Recommended Reads: This Is Not A Writing Manual

writing reference; This Is Not A Writing Manual; Kerri Majors
Book cover image from Goodreads.com.

Despite the title and the text on the back cover, I fully expected Kerri Majors’ This Is Not a Writing Manual to have a few lessons on how to write. Instead, Majors offers advice on how to be a writer. Even when she directly addresses the teenaged writers she expects to pick up her book, her insight is a soothing breath of fresh air to those of us out of our teens, but still reaching for publication. As a writing reference and as unlikely source of support, this book is invaluable to any writer.

Majors clearly states in the introduction just what kind of writing book this is: “This book is just you and me, in writing therapy together, so we can talk about what it means to be a writer and why the writing life is worth living.” That statement hardly does the book justice. With the tone of a friend paddling in the same canoe as the reader and her years of experience as a writer, as well as Editor and Founder of the Young Adult Review Network, Majors expertly delivers the message so many other writing reference books muddle: Being a writer is hard, but we can do it.

That sounds like an obvious takeaway. Many established writers make the same point in speeches and lectures. Majors doesn’t make the point and move on; every page reinforces it. Right after reading the chapter on bosom writing buddies, it’s clear that the entire book is meant to be the reader’s writing buddy. Maybe the book doesn’t comment on or edit our work, but it certainly commiserates and captains our personal cheerleaders. If only every other writing reference could do that.

While some of her advice might induce a few sighs because of how often they are repeated by others — such as the importance of disciplining yourself to write every day — Majors’ take on the information is more forgiving. Other writers momentarily acknowledge the conflicts with a daily writing schedule before sternly telling you to do it anyway. Majors highly recommends a schedule, but doesn’t shame the reader into it. It may be the same advice we’ve been hearing and reading for years, but the delivery is key. Some people need to be shamed into good habits. Others need a ray of sunshine like Majors to coax them into removing their coat and getting to work.

Consider adding This Is Not A Writing Manual to your list of writing references to read. The combination of writing advice and memoir makes it a welcome break from sometimes drier content. Writing is a craft that can often feel lonely and isolated. Majors cannot receive enough credit for how this book eases that loneliness.

Review: Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times

It took very little to convince me to pick up Emma Trevayne’s Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times; it was on the shelf of new arrivals in the young adult section, it’s steampunk, and it takes us from London to Londinium. Like our main character, Jack, we’re taken in by metal fairies, clockwork dragons, and the people with mechanical limbs. We’re also just as surprised that the story takes a dark turn toward a not-so-happy ending.

Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times by Emma Trevayne
I rated the book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

Jack is everything you’d expect the 10 year-old son of wealthy parents to be: selfish, incorrigible, and feeling neglected. It’s no wonder he follows a mysterious man through a doorway to the bleak and fantastical Londinium. It doesn’t take long for us feel conflicted over the wonder we feel with Jack and the understanding that there is something very wrong with this city patrolled by airships and ruled by the immortal and temperamental Lady.

Together with a charming and brave clockwork girl named Beth, and a pair of inventors who thankfully don’t turn into flat surrogate parents, Jack plays the dangerous game orchestrated for him. People and things — not that there’s much of a distinction between them in Londinium — break and die in the name of power in this world where magic and machine blends together. It’s that very blurred line, however, that bends our immersion in the story.

Mechanical fairies and dragons with souls of their own — some born, some built — are easy to accept. But when another familiar creature appears in the form of the legendary Gearwing late in the story, it’s harder to understand this is where we were headed the whole time. There’s little time to breathe between the points where Jack is a disposable pawn, and then the one to fulfill a prophecy. Had this prophecy made itself known a little earlier own, it might not have felt like the plot switched trains without us knowing.

Despite where the Gearwing throws things off — as legendary creatures tend to do whenever they reappear — Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times is still a pleasant read accompanied by whimsical illustrations. The author’s language crafts a story that is just as enchanting as the world it is set in, and just as hard to leave.

Review: The Wolf Wilder

While checking out some new releases at B&N, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell caught my eye in the young adult section. It promised the adventure of a young Russian girl named Feo who, along with her mother, teaches the domesticated wolves forsaken by wealthy owners how to be wild again. Had the story not gotten distracted by a minor revolution in St. Petersburg, it would have been absolutely wonderful.

My Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars. Image source

Feo’s world is thrown into chaos when a cruel general in the Russian Army sets her home on fire and unjustly arrests her mother. With the help of Ilya — a reluctant, barely-teenaged soldier in the Russian Army who would rather be a dancer — and a handful of loyal wolves, Feo sets out to free her mother from prison. Despite Feo’s ignorance of normal social skills, the two quickly become friends. In fact, Feo’s blunt and whimsical statements make her incredibly endearing and entertaining. Seeing men whose beards seem to take up whole rooms and might house an entire family of mice lets us laugh at the little absurdities and forget, for just a moment, that a darker force is at work.

