Fairy Tale Book Review: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

November 14, 2013

BreadcrumbsBreadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wavered between giving this a high three stars or a low four. It was beautifully written, with believable characters and motivations. For me its main drawback was how long it took to get going; for half the book, it’s really just literary fiction rather than fantasy or fairy tale retelling, which makes the occasional fantastical elements feel out of place. The writing style in the beginning half also felt a little distant to me, similar to the writing in fantasy classics like the Narnia series, which I’ve never really loved.

The book really picks up in the second half, though, and here we see Anne Ursu’s fantasy writing skills on full display. Hazel’s trip into the woods leads her through one surreal experience after another, many of them enough to cause a lingering shiver when you think of them. The woods are also rich with metaphor, longing, and darkness, where things are not what they seem. This is “hero’s quest” writing at its best; it changes the character and tests her mettle, and you know nothing will ever be the same again.

The winter ambiance was also incredibly rich. No surprise that the author lives in Minnesota! One comment on the audio version, which is how I read this book: they made the odd choice to have a male narrator even though the story is told almost exclusively from Hazel’s perspective, making a female voice seem the more logical choice. The reader did have a good “storytelling” voice, but that may have contributed to certain parts of the book feeling a tad distant as well.

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Fairy Tale Book Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

September 1, 2013

Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book had nice pacing, a good narrative arc, and perhaps most importantly, a good balance between its two primary storylines — the continuation of Cinder’s story, and the introduction of Scarlet. Initially I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as Cinder because I didn’t like Scarlet as much as I liked Cinder. I think I still prefer Cinder, but by the end of the book, Scarlet had grown on me.

I think what I really love about this series is the way that it melds so many different genres that I like — although it’s science fiction with spaceships and androids, it’s “light” science fiction, so I don’t have to feel stupid if I don’t get the “hard” science. The retold fairy tales bring something new to the table, but they also stay true to their source material. I felt a little ambivalent about how closely this one skirted toward the paranormal romance genre, but it’s still loads better than “Twilight” or even “Sisters Red.”

While these books have a nice balance of plotting and character development, I do feel uncomfortable with how cavalier they are about death. Characters who are vitally important to the protagonists die in both books, and their passing doesn’t seem to engender the kind of bereavement that it should, feeling too much like a plot point and not like a devastating loss. These books maintain my interest and my emotional investment, but they don’t bring me anywhere close to tears — which they should. Instead, the deaths make me feel indignant, like the character has been dealt an injustice not only in losing their loved one, but in not being allowed the emotional resonance that the situation calls for.

Still, I loved the way Marissa Meyer managed to intertwine Cinder’s and Scarlet’s stories, and I look forward to seeing how she will continue to weave ever-more fairy tale threads together in future books.

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Speculative Fiction … Literary Fiction’s Best-Kept Secret

August 19, 2013

A couple weeks ago, I commented on a newly published author’s implication that the reason many writers are not getting published is because they’re writing stories with fantastical elements (and received a very insightful comment from one of my readers that the nature of this particular author’s novel, Race Across the Sky, follows fantasy’s “hero quest” paradigm. Hm.)

This same podcast series also included an interview with Emily Croy Barker, author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. There was no denying that this was a book of fantasy; the interviewer admitted that she didn’t read much fantasy and was “pleasantly surprised” that she enjoyed the book. She then went on to ask Ms. Barker whether she read fantasy, as though we were about to receive a scandalous reveal. Not surprisingly, Ms. Barker said that she did, without hesitation. (I would have been disappointed if she didn’t, as I don’t think authors have much business publishing in genres they don’t even read.)

I’ve been noticing this tendency to eschew the sci-fi or fantasy label amongst other recent books that clearly draw upon the genre for their premises. The July issue of BookPage includes a review of a novel called The Humans which is told from the perspective of an alien who seeks to intercept humans’ development of a certain technology, which he doesn’t believe they’re ready for. In case you missed this important point, this book is told from the perspective of an alien. But instead of being labeled as science fiction, it receives the rather vague designation of “popular fiction.”

