Saturday, April 29, 2017

Saturday Snippets: Albion Apparent and Paper and (T)horns

I actually have snippets from two projects this time. First, a couple from Albion Apparent.



“I wouldn’t expect an answer right away,” said Bill. I turned to see him standing at the door where he’d left me. “He tends to let us learn patience along with prayer.” Bill stepped forward into the wan light, his pulled-down hat making the covered eye seem like a deep pit.

“I don’t think there’s much time for patience,” I said.

“Most people don’t.” He stopped at the end of the pew where I was sitting. “It doesn’t change His timing.”

***

“Who are you talking to, young Merlin?”
“Nobody.”
“I’ve heard that’s one of the signs of insanity,” said Robin. “Then again, it’s not nearly as fun as hallucinations, so I think it shouldn’t even count.”

***

I clenched my fist, then relaxed it. I hadn’t realized mortals could read my emotions so easily. “You know I’m a Valkyrie,” I said, “and what that means.”
He nodded.
“Except I’m not anymore, not really.” I broke eye contact and drank from my glass. “I have one more soul I have to collect, when his time comes.” I watched Gabriel’s face as realization swept over him, then horror and confusion. “And I know that day will come, so when I look at you I can’t decide whether I want to prevent it from happening or speed it along.”
“So, you’re my angel of death?” he said, his color starting to return.
“In a manner of speaking,” I conceded.
“Well,” he said, gathering himself, “I’d say something about having a good-looking angel, but then you’d probably kill me here and now.”
“Assuredly,” I said.

***

“You sound like Dad,” Kaya said, stretching her arms wide and yawning. “He never gives the full answer.”
“The Puck is as the Puck does,” D’Artangan said.
I turned back to face her. “I’d like to know what the Puck is doing now.”
“So would others both friendly and Unseelie.”
Kaya and I both stared at my sister as though she might fall over in a seizure.
“Did I say that out loud?” D’Artangan asked. She shook her head, showering the mat with dried up sunflower petals. “I really must work on keeping my mouth shut one of these days. I think I’ll see if Mistress Akachi needs any help in the kitchen.”
She rose to her feet with the inelegant grace of a girl who is clumsy, knows it, and doesn’t care.
“Does she ever make more sense to you than she does to the rest of us?” Kaya asked as we watched D’Artangan weave through the sleeping mats.
“Rarely,” I said. “And sporadically.”

**************************************
These next few come from a story I mentioned in the Writer's Tag post Monday, inspired by a sketch of Mirriam's that compared her idea of the Beast with the version presented in the new Disney film. I said that I shipped her version with Maleficent, and then had to start writing that story. I've tentatively titled it "Paper and (T)horns."


Ok. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Boy loses girl. Girl curses boy. Literally curses him. To an eternity as a transmogrified beast.
You thought I was joking about the curse? Well, I thought Molly was joking about having fae blood. But that’s putting the rose before the thorn.

***

With all this talk of names, you may be curious as to mine. You may ask my name, but I cannot give it.
Beasts have no names.

***

Roger was out of his depth. Molly’s shrewdness had been honed over years of managing her father’s backstage interactions—or lack thereof. No amount of money could lower her guard. No charm could bespell her to allow me entrance to her father’s sanctuary. Only earnestness, open-faced honesty, and open-handed humility—if anything—would prevail.

***
I reached into my bag and pulled out a handful of paper sheets of various sizes and shades. The bag often drew attention when I was out—not because of its pattern (a black and white version of the TARDIS), but because men of my station were not supposed to carry their own bags, no matter how eccentric our pursuits. But as I said in that famous interview with Ellen, “Art doesn’t care about your station or your schedule. It demands to be made NOW.” So I always kept materials on hand for whatever medium tickled my monomaniacal fancy. For the last year, it had been origami.


