Book Review: Siege and Storm (Grisha Trilogy #2) – warning – some minor spoilers

siege and stormSiege and Storm picks up almost immediately right where Shadow and Bone ended in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. Mal and Alina have escaped the Darkling and crossed the ocean. However, when they are forced to return to Ravka, Alina, more powerful than before, is faced with an overwhelming mission. Will she be able to overcome her self-doubt to fight and defeat an enemy whose power has taken on new and darker forms?

Overall Opinion

I am so glad that this book is a great improvement on the first installment in the series. I enjoyed reading it and seeing the characters grow. And I have to say that the story’s climax and ending is heart-stoppingly spectacular.

Writing

I feel that I enjoyed reading this book much more than Shadow and Bone, and this was partly due to the writing. One of the best examples is the description of the flying ship, which was well-written, reminding us once again that this book is set right at the advent of modern warfare – guns are still primitive, yet developing quickly, and airplanes had yet to be invented. Additionally, the flying ship also lends a bit of believable magic and fun to the novel, and its mere presence makes the character of its creator, Sturmhond, all the more interesting.

Having said that, there were some minor parts where the writing was confusing. For example, in the beginning of the novel, there is a scene in which Alina keeps Mal talking because “she knew when she slept, she would dream.” But on the very same page, we are told that “The dreams were the only place it was safe to use her power now, and she longed for them.” So does she or doesn’t she want her dreams? Another example of writing is the use of foreign words. I didn’t understand the need for words that weren’t the proper names of something within a fantasy novel. The premise is that the setting is a fantasy world, with countries that don’t exist in our world, so why the foreign words? If an author is going to use foreign words, then they should either explain or provide a glossary.

Character Development

Mal: We keep being told (by Alina) that he’s handsome and charming and that everyone loves him, but we see very little of that charm. Instead, for much of the book, we see a primarily sullen, jealous (both of Alina’s power and other men’s interest in her), and somewhat simple character. The short scenes with lighter banter between him and Alina, when they aren’t being jealous or possessive of each other, help to make him slightly more likeable. I only wish there were more scenes like this.

Alina: Let me start by saying that Alina changes throughout this book, which is definitely a good thing. I generally dislike both excessive impetuousness and excessive hesitation in characters. Somehow, in the beginning of the novel, Alina has both these qualities, which, when displayed over and over again become annoying and childish. At this point, her main goal is saving herself and Mal. She has no interest in saving her country. There was a glimmer of hope when she embraced her power and used it confidently. That’s when I thought she was finally a character I could come to love. However, just when you think she’s about to finally step into the role that was meant for her all along, she has to burst your bubble by either doubting herself for the millionth time or by asking stupid questions. ***SPOILER ALERT***An excellent and eternally frustrating example of this is when she is told that as the new commander of the army, she will have guards. Her first question is: “Do I really need guards?” Why? Why must she ask such stupid questions? You’re going to be the commander of an army, facing off an enemy whose power you have yet to understand, but have felt and been defeated by over and over again, and you’re still asking if you need guards?***END OF SPOILER*** I find this trope of a heroine being difficult and contrary just for the sake of being difficult and contrary irritating in YA literature. It is overdone and makes it almost impossible for me to like these characters. However, she slowly but surely starts becoming more serious, more focused, and more confident, and the more she does so, the more I root for her.

Sturmhond: I have to admit that I am officially in love with this character, and so far, he is my all-time favorite in this series (with the Darkling coming in second). ***SPOILER ALERT***One of Sturmhond’s most endearing moments (to me) was when he replied to Mal’s accusation that his proposal to marry Alina with the following: “Did you think you could just carry off one of the most powerful Grisha in the world like some peasant girl you tumbled in a barn? Is that how you think this story ends? I’m trying to keep a country from falling apart, not steal your best girl.” I think I almost cheered at this point.***END OF SPOILER*** Finally, someone takes it upon himself to knock some sense into these two self-absorbed characters. As the story progressed, I often found that he would articulate my exact frustrations with Alina and Mal, and wonder whether the author created him specifically for this purpose. Seriously, the more I get to know about Sturmhond, the more I wish this novel had been about him, rather than Alina and Mal. I hope he shows up in the third book.

