Friday, August 31, 2012

Review: Princess Academy

To start off the new column on book reviews, I’d like to introduce one of my favorite books of all time, a really sweet fantasy classic: Princess Academy. Let me know your thoughts on the book in the comments!

Title: Princess Academy
Author: Shannon Hale

Stars: 5 of 5
• 5 = an amazing book that delivers a punch. Read this! 

Teaser: High on the slopes of Mount Eskel, Miri’s family has lived forever, pounding a meager living from the stone of the mountain itself. Miri dreams of working alongside the others in the quarry, but she has never been allowed to work there—perhaps, she thinks, because she is so small.

Then word comes from the lowlands: the prince of the lowlands must choose a bride from Mount Eskel. In preparation for this unheard-of event, Miri and the other rustic Mount Eskel village girls attend a makeshift academy to prepare for royal lowlander life. At the academy, Miri must challenge her mind—and discover her heart—before danger overwhelms the school.

Age level: Preteens and up

Violence: 2 of 5
• 2 = PG-level violence that's a minor theme in the book

Romance: 2 of 5
• 2 = romance is minor but present (for instance, one kiss at the end of the story)

Language: 0 of 5
• 0 = none

Christian worldview: There’s mention of the king’s priests who divine the location of the princess-to-be. However, nothing more is said of these priests than a brief reference to explain the reason for the prince selecting a wife from Mount Eskel.

On the positive side, this story heartily affirms traditional biblical values of courage and sacrifice and family and friendship and love and even obedience (quite the rarity these days).

My thoughts: Princess Academy is an incredibly sweet coming-of-age story that shows the courage and strength of one small but determined girl. Miri’s not perfect—her character is crafted with such flaws and strengths, such victories and embarrassments, that she feels utterly realistic. The other characters in the story are similarly vivid and believable.

Also, the twists and turns in the story caught me totally by surprise. The plot had enough danger that it felt meaningful, but it wasn’t just action—there was a lot of character conflict spurring the story, too.

In terms of fantasy, the book was really light on any actual magic, which I really appreciated. The one semi-magical element felt perfect within that world.

The hint of romance in the story (inevitable in any tale of prince and princess) was really well-done. It was subtle and not cliché—which, for a semi-fairytale like this one, is saying a lot.

Over the years and over the course of countless re-readings, Princess Academy has truly become one of my favorite books. I recommend it to everyone—especially young ladies—without hesitation. Read and enjoy!

Have you read Princess Academy? Do you have any thoughts about the book after reading my review?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Announcing a New Column: Book Reviews!

Starting next month, I’m going to add another column to my blog to review the books I read. I'm not sure yet whether I'll post reviews weekly or bi-weekly or once a month, but I've already got some lined up that I think you'll enjoy, so we'll see how it goes. First, though, let me explain the way my reviews will work.

Stars: scale of 1 to 5
  • 1 = inappropriate or extremely badly written. Don’t touch it!
  • 2 = badly written or with mildly inappropriate content
  • 3 = enjoyable. May have minor content issues or flaws in the writing.
  • 4 = well-written and a good read
  • 5 = an amazing book that delivers a punch. Read this! 
  • I may occasionally include an “all-time-favorites” mark on those rarest-of-the-rare favorite books that have impacted me for life.

Teaser: A bit about the book, whether an excerpt or just a description.

Age level: All ages? Preteens and up? Teens and up? Mid-teens and up (15+)? Late teens and up (17+)? [To be supplemented with plenty of personal discretion]

Violence: scale of 0 to 5
  • 0 = none
  • 1 = mild injuries appropriate for all ages
  • 2 = PG-level violence that's a minor theme in the book
  • 3 = somewhat more intense violence that plays a major role in the story
  • 4 = a lot of violence and death of a PG-13 nature
  • 5 = R-level violence

Romance: scale of 0 to 5
  • 0 = none
  • 1 = there's a hint of romance at a PG level
  • 2 = romance is minor but present (for instance, one kiss at the end of the story)
  • 3 = romance is a major theme of the story but is appropriate for teens
  • 4 = PG-13 level romance (for mature teens)
  • 5 = R-level romance (for adults)

Language: scale of 0 to 5
  • 0 = none
  • 1 = replacement swear words
  • 2 = "soft" swear words that are at a PG-level
  • 3 = two or three instances of real swear words
  • 4 = swearing repeatedly
  • 5 = PG-13 or R-level profanity

Christian worldview: Any content to be aware of in the story, whether conflicts with faith or places where the book affirms Christianity?

