Monday, August 31, 2009

Some questions for Brandon Sanderson

A year ago, I got the opportunity to meet rising star author Brandon Sanderson. He and his wife, Emily, were delightful people and were all the more pleasant to put up with me asking five hundred questions about writing and books. He also agreed to answer some questions for this here blog and, thanks to his wife, those questions got answered and I'll share them with you now. I figure that if an opportunity arises like this, you have to snatch it up before it passes you by. Brandon Sanderson is becoming such a hot item these days that this kind of chance may never happen again!

First off, Caren had some questions for him about Warbreaker, his newest novel and our latest co-review.

How are the Idrian royalty descended from the First Returned if the Returned can't bear offspring?

I don’t want to give away spoilers on this idea right now, as I am planning to explore it in the second Warbreaker book. As Robert Jordan often said, Read And Find Out.

The Idrians and Hallandrens had different beliefs about the purposes of the Returned and how they came to be. What is the true explanation?
This is another topic that I don’t want to say too much about, partly because it would give spoilers to things I plan to write in the future. The other reason is that it is difficult to say, as with any real religion, that one is completely true while another is completely false. All religions are based on some truths, and I’ve tried to show this by including some truths about the Returned in both the Idrians’ and the Hallandrens’ religions.

Your portrayal of religion in Warbreaker and the Mistborn Triology is not always very flattering, though there are underlying themes of faith and redemption. How do these portrayals reflect your feelings of organized religion and religious faith?
I am a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and my particular religious faith is something that has shaped who I am as a person. I also find the concept of organized religion in general to be interesting so my books tend to contain references to and portrayals of religions. Perhaps the reason that some of these portrayals of organized religion in my books are not always very flattering is that I believe that religion, used for the wrong purposes, is one of the most evil things in the world. Someone who is familiar with guns is more likely to know enough to be afraid of the misuse of guns, and caution others about this. Someone who believes strongly in organized religion can be even more aware of the problems that come with the misuse of religion.

The ending is really a beginning for at least two of the characters -- Vasher and Vivenna. Do you plan on writing more about them in the future?

I would like to write more in the Warbreaker world in the future. I’ve planned to write at the least, a sequel, though I’m not sure yet if that will be the story of Vasher and Vivenna’s continued travels, or something else. Most likely I would not write about Siri and Susebron, as I feel like their plot arcs were finished and most loose ends tied up.

The problem is, I have so many projects under contract right now, that I may not get to more Warbreaker for quite some time!

We both had questions about the fantasy genre, writing in general and whatever else popped into our heads.

How do you determine an appropriate balance between the fantastic and the familiar in your writing?

There should be a balance between the fantastic and the familiar, and while determining this balance, for me, has become instinctual, I usually end up using the three storytelling pieces, character, setting and plot. For example, if my setting has a lot of fantastical elements, I might want to use more conventional characters, or loosely follow a well known plot archetype.

What do you see is the biggest challenge for today's fantasy writer?

I think one of the biggest challenges for today’s fantasy writer is to come up with something new, that still satisfies the fantasy reader’s desires.

Fantasy seems to engender either strong devotion (bordering on obsession), or skepticism (bordering on contempt) -- more than any other genre that I can think of. Why do you think this is? And what would you like to help fantasy skeptics understand?
Fantasy has a steep learning curve, meaning that when you open a fantasy book, there can be multiple things about the setting and characters that are different from the world we live in, and have to be explained or described. I think fantasy readers like this extra layer of complexity, while those who do not like to read fantasy may be put off by the effort it can take to get into a story. This is both a great strength of the genre, and something that keeps it from being more widely accessible. I would explain this concept to fantasy skeptics so they would understand better what “those weirdos who read fantasy” see in it, and so they might have a better idea what to expect if they choose to try a fantasy novel.

How much science research goes into your writing? In general, how much time would you say you spend researching before you write?

