Book Reviews for April

My writing plans for this afternoon did not include blogging. Since I’m supposed to be editing one of my fictional projects instead, I hope you’ll forgive me for bypassing the usual introductory fluff and simply saying:

Here are some books I read in April.

And here is what I thought of them.

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1. Clouds of Witness (A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, #2) by Dorothy L. Sayers

I’m following through on my resolution to befriend Dorothy L. Sayers, you see? And I’m enjoying myself in the process.

The mystery was only of passing interest to me, but the colorful cast of characters and scrumptious turns of phrase made for abundantly delightful reading.

A collection of lines that tickled my fancy:

“…somebody was [sitting here]; he’s left the impression of his sit-me-down upon the cushion.”

“Mr. Parker was not the kind of man to be deterred by the difficulty of buying ladies’ underwear in a foreign language.”

“‘You know,’ said Wimsey, ‘I think there’s often a great deal in what one’s mother says.'”

“Did your ladyship dine on the way up? No? Most unwise, my lady, to undertake a long journey on a vacant interior.”

“‘You said, ‘the glass-blower’s cat is bompstable,’ retorted Lord Peter. ‘It’s a perfectly rippin’ word, but I don’t know what you mean by it.'”

2. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography by Ralph E. Hone

Please refer to first paragraph of previous review.

It seems the author’s main goal was to write a biography that his subject would have approved of. The result was a book that makes the reader feel less like they are getting to know Dorothy L. Sayers personally than they are being told about her by a circumspect mutual acquaintance. As a greedy and intrusive reader, I might have relished a few more insights into Sayers’s faith and personal life. But I believe Hone achieved his objective.

If nothing else, I now know to never omit Miss Sayers’s middle initial when writing out her name, lest I should incur her wrath from beyond the grave.

3. The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery

I have a deep and abiding love for the 90’s television series “Avonlea” (also known as “Road To Avonlea”, but I don’t know where the Road To part came from, because it was never called that when I was growing up). The sets, costumes, and scenery are perfection. If it’s not quite on par with Anne of Green Gables, well… it’s the next best thing you’re going to get.

Can you believe something like this ever came on the Disney channel??? The 90’s were a very different era.

Given this obvious love and nostalgia, it was probably inevitable that I would stumble upon the literary inspiration for the series, at some point. Finding The Story Girl at a thrift shop, I recognized the connection and eagerly parted with fifty cents to bring it home with me.

There are always difference between books and their screen adaptations. I know this. We all know this. In Avonlea/The Story Girl, the discrepancies are even more significant than usual. I was a little traumatized at first. No Aunt Hetty? No great Aunt Eliza (my favorite character from the series)? No Gus Pike?!?!?! It’s sacrilege, but after the first few chapters, my preference was firmly in the adaptation’s favor.

Reading on, however, I was able to enjoy the story for its own sake and realized that, at their hearts, the book and series have more in common than not. Getting that taste of idyllic childhood on Prince Edward’s Island is what it’s all about. And I’ll take all of that I can get.

4. Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love by Laura A. Smit

The title and description of this book might lead you to believe that it is centered on the subject of unrequited love. And, OK… it is. Which is great. As the author points out, pretty much everybody has had to either experience rejection, or reject someone else. Even if you haven’t, you know someone who has. And yet how many books out there actually offer counsel on the subject, from a Christian perspective? I know of one, and this is it.

This book covers a lot more than unrequited love, though. Smit runs the whole gamut of singleness and relationships, too. I will go so far as to say it is the best book on any of these subjects that I’ve read, offering a wealth of wisdom and common sense. The world needs those things.

So…

Are you single? Read this. Happily in love? Read it. Unhappily in love? Read it. In a position of advising/comforting any of the above? Read it. You might not like all of it, but that just means you need it all the more.

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Here’s another Avonlea image, just to send you off with. Because, gah. I love it.

Now if you’ll all excuse me, I have some editing to do. Have a great week, guys.

Metaphors & Mountaintops

The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

John 1:4-5

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Light is a metaphor.

Not just in the gospel of John, either.

I am convinced that God created light, separating it from the darkness (Genesis 1:4) to help us better understand who, what, and how He is. From the sun and moon to the flickering of a candle, a part of His character is revealed to us in the form of light.

