These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things #2: THE LOST CONSPIRACY by Frances Hardinge

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Who’s up for round 2 of These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things?

What? You’re gonna have to speak up. I can’t hear you over the sound of all that deafening silence.

I honestly don’t read a huge amount of middle grade fiction. Even as a kid I was more inclined to read teen and adult fiction–or classics–than I was to read middle grade. There were exceptions, but by and large I didn’t read a huge amount of it (Nicholas Fisk, Diana Wynne Jones, and Joan Aiken being three HUGE exceptions, because they’re amazing).

Frances Hardinge is a new, huge exception. THE LOST CONSPIRACY (also known as GULLSTRUCK ISLAND, depending upon which country you live in) was the first book of Frances Hardinge’s that I ever read (I think. Maybe it was TWILIGHT ROBBERY, which I also love).

lost conspiracyHathin belongs to a tribe called The Lace, whose perennially smiling faces and Sweeny-Todd-like legacy of human sacrifice behind those smiling faces have left them to be widely regarded in suspicion and horrified fear by the peoples around them. Hathin’s chief difficulty and chief responsibility are one and the same: her older sister, Arilou. They are described thusly:

“Her name was Hathin. While Arilou’s name was meant to sound like the call of an owl, the fluting of a bird of prophecy, Hathin’s name imitated the whisper of settling dust. Dust-like she was indeed, unremarkable, quiet, all but invisible.”

Arilou is The Lady Lost, considered special; a lady of prophecy, possessed of great gullstruckand awesome powers. Her powers are the reason that Hathin’s village has enough food for the winter and a place to live, not to mention a small income from selling relics and suchlike. Unfortunately, those powers are entirely faked. Hathin and the Lace have been keeping Arilou’s lacking mental capacities a secret, ‘translating’ her drooling and moaning to seem as though they’re prophecies. But now an inspector is arriving to test Arilou’s ‘powers’, and it may not be long before they’re all exposed.

Things happen very quickly after the opening is set up. The inspector is murdered. Then almost the entirety of Hathin’s village is also murdered, leaving her on the run and dragging the mentally lacking Arilou along behind her.

What I love about Frances Hardinge is the fact that she’s not afraid to have ugly characters. I don’t mean physically ugly, though she’s not afraid of that as well. I mean the whole setup of a young girl from a people with human sacrifice in their (not too distant) past. There are a lot of stories about the Nazis, and fighting the Nazis, but what would it be like to grow up in the next generation, knowing your people were responsible for such atrocities? There are a lot of countries in real life that have done similar things: my own country of Australia, and the hunting and murder of Aboriginals; the ‘settlement’ of America, where Native Indians were murdered and pushed out of their own land; the Nazis, as previously mentioned; and so on. THE LOST CONSPIRACY was the first time I’d seen anything like this in fiction.

Added to the interest of the subject matter (and the fact that Frances Hardinge is one of the few authors who can still surprise me with the direction a book takes), is the fact that the writing is so absolutely beautiful. For style as well as substance, Frances Hardinge’s books are some of the best out there.

There’s so much more I could say about this book, but the most important thing I have to say is: BUY IT. READ IT. This is one of my favourite books. It’s also eminently re-readable, which is one of the biggest tests of the worth of a book.

Comfort Reads

There’s something about reading a favourite book. It makes you feel warm and comfortable and peaceful. It’s the intellectual equivalent to a cup of tea, or sliding between newly washed sheets, or cuddling up in front of the fire on a rainy night.

It’s that feeling of contentment. Whether it’s the story, characters, writing style, or a combination of all three, there are just some books that are long time favourite comfort reads. They touch us on an emotional level; and that, like favourite memories linked to smells and tastes, brings back the delight we first felt when reading them again. Out of all the fiction I own (and I own a couple thousand – pysical – books) I have one that I re-read more than any other. That’s my all time favourite comfort read. I do have nine runners-up, though. Maybe you’ll see some of your own comfort reads on the list.

