Book Review: The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris

May 30, 2012 at 6:56 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Raised in a forest by the hermit Trevisant, Terence has grown up outside of the concerns of men. But one day, a strange green face leads him through the trees to stumble on a young knight named Gawain, and nothing in Terence’s life will ever be the same. He joins Gawain on his journey to Camelot and King Arthur’s court, and beyond that on a great quest that leads through this world and the Other. On his adventures, Terence will learn a lot about courage, strength, beauty, and the best and worst that man has to offer.

I can’t even guess how many times I’ve read this book. I must have been ten or eleven the first time I checked it out from the library, and I’ve read it over and over and over, several times a year, because this is one of the books that changed me as both a reader and a writer. In fact, this book spawned my first fanfic.

Which, let’s face it, I am so SO glad I never put up online because it was awful.

But this is a book I talk about all the time, a book I really wish more people knew, and I realized I hadn’t ever actually talked about why.

As a kid, I grew up on stories of knights and damsels and quests, on the golden age of King Arthur, and all of that. I remember more than a few afternoon “quests” where I hunted down the evil Mordred to slay him before he could take down the great king. That being said, though, I didn’t actually know too many of the stories. I knew about Tristan and Isolde, about Lancelot and Guinevere, about Sir Kai and the Round Table. I’ll admit that my first knowledge of Sir Kai came from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.

And then this book.

Even the narration made it different than any other books I’d ever read. This is a story, told in the tradition of the bards and minstrels that weave so well through the setting, so it’s not afraid to play with the poetry of its descriptions. It doesn’t go overboard like most of the bards it gently pokes fun of. The thing that made me absolutely fall in love was the honesty of the emotions. It’s not like the characters don’t have filters, because they do- they know what is or is not appropriate to say in court, for example, and they know how to be polite (i.e. lie)- but they’re not afraid to be honest and cmofortable in their emotions. These are men and boys who cry when they feel sad.

It seems like a little thing, right? Males crying?

But keep in mind how old I was when I first read it. Ten was the age when boys and girls were really getting separated. Girls could fall on the playground and bawl their eyes out, but boys were supposed to get over it with nothing more than a sniffle. It was reinforced in classes, at the playground, at parties: girls were allowed to cry and boys weren’t. And I HATED that. Mainly because I hated crying and got irritated by adults telling me “It’s okay to cry” whenever I skinned my knee but my boy friends were told “you’re okay, you’re fine”.

And there was this book where these amazing things were happening, and people were getting injured or insulted, people were learning these incredibly painful things, they were getting their hearts stomped on- and these men were allowed to cry without there being anything shameful about it. I was hooked.

But it was so much more than that.

Their adventures were amazing, ranging from the Huge- fighting a war for the sovereignty of all England- to the Small- helping two people in love find happiness. But every step along the way gave something to learn. It’s not a moralistic story, but at the same time it’s full of valuable life lessons that made me look at things in a new way.

And the characters!

Terence is sweet and innocent, loyal, open to learning new things, and rendered entirely wide-eyed by this wide world from which he’s always been sheltered. He starts out a very young fourteen, but though only a few months pass, his experiences make him mature in thoroughly expected and lovely ways. Gawain starts out as a teacher but along the course of their journey becomes a friend, even a brother. He’s sometimes grouchy and overbearing, but he’s young, and he learns even more than he teaches. He learns that being a knight is much more than a title and a shiny suit of armor, and that chivalry isn’t just a word. The friendship that forms between the two is wonderful and inspiring. Arthur is the king you’d give anything to follow, wise and compassionate, a true leader of men who’s able to put the well-being of his people before his own personal happiness. There’s Tor, hungry to improve himself, and Plogrun, the grouchy, overbearing, opininiated squire he obtains. There’s characters you love to love, others you love to hate, and some you kind of can’t help but cheer for, even when you’d really rather not.

The setting is comfortable and casual. We’re in the early middle ages, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t strain or force the point. The historical details are effortlessly dropped in- clothing and food and weapons and armor, even bigger picture world events (in a general sort of way)- but they’re never done in such a way as to sidetrack us from the story.

And the story continues. One of the things I love about the series that follows is that it doesn’t always directly follow Terence and Gawain. We’re introduced to a wonderful, wide cast of characters that weave in and out of the story, that we revisit at times, like a reunion with old friends. I was heartbroken when this series ended, but also so gloriously happy because it was brilliantly done. I reread these books every year, usually more than once.

