Tag Archives: Fiction

Sunday Steals 1/15/2012

The Inside Story: It took Thanhha Lai 15 years to write her first novel, but it was well worth the wait

School Library Journal (which I suspect I read more often than most eighteen year old Antho/Classics majors) has several great blogs attached to their website (for a complete list click HERE) and this interview posted to their “The Inside Story” blog is really quite super. Here Thanhha Lai is interviewed regarding her experiences as a first time published author and her fascinating life story. Not just an interview with an author this is an interview with a well-spoken author who shares several great stories and provides inspiration to fellow writers.

Mrs Fry’s Indispensable Guide to Twitter

A rather useful post from the online diary of Mrs Stephen Fry, a goddess among mortals.


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“The Thirteenth Tale” [A Review]

Cover to the first edition

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A proper book tells a tale which sweeps you up, tumbles your emotions around, and then sets you down hours later, a changed reader. Dianne Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale does just that, and it does it in the twisting style of the Victorian Gothic story.

Set sometime in the 20th century (I thought ’50s, an online reader felt it was the ’70s, you can make your own call),  the story is as straight forward as a Fusilli Bucati Corti noodle, sure it’s got a direction but it’s got its twists along the way. Margaret Lea is a youngish woman who’s grown up in her family bookstore, a childhood that has left on her the mark of the weight of the stories we tell. A few pages in, her quiet, almost sad, life is shaken to the core when she receives a request from Vida Winter, the most popular writer in the world. Now the novel begins to spin the life story of Ms. Winter, a story in the vein of the Brontës and their contemporaries. As the story of the octogenarian writer unfolds itself, so does the story of Maragaret Lea, a personal, tragic, Woolfian story.

Now, I will not say that Ms. Setterfield is a particularly brilliant writer (as one reader pointed out on Goodreads– she’s quite fond of repeating phrases, particularly “hot, sweet tea”) but she does have quite the intricate brain in her skull. The myriad of subtle twists and turns that Ms. Winter’s personal history takes, the secrets that are quietly revealed, are cunning  and full of misdirection.

She also does something that I personally feel is quite important when writing mysteries. I don’t know about you, but I think that writers need to let us figure somethings out for ourselves. Not the whole enchilada, of course, just little plot points that, when worked out, make us go, “Oh! I am clever, aren’t I?” For example, the information revealed to us on page 349 was something that I was speculating at a few chapters earlier, though the true implications completely shocked me. The fact that I was able to guess made me feel all the more engaged in the novel, made it more relatable.

You really can’t read a review of The Thirteenth Tale without hearing comparisons to the great Victorian Gothics and it does raise the question of whether it’s a worthy comparison. Well, I’m going to cop out of answering that by saying: It’s worth making your own call. I mean, it has the style and personally I found it gripping, but I don’t want to assert anything that I can’t prove. So, pick it up, read it yourself, make up your own mind.

4/5 stars.

The Thirteenth Tale. Diane Setterfield. 2006. Atria Books. 

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My Top Ten Fictional Worlds

Train Station

Image by arthus.erea via Flickr

I’m so sorry about my week of lists kinda falling apart the other day but life is life and all that.
One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received from a teacher was on the touchy subject of dialog. If you want to craft believable dialog then don’t write as people talk in the “real” world. When you copy down actual dialog it’s difficult to read, in fact it usually rings hallow and is just dull. The trick is to write dialog that deceives the reader into thinking it sounds real. Basically it’s just an optical illusion but for the eyes and ears.
I feel like this stands true for crafting fictional worlds. A good fictional world, a world that you can feel yourself getting lost in, needs to be real. But when you only have a few hundred pages, or episodes, to convey the world in you can’t show everything, you can only show what the plot requires. The optical illusion that’s required here is the illusion that bends the readers’ mind so that they can’t see the gaps that you haven’t filled in and convinces them that they could leave the plot of the novel and the world would still exist.
These are my favorite worlds that absolutely, completely have me totally convinced of their reality. It’s not uncommon for me to spend my school time imagining myself wandering throughout the Lancre Forests on the Discworld or eating at Redwall Abbey or working for the Starfleet JAG offices or fighting for Animal rights with Elaphaba in Oz. These worlds are as real to me as my own.
  1. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
  2. JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth
  3. Gene Roddenberry’s Future
  4. George Lucas’ Galaxy Far, Far Away
  5. Brian Jacques’ World of Redwall
  6. Gregory Maguire’s Oz
  7. JK Rowling’s Earth
  8. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia
  9. Rien Poortuliet & Wil Hoygen’s Europe
  10. Oh gosh… Er… Look, I haven’t been sleeping well lately, can I get back to you on this one?

