Defy (Reading Notes)

Fantasy and wish-fulfillment done well.

You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.

– Eric Hoffer

Each book, movie and television show, we love reveals some of our own desires, hopes and fears.

Every story is a fantasy.

We don’t read fantasy (just) to escape reality. We read to experience a reality we understand to be true and can’t access as often as we wish for it.

The fantasy in this story is a girl becoming one of the Boyz while still maintaining her attractiveness and desirability, evidenced through the two good men who both honor her and value her skills.

(Potential spoilers ahead: read at your own risk)

Alexa finds herself fighting on the wrong side of a cruel war. She has (from the age of 14) disguised both her age and her gender from her fellow guards.

Seeing as this is Fantasy, some of us can roll with the description that a 17-year-old young woman can hold her own, even be the best, among a group of trained fighters brought up as warriors.

What I appreciate is how this is eventually justified through both ‘gifting’ (magic is good for all kinds of things)  and years of specialized training and preparation (from the age of 6 with her twin brother as a sparring partner and a mumblemumble father to train her). Alexa earns her wins, and her relationship with the different members of the guard are varied and individual– a bit thin, but still quite the feat in the small space the story allows for them.

Rather than a transformation (say, from a personal lie to truth, or from brokenness to healing), Alexa’s progression in this story is a growth in who or what she already is.

It is a valid and useful question, and not just for the YA reader: How does one honor and maintain what makes one unique while still leaving room to grow?

I enjoyed Sara B. Larson’s answer.

The entire time Alexa is motivated by duty. Her assignment is to be part of the prince’s bodyguard, despite his father being a cruel warlord, and the prince himself being unadmirable and self-centered.

“Whether I respect him or despise him doesn’t matter,” says Alexa, “I’m a member of his guard.”

Of course, before the half-way mark, she feels more toward him than duty, but those feelings are conflicted (life and kingdom under threat, and at least one more book to develop through).

Still it is that sense of duty that drives her to the end, while being informed and strengthened by her growing identity as a woman who is loved.

It was an interesting choice, to show a character settled strong in her essence (duty, commitment, skill) while keeping her from being stagnant. The effort here was to focus on internal growth, since external growth was just about intensifying what already is.

Possible negatives:

  • The breeding houses. Alexa’s brother convinces her to cut her hair and fake being a boy because at 14 they both know about the place female orphans are taken. Just what they sound like, the houses double as a reward for, and a source of, soldiers for the unending war of the book.
  • Lots of people die. Not super devastating for me as a reader (there wasn’t the time to develop my own emotional attachment to the characters, just to see Alexa’s), and at least one death was critical to the climax of the story (more than one, depending how you count). But this is a war story.
  • The love triangle (merely existing) will be enough to put some people off.
    • I’ve decided I need to quit avoiding these, at least for a little while till I’ve seen a few more examples. In this story she isn’t “wavering” between the men as much as she’s sad to see one of them sad to lose her. That wasn’t so bad to me, not at all manipulative or indecisive on her part, not in the sense of leading anyone on. (Makes me wonder how badly they’re handled elsewhere to earn the vitriolic hate. Means more reading. Yeah, I’ll deal.).

Things I enjoyed:

  • An explanation (even though it was magic) for Alexa’s skill. I needed something to hold up my sagging suspension of disbelief.
  • That the guys who knew her secret were motivated both to protect it, and didn’t let it change how much they admired her skill, or honored her commitment.
  • The love triangle wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, with Alexa basically having a strong enough sense of loyalty to one that she wasn’t playing both ends against the middle.

Iffies:

  • A few anachronisms that joggled me within the story– like quaking aspen a few weeks’ walk from macaw- and jaguar-containing jungles, the use of “okay” and a few other casually modern phrases or assumptions. Once you’re in the reading groove they don’t need to matter, but depending what it takes to create your reader dream…
  • You really have to choose the suspension of disbelief to see a couple of 14-year-old kids coming into the specialized guard of the prince. Especially (when you learn later) that each guard, at least in the present, has to fight the best guard to get on the team.
    • Leaving out that one of them is a girl, the fact they both pass themselves off as 17 and fight grown men is a reader-moment you just accept if you want to keep the story rolling.
  • I saw that other reviewers complained about the breeding houses and violence, and the girl-warrior promise of the book devolving into an indecisive girly wobbling between two guys.
    • In the first complaint, I believe the horror was necessary to show what justified the prince’s desire to overthrow his father. (And knowing that such cruelty exists today, I think being disgusted is a good thing).
    • Concerning the love story, I think the author did pretty well with the space she had. She created a huge emotional vulnerability in the female main character, and provided weeks of close contact with two men who valued her.  It’s a touchy thing, but I think it was played fair, especially considering it was disclosed in the cover description.

