Thursday, August 3, 2017

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire (Review)

It's Romeo and Juliet, but in a pagan world full of human sacrifice, clan rivalry, and hungry zombies. Despite Rosamund Hodge's undeniable flair with words, her third novel has generated quite a few negative reviews on Goodreads. No wonder: she takes significant risks with this story.

Risk one: This volume is only the first half of the tale and ends on an extremely dark note (all the good guys seem to be doomed). In a book so full of blood and suffering, the ending is not an easy pill to swallow.

Risk two: The nature of what it means to be pagan (i.e., to lack any concept whatsoever of cosmic mercy) is not sugar-coated. This allows the author to explore fundamental questions but also makes the story uncomfortable.

Risk three: The switching between two POV's makes the story feel choppier than the author's earlier works; and furthermore, Hodge boldly forsakes the usual patterns of romance novels and doesn't make the two romantic leads the POV characters.

Risk four: The author spends a great deal more time developing the characters' same-sex friendships/alliances than building the romance [a choice for which I commend her: modern fiction is awash in romance but weaker on friendship].

Because the book doesn't conform to the typical expectations of readers, it is, quite simply, harder to read. And of course without the ending, readers can't tell yet whether it is worth the effort. I've seen what Rosamund Hodge can do, and I'm willing to wager that even though the world of this book is a tough one to enter, the experience will ultimately be worthwhile. Besides, I really like both Paris and Romeo. I hope they make it.

I have some other thoughts on other aspects of the story, but I'll save those for another post.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A "Strong Female Lead" Who's Actually Strong Instead of Annoying

I just finished W. R. Gingell's Masque. (If you haven't read it yet, you should--it's incredibly fun. What sane person wouldn't love a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that's also a murder mystery set in a fantasy world full of fabulous fashion and dangerous magic? It's not just for girls, either. My husband had a hard time putting it down.)

I've been thinking about the heroine. In this day and age, most authors recognize the need for the obligatory Strong Female Lead and declare their heroine to be, you know, strong. Yet a lot of those SFLs are flops. Often they become an excuse for lazy storytelling because they are allowed to "get away" with choices and actions that would be called-out as immature in a male. Isabella, the protagonist in Masque, is not at all a flop. Why?

Most protagonists who fit under the SFL label do so either by virtue of martial prowess or through having a strong-willed, impulsive personality with a formidable temper.

Isabella is not martial. She does have a very strong personality and is essentially impossible to stop once she gets an idea in her head. Other characters sometimes call her enraging, stubborn, etc. Yet she is not driven by whims. She has, in fact, great self-control. The author makes the point several times that Isabella holds her temper on a very tight reign--she refuses to let herself remain angry or to speak in anger. In fact, if she believes she has overstepped and hurt someone's feelings or been unfair, she immediately--and disarmingly--apologizes. All of this makes her role as a professional diplomat much more believable.

Key point: Isabella's will is a true strength because she has it under control instead of being controlled by it.

Hand-in-hand with her self-discipline, her inner moral compass plays a significant role in defining her character. Although on the surface of the story she has a good deal of fun chasing the murderer, she is clearly driven by much more than a desire for a good time. When necessary, she makes sacrifices (even of her ability to pursue her investigation!) for the sake of people she cares about. Not only does this bolster the idea that she is a strong female lead, it also makes it more credible that the male hero would be attracted to someone he finds so frustrating.

Ultimately, Isabella is strong not because she insists on her own way but because she has self-control and tries to do what is right. That, I think, is why Masque is so satisfying even though it isn't intended to be taken very seriously.

And by the way, as I said at the beginning of this post, you should read Masque.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

An Old-fashioned Way to Broaden Our Perspective on Love

Popular culture has a lot to say about how people ought to live, and a lot of people listen to it. One of the top tenets of pop culture centers around a particular narrative. It's a narrative that makes us feel good. It's a narrative the sells well. It's also a narrative that interferes with our ability to love.

What is this narrative? It is that of responding to pain by "taking control" of our life and making changes. We adore the moral superiority of change.