I’ve always had an interest in the sciences, so I have a fairly good grasp on basic principles. However, one of the reasons I became a writer rather than a scientist is that I like being able to bend, if not completely break, the rules. Still, I usually do some research to make sure that my magic systems, when they are heavily scientific, are consistent. How much research I do really depends on the book and my level of knowledge on the scientific topic. For Mistborn I looked at the periodic table of elements to choose metals for the allomancers to use, and spent quite a bit of time chatting with friends about the physics aspects of pushing and pulling.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Advice I often give to aspiring writers is to keep writing. I think this is really the best thing you can do, whether your problem is that you have writer’s block, or that you think the beginning of your novel is not good enough, or that you can’t figure out what to write next. Creating a habit of writing regularly is the most important thing you can do if you want to be a writer.

What's the craziest thing a fan has asked or said to you, especially now that you are finishing the much anticipated conclusion to the Wheel of Time series?

People have asked me to write some pretty ridiculous things into The Gathering Storm. They’ve wanted events such as certain characters to die, or other characters to form romantic attachments. Let’s see, other crazy things…people have asked me to sign body parts, usually arms, sometimes a stomach, which I always refuse to do.

Many thanks to Brandon Sanderson and his wife, Emily for taking the time to answer our questions. For you readers out there, if you haven't figured out yet that Caren and I are fans of his work, go back and read some of the many posts we've done about his books. His books always make for a good read.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Middle Place

I don't share Jenny's aversion to so-called "chick lit," and having had a sister with breast cancer I was interested in reading Kelly Corrigan's The Middle Place. It's a memoir of sorts detailing her personal story of how she fought breast cancer while at the same time her father (whom she idolized and is basically the center of her universe) was diagnosed with bladder cancer. More than a cancer story, however, it's a story of how becoming an adult means living in two worlds at once -- the world where you are the child who still needs her parents, and the world where you are the parent and everything you do revolves around your own children -- in other words, being in The Middle Place.

Things I liked about it:

- Corrigan knows how to tell a story. She draws the reader into the story with her strong voice, sense of immediacy, and intuitive way of making connections and stringing the stories together.

- She has profound insights and a way of articulating those experiences that give us meaning and identity, but which are hard to define or name.

- She speaks with a great deal of honesty, even portraying herself and those she loves in a negative light in order to really flush out the truth. As a result, it feels sincere and true even when I disagreed with her.

- She avoided oversentimentality. Though she discussed love and family and death and loss, it was done without drowning in catharsis. Instead, there was almost an edge to it, but an edge that I could identify with.

Things I didn't like about it:

- Lots of bad language and sex. Really, I didn't need that. I like honesty and all, but that doesn't mean that I need to have every last f-word replayed for me. It was way too much, and felt like she was insensitive to her audience.

- I didn't like her. I kept trying, but I just couldn't. Even though I could relate to many of the things she shared, I couldn't help but be irritated by her. Idolizing her dad so much grated on my nerves, her crassness was tacky and in bad taste, and I disagreed with a lot of her liberal and anti-faith sentiments. The more I got to know her, the more I just plain didn't like her.

But even as I write that, I can't help but remember some of the thoughts she shared about motherhood, marriage, and family that resonated so strongly with my own feelings and almost made up for the parts when she bugged me. So I have conflicting feelings about it. Overall I was glad I finished it (I almost didn't), but wouldn't ever read it again or recommend it to someone else.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Co-review: Warbreaker

Having both been a fan of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, Jenny and I thought it would be fun to review his newest work, Warbreaker, together in a co-review. In Warbreaker, Sanderson once again shows his strengths; well-developed and complex characters, interesting plots and subplots that weave together toward an exciting conclusion, an intriguing magic system that includes enough limitations and rules to make it believable, and the development of suspense and surprise to keep the reader guessing at the outcome.

Typical of Sanderson's work, it is difficult to condense into a concise summary. But I'll take a stab at it. The Hallandren kingdom is a tropical climate full of vibrant color. This color is an essential part of the BioChromatic magic system, where a power called Breath can be passed from person to person, or even accumulated in a single individual to give that person heightened abilities. The ruler of the kingdom is a mysterious tyrant god-king, and he is surrounded by a court of lesser gods called the Returned. In a style akin to Mt. Olympus, the spoiled Returned are guilty of every mortal character flaw such as jealousy, lust, greed, laziness, and selfishness. One in particular, Lightsong, is so disgusted with his undeserved life of luxury and laziness that he intentionally tries to undermine his own divinity and his banter with his faithful priest provides some of the most amusing and clever interactions in the novel.