Recommended?  Yes.

(This book was provided by the publisher free for my review through Netgalley.com)

Alienated (Reading Notes)

Alienated (Alienated, #1)Laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally relatable.

Most of the time when teenagers feel alienated, it’s because they haven’t found their niche: they’re running in that in-between zone that doesn’t fit the cliques or stereotypes of their school or culture or region.

Cara, in contrast, is at the top of her game. She’s not driven by “the crowd” but she’s not self-isolated or socially inexperienced either. She’s got a workable plan for her future, and becoming a world-famous host can only help that plan.

It’s because of her personal drive and ambition, along with her killer public speaking skills (she’s captain of the debate team, too) that she’s considered the ideal host for an intergalactic exchange-student program. While her older brother goes to live on another planet, one of that planet’s young people comes to live in Cara’s home.

(Potential spoilers ahead: read at your own risk)

Aelyx is not impressed by earth, the family he is forced to live with, or the unnecessary extravagance of color and energy that now surrounds him. His plan is to get kicked off of earth as soon as possible, and return to the familiarity of home.

These established personalities and the process of their growing closer to each other (come on, this can’t possibly be a spoiler in a YA book!) makes for an enjoyable story, while raising some worthwhile social issues.

Aelyx’s success in getting people to distrust him results in the systematic isolation of everyone who cares about him. The portrayal of community-wide mobbing was unnerving and believable.

Mobbing is a phenomenon of bullying on a systemic scale, supported at multiple levels of hierarchy: the grunts, the peers, the overseers, working together to practically, physically, and emotionally shut out the individuals that don’t fit the expectations of the majority.

By establishing a vivacious, outgoing personality in Cara, the author did an effective job of showing how devastating such mobbing can be, before it ever turns physically violent.

Possible negatives:

  • In this story we have a vivacious redhead bringing a gray planet’s model citizen emotionally to life, and that may be too cliche for some people. On the other hand, familiarity doesn’t need to breed contempt, and I especially enjoyed how hard Cara worked to find him food that was “bland” enough. It was a nice example of acceptance and real hospitality.
  • Cara’s boyfriend is sexually pushy, and while that’s used to show how he’s not a great guy, the main characters eventually get handsy, and it’s played straight– i.e., they aren’t being creeps.
  • The emotional mobbing eventually becomes a physical mob. Lives are risked, lost, and people get hurt.
  • Teenagers make major life-decisions that are probably non-reversible. The significance is addressed, though, and not passed over lightly.

Things I enjoyed:

  • A solid contrast between the two worlds.
    • The use of different technologies and foods, and communication styles was internally consistent and solid
  • The (painfully) accurate portrayal of a community shutting out its own. It’s so specific and deliberate and chilling.
  • No sex in the story (yes, I care about that)
  • Parents who are obviously in love (with a great in-story acknowledgement of it)
  • Parents who are involved with their kids’ lives without being jerks
  • The Googling of how-to-kiss. Cracked me up.
  • Fabulous arguing-in-front-of-others moment broken up by the crunching of popcorn.

Iffies:

  • The motivation of the aliens in connecting to the “primitive” people on earth.
    • Related to that the flip-flop/wishy-washy of yes we want our (grey planet) kids to hook up with your (Earth) kids, no wait that’s sick, no wait, it’s a viable plan.
  • The growing bitterness of the female exchange student, based on the non-stop sexual harassment she endured in her earth placement. This is portrayed as negative, but never addressed by any authority figures.  I couldn’t tell if that was commentary on misogynistic culture, or the result of the girl never reporting it.
  • The we-want-out-CRAP-they-want-us-out confusion/inconsistency.

Recommended?  Absolutely.