This is the fourth post in my week of lists. For Wednesday’s post click here.


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“Unfamiliar Fishes” [A Review]

”]New book

My first brush with Sarah Vowell occurred on This American Life where she is a somewhat frequent commentator. When I first heard her I thought she was amusing, well spoken and quite intelligent. The first book of her’s that I read, Assignation Vacation, reinforced my opinions of her (only change well spoken to kick ass writer) and reading The Wordy Shipmates really reinforced this. Unfamiliar Fishes has only really, really reinforced this.

Unfamiliar Fishes will be Ms. Vowell’s third history book (her other three were about her own life) when it’s published on March 11th. It’s story is one that I think is far too often brushed over: The story of how Hawaii lost its independence and was brought into the U.S. of A. My advanced reader’s copy is only 233 pages but it manages to convey a good hundred years worth of history with ease, starting with arrival of Captain Cook, the social changes that his arrival brought, the arrival of New England based missionaries, the social changes they brought, then the various meddlings of the American business interests (side note: sometimes I have trouble eating Dole bananas) and finally Hawaii’s annexation into America.

Weaving in her own history with the history of her subject is something that I’ve come to think of as a trademark of Ms. Vowell and she repeats this once again, and once again I find that it makes her writing all the more engaging.

Think of that really awesome teacher who’ve had. The really awesome teacher who managed to take History/Chemistry/Shop and turn it into a fascinating class where you didn’t even realize you were learning. The one who’s lectures were hard to stop paying attention to because you found yourself strangely committed to. That’s how I think of Ms. Vowell’s writing. She never becomes more complex then the situation requires, something that I think makes her easily accessed by most. And unlike some non-fiction writers who seem to view themselves as mini-gods with perfect facts Ms. Vowell acknowledges her own opinions and that sometimes the observer effects the results (or so I feel.)

Unfamiliar Fishes is another well written and highly informative text from Sarah Vowell and since she’s still young I think we can hope for plenty more to come.

4.5 stars out of 5.

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“The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet” [Review]

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

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Once again I’m setting a book aside without finishing it and once again I have no regrets. On Wednesday the 26th I finally decided that The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet really wasn’t for me. Which I found sad since it came so highly recommended (“Oh! You should read this! The main character is like you! You’ll Love it!” Bullshit) but I just could NOT get into this little novel.

My trouble revolved around my dislike for Mr. Temcumsah Sparrow Spivet himself, or at least the author’s portrayal of him. One thing that authors seem to struggle with is remembering childhood. More precisely, they struggle with placing an appropriate age for the maturity of their character. T.S. Spivet was one of those characters. While I could accept that he was a twelve year old prodigy with maps or whatever he simply didn’t sound or feel like a twelve year old. I’m fine with characters being younger then me and being smarter then me but the level at which T.S. Spivet was expressing himself was simply too mature for someone his age. I simply could not suspend my disbelief.

The other matter that turned me off was the writing style. Reif Larson seems like a nice writer but he also seems incapable of making up his mind. I found that he seemed to want to use every metaphor and writing trick that came to mind and then would even jump around between those from time to time. Honestly it felt like the book could have used some major editing for style. The best I can say for it was that it was quirky.

2/5 stars out of 5.

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As Always, Julia [A Review]

Joseph Raymond McCarthy.

"Communist food." --Joe McCarthy Image via Wikipedia

When I think of what makes a novel enjoyable I decide that a good novel should be so believable that you could take it for non-fiction. The author must create the world so exactly that you loose yourself in it and find yourself hours later wondering if it really was fiction. This, I believe, is the sign of a good novel.

But what about non-fiction? I find that the non-fiction books I enjoy are enjoyable because their stories are so incredible that I find myself hours later wondering it it really was non-fiction.

Which is why I was so delighted by As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (Selected and Edited by Joan Reardon. Spanning over 400 pages and almost a decade these are the collected letters exchanged between Julia Child (who needs no introduction) and Avis DeVoto (wife of Bernard DeVoto and impressive woman in her own right) starting from Julia’s letter to Bernard. That first letter was received by Avis, who acted as her husband’s secretary, and was responded to warmly. Julia wrote back. Then Avis. Then Julia. Soon they were dear friends (dear friends who did not meet in person for over two years) and Avis became a sort of shepard for Julia and Simca’s manuscript in America.

