Friday, May 18, 2007


THE GAME OF KINGS/QUEEN'S PLAY by Dorothy Dunnett: The first two in the Lymond Chronicles, historical fiction at its adventurous, sword-fighting, politicking, religious squabbling, bawdy best. Francis Crawford of Lymond is the younger son of a noble Scots family. Five years ago, he was revealed as an English spy and banished from Scotland. Now he's come home. Is it to wreak havoc or redeem his name? It's not always easy to tell and Lymond is a very hard protagonist to pin down. The first book gave me fits getting used to the style and prose. But it wrapped up in a most satisfying way and the second book was just as good, when Lymond goes to France to help protect his 7-year-old queen, Mary, from assassination attempts. Set in the turbulent mid-1500s, these books are a marvelous treasure for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

CLOUD OF UNKNOWING by Thomas Cook: Another stunning novel by Cook. When his nephew drowns, David Sears watches his sister come undone by the tragedy. Diana helped care for their schizophrenic father when they were children and with her son's death her own mental stability is called into question. She's convinced her husband helped kill their son and becomes obsessed with researching ancient ritual killings. Gradually she begins to believe that the earth is a living entity who could tell her the truth about her son's death. When Diana begins to threaten his own family, David must decide what to do. A powerful examination of the power of blood and family myth--as well as the love of siblings for one another.

HOUSE ON THE STRAND by Daphne du Maurier: One of the few du Maurier books I missed as a teenager. Dick Young has been lent his friend's Cornwall house for free. All his friend, Magnus, asks of him is to participate in a little science experiment. But there's nothing little about it--when Dick drinks from the flask left him by Magnus, he's transported back in time to the same valley in the 14th century. The story alternates between the present and the past, with Dick growing increasingly addicted to the people whose stories he is watching in the past. A sudden death underlines the danger of mixing times, but Dick cannot stop until he knows the end of the story.

UNLESS by Carol Shields: A Pulitzer Prize winner, Shields' final novel before her death is about Reta Winters, a quite companion, mother, translator, and writer in Canada whose life is turned upside down when her oldest daughter, Norah, drops out of university to sit on a Toronto street corner with a sign that reads simply "Goodness." Reta looks to literature and her own writing to try and make sense of it all. Is Norah troubled by the silencing of women throughout history? Can one love both the world as a whole and the individuals in it? Is silence simply a choice that Norah is free to make? A quiet but intriguing novel. Not precisely my usual fare, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

THE ROBBER BRIDE by Margaret Atwood: Another fabulous Canadian woman author, Atwood delivers a book about three fascinating women who would never have been friends if not for the one thing they have in common--the destructive power of a woman called Zenia. She wrought disaster in each of their lives, one after the other, and then died. At her funeral, they rejoiced. But five years later, in a Toronto restaurant, Zenia comes back from the supposed dead. We get the story of each woman in turn, as Zenia trails poison through their lives, all the time wondering what she's up to now and who she plans to hurt next. Beautifully plotted, intricately written, dazzlingly characterized. Loved it.

DISSOLUTION by C.J. Sansom: First novel in a Tudor mystery series, featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake who works for Lord Cromwell. One year after Anne Boleyn's execution, King Henry VIII has turned to threats veiled as persuasion to complete his dissolution of the Catholic monastaries in England. When a royal commissioner is found beheaded at Scarnsea Monastery, Matthew Shardlake is sent to discover the killer and complete the monastery's surrender to the crown. Shardlake uncovers evidence of sexual impropriety, embezzlement, and treason, but two more deaths lead him to believe there is more to Scarnsea than a simple religious motive. Anne's death on Tower Green casts a shadow even here, and Shardlake has to cope not only with murder but the destruction of his own beliefs.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Writing is hard.

I know this shouldn't come as a revelation--I've been doing this seriously for four years. I've had my share of exhaustion and despair over editing and rewriting and plotting and the sheer labor of thinking what to do next when an editor says, "I liked it but not well enough to take it on."

But my current project is by far the hardest thing I've ever done. Does that mean I'm growing as a writer? Or that isn't the project for me and I should move on? Or that I'm merely tired from months of mono and my body and mind are using all its energy to getting better? I don't know. All I know is that some days stubbornness is all I have to call upon--"I will write one page before I fold laundry. I will write one page before I make dinner." (And you know it's got to be bad when I'm thinking of laundry and cooking as better alternatives!)

I came across a quote from Orson Scott Card's HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY and it struck home with me: "You have to be willing to change anything during the creation phase; only that way can you make the story be true to yourself. There's nothing sacred about your original idea--it was just the starting point . . . So the story is nothing like what you first thought it would be. But so what? It's better--richer, deeper, truer--than that original idea. The idea did its work: It got you thinking."

And that, in a cliched nutshell, is the story of my new book. It started as a craft writing assignment in my online group--"Show a preternaturally gifted child." Then it became a short story that was a quarterfinalist in Writers of the Future. The story was in first-person. When I came to start the book, I picked up where I'd left off in the story and wrote it in 3rd person (being a fan of multiple viewpoints as I am.) I wrote a hundred pages like that, then went back and rewrote the story in 3rd person which turned into the first three chapters. And then I stalled. I knew the important events. I knew where the story ended--I just couldn't make myself write it. Following my friend, Ginger's, wise counsel that writer's block is just your mind's way of telling you that you're headed the wrong way, I stopped writing and started thinking. I read a lot. I fell in love with a new TV show on BBC America (Robin Hood). I let my mind wander.

And then I started over again.

I'm back in first-person. It's hard, I've never done it before for a book-length work, but it's right. I got three chapters in and stalled again. And then I realized--she was meeting her love interest too late. So I moved that forward by four chapters. And the wrong person died in the early chapters--I killed someone else. I've stuck to the single idea that has driven all of this time and effort--a 16-year-old girl in 12th century England whose ability to read minds men of two countries would kill to possess--but everything else is negotiable. I took Card's advice and let my story twist itself into its own form. And it's already a better book.

Now if I can just finish it!

As for the kindness: I've mentioned DorothyL, the listserv for mystery lovers. I've posted on there from time to time, but I finally got up the nerve last week to post some reservations I'd had about a book and author. Ian Rankin is extremely popular and his books sell extremely well, but the one I'd picked up in the middle of the series left me a bit underwhelmed. So I asked on DorothyL if I'd just picked the wrong book to start with and whether I should give him another try.

Sandra Ruttan emailed me almost at once, asking me to send her a list of my favorite authors and what I enjoy in mysteries. Then she went to a bookstore (in Canada), bought me a different Rankin to try as well as book by Mark Billingham. And she's sending them to me.

Can you believe it?! Who knew that I would find such kindness by merely asking a question.

In any case, on Sandra's blog today she talks about how to excite people into reading books. It's a wonderful piece and I'm going to challenge myself to do what she did so graciously: Next time someone asks me about a book to read, I won't just reflexively offer my personal favorites. I'll take the time to understand what they love and search out a specific book for them. For readers, there's nothing better than discovering a new author. I want to give that to my friends and family. Here's hoping you'll do the same!