Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!



(Everyone has pictures of Christmas trees, so why not something different?)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Martyr’s Fire: Review

 
As the new lord of Magnus, Thomas should be at peace with the world, safe in his rightful home. But by reclaiming Magnus, Thomas defied the dark powers that want to control Magnus and its secret. In the middle of this struggle, he is haunted by two beautiful girls—one who betrayed him, one who helped him, but he still doesn’t know if he can trust either.

Martyr's Fire

Martyr’s Fire is third in Sigmund Brouwer’s YA series Merlin’s Immortals, following The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist. In the first two books, Thomas sets out to recover his birthright, but is caught between the Druids and the Immortals, secret circles of power that control medieval England. Both circles want to use Thomas, but the Immortals want to claim him as one of their own—if he hasn’t been corrupted by the Druids. Martyr’s Fire picks up soon after the previous volume, reintroducing a couple of main characters while launching a new threat at Thomas’s power—a group of monks claiming to carry powerful relics and demanding allegiance from ruler and beggar alike.

As the story continues through this book, Thomas finally learns some of the secrets that have controlled his life, when another character explains the battle between the Druids and the Immortals. Even this revelation, though, leaves many more doubts and secrets that Thomas has to untangle to survive.

If you’ve read the first two books, you’ve probably got a good taste of what to expect in Martyr’s Fire—dungeons and secrets and science dressed up as magic, all in a very short read. (And, you can read the first chapter of Marty's Fire here.) If you’ve not read them yet, you may want to borrow them first and catch up on the action. Unlike many fantasy series, each volume of Merlin’s Immortals is about 200 pages long, so it's pretty easy to do, and it’s not so much what happens as why you need to care.

Unfortunately, I found myself getting frustrated by all the secrets. Readers do get to know more than Thomas does, but that also means knowing Thomas should be able to trust certain characters when he has no way of knowing that himself. And, after three books, I feel like Brouwer’s holding back secrets just because he won’t have anything left once he tells.

Overall, when I read the previous volumes earlier this year, I remember liking them fairly well, but after this book, I’ll probably keep reading less from being excited about the story and more because it is an interesting plot and because I want to find out what the secret of Magnus really is. It’s a good story, just not a favorite.

(As a side note, it’s not very clear from the marketing information, but when I looked up Merlin’s Immortal, the series appears to be a revised or expanded version of Brouwer’s Wings of Light/Magnus series originally published from 1992-1994. The changes seem to be irrelevant to first-time readers like me, but without reading the original series, I can’t say how much Brouwer changed in this version.)

[My thanks to WaterBrook Press for sending me a review copy of Martyr's Fire in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Do Dragons Monologue?


 
I started last week by watching The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I ended the week by watching The Desolation of Smaug. As you might guess, I have Tolkien on the brain, and some observations about the movie. If you’ve watched it, I hope you find them amusing. If not, well—I’m trying to avoid spoilers.

#####

First, how can a movie change absolutely everything about a story and still be the story?

Second, is it okay to laugh through an entire fight scene?

Is it more or less okay when the orcs are losing their heads right and left? I’ll admit that I was slightly worried about seeing Legolas again. It seemed such a perfect chance to ruin things, but somehow he tops even skateboarding on a shield. And, I’ll never underestimate Bombur with a barrel again.

To go back to the orcs, however—as was shown in the Lord of the Rings, some orcs simply cannot be killed, no matter what. In my opinion, Dark Lords would be better served by spawning those orcs in fewer quantities than by spawning prodigious hordes of red-shirt orcs. I could be mistaken, though, since it might just be the difference in technique when one is fighting a single orc rather than a whole gang of them.

What about ADHD dragons who can’t decide which dwarves to chase first? Sure, Smaug showed a lot of inconsistencies, but he did have a lot going on after years of boredom. And, he obviously has trouble making up his mind. It’s no surprise, then, that he has unfinished business to distract him at crucial moments.

On the other side of things, with apparently too much time on his hands, we have Thranduil. All I’m going to say on that score is—if Thranduil and the rest of the elf army should flake out again and end up MIA for the battle of five armies, everything will still be okay. Legolas and Tauriel can be an army by themselves.