It almost doesn't matter what the change is. Lose 100 pounds. Win the contest. Get a makeover with a new wardrobe and makeup. Go skydiving. Quit corporate life and become an entrepreneur. Get divorced and find new love. Just, for heaven's sake, do something.

Often, of course, human beings need to be prodded out of ruts for our own good. Yet the modern narrative about change obscures the idea that real change requires long-term dedication instead of just a big burst of dramatic action. It suggests that rather than changing ourselves from the inside, we need to change ourselves through our circumstances. We need a divorce and skydiving lessons.

All of this clouds our ability to see that when it comes to love, sometimes patience and endurance are actually the more moral choices.

Recently I stumbled across a secular review of the Christian movie Fireproof. (For anyone unfamiliar: it's an Evangelical Christian production about a firefighter who "accepts Christ" while attempting to rescue his dying marriage. Yes, it's a cheesy script with B acting). However, what struck me was how the secular reviewer interpreted the message on marriage. The reviewer said, "Marriage is portrayed as tough and often devoid of love, affection, or respect, but something that Christians are expected to endure anyway." It's a surprisingly grim-sounding summary of a story with a happy ending.

Even though the protagonist of Fireproof is able to save his marriage after completely humbling himself and showing sacrificial love to his wife for a period of time, the reviewer isn't happy. He complains that "The burden is on [the protagonist] to turn the other cheek as [his wife] spurns him again and again, with nobody calling her on her own questionable behavior."

If people are always taught to fix their problems by changing their circumstances, we lose the ability to see that sometimes, our job is to do the right thing in tough circumstances even when it doesn't seem to be working. Even when it's not fair. Even when the other people around us aren't supporting our choices and desires.

Popular culture demands that life be good and happy right now. It can't see the moral virtue in failing to dump a spouse who isn't being nice, regardless of the reasons.

The old-fashioned view of love and marriage is different. It brings a much broader perspective. It sees life not as a single moment in time that ought to be happy--and, if not, ought to be fixed--but part of a bigger picture. It suggests to us that before we demand a divorce and skydiving lessons, we might look at ourselves and repent of our own failings regardless of our current circumstances.

An old-fashioned appreciation of endurance allows us to say sorry even if the other guy won't. It allows us to wash the dishes even if our spouse doesn't take out the trash. Ultimately, unlike an addiction to change as the solution to unhappiness, it can actually free us from our circumstances. That's a pretty liberating thing.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Dangerous Lure of Reviewing Books I Didn't Like

Producing something tangible is satisfying. An article, a doll dress, a fancy dinner, a pretty Christmas ornament. Reading books doesn't in itself create that sense of accomplishment, unfortunately, especially when the books are on my Kindle and never make a physical appearance here, there, or anywhere.

Perhaps that is why it creates a sense of having done something, having produced, when I leave a review on Goodreads or a blog.

The problem arises when I read a book that disappoints. A book that makes me angry at the author for squandering the rich potential of her premise or her characters. It would be so satisfactory to review it! I can hear the dissection of errors in my head. It would be fun to write that dissection down. Besides, it would break the silence of my Goodreads account.

The problem is that I, too, am aiming for future publication; and I doubt it is a good idea to potentially alienate people I hope to think of as colleagues (or their literary agents). Of course I don't think these folks are particularly likely to be reading what I post on the internet right now, but it's possible someone may Google my name someday. I wouldn't want them to decide I am clearly a person of appalling taste for disliking something they created or helped to sell.

You would think that not writing something would be easy. But sometimes it's hard! That urge to produce, I suppose. Perhaps it's egotistical of me even to think my reviews matter this much. I'm curious: for those of you who write, what are your rules for reviewing?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Queen Guinevere and The Way Christians View Women

While reading a helpful book about constructing fiction, I came across a line that startled me. The author was using the King Arthur tale to illustrate the use of symbols in story. He commented that by placing women on a pedestal, chivalry made all women into symbols and divided them into the "Christian binary of madonna and whore."