At the onset of the story, tensions between Hallandren and nearby Idris are building, and the Idrian king decides to honor an old treaty that promised his daughter as a bride to the Hallandren's god-king. But rather than sending his oldest daughter, Vivenna (who had been raised for this fate), he sends her youngest sister, Siri, instead. Siri is less refined, more compulsive, and completely unprepared for such a frightening assignment. Vivenna follows her in a secret attempt to rescue her from her horrible fate and ends up trying to mount an underground revolution. Both sisters have to leave behind the world they once new to grow into mature women who can act with courage and commitment in the face of the forces trying to destroy them.

As I said, it's difficult to condense Sanderson's work into a concise summary. I've left out some other major characters, including the enimgatic Vasher whose origin and motivations are delightfully mysterious. But this should at least give you a basic idea of what lies in the pages of Warbreaker. If you think you may want to read it, stop now and return when you're finished so that we don't give away any spoilers in the rest of the review!

Caren: Overall, I didn't enjoy Warbreaker as much as I did Mistborn. I had a harder time sorting out the pieces of the plot, but that might have had something to do with trying to read it as quickly as possible during a family reunion so that I could finish it before I had to return it! Perhaps it also had to do with some of the plot lines feeling similar to Mistborn (at least in the beginning) -- a tyrant god-king, the second-class citizens trying to overthrow him, the dubious religion, etc. Those early similarities sacrificed some of the freshness, but fortunately that passed and Sanderson succeeded in drawing me in with the intrigue and suspense until the similarities to Mistborn were reduced to a mere shadow and Warbreaker was able to come to life.

Jenny: It was interesting to me to be right there when you were first reading it and comparing so many aspects of Warbreaker to Mistborn. You sounded a bit frustrated by it. Since then, I've spent some time wondering if having you point out those similarities changed what I thought of it. The similarities are there, but like you said they are a mere shadow. I was so wrapped up in this new world Sanderson had created that I didn't even catch the similarities until you pointed them out. For me, that counts as being creative and different enough to not be a replica of Mistborn.

That cheerleading said, I still like the Mistborn trilogy better. I felt more connected to and fascinated by the characters in Mistborn than I did the characters in Warbreaker. Maybe if Sanderson writes another few books in the Warbreaker world I would get as invested in their successes as I did with the others. I did love Lightsong especially because he was so disgusted by the whole basis of their religion being the worship of such flawed gods. His curiosity, his determination to be unlikable and his need for answers were some of the best parts of the book. His ultimate sacrifice raised him even further in my esteem.

Caren: Sorry if I tainted your view of the book! I tried to hold back for that very reason. I didn't feel frustrated as much as........skeptical? Worried? Hoping that he would make a cleaner break from Mistborn? And ultimately he did, and it was fine. But I do think that it served as a little bit of a barrier to getting into the story. If I hadn't read Mistborn first, probably not.

I felt that way about Lightsong's sacrifice as well. It was sad to lose him since he was such an entertaining character, but I was pleased that his second death would be for such a noble purpose.

One thing I was delighted to see was that Sanderson once again included women as main characters in Warbreaker. I enjoyed his portrayal of Vin in Mistborn, and while Siri and Vivenna were no Vin, they were still admirable and sympathetic characters. How does he manage to write women so well when so many other men degrade them to sexual playthings, shrews, or a combination of the two?

Though, having said that, I have to admit that a little of Blushweaver went a long way. Oh man, how many descriptions of her voluminous breasts did we really need? It was like reading Twilight, but with Blushweaver's decolletage on every other page instead of Meyer gushing about Edward. Really, I got it the first dozen times! Do we have to have it restated in every scene where she appears? It just felt too gratuitous-male-fantasy for my taste. In general, I love Sanderson's treatment of women and admire his ability to create convincing women with both strengths and weaknesses. But with Blushweaver, I have to admit I felt a small kernel of relief when she got the axe!

