Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book Review: Audacity

“In under an hour, [the sun] is gone again
slipped past the edge of the next building
like an egg yolk
sliding out of the shell.”

Poetic imagery can be so fresh sometimes. It’s like a breath of fresh air, even if the images aren’t entirely aesthetically pleasing. What’s so nice about an egg yoke slipping away after such a short time period? I suppose that’s the point. It’s supposed to sound uneasy as daylight is short and precious in a large city like New York.

The above quotation is just one of the main pieces that stuck out to me, and I could quote them all, but then I might as well hand you the book.

Book: Audacity by Melanie Crowder
Genre: Young Adult, Poetry, Historical Fiction
My rating: 4/5 stars
One-word description: Empowering

When I attended WriteOnCon, an online writing conference, earlier this month, I logged into a live panel featuring five different authors of novels in verse. Of course, I was excited. These authors wrote poetry after all! And YA/MG fiction as well. It’s like the best of both worlds. Audacity is one of the many books I added to my to-be-read list and the first I requested from my local library.

When I noticed that the cover says “inspired by a true story,” I knew I’d picked the right book. Historical fiction it is! I don’t know nearly enough about suffrage as I should, and I feel like this novel is a great place to start.

This particular novel in verse is the first that I’ve read (which isn’t too many, truth be told) that included form poetry, as if the novel itself laughed at the idea of formalities and took flight all on its own. Which is of course wonderful considering all the bird imagery in the book underlying the theme of fire.

I only wish the story would have delved more into the fire that took place in March 25, 1911. Instead, the book ends with the date November 23, 1909, about two years earlier, and focuses on the strike rather than the reform itself. While the fire is mentioned in the historical note at the end, it is not in the novel itself: “When Clara and […] many others spoke in the aftermath of the fire of the need for reform, the public finally listened.”

I’m also not sure I knew the main character’s name, Clara Lemlich, until the acknowledgements. But I suppose it’s hard with first person and with poetic novels to include the narrator’s name. As a writer, I know firsthand how hard it is to slip the main character’s name into a story told from a first-person perspective.

You will lose,
          I say
if you try to strike
on your own without us.
[...] It is only by standing together
—men and women—
that we can ever hope
to outlast them.

In this particular passage, Clara is speaking to the men’s union, but I believe her words are still applicable today. If we’re going to call for public reform, we cannot go about it by putting another group down, whether its men vs. women or one race vs. another. I’m not saying that standing together is easy. It certainly wasn’t for Clara, who faced rejection, slander, beatings. But she stood by her belief in fighting for women’s rights to work in a good environment.

Of course, there’s so much more to the novel than Clara’s involvement in the unions. There’s her passion for learning and reading poetry, her experience as a Yiddish immigrant to New York during the early 1900s, her interest in birds and beauty even among a crowded city.

In all, I gave Audacity 4/5 stars for an excellent narrative, imagery, and themes but some vague details. Reminiscent of The Boston Girl, I’d recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, poetry, and women’s rights in employment. I look forward to reading my next novel in verse!

Does the sound of Audacity spark your interest? You might also enjoy these titles: The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, and Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee.

Keep your eye out for future posts! I have one on 7 Reasons I Enjoy Novels in Verse in the works.

Let’s chat! Has Audacity made it to your to-be-read list yet? Have you read it? If you like novels in verse, which is your favorite? What are some of your favorite poetic quotes?


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Writing about Castles (Featuring Dragons!)

One of my earliest memories comes from the first time my family and I lived in Germany—of me escaping from my parents, walking on a red carpet, and approaching a gaping castle gate. I can’t recall if these are all one castle or several, but every now and then in the present, I get a glimpse of what I might have seen as a toddler.

Fast forward to the second time I came to Germany during my sophomore year in college. After a quick trip to a local backerei, my parents took my brother and me to visit a couple ruined castles, the first being Reussenstein. Dad kept asking me if I remembered anything, but I didn’t. Then he told me about the time he took my brother and I there when we were kids. I had wandered off, and Dad thought I fell off a cliff. Turns out, I had gone back to the car.

Bleary-eyed and jetlagged, the visit during my sophomore year seemed surreal, touching the stone walls, breathing in the damp air, seeing the layout of the forest and towns below. Four years later, I can’t get enough of ruined castles, and I even have favorites among the ones we’ve been to.

Over those years, I can’t say I’m an expert—does such a thing exist?—but I’ve learned quite a bit. Here are just a couple tips for you writers who may dabble in castling whether it be in real life or in books.

A City within a City

“Guys, I want a castle.” —Flynn Rider, Tangled

A castle isn’t just an overly fortified mansion with a throne room and a dungeon. More often than not, it’s a self-sustaining civilization on its own, meant to withstand a siege and still be able to carry on with life in times of peace. As such, most castles would contain everything from a barracks and weaponry to a chapel and kitchen.

