Saturday, January 19, 2013

Overdue Books

I've got a stack of library books collecting fines on my desk because I still want to blog about them, so I think I'd better do a bunch of quickies and clear the desk for the next lot.

I have been doing relatively short reviews on Goodreads for some of the books I finish, and I guess it is considered kosher to copy reviews from your blog to Goodreads and vice versa, so that's what I'm going to do.

I was hooked as soon as I heard the premise of Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. Seraphina is assistant court musician in a renaissance-like country that is renewing a peace treaty with dragons. Her job is to create the musical entertainment for the dragon king's state visit--but Seraphina has secrets of her own that may make the difference between peace and war. Hartman has a great take on dragons--original and fascinating. I loved how the novel explored the idea of peace between two species with such a history of violence. It reminded me of Speaker for the Dead with its exploration of how we could possibly coexist with a race so Other, and so dangerous to us. Can we afford to trust them? Can we afford not to?

Great characters: complex, interesting, real. Loved that Seraphina is a musician, loved the use of music in the novel. Loved the dragon characters and their wrestle with human emotions. Especially Orma--oh, he was wonderful! And the creatures in Seraphina's garden were way cool.

Cool plot: unpredictable, intelligent. Doesn't end on a cliffhanger but there will be a sequel and I'm excited to find out where she takes it.

If you're looking for something different than all the other YA fantasy out there, check this out. (If you like Sherwood Smith and Robin McKinley, this will be up your alley.)

When I reviewed The Scorpio Races (on my blog), I said it "grabbed me with its sharp teeth and carried me out to drown into a stormy sea." The Raven Boys wasn't as immediate or violent in its effect on me, but in the end I think it was just as powerful. It was more like being led hesitantly into a forest--following a raven that stares at you and hops from branch to branch and looks back to see if you're coming. And by the time you realize that you're completely lost it doesn't matter, because there's so much to discover in the forest and you never want to go home.

This book has to do with psychics and ley lines, omens, sentient forests, and a sleeping king; but really it's all about the characters. Deep, fascinating, quirky, wounded, unpredictable, annoying, vulnerable, break-your-heart characters. Every one of them. I loved them, I wanted to throttle them, I couldn't wait to see how their relationships would develop. There's so much more I want to know about them!

My Goodreads review is somewhat longer; you can go here to see it if you want. I won't tell you anything about the plot, though. It's best if you don't really know anything.

I read Girl of Fire and Thorns when it came out a few years ago, and was impressed. Court, magic, adventure, romance--but a unique take on it all, and a unique heroine. The romance isn't at all predictable, and Elisa develops in interesting and believable ways as she tries to be the queen her people need her to be.

Crown of Embers is as good or better. There's danger, treachery, and the difficult decisions a queen has to make, when she has to do what's best for her country rather than following her heart. I like that Elisa has to experiment with trusting people she doesn't want to trust, including herself. This book ended in an interesting place, so I'll definitely be looking out for the sequel.

Catherine Fisher has gotten a fair bit of press for her very original and compelling books Incarceron and Saphhique. When I saw this earlier series in the library I was intrigued. I've only read the first book, The Dark City, so I think I'll wait to do a full review when I've read the rest, but I'm definitely hooked. It's an interesting take on the advanced-technology-looks-like magic and repressive-regime-tries-to-suppress-it plot line. What sold it for me was the characters: bitter Galen, his patient apprentice Raffi, and complicated Carys. Fisher has a thing for dark, broken underground places which I don't necessarily share, but I was willing to follow these characters anywhere.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Writing Emotion: How do great writers do it?

I just finished two books by Eva Ibbotson, that, had they been written by anyone else, would have been awful books. They're clichéd, predictable love stories, verging on shmalzty, but Ibbotson's writing transcends the limitations of her plots and creates quite delightful stories that I would happily reread.

I noticed that she develops her main characters' relationship without using the word love, or at least, using it very sparingly. I've noticed the same thing in other writers that I particularly enjoy: they seldom say their characters feel angry or sad or embarrassed or frustrated. (The words that we want our toddlers to use!) They don't tell us how the characters feel: we figure it out for ourselves. Here are a few of the techniques I've noticed for showing, not telling emotions.

Physical sensations: the technique that first comes to mind, probably. The butterflies in the stomach, the quivering knees. It's useful that we all tend to feel emotions the same way; the trouble is, it leads to cliché if it isn't done right.
Lissar felt a tiny tremor begin, very deep inside her, deep in her blood and brain, nothing to do with the chill in the air.
"Deerskin--" he began.
"No," she whispered. Louder, she said, "We should go back to your party." The tremor grew; she began to feel it in her knees, her hands, she twisted her hands in her glittering skirts. 
That's from Robin McKinley's Deerskin, a book full of terrible emotion that makes the reader feel everything that Lissar experiences. Notice how the action of twisting her hands in her skirts reinforces the anxiety we feel in the tremor.

