Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review: "Fractured Light" by Rachel McClellan

When I sat down to read Rachel McClellan’s debut YA book, Fractured Light, I was worried her book would disappoint because I was in the middle of my reading blitz on the books shortlisted for the Mann Booker award. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the end of Fractured Light when I realized that this book excelled in its character development even when compared to some of the giants of modern literature.
Fractured Light follows a 17 year old high school senior, LIona Reese who is almost invisible to her classmates, wishing she had friends like everybody else. But there is a twist; LIona does this by choice. She forces herself to blend into the background as much as she can because LIona is a Aura and has the ability to harness the power of light, and she and her type have been hunted by the Vykens for as long as anybody can remember.
When she learns that the Vyken is close to finding her, LIona must choose between running away to a special school for Auras as others have done for hundreds of years, or face the Vyken threat. With the help of the few friends she reluctantly reaches out to, LIona rejects the safety of the school and becomes the first Aura to take control of her life and develop her powers to protect herself.
One of the strongest aspects of this book is the growth that LIona experiences. She transforms herself from a meek, timid girl to an empowered woman. But it's not just the transition itself that makes Fractured Light unique, it is the space that LIona has to develop her own talents and grow as a character. There is nobody in her life that actively steers her onto the right path, and come the end, LIona is the one who takes action against the Vyken even though there are others willing to fight for her.
Far too often in literature, characters are given mentors that constantly protect them and keep them on the right path because the main character is not smart or strong enough to overcome the obstacle. But at the same time, there needs to be a relational character that assists in the growth of the character. This book has a perfect balance, allowing LIona to gather advice from a number of others, but leaves the decision making to LIona. Throughout the book, LIona is the one in control. This balance allows for a wide, sweeping character arc, making this book comparable with the character development I found in the afore mentioned Mann Booker nominees.
However, there were some things that could have used improvement, but overall they carried little weight when attributed to the book as a whole. The first thing would be the pacing in the beginning, where the plot takes it's time solidifying and the stakes are slow to be established. Some books can get away with this because the characters, setting, or concept is so interesting, but this is not one of them. But when the plot does get moving, the reader is rewarded for their perseverance.  Also, I was able to identify the Vyken half-way through the book which ruined the mystery aspect; however, it inadvertently added to the tension in some of the later scenes. Finally,  in the final confrontation with the Vyken, there was one of those 'James Bond' moments where the villain reveals to the hero everything they did and why they did it. If there were any paragraphs from this book that needed to be cut out, those would be it.
Overall, Fractured Light is a strong book with excellent character development and ends with possibly the best sequel setup I have read. I highly recommend this book to everybody, e.g., adults, young adults, fantasy fans, and literature snobs.
Fractured Light receives 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Masterpiece #FridayFlash

Here is another piece that I put together for #Fridayflash. Please let me know what you think, and as always, feel free to be extra stabby with your critiques. It's the only way to help both of us grow.

Leonard slung a brown blazer over his shoulders and fumbled with his buttons. His warehouse studio with cold, tan bricks and a tall ceiling supported by iron rafters of a bygone era became chilly when the wind picked up; he shivered. Affixing his name badge to his lapel, his eye wandered towards the far wall, where the giant masterpiece he and his wife created nearly five years ago hung above the spot he created his own work.
The dark reds, whites, and brown leathery patches hung off the canvas she herself planned for many months. It was amazing how it slowly changed over the years; the colors fading and bringing themselves closer to the final black of decay. Still, the thought of that day put a subtle shake in Leonard's legs.
He put his hand on the door handle when a voice called out to him, “Don’t leave just yet, honey.”
Leonard stopped immediately and turned back towards the painting, taking a couple steps towards it. “Who is that?”
“Don’t you recognize the voice of your own wife?”
“Is that--” He took one more step forward. “Cathy?”
“I’ve been watching you these last five years, ever since you told the police I went missing.”
“But how?”
“When I planned this work, I told you that it was my attempt at immortality. You didn’t think I had gone crazy, did you?” Her laugh echoed off the solid walls and the browned blood stains on the canvas seemed to revert back to their original red, liquid state.
“It was your idea. All yours. You begged me.”
“I did.” The voice said. “And for that I thank you. You performed your work admirably, oh loyal husband.”
“What...what do you want then?”
“What I want, Leonard, is for you to join me.” From the kitchen, a knife slid across the floor, stopping at his feet. “Join me up here and reveal us to the world!”
Behind him, the deadbolt to his studio door suddenly locked itself. He tried to undo it, but the mechanism was stuck. “Where do you think you’re going?” the voice said.
“I’m going to be late for the opening.”
“Ah yes. I was surprised you finally came around to putting your work out there in public without me there to guide you.” Again, her laugh filled the studio. “Is that what you really want, Leonard? A couple curious college students and a single elderly couple taking a two minute stroll past your paintings?”
“It’s just a start. In a year or two I will have my career back--”
“Nonsense. You need me. You always have. Only I can make you great.”
He picked up the knife, tossing it back and forth between his hands. “Are you asking me to…”
“No, I want you to carve up a Thanksgiving turkey for me.” The window to the studio flung open and a gust of chilly wind burst through, knocking over a couple pieces of stretched canvas that leaned against the far wall. The only one to remain standing was the large seven by seven foot blank square of white. “I want you beside me.”
Leonard took a couple more steps towards the painting. “I’ll never do it. You were crazy back—”
“Shut up. You couldn’t comprehend my genius at the time; nobody could. But if you ascend with me, we could be famous the world over. People will speak our names for hundreds of years--”
“They’ll remember us as that crazy couple who killed themselves.”
“Enough!” she shouted. The power in the studio flickered and the girders ground against their masonry bases. “You were always such a loyal husband, don’t let me down now.” Small bits of mortar dropped onto Leonard’s head. “You will join me, one way or another. I just hope you make the right decision and become immortal as I have.”
He approached the base of his wife’s masterpiece with his knife in hand. “My loyalty ended the day your turned yourself into that.” Leonard stabbed the painting, tearing it down the middle. A river of warm blood gushed from the canvas, soaking his entire body. Ringing throughout the studio, his wife’s screams lasted longer than any mortal's, but they too faded until nothing but an echo remained.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Best #Fridayflash of the Month for November