I am convinced that God is a fan of metaphor. In fact, I’d say He is inventor and father of metaphor.

An example came to me on a mountainside today. It is not quite as profound as the light one, and even less original. But it’s just as true.

I can’t think of a better illustration for our journey through the trials in this life than climbing a mountain. When you’re in the middle of an uphill hike, you cannot see the vista awaiting you at the end of the trail. Just as, when you’re enduring personal pain and difficulty, you cannot see where God is taking you.

Today, I stood at the highest point of Shenandoah National Park and gazed at the muted greens of a newborn spring in the mountains and valleys spread out before me. A perfectly contrasted warmth and nip of sun and wind baptized me as I sat there on a rock, breathless.

It gave me a peek, however brief, of what glorious things our Creator has in store for us when we persevere, following His lead. Surely the best views are to be found at the pinnacle of the steepest climb. And we can appreciate them all the more for the aching muscles and stubbed toes we’ve acquired along the way.

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!

2 Corinthians 4:17

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The Trouble With Faith-Based Entertainment

A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.
-Orson Welles

Last week, I sort of introduced a touchy subject. Mostly, I tip-toed around it. This was partially because I didn’t want it to overwhelm the whole post, and partially because, well… it is a touchy subject.

What I’m talking about is Christian-made movies. For the sake of sounding more cultured and professional, though, today we will be using the term faith-based entertainment.

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If readers need to be reminded of my stance on this wholesome breed of cinema, it is not a positive one. I have always been hesitant to admit this. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, you know? So many people these days seem to take pleasure in trashing what others enjoy. I have no desire to be one of those people.

Instead of elaborating on this further myself, may I present the following:

Masterpie… *giggles*

It’s true that Hollwood cranks out a lot of garbage. Some of you find joy in movies made by those who share our faith. I get that. Those who enjoy faith-based entertainment are safe with me.

The trouble is, I don’t feel entirely at ease with them. How do you tell someone nicely that your taste is utterly and completely at odds with their own? I haven’t figured it out yet.

What I have discovered is a rather perfect video, made by a guy who explains his (and my) stance on Christian-made films with intelligence, common sense, and courtesy. I agree with him so much that, once again, I will hand the reins of explanation over.

Behold:

If you share my distaste for faith-based entertainment, I hope this might prove a useful resource in the future. Instead of trying to politely define your opinion, you can do what I’ve done and simply direct your well-intentioned friend someplace else.

On an unrelated note, yes, this is the laziest post ever. But I paid WordPress extra for the privilege of embedding YouTube videos, and by gum, I’m gonna start taking advantage.

Movie Review: “Priceless” (2016)

“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”
Roger Ebert

“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”
William Wilberforce

Today, I’m trying something new.

I never really considered trying to write a movie review for public consumption before, and I probably won’t often attempt it again in the future. This is for two primary reasons. First, that film is not my area of expertise. I like plenty of movies, and dislike plenty of others, but cannot pretend to be any kind of authority on the subject. Second (in complete and ridiculous contradiction to the first), I’m kind of a snob when it comes to film, and I don’t want this blog to become an environment for negativity and arrogance.

Hopefully, I can avoid that today.

But I make no guarantees.

 

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The movie I want to discuss today is called “Priceless”. Released in 2016, it tells the story of James, a down-and-out widower who agrees to drive a box-truck cross-country for an easy payday, no questions asked. Things get interesting when a minor accident reveals his cargo to be human— a pair of young Latina sisters destined for futures as victims of sex trafficking. When James realizes what he’s become a part of, he is forced to choose between turning his back on the innocent girls or risking everything to do what is right.

Before I proceed to detail the film’s flaws and virtues, it seems right my readers should know where my opinions are coming from. “Priceless” is a Christian-made movie, which I might as well admit is something I usually avoid. This is a terrible (and perhaps unfair) thing to say, but there are two kinds of Christians: those who enjoy productions like “God’s Not Dead” and “Fireproof”, and those who do not. I am of the latter camp. The reasons for this are too lengthy to get into today, but may warrant a future post of their own. Stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, I will merely distinguish that I took this particular movie in from two different perspectives— that of a story-teller, and that of an ordinary human (who cares about other ordinary humans).

We’ll look through that first lens to start, because, well… who doesn’t want to get the bad news out of the way first?