10.Steven Brust’s Dragon. Odd to equate a comfort read to something that contains so much death and killing and slaughtering and mayhem and death and- well, you get the picture. But I love the structure, story, and characters. I can read this one again and again.

9. Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Year of the Gryphon. I adore Diana Wynne Jones’ books. I have so many favourites of her books. Hexwood is a glorious confusion that doesn’t quite make sense until the end, but keeps you hooked anyway, Howl’s Moving Castle is a delightful fairytale of a shy girl who makes magic hats and is turned into an old woman by a nasty witch (and is a lot less shy as an old woman), and Year of the Gryphon is one of the best ‘school stories’ I have ever read. Think tiny assassins, gryphon crushes, and schoolmates who are as likely to use orange peel as bat’s teeth in a spell.

8.C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Series. These were one of the first fantasy series I read. I read them over and over again, particularly The Horse and His Boy. So much adventure! Such a new world! And delightful, old-fashioned characters who spoke in old-fashioned ways. These are still a huge favourite with me, along with Lewis’ Perelandra trilogy, which I can also read over and over.

7. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Series. This is a series following the adventures of Taran, Assistant Pig Keeper, and his friends Fflewdder Fflam and Princess Eilonwy. They are simply wonderful. The Chronicles of Prydain were the first fantasy books that taught me there could be depth to character, that not all bad guys are completely bad, and that not all the good guys stay good. Taran, with his striving to be a hero and his journey to wisdom, is one of my favourite book characters.

6. Antonia Forest’s Entire Marlow Series. In fact, everything by Antonia Forest. I can’t say enough good things about Antonia Forest. Ostensibly, most of her books are school stories. Don’t let that deceive you, and don’t think Enid Blyton. The range and scope of Antonia Forest’s books is far beyond that. Her characters are real, believeable, and entirely loveable. There are the twins, Nicola and Laurie, the older sisters Kay, Rowan, and Ginty, and brothers Peter and Giles. Then there is the next door neighbour Patrick . . . At school or at home, these are some of the best books you’ll read.

5. Kate Stradling’s Kingdom of Ruses. A deceptively simple fantasy. Viola’s family have been serving the Eternal Prince of Lenore for generations. A buffer between the Prince and the people, they basically run the country. There’s only one problem- the Prince doesn’t exist. So what happens when a Prince turns up? Fun and danger and romance, of course, with a good dash of hilarious dialogue. This is a quiet, delightful story with entirely loveable characters that I can read again and again.

4. Frances Hardinge’s Twilight Robbery. Every time I read a book by Frances Hardinge, I’m convinced that it’s my favourite. Twilight Robbery and Mosca Mye, however, I keep going back to read. Mosca Mye and Eponymous Clent almost defy description, but I’m so glad they exist. I will gobble up any and every book about them as they come out, but I believe Twilight Robbery will always be my favourite. I’ve already read it a few times since buying it, and I’m certain I’ll read it many more times.

3. JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (and LOTR, but especially The Hobbit). The moral of the story is, of course, never set out on an adventure without your pocket handkerchief. I’m very much distressed with the rather dreadful job Peter Jackson made with the movies of The Hobbit, but I’ll always be glad to sit down and re-read it with a cuppa tea and a plate of good things. I made sure I bought the lovely big version with beautiful colour illustrations for that very reason.

2. Patricia Wrede’s The Raven Ring. I love Patricia Wrede’s writing. Her books were the first fantasy I read in which it was perfectly obvious that princesses and other females actually could save the day. All her books are favourites. However, The Raven Ring is the one I read again and again for its simplicity, amazing world-building, and wonderful characters. It’s a setting in which I feel immediately comfortable.

My all-time favourite at #1? That would be (fanfare, please!):

1. Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice All of the others are interchangeable as regards their place on the list. P&P is not. It’s the one book I go to again and again. I’ve read it more than ten times since I first read it at the age of nine or ten. That’s about once every two years. I love the feel of the book. I love the dialogue. I love how fallible and prickly and teachable Lizzy is. I love that she can hold her own against the clever Mr. Darcy. I love that she can see the foibles and failings not just of her family, but of herself. She’s a beautifully well-rounded character for any age. I love all of Austen’s books, and I adore her Juvenalia, but P&P is the book I consistently read over and over again.

