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Writing Notes on Brilliant Legacy

So I'm gearing up for Nano (I don't do it by the rules, I just use the momentum to make progress on an existing WIP). Since moving in August and also finishing up a project, I've been doing the refill-the-well bingeing that seems to be necessary between projects and large moves. It's also writing education, and I need it. Right now I'm finishing up a drama from 2009 called Brilliant Legacy (or Shining Inheritance, depending on how you translate it). Among others, it stars Han Hyo Joo, whose work I really like. I keep stopping to take notes on the show, because it's really well written, and I think it does a number of things well that are useful to study if you're trying to push your book into something more. A brief summary:

Eun Sung (Han Hyo Joo) comes home to Korea from studying in NYC to find that her father's company has gone bankrupt. As they are starting the bankruptcy procedures, her father is reported as a victim in a gas explosion. He leaves behind his wife, her daughter from another marriage (Seung Mi, who is the same age as Eun Sung), Eun Sung, and autistic younger brother Eun Woo (they are both from his first marriage). Claiming she has no money left, the stepmother immediately kicks Eun Sung and Eun Woo out of the house. She gives them money (which is stolen the first night), and they are left on their own. It's hard to find a place to live with an autistic brother, but they finally find shelter with a friend, and Eun Sung goes to work serving tables at a bar. While she's at work, Eun Woo wanders off and gets lost. Stepmother finds him, but drives him out of town and dumps him outside a house without telling anyone. Eun Sung starts selling street food in an attempt to survive.

Meanwhile, enter the halmoni, a grandmother who was once poor who built up a restaurant company and still gives back to the poor. She's disturbed to realize that her family loves money and only money. She goes out on the street to ponder what to do, and ends up falling down some stairs. Eun Sung finds her and brings her home to take care of her until her memory returns/she recovers. When she does, she is so impressed with Eun Sung's care that she brings her home, promising to set detectives on the loose to look for her brother. And, she changes her will. She disinherits her family and her grandson Hwan (a lazy, grouchy dude who Seung Mi likes because he's actually nice to her)--and writes in Eun Sung, instead. As you can imagine, tension ensues. Whether it's for money or love, everyone wants to drive Eun Sung out of there, and the one thing holding her in to the situation is finding her brother. It's good.

1. Characters have complete lives and personalities even before the plot starts. The main character, Eun Sung, has actual friends. She has skills and life plans. She wasn't just a void waiting for a plot to fall out of the sky. She was a person, and then a plot came along that complicated an already well-developed life. This is something that is hard to pull off, and also hard to explain when critiquing. Your reader needs to feel like the characters still exist, even when the book is closed.

2. Family relationships are just really well done here. It's kind of part of #1, I guess, but I think it deserves special mention. Families are complex, and I feel like this really goes through all different kinds of tensions and ties that can run through them. I especially enjoyed the noona-dongsaeng (older sister/younger brother) relationship between Eun Sung and her autistic brother Eun Woo. It came across as very natural and loving. (Noonas are important in Korean culture, apparently. I like it because I have girls who also look out for their younger brother, and it's nice to see that recognized.)

3. Stakes. This is one of those kind of plots where it all comes out of the characters. The writer came up with all the stakes/desires/breaking points of each character, then wound them up and let them loose on the table, and watched them crash into each other. Each character has something/someone they'd sacrifice anything for. It's both their strong point, and their weak spot, because other characters can manipulate them through that. Eun Sung's is her brother. Her stepsister Seung Mi's is Hwan, the boy she's liked for 8 years. The stepmother's is money. Some of the characters have multiple values, and what they ultimately stake their lives on might not be what other characters expect.

