Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran: A Review

If I wasn’t already sold on the idea of audio books, experiencing this book through the superb narration of Sneha Mathan would have certainly sealed it for me.

Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran, is a historical novel set in mid-nineteenth century India, during the time of British occupation. The story is told through the voice of Sita, a young woman who becomes a member of Rani Lakshmi’s Durga Dal (elite women fighters trained to specifically guard the queen). Written in the style of a memoir, this story is deeply personal.

Because of this memoir style, Moran allows the story to take a meandering course through Sita’s life beginning with her early years growing up in a small village. At times, the narrative wanders as Sita reminisces, but these side trips only serve to deepen and enrich the story.

Moran has painted an incredible picture of life in a Hindu village where women were required to remain veiled and were not allowed outside their home. Her family has no money for a dowry, and so Sita is put into a position where she must either become a temple prostitute, or train to become a part of the Durga Dal.

Sita is ultimately chosen to join the Durga Dal and moves into the royal city of Jhansi. Here she begins a whole new life so far removed from her village upbringing. A life filled with intrigue at every level.

This book is well written, the story and the suspense building so naturally I didn’t even mind that the title character – the rebel queen – doesn’t even make an appearance until well into the book. Even then, Rani Lakshmi remains a background character to Sita’s story, though an important one.

I have little experience or knowledge of the history and culture of India, so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of Moran’s writing. Nevertheless, she has painted a picture of a world that feels very real and believable. This book makes me wish I did know more about Indian culture.

Rebel Queen is a deeply moving story, one I highly recommend. And while I’m sure the print version of this book is equally enjoyable, I must say, you’ll miss out on something special if you don’t try the audio narrated by Sneha Mathan. Her performance is truly stunning.

30 Prompts to Bring Fun Back to Your Daily Writing Routine

When I hit upon the idea for Camp NaNoWriMo of not working on a specific project, but rather choosing a random writing exercise for every day, it was a great idea. Something fun and completely random. It would keep words flowing onto the page and hopefully, restore a sense of fun to my writing. And, if I could make some progress on one or more of my current projects, that would just be a bonus.

With these thirty writing exercise prompts chosen at random, I ended up writing scenes for three separate projects. I learned more about my characters by having them write poetry. I discovered what really happened to Elvis Presley. I got one of my main characters fired from his job and arrested for murder all on the same day. I went rafting, wrote a fortune cookie and created a new holiday. In short, I had a lot of fun.

Maybe, like me, you are stuck, overwhelmed and discouraged with your writing. Maybe you just don’t know what to write about and are in need of some inspiration. To help you break out of that, here are thirty days of writing exercises. Most, if not all, of these prompts came from various issues of the Writer’s Digest magazine from several years ago.

1. Everyone has heard that somewhere in the world there is someone who looks like you. Write a fictional account about this person. Where would your “twin” be?

2. Assess where you are in life. Are you on the road to becoming the person you want to be? Leading the life you want to lead? Write about that person or place you aspire to reach.

3. Prepare and consume a hot drink—cocoa, tea, coffee. Describe how it feels going down, warming you from head to toe.

4. Write a song, a poem—any piece of writing you have never attempted before.

5. This year being the official “first” of the next millennium, reflect on the concept of “time.” Can you find a metaphor for the last 1,000 years?

6. Check the day’s forecast first thing in the morning. When you get to your desk, write a page explaining why this is the perfect weather for writing (even if it isn’t).

7. Go out on the town tonight, but carry a notebook with you. Write down any intriguing turns of phrases, jokes or ideas that you encounter.

8. Your agent just called and said the movie rights to your novel have been bought. What movie would you most like yours to be like? How so?

9. Start with this: “As the judge entered…”

10. Write about white water rafting for the first time.

11. List the subjects and themes you care about most (e.g. being a good parent, equal rights for all, paying off credit cards). Will these themes be present in your writing?

12. Find ten words in a foreign language that are the same or similar to English words. Use them in a creative writing session.

13. You’ve lost electricity at your place of residence. What are you going to do?

14. Pretend you are a philosopher in ancient Greece. What would your theory of the universe have been in those days when the world was flat and the earth was the center of the cosmos?

15. Develop a newspaper story about an Elvis sighting, one similar to those that run in the tabloids. Be as humorous—yet convincing—as possible.