“Priceless” is not a bad story, when you look at the nuts and bolts of it. It had the potential to be an exceptional one. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in faith-based film, the execution was very poor. Stories tend to be weak when the message within them is given preeminence. It subverts the creative vessel.

I almost turned the movie off after three minutes, which was more than enough time for me to realize it would not be strong in the story-telling department. “Priceless” opens with a completely unnecessary voice-over/info-dump. All of said info comes out organically as the plot unfolds, which confirmed my initial impression that the filmmakers must have a very low opinion of their audience’s intelligence.

Every writer knows the importance of show don’t tell. This is no less true with a visual medium. In fact, it should be be even more true. But I guess whoever scripted “Priceless” didn’t get that memo.

Most of the other flaws common in faith-based entertainment are also present here. These include (but are not limited to) a predictable plot, two-dimensional characters, and stilted dialogue. The acting isn’t great, but to the movie’s credit, I’ve seen much worse.

The romantic subplot did not sit well with me. I am of the opinion that the whole knight-in-shining-armor trope has no place in a Christ-centered story (unless it happens to be some kind of allegory… but this was not, and even if it had been, I still probably would have disliked it). See, there’s only one man who can save us. And his name is Jesus. Also, I’ve never been a victim of sex trafficking, but I’m pretty sure if I was plucked from such a hellish situation, my first impulse would not be to flirt with the guy who rescued me. I don’t care how handsome he is.

I did appreciate that the filmmakers chose not to overly sugar-coat the central issue of human trafficking. You don’t see many Christian-made movies with a PG-13 rating (because, GASP! The horror!) But some pictures cannot be painted with daisies and rainbows, then slapped with a G-rating, just to make us feel better. This is one of them, and I’m glad they had the guts/brains to take the rainbow-less approach.

On that note, let it be clarified that the content of “Priceless” is in no way gratuitous. I recently watched a documentary on sex trafficking that I thought actually went too far in its explicit depiction of reality. It is possible to show a viewer the truth without pornographic imagery, and “Priceless” did a commendable job of that.

So much for the story-teller’s lens. Now we can wrap up with the human lens.
The purpose of “Priceless” is to draw attention to the abomination that is human trafficking. Imperfect as the film is in terms of artistry and entertainment, in this end, at least, it succeeds. Though it may be accurately categorized as something like propaganda, this is one instance in which the propaganda ain’t a bad thing.

I’ve wanted to broach the subject of trafficking here on my blog, but ’til now wasn’t sure how to go about it. Reviewing this film gave me an opening, and I am grateful for that.
I assume that the average American doesn’t know much about this issue (because, if everyone did, why would it still be happening? Why wouldn’t our social media feeds be bursting with cries for justice as opposed to political quarrels and cat videos?)

As such, “Priceless” is to be valued as an educational instrument. I will even go so far as to recommend for my readers to watch it. Whether you’re informed on human trafficking or not, it offers a sobering picture of what millions (yes, millions) of human souls are subjected to on a daily basis, not only in far-flung foreign locales, but in our own backyards.

I hope to give more attention to this crisis here in the future. Until then, I encourage you all to check out this movie, learn what you can about trafficking, and choose not to look the other way.

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He Is Risen: Hallelujah! (A Mix-Tape for Easter Sunday)

Like most ordinary human beings, I like music.

Unlike most ordinary human beings, I rarely (if ever) turn on a radio.

You see, it turns out there are quite a number of quality tunes that the radio doesn’t play (or at least the stations you get in rural Virginia don’t).

This is why Spotify is my friend.

In celebration of Easter, I would like to share the following playlist with my readers. I hope it helps to get you in the Easter spirit.

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A blessed resurrection day to one and all!

Book Reviews for March

I haven’t had much oomph to give blogging the past week or two, but apparently if there’s one thing I can scrape together, it’s a book review post.

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Hex Breaker, by Taryn Noelle Kloeden

Epic fantasy with an earthy, mythical essence. There’s a lot going on— wolves and zombies and wars, oh my!— but all of it is executed with deftest grace and precision. Quite a feat for a debut novel. My inner-reader is warm with content. Even if my inner-writer is a deep-emerald shade of envious.

Random side note: I can’t remember having ever read something so richly descriptive of scents. Once I got a migraine that made me feel like my sense of smell was amplified to super-hero levels. Falling into the pages of Hex Breaker was kind of a similar experience, only 100% less miserable.