It's an unusually succinct summary of a popular interpretation of how Christians view women.

And, alas, there are and have been some Christians about whom the comment is accurate--Christians who see sexual purity as the only really important virtue or who judge men and women according to different laws. Yet in the context of the history of the orthodox Christian faith and the stories it has produced, the comment displays a bit of willful blindness.

It is ridiculous to complain that a knight's love interest is a symbol without admitting that so is the knight. It seems obtuse to point out that the Arthurian women were either "good" or "bad" without noticing that the male characters are also divided between those who are brave and pure and those who are cowardly and evil. The point of the stories isn't to show us multiple facets of the character's personalities but to present listeners with inspiring types who are general enough to allow anyone to imagine himself in their place.

It also displays a peculiar modern bias to assume that characters who get their own fight scenes are automatically more well-rounded.

More importantly, though, the overall message of the Arthurian story is not that women are either madonnas or whores. Guinevere didn't fall alone.

Christians don't think women are sinners by virtue of being female. Christians think women are sinners by virtue of being human.

The point is that in a paradise constructed by humans, sin conquers even the most strong and the most fair. Sin destroys everyone. That is actually a rather democratic message.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How to Write Romance without Annoying Me

I hear that the romance genre sells more books than any other. It makes sense, I suppose. Women like romance. Even I like romance in real life. After all, my husband is both sweet and good looking. I even enjoy observing other people's romances (I will be attending a dear friend's wedding soon, and oh how happy I am for her!).

I don't like most romance novels, though. Mostly I content myself with saying politely that I am not their target audience. I really don't get why people enjoy reading... well, you know what these books are like! Some women find relaxation in the soothing predictability of implausible characters behaving in unrealistic ways. If I want something soothing, I'd rather watch the Great British Bake Off.

On the other hand, what would stories be like if they didn't involve human relationships? Many of the best novels in the world involve couples who end up married. I'm all for those books.

I can't pretend to speak for other readers. However, I can speak for myself. Here's how to avoid making me annoyed with your story.

1. Never Make Me Feel that the Author is Drooling Over the Male Lead

Sometimes I am reading along, enjoying the developing relationship between the love interests, when all of a sudden male lead walks by, and apropos of nothing, the author pauses to mention the way his trousers fit or the way his shirt drapes his torso. No. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

If you are writing a book and you want readers to know how unusually developed the character's musculature is, make it fit subtly into the context. For instance, "Although he is the same height as his cousin, his chest and shoulders are twice as broad. There is no way he could have borrowed Reginald's shirt for the party as he told the police inspector after the brutal murder of the girl in the spangled orange dress."

2. Make up Your Mind About Whether or Not the Obstacles Between the Couple are Real

It's a convention, of course, that a pair of obviously-unsuited-but-passionately-interested people should spend the whole book believing that tremendous obstacles make their relationship impossible. Then the climax comes. They kill the bad guy or find the diamond or win the race. All of a sudden they fall into each other's arms. Dude! Come on. It's a bad convention.

In Pride and Prejudice, the obstacles between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are overcome not by his successful rescue of Lydia, but by the character change they have both experienced. Darcy's willingness to help Lydia simply illustrates and proves that he has changed.

If the barriers between your couple are psychological, please make sure you know how and why the couple overcomes them. Show that to the reader ("because the author wants them to end up together" is not a valid reason). You can't replace character development with a really cool fight scene at the end. If you do, I will be annoyed and want to thump you with my copy of your book.

3. Don't Give the Couple Random Character Traits that Seem Pretty Untrue

I've been reading John Truby's book on writing, and he points out that many authors mistakenly attempt to make their characters vivid by giving them lots and lots of random characteristics and traits. Randomness isn't terribly effective.

Specifically, a huge percentage of female leads in romances are labeled "intelligent," "tough," "successful," and so on by the author. The author tries to prove these labels by making the heroine someone who has clawed her way up the ladder in a challenging profession. Doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief. Yet the heroine spends the whole story acting in a way that is counter to her stated personality and worldview. This is hard to do well. Instead, please make your characters' personalities part of the plot. If you make them the kind of people who would probably do the things they do (and then, to be really interesting, make them change), I will be happier. Thank you.