This is an amazing story to read on your own, with family, with a classroom, a gorgeous balance of humor, sorrow, adventure, triumph, setbacks, and just plain fun.

The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris, one of my favorite books of all time.

Until next time~

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Interview: Jodi Meadows the Awesome!

May 27, 2012 at 11:00 am (Interviews) (, , , )

Hello, friends!

So here’s where Dot finally pulled her big girl panties on. I’ve been wanting for a while to start an interview series with some of the authors I love, but me being me, and being shy and awkward and socially self-concious (even on the internet) ((I swear, I really am shy)) I couldn’t quite convince myself to reach out and ask authors to take time for that. Well, I finally asked, and the awesome Jodi Meadows is here to kick off our interviews!

For anyone who doesn’t know, Jodi is the author of the fantabulous Incarnate, an epic story of identity and romance and a changing world. Seriously. Amazing. So everybody give a cheer for Jodi!

Okay, icebreaker question: who’s your favorite superhero?

Jodi: Currently Batman. I don’t know. I go back and forth a lot on my favorites, and it’s usually the last superhero movie I’ve seen. The husband and I recently caught up on the first two Christian Bale Batman movies in preparation for the third one and they always make my heart go pitter-patter.

I’m sure this is a question that makes you cringe every time, but where did the idea for Incarnate originate?

Jodi: When I was a kid, some of the other kids in day care and I had a hole we were digging under a tree. We were going to dig to China. Well, we never made it to China, but I did find a box of ideas. Millions of them. All the ideas came flying out when I opened the box. I had to shut it quickly to keep them inside. >em>Incarnate was one of those.

(This answer may be a lie.)

Having written three Nosoul books, which was the hardest to write? What was it that made it more difficult than the others?

Jodi: They were all difficult in their own ways, but I think book 3 was probably the hardest. There are so many storylines to tie up, problems to resolve, character arcs to complete. . . . I also had to throw away the first draft of book 3 — all 75,000 words. And then the next 10,000 words when I tried to start over. When I’m answering these interview questions, I haven’t turned the draft in to my editor yet, so I don’t know what kind of changes she’s going to suggest, but right now I’m pretty pleased with the story. I know it will need more work once I have some distance from it, but I think it’s solid right now.

What is a perfect day of writing like for you?

Jodi: Quiet in the house. No distracting drama online. Just a lot of coffee and inspiration.

Is there anything you have to have while you’re writing? Lucky pen, lucky drink, lucky ferret?

Jodi: Nope. I mean, a bottle of water is always nice, because no one writes well while they’re dehydrated. But otherwise, no. I don’t want to need something like candles or a ferret while I’m writing if, say, I want to write during a layover in the airport. I hear they don’t like candles there.

What about a writer’s life has surprised you most since you got your book deal?

Jodi: Hmm. Not sure. I had a lot of friends who were already published by the time I got my deal, so I had the advantage of hearing their stories and seeing them go through the process. I was pretty well prepared!

What about a writer’s life has been the most gratifying?

Jodi: When someone writes to me and tells me that my book made a difference in their life.

What book or books most influenced you as a reader or writer?

Jodi: ALL the books! Everything is an influence. But some of the books that affected me the most deeply: Sunshine by Robin McKinley, Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (basically all of her books), Winter of Fire by Sheryl Jordan, Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce.

Side note from Dot: having read and loved most of those books- YAY! Anything Robin McKinley or Tamora Pierce is on my must-read list, but Winter of Fire is one of my all-time favorites!

You get to corral a gaggle of fellow YA authors into a single space: what’s the space, and what do you do?

Jodi:Oooh. The space is a bookstore and we talk about books. (Hopefully there’s a cafe in the bookstore so we can drink caffeine and eat junk food.) One of the best things about writers is that they LOVE talking about books they love and books they’re working on. So yeah. That.

What is your most anticipated read of 2012?

Jodi: Oh geeze. I don’t even know. There are a lot. Some I’ve already read: Defiance by C.J. Redwine (fab dystopian fantasy), Timepiece by Myra McEntire (fab timeslip romance), Hemlock by Kathleen Peacock (fab urban fantasy), Everneath by Brodi Ashton (fab myth fantasy), Spell Bound by Rachel Hawkins (fab paranormal romance).

