Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Publishing nowadays is a weird behemoth. Every so often some giant reading experience will come along, and everyone in the world will read the same book (and a few of its imitations), and then in a year or two go on to the next phenomenon. Who will hit the jackpot next? First it was Harry Potter and the stories about wizard school, then it was Twilight and YA vampire romances, then it was The Hunger Games and the dystopian teen sci-fi. In 2009 I became the last person in the world to read the Harry Potter series, based solely upon my satisfaction at being correct when I predicted certain plot twists in the last book. Of Twilight I do not speak. Last week, I became the last person in the world to read The Hunger Games, because a friend suggested that the world could be well served by a clear-eyed Christian review of same.

So, pardon me if you’ve heard the set-up before: in a dystopian future in which North America is split into twelve Districts ruled with an iron fist from the decadent Capitol, the annual “Hunger Games” pit twenty-four teenagers against each other in a bloody fight to the death in a vast outdoors arena, which is broadcast to the nation partly as entertainment, partly as warning. Katniss Everdeen, a resourceful poacher from poverty-stricken District 12, hopes and prays that she’ll never be chosen to participate in the gruesome contest...until she’s sixteen, when the day of Reaping comes, and her twelve-year-old sister Prim is chosen. A loophole in the rules allows Katniss to volunteer in Prim’s place, which saves her sister’s life but leaves Katniss to face certain death in the arena.

I want to begin by saying that I have a fair bit of respect for Suzanne Collins as an author. In a lot of ways she’s done a fine job. I thought the choice to narrate in first-person present-tense was excellent. I appreciated the book’s pacing and suspense. I admired the lean, direct writing style, though the constant use of "says" as a dialogue tag bugged me. The themes—I’ll get onto them in a moment—were well-woven into the plot itself, echoing and re-echoing through the work in multidimensional ways. The narrator was just cold enough to make the dystopia credible, and just sympathetic enough to gain our loyalty.

Special mention has to go to one aspect of the otherwise perfectly tiresome love triangle—the heroine’s, and the author’s, respect for the main male character, Peeta, a city kid without Katniss’s hunting or survival skills, who nevertheless is permitted to be brave and surprisingly resourceful.

I had niggles. The fact that everyone in District 12, from the rich to the starving, all attend the same high school (which somehow fails in any way to prepare them for the Games, so that the tributes’ survival depends on what they’ve learned in their spare time). The fact that they pit twelve-year-old girls against eighteen-year-old trained male killers in the Games, despite the clear mismatch involved—actual gladiators in the Roman games by which this book is clearly inspired, were all highly-trained adult males.

Then, most characters’ motivations throughout the book remain a mystery—Peeta’s feelings for Katniss, Haymitch’s desire to help her in any way, why on earth the Gamemasters should feel remotely threatened by any of Katniss’s small “rebellious” gestures, like strewing a corpse with flowers. This is partly a limitation of the first-person narrative, but a more careful author might have taken a little time to set up a context in which these actions would make sense.

All this is small change, however, when set beside the book’s one, big, glaring fault. That’s what I want to focus on for this review.

The Hunger Games, even more than some books, relies for its effect on the extent to which it is able to touch the reader’s soul. It is a very gritty book: it is about twenty-four young people being loosed into a wilderness for the purpose of killing each other for the entertainment of a nation. The violence is very confronting. This book has important things to speak about: media, entertainment, violence, and ethics. It stands or falls by the import of what it has to say. And unless it has something substantial to say about these things, it’s simply a rather pointlessly violent adventure tale.

At its heart, The Hunger Games is the story of a series of ethical dilemmas. Astonishingly, it manages to defuse just about every single one of them before the heroine actually has to deal with it. Equally astonishingly, the story retains its suspense despite this, leaving those of us who’ve memorised the Westminster Shorter Catechism to gesticulate helplessly and wonder why we didn’t have the (rather awesome) idea for this story long before Suzanne Collins did, for we would have so enjoyed applying the Ten Commandments and the ethical theories of Samuel Rutherford to the same scenario.

So, here’s the problem: Katniss is drafted into the Hunger Games. She hates the idea, and later on, she hates participating. She doesn’t want to engage, she doesn’t want to entertain people, the whole thing is sick and wrong and she knows it. But she never acts on this. She never sits down and decides on a strategy for subverting the games. She takes no moral stand. She just scrambles along while her author, like a guardian angel, goes about resolving the really tough problems for her.

Here’s an example. The night before the games, Katniss has a conversation with Peeta, the other tribute from her district, and it goes like this:
“My best hope is to not disgrace myself and…” He hesitates.
“And what?” I say.
“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only…I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
There. First opportunity to confront Katniss with the ethical dilemma at the heart of the Games: participate in the evil, or become a victim to it? But Collins avoids bringing her characters to the rub:
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
Perhaps, at the opening of the story, the characters’ unwillingness to face this tough decision is understandable. However, Collins never forces them—or herself—fully to confront the ethical dilemma. At no point do Katniss and Peeta face a really difficult decision.


Spoilers Ho!

