Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review: The Bird and the Blade

Me: One day, I aspire to write a book this well.
Sister: That’s nice.
Me: *throws book at couch* *to book* How dare you!? Stay there and think about what you’ve done!
Sis: *jumps* Oh…

2018 has been a good year for YA books, from A Conspiracy of Stars to A Thousand Perfect Notes. After recently reading a bunch of 3-star books, I was starting to wonder if I’d find another good one again. Then I did.

As I was scrambling to find a book to review for this month, I picked up The Bird and the Blade from my TBR shelf. Not to be confused with my TBR list. I actually have a shelf of five-to-ten books I plan to read next whereas my list is just a concept. Actually, my shelf has spilled onto another shelf and I need more hours in the day to read. Seriously, where did all my reading time go?

Book: The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
My rating: 5/5 stars
Awards: None (yet!)
Year published: 2018
One-word description: quest

“The only reason Timur Kahn isn’t dead is because he is ludicrously lucky. The only reason Khalaf isn’t dead is because he is brave beyond measure. And the only reason I’m not dead is because I was singing in a tree like an idiot.”

In a world ruled by men comes a tale of two women who destroy everything. Okay, so that’s not exactly how it happens, but it’s pretty close. The Bird and the Blade is a tale about family and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, love and respect. Oh, yeah, and blood. Lots of blood. From the Song Empire (China) to Il-Khanate (part of the Mongol Empire), the majority of the story is a journey across Asia.

I particularly liked the main characters, Jinghua, Khalaf, and yes, even the obnoxious Timur. I especially liked the way the relationships developed, especially how Khalaf respected everybody from slaves to rulers, which played into one of the overarching themes—what does it mean to love and respect a person? And though I’m not usually a fan of romance, I totally ship Jinghua and Khalaf.

I also enjoyed the riddles, though I was only able to correctly guess one, but to be fair, that answer was given to the readers.

Every now and then a plot twist would creep up that I was able to predict oh, maybe five paragraphs before it happened. Then another twist would hit me like a bus. Suffice to stay the story was told from a first-person unreliable narrator with a nonlinear narrative. At first, I found the nonlinear part killed some of the suspense, but in the end, it all made sense.

Then there was the moment when the title finally made sense. I particularly like the way Jinghua earned her title as “the little bird”—because she likes to sing even though her mother tried to teach her that it wasn’t ladylike. From my twenty-first century perspective, that view doesn’t make much sense, but I like the songs and the way the book included poetry and intellectual and heartfelt discussions. That and the story was based off an Italian opera, Turandot.

There were times when I wondered why the story was told from Jinghua’s perspective. I mean, I enjoyed her storytelling, but at times it seemed like she was just along for the ride. As the story progressed, though, she took on a much more active role, which I appreciate.

In all, I gave The Bird and the Blade 5/5 stars for excellent storytelling and character development. I’d recommend the book to readers of YA fantasy and historical fiction. I look forward to seeing what the author Megan Bannen has to write next!

Interested in The Bird and the Blade? Have you read it yet? You might also enjoy these books: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan (see book review), and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Let’s chat! Has The Bird and the Blade made it to your to-be-read list yet? Have you read it yet? Have any historical fiction or YA recommendations?


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Persistence vs. Talent in Writing

I wrote my first novel when I was twelve. Now before you start exclaiming that it’s amazing, hear me out. I had plenty of false starts. It wasn’t the first novel I had tried to write, and of course, it wouldn’t be the last. Before I even I typed the words “The End,” I was hooked.

Writing for me was this grand adventure that I was in charge of. That I could sit at my desk and imagine how a particular scene went down, type it all up before I forgot, then complain about being torn away from my computer when characters were literally hanging off the edge of a cliff. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the challenge that is editing, but that’s another story for another time.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. At thirteen, I joined my first writer’s club, where we thought drinking coffee, discussing character deaths and plot points, and tying each other up to chairs and interrogating each other about our stories was fun. (Fact: it was fun until the folding chair beneath me decided to fold.)

The more I write, the more I learn. The more I make mistakes. And the more I realize that’s okay. That’s what editing is for! As I write and edit and read, I find myself leaning more toward persistence than talent in writing. Writing is like exercising—you don’t start out as a stellar athlete. You have to work hard. Here are just a few reasons why:

1)      I hated grammar in high school.

Says the person who got an M.A. in English Literature. Weird right? Aren’t all writers supposed to be Grammar Nazis? Hahahahahaha! No. If I corrected everybody else’s grammar, then I would have to live up to those standards, and I can’t even spell fiction half the time without rewriting it. Yes, I misspelled it just now. Thank you, autocorrect.

Maybe I didn’t care for grammar because I didn’t understand it. After all, I was self-taught in high school. Or maybe it was because I found it too limiting. To this day, I still don’t diagram my sentences, though I may argue with my friends about proper comma placement.

…But I’ve always liked stories.