The three main parts of the castle include the outer wall, the courtyard, and the keep. Once you have those parts, it’s easier to establish where the other rooms are. And one of the things I’ve found about most European castles—at least the ones that are still intact—most of them are not set up like an American hotel. In other words, they don’t always have a nice little hallway right outside all the rooms allowing for a structured layout. Instead, most of the rooms are adjoining.

Citadels and Strongholds

Size matters when it comes to castles, particularly when it comes to building costs and upkeep. Smaller castles are easier to maintain but may be harder to defend whereas larger castles require greater costs to maintain and are harder to attack. Likewise, the style and material of the castle will often depend on where it’s built. Many older castles are assembled with the local stones, giving the building a more rugged look, while more recent castles appear more finished and may have imported stone.

Also, as much as I’m a fan of Lord of the Rings, I always wonder how Minas Tirith was maintained by a country that barely managed to fight off the forces of Mordor. Seriously, where did all the resources come from? Edoras (even though it’s more of a walled city) and Helms Deep, on the other hand, seem like more realistic and sizable castles.

Schloss Neuschwanstein

Movies tend to make castles look much larger than is practical. Castles were and continue to be incredibly difficult to maintain. Not all ruined castles are in ruins today because they were attacked. Some fell into decay because they were abandoned. Other castles, like Schloss Neuschwanstein, were built at a later time for decoration and for their architecture, nearly bankrupting the country, rather than for practical defense.

Practicality and Towers

Did you know that most towers in castles curve up and to the left? This feature is for defense purposes. Should the castle ever be breached, the defenders would have the upper hand because the center pillar of the tower would block all incoming right-handed swordsman while the defenders would have all the room they needed from the top.

In the Palace of Rygia actually addresses this point when one army uses left-handed swordsmen in their attempt to infiltrate the castle.

One of my pet peeves in films is when they don’t care about how towers are structured when in fact, they are one of the biggest defensive points if the castle is breached. (Sorry Beauty and the Beast fans, but nobody builds towers with stairways going both directions.)

Counterclockwise Staircase, Hohenurach
Photo Credit: Michael T. Klein

Of course, there are exceptions. If a particular point needs to be defended from below rather than above, a stairway may curve to the right instead of the left. I’ve seen maybe one or two stairways that are the exception, such as the one in Neuschwanstein (maybe King Ludwig II was left-handed?).

Secret Passageways

Good news! Secret passageways aren’t just found in stories. They also exist in real castles. The castle in Nottingham, England happens to have a tunnel because there are a lot of caves in the area, and sandstone is great for carving out tunnels. Likewise, Burg Hohenzollern (Germany) has a secret passageway that leads from the courtyard to the outer wall. Even Schloss Linderhof (Germany), which is more of a palace than a castle, has a hidden door (which isn’t actually very hidden because the tour guides insist on pointing it out).

Schloss Linderhoff

Defense and Landscape

Before I visited Europe, I thought castles could be built anywhere. Turns out, they’re usually built in places with strategic advantage.

In southern Germany, with all the surrounding hills, castles are located above local towns, giving the castle the ability to see approaching enemies and making it difficult for them to approach the castle at all.

However, English castles don’t always have the advantage of steep hills and gaping cliffs, but they do have another advantage—water. The Tower of London, for example, used to be protected not only by its thick walls but also by a moat, before it was drained around the 1830s.

Just a couple of points on defensive points: rounded towers are better than ones with corners because there’s nowhere for enemies to hide. Gaping windows are not practical or defensible for outer walls.

Defense and Dragons

“Ah, Frodo, Erebor! Built deep within the mountain itself, the beauty of this fortress city was legend. Its wealth lay in the earth in precious gems hewn from rock and in great seams of gold running like rivers through stone.” —Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana

If your story is set in a fantasy world, you have to take mythical attacks into consideration as well as human invaders. For example, a stable with a thatched roof wouldn’t stand up to dragon fire as well as one with tiles or rock shingles. If the story has magic, protective shields or cloaking could can come in handy.

But if you’re going to build a defensible fortress that can protect your characters against dragons, please, please, please don’t just include the ever-so-convenient pillar for said characters to hide behind. It’s overdone, annoying, and appears in nearly every dragon movie (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Desolation of Smaug, How to Train Your Dragon, etc.). I’m pretty sure that if somebody hides behind a pillar and fire is nearly enveloping them, they’re going to end up with at least second-degree burns (How to Train Your Dragon 2 partially addresses this problem with exposed characters).

Know Your Era, Know Your Culture

If I could say any point is the most important, it would be this one. For every rule, there’s almost always an exception. And castles tend to vary from country to country and even from year to year. Castles with rounded towers tended to come after ones with square towers.

