Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas - Review

In 2011 Elizabeth Loupas gave us her debut novel, The Second Duchess, a book I thoroughly enjoyed (my “20 Questions With Elizabeth Loupas” interview is here). I’ve been eagerly awaiting her second offering ever since and it finally arrived last week when I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of The Flower Reader; and after consuming the book in just two days, I can safely say The Flower Reader is well worth the wait.

Set during the early reign of Mary, queen of Scots (newly returned from France to rule upon the death of her mother, Mary of Guise, queen regent of Scotland) The Flower Reader is a sweeping tale of murder, mystery and the web of conspiracy that ensnares its heroine, a young Scots noblewoman named Rinette Leslie.

On her deathbed, Mary of Guise entrusts Rinette with a silver casket, asking her to keep it and its contents hidden until it can be placed in the hands of her daughter, the new queen. Rinette, a passionate, headstrong young woman, is known to have the ancient gift of divining the future through the art of floromancy, and thus manages to smuggle the casket’s secrets from the dead queen’s chambers hidden beneath the flowers she uses in her mystical craft.

As the new queen makes her way to Scotland, the treacherously divided Scottish nobility jostle for power; Rinette, heiress to the Granmuir estates, finds herself a pawn fought over by male protectors eager to gain control of her inheritance and she only narrowly escapes a forced marriage, instead marrying Alexander Gordon, the golden youth she has loved since she was a child. When Mary finally arrives at court Rinette is determined to meet her and hand over the silver casket to fulfill her promise to the old queen, then return to peacefully live out her days with Alexander at her beloved Granmuir.

But Mary refuses Rinette’s initial request for an audience; chagrined and forced to bide her time, Rinette decides to hide the casket. But before she can ever deliver it to Mary, murder most foul turns Rinette’s life upside down and she finds herself alone, threatened, and with her knowledge of the casket’s whereabouts her only guarantee of safety. For the casket is rumoured to contain predictions by none other than Nostradamus, plus the darkest secrets of every Scots nobleman, meticulously gathered by the old queen for her daughter; powerful weapons indeed, sought by both Mary and the Scots lords, and the ruthless agents of the many royal houses of Europe who to seek to claim them.

Murder and conspiracy abound, and assassins lurk round every corner as Rinette navigates the maze of lies and deception that is the Scots court, trying to separate friend from foe in her quest to use the silver casket to ensure her own safety and that of her family.

This is an exciting, fast paced read. I found myself holding my breath for Rinette through much of the book, for whenever it seemed things could not get any worse for her, they do … especially in the shape of one Rannoch Hamilton. I won’t give anything away here, but I think I may have found my new favourite villain; he very successfully made my skin crawl!

But Rinette is no damsel in distress. She is level headed and able to quite adeptly extricate herself from many a tight spot. And she is also a romantic. Her first relationship with Alexander is tarnished by a betrayal, and the great question is whether she will let herself love again when the chance is offered by Nicolas de Clerac, the man who repeatedly saves her and in whom she comes to trust. The trouble is, Nico is also enmeshed in the many plots to wrest the silver casket from Rinette, and has secrets he cannot reveal to her.

Mary, queen of Scots, is delightfully drawn in this tale, too: sexy, beguiling, a woman at the height of her powers with just a glimpse of Lord Darnley and the chaos his influence over the queen will ultimately bring. Indeed, Loupas effortlessly brings to life the intrigues and machinations of Mary’s court, and evokes the period wonderfully with her rich depictions of court masques, weddings and balls. I also enjoyed the floromancy element to the story, and found the floral imagery quite beautiful.

The suspense builds steadily, the stakes climb forever higher until finally this clever murder mystery ends with a very satisfying conclusion.  Go forth and buy this book – I highly recommend it!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Beg, Borrow & Steal

We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. - Booker T. Washington

Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.
- Walt Whitman

Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains
the reason why. - James Joyce

English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street. - E. B. White

If you're reading this, chances are pretty good that you speak (or at least read) English, a complicated, convoluted, wildly expressive language. The following short video, The History of the English Language, is a clever illustration of how it got that way.

More fun quotes about our beloved English language:

“If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.”- Doug Larson

“If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.”- Doug Larson

“Lymph, v.: to walk with a lisp.” - A Washington Post reader

“I like the word ‘indolence.’ It makes my laziness seem classy.” - Bern Williams

“The quantity of consonants in the English language is constant. If omitted in one place, they turn up in another. When a Bostonian ‘pahks’ his ‘cah,’ the lost ‘r’s migrate southwest, causing a Texan to ‘warsh’ his car and invest in ‘erl wells.’” - Author Unknown

“‘I am’ is reportedly the shortest sentence in the English language. Could it be that ‘I do’ is the longest sentence?” - George Carlin

“In my sentences I go where no man has gone before… I am a boon to the English language.” - George W. Bush

“Introducing ‘Lite’ – The new way to spell ‘Light’, but with twenty percent fewer letters.” - Jerry Seinfeld

“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” - George Bernard Shaw

“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.” - Robert Benchley

“When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly, I think any fool can make a rule, and every fool will mind it.” - Henry David Thoreau

“I speak two languages: Body and English.” - Mae West

Friday, March 16, 2012

Steal Like An Artist

I like Sophie’s carefree creativity. It’s as refreshing as it is amusing. But is it completely original? Much as I love the little bunny, I’m going out on a limb here when I say, no. Bear with me and follow the logic.

