22 May 2017

Guest Post: A Book Review by Molly

Hello readers! Alex has been mighty busy these past days (weeks?) for the reasons he has already mentioned: university, journalism, essay writing, and of course, Fallen Love. He will update you on the latest events soon. Until then, why not read this guest post by Molly Fennig—the second guest post ever published here on the Magical Realm—and also my own review on her website. Happy reading!

Guest post by Molly Fennig, teen author of the YA thriller INSOMNUS and blogger for mollyfennig.com.

purple-hearts

I picked up Tess Wakefield’s debut novel Purple Hearts in a bookstore in Wisconsin, in part because she was a Minnesota author, just like I am, and in part because I loved the cover with the converse shoes and work boots underneath a teal background with a white title (as much as it is frowned upon to judge books by covers as a metaphor, I firmly believe there’s a reason the metaphor exists, especially when there’s not much else that can be considered when choosing a book).

The other reason I bought Purple Hearts was because I was intrigued by the blurb. I spend a long time picking up book after book, carefully setting it back because the backs promised a Girl who meets A Boy who is Not Like Any Other Boy or stories that seemed similarly cliché. Purple Hearts, on the other hand, is about a girl, Cassie, who marries a soldier for his health insurance and they must “set aside their differences to make it look like a real marriage… unless, somewhere along the way, it becomes one…”

Although it’s easy to see where the story might go, the way in which the story unfolds and the choices the characters make are not cut-and-dry, creating a book that is hard to put down. The dilemmas are realistic, as are the solutions, and the plot is character-driven, as it should be.

One of the first things that pulled me into this book was the writing style. Part of me kept reading because the plot was compelling for sure, but an equally large part of me kept reading because I wanted to keep experiencing the wonder that is Tess Wakefield’s writing. The dialogue is realistic. The characters are complex. The figurative language is beautiful. If her writing contained nutritional value, I would happily eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week.

This was also a book with one of the most successful uses of multiple points of view, where the narrator switches each chapter. Part of this is due to Wakefield having created strong characters that are not too much alike and both have similar, although maybe not exactly equal, narrating power. The chapters are short, keeping the pace of the book fast, and the switch between the points of view is amazingly effortless for the reader.

(Spoilers): In terms of what I would have changed in the book, I had a little trouble believing Luke wouldn’t have any more problems with his drug dealer just having beaten him up, especially since I’m sure Johnno has other people he could recruit to help get back at Luke. I’m okay with it, especially since I can’t think of a better solution except maybe calling the cops, but it made me have less faith in his decision-making abilities.

Also, I loved the ending, but I also think it could’ve been longer, at least so I (selfishly) could’ve experienced just a little more of Wakefield’s writing. It did feel make the story feel complete and cohesive, which I loved. Also, the ending was realistic and fitting without being too predictable, a feat for which I thoroughly commend Wakefield.

All in all, I think adults and young adults alike would love this book, especially those who like romance that isn’t too cliché or cheesy and who like rounded characters, great writing, and a unique premise. I can’t wait to read what Wakefield writes next.

If you liked this post, check out my blog for writing tips, book reviews and more, mollyfennig.com, and check out my book, INSOMNUS, on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

10 May 2017

The Battle is Won, but the War Continues

As part of my journalism endeavours, I have written another article on the French elections, this time regarding Macron’s challenges as he enters the Élysée. An excerpt is quoted below; the full link can be found at the bottom.

It would be no understatement to say that Macron’s victory in the second round of the French presidential elections has made EU politicians sigh with relief. His opponent — the Front National candidate — ran on a platform that included taking France out of the euro, calling a referendum on ‘Frexit’, and turning France into a facsimile of the Vichy Régime. Regardless of standard political considerations, Macron’s success was a victory for all decent people throughout Europe; it demonstrated a rebuttal to neofascism and a vote for liberalism, no matter how flawed.