Metaphors: to avoid cliché, use metaphors that no one else has used. (Easy, right?!)

A fear such as she had never known began to stir deep in her, send chill, thin roots through her blood, her mind.
This is Patricia McKillip, in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, using a metaphor to describe a physical sensation.

Gestures: actors know that the smallest movements can convey the largest of feelings. The head nods, or bows, or turns away. The hand reaches, or clenches, or drops. A gesture can also be a small symbolic action: the students standing on their chairs in Dead Poets' Society. Giving significant objects to people is a greatly useful gesture. Here's Ibbotson in The Reluctant Heiress:
And carefully, absorbed like a child, she picked the small, flecked barely scarlet berries and held them out to him. Wild strawberries--the most prized, most fragrant, and heart-stirring fruit in the world.
"In Sweden," she said, rising to stand beside him and speaking very seriously, "they have a word for a place like this. It's called a smultronstalle. A 'wild strawberry place.' A place like that is special, it's the most special place there is."
Guy looked down at the berries she had tipped into his hand. Their scent, subtle yet piercing, seemed to overwhelm him with its sweetness.
The strawberries are an object, and a metaphor (think Tess of the D'Ubervilles), almost a cliché, really, except that strawberries can never be clichéd. The giving of the strawberries is a gesture. Think of what Suzanne Collins did with this very gesture at the end of The Hunger Games. The 'wild strawberry place' is also a nice metaphor, and she is offering the place to him in a gesture that's separate from the offering of the strawberries.

Actions: You don't have to tell us a character is angry if they do angry things.
The light dawned, furiously, like the glare from an atomic fireball. But screaming, swearing and throwing things would be counterproductive. She gripped the chair arms so the men could not see her hands shake.
This is from Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign. This one small paragraph uses an angry metaphor, but not to describe the character; it uses the word 'furious' but, again, not to describe the character; and it uses the physical sensation of shaking hands. The actions an angry person would do are invoked, but more cleverly than just "she screamed" or "she felt like screaming"; as a bonus it demonstrates her character that she views these actions as "counterproductive." Gripping the chair is a small action but it conveys the great emotion held barely in check.

Objects: gestures and actions are always more powerful when there's an object involved, and the object  can end up symbolizing the emotion evoked by it. Again from A Civil Campaign:
She touched the left side of her bolero, tracing the now not-so-stiff shape of the paper she kept folded there. Miles's letter was not the sort of thing she cared to leave lying around for anyone to pick up and read, and besides . . . she wanted to reread it herself now and then. From time to time. Six or twelve times a day.
The letter is an object that symbolizes Miles' love; keeping it in her jacket and rereading it are actions that indicate her response; touching the place in her jacket where she keeps it is a gesture. (This is another love story that hardly ever uses the word 'love.')

Scenarios that create the emotion in the reader: ideally every time your character feels an emotion, the reader will feel it too. Do I feel angry when you tell me "I'm so angry, I could scream"? Not really. Do I feel anger when you describe to me in detail what that jerk of a guy said to you when he broke up with you? Yes, because I'm there with you in the situation.

Robin McKinley is really good at this:
There was thunder in her ears, and before her eyes were the walls of a small round room hung in a dark stained pink that had once been rose-colored, and the dull brutal red was mirrored in a gleaming red pool on the floor where a silver-fawn dog lay motionless; and there was a terrible weight against her own body, blocking her vision, looming over her, blotting out the stars through the open door, and then a pain, pain pain pain pain
Some things grew no less with time. Some things were absolutes. Some things could not be gotten over, gotten round, forgotten, forgiven, made peace with, released.
--she did not quite scream. "No!" she said. "No! I cannot." 
Notice how the rhythm of her sentences, her repetition, alliteration, build to create in the reader the same horror that Deerskin is remembering.

