Category Archives: Reviews and Exemplars

Savvy Saturday – Book reviews, of a sort

If you want to be a good writer, you have to read good books. Lots of them. Inductively learning and reviewing how master authors build characters, build worlds, build tension, and even build sentences helps keep your brain sharp and your stories fresh.

Unfortunately, pleasure reading is not something that graduate students have much time for. That’s another reason that I love Christmas break: despite the work that still has to be done, there is free time for novels. What a lovely happening.

Over my Christmas break, I read (or re-read) works in three distinct genres: classic science fiction (featured: Andre Norton’s Star Soldiers), newly written fantasy (featured: Rick Riordan’s The House of Hades), and British murder mystery (featured: Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise).

What was most interesting to me about these works was how differently the authors wrote to communicate a gripping story. Each of these three authors is well-known in his or her genre, has round characters, and puts these characters in scenarios that they must be clever in order to get out of. But that’s where the similarities between these books ends – and I’m not talking about the aliens versus magic versus British nobility. In the following paragraphs, I’m going to comment on some of the unique aspects of the writing of each of these three books and their authors. (Don’t worry – no spoilers.)


Andre Norton, like many science fiction writers, has a tendency to emphasize world-building. Through the book Star Soldiers, we get a history of Earth’s future, in addition to interesting tidbits about the cultures of the planet on which Our Hero finds himself trapped with his crew. However, this emphasis can grow to be a bit much: nearly every page includes explications of alien customs or the inclusion of alien words or jargon that – even most of the way through the book – are difficult to understand. Stylistically, Norton makes heavy use of dashes, and has a greater affinity for exclamation marks than is currently in vogue. Some of this is likely due to the book’s original publication date of 1953, though some is also just likely the author’s unique style.



Rick Riordan, unique of the authors in this group, writes in the first person from the point of view of teenage “demi-gods” who speak in modern vernacular. What was particularly interesting in this book was seeing how he maintained unique voices among the multiple characters telling the story. As the fourth in a series, The House of Hades is a continuation of a previous adventure, and both picks up and leaves off in the middle of the action. As such, Riordan doesn’t have to introduce the main characters, but he does have the tricky job of reminding readers who may have forgotten what happened in the prior books of what is going on, why people are doing what they’re doing, and what we learned about characters in previous books that is now vitally important. Also unique among the works I read over break, Riordan’s books are written to be funny. Not only do characters make jokes, but specific word-choices are made by the author to keep young readers’ attention. He does this well, and it’s no wonder that Rick Riordan has been on the best-seller list for years.



Dorothy Sayers, in her Lord Peter Wimsey novels, writes in a more relaxed yet thoughtful way than do either of the other action-adventure authors discussed here. Murder Must Advertise was especially interesting to me as it is not only set in an advertising agency in Britain, it also gives pointed commentary on the nature of such agencies and print advertising. As a marketing Ph.D. student, I found these parts hilarious and apt. The voice of the author comes through much more clearly in these books than in the other two, showing Sayers’ understated wit in her descriptions of settings, and her comments upon characters and their actions. One particularly interesting literary device used in this story was the referencing of a character by two names: one name is his alibi, and the other his true name, but even after his true name is known, the character is continued to be referenced by his alibi in situations where he is acting as that character. This leads to the author’s ability to change our perceptions of the character and what he is going to do in a situation simply by changing which name she uses to refer to him.

While I would not want to adopt anyone else’s writing style, reading these three incredibly different authors has reminded me of the many different ways of using the English language to powerful effect. Hopefully, these novels will be enough to put me in good stead until next break. Whether or not this proves the case, however, I’ll be a good student and stick to reading academic articles until then.

Always Winter, and Never Christmas…Until it Was




Merry Christmas! December’s “Tween the Weekends” falls today, on December 25, so I thought it would be appropriate to discuss a wonderful tween book/series that incorporates the celebration of Christmas: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I have mentioned several times on this blog that one of the hallmarks of a good tween book is its ability to speak to multiple groups of readers, providing surface and deeper level meanings that can spark conversations and provide food for thought for tweens and adults alike.

For those few of you who might not have read Lewis’s classic series, it is set in Narnia, a magical country that has been cursed. The evil White Witch has by her power made it always winter – always winter, in the sorrowful words of Tumnus the Faun, and never Christmas.

This horrible scenario speaks to young readers at a visceral level, and also to adult readers on a more intellectual and theological plane. Christmas, the time in Western Civilization marked for joy and love, for gift-giving, laughter, and light, is done away with. In its place is winter, a time of cold and heaviness and death. Young readers are struck by the unfairness of it all. No time off of school. No carols. No holiday spirit. No Christmas presents! Truly, the White Witch is thoroughly evil and must be defeated. Similarly, the great lion Aslan first reveals his goodness from afar, as Father Christmas appears in Aslan’s name and gives presents to the book’s protagonists. All will be all right, the book indicates, now that Christmas has returned.

On a deeper level, this taking away and return of Christmas also speaks powerfully to the theological themes that C.S. Lewis purposefully weaves into his Narnia series. As a Christian theologian, Lewis wrote The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to be a reimagining of the gospel story. In Christianity, Christmas is celebrated in remembrance of the fact that God came to Earth as a man, becoming one of His creatures in order to fulfill the promises that He made: that He would redeem them from their sins and bring them back into fellowship with Him. Without Christmas, there is no incarnation, no redemption, and no hope for mankind. “Always winter and never Christmas” is in fact a profound lament of the state of the soul of Narnia: cold, hard, frozen, and without hope.