Beloved: A Fairy Tale Retelling of Northanger Abbey, by Nina Clare

The concept of retelling Jane Austen’s novels as fairy tales is so utterly delightful that I can hardly stand it. I thought the author could have taken more risks in her execution of it, with more pronounced magical elements. Still, though. A Jane Austen fairy tale. What could be better???*

*This is a rhetorical question. The answer, obviously, is nothing.

Rose of the Oath: A Beauty and the Beast Novella, by Hope Ann

A retelling of Beauty & The Beast, with enough of an original spin to be refreshing and enough of a tale-as-old-as-time side to satisfy purists. There is an allegorical backbone present, as well, and though I am not the biggest fan of allegory (outside of Narnia), I give the author credit for mostly pulling it off.

My expectations were not the highest, given that this e-book was 100% free* on Amazon.  But, as George Will once said, the nice thing about being a pessimist is you’re constantly either being proven right, or pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed the read, and was not in the least sorry to be proven wrong this time.

*Yes, free. Seriously. Follow the link above and claim your copy. You have nothing to lose.

Turquoiseblood, by Cecelia Isaac

Not one but two tenacious heroines!
Dual timelines!
Splintery wit!
Political intrigue!
Magical magic!
Mountains and castles and fire and ice!
Murder and suspense and twists and McGuffins!
Oh yeah… and DRAGONS.
If this isn’t my favorite kind of fantasy, well… it’s really, really close, guys.

Outcasts United: An American Town, A Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference, by Warren St. John

On the surface level, this seems like exactly the kind of true-story that would be developed into a feel-good movie. I mean, a rag-tag group of refugee boys forming a sports team, enduring unimaginable hardships, outshining their more privileged rivals, and taking on prejudice in a small southern town? Sounds tailor-made for the Disney treatment.

The reality isn’t quite so idealistic. Readers will find no ultimate triumph or resolve in this tale. The truth is not sugar-coated to make it more palatable. Nor should it be. The truth of the horrors these children endured and the adversity they continue to struggle with is what makes Outcasts United a worthwhile read.

I hope Disney keeps its grubby hands off.

The Language of Spells, by Garret Weyr

Grisha is a dragon in a world that’s forgotten how to see him. Maggie is a unusual child who thinks she’s perfectly ordinary. They’re an unlikely duo—but magic, like friendship, is funny. Sometimes it chooses those who might not look so likely.

This is not a story that will appeal to everyone (perhaps not even some of those intrigued by the description). It starts out slowly. The main plot makes a rather late entrance, which results in a resolution that may strike readers as rushed. Despite this irregular pacing, however, I enjoyed The Language of Spells immensely.

The style is decidedly old-fashion, which, again, may put some people off. I loved it. The story-telling charmed me, bringing to mind the fanciful tales I enjoyed in childhood. The magic is unique and wistful. The characters are brought to life with a thoughtful, delicate touch. The setting (Vienna in the decades following WW2) would have felt magical, even without dragons and enchanted cats. Yes, there are enchanted cats. And they’re everything that enchanted cats should be.

At the heart of the book is the friendship between Grisha and Maggie. I have high standards for friendship. I mean, John 15v13-level standards (…greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends). Weyr developed and fulfilled this ideal beautifully. Which, in the end, is probably why his story left me sniffing and sighing.

*Note: The Language of Spells does not release until later this summer. I received an advanced reader copy from the publisher through a Goodreads promotion. Yes, I feel special.

 

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

“Then letters came in but three times a week: indeed, in some places in Scotland where I have stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month;—but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken.”
-Elizabeth Gaskell

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We live in an age of convenience, of instant gratification. We don’t have to wait for much anymore. When we do (joining a queue at the bank, for instance, or behind a senior citizen at the supermarket checkout), it vexes us. It strikes us as unjust, as contrary to how the world is meant to operate.

If I want to say something to almost any other human on the planet, all I have to do is whip out my mobile device. With a few swipes of my finger, my words are hurtled across the space between us. We don’t even really need a person’s personal information anymore. No phone number. No mailing address. Because of social media, we’re pretty much all available to everyone else, 24/7/365.

This is all terrifically silly. And magical. And creepy. But we rarely pause to consider it. It’s just a fact of our lives, as commonplace as the sky’s blueness, or the grass’s greenness.

