Thursday, January 15, 2015

Read then Write: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

I often feel like I'm racing to keep up with all of the new book releases, to keep up with the conversation around those "most anticipated" titles and those released by people I'm now connected to in one way or another. As a result, I often neglect to go back to gems I might have missed. But this is one (written all the way back in 2012!) I made a point of placing in my reading queue after I read its companion novel, ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, last winter. Every time I saw this cover I got that little heart palpitation. "Soon, dear Peterfreund. I just have to do this one thing first." And finally I did get to it. Please indulge me in reprinting the 2am Twitter explosion upon finishing FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, for I feel it more properly captures my emotions than I can do now in the caffeinated light of day.

And what's lovely about Peterfreund's "Stars" duo is that we go into it already knowing the endings. They are (in my opinion) perfectly executed science fiction re-imaginings of beloved classic stories. ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, when I first fell in love with Peterfreund, is sci-fi Scarlet Pimpernel. FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS is PERSUASION, a Jane Austen-style sci-fi novel of manners.

I've spent a lot of time studying refreshes or re-imaginings of classic stories (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), and there does seem to be an unwritten set of rules for the most satisfying ones. For example, I've spent enough time studying various versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel to possibly draft a bad PhD dissertation. As a fan, I know that certain touchstones are expected, or else don't bother pretending something is a Scarlet Pimpernel inspired story. There must be a masked hero. There must be some element of espionage and rescuing of imprisoned people, etc.

Peterfreund's version of PERSUASION hits all the proper Jane Austen touchstones. I never realized how much I'd underrated Jane Austen's world building until I saw it transplanted into a new setting. It's futuristic sci-fi without being spaceshipy. They're on an indebted estate. There's a technologically induced class system that must be adhered to. There's careful politicking and relationship rumors. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the addition of a Grandfather character; his last name is Boatwright and he's throughout referred to as "The Boatwright" and that struck me as so perfectly English literature-y. The Boatwright was forced to move in to his son-in-law's guest rooms. The Boatwright was not pleased with the quality of his dinner. Love it.

The basic plot of PERSUASION: Rich young girl falls in love with poor boy, professes love, then breaks it off. Boy strikes out on his own, makes mega-cash, then comes back (at least a little bitter) with his old attachment kept semi-secret. Sexual tension ensues.

FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS hits so many lovely touchstones, and Peterfreund treats them lovingly. You know she reveres the story she's paying tribute to and treasures those key elements. We get to see a series of letters between "Anne" and "Wentworth" (who has been cleverly renamed "Wentforth") watching the evolution of their relationship prior to the breakup and him striking out on his own, up to and including THE letter at the end (which Peterfreund calls out as critical to her Austen fandom in her lovely acknowledgements). Peterfreund makes you feel the desperate financial and physical circumstances of the estate, and you feel the lenghts that "Anne" goes to, trying to keep everything together. "Wentforth" still joins the fleet, but he's an explorer, not a soldier. There is still a young lady who takes a tragic fall and is injured, though I'd argue that Peterfreund's explanation for WHY she falls might actually make more sense?

As for the sci-fi elements: it's not dystopian, but it is set in a distant future, in which a large population of humans have had their abilities "reduced" after years of scientific enhancements corrupting their DNA. Only those who refused the enhancements for generations (the "Luddites") are still mentally and physically intact, and as such have risen to the level of aristocracy, charged with caring for the "reduced" who live and work on their estates. So what we have here is a futuristic society that congratulates themselves for not advancing technologically. Peterfreund actually apologizes (tongue in cheek) in her acknowledgements for not including much tech in her sci-fi; ACROSS THE STAR-SWEPT SEA, the second book, is more techy.

While reading these two books, I often felt like they were written specifically for me. Both touched on so many things I love. Really satisfying, to the point that I'd happily take the time to reread both of them, and dig into the companion prequel novellas. As far as I can tell, Peterfreund isn't working on any other classic re-imaginings, but I really, really wish she would. With two homeruns, she's now among my very favorite and most trusted writers, and I hope she gets a lot of attention for her work.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Read then Write: Holiday Redux

How I read during my Christmas Vacation:

In college I had a professor who encouraged me to free write a few hundred words whenever I finished reading something as a future reminder of what I did (or didn't) get out of it. Over time it's proven to be wise advice.
Edited by Stephanie Perkins

Short stories aren't really my favorite thing, but I did enjoy this collection (I just wished most of the stories were longer). There's something for everyone in here, stories about Christmas, about Hanukkah, about New Years Eve (oddly enough, the New Years Eve story is presented first instead of last, but whatever). There's contemporary fiction, fantasy, magic, and some combinations thereof. Big cities, small towns, mansions, and poverty. Some stories resonated with me more than others, as I'm sure is the case with everyone who picked this up. It was a lovely experience to read one story a day during the Twelve Days of Christmas. If you decide to try it next year, some of my favorite moments include:

* The Lady and the Fox by Kelly Link. This story follows the life of a lonely girl who spends every Christmas at her wealthy English godmother's estate and encounters a ghostly stranger every time it snows. This one could have been 30k words longer and I would have been delighted.