(This book was provided by the publisher free for my review through Netgalley.com)

Noveling Update

I have officially finished the first draft of my 2013 NaNo novel (Sherlockian Daze). Word count is just under 120K, and I did that in just under 5 months.

Which is a super-exciting first for me.

Next order of business is to finish last-last edits on Lindorm King.

I don’t remember if I’ve said here, but a friend of a friend did one last beta and gave me some very meaningful feedback:

I love it when people *get* my story:

“So, I had a bit of time on mine hands, took a look and then was thoroughly hooked. Meaning I read all 344 pages last evening.

I totally adore your women characters. They are strong, but not in the way that “Now I do stuff like the boyz” that so often gets mistaken for strength. I’m fascinated by how they struggle and try to cope with the roles their restrictive society cast for them.

Also, I wanted to hit Tykone over the head frequently for all his subconscious sexism. Very good job on that one, maybe one day a guy reads it and has a d’oh-moment.”

[This last, in particular, was an awesome affirmation to specify on her own: it was an experiment on my part, since I wasn't sure it would even be recognized as sexism since it's so "normal."]

She also had some very useful structural feedback that was very meaningful. Moving back to revision is already proving to be a blast!

It was this reader who pointed out the main (male) character had the only name in the story of Celtic origin, so I’ve renamed him, and it’s going to be interesting as I reread/revise to see a familiar character with a different name.

That said, I started revisions this morning before the kids were up. Got through about 30 pages in an hour. At this rate the revision will take about 12 hours total, which seems painfully slow, since I can only count this as a minimum.

But… after 7.5 years, can I really complain about another 12 hours?

That thing about “momentum” is true. Once you get started, once you’ve proven to yourself what you can do, a lot of the sluggishness falls away.

What Connects with…Me

Image courtesy of Liana Bitoli via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Liana Bitoli via stock.xchng

I found a “coach,” at the end of last year, because most of what I do with my counselor seemed to be coaching, anyway. I was looking for an “outside” voice and perspective that was sharing a brain/time focused on me.

Becky and I have talked about how this is the reason to hire someone: friendships are more mutual, and we don’t want to muddy those relationships to work through our issues.

The coach got me thinking about some good stuff, and some new angles on older projects that have been marinating for a while.

~  ~  ~

Then I got my heart stomped on, and I was back in the counselor’s office.

I had a double bomb in an exhausting 48 hours: First, someone I already guessed didn’t like me confirmed they didn’t like me, and second, someone I love very much– who has a degree in an industry not supported by our local economy– told me they were saving up money to move away to do the work they went to school for.

Both totally make sense, were almost predictable, and so it took me 4 or 5 days to realize I was deeply hurt and grieving. I was so scared by my response (it felt like my depression was returning- freaked me out and you don’t play around with that!) I visited my counselor the day before my coaching appointment.

The counselor gently reassured me that that this wasn’t my depression returning. She affirmed that I was grieving, and validated my experience that just because someone is a jerk, or someone has beautiful dreams that don’t need to include you, intellectual assent doesn’t necessarily change how others’ choices affect you. Continue reading »

Holding the Fear — January’s Life & Fiction Column

If you’ve been around a while you’ve probably seen me reference The Perilous Gard, a book I feel deeply connected to. This month’s essay combines that book with one of my personal wrestlings: How do we respond to something too big to fight?

[Excerpt:]

I am very interested in those characters who are “stuck” with responding, because that’s where I live much of the time: I am faced with circumstances that are bigger than me, and the best I can hope for is that I find and climb on a sort of surfboard and ride the waves as they come. Preferably without wiping out.

When we’re in crisis mode, simply responding is pretty much the order of the day. Strategizing our way around a problem requires energy or clarity of thought that often is out of reach, and it turns out that’s the case for my favorite characters.

All my favorite characters are very much caught up in something bigger than them. Every one is much weaker than the forces arrayed against them, and barely keeping their heads above water, but I love them because they prove a match for those impossible odds—and that’s why I read!

One example: Kate Sutton.

In the young adult novel The Perilous Gard, Kate is sent by the Queen of England to the middle of nowhere. Kate is utterly alone, has no friends, and ends up trapped probably a mile underground.

