Karl Reviews: Destination Simple by Brooke McAlary

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Avast and ahoy!

It is less than a month to the festival, and things are getting busy at Bookmarks. Every day we get in new shipments of books to move, unpack, check, peruse, sniff, fondle affectionately, flap, repack, and organize alphabetically by author’s last name (not, as I was quickly informed, by their number of appendages descending, which is standard practice in kraken stores). How can any animal keep pace with all this work while still finding time to read and review the works of so many brilliant authors? It is a recipe for stress and twisted tentacles.

Fortunately, one of this year’s festival authors has been working on solutions to the perpetual stress of modern life for years. Brooke McAlary‘s Destination Simple: Everyday Rituals for a Slower Life is a concise guide to simplifying, slowing down, and living a more harmonious and fulfilling life.

Destination Simple advocates for adding several ritual tasks to one’s daily habits. When I first read that rituals could help simplify a person’s life, I must say I was surprised. In the Kraken Cove, rituals can be very complicated and stressful affairs that take hours to complete. At one monthly festival, for instance, kraken priests juggle clams with four of their tentacles while the other four are hard at work chopping and seasoning a kelp salad offering, all the while reciting over five hundred lines of the Old Krakonic Epic of the Waves. When officiating a wedding, a kraken is expected to do a ceremonial tap dance while tying the tentacles of the couple into an accordion knot.

In Destination Simple, however, ritual means something very different. Rather than virtuosic feats of multitasking, Ms. McAlary suggests that we should perform the ritual of “single-tasking,” focusing on one activity and experiencing it fully. This concept was entirely new to me. Usually I try to octotask, with a book in one tentacle, a pen in another, a snack in a third, the fourth and fifth typing enthusiastic comments on various social media platforms, and the remaining three absent-mindedly straightening books on the nearby shelf.

I knew I needed to find one task in my day that I could do with perfectly focused attention. Seeing that the book suggests making tea as one such task, I headed over to Footnote and asked if I might fill in as a barista for the day. The staff reluctantly agreed, and I was soon behind the counter taking orders. I contemplated the water heating, just as the book suggested, until it was pointed out to me that the water was kept at a constant temperature, and that I had just spent ten minutes staring at the dispenser. Undeterred, I poured some water into the cup, concentrating on the comforting sound it made. I added the tea leaves and watched them stain the water, then added milk and sugar, listening to the clink of my spoon on the sides of the cup as I stirred.

My state of calm broke only slightly when, as I handed the cup of tea over the counter, noticing how the steam rose delicately, the customer politely reminded me that she had ordered an iced coffee.

After this exercise, which I counted as partly successful, I turned to another of the book’s suggested rituals: selecting three tasks from my to-do list to focus on for the day. My to-do list had been expanding constantly, and when I checked it it read:

  • Read Destination Simple
    • Write blog post
  • Attend Bookmarks monthly mythological staff meeting
    • Make snacks to bring to meeting
    • Type up minutes from the meeting
  • Proofread recommendation letter for a friend
    • Leave recommendation letter in sun to dry out water stains
  • Email editor regarding changes to first volume of History of Kraken Literature
  • Make hotel reservations for cousin Kredence’s wedding
    • Learn to tie accordion knot
    • Learn to tap dance
  • Reply to fan mail
  • Go for afternoon swim
  • Call Mom in Kraken Cove
  • Festival preparations:
    • Help check in boxes of books
    • Volunteer to moderate panels
    • Print and hang flyers
    • Write passage to submit to Slush Pile Live!
    • Special order volunteer t-shirts in kraken and dragon sizes

But following the guidelines in Destination Simple, I was able to narrow the day’s tasks down to:

  • Read Destination Simple
  • Reply to fan mail
  • Call Mom

And with those complete, I can now relax, stretch my tentacles, and perhaps spend the afternoon sipping a well-made cup of tea that a customer at Footnote didn’t want.

I hope that you, too, dear readers, will make some space in your day to relax and savor the works of this year’s festival authors. They are all so wonderful, they deserve nothing less than your complete and focused attention.

Yours simply,

Karl the Kraken

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Daisy Reviews: Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

2939570Hello, my dear readers!

The danger of reading fantasy stories as a mythological creature is that passages meant to startle, astound, and transport the reader into unimagined realms can seem mundane. Often an author’s description of a supernatural being will so wildly miss the mark, or pale in comparison to the strangeness of the actual animal, that it pulls me completely out of the story.