Katniss teams up with Rue, a twelve-year-old girl who reminds her of the sister she herself volunteered in order to save. “Needling me, at the very back of my mind, is the obvious. Both of us can’t win these Games,” thinks Katniss. But again: “I manage to ignore the thought.” Collins saves her from ever having to seriously think this through by arranging for Rue to die a nasty death shortly thereafter.

Because of Katniss’s kindness to Rue, a few chapters later, the other tribute from Rue’s district, Thresh, saves Katniss’s life. At this stage in the Games, the only serious remaining contenders are the gigantic Thresh and the possibly insane Cato.
“I think we would like Thresh. I think he’d be our friend back in District Twelve,” I say.
“Then let’s hope Cato kills him, so we don’t have to,” says Peeta grimly.
This looks like another promising ethical set-up. If Thresh kills Cato, then in order to win, Katniss and Peeta will have to kill Thresh. As their dialogue has just told us, it’s the last thing they want to do. Then, indeed, they’ll have difficult decisions to make. But again, Collins refuses to face them with a real dilemma. She also breaks what I would consider a cardinal rule of storytelling, which is that if you have your main characters hope that Situation X does not happen, you are then more or less contractually obliged to bring about Situation X.

But no. Thresh loses the duel. And Katniss and Peeta are left to confront Cato, who exactly no readers feel an ounce of sympathy for. At no point in The Hunger Games do the main characters have to come to terms with the morality of what they are (or are not) doing.

Instead, the author manages our emotions and her plot so that we, and Katniss, can justify the lives she does take. The killer hornets with which she kills two girls are justified because after all, she didn’t know for sure that the result would be lethal (an excuse which no court of law would accept: the technical name for this crime, absent a good defense of self-defence, is reckless murder). The vengeance she takes on Rue’s killer is completely sympathetic, as he is in the act of impaling a helpless twelve-year-old girl with a spear (as if killing could be excused by a sudden and passionate hatred). The girl who eats poisoned berries Peeta gathers by mistake is simply that, a mistake. And finally, even Cato is dispatched amid a perfect storm of excuses: he’s a dangerous killer, it’s self-defence, and when Katniss does finally put an arrow through his head, he’s been suffering for hours and she needs to put him out of his misery...

Yes, within the context of the story, you can just go along with it. But look behind the scenes. Look what the author is doing. Look how she smoothes away every potential stumper, bending the rules, bending the circumstances, to bring out her characters without any significant sacrifice. No moral stand is taken.

In fact, Katniss does not face a real ethical choice until she stands opposite Peeta at the climax and the Gamemasters attempt to force her to kill him. Finally, at this point, she does refuse. But it’s really a lamesauce ethical dilemma. We are not for a moment in a pother over what Katniss will do: after hundreds of pages of tormented love-triangling, we know she can’t and won’t kill him.

Had Collins been serious about the ethical challenges of her world and the grittiness of her setting, she would have driven her characters to the edge, not guarded them from it.


Applying the Shorter Catechism

I’ve had so much fun imagining how much different the book might have been had it starred a tough five-pointed Calvinist.

I’d probably have begun with Samuel Rutherford’s three-level response to tyranny. First, petition the tyrant. Second, flee the country. Third, if those fail, resist by force of arms. At the opening of the book, petitioning—political action within the existing channels—seems to be out of the question. So our strong-minded Calvinist heroine (we’ll call her Catechiss) should from the beginning be looking for a way to escape: escape the train to the Capitol, escape the training centre, escape the arena.

(It is never explained in the book that the arena is inescapable. One assumes it would be tough. But in seventy-three years of Hunger Games, has no one really ever tried, or succeeded, in escaping? Or in hiding out long enough to win nonviolently? )

Once in the arena, our heroine has a few options present. The one thing which should clearly not be an option, is partaking in the Games. Because she is a Calvinist heroine, she believes that Thou Shalt Not Kill, and she has also memorised the Shorter Catechism, which informs her that “the sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to protect our own life, and the life of others” and that it “forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto.” She therefore understands that there is an allowance for self-defence in the sixth commandment, which will allow her to use lethal force to this end.

So her first option is to use self-defence all the way through the Games, fighting only when attacked. This is not a good option, for several reasons, but mainly because it would still play into the Capitol’s deranged appetite for blood.

Another option would be to spend the Games on the run, with avoiding discovery and conflict as her primary goal, and a determination not to resist with lethal force. The martyrdom option is time-honoured throughout the history of the Church, and it poses a challenge to the Gamemakers. Its primary weakness as a strategy, however, is that it doesn’t do a great job of “protecting our own life, and the life of others.”

No, I believe that all the virtues require definite action, and I can see just what I would do if I was writing this story. One by one, Catechiss would contact the other contestants and offer them a way out: form an alliance and refuse to kill each other—or, if possible, anyone else. I see a small, steadily growing band evading and repelling the attacks of other tributes. I see conflict, the pressure of wondering if one of your companions is about to turn and kill you all (Total Depravity, after all). I see the increasing worry of the Gamemasters that someone will actually succeed in convincing the majority of the tributes to refuse to participate in the Games. I see, in short, all kinds of fascinating possibilities stemming from the characters’ willingness to confront and embrace their moral duty.