My throat closes up in the cloying tightness of the memory.

Kate didn’t know if she’d ever see the light of day again. She was a slave, and the only moment of independent choice she had came at the opening of each day. She had a choice to receive or reject “the Cup,” which contained a drug that would bring an artificial delight and mute her senses to the suffering and isolation she endured. She chose to reject it.

Read the rest at wynmag.com

Writer Mama

Today, out of nowhere, Elisha said, “You’re a great storyteller, Mama.”

Tonight Natasha saw me starting in on cleaning the kitchen while she was on her way to bed.

“Why start cleaning now?”
“I just finished a novel,” I said. “I have energy now.”
“Oh,” said Natasha. “That makes sense.”

Another time recently, I asked Melody what story she wanted to listen to, and she said, “Tell us more of your novel!” (I’ve read them bits from Shadow Swan and Lindorm King.)

Being understood by my children is a beautiful thing.  They are proud of me, of my writing, and I can only begin to articulate how much of a gift this is to me: it. is. huge.

Image courtesy of Maare Liiv via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Maare Liiv via stock.xchng

People used to frame my writing in competition with my children.

My enthusiasm for NaNoWriMo and its “treatment” potential (I’ve use the daily goals for depression management in Novembers) was met with the emotional equivalent of a bucket of cold water. More than one person questioned the adequacy of my devotion to my children if I was engaging in this demanding activity (writing with quotas and deadlines).

Such undermining behavior made my automatic language about each piece (“a fourth child”) feel even more scandalous– though no less true.

Each is like a newborn in the beginning, with growing and changing “demands” as the project matures.

Then we had a physical 4th child in our home for 44 days, with no jealousy or angst.

Just tonight I realized that’s how my children take my writing, too. The fourth child.

It’s not a competition, it just *is.*

Sometimes (most of the time) it’s a baseline not worth mentioning. Then there are these moments of understanding, or vicarious pride.

And these moments when they connect– when they play at it themselves– it’s like a toddler picking up a baby doll after mama has a newborn, and surprising me with their tenderness and skill.

I am so thankful to be a Writer Mama.

The First 15 Days

There was a group I signed up for at the end of the year, inviting “30 days of hustle” to jump start the new year.  Each day we get a little (or not-so-little) to-do in our inbox, designed to encourage or nudge us farther on our path toward our goal.

Today, the 15th, is a “progress report” day. Since my goal was about establishing patterns and habits (in how I eat), I can’t really suggest a “bridge” between where I’m at and 100%, but the challenges have shaped the way I think about what I’m doing, so I’ll just run through what we’ve done so far, with my goal (eating patterns) as the example. Continue reading »

Editing for Wyn in January

Image courtesy of abcdz2000 via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of abcdz2000 via stock.xchng

I’m so excited about this opportunity.

The Theme for January is Self-Care, and we have a collection of topics to get you thinking, and practical stuff to apply to your own life, as well.

Here’s an excerpt of my “Letter from the Editor.”

Visualize stuffing an elephant into spandex.

That’s the way I feel about the word “Self.”

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the blind men at the elephant? Five men touched five different parts of the creature (tusk, tail, ear, leg, trunk) and an argument ensued as each fiercely asserted they’d identified the essence of this mysterious creature.

That is the way I feel about the Self. It is an elephant-sized concept with all the wrinkles and warmth, the inflexibility and folds of the various parts of an elephant; and still it is one coherent (if improbable) whole.

Read the rest at wynmag.com

January 1, 2014

Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do.

– John Carmack

Image courtesy of Gerla Brakkee via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Gerla Brakkee via stock.xchng

I am |this| close to making a resolution to not learn anything new this year.

But that would be silly.

I’ve made “not” resolutions before (like NOT buying books). That didn’t really work/happen/exist very long…

And I didn’t feel bad about it, either. HA!

Last night I updated my Writing page, and for the first time actually made a list of what I’m interested in– what I research, pursue and actively learn about. And it wasn’t a mile long!

Though I admit to some deceptively concise labels.

I used to think this complete listing was not possible, since I’ve watched myself latch on to any new idea that enters my line of sight. I’ll chew and taste and explore– and that willingness has sometimes made me feel like and intellectual toddler who needs to be protected from my own curiosity.