The appearance of Father Christmas, therefore, not only is a tangible show of the joy and “Christmas Spirit” that return to Narnia as the White Witch’s power wanes, but also a nonverbal foreshadowing of the incarnation and redemption that will come in the rest of the book. Aslan is revealed to be the savior of Narnia, a talking beast who lived among talking beasts, the king of all and the son of the great Emperor Beyond the Sea, the good and faithful one who is willing to die in the place of a traitor and in doing so overturns death itself. The redemption of Edmund, the overthrow of the White Witch, and the establishment of the Golden Age of Narnia all flow directly from Aslan’s choice to enter the world which He sang into existence as a beast of flesh and blood. They flow directly from Christmas, which the White Witch cannot hold back once Aslan decides to return to Narnia.

And all of this wrapped up in a tween fantasy book loved by generations of children and adults. Wow. Now that’s a level of meaning-making for an author to strive for!

Savvy Saturday – On Les Miserables

This Friday and Saturday, I am at my alma mater watching my favorite musical ever created: Les Miserables. If you haven’t yet seen this masterpiece, you need to. It is a rare example of a thoroughly successful book adaptation to a different medium – in this case, the theatre. As a lover of story, I continue to be impressed by the masterful efforts of Boublil and Shönberg, the individuals who took Victor Hugo’s 510,000 word novel (five times as long as “The Quest of the Unaligned”) and turned into a coherent and powerful musical. As a novelist and a musician, I have found that there are three areas in particular where Les Mis excels: its highly motivated characters, its wide-reaching and powerful plot, and its use of music to tie everything together.

Writing believable characters requires that one know what a character’s motivations are. An area in which Victor Hugo excelled was in writing characters that had well-thought-out but clear and unabashed motivations. These characters are faithfully reproduced in the musical. Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Miserables, begins as an embittered and hardened criminal who suffers no qualms from stealing from the only man who is kind to him after he is released on parole. Javert, the antagonist, begins (and remains) a policeman absolutely devoted to the law he serves. As readers of the book (and viewers of the musical or motion picture) know, however, Valjean becomes an emblem of mercy, while Javert finds that an unbreakable law will ultimately break him. Other characters are also portrayed more vividly than might be seen in life (a greedy, treacherous innkeeper; a loving single mother who turns to prostitution to save her daughter’s life; a revolutionary on fire for his cause; a pair of young, innocent lovers who are ridiculously infatuated with each other), but they, too, have believable motivations and act in a manner consistent with who they are.

The plot of Les Miserables spans decades, and tells several different stories in one. While it is on one level an expose of the mistreatment of the poor, a tale of revolution, and a love story, at its heart, Les Miserables is a personal narrative of one man’s journey from godlessness to godliness. (“To love another person is to see the face of God,” the characters sing at the end, as Valjean enters Paradise.) The foil to this jewel of redemption is the personal journey of the “righteous” Javert. In a world of post-modernism such as our own, where one’s moral rectitude is judged by how well one holds to one’s own standards, Javert is a paragon of virtue. He lives by his own rules, and is willing to die if his rules require it. Lawbreakers must be punished, while “those who follow the path of the righteous will have their reward.” In the novel, when Javert believes that he has falsely accused an innocent man of being a criminal, he turns in his resignation and offers himself up. He thoroughly expects to be arrested, charged, and condemned: he will willingly suffer justice at the hand of the law he serves. (As it turns out, this doesn’t happen.) However, his forthright attitude and passion for what he believes is striking, and even more striking when contrasted with the mercy and grace shown to him later in the story. Hugo contrasts the man of Mercy with the man of Law, and shows powerfully how mercy must triumph.

The book does this all in over a thousand pages. The musical does it in three hours. How does it do it? In a large part, by cutting out side-plots, minor characters, and much of the personal angst and inner turmoil that the main characters go through. However, the heart of the story – and its turmoil – is kept through music. One of the brilliant aspects of Les Miserables is its use of leitmotiven, music used as cues for particular characters or situations. By using the same music for multiple situations and characters, Les Mis informs us how certain situations are alike, or how a certain character is reacting internally to a given situation.

An obvious example is the theme at the very beginning, sung by a chain gang of prisoners. “Look down, look down, you’ll always be a slave,” they sing. This exact tune is repeated later by the wretched populace of Paris: “Look down and see the beggars at your feet, look down, and show some mercy if you can.” Similarly, the crisis moment for Valjean and for Javert is played out with exactly the same music. Each is confronted by unmerited, unlooked for grace, and it changes the life of each. Valjean sings, “I stare into the void, into the whirlpool of my sin – I’ll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean,” and rips up his yellow parole ticket to begin a new life as an honest man. Javert sings that he stares “into the void of a world that cannot hold – I’ll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean, there is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on,” and with those words, leaps from a bridge to commit suicide. The music and repetition of lyrics shows powerfully the moral contrast that takes Hugo thousands of words to develop.

As a novelist, I do wish that the play (and film) could explore some of the additional material that Hugo included in his book – Marius’s elderly grandfather who loves his grandson but can’t find a way to show it, the intricate “buried alive” plot to get Valjean out from under the eye of Inspector Javert and into safety (which almost goes horribly wrong), and the gentle ridiculousness of Marius and Cosette’s whirlwind romance, which includes much sighing and gazing at one another, and very little intellectual activity. (Though the musical actually does a good job of picking this up: “Cosette, I don’t know what to say!” “Then make no sound.” “I am lost!” “I am found!” I chuckle every time.) However, given Hugo’s unfortunate tendency to go off on rabbit-trails that seem completely irrelevant to modern readers (e.g. thousands of words upon why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, and a detailed history of Paris’s sewer system), the musical does an excellent job of taking the essential story and characters of the book, making it relatable and enjoyable through good lyrics and music, and giving viewers a powerful story they won’t soon forget.