Okay, final question: What was it like, that moment when you found out your book had sold?

Very surreal. I had a big clue ahead of time since my agent had to set up an auction, and I’d already had a chance to talk with the editors who wanted to offer. But I kept not believing until the minute we got our first offer because I’d had so much practice in disappointment in the past. My agent called me while I was reading the first offer email and there was a lot of “wow” and stunned silence and then incoherent babbling. I’m still kind of embarrassed about the babbling.

Heh, I don’t think you need to be embarrassed about the babbling- I know my call had a lot of nervous laughters and sudden bursts of Oh my God!

Thanks so much for dropping by, Jodi!

And if you haven’t read it yet, definitely check out Incarnate first book of the NoSoul trilogy, to be followed by Asunder next year!

Until next time~

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Book Review: Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

May 23, 2012 at 5:39 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

It starts with a confession, a game she has no chance of winning. It starts with a war and a horror, a history. It starts with a chance, a crashing plane, a mission, and a changing name. But most of all, it starts with a friendship, one with the power to change the course of everything, a friendship that forms its own courage, its own strength, one that will defy the terrors of a Gestapo cell. Because sometimes, friendship is a code name for hope. Trapped in a nightmare, Verity will have to draw on that friendship to survive the unspeakable horrors that await a captured spy.

I’ll go ahead and give the warning: I can’t help but gush about this one. Days and distance are not helping any in that regard, because I think about all the amazing aspects of this book and I’m just blown away all over again. So there is gushing, and maybe a bit of drooling.

The ages of the characters in this book are somewhat nebulous. You get the distinct impression that’s on purpose, probably because it teeters on the edge between Young Adult and Adult. It really could have gone either way, but I’m so glad it went YA, because the voice- oh my God the voice- is so spectacularly compelling. This is a voice that sucks you in from page one and never lets go, and at no point does it become less than riveting. It’s beyond compelling straight into captivating, and even when you’re breathless and appalled and teary-eyeed, you cannot put this book down. Holy expletive, the voice.

It manages to make even the most horrific things matter-of-fact, not in a blase sense but in the sense that she’s tried very hard to prepare herself for anything. Watching the moments where her composure starts to crack, but you know she’s still thinking and planning and gah! awe. Absolute awe. She’s brutally honest and yet, there’s always this sneaking suspicion that she’s tricking us all sometimes. And sometimes, there’s the suspicion that she’s trying to trick herself. The fate of a captured enemy operative is torture and then death- she never flinches from this. She relates that torture in a way that’s sickening, but not grotesque. It doesn’t back away from details but neither does it dwell on them, as much a part of her experience as the fervent wish for clean clothing.

There is so much that’s going on in this book, and yet it has a single, easily identifiable pillar around which it revolves: friendship. Not a romance, but a friendship as deep and true, perhaps even more so, than a romance in such circumstances could possibly be. How these two very different young women come together under a common cause is both gratifying and hysterical as they compare fears, games, and histories. But they do come together, forging both a friendship and a formidable team, and that frienship sustains them through some truly horrifying trials. It’s more than edifying, it’s transformative. Because of this friendship, their lives could never be the same again. I love that even with the subtle threads of possible romances that crop up from time to time, the central focus is always on that incredible friendship.

I love love LOVE how even the villains are humanized with fears and histories and famlies. That human factor is a little bit terrifying- how can they be okay with doing this to other people’s children?- but so true to life and history. Sympathy for the devil is so hard to write, and even harder to sell to a reader, but it comes off so flawlessly it’s hard not to tear up even for the horrible people. Not are the ‘good’ people all valiant knights in shiny white armor. Just because someone is working for the same side doesn’t make them good, and there are distinct threats and discomforts even among your own people. A lot of this book takes place in the gaps in other stories, in the grey areas between accustomed roles and laws, between war and peace, between hope and death, but it doesn’t just hide in the grey areas, it flourishes in them.

This takes place in such a fascinating period of time, with vast leaps in both technology and the role of women. As men went off to the front lines, women stepped into the necessary duties of farming, civil service, and medicine, but also into the increasingly perilous roles in intelligence and aviation, whihc made for some fantastic opportunities they couldn’t be sure would still exist after the war. Entire auxilliary corps of women rose up to fill those positions and became instrumental to the advances that were made. Many of the radio operators- and nearly all of the first radar operators- were women. We see not only our captive’s work in the shadowy world of intelligence operatives, but also her best friend’s work as an aviatrix, a world of planes when aviation was still fairly young and in rapid development, and female pilots were few and far between and subject to discrimination from nearly every angle. The detail in these worlds, the precision of the story and the locations, is really just mind-boggling. This doesn’t come off as historical fiction, mainly because we never feel that divorced from the story. We feel like we’re there in the middle of things.

