I enjoyed May’s reading material, and it had the kind of balance I try to maintain: There was some exciting, romantic reading, some delightful classic literature, and a very useful non-fiction book about writing.
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A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
In Short: Katniss Everdeen as Belle in Beauty & the Beast
Warnings: adult situations and language–not recommended for younger young adults (16 and up would be ideal); strange names, but there’s a pronunciation guide in the back
Who Should Read: YA fantasy/romance readers; those who enjoyed Twilight (openly or otherwise)
What I Learned: In every scene, the character should have a clear goal.
Feyre is the provider and protector of her family since the death of her mother and the financial ruin of her father left her with the burden of looking after him and her two sisters. When she kills a wolf to help them survive the harsh winter, she unwittingly involves herself in the tangles of a fairy curse. In order to save her family, she must leave them and stay with Tamlin, a fairy lord who, along with all his people, has been afflicted by a powerful fairy bent on revenge. We follow Feyre as she adjusts to a life of ease, tries to unravel the mysteries of her surroundings, and navigates her growing feelings for the brooding fairy lord, before finding herself in too deep to turn away when he is in danger.
This book was recommended to me by a friend (Hello, Miss Po!) who knew I was on the lookout for fantasy reads. Since it involves fairies and other mythical creatures, this certainly qualifies, but it has a distinctly more modern feel to it than traditional fantasy, despite its old-world setting. The story is a mixture of the Beauty & the Beast fairytale and the Scottish folktale of Tam Lin but is told with the suspense of The Hunger Games and the allure of Twilight (and there are a couple twists of Maas’s imagining). The romance is wild and steamy, and the heroine reminds me of a few leading ladies I’ve seen in works of the last decade.
Feyre is very much in the vein of Katniss Everdeen, with her hunting/survival skills and her desire to protect her beloved younger sister. She also reminded me a good deal of Bella Swan, for both her stubbornness and the fact that, despite her aptitude with a bow and arrow, she seems frail (compared the immortals around her, certainly) and always in need of rescue, relying on sheer grit to get her through her trials. But she’s not a weak heroine. She bumbles a lot, but it is ultimately her actions that drive the story, as she makes choice after choice. She makes some stupid decisions, but she doesn’t just accept whatever comes to her, which makes her admirable despite her shortcomings.
Maas’s primary gift is driving a story on by character desires and choices. In every scene, Feyre has a clear goal that pushes her to make decisions that logically lead her to the next goal. In a story like this, which has an element of mystery, it can be tricky to keep the reader involved until the midpoint, when the main goal becomes apparent. Having these short-term goals, dropping hints along the way, and slowly cranking up the dial on the heat between the main character and love interest, all help give the reader a reason to keep reading, and this book is a study in how to achieve that kind of tantalization. I never lost interest and read large chunks at a time without realizing it.
As for the romantic element, I enjoyed their chemistry, but some early lines felt rushed or contrived; there was sometimes a tenderness expressed that I didn’t believe came naturally. The B&tB story is already a complicated one, with the whole Stockholm Syndrome aspect muddying the waters, and if I can’t factor that out of the equation entirely, it becomes difficult for me to give myself over to the romance. It’s the same reason I can’t enjoy The Notebook: I can’t tell if either actually loves each other, or if one or both of them are using each other to fill some gap in their lives. Is it obsession or real love? Some might argue that there’s not much of a difference, but I think there is, even if they can be separated by only a hairline.
However, the proof is in the pudding, the pudding here being how the possible lovers demonstrate their attachment. And Feyre and Tamlin’s devotion is certainly put to the test throughout the second half of the book. Ultimately, what I saw was enough to motivate me to see how things continue to develop in the next installments, A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Thorns and Roses) and A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses). I may be holding some of myself back for now, but this was an exciting and engaging story that I tore through and that left me willing to be swept away in the future.
Plus, Maas made a Sailor Moon reference in her Acknowledgements, which makes her all right in my book. ^_~
The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, by Martha Alderson
In Short: self-help for writers; structure help
Warnings: uses self-help language that sometimes felt “hokey”
Who Should Read: writers who are struggling with story structure and want an emotional approach as well as practical advice
What I Learned: There are some very practical tips and tools in here, with clear illustrations.
The more I write, the more I favor books about writing life over writing technique. Yet I still need help with both. I still don’t know what I’m doing (Will I ever??), and reading the experiences of other writers makes the writing life feel less lonely. Enter Plot Whisperer. Alderson’s advice is insightful, and her methods are clear and logical. I got a comforting hand on my shoulder and solid plotting techniques.
There’s a lot of talk about right- vs. left-brain and intuition and the flow of energy and how the story you’re writing relates to your own personal life story. For some, that makes their brain declare, “Negative, Ghost Rider.” But I think writing the book off because of that is doing yourself a disservice. The therapist talk is kept to a minimum, and the advice she gives really makes this a helpful book for anyone who feels stuck. Sometimes we need to try a different approach in order to get where we need to be. If you only know how to push, there are a lot of doors you’re going to have trouble opening. Why not try pulling one for a change?
