Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Boy on the Porch, by Sharon Creech

This is a book that cuts to the heart of what a novel is about: an emotional journey. With not a lot of description, not a lot of plot, and an unspecified time period, The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech kept me turning pages as I wondered what would become of John and Marta, the young-ish married couple who seem to feel parenthood might be beyond their ken, and Jacob, the mute boy they find asleep on their porch one day, accompanied by nothing except a tragically illiterate note giving his name and saying "Wil be bak wen we can."

Unable to speak, Jacob soon shows artistic and musical talent, romps with the dog, rides the cow, and plays harmonica for the goats. John and Marta nervously assure each other that someone will be back for him, while at the same time they ease their way into parenthood and soon realize they will be crushed if anyone does return for him. Mistrusting the local sheriff but trying to do the right thing, John eventually works up his courage to visit the lawman's office and report that they have the boy. Though John is accused of having snatched him, this visit bring the sheriff out to their small farm, and when he sees that the boy is well cared for, he allows him to stay. John and Marta help Jacob make a friend, take him on walks, take him apple picking, and when they discover the abandoned trailer Jacob lived in, they consider selling all and moving away where no one will know them. And then comes the day the old car drives into their yard. Jacob's father is back. What happens next opens an entirely new world both for John and Marta, and for many others as well.

If I had to sum up the central point, I'd say it's that you can never be sure what can drop into your life, at any moment, even if you think you know exactly how it'll unfold, and even if you think it's sleepy and unnoted. You can never know for sure what small event, that you didn't ask for, might lead to a completely different path. And you can never know for sure that this won't be the day that love will knock you completely off your feet.

This novel alternates between two adult POVs -- John's and Marta's, and, though I'm very taken with it, it's the kind of book that makes you wonder if only a big name could get it published. The Boy on the Porch can appeal to all ages, although kids who want more action or don't care about adult POVs might find little to hold them. For others, the chance to gain insight into parents, or explore a feeling of being peers with adults due to ID-ing with the POVs, might be welcome.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

After Iris, by Natasha Farrant

Blue (Bluebell) Gadsby's twin, Iris, died three years ago, at age nine, and the lives of this entire British family have never quite recovered. The oldest, Flora, dyes her hair weird colors and takes up with the boy next door; the two younger ones, Twig and Jasmine, are all about their pet rats. Both parents have dived headfirst into their careers and are never home -- literally. Dad is living 100 miles away and from all appearances seems to be getting ready to make it permanent. Mom jets to major cities the world over, working as a bigwig for a cosmetics company. Their place is taken by a young man named Zoran, a Bosnian piano prodigy turned au pair, who tries mightily to cope.

The emotions drive this book, so it seems quiet at times, but we know the characters are moving toward a place where they must either recover or crash and burn. Blue handles life by viewing it through a video camera, and the moment she finally explains why is one of my favorites in the book:  "Outside the camera, there are no limits...more cities and prairies and mountains and cars, and they're all places and people you don't know but which exist anyway. Inside the camera, the world is limited to what you can see through the viewfinder. If you don't like it, you can change it. Or, with the flick of a button, you can switch it off. You just say goodbye, world. Time to go. Like dying, but not quite so final." Though Blue feels she is the only one of her family who properly remembers Iris, she gradually learns that her younger siblings are grief-stricken at remembering so little, and that Flora has been trying to escape and find little happinesses wherever she can precisely because she remembers so very keenly. The same is true of the parents, which fortunately creates some sympathy for them. Really, I spent most of the book wanting to give them a good swift kick, for they truly are neglectful. I cheered when Zoran, the odd caretaker with whom the kids get off to a bumpy start but later come to love, stands up for himself and tells the adults that with all due respect, he is not the parent.

The anniversary of Iris's death is Christmas Eve, and as December approaches, it appears Christmas will be a complete washout this year. One morning, Blue wakes up and the younger two are gone; after a frantic search in two feet of new snow it becomes apparent that Twig and Jas have set off on a train to go get Father and bring him home. In chaotic and improbable fashion, the entire family arrives home for Christmas, and though everything isn't tied up in a perfect bow, we are given to understand that the family will live together from now on. As I said, there were plenty of times I wanted to shake both parents, and I didn't find Mum's sudden declaration that she was going to quit her job completely convincing. But the ending is warm and satisfying without being over-emotional. This book takes a not-all-that-original premise and plot and proves once again that the characters and the writing can win the day. Recommended.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Which I Go Outside

Last week, a friend and I took a day and visited some points on the Niagara Escarpment, which runs through portions of Wisconsin. These photos were taken in the general area of Green Bay, which is half an hour north of us. (Yes, we have more than football and cheese!) They are her photos, since my camera mysteriously stopped working after about three shots but then was fine after I got home. She's by far the better photographer, so I could joke that I just wanted *her* pictures -- except my camera really did get wonky, and she'd've sent me the photos anyway. The fall colors are really just beginning, and the waterfall wasn't more than a trickle, but there was enough rain this year that it wasn't dry, and we could still hear it. The cliffs and rock layers are something to marvel at.