That’s how I wish The Hunger Games had played out: confronting, instead of evading, the big questions.

The Hunger Games was published in 2009 and followed by two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, which I have not read. A series of movies has also been produced, which I have not seen.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pendragon's Heir: Q & A

It's been a little while since I posted an update on Pendragon's Heir, my upcoming epic fantasy novel! In the last couple of months, I've polished off the latest edit and sent the book to a few more beta readers. I hope to be able to announce a release date shortly after I hear back from them. In the meanwhile, I've put together a Pinterest board which to give you a visual tour of the book, and today I stole over to Fullness of Joy to snitch some of Joy's writer-interview questions (which I have slightly altered).

Enjoy! If you have any other questions about Pendragon's Heir, ask away in the comments! I'll look forward to answering them!

The Questions!

1. For how long have you been seriously novel-writing? What sparked you to move from simply writing in a "dabbling" fashion for fun to pursuing your writing to a higher-level?

I'm not sure. I remember the day my older brother found my first closely-guarded manuscript and immediately said, "You should publish this!" Without him, I'm not sure I would even have kept going back then, around age 13. I owe you, bruv.

Writing my first novel, which I finished at 16 (no, I have no intentions of ever letting it see the light), was exhausting enough that I decided I was never going to try it again. And yet, somehow, fifteen minutes later, I had already started my next story. That one remains unfinished to this day, but I think it was then that I realised I had a disease from which I would never fully recover...

2. Do you wish, ultimately, to entertain your readers and make them smile, or rather to inspire, challenge them and move them to tears? 

Both, really. And neither (go not to the Elves for counsel). Qualification number 1: I am much better at drama than I am at humour, so I'll err on the side of the serious. Qualification number 2: I don't so much see the divide as being between fun and serious, as being between mindless and mindful. I never intend to write mindless entertainment of the a-muse-ing kind. Qualification number 3: Nor do I ever intend to write anything that isn't thrilling, moving, and unputdownable. My hope is always to err on the side of cheese. We will see if I manage to fulfill this humble aim.

3. What are two of your favourite genres to write in?

I haven't tried enough genres to find out. I'd like to write science fiction, but I'm afraid I would be hopelessly lost unless I actually studied some science. The two genres I have the most interest in, paired with the greatest chance of not messing it up, would probably be fantasy and historical romance (of the Robert Louis Stevenson variety).

4. Will you please tell us a little about your current writing project (novel-in-progress, short story, novella, etc...)? 

Today I decided to lash out and try something new for a change. It'll be a novella, I hope, and the working title is The Rakshasa's Bride. So far I have 1,200 words and an outline. Wish me luck--I want to get the first draft finished before my beta readers get back to me on Pendragon's Heir in a week or two.

5. Besides Pendragon's Heir, have you written other stories/books (or currently writing others)? Do tell us a little about them, please! 

Well, I finished my first novel when I was around 16, as mentioned above. It was a fantasy strongly influenced by Jeri Massi's Bracken trilogy, which I should review sometime, because (unlike my own attempt) it's wonderful. I started a number of projects I've never finished, and then produced the first draft of what would become Pendragon's Heir in 2005. I think it was in 2006 that I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time, with an inexpertly-crafted high concept fantasy novel I titled Midnight War, which I wished would have been a little more like Dumas than it turned out. I did NaNoWriMo for the second time in 2009 on the strength of an ambitious science-fiction trilogy concept; my 50,000-word NaNo goal got me halfway through Book 1, which I never did another stroke of work on, partly because (despite all the fun ideas I had) I knew next to nothing about science, and partly because I was rethinking the wisdom of the book's concept. I still have the bare bones of the idea that inspired the novel, and I may turn it into a novella one day. After that, I sort of narrowed my focus onto Pendragon's Heir which (all this time) was going through a second, then a third, then a fourth draft. Over the last couple of years, I've played with a few ideas for more projects, but haven't actually started any (until today, ooooo). But, I have quite a number of ideas.  

6. Out of all the characters you've ever written, who is your favourite?

I think so far all my favourite characters are in Pendragon's Heir, because they're the most well-realised and highly-developed. And I love all of them very much, but I think my favourites are Perceval and Nerys. Perceval, my lead male character, was a bit of a challenge because (I admit it) I was trying not to write anything of which my three brothers would be embarrassed, while also fleshing out the character from the original legends, who is very naive, outgoing, and unencumbered by an overabundance of social skills. Somehow through this process I wound up with an extroverted, brash, irrepressible character whom everyone loves.

Nerys exists on the extreme remote opposite of the character spectrum from this: a fay and therefore immortal, withdrawn and weary and yearning after a gift which she believes is denied to all her people. I loved writing Nerys. It's her story that I find the most poignant and compelling.
Sir, I remember well the day I first opened my eyes on the young cosmos. I am old now, older even than the Hermit of Carbonek. And I have not forgotten. For centuries beyond count I have waited in silence to know if, beyond this world, there is hope for me.  
7. In your dreams, who would you cast for your main characters?/8. In one word each, how would you describe each of the main characters of your novel?