I moved to England so I could study more about dragons. I mean to learn about quality literature, of course! Who am I kidding? One of my favorite classes was young adult literature, when I got to read The Scorpio Races for homework. Give me adventure and a well-told narrative any day!

I guess you could say I went into studying English not because I like the structure of grammar or the pomp of literature but because I enjoy a good story. I like reading tales about flawed characters and rainy nights and towering mountains, tales of magic and dwarves and faeries, tales of adventure and sorrow and hope.

2)      I’m not a natural writer.

Seriously, who is? Not me, that’s for sure. One of my first stories was about talking space penguins and an astronaut who bicycled into space to meet them. (Don’t look at me like that.) But hey, now space penguins are canon in Star Wars, so at least there’s that. (Right? RIGHT!?) No, I didn’t write them in. I wish!

…But I am a learning writer.

The more I write, the more I learn. About myself, about grammar and spelling, about my writing style, about the world around me. Sometimes, I don’t know how I feel about a certain issue until I’ve written about it. Sometimes, I don’t know how to properly use a comma until I’ve completely butchered a sentence. And that’s okay. That’s what editors are for.

Writing is a wonderful discovery process!

3)      Skill isn’t given.

I’m not a big fan of the word talent, as if some people are born with some gift that can never be achieved. I mean, sure, some writers are more advanced than others and, granted, some writers are definitely talented. But my first story wasn’t anywhere near talent. It wasn’t genius or even sensible. Even as a middle schooler, I was well aware of this and would envy my fellow students for their flowing prose and inspired ideas while here I was writing about… talking birds.

Then there was my first ever novel. We do not speak of this monstrosity. (See I Can’t Believe I Wrote THAT!)

…But skill is earned.

My passion lies in telling a good story. I had to work hard to get to a place where I felt comfortable sharing my stories with other people. Did you know that Last of the Memory Keepers was my seventh novel-length work? I think. I don’t know. I always lose count of how many novels I’ve written. Then, I wrote two more novels before settling on Origami Swan for the next book I want to publish.

My point being, it took a lot of thinking for me to come up with a story idea that I wanted to write about. It took a lot of effort to get through the first draft. I worked hard at editing the manuscript over and over again. Now, it’s taking yet more effort to query literary agents.

Writing is a long process to get from the initial idea to the printed book. But it’s worth it. As I go between writing great projects and some not-so-great ones, I like to consider the words of Neil Gaiman:

“Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting [of bad days] away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.”

Let’s chat! Writers, why did you start writing? Would you consider yourself talented or persistent? What did some of your first stories look like?


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Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Horror in Fiction

Once upon a summer, our neighbor’s apartment caught fire.

I woke up as usual and was just about to get dressed when the fire alarm went off. Seeing as another neighbor tended to burn his meals a lot, a certain somebody told me to ignore it. So I got dressed. That’s when the certain somebody rushed back into my room saying, “There’s a real fire! Why aren’t you outside yet?!”

So I snatched up my backup hard drive and my library book, a signed copy of The Fault in Our Stars, and headed outside. Turns out one of the neighbors had left their fan on and it caught on fire. You know it’s hot when the fans go on strike and spontaneously combust. The fire department took care of the fire, and only the neighbor’s apartment suffered from smoke damage and a broken window. (Thank you, fire department.)

The whole incident got me thinking. I was glad I’d grabbed my hard drive and my library book, but what would have happened if the fire had spread to our apartment? What would I have done if I found myself faced with a fire and could only save a handful of books? Would I even think to do so before it was too late? It makes for a good story, sure, but I certainly wouldn’t want to relive it let alone find myself faced with a life and death situation like in Fahrenheit 451.

What is it about the horror in fiction that we find so attractive?

There are many types of horror when it comes to fiction, from suspenseful stories to the horror genre. I don’t typically watch horror movies, let alone read horror books, but every now and then I come across such a book in one of my other preferred genres and it creeps me out. Yet I read it to the end.

Here are just a few elements concerning horror in fiction. Though I’ve picked certain categories and given example books, the categories are not strict and often overlap.

The Suspenseful

Like the true and somehow fortunate story above, some stories are more suspenseful than horrific, as long as we’re reading them that is. Living them would be another matter entirely. Let’s face it, bookworms, more often than not, I’d rather read suspenseful stories than live one. Who’s with me? In this sense, readers are like Bilbo Baggins when he first turned down an adventure with Gandalf:

“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today. Good morning! But please come to tea—any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Good bye!” 
The Hobbit

Yet when it comes to reading fiction, a lack of suspense often leads to books that are labeled “boring.” As long as it’s not happening to us right here, right now, suspense can be enticing. I found this to be the case when I recently listened to Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Though I knew how it ended, having read the book and seen the movie adaption before, I was still captivated by the perils that Tristran had to face as he sought a star and evaded a witch.

