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5 Great Books to Read in 2016

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Neil Gaiman - Graveyard Book - Novel Conclusions - writing blog - literary blog

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book via Amazon

2016 is looking like a pretty great year on the reading front, y’all. Although I may also reread the Outlander series for the third time (the time travel, the saga, the accents, oh my…), I plan on hitting up a few books that have either been sitting on my shelf for a while or I’ve had my eye on. Here is a very abbreviated version of my to-be-read list in the next couple months:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Why:  Everything by Neil Gaiman draws you in and builds a world around you.  My favorite of Gaiman’s that I’ve read so far is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, although I’ve loved every one of his books that I’ve read except American Gods – that one was a little too graphic for me.

The Diviners by Libba Bray
Why:  Her lush characters and stories swirl around you like mist.  They hang about in your mind and make you think, not to mention that main character Gemma in A Great and Terrible Beauty was sharp and involving.  Also, the second novel in this series came out, which means that as soon as I fall in love with The Diviners, I won’t have to wait to read the second book – a little silly, I know.

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Why:  I have heard so many amazing things about this book. People are talking about it even now, several years later, not to mention the fact that Nathan Bransford endorsed it.  Also, I met the manager of The Last Bookstore in Downtown LA at a birthday party last year, and she said Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs (who were married at The Last Bookstore apparently, cool!) are pretty awesome people, which made me even more curious about their books.  (P.S. Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series is fascinating — totally worth checking out.)

Split Second by Kasie West
Why:  I saw Pivot Point on my shelf recently and realized that I have to find out what happens to Addie, who did the noble but painful thing in the first book. Does it pay off for her?  If you haven’t read Pivot Point, I highly recommend it; it walks the line of contemporary and speculative fiction cleanly and concisely.

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin
Why:  (A nonfiction pick, a little unusual for this blog, I know)  2016 is going to be a year of change.  I’d like to make some changes and work on making those changes into habits.  Gretchen Rubin wrote The Happiness Project, which I loved, and when I ran across Better than Before while perusing books at the airport, I had to pick it up.  Let’s all build some good habits together this year.

Have you read any of these books?  If so, what are your thoughts about them?  What are a few books you’re planning to read in 2016?

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A Sense of Home

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Cabin Painting - Novel Conclusions literary blog - Christina Gerstle - writing tips - writing rules - writing blog - book blog

Cabin with Children Playing by Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to create a sense of home for my main character in my current work-in-progress.  Before the inciting incident in most stories, the author establishes a “normal” that the character will soon be deviating from.  This sense of normality, often a feeling of home, establishes a foundation or a jumping off point for your story.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett preens in the spotlight as the belle of the ball before the Civil War turns her world upside down.  Understanding her place in the pecking order helps us as readers much more fully appreciate what she is trying to win back as her journey wears on.  We can relate to her more fully (even though we’re not selfish debutantes, not usually, anyway) because we know where she started.

In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bray establishes Gemma’s comfortable life in India in order to really underline the differences between her life before the inciting incident and afterwards.  Mild first chapter spoiler ahead – when Gemma’s mother dies (our inciting incident), and she is sent to boarding school in England, the dreary, cold setting contrasts starkly against the vivid view of India that opened the story.  This illustrates for us as readers how much Gemma wants to escape, a theme that plays out throughout the novel.

How do we establish the scene, a sense of home (or at least the foundational “normal”), in our own writing?

  • Make it matter.  A few strong details that we can call back to mind later in the story will do more than long chapters of exposition (I still can’t believe Dickens had an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House.  I never could finish that one).
  • Maximize contrast between the before and the after.  The luxury of Scarlett’s life made the struggle afterwards even more evident.  The festive, colorful atmosphere in India made Gemma’s first few days in England even more dreary.
  • Establish empathy early on (e.g. have a “Save the Cat” moment).  Before the main character hits the inciting incident head-on, when the scene is being set, we as readers need to learn something about our main character that gives us a reason to care.  If we are not given a reason to care, we may not even continue reading.  For example, I turned off the movie Taken after less than 20 minutes because I didn’t care one whit what happened to Liam Neeson’s character; the audience was given no tangible reason to care about him before he got in trouble.

How else can you establish a foundation before your inciting incident?  How do you create a sense of home in your stories?

Libba Bray’s Gorgeous Characterization

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Libba Bray - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty

How is it that Libba Bray makes her characters so achingly real?  I’ve talked a bit about character motives and character quirks in the past, and there are always more avenues to explore in characterization.

I’ve recently been reading Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, which begins with A Great and Terrible Beauty.  The cover, a young girl in a corset, threw me off when I first saw it, as it looks like some silly romance; however, I had heard some great things about Libba Bray and was intrigued by the book blurb.  Generally, I can read the first couple paragraphs of a book and decide if I want to buy it; A Great and Terrible Beauty passed this test and pulled me right into the mystery.

The character Felicity gives us a wonderful example of Bray’s ability to create realistic, dynamic characters.  Felicity, first introduced as a bit of an antagonist, grows into one of the most complex characters in the trilogy.  This is hinted at when she jumps dramatically onto the page:

Her white-blond hair is arranged neatly in a bun, as young ladies must wear their hair, but even so, it seems a bit wild, as if the pins won’t really hold it.  Arched eyebrows frame small, gray eyes in a face so pale it’s almost the color of an opal.  She’s amused at something, and she tosses her head back and laughs heartily, without trying to stifle it.  Even though the dark-haired girl is perfect and lovely, it’s the blond who gets the attention of everyone in the room.  She’s clearly the leader.

What did Bray do here that characterizes Felicity?

  • Shows the character in action
  • Points out telling details of her appearance
  • Shows the way others react to her

In just a paragraph, and without stopping the scene to describe the character, Bray creates a dynamic, fluid picture in our minds.  One of the most important things here is showing the way others react to a character, something often overlooked.

What other strong characters stand out to you?  What makes those characters stand out?

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