Themes

One of the best features of this novel is how deeply it delves into the politics and power dynamics of this world. This gives the book much more gravity and substance than its predecessor, making it a much more satisfying read. Important and universal questions are explored: should we seek to gain dubious, almost infinite, power to destroy evil? Is all power bad?

I am definitely looking forward to reading the third book in this series, and hope that the story keeps getting better.

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The Legend of The Green Olive

kapow-1601675_1920Let me tell you a story. This is the absolutely true story of a real-life superhero who almost saved the world. Before I tell you anything else, I need to let you know that this particular superhero’s name is “The Green Olive” (cue Arrow music – look it up if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Don’t laugh. Or actually, go ahead and laugh. You deserve this temporary relief from the grim realities of this world. Because that was The Green Olive’s mission: to save us all from the evil and tyranny that runs rampant in our times. The Green Olive’s reign lasted a brief few weeks. During this short span of time, he (and I only use he/him for convenience’s sake, so bear with me and kindly get down from your soapbox) did his job extraordinarily well. He lit up the darkest corners, and dusted away the cobwebs. He fought against injustice and made the world a better place for everyone who knew him. Unfortunately, since he was still under training when he gained his superhero status, one day he met his match. Like all superheros, he lived his short life in relative obscurity. Very few knew of his existence, and of those who did, fewer still knew of his reality. I only tell you his story because while he was anonymous to most of the world, he was and will remain a true hero to me.
 
Now let me tell you another story. And in the telling, I hope for healing, for myself and for others like me. This is not just a story about one person’s brief and heroic life. This is the story about my family and my child. You see, the origin of The Green Olive came from one of those pregnancy websites that tell you how long/big your baby is at any given week. At around 9 weeks, I was informed that my baby was as long as a green olive, and hence, a legend was born. A few days later, his tiny heart stopped beating, breaking mine and my husband’s in the process. Despite his short life, and despite the grief, we agreed that he had done his job, and done it well, and were grateful for every moment we got to spend with him. He spread joy and gave us hope. We fell hopelessly and fiercely in love with him when we saw his almost impossibly small heart beating for the first time, so much so that we thought our own hearts would burst. He allowed us to dream happy, crazy dreams. He made us worry about how weird he would be, inevitable, considering his geeky parents were making up wacky stories about him being The Green Olive (cue Arrow music), the adventures he would have, and the villains he would vanquish. He would be the greatest superhero of all time. He made us feel complete, that we had a future that made sense to us. The whole world seemed to open up, with endless possibilities. He proved, however, to be too good to remain in this world.
 
The ending of this story is not a strange one. I won’t bother you with statistics, mainly because our baby, like all the people we love, is not a number. What I will tell you is that miscarriages are more common than most people think, and yet, they rarely are discussed. Women are advised to hide their pregnancies for as long as possible so that if they do miscarry in those precarious early months, they wouldn’t have to tell everyone that they did. This advice is infuriating and unhelpful, telling grieving couples to sweep the death of an unborn child under the rug. Before I wrote this story, I debated whether I should. Should I share it with the world? Would anyone care? Would people think I was being overly dramatic, because, after all, this is “just” a miscarriage? I finally decided I didn’t care what other people would think. I decided I wasn’t sharing my grief, but rather, I was sharing the wondrous moments we got to live with our never-to-be born baby. You may not have known him, and may not think twice about him once you are done reading this, but to me, to us, The Green Olive was, is, and forever will remain, our own little superhero.

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Oh, Where Have All the Blog Posts Gone?