I feel blessed that I am old enough to remember a time before all these conveniences. A time before cell-phones and internet. I like recalling childhood, when sometimes the quickest way to get in touch with a friend was simply to go to their house. When, if your car broke down at the side of the road, you had to rely of the mercy of strangers.

Of course, I’m not old enough to remember an era when letter-writing was a vital and primary means of communication. But at least I was born early enough to have grasped some slight appreciation for the craft of penning personal letters.

A hand-written letter is contrary to everything modern and convenient. A letter is inconvenient. Gathering one’s thoughts and sitting down to channel them with ink takes time. A text takes two seconds. Why bother with the hassle of searching for the recipient’s address? Of scrounging around for a postage stamp? Of writing something that can’t be read for several days? Modern communication is so much cheaper and easier.

It is for precisely these reasons, though, that I wish we could revive the letter-writing practice. Not just despite the fact that it costs time and effort, but because of the fact that it costs time and effort.

A letter is quiet.

A letter is thoughtful.

A letter is meaningful, and intimate, and genuine.

With convenience and immediacy stripped away, you are forced to communicate in a way that is more honest and true. When I sit down to write a letter, it is almost an act of love. I feel as if I am putting my heart and soul into it, even if the content is silly or trivial. It’s hard to put your heart and soul into a text message.

Those of us who desire deeper and more meaningful connections with our friends, neighbors, family, would do well to look at letter-writing as a golden opportunity to do so. We would do even better to encourage the younger generations to follow in this example.

If I am enamored of letter-writing, it is because I learned to love it at a tender age. In fact, I began to write letters almost as soon as I learned to read and write. Hopefully my oldest correspondent won’t mind me sharing a bit of evidence:

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(Love you, too, Melinda.)

Twenty some odd years later, I still smile every time I drop a letter off at the post office, or find one waiting in my box. Letter-writing is more than just a transmission of words, or even just a thoughtful gesture. It is an art, and one worth cultivating. It won’t cost us anything but a little time (and about 49 cents for postage). The rewards are much the greater.

Vintage stuff is always coming back in style. We think it’s cool to listen to LPs, and choose Grace Kelly-esque wedding gowns. So, I ask, why not start writing letters again, too?

 

 

Book Reviews For February

I had hoped to write something brilliant and original today, but this March weather thwarted my plans. It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep when violent wind keeps blowing your window open, and it’s hard to think clearly when you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, and it’s hard to write brilliant and originals blog posts when you’re not thinking clearly.

Thus, today’s offering is little more than a summation than the books I read in the month of February, with reviews poached from my own Goodreads page. Here’s hoping for better next week, in the weather and brilliance departments.

February, perhaps, is a month for many to indulge in romantic reading selections. My list, on the other hand, is comprised of one mystery, one dystopian, one fantasy, two classics, and one historical non-fiction. Oh well. I never was much on Valentine’s Day.

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The Mystery: Whose Body?, by Dorothy Sayers

Just the right kind of clever, charming, British-ness to suit a cold winter’s evening.

Dorothy Sayers is still just an acquaintance, but we’re going to be friends soon. I can feel it.

“Here am I, sweating my brains out to introduce a really sensational incident into your dull and disreputable little police investigation, and you refuse to show a single spark of enthusiasm.”

The Dystopian: The Light, by Jacqueline Brown

One of my goals for 2018 is to discover/read more indie authors. While dystopian is not usually my preferred genre, Jacqueline Brown’s “The Light” was not a bad place to start.
The premise of all electronics and technology being suddenly and irrevocably removed from the world was appealing to me (I don’t know if this is a common plot point in dystopian literature, but if it is I guess I should quit avoiding it). Brown’s focus is very restrained, centering around one small group of survivors in a rural setting. She didn’t quite capitalize on the senses of isolation and anxiety, but I still really love that she chose this approach.

For such a character centric story, I did wish that the secondary cast had been fleshed out a bit more. It also seemed as if they accept their new world too quickly. The beginning, in general, felt a bit rushed. I’d have preferred more time to get to know the characters… more foundation for the ensuing drama. Not to sound overly negative. I don’t think it’s a terrible insult when the worst thing you have to say about a book is that you wish there’d been more of it.