Other characters noticing the physical signs of the emotion in the character: omniscient narration is useful because it allows for the very Shakespearean technique of revealing a character by showing how other people see them. Here's Ibbotson again, this time in A Countess Below Stairs:
Pinny, watching Anna, had seen her turn almost in an instant from the kind of thing one expected to find under a pile of sacking after an earthquake or a famine into a radiant and enchanting girl.
Much more effective than saying "When she heard the news, Anna's despair suddenly turned into joy." And a great metaphor, too. Here's another Ibbotson one:
But it was necessary now to curtail this interview before his mind registered what his eyes were already seeing: a weary child leaning her head against the side of the truck as though the weight of it was suddenly too much for her to bear. [. . .]
Boris, coming out a few minutes later, found Tessa still leaning against the truck. Not crying, just standing there with the wicker basket lying at her feet.
Here two different characters view the action--or gesture, really--that depicts the physical sensation of weakness. Much more effective than saying "she felt weak," and far better than saying "she was devastated at the way he spoke to her."

Dialog: Writers often feel that they have to tell us how a line was spoken, whether it was "sadly" or "resignedly" or "cheerfully," but ideally it should be obvious from the words themselves.
"That damned doctor asked me to visit the wounded. Then he trotted me out in front of all those broken-apart men as if to say, 'See, here is the [Prince]; losing a hand hasn't bothered him.' As if I were a sacred relic to restore them and they could then jump out of their beds and lead happy lives forever after. [ . . . ] Well, I patted everyone of them on the shoulder like some sort of priest, and then I went outside and threw up."
This is from The Queen of Attolia (knowing who spoke the line would be a bit of a spoiler, so I redacted it). Here Megan Whalen Turner uses just a few words to convey the tone of voice: "damned" and "trotted." There's no need to add, "he said, bitterly." It helps that the scene he describes arouses emotions in the reader, and the action of throwing up at the end makes it very clear how he felt about the whole thing.

The next time you are reading a book and you find yourself tearing up, or clutching the book in fear, or throwing the book down in anger, stop and reread, and figure out how the author made you feel that way.

Feel free to share any good quotations in the comments!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Georgette Heyer

Happy New Year everyone!!!

I completely neglected this blog over the holidays; too busy eating food with family and obsessively watching the first two seasons of The Vampire Diaries. (It's on Netflix; what can I do?)(I tried watching it a while ago but couldn't get through the first episode. Guess I was in the right mood for it this time!)

So I have a ton of blogging to catch up on!

I'm going to devote this post to an author quite out of my usual range. One of her books was on my iPod during my 54-hour trip to Buenos Aires, so that's why I decided it was time to blog about her. Georgette Heyer is an early 20th C writer of Regency Romances (romantic novels set in the early 1800s). I love Jane Austen, but I would likely never have picked up Georgette Heyer if I didn't keep seeing her name mentioned, by people whose opinions I value. (Like Robin McKinley.)(And people who like Robin McKinley.)(And Lois McMaster Bujold.) All right then, I said, maybe I should check this author out.

Delightful. That's the best word to describe her novels. They are light, fun, funny, sweet, hilarious, silly, witty, and altogether a treat to read. The plots are all pretty much exactly the same--well, there are a few variations--and she reuses different versions of the same characters in every story (the heros are all consummate horsemen with excellent fashion-sense. Probably so she can show off all her research into the fashions and pastimes of the day.) But that's exactly what you want an author to do, isn't it? She writes a book you love, and then she writes another one just like it!

So far I've read and thoroughly enjoyed all of these (not just in the past month, by the way!). I also tried one of her historical novels, but decided I wasn't nearly as interested in every detail leading up to the battle of Waterloo as Heyer was. (And I read The Reluctant Widow, which I didn't like as much, because I felt the hero bullied the heroine and she meekly submitted. Unlike most of her other heroines, which is why they're so likeable.) I have not tried any of her murder mysteries, but I will.

Reading Georgette Heyer is like going into your favourite pastry shop and being allowed to choose whatever you want!
The Nonesuch
Everyone in the quiet
 country town is thrilled
when the eligible Sir Waldo
 comes to visit, except
 the sensible governess
who is past all that

The Grand Sophy
Irrepressible heroine
sweeps in and shakes up
aristocratic family that
didn't know it needed
shaking up
Feisty but over-the-hill
older sister is
determined to make a
brilliant match for
her beautiful younger sister
The Corinthian
Fashionable young man finds
 heiress climbing out a window
to escape a marriage she doesn't
want and helps her return
to the country to
find her first love
Friday's Child
Two very immature characters
marry on a whim and proceed
to rescue each other from
each other's improprieties
The Convenient Marriage
Someone needs to marry
wealthy Lord Rule, and the
beautiful sister he offers
for is in love with someone else, so
impulsive young Horry
offers herself a sacrifice
on the alter of family fortunes
A Civil Contract
Impoverished nobleman must
marry wealthy tradesman's daughter
who knows he will never love
her but is determined to
make him happy