OH YES THE DREAM CAST GAME LET'S PLAY IT.
Blanche
Myers-Briggs type: INFJ
Planet: Venus
One-word description: Meticulous
Actress:

...Redheaded Sophia Myles

Perceval
Myers-Briggs type: ESTP
Planet: Mars
One-word description: Brash
Actor:

Jamie Bell

Nerys
Myers-Briggs type: INFP
Planet: Luna
One-word description: Reserved
Actress:
Rachel Weisz

Morgan le Fay
Myers-Briggs type: ESFP
Planet: Mercury
One-word description: Trickster
Actress:
You cannot have a crazy witch not played by Helena Bonham Carter.

Gawain
Myers-Briggs type: ESFP
Planet: Mars
One-word description: Idealist
Actor:
Russell Crowe, maybe?

Lancelot
Myers-Briggs type: INFP
Planet: Saturn
One-word description: Pathetic
Actor: 
Jim Caviezel, who is good at looking pained and patrician

Guinevere
Myers-Briggs type: ISFJ
Planet: Luna
One-word description: Chilly
Actress: 
Michelle Pfeiffer, obviously

Simon Corbin
Myers-Briggs type: INTJ
Planet: Saturn
One-word description: Secretive
Actor:  
Richard Armitage, why not?

Branwen
Myers-Briggs type: ESTP
Planet: Sol
One-word description: Valiant
Actress:  

Google Images tells me this actress is named Claire Holt

Arthur Pendragon
Myers-Briggs type: INTP
Planet: Jupiter
One-word description: Magnanimous
Actor:  
...but no, I'm drawing a blank!
I think that's all the main characters.

9. As a Christian, how does your faith affect your writing generally? Is your current novel overtly Christian or more subtly under-girded with your faith and worldview?

Generally, I am always trying to write stories that are Christian in form and function. This need not be explicit, but it is always deliberate. ...I try to use a subtle touch, but I also try to let the characters be true to themselves and to their setting, which means that sometimes they simply are going to discuss matters of faith and practice. I try not to let this overwhelm the book and its plot--I believe fiction functions on a fundamentally different level to sermonising! but if it would be more natural for my characters to discuss religious things, why, I let them.

10. Are there any aspects of your novel that have taken you by surprise?

My characters quite often have interesting reactions to one or another plot twists, which occasionally lead to quite unintended (but satisfactory) scenes. I usually keep everyone firmly under control--I have never completely understood other authors having trouble with misbehaving characters--but I'm always ready to let a character submit a request to have more complex emotions than I at first intended.

11. How do you think the main characters of your novel would react if he or she were introduced to you? 

Blanche would realise that I was responsible for putting her through a lot of pain, and she would be stiff and disapproving in consequence. Perceval would laugh at her and make friends at once.  Branwen would wonder if she needed to be standoffish because of Blanche, but most of the other characters, like Nerys, would probably have more important things to do and cooler people to hang out with.

12. Do you plan, Lord-willing, on pursuing the traditional mainstream route of finding an agent, etc, and waiting it out, or do you consider indie publishing (self-publishing) a healthy alternative? 

Yes, I mean to self-publish. I prefer to retain the rights to my work, I'm dubious about the worth of spending time chasing agents and publishers, and I've been concerned by some aspects of the publishing industry that I've heard of from traditionally-published authors. My hope is that traditional publishers will seriously consider the reasons why so many authors these days choose to self- or indie-publish, and will offer greater incentives to authors to choose the trad-pub route. In the meanwhile, I'm pretty thrilled to be able to self-publish, and very encouraged by the help and support given by other self-published authors.

13. Out of the many themes and messages, what would be the one closest to your heart that you should like to share through your writing? 

Ooh, interesting question. I think most authors end up with one major theme that characterises all or most of their work. John Buchan's was all about faithfulness in little things being the basis of faithfulness in big things. ND Wilson never gets tired of ruminating on fatherhood and death. Mine might, I think, be Providence: seeing the hand of God working in history, even in rather heartbreaking situations, and the courage it takes to have faith in the midst of darkness. But that isn't so much what I'd like to say, as what I've noticed I have a tendency to say.

Did I forget anything? Ask your questions about Pendragon's Heir in the comments!
And, for a visual tour of the book, pop over to the Pendragon's Heir Pinterest board.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Joan of Arc by Hilaire Belloc

And I'm back, from a very pleasant week in New Zealand attending the wedding of two dear friends.

Today I want to review a book that I stumbled across at a second-hand shop here in my little corner of rural Australia. I'm continually surprised by what I find stashed behind a stack of Barbara Cartlands or peeking forlornly out from around the copy of Michael Crichton's Prey (every opportunity shop in every country I've ever been in has at least one copy of Michael Crichton's Prey in it). Augustine's Confessions? A beautiful hardback Pilgrim's Progress? Or look--a hagiography of Joan of Arc by Hilaire Belloc!