4. Don't Impose Modern Sexual Mores on Historic Times

Everyone sleeps together before marriage, right? Nope. They don't.

In a historical setting, the presumption would be safer the other way around. In fact, in light of the pervasiveness of the morals and manners of her own era, your heroine is probably no more likely to engage in such activities than you are to make racist jokes in public or to take up smoking for your health. Should you be determined to impose your own values on her, you need plausible reasons and should portray plausible consequences. How would you feel if you started "talking racist" because your new lover thought it was a great way to get rid of inhibitions? Yeah, I hope you'd be pretty uncomfortable. So would she.


Love is really a wonderful thing. It's serious enough that we should handle it, even in fiction, with respect. That's why the world needs good, non-annoying romances.

Friday, May 19, 2017

I Still Write

. . .and I would like to try to post here again. These days, longer essays and parenting articles all end up at The Federalist or Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife, but the things I am learning about stories don't otherwise have a home.

These two little people have been keeping me busy.

Since posting a year ago, I have spent some time working on short stories. One got very nice rejection notes, so that's something, right?

I am also working on longer-form fiction projects that are a lot of fun. I struggle to decide exactly how and where to focus my writing time--should I zero-in on things that seem publishable? Follow my whimsy and accept that some stories will end up under the bed? The latter wouldn't seem so bad if it didn't take me so very, very long to write anything. Those children, you know--always wanting to be reared and raised.

The one thing I do know is that I love the idea of an English country house mystery with fey folk. LOVE. Would you read that? I hope so, because I'm going to write it.

Lord willing, I will be posting periodic mini-articles here about writing or my opinions about writing. Item number one: how to write a romance novel without annoying me.

P.S.: If any of this blog's former readers are still around, you may be interested in this piece about the new Anne (of Green Gables) show.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Paradox of a Mother's Time (and more Work Elsewhere)

Today's piece from SDMW:

The Paradox of a Mother's Time 
At night, I complain to my husband that all I want is time. Time to type the thoughts in my head and the novel in my notes, time to sew the projects I’ve pinned, time to organize the clothes. Time without a baby in one arm and a toddler industriously undoing my every-second action. He means so well, that kid. It’s a good thing he is also so darn cute. 
Some days I claim that I failed to get anything done at all. It makes me restless, as if life is flowing by irretrievably and I am too bogged down with the weight of childcare to accomplish anything. Soon my time will be gone. 
Yet in another sense, being a stay-at-home mother means that I have all the time in the world. My children force me to experience the minutes and seconds in a new way. We make granola together, and it takes forever. First, I wait while the toddler fetches and gathers the measuring cups. Opening the drawer requires deliberation. Selecting the right items is not swift when he must stand on tip-toe to peer in. Later he must, of course, do the stirring. That takes a good long while. Even clean-up is not hasty, because who licks the molasses off the spoon in a hurry? Molasses is good stuff. 
The things we do are done together, and that forces me to wait and watch and think. The socks are put away individually. The yard work is done in brief spurts while the baby is willing to sit on a blanket. If an adult without children lived at the pace of my life, she would no doubt be on vacation in the Bahamas. I try to remind myself that I live a life of leisure.   
In the midst of this paradox of having all the time in the world and yet not nearly enough of it, the real issue is whether or not the things I do matter. If the clock stopped ticking, would my work--my tortuously leisurely, child-smudged labors--have been worthwhile enough to compensate for the more adult things I never managed to do? MORE.

I also wrote about the messiness of Lutheranism.

You know I love to talk about educating children and reading books.

Here is a piece on raising children who can handle freedom and here is one on avoiding the kinds of books that are like dust bunnies.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Recent Work Elsewhere

Should you be interested:

How Our New Definition of Freedom Causes Cruelty
In the past, freedom meant to ability to obey one’s beliefs. Now, freedom is the ability to require others to obey one’s own beliefs about oneself. 
It's OK for Babies to Swallow 'Me-time"
(The funny thing is that despite the title, this article was written to discuss a mother's need for rest and refreshment. It's just that mental rest isn't quite the same thing as 'me-time.')

