Message from the Universe

Occasionally, the Universe will send a message.  Today, this is yours.  Whatever it is, try it.  Don’t let anyone hold you back:

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Book Banter: The Testing trilogy

testing trilogyTitle: The Testing, Independent Study, Graduation Day

Author: Joelle Charbonneau

Length: ~300 pages each

Genre: YA

Where Bethany’s copies came from: The Testing, personal collection; Independent Study/Graduation Day, The Indianapolis Public Library

Plot Basics: Cia Vale is selected for The Testing, a grueling ordeal designed to winnow out the best students to go to University and become future leaders of the United Commonwealth. Cia will have to learn who and how to trust and what to believe in if she is survive and make a difference.

Banter Points: I reviewed The Testing back in July 2013 when it was brand new. Then, I decided to wait until the whole series was out to finish it. I went back this summer and reread The Testing and then continued on to the next two (admittedly with a break between 2 and 3 because of book club required reading)

One of the things I like best about Cia is that she is far less whiny that many of these YA heroines. A lot of that comes through the romantic story line — she wonders some about Tomas but we don’t have to suffer through pages of her feelings about him and bonus points to Joelle for not putting Cia into the predictable love triangle that she could have. As I said in my review of The Testing, I still very much appreciate that Cia has a lot of mechanical aptitude because society seems to say that taking things apart and making isn’t a very girly skill much.

Bummer Points: Can we possibly have a YA heroine who isn’t the youngest/shortest/smartest in her town/village/class etc? The problem with this boom in dystopian novels is that they all feel somewhat familiar. You can make the same case for any genre, really. Do we really need another tortured, hard-drinking cop/private detective or secret prince/princess with unknown magical abilities to save the kingdom? The YA dystopian set-up though seems to keep lending itself to this youngest/smallest girl thing.

Also, the first book in this trilogy is the best. The twist at the end of the second one was good, but by the third one, the twist was unnecessary. Also, by the third one, there was some character whiplash, trying to keep all the professors and government officials and students straight. Admittedly, I was reading fast, but still, I got a bit bogged down in the names.

Word Nerd Recommendation: If y0u’ve got teenage readers in your life, this series is definitely worth recommending to them. For adults, it’s kind of a toss-up. If you really like the genre, go for it.

Book Banter: The Wonder by Colleen Oakes

SRC blog headerTitle: The Wonder, Queen of Hearts Saga #222457109
Author: Colleen Oakes
Genre: Fairy Tale Retelling
Length: approximately 225 pages
Where Stacie’s Copy Came From:  BookSparks/Summer Reading Challenge
Plot Basics: Dinah, the future queen of Wonderland, is on the run with Morte, and a bereaved Card. She must trust them with her life, for, without them, she cannot become the queen she so desperately wishes to be.

Banter Points: The world building in this series is exquisite. Even while the queen is on the run, she encounters perils that exist not because of bad choices but rather because the world she lives in is a deadly place. Her sheltered life and protected nature is truly seen as she runs to Wonderland’s enemies for protection; she has no idea where she is being lead or why.

Of course, she is outraged to be brought before Yurkei, the people she has learned to hate. Like many long-standing enemies, the hurts are on both sides. Dinah has to prove to them that she is worthy of leading Wonderland and that her promises will be backed by action. She also has to prove that she is something more than a spoiled little rich girl.

The writing, story craft and world building is exquisite, again in this installment.  I’m drawing into the world and telling of how this princess is turned into a villain.

Bummer Points: Same complaint as last time – it felt like an installation in a longer book, rather than a stand-alone title of its own making. I really think some good editing would have trimmed at least 50, maybe as many as 75, pages out of this title. Of course, I’m guessing at page count, because it was an unlisted for the ebook ARC. Again, there’s little wrap up of a story line. It ends with a cliff hanger that resolves little of the conflict and leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a technique I’ve seen (and loved) in other authors. It isn’t working for me here.

Stacie’s Recommendation: I’m interested to see book three, and I really hope it’s closer to the story craft of the first book, instead of the second.

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Thursday is brought to you by synonyms

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Not my image. Don’t know where it came from.