Thanks for reading! Come back next month on the last Saturday for more snippets. Like what you read? Let me know in the comments. Didn't like it? Let me know that, too. (There's no improvement if I don't know what fails.)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

O'Brien Read/Watch: Z for Zachariah

Z for Zachariah is Robert C. O'Brien's last novel, published posthumously by his wife and daughter (after they completed it based on his notes). Despite the fact that O'Brien's family finished the book for him, the style remains consistent throughout -- though I wouldn't necessarily say it's O'Brien's style. The reason for that is this: in the three novels of his that I've read so far, he maintains a different voice in each. Mrs. Frisby has its omniscient narrator peeking into the minds of animals, The Silver Crown's narrator is more limited, sticking almost entirely to Ellen's perspective, and Z for Zachariah is written in first person as journal entries of the main character, Ann Burden.



Set in an undefined future (from the perspective of the '70s), Z for Zachariah follows Ann Burden's account of how she survives following a nuclear and biological war in her native valley. Ann's peaceful if isolated life is immediately (from the reader's perspective) interrupted by the appearance of a stranger in a biohazard suit. This person is the first living human Ann has seen since her family left in search of life outside the valley, never to return. Not knowing the nature of this stranger, and despite her longing for human interaction, Ann hides all traces of her existence in order to observe the stranger. After determining the stranger to be friendly (or at least benign), Ann introduces herself. The stranger reveals himself to be a man named Loomis, a scientist who worked on a project to create the suit and apparatus he has used to travel from his military base to Ann's valley. The suit is the only one of its kind, due to the war having broken out before the project moved beyond the prototype stage.

Unfortunately, Loomis makes a mistake shortly after arriving in the valley, before Ann reveals herself. He bathes in the polluted river (there are two in the valley -- a clean one whose source is inside the valley, and the polluted one that flows in from outside) and consequently succumbs to radiation sickness. Ann nurses him through, and when he is recovered they begin to plan for the long-term survival of the valley. As Loomis regains more of his former strength, however, Ann discerns his true character. He is domineering, narcissistic, and manipulative. He attempts to control Ann's behavior over the course of weeks, culminating in a (failed) attempt to force himself on her. Ann escapes, and Loomis' attempts to control her escalate further. He locks the town store where the supplies of nonperishable food are, withholds the key to the tractor so Ann cannot maintain the crops, and even attempts to maim her so she cannot run from him again.

Eventually, Ann confronts Loomis head-on, after tricking him into leaving the biohazard suit unguarded. She steals the suit and the rest of the supplies she will need and makes it clear that Loomis' only options are allow her to leave or shoot her, damaging the suit. The novel ends with Ann exploring the world beyond the valley in pursuit of a populated place she has seen only in her dreams.


Z for Zachariah caught me off-guard. Although I knew this was one of O'Brien's novels aimed at adults (despite it reminding me of many middle grade and YA novels from my elementary and middle school years), I didn't expect it to carry such a heavy weight of fear and anxiety throughout. Loomis' first appearance sets the stage. Ann wants to greet him, but hides because she does not know he can be trusted. As the book progresses, her feelings toward Loomis remain ambivalent. She will feel affection or kindness toward him only for him to reveal a darker part of himself -- sometimes through information about his past, sometimes in the way he dismisses Ann as young and stupid, sometimes in aggressive behavior. Loomis' personality is gradually revealed as that of a controlling abuser, one who attempts to placate his victim into returning to the relationship, one who minimizes his own actions rather than admitting fault. While the book's themes surprised me, what surprises me more is that this book is not taught in schools. These are themes that are rarely handled this well in fiction. (Knowing O'Brien's family finished the book, I have to wonder how much of this aspect came from him and how much from them; in any event, the novel is successful in its portrayal of such relationships.)

My one real disappointment with the novel is that its ending just . . . ends. After a lengthy build-up to the realization that only one of them will survive their last encounter, Loomis lets Ann walk away and Ann does not shoot Loomis, even in self-defense. While violence shouldn't be condoned, the final scenes fell flat for me precisely because the tension simply dissolves. Ann's triumph over Loomis feels less substantial than it might have otherwise because he gives up. Yes, she finally outsmarts him, but his decision to let Ann leave does not match his previous characterization. (Again, I wonder how much of this is O'Brien and how much is his family.)