What about you guys? What are some of your favourite fiction comfort reads? It’s okay if you have some of the same as mine. I’ll share. Just don’t try to read my copy.

Sound And Fury

I couldn’t really think of a blog post this week. Yanno: work, the dog, the hubby . . . a new tv show . . .

So you’re going to get 250-500 words of sound and fury, signifying nothing* about my week so far.

#1 on my list of nonsense is that my husband makes a great roast.**

#2 is that my dog stinks. I mean really honks. Can’t give her a bath because a.) no time and b.)when there is time it’s too late in the day for her to dry without leaving the whole house smelling of wet dog.***

#3 is kept for the smug, happy thought of the book I’m planning on reading next.****

#4’s job is to mention that I’m dying for a cuppa.

#5: Did I mention I really want a cuppa? A cup of tea is the best medicine. And I won’t say no to a couple of scotch fingers with that.

#6 would like to offer up the proud knowledge that I’ve figured out the kinks in a story I’ve been thinking about for years, making it properly writable at last *****

#7 is, happily for you, the end of this nonsense. Go do something productive with your day. I’ll be over here having a cuppa.

*Yup. You got it. I’m the idiot. You’re very clever.

**By this I mean that he cooked me a great roast, not that I cooked and ate him.

***Yes. Stinky dog smell is infinitely preferable to wet dog smell. Wet dog smell burrows into stuff.

****Re-reading Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret, in case you wanted to know.

*****I have no time to write said book, of course. I have a schedule of four publications for next year, one of which I have yet to write, one of which is yet to be quite finished, and the third of which is on its last edits. The fourth is done, though. Go me!

In Appreciation of Jon Bokenkamp

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As you may or may not remember, I have written about different approaches to writing: ie, pantsing, planning, outlining, etc. No two people are exactly the same, and there is no ‘one size fits all’. (There isn’t with clothes, either, but try and convince the clothing industry of that.)

So, what does that have to do with Jon Bokenkamp? Patience, grasshopper.

Not only are there different approaches to writing, there are different styles of writing. There are writers who focus on exposition, and others who focus on dialogue. There are those who rock the stream-of-consciousness thing (think Patrick Ness) and those who absolutely own the grand fantasy with it’s fully realised history/language/quest/thing (yeah, I’m looking at you, Lord of the Rings).

And no, that’s not what I’m going to talk about, either. So if I’m not talking about approach or style, what am I talking about? And what does it have to do with Jon Bokenkamp?

Allow me to get to the point. Besides approach to writing and style of writing, there is another point of difference for writers. That difference is whether you are primarily a character-driven writer or primarily a plot-driven writer. If you’re lucky, or if you work really hard, you can be both; but it’s uncommon enough for me to find such a writer that when I do find one, they immediately spring into my Fluid Top Three Writers category. (Think Kate Stradling, for instance, one of the best indie authors I’ve ever read.) I’m a character-driven writer mostly. I’ve had to work very hard to become so, and I worked myself so hard because I like to read and watch things that are character-driven. Don’t get me wrong: I love a clever plot-line. But if that clever plot-line has no interesting/engaging characters, I’ll lose interest.

This is where I get to my appreciation of Jon Bokenkamp. I started watching The Blacklist primarily because the TV ads appealed to me. They looked cool, amusing, and interesting. Also, James Spader is a great actor. What kept me watching it, however, was a single, great character. Jon describes The Blacklist as a ‘chosen one’ storyline, which interested me very much, since Red isn’t the sort of character one immediately thinks of as a mentor-figure (yeah, take that, Yoda), and since until I heard him say that, I had thought of The Blacklist as primarily Red’s story.

