Monday, July 30, 2012

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke Review

Meggie's father Mo has an interesting talent: when he reads aloud, things, and sometimes people, come out of their stories and into the real world! But now the evil Capricorn wants to use Mo's talents to bring himself great wealth and power. Then Meggie discovers that maybe Mo isn't the only one who can read things to life. 

I saw the movie long before I saw the book.  Usually that isn't a problem for me. The books and movies are often significantly different from each other.  And their different enough where I can see the similarities but feel like I'm reading/watching something completely different. While reading this book, I kept thinking of the movie and how the movie did it better. The plot and characters are overall the same, but the movie tightened everything, made everything happen faster, kept my interest more, much more.

The book has its good things. It breaks some YA conventions.  In a lot of YA/Middle Grade books the parents are vague, dead or don't make an appearance in the novel. In Inkheart, the Father, Mo, is not only a major player in the book but he's the reason Meggie goes on the adventure she does. Not everyone in the book gets a happy ending.  Some do, some are left wandering the world, looking for their happily ever after. The story does combine different stories and characters into Funke's own fictional world.

Their are a lot of cliches though. The main characters are, obviously, book worms.  Their are the imbecile bad guys and the bad guy who everyone seems to fear but he never seems to actually do anything to be worthy of the fear.  He orders everyone to do his crimes for him but other than hoarding money and wanting people to fear him, he doesn't seem to have anything remarkable or scary about him.

The concept of the story is great but it was poorly executed.  Funke pushes and pushes and pushes the fact that Meggie, Mo and Elinore are book lovers. She makes several references to books, some I've read, some I haven't. And if I hadn't read the book I was sometimes confused as to the reference and how it related to the book.  I can't really think of single character arc in the story. The characters simply don't seem to change from start to end. As soon as the great bad is over, they all return to their old ways, even Dustfingers, who had the most potential at having the greatest arc.

Despite the lack of character arc, the characters were interesting.  As a bibliophile, I felt an affinity for the three main leads. They all showed the love of books/stories in different ways. Though that was all they seemed to think about outside of surviving and each other. Meggie, never mentioned friends or games she liked to play, unless the game was somehow related to a book. Dustfingers was probably the most interesting of the characters.  He earns money with fire tricks--eating fire, dancing with fire, etc.--has his charm, is quick both on his feet and in mind, he has a tame marten.

However, the book was so slow, and repetitive that the book could have been cut in half, or half of a half--kept all the important parts of the story and been so much stronger and compelling. I'm not sure if the way the book read was because of a Anthea Bell's translation or if Funke really read it so it was as repetitive as it came across. An example of the redundancy could be found on the very first page:

"Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain.  Many years later, Meggie had only to close her eyes and she could still hear it, like tiny fingers tapping on the windowpane.  A dog barked somewhere in the darkness and however often she tossed and turned Meggie couldn't get to sleep.

The book she had been reading was under her pillow, pressing its cover against her ear as if its cover against her ear as if to lure her back into its printed pages."

Two pargraphs later we read this:

"That night--when so much began and so many things changed forever--Meggie had one of her favorite books under her pillow, and since the rain wouldn't let her sleep she sat up, rubbed the drowsiness from her eyes and took it out."

One mention of the rain and the book under Meggie's pillow is all that is required.  We don't need to be beat over the head with the details.  However, it felt like every detail of the story was repeated, two or three times.  Sometimes more. And usually the details are told in the same irrelevant way. Funke also uses a lot of the same similes and metaphors throughout the book.  As if she simply cut and paste them and didn't bother thinking of something better or more relevant to what she was describing.

Other times I think she trusted that her story was riveting, so hard to put down that she could linger on things of no importance. She overestimated the books hold on me.  I was well-aware of the entire chapter she spent on Meggie reading for example.  We were told about how the sun fell through the window, and the positions she moved in when she grew stiff and tired from being in one position too long.  Her father is doing things. She knows he is and that she doesn't want her to know what he's planning.  So, she reads.  She doesn't spy or anything that might make that time more interesting. Meggie reads and instead of simply glossing over this fact with a "few hours later"  or "the next day" and moving onto the next scene. We're forced to read through the entire scene.  By the end of that chapter I was certain a whole day had passed in the real world, because I was so bored.