Belloc is a name I want on my shelf, so I bring him home, and when I open the book up, the first sentence just about takes my breath away:
Five hundred years ago, and more, there was in France an old mad King whose wife was a German harlot, mocking him.
From this epic opening, in the same sweeping, poetic tone, Belloc takes us through the strange story of the young peasant girl who somehow broke the power of the English in France. The book is short, and often paints in broad brush-strokes, but it's obviously meant to be a hagiography--an account of the life of a saint, full of gentle insistence that Joan really was who she claimed to be. Not that there was no dispute during her own lifetime:
Joan received Richemont, loving his manner and his soldiership. For he had said: "Joan, they say you would repel me. Now whether you are from God or the Devil I know not. But if from God I fear nothing, for He knows my heart is loyal; but if from the Devil, then I fear you not at all."
I don't know that I would say exactly the same thing, myself, but this seems a reasonable summary of the options, and either way, Providence had a hand in the disposition of that young woman's life. One day I'd like to read a transcript of Joan's trials, the one in which she was condemned and the later, posthumous trial in which she was exonerated, to attempt to sift through exactly what it was that she claimed to have experienced. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, it would be difficult to believe in the good intentions of any spirits that persuaded anyone to give them worship or to break the prohibition in Deuteronomy 22:5. A little cursory research shows that Christian consensus, from Thomas Aquinas to Matthew Henry, has allowed cross-dressing "to befriend a lawful escape or concealment", in Henry's words, and there have been claims that when not in battle, camp, or prison--thereby needing the protection which men's clothes gave from injury or rape--Joan wore female garments.

What is the truth about Joan of Arc? I don't know yet, and I'd like to study her a little more, but I wonder if after all this time we ever will know. Meanwhile, whether true or false, she stands as an enigma, proof of God's willingness to use the strangest of means to accomplish His purposes in history.

Hilaire Belloc tells his story well, in a simple but elegant style that meshes well with the courtly and courteous tone of the history itself. The author of Europe and the Faith and several other books of history (as well as the hilarious Cautionary Tales for Children), he did know his stuff. For a more skeptical account of Joan's life, I must recommend Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples, but as a hagiography, Belloc's book is uniquely well-written and engaging.

Find Joan of Arc on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Guest Post + Giveaway: The Quintessential Mystery

Hello folks! I'm away at the moment, but I'm thrilled to feature Rachel Heffington, author of the recently released mystery novel Anon, Sir, Anon (read my review here), as she discusses the special appeal of classic mysteries! Enjoy, and don't forget to check out the giveaway at the foot of this post!

and without further ado, over to Rachel.

 

The Quintessential Mystery Novel. 
The Unfathomable Case And The Clever Means By Which It Is Solved. 
The Joy Of Having A Watson. 

These things belong to the Golden Era mysteries. Not that I have read so terribly many mysteries in my lifetime, but I have dabbled in the genre as a reader, and I’m entering it as a writer. Through my experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Golden Age of the Mystery Novel was dubbed so for a reason. I have read and enjoyed some mysteries written by contemporary authors. Funny thing is, the setting always pre-dates the late 1940’s.

What on earth makes the Golden Age authors so much more to my taste than the modern writers? What key did they hold to unlock the joys of the mystery-genre for me? How can I feel that Lord Peter Wimsey and Sherlock Holmes were real people, while I have a hard time suspending reality to get my thoughts into the story-world of the modern detective? There is a certain measure of the Watson in me, or, as A.A. Milne described it,
A Watson, then, but not of necessity a fool of a Watson. A little slow, let him be, as so many of us are, but friendly, human, likeable.
These questions bring to mind the words of P.D. James, a modern mystery writer who has made a respected name for herself in the genre:
“What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually a murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motives, means, and opportunity for a crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.” 
The latter part of this quote is where I find the charm of the Golden Era novel: “...which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”

Between the covers of a Golden Era novel, I can expect to find all the material I need to decipher the puzzle for myself. Which is important, because I do tend to be “a little slow, but friendly, human, likeable.” Indeed, I sometimes look crossways at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because he so often broke that essential fairness principle. “Why yes, I could certainly have guessed the murderer from the mud on his boots if you had told us there was mud on his boots.” Nevertheless, Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and many others in their day managed to create something spectacular in the mystery novel: a genre that has borne the traces of time well, and shows no sign of fracturing.

My new mystery, Anon, Sir, Anon, was actually inspired by picking a random book off the library shelf. When I chose to read P.D. James on Detective Fiction, I really had no idea that the Vivi & Farnham series would be born. But at the end of that intriguing book, I had a detective character, a burgeoning plot, and pages of advice, quotes, and tips on writing a British Mystery. In a way, I had done my research before knowing what I was up to. Without that little volume, behind which is the considerable wisdom of P.D. James, I would have been at a loss over the essential components of a classic mystery. Armed with her words, I was able to try my hand at this most tantalizing of genres and I am pleased with the unexpected brain-child that resulted. I would not have succeeded, however, without keeping in mind lessons I’ve learned from the Golden Era writers.

Dorothy L. Sayers taught me that the story world must feel enormous. Perhaps what I love best about Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories is the breadth of experience and education in his character. You feel that, while he is dealing with a mystery, his life encompasses much more. Sayers gave him friends, acquaintances, family, money, the ability to travel, a fabulous education, war-experience, humour, class, fashion-sense, an eyeglass. Never once in the stories does the reader feel that the investigation is all there is to Lord Peter. In fact, one can almost get a sense that he toys at it on the side, and his real occupation and attention lies elsewhere. As my friend, Jennifer Freitag has it, “An old sleight of hand. The suggestion of more beyond.” All the best Golden Era novels have this dual tone of minute, country-house introspection, and far-reaching, grand planes of intellect and experience beyond the pages of the present novel.

