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All You Need Are Tasers and Friendship // One Quirk Later

To the great pleasure of all, Jem (writer, librarian, and probably fairy godmother) has returned with a quirk, and I have faithfully returned with my donation to her fund of bite-sized story snacks. (This one’s a slightly large, may-have-trouble-cramming-it-in-one’s-mouth bite, because nothing I write can be as short as it’s supposed to be, apparently.)

Apparently my brain turns everything into “girl rescues family member from evil enchantress” these days, which is…interesting? But fine?

Another fun fact about this quirk is that it’s a sequel to this one:


I did not in fact post a quirk for that particular prompt back in the day, but that isn’t to say I didn’t write one. Oh, children, no. *laughs gently at your innocence* I certainly wrote one. Cameron was the main character. Then Lilly his sister somehow became the main character. Then I realized this thing was flamin’ long and I was never going to finish it to my satisfaction, so I gave up.

But now Lilly and Cameron, Midwestern power siblings (power siblings better be a thing, if power couples are), are BACK, BABY. (Joined by Maddy, who is drawn from life and of whom I’m rather fond.)

(This announcement purely for my own enjoyment, as no one else read the previous quirk!!! But still!!! Behold the sequel!!!)

All You Need Are Tasers and Friendship

               It wasn’t the first time she’d fallen asleep in an airport. The first time was two nights ago, the second the night before. But this third night, like an enchanted princess or something, she woke to salvation.

               Salvation, pleasantly, wore the broad, glaring visage of Maddy, Lilly’s best friend since she was seven. Possibly now her only friend.

               She squinted up at her; Maddy’s Cajun tan glowed despite a summer spent indoors, and her dark eyes questioned every life decision Lilly had ever made. The bulk of her shoulders blocked the glare of the LED lights, but Lilly had wanted just a little more sleep (the clock across the walkway said 4:34). “’Sup,” said Lilly groggily.

               “No, you tell me what’s up,” retorted Maddy, hauling her to a sitting position.

               Lilly blinked away sleep. “Hey, how’d you find me?”

               “You told me which gate,” said Maddy (You idiot remained unsaid).

               “Yeah, but what about my new hairstyle?” Lilly fluttered her golden lashes, which no longer matched her hair.

               “You didn’t change your ugly face, did you? And seriously, you chopped your hair?”

               Lilly beamed. “Didn’t expect me to do it either. I like the black and emo hoodie look on me, though, don’t you? Anyway, so the reason I texted you from a stranger’s phone at 2 a.m. two days ago…”

               Maddy’s eyebrows rose. “Go on?”

               Lilly took in a long breath. Being sleep-deprived made you think of weird things: like how good it felt to breathe. “I’m really, really glad you came.”

               Maddy looked unsure of herself (a rare occurrence). Then she took a deep breath too. “Lilly, I’m trying really, really hard right now to not act how I feel. How I feel is that I want to shake you like a puppy—scratch that, like, very specifically, Kiera after she chewed up the chair leg on my chair and it—never mind, just explain.”

               “Fair,” said Lilly. “Fair. Okay, so remember how when I graduated, Cameron and I decided to go on a roadtrip, and I said I wasn’t sure how long it was going to be and I wasn’t going to text anyone or post anything until I got back?”

               Maddy nodded.

               “So, we’re still on the roadtrip. Cameron brought along his creepy cat, and things got complicated. I’ll explain that later. All you need to know right now is, I lost my phone in a lake, and then I lost my brother in a lake, and I need your help to get him back.”

               Maddy looked at her.

               Lilly smiled sweetly. “Do you have a taser?”

               “We get tased in the academy; that’s not the same as getting a taser—”

               “Yeah, but do you have one?”

               “I have a gun, which—”

               “I’ve got a gun,” said Lilly, unimpressed. “Two, actually. They’re in the car. One’s Cam’s. Do you have a taser?”

               Maddy grinned reluctantly. “Yeah.”

               Lilly grinned back. “Thought so. Second question: do you have two tasers?”

***

               Armed with guns, tasers, and supplies like bandages, water bottles, granola bars, and a playlist that was mostly The Longest Johns and For King & Country (the Venn diagram overlap of Lilly’s and Maddy’s music tastes was small), they slid into the front seats of Cam’s shiny red Mustang. Lilly gripped the steering wheel, looked at the light-pole in front of them which had mysteriously spawned a sort of half-conjoined twin, and then laughed. “You wanna drive, Mads? I think I might crash us.”

               Maddy turned to her. “Do I want,” she said distinctly, “to drive a 1967 Mustang GT, convertible, eight cylinder—”

               “Yeah, yeah.” Lilly pushed her door open. “You car people.”

               “Also, don’t call me Mads!”

               “What, are you gonna get mads at me?” Lilly giggled, impervious to Maddy’s completely incredulous gaze.

               They drove at ninety down pale-asphalt county highway between flat Minnesota farm fields. The Longest Johns sang about oak and ash and thorn. The cold wind flowed around Lilly’s head and was the nearest sensation to that of being at home she had known since she was a very small child. It had been that way since the first day of the roadtrip.

***

“So when you said you lost your brother in a lake…”

Lilly twisted her head and shoulders around to look up at Maddy. “I actually meant it? Oh yes.”

On the dock that extended into the lake, she had immediately flopped down on her stomach and pointed over the edge into the water. One finger almost brushed the surface. Its shadow reached a little further down into the translucent, blue-green depths. Much, much further down, Cameron lay on the lake’s white floor.

His eyes were closed in sleep, one hand flung out. He still wore stained jeans and mud-caked Converse. Those had once been his nice jeans, thought Lilly in a rush of sleep-deprived sadness; they hadn’t had a single spot of oil.

“He’s breathing,” said Maddy in a horrified way.

Lilly nodded.

“He’ll never die down there, you know,” said a voice.

Lilly hopped to her feet and faced the lady in the lake. “He doesn’t want to sleep forever,” she said in irritation.

“I told you. I must have reparation. Your brother preferred to sleep forever than to see you sleep forever.”

“Yeah,” said Lilly, “I thought you said there was a third option.”

“Is that what you’ve brought me?” The lady turned cool blue eyes on Maddy. “You offer her in replacement for your brother?”

Lilly turned to look at Maddy, who was looking at her. Hopefully to the lady it looked like she was looking at her with shock and horror and betrayal; to Lilly it was obvious there was nothing but confusion and a little bit of trust in Maddy’s eyes.

Lilly didn’t like that much. Maddy didn’t exactly hand out trust like candy on Halloween, and Lilly had briefly considered what the lady suggested.

She’d decided against it, though.

Maybe she didn’t like choosing between her best friend and her brother, and maybe she just really didn’t like being pushed around.

She grabbed Maddy’s arm and pulled her to the edge of the dock. “Here you are,” she said, turning with a bright smile to the lady.

“Lilly—” said Maddy (DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING remained unsaid).

The lady glided toward them.

From Maddy’s account of events afterward, Lilly learned that she had leaped on the lady like a feral cat, yelling “PSYCH!” (so very outdated and uncool a thing to yell that Maddy blushed for her friend), and tased the lady. The whole lake vibrated. The lady convulsed, flashed with internal lightning, and shot fountains of water into the air. When she turned into a many-streamed waterspout, collapsing into her lake, Lilly went down with her.

Maddy, explaining that sometimes she operated under the very dim hope that Lilly could in fact look after herself, dived in after Cameron. His eyes had flown open at the first shockwave that went over the lake, and he had found with confusion that he couldn’t breathe water.

Cameron only said that she hadn’t had to push quite so hard when she was doing CPR; the water would’ve come out for less.

“You’re welcome for saving your life,” said Maddy loudly.

Lilly didn’t remember how she made it to shore. She remembered grasping at the bank and Cam and Maddy dragging her out, each at one arm. They all ran to the convertible.

“Keys,” said Cam flatly to Maddy.

Fine,” said Maddy.

The lake shuddered as they roared away. Lilly snuggled her head against the backseat cushions. “Why didn’t you shoot her?” asked Maddy.

“Guns don’t work,” said Lilly. They both looked at her but didn’t ask for an explanation, which was nice. “I figured since she’s basically water, a taser might…I don’t know, it was kind of stupid, actually.” She laid her head back on the seat and marveled at the stupidity of it. For all she knew she could have electrocuted Cameron. “I’m glad I was sleep-deprived when I thought of it. I don’t think I’d have done it otherwise.”

“Oh, Lilly,” said Cameron.

Oh, Cameron,” she said, and giggled.

Maddy patted his arm. “She’s okay. She hasn’t been getting much sleep.”

“I haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Yeah, she called me so she could sacrifice me to the evil water witch.”

“WHAT?”

“It’s fine, Cameron,” Lilly murmured. “It’s fine. Your cat would understand. Oh, Maddy, did I tell you about the cat?”

“No.”

“It’s all the cat’s fault, sort of. Now that you’re here, you can help us with—”

“Lilly,” said Cameron firmly, “you need to sleep.”

“Right.” She smiled up at the blue sky, with its white whispers of clouds, blue as the cold summer wind all around her head. The Minnesota farm fields sped by outside. Yes. Sleep was a very good idea, almost as good as that one about the taser.

gratitude for harmonicas

My family has a lot of Thanksgiving traditions. Normal ones like turkey and pumpkin pie and special homemade gluten-free (delicious) green bean casserole (made by me). Understandable ones like picking out, chopping down (with an axe; nothing more efficient allowed), and dragging into the house this year’s Christmas tree. Unique ones like handing out assignments for Christmas stories and inviting widowers, Brazilians, and pretty much all and sundry who don’t have another place to eat Thanksgiving dinner to eat it with us.

One tradition we don’t have, though, is Saying One Thing We’re Grateful For.

I can see what would happen if an adult proposed it very clearly in my mind’s eye. There would be universal rebellion. It would probably take not very long for remarks like “I’m grateful I don’t have your face” to begin flying around between sisters. Mom would try to get it back on track (“no more insults disguised as gratitude and girls, I mean it”), and, if pressed, the dissenters would eventually mumble something about do we really have to be so sappy?

I generally hold to the principle that, while gratitude is great and all (actually helps immensely with mental health, for instance), making a big fuss about it isn’t and I’d rather not.

Still, today, in defiance of the family un-tradition, I must make a note of my own thankfulness for one very specific blessing.

Today (and always), I am grateful for harmonicas.

Don’t Keep Poetic Irony in the Fishbowl // One Quirk Later

Hey guys! By the title of this post, you may have guessed that Jem Jones, so great and illustrious a librarian that she has her very own cake-eating owl, has returned for the month of October with her One Quirk Later flash fiction prompt series.

There are several incongruities to notice here.

First, it is not actually October anymore. I am late, Frodo Baggins, and have nothing to say for myself.

Second, it’s a flash fiction prompt series, and this is definitely not flash fiction. I wanted it to be, but it didn’t want to be. I wrote and wrote and wrote and it kept getting written and written. If it were not already November 1st, and I hadn’t just finished this literally an hour ago, before typing it up, I would probably figure out how to revise and shorten it.

But no, you all get the messy, long, probably confusing first draft. (You don’t have to read it, so at least there’s that.)

We can say it was good for me to practice writing something that is mainly sort of actiony (sort of). We can also say it’s a sequel to this previous quirk (which it is). We can say we meant to include the text prompt but it didn’t work and it’s implied anyway. We can say that it’s weird and we’re not sure it makes sense and we didn’t have time/energy to really revise and we’re actually a terrible writer and you should all go read something quality, like Twilight, instead of degrading your eyeballs reading this trash blah blah etc etc–

We are tired and are going to stop writing introductory remarks now.