On the next page, we have a review of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a novel in which the main character time travels and inhabits different lives while she receives electroshock therapy for depression. The genre? Literary fiction. That’s shortly followed up by Sisterland, a novel about twins with psychic abilities, which is designated as merely “fiction.”

I saw something similar happen with The Time Traveler’s Wife. It has time travel in the title. There is actual time traveling in the book. There is even a (somewhat weak) “scientific” explanation for the time travel. I defiantly shelved it with “science fiction” on my Goodreads account, although you’ll find it under “fiction” or “literature” in most libraries and bookstores.

Can you think of other examples?

So, if time traveling, aliens, and the ability to predict the future don’t qualify as science fiction, what exactly does? To me, this comes down to the problem of a desire to elevate “literature” above genre. Literature is read by those who like to feel superior, convinced that they read for enlightenment rather than for entertainment, and that their college + educations make them oh-so-much-better judges of good literature than the masses. If you want women’s book clubs to buy your book, or to have a shot at that Oprah sticker on the cover, you better not be shelved with genre fiction.

Literary fiction is generally understood as fiction that is character driven, that is concerned with the artfulness of the storytelling, and that attempts to say something “larger” about humanity and/or the world. I have no doubt that the books referenced above fit these descriptions. They may not follow what are considered “typical” fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but then, the very best in any genre reaches beyond expectation. And genre fiction will continue to struggle to be taken seriously if those who are employing aspects of genre as central features in their story deny their association with their high-fantasy and space-opera writing kin.

Despite all the talk about geek being “chic,” apparently in the book world science fiction still reeks of fanboys dressed in Trek gear and shelves cluttered with action figure collections. I’ve certainly encountered this culture (and found much to love in it, btw) as a lifelong lover of science fiction and fantasy. But I’ve also found people who are willing to look critically at the world, to ask the big “what if?” questions, and to join in deeply exploring this thing we call life. Although reading sci-fi and fantasy is certainly not a prerequisite for friendship with me, I find that all my closest relationships are, indeed, with other speculative fiction readers–because they are willing to “boldly go” into new territory of the mind, and bring a continued sense of wonder to the world.

Thus, I think it’s a shame that fantasy and sci-fi writers with a somewhat literary bent distance themselves from this rich community, reinforcing stereotypes that it is not real literature (as opposed to their own story about an alien). I, too, strive to infuse my fantasy and science fiction with literary conventions; plot tends to emerge as secondary behind writing and characters for me. But when I publish, I will wear the label of fantasy/sci-fi writer proudly, and have no doubts about the good company I am in.

Fantasy … Less Worthy of Publication?

August 5, 2013

Through my library work, I have access to Penguin’s “First Flights” program, which features interviews with first-time authors. A little over a week ago, I was listening to the interview with Derek Sherman, author of Race Across the Sky.

During these chats, the interviewer almost always asks the author about his experience of getting his first book published. (Most of these authors explain the process as “unexpectedly easy,” which is rather depressing to a passionate, unpublished author! Does this have anything to do with the fact that these are the books the publisher has chosen to promote? Was publication “easy” because what they wrote “happened” to be just the sort of thing that publisher was looking for and wanting to publish? At any rate, I hope this isn’t a truly “representative sample.”)

Beware the dragons’ wrath!

When the interviewer asked Derek Sherman this question, he mentioned how Googling “I’ve just written a novel, what next?” brings up a lot of blogs from disgruntled authors complaining about how it’s impossible to get anything published unless you’re already famous. Then he added, “Then you find out they’re all writing novels about dwarves, and dragons …”

As a writer of fantasy, I wasn’t sure exactly how to take this comment. As he contrasted the “ease” with which he was published against these “disgruntled” authors, was he saying that the reason such authors weren’t getting published is because they’re writing fantasy? Is this a genre that is somehow less worthy of publication, or new talent? My husband suggested the most positive take on this comment, which was that perhaps he was saying that particular field was already so “flooded” that it was hard for new folks to break in. But I don’t think so — despite breakout successes like Harry Potter and classics like Lord of the Rings, I still think that fantasy and sci-fi remains a very niche genre. At least, through my work in libraries over the past several years, I’ve noticed that few library workers read sci-fi/fantasy (among a sub-population who are very big readers), and the sci-fi and fantasy aisles are decidedly smaller than the “mysteries” or “general fiction.”

