The Boxcar Children: Reading With My Son

The Boxcar Children: Reading With My Son

CoverWhen I was a kid, I fell in love with The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Here’s the thing, I know I read the whole series. It was something they did in school. However, I can only vaguely remember any thing. Perhaps a glimmer of the premise. I’d looked at the first book a bit while I was writing The Journals of Bob Drifter.

I once bought the e-version of the first book in the series to read to one of my nieces, but she wasn’t quite old enough. But now the opportunity is here.

We were on vacation last weekend, and we’d forgotten to bring the Jesus Storybook Bible, which is what we normally read to our youngest. As soon as we realized we’d forgotten it, I had an idea:

“I have a book that I liked when I was a kid,” I said. “Would you like me to read that to you?”

I was afraid I’d get one page into it, and he’d get bored, again being perhaps too young to enjoy it. Now we’re three chapters in, and he’s excited to see what happens next.

I’ve always put a lot of stock into reading to children. First off, I love it. I read to my niece Saleah. I read to her younger brother, too, but I didn’t get as much time with that family as I did when Saleah was growing up. Some of the stuff I read, she didn’t enjoy. Some of it, she did.

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Gertrude Chandler Warner

Later, I read to one of my younger nieces (there isn’t a gender bias here, I swear. I just have a ton of nieces and just a few nephews). But now I get to read to my sons! We read to them every night. Julie and I swap nights. This gives us both time with the boys and time to ourselves when it’s the other parent’s turn. (The older boys are listening to The Half-Blood Prince in case you’re wondering.)

The really cool thing is I’m reading books I loved when I last read them, and since it’s been so long, it’s like reading them for the first time. Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement. I certainly remember how Harry Potter goes. But I’m still not sure I could name all four Boxcar Children. I just tired, and I couldn’t do it. So I have this wonderful chance to revisit old stories and share them with my sons. My oldest is getting to the point where he’s reading on his own, and my middle boy isn’t that far behind, but I find myself cherishing this time I get with them.

Me and the Boys
Me and the Boys.

Reading didn’t become a big habit in my family until I was grown. I first started reading heavily with Natty Bumpo. Then I discovered the Star Wars Extended Universe. Then I discovered Dean Koontz, and then The Wheel of Time. I honestly believe that when we grow up reading, we grow up imagining and thinking. But the biggest value still comes with that personal, quiet time we get with our sons. Not only do the stories we read together entertain us, but the memories we create reading those stories to our children are ones I’ll always want to hold onto.

So here’s to The Boxcar Children! I’m so glad I get to share you with another generation. I hope he comes to love you as much as I do.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

The Top 5 Most Awesome Heroes In Fantasy

The Top 5 Most Awesome Heroes In Fantasy

Greetings all,

So I was running dry on ideas. I’d been doing a lot of update posts and bracket posts, and I felt it was time to do something different. That got me thinking about one of my favorite reasons I read fantasy: the idea of “who would win in a fight?”

Therefore, I decided to do a “Top 5” list. What is this list based on? My opinion! It’s my list. I hope this post encourages healthy (kind-hearted) debate. It may even inspire a bracket.

What do I base my opinion on?

That’s a great question. The first is memorability. I’m going to provide the five characters who came to my mind. If I have to try to remember you, you clearly aren’t that powerful. The down side? I honestly haven’t read that much. Oh I read a lot, but there are books I haven’t read (again why I hope you lovely readers would be interested in enlightening a fan). So, you can also look at my “read” bookshelf on Goodreads to tell me if there’s someone in a book I read that you think would top any of these five. From there, it’s based on sheer power and capability.  Limitations are also factored. for instance, you won’t find an Aes Sedai on this list. All I’d have to do is not threaten them, and, though they could make life inconvenient, they couldn’t hurt me. The rest is just me thinking about what I’ve read about them doing and how impressive it is.

Now that the logistics are covered, let’s see who’s the top dog!

51yPTs-9jqL._SY346_#5: Ian Troy, The Crown of Stones  I honestly had a fight with myself about this.  Do I select the characters “at their most powerful” or their power level (or lack there of) at the end of the last book I read. Since most nerds like me will always argue fights on a “height-of-power” scale, I went with that as well. Ian begins the whole series with a display of power that would put any on this list on notice. Ian stops at number four because the crown serves as a weak point that could be exploited.  Since I have to take the character at the height of his power, I must also take him at the most dangerous of issues weaknesses too.  Ian could honestly destroy a world, but his power comes at the expense of the lives of others. This wouldn’t be a problem for a villain, but a former addict trying to protect life just wouldn’t consciously throw power around at the expense of (possibly) those he loves.

