Image

Book Review: Dreams and Shadows

I love modern fairy tales. I love them so much I’ve even started writing my own (check out my novel Clockworkers). Dreams and Shadows was like something I’d written myself, which is perhaps why I enjoyed it so much.

The novel tells the story of Ewan and Colby; two little boys who have very different upbringings but end up having the same experiences with fairy folk. But these aren’t the friendly, pretty fairies of Disney tales. These are the dangerous sprites, redcaps, goblins, and other supernatural beings who exist in a magical world just outside of ours.

It’s a dark story, for sure. The book is mostly about the unfortunate and tragic events that occur when the fairy world and the human world meet. There are lots of deaths, and Ewan and Colby end up seeing far more tragedy than 8-year-olds should ever know. But there’s also the wonderful innocence and naivete of youth that keeps the story from being wholly depressing. Ewan and Colby are often saved by the fact that they don’t know they should be scared. Author C. Robert Cargill really captures the pure, unbridled power of the imagination that little boys have. There’s a beautiful line near the beginning of the book that sums it up well:

“There is no place in the universe quite like the mind of an eight-year-old boy. Describing a boy at play to someone who has never been a little boy at play is nigh impossible.”

And our plucky young leads, combined with the carefully-crafted magical worlds they find themselves in really make the first half of the novel quite enjoyable. But when Ewan Colby grow up, I felt the book lost some of its magic. Suddenly the joys of youth were replaced by the doldrums and depression of adulthood. This is a great thematic element of the story, as it reflects how the things we learn as we mature take much magic out of the world, but it also makes the story less fun.

Still, Dreams and Shadows is a fun read with lots of interesting mythical lore based on age-old tales, combined with a modern setting and modern sensibilities. Definitely worth a read if you like your fairy tales dark and melancholy, mixed with some childish glee.

Image

Book Review: The Giver

The Giver is one of those books I really, really should have read a long time but never got around to it. When it was released in 1993 I was already a teenager and there was no way in hell my school district was going to put it on the reading list so, unlike many fans of the work, I wasn’t aware of the story as a child. But it’s never too late to read a classic, and I have to say I enjoyed the book even though I’m far beyond the age of the target audience.

The book exposes us to the future world of Jonas, a soon-to-be twelve-year-old boy in a community that seems perfect at first. Everyone gets along. There are no wars, no crime, no fights, no unemployment. Everyone is fed, children have loving homes, and the elderly are respected and taken care of. But it all comes at a terrible cost, as the “Sameness” that brought this peace also drains the community of what we consider the joys of life, and love.

I won’t call this a dystopian novel, because the world it portrays isn’t necessarily a horrible one. It’s just very different. Jonas is not genetically related to his parents and sister; he was given to his parents after he was birthed by a designated birth mother, as all children in the Community are. His parents don’t even have sex. No one in the Community does. It is a culture marked by sterilization and predictability. But, initially, this doesn’t seem particularly insidious. There are actually some ideas that seem great on the surface. Family units (that’s actually what they’re called) in the community talk about their feelings to each other. It creates an environment where things are shared openly. Young children in the Community wear jackets that button up in the back so that others must help them dress; this creates a sense of community interdependence, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s only when you learn that these things are required by the powers that be, and adherence to The Rules is closely monitored, that these ideas become dark and foreboding. You can easily see how these concepts might have started with the best intentions but evolved into a system that snuffed out personal freedom. But, for the most part, the people in the community live safely and soundly, and since we’re not given a complete view of the world outside, it’s hard to say that The Community setup wasn’t borne out of necessity in a world that was going mad.

The other element that adds a sense of wrongness to the world is the concept of “release” from the community, which usually happens when people reach advanced age, but rarely is used as punishment and even more rarely used when infants don’t develop as healthy as The Community dictates is required. For the sake of a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into detail here. But when reading the book, I think most adult readers could easily come to a conclusion about what was really going on. There are no real plot twists in this book, but if you read it as a kid you might have been surprised, just as Jonas was. And that’s the beauty of the book, really; the end of childish naivete through knowledge. This theme kicks into full gear when Jonas meets The Giver, the only caretaker of memories from the past world, before The Community system whitewashed everything in the pursuit of perfection.

Still, the young age of the protagonist was a key factor in what made the story’s themes so powerful. Jonas just turned 12, yet The Community deems that to be the age where all citizens enter adulthood and assigned the careers they’ll have for the rest of their lives. This concept works because on one hand, it does make a bit of sense, but on the other hand it completely disregards the maturation process between the teenage years and adulthood. It’s a concept that seems alien and wrong, but for The Community it is normalcy.