As a side note, all three of O'Brien's novels so far have featured crows in some significant way (Jeremy in NIMH, Richard in Silver Crown, and the family of crows in the church in Z). If A Report from Group 17 does not have crows, I will be disappointed, as I'm beginning to think of them as O'Brien's trademark.

Tune in soon for a review of the 2015 film adaptation of Z for Zachariah.

Have you read Z for Zachariah? What were your thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Monday Musings: The Writer's Tag

I've had a number of friends do this tag in the last couple weeks, so I figured I'd jump in.


1. WHAT GENRES, STYLES, AND TOPICS DO YOU WRITE ABOUT?

Genres: Fantasy (high, urban, contemporary, epic), magical realism (or something that's not quite full-blown fantasy), and I've got ideas for sci-fi and horror stories/novels that haven't been written yet

Styles: Well, I only wrote in third person omniscient for a long while, but I've tended to use more first person in my writing in the last ten years or so. I almost always write in the past tense in my fiction.

Topics: I haven't really written topically, but I have touched on some issues like infidelity, homosexuality, personal identity, and religion in my short stories and novels. One novel-in-planning will deal very heavily with child abuse and its effects on both the victims and their friends and families.


2. HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING?

I've been coming up with stories and writing them down since I was in elementary school (so 20-some years now) but I started writing my first novel in 2002 or 2003 (I'd have to check out my original notebook for it to be certain) and since that's when I think of myself writing "seriously" (i.e. for publication and something longer than 3 pages typed in large font) that means it's been 14-15 years now.

3. WHY DO YOU WRITE?
Because the days I don't write, I tend to be far less happy than the days when I write horribly. There's something joyous, therapeutic, and satisfying about writing. I can't imagine giving it up.

4. WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO WRITE?
When the iron is hot. Or the muse is speaking. Or the computer is on. Or you have breath and consciousness.

5. PARTS OF WRITING YOU LOVE VS PARTS YOU HATE?

Love: completing a story (especially a novel); getting a scene just right; putting together a perfect phrase; getting into my characters' minds (well, some of them).

Hate: Not knowing where to go with a scene; having to choose a single project to focus on; the prospect of editing (I've come to appreciate editing itself a lot more over the years, but I hate sitting down to do it).

6. HOW DO YOU OVERCOME WRITERS BLOCK?
Usually, by forcing myself to write. If that doesn't work, I take a break for a day (or a week) and don't worry about writing. I play video games, I read books, or I just spend time gathering ideas and letting my creative aspects regenerate.

7. ARE YOU WORKING ON SOMETHING AT THE MOMENT?
I'm beating out the last third of Albion Apparent, the second book in the Albion Quartet. I've also got notes for several other novels dancing in my head (not to mention the need to finish There's No Place Like Home?) and I've just started a short story inspired by one of Mirriam's sketches she shared on her Facebook page.

8. WRITING GOALS THIS YEAR?

  • Finish first drafts of Albion Apparent and There's No Place Like Home?
  • Get Albion Apparent through beta readers and then (hopefully) edited and to the publisher.
  • Finish/polish several short stories that are either being written or have been sitting around for a while.
  • If there's any year left after that, I'll start on either Albion book 3 or one of the other novels waiting in the wings of my mind.

If you're a writer reading this and haven't done the tag yet, consider yourself tagged. You can leave answers here in the comments or on your own blog (leave a link so I can see your answers, please). If you're not a writer, let me know what you think about my answers. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

ThrowBook Thursday: Books that Made Me

I've talked before about books I love to reread and elements of my childhood, but today I want to take a different slant. Last week, Mirriam asked her friends and followers for blog topics, and I suggested "Which books do you reread the most and why?" and she responded with this post about the books that shaped her childhood (and her writing).