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Birds in Clay: Guest Post with Judith Starkson

starksonJudith Starkson is a regular Word Nerds reader and commenter and now she’s a guest author as her novel “Hand of Fire” is now available. She writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

I made two especially delightful discoveries early on as I researched Hand of Fire, my novel set within the Trojan War. One was how much latitude the Trojans, and their nearby cultural/political relatives the Hittites, gave women. The other discovery was that we now so very much more about the Hittites than I would ever have dreamed, thanks to the last few decades of digging up and translating their extensive cuneiform libraries. Troy’s written records, alas, haven’t survived the vagaries of time, so the Hittites served as my default source.

Both of these revelations—women’s roles and Hittite records—combined as I developed an historically accurate life story for Briseis, the woman who, while sparking the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad, is given only a few, brief mentions in the epic. In the Hittite libraries of clay tablets, I found the records of many women who worked as healing priestesses, called hasawa in Hittite. These women were held in highest regard, entrusted with the health and well being of their people through the performance of a variety of cures, rites and divinations. These literate women kept precise instructions for all these duties and passed them on from one generation to another, also borrowing from surrounding peoples as they sought the best ways to ensure the gods’ blessings.

So Hittite and Trojan writing and record keeping became a very important issue. But what peculiar writing! You have to erase all your modern assumptions to picture it.

Truly ancient writing—Sumerian and Egyptian—developed on two entirely different lines. The Hittites came along later and adapted the Sumerian style. The Egyptians had an abundance of papyrus plants kicking around and they were accustomed to painting or carving tales via pictures on walls. These two features, to grossly oversimplify, led them to use a brush or pen with ink and to develop a hieroglyphic writing system. This is not far from what you and I do today when we are not banging away on a keyboard—pen and paper. We’ve given up on the arduous features of pictographs, but you can see why you would need a refined tool like a brush if you had to draw your “words.”

The Sumerians, however, lived in a place with no papyrus but lots of mud and clay. Their early doodles were thus made on a much less forgiving surface than papyrus and led to a different writing system called cuneiform. I can imagine some Sumerian pre-scribe messing around with the riverbank clay and grabbing a reed to make marks.

A reed jabbed lightly in clay leaves a trail of what looks like bird tracks. The scribe carved the reed stylus into a triangular cross-section and pressed it into the clay either up and down, horizontally or at an angle, depending on the sign being created. The stylus was held across a flat palm and braced by the thumb. The length of “tail” the reed left in the clay was also manipulated. If you want to communicate with these bird tracks—that is, represent human language in writing with them—you have to combine them into little groups with a different pattern to each group and use the groups to represent syllables or whole concepts/words. Once this system was codified, there were a lot of groupings for a scribe to memorize, much more than the later invention of alphabets involves, but the system works, and it was used for several millennia by a number of languages.

Most extant tablets are fairly small, about the size of your palm, although there are larger ones for public display purposes such as treaties or long records. This clay-based system developed by the Sumerians was what the Hittites borrowed, even though their language is not at all the same as Sumerian. So while a Hittite scribe would use the same groupings of little triangles to represent “pomegranate” as a Sumerian would have, the way this word was sounded out loud would differ in each culture. Sometimes, where the original Sumerian meaning of a symbol doesn’t appear to us to have a direct parallel in Hittite life, we can’t be sure precisely what underlying meaning the Hittite scribes intended. This makes for some interesting interpretative problems.

Despite being developed for clay, this writing system was also occasionally used on metal for immensely important international treaties. If a king displayed his new agreement with an old enemy on a silver tablet, he made a statement about permanency and power. No waffling for these guys.

On a day-to-day basis, the other materials that were frequently used with cuneiform were wooden tablets with a layer of wax poured onto them. The wax was scraped away to reveal a contrasting color of wood beneath, usually black wax with white wood. The harder pressing required a bronze stylus, not a reed one. These wooden tablets were portable; probably scribes or healing priestesses like Briseis would have used them when they needed to prompt their memory for a particular rite or recital.

The wax on the wooden tablets could be resmoothed and used again. Important writing wasn’t kept for long on these because, of course, a hot day could cause some serious problems in readability. They seem to have been used mostly for rough drafts. On clay the closely placed triangles are surprisingly hard to erase and rewrite without the underlying mistake leaving a mark, so scribes tried to get their work down correctly the first time on clay.