The prompt:

The quirk:

            When she got out of the shower, the house was very quiet.

            It might be fine; Alexander was a quiet boy. But if he was staring mesmerized into the fishbowl again, that was the end of that. Down the garbage disposal went the goldfish. If Sarah and Adrian objected when they got back, she would simply tell them she did not fancy kissing their son or cleaning up his magic-mutilated body.

            Sarah and Adrian understood. The goldfish was only poetic irony, anyway.

            Molly didn’t approve of poetic irony. It was impractical and dangerous, particularly when it came to enchantresses.

            Towel around her, she paused to listen. The striped bath rug was horribly soft beneath her feet: quicksand, deadening every sound. No, she was very sure it shouldn’t be this quiet in the house.

            She opened the bathroom door and stepped hastily into the hall. The hardwood floor was old and squealed and squeaked to wake the dead when people went down the hall to the bathroom at night. Molly, however, although she was now a grown-up college student, had been running around this house since she was a tiny tot, and squeaky floorboards were certain not equal to preventing her being quiet if she wanted to. She slipped quickly down the hallway, tucking the end of her towel firmly into itself so it wouldn’t fall, bare feet finding the silent boards by instinct.

            (Nearly always, with enchantresses, you didn’t want to give them advance knowledge you were coming.)

            There Alexander was, sitting at the edge of the table, forehead pressed to the glass of the fishbowl—which was also perilously close to the edge. It was a good thing she took short showers, because this had been going on for a while. Molly saw with a nasty fizz of shock that his hands weren’t just resting on the table; they were moving it, steadily, silently, down and back up. Each time it moved, the fishbowl slipped a little closer to the edge. The fish faced Alexander, its little orange head against the glass where the bridge of his nose met it on the other side, its beady little eyes staring into his.

            “Alexander!” she said sharply.

            He twitched, suddenly and violently. The tabled dipped and righted itself with the clattering thump of wood on linoleum. The goldfish bowl slid off the table, bounced off Alexander’s lap, and shattered against the linoleum.

            Really, thought Molly as she legged it for the catastrophe, the least Sarah and Adrian could have done for their precious poetic irony was to encase it in shatter-proof glass.

            Bare feet notwithstanding, she stomped on the fish’s tail. She’d meant to go for the whole fish, of course, but it was moving. Also it was not a fish anymore. Something between scales and feathers slipped from under her heel, and a sparrow fluttered up. Molly tried to swat it, but it dived away.

            She ran for the window. “Alexander, go lock yourself in the bathroom!” Slam. Window down. She faced the sparrow, which perched on the table chirping at her.

            The chirps formed words in Molly’s brain. Darling, darling, don’t make the little boy go! He’ll be so useful.

            “Go, do what I said,” said Molly in a low voice to Alexander, who’d turned back questioningly in the hall. The sparrow might lace its coaxing with magic, but Molly had noticed people generally didn’t disobey her when she fixed them with a certain look. She had to be feeling really fierce to do it, though.

            She and the sparrow stared at each other across the kitchen. The click of the bathroom door latching broke the silence, then the softer click of the lock turning.

            What a very unfortunate spell, chirped the sparrow. I won’t be able to get to him for several more changes, now.

            You’d know, Molly did not say. She edged toward the broom cupboard.

            A crumb from your table, my lady! chirped the sparrow, hopping toward her.

            Molly swung the broom like a cricket bat. With a satisfying smack, the sparrow sailed across the kitchen in a brown flurry of feathers, dirt, and crumbs shaken loose from the broom’s whiskers. By the time Molly reached it, it was pecking dizzily at the floor. Not the floor—a crumb of pumpernickel on the floor. It missed it once, but before Molly’s broom made contact, it had swallowed it and was changing.

            A slim grey cat slammed into the refrigerator and slid to the floor. Molly started toward it, broom gripped tight in both hands. Maybe she could still manage to stuff a cat down the garbage disposal. Maybe it would fit, if she could stop it getting what it needed for the next change.

            The cat was wilier than the sparrow had been. It didn’t tell her what that would be. It simply looked at her calculatingly from the floor and then leaped for her face.

            Molly, who did not scream often, screamed.

            The next few seconds were a nightmarish blur of snarling cat with claws like razors, hitting it with elbows, broom, fists, hot mingling of blood and fur, and Molly screaming very loudly, several times.

            Then she stumbled back against the counter, gasping in surprise at being unattacked for a moment. She swept tangled hair out of her face and retightened her towel (somehow it couldn’t stay in place long enough for her to sweep up her hair in the bathroom mirror, but furiously windmilling arms to ward off cat attacks did not loosen it). The cat was on the floor next to the dropped broom, its head down. Was it licking something off the floor?

            It put its head up and purred.

            Really, little sparrow noises that turned into words in her head weren’t so bad, as far as creepy magic went. It was much more disturbing to have a cat’s deep, self-satisfied purr translated so seamlessly. I like you, really, it said, except you’re so annoying. It will be very satisfying to turn you into a toad.

            “You enchantresses aren’t very creative, are you?” scoffed Molly. “Adrian will figure it out much faster a second time. He’s got Sarah too.”

            The cat hacked a few times, as if there was a hairball somewhere in there, and the hacking, terrifyingly, translated into a laugh: a woman’s laugh, very deep and smooth and genuinely amused. You naïve little darling, Adrian’s kiss won’t save you.

            “Gross,” said Molly, clinging to her towel. “Double gross. He’s married, and he’s my cousin. And that’s not what I meant, you sick-minded weirdo! I meant they’ll find somebody.” She wasn’t sure exactly why she was bothering to argue with the cat about trivialities, but her mind was pounding with a beat like a heartbeat, only it was hot and terrified and had snatches of words to it. Words like is it growing bigger? and are its eyes changing? and was that my blood it was licking off the floor? The fact that it didn’t mind pausing a moment to chat was worrisome too.

            The cat cocked its head, a very catlike motion. Darling, but who? I assure you, only true love’s kiss will suffice to break the enchantment I intend to use. You may be an incidental toad, but I will make sure you are a very thorough toad. And you mustn’t tell me you’ve a lover—even a casual boyfriend! The cat was definitely bigger than it had been a minute before, and a sneeze translated into a delicate (though still deeply pitched) giggle in Molly’s brain. I wouldn’t believe you.

            Molly knew she should be worried that the cat was now the size of a border collie, that the hair had begun to grow thick and silky about its neck, and that its eyes gleamed like gems. She knew she should. But the only feeling that appeared in her soul was a deep, speechless outrage—that this enchantress, this cat who had five minutes ago been a glubbing goldfish in a bowl, who had never met a man that didn’t prefer being turned into a mackerel and cooked for dinner to dating her (probably), should dare to insinuate that she, Molly, could not have found a boyfriend if she’d bloody well wanted one (which she didn’t)!

            Molly picked up the broom and swung a swing to clear the boundaries.

            As the cat was now the size of a Great Dane, it staggered slightly, clamped its jaws on the broom, and wrested it from her.

            Molly calmed herself. In some people, confronting a lion that is rapidly filling up a kitchen induces a steely calm. “I know what you need,” she said, “and I won’t give it to you. Stealing my blood to make you bigger and stronger isn’t going to help; you can’t break the spell or change your form back that way. So you can’t turn me into a toad. And don’t forget Sarah and Adrian have beaten dragons together. All the blood in my body wouldn’t make you as big as a dragon.”

            What need do I have for dragon’s strength with their son in my hands?

            “On the other side of a locked door,” Molly pointed out.

            I will speak to him. He will unlock it and come to me.

            Molly shivered at the depth and power of the voice. She was squeezed up against the counter; the kitchen was too small for both of them, and she slid unobtrusively toward the back door. She wasn’t running away. It was strategy.

            (She hoped, noticing the way her heart hammered and her hand strained for the door, that she wasn’t running away.)

            “I don’t think you’re as irresistible as you think you are,” she said quietly.

            The next thing she knew, she was on the kitchen floor, coming out of painful darkness into yet more painful waking. The world roared around her. No—that was the lion roaring; up high there, head breaking through the ceiling, it was roaring, and plaster rained down around it.

            Molly dragged her head up, an inch off the floor. She’d been knocked right next to the door; she could reach out and touch it with fingers that were all there, that trembled but obeyed her command. If only the rest of her would do the same. The lion’s head was in the attic now. It couldn’t see her if she stood up and got out quickly enough.

            To warn Adrian? Get outside, run to a phone, call Adrian. That was strategic. That wasn’t running away.

            Adrian was in New Zealand.

            Why was she still lying on the floor?

            Molly grunted and pulled herself to her knees. The roaring in her ears swam and drowned in all-encompassing dizziness. Setting her teeth, she pulled herself to her feet with the help of the door-handle and caught her towel just before it fell.

            Stay in, she said very earnestly to the end that she tucked into itself. Still half leaning on the doorknob, she turned it and stumbled outside.

            Outside she still heard the lion roaring, but the sun and the breeze brought coolness to her skin. She felt as if she could see again: the sight of the oak and the road leading away past it made her heart race with dizzy, terrible relief.

            There was a wet feeling in her shoulders, the kind that presaged pain. That means I should run, she tried to tell herself, before it starts to hurt and I can’t. I’m out. Go get help.

            Her heart wrenched when she turned away from the road and back to the house. She stumbled—she was still stumbling, for some reason—over to the spigot on the side of the house and began to twist it open. There was an idea in her head, and a wide emptiness that would shortly be filled (with pain, she thought, but for now it was just a blank), and a tiny thought that didn’t seem to matter much that once she was gone, Alexander would come out of the bathroom at the enchantress’s first word.

            Water started with a joyous spurt from the end of the house, then settled to a stream. As Molly picked it up, the lion burst through the door, taking half the wall with it. Molly turned the hose on it, spraying up and down, across every centimeter of fur charging toward her. Roaring dwindled to back-alley yowling, to shrill bird-call. By the time it reached her, it fell at her feet: a catfish, flopping in whiskery distress on the ground under her stream of water.

            Molly stooped (water still running, drought or no drought) and picked it up. In her hand it became a goldfish. She marched it inside and threw it down the garbage disposal, which she turned on for a solid thirty seconds before turning it off and sagging against the counter.

            Her shoulders had begun to hurt, and the scratches on her arms had turned to angry, swollen red lines. She was fine. Upright, conscious, and therefore fine. “Alexander!” she cried, raising her voice for an exhausting moment. “You can come out now.”

            In a moment, he came running from the hall. The plaster on the kitchen floor and the large chunk missing from the dining room wall made no impression on him—Molly supposed a six-year-old boy couldn’t be expected to care about anything as trivial as whether or not his house was intact—and he ran straight at her and threw his arms around her.

            “I love you, Molly,” he muttered into her stomach.

            Take that, witch, said Molly silently to the garbage disposal. She knew Alexander loved Aunt Molly, but he’d never hugged her before.

            She put her hands on top of the tiny arms still locked around her waist—too weary to do more. “Alexander, if I ever catch you making googly eyes at enchantresses through the fishbowl again, I’ll stuff you down the garbage disposal.”

            “I love you, Aunt Molly,” he said again, nudging his face deeper into her stomach.

