Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland (In A Ship of Her Own Making)

Note: If you haven't taken a look at my Review policy, you can check it out here.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland
(in A Ship of Her Own Making)
by Catherynne M. Valente
Feiwel and Friends (May 2011)

First off, can we just take a second and marvel at how awesome the book trailer is?

(Confession: I bought that song on iTunes.)

Every once and a while, a book will come along, and it is so powerfully vivid that when it sketches out a magical land, the fictional world does more than just entertain. When you begin to read, the rules of the mundane world falls away, and suddenly, you're swept away into a fantastical place which has a particular delicious flavor, which makes its own particular sense. One author's imagination can create its own logic. One story can build a world with its own gravity, drawing readers back to that imagined realm again and again, over decades and generations, until many years and rereads later, you realize that world has grown inside of you.

You know the books, I mean: Alice in Wonderland has...well, Wonderland. Peter Pan has Neverland. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - and the other six book in the Chronicles - have Narnia. Haroun and the Sea of Stories belongs in this category, and Abarat, and the Golden Compass.

Today, I'm gonna add The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland to those ranks.

Yes, it's that good. This is a book that comes with words attached - words like Whimsy, and Awesome, and Flit, and Joyous, and Loverly, and Pandemonium (see below).

But here's what edges this novel out of the good category and into the great: Valente wrote a story that deserves the world it takes place in. Seriously. (Confession: I even got a little teary-eyed at the end, and that almost never happens.)

Blend one enchanting, mesmerizing Voice, many vivid and telling names, and an assortment of oddball characters. Stir in one main character's stubbornness, as well as her sacrifices. Add some themes on Choice, and the Burden of Hearts, and Leaving/Returning Home; deliver a wham-bam punch of great storytelling, and you'll get The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland.

5 out of 5 on the KVOT scale, peeps. For sure.

*Writer Tip Takeaway:

(No, British peeps, it has nothing to do with food. :-P)

*Okay, I can't resist. I have to share something Useful and Awesome that this book taught me in the Realm of Writing Skills.

Proper Nouns can develop setting in the most delightful and efficient of ways.

Here let me list some that Catherynne M. Valente used:

Dramatis Personae
(as listed right before page 1)

September, a Young Girl
Her Mother
Her Father
The Green Wind, a Harsh Air
The Leopard of Little Breezes, His Steed
Hello, a Witch
Goodbye, her Sister, also a Witch
Manythanks, their husband, also a Witch, but Additionally, a Wairwulf
A-Through-L, a Wyvern
Lye, a Golem
Good Queen Mallow, Former Ruler of Fairyland
Charlie Crunchcrab, a Fairy
Several Glashtyn
The Marquess, Current Ruler of Fairyland
Iago, the Panther of Rough Storms
Saturday, a Marid
Calpurnia Farthing, a Fairy
Penny Farthing, her Ward
Numerous Velocipedes
Doctor Fallow, a Spriggan
Rubedo, a Graduate Student, also a Spriggan
Citrinitas, an Alchemical Genius, a Spriggan as Well
Two Lions, Both Blue
Mr. Map, the Royal Cartographer
Nor, a Nasnas
An Unfortunate Fish
A Shark (Actually a Pooka)
Hannibal, a Pair of Shoes
Gleam, a Lamp

Place Names
(for the sake of brevity, I'll only list the ones I found between pages 1 and 100)
  • The City of Westerly, "where all Six Winds live in nothing at all like harmony" (6)
  • The Closet Between Worlds
  • the Perverse and Perilous Sea
  • the House Without Warning
  • the Barleybroom, a River
  • Pandemonium, the Capital of Fairyland, with four districts called Idlelily, Seresong, Hallowgrum, and Mallowmead
  • the Switchpoint, a gate into Pandemonium
  • Groangyre Tower, "home of the Royal Inventors' Society (Madness Prerequisite)" (51)
  • Janglynow Flats, "where once the Ondines waged their algae wars" (51)

Now, just with those 200-some words, can't you already kind of picture what kind of Fairyland this is?

Doesn't it make you want to dive right into the pages and find out more about "Hannibal, a Pair of Shoes" or "the House Without Warning"?