Get on with it!

Eventually she did, but with that continued snail's pace.

The closer to the end we got the faster the book seemed to move.  The last 130 pages or so started getting my attention.  I do like the book ends. I think it sets up the sequel well. Though I have not read Inkspell, I glanced at the first two pages of it via and it immediately sounds better than Inkheart did in it's first two pages. Because of that, I might try reading Inkspell.  But Inkheart, the copy I got, does not make me want to read the sequel as it is.

I recommend this book to those who can much more easily read past the slow pacing, and redundancies. If you are not one of those people but would like a decent idea of what the book is about, I would suggest the movie. It's better than the book and the overall story is similar.  The movie is faster-paced, tighter and more compelling.  It doesn't stay directly with the book, for example, in the book Meggie reads Tinker Bell out.  In the movie, she reads Toto from the Wizard of Oz out. But it is close.

Have you read Inkheart? Was it a different version than what I read?  What did you think?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Leftovers: Critical Review

Robin Connelly
Critical Essay
English 610/Spring 2012/Packet 1
June 17, 2012
The Rare Remains of Literature: Writing in Second person narrative

Finding a book written in second person is like finding a shark with no teeth: rare. That's because the second person narrative is a difficult undertaking, like surviving in shark-infested waters with a severely bleeding wound. Attempts may be made; a hard fight might ensue but in the end, the narrative dies a bloody, frustrated and messy death. Laura Wiess handled the second person narrative beautifully.
Wiess had some difficult decisions to make with this book. The story would not have been the same without the dual narrators from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Most authors would have chosen to write the story in third person. Third person is a great way of getting multiple points of view across without confusing readers. It is a popular format for such situations. However, it also tends to distance readers from the characters and the story. 
Wiess could have tried writing the entire story in first person narration, with the girls switching back and forth, on who was telling the story.  First person allows readers to get deeper into the head of a particular character and there have been successful cases where the story switched between two narrators with such a narrative. However, this frequently means readers are temporarily jarred from the story when the narrator changes and can make some readers put the book down.
The second person narrative practically requires the reader to step into the identity of the protagonist. This is because the reader becomes a character in the story told. Second person narrative allows readers to get deeper into the character’s heads than any other narrative. There are risks in doing this. Some readers simply cannot get past the "you" aspect of the narrative. The word "you" can often be overused. Although we use second person narrative in many different forms of writing, like pamphlets, essays, speeches and cards, it is extremely rare and hard to write in the second person narrative for the length of a book, which shows how much skill it takes to write in the second person. Otherwise, it would be more popular in literature.  However, as Wiess demonstrates in Leftovers, if the author has the skill, second person narrative allows multiple protagonists, multiple points of views, and deep characterization.
The second person narrative also allows readers to feel that a friend, someone they care about, is telling them a story. When we tell fairy tales to kids, we often stick with third person.  "The big bad wolf huffed and he puffed."  But when the story is about ourselves we use a mixture of first and second person. "You know how I get tipsy when I drink? Yeah.  Well, you know that I went to the bar..."  Wiess takes advantage of the story-telling feel of second person by turning Leftovers into a frame story.
The book switches between past and present tense. When the story is in present tense, the characters are speaking to a police officer, reacting to the story they just told or are about to tell and defending their actions. When the story is in past tense, readers are learning about Ardith and Blair's stories, they are learning a new element of why they did what they did, without knowing until the end what they did.  All we know, through some flashforwarding is that the story they're telling is what led to their actions.
This switch between past and present also gives readers a chance to prepare for the other girls story, her perspective on what happened that contributed to their loss of innocence and to their crime. The switch between times also gives readers an idea of what happened and raises the questions up.  The officer they’re confessing to is wearing a neck brace, and, apparently, in need of pain medication. And yet, readers don’t know what happened in the past that put him in that condition. So, readers keep reading to figure out what is happening, to understand the plot and to uncover the horrific crime.
Through a high-level of skill and some clever ingenuity, Wiess manages to write a fantastic book using the second person narrative

Works Cited
Wiess, Laura. Leftovers. New York, NY: Pocket, 2008. Print.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Archived Pages

While looking for some of my favorite writing quotes I came across an old essay I wrote in the hopes of getting into an MFA program and thought I'd share it. 