41kUPvqlguL #4: Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings: I honestly had a lot of trouble placing him. As one reads LotR, it’s easy to understand he has the potential to lay waste to a number of opponents. The thing is, we never really see him do much in the way of magic. We feel like he could, so I have him all the way up to number three just for that reason, but he never really displayed it. If someone said to drop him to 4 or even 5, I don’t know that I could argue, except that the guy seems so powerful.  Therefore, I met in the middle.  This ranking (I feel) gives the potential of his power respect while also taking into account how little power he actually used in the books.

51RphRxrZPL#3: Vin, Mistborn: I think she’d fall in this spot even without the “at her most powerful” rule. She wasn’t just powerful, she used that power in clever ways that made it pretty much unfair to fight her (unless you’re essentially a god). The events of the book take that seeming unfairness and make it down right laughable to think she couldn’t take out pretty much anyone. Allomancy is just an awesome power, and a full Mistborn is pretty much impossible to beat if you’re limited to a single power, but not if you’re using the One Power.

51-NVUtW9XL#2: Rand al’Thor, The Wheel of Time: The Dragon Reborn already has the strength to “break the world.” The One Power is such that some serious power get’s flung around. With this power, characters can make or flatten mountains. They can even use a weapon so great it erases one from existence (or even burns away parts of their life).  There are even ways to amplify that power! It’s honestly ridiculous when I think about it, but it’s so fun to read. While Rand could break a planet, he could make one, so he falls second to number one on the list.

516rFaN7djL#1: Harmony, The Cosmere: Sure, anyone who follows my blog knows Sanderson is my favorite author. But I dare you to point out a character who has god-power X 2. The Cosmere surrounds sixteen shards of what was once a whole. Each single shardholder is known as a god in their system. Harmony has two. Even Sanderson has said flatly that Harmony is the most powerful shard-holder for this reason. 2-4 could probably end a world, but Harmony could create one if he wanted. Some may argue limitations here, but only one shardholder to my knowledge is actually limited. Two were limited for reasons explained in the books. But, as far as I know, Harmony could do whatever he wanted, and no one could stop him. At his most powerful, there isn’t a fantasy hero (or even many villains) I can think of who could stop him.

So there’s my list! What do you think? Who would you add to the list of “most powerful”? Who would you rank higher than my guys? Do you think I got my list wrong? I want to hear it folks!

Thanks for reading,

Matt

I’ve Learned I’m Not Big on Villains: Reflecting on Bad Guys

I’ve Learned I’m Not Big on Villains: Reflecting on Bad Guys

MordorAs I’m not reading as quickly as I’d like, I don’t have a review for you all. That means I had to think about something on which I could discuss. I gave it some time, and as I was thinking about another project I’m taking on (super-secret, big possibilities), I started thinking about villains.  I did a blog on villains a while back, but then I realized, I’m not actually a big fan of villains.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good conflict, but stick with me. I went back and thought about my favorite books of all time. Only one of them has any arguable main villains.

Beowulf: One might argue this has villains, and it does. But Beowulf fights several. To my recollection (and I’ll admit it’s been a long while) none of them have very complex back stories. Oh, there’s some information, but ultimately, they’re either the fodder Beowulf cuts through or the thing that finally takes him down. Grendel is the most discussed, but he’s dispatched fairly quickly in the book.

What Men Live By, by Leo Tolstoy: I promise you, there was no bad guy.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson: So here we come to the “yes there was a villain” argument. Look, Ruin was the main antagonist. But Vin takes him on, and that’s that. Ruin wasn’t a mortal. He was this larger than life force that Vin had to elevate herself to take on (and I think there’s something there).

Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson: Again, the Dark One was the overall threat.  Some may argue Ishamael was the “villain” of that story, but I simply don’t see it that way.

The Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey:  No villain. A threat, a lager than life threat, but no villain.