4. Character growth. The character of Hwan is pretty unlikable at the beginning, and of course he is supposed to grow and learn to be a much more decent person by the end. However, it is a process for him to get there. The thing that keeps the viewer from hating him and makes you want to stick with him is that early on, you see a couple instances of his potential. Yes, yes, it's Save the Cat stuff, but it's handled in a believable way. You see some backstory of some kind things he did before the plot started, and you also see him affected by tragedies of others--which echo difficult things that have happened to him. He doesn't show that empathy for a long time to others, but as a viewer, you see it, so you are convinced. That's what you have to do in writing, too. Even if the other characters don't see it yet, you've got to somehow convince the reader that this character is worth sticking around for. (In writing, though, I think you have to make that claim even earlier than in a drama.) You don't necessarily have to show the silver lining to the other characters, but I do think you have to show the reader.

5. Mirroring similar characters who choose different paths. I really like mirroring; it underlines thematic and character elements so well. Multiple times, you have characters whose setups are similar, but they make vastly different kinds of choices, and create themselves into very different kinds of people by the end.

6. The antagonists are strong. Actually, the writer scares me a little, because I would have maxed out long ago on how to up the ante with the stepmother. Every time Eun Sung makes a move, you think, whew, the girl finally found a way to best her stepmother once and for all. And then...the stepmother finds yet another way to twist the knife and cover her sins. The stepsister, Seung Mi, is a very pitiable character. She's caught with very little choice in the matter, as she's wholly dependent on her mother, and the only other person she has is Hwan, who is falling for Eun Sung. Seung Mi tells the truth 95% of the time, so people believe her--and then she distorts the other 5% because she doesn't want to lose the only thing she has. I'm hoping she comes out with a conscience, but...I don't know yet.

I realize not many people are on LJ anymore, but I just need a place to stick my notes. It's just really useful to study what another book does well, and to take it apart and figure out how they did that.
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Well, I have to say that after years of resisting, I will concede that my sister is right, and Korean dramas are way better than I expected them to be. In fact, they are very much like books (much more so than movies), with 16-20 episodes or so (that's a full hour for an episode), which allows for a ton more plot and character development than any two-hour movie. Unlike American TV, which seems to run on slice of life events until the viewing public gets bored and the show gets canceled, kdramas run for a set number of episodes, with an actual plotline and climax and everything planned out. Given that I don't know much Korean at this point, yes, I need the subtitles, which means I really am reading the thing. It's fun to see entertainment from another culture and it's also a pleasant surprise that their way of storytelling is so satisfying to an American viewer. (Japanese storytelling is very different, much more slice of life and looser than what I generally find satisfying.) It is especially interesting to watch these as a writer, and it's made me think a lot about narrative techniques. I've seen bits and pieces of various shows now, but there are four that I watched back to back that if they were books would definitely be on my shelf of favorites:

1. W--Two Worlds. My first and favorite thus far. Even if it isn't perfect (I felt like a particular main character was underused in the ending), it did a great job of having an exciting plotline, very likable characters, a real heroine who actually DOES something, humor, really heartwrenching sadness, strong chemistry between all of the characters in multiple directions, and a meta level of discussion of good writing and also beautiful illustration. Great use of repetition to show character development, too. About a webcomic artist, his character who comes alive and starts to resist the storyline, the artist's subsequent freakout and attempt to end it, and the artist's daughter who goes into the comic to save the life of the main character. Like I said, it was my first one, and pretty mindblowing. I see from the making-of documentary that all of the comics that show up in the show were actually drawn. If you took apart my brain to come up with the perfect story I never knew I wanted, this would be it.

2. Pinocchio. The title refers to truth-telling, not dolls that come alive. This one has so many personal stakes in it that you can hardly move without setting them off like dominoes. The central theme is truth versus loyalty. It's about a kid whose family was destroyed by the media after his fire chief father led his team into a burning warehouse that exploded and killed all of the firefighters. His father was blamed and his family hounded in the father's absence until the brother disappears and the mom kills herself. He grows up to be a rookie reporter in spite of this, meeting up again with the reporter who wrecked his life. However, she's also the mother of the girl he likes. And when he learns some things about his family, he finds loyalty and truth in direct conflict with each other. The family he grows up with (especially the grandfather who adopts him) are wonderful. There is also a great soundtrack! This is a good one to study stakes.