            Adrian and Sarah were very understanding about the hole in their ceiling. They were positively grateful about the dining room wall. They paid for Molly to see a doctor—injuries incurred in the line of duty—and agreed soothingly with her that poetic irony was, after all, somewhat impractical. Some people’s views on topics, when their son has suffered for a good two months from a habit of locking himself in the bathroom every time something scares him and refusing to come out until Molly is gotten on the phone and tells him it’s okay, are apt to shift.

            “You put her down the garbage disposal?” reiterated Sarah, in something between admiration and horror.

            Adrian gave Molly a look of cousinly wariness (mixed, ever so slightly, with approbation). “Of course she did.”

            “You’re welcome,” said Molly.

Character Development in Action Scenes (ft. the City Between, Stressed Moms, & Much the Miller’s Son)

At the beginning of this year of ours, I decided I wanted to devote a post to every book I reread. So…there’s still a post I’ve been aching to write about The Perilous Gard for a long, long time (it’s coming…one of these days, man), there’s a half-written one on Above Suspicion, I might write one about my recently reawakened obsession with C. S. Lewis, but…I’m pretty sure The Wednesday Wars, The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and most of the City Between books are just out of luck.

Between Floors, the subject of this post (sort of), has the honor of being the first reread for which I am actually doing the thing I wanted to do. I thought we should celebrate that fact real quick.

*a moment of silence to celebrate Sarah actually doing what she meant to do nine months ago*

Anyway. Characters. Let’s talk about characters.

So, characters are kind of everything. You know?

(…Actually one of the future C.-S.-Lewis-inspired posts I might write is about how characters are maybe not quite everything like I always thought they were. Whatever. Characters are super important. Especially in novels about The Human Condition, and that’s the point.)

You may have the most charming and unique of ideas, the most scintillating and intellectual of writing styles, the most poetic turn of phrase and cleverest-laid foreshadowing; your pen may ably twist plots into corkscrews and draw settings so vivid one can taste the dust on the road outside the protagonist’s house…in short, you may have the plottiest plot and the prosiest prose (maybe there was a better way to phrase that), and it matters not a whit without good characters. At least that’s my opinion. I can’t tell you how many cool books have been ruined for me by bland characters.

I know this is how it is for a lot of readers. Characters are just kind of everything for us.

Because of this, and because of our resultant frustration with bland characters, we notice Tendencies.

You know, like the tendency of every female character who falls in love to simultaneously let her brains fall out of her head? Or the tendency of all the narrators in a book to somehow sound the same as each other even though they are different people? Parents who are flat stereotypes, lovingly supportive and mind-bogglingly obtuse by turns, because they only exist to be in the kid protagonist’s way? Stuff like that.

Or, my favorite one, the tendency of characters who are decently interesting at the beginning of the book to become more bland and boring the further into the book, and hence the further into the intense stuff, they go.

I don’t know why this happens so often, but it DOES. It drives me a little crazy, to be honest.

I knew that it drove me crazy, but I didn’t exactly know what it was (or at least not how to articulate it) for a long time. I would just be like, “I hope this isn’t one of those books.” I avoided books about the Holocaust, or anything that promised to be equally harrowing, because those were usually those books. Those books were about people in situations so awful (or adventures so intense) that they ceased to be anything like human beings. They were blobs of misery, or grief, or fear. There was nothing to distinguish the girl in the concentration camp from the boy languishing in the fantasy dungeon. They were both terrified, physically miserable, and worried about their families. They had no thoughts or reactions unique to themselves. Their stories became boring.

I love stories that explore the deepest fundamentals of human nature, that ask what humans will do in the most unescapable and appalling circumstances. So why was I bored with so many of the books that purported to do just that?

Time passed and, passing, brought no answers to my burning question.

Then one day I read the newest scene a friend had sent me of his book. I haven’t talked to this friend in a long time, and I don’t think he’s worked on this book in a long time, but I’m going to talk about it a little and sometime in the future when you come across an epic political sci-fi book called “Beta Sun,” do yourself a favor and read it. Anyway, one of the characters in Beta Sun is named Sally, and she’s just a brilliant character. My favorite. Should get all the awards. Outwardly polite but inwardly so very tired and a little too good at sarcasm. Works a regular government office job, has three kids, would just like her husband to get home on time for once. Accidentally stumbles upon secret government stuff in the course of her very not-top-secret government job. Maybe started a war on accident???

I love Sally to death, but anyhow, the scene my friend (we’ll call him Much) sent me featured Sally in a really, really intense situation. It was the type of situation where she figured every second might be her last, because some guy with a gun was behind her telling her what to do and making it very clear that he would shoot her if she didn’t.

The kind of scene, in other words, that I tolerate for the sake of the plot, but am bored by. It’s just not interesting to read about a character being terrified and coerced for ten minutes.

But as I read the scene Much had sent me, I found myself forgetting to critique in the interests of reading as fast as possible to find out what happens and make sure Sally is okay. I found myself, not being bored with Sally and hoping we’d soon be back to the part where she snapped back to her normal self, but loving Sally even more. Admiring her choices and carriage under pressure. Marveling at her unquenchable Sally-ness.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t terrified and powerless. It wasn’t that she wasn’t running worst-case scenarios through her head. It wasn’t that she wasn’t freaking out internally, about herself but also about her KIDS. It was just that…she was doing it all as Sally. Not as a terrified human being, but as, specifically, Sally.

There were critical moments that came up, and in each of them, as a terrified human being she could have responded in several ways. Each time she responded the way Sally would (and I only realized how she would respond after seeing her reaction and realizing how in character it was). Which made me admire her but which also made me admire Much, who was over here accomplishing in a NaNo-written first draft scene what piles of published novels seemed unable to do for me.

He was, in short, giving me a character I loved, putting her through the crucible, and letting me see her character shine through that, purified down to the raw essence of who she is.

Basically, intense scenes should amplify and exhibit character, not overshadow it. This is the truth both of real life and of well-written fiction. (If intense scenes seem to swallow characters whole, that is in real life and at least should be in fiction, an indictment of the character.)

Since reading Much’s scene, I’ve known what it is I want from these books that purport to explore human nature via crisis (and from adventure fiction in general…but at least adventure fiction doesn’t necessarily claim to be good at it, though it often is: Marcus’s character, for example, shines brilliantly at certain key moments of The Eagle of the Ninth), and I’m always happy when I see a good example of pressure amplifying a character.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you now one of the best examples of this I’ve read yet: Between Floors, by W. R. Gingell!

I’ll try and keep this pretty spoiler-free. I don’t promise everything, but no major plot points. Although it is the third book in a series, so I guess it’s spoilers that anybody I mention survives books 1 & 2. Anyhow.

Athelas is missing in Between Floors. Athelas the deferential fae butler who’s probably killed more people than even Zero wants to know about, fastidious drinker of tea, meticulous balancer of emotional accounts, scrupulous warner of Pet not to get attached to her fae (because they will inevitably let her down); polite, untrustworthy, eternally amused Athelas has gone undercover at the police station and got himself captured by Upper Management.

(Upper Management is dodgy cops, basically. Not always human dodgy cops.)

Pet first realizes that Athelas has been kidnapped when she dreams about him. It’s a weird dream, so real that she isn’t sure it isn’t real. She finds Athelas in, shall we say, not a good place and proceeds to try to help him and…okay, I am going to spoil this scene (which happens fairly early in the book), which I’m sorry for, but I can’t talk about it otherwise.

She finds Athelas. He’s not doing well and he needs to be rescued. He, however, doesn’t believe she’s actually Pet; he believes she’s one of his captors, disguised as and trying to act like Pet in order to get information out of him. He tells Pet this, and she’s mostly confused by it.

The ghost of a smile passed over Athelas’s face. “You have a certain knack, don’t you? Such an innocent way of putting your finger on sore spots! I wonder how they knew about that?”

A horrible thought seared my stomach and burned its way up my throat. “Do you mean you’re healing all the time, and those things—those things are—they’re—”

“Always healing, always injured. A really very charming method of torture; something I would deign to use, myself. Did I not say a torturer should know his own equipment? You are unconvincingly ignorant.”

For a couple of minutes, I thought I might actually be sick. I crouched close to the floor with my legs pressing into my stomach and chest, one palm flat against the cold floor, and concentrated on breathing.

When I looked up again, Athelas was still smiling at me with his head in that same, uncomfortable twist; a curious smile that was something more like a smile I was used to seeing from him.

“Yes, that would bother the pet. Shall I tell you some other things that would bother her?”

This scene is so interesting. Because he doesn’t believe she’s really Pet, the things Athelas says to her are double- and triple-layered, stemming from who knows what motive. That’s how everything Athelas says is, anyway, but her being (in his mind) not Pet (while acting and looking like Pet) amplifies it.

He comments acutely on her performance as Pet (“yes, that would bother the pet”) and critiques her when she doesn’t (he thinks, or at least says, because one doesn’t know which) act like the pet (“dear me, are you crying? I’m quite sure she wouldn’t have done that”). It reveals so much about Athelas, how he perceives Pet, and how he thinks about her. Or it would if you could trust anything he says. It still does; you just can’t be certain which parts are revealing and of how much.

Then there’s Pet.

Pet, for the first time, has to face this situation alone. Sure, it’s some sort of dream, but the things in it are real: Athelas is really being held captive and tortured, he is really talking to her in the belief that she’s one of his captors, what she does really affects him, and what he does really affects her. Physically, I mean, and to a degree. And for the first time (and because it’s a dream), she has no Zero to hide behind, hang onto, or (at the very least) call for help.

She makes two major choices. The first is to keep digging until she can figure out how to free him (despite the fact that in this process they are both hurting each other). The second is to free him even after he says he’ll kill her if she does.

She only half believes him. Surely if she rescues him, he’ll realize his mistake. He’ll realize it’s actually her. Surely?

He does not realize this. He kills her.

It’s all very unpleasant, and she wakes up.

She’s alive, so that’s good. What’s not so good is that the next time she falls asleep, she finds herself in the same dream.

What’s even worse is that this keeps happening. (Okay, so I’m not going to spoil how the climax itself ends, but skip down if you don’t want any spoilers, because I really can’t do this without. I’m sorry, I tried, but I can’t.) She finds out a few useful things from Athelas (with difficulty), but she fails utterly to convince him that she’s really Pet or to stop him from killing her. And at the end of the book, she finds herself in a situation where the only way to rescue Athelas is to go through the whole charade again—except now she’s physically here, and if he kills her this time she’ll really die.

Decisions, decisions.

I think, if you think of them holistically, on the large and the small scale, they are the key to this puzzle of mine.

(Decisions are, I mean.)

In Much’s story, Sally is left, at the end of her ordeal, with a choice: she can kill someone (she has the gun; she knows how to use it), or she can drive away and leave him alive, risking the lives of her children.

In Between Floors, at the end of all the dancing in and out of the nightmare, sifting truth from lie and reality from pretense, Pet is left with a choice: she can lay her life on the line for a sneaky tea-drinking psycho whom she doesn’t trust but loves, or she can leave him to suffer and die.

Those choices have, moreover, been built up to by the protagonist’s experience. Throughout Sally’s interaction with the man with the gun, she’s made tiny choices, noticed tiny details, and done subtle but important things – reacted, if only in her thoughts, in subtle but important ways – to build up to this moment when choice is put unequivocally into her hands. Throughout her frustrating encounters with Athelas, Pet has done tiny things (like crouching down and putting her hand on the floor to physically get past the idea that bothers her – curling herself up physically is a Pet thing to do in situations of emotional distress), phrased things in specific ways (like asking Athelas how things are working out for him now – and then being immediately sorry for it), and made observations and trials that stem from her Pet-ness. You couldn’t put another character into Sally’s or Pet’s situation and get the same result. It would feel ridiculous. Sally and Pet, even in the sorts of situations that tend to reduce characters to their basic human desires and fears (and thus smudge the lines of individuality a bit – or a lot), are tangibly themselves.