Back on our schedule of doing one of these each month, I had the privilege to read the story Chances Are by Tim VanSant to whom this award goes out.

This particular story really jumped off the page for me, and in particular it was the voice of the character. Right from the opening we are treated to lines such as: "And then for lunch I found one of them buffets for cheap that have real prime rib and crab’s legs and a salad with four beans, not just three. I ate till I was like to bust." Tim does a masterful job here of taking a particular dialect and using syntax, word order, and even specific details to portray it, not mis-spelled words and funny accent marks.

Things like the four beans instead of three really painted this picture in my mind of a guy who is truly simple at heart, and not just some ignorant rural bumpkin. He's surrounded with the glitz of Vegas, yet the thing he finds neat is the number of beans. This story, like I said before, really captures the character's voice beautifully and lays it out in a well structured piece of flash that has a great twist at the end.

So go out in read that story, yes right now, and when you come back, Tim himself was gracious enough to do a quick interview to let us in on some of the secrets of this piece. Again, congratulations and thank you for sharing this wonderful piece of fiction with the world! Now, on to Tim.

There isn't too much on your about page aside from you being 'a poet in academician’s clothing.' Is there anything you would like to add to that to give your readers a better idea of who you are?

What, is that unclear somehow? [laughing] I enjoy writing poetry. I've spent most of my life as a teacher. I'm afraid if I try to add anything the readers will get bored before we get to the second question. I often say that I am not normal. That doesn't mean that I'm interesting though.

Based on your picture, I would suggest you might be quite interesting. But moving on, do you have any big projects that you are working on? If so, could you share some info on them?

I have a few things going. The one I'm having the most fun with is writing stories featuring J.P. Worthett, a private investigator who has appeared in a couple of my Friday Flash pieces. I plan to publish them as a collection. My other projects are top secret.

What style of writer would you consider yourself? (Unless that's classified as well of course.)

By style do you mean pantster versus plotter? I lean more to the pantster side. I usually know where my stories are going to end and I sometimes list bullet points on how to get there or elements I want to include. But I'm quite willing to throw away any of that if the story starts playing out differently as I write. Strict outlining feels too much like what I have to do when writing instructional materials. I'm much more a plotter for those.

With regards to Chances Are, is there anything in particular that inspired this piece?

Well, it's a story of betrayal of course and I won't go into what prompted that. I was working on another piece with a different song when the image of this poor guy popped into my head and I heard him saying, "I ain't never been lucky." Originally he was on the bed watching his reflection in the mirrors on the ceiling slowly fade away as he died with the song playing in the background. The setting felt like Las Vegas to me. At that point I knew where the story was going to end [except he landed on the floor instead of the bed and I changed the song] and I just had to let him tell me how he got there.

Have you ever had any insanely lucky streaks in a casino?

No. I wouldn't say I've had any insanely lucky streaks anywhere, and I've only been in casinos a few times. I don't have the temperament [or the disposable income] that I think is required to take the risks that lead to insanely lucky streaks.

