Roverandom

J.R.R Tolkien is, in my opinion, the greatest fantasy author in our day and age. He created entire cultures, languages, people groups, races, and set the tone for fantasy in our generation.

He also wrote Roverandom.

Bless this man.

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For anyone who has ever read The Lord of the Rings, you know that Tolkien was incredibly detailed in his writing. He wrote his books as if they were history, putting so much depth into his races, his characters, and his world in general, that it’s possible to study his works as deeply you would any history book or culture. He was a linguist, a professor of Oxford, and a poet. His books, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit, are world-renowned.

It brings such joy to my heart to know that this same man also wrote and published a story about a little dog who barked at a wizard and went to visit the moon.

Roverandom is a fairytale. One of the sweetest fairytales I’ve read in a long time, in fact, about little Rover, a dog who was rude to a wizard and, as a result, was turned into a toy. His adventures following this unfortunate turn of events lead him from the surface of the moon to the depths of the ocean. Because the story is one of Tolkien’s, it obviously has a dragon in it, and merpeople, and the Man-in-the-Moon, and many twists and turns along the way. Rover—or Roverandom, as the Man-in-the-Moon calls him—learns to fly, meets the first dog ever to be named Rover, plays on the moon, goes to see the King of the Sea, and becomes a merdog. But really, all he wants throughout the whole story is to get back to being a real dog and go home. But for that, he must track down the wizard he nipped at in the first place, and get him to change his spell.

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The story was written for Tolkien’s son, Michael, after he lost his own little toy dog while on vacation with his father. It has the detail and imagination of all of Tolkien’s works, the more childish fantasy of the Hobbit, and a charming wit that is all its own. I would definitely recommend it to any fans of Tolkien, or just anyone who likes a good fairytale.

Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man: some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Choosing a favorite author is never an easy thing to do. Most of us could pick ten or twelve names without thinking about it too much, then add another few to that once we’ve had a few minutes to consider.

I’ve got a whole list of authors that I admire, both for the books they write and the things they stand for. J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Wayne Thomas Batson, and Cornelia Funke are just a few of the names on my list, but another name that I would put down is Victor Hugo.

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Most readers tend to skip Hugo’s work, mostly because—and I will be the very first to admit it—he is notoriously long-winded. His books are massive, and the details that he goes into in Les Miserables, such as a drawn out account of the battle of Waterloo and a in-depth description of the sewers of Paris, tend to stray from the original storyline. Since everything I read tends to fuel my imagination, I found the description of the sewers fascinating. But we won’t go into that right now.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Most of us know this story from the Disney version, where the handsome captain saves the beautiful gypsy girl, Quasimodo is accepted into society, and the bumbling gargoyles keep us laughing through the film.

Hugo’s version is much more complicated.

And much darker.

The story follows two people throughout the book, although, being Victor Hugo’s work, we are introduced to—and given the life story of—many other characters. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are really the centerpieces to this story, however. A hunchback and a gypsy. Both are outcasts from society, one of them confined to the bell tower of the Notre Dame cathedral, the other living in the streets of Paris. The story is a long and winding one, full of twists and turns and endless frustration, but these two are finally thrown together when Esmeralda is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to be executed. Quasimodo, the only decent man in the whole book, rescues her and takes her into Notre Dame, claiming sanctuary for her within the walls of the church, something not even the law will cross.

From the first, I was struck by the different types of ‘love’ displayed in this book. (I say love, although most of these examples were not love, but selfishness.)

In Captain Phoebus (who was a cad and didn’t deserve the title of ‘hero’ that Disney put on him) we see lust.

In Dom Frollo, obsession is clearly demonstrated, to the point of being terrifying. The man needs a hobby. And possibly medication.

Quasimodo’s affection for the girl was the only one of these three that came close to actual love, in the way he cared for her while she was trapped in Notre Dame, his concern for her feelings and safety, and the selfless way he gave up what little was his for her, even defending her when Frollo’s obsession threatened her.

Victor Hugo is not known for writing puffed up, feel-good stories. (Anyone who knows anything about Les Miserables can tell you that. The book is literally called ‘The Miserable Ones’.)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame follows this pattern. As kind and selfless as Quasimodo is, he is not handsome, and Esmeralda rejects him in favor of Captain Phoebus. (Who is still a cad.) The Disney movie ends happily, but the book—well, if Disney had kept to the original story, they would have gotten quite a few calls from horrified parents.

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Sad as the book is, I still enjoyed it immensely. Victor Hugo is a masterful writer, long-winded or not. (He’s also a sass master and had a habit of needling very important people, which may be why I love him so much.) The book is a timeless masterpiece, and one I would recommend to anyone who enjoys the classics.