Don’t just read this post. Do further research! Especially if you’re writing about a real castle. If you can, visit the place or talk with somebody who has. Study the landscape, the architecture, the culture.

A couple fictional books set in or near actual castles include The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and The Raven Master’s Secret.

Nottingham Castle

If you’re making up a castle of your own, you have a little more freedom but be sure to take the time to make it feel like a real place. A couple books with well-written fictional castles include The Alliance Series, The Books of Pellinor, Prince Caspian, and the River of Time series.

Let’s chat! What’s your favorite fictional castle? How about your favorite real castle? Have you ever visited a real one? For those who have been castling, which do you prefer, castles intact or castles in ruins? And writers, how would you go about defending your castle from dragons?

Enjoy this post? Be sure to sign up for the quarterly Word Storm Newsletter! The next newsletter features yet more castles, specifically castles in ruins, and a FREE e-book.

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Film references: Tangled, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King, Beauty and the Beast (2017), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Desolation of Smaug, and How to Train Your Dragon 1 and 2.

Literary references: L. Nicodemus Lyons’ The Alliance Series, Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Elvira Woodruff’s The Ravenmaster’s Secret, Alison Croggon’s The Books of Pellinor, C. S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, Lisa Bergren’s River of Time series.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Slow-Paced vs. Fast-Paced Books: What They Say About Their Readers

Earlier this year, I mentioned I wanted to read another 1,000-page book. Then, to start off the year, I checked out a bunch of graphic novels. Maybe I’m preparing myself or maybe I’m procrastinating. Either way, I like to think that I enjoy all sorts of fiction. Sure, I have some preferences, but just because I enjoy lengthy classics and studied for an MA in English Literature doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy commercial fiction as well.

As I was reading Les Miserables last year, I got to thinking about slow-paced books versus fast-paced books. And it seems like, in the writing community anyway, writers are discouraged from writing slow-paced books. After all, according to what I’ve seen, it’s the writer’s job to hold the reader’s attention and keep them turning pages.

But, that hasn’t been my experience as a reader. If one applied the same principle to half of the classics out there, they would wouldn’t exist the way they do. Even with all the abridged classics out there, determined readers still seek out the unabridged versions. It’s almost as though some readers scoff at the length and the negative attitude that they can’t get through it. One-thousand two-hundred pages? Challenge accepted!

What does that mean for the reading industry if some readers like slow-paced books and others like fast-paced books?

Slow-Paced Books: What are they?

A fine line often lies between slow-paced books and boring books, but a slower novel does not necessarily equate a boring one. Though most slower books are often associated with monstrous books like Les Miserable (aka “The Brick”) at 1,200 pages, some slow-paced books can fall within the 300-page range.

Slower books take more energy and concentration to read. When I first picked up The Name of the Wind, I almost quit after the prologue because I wasn’t reading it at the right time. I was sitting on a chair, watching the movers haul our furniture in the house, occasionally getting up to direct them to the right room.

After less than a page, I gave up on this fantasy and picked up Wonder, a 200-ish page Middle Grade novel. It turned out to be a much easier read, and I could easily come back to it despite constant interruptions. A couple days after the movers had left, I settled down in the living room with some peace and quiet to read The Name of the Wind. I finished it within a matter of days.

I had to apply the same amount of concentration while reading Les Miserable (a great book for traveling despite its size) and The Wake.

Petition to stop readers and reviewers from saying and writing “This book was boring! And I read Moby-Dick.” What does that even mean? Moby-Dick is tough, but it’s far from boring.

What do slow-paced books say about their readers?

Readers who enjoy slow-paced books probably enjoy intellectual stimulation.

After I graduated from the University of Nottingham, I spent about six months reading fast-paced YA novels. I was tired of slow, long literature. *gasp* But it didn’t take long for me to miss the intellectual challenges of university, so I started checking out some more difficult books, starting with Moby-Dick.

In the end, it took me seven months to read, but I enjoyed it. And not just for the bragging rights—for the content. I was fascinated that Melville could connect something as base as whaling with religion, art, biology, environmentalism, literature, you name it. Even somebody who’s not into whales could probably find something that applies to their field of study within the book’s pages.

Readers who live fast-paced lives may enjoy books that are slower.

And it was around that time that I realized that I like reading slow-paced books. Often times, my life is so hectic, I need a breather. Sometimes a long, slow book is just that. Having moved every year for the past six years, reading the same book for a couple months actually feels like some stability. (This month we’re approaching one year in our house! Whoot!)

Slow-paced books generally tend to have more development.

That isn’t to say that fast-paced books can’t be well-developed. I would consider A Darker Shade of Magic to fall under the fast-paced category, but the world and character development is excellent.