This led me to an assertion. Great Books Need Great Villains.  I think not. These are my five favorite books of all time, and the reason I love them has nothing to do with the villains. Do I think a great villain can make a book great? Yes, but I don’t think they’re mandatory. It really dawned on me as I was thinking about who my favorite villains are. The fact of the matter is I don’t have any. I’m actively sitting here thinking about books and who the MC faces in each of them, and I can’t even name one. Comics are different in that regard, but comics are meant to run for years, so you need a cast of villains to change things up.

BobsGreatestMistakeI’ve said this a bunch of times, give me proactive, sympathetic characters, and I’m probably going to love your story. I’m less invested as a reader to see if they’re proactive because they have to defeat evil or because they have to beat this one particular antagonist. That’s window dressing for me. Bob and Caught both have villains. I certainly hope they’re enjoyable villains, but I don’t mind a world where the heroes are the ones with whom my readers connect.

So this post, short but interesting, leads to a question. Where do you sit in relationship to villains? I understand the value of compelling villains. What I’m asking is do you only invest in stories that have a great villain? Compare your favorite books ever to this question. Tell me the villain of your favorite book or series. I’m honestly curious to know what you think.

Thanks for reading,

V/R
Matt

Great Character Arcs: Five Characters I Loved Seeing Grow (SPOILERS)

Great Character Arcs: Five Characters I Loved Seeing Grow (SPOILERS)

Greetings all,

It’s been a while since I did any character studies, so I thought this was a good time to do that. There’s a lot of demand out there these days for characters who “grow.” That term is used a lot but the better word is “change.” People like to see characters affected by their actions and evolve as a result of them. I’m still a big fan of neutral change arcs (K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs talks about this), but I have seen some character arcs that I just loved. Some I’ve already mentioned before, but I’d like to share with you some stories where you truly saw a character evolve as the story progressed.

51PNy3Gq7OL._AA300_Rand al’Thor from The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson: I’d argue this is my favorite arc of all time. It probably should be as it took 14 books to evolve. I don’t know that I’ve seen any other character grow, fall, and return to grace the way Rand does. He starts as a simple farm boy (yes, the most overused trope ever). But he’s just a boy whose biggest concern is dealing with a girl he’s pretty sure he’s going to marry. We see him afraid and avoid his calling for three books. Then we see him struggle with what it means to be what he becomes. Then we see him betrayed, and what that does to him. He falls all the way to darkness, nearly willing to end his own life. Then he becomes the leader and figure he’s meant to be, but that’s not the end. I won’t go farther than that. Even with spoilers, there are some things I just won’t discuss on a blog. But for people who want to study an arc of a character, I’d recommend you start here.

518MX5UPImL
This isn’t Dorian, but I don’t want to dare some author to sue me for using his art. The cover of a graphic novel? Well, there I can try and argue fair use.

Dorian Ursuul from the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks: I’ve already spoken about his arc in terms of his fall from grace. He’s honestly a good, well-meaning man who’s put in a position that basically tempts him into becoming the monster he eventually becomes. I’m fascinated about the possibility of a story where this plot is more of a centerpiece of a novel. It’s rummaging around my head somewhere, but it’ll fall out at some point, and this character and story is why. It’s a beautiful negative change arc.

Tyrion from The Embers of Illeniel series by Michael G. Manning: The end of his arc was the best book I read last year, and that’s saying something.  He gives Rand a run for his money in terms of quality (I give Rand the advantage because I like good guys to find their grace again), but this character’s arc is so enthralling. Every single thing he does that will make him a monster is understandable. The tragedy of its necessity is second only to the sadness I felt as I saw what those horrific necessities created.

41awCCmXEKL._SY346_Artemis Fowl from the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer: I have to make it a point to pick up this series again. I thought it ended, but I’m not sure I read all of the books. Even with what I read, his arc deserves to be here. Listen folks, this kid is a little turd in book one. Watching him interact and make friends and become a protector for those he originally sought to use was a real treat. It’s funny because the way I’m identifying these characters is by looking through my Goodreads books. I scrolled around until I stumbled upon the book and thought, “Oh yeah! His arc was fantastic!”  He’s a character who starts out pretty bad (I mean it’s a young reader book), and then grows into someone truly selfless.

