Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Friday, July 30, 2010

Hey, YA!

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

Two books about hunger, poverty, and death. You know, for kids.

I Like Games

Unputdownable: ‘Tis a rare trait in books, and the older I get the rarer it becomes. It had been a year since my last encounter with an unputdownable book,1 and I was beginning to wonder whether another story would come along and grip me the way so many had in my childhood. I never suspected my next one might also come from the realm of YA.2 Yet, The Hunger Games pulled me in, and I simply (let me apologize ahead of time for the horrendous pun, though in my defense, no matter what the book was called I’d be using this very same wording) devoured it.

The circumstances for the story – a couple dozen teenagers battling to the death for their nation’s entertainment – may be reminiscent of a 10-year-old Japanese film, but Suzanne Collins does a better job of justifying her characters’ situation. In the remains of what was once the United States, the Capitol has set up the Hunger Games as punishment for a past rebellion. Every year, each of the twelve districts must send one girl and one boy to compete. For the poorer regions, such as District 12, this is akin to a death sentence.

As you might expect for this type of book, the main character is a sympathetic one, loath to hurt others except in self defense. And though Katniss Everdeen hails from District 12, we know from the very first page she’ll survive the Games.3 What keeps the pages turning, however, are all the unanswered questions: How does Katniss survive; does she win or escape? How are the Games structured? Will the kids gang together or go it alone? And would a baker without a sense of humor really name his son Peeta? Really?

The book is well-written, and its world and characters are engaging, but one of the things I enjoyed most was its treatment of love. Whereas many characters in modern YA lust after each other in a sparkly PG-13 manner, Katniss has a complete lack of interest in (and, indeed, understanding of) romantic love. Familial love she can get behind, but the idea of romance only appeals to her if it can facilitate her survival. Not only does this give great insight into Kat’s character and the world she grew up in, but I also found that not having love as a central theme was, at least for me, rather refreshing.

Of course, even an unputdownable book has its faults. It could have used more commas, for instance. I’m serious; some sentences would have flowed more naturally with that extra bit of punctuation inserted in the appropriate spot. Also, because the story is from Kat’s perspective, we miss out on actions that occur outside her purview. By itself, this is understandable, but when Katniss learns the details later on, we’re still left in the dark. Collins introduces some intriguing secondary and tertiary characters who (warning: not really a spoiler) die, and I wanted to know what happened. Yet we never get any clues as to what caused their demise.

And, despite numerous hints that Kat will fight back against the Capitol, none of it comes to fruition in this first book. Somehow, the ending manages to be both excellent (a skillful set-up for the second book) and unsatisfying (incomplete, with too much left for the later volumes). Nevertheless, The Hunger Games is an excellent read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone and everyone.

Oh, and you might like it, too.


1 Something about Deathly Hallows or some such nonsense.
2 That’s Young Adult, for the uninitiated. If you are initiated, please point me in the direction of the Kool-Aid. Thanks a bunch.
3 When a book is the first in a trilogy and told in the first person, the main character’s survival is patently obvious. (Patent pending.)

I Like Books

In contrast, I had a hard time getting into this one. It’s the narrator. I’ll get to why in a moment, but first I want to cover the good stuff. And most of it is good stuff.

Markus Zusak has written an exceptional story, filled with bits of vivid imagery and marvelous prose I can only hope to match someday in my own work. The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany during World War II, and yes, it involves a Jew hidden in a basement, but it’s much more than that. It’s about the poor struggling to survive under Hitler’s regime. It’s about family. And friendship. And weaving through it all, one young girl’s love affair with books.

The tale is masterfully written, and by the end I was bawling like a little schoolgirl.4 This is all the more impressive considering I knew what was going to happen ahead of time. How did I know? Zusak told me.

No, not personally. But throughout the book, rather than keep us in suspense, Death comes right out and tells us what’s about to transpire. He might not provide all the details, but he doesn’t have to. And yet, this peculiar technique in no way detracts from the story. Indeed, it gives Death a little more personality.

Speaking of which, let’s delve into the bad. Some consider Death a gimmicky choice for the narrator, but that description isn’t quite apt. For lack of a better word, I’d say Death as the narrator is “clunky.” In the prologue, Death goes into detail about how he sees the world in myriad shades of colors, but in the rest of the tale few but the most common hues are mentioned. Also, The Book Thief is supposedly his retelling of Liesel Meminger’s story from a book she has written. Yet, we occasionally learn other characters’ thoughts and emotions, and Death’s explanations for why he took such an interest in Liesel in the first place feel forced and somewhat awkward.