For a “religious” book (Christian/Catholic), I’d categorize it as imperfect but above-average. It does manage to avoid some of the pitfalls that so often plague this classification. There was some moralizing, I guess, but it wasn’t too off-putting, and the characters didn’t come off as sicky-sweet Bible-thumpers. (Do note: this is the assessment of a lifelong Christian who might herself be considered a sicky-sweet Bible-thumper by those on the opposite end of the spectrum.)

The author does an excellent job of building tension, both internal and external, while keeping it all very subtle. This makes a refreshing reading experience for those who don’t like being bonked over the head with all kinds of teen angst and crazy epic drama. “The Light” is a page-turner, but it kept me interested by investing me in the characters and their lives, not through cheap hooks and empty action.

Bottom Line: This was a 3.5 star read for me. I didn’t love it, but I did enjoy it and plan to investigate the next book in this series.

Classic #1: It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

“…a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression when America was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press.”

Spoiler alert: it can happen here.

Still disturbingly relevant, over 80 years after it was written. I am not at all certain it follows that the book must be beneficial. I don’t find myself any better off for having read it.

Classic #2: Sense & Sensibility, by Jane Austen

First thought:
This is perhaps the 2nd of 3rd time in my life I’ve read Sense & Sensibility, while I’ve watched the film version more often than I can account for. It it impossible that the one should not to influence the other. With almost any other book/movie combination, this would be a lamentable truth. In this case, however, it is rather the contrary.
I am convinced that Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and company, bring these characters and story to life in more dynamic a way than my imagination would have been capable of. The admission feels like sacrilege, but there it is.

Second thought:
Elinor Dashwood is the heroine every real-life lovelorn drama queen needs to learn from. And I sincerely love her.

Third thought:
I don’t care what anyone says in his defense, I still want to shoot Willoughby in the face with a rubber band gun.

The Fantasy: Thick As Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner

(Note: “Fantasy” doesn’t feel like the correct classification for any of Whalen Turner’s books. It isn’t quite broad enough, or specific enough, or amazing enough. And this is the opinion of a reader who adores fantasy.)

It is inexplicably rare, in this day and age, to find a book that is centered around friendship— pure and simple friendship.

Sighs.

This series is incomparable. I don’t understand why everyone isn’t reading it, talking about it, and begging for more on a daily basis.

The non-fiction: Children Of The City: At Work & At Play, by David Nasaw

The author seems to take the stance that the era of children working/playing/living on city streets was a happy, golden time. And that all the parents and children’s rights advocate were a just a bunch of clueless meanies who wanted to prevent youngsters from earning money, having fun, and/or living meaningful lives. Which strikes me a curious point of view, but whatever.

I read the book to learn more about the history of the 1899 newsboy strike, upon which Disney’s musical “Newsies” is based. This history, as it turns out, comprised a comparatively small portion of the narrative. Even so, I could not be altogether disappointed. Mostly because I learned that Spot Conlon was a real person. The joy of such a discovery is worth at least three stars, all on its own.

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What I Write: Part Two

“Above all, I delight in listening to stories, and sometimes in telling them”

George MacDonald

In the last post I wrote about my influences (which are as numerous as they are varied). Today my aim is to cover the actual substance of the stories I put on the page. What are they about? Who are they for? Why should you care?

(In the interest of full disclosure, I might not have an answer for that last one.)

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To this point in life, I’ve written five novels (which clutter my shelves and computer files in various stages of “completion”). They are all pretty distinct from one another, even those that belong to the same series. They all have more than a few things in common, as well, and those are the things I will focus on today.

First of all, each of my stories falls into the category of fantasy.

The long explanation for this: I love being taken to far-flung, fantastic locales. I love the freedom the genre gives to my imagination. I love the endless possibilities. I love the inherent wonder. I love finding the similarities between made-up worlds and the real one that we live in. I love it as a unique way of exploring human nature. I love it as a meaningful and entertaining tool for shedding light on the most important facts and questions of life.

The short explanation: I really, really love dragons.

Second, all my work so far would be judged by most to be for the young adult audience.

I have mixed feelings about this, as I don’t’ care for pigeon-holing. My first book, though I will present it to the world under the YA banner, is perfectly appropriate for younger readers, as well. I’d like to believe it will appeal to all ages.