The story contained in this gorgeous book is not just the tale of the manuscript that Julia would refer to as “Gargantua”. Throughout these letters my heart was truly warmed by the love and friendship that grew between these two women. But it is not just a story of friendship either. Their friendship begins as McCarthyism is sweeping the nation and as two liberals with friends and family both supporting McCarthy and being hunted by McCarthy their letters contain riveting tales of the time.

I do have a few minor quibbles though. For starters there are times where I felt the book was unfairly slanted towards Julia (a woman who I love greatly for what it’s worth). The cover bears a photo featuring just the well-known woman and the title As Always, Julia (emphasis added) feels as though the book is from her eyes, after reading the book I feel confident that there are many other quotes that could have been selected. Of course, I am no expert on book printing (though I could understand that sales might be helped by more prominently showing the more famous of the two) so take that complaint with a grain of salt. However (I’m going to complain just a wee bit more), the photos on the inside and the little vignettes about the important events happening around them (vignettes I found to be indispensable) also seem to be tilted towards Julia though I found Avis’ life to be equally absorbing.

One last little bit of kvetching. The layout of the photos among the letters I found to be slightly awkward. Often times the photos (though they were quite lovely) depicted people and events referred to in past (and sometimes future) letters and there were times where I found myself momentarily loosing myself as I tried to place the scenes. Also, Ms. Reardon’s footnotes I often felt to be useful and with just the right amount of detail without distracting from the flow of the letters but there were times where there would be pages without a footnote when I felt at least one could have been needed. But these are petty.

On the note of the book’s appearance. Beautiful! The cover is bright and cheerful and makes me think of the 1950s while the inside is similarly well laid out. It might be more economical to purchase this as an e-book but I would be more than willing to plonk down the extra bucks for this in hardcover.

As Always, Julia is a book that only for Julia Child fanatics but one I’d recommend for casual food lovers, those interested in the 1950s and anyone who likes a good tale of friendship.

4.5 stars out of 5.

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Selections From “To The Lighthouse”

Portrait of Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 –...

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I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf‘s “To The Lighthouse” (is there an underscore feature on WordPress?) and her language has been just blowing me away. The exactness of her words, the complexity of her phrasing, the power that she carries with her. An image from one of the special features from the movie “The Hours” has been stuck in my mind as a I read this (actually, the image is always with me but more so as I read this): that of Virginia Woolf striding across the heath (or heather or peat or whatever it is she would be striding across) and barking out the phrases from her writings as she formed them in her mind. (I’ve found myself doing the same and call it “composing”.)

Anyways, here are some of my favorite passages from “To The Lighthouse”:

[p. 192:] But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

[p. 280:] So we took a little boat, she thought, beginning to tell herself a story of adventure about escaping from a sinking ship. But with the sea streaming through her fingers, a spray of seaweed vanishing behind them, she did not want to tell herself seriously a story; it was the sense of adventure and escape that she wanted

[p. 283:] He read, she thought, as if he were guiding something, or wheedling a large flock of sheep, or pushing his way up and up a single narrow path; and sometimes he went fast and straight, and broke his way through the bramble, and sometimes it seemed a branch struck at him, a bramble blinded him, but he was not going to let himself be beaten by that; on he went, tossing over page after page.

[p. 284:] so much depends, she thought, upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us; for her feeling for Mr Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay.

[p. 289:] Mr Carmichael had “lost all interest in life.” What did it mean — that? she wondered. Had he marched through Trafalgar Square grasping a big stick? Had he turned pages over and over, without reading them, sitting in his room in St. John’s Wood alone?

[p. 293:] He must have confided in her on one of those long expeditions when people got separated and walked back alone.

[p. 299:] At last then somebody had come into the drawing-room; somebody was sitting in the chair. For Heaven’s sake, she prayed, let them sit still there and not come floundering out to talk to her.

[p. 306:] He was so pleased that he was not going to let anybody share a grain of his pleasure.

[p.  309:] Then, surging up, puffing slightly, old Mr Carmichael stood beside her, looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident (it was only a French novel) in his hand.

The page numbers relate to my edition (Harcourt, Brace & World Inc.; New York; Copyrighted: 1955 by Leonard Woolf) and with special thanks to http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91t/index.html from where many of my final quotes were copy and pasted from (finger cramps and all that.)

You’ll notice that several of the quotes are from the final pages of the book. Soon after starting this post I realized that I could not fit every quote I wanted into the post (for a complete collection of my favorite passages go to your local library or local bookstore and get your own copy) and so focused onto one section to weed and prune until I had the exact ones I wanted.


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