Five Books – Five Authors – Five Unique Forms of Characterization

Hook, Line and Sinker, by Ev Bishop

Ev Bishop has an incredible understanding of human nature which makes her books stand out as being unusually authentic. While romance is a genre that doesn’t get a lot of respect in some circles, her skill is definitely worthy of respect from any reader. I only wish I could write characters as warm and engaging. They feel like living, breathing people, so much so that you almost start developing relationships with them! Add the romance and some action, and her River’s Sigh B&B series is a total winner.

A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny

I absolutely love the character of Armand Gamache. I would even go so far to say that he’s my favourite book character of all time. I’d love to write a character as great. Heck, I’d love to BE a character as great! With her Chief Inspector Gamache murder mystery novels, Louise Penny leans toward having one truly great character carry the story – and being a master of complex plots doesn’t hurt her either. Definitely worth a read.

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book was very different, especially compared to her better known, Eat, Pray, Love. Not a lot happened in it – and yet I found it oddly intriguing, even captivating. The story basically followed a woman from before she was born (by writing briefly about her parents) until the day she died. The entire book seemed a character study, and though the story was strange in that the plot didn’t follow a usual form, I enjoyed it. I recommend this book, but only if you don’t mind a slower read.

The Gate Crasher, by Madeleine Wickham

I enjoy Sophie Kinsella’s work, so when I saw a copy of The Gate Crasher, written under her penname, it seemed a good find. Though the protagonist was a con artist, I thought she’d surely be redeemed in the end, and so I was going happily along for the ride, forgiving her when she did things that were thoughtless and unkind, simply because I believed she would learn from her experiences. Fast forward to the end: I think she changed… it was briefly implied that she changed… I’m sorry, but that’s not enough for me. The question of the story – will Fleur learn to love, and abandon her destructive ways? – was not answered. With The Gate Crasher, I felt conned.

The Humans, by Matt Haig

Matt Haig has written a story that is unique, quirky, surprising, heartwarming, and even a bit terrifying at times. All together, it was simply wonderful. An alien inside a human body, sent to kill the family of the body’s previous owner, told from the first person point of view of the alien. The premise certainly gave Matt Haig opportunity for fresh characterization and storytelling, and he took full advantage of it to great effect. And not with just the alien character, but with the human characters as well. And the dog! And it’s a love story too, albeit a peculiar one.

And now that we have come full circle back to romance, I will bid you adieu. I hope you try some of the books!

Just a Little Run Around the World

Guess what this book is about?

Yes, Rosie Swale Pope really did run around the world, alone, on a continuous journey – including through Siberia, Alaska, and Greenland during the winters! It took her five years and 53 pairs of shoes, and when she was finished, she was 61 years old. She is my new hero.

On her 32,000 km run, she was “followed by wolves, knocked down by a bus, confronted by bears, chased by a naked man with a gun, and stranded with severe frostbite” – plus suffer broken ribs twice (and kept running), was stuck in an Arctic snowstorm for days, and had many more unique and even bizarre experiences. Hers is truly an amazing accomplishment.

Then, when I looked her up online, it looks like TODAY, like January 9th, 2017, she finished her run across the United States, from New York to San Francisco. If that’s right (and it’s not just some weird internet auto-date thing), then what a cool coincidence!

What I thought while reading this book (other than she’s amazing, of course):

Here again is the recurring evidence of the value of dividing big goals into small tasks. Some days, it’s run 20 km, some days it’s a struggle to go 100 meters. Yes, she had days like that. And she kept going, one day at a time, 100 meters at a time, until she accomplished her goal.

But even more impactful to me, I thought about how we limit ourselves. Our goals usually run to paths that are far more trodden than Rosie Swale Pope’s. The sad thing is, even if we want to run the road less travelled, the specific idea of what “our thing” is, may not even cross our minds.

Our first limitation is our thoughts.

I may not want to run around the world – so what do I want to do that I haven’t thought of yet, simply because my thinking is limited?

That question is for all of us.

What great things can we all individually accomplish if we allow our imaginations to fly to the “impossible” and then, 100 meters at a time, turn that dream into “possible” and then reality?