* It's a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown by Stephanie Perkins. I love everything Perkins writes, so I went into this one expecting to love it. It features a girl who (along with her mom) is between homes, so they're basically living in an apartment that doubles as a storage locker. Having had this experience myself just last Christmas, I completely empathized with her desire for simple things, like a Christmas tree and an unblocked window to put it in. The simple things in this story are what make it so touching.

* Welcome to Christmas, CA by Kiersten White. For me, this was the most complete of the stories. It didn't leave me wanting more but left me fully satisfied. In a dying mining town full of downtrodden residents, our narrator is a waitress in a hokey Christmas themed diner. But things turn around when the diner hires a new chef with a magical knack for giving people exactly what they need, even if they don't ask for it.

Note: If you have the book cover with the ice skaters, here's a guide for who comes from which story. Adorable.

By Lori M. Lee

I hadn't heard about this book until I attended Chicago Spring Fling RWA Conference last spring, but this is a book that should be getting more attention. It's fantasy with a mythological, timeless feel to it (and just the right amount of romance). Essentially, it's a story of a girl trying to rescue her kidnapped older brother. There's a dash of "quest" mixed with a tiny bit of "Hunger Games Training" plus (best of all) time bending. I love time bending, I love illusion, I love not knowing what's real, who's good, who's bad, etc. Lori's world and voice feel different and fresh, even of some of these elements feel familiar. Definitely looking forward to her second book, THE INFINITE, coming out in March.

RUN TO YOU (Parts 4-6)
By Clara Kensie

This was especially fun for me to read because Clara was the first writer I befriended back in the days when I was first trying to find my place in the writer community. We lived maaaybe a mile or two apart and met at an SCBWI chapter meeting in an entirely different town. Clara's publication story is a little different than anyone else I know because her story, which she wrote as two full-length novels, was picked up by Harlequin Teen as a 6-part series. Reading it felt like watching a miniseries on TV, which I personally enjoy. I thought it was a cool way to tell a story, something old-fashioned made new, but it seems like some readers weren't quite sure what to make of the format. That makes me sad because Clara is really talented (wait until you see her NEXT thing, holy mackerel).

RUN TO YOU is a paranormal romance (which, frankly, is possibly my least favorite genre), but I was gripped by Clara's characters, a family with a collection of psychic abilities on the run from a powerful psychic serial killer. Don't let the pretty pastel covers fool you. There's plenty of teenage romance, but there are flashes that make it obvious Clara's a Stephen King reader. It gets twisty, there are elements of suspense. Parts 4-6 (formerly Book 2) was originally titled NIGHTMARE EYES before the publisher changed the title (presumably to emphasize the romantic elements).

Various (nonfiction) Chicago History Works
By Adam Selzer

Since I moved to downtown Chicago I've been obsessed with learning everything I can about the history of my new neighborhood (it has a very checkered past), and so far my favorite resource has been Adam Selzer, a historian and ghost tour guide. History can get a little dry at times, but Adam has a way of finding the colorful stuff and presenting it with flair and skepticism at the same time. I found his blog a long time ago, but just recently bought three of his books (something I should have done a long time ago). I devoured all of them. In the daylight, his stories are entertaining and very, very well researched. Around 2am they freak the hell out of me, which is kind of the point. And, best of all, I learned my neighborhood, despite it's checkered history, isn't haunted. Like, at all. The closest ghost reported is at the Haunted Hooters several blocks away. So that's a relief.

I've wanted to go on Adam's ghost tour for years, but have had trouble finding anyone to go WITH me. But I've gotten to know Adam a little over Twitter (I write historical fiction and he's been very personable, great at answering my questions). He's a fun Twitter follow, if you're in to Chicago stuff, writing community news, and have a sense of humor.

If you made a New Years Resolution to read more nonfiction, consider these (all available on ebook):
* Chronicles of Old Chicago (this is mostly straight historical stories, not a lot of ghosts)
* Weird Chicago (a mixture of fact, legend, folklore, and spooky stuff)
* The Ghosts of Chicago (the book that Adam actually suggested to me when I asked him which of his books I should read)

Coming soon: ANOMALY by Tonya Kuper, FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS by Diana Peterfreund, and I want to dig in to Tosca Lee's historical fiction.