Children are natural mimics. They have to be - it’s the way they learn most new skills. They don’t just hatch and begin to use a spoon, or speak fluently, or ride a bike. They copy, they imprint, they absorb, and then they make these skills their own. Sophie’s wonderful sense of story is most likely an amalgamation of all the countless stories Claire has read to her, of the funny songs maybe her daddy has sung to her, and yes, to a great extent it's due to her incomplete understanding of how things really work. She has a foundation to base her fantastical, whimsical, yarns on. She didn’t pull the ideas from thin air.

Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy and great artists steal.” His friend, Igor Stravinsky, said much the same: “A good composer does not imitate, he steals.” Two men with the same sentiment — two great creative minds who understood that creativity started with a kernel that might not have been wholly original with the creator.

There’s a fine line between inspiration and imitation. One is acceptable, one is not. One is considered inventive, the other infringement. What makes Sophie’s stories inventive is that she has taken an idea - say the story of the Three Bears - and made it her own by putting them in diving suits & air tanks and giving them a picnic in a coral reef. Pure genius! But the Three Bears? She’s seen those furry critters before, hasn’t she?

Writer and artist Austin Kleon wrote a book called “
Steal Like An Artist.” Seems contradictory, dirty, wrong, doesn’t it? We don't steal ideas, we're much more noble than that. Kleon makes his case, and I think it’s a good one. His argument goes something like this:

Good Theft will honor the original idea, while Bad Theft only degrades it.

Good Theft makes a study of it, understands the bones of it. Bad Theft only skims the surface and has no real understanding.

Good Theft steals from many. Bad Theft steals from one.

Good Theft gives credit where credit is due. Bad Theft plagiarizes, claims credit.

Good Theft transforms the original into something wholly new, perhaps better. Bad Theft only imitates poorly, shallowly.

Good Theft is “a remix” of the old and the new, a blending of ideas. Bad Theft is a “rip off.”

I don’t particularly like the word “theft” here. It’s a negative word. But I understand what Kleon is getting at. We all get our inspiration from somewhere, or something, or someone. We’re not living in a vacuum. In fact, it’s quite the opposite in this age of lightening-fast exchange of ideas. We can’t help but be influenced by the things we see, hear and read. That influence can be used in powerfully creative ways, or it can be misused miserably.

Steven Johnson, author of
Where Good Ideas Come From, says that “Chance favors the connected mind.” Successful creativity is the direct result of being connected to those sources that inspire and drive you, that challenge you, that feed your intellect. (Remember Kleon's "Good theft steals from many?") For Johnson, creativity is the result of many sources, over time, coming together to create lightening.

Sophie hasn’t got all the connections we adults have. But she has the raw, unfiltered imagination to use what connections she’s been given. If a 3 year-old can do it, then we can too. Go ahead. Steal like an artist. Or a preschooler.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A delicate balance

I was sorting through photos on the family iPad yesterday, rolling my eyes a little at how long it took me to get through and delete the 40 duplicates of each Photo Booth picture my three-year-old daughter takes. If it looks good once, you've just gotta keep snapping it, over and over and over. Oh my.

In the process, I found myself smiling (as I often do) at her creativity. The imagination at three is just so unfettered. Everything is so new. Ideas are happening in that little head for the Very First Time EVER. It's a pretty remarkable time in your life, to suddenly understand that YOU can create and invent and control. Why wouldn't you go nuts with the crazy self-portraits and the inventive colouring schemes?

It got me thinking about the way I try to control my own creativity. If my daughter and I are playing our Play School game together and it's my turn, I'll produce something neat, tidy and orderly. It tells a story, and I know exactly what story I want it to tell. I don't want unexpected extras, I don't want stuff that doesn't fit. I set out to say what I want to say, and when I'm done I edit it further. Below you can see my excellent story about the fateful day two jellyfish went out for a swim, and happened across two hungry sharks. It's an award-winner in the making, I assure you. Very heart-rending stuff (click on any of the below pics to appreciate the full majesty).

My daughter, on the other hand, isn't interested in neat and orderly. She wants chaos. She wants three Big Teds and a random fish. She wants so many guys in the story that you literally can't move one without moving another.

She wants a bright red cake covered in spiders, or a snappy green and brown number with ladybugs, several keeling-over bridegrooms and a few rubber ducks (you really want to enlarge that green cake- it's a corker).

Why? She doesn't know until she gets there, but the fun for her is in the process. Whereas the fun for *me* is in seeing my ideas take shape in a meaningful way.

