Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

This book is awesome! Sorry to give you the bottom line first, but, well, there it is.

The set-up: The year is…a long time ago. 1845 (just cheated on Amazon.com). The place, Brittany, which is still as yet independent of France. Ismae, a daughter of the god Mortain (also called St. Mortain, the god of Death) has been abused by her father her whole life, until a mysterious convent takes her in. She trains to be an assassin, skilled in the arts of death.

Main character’s goals: Ismae’s assassin skills are required at court, where she must discover who is betraying the Duchess. And, of course, mete out a swift vengeance. Ismae needs to work with hottie Gavriel Duval, but her convent suspects him of treachery. Of course, because he is a hottie, Ismae begins to fall for him, and her secondary goals change throughout the course of the story.

My reaction: LaFevers has done so much that I want to do with my own manuscript! And she makes it look easy! So I’m jealous and impressed at the same time. Plus just plain entertained. The love-hate relationship between Ismae and Gavriel is wonderful, as is her character arc over the course of the story, and the doubts she begins to have about…ahem…certain things (no spoilers!).

Of interest to writers: Again, that character arc. Also, that relationship between Ismae and Gavriel – when is it NOT a good idea to pit the goals of the heroine directly against the goals of the romantic interest? Answer: never. Their conflict is so rich, and their attraction so great, it’s just yummy.

Bottom line: I already said it above. It’s awesome. Good news: it’s the first in a trilogy. It appears the second book features a heroine who is not Ismae, but she sounds just as fascinating and possibly even more complex.

You can click here to read the first chapter on Amazon.

Reminds me of: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

The Monster, Part 3 (and The End!)

For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here.

The Monster

Kimberly heard someone behind her. She turned around quickly, just in time to see the sorceress pointing her wand at James and chanting in a foreign language.1 Kimberly had no time to think. “Noooooo!” she wailed, then took up a handful of dirt from the hard-packed earth,2 hurling it at the twisted face of the sorceress.

  1. Wow, this is so much easier than the entire theory of magic I created for my current manuscript. Wand, foreign language, boom. Sorcery.
  2. I’d imagine it would be rather difficult to pick up an entire handful of dirt from hard-packed earth. Just sayin’.

By an invisible and powerfully strong force, Kimberly was pushed to the ground. There she lay, unconscious and still.

Kimberly awoke, startled to see James’1 handsome face directly above her own. A cold wash cloth was being pressed against her forehead.2 “Kimberly, are you all right?” James asked tenderly,3 brushing her hair away from her face.4

  1. I think we already discussed the James’/James’s issue.
  2. We haven’t, however, talked about passive voice. “Was being pressed” is totally awkward, and leaves out any agent doing the pressing. Of course, we can guess it’s James pressing the wash cloth, but why not just say so?
  3. And I KNOW we’ve talked about adverbs.
  4. Also, we’re missing the entire, huge problem with this story. The old “Oh, I got knocked out, WTF happened while I was in my Victorian swoon?” (As much as I loved The Hunger Games, Katniss does this a few too many times in the third book.)

“James, I – I didn’t think you could come,” she said dramatically.1 “I knew you were mad; I thought I was doomed.”

“I would never leave you to die. I’ll never be that angry.”

“So what happened?”

“You distracted the witch for me, then I had the chance to kill the monster, then I fought the witch and killed her too. But when you threw the sand in her eyes, she aimed her wand at you instead. That’s why you got hurt.”2

“Thanks, James, for saving me.” Kimberly reached forward and kissed him gratefully on the cheek.

“No, Kimberly, I couldn’t have done it without you.”3

James cradled Kimberly in his arms for a moment, then picked her up and carried her away from the woods and the evil memories that remained there. They would make up. They always did.4

  1. Dramatically. Seriously.
  2. This entire recount seems to be out of order.
  3. Despite the cheesy dialogue, I must congratulate my teen self on how I did not overuse dialogue tags in this section. We know who’s talking, so why add “he said, she said”? Something I should have kept in mind for my current manuscript.
  4. I thought they already made up? Or is this referring to their big college argument that never got resolved? That must be it. Well, luckily I don’t think anybody cares how they solve that problem.