3. I Hear Your Voice. This is by the same writer (with several of the same actors) as Pinocchio, only it's a thriller (plus ESP--the main character can read minds). Park Soo Ha was just a kid when his dad was murdered by a crazy man leaping out of a truck at them. His life was saved and his story of murder, not accident, corroborated when a girl passing on the sidewalk takes a photo with her cell phone and has the courage to stand in court and testify. The murderer is sent to jail, but not before promising to find that girl and kill her when he gets out. Fast forward 10 years. Soo Ha has been preparing for the day that this guy gets out of jail so he can protect his protector. The girl is now a prosecutor, and sure enough, the murderer comes for them. It's a great story of choices over circumstances, self control over vengeance, overcoming your personal demons, and even learning to understand the stories of others who may be adversaries. All of the character arcs are very well followed-through.

4. Master's Sun. This one starts out really strangely, almost horror. It's about a girl who can barely crawl out of her house because she's so scared of all of the ghosts who keep popping out of nowhere, wanting her to take messages to the living for them. Visually they are really CREEPY at the beginning, and I almost gave up, but I'm glad I didn't. Don't let the creepy faces get to you! Anyway, she runs into the one person whose presence dispels the ghosts, giving her relief. Unfortunately, he's not very nice. He's the CEO of a huge shopping mall, and loves money and only money. He doesn't believe in anything he can't see, and he doesn't care about people at all. And she is not only a person, but just a really strange person! Of course you can imagine the plot trajectory, with him developing faith in the unseen and learning to be a kinder, more decent person, and her learning to have self control and embrace the ghosts around her. What I thought was so awesome about this one (besides the obvious humor and setup) is the fact that while the characters grow, they don't turn into different people entirely. I get tired of the ugly duckling, American movie style, where all the girl needs is a better wardrobe and makeup, and magically she's turned into someone else and now she's the it girl, etc. In this (or rather, these--I see it in other dramas, too), they don't so much turn into some nameless perfect character as simply become their best selves. So Tae Gong Shil is still a little offbeat--but she becomes confident. Mr. CEO still loves the business of making money at the end--but he's become a much better person, too. Also. The show is FUNNY.

If you like kdramas, are there any you would suggest? If you have never watched them, I would have to say I recommend them! There are all different kinds (historical--called saeguks, which often take place in the Joseon era, with a lot of cool costumes--, thrillers, medical ones, sci fi, ordinary romantic comedies, etc.), so if you try one and don't like it, there are always other kinds. In the meantime, we've started learning Korean at our house so that when it's the last episode and we can't wait for subtitles, we can watch it raw. Besides, with that volume of language input, it's almost criminal NOT to study it. If we had that amount of access to family-friendly German shows, our kids would all still be fluent.
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Favorite types of books

Ahh, do you ever just think about your favorite kinds of books and just despair because you realize your own stuff just falls flat? And yet, it's probably good to think about what works. I just finished revising a book and am now scouting around my WIPs to see what I will finish next, and how to blow it out of the water. So, here are some thoughts right now about what makes a book really go off the charts for me:

  1. Makes you feeeeeeeeel. This is the single most important element. If everything else is cool but it doesn’t make you feel, it strikes out.

  2. Makes you think. It has got to have a good plot that is logical and fits in retrospect, yet isn’t see-through and predictable as you go in.

  3. Early clues planted that have large plot payoff later on. Payoff, payoff, payoff! I love seeing weaknesses turn into The Solution. I love seeing casual background scenery come off the walls and effect major turning points. I love seeing characters we thought were not so important turn out to be. I love adding just a touch more information about someone/a situation that shifts the entire way you see it. It's like laying out all of the pieces of a circuit and then plugging it in.That lightbulb moment of awesome.