Where have you all been? I’ve written at least a dozen blog entries since I last posted one here more than 2 years ago. It’s kind of sad you didn’t get to read them. They were pretty darn good. They had the exact turns of phrases that make writers giddy with their own ego, and readers faint from the unbearable beauty. Every sentence was a carefully constructed masterpiece that flowed effortlessly into the next, smooth and stunning like an award-winning dessert. Every word had a purpose, not one was out of place.
 
No, you don’t have to undergo trial by fire to prove your worth so I can give you access. I’m not an evil slave-driver, whatever my students may think. All you need is the ability to read my mind. You see, every so often as I’m drifting off to sleep, a gem of a phrase comes floating into my mind. If you know anything about me, you’d know that I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. So instead of falling asleep, as any self-respecting person who had to get up at dawn the next day with no hope of accessing a snooze button would do, I continue to drift. 
 
The phrase turns into a sentence, the sentence melts into another. Words are examined, turned over, and sometimes bitten to test their mettle. Some are buffed to a shine and set in their place, while others are discarded, the bite marks still obvious to the naked eye. Soon I have a piece of writing that would make anyone proud. In the final moments before I surrender to the sweet dark cloud that is sleep, I promise myself that as soon as I wake up I’ll write every beautiful word down.
 
Fast-forward a few hours, and my alarm chirps softly. My mind, still groggy, issues its commands: Must. Write. Now. But I don’t. At least not right away. When I don’t allow my day to take over, when I whip all the crumbs of my self-discipline into a quivering mass of submission, I find myself sitting with my laptop. A few, tentative, scrawny-looking words appear on the screen. I scour my frustratingly self-righteous mind for all those wonderful phrases and sentences. But I don’t have a good search engine installed in my mind. I remember a word or two, or sometimes a whole sentence. But without it’s surroundings, it stares back at me on the screen, stupid and naked in its empty surroundings. I clumsily try to bend and twist a few more sentences to my will. But after a while the inevitable happens, and I give up. 
 
Don’t worry, though. It’s all a matter of time before it happens again. One day I’m sure the cycle will break. After all, nothing lasts forever.

P.S. This is not the blog post I wrote in my mind last night. The fate of that one remains undetermined. 

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On Writer’s Block and Morning Pages

Writing

A friend of mine and I were recently chatting about writing, online writing courses, and our favorite writing books. Then she asked me a question: “How did you overcome your writer’s block?”

I tried to keep down that bitter laugh building up inside me. I could have answered her with one of my blog posts on writer’s freeze, but when I thought about it some more, I realized: I have never gotten past writer’s block, and it’s not really something you get through once and then you’re done with it.

Let me explain. Writer’s block, or the inability to get past one form of what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance” in The War of Art, is something we writers are always complaining about. It’s debilitating, crippling, and a death sentence for a writer’s career. But it’s not a disease with a cure. It’s more of a condition. What I have found is that it is something you just have to grit your teeth and bear, and write through.

Easier said than done. If it’s a block, how can we write through it? One tool I’ve fallen in love with and have found to be indispensable is what Julia Cameron dubbed “morning pages” in The Artist’s Way. Every day, as soon as you get up in the morning, just sit down and write three or more pages. It will take you about 15 minutes maximum, maybe less, maybe more, but the effect on your writing and even your mind is almost magical.

But first, I have to admit something. The longest I’ve been able to stick to a morning pages routine is a couple of weeks. It’s not because they are difficult, they aren’t. It’s not because I didn’t see any effect on my writing, I did. It’s simply a case of lack of self-discipline, and a load of other mental baggage.

And when I did stick to the morning pages routine? I soared. All my mental loops, those trains of thought that go nowhere in my mind, were silenced. The cycle of being preoccupied in our minds is broken when we allow our minds free reign on paper.  The rules are: no editing, no stopping to think about what you are writing, and these pages are for your eyes only. Whether you decide to share any of them with the world later on (as I once did here) is your decision, but you should feel utterly safe writing them, no censors, no taboos.

