Review: Shadow and Bone

This is one of many that I bought ages ago with every intention of reading, only to let it sit on my shelf until someone else talked about how much they enjoyed it. Over the long weekend, I figured I’d give it a whirl.

Shadow and Bone 

By Leigh Bardugo

Publisher: Henry Holt & Co, Square Fish, 2013.

The basics

In the Russian-influenced fantasy world Ravka, there are people who can manipulate reality, called Grisha, and everyone else. Ravka has been at war with its neighboring countries Fjerda and Shu Han for decades, but worse is the terrible Unsea, a scar of shadow magic infested with monsters that essentially divides Ravka in half. Ravka has two armies in this war: the First Army, made up of normal humans, and the Second Army, made up of Grisha and led by the most powerful Grisha, known as the Darkling.

Alina, a cartographer in the First Army, thought she was among the least exceptional of everyone else–thin, clumsy, and none too pretty. Doesn’t help that her best (and only) friend Mal is exceptional in so many ways. Imagine her surprise when an attempt to travel through the Unsea awakens Alina’s dormant Grisha power. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the Darkling declares the scrawny cartographer is their way to win the war at last.

The craft 

I flew through this book, in part because of the engaging world, but also because of its refreshingly active narrative. Crisp descriptions and lively verbs keep even the long treks across Ravka interesting. Alina has a quick tongue and I often found myself laughing at her conversations with other characters. Characters like Genya, a talented servant caught in the drama of court, brought a dynamic I’m not used to seeing in young adult fantasies.

That being said, there were a lot of “tropey” parts of the story I’d hoped would be a little different. Once again, we have a school (the Little Palace) where special young people learn how to control their powers–not unlike Vampire Academy or Harry Potter. Once again, we have the inexperienced yet unexpectedly powerful teenage girl who arrives on the scene to save the world just in time. Part of that, I know, is the genre, but I was hoping for something I hadn’t seen before.

Overall, however, I enjoyed the read. It helped jog some ideas for my own story, and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.


Review: World, Chase Me Down

Was lucky enough to pick up an advanced reader of this at a work conference back in October. Initially I grabbed it because of the title–it implied such defiance, such deliberate danger–and because I’ve been wanting to break into more Western genre books. After I started, I realized it had been blurbed by two of my old college professors, so then I of course had to see it through to the end. Very glad I did.

World, Chase Me Down

By Andrew Hillman

Publisher: Penguin, Jan 2017

The Basics

Based on the true story of Pat Crowe, a poor butcher who got away with kidnapping his rich ex-boss’s son in Omaha, 1900, this story spans a little more than thirty years. He runs across the world and back while the newspapers try to decide whether he’s a criminal for holding an innocent boy for randsom, or a hero, taking $25,000 in gold from a millionaire businessmen who profits off overpriced meat. It’s an outlaw story and a have vs have-nots story all at once.

The Craft

The story is told in two parts, and each part in turn tells two separate parts of the story, alternating timelines every other chapter. So essentially, the story is divided into fourths. 

Part one tells the story of the kidnapping in real time, intersected by the events that compelled Crowe to comit the crime in the first place.

Part two is a court room drama, detailing what happened when Crowe finally turned himself in, woven in with his adventures during his 5 years on the run.

The effect is somewhat jarring–I found myself favoring certain timelines over others, wishing a chapter (and its conflicts and developments and sometimes really hilarious dialogue) didn’t have to switch to an entirely different time and place. But as all parts of the story are really the reflections of an older man, the mess of memories ultimately makes sense.

Crowe’s voice is slow, careful, almost mournful. There’s a bitterness in these reflections, but not quite regret. Almost like he’s saying that the things he’d done, and the things done to him, were really messed up–but hell, what a ride.

For someone who doesn’t read much in the way of westerns, this was certainly an entertaining read, even if the sometimes hopelessness of this character’s life made for slow reading. Will definitely keep my eye out for the next thing Hilleman writes. 