But although the election is over, the war is not. Le Pen will be back again; the populists and their ilk will continue fighting elsewhere in Europe, whether in Austria, Denmark or indeed the UK. It is not enough to merely make the arguments for tolerance and European co-operation. Rather, it is also about convincing the voting public that the answer to our ills — be it employment, security in work, the role of supranational institutions, or tensions with immigrant communities — does not lie in embracing the easy promises of populists or the seductive certainty of hatred.

Read more...

2 May 2017

May Day (Or was that yesterday?)

Hello readers!

Alas, I have not been able to keep the Magical Realm up-to-date with the latest developments; you can blame it on my university work (papers, and exams!), as well as my work on Fallen Love and Red Pers. Still: no time for excuses. Today my update will be brief, but hopefully informative.

Progress on Fallen Love

Alas things have been going slowly. I have a large number of ideas for revision, and not nearly enough time, it would seem, to get down to writing them. To recapitulate: part one is complete, and I am currently halfway through revising it. I am changing the tense to present-tense; I am making changes to various scenes; I am adding things; I am subtracting things; and generally I am obsessing over things.

Red Pers

My journalism has been more productive. I have edited two articles: Shambhavi’s on the Turkish referendum and Saga’s article which will be published on the website Wednesday. I shall be writing an article of my own soon, though this week I have had an exam with another coming on Thursday; time is in short supply.

Essays

Finally, I have a confession to make: I have been very busy writing essays for paid competitions. I have submitted to ERIS, a humanities journal; and to IES, a website dedicated to space science. I cannot release my essays just yet... but I am confident they will win. Do keep an eye out for the announcement.

Life in General

I will finish this blog post with a few general notes on my life in other areas. I have visited my parents in Glasgow, and will soon release the photos I took therein. I have also been reading—writers are, after all, profligate readers—and once more I will remind you that my reviews can be found in the “Reviews” tab up top.

Very well. Time waits for no one; I shall be back with more updates, but until then, keep following!

16 Apr 2017

Easter Musings

Hail readers!

Alex shall today use his Easter break to discuss another intriguing aspect of writing: first-person versus third-person narration. This is a topic that is quite bog-standard in creative writing circles, but one which Alex has not really thought about too much—until now. The reason, of course, is Fallen Love; it employs first-person present-tense narration, and this inevitably poses some challenges when compared to the Necromancer, which is third-person past tense.

So without further ado, allow me to present my thoughts on the advantages—and challenges—of the different narration styles. Hopefully you will find the discussion interesting (and well suited to a quiet Easter break, unlike my usual fiery polemics).

First or Third Person Narration? (Read: Intimacy or Flexibility?)

What, then, is the difference between these two common narration styles? The obvious answer is that first-person narration reveals the events through the eyes of the character (using “I”) whereas third person narration makes of a detached narrator (using “he”, “she” etc.) Nonetheless, there are some additional variations to consider: the third person style, for example, can be limited or omniscient. The first person style can be reliable or unreliable, and also has various degrees of closeness to the character.

To address the confusion, here is a list expounding the differences:

  • First person. In general, this is used for intimacy, especially when the story revolves around one important main character.
  • Unreliable: this is when the character’s account of the story is not always reliable—the character may lie, or fail to mention important things, and so on. This style is useful for certain narrative purposes.
  • Reliable: this should be obvious enough. Still, although the character doesn’t lie, their account of the story is limited by their own perception. This style isn’t equivalent to third-person-omniscient, by any means.
  • Third person. This is useful for telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters, and tends to de-emphasise the importance of one character in the grander narrative.
  • Limited: this is when the narrator doesn’t know the future or have perfect knowledge of the past. You can imagine the narrator as being someone close to the characters—knowledgeable, but human.
  • Omniscient/God narrator: this is when the narrator has a bird’s eye view of the events in both time and space.

So when and why do we use these different styles? There is actually no single answer; there are various recommendations, and some writers and editors swear by them, but as far as I’m concerned choosing between the styles is very much down to artistic choice.

