Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Queen's Bastard by C.E. Murphy

The Queen's Bastard by C.E. Murphy is a new direction for Murphy's writing and an unexpected one. Her compelling characters sucked me in from the very start of her career so that I automatically buy whatever she puts out without even bothering to read the back of the book.

This one, though, startled me in all the right ways.

Where Murphy has previously chosen a character new to the world she finds herself in across the board, Belinda cannot be said to have that characteristic. There are things she definitely doesn't know, but she is anything but innocent. This novel is the first that I don't think my teenagers are old enough to read, but it's not just the mature content that shows a difference in style but rather the complexity of the story, the way all sides are represented and it's not clear exactly who is "right" and who is "wrong" in their beliefs within their world.

Our sympathies are clearly meant to lie with Belinda, but the bigger picture is open to speculation and questioning. I only lost the connection to Belinda once, and that moment did serve a plot aspect, maybe not as much as I needed to reconcile myself to a moment where the main character became unlikeable, but enough for me to understand why what happened happened and to look for answers even as Belinda herself did so.

Without spoilers, I have to say there is one reveal that comes out of left field. In an already complicated, multilevel political situation, Belinda's father offers an answer that makes things much more complicated and opens a whole new aspect that I expect to find fully explored in later novels in the series. It shifts the book in odd ways, but at the same time is neither jarring nor implausible, so I withhold judgment on its impact until I see more than just a teaser.

And speaking of the series, this is not a standalone book. It is a standalone introduction in that the main situation is resolved at the end, but there were threads I had hoped to see concluded just because I'm impatient for the answers, primarily with regards to Javier (you can agree or disagree once you've read the book, but this won't spoil anything :)), but the book did indicate he wasn't going to be neglected in the future, so I'll just have to remember patience is a virtue.

This is a coming of age novel, not for the novel (though it has some of those aspects) but for the writer. Murphy's talents were obvious in the very first novel of hers I read, Urban Shaman, but Queen's Bastard adds depths and complexity her earlier works had not yet attained. The rich pageantry of this novel makes it a step above and beyond, which just makes me more eager to see how she continues to mature as a writer. She's clearly not planning to sit on her already strong laurels but plans to stretch and grow in significant directions.

On a writing side, this novel has many interesting aspects. Murphy plays with tense by having the main character in standard third person past and all the other points of view in present tense. It's a nice way to signal the change, to keep you focused on who is the main character, and I found it easy to get used to.

As a curious coincidence of timing, one of the strengths of this novel is its non-verbal communication. Murphy does a wonderful job conveying information by how people react and changes in their body movement as well as what they think. The coincidence, for those who are unaware, is that I'm currently teaching a class on non-verbal communication in writing.

The only issue I had with the book, besides that I wish the sequel was here already, is what I believe to be a continuity error (mainly because no one really reacts to that fact), and I only noticed it in retrospect, so it didn't interfere with my read. Overall, I'm thrilled with this new direction Murphy has taken and can't wait to see what she does next in the series.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Diary of a Determined to Be Morning Person

I know...two posts in two days. Shocking :).

About 16 years ago, I was converted to a night person by around the clock feedings and my most productive time is between 10pm and 12pm. But my family has to leave the house early in the morning, my hubby first and then the boys. I'm tired of dragging myself out of bed to emote a goodbye through sleep-closed throat and squinty eyes. Hence my plan to convert.

So... Here's how the start of this grand adventure begins:

Day 1:
5:05 - Woken up by husband following express wishes. Awake and focused.
5:15 - Hop in the shower...hot water has not recovered from husband's bath :p.
6:15 - Done with shower, getting dressed, and morning calisthenics
6:45 - Done with breakfast (just cereal as normal). Decide to wait until house is empty to write.
7:22 - Have done some email, installed critical patch, started two loads of laundry through the process, and said goodbye to everyone else. Time to Write!
7:45 - Switched laundry, finished up what I was doing, ready to WRITE!
8:15 - Turned on writing music, played a game of Lose Your Marbles, read back a bit on the outline since I haven't touched this book in ~4 weeks, and read the last chapter. Time to...fall asleep.
9:10 - Woke up out of nightmare about confused kid time deadlines. Out on the beach in wet swimsuit when I'm supposed to be driving oldest (who's MUCH younger) to sleepover birthday party some 8 hours away. Was it supposed to be there at 2pm, or leave for there at 2pm? Freezing. Go put on robe and push the heater up to 68 degrees from 65.
9:45 - Oh look! First fiction words of 2009. All 494 of them!
Around 11:01 - This time my dream was as punishment for insolence in Harry Potter type boarding school but not, sent to spend the night in the falconry tower with all the loose raptors who are each about my size. Upset about the charge but not the punishment, I get along with the birds fine, but... There's a huge feast scheduled at the tower. I'm in charge of helping the cook but I can't remember the instructions. I'm trying hard but... I know I'm supposed to cut the onions. After chopping them into little squares, I half remember I'm supposed to be doing circles. Sigh. Someone comes and raps on the back glass doors. I open the door careful not to use my hand, but as they come in, the rain splatters me. Cook tells me to go wash up. Phone rings to wake me out of the second nap. It's a recorded sales pitch. We're on the do not call list.

So...hmmm. Up at 5:05? Check. Two naps totaling about 2 hours before noon? Not so check.

Maybe I shouldn't have started this after two almost sleepless nights in a row? At least the dreams were colorful...if nightmares.