That’s important. It keeps me interested till we get to the choice, for one thing. For another, it establishes character.

Because, to a character-driven reader, the plot only matters because it happens to the characters. If there is happening but no real sense of she to whom it’s happening, why do I care, exactly?

This is why it also matters that all this buildup does, in fact, build up to a choice. We’ve established the characters. We’ve put them under pressure, to get down to the essential (which remains individual, in the hands of a good writer or, like, God, writing us). We’ve figured out what material they’re made of.

Now we get to see in what shape they are cast. In what shape they will cast themselves, I suppose you could say, here at the forge, pressure on. Because now the choice is theirs.

I won’t spoil, but far-reaching consequences result from each choice, for plot and character alike. (I think there’s a double element to both Sally’s and Pet’s choices. They say vast amounts about who the characters are. But they also determine who the characters are. Before those choices were made, they were not who they became after. I think of life and our own choices like this too. What you choose shows who you are, but it also actively makes you who you are. I dunno if this makes sense; I just like it.)

In books where that choice never comes, the intensity of the ordeal feels like a waste to me.

I get that people in real life go through horrible stuff and don’t have neat little character arcs that pop out at the end of trauma with a bow on top. I am not reading fiction for a one-to-one substitute for real life. I am reading fiction to make sense of real life, to think about its themes and lessons and truths, to make a study of human nature. (Also to have fun, but hush, we gotta sound all philosophical and highbrow here for a sec.)

Since human nature is formed by human choice, your character needs to choose. She’s not a static receptacle into which you stuff trauma; static receptacles into which one stuffs trauma are all distressingly similar in their lack of agency and autonomy and even pliability, aren’t they now? We’re not in the market for static trauma receptacles; we’re in the market for characters. Characters choose; it’s in the definition.

This…isn’t quite as basic as my “actually, main characters are a super important part of a story” epiphany, but I feel like it’s kind of close. But I’ve worried about accidently writing the kind of action scenes I hate, and I’d never put how not to into words for myself before. And it kind of felt revolutionary to me, even though it is so basic.

Like, this is how you make sure your intense scenes are interesting and don’t swallow your characters! You give the characters tiny choices throughout – choices that don’t matter but also do; choices simply of what to say or what gesture they make when they cry, that are very uniquely them – and then you make sure that culminates in a climactic choice. (Not climactic for the story, necessarily: just climactic for the intense episode.) It’s about character decisions, on the large and (this part is important) small scale! I know how to do this now.

Whether I conveyed that knowledge to anyone else, I do not know. Maybe you already knew. Maybe writing blog posts about story elements just helps me get my thoughts in line and my dear, lovely readers are quietly rolling their eyes in fond exasperation: glad Sarah finally figured out paragraphs are made of sentences. Either way, this post made me very happy to conceptualize and write.

Go forth, my dears, and write stories that do not annoy me with characters who are erased by intense action scenes. Write the ones where the action scenes are shaped and colored by vibrant, irreplacable characters.

Or…you know. Write whatever the heck you want.

First Frost

Two days ago, when I went out in the morning, there was frost on the ground. It was most noticeable in the field where the grass had been cut short: tan, yellow, brown stubble was all white and hoary and jeweled.

My two new dogs, a Pyrenees and a Maremma, are both fast-growing puppies with pure white coats. Bilbo (the Maremma, as happy and as fond of his food as you’d expect from the name) was just wagging his tail wildly at me, but Bagheera (the Pyrenees) came trotting silently toward me over the frost-whitened field, and she didn’t look very dog-like: more like a white creature native to the ground she was trotting over, silent and inhuman in her frosted world. (Dogs, you know, are normally very human.)

When Bagheera first started to grow to really astonishing lengths, it was her body lengthening, but now it’s her legs. They’re as long and white and slender (and smooth) as bleached deer-bones, and straight. Even without the frost, sometimes I see them carrying her and feel unsettled in my mind for a moment, as if she’s not an earthly creature.

This is all very hard to explain.

First frost was two mornings ago. I picked the last tomatoes out of the garden. As the sun came up, casting further back over the field, the frost melted, and the grey kingdom shrank and vanished. Yesterday I went to the lake. It’s all white gulls and black ducks again; I think I saw the last pelican circling before it left. It’s warm enough to be hot during the day, and there’s been no more frost—though my youngest sister is already making plans for Christmas.

But I marked the coming of first frost and, feeling E.-B.-White-ish about it, wrote this post.

Books for Autumn

It is October, darlings. Bright blue weather and foreign winds sweep through the fields, white pelican birds with black under-wings break their journey for a few weeks on the lake, darkness falls earlier and earlier, and the fairy-grasses (what are these actually called?) turn deep purple and seem, in the early morning when they’re laced with dew, to be the only things left growing.

It is sweater weather, bonfire weather, adventuring weather. It is reading weather.

There are several books I really want to read this fall (you know, for the vibes). Some are new; some are rereads. Whether I will actually read a single one of them remains to be seen. But I am filled with the need to bask in autumn vibes, and talking about these books definitely does that.

The Perilous Gard

I randomly get urges to reread this at all seasons of the year, but especially November. You’d think it’d be October, when the book takes place, but no, it’s November. Possibly because of how cold and chilly it all is, up north in a secluded castle in Derbyshire.

It’s also autumnal because of Halloween. This isn’t a fun story about Halloween—pranks or ghosts or even kids being stupid. No, I mean like original Halloween stuff. Human sacrifice.

Also one very stubborn young woman who does not plan on letting this happen if she can help it—but can she?

She’s delightfully skeptical. She’ll figure out the rational explanation for all this if it kills her. And if it takes thinking of the ballad Tam Lin as a garbled account of real history or listening patiently to the ramblings of a half-mad minstrel (I love Randal by the way) or following the oak leaves out to a tree that is alarmingly bare of leaves, she will rescue her true love from the Queen’s plans for him.

This book is spare, elegant, thoughtful, and frightening in a much subtler way than a book about any sort of monsters but humans themselves could be.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I just feel like this ought to be read in November.

I am a fan of Oscar Wilde, this was his one novel, novels are my favorite literary form, and I finally decided I did want to read it after spending many years of my life not sure it was worth it, so why not this November?

The Scorpio Races

What is more autumnal than man-eating horses and a healthy dose of loneliness?

Well, cold beaches, I suppose, and a hungry ocean. Festivals, November cakes, really really hoping your cat’s gonna be okay.

I like this book for Finn, but also for George Holly (the chipper American, out of place among all these close-mouthed, thrifty islanders—but they’re fond of him and he’s fond of them, because he’s a good sort and he wears red shoes), but also for Puck and Sean and Thisby itself.

This book feels exactly like a certain type of October. It reminds me of days when it’s not too cold, and you go out, and the woods are bright and bare but the fields are pale and the wind soft: and no noise you hear is as loud as the silence; and it comes to you that your whole life is simply one of the noises and never touches this silence. The silence is always there; you are just rarely aware of it.

I like that, but also, I admit, I just like horses.

Beowulf

The fall-ness of this one seems self-explanatory to me. Monsters coming into the hall at night. Heroes roaming out into the fen in quest of said monsters. Feasting. Fear. The joy of battle. Removal of arms and display thereof in public places. Good stuff.

Boys of Blur

It’s a Beowulf story, you see. Maybe not quite a retelling, but close. It’s more of an early fall (or even late summer) story, but oh well. I read it recently, and I’ve been wanting to reread it to see if I’ll appreciate it a bit more the second time around.

There’s football (so, fall) and family (good, bad, crazy, found, and otherwise), and Grendel’s mother living deep deep in the muck beneath the sugarcane fields, drawing life from death and eternity from a spring. There is envy like a deadly poison and graves standing empty that should not be empty. And three scared boys. (Who are not safe from envy’s poison either.)

The Lantern Bearers

It’s fall, so what could be more apropos than a book about the fall of a civilization?

I don’t know if this book is actually autumnal (I really don’t know what it’s about except a soldier who remains behind in Britain when the last Roman company pulls out, I think?), but in my head it is, and so I want to read it. My mom says it’s really, really sad. It’s Rosemary Sutcliff, so I believe her.

…Come to think of it, Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing has always given me autumn vibes. The muted colors, blazingly brilliant yet touched with frost, and whatnot. The sudden flick of pen or phrase (like the sudden flick of breeze or falling leaf) that chills you with nameless sadness where a moment ago you were smiling in deep summer content.

The Hobbit

Although Bilbo’s journey takes a year, I associate it immutably with fall.

It just…is so autumnal. The Elves singing in Rivendell, and the emergence into the cold but free and sunlit Wildlands on the other side of the Misty Mountains, and the spiders in Mirkwood, and the dragon soaring in fire and ruin from the lonely mountain to the town on the edge of the lake, and the treasure, and the battle, and the Eagles, and Bjorn—doesn’t it all just scream sweaters and flannel and pumpkin spice lattes?

I’ve been aching to reread The Hobbit for a while. Now that autumn is here, the time is ripe.

I also will probably want to reread The Lord of the Rings after I reread The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally autumnal work too. I feel very Bilbo-ish every fall, but when I get the urge to read The Lord of the Rings is always spring, for some reason. Also The Lord of the Rings is long, so we’ll see.

This fall I also intend to memorize “When the Frost Is on the Punkin.” I memorized it halfway last fall and never finished for some reason, but I’m going to try and have it by my dad’s birthday (in November) and recite it for him. I know this sounds like something you’d do for your dad’s birthday when you’re six, but though I have progressed past the age of six, my dad on the contrary has not progressed past his fondness for hearing poetry recited. Especially poetry he really likes, and “When the Frost Is on the Punkin” is one of his favorites. (One of mine too. It is autumn-in-the-country incarnate.)

I would also like to rewatch Penelope with my sisters and give Over the Garden Wall a try.

So those are my literary plans for fall! Now it hardly matters if I carry them out, since I’ve blogged about it and the fall aesthetic has been served. Hope you guys are cozy! If you have fall book recs (or otherwise need me), I will be curled up with a London Fog and a good book, watching the leaves fall.

A Tolkien Tag

Well, folks, it’s Tolkien Blog Party week, and that means celebratory dancing and feasting amongst the Boffins, Bracegirdles, Hornblowers, and Proudfoots (ProudFEET!). I am once again insanely busy this week (it’s always the weeks I want to blog that I can’t), so I have once again not written that Meriadoc Brandybuck Appreciation Post I’ve been meaning to write for years. But Hamlette, who is hosting all this hobbity goodness over at The Edge of the Precipice, has a Tolkien-related tag, and I can at least fill that out!

Who first introduced you to Middle-earth?

That would be my dearly beloved aunt. I cannot remember when I first knew that she was a Lord of the Rings fan, because I always knew it. That is My Aunt, who reads Lord of the Rings and murder mysteries and always gives me wintergreen flavor Lifesavers. I remember being a little kid, flopped stomach-down on her bed, peering at the cover of the book she was reading, and asking, “What’s that?”

She told me it was Lord of the Rings, one of her favorite books. Which I knew already because I had eyes and a working memory. I told her I meant what was it about. I think she said it was too hard to explain and I’d read it one day for myself.