That’s worth some thought.

 

Think Like A Fiction Reader

think-like-a-freak“Think Like A Freak” by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner: Loved the stats. Loved the examples. Loved the entertaining writing. The book just sped by.

What it’s about: Most humans make decisions without using much original thought. We’re hardwired to think a certain way, and because of it, our thinking is predictable and we have common blind spots. The authors give a few ideas of things to do to start thinking like a freak, things like saying “I don’t know” when we actually don’t know (which is the only freaky thinking thing I’m good at), ignore the supposed limits, think like a child, give incentives to others, getting “your garden to weed itself”, and finally, the benefits of coin flipping in place of decision making.

What I thought while reading this book: I’m very typically human. I have the usual patterns and blind spots – and so I was very appreciative of the things I learned while reading this book.

And considering the usefulness of “Think Like A Freak” to me, where I went mentally after reading is a weird leap: Though I learned what “Think Like A Freak” actually outright taught me, I didn’t learn more, because of the nature of non-fiction, or at least the nature of “teaching” non-fiction (as opposed to “real life experience” non-fiction).

Don’t get me wrong. I love non-fiction and I read a lot of it. I’ve learned a huge number of extremely valuable things from non-fiction – but I believe even more strongly now that non-fiction is limited. Why? Because by leading me along a focused track, the non-fiction writer doesn’t give me the mental freedom for diverse thoughts before I’m once again being hustled along by more focused facts, proofs, and logical reasonings.

When it comes to the deeper stuff of life, I find fiction the better teacher. If I head out on a mind tangent in a story, there’s not the same pressure to get back to the proper lesson at hand. Theme can whisper, tempting me off or on various paths, but I don’t have to listen. Even more, characters’ personalities, thoughts, and actions can be profound lessons. For example, I just finished a book by Louise Penny (my next review) that blew me away on the immense value of playing the long game with patience and kindness, and how those qualities might look in a person.

No non-fiction book has ever given me as much value as some fiction. Maybe I’m a freak for being this way, but honestly, since I’m such a typically thinking human, I believe I’m probably in the middle of a vast herd – and I admit, I hope that’s the case. To have fiction deeply inspiring so many people in their lives? To me, that’s a beautiful thing.

Three Years to “Sweep Off”

frodoI’ve been wanting to read Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert for ages, and yet it sat by my bedside table for far longer than I care to admit, mainly because I’d seen the movie and so it was hard to justify the time to read it as well. Thank you “42 books” goal for that justification!

I have now read it, and I must say that I absolutely adored it! Elizabeth Gilbert’s emotional honesty is inspiring, her journey is heartfelt, and third, the woman can WRITE!

Fourth, and best of all, some things that didn’t make a lot of sense in the movie finally made complete sense, including the romance at the end. In the movie, I wondered why they had to add a romance to a perfectly good adventure, as if someone thought that was the only way a “woman’s” movie could possibly end. However, the book explained it very well. The last challenge for Elizabeth to fully heal after a devastating divorce was to prove to herself that she could be in a new romantic relationship and not lose herself.

I know from experience that it’s very hard to write a good script from an existing book, especially when (as in the case of Eat Pray Love) so much of the story’s power is expressed through the protagonist’s thoughts. You can’t put a thought on a screen, and unfortunately, what you put on instead sometimes doesn’t carry the same emotional integrity. As an aside, if you’ve ever wondered at the process that a lot of script writers and a growing number of novelists use to create their stories, click here: The Simplest Tool for Fast, Fun Screenwriting.

What I thought about while reading this book:

I CAN DO THIS!

Yes, I can eat, pray, and love, but that’s not what I mean. It has been a long-time dream of mine to be a nomad, and as I vicariously enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey, I gathered an even stronger belief that I too can travel, learn, explore – when the time is right of course.

To repeat one of my favourite quotes:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

~ J.R.R. Tolkein, Lord of the Rings.

I look at this as a promise. Maybe that’s why I take my passport with me everywhere, even if I’m just going to the grocery store or to pick up the mail. One of these days, me and my “company of adventurers” will simply sweep away on our own mega-adventure. 🙂

When we do, I’ll keep an account of my travels here. I promise.