Have you been able to get outside this fall?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Parched, by Melanie Crowder

Oh, my goodness, this book is all about the writing. Beautiful, poetic, spare, and evocative, it achieves its effect with strong verbs, concrete nouns, and abundant sensory detail. I can seldom read a book just for the writing; I need a story. But in Melanie Crowder's Parched, you can linger over so many sentences just for the sake of lingering. "A drop of sweat slid down the ridges of his bare spine." Can't you just feel that? "The city streets were clogged with rusted-out cars stripped of their tires and tilting at odd angles." Can't you just see that? In this book, you savor the words the way the characters savor a single drop of water.

And there is a story. This upper-MG literary novel is told from three POVs --a boy, a girl, and a dog -- and takes place in a land that might be Africa, might be the US, might be now, might be future. The setting is specifically drawn yet unnamed, and I find that so suited to the subject matter. Because this is a book about a land without fresh water, and to that problem no land is immune. Sarel is the girl who witnesses her parents' murder because her family had a hidden well. Musa is the boy with a gift for dowsing, who has escaped the gang that kidnapped him. Nandi is Sarel's dog, whose narrative opens and closes the book, and that dog's voice had me in four short sentences. These three must find water or die trying. And the relentless thirst, the feel of their throats, the caked dirt they have no hope of washing off, makes you feel like you're there with them.

At times, the book is almost too grim to bear (the fact that it's short helps). For that reason, I think upper MG definitely fits, although I don't consider it YA (as some have called it, and as my public library system has labeled it), and very sensitive kids might be better off waiting a while. For most anyone else, I would recommend picking up this stunning book and giving it a try.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Maps and Charts and Timelines -- Oh, My

I'm not a huge plot outliner, but I do make quite a few character and backstory notes, floor plans, sketches of important settings, musings on themes, a title-brainstorming section, and so forth, and keep them all in a sort of "bible" for each novel. And, yes, even some plot notes. :) On my office wall there's still a 5' timeline and a 2'x1.5' character chart from my finished book, and they'll stay there till I know not a single word more in that novel will be changed.

I do all this because I need the characters and their relationships and emotional states and backstory to feel like they're on a firm foundation (and mistake-proof) before I send them pantsing through the plot. This can mean different kinds of sketches for different books, and for my new WIP I need a serious timeline to keep me from just sitting here like a lump, tied in knots, head spinning. This could easily end up being twice as long as the one already on the wall, so here's what I came up with:
Yeah, it's still a little long. :) This timeline is vertical, though, covering four sheets of paper which are then taped end to end. This way, I can take advantage of vertical and horizontal and not end up with something hopelessly unwieldy. I can also see both the whole and the parts better if it's not so long and skinny. Besides, who's got any wall space left?

For this book, more than for any I've yet done, I also need a family tree. Everybody is everybody's else's cousin in this town, and certain villains may or may not be related to certain heroes, so I need to keep them straight:
Yep, we've got a bit of history going on here. I was going to copy this over nicely, but decided not to waste time on that. I can read it, and I rather like my little sketch. Besides, it'll make a nice artifact among my personal papers someday.   Oh, and if perchance you can make out "Wolf dad" and "Wolf mom" at the top of the page -- no, we are not talking werewolves here. :)

And then we also need, yes, a PLOT chart. This is a 11x17 sheet divided into four quadrants (one each for the beginning and end, and two for the middle) where every scene gets recorded -- a few key ones before they're written, but my inner 7th-grader writes *almost* all of them first and puts them in the outline after. The outline, then, happens concurrently with the first draft.
Okay, not the best photo in the world, especially taken on lavender paper in my basement dungeon office, but still gives a general feel for the chart. And now you can see just how much of the first quadrant I had done when I wrote this post: not that much. But as you read this, it is several weeks later. So I am now much farther. Really I am.

Do you use tools like this? What kind? Do tell.