16. Write from the point of view of your pet (or any animal), and describe the experience of a single day.

17. You’ve won a shopping spree to your favorite store. What would you buy?

18. In Peter Pan, the children can fly by thinking happy thoughts. Take time to write down some happy thoughts, perhaps it will free you up as well.

19. If you could take an all-expense paid trip for one night to anywhere in the world, where would you choose to go?

20. It’s been said that a person’s favorite color describes his personality. What kind of person likes blue? Red? Make a list using all the colors of the rainbow.

21. Some say Sunday is a day of rest. Think about what the ideal relaxing day would be for you.

22. Imagine the world in the year 3002. Write a sketch of what Earth will be like. Describe everything from the environment to the breakdown of nations to daily life.

23. Choose a classic fairy tale, but rewrite it from the villain’s point of view.

24. Change one scene of your favorite movie. Write what you want to happen.

25. Make a list of your favorite holidays. Why are they your favorites?

26. You were recently fired with no explanation. How do you feel?

27. Isolate the fear. Every character in your story should be afraid of something—success, failure, loss, a neighborhood bully or even heights—and a good story will make your characters confront these fears. Write a scene where this happens.

28. Relax today. Snuggle up under a blanket on a comfortable couch or chair, and write freely in your journal.

29. Could you fly a kite today? Play Frisbee? Look out the window and survey the weather conditions. Then, write a scene in which two people are participating in a weather-appropriate activity.

30. Are you always satisfied with the fortunes you receive from fortune cookies? Rewrite your own fortune, and post it in a visible place near your writing spot.

Not all of the prompts worked well for me. Some surprised me with the direction they took me. I made some interesting discoveries about my worlds and my characters. I wrote every day, and that was the primary goal.

Have fun with the writing prompts! I’d love to hear if any of them worked for you.

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown: A Review

I am so glad I found this book and decided to add it to my 2017 Reading Challenge, #22 a book with a color in the title. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown, is the best book I’ve read in a long time. I read it as if ravenous, though in truth it was the book that devoured me. I don’t remember the last time I was so completely consumed by a book.

This is the story of Darrow, a member of the lowest caste of citizens tasked with the grunt work of terraforming Mars. Society is divided by colors with Red being the lowest, Gold the highest. After the death of his wife, Darrow is approached by group of rebels. He is set on the path of bringing down the corrupt system from the inside.

The book is written in first person perspective, so the reader only knows what Darrow knows, and experiences everything just as Darrow experiences it. Because of this, the reader is thrust alongside Darrow into this new and terrifying world.

It opens a little slow, but this is understandable, even necessary, as the setting is such a foreign one. Here is a world filled with strange technologies. Brown does a masterful job at grounding the reader into Darrow’s world.

I love the character of Darrow. He’s beautifully human. He’s emotional, flawed, and he makes mistakes. Huge ones. And because of the first person point of view, the reader is crushed by these mistakes even as Darrow is, and learns from them as well. This is what makes Darrow such a great character, and the first person perspective work so well for this book.

But Darrow isn’t the only great character. Brown has set up an entire supporting cast of wonderful characters. People with the entire range of human emotions. People who love and hate, who are ambitious and cunning, who are loyal and then betray.

This book has been compared to a number of other well known books. Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, for example. There are certainly similar elements. However, this book rises beyond all these comparisons. It stands alone as a great book all on its own merits.

Red Rising is book one of a series, and I’ve already eagerly moved on to book two, Golden Son. Brown has set up a great story with a fantastic premise and outstanding characters. I’m truly hoping the rest of the series holds up to the promise made in the first book.

Camp NaNoWriMo & Writing Poetry With Fifth Graders

For Camp NaNo this April I took on the “project” of writing a daily exercise. One of my goals in this was to recapture a sense of joy in my writing. Each day I’ve taken a new random writing exercise and tried to make the most of it.

Some of the daily prompts I’ve used include:

  • Find ten words in a foreign language that are the same or similar to English words. Use them in a creative writing session.
  • Go out on the town tonight, but carry a notebook with you. Write down any intriguing turns of phrases, jokes or ideas that you encounter.
  • Pretend you are a philosopher in ancient Greece. What would your theory of the universe have been in those days when the world was flat and the earth was the center of the cosmos?
  • Develop a newspaper story about an Elvis sighting, one similar to those that run in the tabloids. Be as humorous—yet convincing—as possible.

