Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: The Fetch

In today's post, I'll review a book I read recently called The Fetch, which has a fantastic premise about Anastasia Romanov but (in my opinion) a rather flawed execution. A word of caution: this book is the first in a proposed series. While it stands alone acceptably enough, the story is not quite complete by the end of the novel.

Title: The Fetch
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Page Count: 384 pages

Stars: 3 of 5
  • 3 = enjoyable. May have minor content issues or flaws in the writing.
Teaser: Calder is a Fetch, a “death escort” who brings the souls of the dying to a decidedly non-Christian heaven (there is no Hell, as Calder explains). After falling in love with an earthly woman, he breaks his vows as a Fetch and stays on earth to try to find her. The woman happens to be one of the Romanovs, on the way to her death on the eve of the Russian Revolution. The story “solves” the mystery of why Anastasia and Alexei’s bodies were not found with the rest of their family.

Age level: Mid-teens and up (15+)

Violence: 3 of 5
  • 3 = between PG and PG-13 violence that plays a major role in the story
Romance: 2 of 5
  • 2 = romance is minor but present (for instance, one kiss at the end of the story)
  • Note: this book is technically classified as "supernatural romance." However, I felt the romance was really a side issue and hardly came up until the very end.
Language: 1 of 5
  • 1 = replacement swear words
Christian worldview: Clearly, the idea of a Heaven without a Hell is contrary to Christianity at its heart. If everyone is saved, then how can God have any justice or integrity? To be honest, God was really brushed aside in the story as an unsolvable mystery. The book did mention a historical Flood and Tower of Babel, but its explanations were again not entirely Biblical.

My thoughts: My favorite part of this story was the incorporation of the Russian Revolution and the Romanovs. By setting it in such a specific time and place, Whitcomb managed to surpass the ordinary clichés of supernatural fantasy and add suspense in regard to how she would clear up the mystery of Anastasia. The idea of Fetches was also intriguing, although I don’t think the philosophy of them stands up at all against the Bible. Still, not a bad idea.

As far as the romance goes, even though the book is billed as “supernatural romance,” there really wasn’t any romantic interaction between the characters until nearly the very end. It almost left me wondering whether there would be any after all.

The book’s biggest weakness, in my opinion, was that it was far too long. The characters spend half of the book on a chase around the world that seems pointless, and then the ending breaks in abruptly. If instead the author had ended the story about halfway through the book, with the excitement of death and danger still in the air, I might have been a lot more satisfied.

Overall, The Fetch was an enjoyable read but not outstanding. I’d recommend it to those interested in Anastasia or in the modern genre of supernatural romance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: The Swan Maiden

The Swan Maiden grabbed my attention with its gorgeous cover. The contents of this fairy-tale-spinoff kept me (mostly) enchanted, although in all I must say that the cover almost exceeds the story. Enjoy the review, and don't forget to leave a comment below!

Title: The Swan Maiden
Author: Heather Tomlinson
Page Count: 304 pages

Stars: 3 of 5
  • 3 = enjoyable. May have minor content issues or flaws in the writing.

Teaser: Doucette wants to be a “swan maiden,” a creature of flight and magic, like her two elder sisters. At last, she has the chance to realize her dream—but the day comes when she must decide between love and magic.

Age level: Teens and up (13+)

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

Romance: 3 of 5
  • 3 = romance is a major theme of the story but is appropriate for teens

Language: 0 of 5

Christian worldview: The magic in this story seems to be hereditary and viewed with suspicion or even dislike. (See this post for my thoughts on how magic in fantasy can or can’t mesh with faith.) The biblical lesson that a little power makes you want a little more is clearly told. The value of faithful love is also evident in the story.

My thoughts: This story was an elegant and enjoyable fantasy. I immediately connected with the feelings of jealousy and longing that Doucette experienced as she watched her older sisters flaunt their magic in front of her. The hero of the story, while a bit cliché, did show a lot of courage and honor and loyalty. Although the setting is a medieval fantasy, Tomlinson manages to deftly sidestep clichés by making the story focused on medieval France and incorporating very vivid details of life to make the setting come alive to readers.

My major problem with The Swan Maiden was a decision Doucette made towards the end of the story. The decision felt too selfish for her and unlike the way she’d behaved in the past. I didn’t think it was completely necessary for the story, either, particularly considering the ending. Still, it taught her a good lesson that I won’t spoil here.

In sum, The Swan Maiden was a light fantasy with good themes. A nice book to read with a cup of tea on a rainy day.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Higher Education...In Creative Writing?

It’s the beginning of a new school year. The scent of sharpened pencils wafts through the air, and kids are (regretfully) putting the days of summer behind them to return to the grind of school.

This scholastic atmosphere leads me to consider whether higher education helps—or harms—your writing. Is higher education in creative writing (whether undergrad or graduate study) useful? Of course, the answer varies from person to person—some have always dreamed of scribbling away in their dorm rooms; while others have long since graduated and are now considering an MFA (master of fine arts) in creative writing. Either way, it’s useful to weigh your options.