You may have noticed that, earlier on in this post, I used the third person; right now I am using the first. This reflects a change in what my writing is doing. In the first instance, third person narration acted as a form of self-deprecation, and gave the reader a humorous introduction both to the topic and to me as a personality. In the second instance, the first person style serves to give me my own distinct voice, and thus carry a sense of authority.

Writing fiction works in a similar way. First person narration usually works to give the reader a sense of intimacy and connection with the main character—and a lot of readers enjoy this. Third person narration can be very impersonal, and usually works well to carry across a complex multidimensional plot. The dehumanising effect is another element of it: Game of Thrones is a good example of this.

But note the words usually and can. The reality—as with many things in writing—is that these different narration styles can blur together, or even act contrary to standard doctrine. Some first person narration is very intimate indeed, whereas other first-person narration is more detached; this depends on the main character’s personality. Third person narration can be intimate: it can tell the reader a character’s darkest secrets and brightest hopes. Some authors have a very warm, intimate, or humorous third-person voice.

Mark Lawrence, an author I regularly read and admire, has written a lot of dark fantasy in first-person narration. In his case, the question is not so much about making the reader like the main character (in the traditionally understood sense); rather, it’s about getting the reader to understand just how dark and depraved the main character can be (but making them love the character just the same).

Trudi Canavan, another author I admire, writes very compellingly in third person. Her romances make me swoon—at least figuratively, since swooning would be terribly unlike me.

So, to conclude: generally speaking, writing in first person is about intimacy, and writing in third person is about perspective, flexibility, and emphasis on plot. But writing is complicated. There are many things that go into character development and plot; the narrative style is more of a tool, and one that can be used according to preference.

What About Fallen Love?

This leads me onto the complicated subject that is my new novel. I have written the book in first-person, but I have broken a traditional rule: the narration is not in the eyes of one character, but three, and possibly more. Namely, we read it in Conall, Mark, and Kaylin’s perspectives.

The first reason is simple—there are many important plot elements which go on behind the scenes, and which Kaylin is somewhat aware of, but not the two boys. The second reason is also obvious: I like reading romance from both sides.

Still, this choice brings some challenges. For one, readers can sometimes struggle with multiple first-person Points-of-View (although my beta readers have not complained, so perhaps the number of POV changes and how they are accomplished matters). For two, it’s quite demanding in a technical sense.

Take language. Conall, an Upperclassman and poet, tends to use more elaborate language in place of the simple. Mark, on the other hand, usually uses more direct expression. Still, neither of them are stupid—getting the balance right is tricky.

Of course one might ask why I didn’t use third-person. The answer is that I wanted to focus on character development in this book, more so than in the Necromancer. In the latter book, world-building and fast-paced plot kept the story flowing; in the former, I think the reader needs to be closer to the characters in order to really understand them.

A Brief Note About Tenses

Since this post is proving fairly lengthy, I shall keep my digressions into the role of tense relatively short. Two kinds of tenses are used in fiction writing: past and present. The former uses ‘are/is’ and the latter ‘were/was’. (Of course, there are 12 tenses in the English language, so this is a gross simplification.)

What do they do? Is there any difference between them? Frankly, I have found them to be problematic. I wrote the Necromancer mainly in the past tense, and Fallen Love was a mishmash until I settled on present. The difference seems to be one of grammatical pedantry, as opposed to a real literary technique; whether the prose is written in present or past tense, it makes little difference.

Rather, I have found that the usual truisms about tense—present is for immediate action; past for complex, multi-layered narrative-building—to be, well, truisms. The myriad action scenes in the Necromancer were very fast paced, despite the use of past-tense. Conversely, I have worked on the action scenes in Fallen Love so that they flow better. Other elements of writing—punctuation, the characters’ interest and motivation, the reader’s knowledge of the plot—have far more of an impact.

Finishing Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed my rather long and technical musings on this matter. To surmise it all in a few sentences: first person is for intimacy, third for scaled up narrative building; past is for multidimensional plot, present for immediate; and all of these are just generalisations.