The best prompt so far, the one that has generated more thought and more words than any other came on day four. The daily exercise prompted  me to write a song, a poem—any piece of writing you have never attempted before.

While I have attempted to write poetry before, I never have tried a song. But I really didn’t want to write either.

Then I hit upon a grand idea. I would pass this assignment on to one of my fictional characters. And who better than an entire class of fifth graders? My two middle grade adventures series The Silver Compass Adventures and the sister series, The Golden Locket Adventures, center around three eleven year old boys and three eleven year old girls respectively. They hail from a small town, so it is not at all unreasonable that they would end up in the same fifth grade class.

Their English assignment then, is this:

Write an ‘ode’ which is a poem in praise of something. It could be about someone or something you admire. Your poem should be 6-20 lines in length.

So my assignment to write a poem – something I didn’t want to do in the first place – grew into writing six poems. Yikes!

However, this turned out to be an interesting exercise in character development. I spent a great deal of time figuring out how each of the six fifth graders would approach the assignment. Would they groan about it much like I had? Would they embrace it? What would they choose to write about?

I had so much fun responding to this fictional homework assignment that I’ve ended up developing a new obsession with Albert Einstein. I learned a few things about baseball. And oak trees.

I discovered one of my three boys could probably write truly moving poetry if he would only take the assignment more seriously. Another boy gets too caught up in the rhyme and the rhythm and forgets all about the beauty of poetry. One of my girls surprised me by choosing to write a tender tribute to her grandmother.

In the end, it was almost more fun for me to write about writing poetry than to actually write the poetry. However, since this assignment gave me the perfect excuse to write some bad poetry, I went ahead and wrote the six poems. My goal was to convey the six different voices of each of my fifth graders.

So, here they are, in no particular order:

Ode to Baseball, by Mike Tripplet

Nine players take the field
The crowd stands and cheers.
My heart pounds as I wait,
Between second and third, I stand ready.
The wind up, the pitch, the crack of the bat.
Line drive headed my way,
I move in front of it, scoop it up.
A perfect throw to first. Out!

My Grandmother, by Kira Green

Your eyes are bright and full of wisdom
Your face is lined by years of worry.
Side by side we sit in silence,
My hand in yours, there is no hurry.

You hold me close, don’t let me go,
Patient through my frustrated tears.
You teach me to be true, to see inside
How to stand tall despite my fears.

On a foundation of laughter, family and faith
Your kindness shines through all the pain.
I see your strength in the face of adversity,
And never once do I hear you complain.

Einstein, by Elijah Capelli

He developed the theory of relativity
By asking questions with creativity.
A little strange and wild-haired,
He wrote that E equals M C squared.
A winner of the Nobel Prize,
In physics. Who wouldn’t recognize
Einstein’s the greatest scientist of all time.

Ode To My Dog, by Tommy Cooper

I love your wiggly butt dance
When you greet me at the door.
As soon as I get home from school
You’re ready to play ball.
Snuggled together on the floor
You help me through my homework.

Ladybug, by Jordyn Blackwell

The heavens cover the Earth like a dome.
Pinpoints of light blink in the darkness.
Half-moon sends down shafts of light
Like fairy dust on angel’s wings.
Moon beams fade with amber light
As darkness turns to day.
Branches glisten, shiver with the morning chill.
Wind whispers softly through the boughs.
A rustle of feathers is owl returning home,
While with birdsong, sparrow greets the day.
Morning sunlight shines on green,
Turning dew drops into emeralds.
Down below the flowers bloom
In pinks and reds and yellows.
Silently you take to crimson wing
I watch as you alight on a golden flower.
I take you gently in my hand
And I count your star-shaped spots.
I lean in close and watch in wonder,
Until upon your back, the universe I see.

The Tree in the Courtyard, by A. J. Tripplet

There’s a tree in my dad’s courtyard.
It’s taller than the second floor windows.
A tire swing hangs from one of the branches.
It makes me feel like I can fly.
The leaves change from green to brown
Before falling to the ground.
My bed sits by the window, and I see the tree outside.
A squirrel leaps onto the roof over my window.

I’m not much of a poet. But this wasn’t me writing poetry. This was me channeling six eleven year olds as they wrote poetry. I hope I did credit to their individual voices. Writing poetry turned out to be a lot of fun after all.