I am glad I am using neither clay nor wax to record my thoughts in writing, but I’m grateful that clay can harden with fire and leave behind vast archives of civilizations that would otherwise be lost to us. One reason so many archaeological sites do not reveal tablets: most tablets weren’t fired and their preservation over the millennia depends on whether the place where they were stored suffered a devastating fire, hot enough to mimic the effects of a kiln.

By that criteria, you would have thought a doomed city like Troy would be rich with tablets, but not so far, although we know from correspondence about Troy found in other places that scribes plied their honored trade in Troy just as elsewhere.

Book Banter: The Crown by Colleen Oakes

Title: The Crown, Queen of Hearts Saga #120410977
Author: Colleen Oakes
Genre: Fairy Tale
Length: 222 pages
Where Stacie’s Copy Came From:  Private Collection
Plot Basics: Any good villain has a back story. The Queen of Hearts, or Dinah, is no different. The unwanted offspring of the reigning King, Dinah knows she is unloved and unwanted by any but her mother. But her mother cannot protect her and this tale is just beginning.

Banter Points: I really am fond of re-tellings and Alice in Wonderland is a favorite story of mine to start with. This first entry in the trilogy lays out the groundwork of how the world works, what is the same (and different) than the original Lewis Carroll tale. The Cheshire Cat has been one of my favorite characters since I first saw Disney’s version of this story; he continues to delight in this tale as well.

Dinah is little more than a spoiled brat when the story begins. Why shouldn’t she be? She’s been pampered her whole life, seldom hearing a word that contradicts her desires. It is easy to see her screeching “Off with their heads!” just like in the Disney version.  Unlike the Disney version, I feel sorry for Dinah. It really isn’t her fault, not in whole, that she is such a brat. The King does few favors for her. In fact, his displeasure with her is frequent and evident to anyone paying attention. Thankful for him, the courtiers do not pay close attention at all.

The forces that dictate her life are the extremes of kind and gentle to harsh and alienating. I know that she is going to grow up to the women who will torment Alice, but I’m not exactly sure just when and how she is going to get there. It’s a familiar story line with delightful twists and turns, just like a retelling should be.

I was very impressed that Dinah was brave enough to conduct some of her investigations.  Without giving anything away, the place she visits definitely was terrifying — just like it should be.  It isn’t an easy thing to execute and Oakes pulled it off.

Bummer Points: At a mere 222 page, I felt like the story was just getting started when it ended. Sure, it was a cliff hanger for the next installment in the trilogy, but the story was barely getting started, barely resolved when it ended. It felt more like a transition between parts than a genuine ending.

Stacie’s Recommendation: Interesting, but the whole trilogy needs to be available before a final decision can by justly made.

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Book Banter: Angel Killer

angel killerTitle: Angel Killer

Author: Andrew Mayne

Genre: mystery

Length: 352 pages

Where Bethany’s copy came from: ARC from Harper Collins/Bourbon Street Press

Plot Basics: Jessica Blackwood is content to work as an analyst for the FBI, leaving her family legacy of stage magic behind her. But when a hacker called the Warlock turns up with clues that lead the FBI to a strange murder in Michigan, the FBI turns to Jessica. The body they find looks like a girl died trying to climb out of her grave. Jessica recognizes the trick of it and becomes a major part of the field investigation team, using her knowledge of magic and illusions to try to get the Bureau one step ahead of the Warlock and stop more deaths.

Banter Points: While I was reading this book, I found myself in a waiting room. The guy sitting next to me watched me read for a while, then asked, “What’s that book called?” I flipped the cover toward him. “Angel Killer,” I said. His body language shifted; he was wearing a t-shirt that read Only God can judge me on it. “No actual angels die in this book. It’s a murder mystery.” “Oh,” he said. “I like those.”

I brought home exactly four books from ALA, only one of them an ARC and it was this one. I’d walked past the Harper Collins booth once and turned down something else, explaining that wasn’t taking many books because I wasn’t shipping them home. I was making another lap and the same publicist recognized me and made a comment but said this one was a mystery. I hopped right in line.

Am I glad that I did. This will be a great series. Jessica’s magician background gives her a real ability to see the case in a different way. It’s nice to see a detective character with a specific set of skills being applied to crime solving. It’s not Bosch and his police procedure working for him, or Sherlock who just knows everything. Jessica doesn’t know everything, but she knows the right way to look at the scene.