Thoughts on Doing Something

At church recently, our pastor brought up an interesting concept he had been toying with over the past month. It’s a fairly simple concept with profound implications in multiple areas of life, an easier-said-than-done idea:

“If something needs to get done, do it.”

After trying to suppress any Shia LaBeouf-related giggles, the full implication of the idea hit me. Something must get done, so do it. There is a need, so fill it.

I’m someone who makes lists daily, things I need to do, separate lists for both work and home. If I can cross off most of the things on the list in a day, I consider it a success. But then there are the things that appear on every list, the things that never seem to get crossed off. This blog tends to be one of them.

On a larger scale, there are so many things this world–in my immediate space and globally–that are left undone. People in my own city who are hungry or who don’t have a coat as winter approaches. Friends who don’t realize their own worth. Refugees who might not survive to return to what’s left of their homes.

I’ve always been acutely aware of how little impact I have on the world. Sometimes I lie awake and think about that, being one whisper in the whirlwind of humanity. The terrifying thought also humbles me, keeps me grounded. It becomes a problem when I let that thought become a crutch. When I grow complacent. When I recognize that something needs to get done, but I’m so convinced of my own inability that I don’t even attempt to rise to the occasion.

I can’t let that be a reason to do nothing anymore. I have to start speaking up.

What a radical idea, to believe a whisper in the whirlwind could be overheard. But I’m going to try. To write like what I say matters, instead of deleting every post I start to draft. To speak like those listening will remember what I say. To live like I can change the world, without my name ever appearing in the history books

Whatever it is you’re passionate about–be it writing fantasy or fighting for social justice or anything in between–you care about those things because you’ve recognized a need for them. Fulfill that need. Your own ability or lack thereof means nothing if you’re not also willing to act.

Pretty grandiose words for a blog about writing, I know. But I think this is what I needed to say.

And now, I need to get back to writing.

Review: This Is Only a Test

A brief disclaimer: This book was published by Indiana University Press, but my employer, the University of Nebraska Press, has published several of B. J. Hollars’ other works. Even so, this review is an honest one. The fact that I will later be helping Hollars promote his other books is a happy accident.

tioatThis Is Only A Test

by B. J. Hollars

Indiana University Press

The Basics

A collection of musings on natural disasters, Hollars writes about wonder and terror one feels when at the mercy of the universe. The first section details how he survived the EF-4 tornado that struck his home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (by hiding in the bath tub with his wife, dog, and unborn child). Following sections dwell on drowning and destruction, on nuclear fallout and the potential loss of a child. These essays are clouded with tragedy, or at the very least, the fear of tragedy, yet a genuine love for life shines through the gloom.

In some ways, it can be easy to write about tragedies like tornadoes and tsunamis and bombs. They’re all horrible. They all lead to sullen contemplation about humanity and mortality. But here, Hollars does something very original. By placing essays on a late childbirth and baby’s first fever amid these other musings, he emphasizes how parenting is as much a natural disaster as a tornado or an earthquake. One brief instant, one positive pregnancy test, and your whole world is rocked.

The Craft

The book is a collection of short essays, divided by topic into three parts. Hollars plays with formatting throughout. Some essays are straight narrative and read more like fiction. Some essays are letters to his unborn children. One is formatted like a quiz. Several take the form of a list, Hollars’ own experiences and thoughts bunched together with related historical facts.

The lists were my favorites, as they clearly showed the thinking path these natural disasters lead Hollars to travel. When a boy in his neighborhood drowns, Hollars finds himself thinking about how people drowned throughout history, and why, and where, and whether some of them could have been prevented. It’s a very human reaction, and I could very clearly pick up on Hollars’ sheer bafflement at the world, a world torn apart both by tornadoes without conscience and men who consciously drop bombs on other men.