Not so with Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link’s masterful collection of short stories for young adults. In these stories the magic doesn’t sit on the surface like decorative frosting, but rather creeps into the skin of everyday life like deadly frostbite. The monsters of these stories sometimes leap out towards the end in all their demonic glory, but we feel their presence in every page. In stories like “Monster,” “The Cinderella Game,” and “The Specialist’s Hat,” we’re never quite sure of the line between human and monster, babysitter and ghost, sister and werewolf. The aliens in “The Surfer” may be the story’s least disturbing element.

The boundaries between reality and fiction, too, are liable to shift as each story progresses. In “Pretty Monsters,” the titular story, the first plot line appears in the novel a character from the second is reading.  By the end of the story, the two lines have started doing little taunting figure-eights around each other in your brain until you’re not sure where reality ends and books begin. (Of course, that’s not such an unusual state of mind for an avid reader like yours truly.) In “The Faery Handbag” it’s a grandmother’s fantastical tales of her past that become reality, while in “The Specialist’s Hat” it’s the haunting verses of an obscure poet.

My favorite story in the collection is “Magic for Beginners,” which captures the wonderfully freaky ways that fandom can blend life and fiction. In it we learn of a TV show called The LibraryThe Library takes place inside the magical Free People’s World-Tree Library, a place infested with pirate-magicians, Forbidden Books, and an animated statue of George Washington. The actors in The Library continually switch roles, we are told, and the show’s airing schedule is extremely erratic. One of the main characters on the show is Fox, a “funny, dangerous, bad-tempered, flirtatious, greedy, untidy, accident-prone, graceful,” and mysterious woman (or sometimes a man) who speaks with a “soft, breathy-squeaky voice.” Nobody on the show has ever left the library until the cliffhanger of the most recent episode.

Inspired by “Magic for Beginners,” Karl and I have begun writing our own television show, The Bookstore, in which we will switch roles as an adventurous dragon and a sea monster with impeccable literary taste who both live in an enchanted nonprofit bookstore. If you have experience with filming, editing, or acting, and if you are willing to work in exchange for impeccable literary advice, please do submit an application or an audition tape. The first episode is set to film either next week or next year…or never. We hope to make The Bookstore‘s airing schedule charmingly erratic.

If you are an impatient sort and can’t wait for the first episode of The Bookstore to air, go read Pretty Monsters yourself. And if you’ve already read it, read it again. These are stories that beg for second readings. Maybe even thirds…

Yours monstrously,

Daisy the Dragon

 

 

Writing Advice from a Kraken

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Avast and ahoy!

I am often asked how I am able to maintain such an impeccable prose style in my writing, even as I am required to handle diverse subjects and genres. I generally reply that the impeccability of one’s writing is directly proportional to the impeccability of one’s literary taste, and that a steady diet of great literature is the surest way to keep one’s tentacles strong and fit for the dance of prose composition. Yet there are some particulars of style and structure that I believe can be taught rather than intuited by exposure. These I have outlined below for the benefit of any aspiring authors who look to krakonic prose as an unattainable ideal; know, dear reader, that even two typing hands are capable of composing works to rival my very finest.

Here are eight tips for cultivating a literary style fit for a kraken:

  1. Do not use too many ornamental adjectives and adverbs, for they can clutter up a sentence horrendously. How often have I read a work of breathtaking and arresting greatness, lovingly tracing each line with eager eyes, in which I found myself  wondering, if only its author had written more concisely, had trimmed away the excessive and burdensome load of adjectives, how much finer would my experience have been?
  2. Extended metaphors or similes, when used correctly, can bear the reader from one page to the next like a gently gliding stream. When overused, however, they can become a turbulent ocean, in which the poor reader must swim blindly, scarcely recalling where their journey started and not knowing if they should ever see dry land again. You, the writer, must ensure that the reader’s voyage is a comfortable one, extending a gentle tentacle to guide them through the metaphorical tide.
  3. As you have likely heard before, it is best in most cases, though not necessarily in every case, to limit ones use of asides and interjections, that is to say, of extra clauses forced into the body of a main sentence, which can turn the gentle stream of prose, to which I have previously alluded, into a violently twisting cataract, in which each comma, each break in the line, becomes a stone that threatens to dig a hole in the reader’s craft, capsizing their attention, or, at best, causing mild frustration, when the reader, eager to come to the next idea or sentence, must steer through such treacherous waters, hoping that the various twists and turns of the author’s thought will not take her or him too far off course.
  4. When coming up with names for fictional characters, it is advisable to make every name start with the same letter, even the same syllable, if that can be managed. This will save the reader much confusion, as they will not have such a great diversity of names to keep straight while reading. (As a case in point, I would refer you to Daisy’s Queens of Dragoria.)
  5. A similar principle comes into play when one is writing dialogue. It is wearisome for the reader to have to switch too often between different modes of speech. Therefore, one ought to make one’s characters sound as similar as possible to one another and to minimize one’s use of mannerisms, colloquialisms, and idiosyncrasies of speech that might distinguish one speaker from the next. This will go a long way in helping the reader cope with a large and diverse cast of characters.
  6. When one is striving for humorous effect, one should always endeavor to stretch one’s jokes out as long as possible. Anticipation is at the heart of comedy, and the more one is able to keep one’s audience from laughing, the more they will anticipate the next joke.
  7. Similarly, one can only craft suspense by letting the reader know ahead of time what is going to happen. The logic is quite simple: (1) the author wishes to create a sense of expectation in the reader; (2) a reader cannot be expectant of something unexpected; (3) therefore, the reader must be informed in no uncertain terms of every major plot point at the outset of a story. I have often lamented the unfortunate trend, especially in mystery novels, of revealing crucial information only at the very end of a book. Why, for most of the story the reader is left guessing who the killer might be and what their motivation is, and so often the answer is far too complicated and clever for anyone to have a hope of guessing correctly. Far more enjoyable, I think, are those Shakespearean tragedies and works of epic poetry in which a helpful prologue gives the reader a quick abstract of the entire plot before it begins.*
  8. Now at this point you may be thinking, Great Barrier Reef! How can I ever keep track of all these stylistic rules, on top of the already-substantial effort it takes to generate original ideas? Well, I should reply, you must not make the writing process too hard on yourself. In order to avert fatigue, you must always schedule in breaks for snacks. All the better if you can swim on over to your neighboring cafe and sip a kelp kombucha while you work. In writing, as in most occupations, the reward is half the work.

 

Yours impeccably,

Karl the Kraken

 

*Daisy and I have agreed to disagree on this point. For some reason, she seems to enjoy going into a book blindly, not knowing anything of the plot’s outcome, and she has often become rather annoyed at me when I have given away the ending of the book she is currently reading.

One Year of Bookmarks: The Kraken Reflects

Avast and ahoy!

In the Kraken Cove where I grew up, we did not keep time with clocks and calendars. Linear time, which passes so effortlessly on dry land, could not survive the buffeting of the tides. Time in the deep sea is wavy, and it can reach out or contract depending on whether a snack or a good book has been placed in front of it. Time can swim laps through the water, making frequent U-turns and occasionally suspending its course to gasp for air. Krakens therefore do not measure time in months or years. Instead they do so in eight-counts if they are musically inclined, in teaspoons if they are culinarily minded, or in paragraphs if, like yours truly, they love literature.

It took me several paragraphs (roughly seven teaspoons) to adjust to mainland time when I first came ashore. But as so many more pages of time have passed since then, I feel I am now well acquainted with the ways in which humans experience linear time. I have discovered that humans still feel the shock of its passage, even though they live with it their entire lives: how it can slip by so quickly on its streamlined path, or conversely how it may stretch so that one feels as if a single paragraph has gone on for several chapters, especially if its author favors long sentences with multiple clauses and forms of punctuation.

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A very human way of dealing with the surreality of time on land is to mark anniversaries. An anniversary entails certain rituals, such as shaking one’s head and saying “Has it been that long already?” or “Only a year? It feels like forever,” when the quantity of time elapsed is mentioned. But we should not mock these poor humans for their strange customs, for even a kraken such as I can find little else to do in the face of time’s relentless march than to place a disbelieving tentacle to my brow and join the land-dwellers in their amazement.

It has been one year since the Bookmarks bookstore and gathering space opened, though it often feels eight times as long. I have as much difficulty envisioning a world without Bookmarks as I have envisioning myself with only seven tentacles, or with less-than-impeccable literary taste.

Sometimes the opening day feels like it was yesterday, it stands out so vividly in my mind. But other times it feels like it was in some past century. I am sure that future historians and epic poets will speak of the week leading up to the opening as an age of heroic exploits, of great deeds and triumphs of the human spirit. In those days Bookmarks staff and volunteers worked together to transform a battered building into a temple of literacy. They assembled shelves, moved boards from storage to the store, unpacked books, inventoried books, shelved books, built furniture, wheeled shelves into place, swept, vacuumed, and hung signs. Yet the most difficult of jobs, that of Kraken-in-Residence and Store Mascot, remained unfilled. I am told by volunteers who lived through that time that it was a moment of great excitement, but also one of great apprehension.