At first it was all about Red for me. But Jon didn’t leave the characterisation at just one cool, fully realised character. He built the others up as well. Lizzy started growing, Cooper developed layers, and even Ressler, who I initially disliked because he seemed to be there simply as the scowling pretty-boy, began to get interesting. As a writer who appreciates characterisation more than almost anything else in a story-line, I found myself delighted.

Now, if The Blacklist had been merely about the great characters, I would have enjoyed it anyway. There are so many little conversational touches used to advance the characterisation; so many implied, unspoken moments that speak to motive and feeling. It’s a beautifully, beautifully done show.

The thing is, it doesn’t stop there. The plot lines (and especially the plot-line for The Freelancer, which I greatly enjoyed) are amazing. There are times when, watching The Blacklist, I find myself grinning like an idiot and saying: “Oh, that’s brilliant!” I don’t want to put down any of the actors (they do a fantastic job) but most of the time, that reaction is purely from the writing of the episode. As a writer myself, there are things I’ve learned from watching The Blacklist that I never expected to learn.

In closing, I’d like to say that Yes, I do know that Jon Bokenkamp is not the only writer for The Blacklist. To all of the writers I could find listed on the internets- you guys are doing an amazing job. But mostly I want to express my appreciation to Jon Bokenkamp, whose writing and direction have taught me things about writing I didn’t realise could be learned from screenwriting.

Also my disappointment that Jon isn’t fifty-odd with a huge beard, cos I kinda expected that.

Fairytale Tropes

I love fairytale tropes. I love the stories that take well-known fairytales like Beauty and the Beast and turn them into something new but the same, and I love the stories that reference the oddest, most out-of-the-way fairytales I haven’t heard before. So I suppose it was only natural that when I began writing, I would eventually begin to write a series of them myself. There’s just something so enjoyable about taking a well-known trope and expanding it, building on it, until it’s become its own story with its own aims and ideas. It’s fun to turn that trope on its head, or to deepen its characters, and make it all my own. Funnily enough, that’s not how I began to write the book that was easiest of all my books to write. I’d already written a reworking of Little Red Riding-Hood and was partway through re-writing my spin on Sleeping Beauty, and I was thinking about other fairytales that I wanted to play with. The Little Mermaid was high on the list (now lightly sketched out), but it occurred to me that my favourite fairytale (aka Beauty and the Beast), was the one fairytale I wouldn’t really want to rewrite. I’d no sooner thought that, than my brain said: ‘Yes, but if I did, this is how I’d do it.’  When I began to write the book, it was the quickest, most enjoyable book I’ve ever written.

There’s a heck of a lot of rewritten fairytales floating around out there. Some are good, some are bad, and some are downright ugly. I don’t know if mine will sell well at all, but I just got the cover for the first in the sequence, and I can’t stop sneaking looks at it whenever I think I’ve gone long enough without looking at it. Once I’m done with my first ebook release, I’ll probably even share it here.

But for now: if you like a really good fractured fairytale read, don’t walk past these ones-

The Perilous Gard by Elisabeth Marie Pope

Fire and Hemlock by the amazing Diana Wynne Jones

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

and last but certainly not least, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. (Skip the movie. Just read the book. Really.)

Edit: Can’t believe I forgot Goldenmayne by Kate Stradling!

Favourite Authors: Patricia C. Wrede

I have a Top Three favourite authors.  By necessity it is a fluid top three: how else could I fit in Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia C. Wrede, Steven Brust, Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, Kate Stradling, Alexadre Dumas, Lloyd Alexander, Lillian Beckwith, Gail Carson Levine, Robert Louis Stevenson and so on?  It crosses most genres (though you might have noticed a decided tendency toward fantasy) and quite a few centuries as well.

Patricia C. Wrede has been part of the Top Three since before I even knew I had a Top Three.  As far as I recall, the first book of hers that I read was the last of the Enchanted Forest Quartet: Talking To Dragons.  I picked it up at my local library one day, enchanted by the gorgeous watercolour cover that was all muted greens and greys until it got to Shiara’s flaming hair, and added it to my already high stack of books.  That was in Queensland, when you could still check out fifteen books at a time, and I always had a full card.