Oh, the twists. So many twists, and so wonderfully layered. Some you can expect, if you’re paying attention to the obscure details outside of the story, but they’re still wonderful in how they come to be, and others are wonderfully, devestatingly unexpected. More heart-shattering yet are the ones you’re waiting for, the ones you know will happen but you keep hoping and praying they won’t, and then they do and it’s just staggering.

Despite ALL THE TEARS, I love that this book had the grace, strength, and courage to go for the good ending rather than the happy one (and trust me, that’s not giving anything away; this book doesn’t let you make those kinds of assumptions). I don’t mind a book leaving me with a lingering hope-tinged sorrow if it coems hand in hand with the glorious satisfaction and contentment that comes of finishing an astrounding book.

If this review comes off as seeming light on details, it’s for a reason- I don’t want to deprive you of the discoveries. It is such an amazing book, with characters that live long after the pages end. And you can’t read it just once- as soon as you get to the end, tears streaming down your face, jaw somewhere around your knees with shock, you’ll immediately want to turn back and start it again to watch with more understanding how all of these pieces fit flawlessly, gorgeously together.

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, and perhaps ever. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this one.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, out in stores now.

Until next time~

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Mini-Vacation and GIVEAWAY

May 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm (Giveaway) (, , , , )

So I’m actually away from my computer this entire weekend because one of my big brothers is graduating with a Very Important Degree and we’re going up to see him be all important and stuff. (Don’t let the sleepy grammar fool you- I’m ridiculously proud of him)

To make up for my absence, I’m giving away an AMAZING book!

I got an ARC for Christopher Healy’s fabulous The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and just about hurt myself laughing. Despite having the ARC, I had to go ahead and buy the finished book anyway, for two reasons: one, I love to support the authors of books I love; and two: because I had to have the interior illustrations. They’re wonderful! They’re funny and pitch-perfect and only add to the atmosphere of this fantastic story.

So now I’m passing on that ARC! You too can laugh yourself into pained incoherence with the adventures and misadventures of Princes Gustav, Frederick, Liam, and Duncan! Trust me, you WANT this book.

And all you have to do is answer a question: who do you think got the shortest end of the stick in fairy tales?

For my part, I always felt bad for the Little Mermaid (the real one, not the Disney one). She tries so hard and gives up so much, every step hurts like knives underfoot, but in the end she still can’t get the guy she’s risked everything to be with. In her case, you really can die from a broken heart, and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with her, it’s not the prince hated her, it just…didn’t work. Her story brings tears to my eyes every time.

So who do you think got the short end of the stick? Tell me below and you’ll be entered to win- that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to follow me here or on twitter, you don’t have to like my facebook page, just comment. (Of course, if you WANTED to do those things, I’d love you and give you virtual cookies, but it’s optional). Open to US residents only, and you can comment through Saturday, 2 June 2012.

Can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

Until next time~

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Book Review: Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

May 16, 2012 at 7:15 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

WARNING: this is the second book in a series, sequel to 2011’s Divergent; if you have not read the first book, there WILL be spoilers below!

The factions are in chaos, Abnegation all but destroyed at the hands of the Erudite-controlled Dauntless. It’s hard to know who to trust, a situation made worse by the ever-present threat of another simulation that could turn even the most beloved people into mindless puppets intent on your death. In the wake of her parents’ deaths and her faction’s destruction, Tris has to decide how far she’s willing to go, what’s she fighting for, and- perhaps most importantly- what she’s willing to give up.

Middle books make me nervous, especially if I liked the first book. And I LOVED Divergent. Like it was almost physically painful to put the book down to clock back in for work, and while I was working my brain was still buried in the story and the characters. I loved the action, the brutality, the question of identity and choice and decisions. This book was more than captivating- it was engulfing. So I’ve been very nervous while waiting for this second book.

And I shouldn’t have been, because holy crap it’s AMAZING.