Agatha Christie taught me to “gently seduce (the reader) into self-deception.” No one ever said that the same set of initials belonging to one suspect (thinking of Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train) couldn’t belong to another heretofore unsuspected character. I tried employing a similar trick of self-deception in Anon, Sir, Anon and was delighted to find that most of my beta-readers swallowed it hook, line, and sinker The simplest bit of redirecting the reader’s attention will often have them snatching at gnats while the real deal goes quietly on in the background.

G.K. Chesterton taught me that nothing is too absurd to be impossible. The craziest solution imaginable? Sometimes it’s right. Common sense only goes so far in an official investigation and the more creative your detective, the more complex and ridiculously “I should have seen that coming” your solution can be.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle taught me that a Watson figure is indispensable. A.A. Milne (whose Red House Mystery I adored) addressed the Watson dilemma in this way:
“Are we to have a Watson? We are. Death to the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but prologue to a five-minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonize or soliloquize; the one is merely a dialogue form of the other, and by that, more readable.” 
Conan Doyle invented Watson and in doing so, helped millions of readers who, like myself, find it hard to keep up with vague hints and slip-shod clues and need a little bit of explanation. There are many ways to spin the Watson character. Agatha Christie seems to choose a new character in each mystery, while Dorothy Sayers created Harriet Vane, Lord Peter’s love-interest. In Anon, Sir, Anon, I created Genevieve Langley: the niece of the detective, Orville Farnham. Vivi and Farnham split the roles of Sherlock and Watson just about 50-50, bringing a freshness to the role.

The Golden Era of mysteries has many tips for writers today to glean. The stories have endured, and it’s worth discovering why. Of course there are many fine contemporary mysteries, but for me, there will always something especially delicious about a vintage whodunnit in a little English town. After all, there really is nothing like a curious trip to the not-so-distant past.

Anon, Sir, Anon released on November 1.

 
The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger. In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.

Author Bio

Rachel Heffington is a novelist, a nanny, and a people-lover living in rural Virginia with her family and black cat, Cricket. Her first novel, Fly Away Home, was independently published in February of 2014, while her novella, The Windy Side of Care, was published by Rooglewood Press in the Five Glass Slippers anthology in June of 2014. Visit Rachel online at www.inkpenauthoress.blogspot.com

Giveaway: Cozy Quagmire Party Pack

Enter to win a complete party in a box! The Cozy Quagmire Party Pack includes everything you’ll need to have an evening worthy of guests such as Vivi, Farnham, and Dr. Breen. Prize includes P.G. Tips (my favorite British black tea), a $5 Panera Bread gift-card for toasting-bread, a Yankee candle, matchbook, and a paperback copy of Anon, Sir, Anon.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Leave It to Psmith by PG Wodehouse

Oh no. I've never reviewed Leave It to Psmith. This must be rectified at once.

So here's a brief introduction to PG Wodehouse, for those who are just joining us:

Funniest writer in the English language.

"That's it?" Yep. "The funniest? Oh, come on. What about Terry Pratchett?"

I curl my lip. Modern Dutch.

Wodehouse is best known today as the author of the Jeeves and Wooster series, of which perhaps the crown jewel is that glorious work Right Ho, Jeeves. My favourite of Wodehouse's books, however, is not a Bertie Wooster book at all. It is the somewhat earlier book Leave It to Psmith, and it is wonderful.

We meet Ronald Psmith ("the P is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan") about to leave the family pfish business and make his way into the world on his own account. To this end he lodges an advertisement in the papers--

LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Psmith Will Help You
Psmith Is Ready For Anything
DO YOU WANT
Someone To Manage Your Affairs?
Someone To Handle Your Business?
Someone To Take The Dog For A Run?
Someone To Assassinate Your Aunt?
PSMITH WILL DO IT
CRIME NOT OBJECTED TO
Whatever Job You Have To Offer
(Provided It Has Nothing To Do With Fish)
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Address Applications To 'R. Psmith, Box 365'
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!

 --and is immediately hired by the gormless Freddy Threepwood to steal his aunt's diamond pnecklace, to prevent her discovering that her husband had it sold and replaced with a fake years ago. Psmith goes off to the Threepwood family home, Blandings Castle (famous in Wodehouse canon as the castle that has imposters the way other stately homes have mice) under the assumed identity of Ralston McTodd, the celebrated poet, and is thrilled to discover also on the premises the love of his life, Eve Halliday, whom he met once for five minutes in the rain. But Psmith is not the only one at Blandings Castle under an assumed name. Soon, zany pschemes, heists, and flying flower-pots thicken the plot considerably.