Jenny: Ugh, no kidding. I wonder if the purpose behind that was just to demonstrate how well Lightsong could resist her. But any decent man can resist a woman throwing herself at them without being tempted to do something he shouldn't. It definitely wasn't sad to see her go.

Siri and Vivenna were great characters and it was interesting to see Vivenna make so many mistakes when Siri was the one who never could do anything right in their home country. I never grew to love those sisters as much as I loved Vin from Mistborn (we can't seem to help making those comparisons, can we?) but then I wonder if that's simply because I got three books worth of Vin and only one of Siri and Vivenna. It was interesting to see Siri figure out things on her own and dealing with the machinations of the palace priests.

How shocked were you when the God-King had no tongue? I about jumped out of my chair. I'm trying to think of another moment in the book that caused that reaction for me.

Caren: I didn't expect that, but I figured something must have been up. I was so glad that he turned out to be a decent, good person. Those early scenes with a naked Siri prostrating herself before him every night were so humiliating and frustrating. So I was happy when we could move on from that! I often wondered how Vivenna would have responded to that situation, and was glad that it was Siri because she seemed more open to accept Susebron than Vivenna would have been.

I wonder if one of the reasons we didn't get as attached to the sisters as we did to Vin is because Vin didn't have to share the limelight like they did. Vin was the main focus of Mistborn, but they had to share airtime not only with each other, but also with Lightsong and Vasher. I was really interested in Vivenna's experience, as painful as it was. Not only with those who betrayed her, but also with having to challenge all of her beliefs and figure out where she really stood in her commitments. Siri had never been that committed, so she never faced that kind of grueling introspection. But Vivenna did and it contributed to her greater depth of character, even if she didn't always like what she saw.

Did you get the sense of a possible future romantic attachment between Vasher and Vivenna? I couldn't quite tell what the nature of their relationship had the potential to become.

Jenny: Yes, Sanderson barely hinted at something more for Vasher and Vivenna, but it wasn't wrought with unrequited desire or anything obvious to make you know for sure what's ahead in any future books. I can't help but think that Vasher is massively too old for Vivenna, if not really in physical form but definitely in years. Maybe she'll really come into her own in future books, since you mostly see her figure out what her purpose and direction are in Warbreaker.

Out of all the characters in the book, those are the only two that feel like they have more story to come. Everybody else feels wrapped up nice and neat. Vasher is fascinating to me, having so much history and background to his character, so I'm excited to see what direction he and Vivenna will take.

I've noticed that all we have talked about so far is the characters, nothing about the politics, religion or magic system of the book and those are pretty interesting too. I think that's what makes Sanderson's books for me, that the characters are rich enough to discuss all on their own, and like you said, such great portrayals of women!

Caren: It's true! And I felt the same way about Vasher and Vivenna. A romantic pairing would have seemed too predictable and imbalanced. So, what did you think of the magic system? It didn't seem as straightforward as Allomancy (yes, yet another Mistborn comparison), and then had other seemingly unrelated aspects like the Returned coming back from the dead with the potential for immortality. I never felt like I had a full handle on how it worked, though I really liked the Genesis-like image of Breathing life/power into a person.

I thought the religious interpretations of the magic were interesting -- how the Hallandrens and Idrians developed such different religions even though they traced back to the same beginning. Once Vasher's true identity was revealed, I would have loved to sit down with him and say, "Okay, give us your version!" It'll be interesting to see if Sanderson explores that further in other books.

Jenny: That was one of my favorite parts of the book, to find out that Vasher was one of the original Five Scholars. I want his character to tell the story, or version like you said. I bet in future books we'll get to find out more about that. It's too bad, according to the interview questions he answered for us in a soon-to-come post, that he won't get to another Warbreaker book any time soon because of other obligations. On that topic, I'm excited to get to that post where we get to share the questions he answered for us. I'm almost giddy.