This book picks up immediately where the first left off, on the train running from the tattered remnants of the simulation that caused Dauntless to slaughter much of Abnegation. Her parents’ deaths are still raw and heavy with no time to try to make sense of what’s happened because if she doesn’t keep moving, she’ll join them. They have to find out what Erudite’s after (and why) at a time when only two of the five factions haven’t been directly impacted by the slaughter.

There is so much to love about this book. Right off the bat we get to start seeing more of the factions that separate this society. Tris and Four go with some of the Abnegation refugees (including Four’s father, Marcus) to the Amity compound on the edge of the city, but they know that isn’t going to be a long term solution. Amity is as foreign to Tris as Dauntless initially was, a compound awash in cheerful reds and yellows, with people who hug each other and talk things out until they reach a consensus. There’s no leader, just a spokeperson or representative who carries the decisions of the faction the rest of the council. They’re very happy people, and Tris at the best of times is not a particularly happy person. But we go beyond Amity to look within Candor, where unflinching honesty isn’t simply a way of life, but the hardest truths are accepted with the grace of a gift. We’ve peeked into Erudite before, but we get glimpses of a more complete world, one with children and people who couldn’t care less about who’s in control as long as they can keep learning. What makes these factions so compelling is that the vices and virtues inherent in their chosen trait is fully embraced. The sometimes black and white worldview of the first book, where each of the other three factions comes off as rather single-minded and flat, comes more into the world of grey here. It complicates things, certainly- decisions are easier to make when everything is black and white, right?- but it also makes us fully involved in these difficult moments.

And there are a LOT of difficult moments. Tris reels from crisis to crisis, not even given the time to recover from one before she’s thrust into the next. It’s a nearly constant state of high adrenaline, as crippling in its own way as grief and fear. Each crisis is not just a test but a blow, and some of them wound more than others. Nor are they all external blows. If the first book was about Tris’ choice, this book is about its consequences.

And one of thosse consequences is Four. I love the conflict that grows in the space between them, the way they respond differently to the events even as they cling to the comfort each usually finds in the other, but those differences become more pronounced until Tris has to try to figure out if they actually want the same things (which will force her to figure out what she even wants). As enigmatic and abrupt as Four could be in the first book, he starts to feel like someone we don’t really know anymore. It’s hard to understand some of what he’s thinking, what he’s working towards. We feel disconnected from someone we thought we understood really well, but that’s okay- because that’s also how Tris feels.

I LOVED how we got such a close look at the science behind divergence- how awesome is that? And really, it stands on its own without much gushing, because it’s frickin’ amazing.

I think one of my absolute favorite things about this book is how it truly continues the story not only in terms of action but in terms of character. And it’s not just choice and consequence, though that’s captivating. The first book was also very much about exploring the difference between strength and bullying, and where the line can be drawn. Tris chose strength, but strength leads into other traits as well, and here we see just how fine the line is between recklessness and courage. Just as she had to make choices in the first book, she has to make them here, and they’re not any easier.

I still wish Tris would use more contractions in her narration, simply because she uses them in her dialogue and the inconsistency is sometimes jarring, but other than that, there was really only one thing that bothered me. It’s hard to talk about without spoilers, but when you get to the biggest *GASP!*- and trust me you’ll know what it is- I have an issue with the timing, which could prove potentially problematic. I think you’ll see when you get there. But at the end of the day, if those two very tiny things are my only irritations about a book? I’m in love.

Insurgent, by Veronica Roth, absolutely NOT to be missed!

Until next time~

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The Diving Board

May 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm (Writing) (, , )

Writing is a lot like swimming.

There’s the spark- you don’t just randomly go swimming. You get the idea to go swimming. And when you get that idea, you turn it over in your head to see if it’s something you really want to do. After all, there are lots of other ideas. You could go bowling, watch TV, hang with friends. Is swimming really what you want to put your time and effort to?

So you decide, yes, you want to go swimming. You want to go with that idea. But again, you don’t just jump into the pool. You make preparations. You get into your bathing suit, you get a towel, sunscreen if you’re into that. You have to actually get to the pool, whether that’s in your backyard, across the complex, or across town. If it’s going to be an all-day thing, you pack things to take with you, like a book or toys or music. In other words, you’re gathering the tools you’ll need.

You arrive at the pool, set out your things just the way you want them. Now you face a choice: shallow end or deep end?