Sometimes, he inserts extra details
in centered and bold text.
Like this.
It bugged me.

But mostly, I found Death’s narration didn’t add much to the tale except distraction. For the majority of the book, he basically acts as an omniscient third-person narrator — and indeed, these are the smoothest parts of the novel — but every so often, he interjects his own perspective with “I” or “my,” and every time, it yanked me right out of the story. Zusak should have stuck with third-person omniscient.

If you can get past the narration, however, The Book Thief is a phenomenal tale. I suggest you check it out.


4 An extremely manly little schoolgirl.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Horrible Puns For The Win

Libraries have been getting a lot of praise lately. The Old Spice Guy likes libraries. The New Spice Guy loves them. Now, I’ve always been a huge advocate of libraries, but they’re no longer my #1 source for free books. I’ve found something much, much better.

Internet contests.

Win an online contest, and you don’t even have to go to the library; the free books will come to you. For instance, over the weekend, I won a writing contest hosted by literary agent Janet Reid. Three days later, Stuart Neville’s Ghosts of Belfast and Collusion were delivered directly to my doorstep.1

Free stuff makes me goofy.2

The challenge? To write a story in 100 words or less, using each of the following words at least once: Bacon, Resistance, Simpson, Fenske, and Reed.

My winning entry, as selected by Janet Reid:
“I don’t want to marry the simpson.”

“Of course you do, Gwyn. And enunciate; you’ll soon be a noble. It’s two words: simp’s son.”

“No. I don’t care if he’s a fenske—ow!”

Her father’s fingers were reed-thin, but his grip was firm. “Not fenskeeper. Keeper of the Fens. Show some respect. He protects our marshlands. Our home. Remember what I always say.”

“Bacon makes everything better?”

“Not that. The other one.”

Gwyn groaned. “Resistance is feudal.”

“Exactly. Serfs may rebel against that simp of a lord, but we’re above that. Here, have some bacon, and let’s get you hitched.”

I hope this has been a lesson for you all: Bad puns can be used for good. And yes, I can finish a complete thought in 100 words or less. Although, if you only take one thing away from this post, it should be this: Libraries are great, but online writing contest are better.

Even more so with bacon.

1 True story. Right there on the doorstep. I have no idea why the guy didn’t ring the doorbell, though. I was home.
2 Okay, okay. Free stuff makes me goofi-er.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Something's Afoot

After three straight posts without any footnotes,1 I presume2 that3 some of you4 may be suffering from acute footnote withdrawal.5 Hopefully,6 this short post will help get you back on your feet7 and8 feeling more like yourself9 in no time.10

1 My previous record was one. And for the record, I don’t mean “straight” as in “heterosexual.” I’m not going to label my blog posts as gay or ungay; that’s for them to decide on their own. I’ll love them no matter what.
2 If I assumed, I’d make an ass out of you and me, and I’m not comfortable doing that since I may not even know you. By presuming, I instead make a <pre> out of  
Sue  and  me, which doesn’t affect you and isn’t nearly as offensive to Sue. (I do love web design humor.)
3 That that is unnecessary. The sentence would have worked fine without it.
4 Specifically, Naomi and Maureen.
5 Possible symptoms include: headache, nausea, cotton mouth, cauliflower ear, corn rows, hay fever, rubber neck, sereve lysdexia, and an uncontrollable urge to stab anyone or anything that does not have notes at its feet.
6 I’ve left this in as an example of bad grammar. “Hopefully” is not synonymous with “I hope.” It is an adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner,” and should only be used as such. Hopefully, thanks to this lesson, you won’t make this mistake again.
7 You are such a klutz. And don’t try suing me for damages, either; I have an attack lawyer, and I know how to use him.
8 That’s right: there’s more!
9 Unless you’d rather feel like someone else. John Malkovich, perhaps? I know just the place.
10 Are you cured yet? It’s been no time already. If you still need a heavy dose of footnotes to nurse you back to full health, go read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. You’ll feel right as rain — or left as snow — in no time. Give or take a few hours.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Web Design Fail

I have designed web sites for thirteen years. I’ve done so professionally for ten. That may not be apparent from looking at my blog, but this is meant to be an outlet for my writing, not an extension of my day job. Other than adding the image of the wheel (which may or may not be on fire) and making a couple minor tweaks to the code, I’ve left the template pretty much as I found it.