Bummer Points: It’s a highly engaging book, but there was something weird about the verb tenses throughout it to me. It’s all first-person present which works, but isn’t a style I’m used to outside of YA novels and short stories. Jessica dips into past tense sometimes when explaining her history o the meeting she just left, but the tense switch was jarring sometimes.

Word Nerd Recommendation: If you are looking for a new, inventive mystery series to read, put Andrew Mayne’s Jessica Blackwood books on your list.

Bonus News: The Nerds will have Andrew on the blog for a Q&A post soon!

The Geekiness of the Book Log

It’s no secret that Bethany and I (Stacie) are book nerds.  We obsess over characters.  We dwell on plots that make sense and wonder at those that don’t.  We read in paper, in electronic formats and we listen to books.  People questioned how much we read.  We track our reading progress.  And that’s where the divergence starts.

At one point, prior to family, kids and widespread use of social  media, I read between 150 and 200 books per year.  Crazy, I know.  But I didn’t own a television.  I was a teacher at the time (or studying to be one.)  I read a far amount of short books geared to grades fifth to eighth.  Part of the reason I was able to read so many books is because the page count ranged between 125 to 225.  When I read “adult” books, the page count was higher; the range was between 300 to 350.

It didn’t seem right to have just a book count without some other metric like page count to counter balance it.  Later in life, I learned that a single metric is never the way to go; several are usually needed to indicate slightly different aspects of any tracking system (financial, health, etc.)

Side note:  Yes, I’m a natural geek.  I learned this while studying to be an English teacher.

Because of this desire, I felt that it was fair to use page numbers in my metrics for books I listened to.  After all, I was measuring the type of book as well as the number of books read.  It’s a reasonable substitute in my mind.  Sort of like plug numbers in financial analysis.

Side note:  Yes, I love it when I find a series where the books weigh in at more than 400 pages.  It makes the average pages per book fun compared to a year where I read mostly YA novels.  Although, the length of some of those are really catching up.

Time goes along and I met Bethany.  At some point, we both admitted that we had reading logs, and although we never got as far as actually comparing them, we did so some high level comparison.  Bethany too went through this crossroads and chose the path of not counting pages.  And, although we understand each other position and there was some good-natured ribbing, it was mostly a closed subject.

Side note:  I’m pretty sure that if we actually compared our reading lists, I have way more charts, graphs and data tables then Bethany does.  I’ve seriously considered putting the whole mess into MS Access just for the fun of learning MS Access.  Thankfully, I have a day job that allows me to play around with MS Access and I have thus avoid that level of geekiness.

Fast forward to 2014.  I’m working with a whole new world of geekery that is really new, however, it is quickly apparent that I’m a nature fit.  I know that I can safely bring up my hobby of tracking my reading and share it with kindred spirits.

Only, it all goes south.  While they are suitable impressed with the overall stats (average of 100 books per year over the last 13 years, topping 500,000 pages in total and more than 1,300 books), they are aghast at my inclusion of page count for audio titles.  Actually, it might be pure outrage.  One person went so far as to tell me it was board line lying.

While I’ve tried to fairly present my case, I’m sure I’ve done it in such a way that I’ve biased you into taking my point of view.  Can you let me know in the comments what you think?  Should page numbers be included in a book log if the format of the title was an audio book?

Side note:  I really haven’t even touched up the way that format changes between hard cover, mass market paperback and trade paperback change the page count, nor have I touched on the usage of white space.  The ultimate metric, in my mind, is word count.  But even that is a flawed process as sentence complexity could vary.  There’s loads of way I could build metrics.  I picked what I believed to be a reasonable system, with non-controversial indicators.

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Three for three

I like reading series, but I’m not always good about finishing them. I get two books in and then something else pops up and I leave that third book out there, unread and unfinished.

A while ago, I decided that when book 1 came up in the Eight-Up list, that meant I could read the whole series right then. I got through the Divergent books with this permission and fully intended to do that with a few other series and as usual, got distracted.