So I levered myself up on my elbows and peered down at the pages. In my upside-down reading I gleaned something about giant spiders, soldiers with weird names, and a tower. “Spiders,” I said, with an emotion that was not admiration.

My aunt explained to me that there were giant spiders in the book. I did not see the point of this. She amended that it was one (1) giant spider, singular. I did not see that this made a noticeable difference in the inadvisability of the situation. She liked this book?

My aunt explained that it was a very good book and this was just an intense part. The hobbits—

“Hobbits.” Worse and worse! I didn’t even recognize the name of this (likely nasty) bug!

My aunt tried to explain hobbits to me. Without noted success. At least they weren’t bugs. They were being chased by the spiders. And by the soldiers with weird names. And they were carrying a ring and that was important for some reason.

I flopped myself back off the bed and went to find some other way to alleviate my boredom.

The Christmas that I was twelve (…it might have been eleven, now that I think about it), we spent it at my grandfather’s house. We generally did this. My aunt, as usual, brought books to entertain herself in between cooking the turkey and the pumpkin chiffon pie, and one of these was The Hobbit. She’d never read The Hobbit. Tried, never gotten through it. Since Lord of the Rings was her favorite book, this hardly seemed right. A quiet Christmas holiday seemed the perfect time to right this wrong.

Ah, but she reckoned without me. For I looked upon the cover and thought it looked like an interesting book. An innocent enough beginning, but it did not end there. Oh no—for I opened to the first chapter. And I read it. I did not find it particularly interesting, but I had nothing else to do, so I read the second chapter.

Very little of the world outside Middle-earth existed for me for the next three days.

The next fall, my mom and I watched the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring in small snatches at lunchtime on Tuesdays while my little sisters were at co-op. A few months after that I checked out the three volumes (all different editions) of The Lord of the Rings from the library. I was fortunate enough to get sick after doing this, and I spent six days lying in bed reading blissfully.

It is the hardest I have ever fallen for a book, I think. Even The Silmarillion, following soon after, enchanted me with its remote and mythic sadness in a way no other story had—and I was a passionate lover of such tales as those of Roland and Oliver, Beowulf, Cu Chulainn, the Norse gods.

Many thanks to my mom and my aunt, the best friends a little bookworm could have.

Has your love of Middle-earth affected your life?

It depends what you mean by that. Have I ever made friends or had new and exciting experiences directly because of my love of Middle-earth? No. (Though there was that one time I hammered out Elrond’s exact percentage of elf-to-human blood with a relative stranger in IHOP at 1 a.m….)

Has it affected how I think about things? My taste in literature? My philosophy of story? The way I write? Yes.

It’s led to fun times hanging out with my mom. And arguing with my aunt over what makes something “fantasy”—her liking Lord of the Rings and disliking fantasy doesn’t mean it isn’t fantasy. Magic rings and wizards and elves, anyone? (My aunt: “Yes, but—*stops, perplexed*”)

It’s led to me being one-sixth accepted into the brotherhood of nerds when I did robotics—I had at least seen Fellowship, although I hadn’t seen Two Towers or Return of the King or any of the original Star Wars trilogy.

It’s led to me being told, far too many times, how much I look like Legolas.

Or “that elf from those movies your mom likes,” as my dad puts it.

Have you ever dressed up like a Tolkien character?

No. Unless there’s a Tolkien character who goes around in hoodies and skinny jeans all the time that I’m forgetting.

What people in your real life would you want in your company if you had to take the Ring to Mordor?

Ooh, I like this question! Nine of ’em?

  • My sister Palestrina // good in a crisis, knows martial arts, we work well together, suffers from the kind of steely determination that makes Sherlock Holmes look weak-willed
  • Palestrina’s friend Patrick Mahomes // not the football player, just looks exactly like him; works out; EMT and currently in paramedic school; super smart; also kind, observant, and fun to hang out with
  • Palestrina’s other friend (also mine) Zwingli // super short and cheerful, definite hobbit vibes, can fix things, surprisingly strong, kind of a protective person in a good way if you’re walking down the dark alleys of a sketchy city or Mordor
  • my dad // can fix anything, boundless energy, strong, very good humble person so we don’t gotta worry about Boromir shenanigans
  • my friend H // matches Palestrina on the steely determination scale, went camping one time for two weeks with her and Palestrina and we conquered ALL OBSTACLES, eternally and determinedly cheerful, can shoot a bow, ran cross country
  • Gun Husband Man // custom-builds his own guns, repurposes his own ammo, single-handedly keeps his fridge stocked with venison chili, has very good aim (terrifyingly good), is generally a Large Strong Man who would Come In Handy
  • Best Old Lady Friend // you’d understand if you met her. Don’t mess with old fashioned Missouri grandmas, not the real genuine articles anyhow
  • my friend M // studies far far too much true crime, would therefore know what the bad guys were gonna do long before they did it, hates humanity and would be a nice antidote to the others’ cheerfulness
  • Helicopter Pilot Guy // met him at a gun range one time, bandaged my hand for me which was super nice, did it effectively which was even nicer, seems smart and therefore useful

What Middle-earth location would you most like to visit?

Rohan, I think. It’s my favorite. I’d get to meet Eomer and Eowyn, who are also my favorite, and then I could visit Fangorn too, because it’s right on the border and might as well be counted as the same place. I need some Ents in my life. Horselords and rolling plains and remote hills full of secret stone paths and sung alliterative poetry also make a good addition to one’s life.

Are there any secondary characters you think deserve more attention?

Heaps. Beregond is fantastic and I love him, Eomer is one of my favorites and needs more love, technically Treebeard also doesn’t get as much love as he deserves, I’ve wanted to write a post for years about Merry because I feel like he gets so much less love than the other three main hobbits and he’s my favorite, and that’s just in The Lord of the Rings. In The Silmarillion, Maedhros is my favorite character. He’s so good—I mean as a character, not as a moral example—and honestly almost every character in The Silmarillion is underrated. Even Galadriel. Galadriel from beginning of Silmarillion to end of Return of the King is such a cool character with such a cool arc. Fingolfin! Hurin I also like a lot. (Bitterness is such an endearing character trait, you know?) Ungoliant? How about Ungoliant? Super underrated villainess. And in The Hobbit, can we get a standing ovation for Bard? Because the fellow’s simply fantastic. (Bjorn is also so, so cool, and almost none of his coolness makes it into the book…even though it did somehow, because you do know, from reading the book, that he’s cool.)

Also there needs to be an Appreciation Week solely for Farmer Giles’s gray mare, of Farmer Giles of Ham.

Would you rather attend Faramir’s wedding or Samwise’s wedding?

Sam’s wedding seems like to involve far more country cooking and country dancing. I would like both, please.

Faramir’s wedding might be awesome, though. Sort of a once-in-a-lifetime event. Only chance to survey the wonders of Gondor’s great city as an anonymous face in the crowd. Pomp and ceremony and splendor. Ancient traditions. Beautifulness in general.

I’ll still go to Sam’s wedding. Then I can talk to Merry, and be comfortable, and dance.

How many books by J. R. R. Tolkien have you read?

Hmm, I’m going to interpret “book” as “work” and make a list here:

  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Silmarillion
  • The Children of Hurin
  • Roverandom
  • Farmer Giles of Ham
  • Smith of Wootton Major
  • Leaf by Niggle
  • On Fairy-Stories
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
  • a good chunk of his letters that I spent far too long looking through in the library one time…?

So that makes ten, really. Eleven if you count Mythopoeia. The only one I still mean to read that I haven’t yet is his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

I love literally every single one of his things I’ve read, too, except Leaf by Niggle. “Love” might be slightly strong for The Children of Hurin (so. sad.) and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (fun? pretty? but not much more), but even those I really like and am happy to own.

Are there any books about Middle-earth or Professor Tolkien (but not written by him) that you recommend?

I haven’t read any, so no, I fear not. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War sounds interesting, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ve heard good things about Joseph Pearce’s Bilbo’s Journey and Frodo’s Journey.

But I am not into those kinds of books, myself, so I have never read them.

List up to ten of your favorite lines/quotations from the Middle-earth books and/or movies.

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And many that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

———

“I remember it was long ago—in the time of the war between Sauron and the Men of the Sea—desire came over me to see Fimbrethil again. Very fair she was still in my eyes, when I had last seen her, though little like the Entmaiden of old. For the Entwives were bent and browned by their labour; their hair parched by the sun to the hue of ripe corn and their cheeks like red apples. Yet their eyes were still the eyes of our own people. We crossed over Anduin and came to their land; but we found a desert: it was all burned and uprooted, for war had passed over it. But the Entwives were not there. Long we called, and long we searched; and we asked all folk that we met which way the Entwives had gone. Some said they had never seen them; and some said that they had seen them walking away west, and some said east, and others south. But nowhere that we went could we find them. Our sorrow was very great. Yet the wild wood called, and we returned to it. For many years we used to go out every now and again and look for the Entwives, walking far and wide and calling them by their beautiful names. But as time passed we went more seldom and wandered less far. And now the Entwives are only a memory for us, and our beards are long and grey.”

———

“Almost felt you liked the Forest! That’s good! That’s uncommonly kind of you,” said a strange voice. “Turn round and let me have a look at your faces. I almost feel that I dislike you both, but do not let us be hasty.”

———

“I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

———

“As for myself,” said Eomer, “I have little knowledge of these deep matters; but I need it not. This I know, and it is enough, that as my friend Aragorn succoured me and my people, so I will aid him when he calls. I will go.”

———

Frodo bowed low. “I am answered,” he said, “and I place myself at your service, if that is of any worth to one so high and honorable.”

“It is of great worth,” said Faramir.

———

Yet it is told among the Eldar that the Valar endeavoured ever, in despite of Melkor, to rule the Earth and to prepare it for the coming of the Firstborn; and they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hollowed and Melkor spilled them; and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it. And yet their labour was not all in vain; and though nowhere and in no work was their will and purpose wholly fulfilled, and all things were in hue and shape other than the Valar had at first intended, slowly nonetheless the Earth was fashioned and made firm. And thus was the habitation of the Children of Iluvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.

———

“You’ll live to regret it, young fellow! Why didn’t you go too? You don’t belong here; you’re no Baggins—you—you’re a Brandybuck!”

“Did you hear that, Merry? That was an insult, if you like,” said Frodo as he shut the door on her.

“It was a compliment,” said Merry Brandybuck, “and so, of course, not true.”

———

“But it is said: Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. The choice is yours: to go or wait.”

“And it is also said,” answered Frodo: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.

“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.”

I Finished a Book! ft.: Jennifer & Fred snippets (and a bit of music)

So, I finished the first draft of my novel the other day. Pretty cool feeling, too bad it only comes once every two years.

…In my defense, there was a good chunk of those two years I also spent working on ANNA. ANNA has been my project for a long time (like, eight years? or so?), and while I’ve definitely made progress, at this point I’m just like, “Eh, I’ll finish it one of these days! No point tossing my hat over the fence!” But I can’t stop myself from periodically working on it, which means, apparently, that I take two years to write a first draft.

At any rate, it’s better than last time. I think when I finished The Dream-Peddler, I hadn’t finished a novel in five years? The rate I’m speeding up, next book will take less than a single year. It’ll be like I’m eleven again, guys!

So, this first draft I’ve finished. I talked about it once before, when I’d just started it. You can read that post if you want (it’ll talk about stuff like where I got the idea and all that), but this post is where we celebrate because I finished.