There’s something exhilirating about the thought of plunging into the deep end right off the bat. No worries, no holding back, just SPLASH. Just jump in and see what happens next.

But sometimes, you know, that water is really frickin’ cold, and when it closes around your head, there’s a moment of panic. Suddenly being in over your head isn’t just a literal sense. You flail and struggle, and sometimes you manage to paddle to the edge and pull yourself out, and it’s going to be a little while before you try that again.

Which is why most people start out at the shallow end. They test the water with a foot or a hand, to make sure the temperature is something they’re comfortable with. They ease in, a bit at a time, acclimating themselves, and when they dip under fully, it’s with the comfortable assurance that they know exactly where the surface is. There’s no panic, no sudden shift. They’re fully in control. So, when, they’re ready, they can either swim slowly and steadily into the deep end, or they can head to the diving board.

That’s my favorite part.

When I was younger, I was someone who would just run alongside the pool (usually to a chorus of “No running by the pool!”) and hurl myself into the deep end with gleeful abandon. And at first, everything would be fine. With swimming, it stayed fine. With writing…not so much. I’d jump into a new project and then suddenly I’d be flailing. I didn’t know where I was in the story, didn’t know who the characters were, had no idea where I was going. It was like being underwater with my eyes closed and not knowing which way the air was. When I finally broke the surface, I was confused and discouraged, and I’d set it aside and sometimes it would be a little while before I’d try again.

How stupid was I to try the same thing time after time after time and expect different results?

(Isn’t that one definition of insanity?)

Now I come at things from the shallow end. I write notes to make sure I actually have a grasp of the idea. I do research beforehand, I make outlines- even if they’re just lists of the big things that happen (it varies from project to project). When I fully submerge myself in the project, coming up is the realization that I’m as ready as I’m going to be.

Which is when I go to the diving board.

As a kid, pools with diving boards were infinitely cooler than pools without. There was something about standing on the very edge of the board, toes curled over the lip, bouncing up and down and feeling the springiness as it bounced back. That moment- that bounce- has infinite potential. After all, who knows how high you can jump? Will you do a straight dive, a swan dive, a jackknife? A cannonball? A flip? A flop? But no matter what you were going to do, standing on the diving board was a deliberate thing. You had to choose to do it.

Standing on the diving board after prepping a new project is wonderful and terrifying, and for me probably the best part. You have all this potential ahead of you for amazing things. There’s also a lot of potential for literary belly flops. You’ve done your prep work, you know you’ll be okay in the water, it’s just the entry that’s a point of dismay.

At any given pool party, there was always one kid who was scared of the diving board. He’d go up, stand on the edge- but just couldn’t jump. Sometimes one of the other kids would get impatient and just push him in, and then he’s struggle and cry and it kind of put a pall over the whole rest of the party. Other times, the kid would stand there forever, until finally he gave up, walked back down the board to the deck, and went to sit in one of the chairs for a while, totally discouraged and embarrassed.

Sometimes, when I’m standing on the edge of a new project, I feel like that kid. I know there’s nothing to be scared of. I do. I know that. I know how to swim, I know there are people on the side who will help me if something goes wrong and I start to flail, I know that. Still. There’s that moment of paralyzing panic.

Every now and then, it’s okay to back away. To go back to the shallow end and get comfortable for a bit before trying again.

But at some point, you HAVE to jump in.

Enjoy the splash.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

May 9, 2012 at 9:30 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Catherine, commonly called Birdy or Little Bird, is in a bit of a fix. The daughter of a knight and a minor lady must marry, it seems, but each suitor is more unsuitable than the last? What’s a girl to do? Well, if she’s Birdy, the answer is to raise a ruckus in inimitable fashion, and along the way learn some valuable lessons about people, life, and just what it means to spread your wings.

It’s been years since I read this book, so long I’d almost forgotten why I loved it so much. But I remember!

Catherine is an amazing character, one who frankly reminds me of myself. Even when she isn’t causing trouble, she’s…well..causing trouble. There are just some occasions in which it’s an accident. She’s resourceful, defiant, imaginative, curious, strong-willed, rarely chastened, and never broken. She’s genuine and compassionate and kind, and if she whines about the sacrifices she makes for others, the impulse behind the sacrifices in sincere. She’ll consign herself to a dreadful fate to save a starving, beaten bear from being baited to death- just don’t ask her to share her blankets. She already shares them with the fleas.