My Personal Opinion: My thoughts on the book’s strengths and weaknesses. No spoilers (because I hate seeing those “spoiler alert” stuff in posts; it always makes me want to read the spoiler!).

I hope you enjoy this addition to the blog! Let me know if there’s a book (fantasy or not) that you’d like to see reviewed.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fantasy Settings Around the World

Typically, when I think of the setting of fantasy books, the image that comes to mind is medieval: girls in long dresses, curses, castles, dragons, dungeons…you get the picture. But fantasy settings can actually span the whole course of history, plus some more. In fact, the settings that you draw inspiration from in creating your fantasy world can be any culture and any time in history.

 So before you decide to stick with tradition, why don’t you take a look at the wide range of possible settings that fantasy has to offer. Here’s a list of the pros & cons of fantastic times and places to get your imagination fired up.

1. Medieval
  • Pros: Lots of traditions and ideas in literature to draw on. Plenty of examples to study. Also, the medieval setting is perfect for fairy tales with their usual delightful magic.
  • Cons: can be very, very, very extremely cliché. You can exploit these clichés, as Patricia C. Wrede did in her hilariously witty Enchanted Forest Chronicles. However, if your story is the same old-same old that readers have read so many times before, they might get rather bored.

2. Arabian
  • Pros: much less cliché than a medieval fantasy. Plenty of atmosphere.
  • Cons: needs careful research. Also, since Arabian culture is so tied to Islamic culture, there may be religious complications or overtones in your setting. Plus, you’re pretty much forced to use a genie or two.

3. Oriental
  • Examples: Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (Mongolian fantasy), Eon (which I don’t recommend, incidentally, but it is an example of Oriental-style fantasy)
  • Pros: very unique, even more than Arabian. Works well with dragons and the color red.
  • Cons: Again, it does require some research to make it seem authentically Oriental. Plus, again, the major religions of either Buddhism or ancestor worship really clash with the Christian worldview and faith.

4. Egyptian
  • Examples: Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan (which are technically modern fantasies, but they’re the closest I could think of to Egyptian)
  • Pros: As with Oriental fantasy, it’s very unique—so unique I couldn’t even think of a true example of one. Plus, those pyramids are just begging for fantastic explanations, right?
  • Cons: Again, there’s the Ancient Egyptian religion to deal with. It’s a very messy mythology that doesn’t really make sense, but a book set in Egypt without Egyptian mythology seems incomplete.

5. Ancient Greek/Roman
  • Examples: Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (again, technically modern fantasy, but with a few elements of the ancient settings as well)
  • Pros: Once again, it’s unusual and not entirely cliché, although it does seem like Ancient Greece has been done a lot. Personally, I think it would be fascinating to take just a few elements from this time period—togas, for example—and insert them into a medieval fantasy world just to see the damage they’d cause.
  • Cons: It requires research, of course, just like most other settings. And as with Egyptian fantasy, there’s a whole load of mythology to deal with and explain or eradicate (which also begs the question, can/should Christians write a non-Christian mythology? But maybe more on that question in my next post).

6. Other Historical Time Periods
  • Examples: Peter’s Angel by Aubrey Hansen (soon-to-be-released, set in a fantasy setting that’s much like the American Revolution), The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (a beautiful book written in flowing old style set in mid-1800s England), The Fetch by Laura Whitcomb (ties in the Russian Revolution and WWI)
  • Pros: Tons of freedom to explore elements of history and setting from any time in history that strikes your fancy, whether Aztecs and Incas or African legends or Indian tales or WWII-era fantasy. If you can dream it, you can write it. Sweet deal, right?
  • Cons: The more obscure the time period you use, the less people will be familiar with it and the more you’ll have to research and carefully explain everything.

7. Modern/Crossover
  • Examples of Modern-only: Percy Jackson series (see above), Raising Dragons by Bryan Davis, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
  • Examples of Crossover: Chronicles of Narnia, Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke
  • Pros: not as much research involved and less explanation required. Much easier for modern readers to relate to modern characters in a modern world.
  • Cons: Let’s face it: these two types of fantasy have been done over and over again. They’re almost as popular as medieval fantasy, if not more so. Still, popularity has its reasons, so even though it’s cliché it’s a popular cliché.
  • Tip: If you’d like to write modern fantasy, try setting your story in an unusual but modern setting, like what Susan Cooper did by setting her Dark is Rising series in Scotland. That added a lot of atmosphere and character to her stories that many other modern fantasies lack.