  4. Sacrifice. Characters have to sacrifice something they want for the benefit of someone they love.

  5. Well, love. All kinds—romantic, family, kindness. It’s the thing that holds the entire universe together, so yeah, it all sorta boils down to this one golden truth. People will make great sacrifices and effect great growth for love more than anything else. True love (of whatever sort) contributes to happiness.

  6. Therefore, you need some pretty big obstacles. You need a longing for some core principle (ie love or something comparable) that your reader can totally buy into—and then you make it impossible to actually get. (Uhh…and then as writer, you HAVE to find a way to it. The more twists and turns along the way, though, the better.)

  7. All of this means tons of character growth. It can't just be suffering. It has to be worth something in the end--to make the character more than they were at the start.

  8. The more serious stuff/core nerves you touch, the more you need to ensure some humor to balance out. This not only gives the reader a break, but it also provides a foil to the tension. If it is all tension all the time, the events start to cease to have impact/meaning. There are books with too much tension and not enough relief where I've actually set them down and walked away because it was like trying to eat straight horseradish. You need balance.

  9. More true heroines, please. Like, not just a hero and a love interest (or vice versa). I didn't realize until watching W how nice it is to see a female lead be heroic without having to be an assassin or reject all human connections. Just an ordinary girl doing extraordinary things, being smart, using her resources, and making intelligent sacrifices. I want the girl and guy to complement each other and be equally awesome together. I can't think of too many stories that fully pull this off. Maybe The Blue Sword?

  10. Characters need to feel fully grounded. You do this by adding in mundane, ordinary details as they walk through the world. You can’t take up too much time with them, but you need the reader to feel like they have a life outside what is immediate proscribed by the plot. Example: Do Yoon in W. He barely has any lines. But you know he used to do martial arts and trained Kang Chul. You can tell they’re best friends because of the way he keeps confidences, even when they don’t make sense, and by how he questions Chul. Or, attention to everyday details that sometimes heroes don’t seem to have to deal with in stories—like Yeon Joo realizing after being a couple weeks in the manhwa world that she is getting whiffy and really needs a shower. These real-world grounding details can also provide necessary comic relief in a tense situation.

  11. Really, the more heartbreaking your story, the more comedy you need. Think of Jordan Sonnenblick’s writing. You laugh even as your heart is breaking. I don’t know how to do this, but it is so, SO effective.

  12. Gah. I just want to write something that makes people feel and obsess and have it entertain but have the underlying fundamental universal truths in it leak out of the book into the real world and stick to people’s insides.

What about you? What would you add to this list? Or, what techniques do you use to make some of these things work?
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Observations on the show "W - Two Worlds" and good writing

I normally don't watch much TV because it isn't as satisfying to me as books, but my sister hooked me on this fantastic Korean TV show called W - Two Worlds. It's a portal story about some characters who live in a comic book world, and some other people who live in the real-life world of the comic artist, whose daughter is a cardiology intern. Kang Chul (which translates as "steel") is the hero in the comic. He won an Olympic gold for shooting at age 17, and shortly thereafter, his family were all shot dead by his gold-winning gun. He's innocent, but in the absence of finding the real killer, he spends time in jail, thanks to the urging of an ambitious politician who uses the capturing of the "criminal" to further his career. Eventually, Chul gets free and (as so easily happens in a comic!) manages to become a multimillionaire, running a TV show for unsolved crimes. Many crimes have been solved on the show (called "W"--for "who?" and "why?")--but never his own personal one.

In the real world. W is a bestselling web and print comic. It updates in real time, and the author, Oh Seong Moo, has gotten quite successful over it. But he is also one depressed alcoholic. And the comic is starting to take on a life of its own, not accepting all the changes he makes in it, and sometimes acting of itself. He freaks out and wants to put an end to it all--even if it means killing off his hero before Chul ever reaches his goal of finding his family's murderer. However, the night before the final episode is due, Mr. Oh disappears. His staff are worried. His daughter, Oh Yeon Joo, comes over to help look for him. While in his studio, she is pulled into the Cintiq drawing tablet by a bloody hand. It's Kang Chul. He's been stabbed, and desperately needs help. She's a doctor, so...she saves his life before realizing that something is really, really weird. She's in the comic world, but as she later tells one of her father's assistants--they are just like us. They are human, too. There is a lot of crossing back and forth, with all of the complications that arise from stuff like that, and let's just say that dad isn't entirely in control of the comic anymore. And bad guys are on the loose!

