book nevertheless, so it's worth checking out.

Only one person I know has asked me for a free copy of my book when it comes out in print. But that was puzzling enough because the lady who asked for it is, well, rich. I used to work in a very upper-class school in Dubai and she had two kids there, so that was how we met. Her husband is a senior executive in a company. So I'm not sure why she'd ask for a free copy.

If she was broke, I'd happily give her one, but... she's not.

Maybe she was joking. I'd like to think she was. Then again, when I ran into visa problems back in Dubai, she offered to sponsor me. As her maid.

If you have a book in print, has anyone asked you for a free copy? How did you handle it?

And in breaking news today : Promotion expert Maria Zannini is running a blog shout out contest. Participation has never been so easy. Just email her a link to your blog with a brief description of what you like to discuss, and you're entered into the drawing for a prize.

It's open until July 2nd, so be sure you enter the contest! All the cool kids are doing it. And so am I.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Abuse in fiction

Abuse is tricky to handle. A query I read recently brought that home with a vengeance. Some stories treat characters with a cruelty that shocks and grips and grieves the reader, and some brutalize the characters until the reader mentally and emotionally detaches. In fiction, as in life, there’s only so much pain that we can take.

When pain or grief become unbearable in real life, human beings often develop fictions to cope with it – we call it insanity. When pain or grief become unbearable in fiction, readers simply disengage from the story, and either abandon the tale or laugh at it.
Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint

The problem is determining where the line in the sand is drawn and how to extend it, but here are a few guidelines I’d use.

1. Don’t let it come off as autobiographical.

No one wants to read self-therapy, especially when it’s poorly disguised as fiction.

2. Give it a twist of plot or character.

A good example of this is Misery, my favorite Stephen King novel. The protagonist, a bestselling writer, is physically and mentally abused – by his number one fan, who’s bitterly upset that he killed off her favorite heroine.

Most of us know what it’s like to be shocked and saddened at the death of a beloved character. Annie Wilkes just takes that a few steps further.

Abusive antagonists are often physically violent. What about one who refuses to lay a hand on anyone, but who controls and manipulates and hurts people nevertheless? Or one who, despite being cruel and abusive, is also amusing and talented? Maybe even protective of the protagonist when someone else threatens her.

3. Let the protagonist fight back.

This was a problem with the query I critiqued. The poor protagonist endured one thing after another with no indication that he was actively struggling to overcome these obstacles.

If the protagonist can’t fight back, please consider whether there’s any catharsis for the reader or whether the abuse (and, in the worst case scenario, death) of the protagonist carries any meaning other than “life sucks”.

That was one thing I loved about Misery. Paul Sheldon does more with two broken legs than a lot of characters do with all their bones intact. He never stops fighting against what happens to him, both mentally – writing the novel Misery’s Return – and physically.

4. Don’t take it over the top.

If a character gets it from all sides – if his dog dies and he’s bullied at school and his parents beat him – he’s going to look like someone whom the Fates have predestined for Great Suffering.

If such abuse has happened in his past, it may be more effective to hint at it after establishing other facets of the character. The heroine of Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn has been gang-raped, but I never saw her as a victim of abuse because that incident is mentioned two-thirds of the way into the book, with few details given. By then my first impressions of her were more or less cemented.

If any main characters are abused in your work, how do you handle this?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Guest blog: Ten Percent of Nothing

Today I'm guest blogging on Writer Beware!

Yes, I'm all happy about it.

Not about the subject, though. Ten Percent of Nothing, by former FBI agent Jim Fisher, is subtitled The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell. And frankly, that gives Hell a bad name. Dorothy Deering is one of the most infamous literary scammers - she operated both a fee-charging literary agency and a vanity press to which she sent her own clients.

Click here to find out what eventually happened to her schemes and to her clients. And beg, borrow or buy the book if you can - it's recommended reading for all writers.

Plus, here's an article describing - in step by painful step - what a Deering victim went through. That article is especially meaningful to me, because when I originally read it in 2006, that was the first time I'd heard of literary scams and I was fascinated by them.