The shorter essays were also easier to handle. Not that the longer essays were difficult reading. Hollars’ writing is clear and coherent, and whatever bunny trails he might follow, they all lead back to wherever he started. But throughout this collection there is a quiet panic, a subversive fear for his children, for the victims and soon-to-be victims of disaster. Breaking these thoughts into essays was wise. If Hollars had chosen to write a novel or a traditional memoir based only on, say, the EF-4 and his town’s struggle to put itself back together, his fear would have soaked the pages, and readers would have drowned in it. The page breaks kept the story buoyant without making light of the subject.

I finished this in one weekend. Highly recommended.


Encouragement in Rejection

Rejection letters are part of the package deal of being an active writer. A really excellent article from Lit Hub even suggests getting 100 rejection letters a year is a great goal to set, because it means you’re constantly working, constantly writing. Those notes denying publication–especially if you’re aiming to get 20+ annually–pile up fast.

Most writers I know do something with their rejection letters. Some use them as kindling. Some store them in a file they only open when they’re feeling particularly self-depricating. One of my English professors had a friend who once laquered her coffee table with rejection letters. There are many creative, even helpful uses for rejection letters, but that doesn’t make them easy to read or a pleasure to receive. Many times I have opened my inbox to see a much-awaited email from a publication. I have tried to ignore the hopeful flutter in my chest and the following plummet as I read the form rejection: “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, we can’t accept it.”

I have received many rejections. Today, I wrote one.

I work for a publisher who recently hosted a literary contest. As the pub date for that anthology draws closer, I was assigned the task of informing contributors whether or not they were accepted for publication. Due to technical difficulties in the office, it took longer than expected to start typing these letters. But my struggle to get it done didn’t have anything to do with my IT issues. It took me a full hour to send them all because, just like when I submit my own work, my cursor hovered longer than necessary over “send,” thinking about what the receiver of each message would think of my words.

As I sent one painful email after another, I found myself wondering where each one would eventually end up. Plastered on a bathroom wall, piled in a tear-splattered folder, or set ablaze from spite. Few of these writers had ever been published before. Many of them would be reading “Thanks, unfortunately” for the first time. Many of them would take the email in stride, glad they at least tried, and continue. Others might never try again. And that is what upset me most–the idea that, for some, “no” would resound throughout their fledgling creative career.

I still have the very first rejection letter I ever received. I expected it from submission, unwilling to get hopeful. I read at least three times the evening I received it, and I’ve read it a dozen times since. Not out of any amount of self-pity, but because it was actually one of the most encouraging things I’ve ever read.

The last line of the email was, “Good luck with all your publishing endeavors.”

Maybe that’s not too monumental for some, but for me–finishing college, wondering whether or not my writing was worth pursuing in college–it meant the world. Maybe the sender couldn’t,  or wouldn’t, help me get published, but they assumed I would continue trying. They assumed their rejection letter wouldn’t be the last one I ever received, because I would endeavor to publish many times after, and, eventually, succeed.

I tried to remember that as I imagined the fluttering and  plummeting hearts of the contributors I emailed this afternoon. I tried to end each email with the same sentiment that had so encouraged me. That the best thing I could do was to try again. I ended each email with, “Keep writing.”

Tomorrow I will send the acceptance letters, and I will end them the same way. Because as a writer and as a person trying to improve, the worst thing you could do is stop trying again.



Characterization in Action

I’m not very good at writing fight scenes. Between my limited understanding of different fighting styles and my desire to keep descriptions fast and simple, all of my fight scenes end up reading almost the same way every time.

Another problem I often have with action-heavy scenes is a loss of characterization. When punches are flying and swords are gleaming, my writing often gets so clogged with generic fighting terms that every fighter has the same flurry of movements. Everyone sounds the same. Even I start to  lose track of who is fighting whom.

Luckily, with the amount of anime my husband enjoys watching, I’ve been exposed to a lot more action scenes of late. One in particular stood out to me not only as a budget-busting, beautifully animated sequence, but a stellar example of bringing a touch of characterization into an action-heavy scene.