This show is so, so good! It's 16 episodes long (to date I've seen 10). And every one has a major plot twist at the end. I'm a writer, and I've read thousands of books. It's pretty hard to surprise me. But man, this one does! It has quite a metaliterary bent to it (develop your antagonists! Give them names and faces and personalities, or they'll come after you!). It's philosophical (Plato's cave, anyone?). It's got tons of action and romance and how the heck? and oh my gosh what is going to happen NEXT?? And it's FUNNY. I've skimmed a couple of other Korean dramas and been bored because there isn't enough humor to balance out the serious parts. I think that the harder you want serious parts to hit your reader/viewer, the more you need to employ a judicious use of humor. It makes people feel full, it creates contrasts, it allows relief so your reader doesn't get tired.

One of the interesting themes is power--because different characters have tremendous power in certain settings. It's interesting to see what they do with that power, depending on their sense of morality. People in relationships (even without manga portals) have tremendous power over their significant others. Some of my favorite parts are where Yeon Joo and Chul are working together to do extraordinary things, balancing their various areas of power for the benefit of each other.

One of the particular strengths I'm noticing also is that the writer is not afraid to follow the consequences of choices. And, she's not afraid to pause the action scenes and let the viewer feel. There have been a couple of extended scenes (one in a bookstore, one after a dream--you'll know the ones if you've seen it) where the main characters are just GUTTED--and because the script pauses on these, boy, they really hit hard in the feeeeeeelings department. Sometimes I read books and it's like the authors have taken the advice to start late and end early a little too seriously. Yes, you need action and you need plot developments. But if you want all of those developments to mean something to the reader, you've got to give a little screen time to the reaction/consequence. Let the important moments sink in. It's an investment in the characters and the book and the reader.

Anyway, the writing is sooooo entertaining. The acting is excellent. I have no idea how the writer will solve this one, but I really hope she pulls it off! So grab some popcorn and get watching. :)
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Bubbles between books

I'm finding myself in this little bubble of time where my manuscript is off for critique and I am not working on anything. It is WEIRD. (It took me four years to write this book.) I've gotten a couple crits back and they seem pretty doable (ie they are fairly minor and pretty much all of them will make the book better). I haven't decided if I'm going to wait until all come in and then combine them all into some monster document, or if I should handle them one by one, or what. What do you do?

In the meantime, I'm trying to let my subconscious swirl around and see what it wants to do next--finish off one of the partials I have (and if so, which one?), or start something new from whole cloth. It's kind of a delicious feeling, to be honest.

I know I'm going to be busy soon enough (we're moving at the end of May), but it just feels very weird not to be stressing about finishing this draft!
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Some book reviews

I have a Goodreads account, but I never know what to do with it. I wish there wasn't always that star rating attached to leaving reviews in places, because it just doesn't fit the way I read a book. I read primarily for fun and escape, because I have enough real life stress to deal with, thanks! And I can not "like" a book in a fun, escapist sort of way, but still find it valuable reading. Being on the writer side complicates things, too--sometimes I like a book even if the author is prickly in real life. Sometimes I think the world of the author, but what if I don't connect with their book? I could do this easier back when authors were mysterious benefactors of stories, but now that they are real people...yeah.

Anyway, here are some books I've read so far this year that I liked in some way or another.

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic, by Lisa Papademetriou. A really great middle grade read-aloud. It’s about two supposedly unconnected girls who each go away for the summer to visit family members, and each find a blank book called The Exquisite Corpse. They write in it, and the book writes back. (Well, really, they’re writing back to each other, but they don’t realize that.) One girl is in Texas and one is in Pakistan. And there’s a funeral home. And there is justice for past wrongs, too. And they are all connected.