Prince Caspian, by C. S. Lewis: A Review

Part of my “rainbow” list for the Year of the Series, Prince Caspian is also #1 on my 2017 Reading Challenge list, a book from my childhood. I remember starting to read the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, but I’m certain I never read the rest of the books. So this was a new experience for me.

Prince Caspian is the second book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, at least by publication date. More recent editions of the series put this book as number four. There is apparently much debate over what order they should be read, whether by publication date or chronologically. Personally, I made the decision to read the books in their original order.

This is the story of Prince Caspian during a time that follows the time of the reign of the four Pevensie siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the realm of Narnia, many years have passed, and the world is much changed. Humans from another land have taken over Narnia and talking animals have become things of legend. Caspian is the rightful heir, but the kingdom has been usurped by his uncle. The story follows his attempt to reclaim the throne with the help of some “old world” Narnians.

Peter, Susan, Edward and Lucy end up getting recalled to Narnia, but without any of their old trappings of rulership. The Pevensies must first rediscover Narnia. Then, with the guidance of Aslan, they go to assist Prince Caspian.

Like the first book, this is the story of the struggles of faith and the triumph of what is right. Even though this series was written many years ago, it is still a fun read. It has remained popular with children for decades, and I’m glad I now get to share this piece of my childhood with my own children.

I started reading these books last year with my boys. Though it isn’t one of their favorites, they will usually go along with it when I pull it off the shelf. I get it. Compared to their usual choices (we’re still in the picture book stage), the Narnia books have a lot of words, and very few pictures. The edition I have does have some black and white simple drawings on some pages.

To be honest, from a child’s perspective (mine are 4, 6 and 7 currently), Lewis’s books aren’t quite as fun as a full color picture book. Still, I keep reading it with them. My oldest seems to enjoy it, and will even sometimes choose the book himself, so I have hope that we will be able to continue to read books together even when they have a lot of words, and not a lot of pictures.

I will continue to read through the rest of this series as my children allow. I hope as they grow they will come to choose these and others like it for us to read together again and again. I am always looking for more such books to challenge myself and my children. What are your favorite read aloud children’s books?

The Tempest, by Shakespeare: a Review

This play joined my 2017 Reading Challenge on a whim. I’d been wanting to read some more Shakespeare again, but I didn’t know where I should start. I found an audio version of The Tempest as part of a collection with six other plays by other notable playwrights.

I listened to The Tempest and had a hard time following the story. I couldn’t tell who was who. I couldn’t keep track of the entrances and exits. Even with the voices of different actors, I simply could not follow the story at all.

I thought maybe this was due to the fact I was listening to a play without the benefits of seeing the action. A play, after all, is meant to be seen. I wanted to like it. Or at the very least, to appreciate it. So I found a print version, and I read it. However, I still had difficulties following along.

I’ve enjoyed other works of Shakespeare. But somehow this one escapes me. I just couldn’t get into it.

The audio book I chose to listen to is Seven Classic Plays, narrated by a full cast and published by Blackstone Audio. Several of the other plays I did enjoy, leaving me to conclude it wasn’t simply a lack of visuals that kept me from enjoying The Tempest.

The other plays include:

  • Medea, by Euripides
  • The Imaginary Invalid, by Moliere
  • The Lady of the Camilias, by Alexandre Dumas
  • An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen
  • Arms and the Man, George Bernard Shaw
  • Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekov

I loved Arms and the Man, it was by far my favorite of the seven. The Imaginary Invalid was hilarious. The Lady of the Camilias was beautifully tragic. An Enemy of the People and Medea were at least interesting, but not especially memorable for me personally. And Uncle Vanya was, like Shakespeare’s play, difficult to follow.

The cast that performed these plays for this audio book did a fantastic job. But I do think there is something lost in simply listening to a play rather than witnessing it. A play is a visual thing. It is intended to be seen, and preferably live in a theatre. In this way, the audience becomes part of the play itself, not simply an outside observer.

In the end, I’m still looking for a Shakespeare play to read, and hopefully enjoy. What is your favorite piece by Shakespeare? Is there another playwright you particularly like?