I loved the way Patricia Wrede bent her fractured fairy-tales, imbuing Daystar with a kind of practical wisdom learned by rote from his mother Cimorene; and I loved watching Shiara’s bursts of temper that derailed the good his manners had achieved.  I loved the stupid yet clever princess, who was determined to ensnare a man.  I didn’t yet know about the thing called Worldbuilding, but I was already beginning to appreciate it.

I found Dealing with Dragons a year or so later, a cheap paperback with a really bad cover, sitting on the shelf at an opshop.  It wasn’t until after I read it that I began to remember names and situations, and to wonder where I had heard them before.  After that, it was back to the library to scroll through the microfiche in search of more books by Patricia Wrede.

There are so many good things to say about Patrica C. Wrede.  So much I could go on and on about.  Her characters.  Her world-building.  Her wonderfully wacky situations.  From her Enchanted Forest quartet to her Mairlon the Magician, and from Sorcery and Cecelia to the Lyra Chronicles, I’ve loved almost everything she’s written.  At the moment, my favourite among her books wavers between Mairelon the Magician and The Raven Ring.

Mairelon is a favourite almost purely because of well, Mairelon.  And Kim.  And Hunch.  And the fact that it’s set in a kind of regency England that emulates the best of Georgette Heyer’s regency England.  It’s pure, madcap amusement.

The Raven Ring is a favourite because of much better reasons.  I still love the characters: in fact, I love them more than almost any other of Patricia Wrede’s characters.  But added to that love is the appreciation I have for her worldbuilding in this particular book.  In her Frontier Magic chronicles, I felt that Patricia Wrede focused on worldbuilding to the detriment of her characters.  They’re a wonderful study in worldbuilding, and I do sincerely like them, but I feel that the characters and plot have suffered as a consequence of the extensive focus on world and system. There’s no such division in The Raven Ring.  The characters are drawn finely (Eleret and Karvonen have stayed with me for far longer than most other characters), and the world is a richly layered one with all its own colloquialisms, customs, ways of life, and hierarchies.  It has just the right amount of everything.

Added to my admiration for her work is my appreciation for Patricia Wrede’s writing advice, which came at a time when I was wondering if anyone else thought about writing in just the same way that I did.  I stumbled upon her blog one day and found that she was saying things I had just begun to learn by myself.  It was a huge encouragement. Since then, I’ve begun to regard her as something of a writer’s writer: she, more than any other writer I know, has influenced my writing by both word and example.  In short, she’s everything a favourite author should be.

If you want to check her out for yourself, her blog is called Six Impossible Things, and her books are available well, everywhere.

Feeling Refreshed!

So I got a promotion at work.  It means more money, which means the house will get paid off in roughly five years (if I can stick to the plan); but it also means more work.  Lately, it also means going without my lunchbreak (which is usually my official hour of writing time) and getting home so flamin’ tired that I can’t concentrate on my dinner, let alone my WIP.  That, of course, has had a derogatory effect on my writing.

Oh, I’m still writing.  Sometimes I even write a whole paragraph.  (Yeah, impressive, right?)  But the sense of accomplishment and movement that comes from writing roughly a page a day, and the in-depth knowledge of the WIP that comes from writing it and living it every day, is no longer there.  Lately, I feel stale and old and slightly disconnected.  Discontented with the way my WIP is progressing and not as enthusiastic about it as I usually am.

This morning, however, I’m feeling re-energised.  Wanna know why?  Of course you do.  Over the weekend I read a wonderful book entitled ‘Brood of Bones’ by AE Marling.  Not only is it an amazing read in and of itself (fantastic plot, wonderful characters, and evocative prose) but it also has the distinction of being one of the few successfully written books having a female protagonist that is in fact written by a male.  Moreover, it gave me insights into how I want to write a certain book that is further down the chain in a sequence I’m currently working on.