And you know, we're both right in the way we approach things for our respective stages of life, and particularly as far as my writing is concerned. I think you need to have a delicate balance between unfettered, joyful creativity, and careful consideration when you sit down to write a novel. You want times when you can throw it all to the wind and just see what happens, but at the same time you need a certain level of self-editing at all stages of the process, or else you end up with forty of the same picture and no idea what that second boat is doing there (I would have known before I put it there, if it were me- she'd be excited to see what her imagination suggested after the fact).

I find it fascinating to see the differences between us, but also how much enjoyment we each get out of our stage of the creative process.

So, for me, I think it's a combination of letting your inner three-year-old run wild, and consolidating all you've learned over the many years.

By the way, if you like the look of the Play School application, it's brilliant for creative kids, and it's absolutely free. They get to make their own pictures by dragging in different characters and props, then they can make and voice movies out of the same stuff. Find it here.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Complete Armor for Horse and Man

I’m a sucker for flawed heroes. Give me a man with a tortured past, a dark secret, hidden pain, a rebellious streak, or an all-consuming desire for revenge. Give me a bastard, an anti-hero, a bad boy. Oh yeah.
Don’t get me wrong, I still want my heroes to be likable. Even a bad boy bastard has to have some redeeming qualities like humor, courage, tenderness, and a moral code. He needs a belief in something and maybe a bit of hope, too.
A dark hero, by nature, is a complex creature. Something drives him; he’s bad, yet does the right thing. A dark hero has many layers if drawn correctly by his creator.
These layers are what fascinate me. In Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, Jessica Page Morrell gives a sort of hierarchy of traits that all characters have. She notes that if character-building is done well, readers will still be learning about a character right up to the last page. Her hierarchy of traits are:
Primary Traits are the foundation of the character, his personality, his disposition and approach to life.
Secondary Traits are mannerisms, tastes, tags, habits, that support the Primary Traits.
Counter/Contrasting Traits are a character’s deepest layer, the place where he’s most vulnerable.
Just like the armored knight, a hero has his outer armor that is readily recognized. In the case of the Bad Boy Hero his armor is made of those behaviors that give him his reputation. It’s not easy to get beyond his armor, but to persist is to see his vulnerabilities and to understand why he acts the way he does.
To craft a character with layers - with those primary, secondary and contrasting traits - is to create a complicated, yet believable person. Everyone has armor, everyone’s been hurt, or experienced some kind of trouble, heartache, or upheaval. Everyone.
You may not be crafting a Bad Boy or a Bitch. But I’m curious… does your character wear armor? Does he have layers of traits much like those that Morrell talks about? What does your character’s deepest layer look like?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Walking That Line

There are so many things about this writing gig that fascinate me, none more so than the psychological games we writers play in order to get the job done.

Games such as the little rituals we go through in order to psyche ourselves up when we sit down to write. We ALL do this. Some of us light candles and offer up a quiet prayer. Others slip into a comfortable pair of pyjamas, or kick off the shoes to write bare-footed, or hermetically seal the house so the only sound is that of perfect silence … the list of these rituals is as endless as the quirks of humanity.

Of course, if it ever came down to it, we really could write without doing those things. With a gun pointed to our heads, we really could. But without that adrenalin rush of fear to get us going every day (and let’s face it, how draining would that be) these rituals are necessary. They make the whole segue from real life into the writing so much easier.

But that’s how you get the writing done on a micro, day to day, level. When you look at how writers manage to slog through the long haul of writing and revising a whole book over endless weeks and months and years – well, that’s where the mind games get really interesting.

Basically, the only way any of us can do it - and I mean successfully do it - is by learning how to walk the line.

There’s a certain level of self-belief - shall we say, arrogance - that a writer must possess in order to finish a book. Belief in the brilliance of your story, and your ability to pull it off. Allowing yourself to revel in the exquisite excitement of creating your fabulous characters and their jaw-dropping tales. This is vital. This is what pulls you along and keeps you going for the length of a novel and you’d be a fool not to hook yourself up and mainline the stuff.

But the arrogance needs to be tempered with a dose of realism. The sparkly rhinestone stilettos of “OMG this is the best frigging book ever!” need to be swapped and balanced with the sensible lace up shoes of objectivity. Otherwise you may find you get to the end of that long, long journey of writing a novel only to find that while you had a blast,  all you’ve got to show for it is a bunion on your big toe and a manuscript of unsalvageable dreck.

Conversely, if all you ever wear is your orthopaedic flats, you'll be so busy scrutinising and agonising over every single word that you'll never get your book done. Ever.

You have to learn to walk that line.

Oh, it’s hard. With me, I tend to wear the sensible brown shoes a little too much.  I need to remember to toss them to the back of the cupboard and break out the sequined heels from time to time; for as the saying goes, if you don’t back yourself, then who else will?

These days I’m mostly getting that balance right. In fact, I’m finding I switch between the two mindsets as I write. It's sort of like driving at two different speeds at the same time – actually, it’s kind of schizophrenic - but hey, it works.

But that’s just me. Which shoes do you wear more than you should? How do you walk the line?