The Creepy

I’m not about to go and check out It from the library (Clowns? So thanks! But no. I think I’m good to go.). But I have considered reading Misery, a story where an author is held hostage by an obsessive fan and forced to write a new book.

Unlike suspense, the creep factor isn’t so much of a hook. If anything, it’s a thrill factor. While some people go skydiving or watch a creepy movie, bookworms ready creepy books. Sometimes. But not at night. Definitely not alone. Or so readers claim…

Actually, I think the creepiest books I ever read were after the sun had set. The first book I ever remember genuinely creeping me out had to be This Present Darkness in which the author, Peretti, imagines what it might be like for angels and demons to interact with society today. And by today, I mean the 80’s. Today-ish. Despite being horrified by the book, fourteen-year-old me was fascinated by the story.

Fast forward several years, and I picked Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell while studying for my M.A. Quite the contrast to the Christian fiction I used to read in high school, this book dealt more with magicians than religion and more with the Fae than supernatural beings. While maybe not nearly as creepy as the former, I still found the book fairly creepy, though I still liked it for its imaginative writing style and cautionary tale about the dangers of arrogance and misery.

The Violent

One of my favorite picture books from my childhood was simultaneously entertaining and grotesque. My first book on con artists, The Roly-Poly Spider, was basically a story about a spider who goes about befriending various bugs and then eating them. Talk about morbid. I must have been a demented child for reading this book so much, let alone remembering it. Yet it’s also a story about the brutality of nature. You might even say it’s a cautionary tale about trusting strangers.

Anybody who’s asked for a fantasy book recommendation will often hear me talk about The Scorpio Races. It’s all fun and games until I start describing it: it’s a beautiful fantasy story with two brilliantly-written points of views, an island by the sea, horse races, and oh—don’t forget the bloodthirsty horses who will EAT YOU.

Yeah, sorry. I can’t find an explanation for why anybody would like a grotesque story. Let’s go with the cautionary bit. Don’t try this at home, kids.

The Horrible

I’m not for books that advocate for violence or abuse, but I do, on occasion, read a story or two that addresses such issues. If handled well, a book focused on a terrible topic can actually be a good story.

Take To Kill a Mockingbird for example. It’s a pleasant book about a tomgirl growing up and becoming a woman, right? Well, yes, but it’s much more than that. It’s also a tale about racism and murder. Just saying. Then there’s the recently published Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough. I almost stopped reading it—it was that intense. I stuck with the story, and I’m glad I did. The subject matter may be rough, but it may also be important to know so we can do something about it in our society today.

Books aren’t just happy stories. (I won’t say books aren’t fairytales because fairytales hardly ever end well.) Sometimes books are full of heartbreak. Sometimes they’re creepy or even horrific. While readers have to be careful not to become too entrenched in one concept or the other, they’re still important to read.

Reading to me is a learning experience, a way to communicate and how readers respond is how they talk back.

Let’s chat! What are some suspenseful books you enjoyed? How about creepy ones? Violent? Horrible? What’s your stance on the horror in fiction?


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Literary references: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Frank E. Peretti’s This Present Darkness, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Jill Sardegna’s The Roly-Poly Spider, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Joy McCullough’s Blood Water Paint

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Poem: Autumn

People often ask me why I enjoy biking to work so much, despite the change in the season. Within the last week, the temperature dropped, the rain became more frequent, and I can see my breath in the morning. But I relish it. Okay, I complain about the cold a bit. After I open the door, I often turn around and grab an extra scarf or a vest, but still. It’s the perfect biking weather. Summer is too hot. Winter is too cold. Spring and fall are just perfect.

The chill is just enough so that biking warms me up on the uphill bits, and the wind cools me down on the downhill ones. Every now and then, the sun comes out just long enough for me to take off my jacket, and the scattered clouds after the recent rain make for brilliant sunsets. The slugs come out, the fog lays over the fields, and the leaves are turning.

Sure, it’s not always pleasant. I tend to over-romanticize things in some of my writings. Fall—like life—is full of ups and downs. Hence, the following poem.


Autumn sweeps in like crushed dreams—
filled with the scent of rotting apples,
the plight of a squished slug beneath my bike tire,
the wilting of the sunflowers, sagging in the field.

Death comes for us all—
but first, it sets the forest ablaze with reds and yellows
as the goldenrods fall like tiki torches,
and mums crackle and burst with purple and orange flames.

Wind trickles down and raindrops howl—
striking my face as I bike to work,
walk the dog, set foot out the door.

A book sits closed by the hearth—
ribbon wedged between the pages,
somewhere near chapter three,
waiting, just waiting for its reader to come home,
settle down with a mug of black tea,
and breathe in the damp musk of autumn.


Let’s chat! What’s your favorite season? What do you think of autumn? Do you see it as a bunch of cold, dark days or time for more tea and reading?

Similar poems: Biking to Work, Lost as a Leaf, and Shadows