And thus ends our journey into this endearingly short romance. (Indeed, its brevity may be the only thing in its favor.)

The Monster, Part 1

Have you ever written something, a letter, story, poem, Facebook or Twitter post, and, sometime later, thought that was the stupidest thing I ever wrote? If so, you’ll empathize with me here. Of course, in my standard confessional style, I’m going to share something Private and Personal, something collected from that sticker-covered filing cabinet, something melodramatic, juicy, and juvenile.

And then I’m going to tear it apart with my Critiquer Teeth.

So. Here goes.

The Monster

Kimberly whirled first to the left, then to the right. But the monster was nowhere to be seen.1  She sensed something in the air.2 Slowly, she turned around. There was the monster, not any more than twenty feet away, it’s3  jaws dripping with saliva. It was facing to the right, it may not have seen her yet. But then slowly, agonizingly slowly, the monster turned to face her, it’s4  cruel olive green face twisted with anger.

  1. Good, I like this in medias res, although the language could be a little more original.
  2. What? A smell? A movement? Describe, girl!
  3. ugh, I hate that its/it’s error, although I think we’ve all been guilty at some time or another
  4. again?!

There was nothing for Kimberly to do. Nowhere for her to go.1  She was tied to the tree, impossibly tangled in the coarse yellow rope.2  How had she gotten here? It was all James’ fault.3  They had had a fight. Oh, how she hated it when they fought! They had been walking through the forest, with the sunlight weaving through the trees4, creating a romantic and peaceful aura. Then came the fight. The awful fight.5

  1. By the way, where the heck is she? We should know this already.
  2. Okay. Good. The tree…what tree? In her front yard? In a foreign country? In an alternate universe?
  3. I think it should be James’s, not James’, but honestly I feel like a minority on following this rule, so we’ll let it slide here.
  4. nice image
  5. Yeah, we get that it was a bad fight, she hates fighting, and so on. MOVE ON.

It was the biggest fight that they had ever had. Kimberly thought about it and shuddered.1  James wanted her to go to college in Nevada with him, but what she really wanted was to go to Florida. They had different career interests, and there wasn’t one college that offered good classes for both.2

  1. Really? The fight is making her shudder, and not that saliva-dripping monster in front of her? And the fight isn’t…interesting.
  2. Yawn.

And then what happened?1 James had stomped away, leaving her alone and lost in the forest. His temper was just too much.2  His fury would blind him from thinking logically, and now look what resulted from it!3  The sorceress came and took Kimberly to her house. The sorceress needed food for her pet monster, and Kimberly was pretty handy, all alone and vulnerable. So the sorceress tied Kimberly to a tree in her back yard and left her there for – for what? What was this…thing?

  1. I don’t know? Are you going to further bog us down in boring backstory by telling us? Of course you are.
  2. You know, writer, my patience is wearing thin and if we don’t get back to that monster, I might tear Kimberly apart and cook her myself.
  3. Look at what? Did we finally remember the monster? No….
  4. Dude, you’ve killed the tension by taking us into all this backstory. Killed it. Deader than the monster is going to be.

Slowly, the monster sauntered1  over to where Kimberly was tied up. It looked at her hungrily.2  Oh James, this is all your fault, but I won’t care as long as you save me! Kimberly prayed silently as the monster stepped up even closer.3

  1. sauntered? This is the kind of verb used for a disinterested shopper forcing herself to browse the aisles of an auto parts store. Try stalked, if you want to really wring the melodrama out of this thing.
  2. Other than being green with big teeth, what does this monster look like? I’m having a hard time feeling scared, picturing the one-eyed dude from Monsters, Inc.
  3. And this is the absolute worst part of the whole story. Helpless princess in the tower syndrome. I need my man to save me. Ugh. Let’s pretend someone else wrote it.

Well kids, that’s all for this week. This’ll be a story critique in three parts. More on Kimberly’s underwhelming (un)adventure next Friday! Oh wait, no, not next Friday, I’ll be out of town. The Friday after, then! I know, the suspense! The intrigue! Try to contain yourselves.

For Part 2 of The Monster, click here.