Now, I’m staring at three series where I have to finish book three. I’m abandoning other choices in Eight-Up to knock these three out and wrap these series up before the year gets away from me.

assassins-quest-robin-hobb-new-cover“Assassin’s Quest,” Robin Hobb. I have the old covers, but check out this new re-issue. You want to read about FitzChivalry now too, don’t you?

plunder

“Plunder of Souls,” D.B. Jackson. So, there might be another one of these coming in 2015, but for now, this is the last one and I will be caught up (finally) after naming the first one the Best First Book in a Series in 2012.

graduation day

“Graduation Day,” Joelle Charbonneau. I think reading YA series in one fell swoop is the way to go. I read the first when it came out, then decided to wait and tackle the rest at once. This isn’t so much as getting bogged down with other things, but making sure after having just read 1 and 2 that I don’t wait to get to number 3.

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Author Answers with Tyler McMahon

McMahon Tyler_Dabney Gough (1)Our guest today is Tyler McMahon. His new book “Kilometer 99″ recently came out. His first novel, “How the Mistakes were Made,” were one of the Word Nerd’s pusher books in 2011, making it to the Top Ten list for books that year.

Word Nerds:  What kind of reader is going to like Kilometer 99?

McMahon: I hope this book will appeal to readers who are interested in subjects such as surfing, travel, Latin America, and the like. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, there were a handful of novels and memoirs that all of us had read about the experience or the region. I’d love it if this novel fit into that small canon.

There is definitely a lack of books (especially fiction) about El Salvador, and I hope that this one will fill that gap, and appeal to the growing number of Americans who have some sort of connection to El Salvador or the Salvadoran community in the US.

WN: You’ve lived or worked in a variety of places. How has that influenced the settings and places in your writing?

McMahon: It’s funny; I never considered myself as a “place-based” writer. I grew up in a part of the country that always struck me as neither here nor there—not really city but not really rural either, not quite the south and not quite the north. The fact that I’ve moved around a lot fueled the notion that I didn’t have much to say about a particular location. I never saw myself as a writer who was fortunate enough to start with setting.

In the case of Kilometer 99, however, the story definitely began with a particular place and time: Puerto La Libertad, in El Salvador, during the aftermath of the 2001 earthquakes. It was a place that left a major impression on me, something I’ve thought about ever since. Nearly every other element of the story changed along the way. Looking back, I can see that I was determined to write a novel set there.

WN: What was different for you in writing Kilometer 99 from the process of writing How the Mistakes Were Made?

McMahon: On the whole, I think of Kilometer 99 as a much more personal book.

How the Mistakes Were Made involved a lot of research, for one thing. Also, I was trying very hard to understand novel writing, and the sorts of things that readers—as well as editors and industry people—might be interested in. From the very beginning, I had a solid idea about where the book was going.

In the case of Kilometer 99, I was writing about issues that held meaning for me, personally. I put all those other demands on hold, and explored exactly what I wanted to. In my mind, there was a chance that I’d get to the end and just scrap the whole thing—and I was okay with that. As a result, it evolved much more organically, in fits and starts.

WN: You are an English prof in addition to writing novels. What’s piece of writing advice do you give your students that’s the hardest for you to take yourself?

McMahon: I always try to convince my students that writing is an extremely subjective art. I hate it when we talk about it as though there’s sort of hierarchy based on skill or success. Some people just respond to certain books and stories; others do not. Some writers enjoy better reception than others, but there’s no scorecard.

But I’m sad to say that I’m not always mindful of that advice, when it comes to my own work.

WN: What books have captured your attention lately?

McMahon: I just finished Mercy 6 by David Bajo, which is a terrific novel—a sort of literary medical thriller, as if Borges had written a special episode of House. Lately, I’ve been interested in novels with suspenseful plots, as well as those with some sort of speculative elements. I also liked The Circle by Dave Eggers, Forest of Fortune by Jim Ruland, and Of Sea and Cloud by Jon Keller.

I often read nonfiction for fun; that’s sort of my guilty pleasure. Right now I’m readingBig Dead Place, Nicholas Johnson’s hilarious and depressing account of life in the Antarctic research station.

WN: What’s next for you as a writer?

McMahon: I have a couple of things that I’m working on at the moment. The most far along is a bit of a murder mystery that takes place along the Idaho-Montana border. I’ve always been interested in that region—with its weird mix of beautiful mountains, natural resources, and extremist groups. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’m hoping it will be finished soon.

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