Rebel of the Sands (Review)

•May 31, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton is a surprisingly refreshing mash-up of the Wild West and Arabian Nights. The main character, Amani, is a self-taught sharpshooter who’s desperate to escape her hateful aunt’s family and the rebelofthesandsoppressive little town she’s lived in all her life. She finds her chance when her path crosses with the enigmatic and handsome (this IS YA, y’know) Jin and pretty soon, they‘re on the run. In between dodging soldiers and explosions (there are a LOT of explosions in this book), there’s plenty of sarcasm, secrets, magic, and, of course, romance.

Rebel reminded me of Stacy Jay’s Princess of Thorns . Besides basic plot similarities (both feature an action girl heroine who spends a good chunk of the book disguised as a boy partnered up on a highly dangerous road trip with a good-looking boy. Sassy romance, marred by secrets, ensues), both books take established folklore and settings and re-use them in new and interesting ways. Both also include generous doses of typical “YA tropes,” but in such a well-executed way that the reader doesn’t roll her eyes.

Whereas Princess of Thorns dug into the dark side of classic fairytales, Rebel of the Sands draws from Middle Eastern folklore, building a world with a unique feel. (We also get hints of other lands with their own unique magic and environments. Whether or not the series ever takes us there, it’s wonderful to feel that the world is wider than the pages of the book.)  The mythical creatures we meet (Buraqi–sort of demon-horses–and Skinwalkers among them) are intriguing, and the magic system seems well-thought out. The explanations for how the world works are woven through stories and mythologies, but, unfortunately, it still feels over-explained, although a few details may slip under the reader’s radar until critically moments. There are also half-Djinn with magical abilities. When they’re mentioned early on, they seem eerie and mystical, but when they’re finally shown “on page,” they seemed much more like fantasy X-Men. Sadly, I’ve read too many stories with fantasy X-Men, and the last one (The Young Elites) quite turned me off to the whole thing.

Although at times, it feels all too easy to predict where things are heading, it’s a delightful ride, and Hamilton manages to thrown a few true curveballs at the reader along the way. I also admired her for being willing to actually sacrifice characters, even if I felt like some of them should have been better developed in order for the reader to truly feel the pain.

Overall, a great read, and one I’ll definitely be checking out the sequel to. Four stars.

Ren Faire!

•October 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Going to my first Renaissance festival this weekend with some friends! I am pretty excited, but also nervous–I didn’t realize how legit their costumes were until I arrived at my friend’s house, and now I am pretty concerned at my pitiful attempt at a gypsy look. I should have gone with the earth tones skirt and top… or at least stuck them in my bag for options. Gah!

Oh well. Hopefully, I will have fun even if I look like a complete idiot the whole time. I will report back sometime this coming week with details, my continuing indecision over NaNoWrimo, book reviews, and some writerly stuff… that is if I can get my report card grades in on time.

To NaNo or not to NaNo?

•October 11, 2012 • 3 Comments

October is upon us…and that means November is almost here. For the past three years, that’s meant one thing: NaNoWriMo.

In my last post, I mentioned NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for those that were too lazy to Google), and some of the role that it’s played in my development as a writer. In a lot of ways, NaNoWriMo forced me to get serious about my writing…while “forcing” me to have fun with it at the same time. Most importantly, it’s encouraged me to simply write–write with urgency, write with abandon, write as though writing was the most important thing I could possibly do.

For all of these, and many other reasons, I’ve loved NaNoWriMo. In fact, I loved it so much, that I shared it with some of the most special people in my life–my students.

I don’t talk about it much, because this is a personal writing blog, not a teaching blog, but in my real life I am an upper elementary teacher, albeit a young and inexperienced one. One of the first things I did as a newbie teacher was to share the whole crazy-wonderful NaNoWriMo ride with my students through the Young Writers Program (which has excellent free curriculum available, if anyone’s interested). My students loved it as much as I did. I loved watching them discover the joy and accomplishment of novel-writing.

I also discovered that trying to write my own novel at the same time I tried to shepherd them through theirs was a nightmare. I still “won.” I am way too stubborn and competitive not to finish what I start. But the “novel” I produced was juvenile, self-indulgent, and sadly incoherent. I know that NaNo is about quantity over quality, but after Lady of Fortune the previous year, I expected better of myself. I knew I could do better November writing.

Worst of all, it wasn’t even fun.

Unlike my first NaNo year, when I let the craziness fly and rolled with every wild wave of imagination, I was trying to write a coherent story that I had somewhat plotted out. But all I had left to give my own novel was the last scraps of time, energy, and imagination at the end of the day. The best of everything had gone to my students. Writing my novel was frustrating and exhausting. While my students ended up with charming, creative stories with titles like “Charmed and Dangerous” and “The Egg Wars: Fight for Breakfast,” all I had was a unfinished lump of unappealing story fragments.