 I've also posted about the modern husband

Greensleeves (review)

by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, 1968 (newly released 2015)

The pacing of the prologue-like first chapter aside, I slipped easily into the world of this book and would have liked to remain there longer. Our eighteen-year-old heroine is a girl who has been haphazardly raised by seven different parent-figures, including her divorced father and mother, while being dragged up and down across Europe. When in Europe, she is perceived to be an American; while in the States, she is seen as European. Life has not been gentle to her sense of self. Our story opens with her desperate attempt to hit the pause button and escape for a time from her own awkward identity before she is pushed into a college education she does not want. She will be a detective. In disguise.

The story is told with charm, wit, and perceptiveness. Our heroine may be filled with angst, but it is a self-aware, rather mature angst that does not exaggerate her own importance or sap her sense of humor. Many aspects of this late 1960’s world are delightful. The way trendy blue eye-shadow and a massive hair-do, well glued-up, are used by our heroine to create a mask is fun to read about. The way daily life is conducted with a complete lack of modern screens is striking. The characters’ moral universe are appealing. They assume that love leads to marriage and that playing with sexual contact in the form of kissing and making-out is to awaken a deep, heavy, potentially dangerous thing that robs people of the ability to properly evaluate their mutual compatibility.

Yet the overall message of the story left me feeling ambiguous. Essentially, it is a well-presented, charming manifestation of the idea that life’s purpose is to find and know oneself. This must be done as an individual, and involves escape from other people’s undue influence (in the imagery of the novel, one must “escape one’s own cage”--the personal fears and insecurities that hold one imprisoned--without the help of friends, parents, or true love, because no one can save us from ourselves). Marriage is something to consider only after both parties have first pursued their own dreams and discovered who they truly are. This message is all the more powerful because, rather than being assumed, it is discovered by the heroine in a slow and non-preachy way.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

When Your Characters are Like Evil Robots: Thinking About Storytelling

(Ha! I'm back! I have grandiose plans of posting once a week again here, but I also sort of think that I'm going to write lots of articles for The Federalist, keep posting on Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife, finish my novel, make a quiet book for my son--I've pinned all these ideas on Pinterest--and also decorate the house for Advent. While pruning a zillion bushes in the yard. So, yeah. I get these delusions of grandeur whenever the three-month-old falls asleep for ten minutes). 

I've been reading books on my Kindle and pondering the wherefores and how-is-it-done's of fiction. I really loved Amends (review here) and The Dean's Watch (review here). They are polar opposites as far as tone, setting, and style go; but at the same time both convey the sense that their authors are compassionate people. I, too, would like to write as if I understand the fundamental flaws and human ugliness in my characters, yet love them anyway.

I have also been reading a few books that aren't as expertly written. One (a retelling of St. George and the dragon, set in the twilight-years of the Roman Empire and involving persecuted Christians and a pagan priestess) is constructed upon a fun and engaging premise. I want to like it, and I will probably finish it just to see how the author brings his ideas to completion. My problem is that I read for style and literary value as much as story. Maybe more. Because of that, this book doesn't work for me.

I found myself complaining to my husband (poor man) about a number of little issues within the book, and eventually, I realized that they probably all stem from the same problem. So many things happen in the book--the antagonist launches into action, characters join forces to travel together, someone helps our protagonists, etc.--for no good reason. That is, as a reader, I feel as though they happen because the author wanted them to, rather than because they grew organically from the things that had already happened. If that makes sense.

It's not that the author fails to provide any ostensible motivations. We are, for instance, told that the antagonist "hates" the protagonist and see that they have a rivalry. Unfortunately, the level of dislike that the author shows us (during a boyish insult-fest in the street) isn't enough to explain why the antagonist would jump from saying, "Your father is a coward" to deciding, "Today I will kill your mother." And killing the poor lady. And that's just the start of his aggression.