God damn it. I hate when a draft is returned to me decorated with different colored highlighters, red ink, smiling and frowning faces. I hate how much sweat, tears and time writing requires. Why can't the process be simple? Why can’t I write one or two drafts then be done?  Because doing that would mean mediocre work, and I'm not one to let my stories be less than I am capable.
            That’s why I dedicated my life to writing. Although my main interest is in writing fantasy novels, I’ve tried my hand at poetry, flash fiction, satire, freelance blogging, news articles, promotional material and short stories and learned from each form of writing. Through poetry I learned how to give my piece rhythm. Through journalism I learned brevity. Through flash fiction I learned condensing.  
            I’ve studied the craft of writing to the best of my ability at this point, through various methods.
 I attended conferences and writer's events. I've purchased books, magazines and movies in the hopes my writing would improve. I wrote my favorite authors for advice, insight and tips. I majored in journalism, minored in English, hoping my writing would become tighter more grammatically correct and still my manuscript — the one I’ve been re-revising for years — came back to me with so many critiques?  I consider ripping the novel apart, putting it through the paper shredder and deleting all my previous drafts from my computer. After all this is draft # I. J would be next.
            Those not as dedicated to the craft of writing frequently tell me my writing is good, fantastic, better than they could manage.  That is well and good to hear when the writer needs that confidence boost, but I know that my writing is not where I want it to be. I have not met my full potential, which is something I really want and find myself growing frustrated when I feel like I’m not making progress.  After all, I labor and labor to give birth to a beautiful, perfect baby. But when I take the child in for a checkup, I find my baby deformed. So I labor again and again, performing surgery, providing inoculations to find my child healthier but still deformed.
Now I want to get an MFA in Creative Writing at a school where they'll criticize my babies, tear them into scraps so I can only try jig sawing them together and give birth to healthier and stronger ones. They'll poke at my work; demand a quality from me beyond my current skills. I want to attend a school so dedicated to the written word that they have a writer in residence, which provides students with different perspectives, experiences, opinions and tips. Am I crazy for wanting to attend BSU or just suicidal?
            Just dedicated to my craft, I suppose.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Leftovers by Laura Wiess

Blair and Ardith are best friends who have committed an unforgivable act in the name of love and justice. But in order to understand what could drive two young women to such extreme measures, first you'll have to understand why. You'll have to listen as they describe parents who are alternately absent and smothering, classmates who mock and shun anyone different, and young men who are allowed to hurt and dominate without consequence. You will have to learn what it's like to be a teenage girl who locks her bedroom door at night, who has been written off by the adults around her as damaged goods. A girl who has no one to trust except the one person she's forbidden to see. You'll have to understand what it's really like to be forgotten and abandoned in America today.

This book is gutsy. It takes risks. It breaks rules. It does not hesitate.

The story switches from Blair and Ardith's point of view, two girls who live completely different lives--and yet find friendship with each other because of how those different lifestyles affect them in similar ways. Leftovers is written in a second person, narrative, which I've heard of but do not believe I've ever read before. For those unfamiliar with the term, second person narrative is when the word "you" is used.  So instead of  "I opened the box."  It would read "You open the box." The second person narrative had an unusual affect on how the story was presented that I wouldn't mind trying to replicate in one of my own books. This may very well be the topic of my critical review on this piece.

Throughout the book we know the girls are confessing to a crime--but we don't know what they did until the very end of the book or what made them do whatever horrible crime it was. And as they say in the book, , technically, they did everything right so they, though not blameless, did nothing wrong. The cop in question, seems to ask questions, make comments, but he does not speak within the narrative portions of the interview--only in the actual story where he appears.  Ardith and Blair answer and respond in a way that lets readers know what the officer said or asked.

Perhaps the best description of the book though, is said by Blair in the first chapter.  “See, guys freak out. They hit critical mass and blast nuclear, white-hot anger out over the world like walking flamethrowers. But girls freak in. They absorb the pain and bitterness and keep right on sponging it up until they drown.” You see both girls drown in this book and the after affects of them hitting that breaking point.