I’ll tell you what the book’s about, though. It’s a slice-of-life historical fiction set in 1967 in a small town in Arkansas (it’s based on a specific town, actually, but its name will remain undisclosed, and I still need to do some more research to really make the setting authentic, if I’m quite honest with myself), and it involves baseball, cousins, too many strong-minded women all living in one house, Simon & Garfunkel (and other good music), and plenty of Southern Baptist cooking. There’s also a sardonic fellow named Fred: he’s from the big city (Little Rock, y’know, it’s such a big city), he just got back from Vietnam (not that he mentions this…at all), and he’s grown fonder than he bargained on of several of the aforementioned cousins and/or strong-minded women. Think Okay for Now, but Southern and the narrator’s a nineteen-year-old named Jennifer who reads too much.

Also it’s not as good as Okay for Now, but do not hold me to impossible standards, okay.

I can’t tell you how many words or pages it is, because Microsoft Word refuses to tell me this information for stories that still reside exclusively in the cursive-littered pages of my blue spiral-bound notebooks. Rude, I call that.

I also can’t tell you its title. I call if Jennifer & Fred, for obvious reasons.

Anyway, amidst busyness and life changes and fractured attention spans, what got this book written?

Dear friend, I’m glad you asked. The answer is: music.

Music is (obviously?) a central element of the story. Not (for once in a story written by me) in the sense that the characters are musicians of one sort or another (though Frances does sing), but simply in the sense that the enjoyment of music is a thing. Nothing beats making music yourself, but I do in fact sometimes just…listen and enjoy. And so, I can now say, do my characters!

Jennifer is not a musician (she sings adequately), but music is still a big deal to her. Specifically the music, in the story, of Simon & Garfunkel.

I’m gonna write a post on Simon & Garfunkel sometime. I am. I have my title and everything. Just you wait.

But for now, all I’ll say is that Simon & Garfunkel is my favorite musical group to have ever existed. Bar none. I’m sorry, Vivaldi, I am, but them’s the facts.

So, naturally, because I love them and because they featured in the story, Simon & Garfunkel was listened to during the writing process. I think I listened the most to the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album—slightly anachronistic since it didn’t come out till 1970–but I also listened to the “Sounds of Silence” album (the one Fred owns) and “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.” “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme” felt particularly appropriate, perhaps because of its anti-war bookends, or “The Dangling Conversation,” or just the fact that there’s so much cooking in the book.

Now, normally I don’t listen to music while I write. I don’t really understand how people do, honestly. It’s only a distraction. Either I am writing or I am reading or I am watching a show or I am listening to a piece of music. I can’t do multiple of them at once, unless I want to do both badly.

But for the two weeks before I finished, I stayed up late almost every single night to work on Jennifer & Fred. And for the three days before I finished it, I wrote almost the entire day. The day before I finished it, I started writing at 4 in the evening and didn’t put down my pen and tumble into bed till 1. When I got up at 7, I fed the animals (forgot about myself), started writing at 8, and threw my pen down with great joy at 5:30 p.m. because, at last, I had finished.

This leads me to the interesting fact that I think you get better at writing by practicing. I don’t mean this in quite as obvious a way as it sounds like I do: I mean I was writing for three and then four and then five hours at a time, and it was hard, but I wanted to finish so I kept going. And then I was able to write for, practically, two days and a night and day straight, and there’s no way I would’ve pulled that off if I’d just tried to do it off the bat.

It’s hard for me to give myself grace when I don’t write as much as I wanted to, or take advantage of the time I have. But if I at least take advantage of some of the time, if I at least push through some of the difficulty and write longer than I would have if I’d given up…I will get to where I want to be. I will stop taking six years to finish a book. I will be able to make noticeable progress in my writing. It’s hard, but doable, if I expect the right amount of myself at the right pace.

Just putting that out there for anyone who ever feels the same way.

Anyway, the other thing I wanted to say about all that extra writing is that it was hard, and sometimes I resorted to music to keep myself going.

And for some reason it worked.

The music, more even than Simon & Garfunkel, that got me through those last few days of writing was none other than an album I’d never listened to before from a band I’d never listened to before: Ghost of a King, by the Gray Havens.

I heard a snippet of the titular song recently and it made me look up the album, which I then proceeded to listen to on repeat while I wrote a story about kids playing baseball in the 1960s.

I don’t know, guys, but it worked.

I’ve always avoided the Gray Havens, because I like folk music, but I listened to an Arcadian Wild song once (yes, I should give them another shot) and didn’t like it and decided that’s not the kind of folk music I like. I like real folk music, and modern people writing music in what’s considered a folk style are Not Good At It. It thus logically followed that the Gray Havens was not worth listening to.

(Jennifer & Fred, smirking happily in finished-manuscript form, begs to differ.)

Well, I’m not sure the Gray Havens – at least not this album – sound all that folksy. I’m not sure if I like their style or not. (I have recently realized, thanks to a question asked of me, that I really don’t know what my musical style is. I know lots of things I like and lots of things I don’t like and there are not a lot of unblurred genre-lines to be had there.) The point is, though, that though I’m not sure what I’ll think when the first blush of grateful enthusiasm has worn off, I really liked this album.

A couple stand-out tracks:

Ghost of a King – it’s just kind of beautiful. Upbeat enough to be interesting. And where it went surprised me. So I followed the ghost of a king/With every step I tried/To see beyond/For a trace of the riverside, but restlessness/Was my prize

Ghost in the Valley – this is possibly my favorite track off the album. Short and sweet. Perfect for one of my characters. I don’t really know why I love it so much, I just do. The valley/Came bursting into bloom

This My Soul – okay, I always wondered why, when there are so many aesthetically beautiful aspects to Christianity, when fairy-tales can do it indirectly, why can’t songwriters write Christian songs that are poetry? This song sounds like poetry, not like doctrinal cliches squeezed into rhyme. The music is also perfect for the lyrics. Light and dark – the grief and the loss with the joy and the hope (and the parallelism, which, though I’ve heard it before in many and many a sermon on Romans 5, is cool and different to see in a song) – are perfectly balanced. I really love it. Then man from the dust came reflecting/All goodness and beauty and life/But he lowered his gaze as he listened to the face/Of low desires

….okay, I was going to do only three, but I have to mention Diamonds and Gold because it’s just a JAM.

A list of other songs that were important in the making of this book:

The Sound of Silence – because it’s Jennifer’s intro to Simon & Garfunkel, like it was mine. (I’ve linked the acoustic version from “Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.” because it’s my favorite, but the version in the story is technically the full-band version from the later “Sounds of Silence” album.) “Fools,” said I, “you do not know/Silence like a cancer grows/Hear my words that I might teach you/Take my arms that I might reach you”/But my words/Like silent raindrops fell/And echoed/In wells of silence

The Village Green Preservation Society – because it’s basically Jennifer’s family’s theme song, whether they know it or not. God save strawberry jam/In all the different varieties

Save the Life of My Child – because I listened to this one a lot. It wasn’t released yet in 1967, I’m pretty sure, but its Themes are Relevant, Don’t You Know. Also it’s just sonically cool. “Save the life of my child!”/Cried the desperate mother/”What’s becoming of the children?”/People asking each other

And lastly I have to include the yet-again-anachronistic Graceland, because Jennifer is a self-insert in certain ways and that song is…relevant, not sure how else to put it.

Okay. Now that the self-indulgent prattling and music is out of the way, we can get on to the self-indulgent snippets. I hope you guys enjoy this post? But it’s fine if you don’t. It’s kind of a mess, and I just needed to share my excitement.

Snippet #1:

I looked at her, consideringly. Sometimes, I thought, perhaps Frances’s beauty – the boldness of her eyes, the fierce red sweep of her hair, the golden creamy tan of her skin – was a disadvantage. You did not feel sorry for beauty like that.

Snippet #2:

It was raining, cold January rain, when I walked to the bus stop to pick up Aaron. I had got absorbed in a drawing and, looking up at the clock, realized I’d be late if I didn’t leave immediately. Up I jumped; on went winter coat; on went, after a glance out the front window, galoshes and raincoat. The cat came twining about my ankles. I bent swiftly to pet him. “Sorry, old boy, I haven’t got time to pay attention to you right now. You don’t happen to know where an umbrella has got off to?”

He mewed in a manner that suggested he considered my excuse insufficient and my question frivolous.

Snippet #3:

I looked back at him. Too well I recognized the awkward set of his shoulders, the veiled misery in his eyes as he gazed without hope on the scene where battle was to be joined.

(I like this sentence because it’s about turning away from the potluck table with your plate filled and trying to decide where to sit. The most accurate sentence I have ever written.)

Snippet #4:

Frances wanted us in our church clothes. I, however, did not want to wear my church clothes. I changed quickly into a yellow dress – undoubtedly far too casual for Sunday company in Aunt Mary Jamesina’s day, but this, I reminded the phantom of Frances in my mirror, was not Aunt Mary Jamesina’s day any more, now was it? It was quite a nice dress, maybe almost good enough for church if you were truly newfangled. Which we were not, but this wasn’t church either, now was it, Frances? And in the right light, at the right angle, if Frances wasn’t in the room for comparison, it made me look rather pretty. (Not that that mattered. Also Frances was going to be in the room. Also who was I trying to impress? Surely not Mr. Busse, already my good friend and Cora’s devoted slave; or Mrs. Busse, the kindest lady in the state of Arkansas; or – heavens – the saturnine nephew from Little Rock? “Just self-respect and natural pleasure in a neat appearance,” I said to the mirror, giving my ponytail a final tug.)

Snippet #5:

We waded up the aisle and outside, where we waved hello to multiple acquaintances, glowing in Sunday finery. I looked down at Aaron; he didn’t look bad, himself. He’d finally acclimated to wearing a suit. The sun shone on his tawny hair, brushed neatly away from his face; his countenance was clean; and the scuffs on his shoes had been newly disguised with boot-black. “You just may grow up to be a credit to the family,” I said to him.

He grinned up at me.

“When we get home,” I said as we walked down the street, bright with spring sun and gloriously almost-hot on my bare arms, “you and I, Aaron, are going to make sandwiches for everyone. Then we’re going to eat ours. Then we’re going to clean out the old spare room.”

“Okay,” said Aaron, not unwillingly. “Will you throw with me some?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’ll take a break and do that.”

Spring cleaning and baseball, I thought. Spring had gotten into my blood as wildly as ever it had gotten into the Mole’s, and the reason why was not to be sought for in this earth – presumably. What earthly thing could inspire one with a passion to wield a duster, or the desire to fling one’s arms in the air (at the mature age of nineteen) and whoop and holler?

Snippet #6:

“Well, Miss Jennifer,” he said. “How have you been since I saw you last?”

Technically, when he saw me last, I had been asking forgiveness for breaking his kitchen window, on behalf of Tommy, Stuart, Raf, and Marcie as well as myself. The boys wouldn’t admit they were scared; they said he’d be nicer if I went, because I was a girl. Marcie was more honest and had advocated running away. I remembered the trouble in Tommy’s face when she said that, staunch and worried beneath his baseball cap, and smiled. He probably would have gone if I hadn’t, his sense of honor being what it was. It was not quite finicky enough to prevent his allowing me to beard the lion for him, however.

“A model young woman,” I answered firmly. “Only I’ve taken up baseball again, so – you’d better enjoy it while it lasts.”

Snippet #7:

“Well, if you’re not going to be our coach – ” said Hank.