Catherine’s story is laid out in a diary, written at the behest of her scholarly monk brother Edward. At first it’s a chore she hates as much as embroidery, hemming, or any of the other many ladies tasks to which she’s assigned, but then it becomes something wonderful- a way to get out of all the other hateful things for a little while each day. We follow the course of a year, each day with its patron saint (and why they’re a saint). This book is like a window into the 13th century. For some bizarre reason we frequently romanticize the medieval times, but there is nothing ideal about Catherine’s world, where the remedies are appalling, the bigotry institutionalized by Crown and Church, and bathing is something you do once or twice a year if you’re brave. It’s sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, clothing is a finite resource, and beds are packed tighter than sardine cans.

But there’s joy there too, a million tricks and jokes and mummer’s games, with festivities timed to the calendar of saints. Catherine, of course, provides a great deal of amusement (even if the privy fire really was an accident). There are weddings and gifts and plays, and if they’re twined through death and loss and cracks on the head, well, that’s all a part of life as well.

Catherine’s wish for flight isn’t a literal one, but it’s a very real one. Her story underscores how powerless most women- especially most upper class women- were during that time period, something that becomes a rather frightening parallel in the here and now. A woman must marry (or become a nun, and nuns have as many rules and chores as the daughter of a knight), and she’ll likely have no say in who her husband will be. She’s expected to obey meekly, first her father then her husband, and do all that could be asked of her. A girl cannot go on adventures or do dangerous things (excepting, of course, giving birth, which is as deadly as it is dangerous), she cannot be a great scholar or live in the woods. Catherine struggles against it, flailing against the bars of her cage, but still she progresses on a slow, inexorable march to the altar and a husband of her father’s choosing.

But there’s a very wise woman who gives her a key piece of advice, and when she finally understands what the woman means, her outlook changes. Her circumstances don’t- well, they do, in a rather too-neat ending, but she doesn’t know that when her outlook changes- but she comes to understand that whatever her circumstances, whatever her lot in life, the one thing that cannot be taken from her is who she is. She can be forced to be someone’s wife or someone’s mother, a lady of a manor, but the one thing she can always be, the one thing she can control, is being Catherine.

This is an amazing historical view, full of every range of emotion, and quite frankly, a lot of fun to read.

God’s Thumbs!

Until next time~

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Restful Reading

May 6, 2012 at 7:45 pm (Uncategorized) ()

This is a lazy post, I’ll be the first to admit it. I have spent the past week and a half drunk on reading.

I’m at one of those rare breaks where I’ve finished a draft of one project and need to set it aside for a while, plus I’m not quite to the point of editing a different project, and it’s not really time yet to start a new project. I’ve just finished a ton of work and I’m about to launch off into a ton of work, but for just a little while, I have nothing that has to get done right now.

Which for me means a reading binge.

I don’t read as much when I’m drafting or editing. I don’t want to get pulled into someone else’s voice, and there are so many amazing books in my TBR pile that it’s hard not to get lost in them once I start. I allow myself about two books a week while I’m writing, mostly for when I’m eating or on break at work.

This last week and a half, I’ve been reading between one and three books a day, and it’s WONDERFUL. (At the moment I’ve just streaked through the Song of Ice and Fire series, and those are really more like one a bit per day books). I’ve read fairy tales, read epic fantasies, a couple of contemps, some adventure. I’ve read picture books and middle grade and YA and standard genre, and I’ve been in absolute heaven. I’m not reading to dissect anything (except after the fact for reviews, but that’s different). I’m not reading to learn anything, not reading to find a particular skill (though I appreciate what I notice), I am reading purely for the pleasure of doing so.

I’m reading for fun.

Which is something we don’t always allow ourselves. There are things to write, to edit. Books are tools, books are lessons, books are useful.

Well, yes.

But books are also FUN.

So make sure that every now and then, you give yourself a gift of some time to read whatever you want. It’s restful, but it’s also like putting a battery on a charger- you come away from that reading time with all the juices going, ready to dive back in and save the world. Or destroy it. Or build it. Whatever it is you happen to be doing.

Happy reading!