This was a good book.I felt for the characters, no matter what circumstances they found themselves in. I found the build up to what they did interesting, though a little anti-climatic. I was hoping for something with a little more bang, but considering how Blair and Ardith set everything up it makes since that it didn't have a louder ending.  Their were issues within the book, of course, no book ever escapes without them, and they're minor in my mind. 

Also, although this is a YA novel, parents may want to be wary of the subject matter.  It all stays true to life, it's all within the realm of possibility. The girls are bullied at school. They find themselves in a lot of situations teenagers today find themselves in all the time. And they learn, the hard way, how to deal with it. I would have no problem recommending it to teenagers or adults, but some parents may not want their teenagers reading it. It's a true coming of age tale in it's own way. So the girls explore sex, experiment with each other and boys. They drink. They smoke. Their are consequences and not just the parent-found-out type. It explores the different kinds of abuse teenagers may endure.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Briar Rose: A Critical Review

Writer’s have many decisions to make when they start on a story, from who the characters are to how the story is told. Jane Yolen uses the third person narrative in Briar Rose. This allows readers to explore the horrors of WWII without being overwhelmed by the gruesome details and for Yolen to switch from the books past to the books present without confusing readers.
Briar Rose is about a twenty-three-year-old named Becca who on her grandmother's deathbed, promised to discover her grandmother's past. This proves to be difficult, as her mother--Gemma's only daughter--knows almost nothing about Gemma; not her real name, where she came from or who her husband was.  The only clues Becca has to Gemma's identity are small souvenirs that were hidden in a small box. After getting all the information, she can from the box's contents, Becca travels to Poland with the hopes of finding concrete answers.
The story swings back and forth in time, allowing readers to learn about the fairytale that Gemma told her granddaughters in flashbacks, and return to the story's present to learn about Becca’s journey through alternating chapters.  This allows readers to see how the story of Briar Rose Gemma told her granddaughters relates to the information Becca discovers as she uncovers Gemma's past, until past and present converge.
The transition between the two times is seamless. This is because Jane Yolen chose to write the story completely in third person.  If the tale had been told in first person or even alternating between first and third, readers would have been jarred from the story and potentially confused as to the shift in time. However, the fact the story is told in third person allows the voice and tone to remain the same throughout the chapter and only the flashback chapters need to be italicized to let readers know that they are reading a flashback. The story stops alternating between past and present when Becca meets Josef Potoki, a Holocaust survivor, who knew her grandparents.
Josef tells his story and the story of Becca's grandparents for the majority of the remaining book. Since Josef is in fact telling his own story, it would have been acceptable for Yolen to switch to first person at that point, however Yolen wisely chose to keep the story in third person. This allows the horrors that were endured in WWII to be revealed, along with other subject matter, without overwhelming or sickening readers. On several occasions, readers may have put the book down if the descriptions were in first person. For example, at one point in Josef's story he and several of his comrades end up in Che┼émno, which was the location of an Extermination camp. There victims of Nazi’s are loaded into the back of trucks and gassed to death. Josef and his companions watch in horror as bodies are shoved out of the back of the trucks. Only at the end of the day, when they believe it is safe do they approach the mass grave the bodies’ were dumped in:

They came to the side of the deepening dark. It was enormous, full of shadows: shadows of arms, or legs, of heads thrown back, mouths open in silenced screams. Lines of Dante ran through Josef's mind but he realized, not even the great Alighieri could touch the horror of what lay at his feet. The smell--a lingering fog of exhaust fumes, the stench of loosened bowels, the sweet-sickly odor of the two- and three-day dead--drenched them (206).

If this were in first person, the details would more likely have been sharper. Josef's stomach would have turned at the stench described, perhaps tasted it at the back of his tongue. The details could have been sharper, so that the bodies are seen in detail. Granted, this could be true of third person as well, but no matter how deeply one writes, third person always seems a little more distant than first person. The difference between using I and Josef may seem miniscule, but it can change the impact of a scene.
Using third person is what made Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose a success. It made the transition between the past and present smooth and protected readers from some of the more grisly details found in the book.