Sadly, that darker force isn’t all that impressive in person. The general is hardly more than a shallow evil-doing maniac with a scary name and madness as the only reason behind his actions. However, his off-stage presence — the way villagers shiver at the mention of his name, the charred skeletons of homes, and the potent mixture of fear and hatred he leaves behind — makes him frightening. It’s too bad the shadow outshines the man who casts it.

Perhaps that’s what made the final confrontation between Feo and the general disappointing. Young readers are saved from what might have been the most graphically violent yet satisfying scene in the whole book, but it didn’t get the focus it deserved. All along, we’ve been cheering Feo on as she goes after her mother and collects a long list of reasons to seek revenge. But her sudden transformation into a child revolutionary — and the leader of a small gang of other children who wish to fight the Russian Army — took us down the wrong path. Maybe if we’d spent more time on Feo’s growing interest in the revolution it would have worked.

Despite it’s unfortunate shortcomings, The Wolf Wilder remains a charming and enjoyable read. It’s hard to not get caught up in the wonder of riding on the back of a wolf across the snowy Russian countryside.

Review: Petra K and the Blackhearts

The description of this book certainly mentions the complexity of the plot, but it does nothing to warn readers of the painfully disjointed way in which it is presented. Between a perfume turning Petra K’s classmates into ravenous lizard people, pet-sized dragons becoming outlawed, and the tension of a brewing revolution, it was difficult to tell where the plot was going.

Petra K and a number of the other characters are ten years old (or thereabouts), but they act more like adolescents going through a rebellious stage. And each one of those characters felt so inconsistent and undefined that it seems like the author gave up on any kind of characterization.

Unfortunately, this also applies to the various cultures present in the story. The Half Nots, the Newts, and the Kubikula all offered opportunities for this world to be as diverse as the real one. However, they are limited by superficial generalizations or a complete lack of description to make them distinguishable. The Half Nots like gambling, have wings concealed in their shirts, and tend to be psychic. The Newts remain a mystery, and the Kubikula are scaly hunchbacked people confined to the sewers.

The entire first half of the novel was written so dryly it diffused whatever tension the author constructed. The underground dragonka tournaments would have been a wonderful source of excitement, but Petra K (our first person narrator) was so detached from her experiences. She seemed to coincidentally stumble from one plot point to the next, unfazed by most of it, until she ended up in a place she feels she belongs.

The Communist elements where thick enough to choke on, making the fantastical elements seem like a last-minute addition to save it from sounding contrived. While the dragonka and their place in society was intriguing, they were not enough to make this book worth reading.

Review: The Little Clockwork Mermaid

Lovely cover art, by the way.

If you didn’t already know, I’m a fan of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences books by Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris. I found her novella via the author’s Facebook page when she released a promotional code to download the book for free (it’s normally available on Smashwords for $1.99).

Apart from the occasional typo, this was a wonderful read. Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story, many elements are familiar to readers. However, that does not mean you won’t be surprised.

This was a really fascinating and wonderfully different mermaid story. The war with the humans and the underwater machinery led me to believe the story would end on a much darker note, but I was pleasantly surprised.

I absolutely loved Lorelei’s character; her thoughts and actions were easier to relate to than the original story by Hans Christian Anderson. My only complaint is I wish there were more about Lorelei’s mother and how Lorelei’s final form was received by the humans.

I’d definitely recommend this novella to anyone who enjoys fantasy, classic tales with a new twist, or anyone who wants a pleasant surprise while reading.

© Amanda Surowitz and Switzy Thoughts, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amanda Surowitz and Switzy Thoughts with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Recommended Reads: Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel

Here is a book I happened upon, read a few pages, then bought and thoroughly enjoyed. This is the first steampunk novel I’ve ever read, so I’m not sure how it compares in its field, but it has been nominated for Steamcon’s 2011 Airship Awards, according to the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences webpage.

This has easily become one of my favorite books, and as soon as I’d finished it, I wanted to start all over again.

Agent Eliza D. Braun is lovely, witty, and prefers dynamite to reinforcements as she works as a field agent for Her Majesty’s Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Once being assigned to assist Archivist Agent Wellington Thornhill Books in the Ministry’s vast archives, she finds herself itching to return to the field.

Wellington, on the other hand, is a reserved gentleman who previously organized all the cold case files in the archives single handedly. When Eliza’s curiosity and restlessness prompts her to investigate an unresolved case that belonged to her former partner, Wellington finds himself joining her dangerous investigation–without the rest of the Ministry knowing.

I fell in love with each of the characters, and I can’t wait for the next book and the next mystery. The story pulled me along and I could not stop turning the pages. (I even brought it to work with me to read on break.) Aside from telling a spectacular story, this book made me think of some areas of my own writing that could use some refining.

I would definitly say go to your local bookstore or library and pick up a copy. If you read it, I’d love to know what you think!