Protector of the Small quartet, by Tamora Pierce: A Review

I recently veered wildly off track from my 2017 Reading Challenge and took up an entire series of books from the teen fiction section at my local library. I picked up the Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce and read the entire series. Though not on my list, it still fits within the “Year of the Series” theme, so I’m not entirely off base.

I’ve read some of Tamora Pierce’s books before and enjoyed them very much. Going in, I thought this was the series I’d read before, and that it was the first of Pierce’s Tortall quartets. I was wrong on both counts, but I don’t regret picking this one up.

If you haven’t read anything by Tamora Pierce, you may want to start with the Song of the Lioness quartet. While it isn’t necessary, this series can be enjoyed without it, there is some history in the first set of books that might prove useful.

I try to avoid spoilery commentary when I write reviews, so I apologize if this one reveals too much. Let this be fair warning, I suppose, if you don’t want to read the spoilery bits, you might want to skip to the end of the review.

This series follows the adventures of Keladry, the third daughter of a noble family of Mindelan, a province of the Tortall kingdom. It opens with book one, Keladry, or Kel as she prefers to be called, is trying to become the first girl to enter training to become a knight.

Kel’s story follows the Tortallan history in the Song of the Lioness quartet where girls have traditionally not been permitted to become knights. This previous series follows the rise of Alanna the Lioness as she becomes the realm’s first lady knight after disguising herself as a boy. A subsequent law now allows girls to try, and Kel is the first to take advantage of it.

At the beginning of the first book, First Test, a ten year old Kel learns that in order to enter training, she will be required to go through a probationary period of one year. Believing it unfair to require this of her when none of the boys are required to do this, Kel nearly withdraws before she ever begins.

Instead, Kel endures and goes on to even make a few friends in her first year of page training. There is no shortage of enemies either, and she is faced with hazing, bullying and open hostility by many of the other pages. She passes her probationary year despite the many people who would have preferred to see her drop out, and Kel is allowed to return for the next year of page training.

Book two, Page, chronicles the next three years of Kel’s page training. Here the series bogs down, as it is three years of identical activities. Training, Midwinter festival, more hazing, more bullying, more training. And it goes on. Until the final part of the book when Kel is forced to choose between her commitment to becoming a knight and her obligations as a noble, a decision forced on her by those who want nothing more than to see her fail. Again, overcoming overwhelming odds, Kel makes her choice and is prepared to live with the consequences.

In book three, Squire, Kel moves on in her training, eventually being chosen to serve as squire to a knight who commands an elite group of the king’s own guard. Over the course of the next four years she trains with her knight master, learning combat skills, jousting and how to command, among other things. Still, she has to work just as hard, if not harder to prove herself to a new set of doubters.

Events during this book take the kingdom of Tortall through a summer-long parade around the realm to announce the betrothal of the young prince complete with feasting, celebrations and jousting tournaments. Before the end of the summer, however, this tour is interrupted by rumblings of war from their northern neighbor, and Kel is reassigned along with her companions to help hold the border.

During her final test for knighthood, Kel is presented with a mysterious task that leads right into the events of book four, Lady Knight. As war rages along the northern border, Kel is placed in command of a refugee camp. Feeling frustrated that she has been placed in a “safe” assignment because she’s a girl, Kel nonetheless takes her responsibilities seriously.

Once more, Kel is put into a position where she is forced to choose between her duty to her commanding officer and by extension, the realm, and her responsibility to protect the people under her command. She is finally thrust into the role she’s been training for throughout the entire series, the Protector of the Small.

Overall, the Protector of the Small series is fantastic. It’s the coming of age story of a girl pursing a non-traditional life in a society that doesn’t necessarily appreciate such behavior. Keladry of Mindelan is a strong character who knows what she believes in and isn’t afraid to stand up for it. The series opens with her attempting to save a bag of kittens from being drowned by bullies, demonstrating her willingness to go above and beyond to protect those who are weaker.

The series continues along this same path with Kel demonstrating again and again this need to protect others. She takes on a shy maid, a flock of sparrows, an abused gelding, even an ungrateful griffin baby, all on her journey to her ultimate task.

Though Pierce writes for a younger audience, these books can be enjoyed by adults as well. She writes the story of Kel, never “talking down” to her audience, and never apologizing for what goes on in her stories. Pierce doesn’t shy away from the tough subjects, and it gives her stories a deeper realism, even within the fantasy realm she’s created.