Says George MacDonald:

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My desire is to attain a similar kind of universal appeal. This is not because I believe everybody is going to enjoy what I write. My style and content are obviously not going to appeal to the whole world. What I don’t care for is the notion that age must be the deciding factor.

That said, when it comes down to publication time, we have to make these distinctions. I distinguish my stories as YA. The main reason for this is the average age of my heroes and heroines.

All of my protagonists at least start out as teenagers. Why, you may ask? It’s not something I put much thought into starting out, I’m sad to say. It just… happened. Adolescence is such a peculiar time of life. It’s a period of learning and transitions, of challenges and growing pains. This is my best guess as to why it makes such appealing fodder for writers, and why it became my own natural choice.

Third, all of my stories are character driven.

I never begin by sketching out a detailed plan for my plots and worlds. After the initial story-spark* emerges, the characters come next. I have to get to know them a little bit, and everything else takes shape around who these people (or dragons, et al.,) may be.

It might sound silly to those who aren’t writers, but I have little control over the characters themselves. Not unlike real children, they tend to grow and act quite on their own once they’ve been given birth. The best I can do for a character, as William Faulkner put it, is to “trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” The best I can do is try to translate the characters onto the page, so that the reader might see them and know them as I do.

On a related note, and to make my final point, my stories, like my characters, aren’t mine.

What kind of sense does that make? None, maybe. Call me crazy. You might be right.

Crazy or not, I feel as if the origin of my stories begins somewhere outside my own imagination. It is as if the story already exists, and I am merely the conduit through which it enters the world. Tolkien expressed similar thoughts, saying that his stories “arose in my mind as ‘given’ things”.

If I am crazy, at least I’m in good company, right?

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*What is a story spark? For Tolkien, it was a simple line scrawled on paper to distract his mind from the drudgery of grading papers (“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…”) For Lewis, it was an image of an umbrella-carrying fawn and a lamppost in a snowy wood. For me, it usually starts with the question, “What if?”

The spark for my first completed novel, Men & Dragons, ignited when I was considering the many stories in which a person is transformed into something else. A dragon, say, like Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. “What if,” I thought, “it happened the other way around? What if a dragon was turned into a human?” A very specific scene dawned in the wake of this question, and the rest is history.

And that’s what a story spark is.

What I Write: An Introduction

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.

-Flannery O’Connor

Happy Monday, everyone! Today I’ll be continuing in the introductory theme I began in the previous post (feel free to press pause for a sec and go check that one out, if you haven’t already.) Now the world knows what I believe, I’d like to share a little about what I write.

OK… maybe more than a little. As it happens, I’ve ended up splitting this subject into two different posts. In this one, I’ll tell you about the things that have helped to shape my writing. Next time, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of the writing itself.

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So.

There are two factors that influence what I write more than anything else.

First is what I believe (shocker, I know).

But how exactly does one’s faith and one’s writing intertwine? How does that work?

It is my opinion that in order for a story to be truly good, it has to have some kind of meaning outside of itself. Its purpose must not be merely entertainment (though many good stories ARE entertaining). Some kind of substance is required.

Though a Christian, I do not subscribe to the belief that a work must be explicit to my faith in order to be worthwhile. There are overtly Christian themes in many great works, both from those who identify as followers of Christ and those who may not. These themes are there, as most everyone knows, in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. They’re also present in Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare.

Sometimes it works to bonk readers over the head with an obviously allegorical message, but that’s a tricky game. It is possible (and often preferable) to create meaningful art in other ways.

I am of the opinion that any art, if it is good, gives glory to God. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a poem, a symphony, or a young adult novel. It doesn’t matter whether the artist is aware of their offering or not. If it is good, if it is true, then it is His.

In the words of Abraham Kuyper,

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”

Because I believe this to be true, I try to avoid the head-bonking variety of “Christian art”. I want to write stories that reflect my beliefs, but I don’t want to alienate those who may not share them. Good stories should be for everyone.

This is a difficult balance to achieve, and I don’t claim to have done it. My first novel, in particular, is a bit heavy-handed, theme-wise. The trouble is in capturing a reflection in such a way that does not rebound with the dreaded smack of a sermon.

My Christian faith is not simply a part of who I am. It’s not in the same category as being a Cubs fan, or enjoying milkshakes, or even being an artist. It is who I am. It is everything. As such, of course it will bleed into the fabric of my stories. If it didn’t, well… that wouldn’t speak much for me as a follower of Christ, would it?