And now you know why this is labeled a canary post?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

In the Name of Good... and Announcements

I believe there's a lot of cross over between my blog readers and the community of writers, so I thought you might be interested in the following announcements:

First of all, I edit the review section and write a couple columns for Vision: A Resource for Writers. This is a wonderful online magazine that provides articles on markets, writing techniques, resources useful to writers, and interviews among other elements. It is also a market for beginning non-fiction writers, and pulls on a wide variety of experienced writers for articles and interviews. Most of the content focuses on fiction writing of any genre, but articles on non-fiction topics do appear and are welcome. If you haven't checked it out before, please do. And if you have, you'll be happy to hear the new issue has been posted.



The second item is primarily for fiction writers. I am teaching an online workshop on non-verbal communication: how to become conscious of its influence and how to use it in your writing. The course does require membership in Forward Motion (a wonderful writing community), but membership is free. This requirement is to preserve rights for any work you might complete during the class.

I give fair warning that my workshops are intensive, but the more work you put in, the more you get out of the workshops.

Please come and check it out at fmwriters.com. After you log in, click on the Learning Center 2009 link in the header and then go to the Workshops 2009 folder.

The workshop begins on January 5th and the class will run 6 weeks.

Hope to see you there.

For the stray thought, I give you this...how many social restrictions do we pass on to our kids in the effort to protect their childhood?

This question struck me when reading an article in a 2003 Smithsonian (yes, I'm behind, but they're still as good now as then, and sometimes more interesting with what's happened since). It was an article about the Blackfoot language, and efforts to recover the language and the cultural aspects it contains through an immersion school. While that, in itself, is interesting, what really caught my eye was how the language dwindled in the first place.

The article explains that the tribe's children two generations back were shipped to English-only schools where the penalty for speaking anything other than English was harsh. These children came back to their reservations with the understanding that speaking Blackfoot meant being beaten, so they made sure their children wouldn't suffer the same fate by discouraging any use of their own language. In one generation, the number of native speakers was reduced to almost nothing first by the treatment in the schools and then by honest efforts to protect children.

Okay, that's horrible, but has no direct impact on me seeing as English is my native language, except...

The day before, I went with my husband to Home Depot to pick up some plastic zip ties to attach a mile counter to my son's bike (his Christmas present was missing some key, but easily obtainable, pieces). We had to ask for help to find the zip ties, and the Home Depot employee tagged along.

We turned the corner to see a bag of zip ties in the delightful colors of neon yellow, green, and of course, pink. I pointed them out to the man and my husband, laughing at the unexpected colors. The man commented that black plastic holds up best outdoors, a handy little tip I now pass to you.

It was a slow night and so he hung about as we contemplated the extensive display. My husband had hoped to pick up a bulk pack with a variety of sizes, but the options were white, and of course, the neon collection. After the man's comment about black, neither were suitable, but I jokingly said that we should get the neon pink for our teenager as this would go over very well. We all laughed at the shared cultural joke, then we picked up straight black both for the longer duration and the social safety.

All well and good so far, but now that article has me thinking.

In as late as a 1918 Ladies Home Journal, mothers were advised to dress their boys in pink to be in fashion, presumably because it was a bright, dramatic color. It's not until the 1940s that the modern gender association became common. And yet, a boy who wears pink in most modern US cultures will be subject to ridicule or worse.

That attitude is clear enough in the joke I myself made even though I normally scoff at the biased linking of specific colors to gender. In the case of my kids though, I do what's necessary to reduce the chance of them getting bullied, something they've been at risk for since the beginning because, frankly, their parents are out of step culturally. What I hadn't realized was how much I'd absorbed those cues in the context of my kids.

And now I have to rethink my position.

Not that pink being lost as boys' wear is a big cultural failure, not that a people's history will vanish because of this bias against pink, but even such a small thing makes me wonder.

I don't want my kids to be subject to ridicule, isolated by their peers, or beaten up after school as I was myself. I know that governs my choices not just of clothing but in other aspects of their lives. I give them a good foundation, or try, and then point out where they need to be cautious and protect themselves.

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to raise kids to be aware and respectful of people who are different than themselves while at the same time encouraging them to act like everyone else to protect them? When what makes them unique also makes them vulnerable, how do you balance sheltering them and encouraging them to be themselves.

When my mother-in-law got the boys wind cheaters ages ago, she was startled to see them choose hot pink. Why did they? Probably because my wind cheater was hot pink (a color I happen to adore for its ability to be bright and cheery when we were living in a place that rarely got real sun) and they hadn't yet picked up on that being a no-no color for boys.

My youngest doesn't care about pink. Sometimes he even likes to wear it. When I caution against, he says he doesn't care what people think. Part of me is proud of him. The rest is worried.

This is the same son that I joked about getting the pink zip ties and then chose not to.

So what other social conventions that I don't believe in have I unwittingly supported in the interests of my children? What haven't I told them to make sure they didn't say it in other company where such attitudes would be greeted with a harsh response, whether by the authorities or their peers? In what ways have I helped the destruction of what makes our culture and my kids unique by avoiding or actively squashing things?

I don't know whether it's comforting that I can't think of any big example, or terrifying. By pure luck have I only had to compromise on the little things, or has compromise in this context become so common that even something big slips my notice? I know something important to me would not have, but there are a lot of things outside my radar that, when given notice, are clearly making a statement I don't intend. When that does happen I correct the impression, but who's there to give notice if each generation aids and abets the whitewashing of culture for purely good reasons?

Scary thoughts, don't you think?