The Aviary, by Kathleen O’Dell. Middle grade. It reminded me of a book by Sarah Williams. Turn of the century-ish, about a girl named Clara who lives with her mother, the cook, and old Mrs. Glendoveer, who her mother is taking care of. Oh, and five birds who have lived far past their ordinary lifespan. When Mrs. Glendoveer dies, Clara secretly makes a friend, Daphne, and they discover the scandal that happened before. Mr. Glendoveer was a professional magician, only then his kids were kidnapped and drowned. One child, Elliott, the youngest, disappeared. The birds start to talk, and it’s up to the kids to find out what really happened, where to find Elliott, and how to bring the criminals to justice.

The Weight of Feathers, by Anne-Marie McLemore. Interesting Romeo and Juliet retelling. The Cobeau family are a traveling performing family. They wear feathered wings and do an act in the trees. The Paloma family is a traveling performing family. They have a mermaid act. The two families haaaaaate each other, each blaming the other for destroying some family members and their performing location in this one place they always end up at every year. The night the local factory blows, letting loose hazardous chemical rain that can kill people, Luc “Cluck” Corbeau saves the life of Lace Paloma. They don’t know who each other are. But the mark of his feather (yes, they grow feathers under their hair) ends up on her arm. Burned and unable to be in the mermaid act, so goes to the Corbeaus under cover, hoping to even up the score so that the curse of the feather mark can be lifted. But of course, they fall for each other—the rejected ones in each of their clans. (Luc’s mother has never loved him, and his brother regular beats him up.) As they learn the truth about what really happened at the factory long ago, and more importantly, what really happened between the two families, they find the strength to become who they really are.

The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz. About a girl in 1911 (Joan Skraggs, only she prefers to be called Janet Lovelace) who runs away from an abusive farm family at age 14 and becomes a hired girl for a Jewish family in Baltimore. She pretends to be 18 but is of course very young, so she makes a lot of embarrassing mistakes, like falling for the charming 21 (!) YO son of the family, and also plenty of religious clashes (she didn’t know much about Jews and she was trying to become confirmed Catholic). Won the youth category of I think the National Book Award. Very well written. Some outcry because of a couple lines showing her ignorance about Native Americans (but that was the POINT—that she was young and naïve).

The Seventh Most Important Thing, by Shelley Pearsall. This was a good one. Maybe fans of Gary Schmidt might like it. I didn’t realize it was based on a true person’s life until I read the afterword, either (which is a good thing—sometimes when you try to novelize something real, it doesn’t feel organic. I read another book recently that didn't quite work for that reason). It’s about a kid named Arthur who is mourning the death of his dad, and in his grief, throws a brick at the Junk Man and breaks his arm. He gets sentenced to helping the Junk Man with his work--which is, indeed, going through garbage cans looking for certain things. At first it's pretty mortifying, but then Arthur starts to understand what exactly the old guy is doing. I loved reading about the transformative power of art and how learning to recognize it changed this kid and his attitude towards other people.

Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, by Tanner Colby. Adult nonfiction about racism, why it is still around, and what keeps it going. This was a good one. I don’t know that it offers solutions, but it does a great job of pointing out a lot of less-discussed issues in integration. He covers four areas that seem unrelated, but which really underscore the segregation that still exists in our society: school (why is there still a black table and a white table at some school cafeterias?), housing (creepy history of blockbusting and HOAs), worship (once you force out a group of people, they make their own culture, and don't want to give that up later when people come, wanting to integrate), and work (education is great, but personal mentors and connections in the field are what get people jobs. If you have no one in your group in your industry *cough* publishing *cough* it's hard to break in, no matter what skills you have). It's partly the story of what happens long term when you shut out a certain segment of the population, but it's also about the complicated dance between wanting to have the same opportunities as anyone else, but not letting go and losing your culture.