IMG_4434Coming ashore as I did in the very nick of time, I could see that Bookmarks now teetered on the knife’s edge of fate; for books and shelves and an excellent location with a spacious yet cozy interior and a devoted staff and hard-working volunteers and overwhelming support from the local community are all very well and good, but what bookstore could survive long without a mythological mascot?

And so in this fateful moment I penned my first blog post, which I titled “Release the Kraken,” and which went on to great acclaim and won the prestigious Kadmus award for best work of short nonfiction published online by a mythological sea creature in North Carolina in 2017.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that my humble blog was the sole reason for Bookmarks’s astounding success in its first year, but I like to think that my uniquely aquatic sensibilities have played no small role in making the institution what it is today. I must also acknowledge the many people who have devoted their time and energy to helping the bookstore flourish and give my sincerest thanks to the store’s wonderful patrons.

Here’s looking forward to many more years to come!

Yours,

Karl the Kraken

Karl Reviews: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

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Dear readers, I am simply bubbling like a bog with excitement, brimming like a bursting volcano! How delighted I am to be reviewing Kelly Barnhill‘s magnificent novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

Few would accuse me of diluting my praise, and it is true that I am often effusive in my reviews, yet you must not suppose that because I often verge on hyperbole my praise of this work is any the less sincere. When I tell you that I have enjoyed this book as much as any I have ever read, I mean every word. For as the Poet says:

Praise for books, like muffins,
lies not like hidden treasure in a lair
but rather is ingested and gives heat,
for readers’ love is fuel that readers share.

“But of course you would love this book!” a reader might interject. “I believe the whole story was written specifically to please you. It’s practically pandering to its critic!” And yes, I do recognize that several of the characters do seem uncannily familiar, especially Glerk the many-armed aquatic monster who enjoys literary allusions, who is best friends with an enthusiastically outgoing dragon. But I am sure that any influence Daisy and I had on the author was accidental, or at most subconscious. One would be hard pressed, after all, to find any fantasy author today who has not felt the influence of Daisy’s prodigious oeuvre.

Allusions to reality aside, the book is a fantastically original work of literature. It is a masterpiece of worldbuilding, portraying with an uncomfortable intimacy a society built on seductive falsehoods. There are plenty of villains in this world, yet even the most despicable of these characters feels grounded in reality. The boy Antain, an apprentice to the Elders of the Protectorate, is an especially complex character. His growth over the course of the book is brilliantly written, showing his struggle to come to terms with the corruption of his society as he comes of age within it. We completely understand his heroic act of rebellion towards the end of the book, even though we the readers know that it is wrongheaded and doomed to failure.

The complex story of Antain is but a side-plot to that of Luna, a girl abandoned as a baby in the woods as part of the Elders’ sacrifice to an evil witch. But Luna is saved from her doom by Xan, a very decidedly not-evil witch who takes Luna in and feeds her with moonlight, instilling in her great magical powers. By accident Luna gains far more power than any child can handle, and Xan must stifle her magic until she comes of age.

Any reader will surely delight in spending time with Luna’s curious adoptive family: Xan, Glerk the bog monster, and Fyrian the Perfectly Tiny yet Simply Enormous Dragon. Each of these characters is distinctly and beautifully written, and they are all instantly lovable.  Every page of this book is as radiant and as full of magic as its protagonist.

But if I have not yet convinced you to go and read this magnificent book at once, let me once again refer to the words of the Poet, who says:

A kraken’s word is eight times true,
for he swears by every hand.
A dragon’s oath burns clear as fire
across an ashen land.
So when a dragon and a kraken
both recommend a book,
as we advise, it would be wise

to come and take a look.

Yours enchantedly,

Karl the Kraken

 

Karl Reviews: Stacy McAnulty and Zora and Me

Avast and ahoy!

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Many thanks to Daisy for covering the announcement of Summer Reading authors who are coming to the festival. I was unable to contribute to that post myself, as I was on vacation at the littoral zone (like the beach, but on the other side of the water and consequently much more interesting than a big field of sand). But now I have returned, damp and refreshed, and I will be giving my reviews of selected Summer Reading books over the next several months. I’ll begin with two delightful books by Stacy McAnulty, as well as the mysterious and touching Zora and Me, whose co-author T. R. Simon will be attending the festival.