And the inexplicable part of it is, that the blinder this passion, the more tenacious it is. It is never stronger than when it is utterly unreasonable.

To The Mouse Living In My Woodpile

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My cat does not approve of you.

I think she would be less annoyed if you stopped pulling faces at her through the window. While it’s true that I don’t let her out of the house very often, she does occasionally find a door open and slip outside for a midnight run. Also, she is not one to forgive and forget. Please keep this in mind.

I left some nuts for you beneath the cedars. Please leave the bird feeder alone, and don’t chase the sparrows, as they are particular friends of mine. The squirrels too, are some of my favorites to see, but I don’t think you’ll find them too much of a bother to have around. Your nest is much too small for them to wriggle into anyway.

The dog next door may bark at the fence, but I have never seen him in my yard. You may stop worrying about him.

I do not particularly like nibbling around my doors in the middle of the night. If we are to be neighbors, I would appreciate it if you kept to the regular daytime hours for your excursions into my pantry and larder. One mouse can hardly eat me out of my own home, but I don’t like the holes. If you would like to borrow a cup of sugar or an egg, please ask.

Watch out for the owl who lives in the pine tree in the front yard. He has deprived me of many of my small neighbors, and his disposition has not improved over the years, no matter how many snacks he indulges in.

You have been warned.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

I love reading classics. Les Mis, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Villette, Homer, the Odyssey . . . I’ve read them all and enjoyed them all. My reading habits are—diversified, to say the least. I read everything from children’s fiction to YA to historical fiction and non-fiction to adult novels to myth to fantasy to—well, you get the idea. Classics fit somewhere in the middle, I think.

Don’t ask me how.

I still don’t know.

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This book, Journey to the Center of the Earth, was one of the first real classics that I had ever read. Also the first one I really had to work to finish, despite how much I enjoyed reading it. (I don’t include Jane Eyre on that list, of course. I never had to work to read that one.) Whole chapters in this book were devoted to scientific jargon, terms that I didn’t quite understand and details that were a little slow. (How many of us have read classics like that?)

And yet, in the middle of the equations and scientific reason lay a story for the ages. A brilliant, immensely powerful story that swept me up and taught me just how incredible classics can be, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to read them.

The story is written from the perspective of Axel Lidenbrock, nephew and assistant to the great Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a geologist with an extraordinary amount of passion and a temper that rivals the volcanos he studies. A chance discovery leads them both on a wild chase to Iceland, to the very peak of Snaefells, a ‘semi’ extinct volcano.

From there, they continue on. Down inside the volcanic tubes leading into the mountain, on a journey that will take them far beyond the limits of man until they discover the Center of the Earth.

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Jules Verne’s amazing book sets the stage for one of the most fascinating stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I love all things prehistoric (Jurassic Park, for one), and the world he created, hiding within our world, was so beautifully detailed, so intricately described, that it made me want to launch my own expedition to see it.

Except that it was also dangerous. And there were monster fish.

Monster fish and I do not get along.

Ever.

That said, this is one classic that I would recommend to anyone and everyone with a taste for adventure and a love of good literature. Jules Verne continues to be one of my favorite authors, and I have always enjoyed the depth and detail that he puts into his novels.

“Is the master mad?” she asked.

I nodded.

“And he’s taking you with him?”

I nodded again.

“Where to?” she said.

I pointed to the center of the earth with my finger.

“Into the cellar?” exclaimed the old servant.

“No,” I said. “Deeper!”

Empty House

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The house is haunted. All of the kids say so. When we pass it after school they throw rocks at the windows and sticks in the yard, but no one ever dares go past the gate and down the gravel drive. The porch is sloped, nearly collapsing under its own weight, and the garden’s long since overgrown. No one goes inside. Not even the adults.

But I do.

I always wait until the other kids are past. I drag my feet, pretend I forgot my lunchbox, or go back for a rock in the stream. When they’re all past it I slip around back and go in through a broken window. I pried the boards away a few years ago, the first time I came here, and now I pull them off whenever I come home.

It’s my own place. A refuge for a kid who doesn’t have one.

My bedroom is upstairs. I found an old couch in the dump, and someone left a side table out by their garbage cans, so I have a few things that are mine. The kitchen doesn’t work, but there’s a well out back, and I mostly eat at school anyway.

I get more here than I ever did at home. And I’m safe. A haunted house is a better place to sleep than a home with a drunken father and a mother who left so long ago I can’t remember her face. This is better. The school board, the church people, no one knows. My father doesn’t say anything, and I show up at school every day bright and clean and happy, so they don’t ask where I’ve been living.

They never ask, and I never say. So everyone’s happy.

Isle of Swords

Who doesn’t love a good pirate story?