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos. MG; I think this won a recent Newbery. Funny and…strange. The main character shares an exact name with the author. I think it’s part fiction and part true. Set in the 60s with a pro-Bernie Sanders mother and a pro-Donald Trump dad (not literally, of course--but if they lived today, they would each be posting for their respective candidates with loud voices on Facebook), Jack is caught in the middle. He gets grounded for the summer and ends up typing obituaries for the crazy old lady down the street. Meanwhile, the town's elderly are dying at a suspiciously alarming rate. Weird book. Great voice.

Into the Dim, by Janet B. Taylor. Aaah. This was a fun one. As some have said, it’s a bit reminiscent of Ruby Red (the time travel, the jewels, the conspiracy). But still fun. Hope Walton (author is from Arkansas--yay!) goes to Scotland to visit aunt after mother dies. But Hope doesn’t believe mom is dead, and she’s right—mom is trapped in the middle ages. Mystery and warring factions of time travelers and hot boys, etc. This would be pure escapism when that is what you are looking for!

The Hollow Boy, by Jonathan Stroud. Third in the Lockwood & Co series. Not quite as creepy as the last one (which was SCARY), but still good. Lucy can hear ghosts and wants to listen to them, which is rather dangerous when her team is supposed to be eradicating them before they touch and kill people. Her team is trying to find the center of a massive outbreak. Also, they get a new assistant in this book, Holly Munro. She and Lucy do NOT get along. Lucy is a bit jealous of Lockwood’s attention to Holly… Lockwood is a bit of a privileged dude, even if he’s had hard stuff happen to him. I really like the ghost in the jar. He’s got quite a personality! There's a lot of character growth in here, and some developments that make me want the next book NOW.

Symphony for the City of the Dead, by MT Anderson. I grew up on classical music, especially all things Slavic, and in high school, our band did one of his pieces in a concert contest. I also wrote a paper for Russian class (in Russian; I have no idea what the words say anymore) on his 10th symphony. So I came in knowing something about him already, but this was a lot more. (Plus, in English, so I could understand!) Really excellent book about Dmitri Shostakovich's heady young days in the revolution, the scary, scary times of Stalin’s purges (what a person has to complain of when it comes to classical music is beyond me—how can violins be “anti-people,” or how can formalism be punishable by death??). The siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich writing his 7th symphony, the horrors of the siege and the turning point of hope when finally the staggering musicians still alive played his symphony in their city. I cried in that chapter.

A Tangle of Gold, by Jaclyn Moriarty. Ooh. I love it when the last book still manages to have twists and surprises! This was a great ending to the Colors of Madeleine series. This is such a strange and enjoyable series. The writing feels a bit stream of consciousness, but then you wake up and realize that all of it is real. There are spoilers I can't talk about! But it's about of course resolving the plot problems of Worldians and Cellians, and also a bit about people meaning well and messing up (or meaning ill and changing). Very, very enjoyable book!
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Random school things

I know we've only been here since August, but when you have five kids in the school system, you get a pretty good cross section of how the district works. If you've got only one year to be in Alabama, I'd say make it your 5th grade year. They study the colonial period and the Revolution that year, and it's been really fun for my 5th grader. They do a great job of running it through the curriculum, so a lot of their reading in reading class has been related, and they even learned the Virginia Reel in PE. (That was fun. Just before Christmas, they all dressed up in period clothing, made hats and wigs at school, and invited the parents to watch them dance. And then pulled the parents in for a round. The level to which the kids enjoyed this was astonishing. And they were good!) This semester, their grand event is a field trip to a living history location some hours away. If they do not remember anything about the 1700s in America after this year, the problem is not with the school!