PG Wodehouse wrote Leave It to Psmith at the turning-point in his career, when his own private genius woke up and convinced him to quit writing school stories and romantic novels, and try his hand at farce. The process took a little while to complete--this was the fourth Psmith story, the first of which was actually a fairly ordinary school story. In fact the original book had featured quite a different leading man, Mike Jackson; Psmith began life as his psidekick and comic relief, but outshone Mike to the extent of eventually taking over from him altogether. After Leave It to Psmith, the best of the books featuring the loquacious and ever-at-ease young man, Wodehouse avowed that the well of ideas had gone dry, and launched into the never-ending Jeeves and Wooster books--though he did admit later on that the character of Frederick, Earl of Ickenham was basically an elderly Psmith.

So Leave It to Psmith has a pnumber of interesting features, including a relatively serious romance, and a climax that actually threatens danger, as some of Psmith's competing thieves become impatient with his meddling. I suspect this aspect of the novel plays into why I find Leave It to Psmith so compelling. Bertie Wooster, though lots of fun, is a bit of a dweeb. You can respect Psmith, and therefore care a little more what happens to him.

That said, the main pfeature of the book is the absolutely wonderful humour. You know what you're in for from quite early on:
"A scaly neighbourhood!" he murmured.
The young man's judgement was one at which few people with an eye for beauty would have cavilled. When the great revolution against London's ugliness really starts and yelling hordes of artists and architects, maddened beyond endurance, finally take the law into their own hands and rage through the city burning and destroying, Wallingford Street, West Kensington, will surely not escape the torch. Long since it must have been marked down for destruction. ...Situated in the middle of one of those districts where London breaks out into a sort of eczema of red brick, it consists of two parallel rows of semi-detached villas, all exactly alike, each guarded by a ragged evergreen hedge, each with coloured glass of an extremely regrettable nature let into the panels of the front door, and sensitive young impressionists from the artists' colony up Holland Park way may sometimes be seen stumbling through it with hands over their eyes, muttering between clenched teeth "How long? How long?"
And the fun just continues--my favourite part is Ralston McTodd's poetry, in which nobody seems to get any further than:
Across the pale parabola of joy...
What can I say? It's Wodehouse, possibly at his very best. Plus, it's Psmith, and Psmith has only to show up and open his mouth (but I repeat myself) to psteal the scene. If you wish to read something from the very pinnacle of English humour--and I know of at least one classical Christian college where this book is part of the syllabus--you cannot go wrong with Leave It to Psmith.

Find Leave It to Psmith on Amazon, The Book Depository, or The Ultimate Ebook Library.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Corral Nocturne by Elisabeth Grace Foley + Giveaway

This week a couple of friends are releasing books, and they have all sorts of giveaways with which to celebrate. Our first authoress is Elisabeth Grace Foley with Corral Nocturne, a brief retelling of Cinderella--in the style of a western. I've enjoyed reading Elisabeth's blog for a few months now, and was pleased to get the chance to read her latest offering!
Life on her brother’s ranch is lonely for Ellie Strickland. Ed’s ungracious manners and tight-fisted habits keep visitors away and his mother and sister close to home. But when Cole Newcomb, son of the wealthiest rancher in the county, meets Ellie by chance, he is struck by an unexpected impulse to rescue her from her solitude—and Ellie’s lonely summer is transformed.

When Cole asks her to go with him to the Fourth of July dance, Ellie is determined that nothing, from an old dress to Ed’s sour temper, will stand in her way. By the time the Fourth of July fireworks go off at midnight, will they herald only more heartache, or maybe—just maybe—a dream come true?

Novella, approximately 21,000 words.
From Elisabeth's blog, I knew to expect a well-crafted story with subtle characterisation and a lovely, if somewhat pensive, writing style. I was interested to see how this would fit into a short Cinderella retelling, and while this is a very sweet and beautifully-written story (reminding me of LM Montgomery's short stories), I ended up feeling that it was a little beneath the author's powers. I would have liked to have seen a more ambitious twist on the well-known Cinderella plot, while I felt the depth of characterisation and the quality of the writing style could have supported a much longer story.

There was a lot to like in Corral Nocturne, but in the end, what excites me the most is the thought of this author turning her hand toward a more ambitious, full-length story which will allow her to explore her three-dimensional world and sensitive characters more fully.

Corral Nocturne releases today, November 1st.

About the Author: Elisabeth Grace Foley is a historical fiction author, avid reader and lifelong history buff. Her first published story, "Disturbing the Peace," was an honorable mention in the first annual Rope and Wire Western short story competition, and is now collected with six others in her debut short story collection, The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories. Her other works include a series of short historical mysteries, the Mrs. Meade Mysteries; and short fiction set during the American Civil War and the Great Depression. A homeschool graduate, she chose not to attend college in order to pursue self-education and her writing career.


The Giveaway!

Enter to win a Prairie Cinderella Prize Package containing
  • Corral Nocturne ebook 
  • mp3 of “After the Ball" 
  • Pink cameo ring (in the style of the cameo brooch in the story) 
  • Custom-made Corral Nocturne bookmark
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Romance in Fiction: Helpful or Harmful?

I had a reality check the other day. I read part of a contemporary Christian historical fiction novel, which suddenly decided to jump to the romance genre about a third of the way in. It’s been so long since I’d read—even by mistake—anything of the kind that I feel I owe y’all an apology.