Now, I wasn’t done writing. Not by a long shot. This summer, in between various odd jobs (and planning for the coming school year), I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo and gave it all the gusto that November’s effort had lacked. The result was a vigorous 50,000 words of Gift of the River, the basis for the draft I am still working on now. While the experience wasn’t exactly the same, it had all of the things I like best about NaNoWriMo–the crazed, frantic writing, the online camaraderie born of mutual writing insanity, forums full of ridiculous questions, long trips to Starbucks, and days full of words and nothing else.

I told myself that this was my new thing. I would do Camp NaNoWriMo in the summers and focus on my students in November.  It was an ideal arrangement, optimizing everyone’s writing experiences.

Only now, the NaNo clock is ticking downward. Now the blogosphere hums with words like “pantser,” “word count,” and “traveling shovel of death.” Now my inbox fills with treacherous promises of kick-off parties and write-ins. Now my brain races with all of the memories of excitement, adrenaline, and caffeine. Now my fingers itch to type out yet another crazy, frantic novel.

…I’m a NaNoWriMo addict and I need help.

I haven’t yet decided what to do. I still have 21 days to make up my mind, after all. But every day the sensible, reasonable part of my brain that tells me about all my other commitments and obligations get quieter and the reckless writer in me gets louder. It’s almost November, she tells me. My time to play.

I’m trying not to listen, but she’s getting more persuasive.

What should I do? What are you doing? Are there any NaNoers out there? Any veterans sitting this year out?

The Writing Process — Pantsing, Planning, or Percolating?

•October 9, 2012 • 2 Comments

I just read Grant Faulkner’s blog on being a “pantser, planner, or percolator” over at the Office of Light and Letters (that’s the NaNoWriMo folks, for those that don’t know. And if you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is… that’s what Google is for). I love the way he explains what a “percolator” is, in contrast to a “pantser” — someone who writes by the seat of their pants, making things up as they go, or a planner– someone who has an outline, character sketches, the works, before they commit to a single word. A percolator, according to Faulkner, is someone who allows the ideas to develop inside their head, bit by bit, but doesn’t make any definite plans.

What I am, I still don’t know.

I started out, as most children do, I think, as a pantser, riding the the wave of imagination wherever it would take it with reckless abandon…and over and over getting stranded on the beach. Later, as a teen and then a young adult, I tried to take a “professional” tact to writing. I read all the blogs and discussion boards, and free books (cheapskate, remember?)  I could find about how real writers went about writing and I decided that the proper way to go about doing things was to plan things out meticulously before I got started.

I produced many half-outlines and numerous snatches and fragments, but never a whole outline, much less  a whole book.

Then, in college, I decided to try this “NaNoWriMo” thing I’d heard about over the the years (Again, if you don’t know, look it up). As I read up on it, it seemed like the whole point was to just quit worrying about quality and pitch yourself headfirst into a novel. So I did. It helped that I decided to do it, on a whim, the first day of November, so I had no time to plan if I wanted to. My novel was awful, crazy, wildly inconsistent in tone, occasionally incoherent, and tons of fun to write. However, I knew that next year I wanted to do things differently and actually produce something I might want to read ever again.

So I planned. I planned for a good three months, not allowing myself to write a single word, because that would invalidate the whole idea as my NaNo novel. I produced a detailed outline, character sketches with pictures, research on the setting, everything I thought I would never do. And the thing is, it worked pretty well. Sure, I got off the outline sometimes, and sure the characters turned out a little different from their sketches, but it felt like a real story, one that could be edited and polished into maybemaybemaybe publishable someday. It’s really a pity that I stopped writing it shortly after I hit the 50,000 word mark, leaving it roughly half-finished. I still often think about going back and finishing it, but my current projects protest too much.

My experience with that novel, Lady of Fortune,  led me to believe that I was really a planner after all. Except, I could never recapture what I’d done with LOF. Maybe I was too impatient, not letting ideas brew. Maybe my ideas weren’t good enough in the first place. But practically every time, all my excitement over the story would drain away as soon as I started outlining and the actual writing would almost never happen.

With Gift of the River, my current project, I am trying to walk a fine balance. I did a lot of “percolating”– thinking, dreaming, dwelling on this story before anything was committed to paper, some planning–a loose outline, a few character sketches, a lot of research–and then a lot of pantsing–I wrote a big bulk of the story last July during Camp NaNoWriMo. The story’s still unfinished and what I have is far from perfect, but it’s the work that’s gone the best since the month I spent on LOF.

Am I a planner? A pantser? A percolator?

I’ll be whatever I have to be to get my stories written. If only I could figure out just what that is.

Books of the Week

•September 23, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Well, I was really hoping I would have written some other post between the last BotW post and this one, but that’s kind of the way my life has been these last couple of weeks. I figure if I can at least stick to one weekly feature and be faithful to it then at least I have something to build on.

Anyway, on to the books!