And once those words start flowing onto your screen, or paper (Cameron encourages writing them longhand), your mind begins to adjust yourself to its new task: writing. The more you do it, the more you are able to do it. And the more excuses you give yourself, the more obstacles and “what ifs” you put in your own way, the more difficult it becomes to break through that Resistance.

So if you want to break through your writers’ block, or any other form of Resistance, start with morning pages. Advice I should take. Thank you for reminding me, Rahma, with your question.

Two excellent posts and a video about morning pages:

Have you ever written morning pages? I’d love to hear about your experience with morning pages, and if you have any tips about sticking to the routine.

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Confessions

  1. The Magic of Turquoise, written by Mai Khaled, translated by Marwa Elnaggar

    The Book I Translated. Refer to confession 5.

    I haven’t written a single blog post since December 2010.

  2. I haven’t written a single word in my work-in-progress since December 2010.
  3. I’m using the revolution that happened in Egypt in January 2011 as an excuse for not writing.
  4. I’ve considered using the hundreds/thousands of tweets I’ve tweeted during the revolution as my “See? I have been writing.”
  5. I did translate a novella, though. And it’s been published. And I’m proud of this achievement. So I’m officially a published literary translator as well as a writer.
  6. Sometimes I’m just too lazy and lack the self-discipline to write regularly.
  7. I regret writing that last confession because I’m ashamed of it.
  8. Sometimes I’m just too afraid of writing to write. What if what I write is garbage?
  9. I regret writing that last confession as well.
  10. I usually don’t wholly believe people who say good things about my writing. You guys are just being nice, right?
  11. I usually don’t wholly believe people who say bad things about my writing. You guys are just nitpicking, right? This is always true when you don’t tell me what’s wrong with the writing.
  12. I’ve started a morning pages routine about a dozen times or so. I’ve even converted other people to this ritual. Despite seeing and feeling a real difference in my writing when I stick to the routine, I still end up quitting after a few days or weeks. Is this deliberate self-sabotage? Should I get therapy? Am I a danger to society?
  13. Sometimes when I see a beautiful work of art, I get jealous, so I go paint or sketch. I feel the same when I read a good story, or even just a well-written sentence or phrase. Do successful writers and artists feel the same when they see or read someone else’s work? I want to know because I’m trying to diagnose myself (am I petty, or does everyone else feel the same way?).
  14. I’m writing this blog post while I’m at work. My job description does not include blog-post writing.
  15. I’m writing this while I’m at work because I’m pretty confident no one at the office reads my blog.
  16. I regret writing those last two confessions. I think they qualify as “stupid”.
  17. If you’ve read this far, let me tell you that I’ve missed your comments and would love to hear one or two of your own confessions (they don’t have to be embarrassing). Or you could berate me for not writing regularly. Or just send me a cookie.

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Useful criticism: 3 tips & 3 things to remember

Useful criticism: 3 tips and 3 things to rememberI’ve written before about how destructive negative criticism can be here and here, and why writers need to be aware of the various reactions and factors that can determine how they evaluate criticism here.

Today I want to suggest 3 tips on how to elicit useful criticism, and 3 things to remember.

3 Tips

1. Always make sure you choose critique partners who are either professional editors/agents or serious writers. “Serious writer” does not necessarily mean a writer who is published, but rather a writer who is working hard, studying the craft, and writing.

2. Ask specific questions and explanation of comments. For example, if you receive a critique and find the comment “This part is boring”, ask your critique partner: “Why? What makes it boring?”

3. Ask questions beforehand, when you submit your writing to a critique partner. Tell them, “I’m looking for comments on my characterization”, rather than just leaving it up to them. If you are more worried about plot development, then by all means, ask your editor to concentrate on that. If you want a detailed line-by-line edit, then ask for it. If you don’t, then specify that.