41SA4n8T3uLEmma from Emma by Jane Austen: I’m going to pause here to go off on a tiny tangent. Fans claim to demand great arcs, but if I’m being honest, I just don’t see many. Oh, I read a bunch of great stories. But most of the stories I read are about men who are tempted but don’t fall, men who are nice and stay nice, or men who are bad and stay bad. I’ll go over some of my favorite books where I just don’t see the arc. People can argue with me if they wish (I encourage debate), but I spent a solid hour going over all my books in my Goodreads and struggled to find five arcs where I could really point to a person who changed (even if only for a while in the book). Oh, they evolved. They learned a truth, but they didn’t actually CHANGE. There are other characters who truly change in other mediums. (Weiland does a bunch of character studies in her book.)  But for my money, it’s tough to find those sweeping evolutionary arcs. Emma represents one of the originals. She’s a selfish woman who thinks she knows best how to do things. (Clueless was one of the best modern adaptations of a book I’ve ever seen. Seriously!) Regardless, she changes from a selfish person who THINKS she’s selfless, to a person who learns how to value others as people rather than objects. It’s honestly a solid arc.

So there you go. I’d love to hear your thoughts on arcs. Please don’t misunderstand. There are a lot of books I love (I thought about putting Vin on her list, but she evolved pretty quickly in my opinion) where I didn’t really notice an arc, but I won’t deny that some of these stories are genuinely great because of the way the characters evolve (or devolve). If you think you got another good one, please post it below in the comments for discussion or study.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

My Favorite Books

My Favorite Books

dog-734689_960_720So I often talk about a lot of books and things of that note, but a few people have asked me about my favorites, and I thought now was as good a time as any to share a few with you.  I’m probably already talked about these in one way or another, but I think it’s a good idea to have them all in one spot.  After considering my options, I’ve decided to give you my top five, because everyone likes a good countdown.  These are my all-time favorite.  They are books I’ve read more than once simply because I love them.

Note:  I talk a lot about a lot of writers, and they’re all amazing.  This is my top five ever.  These are the books that I’d drag out of a burning building (and that’s saying something since we’re actually talking about 28 books in reality).  This isn’t to say I don’t like others.  I even love some.  But these are the ones I love most.

heaneybeowulf5)  Beowulf:  Probably the first book I was ever made to read in school that made me realize that books existed that I actually liked.  There’s a lot here in this story.  Beowulf is probably why I’m drawn to the types of characters to which I’m drawn.  I created a role playing character named in his honor.

4)What Men Live By, by Leo Tolstoy:  This is actually a short story, but any anthology of his work that includes this story is something I’ll read more than once.  I’m a huge fan of Tolstoy.  I usually find a way to weave him into my books, (including The Journals of Bob Drifter).  This story strikes a lot of chords with me, and is actually a very good case study for character and foreshadowing.  The message of this book is what drew me in.  I’ve loved it since the first day I read it.

mistborn-trilogy-ppb3) Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson:  I’ll confess.  I read this because I learned that Sanderson was finishing the Wheel of Time (see below).  I wanted to get to know him so I would just judge him on what he “didn’t do that I thought Jordan WOULD do.”  So I read his blog when he spoke about Jordan’s passing.  That alone helped me see what a good man he was.  Then I read Mistborn.  Game over!  He’s the best in the business.  He’s a brilliant writer and an amazing individual in the community of authors.  On my list of “writers whom I drop what I’m reading for,” he’s number one.

2) The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan:  I’ve read this series no less than eight times.  It’s a huge story with so many wonderful characters. I actually think readers are VERY polarized with Jordan and his work, but I love the series and can’t wait to see it in live action if it ever actually happens.

dragonriders-of-pern1) The Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey:  This has been my favorite series for decades.  I fell in love with Ruth.  I love the Master Harper.  It’s one of a few books I freely confess to openly weeping over while reading.  It’s so beautiful and touching.  The drama between characters just pulls in the reader.  The covers are simply amazing.  Every time someone asks, “If I want good fantasy, where do I start reading?”  This is my answer.

So this is short and sweet, but I thought I’d share.  I’ll probably drop a few more favorite five every now and then.  What are your favorite five stories of all time?  Post in the comments below.  I’m always looking for books to add to my TBR list.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

Sympathetic Characters

Sympathetic Characters

Under my new book review format, I talk about how much I enjoy characters.  That got me thinking about character sympathy, why it’s important and how to manipulate the reader’s sympathy for a character.

masks-701837_960_720One reference for how to adjust sympathy is Writing Excuses.  They’re more successful than I am, and they’re also better at this than I am.  The linked podcast addresses the how.  They reference another podcast that explains why you don’t have to have sympathetic characters.  That’s true.  There are reasons to have unsympathetic characters, but I’m not a fan of them.  They exist in The Journals of Bob Drifter, but that doesn’t mean I was overly happy about their existence, only aware of their necessity.