Meanwhile, the 2nd grader is busy celebrating Read Across America week. In case you're wondering, yes, he DID dress up as a book character today. Jack, from the Magic Treehouse books. Which means he's in jeans and a green shirt and carrying a backpack. Never mind that he looks like that every other day, too. :)

My senior has something like six AP classes this year and in one of them, they lined everyone up and had them take the privilege test. Step forward for every privilege and step back for every one you don't have. He's white and male, so he's got that, but in most of the economic ones, he ended up stepping back. (Note: race and class are horribly entertwined. However, class issues exist quite outside of the race frame as well.) He also got to step back for all of the times when he had to change his accent to fit in, or when he was not a native speaker of the dominant language, etc. The one thing that was really unusual in his class--even the teacher was surprised--was that every single kid stepped forward on the "do you live with both parents" question.

My 8th grader made it through track tryouts and is now doing "throwing things" in field events (I disagree that entry-level sports should have tryouts, but well, I am not in charge, either), and my 10th grader is enjoying running the distance end of track. So even though there is no orchestra here (sniff), the kids at least have something to be involved in. It's been one of the more difficult moves for our family (definitely THE most difficult for some members), but I do think it's good to point out what's working.
me sketch


February is that time of year when everything is still gray, and we end up taking the least amount of photos. But Alabama is somewhat less gray. And at least it has trees! It's really hard to get across that sense of deep forest in a single picture, but these maybe help. The sunrise one is from the morning after a series of tornadoes went through the area (none in our town, but elsewhere in the South). The sky was really weirdly colored between the gray clouds and the sun--it almost looked like fire weather in the west.

The other one was during one of the regular torrential rainstorms we have. The size of trees in relation to the houses is ginormous. At night when people's lights are on, it makes you think of maybe elves living in some Middle Earth forest--they seem so small and twinkly amid all that greenery.

One other nice thing about all the trees is that they blank out the city lights to a great extent. So if you find an unwooded spot, you can enjoy a pretty clear view of the stars, too. (That would be my next photography attempt, I suppose--a shot of stars through the trees.)
me sketch

Czech Cinderella story

So, here is a fun (true) Cinderella story. I've been doing Czech genealogy with this distant relative, who recently ran across Berta Czuber (b. 1879). (Not literally, I mean in the records.) He's pretty sure she belongs to my branch, and I think I know which person she connects to. There are only so many people with that name who are master tailors at that time period in that tiny village.

So, imagine a family of shepherds. They move every year because they're always following the sheep. Eventually one son decides to settle down, marries a village girl and has kids. The next generation (and every generation thereafter), they are tailors. Well, one guy takes his tailoring and moves to the big city of Prague. And all fortunes change. His son gets educated. Actually, he gets so much education that he becomes a bona fide professor at the university. Rags to riches, right? (*cough* -- obviously, riches of the mind, not riches of the bank *cough*). But the story isn't over yet.

Mr. Smart Math Professor (Emanuel Czuber, if you want to find him in Wikipedia) has a daughter, Berta. She goes off to a ball in Prague--and meets a guy named Ferdinand. Archduke Ferdinand Carl of Austria, to be precise. The little brother of the guy who got shot in Sarajevo, thus starting the War to End All Wars. Ferdinand and Berta fall in luuuuurve, and parents flip out. No way, says professor dad. The emperor is not gonna like this, and he's going to take it out on my job. NO WAY! yells Uncle Emperor Franz Josef. But Ferdinand and Berta have a love that cannot be stopped. So they get married in Switzerland anyway, and keep it secret for two years. Then Uncle Franz Josef finds out. Blam! Blam! Blam! That's the sound of Uncle FJ blasting Ferdinand off the family tree tapestry on the wall. (He can't order them to get divorced because they are all Catholic, and that would not exactly go over well when you're the emperor. Plus--they obviously wouldn't do that, anyway. Because love.) Ferdinand has to change his name. Now he's no longer "von Oesterreich" but merely "Burg." And he's not allowed to set foot in the Austrian empire. They did let him come back for a funeral, though... Unfortunately for Berta, he died in 1915--and she kept on living and living, until 1979, when she was 99 and a half. No children, so the line ends there.

Now I'm thinking that I might need to study WWI all over again. Suddenly it seems very close to home!