Speaking of Tauriel, I’m not going to complain about that particular change. It hardly seems important after some of the other changes. I understand some people just want to see more strong female characters, and others can’t stand a story without a romance plot of some kind. To be strictly honest, though, adding Tauriel hardly passes the Bechdel test, while as for the romance story…

No, I’m more upset about that whole morgul arrow thing, because…what am I supposed to think? That Aragorn learned his herb-lore from ‘watching’ this version of the quest? I can just picture the scene, when Gandalf and Bilbo finally make it back to Rivendell:

#####

(As Bilbo finishes the story, probably related to him by Oin or Bofur…)

Elrond: “What? The dwarves knew about athelas?”

Gandalf: “It’s true, Elrond. I hardly believed it myself, though lucky for them that one at least had some sense to find the plant before it was too late.”

Elrond: “But how did they learn of it? Dwarves do not usually care to study such matters. Aragorn, go ask Arwen if she told one of the dwarves about athelas.”

Aragorn: “She didn’t, uncle Elrond—I did. At least, he heard about the library and wanted me to show him, and he saw your scrolls on healing craft. He told me all about the mines of Khazad-dum, too. Is it true that the dwarves woke something in the deep places, with their digging?”

#####

I mean, if Peter Jackson can do it, I can too. (The only thing I’m holding against him right now is how he makes the story just slightly less magical—I insist upon having a talking thrush or raven or something.)

Finally, as for whether or not dragons monologue—of course they do! It must be lonely living alone in a cave for hundreds of years with a mound of treasure. Besides, dragons are the sort of creature that would love the sound of their own voices. Such a rich, golden sound it is, too…

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tree & Python


(Photo all wrong for time of year, but I liked it)
Human perception is a tricky thing.

For years, there was a huge old tree growing along a road. I drove past it several times a week, but I never really noticed it, except for maybe the lower branches when they were lit up by an annual Christmas display.

Then, one year, I happened to drive by and realize that the tree was flowering.

All along, I must have assumed the tree was an oak. It was big, it had that shape, and it was green. And that was all I bothered to notice. Apparently, though, it was a silk tree and really gorgeous once I finally started paying attention.

It’s funny, noticing how something will pop up once you start paying attention.

I realized that again last week, when I joined a critique group, as part of my 'make the story survive past November strategy'. After I signed up, the first round of emails came out, we started introducing ourselves, and then I logged onto the site where we could access the email archives. Right at the bottom of the page, I noticed a cute little logo…

Python Powered

I wouldn’t have noticed that back in September. Probably not even in October. But that class I’m taking happens to be teaching Python. (Python, for clarification, is a programming language named after Monty Python. It was not named after snake, I have been told, though some of the projects might have felt distantly related to a python.)

Writing meet programming; programming meet writing. I'm noticing something new these days.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Where's November?

Way back, ages ago, I meant to post something short—just to say “Happy Thanksgiving” to everyone. You know, just about two weeks ago, when it was still Thanksgiving.

I even had a photo to go with the post…


(We made an apple pie as our share of the family dinner.)
 
Then Thanksgiving happened, and two days later, we made a trip out to some friends’ Christmas tree farm to get our tree. So, apparently, it’s now time to start saying “Merry Christmas,” instead of “Happy Thanksgiving.” 
 
I suppose that also means that November is over. Even more, NaNoWriMo is over, and I survived the month. To be honest, the first week was easy—I only had one writing day in it, and writing 3K words in a day is relatively simple, done once. The last week was hard—I only had two writing days in it, but I still had to write 3K words a day. Make that 4K, because I didn’t want to drag the process out any longer. Still, I survived and came out with a lump of 50K words.
 
About this time last year, I had 50K words on a different novel, but it was barely the first third of the novel, and I had no idea what to do with it next. This year, the story itself has more fragments than an Egyptian papyrus, but it still fits together as a story. Now it’s time to turn that into a novel. 
 
For starters, I’ve joined a critique group set up by Oregon Christian Writers. It seemed to be my logical next step. If I’m going to finish that story any time soon, I need a way to keep on track and get feedback for how the story is going.