The voice in Chances Are is very unique and different from your other works. How did you get that to work so well?

First, thank you for saying it worked well. It's always risky to deviate from standard English. That voice is based largely on one of my college roommates who grew up in rural Kentucky tempered a bit by a milder dialect common to the area around Louisville, where I grew up. I have used pretty much the same voice in one or two other pieces, but it has to fit the character. More to the point of your question though, I always write by listening to the story in my head. I let the characters tell the story and I write it down. This is especially helpful with dialog because I can usually catch bits that just don't sound right coming out of a character's mouth. I can hear this character's voice clearly and it feels familiar to me.

Is there any particular reason you chose that particular Johnny Mathis song to post at the end of the story?

When I chose Las Vegas for the setting it reminded me of a recent discussion about how poorly most people estimate the odds of any particular event occurring. The phrase, "What are the odds?" gave me the idea to use "Chances Are" as the song and the title. Plus, come on, it's Johnny Mathis!

Were there any particularly difficult challenges in writing this piece?

This piece flowed pretty easily for me. In the first draft he only played at the blackjack table. Having him move to roulette made it easier [fictionally] to win more money in a shorter time and the frenzied excitement around the craps [there, I said it] table was a natural way to bring in the bimbo blowing on the dice. I know that's cliché, but it helped move the story along so I kept it in.

Are there any ‘easter eggs’ or inside jokes in that piece that most people would not have caught?

Not really. The closest to that is when he says he has ten dollars that he's willing to waste in the casino. It's a reference to my only trip to Las Vegas. Due to a series of unusual and stressful events -- I'll save that story for another time -- I found myself standing in a casino after having been up for 22 hours [and only four hours of sleep the night before]. I had a twenty dollar bill in my hand that I had planned to take to the blackjack table. I decided I was too exhausted to have any better chance of winning than if I just threw the money on the floor. I put it in my pocket and went to bed. I wasn't willing to waste it in a casino. But even if you had suffered through listening to my Las Vegas adventure, you probably would not catch that. I put it in just for me.

What do you find most challenging about writing flash fiction?

I think the biggest challenge is making a story complete with a beginning, middle, and end in such a short format. A lot of flash pieces, mine included, are more of a sketch or vignette. In fact, before I learned the term flash fiction I called my short pieces vignettes. But I think it's okay to have some elements implicit rather than explicit.

What do you find most enjoyable about writing flash fiction?

I enjoy stripping a story down to it's basic elements and finding just the right words to convey big emotions in small spaces. Similar to writing poetry, I want to be able to elicit an emotional response in the reader with most of my flash pieces. I can't ask for more than to get you to laugh or cry or even just stop and think about the world in a different way.

What would your ultimate goal as a writer be?

I haven't decided on an ultimate goal. I have earned money by writing and editing and I want to do more of that. I'm looking into a couple publishing ventures. Through my website and blog I have already joined a world-wide community of readers and writers. I routinely get visitors from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. How cool is that? [Now, if I can just figure out how to appeal to penguins or Antarctic explorers I'll be poised for... TOTAL GLOBAL DOMINATION!!! Cue dramatic theme song.]

I'll see if I can do anything about the Antarctic thing. But in the meantime, do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?

Seriously? Have you forgotten who you're talking to? Oh, I know. My father told me never to attempt vast projects with half-vast plans. [I am his favorite oldest son.] See, if I wrote longer forms than poetry and flash I would have to be more of a plotter.

I want to extend my thanks out again to Tim, and one more round of applause.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Darkness Surrounding #FridayFlash

Here is another piece that I put together for #Fridayflash. Please let me know what you think, and as always, feel free to be extra stabby with your critiques. It's the only way to help both of us grow.