Enchanted by Alethea Kontiss (YA Fantasy)

The gist: Sunday Woodcutter is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, but that doesn’t mean that her life is grand or adventurous, like that of her older brother Jack or her sister Thursday, the Pirate Queen. In fact, Sunday’s life is pretty boring, other than the tendency for all of the stories she writes to come true. That all changes when Sunday befriends an enchanted frog, Grumble, and begins to fall in love with him. But Grumble is really Prince Rumbold, heir to the troubled kingdom of Arilland–and the hated enemy of Sunday’s family. As Sunday and Rumbold fight to make their love story come true, secrets are revealed, magic is discovered, and the very fate of the kingdom hangs in the balance.

My take: It was next to impossible not to compare this book to The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry, which I read last week. I picked both books up at the local library at the same time. They’re both YA fantasy with heavy fairytale overtones, with curlicue font and pretty girls in dresses on the covers, and of course, they have very similar titles. It might not be a fair comparison, but I couldn’t help myself from making it. Of the two, Enchanted was definitely my favorite. I loved the kitchen-sink approach to the fairytales that Kontiss took and the way so many different stories, or pieces of stories, were woven throughout the tale. I could definitely tell that the author loved fairytales as much as I do. The beginning parts of the book reminded me of Patricia Wrede’s The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, with their parodic approach to beautiful princesses, heroic knights, and other fairy tale tropes. However, as it went on, the tone grew more serious and the story more layered and complex, until it reminded me more of a Robin McKinley retelling, like Spindle’s End or Beauty. Continue reading ‘Books of the Week’

Books of the Week

•September 15, 2012 • 1 Comment

I read a lot. So I figured instead of writing long boring reviews, I’d give a weekly breakdown of what I’ve read and how I liked it. I get my books from lots of different places–libraries, internet, friends, family. I’m a cheapskate, no getting around it, and so I like to read books I don’t have to pay for. (99 cent Kindle books are the next best thing. ) Suffice it to say that I’m not exactly reading the latest bestsellers most of the time. However, whatever I am reading, whether new and shiny or old and moldy, I always have an opinion.

I figured I’d share it with you. Aren’t I nice?

So this is the breakdown of this week’s books.

An Indiscreet Offer by Roberta Eckhart (Regency Romance)

The gist: Claire Dearing and her maiden Aunt Phoebe live destitute under the tyrannical thumb of Claire’s stepfather, only to discover upon his death that Claire is actually a wealthy woman.  Claire immediately decides to trade in her humdrum country existence for high living in the bright lights of London. Only, at 26, Claire is a confirmed spinster–too old for the debutante scene, but too restrained by the rules of society to entertain or take part in more risque pleasures. Her solution: pose as a young widow, spend a year in Bath making connections and perfecting her masquerade, and then take London by storm. With a wounded officer and his debutante sister aiding her scheme, Claire is certain that nothing can go wrong. That is, until she meets the Earl of Wentworth, the one man who could shatter her dreams in an instant…or fulfill her wildest fantasies.

My take: The biggest problem with this book is that it is downright dull. There is a wide and varied cast of characters, but none of them have more than a brief spark of life to them. The hero is one of the worst offenders. He is nothing more than a collection of characteristics and attributes, a pile of Regency cliches with nothing to make them fresh or even interesting. The heroine wasn’t much better. While her characterization was  a bit deeper and more original, it also drifted all over the places–outlandishly feisty in one chapter, docile and domestic in another, with no discernible arc to account for the changes. The author  also spends way too much time dwelling on minor characters and the day to day minutiae of life, and hardly any time on the main couple’s actual interactions, of which there were far too few. This works if you are Jane Austen and are bitingly satirizing the culture of your time. This book was not written by Jane Austen. Continue reading ‘Books of the Week’

Five Historical Pitfalls to Avoid

•September 8, 2012 • 2 Comments

Next to fantasy, historical fiction is my favorite genre. Like fantasy, historical fiction transports me to a different world, far removed from my ordinary existence.  I can visit exotic locales, enter new cultures and societies, and explore life from a very different perspective. Most of the problems faced by the characters are not so foreign that I can’t relate to them, but they’re not exactly going to be popping up in my daily life, either. Historical is also far and away my favorite romance sub-genre.

So my question today is just how historical do you like your historical fiction?

I feel like this question is especially relevant to historical romance. After all, in historical fiction, the answer is largely going to be shaped by the story you want to tell. If you’re interested in exploring the personal life of a historical figure, you are going to be confined by the known facts of that person’s life, but weave your imaginative story through the gaps and unknown details. If you’re telling the fictional story of someone who might have lived during a certain time period, you have much more leeway, although you still have certain parameters.

But in historical romance, the focus is typically on the romance, not the history. So just how important are all those historical details?

In my opinion, there are  five major  pitfalls that a romance author can fall into:

1. History Professor Gone Wild

I know you love the time period. I know you’ve done all this research. But for the love of heaven, I want to read a romance novel, not a dissertation on  Regency-era fashion or a treatise on the position of women in Victorian society.

Continue reading ‘Five Historical Pitfalls to Avoid’