So Many Supers!

whisperI picked up Whisper, by Phoebe Kitanidis, from my daughter’s shelf. She is fifteen, so as you might guess, Whisper is a Young Adult novel. The story was entertaining, fast moving, had a nice mix of action and drama, plus family and friend relationships, and even a budding romance. My daughter loved it and I was entertained by it, so it was a win!

What I thought while reading: Like most YA novels these days (including some of my own books: the Whinnies on the Wind series, the Horse Guardian series, and more), Whisper featured a teen who has an extraordinary ability – and I couldn’t help but wonder yet again, why do such a high percentage of YA movies and books feature superhuman teens?

One can say that all demographics enjoy this genre, and that’s true – but the genres available to older readers are far more diverse. We have plenty of non-super protagonists to read about. In YA, the majority of novels include teens with an unusual ability of some sort.

My first thought: having super powers puts protagonists in previously unheard of situations, and therefore may create story interest out of novelty. But then I wonder, after a while wouldn’t reading about a non-super teen become new and fresh? Also, wouldn’t a “normal” character be more relatable?

Maybe the attraction to the super teen is an indicator of how some teens feel powerless in their lives. In the pages of a book, a reader usually feels as powerful as the protagonist, so that very well might be the draw. But do that many teenagers feel powerless? I hope not.

Another option: the super teen phenomena could simply be boredom with the world as it is. Yikes, and almost as sad as the feeling powerless theory. Especially since there is plenty to see in the world when one takes the time to really look.

Maybe it’s because teens are in the process of finding and realizing their own abilities, including those things they’re gifted at. In that case, reading about superhuman teens would be research. And as an aside, it is possible to have a super power. Here’s a list of 50 real-life superhumans.

Then I moved on to the other side of the computer, so to speak. Why do writers write about teens with super gifts?

I can’t speak for other writers of course, but I have tried to infuse my teens’ superpowers with a deeper message. In the case of Evy in the Whinnies on the Wind series, that truth was that we, as the dominant species, need to have compassion for all living creatures and treat them kindly. If, by reading my books, one person does something kind for an animal that they might not otherwise do, then Evy’s superpower has served its purpose.

In Whisper, it is possible that Phoebe Kitanidis also intended to show a deeper truth. Her protagonist’s superpower – to hear others’ thoughts as whispers – gave encouragement to the reader to be authentic to themselves.

Isn’t that something that we all want to hear – or dare I say even need to hear? I believe that on some level, we all know that honoring our most authentic self is how we reach our greatest potential. To me, to be personally authentic is a true super power – and I believe it is to young readers too.

What’s Wrong With A Bit of Fun?

godiva-nicole-gallandGodiva, by Nicole Galland

The awesome cover drew my eye and I snatched it off the New Books shelf at the library last week. I started reading eagerly – and kept reading because of this blog commitment.

Note to self: Think twice about following a profound book with one that is light and fun.

However, about an hour into the book, I started questioning my first impression. The character of Godiva had a lot of energy, and I actually started enjoying her outrageous manoeuvrings – which lead me to think: What’s wrong with a bit of fun? What’s wrong with a bit of flirtatious manipulation and intrigue, especially when all characters are aware it’s happening?

What the heck is wrong with a playful heroine?

Nothing. That’s what.

What I learned by reading this book: The timing was great for the elections down in the US, and the depression that came over me with all the pain and anger people are feeling down there. Godiva gave me the opportunity to lighten up and stop taking everything so bloody seriously.

The things that are important in this world, as was reaffirmed to Godiva by the end of the book, are loyalty to those you love and who love you, and keeping your sense of personal integrity. She let her sense of right and wrong guide her in a difficult political and personal situation – one of her own making of course.

She decided she would help her friend protest an unfair tax, but her methods rankled the King who set out to destroy her. Godiva remained true to herself and her loved ones, and let the chips fall where they may. Unfortunately, they didn’t fall well, and she had to be rescued by her friend – but isn’t that the way life works? It’s those who love us who pick us up, and when they’re down, we return the service.