NiFtY Author Erin Bow

Erin Bow first grabbed my attention when someone handed me a copy of Plain Kate (click here to read my review). I picked it up and could not stop. Her writing is so beautiful and…. oh, sorry. I just woke up from a fangirl swoon. Here’s our interview! Check out her pole-dancing writing studio! Exclamation points are a side-effect of fangirl-dom!

BH: You have been BUSY since I last visited your website. What are all these projects you have going? Wait, that would take forever. Could you choose one new project to describe in a paragraph for us here?

EB: Hmm, it’s hard to pick!  I guess most of my time is going into the first draft of my third novel, a dystopian for young adults called Children of Peace.  Here’s the pitch:

A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages.   The Children of Peace – sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals – are raised together in small, isolated schools called Prefectures.  Under the tutelage of gentle, monkish artificial intelligences, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of Prefecture Four.  Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace — even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water —  she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

BH: Okay, yeah, I want to read it. You probably don’t need a beta reader, but if you do… Moving on. Tell us a little about your path to publication.

EB: Oh, dear.  The story of my path to publication makes people hate me, because I got so lucky.

I put a lot of research into agents, and landed the first one I queried, the one at the very tippy top of my list.  She worked with me for a couple of years on Plain Kate (it took some time, but in my defense I had two babies in there) and then sent it out to this amazing list of editors, seven of them, I think.  I not only got an offer right away, I got a bunch of offers (told you my agent was amazing), which ended up in an auction.  I was and still am thrilled to be with Arthur Levine, of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic.  He’s a genius editor and a great cheerleader for the books he loves.

BH: I wouldn’t say your story makes me hate you. Much.

It has been months since I read Plain Kate, and I still keep going back to it when I want some inspiration for creating a great setting and mood combination. Did that mood come naturally to the writing of the book, or did you have to work at it? Please tell me you had to work at it.

EB: That mood comes courtesy of this 800-page volume of Russian fairytales I read just before starting Plain Kate.  I soaked them in and they took me over, and the mood just came tumbling out.

But of course there’s work.  A pet peeve of mine is historical fantasies where the world seems just a few inches deep, like a stage set.  Pretty: but not workable.  I think to really get a setting to work you have to know really nitty-gritty practical things.  What the people eat, and where they get it?  What do the tools of their trade look like?  What are they afraid of when the lights go out?  A good fantasy world needs an economy, an ecology, and a mythology.

Some of the things I needed to know for Plain Kate:  How do you polish a carving without sand paper?  How do you catch a chicken?   Keep your feet dry in rainy weather?  The research was truly endless, and I still feel as if it’s thin in places.

BH: You write both fiction and poetry, and some pretty great personal essays, too. How do you balance your different projects and the different parts of your brain that you get to tap into?

EB:  I try to set aside blocks of time.  Sometimes I, say, edit one book in the mornings and draft another in the afternoons.  Sometimes I give myself three weeks or a month to finish such and such a chunk, and do little else.  I try really hard not to switch back and forth between things.  Starting is always the hardest part, and starting over and over again is frustration and a waste of energy.  (And I do it all the time.  I have the attention span of a goldfish that’s off its meds.)

I also try to keep writing business out of my office: I do submissions and interviews and blogs and things  after the kids go to bed.  My office is dedicated to the writing part of writing.  I don’t have a phone or wifi.  (Recently some wifi has started leaking in.  I’m considering copper mesh.  See: goldfish, meds.)  When I’m in my office, I write.  When I’m not, I don’t.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

EB: I rented an office half a year ago – and with the exception of marrying my husband, it is the best choice I ever made.  The space is somewhat .. unusual. (Note: if the photos aren’t visible, you can click here to see Erin’s Office on Flickr.)

(Click on the images to make them bigger; enlarging them here was making them too blurry.)

People think I’m kidding when I say I work in a pole dancing studio, but I’m not.  My office is their spare room.  It can only be reached by crossing the dance floor — check those poles!  It’s cheap because I can’t use it at night, when the dance floor is, um, busy.  And it’s fun because when I need to clear my head I can swing around a little.