My guess (unless the second half of the book reveals a backstory heretofore unhinted at) is that the author doesn't really know why the antagonist would do such a thing. Not in an in-depth way (the way that the author of The Dean's Watch would have known). He simply needs his antagonist to get the story started. It's an easy trap to fall into. My own novel is not exempt from this problem. Clearly, I need to spend a lot more time trying to know and understand all of my characters. Then I will need to spend a lot of time learning to succinctly show their feelings and motivations. Hmm. This book of mine is going to take a long time to write. Even then, who knows if it will be any good? But, of course, all I can do is try. And keep writing.

Friday, August 21, 2015

I'm Still Writing (But It's One-Handed Again)

This poor, neglected blog seems doomed to suffer in silence for a while longer. Baby #2 made her appearance in July, and so far she would rather nurse than allow me to type. She sure is cute, though.

I have managed to compose a few pieces for elsewhere. Here are some links in case you are interested:

Target's Toy Aisles Won't Be Pink And Blue Anymore. Should We Be Mad? (for Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife).

"One system would like to say that defining boys as beings who wear blue is fine and dandy, and the other would like to say that trying to define boys at all is immoral (and that perhaps boyhood itself is a figment of our antiquated imagination). As this question is fought out, companies like Target (who have no wish to run afoul of the majority) keep a wary eye on the winds of change.

"Yet I think we make a mistake if we wade into the battle as if we must necessarily defend segregated toy aisles in order to uphold traditional beliefs about the sexes."

"According to ourselves, modern Americans have cast off the ruffles, paternalism, and prudishness of the Victorians. We certainly wear less fabric on our bodies at any given time than they did. However, in at least one way our bosoms beat as one: our cultures are linked by the conviction that it is our job to make the world a better place by reforming the beliefs and behavior of the masses.

"One peculiar way in which this desire to improve the world manifests is in the treatment of select groups from within society. The lives of upper and middle-class Victorian women—ladies who were sheltered, idealized, and expected to provide moral inspiration to their earthier male relatives—is generally seen as a relic of a bygone era. After all, we are so eager to reject patriarchal protection for women that feminists criticize efforts to teach women self-defense as part of rape prevention, and argue that bans against professor-student dating should be eliminated so (presumably, mostly female) students can learn useful life lessons about power and exploitation.

"However, we too possess the urge to protect, elevate, and perhaps infantilize a segment of our population. What the stereotypical Victorians did to women is what stereotypical helicopter parents (or alarmist neighbors) do to children. Examining the similarities tells us at least as much about ourselves as it does the inhabitants of the nineteenth century."

"Our society has ridden out, like doughty knights of old, on a grand quest to promote empathy. It is a noble goal. The ability to empathize (to imagine being in another person’s shoes) helps us to see each other’s humanity. It feeds the desire to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated. Educators and researchers pursue the teaching of empathy as a way to combat bullying and bring peace to classroom life. The internet is full of articles, like this one from the Washington Post, that ask parents whether they are raising kids who empathize with others. President Obama even believes that the way to evaluate Supreme Court justices is to examine their empathy.

"Yet even though we pursue the holy grail of empathy, we may not be as good at cultivating it as we think we are. A paradoxical lack of empathy flourishes both in the sphere of pop culture and in the more serious world of politics and cultural morality. Right alongside online posts about teaching kids to be nice, we see gleeful articles filled with photos of some unfortunate celebrity whose skirt flew up in the wind."

Because Homemaking Does (And Doesn't) Matter (for Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife)

"Many women live a conglomerated life. For homemakers especially, the vocations of wife, mother, and keeper-of-the-house are so intertwined that it can be hard not to feel that a weakness in one area makes us inadequate in them all. Often we have no other outlet--no other employment, no cordoned-off hours of the day--that can make us feel successful at something unrelated to our families. In addition, the homemaker’s daily tasks involve serving the people whom we most love. These are not the people for whom we are content to do a “good enough” job."

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