The Sword of the Stranger is your classic action-driven anime. Pursued by a nefarious group of warriors who are into some wicked blood magic, a scrappy young boy and his adorable dog team up with a loner samurai to stay alive. As the stoy goes on, we learn the samurai, called Nanashi, is a loner because he is a foreigner–in 1500s(ish) Japan, he has red hair. He’s been dying it black to blend into normal society for years. He learned how to make the dye from the oils from boiled nuts. Because he has to reapply the dye often, he always carries a bag of nuts with him.

With that information, let’s skip to that fight scene I was talking about. Scrappy young boy has been captured by nefarious group of warriors, and adorable dog and loner samurai have come to the boy’s rescue. Nanashi is disarmed, and for a moment it looks like he’s about to be sliced open, leaving scrappy boy unsaved.

How can he defend himself? Not with his sword–he made a vow never to draw that sword again, and the moment is so not cool enough to break his vow just yet. What else does he always have on him?

The bag of nuts.

So Nanashi throws the bag at his enemy, deflecting the blow. There’s even a nice shot of the fabric hitting the ground, nuts tumbling over the snow, giving the viewer a moment to recognize the thrown object before the battle resumes.

That is characterization in action!

Because of the earlier scenes, we know the significance of the bag of nuts (to make the dye that makes Nanashi acceptable to normal society). We don’t need a flashback to remind us, so no flashback interrupts the fight sequence. We don’t need a lengthy internal monologue where Nanashi debates whether it’s worth throwing the bag that allows him to roam the world un-persecuted, whether the situation is that desperate–it is, he throws it, and we get the picture.

The Sword and the Stranger stands as a great reminder that as long as I’ve set up such characterizing details earlier in a story, it doesn’t take much to sprinkle them over intense scenes in a way that doesn’t bog them down. Distinguishing the fighters in a fight scene can be as easy as having one of them throw a bag of nuts.

Rethink Your Writing

The word appeared in the margins of many an early draft, sometimes underlined, sometimes followed by a question mark. Sally, the woman who ran the weekly writer’s work shop I attended every Wednesday in high school, used “rethink” as shorthand for “I don’t get it–and as your reader, if I don’t get what you’re saying, you need to think of a better way to say it.”

The first few times I found “rethink” scribbled in red or blue ink on the pages of first drafts, I’ll admit I was a little take aback. (What did she mean, that line wasn’t brilliant?!) But taking the time to go over those passages that made perfect sense in my own head helped me understand that writing was about more than writing down what was in my head. Writing requires that you convey the image, the plot, the dialogue so well that it appears in someone else’s head. It’s incredibly difficult to do that in a first draft.

That’s the amazing part about having your witing critiqued by someone. You need someone to tell you when your brillant words aren’t actually as brilliant as you think. You need someone to question the parts of the story about which you’re most certain.

Outside of a few scattered fiction classes in college, I haven’t had much in the way of serious, consistent critique since that weekly workshop in high school. But I have kept writing. My novel in progress has gone through three separate drafts. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Still, it’s far from finished. In fact, I’ve barely looked at it over the past few months because I’ve known I need to “rethink” quite a bit of it. Finding the problem in your own writing can be exhausting.

After what feels like ages of frustrated writing, I finally realized the problem. I had written the whole novel assuming the story was about the character telling the story, but with a little rethinking, I proved myself wrong. I had made a mistake, thinking this one character was the hero of the story.

And quite frankly, so did the rest of my characters.

With every character just as surprised as I am, the story feels much less scripted and more organic. By rethinking something as fundamental as who is the story is about, my writing has finally come unstuck. I can finally look at the draft of this manuscript with some confidence again.

The next hardest thing will be getting the idea out of my head and onto paper. And most likely, I’ll need someone other than myself to tell me when to “rethink” another passage.