Seriously, is there anyone out there who looks at a book, sees a pirate ship on the cover, and says, “No, I’m not really into pirates.”

No one does that. No one.

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Or at least I don’t. Pirates have always fascinated me, whether it was the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow, Long John Silver and his crutch, or histories of Blackbeard and others who really did sail the high seas. I’ve sought them out in every library, every bookstore, and am always excited to find a new book filled with buried treasure, fat galleons, bloodthirsty pirates, and (hopefully) a good dose of high adventure as well.

Isle of Swords fit that description to the letter. Captain Declan Ross is the centerpiece of this book, a pirate on the search for a treasure that will grant him his ultimate wish—freedom for himself and his daughter from the life he’s been forced to choose. From the beginning, Declan Ross is a different sort of pirate. He’s a man with a code, a man with a conscience, and neither lend themselves well to a life of piracy. When the book begins he has an empty ship and a starving crew, a bad combination for a man hoping to buy his way back to dry land.

Instead of a treasure, Ross comes across a boy who’s been whipped within an inch of his life, and lost his memory because of it. This boy, a monk fleeing from a dangerous opponent, and a treasure map that is rumored to show the way to the greatest treasure in history, lead him on a voyage across uncharted waters, through the hands of the British, and ultimately sets him against a foe he has no hope of matching.

One of my favorite writers said that the villains are the salt in the soup of a story. To me, the villain is always one of the most important parts of whatever story I happen to be reading, and if I can’t bring myself to be afraid of them, I’ll most often put the book down.

Wayne Thomas Batson, author of The Isle of Swords, never disappoints with his villains. But I would venture to say that Captain Bartholomew Thorne is my favorite of all of his evil creations.

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Bartholomew Thorne. I don’t think I’ve ever met a villain that I liked so much in another book. He had something about him, an aura that whispered right off the page and made me shiver every time I came across his name. Wild storms, explosions, vivid characters, islands—charted and uncharted—scattered throughout the Caribbean, sword fights, iguana stew, blood, threats, and redemption all combine to create this fascinating book, but the presence of Captain Bartholomew Thorne is what propels it from a good story to a great one.

(Disclaimer: My enjoyment of this book has nothing to do with one of the characters sharing my name. I promise.)

“Good evening, Father,” came a strained and raspy voice. “It is time for confession.”

Four Ways Reading Will Make You A Better Writer

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Writers never quit learning.

Never.

We all have something else to learn, a new story that will challenge us, a technique we never quite figured out. We’re all learning the ropes, testing out new waters, and overusing cliches. (Sorry.)

The lovely part about constantly learning is that we can always improve.

The intimidating part about constantly learning is that we can always improve.

Thankfully trial and error is not the only way to learn. (Although it has its merits too.) Reading is one of the best, and quickest, ways to improve your writing. It might be the only apprenticeship writers have available to them, short of paying a massive sum of money for workshops. I certainly never had anyone to teach me how to write. I learned on my own, by writing, and—more importantly—by reading.

Here are four ways your writing will improve through reading.

1) Vocabulary

Writing is not about using the biggest, most confusing words we can find in the dictionary, or about cruising through our thesaurus to find the fanciest way to say what we’re thinking.

Most often, the best way to say something is as simply and clearly as possible. Reading good writing will teach you how to state something in the clearest way possible, and yet still preserve the beauty of what you’re writing.

Reading bad writing will teach you what to avoid.

2) Ideas

Your mind needs fresh material. If you stay locked away in your room, staring at a blinking cursor, your writing will stagnate. Reading introduces fresh ideas. So does going for a walk, sitting on a park bench, or listening to music. Reading is one way to open your mind and gain fresh perspective.

3) Empathy

As writers, we need to be able to empathize with our characters. Our protagonists are easy enough, right? We love them, we understand them, we’re used to feeling what they feel.

But what about our antagonists? What about that annoying character who always does the wrong thing? What about the self-serving, greedy shopkeeper in the fifth chapter?

What about them? How do we empathize with them?

Reading teaches us to empathize, to feel for characters that are very different from ourselves. It helps us to see the world through different eyes and discover that our point of view is not the only point of view.

And that can only ever be a good thing.

4) Perspective

Have you ever picked up a book, read it, and thought, Wow. I wish I could write like that.

Yeah, me too.

Writing is an odd mix of being absolutely sure your book is the best one out there, and knowing without a doubt that you should probably burn the whole manuscript. Reading gives us perspective on our own work, on areas where we could do better, and maybe on a few places where we might just be doing a great job. All of us have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people are better at characters, others ace every plot they put together. (Yeah, that’s not me.) But we all have an area of weakness that we can grow in, and reading may just be what highlights that for us.

There you are! My two cents on how reading can make you a better writer. Anyone else have thoughts?