Says Madeleine L’Engle in her book, Walking On Water:

If our lives are truly “hid with Christ in God,” the astounding thing is that this hiddenness is revealed in all that we do and say and write. What we are is going to be visible in our art, no matter how secular (on the surface) the subject may be.

And further:

The journey homewards. Coming home. That’s what it’s all about. The journey to the coming of the Kingdom. That’s probably the chief difference between the Christian and the secular artist–the purpose of the work, be it story or music or painting, is to further the coming of the kingdom, to make us aware of our status as children of God, and to turn our feet toward home.

I’m not sure if I’ve answered my own question as to how my faith influences my writing. All I can say is that is does influence it, just as it orchestrates every other particular of my life (and if that sounds creepy, I use the word “orchestrate” in the sense that a conductor guides his ensemble, not in that of a madman’s plotting to rule the world).

booksThe second influence over my writing is my reading (which is itself, you won’t be surprised to learn, influenced by the first thing).

Any writer who claims not to have been influenced by the books she reads is, of course, a terrible liar. Either that, or she’s a terrible writer. Books… books are a love language to us. And the writers with whom we connect most deeply leave their impressions upon us, the traces of which linger beneath the pages of our own work.

Because my stories fall within the fantasy genre, I owe immense debts of gratitude to the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, and L. Frank Baum, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. I have been inspired by the quirk of Roald Dahl, the humor of Douglas Adams, the elegant wit of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, the irresistible simplicity of Kenneth Grahame, L.M. Montgomery, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Reading poetry has taught me whatever I know about putting one word after another without having them collide and detonate. My favorites are Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson. As a youngster, one of my favorite books was Louis Sachar’s Newbery Medal winner, Holes. To this day I have not met with a story structure that captivates me more. My affinity for fantastic creatures, meanwhile, can be traced back to the Ruth Stiles Gannet book, My Father’s Dragon.

If I haven’t been diverse enough so far, I could also give some credit to Greek myth, the Psalms, Emmuska Orczy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and whoever wrote the children’s picture book “The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes”.

I would further mention G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and N.D. Wilson, but I’d not met any of them yet when I started writing seriously (you can count on hints of them being found in my future endeavors).

And then there is C.S. Lewis, who merits his own paragraph. Hardly a surprise, given that he is among the best known of all Christian writers in pretty much every genre. Narnia, certainly, is responsible for lighting a spark under my imagination. But I’ve been no less impacted by the dark humor of The Screwtape Letters, the bizarre styling of That Hideous Strength, the fanciful wisdom of The Great Divorce. Even bits from Lewis’s Letters To Children have bled into my being.

If that weren’t enough, Lewis also taught me to check my own proclivity for overusing adjectives. Isn’t that admirable? Sterling? Meritable? Praiseworthy? (Alright. Maybe I still have some adjective issues. Don’t blame Lewis, though. He tried.)

The only man who could rank any higher with me is the one whom C.S. Lewis himself owned as “his master”. George MacDonald was a 19th century Scottish writer and minister. His work, though little known today, has influenced a plethora of others (not just Lewis, and Tolkien, and Chesterton, and— ahem, me— but W.H. Auden, Lewis Carroll, Madeleine L’Engle, E. Nesbit, Oswald Chambers. Even Mark Twain.) His best known titles are Phantastes, Lilith, The Princess And The Goblin, and At The Back Of The North Wind. He has been called the Father of Fantasy.

“I know hardly any other writer,” wrote Lewis, “who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.”

I can scarcely articulate the effects that MacDonald’s writings have had on me, personally. The best way to explain it, I’ve found, is to use his own words. In The Princess And Curdie (perhaps one of my favorite stories ever put to the page), Irene’s great-great-great-grandmother tells the title character, when asked how he can thank her:

There is only one way I care for. Do better and grow better and be better.

To put it simply, this is what reading MacDonald inspires me to do. Not just as a writer, but as a human being created in the image of God.

I could write entire posts on each of these authors alone. But I’ve been rather long-winded for today, haven’t I? Get me going on certain subjects… sighs.

If you haven’t already fled screaming, stay tuned for the next installment of What I Write. It should make it up within the next week.