One of those tweaks has been costing me followers.

All I wanted was to let readers view large images without opening them up in another page. I’d used Lightbox scripts before without issue, and the website touted it as simple and unobtrusive. Well, it obtruded. Thanks to this code, almost every browser failed to display the “Follow” button and my tiny list of followers.

What’s that? You weren’t aware my blog had any followers? You must have been using Internet Explorer. Or Firefox. Or Chrome. Or Safari. Perhaps Opera. (Do people actually use Opera?) As far as I can tell, only certain versions of Firefox showed my Followers section consistently. I’ll give you one guess as to which I was using.

Any web designer worth his salt would have discovered this issue in a manner of days. A couple weeks, tops. So, how long did it take me to find out? Ten months. And that was only because a friendly neighborhood blogger alerted me to my missing “Follow” button. (Thanks, Carol!) I'm such a fool. Clearly, salt is too good for me.

Now that I’ve removed the offending code, you can easily follow this blog using your Google, Twitter, Yahoo, OpenID, or etc. account. Of course, you may be wondering why you’d ever want to do such a thing.

As it so happens, I made a list.

10 Reasons You Might Want to Follow My Blog
  1. You aren’t following my blog yet. Seems pretty straightforward to me.
  2. If you do, it’ll make me infinitely happy. Literally. My happiness will go on and on and on, looping around on itself until the end of my days. It will not go beyond infinity, however; that’s where Emperor Zurg lives.
  3. If you don’t, I will send monkeys to your house. And I’m not talking about those darling monkeys with the cute little faces you see on television or at the zoo. No, I’m talking about the evil, godforsaken monkeys of the damned, with razor-sharp teeth, blood-stained claws, and an insatiable thirst for wanton destruction. Monkeys who would love nothing more than to strap you down and force you to watch Pauly Shore movies. Those monkeys.
  4. It just stole the diamond necklace, and it’s getting away. If you can track it all the way back to the gang’s rendezvous point, you might be able to unmask the mastermind behind the heist and finally make Detective. Quick, it’s hailing a taxi!
  5. You heard it through the grapevine. Oh, sorry. I misread “reasons” as “raisins” for a second there. Let’s just go ahead and change #5 to You love bad puns.
  6. You think I’m funny. Looking. And picturing me do stupid things while you read my writing makes you feel better about yourself. Glad I could help.
  7. You’re no longer allowed to follow me personally. Dude, I got the restraining order for a reason.
  8. You could win something. No, not now. But every once in a while I will run a contest, and if you’re lucky you might win, and if you’re even luckier, you might claim your prize, unlike every winner to date.
  9. Out of pity. Go on, pity the fool. (And again we’re back to #5.)

    And, the single biggest reason to follow my blog:

  10. Footnotes! Scads and scads of footnotes! What? You don’t see any footnotes at the end of this post? Well, maybe if you followed my blog...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Big Problem

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a girl named Brittany who was kind of a control freak. She traveled throughout the land, coercing others to do what she wanted, and fighting those who resisted until they bent to her will. Eventually her little brother, fed up with her rules and restrictions, ran away from home. He found a little place on the other side of the pond where he could live the way he wanted to. He hung out with savages, rarely bathed, and changed his name to Amerigo.

Things were tough for Amerigo in his new home, but for a while he was happy. Nevertheless, he couldn’t escape Brittany’s controlling influence. She visited him regularly to tell him what he should be doing differently, and then force him to hand over a portion of his allowance. He maintained a friendly fa├žade, but inwardly he seethed. Out from under her watchful eye most of the time, he slowly grew bigger and stronger and more confident.

The next time Brittany demanded a larger cut of his allowance, Amerigo argued that he should be allowed to keep all of his money. She tried to appease him with tea.

That was the final straw.

Amerigo rebelled, demanding his independence; Brittany would hear none of it. They battled for what seemed like years, but in the end Brittany succumbed to Amerigo and his savage tactics. Amerigo was finally free. After a period of inner conflict, he began to thrive.

The two siblings mellowed as they got older, and their animosity for each other faded. Sure, Brittany could be a bit stodgy at times, and Amerigo was egotistical and occasionally violent, but they got along. They even grew to enjoy each other’s company.