I furnished my office with a  hodgepodge of things that were either free or cheap – but it doesn’t feel makeshift.  It feels cozy and practical, like a yurt.  In this picture you can see the little loveseat (curbsourced) for curling up, a chair (Salvation army, recovered) handy for pulling up to the loveseat for coffee with friends, and of course a big desk (Goodwill) with lots of room for bulletin boards. You can see the picture boards here for Sorrow’s Knot (upper left) and Children of Peace (lower right).

My office is a highly ritualized space – and I refuse to feel silly about that.  I often find one needs to coax oneself closer to inspiration, the way a church coaxes one closer to God.  So my office is furnished with ritual objects and relics.


Here, you can see the objarka my editor sent me when bidding on Plain Kate, beside Plain Kate’s NYT review; a doorway shrine; a hand-cast pewter cat given by a good friend and some fiddly stones; the timer of short naps and the glass bird of holding when you want to start over; the tin angel celebrating the finish of my second novel, Sorrow’s Knot; the wall of things that mean stuff to me, including the porcelain birds that were my great grandmother’s, a map of Tenochtitlan, a bundle of grass from the monastery where I wrote my first book of poetry, a 1942 advertisement for a Waterman “Commando” fountain pen, and a reproduction of the original cover of A Room of One’s Own.

BH: Your office has inspired me. I am now working on converting our converted garage guest room into my writing studio. Must find a great big pole.

What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

EB: Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance, on meter in poetry.  It is basic – you don’t have to go into being able to scan, which is good, because I have dreadful trouble with scanning.  But it is also bottomlessly good, and I could read it over and over, just to soak it up.  I read that book, and Heaney’s Beowulf, and somehow decided that what the world really needed was a children’s version of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight in 200 rhymed quatrains, beginning with a beheading and turning on an illicit kiss.  I can’t imagine why I can’t get that published.

BH: (I have difficulty with scanning, too. Glad to hear I’m not alone in this.) What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

EB: Ribe Tuchus – keep your butt in the chair.  Sit still.

My biggest enemy, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is inertia: the reistance to starting.  But if I promise myself I’ll just Ribe Tuchus for ten minutes, keep my hand moving across the page – often that’s all it takes to stop hating myself and wanting to get a job in a bank.

Every day I have to figure that out again.  (Goldfish.)  Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus.

BH: Thank you, Erin, for taking the time! For more on Erin and her writing, you can visit her (very awesome website) at erinbow.com She’s also on twitter as @erinbowbooks

Spirit Bound by Richelle Mead

The set-up: After Rose failed to kill her ex-lover, Dimitri, who turned Strigoi (evil vampire) in a previous book, Dimitri sends her creepy-stalker death threat messages. Meanwhile, Rose graduates from the Vampire Academy and goes to the Moroi (nice friendly vampire) Court. From there, everything falls apart. Not the plot, really, although the thread of it winds around, but Rose’s life and handle on the world.

 

Main character’s goals: Rose wants to change Dimitri back from his evil vampire state (think Buffy wanting to save Angel), but failing that, she is determined to kill him (think Buffy wanting to stake Angel).

My reaction: BIG SPOILER HERE, BUT IT ISN’T REALLY A SPOILER BECAUSE THE BOOK DOESN’T EVEN HAVE AN ENDING….Please please please can we just have a beginning, middle, and end in a YA fantasy anymore? Please? I thought this was the last book. Imagine my surprise when instead of a happy ending we are left with Rose about to go to trial for murdering an important Moroi vampire. Imagine the swear words that poured from my mouth in a very un-mommy-like stream. Mmmkay, spoiler over.

Of interest to writers: You CAN write a sequel-begetting ending without cliffhangers. I have seen it done before and done well. Try Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien, for one of my favorite examples, or The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, which I have reviewed here and here, respectively.

Bottom Line: I love Rose Hathaway. She’s tough and gutsy and not afraid to call the Moroi queen a “sanctimonious bitch.” Bella Swan would pee her pants even thinking about doing that.

Second Bottom Line: I have had it with YA fantasies not ending. I am now all about the contemporary fiction. Well, after I read the last in the Vampire Academy series.