A Word on (My) Reviews

So, as of today, I will start reviewing here.

I don't know if anyone ever noticed this (probably not), but there aren't any actual reviews on this blog. I've recommended some and gushed over a fair amount of my favorites - but I've hesitated to review.


I don't like to be critical in a public place.

Especially when I don't know how the recipient of said criticism will receive that feedback.
Especially when nobody even asked for my opinion.

So, I made a little rule for myself, on this blog, so that I would just avoid the situation altogether: I just wouldn't review.

But I kept wanting to write about the books I just read - and not just as the last line in a Friday Five either.

Thus, as a compromise, each of my reviews must follow certain criteria.

Requirement: I can't know the author or have any sort of personal connection with them.


Well, if I told you blog readers how I knew the writer, you would think to yourself, Oh, she's just saying that, because the author is Shelby's agent-sister/Shelby's mom's best friend/that girl Shelby met at summer camp thirteen years ago. Her opinion is totally biased.

And you know, you wouldn't be wrong. Knowing the author does tend to influence my opinion of their book.

(This, however, does not mean that I won't gush over books of authors I know, and telling you all to buy them. I'm just not going to call it a "Review.")

Requirement: I must use the Best Versions of Themselves (B.V.O.T.) scale, which is as follows:
  • 1 out of 5 - The author of the book had no inkling of what kind of story their book wanted to tell.
  • 2 out of 5 - I liked bits of it, but the good stuff was marred by the frustratingly bad.
  • 3 out of 5 - A balance between the good and the bad, or maybe just a whole lot of mediocre.
  • 4 out of 5 - The author could've tweaked something major, but it still goes down on my list of Very Worthy Books.
  • 4.5 out of 5 - The author could have improved it a bit, but I can still love it to death, (minor) warts and all.
  • 5 out of 5 - The author perfectly told the best version of their story. I have no qualms about gushing to my heart's content.
For more info on the B.V.O.T. scale, go see this post.

The book must score a 4 or higher on the B.V.O.T. scale.


Because there's a limit to how much criticism I can dish out without feeling horribly guilty.

Requirement: I need to like the book.

This is not the same as it scoring well on B.V.O.T. scale. I have read plenty of perfectly written books that I just didn't connect with personally.

(But this one is easy, because I won't waste time reviewing a book unless I love it. :-P)

Which means:

a) They will be (mostly) positive, because I already love them.

b) There won't be THAT many.

Also, note: Everybody's taste is slightly different. You might want to take a look at my favorite books (listed here) to see if your taste is anything like mine.

Why am I telling you?

Because you're bound to notice sooner or later that I seem to give good reviews to EVERYTHING. Which will be true.

Now, you know the reason. :-)

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Quick Update...

Hello, friends! This is just a quick note to tell you that I'm still alive. A very quick note - Friday Five quick.
  1. But this wasn't what I started out writing today: I was going to write a Review of the Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Then I was going to write a quick meditation on Harry Potter, and What J. K. Rowling and Her Characters Mean to Me and My Generation (yes, I saw the film last weekend).

    But today, I'm too restless to concentrate.

  2. My sister returns from France today. She went out there with the intention to stay three months, travel around, and learn some things about life and herself. I'm afraid she also caught bronchitis there. She is now headed home three weeks early, to rest and recuperate and talk to doctors she shares a mother tongue with. She'll arrive around 8PM. Which means that she is probably over the Atlantic right now, coughing up a storm and making her seat-neighbors worry that they'll catch TB or something.

    I'm a little worried about her as well. I always forget that she is only fifteen months younger than I am and that she can really take care of herself.

  3. One of my oldest, bestest friends is sitting across from me right now, here at the Barnes & Noble cafe. She is flipping determinedly through the stack of bridal magazines in front of her. She got engaged in April, and the wedding will be in September/October of next year. This weekend, she and her mom goes to Charleston to meet with the wedding planner. We're holding a running commentary on dresses, straps on the bridesmaid dresses, kids to participate in the ceremony, flowers, etc.

    "I definitely want roses, but not red. I've never been a fan of red roses."
    "They look so...Bachelorette-y."

    She doesn't know that I took this picture... :-P

    (This may explain why I'm having trouble focusing.)