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams

I didn't actually realize just how much this series influenced my writing until I started rereading the first volume, The Dragonbone Chair, in anticipation of the sequel, The Witchwood Crown, coming out this June. This was the first fantasy with flavors of Tolkien that I encountered that was not simply a carbon copy. It has been called a deconstruction of Tolkien's story, but really it's just a more modern take on high fantasy. It turns a number of tropes on their heads (including prophecy, which is still one of the coolest things about this series). This series helped develop my first novel and the world it takes place in.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

This one and Narnia are both also huge parts of who I am as a person, but The Lord of the Rings has shaped my view of fictional worlds in a larger way. Together with The Hobbit and (especially) The Silmarillion, this book has shown me how large a story's scale can go while still being concerned with small, everyday heroes. (Now please pardon me while I dive back into a Middle-earth reread.)

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

While I didn't come in to Narnia as young as many people, it still left a strong mark on me. This series is the reason I started writing novels. I had heard the story of C.S. Lewis starting with images and then crafting the first story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) from there. I wanted to do something similar and write a book (or series of books) that would impact people the way the Narnia books impacted me. (For the curious, the image I began with was an Elf from another world walking in a garden in ours.)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle

I think I can blame this book for my earliest concepts of what Doctor Who refers to as "timey-wimey"; it features all kinds of time travel and interconnectedness of people, time periods, etc. The series as a whole opened my mind to the possibilities of what books could contain and do, and Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace are still some of my favorite fictional heroes.

The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan

Another Tolkien-honoring fantasy series, this one helped inspire my second fantasy world. While it does have its flaws, this series was so good the first time I read it that I devoured the books that were available (ten) over the course of one summer and fall. Then I spent the next 10 years waiting for the end. But it was (mostly) worth it. (There were elements of the ending that, while consistent with the world Jordan built, were not to my taste. Still, the conclusion was overall satisfying.)


James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Because Dahl understands the importance of books and the power of the imagination. And because I read it several years in a row during elementary school.


The Wizard of Oz and The Scarecrow of Oz by L. Frank Baum

These are the only two books in the Oz series that I've read more than once. Wizard is the classic, the essential story of the franchise. I've talked about its importance to me before on a ThrowBook Thursday. Scarecrow is what I think of when I think about Oz, though. It's the story that I read the most and the one that captured the potential of Oz the best (in my opinion).

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques

I discovered these in middle school because everyone it seemed had read one or more of them, although I actually picked the first one up by accident. I had searched the library system for fantasy books to see what came up (I didn't have a particular book in mind, as I do, so I went for a broad search). The Pearls of Lutra struck me as an interesting title, so I checked out the shelf where it resided. Someone else had already checked it out (or it hadn't been reshelved yet), so I wound up taking The Long Patrol instead. Then I read Marlfox (direct sequel to TLP) and then I made my way hodgepodge through the rest of the books in the series. While the books can be somewhat formulaic (especially in the later books), the series as a whole is special to me because of its focus on heroism and humility and its mythic tones through the Badger Lords, the spirit of Martin the Warrior, etc.


What are some books that have shaped who you are, as a reader, a writer, an artist, or simply as a person? Let me know in the comments! (And if you feel like writing a blog post about it, share the link so we can see.)


Monday, April 17, 2017

Monday Musings: The Power of Choosing Kindness (A Review of Cinderella)



I (finally) got around to seeing the live action Disney Cinderella remake from 2015 a few weeks ago. (Hey, I never said I was up-to-date on pop culture. Ever.) I'd been planning to do a review because (like Pete's Dragon) it impressed me more than I'd anticipated. Then Mirriam and Arielle both posted about villains and their thoughts on the matter coincided with my main praise for the film: the way it handles its villains (and its heroes).

One of the main detractions I have seen lobbied against this film is that it's "just the animated film with live actors." Well, it isn't. Aside from the fact that the new film drops the songs and has a significantly different script, it also adds motivation for Cinderella and Lady Tremaine.

First, Cinderella. In this version, her parents are given screen time, and a good portion, too. We see their happy life together before Cinderella is orphaned. The key elements of this opening sequence are twofold: first are Cinderella's mother's encouragements to "Have courage and be kind" and second (and this will later apply to Prince Kit as well) is the idea of honoring her mother's wish to face life's challenges with those choices. Cinderella exemplifies her mother's wished-for virtues. She and her father face life alone bravely, and when her father remarries, she welcomes her new family with kindness. (Some might argue that her kindness is akin to being a doormat, but I disagree. Cinderella knows she is being mistreated, and she continues to follow her mother's admonitions in a living example of the Biblical mandate to "overcome evil with good.")