Until next time~

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Book Review: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy

May 2, 2012 at 6:10 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Ever wondered what comes after the happily-ever-after? For the four Princes Charming (or is it Prince Charmings?), it’s the realization that no one knows your name because they’re much more interested in the lady. But when one of those ladies goes off in search of adventure, what begins as a missing bard quickly grows into a heroic (and not-so-heroic) quest involving bandits, bounty hunters, giants, dragons, and a grumpy witch with serious issues. Buckle up, lovelies! It’s one crazy ride.

This book should come with a warning printed on it: do not attempt to eat or drink while reading. My keyboard will never be the same.

This book has such a fantastic sense of fun, a humor that infuses every sentence. Its pitch-perfect tongue-in-cheek narration (think Lemony Snicket without the bite) has a levity that keeps the story floating along effortlessly. You will hurt yourself laughing with this one, whether it’s sniggers over Sir Bertram the Dainty, giggles over well-meaning but rather inept Frederic, or full-on belly shakers over the Bandit King. This could be a dangerous book to read in public- depends on how you feel about people staring at you, or if you feel uncomfortable losing all composure in front of people. It’s a fantastic story to read aloud with kids. Honestly, I think my friends and I would get a kick of out reading it out loud together if we were in the same area code.

The four princes are all distinct, fitting certain stereotypes but embodying them so fully that they step beyond them. They have varying degrees of frustration with the Prince Charming label (and the lack of publicity for their exploits that comes with it), and all four of them grow and learn along the way. But initially? These four princes couldn’t be more different. There’s prissy Frederic, who’s never been on an adventure in his life and considers his greatest talent to be his ability to coordinate his stylish clothing. He’s never ridden a horse (too dangerous!), slept outdoors (too messy!), or even lifted a sword (too risky!). There’s Prince Gustav, unlucky in most of what he attempts. He’s very brave but he’s uh…well, let’s call him impulsive. He’s huge and prickly and never stops to think before he runs into danger- or gets run over by danger. Then there’s Prince Liam, a real hero with a number of great deeds to his credit- who possibly woke up the wrong princess and needs to get away. Their fourth compatriot is Prince Duncan, who names all the animals and trusts to his luck to see him through. Together, these four function about as well as if you’d hog-tied all of them.

But they each bring something valuable to the table, even if it takes them a while to realize it. Much of the story is caught up in them bumbling around, getting in each other’s (and their own) way, but every step is also building towards that moment when they finally understand what it is to be an actual team.

Of course, there’s also the four ladies. Only half of them are princesses as of yet. There’s Ella, of Cinderella fame, now freed from her life of servitude to her step-family by virtue of being Frederic’s fiancee. It took a lot of guts to go the ball against orders, to seize opportunity when it arose, and that kind of girl doesn’t do well taking picnics day after day after day. So what’s a brave, curious, resourceful girl to do? Well, if you’re Ella, the answer is to run off in search of a missing bard. There’s also Rapunzel, whose rescue was somewhat compromised by her needing to rescue her rescuer. It’s in her nature to help people, which doesn’t much help prickly Gustav. There’s Snow White, sweet and a little odd, well-equipped for her wacky husband but just needing a few hours of peace and quiet. And then there’s Briar Rose, who probably should have been left asleep for another prince to deal with. She’s mean and spoiled and arrogant, hateful and cruel, and determined to get her own way no matter how much misery she causes. Actually, the more misery she causes the happier she is. While the focus is on the four princes, the four ladies are hardly by-standers. Each of them has a place in the story as well, some as rescue and some as…well, distraction is probably for the best for some.

But these are by no means the only characters. We meet the evil witch (who didn’t start out that way, you know), the giant in her service (who could really use a good pair of shoes), a dragon, a Bandit King with a temper (who’s a bit of a psychopath), three grumpy dwarves (are dwarves ever anything else?), a very clever little sister (because little sisters just rock), a morose bounty hunter, sixteen older brothers, five missing bards, a tavern of dangerous men, and a motley assortment of parents as idiosyncratic as their children.

It’s a fast-paced story, taking us back and forth across the lands while never letting us feel bored or battered by repetition. The foreshadowing is done in beautiful sarcasm (the prologue gives you a long description of where you’ll find the princes in Chapter 20), and sometimes the things we’re told in asides are at least as interesting as what we’re told that’s to the point.

This is a book you set aside time for, after you’ve eaten, when you’ve no thirst, with your kids or friends around you to share in it with you. Just make sure you avoid anyone you don’t want to see you laughing hysterically.

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy, out in stores now. Don’t miss this!

Until next time~

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