And then Brittany’s son went and spilled a large bucket of ink in Amerigo’s home.

It was an accident. Byron Pete delivered ink to everyone around the pond in exchange for a small fee, to keep the wells full and the quills running smoothly. He was an enterprising lad, and Brittany was very proud of him. But he’d stumbled at the south entrance to Amerigo’s home, and gotten ink everywhere.

The boy’s initial attempts to clean up the mess were laughable. Sometimes he’d stop by and mop up a small portion of the spill, other times he’d light the thing on fire and just watch it burn. Once he tried covering the bucket, thinking that might help, and couldn’t even get that right. Though he offered up $12 to cover the damages, that was but a drop in the bucket compared to both Byron Pete’s available resources and what the clean-up would actually cost.

As Byron Pete continued to dilly-dally, and the puddle of ink continued to spread, along came Alex, one of the crazy neighborhood kids. Hurtling past the entrance like a hurricane, Alex stomped on the edge of the puddle and spattered ink further into Amerigo’s home.

Now Amerigo started to get really worried. Would Byron Pete ever get around to cleaning up his mess? He sure hoped so, since his neighborhood was filled with out-of-control kids. What if, later in the summer, Hurricane Bonnie or Colin or Danielle didn’t just tramp past the entrance, but churned right through the ink and into his home, spraying the black stuff through room after room? Such an event would be devastating. And, if Byron Pete’s performance so far was any indication, he would do nothing to help.

Byron Pete would lose some customers due to his inaction – either to other ink magnates or to newer, cleaner alternatives such as graphite – but he’d continue to do business even as a black-stained Amerigo screamed threats and obscenities his way.

And Brittany? She’d kept her distance throughout the whole incident, admonishing her son but taking no other action. She was happy to sit and watch the events unfold from her side of the pond, perhaps thinking that finally, after all these years, Amerigo was going to get what he deserved.

The Fire Spreads

I’ve gone and done it: I’ve joined The Twitter: @WilsonOnFire

I never understood the draw. Twitter appeared to be the poor stepbrother of the Facebook status, with an imposed character limit and no way to directly associate a comment. But now, the benefits are starting to become clear.

On Twitter, you don’t get invitations to join someone’s mafia every five minutes. You can build your audience (as a blogger and aspiring novelist, for instance) beyond your friends and relatives and high school classmates you never liked but accepted as friends anyway because you’re trying to build your audience. And, perhaps most importantly, Facebook is blocked where I work; Twitter isn’t.

10 Reasons You Might Want to Stalk Follow Me on The Twitter
  1. You want more of me. You love The Wheel and hate that I post so infrequently. Since I’m sure to post to Twitter more often than I do here, you’ll get even more of my trademark witTM.
  2. You want less of me. You like my sense of humor, but can only take me in small doses. 140 characters seems about right. And if that’s still too much, you can stop reading halfway through.
  3. You doubt my abilities. You don’t think I can put together a coherent thought in under 140 characters, and want to see this experiment for itself.
  4. You’re sure of my abilities. You know I can’t put together a coherent thought in under 140 characters, and want to watch me crash and burn. You’ve brought popcorn.
  5. You’re lazy. You haven’t gotten off your duff and found yourself an RSS feed, so you never know when I’ve written a new blog post. On Twitter, I will tell you. You don’t even have to get up.
  6. Payback. I’m already stalking following you, and it’s only fair.
  7. To cover all your bases. You’re already stalking following me everywhere else: Blogger, Facebook, work, that little sandwich shop on the corner. In fact, you’re outside my house right now. Rather conspicuous for a federal agent, I must say. And will you leave me alone, already? I wrote that manifesto months ago.
  8. The voices told you to. Specifically, the ones on your voice mail, which sounded a bit like me but with a horrendous Jamaican accent. Ya, mon. Check da tweet, mon.
  9. Everybody’s doing it. I already have as many stalkers followers on Twitter as I do here. Clearly, people will hang on my every word when I use fewer of them. Later, I’m going to jump off a bridge.
  10. The perfect banana bread recipe. I have it; you want it. Maybe someday I’ll post it. Better stalk follow me, just to be safe.
So, go ahead. Stalk Follow me: Or, if that’s not your cup of tea, do what I’ve done for the past year.