Caren: Yes, it'll be interesting to see where he goes with Warbreaker and if following more of the story will raise it closer to the Mistborn standard. But even if not, it was still a fun read!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Two sides of Dav Pilkey

If you were a pre-teen boy in the late 90s, you might know you Dav Pilkey is, author of the Captain Underpants books geared mainly towards that gender and age group. Those were the only books I knew by Pilkey and in my mind I had categorized him at pandering to the gross-loving boy group. Then when my oldest was small, my husband's aunt gave her two books about Big Dog and Little Dog by Pilkey that were sweet and funny and nothing at all about boogers or tighty-whities or pranking 10-year-olds. "Huh," I said to myself and never thought about it again, until recently when my two-year-old became obsessed with Big Dog and Little Dog. "I wonder if Pilkey has anything else not involving captains of undergarments." Yes, yes he does.

First off, I sought out all the Big Dog and Little Dog books. There are five in all and each is as wonderful as the two we own. Big Dog and Little Dog get into some mischief, since they are dogs after all, but in general are tender and lovable. We got a compilation book from the library that might have to go into the permanent collections from how many times we have read it so far. It sits in my giant denim library bag and when I tell my little ones it's time to read stories, my youngest heads to the bag for her new favorite dog duo. The drawings, always done by Pilkey, are simple yet expressive, especially when the dogs mistake a skunk for a cat. Yowza. Two big thumbs up for this book, especially if you ask my two-year-old.

Another wonderful book by Pilkey is The Paperboy, written and illustrated by him in oil paints. It actually was a Caldecott Honor book the year it was published and I can see why. It's about the life of a paperboy, how he gets up when it's still dark and cold and delivers his papers while his dog runs alongside, knowing the route just as well as he does. It's a nice book, but I still like Big Dog and Little Dog better. Worth reading from the library.

As if Pilkey didn't want to get too warm and fuzzy, he also has his Dumb Bunnies series of books. If you ever read The Stupids by Harry Allard and James Marshall, you already know what kind of characters the Dumb Bunnies are. They do everything wrong and backwards and are ridiculous to the point of annoyance. I love The Stupids, but I hate the Dumb Bunnies. Why? Why is that I cannot stand this book but I'll laugh myself silly over The Stupids Die? I kept asking myself as my kids asked me to read that dreadful book over and over again. My conclusion is that the Dumb Bunnies are not funny. Not one bit. Children around the world will disagree, but this is my blog and that's what I think.

I checked out the first Captain Underpants book, but I never read it. My six-year-old read it and laughed herself silly. Apparently it's not just for 10-year-old boys. That concludes what I have to say about that book.

I've decided that Dav Pilkey is kind of like Adam Sandler. He can rein himself in and make The Wedding Singer or Spanglish, but he secretly wants to make Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy every single year until he dies. I don't know what Pilkey secretly wants to do, maybe the Big Dog and Little Dog books are his true loves and he does Captain Underpants and Dumb Bunnies to pay the mortgage. If that's the case, and I hope it is, I'm glad for all the people who buy the books I can't stand so he can make enough money to write books I can love.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

I know all you RHE readers have been waiting with great anticipation to find out which book I finally committed to reading all those many moons ago. Thank goodness the survey forced me into a decision and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley was the lucky book I got to read. I am so thankful that's what got the most votes because I was already four chapters in and it was easier to commit to it. Now that I've read it, you smart people who voted for it were very insightful. It was a fun read.

Flavia de Luce is the eleven-year-old daughter of a formerly wealthy British family who spends her time doing chemistry experiments and tormenting her vain and clueless older sisters. The book is set in 1950s England and Flavia has all the freedoms that most eleven-year-olds don't get any more. Like riding her bike to neighboring villages, the town library, and the police station. Seriously, what kid does that any more or has that kind of freedom? Or has parents that are that oblivious to what their kid is up to? But without those kinds of parameters, Flavia never would have solved the mystery of the murder committed on her family's land.

Flavia's father is a philatelist, or stamp collector, and the story revolves around two stamps that are unique and priceless. One is owned by the king of England, then stolen by the same man who stole its twin, who also happens to be the man murdered outside Flavia's window. Flavia's father is accused of the murder, due to his shady past in connection with the man and one other small piece of evidence: his confession. Flavia is pretty sure her father didn't commit the murder and is also fairly certain who he's trying to protect. She goes about her investigation to prove both of them innocent but unravels a whole ball of tangled yarn.