There is nothing that energises me more than reading a well-written book with characters I love.  It’s always been my maxim (yes, I have a maxim.  Actually, I have two; the other being that there is a song for everything), that if you can’t write, read.  Over the weekend, I couldn’t write.  So I read.  And now I can write again.

I feel refreshed.  I feel energised.  I have my cuppa.  Have at thee, book!

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Favourite Authors: Steven Brust

I discovered the novels of Steven Brust about four or five years ago.  The first I found was Dragon, and I found it in an op-shop.  It looked interesting, had a great opening few pages (which I skimmed, of course; knowing, as every good reader knows, Not To Judge A Book By It’s Cover), and was about 10 cents.  I don’t recall how many other books I bought that day, but judging from my usual book-buying habits, I would guess between two and three piles.  I got them home, and Dragon sank into the pile of to-be-read books.

A year later, I was pottering around in the book section of Shiploads, certain (as always) that somewhere in there was a positive treasure trove of good books.  I spotted a familiar author name.  Thought: ‘Oh yes, I meant to read that book Dragon.  Same bloke.  Wonder if it’s good?  Should I buy another when I don’t know if it’s good or not?’  And then, of course, I did buy it.  This one was Dzur, which I took home; and, surprise of all surprises, read immediately.

I’ve read a lot of books.  When I was kid, I read two to three books a day; and although that has slipped now that I’m older (and, *ahem*, more responsible), I still read a great many very good books.  I’m always delighted to read a Diana Wynne-Jones book, for example.  Or Patricia Wrede.  Or Terry Pratchett.  To name just a few.  But when I read Steven Brust’s Dzur, I found myself for the first time delighted with the structure of a book.  I hadn’t come across anything like it.  I hadn’t thought about structure before: I know, I know, I’m a writer.  But until I ready Dzur, the full potential and fascination of a cleverly put together structure just never occurred to me.

The structure is as follows: each chapter begins with a meal, lovingly and knowledgeably written.  Moreover, each chapter preface, despite being almost exclusively based on a meal eaten by Vlad (the main character), also serves to advance the main story.  Not to mention the huge boost it gives to character expansion, getting to know Vlad by his fine dining habits (when he can indulge them.)

The next day I pulled out Dragon.  Again, I was amazed and delighted to follow a story structure that I hadn’t ever seen used with this level of accomplishment and panache.  The chapters begin with an excerpt from the present: and smack-bang!we’re right in the middle of the action.  Then each chapter segues into the past, delving into how and why Vlad ended up where he is.  Ultimately, as you might expect, the two parts meet.  It’s fascinating.  And again, it’s something that I’ve never seen before.

Now, with all this talk about wonderful story structure, you might think that structure is all this author has going for him.  Not at all.  He’s also written two of the most enjoyable and compelling characters that I’ve read in quite some time: Vlad Taltos (an ex-assassin, though sometimes not quite so ex-) and his loyal but wisecracking familiar, Loiosh.  I can’t say how much I enjoy the humour and personality that these two exude.  Nor can I over-emphasise how well Steven Brust draws a plotline through his wonderful structures.  I do love a good story.

 

I had to scour the internets for more of Steven Brust’s books.  Those two lucky finds were my last luck as far as he was concerned.  Still, Amazon’s second-hand books proved fruitful, and I discovered to my delight that this newly favourite author of mine was not dead (as too many of my favourite authors are); and was, in fact, still writing!  It was nice to find that I could order quite a few of his titles on my Kindle.  I love my older covers of Teckla and Phoenix and all the rest of them, but it’s kinda nice to have Tiassa on my kindle, too.  And now there’s a new one coming out, so excuse me while I go and wait expectantly with my Kindle . . .

Seriously, guys.  If you’re in the mood for something new, try Steven Brust.  You won’t be sorry.

 

(Addendum: I have to modify my raptures slightly to mention that although I loved the idea of Steven Brust’s Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille, I had to stop reading it on account of the insanely high amount of bad language.  So if, like me, you don’t care to read the f-word five or six times per page, every page, stick to his Vlad Taltos novels.  There’s plenty there to enjoy.)