“Thought you wanted me to pitch.” Max dropped the baseball he was holding and caught it again in the same hand, a bored, practiced motion.

“You could do both – “

“Thanks, no.” Someone else would have laughed derisively, but for Max it was a smile instead – quiet and self-assured; it stayed out of his voice, so you’d miss if it you weren’t looking at his face – and the expression of his eyes, though hard enough, was certainly not derisive.

Snippet #8:

You didn’t know who Figaro was!” I pointed out.

“Why should I? A man who sings in Italian!”

Oh!” Frances and I gasped in unison. “Where is your taste?” I demanded.

“Don’t let her give you a hard time,” said Frances. “She doesn’t go in for anything exciting. I played ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ for her once, and then she put on a Bach two-part invention and said she liked it better!”

“I do,” I smiled.

“If it was a cantata – but an invention!”

“It’s so complex, though,” I said. “You can’t unweave the parts; they’re – they’re – I love listening to it.”

“The most basic sort of fugue. The most boring – “

“The most interesting,” I corrected. “It’s a fugue. That is the most interesting.”

“And Haydn,” said Frances. “What heathen prefers Haydn to Beethoven?”

Snippet #9:

He trotted after me. “I don’t get to steal bases?”

“Don’t be greedy, Vincent.”

Though he was behind me, I felt him grin.

Snippet #10:

“You missed supper,” said Fred, coming a few steps forward. “Frances is at the school, making sure you and Mrs. Hazlett aren’t locked in mortal combat while Aaron, whose grades launched a thousand ships, sits by. After dashing around town for a while like an idiot, I remembered you’d once said something about Andersen Park. Cora told me where it was. I didn’t remember anything about a whole baseball team, though.” And he looked around curiously.

I noticed, when flipping through for snippets, how very much of this story is composed of play-by-play narration of baseball games and practices. We’ll see how much of that stays in, since a transcript of a baseball game does not a story make. For now…I finished a book. And I’m just a little bit pleased about it.

Summer Reading in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two

Summer is not really gone yet, probably, but the walnut trees out in the front pasture are shivering free of a little swirl of yellow leaves every time a slight breeze blows, and we haven’t had a 100-degree day in at least two weeks. The horse flies are still terrible, and it doesn’t exactly feel like autumn in the air—but it feels like autumn’s coming.

Even Susie, who’s a Very Old Dog these days, perks up and wants to go trotting up-pasture by herself when the evening cool hits.

With the change of seasons, I bring you reviews (of a sort) of the books I read this summer.

Doomsday Book

connie willis

(In which Kivrin, a medieval history undergraduate at Oxford, wants to time-travel like all the Twentieth-Century historians do. Mr. Dunworthy is very extra sure that this is a terrible no good very bad idea, but Kivrin does it anyway.)

Goodness:

  • I hadn’t realized just how badly I wanted to read historical fiction about medieval people.
  • Especially historical fiction that doesn’t romanticize or infantilize medieval people, because when it comes down to it they’re just people.
  • Like you don’t understand how hard this hits me in the wish fulfilment!!! I want to be able to do what Kivrin did!!! It’s my eternal heartbreak as a student of history, exacerbated the further back you go in history, that I can’t!!!
  • Mr. Dunworthy is a dear delight. Just a dear, you guys. (Except when he’s not…but mostly he is.)
  • Colin is also a dear delight. Twelve-year-olds in fiction are often very poorly written. Colin was not. Colin was wonderful.
  • Connie Willis’s prose works so well for me. It’s this close third person that slips effortlessly into (still grammatically correct) stream-of-consciousness.
  • Also the metaphors, guys. Not on a prose level, on a symbols-in-the-plot level.
  • It made me happy that Mary was just. A competent, thoughtful person who quietly did helpful things that continued to be helpful down the line and…she was a dear.
  • Finally, FATHER ROCHE. This character is…kind of a triumph. I don’t know why it’s so hard to write a good, gentle character who’s utterly lovable instead of utterly boring, but Connie Willis did and it was beautiful. Also it’s hard to write a faithful Christian when you’re not yourself a Christian (judging from how very many bad examples I’ve seen of this, anyhow…), but Father Roche’s faith isn’t mocked or even shown as a weakness or necessarily wrong? and it was balm to my heart.

Not-so-goodness:

  • There was a lot of well-used parallelism, but a few of the metaphors and comparisons ended up feeling a little too forced.
  • The one that got me the most was Mr. Dunworthy comparing Kivrin to Jesus and himself to…God the Father? I guess? It came so out of nowhere and was such a weird comparison if you thought it through.
  • Also, y’know, not compatible with Christian theology. which isn’t really my issue, nobody says Mr. Dunworthy has to be a professing Christian, but it’s worth mentioning because it was weird.

Overall:

Probably the only time travel book I will ever unequivocally love. (I mean…okay. To Say Nothing of the Dog. But I still have quibbles with the time travel there.) I don’t know if I’ll reread it, but I’m so glad I read it once.

The Wanderer

sharon creech

(In which Sophie, her cousin Cody, her other cousin whose name is like idk Brian or something, and several of their uncles sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a boat that’s…probably? seaworthy? hopefully? maybe?)

Goodness:

  • The ocean
  • Sailboats
  • Especially old sailboats that need a little fixin’ up (I have one of these)
  • COUSINS
  • Did I mention the OCEAN
  • Did I mention they SAIL ACROSS THE OCEAN
  • It’s terrifying and glorious
  • Unreliable narrators are my jam, sometimes
  • Family. Blood and otherwise. It is a beautiful thing.
  • (Bompie’s stories <3)

Not-so-goodness:

  • I…don’t know. There were probably some things I didn’t like, but I don’t remember them.

Overall:

There are gorgeous little kids’ books about family and stories and trauma, and then there are gorgeous little kids’ books about family and stories and trauma that involve SAILING. When forced to choose, always choose the latter. The success with which this book captured much of the unquantifiable magic of sailing made my little sailor’s heart very happy.

The City Between (books 1-10)

w. r. gingell

(In which two fae and a vampire adopt a human pet, Detective Tuatu your friendly neighborhood stressed-out cop doesn’t think this is okay at all, and there’s an old mad bloke in a holey T-shirt who pinches people’s drinks. The pet herself, narrating for us in cheeky Australian slang, just wants her house. That’s all. She just wants her house.)

Goodness:

  • Ah heck. There’s no way I can list all the things I loved about this series.
  • I’m rereading and first of all the FORESHADOWING. the DOUBLE MEANINGS. the CHARACTER SEEDS PLANTED.
  • There is weirdness but it’s not supposed to be not weird?
  • Character development, the most organic and beautiful to watch (especially Pet, but all of them)
  • Between Floors
  • Pet
  • Pet and JinYeong annoying the crap out of each other
  • Pet forcing her psychos to accept hugs
  • Zero being Zero
  • Athelas drinking tea and being sneaky
  • Also Athelas’s shadow, which is just a little darker than a shadow ought to be
  • Detective Tuatu and how normal and stressed he is and how he’s just a solid human being
  • Morgana
  • Also Daniel, the grumpy dad friend
  • Upper Managment as villains
  • The Family as villains, especially Lord Sero with the little truth-worm thing, it’s terrifying
  • North Wind’s backstory
  • Reveals
  • Speaking of Lord Sero, the way fae tropes are done in this is great. I’m a sucker for a well-done take on the fae.
  • Some of the monsters are really creepy in a fun way. Sandman! Peryton! Changelings!
  • Houses that are…not alive, but not not alive
  • The fact that there’s no romance in the first several books (it would be completely out of place as far as Pet’s character development goes); and when there eventually is a possibility of one and I was sure I would loathe and despise it if it happened (so I kind of had faith it wouldn’t? because I have faith in how W. R. Gingell handles her characters?), it still didn’t happen; and then when it finally did happen, somehow I didn’t loathe and hate and despise it? I even kind of enjoyed it, mildly? was both amused and impressed by the general health of it? I was right to have faith in how W. R. Gingell handles her characters, but now I have even more faith because she managed that.

Not-so-goodness:

  • I’m not a fan of urban fantasy in general, and some of the monsters just weren’t my favorite. I still enjoyed those books, though.
  • Books 1 & 2 were a fun time, but not as epic as the rest of the series
  • There was a plot twist that kind of depressed me. It ended up being resolved so, so well, but…I kind of went through life in a haze for a few days. It’s been a long time since I emotionally connected to a book like that, yikes.
  • I wasn’t all that interested in Abigail and her group for whatever reason.
  • Maybe because of that, books 6-7 were a bit of a mid-series slump for me.

Overall:

It frustrates me not to be able to put into words how much I loved these books? The character growth, the character voice in the prose, the twisty-ness, the themes…I just can’t. W. R. Gingell is officially one of my favorite authors and I don’t know how to explain what makes her books so uniquely powerful to me, but they are.

Proof

bill bright & jack cavanaugh

(In which American lawyers in the 1850s turn out to have all been part of an evil secret society, all except our redoubtable protagonist Harrison Shaw, who isn’t much of a lawyer anyway…apparently. But God.)

Goodness:

  • 1850s New York City is a pretty cool setting. Would like more books set there.
  • Harrison’s good-person-but-flawed character was handled with some subtlety and realism. I appreciated it.

Not-so-goodness:

  • The setting wasn’t all that…immersive.
  • If you think the above description of the book is weird and confusing, that’s just because so is the book.
  • The ending was literal Deus Ex Machina.
  • People’s personalities don’t change because they become a Christian.
  • Victoria and her father were both completely over the top and ridiculous.
  • Prose was…eh
  • Warm seats
  • Is that even possible though
  • I feel like it’s not
  • But I don’t care enough to check
  • But is Harrison stupid, though? Because how did he not notice?

Overall:

……..eh.

The Unteachables

gordon korman

(In which grouchy, disillusioned teachers and troubled kids have each other’s backs, and thus a whole lot of kazoos end up at the bottom of the river.)

Goodness:

  • I ended up liking this book. That’s high praise, because I started out Very Not Impressed. I respect any book that can win you over.
  • Parker
  • Mr. Kermit being so horrified by the lady’s (can’t remember her name) kindergarten-style teaching methods
  • The logic behind the kazoo incident
  • Teachers standing up for their students
  • Forgiveness
  • Cars

Not-so-goodness:

  • Mr. Kermit’s attitude problem seemed a little…extreme? Would any adult handle that this poorly? That struck me as unrealistic.
  • Present tense is the devil’s invention, I tell you.

Overall:

Fun middle-grade book with heart. Not my new favorite, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

West of Yesterday

lena clare cook

(In which a traumatized man adopts a traumatized boy while traveling through Old West Arizona, an appropriately desert-y setting for this book about traumatized people reaching their limits and a man who cannot cry.)