That unnamed image actually made me vulnerable to the type of person who was more interested in telling me how to think than strengthening my own ability.

It was my untrained, but still existing, ability to resist this attitude that taught me I wasn’t an intellectual toddler.

Image courtesy of Mihai Tamasila via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Mihai Tamasila via stock.xchng

I was an explorer– an occupation which requires intense levels of maturity, initiative, adaptability and courage, words that, until last year, never entered my mind as ways to describe myself.

Much of my adult life has alternated between delighted and frantic exploring. I see something I don’t know, and rather than just enjoy it’s existence, I need to understand it– to explain it– to participate in it. Sometimes I feel behind and deficient until I am up to speed with usable information about whatever just hit my radar.

[I should qualify this to say not everything-everything is this way. I always love it when an experience completely "misses" that absorption instinct-- fly-tying, bell-choir, crochet, singing alto. It allows me to absorb-- and release!-- that topic in a completely different way.]

Sometimes, if I cannot deliver an extemporaneous lecture on any topic (no qualifications– any topic) that leaves me feeling deficient.

Today I’m declaring that unrealistic.

I have my brief (deep) list, it encompasses more to study than I can ever use up , and it provides quite enough meat and sugar for my life and brain.

I don’t need to keep looking for new things to know.

~ ~ ~

Image courtesy of Richard McCroskey via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Richard McCroskey via stock.xchng

For many years I have been in the pursuit of the “right” system– that magical *something* that will make life “work” where it hasn’t before.

I’m convinced such a system exists– there are so many books about organization and time-management with great (This WORKS!) reviews– but I think now that this system is something as effective as medication for brain-based disorders. That is, about 40% effective at best.

40% is a pretty high number, and nothing to dismiss– That is a LOT of people with improved lives. Unfortunately, if any of those lots-of-people found their peace (or method) without difficulty or pain, their level of understanding and compassion or grace is diminished toward the remaining 60%.

The rest of us must learn to live in ways that schedules and methods may inform, but not master.

In 2013, my future-focused, planning-addicted self began to ask:

What if this life didn’t change? What if this is who I am, what I’ve got, and it’s everyday? Then what? Would I choose this?

I’ve found this way of thinking to be incredibly helpful for me. It actually keeps things from getting too big. As someone who goes meta really quick, it’s about the only thing that’s ever been effective:

One day at a time.

Take food as an example. We all KNOW that we’re not supposed to “diet,” as in change the way we eat, just for a little while, with the plan to return to our old ways.

If we want to be healthier we must find a way (meals, timing) to eat that we are willing to continue forever.

One day at a time.

So this is where I’m beginning the new year:

I write. Every day. Already. I don’t need a resolution to do that.

Sort of like I eat. I don’t have to plan for it to happen.

I do have to have some sort of  plan if I want to reach certain goals, but this plan doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s.

The beauty of a plan, of any plan that’s worked for me, I mean, is how many decisions are already made.

And this loops back in to What you already know.

Decisions that don’t need to be made.

I do have goals, because I know where I want to end up.

But the difference this year is that I’m focusing exclusively on what I already know to do.

I know a whole. heap. of a lot. I have had experiences that worked, and have learned from things that didn’t work.

Image courtesy of Farquois via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Farquois via stock.xchng

For the month of January, I am doing many things (like pressing on with the writing plan I began in October), but counting the days, I am returning to a few food principles that I know work for me.

  1. I’m writing down what I eat– holding myself accountable for the good decisions I know I should make.
  2. Decide that every every meal (or snack!) I eat has to include protein.
  3. I will still eat deserts (while following #2), but only on the weekends.

These are all things I’ve done and sustained before. This is not an “experiment” I hope will work. These are proven strategies I’ve been too [fill-in-the-blank] to stick with.

So here it is: not a new-year-resolution, but a plan to remind myself

I have enough. already.

2013 In Review

Here’s my annual letter, the one I decided not to mail because I prefer readers who volunteer to read the info (blog visitors) rather than “forcing” it on folks. ;)

I would describe 2013 as the most challenging year of my life, but that could be because I’m sitting here looking straight at it for the first time, and I don’t really have the stamina to actively compare it with challenging years that have come before. Continue reading »