8. A Whole New World
  • Examples: Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Lord of the Rings (although it does stem from medieval fantasy in some ways), A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
  • Pros: You get to create your own world, unconnected from any culture on earth! What could be more exciting for a writer than pure world-creation?
  • Cons: You have to create a whole entire world. Isn’t that a little much to ask of a mere human? Shouldn’t we leave world-building to God? Theological questions aside, creating a cohesive and non-cliché world is a huge task, so don’t start on it lightly. It’s often easier to take a certain time or place as a starting point and build from there rather than creating from scratch.

Since we’re talking about fantasy, it’s impossible to summarize all possible settings in one post. So why don’t you share your story’s setting, plus any inspirations you may have gotten from historical times and places. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Are you a Planner or a Pantser?

Do you have stacks of plot cards neatly printed and piled according to color-code on your desk? Or do you sit down on the couch, grab your computer, and think, "What am I going to write today?" Find out whether you are a planner, a planner-who-pants, a pantser-who-plans, or a pantser in today's quiz.

1. What time of day do you like to write?
a) before breakfast
b) after breakfast/after lunch
c) before dinner
d) the late hours of the night

2. You're stuck. You...
a) go back to your plot outline to figure out what went wrong
b) brainstorm a list of ideas and pick your favorite
c) call a writer friend and chat about your story
d) keep writing but add a dragon to make the story more interesting

3. What do you write with/on?
a) computer
b) ipad (for all you hipsters out there)
c) spiral notebook
d) looseleaf paper

4. You have a brilliant new story idea about a girl who travels in time and meets Galileo. (Your current story is a fantasy.) What do you do?
a) leave it - you've got your hands full already
b) write it down in your ideas notebook, but save it for after you've finished writing your current story
c) come up with a plot outline, then promise yourself you won't touch it until you're finished
d) sit down and start writing it now

5. Your main character is stuck in a dungeon without food or water. How do you get him/her out?
a) escape by means of the main character's lock-picking skills (as introduced in chapter 3)
b) research "ways to escape a dungeon" on Google, and pick the one you like best
c) add a dragon to the mix and see how your main character reacts
d) let your characters solve their own problems. They have to grow up someday, right?

Mostly As: A Planner
You're a confirmed and stereotypical planner. Embrace your organized, think-things-through-in-advance self! It can be quite an asset to your writing when you know what happens in advance; plus, it frees you up to churn out large chunks of draft at once. However, remember not to be afraid to think outside the box.

Mostly Bs: A Planner-Who-Pants
Your basic underlying philosophy is planning. You want to work things out in advance. You want a roadmap for your story. However, there are plenty of times when you forget the plan or else you forget to plan, at which point you may pant along cheerfully for a while. This particular writing style has a nice balance of structure and spontaneity, but it can sometimes lead to an imbalanced story where some parts seem tightly connected while others appear random and unrelated.

Mostly Cs: A Pantser-Who-Plans
While similar to the planner-who-pants, in this particular writing style your underlying structure is that of pantsing. You start without a plan. When you sit down to write, you don't usually have anything but rough ideas in your head. However, you will occasionally write your ideas down before you begin writing the story or while you're writing or even after you've finished writing. Mostly spontaneous yet partly planned, this style of writing, too, has a nice flexibility to it plus a free flow of ideas, some fabulous and some...less so. As with the planner-who-pants, your story may appear unconnected in places, and you may have too many ideas all at once (that's where planning comes in handy).

Mostly Ds: A Pantser
You probably know this already, but you're a pantser. Your notes may be scribbled on the back of receipts (or else in your head). Your story may have morphed about five times already. Your main character has probably changed genders twice now. This gives a lot of freedom to your story, but be warned: it's easy to lose the essence of your plot and characters in the whirlwind of ideas.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Joy of Books

I discovered this brilliant video through some friends from GoTeenWriters. It's a stop-motion film titled "The Joy of Books." For those of you who love books as much as I do -- and even for those who don't -- you're sure to enjoy the cute and fantastic world of books in this video.

By the way, if you're wondering why today's post is a bit light on content, that's because I'm currently away on a mission trip to Japan. Best wishes to everyone from the land of cherry blossoms!