So there you have it. I will be doing more blogging soon, although—aside from my work on Fallen Love and my commitments to Red Pers—I am also busy with academic work. Still, I will be visiting my parents again on Friday, and will have the week largely free.

Until then!

12 Apr 2017

The Year of the New Europe

Hello readers!

Alex previously promised you two things. Firstly, that he is busy working on the new book, Fallen Love; this is a promise that Alex has kept. He has written 48,000 words, and is well on the way to finishing beta-reader suggested revisions. If you are interested in learning more about the new book, check out the “Upcoming Books” page.

But what of the second promise? Alex intended to write more about European politics. His piece on the Dutch elections was part of that—but of course Alex knows that is insufficient for you hungry readers. Thus, allow him to present his new piece on the French and German elections. Since Alex is a Red Pers editor—for those of you who don’t know, Red Pers is a Dutch newspaper startup run by local students—this piece has been published on their website.

So, without further ado: the link. Enjoy!

4 Apr 2017

Twilight: A Review

Hello readers!

Although, as I have already warned you, I am immensely busy both with university life and with my continued efforts on Fallen Love, I have managed to find a window of opportunity for something else: a book review. As you may be able to guess, it concerns Twilight, that most hated—and loved—of vampire novels. Here are my thoughts...

The world’s most loved vampire novel; the world’s most hated vampire novel. Revered with religious zealotry by its fans—and hated with equal zeal by its detractors. It’s Twilight, and... well, I love it. But you already knew that. The question I want to answer is: why?

This question is not as simple as it may first appear. Many have been mystified by the enormous success of these books (according to the publisher, over 100 million copies have been sold) and while many explanations have been put forward, they are—to my mind—highly superficial. So: allow me to provide my own theory.

As you can guess, this review will not be written in the usual style. Normally, I would address the book from the perspective of plot and pacing; characterisation; setting; and of course, writing prowess. By this formulaic account, Twilight is a perfectly good book. The plot is strong and for the most part well paced (albeit a little slow at times). The setting—Forks: a grey, rainy, and strangely phantasmagoric place—is excellent. Characterisation is fine, with character roles being clearly defined and compelling. The writing is clear and occasionally poetic.

Since the critics are probably frothing at the mouth by this point, I will delay the onset of my main argument to counter the points they raise. First off: no, the writing is not bad. It is clear, well-punctuated, and successfully paints both the pallid landscape of Forks and the beautifully seductive Edward. To peruse some examples:

Phoenix—the palm trees, the scrubby creosote, the haphazard lines of the intersecting freeways, the green swaths of golf courses and turquoise splotches of swimming pools, all submerged in a thin smog and embraced by the short, rocky ridges that weren’t really big enough to be called mountains.
The shadows of the palm trees slanted across the freeway—defined, sharper than I remembered, paler than they should be. Nothing could hide in these shadows. The bright, open freeway seemed benign enough.

Regarding Edward:

His liquid topaz eyes were penetrating
He laughed a soft, enchanting laugh.

(You get the picture.)

As for the claim that Bella is an idiotic teenage girl dangerously obsessed with a killer: sure, that’s true in a very superficial sense. But I don’t think the critics are giving them enough credit. Bella is hardly a fool, for one; she’s intelligent, an avid reader of the classics, taking AP classes and planning on going to university. Edward is a vampire, yes, and a monster; but he is also selfless, urbane, capable of kindness, and willing to go against his nature in order to save human lives.

And this leads me nicely onto my main argument. The reason why Twilight has millions of adoring fans, and the reason why it draws such a storm of criticism, is the same for both groups. In Twilight, vampires are not cuddly. They may sparkle, they may be beautiful and charming—but they are monsters. Impossibly strong, indestructible to bullets, venomous; these abilities fuse together with something altogether more frightening.

Bloodlust. Vampires kill in Twilight, and they kill a lot.

So where does this put Bella and Edward? Meyer has a pithy set of lines:

“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb . . .” he murmured. I looked away, hiding my eyes as I thrilled to the word.
“What a stupid lamb,” I sighed.
“What a sick, masochistic lion.”