So, in this post, I’ll be considering the pros and cons of higher education in creative writing. Whether you’re considering undergrad of graduate study, I hope this list will be helpful, and maybe even spark some thoughts of your own. So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

  • Mentorship from published authors: this is probably the greatest benefit of schooling—you get to receive feedback and to learn from an experienced writing and teacher. Of course, the quality of mentorship varies from institution to institution, so do your research and find teachers you would want to learn from (try searching for examples of their lectures on YouTube, or look up their writing in your library).
  • Peer critique: as in a writing worship, peer critique is a vital part of any creative writing program. You get to refine your own editing skills by finding the flaws in others’ works. Plus, you get a lot of “test readers” who will provide feedback on your story.
  • Due dates and deadlines to get you churning out work: this, for me, is key. It’s my number two favorite part of creative writing classes. Let’s face it—it’s hard to stay motivated to write and edit on our own. While meeting deadlines is tough, we get more results for less time as compared with writing on our own.
  • Rudimentary business skills: almost any self-respecting creative writing program these days will include a small business component to help you know how to translate your writing knowledge into a marketable resource.
  • Help in compiling a portfolio for applying to various creative writing programs (say, an MFA program): your instructor can help you select and polish your best writing, whether for a portfolio or publication. He/she may even be able to provide you with some contacts, as well.

  • Expense: College is not getting any cheaper these days. For all the money you put into college, you might never earn it all back by writing and selling books. Unless you have other sources of income, formal schooling may be an impossibility in today’s economy. (Do note that there are distance learning options for creative writing, which may be more affordable because they eliminate room and board costs.)
  • Time commitment: most undergraduate programs require four years of study, and at least half of that may not even be creative writing classes. An MFA program varies from two to three years, depending on how much time you devote to it and the specific courses you take. In contrast, a workshop only requires a commitment of a week or so, at a much lower cost.
  • Unrealistic environment: We can’t stay in college our whole lives, even if we wanted to. The concentrated academic and creative environment of college, while inspiring when you’re there, may even harm you once you’re away. If all you did in college was write (unlikely), then you’d be lost in the “real world” without the support system of teachers and peers from college.
  • Literary v. popular fiction: Many creative writing programs teach you to write in a “literary” way, a style of writing that may be beautiful, but might not sell. In other words, you can write books that will sell without going to school for writing. You need to ask yourself, “Is it worth it to learn to write better when I might sell just as many books—or more—the way I write now?”
  • Finally, most people can’t earn a living as a writer. Let’s face it: royalties aren’t looking so great. Even ebook sales, while lovely, don’t usually have the mass to support you. Thus, you’ll probably end up working another job. But to work another job, you’ll need a degree other than creative writing. Is it worth it to go to college and get a writing degree when you may not be able to support yourself on it? (Do note that you could also double-major or get a vocational certificate. It’s not black-and-white.)

I hope my points above have been thought-provoking. Now tell me: what benefits and costs do you see of getting a degree in creative writing? Do you have any experience you’d like to share?

Note: If you’re interested in MFA programs, Stanford and University of Iowa are two of the most renowned places to begin your research. Many undergrad schools offer degrees (or minors) in creative writing--use Collegeboard to begin your search.

Image by David Niblack from Imagebase Free Stock Photography

Friday, September 7, 2012

Review: The Dark is Rising

For my second book review, I’d like to introduce The Dark is Rising, the second book in a cycle of five books about an often-metaphorical battle between Dark and Light set in Britain. I’m choosing to review The Dark is Rising rather than the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, because this one can be read on its own without reading OSUS and because (in my opinion) it’s a better book.

Title: The Dark is Rising
Author: Susan Cooper
Page Count: 244 pages

Stars: 4 of 5 (Newberry Honor Book)
    4 = well-written and a good read

Teaser: On the Midwinter Day that is his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers a special gift—the he is the last of the Old Ones, immortals dedicated to keeping the world from domination by the forces of evil, the Dark. At once, he is plunged into a quest for the six magical Signs that will one day aid the Old Ones in the final battle between the Dark and the Light. And for the twelve days of Christmas, while the Dark is rising, life for Will is full of wonder, terror, and delight.

Age level: Teen and up (13+)

Violence: 3 of 5
    3 = somewhat more intense violence that plays a major role in the story

Romance: 0 of 5
    0 = none

Language: 0 of 5
    0 = none

Christian worldview: This book has elements that we as Christians can relate to—being engaged in an epic battle between light and darkness, for example. However, there are also a lot of elements of Celtic myths and Arthurian legend woven through the story (which is why I don’t find this book appropriate for preteens, despite low levels of violence and romance). Magic is an important element in the book as well.

My thoughts: The beautiful language and imagery of The Dark is Rising really grabbed my attention (almost) from the beginning. It’s extremely well-written, and the analogies and images of light and darkness are beautifully drawn.

I must confess I don’t care for the first chapter or so, because the action was slow to start. Also, there was not very much character development of Will. There was no great sacrifice involved for him. The storyline, too, was somewhat predictable. So although I said above that this book is appropriate for teens and up, I think it’s especially suited to younger teens or those who don’t mind a slightly predictable story.

So, in conclusion, this is a beautiful book that is extremely well-written stylistically but is somewhat lacking in the Christian worldview and character development departments. If you like reading books about England or old English myths, then you may enjoy The Dark is Rising.

*Note: this book has also been made into the move The Seeker, which, according to most reviews, is one of the worst movies ever. Don't bother watching it! If anything, read the book.