What is a sympathetic character.   There are a few differing opinions, but I’m going to selfishly hover in my realm of opinions.  While some feel sympathetic characters are those readers feel sad for, I don’t necessarily leave it at that.  When I talk about sympathetic characters, I’m speaking specifically on characters readers have a strong emotional response to.  A character my readers hate (if that’s what I wanted them to feel) is every bit as important as a character my readers love.  When I get feedback from beta readers, my worst fear is I’ll ask, “what did you think about Character X?” and the readers will respond with, “Who?”  That’s a  much bigger problem to me.

richardOne of my betas for Journals hates Richard.  When she told me why, I smiled, and said, “Sorry, but that’s exactly what I wanted you to feel.”  The degree to which readers hate Richard is one thing, but if they hate him for the same reason my beta hated him, I did my job right.  Characters can’t be completely rage worthy any more than they can be completely sympathetic.  The masters (who in my opinion are George R.R. Martin and Peter V. Brett) can make you hate a character and then a book later, make you at least understand them.  This particular ability allows you to have an extra arch with your characters.

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Image of Shawn Michaels is used in reference to WWE’s effectiveness in building character sympathy.  Photo Credit unidentifiable.

A great example for how to do this?  Believe it or not, the WWE.  I haven’t watched wrestling in years, but think about it.  Shawn Michaels went from hero to villain to hero to goof to hero and all the way around again.  Readers look for growth in character, and that’s another term that might be misleading.  Sometimes failure tests a character’s metal, and it’s okay for that character to regress.  Why?

Now we come to the main purpose of this particular blog.  We’re all human. Just on the drive to my brother’s house we talked about what it is to be human.  I don’t think people are good or bad.  I think they’re people.  Sometimes they do good things, sometimes they do horrible things.  I know I have.  So the most realistic characters react to their environment.  I have a few characters who don’t change.  I like those characters.  I like those who no matter the test, they alway pass.  I like the other characters too.  I think House, M.D. was a great example here.  What kept me watching that show was the thought that, “Maybe this episode, he’ll do the decent thing.”  Nope.  Never did.  It’s the same trick Charlie Brown kept falling for.  He’ll never kick the ball and House will never be a compassionate person.  (You can argue the end of that series with me in the comments if you want.)

bobThose characters are unique, but they can get boring quickly.  I’ve failed in my life, so I look for characters who have flaws, but are generally decent folk.  One of the more common compliments I get for Journals is Bob.  He’s a good, white-hat, guy.  He has his slumps, but he’s consistently kind and compassionate, and that makes him sympathetic when he’s faced with tragedy.  Others don’t like him because he’s too nice.  I think the world is just about done with antiheroes, then again, maybe not.  I think it’s an archetype like any other.  Use tools for a reason.

You don’t need a raging alcoholic day-care sitter any more than you need an incredibly pious prostitute.  That sort of extreme can seem forced and/or contrived.  Strive instead for people who feel real.  All my favorite books have at least one character I genuinely feel some connection too.  It’s the part of me I see in those characters that makes me want to see what happens to them.  I think this is something to strive for in writing.

That makes me want to close with a few (in no particular order) characters I found very sympathetic.  They area also some of my favorite characters in fiction.  They are:

Perrin Aybara from Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

Vin from Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.

John Cleaver from the John Wayne Cleaver series by Dan Wells.

51lahusmnlThe Warded Man/Arlen from The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett.

All of these characters have great emotional range.  Sometimes, they do things that make me proud, other times, I’m angry with them for how they handle a situation.  I could have gone on, but I just wanted to give you all a few characters I felt have the qualities I look for when I’m reading.  You can feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

In summary:  A sympathetic character is someone the reader feels something for.  They should be realistic by sometimes failing tests of character.  They can be “bad” or “good” as a whole, but no one is all of any one thing.  (except for a few carefully chosen characters, which I feel need to be offset by other members in the cast.)

I hope this gives you some insight into what I shoot for when I write.  If you think you’ve found something I missed, or you just have a good resource to share, let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading,

Matt