  4. Book 2 is taking over my life. 60% of my reading is research. 87.5% of my brain activity has been consumed with the characters talking in my head, and the chapter they're currently trapped in, and the world they're learning more about, etc. Which means I've become about five million times more absentminded than usual. For example, this morning, getting gas, I had to park about five times, because I kept forgetting what side the gas tank was on. :-/

    (This should explain why I've been MIA. It is a good excuse. ("I was writing," is always a good excuse.)

  5. There's just an odd mood over my life, and over the lives of many of the people close to me: we are in transition, or on the move, or in between. It's not bad; it's not good. It's a stew of indefinable mush, where things happen, small unimportant steps in a forward direction, which add up to a big word like Change.
Okay, next week, I shall post that review. And if my sister is feeling better, I might drag her to go see Harry Potter - just so that I can see it again. :-P

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Copy-Edits Cause for CELEBRATION!!! (and also, for Craftsmanship)

These fireworks are beautiful,
like a bouquet of light.

(It was raining, so I didn't actually go see fireworks this year.
But I heard them start up circa 10PM.)

A week ago, right before the Fourth of July weekend began, I got a wonderful little email from my editor:

It said that my ms was going to copy-editing!!! (Squeeeeeeee!)

But when I first read the news, my memory shot back two weeks, right before deadline - when I was reading through my novel one last time, checking for anything that needed fixing.

The thing was, I wasn't finding much to work on. I mean, I did correct a few typos. But mostly, I would tweak a sentence, stare at it for a few minutes, and then decide it sounded better before and change it back.

While I was fiddling with one such a sentence, my mind wandered: You know, this revision didn't take too long. Compared to the one in March, it was a piece of cake, and this read-through isn't too fruitful on the tweaking front. I wonder what else we'll have to change. Wouldn't it be funny if it went into copy-editing after this round? And by funny, I mean awesome, but kind of unbelievable.

That thought provoked a number of different reactions:

(Disclaimer: oh, yes - I AM describing ALL the voices in my head. But all of these thoughts raced through my head in about a minute.)

  • Terrified: No!! Not copy-editing! The ms can't possibly be ready yet. It's too soon! I've only done nine drafts, and worked for twenty-two months-- Er, wait... (Well, if you put it that way...)
  • Lazy: Are you crazy, Shelby? You want to do more work on this? Don't you want to be done?
  • Chiding: Besides, do you really think you're the person to decide whether or not your book is ready? - Your editor would know. She's the professional. She has been doing this a lot longer than you.
  • Practical: It's not like you're making it significantly better right now anyway. The March revision improved the book by leaps and bounds; in comparison, this is more like a baby step in the right direction.
It was that last thought that made me stop and ponder for a second.

I really wasn't improving the ms a whole lot anymore. It's not like I thought that the book was Totally Perfect. (No book is totally perfect, even if it doesn't score a 5 out of 5 on the B.V.O.T. scale.) But I was running out of tweaks to make. The ones I made I didn't like as much as what I had before.

Maybe, just maybe, I thought, staring at the computer screen, I've reached the end of my skill as a self-editor. Maybe I have already made the book as good as I can make - at least right now.

In the March revision, I'd been shocked at how much I found to fix: whole scenes suddenly seemed unnecessary. Better jokes came to mind. Filler words fell away under a pink-pen-colored, line-editing rampage. When Jo put it on submission last year, the ms had felt polished then, so realizing how much more work I could find was a surprise.

At the time, I'd thought that after seven months away, I came back to ms with fresh eyes, which helped me find the problem spots. But maybe it wasn't that. Maybe my eyes were sharper, better trained, more focused. In the off time, I had ruminated about my characters. I'd read blogs and writing books. I practiced my line-editing by critiquing for other people. In other words, I had become a better writer and self-editor without really realizing it.

If that's true, that would mean that to improve my book again, I would need to improve my writer skills.

I'm always so focused on the book, and improving the book, and making the book the very Best Version of Itself. I often forget that I should be doing the same with my Writer self. I always want to push myself to do better, to leave my comfort zone, to grow, to sharpen my language until it explodes off the page. You learn by doing and revising, of course, but you also learn by going out into the world/blogosphere with the intention to learn and to practice.