The beauty of this book—and what draws its readers in—is this conflict. Love and death; human and vampire. Edward isn’t seductive just because he’s beautiful (as every other vampire is). In the forest grove scene, quoted above, the answer is clear: it’s because he does, despite being a monster, try to hold onto his humanity. It’s why Bella—and the millions of girls and women in her feet—fall so hard for him.

Critics, of course, provide the superficial explanation that Edward is a girl’s perfect fantasy (in much the same way teenage boys fantasise about hot, available women). After all, Edward doesn’t pressure for sex; he’s charming, protective, and good looking.

All of this is true, but a problem remains for the critics’ account. Why haven’t other books that replicate the same—be it with vampires or any other male protagonist—failed to gain the same success?

Nor does it quite capture the nuances of this book. For one, the duo don’t have sex for the simple reason that Edward would kill her if they tried; but Meyer makes it clear that the attraction is sexual as with any other couple. Maybe Edward, rather than being Bella’s perfect fantasy, is simply a responsible, mature adult, much like she is.

And yes: Bella is an adult, not just a whiny teenage girl. She cooks dinner and drives her own car. She takes responsibility for her schoolwork, and shows a high degree of social awareness. Her poor co-ordination and obsessive interest in Edward is one that many girls of her age (and older) are familiar with.

This brings me, at last, to my conclusion. Twilight is a fine book from a formulaic perspective—it’s competently written (albeit not a work of poetry), the plot keeps the reader tightly engaged, and the characterisation is spot-on. But this book has a magic ingredient that goes beyond all that: vampirism, and more broadly, the line between monster and human.

Critics may scoff at it and dismiss it. They may provide convenient explanations for its success, and wrinkle their nose at its prosaic writing (even though it’s not really that prosaic, and is written better than many ‘literary’ novels that abuse the English language with their logorrhea). Ultimately, though, Twilight stands on its own legs: 100 million copies, four blockbuster films, and an entire social phenomenon.

14 Mar 2017

Politics and Agenda 2017

Hello readers!

I hope you enjoyed the guest contribution by Molly Fennig, and also my own guest post on her website. Today I am back to the usual Magical Realm fare: politics, and writing. But before we go onto the former, allow me to speak about the latter.

Fallen Love

I can now officially declare that part one of two is complete; the book is more than halfway to being finished.

This, as you can imagine, is excellent news—and it has come at no small cost to myself, as I have been most busy writing (as well as dealing with the general rough and tumble of academic life). Thankfully, my writing goals and deadlines have proven useful in motivating me.

For the time being, I am not working on Fallen Love; instead I am focusing either on academic life or on fulfilling my duties here at the Magical Realm. This is actually because I am leaving the book to rest in the drawer for a bit before I go back to revising it (and I will revise it) and to writing the second part. I have reached a milestone—but more is left to go.

Once I do begin working on it again, however, I will sadly be unable to make more than token efforts at blogging. You can blame it on the significant academic work I have to deal with—it falls on top of everything. Still, you can still follow me on Twitter (@AlexStargazerWE) as well as on Google Plus (+AlexBujorianu).

‘But Alex!’ you cry: ‘Won’t you give us any juicy details?’

Well, since you insist…

I wanted it to be a fairytale. I would love him; he would love me. We would sing happily ever after and set off into the sunshine.

But dark forces are at work. It’s not just the Party—the monstrous authoritarian regime that bans our relationship. It’s not just our Class, or our failings out, or family, or school. The boy I fell in love with might not be entirely human…

Onto Politics

I could talk about Brexit on the eve of Article 50 being declared—and with the culmination of countless ammendments, both in the Commons and the Lords, that were designed to offer a sensible Brexit but were defeated by gutless Tory MPs and a useless Opposition.