I still am.

Friday, June 11, 2010

CSN Stores review

This is a nice way to end the week!

CSN Stores contacted me to offer a review of one of their products, so I spent an hour browsing their site, admiring the handbags and rugs and exercise bikes. Oh, wait, not the last one. I exercise by walking to the nearest library.

Their selection of lights was appealing because I live in a basement apartment (for now) and don't have much access to the sun. Thank goodness I come by my tan genetically. But the bookcases look great too... and I have books in large homeless stacks.

Lamp vs. bookcase? Which do you prefer?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Love on a Dime

The cover of Love on a Dime caught my attention at once. A woman dressed in period clothing and holding a book? Beautiful. Plus, when I read that Cara Lynn James’s novel was about a proper young lady who actually wrote the unsuitable book she’s reading, I had to give it a try.

So Thomas Nelson sent me the book to review as part of their Book Bloggers program, and I enjoyed everything to do with the writing and publishing aspects of the story. Lilly Westbrook is from a genteel family who has no idea that she writes dime novels under the name of Fannie Cole. That just isn’t the done thing in 1899. Still, she’s kept her secret for some time; the money she earns goes to a charity and she doesn’t promote her novels by doing signings.

All that changes, though, when her publisher is bought out by Jackson Grail, who broke her heart years ago by refusing to ask her father for permission to marry her. He just wasn’t wealthy enough then, but he is now – and he hopes to make the company as successful as possible with a spotlight on “Fannie Cole”. If he can find her.

That part was great. I also liked the unpleasant but realistic resolution of Lilly’s brother’s subplot – he married a woman with a secret that eventually comes between them. What I wasn’t so keen on was how quickly her family accepted her writing dime novels. It was made clear that in their circle of society, this would be a scandal. Remember that scene in Good Wives where Professor Bhaer convinces Jo not to write such lowest-common-denominator fiction?

Jack also follows Lilly around a lot – both to find out whether she’s Fannie Cole and because he’s still in love with her. But he continues to do this even after she’s engaged, and it gets to the point where her best friend has to ask him to leave her alone. It felt uncomfortably close to stalking.

Finally, this is the second inspirational romance I’ve read where the heroine has an unsuitable fiance. Except this doesn’t produce an eternal triangle. Rather than being a good person but just not right for her, the Other Man is greedy, shallow and unattractive, providing even more of a contrast to the morally upstanding and handome hero. The phrase “unequally yoked” invariably comes up, and it’s getting a bit predictable.

So the romance didn’t quite work for me, but the rest of the story did. The blackmail subplot and the literary works vs. romantic trash prejudice were fun to read about. I might have guessed that from the lovely cover which features the heroine and her novel, but not the hero.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ways in which protagonists can be wrong

I once read that a character whose perceptions are equal to reality is likely to be a Mary Sue.

In other words, when this character meets and likes Bob, Bob turns out to be a good person. When the character has an unpleasant feeling about Carol, or “somehow” decides not to trust Carol, it’s later proved that Carol is working for the Dark Side. There are no real surprises. Such characters are as right as they are dull.

So I decided to find some ways a protagonist can be wrong and still remain sympathetic.

Trust the wrong person

As long as the protagonist has reason to trust the wrong person, this works very well. If our protagonist has just moved to a new city where he was promptly robbed, but a stranger helped him out and offered him good advice, he might think well of that stranger.

The writer would know that the stranger was the mastermind behind a body-snatching business. The readers might realize it as well when the scene changes to the stranger’s point-of-view. But to the protagonist this is a kind person who offered much-needed assistance, and that’s how it should be until evidence comes along to change his mind. And it should be good evidence – people can be very stubborn when it comes to emotional attachments.

Believe what isn’t true

There’s a controversial view that the Aztecs believed the Spanish conquistadore Hernan Cortes was their god Quetzalcoatl. Whether that’s true or not, characters don’t have to go that far. They could practice small superstitions, such as leaving a candle burning through the night so that the sun will be sure to rise in the morning.