I’ve been trying to come to grips with what I actually believe about romance in fiction for a number of years now. I’ve already come to a handful of conclusions, very similar to those listed in this excellent blog post by young authoress Rachel Coker (go and read it!).

But to sum up my basic thoughts. Obviously a measure of romance is not only permissible, but expected in any good story. Redemptive history itself is a romance, ending with a wedding. On the other hand, the teen-girl demographic has a fair bit of caution to exercise in this regard—as I mentioned in my review of Rachel Heffington’s charming Fly Away Home, “My problem with the [romance] genre is that inviting twitter-patedness over fictional men doesn't seem like great training for keeping your head when it comes to real men.”

Somehow we have to balance these two things, however paradoxical that sounds. And I’m not just saying that, I think we see it pretty inescapably in Scripture. The constant refrain of the highly romantic Song of Solomon is a plea for young women not to stir up emotion before the right time.

We’ve heard a lot of advice on handling romantic plotlines from various people. Some of the advice has encouraged people to avoid fiction and/or romance altogether, but I have a hard time reconciling that with Scripture. Wiser advice has encouraged girls to simply avoid the kind of thing that they find troublesome, and if that’s the point you’re at, I’ve written a post I highly recommend to you, Reading in the House of Busirane, about how a dear (and frighteningly well-read) friend worked together with her mother to navigate possible difficulties. Also, I certainly would never recommend making romance of any kind the main staple of one's literary diet. That would be like living on dessert (ick!).

However, we don’t have a lot of advice—or even thought—about what a really good, solid, helpful romantic plot might look like in fiction. This is where my reality check came in. As the heroine of that novel goggled into her hero’s electrifying blue eyes between bouts of contrived bickering, I realised that my reading has, by and large, been at a pretty high level of quality for most of the last two or three years. And although most readers would rate the book as pretty tame, I realised that its flitter-pated silliness far outstripped anything I've recently complained about on this blog.

Over the last year or so, I’ve had the opportunity to think more deeply about the romance question. Part of this has involved struggling with the romantic subplot in my own novel, Pendragon's Heir. I knew I wanted the characters of my novel to try, though imperfectly, to apply the same principles I believe (about not stirring up emotions, keeping physical boundaries, seeking counsel, building a real friendship, and so on). At the same time, I had to acknowledge that my characters were different enough from me in background, temperament, and upbringing that their applications of these principles were going to look quite different than they might in my own life. It’s been a wonderful exercise in learning to appreciate the basics, and let go of narrow applications.

So, having taken this reality check, and begun to better appreciate the difference between principle and application, I have a few conclusions. 

I believe that a good fictional romance will teach its audience something about how love works. Maybe it'll show some common pitfalls. Or maybe it'll demonstrate what a really worthwhile spouse will look like. Jennifer Freitag’s novel Plenilune really impressed me on this account: it is among other things a wonderful illustration of the difference between a bad man and a good man. You’ve never seen the Mr Rochester-style dreamboat so thoroughly and powerfully dismantled.

Here are some things I’ve noticed in what I’d consider unwise and unhelpful romance plots. In those, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on galloping emotions and galloping pulses. Someone might tell the heroine, “Oh honey, you’re in love. You can’t fight that.” The hero will have intense blue eyes, or a crooked grin, or rumpled hair, or something, and you’ll hear all about it ad nauseam. The couple might bicker, or they might take one look at each other and drift helplessly into La-La Land, but either way their relationship seems more based on looks and infatuation than on any solid common goal or interests. Practicality and rationality never even gets a mention.

The hero might be the tortured outcast of society, scorned by the heroine’s uppity friends and relations, whom she defies in order to run away with him. Or, he might be the dark and saturnine owner of a gigantic mansion covering half the planet, through which he stalks our heroine like a hunter. Either way, he’s always pushing boundaries, whether they’re set by the heroine or by her stodgy society.

Next to this, a really good romance is not just much more satisfying to read, it’s also much more believable. I love a romance...

...in which a callow young man in love comes to realise that his beloved would be better off with another, whether it's because that other is a better man than himself (as in Phantastes) or because even though the other is a weakling, he's still the one she loves (as in Midwinter) or even because he realises she simply isn't a woman of great character (as in Sir Nigel).

...in which two old enemies are fooled into loving each other, not fatuously but faults and all, calling themselves “too wise to woo peaceably" (as in Much Ado About Nothing).

...or in which a frightened woman is rescued by a laughing cavalier at whose side she becomes the fearless and deadly Lady Spitcat, queen-adventuress of a war-torn planet (as in Plenilune).

I like romances founded in something deeper than sparks and daydreams. I love romances in which two people with very real differences must come together and learn to work for a common cause. I like romances where when difficulty arises it doesn’t play out in fruitless bickering but in real self-sacrifice and love. I like romances where the hero and heroine have believable flaws, but still attempt to demonstrate wisdom and graciousness to each other. I like romances where the hero respects the laws of God and man. I like romances where the dark and saturnine man turns out, every now and then, to be the villain. I like romances where the characters are stronger and wiser together than apart, and where the love itself may grow from youthful infatuation to mature profundity.

Let’s have more of that kind of romance, and you will never hear me complain.

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