That’s why I was disappointed to learn that the upcoming movie version of The Giver increased the ages of Jonas and his friends from 11/12, to 16. There’s a world of difference between those pre-teen years and mid-teens, and it seems like the entire tone of the story would change and lose much of its magic. But I will refrain from judging until the movie comes out, and with Oscar award winning cast members like Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges there’s a chance the movie will still be good (although the movie also has Taylor Swift cast, which should be…interesting).

I’m sure there will soon be much media attention given to this story because of the film, but I encourage everyone to read the book first (and it’s a short, easy read). The Giver is a well-crafted book that took a bold approach of introducing difficult and challenging societal concepts to kids. It’s the kind of thought-provoking modern literature that teaches lessons relevant to today’s world. It’s meant for kids, but adults can certainly get something out of it as well.

Kobo removes self-published books…temporarily

Ebook seller Kobo announced yesterday that they’re going to “quarantine” self-published books in an attempt to clean up the plague of books filled with questionable content like rape, incest, and bestiality.

I think this is ultimately a good thing; it was just done in a very bad way.

As self-publishing has exploded, Kobo and other digital retailers have been inundated with books. Some of those books are quite good, and a number of indie authors have found deserved success through digital platforms. But quite a few of these indie books are just, well I’ll be honest, horrible. They’re glorified fan-fiction and the not-so-secret extreme sexual fantasies of writers who feel they need to share (there’s nifty.org for that kind of stuff, people!). Big name authors like Stephen King include some pretty dark sexual content too, but the books aren’t purely focused on that material. There’s a line between telling a story that can go to some pretty dark and strange places, and filling a book with nothing but the deepest levels of human depravity. I can’t blame Kobo for enforcing some kind of quality control for the sake of their business and the self-publishing industry as a whole. And Kobo, like Amazon, has some pretty clear (one might even say, explicit, heh) terms about what they don’t want to see on their store. When a store chooses to remove content that it doesn’t want, it’s not censorship. It’s not unfair treatment. It’s enforcing standards. Some material just doesn’t have a place in a reputable book store (and again, if you write this kind of stuff there are other venues for you). As long as the standards are fairly and consistently applied, I don’t mind.

It is unfortunate that every self-publisher has to suffer because of this, and Kobo could have handled the situation much better (they didn’t give anyone notice that all indie books would be unavailable for a while). Even my own books are off of Kobo right now. Let’s be clear: this was a knee-jerk reaction that is going to cost indie authors money while Kobo figures things out. But I think the temporary inconvenience is worth it if it helps our continuing efforts to make indie books as respectable as indie movies.

Book Review – I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems By Cats

If you know me, you know I love cats. I often get cat-related gifts for birthdays and holidays, and I keep every single one of them. But I also like poetry, so when a friend gave me a cat poetry book for my birthday, it was a beautiful match.

With a book title like I Could Pee on This, you know what you’re in for before you even pick it up. Cat owners (and I use the term lightly, because can anyone truly own a cat?) will immediately understand the snark and quirky humor in these odd little poems. The selections range from free-form to haiku to nothing more than an odd collection of sentences. But everything perfectly reflects the seemingly odd, apparently self-absorbed thought patterns of our feline friends. A good coffee table book, and a nice treat for kids and adults alike.

The book’s title is borrowed from one of the poems within, and it’s one of my favorites. There are also plenty of cute cat photographs to go with the poems, which makes it even more entertaining. It’s a short book, but one that can keep you and your guests entertained for years.

Fanfiction Confessions

Okay, I’ll admit it. I used to write Harry Potter fan fiction.

In fact my first completed novel-length work was my own rendition of HP Book 6. This was years ago, in that long span of time between Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince. I really liked Rowling’s writing style and I needed some practice on my writing. I also needed a community that was ready and willing to provide feedback in bunches. Fanfiction was the answer.

Two years is a long time to wait for the next installment of a series you love. So I, like many other writers, filled the time by coming up with my own stories to fill the void. It was entertainment for me, and practice. I picked up where Rowling left off and inserted my own original characters, ideas, histories, and spells – all while attempting to mimic Rowling’s writing style (and writing in someone else’s world isn’t easy). My goal was to write a book that people could actually believe was the sixth book in the series. My dream job at the time was to get a gig writing in the Star Wars expanded universe (yes, I am that huge of a geek) so I figured this would be good practice. Writing for an existing commercial series is essentially just fan fiction you get paid for, after all.