I could talk about Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon has declared that the new Independence referendum will be in Autumn 2018. I could talk about how me and my parents will vote…

But I won’t. In all honesty, I’ve written enough about that already (see: The Brexit Bus or just search ‘Brexit’ in the bar to the right). There is nothing to add, at this point, beyond more speculation: it’s time to wait and see now. Let Theresa May declare Article 50 and see if she gets her wishlist from the EU. Let the campaign for the new Independence referendum begin.

Instead I will be writing a little bit about an election closer to home: the 2017 Dutch elections. Polling day is tomorrow; and while the stakes are not that high, this election will nevertheless be important both for me and for setting the mood in 2017.

Some background is in order. The Dutch have a political system that not only includes proportional representation, but also has very few barriers to entering politics in general—there’s no lower limit to enter parliament and even the finances of standing for election are unusually liberal. This results in a political system that is extremely fragmented. No: I mean it. There are 11 (eleven) major parties. Even I, a politics aficionado, am torn—with D66, Groen Links, and even PvdA having plus points and minus points that put them on an equal footing.

I am not going to give you all a rundown of the 11 parties and their main ideologies and political positions. That would take too long; and besides, it is superfluous for our purposes. Instead, I will say this: all of the eleven parties bar two are respectable. This is not to say that I agree with them—but it is to say that they practise serious (non-populist) politics, and that they respect the fundamental tenets of modern liberal society. By this, I mean two things: secularism, and human rights. The latter involves touchy subjects like the rights of gay people and minorities.

The Christian Union is a fringe theocratic party. But the elephant in the room is the PVV (the so-called Party for Freedom and Democracy). Essentially, it is the Dutch equivalent of UKIP. Oh sure—it has some peculiarly Dutch liberal window dressing. Geert Wilders, the charismatic, comedian-like lunatic in charge of it, is happy to defend gay people and liberal democracy—from Muslim immigrants. According to him, the public enemy no.1 in the Netherlands is Islamofascism. (Public enemy no.2 is the EU.)

The trouble with the PVV is that they’re not all wrong. Islam is not the religion of peace—it hasn’t been since Muhammad and the Shia-Sunni split. It certainly isn’t good for the Middle East; indeed I and others have argued that it’s the real root of the conflicts there, more so than Western intervention—and on par with Ba’athism. And Muslim immigrants in Holland do hold some disturbing views: while 91% of the Dutch population supports same-sex marriage (Eurobarometer 2015) this is less true of the Muslim population. In the UK one study found that half of Muslims thought homosexuality should be illegal (The Guardian).

Unfortunately, one does not fight fascism by electing fascists. And Geert Wilders has uncanny similarities with fascists: he wants to ban all Mosques, for example. Even Donald Trump hasn’t suggested that yet. (And it’s an even more extreme position than he had a few years ago, when he merely suggested height limits for mosques, and then banning the construction of new mosques). That’s not all; the rhetoric he employs is reminiscient of Hitler. Dutch mainstream politicians have betrayed ordinary Dutch people. They are all in a conspiracy with the evil Muslims. Refugees (or ‘migrants’) are an army waiting at the gates. The EU is an international plot to undermine the will of the Dutch people.

Compare this with Hitler. He also said that mainstream politicians colluded with a disparaged minority (Jews) to undermine the will of the true German people. He also believed that an international conspiracy acted to undermine the glory of the Third Reich.

Anyway, that’s enough about Wilders. Let’s ask a different question: what kind of political power will he get in this election?

Current polls put his party between 13% and 20% of the vote. This is disturbing—in the latter case the PVV would be the largest party in parliament—but par for the course for the European far right. The thing is, even if the PVV is the largest party, this isn’t saying much in the fragmented political landscape. Even 20% is a long way off 50%. And virtually no one is willing to go into coalition with him.

So the Dutch elections are really about waging a wider moral battle. The forces of liberalism and pro-Europeanism on one side (embodied especially by D66, CDA and GroenLinks)—and the force of dark nationalism on the other. While I won’t go as far as to say that the Dutch elections will influence other elections in Europe, I think it is fair to say they make for an interesting case study.