I’m curious about other potential interpretations of this comment. Is writing about “dwarves and dragons” a justifiable roadblock in and of itself to publication? I don’t think so, and it rankles me that any author would summarily dismiss unpublished authors in another genre, while he basks on his pedestal of publication.

As for me, I’ll keep writing about dwarfs and dragons, and reading about them, too. And I’m going to pass on Race Across the Sky.

The Dark Crystal Authorquest and Writing on Assignment

July 29, 2013

A few weeks ago, I decided that I needed to put my Rapunzel novel on hold so that I could wrap up a few other fiction projects. The first was my Rumpled ebook. The second is entering a submission in The Dark Crystal Authorquest contest.

I found out about the Authorquest about a month ago. I saw The Dark Crystal once as a little girl, and again as a teen. I was always intrigued by the world and I loved the puppetry. When I watched it again after deciding to enter the contest, I realized I’ve been having dreams about the Mystics for years, but was unable to place where the images had come from. Now I know they must have lodged in my subconscious from my earlier viewings of The Dark Crystal. That gave me a sense of connection to the material that confirmed my decision to enter the contest.

I have three books about The Dark Crystal waiting for me at the library, and I’m hoping reading them will spark something. I’ve been making notes, watching the movie and all the commentary, reading everything on DarkCrystal.com. But still, a story hasn’t emerged for me.

I feel like I am absolutely qualified to write something of this nature. The Authorquest is searching for a young adult, fantasy series. I write fantasy. I write young adult. I’ve also written a lot of fan-fiction, so I understand working within someone else’s creation.

But as the days pass and I find myself no closer to an idea, my confidence wavers. I think, if I’m having this much trouble, there’s no way I could win the contest. But it’s not really about winning anymore. Now, it’s about proving to myself that I can do this. Although I write non-fiction on assignment frequently as a freelancer, I’ve only successfully written fiction on assignment once, when I wrote my short story “The Man in the Mirror” specifically for inclusion in Queer Dimensions. But the idea of writing fiction on assignment has always intrigued me, and I know other writers make their living doing this. Consider the ghost writers for the Animorphs series, the V.C. Andrews books that kept being published after she was long-dead, and the James Patterson writing factory.

I remember watching the special features on the JEM DVD collection (one of my favorite TV shows from my childhood), and hearing Christie Marx talk about how she was given the character designs for the JEM doll line and tasked to write a TV series about them. Some people think that this type of work is done “just for the money” or “just to sell the merchandise,” but I don’t agree. I fully believe that, even writing fiction on assignment, even when taking direction from someone else’s vision, you can fall in love with the story you’re writing. It can become just as precious as your totally original work. Erin Hunter (actually a pseudonym for a team of writers) was hired specifically to write a fantasy series about cats. The head writer, Victoria Holmes, doesn’t even like cats — but she is able to write dozens of books, which her readers adore, because she’s taken the cats’ storylines and made them her own, weaving her own personal experiences — such as health crises — into the Warriors plots. If a writer doesn’t come to cherish her fiction, I don’t think it will connect with readers the way that the Warriors series clearly has.

I know I can’t force creativity, but I need to keep showing up nonetheless. Reading, imagining, jotting down the bare wisps of ideas at the corners of my mind. I want to do this not to win the $10,000 or the publishing contract (although those things would be wonderful!) but to prove to myself that it’s something I can do.

I’ll let you know if I turn out to be right.