I did find that the book was missing a few things, at least for me. I would have liked to have seen more detail of the time. Godiva lived in the 11th century, before the Norman invasion, and because much of the population still secretly followed pagan beliefs, women had a lot more power than they did during the later centuries. Nicole Galland touches on these things, but seems to focus more on the sassy conversations.

Another thing I would’ve liked is more description on setting. I couldn’t visualize what was around Lady Godiva most of the time, and sometimes inserted scenes from movies that were probably far from the correct period.

To me, these two things created a lack of depth in the story itself. And yet, it was the perfect book for me to read last week.

What’s wrong with a bit of fun? I’m going to ask myself that the next time I’m feeling down.

And then I’ll answer: Nothing. Nothing at all.

Racism, Residential Schools, and Hockey

indian-horse-coverIndian Horse, by Richard Wagamese

First thing I want to say: Richard Wagamese is an amazing writer. This book is so well written that I didn’t want it to end, despite the tough subject matter.

Second, this isn’t a book about a horse. It’s a book about racism, residential schools, and hockey. The residential school parts were as difficult as I expected, and then got a bit worse. The racism parts were just as tough to read, and as senseless and cruel as racism is today. The hockey part was pretty cool, even though I’m not a hockey fan. Yes, I’m Canadian. I also don’t drink much Tim Horton’s coffee. I’m sorry.

Though I don’t watch hockey and I thankfully have no experience of residential schools, I could still relate to the character in this book. This is because, at it’s root, Indian Horse is a book about connection. It’s my opinion that we are all born wanting to belong, to feel connected, and we actively seek it. The character, Saul Indian Horse, finds that connection with nature as a boy. Though he doesn’t feel it with his parents as much, because of their brokenness, he is strongly connected to his grandmother. Later, in the residential school, he finds connection with the game of hockey, and the priest that enables him to play – and he longs for connection so strongly that he blocks out the abuse inflicted by that priest until much later in his life. As an older man, after a heart-searing journey through an uncaring social landscape, Saul is finally able to return to the one healthy community he has a connection to, and rebuild his life among those he can trust.

What Indian Horse expressed so well to me is that longing we all have for home – and by home, I don’t mean a physical place. We long to be seen for who we are. We want that which is good and pure and unique within us, to be both recognized and valued by those around us. And sadly, the book showed how if we aren’t valued, for whatever reason, whether it be racism, sexism, ageism, religious intolerance (beliefism?), or any other ism out there, we tend to fall into shame and self blaming. We’ve all seen it happen, and, to varying degrees, we all know how it feels to be rejected and harmed by people who say they’re on our side.

But there is hope, as Saul Indian Horse discovered. When we confront our pain, we mature and grow wiser, and realize that maybe the society or group that rejects us isn’t where we belong – and then we go looking for that place where we are truly accepted. And in that way, this book is about courage too, because I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been decimated as a child can understand how much courage it takes to trust a safe place as an adult when you didn’t have a safe place as a child. Indian Horse gives us a view of that in one boy, then in one man, who had the courage.

To sum up, I found Indian Horse to be an amazing book. Very well written, wise, and compassionate. It was difficult to read in places, but worthwhile, even in the tough parts. In hindsight, maybe especially in the tough parts. A soulful book.

Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese: highly recommended.

42 Books

booksMy newest venture: 42 books in 52 weeks!

Why 42?

Because, “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is 42” – at least according to Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Also, it gives me 10 weeks to fiddle around and procrastinate. ?

But why do it at all?

First, I’m great at buying and downloading books and starting to read them, but not so good at finishing them – so this project is selfishly meant to motivate me.

Second, I am inspired by many of the books I read, and yet I don’t have a satisfactory outlet for the thoughts they encourage. So I’m creating that outlet, in the form of blog posts. Some will be reviews, some will be random thoughts inspired as I read that book, but every book will get a blog post. Promise.

I know I’m the big winner here, but I hope you get some value out of my new commitment too. Books and links added here, as soon as I start. I’d love to get your feedback on the books too.

Cheers!