Even in the worst moments, Cinderella does not choose to respond to her stepmother's cruelty with harsh words or even small, mean-hearted pranks. The closest she ever comes is in her statement (before the Captain) to Lady Tremaine: "You are not, nor have you ever been, my mother." The tone in which she delivers this sentence is somewhat disdainful, but even so it comes across as a statement of fact coupled with a determination on Cinderella's part to cut off her stepmother's evil from her life. But she is not hateful; Cinderella forgives her stepmother (or at least extends the spirit of forgiveness, since Lady Tremaine never repents as far as we are told). [It should be noted that Kit, though still "an apprentice monarch," is wise enough to exile Lady Tremaine and the treacherous Grand Duke.]

By contrast to her stepdaughter, Lady Tremaine is neither brave nor kind. In a beautifully written and executed scene, she refers to her own hardships in life. But where Cinderella chose kindness, Lady Tremaine chose cruelty. She chose to respond to Cinderella's relationship with her father (Tremaine's second husband) with jealousy (vividly portrayed by the many green dresses she wears in the film). She chooses greed and self-promotion over her duty as a caretaker to Cinderella after the death of Cinderella's father. Rather than allow Cinderella to achieve happiness with Kit (and possibly provide some comfort for her stepfamily along the way) Tremaine attempts to blackmail Cinderella into making Kit a puppet. She destroys the glass slipper out of spite. She admits to hating Cinderella because she is "young and beautiful and kind," although she never quite states what she (Tremaine) is, in contrast.

In the end, as in all good and true fairytales, Cinderella's kindness and bravery win out over Lady Tremaine's cruelty and greed. And that is why I love this new version as much as (or more than) the "original."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Watercolor Wednesday: Swelling Sea

For this month's Watercolor Wednesday, I decided to finally paint a picture I've been stewing over for months (since before Christmas, actually). Another Tow'rs-inspired piece, this picture takes its cues from their song "Swelling Sea".



The main images I wanted to include from the song were the Moon, larger than life and pulling on the singer and the sea, and the swinging "pendulum clock".

The rough sketch
Both of these made it into the rough sketch (although I did have to move the Moon to the right because it wound up too close to the pendulum at first). As I added some waves for the swelling sea, an abutment of land introduced itself, along with a lighthouse. Since the opening line of the song mentions a keeper (who I'd always envisioned as a gatekeeper or door guard), I decided the lighthouse was a fitting addition. It ended up being one of my favorite elements.


The finished product
I'm very pleased with the way the Moon and the lighthouse turned out. I was worried I wouldn't get them right (especially the lighthouse, which is presented in miniature compared to the overwhelming Moon). The pendulum clock turned out well too. But yet again, I'm finding backgrounds are far more challenging than I expect them to be. I'm not sure if this is due to my color choices, or the brushes, or just plain ineptitude on my part. Perhaps next month I'll find one of the paint-along videos on my favorite watercolor channels on YouTube and follow along with it to see if that improves my background.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monday Musings: Pete's Dragon Review

A while back I made a deal to swap movie thoughts with Mirriam. She picked Kubo and the Two Strings, reviewed it quickly, and praised it left and right. (If you haven't seen it yet, go out and do so. It's a gorgeous Japanese hero myth.) I chose Pete's Dragon because I was excited to see what a fresh take on one of my favorite childhood films would look like.* Seven or eight months later, I can finally deliver on my end. (Oh the glories of Netflix.)



First things first: yes, this movie is different from the original (and not just because it's not a musical). It is, like the other Disney remakes preceding it (Maleficent and, to a lesser extent, Cinderella) a new spin on things. In all three cases, this is a good thing. Breathing new life into old stories is part of the ongoing process of storytelling.

I really appreciated the fact that the filmmakers wanted to take the heart of Pete's Dragon (an orphaned boy befriended and cared for by a dragon before finding his adoptive family) and bring it into a modern setting with what I think is a truer fairy tale spirit.