My fanfiction was quite an educational endeavor. The Harry Potter fans are rabid and at times pedantic. They were the best critics I could have had at that point in my nascent writing career. They kept me focused, and for the first time I felt the joy that comes with people enjoying stories I wrote (even if I was playing in someone else’s world).

Now I write my own novels, and I do some freelance writing on the side. But my time as a fanfiction author definitely helped me become the writer I am today, and I think that’s true of many ambitious writers in this day and age. I recall, years after I left fanfiction, that a writer on the site I used to post on got a book deal with a $500,000 advance.

So why am I talking about fanfiction now? There has been a lot of chatter about the recent crazy trend of Twilight fanfiction stories getting major book deals. The Fifty Shades of Gray series started this trend, and now a new series by Sylvain Reynard reportedly earned a SEVEN FIGURE BOOK deal. Both book series started out as Twilight fanfiction and, after necessary tweaks and edits to avoid copyright infringement, became huge bestsellers on their own right. Fanfiction authors, long considered the oddest of the odd writers, are suddenly getting financial validation. I just wish the industry supported something better than those Twilight books -_-

Writing is a Skill. Learn it.

“Must have excellent written communication skills.” You see this all the time in job posts, but what does it really mean? Do people really even care about writing skills anymore?

The answer is yes.

All of us are presented with moments when we must communicate our ideas in written form. It may be an admissions essay, or a cover letter for your resume, or a complaint to your landlord, an explanation to a co-worker, a sales pitch for a new client, or a letter to your boss justifying your reasons for a raise. You will have to write, and oftentimes what you write will affect the chances of you getting what you want, so you might as well learn how to be good at it.

Yes, you have to learn how to write. For some reason, many people seem baffled by this idea. “I’ve been writing all my life,” they say. “It can’t be that hard.” These are the same people that fill literary agent inboxes with horrible novels and are outraged when they get rejected.

To those people, I ask a simple question — can you talk? I’m sure you can. But does being able to talk automatically mean you can sing? Of course not. You have to learn how to sing. You have to practice. Even if you have an innate talent for it, that only gets you so far. You still have to learn the art of singing if you want to move people’s emotions with your voice.

The same is true for writing.

With a little research and practice you can dramatically improve your skill at communicating with the written word. You can learn to evoke sympathy, bring people to tears, or stoke the fires of anger with your words. You can learn how to transport your thoughts into someone else’s mind with nothing but letters. Writing is the closest thing we have to telepathy.

But, like all skills, writing demands a sacrifice. Learning to write well is a chore. It takes work and research, and one can get lost in the vast sea of “How to Write” books out there (it has long been said that the best way to make money at writing is to write a book about writing). But the most important thing you’ll ever learn about writing is this:

All writing — all writing — is storytelling.

When you read a blog, you’re reading a story about one person’s experience. When you read a news article, you’re reading a story of real events and people. When you read a product description, you’re reading a manufactured story a marketing team wants to tell you. Even as you read this post, what you’re reading are tiny stories about types of people and events and situations you can relate to as part of my efforts to convince you to do something. Learn how to tell good stories, and people will want to listen to what you say. That is influence. That is power.

So, where to begin? First, write and write often. Get a blog. Sign up for a free blog Blogger or Tumblr or LiveJournal and just write. Blog every day if you can. You can tell others about your blog, or not. It doesn’t really matter, because all you have to do is write. Write about whatever you like — food, poetry, politics, cats. Whatever. Just remember that your goal is to write compelling stories about your topic. Stories have characters, and settings, and a firm beginning, middle and end. Your writing should have all of these.

While you’re doing your writing, read. All good writers must be good readers. I’m sure you’ve read stories before, but when you read as a writer, stories take on new meaning. You dissect and analyze the style and technique of the author. You see things from a different perspective. For example, as a reader I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but it wasn’t until I became a writer and took a more technical look at the books that I truly appreciated J.K. Rowling’s skill (the Invisibility Cloak is a brilliant plot device).

You should also read some books and articles in that aforementioned sea of “How to Write” material. I personally advocate Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing. The Internet also has a wealth of great material for learning how to write, and I particularly like this timeless article on Persuasive Writing, which is the most useful type of writing for the average person.

And when you’ve done all that writing and reading, go back and look at what you wrote earlier. Do you see the flaws? Has the practice and research changed your ideas of what “good” writing is? If so, take note of what you’ve learned, apply it, and keep writing and reading. If not, keep writing and reading. Remember you’re working on a skill here and, as required with any type of craft, mastery takes time. But stay committed, and I guarantee that new perspectives and opportunities will open up to you because of your new ability to move hearts and minds with your words.