3 Things to Remember

1. Good critique partners will offer reasons for their reactions to your writing. They will also offer suggestions, alternatives, details, and examples.

2. People will react differently to any piece of writing. What one person finds uninteresting, contrived, or flat, another will find brilliant and inspired. This is another reason you should ask more than one person.

3. Know who you are, and what you want. After you receive all the critiques you asked for, it’s you and your story or poem or article or novel. When it’s published, the words on that page will be attributed to you, so make sure you believe in every single one of them. Don’t ever allow anyone into bullying you to change something you don’t want to change.

For a great resource on critiquing and critique groups, read Becky Levine’s The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any other tips on how to elicit more useful criticism?

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An Interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 2

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed's Love in a Headscarf

The US cover of Shelina's book. It was released in the US October 2010.

Last week I published part 1 of this interview, in which Shelina Zahra Janmohamed talked about her book Love in a Headscarf, why she wrote it, and how it was received.

This week, Janmohamed delves into her own writing process, talks about receiving rejection letters, and offers advice to writers.

M: I want to get deeper into your writing process, how do you balance a full time job with your writing?

Janmohamed: I write because I love it, and because I have something that I want to say. I spend weekends and evenings tapping away, or writing little notes down at odd times (and on very strange scraps of paper) so that when I do find time to write, I have some sparks to kick start me.

M: Do you have any writing routines?

Janmohamed: No. It takes me a while to get into writing something, but once I’ve got going, I tend to write with a passion.

M: Are you part of a critique group? Where do you get feedback on your writing?

Janmohamed: I asked my close friends whose opinions and literary talents I respect to give me feedback on my book. It’s a huge imposition to ask someone to read a book, and not one that I make lightly.

M: What would you say is the single most important lesson you learned when writing (and publishing) Love in a Headscarf?

Janmohamed: Be true to your vision, you are the best supporter that your work can have.

M: Is there anything about writing and/or publishing you know now that you wished you knew when you first started writing LIAH?

Janmohamed: It’s a much harder and slower process than you might imagine. And it’s certainly not lucrative. But the joy of holding your book in print is unimaginable.

M: I know that there are a lot of Muslim women who are interested in writing about their own experiences as a form of self-expression, but may be worried about reactions from their communities and families. What would you say to them?

Janmohamed: The only way to change society is to be brave. If we are not willing to put ourselves out there, then things can never improve. I’d say, have the right intention, ask Allah for guidance, and then start a gentle evolution. Courage is a difficult thing to practice, but we must all try.

M: What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Janmohamed: Ensure that the quality of your writing is the best it can be. When you write, make sure you say something original either in content, or in the way you say it. And make every effort you can to get your work out there. Promotion is your best friend.

M: You wrote LIAH as a memoir rather than a novel. Do you think you are more comfortable writing nonfiction or do you see yourself as writing fiction in the future?

Janmohamed: Non-fiction is a genre that conveys what I want to communicate. However, I veer into creative non-fiction which at times has a storytelling style that is quite like fiction, and has the same qualities to transport you into an alternate domain.

M: Do you mind sharing with us how you found your publisher? From your interview in The Asian Writer, it looks like you didn’t have to deal with rejection letters. How did you decide on which agents and publishers to solicit and which to choose?

Janmohamed: Actually I have a whole folder full of rejection letters from publishers, varying from bog standard photocopies which go out to anyone who has sent in a manuscript, to more personal notes. Eventually I narrowed down my choices to six agents. I met with each of them in turn to understand whether they shared my vision as a writer and also to see if I thought they would do a good job of representing me. I eventually chose Diane Banks – and I haven’t regretted my choice for a moment.

M: And finally, what’s your next writing project?

Janmohamed: Right now I’ve been focusing on writing newspaper and magazine columns, but I definitely plan to write another book in the future – God willing!

Thank you, Shelina, for a fascinating interview.

I hope all of you have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s website: www.spirit21.co.uk

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