And so, last week, when Courtney told me that the book indeed was going to copyediting, my first thought---

Okay, I'll be honest: my first thought was YAAAAAAAAAY!!!!

My second thought was actually, OMG, did I predict the future?

But I also knew exactly what I had to do: in the months between now and the day the copy-editing ms returns to me, I need to push myself to become a better writer.

And what better way to do that than finishing the second book, and striving to make it better than the first? :-)

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Home Genre (and an excuse to list my Favorite Books)

I have a theory about people and the genres that we prefer.

I googled "book that looks like a house" and this is what came up.
Cool, right?

There's one genre that feels like home, one where we spent the majority of our creative and recreational time, the one we have grown up around, our true literary love. Most of our favorite books come from this genre. Well, maybe some people have more than one, but every reader has a preference for a certain kind of book.

This is in small font. It's so that you can skip it if you like.

We are most likely to forgive the faults of whatever comes out of that genre, because it already speaks our most beloved language, so to speak. Just by existing in the domain we know the best, that kind of novel already has a lot of the elements we love the very most.

But you should know something about me: I have a lot of theories, and even though I believe in them passionately, I'm fully aware that they may not be accurate.

Now, for something to make our favorite list from outside our home genre, it has to be really and truly exceptional. This is where we start to use phrases like TRUE ART and MASTER WORK and MAGNUM OPUS and THE BEST THING EVER. It has to be the very best of the best, the cream of the crop, the stand-out.

My theories just sound so plausible. My mom calls me the Princess of BS (my father is the King), so I can make said theories sound good. That's what makes them dangerous.

You have been warned.

In other words, those books need to be the Best Versions of Themselves. (Do you like how everything cycles back to the B.V.O.T. scale? I'm particularly proud of myself.)

But check it out! It's actually a LAMP.
Click through to take you to the original site.

Now, for me, that home genre is the middle grade fantasy series: over half of all the reading and re-reading I've done in my life comes from this subcategory of awesome. That means I'm more than willing to read 500K+ words by one author, following a group of characters from book to book to book, just so that I can watch them grow and change and conquer their greatest fears.

This genre encompasses my favorite, most reread books ever: the Narnia books, Harry Potter (of course!), Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, Madeleine L'Engle's the Time Quartet (although it's a trilogy to me, because I've never read Many Waters), Percy Jackson (also, of course!), Patricia C. Wrede's The Enchanted Forest series, Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness, the Immortals, and The Protector of the Small series.

I could go on, you guys, listing my favorite books until the end of the world - or next December, whichever comes first. :-P

The next related subcategory with the most favorite books is the Middle Grade Fantasy-Adventure novel with Plucky Heroine (usually a fairy tale retelling of some kind): the Blue Sword, Beauty, Rose Daughter, Spindle's End, Crown Duel, Ella Enchanted, Sabriel (but is this YA?), Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, Wait Till Helen Comes, The Goose Girl, Graceling (this is definitely YA, but I'm slipping it in anyway).

And dear reader, I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I've started writing books that have a foot in each of these realms.

But some of my other favorite books in the entire universe coming from other genres are: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, A History of Love, Everything Is Illuminated, The Alchemist, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Bridget Jone's Diary & BJD: The Edge of Reason, the Book Thief, Sharon Creech's Chasing Redbird, A. S. Byatt's Persuasion, Francesca Lia Block's Echo, The God of Small Things, The Time Traveler's Wife, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (no, really - I read this one for FUN), The Last Unicorn.

The funny thing about that last bunch is that most have ended up on bestselling and/or award lists. :-P

But I limited these lists to books that were favorites BEFORE I STARTED WRITING FOR SERIOUS. Which means that the lists don't include what I've read in the last 2 years. From those, I limited myself to books I've read more than once (except for Middlemarch. I didn't finish the reread. I got to the part where Lydgate and his wife are arguing about money for chapters and chapters on end, and then I skipped ahead to the end where Dorothea and Will get together).
Just know, peeps, this list could be a lot longer.

Moral of the Story: People are going to like the books that they're going to like. And they'll surprise themselves by loving the books which are super awesome.