Tim is dead.
At least I’m pretty sure he is. I crawled over to where he sat and shook him; he didn’t stir. His scrawny arm felt cool, not like when somebody gets out of the cold, but lifeless. I lifted his arm again, and it collapsed against his wasted and shriveled body.
I pushed myself away. For the first time in what must have been a couple days, I was grateful for the enveloping darkness and its ability to hide Tim’s body from me. The first week we had our flashlight, but once it died, time became elusive. The last thing he said to me was that he thought we made it to day ten, but I think it was closer to nine.
I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers into my eyelids, revealing bursts of colorful light flashing in front of my pupils. While no light reached the bottom of the mine shaft, it appeared we could create our own. It was actually Tim who first discovered this ‘light’ as he called it. But whatever it was, hunger hallucinations or some sort of physics phenomenon, I enjoyed it. Lately, when we were too weak to talk, Tim and I spent what we thought were hours staring into those lights.
When I opened my eyes, the darkness took over and I realized that my own body approached death. I wondered what it was like to die like that, like Tim. All I knew was that I didn’t want to, but there was nothing I could do, unless I wanted to go down a dark road I dared not think about.
The thought, however, had infected my mind; there was nothing I could do about it now. My own death was imminent, and who would it hurt anyways? Tim was dead. That was a fact, and he wouldn’t feel any pain. Although what of his wife and kids? What if they found only parts of him? But then again, what about my own family? Don’t they deserve their father?
I ran my hand down Tim’s arm and felt the muscular fibers, though mostly eaten by his body, still there and full of life saving energy. I pressed my fingers up against his bicep, and to be honest, a man, even one who is starved to death, has a fair amount of meat on him. Each arm probably enough to keep me alive another day; the legs, a couple more. The question was, how long until the rescue? Would it ever come?
“Tim.” I said into the darkness, not expecting a response but needing to talk to somebody. “Do you think the basketball team is going to make it to state this year?” Still silence from him, but I didn’t care. “Yea, they might have trouble defending the post, but their perimeter--I think you’re underestimating Davis. He’s a good kid--fuck it.”
My hands shook as I pulled out my pocket knife. I had spent the last five years of my life keeping the hinges oiled and the blade sharp, but getting it open in my current state left me out of breath. There was no strength for anything, my time was running out no matter what I did.
The knife sat open in my hand for a good long while. How long, I’m not sure. Time in darkness like that moves like a kid just learning to drive stick, and it was just about as painful too. I closed my eyes and watched the faint colors flash around. Where that light came from, I’ll never know, but it made me feel like there was something coming for me, that there was something out there. I summoned up any remaining strength I had and tossed my knife across the chamber.
I kept my eyes closed, watching the lights. My body made all kinds of strange, gurgling sounds, and I drifted in and out of sleep. I’m not sure how long I was out each time, but whenever I was awake, I didn’t last long. “Tim.” I cried out. “Give my regards to Beth when you see her.” I fell asleep.
Sometime later, I woke up to a light, a real one. I squinted at the brightness. It looked almost like a light from a miner’s helmet, and it was accompanied by the echoing sounds of a man cheering in the distance. I tried to keep my eyes open, but it was useless.
The next time I managed to open them, the light was even brighter. So bright in fact I couldn’t make out anything in my surroundings. But then, for a moment, I thought I saw some sort of monitor glowing green in the distance and my wife in the background. She rushed to my side. Yes, it was my wife. “I love you.” I called out, but my head crashed back into the pillow as soon as I tried to lift it. My eyes closed themselves and brought back those comfortable colors until they too faded to darkness.

Friday, December 2, 2011

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

My #Fridayflash for the week is in a state that I don't like at the moment, so I'm going to see if I can fix it for next week. In it's place I thought I would muse about some of the things I learned while participating in this year's National Novel Writing Month.

First, I will say that I did not 'win.' I only managed about 30k words, foolishly thinking that when I visited my parents I would find a way to make enough time to get a good word count each day. Instead I ended up with 150 words for the whole 5 day visit. So lesson one would be that I'm not good at writing on the road.

But on a more positive aspect, I did find that NaNoWriMo is actually a pretty good exercise in getting your butt in the chair and writing. It helped me I think to really develop some good habits about sitting down to my keyboard when I get home from work and at least getting something down on the page. Now if I can keep that up, I'm going to be quite happy with myself. I mean, sure I didn't get all 50k words, but just 500 words a day gets you 3 novels each year. And for me, that only takes about 15min to half an hour.

Which brings me to my second point. I took a fair amount of time in October going over my novel's structure so that I had a solid plot, with solid characters, solid goals, and solid well everything. So when it came down to doing the actual writing, I got to pour words out of my head and into the story without having to worry about what was coming next, because the little note card on Scrivener told me what was coming next. I had never written anything with that solid a structure before, and let me tell you that it was a joy. Plus, with a detailed outline, I was able to go through it and revise it a couple times to make sure that the story as a whole worked without having to cut out entire scenes and chapters, rewriting them all over again. Instead it was cutting out a sentence here and there. Outlining rocks.

And finally, I used Scrivener to write my NaNoWriMo novel, which was pretty cool. I learned a lot about it and will be purchasing the full version when my trial eventually runs out. It has a lot of neat tools that let me organize the story better then when I just used my own note cards for instance. I liked having everything in one place and so easy to change. So for the $40 or whatever it's going to cost me (Windows version, not sure about the Mac one quite yet) I think it's quite worth it.

I may not have gotten to 50k words, but I think I won in my own little way.

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