At the center of this modern take is the concept of relationships -- between humans and other humans as well as humans and nature -- and how these relationships, once broken, can be restored. All of the dysfunction and pain in the film can be attributed to one or more of these relationships being broken or imbalanced in some way -- from the opening scene where Pete's parents die (because his dad swerved the car to avoid hitting a deer) to the destruction of Pete and Elliot's tree house (because Gavin feels he has to prove himself and views nature as something to be exploited rather than tended) to even old man Meacham's telling a very different dragon story to the kids at the start of the film than he later tells his daughter, Grace.

Twice in the film Elliot's fur changes from a darker, greyish green to the vibrant green of sunlit leaves. Both times this happens when an understanding human (first Pete, then Grace) touches him in a moment of fear and danger. In the first instance, this forges the bond between Pete and Elliot that allows both of them to survive the next six years in the forest; in the second, it gives Elliot some much-needed love when the town's logging force (under Gavin's leadership) have him tied and tranquilized.

The scene with Pete is especially important because it marks an instance of what C.S. Lewis once referred to (I believe in The Problem of Pain) in regard to the relationship between man and animal: that just as humanity is raised up by its relationship with God, so animals are raised up by their relationships with humanity. In this scene, Elliot shifts from "dumb beast" to a fuller version of himself. Isolated in the Millhaven woods, he's become a brute rather than the relational animal he was intended to be. The microcosm he and Pete create is a substitute for what they've both lost -- but the film doesn't hold this wild living up as the ideal. Pete cannot be fully himself -- and fully human -- apart from a human family. Likewise, Elliot must return to the dragon family from whom he has been separated so long.

Although Gavin is an antagonist for part of the film, he is never the villain Doc Terminus and the Gogans were in the original. The new film eschews a hero vs villain story to focus on reconciliation. Not only is Pete given a new family with Grace, Natalie, and Jack, but Gavin and Jack are brought back together as brothers in harmony. When Elliot (out of the desire to protect Pete) becomes a fire-breathing dragon out of legend on the bridge leading out of town, Jack and Grace are endangered. Gavin is faced with the results of his own greed, ambition, and disregard for both nature and humanity in this moment and chooses to risk his own life in order to help his brother and future sister-in-law return to safety.

The most subtle reconciliation in the film is Meacham's. He begins the film by telling local kids the story of his encounter with the dragon of Millhaven woods -- a tale which ends with him "driving his knife home". Aside from the knowledge that he couldn't have killed Elliot, this story feels false because Meacham is a maker who carves things into wood and spins tales for his community; he is not a destroyer. This is made even clearer in his conversations with Grace, where he attempts to draw her from her stark rationalism into a worldview that allows for wonder and things beyond human explanation. When he finally tells Grace the truth of his encounter with the dragon, the revelation is two-fold: he explains that his reaction to the dragon was fear and wonder, a feeling beyond words, and then he tells her that this version has remained unspoken for so many years because of the town's own reluctance to believe his story about a dragon who is both real and awesome. The town's acceptance of the dragon's existence and Meacham's ability to show Elliot a good turn, coupled with his mended relationship with Grace (they aren't as far apart in their worldviews come the movie's end), make his character a linchpin of the movie's theme.

Another key difference that I think works in the newer film's favor is the ending. Rather than a deus ex draconis wherein long-lost family members are returned, apparently from the grave, the new film chooses to leave all the dead parents right where they've been the whole time: dead. Instead of forcing some miraculous restoration of old relationships on the story, the filmmakers have given us a truer fairy tale ending: the new family formed by the main characters, blended and strengthened by their encounters with Elliot.

So tell me: have you seen the new Pete's Dragon? What did you think? What other themes or ideas did you pick up on that I didn't mention? Let me know in the comments!

*As a side note, the original Pete's Dragon has not aged well for me. When I tried watching it with my wife last year, she couldn't sit through it and I found myself cringing at much of the opening. While I still love the music (aside from the Gogans), I just can't stick with this one anymore.