Goodness:

  • I’m just going to quote Megan’s Goodreads review: And can we just discuss for one moment how Scott was only able to draw close to someone who had suffered as much as he had? I think it says something really profound about the Cross. Why did God have to become man and die, anyway? Was it because we needed a Savior who understood our pain?
  • So yeah, Alan and Scott
  • Also John Stover being an honorable person who’s secure enough that he can take a punch and not feel…emasculated, I guess? ‘Cause here’s the thing: standing by your convictions (especially when it comes to defending those who can’t defend themselves) makes you a good, strong man. That’s it. That’s the requirement.
  • Matt Rennahan being so quiet and so loyal and so conflicted and so unable to cry
  • The slow reveals through slowly-expanding flashbacks of everyone’s past, everyone’s exact culpability, and how it all fits together
  • Wade’s fall arc
  • The town’s name being Ayer, which, because I am dumb, I did not realize was Spanish for yesterday until the narrative explicitly said so (in my defense, I was saying it “eye-yer” in my head, so it didn’t occur to me)
  • Scott wanting so badly to see the ocean
  • The ending

Not-so-goodness:

  • So, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I don’t like present tense.
  • I do not like it, Sam-I-am.
  • I think a lot of Lena Clare Cook’s writing would be much lovelier in past tense. It would flow more smoothly. It would be more obvious that certain sentences should be removed because they’re just restating what we’ve already learned.
  • Beth doubting John annoyed me so much. Do you know your husband, woman??? Do you think he’s the kind of person to be easily bamboozled, or to put y’all in danger without cause???
  • I wanted to like Alan, but…apart from his relationship with Scott, he’s so lost in his own misery that he’s uninteresting to read about. It’s not interesting to read about a fish lying apathetically on the beach drowning, flinching when a fisherman comes by but only out of reflex, even if this fish has a very tragic backstory.
  • I don’t know if this is a flaw or a personal preference, I honestly don’t. But for me, books need to give you space to breathe. Books that are unendingly brutal, dark, agonized, violent…are just not going to hit me as hard as books with soft scenes in between the brutal, dark, agonized, and/or violent bits. The constant emotional pitch at which I am kept is exhausting – it’s numbing – and I check out.

Overall:

Wanted to like it more than I did. (Western that fully embraces the gunslinger dad trope?! Yes please.) Worth it for Scott and Matt.

The Magician’s Elephant

kate dicamillo

(In which the world is broken and it cannot be fixed. But hey. Elephants and sisters and the Matiennes exist, so it’s not a bad deal.)

Goodness:

  • Elephants
  • Leo the policeman who has a mustache and asks “why not? could it be?”
  • Gloria his wife
  • The book just felt like Christmas
  • I love the whimsical way Kate DiCamillo uses adverbs
  • The nun. I forget her name, but she was wonderful.

Not-so-goodness:

  • Kate DiCamillo’s books are never…funny enough for me? Or not funny in the right way?
  • The characters are also always too…generic. Like. They are humans more than individuals, if that makes sense? Her books are about humans and humanity, and it’s more like Delving With Compassion and Keenness of Sight Into the Human Experience than it is like getting to deeply know an individual human. I much prefer getting to deeply know an individual human.

Overall:

Lovely and worth reading and not quite for me.

Castle & Key

w. r. gingell

(In which Susan and Emmett gotta escape Bluebeard’s haunted Gothic mansion, but they keep chasing ghosts of each other nearly off staircases and balconies, and the mansion wants them to betray each other. Not to mention it’s actively trying to kill them.)

Goodness:

  • Emmett being large and silent and having a rueful sense of humor.
  • Susan and Isabella’s sister relationship
  • Susan’s favorite problem-solving method being Frontal Assault Via Kiss
  • Haunted manor that you can’t get out of, the mistress of the manor always dies, the servants tend to come to gruesome ends too, blood sometimes drips down the walls at night, it’s fine
  • The master just Brooding
  • How it’s a Bluebeard retelling but the main characters are just two of the random servants who are only there because neither of them could forbear charging into danger to make sure innocent people don’t get hurt
  • CHOICES
  • Lovely themes regarding choice and identity: like, unhealthy environments and manipulation warp people, but in the end your choices are your own, and it’s your choices that matter. “We all chose what we all chose.”
  • You go, Mr. Oswald. Burn it all down.
  • The denouement was perfectly cozy.

Not-so-goodness:

  • Not that it’s a flaw, but I wanted more Isabella.
  • I didn’t like how it was too obviously a Bluebeard retelling to not be a Bluebeard retelling but…not enough of a Bluebeard retelling to satisfy my particular standards of exactly how much faithfulness I want to the original in a retelling? Which is completely personal.
  • It was part of the whole thing with the manor and all, so I get it, but I really do not prefer quite so much romantic playing at cross-purposes and misunderstanding and angst. Even if the characters were all quite mature about it. Again, personal.

Overall:

This book was cozy to read on a night when I couldn’t sleep because I felt awful. It reminded me that just because your sister doesn’t act like she wants your approval (what self-respecting sister would?), she probably really values it. It reminded me why free will is so important to me and why personal tragedy is never just about you and why when you give up on yourself it’s never just yourself you’re giving up on. It was witty and twisty and good-humored and a little bit insightful about humans. I liked it passing well.

Adam of the Road

elizabeth janet gray

(In which Adam, a minstrel’s son in I-think-late-thirteenth-century England, loses first his dog and then his dad and this book would’ve been a lot shorter if they had cellphones in ye olden days.)

Goodness:

  • GUYS IT’S MORE MEDIEVAL HISTORICAL FICTION
  • Hence why I’d been meaning to read this for forever.
  • MEDIEVAL ENGLAND. AS AN ACTUAL HISTORICAL SETTING. NOT A LOOSELY-INSPIRED FANTASY SETTING FULL OF BLAND DESCRIPTIONS AND STOCK CHARACTERS.
  • An eleven-year-old kid who is an actual eleven-year-old kid
  • How Adam is just like “thanks, but I’m a minstrel” to every single offer that gets made to him. The kid knows what he wants.
  • How Roger is a flawed-but-still-good-and-loveable father
  • The nuance in all the characters Adam meets, actually
  • How much Adam loves his dog
  • DID I MENTION MEDIEVAL HISTORICAL FICTION
  • Sir Simon deserved better, he’s a darling

Not-so-goodness:

  • I really enjoyed reading it while I was reading it, but any time I’d set it down I had absolutely no desire to pick it back up again. Don’t know why.
  • The characters could’ve been deeper? I’m not complaining, though; I still enjoyed it.

Overall:

I found this book at a thrift store at least a year ago. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since, and honestly now that I have I don’t know if I want to keep it or not? I will at least for a while, because I’m just so pleased to read some historical fiction set in medieval England. Because there’s ACTUALLY NOT THAT MUCH OF IT. At least that I’ve read; if someone has recs, I am all ears. (Also it’s a solid little book.)

“I Should Have Read That Book” – either a tag or what my guilt-wracked subconscious says every time it looks at one of my many, many thrift store purchases sitting unread on the shelf

Sam tagged me for this. Many thanks, Sam!

//a book that a certain friend is always telling you to read

I don’t know about “always,” but Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days has come up as a book I need to read a fair number of times. This from Becky, who does in fact recommend the best books. (The Perilous Gard, for instance.)

I have no idea why I haven’t read it yet, to be completely honest. I’m shockingly fond of Princess Academy, middle-grade fantasy that doesn’t write down to its audience is literally the best thing that exists, I love the premise, and the library has it. I don’t know. I do really need to read it. I do really want to read it.

But have I? No.

C’est la vie, for sure, but why is la vie so c’est?

(Sherlocks among you have noted: Sarah does not speak French.)

//a book that’s been on your tbr forever and yet you still haven’t picked it up

The Ball and the Cross. It’s a problem. I need to read it. I love Chesterton. It’s people’s favorite Chesterton. I KNOW I’LL LOVE IT. I LOVE CHESTERTON. I’ve been meaning to read it for years upon years, and STILL it hath happened not.

I mean, for a while that was because I didn’t own it and neither did the library, but I’ve owned it for a while now.

I have no excuse.

//a book in a series you’ve started but haven’t gotten around to finishing yet

The Penderwicks at Last, by Jeanne Birdsall.

I read the first four books years ago (loved ’em), but I’m hesitant, guys. Even Batty is grown up in this one? I don’t know if I can handle it.

//a classic you’ve always liked the sound of but have never actually read

Ooh! How about The Brothers Karamazov? I adore Dostoyevsky and have heard things about that one that make me think it’s a particularly good work of his.

I don’t know why I haven’t read it except that it’s long and my aunt (who got me into Dostoyevsky in the first place) says she could never get through it because everyone had sixteen names and she lost track of who was who.

There are a looooot of classics I want to read but haven’t yet, though. The Count of Monte Cristo. The Mabinogion. War and Peace. Little Dorrit. The Divine Comedy. The Aeneid (in its entirety). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The full Ulster cycle. North and South. Waverley. I COULD GO ON.

//a popular book that it seems everyone but you has read

To Kill a Mockingbird. Literally everyone on the face of the planet has read it and says it’s the most wonderful thing to ever come out of American literature. To which I say, “Well, how dare you say that when Huck Finn exists. I will not be listening further to anything you have to say.”

I mean, it’s probably good, I guess? Truly everyone has read it. I think the only reason I haven’t is that my mom doesn’t like it and so she didn’t include it in my school curriculum or anything.

But I just…don’t care. I don’t care that I’m missing out. I’m not interested. Also (with reservations) I trust my mom’s taste in books.

Also it would be a shame to read it now after making it for so long without, you know?

//a book that inspired a film adaptation you really love but you just haven’t read it yet

Ella Enchanted!

Okay, just kidding.

The Big Sleep is hard boiled detective fiction penned by Raymond Chandler, a pretty famous writer of hard boiled detective fiction back in the middle of last century, I think. The black-and-white noir film The Big Sleep, which stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is based on it. I didn’t actually know that when I watched The Big Sleep (which, by the way, I adore) for the first time.

And like, I do like mysteries and I do like Philip Marlowe (Bogart’s version of him anyhow), and I do like books better than movies in general, but…I’m hesitant.

For one thing, I don’t think it’s a story that needs for you to be completely inside the character’s head, so a book wouldn’t necessarily be better. There also might be less of Lauren Bacall’s character?? And she’s great. I’ve heard that it has weird stuff, and Marlowe is more morally grey, and women-flinging-themselves-at-his-head (which only occurs once in the movie, in a really weird little scene) (I mean besides Carmen, poor kid) is apparently a common event in the book.

All of which I can do without, frankly.

//a book you see all over instagram but haven’t picked up yet

Changing “Instagram” to “the blogosphere” (for I inhabit the one and absent myself wholly from the other), I think a good one for this is Kara Swanson’s Dust!

One the one hand, I really want to read it because hello, Peter Pan!

On the other hand, the fact that Peter Pan is one of my favorite books makes me hesitant about picking up anything that has to do with it. Especially because it’s a book that means things to me, you know? I think the Disney movie is great, but too many people take their idea of Peter Pan from that, and it’s not the same at all. It’s the original Peter Pan that I love, and I just don’t trust anybody to do it right, honestly.

But people do speak highly of Dust. And a really well-done Peter Pan retelling would be the best thing I’ve ever read.

I be conflicted.

Thanks again, Sam, for the tag! That was fun. This tag neatly walks the line between “fun” and “insanely stressful.” Anyway I’m supposed to tag people, but…gosh I haven’t done this in so long. I don’t know who likes tags, hasn’t been tagged, etc, etc. Please steal it if you want it. And let me know in the comments what books you’ve been meaning to read since the cradle and still haven’t! And tell me if I ought to read any of these sooner rather than later. I won’t necessarily listen to you (as this tag perfectly demonstrates), but I’ll be happy to know your opinion and you’ll be happy to give it, so it’s a win-win, verdad?

(Sherlocks among you have written query: Does Sarah speak Spanish? It is hard to tell. Must wait till observed vocabulary has expanded beyond one word, for accurate results.)

Peace, my friends! Hope school has started up with a swing and a hit, for those of you in school. Don’t forget to enjoy summer while it lasts. ✌️