And I always love when a book has an accompanying workbook. This book can be paired with Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories, or it stands alone just fine. If your characters are wandering around and you don’t know how to give them a push in the direction you want–or if you’re not sure which direction you should want them to go–I encourage you to give this book a shot. You may love the feelings-talk, or you can roll your eyes at it and skim past–the author will never know.
Northanger Abbey (Penguin Classics), by Jane Austen
In Short: fun; classic lit; romance; Gothic; irony; first work
Warnings: Get an annotated version (like the one linked) if you are not comfortable with the places and terms of Georgian/Regency England. And if you’re not used to Austen’s subtle humor and verbal irony, many of the jokes may go tragically unappreciated.
Who Should Read: lovers of romantic classic lit; readers of authors’ first works
What I Learned: This was technically Austen’s first finished novel.
Catherine Morland is an ordinary girl from an ordinary family, neither too high nor too low. There is nothing extraordinary about her, which makes her a surprising heroine, as Austen points out from the get-go and occasionally reminds the reader. Some family friends take her to Bath, so that she might see more of the world, and it’s there she meets Henry Tilney, who is among the livelier of Austen’s heroes, always teasing Catherine and his sister with his witty wordplay. They bond over books (naturally), and Henry’s sister invites Catherine to spend some weeks at their home. The question throughout is whether or not love will carry the day, as Catherine and Henry encounter obstacle after obstacle on the way toward romance.
I have read all of Austen’s works at least twice; this was my third reading of Northanger Abbey. It’s not my favorite (the competition being of the stiffest kind), but I do adore it and greatly admire this early display of Austen’s genius. You may as well know, I love everything about Austen: from her understated humor and perfect characterizations, to her charming descriptions and delicious romances. She balances the lively fun of a good story with the burden of telling it well and makes it all look so effortless. This book, in particular, struck me as more lighthearted than her later novels; it is the least sedate, in my opinion, while also delivering some sublime examples of verbal and dramatic irony and commentary on the education of women at the time.
So many people disparage novels, especially those not deemed “literary fiction.” Austen herself addressed this prejudice (via one of her characters in NA), exclaiming, “The person…who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” The author herself butts in as the narrator to add, “It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” So take that, book snobs.
When I say I want to write like Austen, this is what I mean. I don’t mean I want to write Regency-era romances set in England that are full of fancy language that ordinary people won’t understand. I mean that, no matter what subject or time period or genre I choose, I want to strive always to balance story and skill, entertainment and enlightenment. Smart writing shouldn’t be boring; exciting stories don’t have to be written stupidly; and romance does not have to be mushy or steamy to be moving. Regardless of how many wonderful new authors I encounter, Austen remains the guiding light by which I navigate, the goal to which I aspire.
There’s danger, however, in admiring someone so much. For one thing, we tend to forget that they were not born with the skill they attained and for which they are so highly respected. I forget that Austen wasn’t always a literary genius; that Prince wasn’t born knowing how to make a guitar sing; that Bowie wasn’t always, well, Bowie (literally, he was born David Jones, though I still need to see the long form birth certificate to believe he didn’t come from a planet of more highly evolved beings). People may be born with some innate talent, but, more importantly, they practice and hone and refine that talent through consistent effort and persistence, until they are, ideally, awarded with success in whatever form they desire it. (Ah, one can hope.)
Often, in the process of finding themselves in their chosen medium, artists will imitate those they admire, consciously or otherwise. For Prince, it was Jimi Hendrix, among others. Bowie listed influences ranging from Little Richard to The Velvet Underground. In a way, most early attempts at writing are really just fan-fiction at heart. In Austen’s case, she deliberately and openly borrowed techniques from the Gothic novelists whose books she enjoyed and employed them to write NA. In so doing, she stumbled upon her own take on the style, grafting a bit of herself into it. It’s as if she were saying, “Yes! I love what you did here. But what do think about trying it this way? Or using it to this end? Just let me tweak it a little bit, and we’ll see what comes out.”
To create a piece of art is to participate in the ongoing conversation that all artists are having. And anyone who has ever met their idol can tell you it can be difficult to speak up, for fear of saying something incredibly stupid and being found out for the rube you feel deep down you are. A first work is about the finest example of bravery one can find. It’s the small ahem that turns all eyes on the newbie who has finally decided she has something to contribute.
My edition of NA included a brief letter from the lady herself, which takes the opportunity to jab a bit at the poor schlubs who took their sweet time publishing this fine work, while also subtly imploring the reader not to judge it too harshly. It was sobering to read that such a creation could be ignored and left to the depredations of time, while its cultural references grew stale. And there’s no knowing how much of the novel Austen revised before finally getting it published 13 years after completing the writing of it, but we know she made at least some small changes. By this time, though, she had several other published works to bolster her, and the letter has the tone of someone older and wiser bringing out a first attempt to lay bare before a group of friends, saying, “It’s not much, and I know I made mistakes, but isn’t it endearing all the same? I thought you’d enjoy it for what it is.”
I have a feeling that I will do the same with my first novel. I only hope I can follow Austen’s example and maintain courage enough to write another and another and not stare at the first one, willing it to be more than it can be.