That being said, many slow books go off onto tangents that are completely unrelated to the plot. Often times these tangents are annoying. Do readers really need to know everything about how to slice up a whale? But sometimes these tangents are fascinating, like how Ishmael (Moby-Dick) thought the dragon from legend of St. George could have been a whale. (Whether I support that theory—I don’t—is another matter entirely.) Another fascinating tangent include the settings within The Books of Pellinor. Sometimes, the setting is vital to the plot, and other times, the narrator was just capturing the beauty or the destitution of the place.

Fast-Paced Books: What are they?

In a society that moves quickly, fast-paced books are designed to be page-turners. A book that hooks the reader, forces them to procrastinate on everything else, and makes them stay up late to finish the book is often considered the ideal fast-paced read. Of course, some books may be fast-paced and still not be read in one sitting because the reader has another life, in which case, the book is finished in two sittings or within a matter of days.

For me, right now, a fast-paced book is one that I can finish in one or two sittings, within a day or so. I feel like I’m always looking for the next good book that will pull me into the story and make me want to finish it as soon as possible. The last book that was a real page-turner for me happened to be The Beast of Talesend.

Unlike slower books, fast-paced stories don’t really have time to stop and admire the scenery because the characters are probably trying to outrun a dragon, defuse a bomb, or something exciting like that.

What do fast-paced books say about their readers?

Fast-paced books tend to connect more with the reader’s emotions.

That’s not to say that slower books can’t evoke emotions, but fast-paced books focus more on doing so. Graphic novels are great at evoking emotions because they’re also visual.

Many readers pick up fast-paced books to be entertained.

It’s not a shallow thing; it’s just the way some readers are. I often pick up books to be entertained. Not all books have to be intellectual. Besides, I’d rather pick up a book to be entertained than to watch a movie or show. That way, I still get to use my imagination without somebody else doing it for me. What’s the fun in that?

Fast-paced books tend to be a form of escapism.

When I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I used to read fast-paced novels for leisure all the time. It was the way I took my study breaks and turned out to be particularly motivational while studying for exams. I’d study for half an hour to forty-five minutes, then read a chapter. Then, I couldn’t read another one until I studied again.

What about readers who enjoy both?

I’m going to be completely honest, I’m both. After a novel that progresses at a leisurely pace—and sometimes during such stories—I like a story that will drag me off on an adventure.

A thicker book might inspire thought, and a page-turner might inspire emotion. Too much of one or the other isn’t ideal. A sense of balance is needed.

In all, this isn’t to say that just because you enjoy a fast-paced story over a slower one means you’re a bad reader. Quite the opposite. Sometimes people need a break from slow-paced books. And vice versa. But in a world where everything, particularly technology, is progressing so quickly, leisurely pastimes fall by the wayside. It becomes harder and harder to find somebody who enjoys reading slower books just for the sake of the book.

But when you find somebody who likes to read the same type of books that you do, keep them close! Start up some bookish conversations. Share book recommendations. Reading may be a solitary activity, but don’t be afraid to connect with fellow readers. After all, what is the purpose of reading if not to discover to put the book down every once in a while and really live.

Let’s chat! Did I leave any elements of either pace of fiction out? Which types of books do you prefer—fast-paced or slow-paced ones? Do you enjoy plot-focused stories or character-focused ones?


Literary references: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, Alison Croggon’s The Books of Pellinor, and Kyle Robert Shultz’s The Beast of Talesend.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Haiku Collection: Sibling Trio

I thought I’d try something new. For those who’ve read a lot of my poetry, you might have noticed that I prefer free verse. It’s—well—freeing. I like to use whatever imagery I want in whatever way it comes to me. But every now and then, I like the challenge of structure. It’s not so much limiting as it is intellectually stimulating.

Of course, writing three haikus may be a lot easier than trying to write one villanelle. For those who aren’t familiar with poetry (hi, Mom!), haikus originated in Japan and are three lines long with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the last. They tend to be about nature.

Villanelles (or as I like to call them, vanillas) have a repeating first line from the first stanza, a repeating last line from the first stanza, and a set amount of stanzas and lines. It’s super complicated. (Seriously HOW do people write villanelles? I’ve tried several times, and I can’t get past the second stanza.)

This particular set of haikus I based off my siblings and me. There are three of us in the family—my older brother, me, and my little sister. And while we may be related, we’re each different in our own ways. Hence, the following poems, Dawn, Noon, and Midnight.

She sprinkles powdered
sugar on strudels, lemon
juice into your eye.

Earbuds drown the noise
of chatter beneath some tune
of an hour to spare.

Call of cicadas,
not the phone—now hang up and
listen, you’re alone.


Let’s chat! Which of the three haikus did you like best? Care to take a guess which one I might be? Which one are you most like?

Similar poems: Starlight, The Muse, and Dandelion Seeds