The Challenge of Turning 30

The clock is ticking and I’ve got six months left of my twenties. I want to do them right.

The thing is, I feel like a kid most of the time. There’re all kinds of things I don’t know how to do or even handle, and so like the bibliophile I am I turned to a book. I (rather smugly) gave this one to Husband when he turned 30:

30 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do Before Turning 30, by Siobhan Adcock.

Here they are (lifted from the back of the book) (with slight commentary as embellishment where necessary):

  1. wrap a present
  2. start a successful fire in a fireplace, at a campsite, and in a barbecue
  3. finish a piece of furniture
  4. get a raise (whahahaha!)
  5. order wine at a restaurant without getting stiffed
  6. parallel park in three breathtakingly beautiful movements
  7. dance a “slow dance” without looking like an idiot
  8. use a full place setting properly, including chopsticks and Asian soup spoons
  9. clean your place in under 45 minutes, when friends, relatives, or prospective lovers (hahahaha) are coming by unexpectedly, and soon
  10. hold your liquor
  11. cure a hangover
  12. do the Heimlich maneuver
  13. use a compass
  14. change a flat
  15. jump-start a car
  16. open a champagne bottle
  17. send a drink to someone’s table
  18. cook one “signature meal” (I’m shuddering in fear at this one)
  19. whistle with your fingers
  20. take good pictures
  21. fold a fitted sheet (those damn things are so annoying!)
  22. remove common stains
  23. sew a button
  24. carve turkey, lasagna, and birthday cake
  25. hold a baby (hahaha!)
  26. change a diaper (if only I didn’t know how to do this)
  27. keep a plant alive for more than a year
  28. make dogs and cats love you
  29. help someone out of a car
  30. write superior thank-you notes

The rules for my challenge are simple. I have until my thirtieth birthday. I’ll write here about my successes and failures. I’ll try not to burn down any cities (#1–whoops, Dana pointed out this should be #2, not #1), bite off my fingers (#19), or make everyone else’s pets move to my house (#28). As much as possible, I’ll stick to my regular blog posting schedule, but if I have Breaking News, things might get switched up a bit. Breaking News will not include items I feel I already have proficiency in (such as keep a plant alive for more than a year, hold a baby, change a diaper, and a couple of others).

Wanna join me? No age requirements. You can be 30, close to 30, or nowhere near 30 (on either side of the number).

In totally unrelated self-promotion, come by on Friday for an interview with Vintage Veronica author Erica S. Perl, and my first ever Giveaway Awesomeness.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

A copy of this book landed in my lap (thanks Mary!) and I devoured it.

Kate lives in (what sounds like) Russia in an era of magic and superstition. Her problem: her village has begun to think she is a witch. Yes, she is a carver (skill with a knife is a sign of a witch), she has different-colored eyes (ooh), and she has a cat friend who follows her everywhere (yup, definitely a witch). A mysterious man cruelly helps the witch rumors along, then convinces Kate to leave town, but not before trading her some survival necessities for…her shadow.

Beyond “did I like it?” (because I really, really did), do I think Plain Kate works? Overall, yes. Through the course of the novel I got to know Kate very well, from her love of wood-carving to her fears: of losing her shadow, of being kicked out of the Roamers’ caravan, of being alone. Knowing the character intimately is one of the best ways to get a reader to care.

As far as supporting cast – that is also very strong. My favorite supporting character was Kate’s sidekick, Taggle. A cat. I will say no more about him except you should read this book if for no other reason than to meet Taggle.

What worked best in the book, and what I will be re-reading this book to study, is how the setting and tone work together to create this beautiful, spooky mood. The lyrical prose (you know how I’m always raving about that) is also out of this world…unsurprising as Bow has also published a book of poems.

The beginning felt a little slow to me, but this could be because I was in such a rush to start reading that I didn’t give myself a good chunk of time to get immersed. Once I’d invested a half hour of reading time, I couldn’t put Plain Kate down.

To visit Erin Bow’s website, click here. If you visit, be prepared to forget whatever else you had planned. I found an absorbing essay on her “Odds and Ends” page and stayed up late to read the whole thing.