 Also important—figuring out how to tell people about the story. If I ever finish it, I will probably need to describe it in better terms than I’m using at the moment… “Yes, well, I’m writing this story. It’s kind of typical rescue plot, but I’m not sure whether the main character is somebody’s brother or this out-of-place-youngster that wasn’t even in the story in the first place. He showed up when I was writing the prologue.”

The next step will actually be writing something regularly. You will probably hear about this process occasionally, since it’s very big in my plans for the next couple of months. That, and holidays, and the rest of life.

So, a late Happy Thanksgiving and an early Merry Christmas to you all!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Jesus Story: Review

 
Now that NaNoWriMo is over, my schedule seems to be settling down a bit. (More on that another time.) I’ve taken care of a couple long-delayed projects, but there is one book I’ve put off reviewing longer than I should have—The Jesus Story, by Dr. William H. Marty.
 
Cover Art
 
Part of the delay happened because I got the book early last month, looked at it, and groaned. My first glance picked up an entire section of Dick-ran-after-Spot-type sentences, and I was reluctant to venture further into the book.
 
Eventually, though, I sat down with the book again and found it was an easy read. For a book which subtitles itself "Everything That Happens in the New Testament in Plain English," The Jesus Story lives up to that promise fairly well. The idea of compiling the Gospels isn't unique—plenty of other writers and scholars have written similar books—but The Jesus Story makes it easy to read through the four Gospels plus Acts (in an abridged form) in the course of a few hours. That, to keep things simple, is what this book is and what it does.

For me, that is also The Jesus Story’s major advantage—I’ve looked at my reading rate and realized I should be able to read through one of the Gospels in an afternoon. It should, but somehow the idea of reading one Gospel, much less four, straight through always seems daunting. Having one relatively thin book in hand makes the reading almost a breeze.

In exchange for compressing the story, The Jesus Story has to keep things fairly simple. It's a bonus, making the reading simple as well, but also a minor downfall. As the Apostle John notes, heaven and earth could not contain the entire story of Jesus’s life. That makes it extra hard to fit even the events recorded in the Gospels into 150 pages of normal-sized print without going short-hand.

Add in the fact that Marty tries to translate some ideas for modern readers, and the book gets a little inconsistent. The result is not strictly “dumbing things down,” but it does leave something lacking in the writing and narrative depth.

As far as giving background to the original text, for example, Marty adds some good points of explanation, like the fact that Jews avoided going into Samaria or that leprosy was a particularly dreaded disease at the time. In other places, however, he states other things of equal culture foreignness—the Jewish leaders wanting the legs of the crucified men to be broken—without any clarification.

Also, as I noted before, the writing itself tends toward simplistic. I can only take so many simple sentences in a row, so several sections of the book felt jarringly monotonous, while some of the word choices were awkward, to say the least. If an author is writing for modern readers, I can understand substituting “engaged” for “betrothed.” But “tent of holiness” rather than “tabernacle”? It might get the idea across, but it’s hardly less opaque. I’m also not sure that “grateful” best describes Jesus’s reaction to his disciples’ faith. On a more humorous side, Jesus’s brothers urge him to “go public!” Unlike my previous review, academic this book is not.

Neither of these issues is crucial, but they do make the book feel a bit disjointed, like it's trying to be both comprehensive and simple, or that in avoiding archaic or Christianese terms, it's using modern jargon instead. So, overall, I’d rate the book as okay—not a bad read, but not great writing, and a little flat in places. At the same time, it is a great way to read through the entire New Testament story in a relatively short time. 

For someone looking for a more comprehensive book closer to the original text, I might recommend instead Johnston M. Cheney’s The Life of Christ in Stereo or his other version with Stanley A. Ellison, The Greatest Story. Otherwise, for someone struggling to get through the Gospels or looking for a change of pace, rather like reading a different translation, The Jesus Story seems like a good option. And that, ultimately, is what this book is meant to be—a readable retelling of New Testament history.

[My thanks to Bethany House Publishers for sending me a review copy of The Jesus Story in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]