The characters definitely make the book from her vain sisters, their batty housekeeper, the flirtacious stablehand, and the petite and obnoxious piano teacher to the villain you think exists and the villain that is slowly revealed. Flavia is the best of them all as her persistent, intelligent, nosy, creative, and brave self. She's makes connections beyond her years, which is fine because this is fiction after all, but she never gets too far outside of reality to make the book a joke. She is what I kind of wished I was like as an eleven-year-old and I definitely would have wanted her as my co-conspirator. But she's not the type of child your parents would want you to spend time with, what with the obsession with poisons and all.

There's a sequel due to be out sometime and I'm putting it on the list. I love a good mystery, a good villain, and best of all, an amazing detective. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie fits all those categories.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Itty bitty bragging rights

In June 2008, I popped over to Orson Scott Card's website to see what new books he might coming out with in the future. I didn't see any new books, but I noticed he was putting out a call for essays and that very day was the last day they were accepting submissions. I racked my brain for a good ten minutes and then typed what I could think of. The question was something along the lines of what Ender's Game meant to me as a reader. The ten minutes I spent brain-wracking consisted of me thinking "How do I summarize what this book means to me? This book that I have read so many times I could outline the plot and identify each character by how they fight?" I don't remember exactly what I wrote but apparently it was good enough to be picked for his newest book, The Authorized Ender Companion. The Companion is co-authored by Jake Black (no clue who he is) and I don't really know what it's about. I just know that my little blurb will be in it and you should all buy a copy. I won't have to buy a book because Orson will be sending me my own autographed copy. I'm not rubbing it in or anything, just stating the facts. The facts that I am awesome and I rock.

Before my head gets too big I better find something humbling to do. My dirty bathrooms are calling. That ought to take a little hot air out of me.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Paperback Swapping

I've been searching my memory, trying to remember how I originally heard of The Paperback Swap Club. I'm fairly certain it was my husband who heard about it on NPR and told me about it, since he knows I'm crazy about the books and such. It's a online club where you register books that you own that you no longer want, and request books that you wish you had. If someone requests your book, you ship it to them via media mail, which is pretty cheap. If you find a book you want, you request it and whoever listed it sends it to you for free. There's no cost for membership and you don't pay anything to get a book. You just promise to send a book to someone if they want it.

To start off, I listed 10 books I had that I didn't want any more. I'm more of a borrower than an owner of books, but I did have some that I had collected over the years that didn't merit keeping forever. As soon as I listed the books, half of them were requested within two days. I was stunned. People wanted my garbage? Really? As soon as I shipped the books, I received credits in my account that would get me some books for free. I used those credits to get a copy of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, a Robert Jordan book that my husband had been hinting about and the three Anne of Green Gables/Avonlea books by L.M. Montgomery. They were books I had always wanted and figured that this was a great way to get them. The point of the club is that as soon as you get your requested book, you read it and re-list it. The paperbacks are being swapped all over the country and nobody's house gets cluttered up. But I was looking for keepers.

The prize of all the books I received was a book I had loved as a child and had never been able to find as an adult. In my searches for it, I had discovered that it was a rare book, hard to find and expensive to purchase when I did happen to find a copy. The mass marketed paperback in used form ran about $50. The hardback version I had read over and over again growing up was over $100. Someone on Paperback Swap had listed the paperback version and I did a jig of glee when it arrived at my door. I put the hardback version on my wish list and months later, I got a notice that it was on its way. A first edition hardcover of The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman was now mine and I paid nothing for it.

I eventually swapped out all my books for ones I wanted for my permanent collection, realizing this meant I had less books to re-list and earn more credits, but I didn't care. The books I had found were like gems to me and there was no way I'd send them on their way. I know the purpose of the website was for different intentions, but I'm perfectly happy with how things worked out. Last week, I cleaned out some cupboards and found some cookbooks I never use. I've already shipped off two of them and my next step is to do some shopping on and see what treasures are waiting for me.