That might not only seem true to their culture, but it’ll contribute to their overall three-dimensionality. Modern readers may like them as a whole, but may not be enthused by their strange beliefs, especially if they hurt the character, e.g. believing that she must give coin to beggars and then not having enough left for a good meal.

Deduce something wrong

Sherlock Holmes’s and Hercule Poirot’s most memorable moments were when, despite their brilliance, they reached the wrong conclusions. I remember Poirot doing this in the short story “The Chocolate Box”.

Let characters work with the information they have, rather than the information the author has.

Misunderstandings that make sense

This isn’t about the heroine seeing the hero hugging another woman and jumping to the conclusion that he’s got a girlfriend, when the other woman is always his sister/cousin/stepmother. This is about the kind of misunderstanding that can’t be easily cleared up in two sentences, the kind that anyone might make.

The central conflict of Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel depends on just such a wrong assumption. After inheriting a large chain of hotels and a larger chain of debts, the penniless Abel Rosnovski learns that an anonymous beneficiary has provided financial backing that will allow him to own the hotels. Believing he knows who his mysterious backer is, he acts on that belief – and he’s wrong.

I love that kind of thing.

Many of the mysteries in Agatha Christie’s novels depended on small details that were taken the wrong way by protagonists, at least initially. Language barriers are also good ways for characters to be wrong.

And these can provide comic relief as well. I used to volunteer in a thrift store in the Middle East, and spent a lot of time picking up and rehanging clothes that customers had looked at and then dropped on the floor. At one point I got tired of that and told such a customer, in Singhalese, “Could you please pick up those clothes?”

My Singhalese is not very good. Apparently what I really said to her was, “Could you please raise your skirt?”

I was advised to speak to the customers in English from then on.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Unholy Ghosts: review and giveaway

Urban fantasy isn’t my cup of strong dark coffee, but I had to check out Stacia Kane’s new release, Unholy Ghosts. Know why? The heroine is a drug user.

And I don’t mean the kind who smokes a recreational joint occasionally, or who tries cocaine once, feels guilty and Just Says No from then on. No, Chess Putnam is hooked on some fairly hard stuff and owes a lot of money to her dealer. Oh, and she’s a witch working for the Church of Real Truth and Debunking ghosts when she’s not banishing them.

Yeah, I’m hooked too.

The first chapter sets the stage for the story, and it’s a great example of how to describe the magic system without obvious infodumps. Have the ritual go wrong, seriously wrong, with the summoned psychopomp unable to differentiate between the ghost’s dead soul and Chess’s living one. Just about the time she needs a fix, too.

Things get even worse for her from then on, since her dealer Bump claims she owes him four times more than she actually does. But he’s got a way for her to work off the debt. There’s a certain abandoned airport into which he’s hoping to fly supplies – except his planes keep crashing. Whether that’s due to ghosts or not, he wants her to find out.

Even if Chess can handle that, a rival gang gets involved as well – their leader does not want Bump expanding his business – and there’s a mysterious creature on the loose, a demonic manifestation that feeds off dreams. Her attraction to Bump’s enforcer isn’t helping either. I kept wondering what would happen when he found out he had a rival for her in the other gang leader.

A couple of caveats, though. The drug use in the book is constant, and Chess doesn’t give it up by the end. She’s had a brutal past, and if she needs chemicals to make her present better, chemicals she will take. I love protagonists this flawed, but it’s something readers might want to be aware of.

The other thing is that I guessed who was behind the demon summoning – the person first suspected seemed a plausible candidate, but there was someone else who came off as ineffectual and therefore passed over. But that’s pretty minor compared to everything else: the action, the characters and the dark gritty world of the Downside.

And if this review makes you want to read more, I’m giving away a copy of Unholy Ghosts to a lucky commenter! Just leave your email address and let me know what interests you the most about this novel. Open to anyone in the US or Canada, until midnight (yeah, that’s appropriate) June 8.