McAn_9780553510232_jkt_all_r2.indd Stacy McAnulty‘s stories are wonderfully sympathetic to the plight of non-human animals in an anthropocentric world. Excellent Ed tells of a dog who feels insecure when faced with the excellent skills of his human siblings. Such is the peril of always measuring oneself by a human standard. Oh, how well I can relate! When I first came ashore I was afraid my tentacles would stand in the way of my seeking employment, as I could not find work-appropriate clothing for eight appendages. But now I have learned that I can get by on my natural good looks, and that humans can eventually come to appreciate my uniquely aquatic taste in literature.

Max Explains Everything: Grocery Store Expert similarly occupies a wide niche of books explaining basic human customs to those unfamiliar with them. Grocery stores have long been sources of confusion and anxiety for me, as no such establishments exist in the Kraken Cove. Down there we obtain our food directly from the kelp groves without any need of carts or cash registers. But with Max as my guide, I now know the correct procedure for selecting a cart and buying cookies (which is to buy all of them). I am also practicing sneaking candy onto a conveyor belt, which seems to me a vital human skill. I was especially pleased to see that this book confirms my impression that one is supposed to converse at length with the lobsters at the grocery store, though I have been given funny looks for doing so in the past.

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Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon tells a story of the great writer Zora Neale Hurston when she was a fourth-grade girl in Eatonville, Florida. T. R. Simon is an anthropologist by training, and she brings a skill of perfect observation of human behavior to this novel. The story centers on the ways in which humans come up with stories, even fantastical ones, to give the world a semblance of order. Zora’s imagination and insightfulness lead her  to suspect that one of her neighbors is a murderous half-alligator. The reality, it turns out, is even stranger and darker than her flights of fancy. In this brilliant coming-of-age story, Bond and Simon force Zora and her friends to leave the realm of childhood fantasies and face the world outside idyllic Eatonville, where racial prejudices rule instead of gator kings, and where choices are hard and justice is hard-won.

Zora and Me is a captivating book that weaves together historical fiction and biography with a well-plotted mystery. I am eagerly anticipating its sequel, Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground, to be published this September. Daisy and I both hope to learn more about Ghost, the morally ambiguous gator who makes a violent appearance at the beginning of the book and then, as befits his name, disappears without a trace. Ghost’s fate and his motivation in biting off a boy’s arm remain an unresolved mystery. The authors’ sensitivity to their characters makes us believe that they would not portray large reptilians and aquatic monsters as simply bloodthirsty by nature. We are sure Ghost has a compelling backstory to be told in the next installment. Perhaps the gator, too, will go to New York and become a famous novelist? Daisy is prepared to write her own reptilian fanfiction if necessary.

Yours enthusiastically,

Karl the Kraken

 

Summer Reading with Daisy

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Greetings, dearest readers!

There is no time of year quite so exciting to a dragon as the beginning of summer, and not only because we cold-blooded reptilians prefer warm weather. It is also the time when we turn to our mountainous to-be-read piles not with a feeling of intimidation, but with a sense of fiery optimism. We know we have three wide-open months in which to burn through volume after volume of fantasy; to lounge in the grass with the sun glinting off our scales, a freshly printed mystery novel or popular alchemical treatise between our claws; to curl up poolside with an intriguing biography; or to attempt a valiant feat of self-instruction with the help of Teach Yourself Old Krakonic: The Baltic Dialects.

Now you, too, my lovely readers, can share in the dragonian pleasures of summer reading. For the young hatchlings among you, Bookmarks has a fantastic Summer Reading program in which participants can win a free book at this year’s festival, a gift card to Bookmarks, $500 worth of books for your school’s library, invaluable knowledge, a treasure hoard of experiences that you will cherish for life, and, yes, a signed first edition of my forthcoming novel, The Queens of Dragoria, whenever it is published. (I have told my editor that I expect to be finished at some point in the next five to eight years, so long as I do not introduce more than three new sub-plots per month.)

But best of all (yes, even better than the autograph of Daisy the Dragon), you will have the chance to meet many of the authors featured on the Summer Reading list in person at the festival in September. What a fantastic array of writers and illustrators will be in attendance! They span many genres, backgrounds, and age groups, from poetry to biography and from fledgling to first-flyer.

I must highlight a few of the names on the list I found especially exciting, though I am sure I will have to omit many wonderful authors for lack of space. Hopefully my and Karl’s subsequent posts will fill in some of the gaps.

coverI am thrilled to see how many of these authors celebrate the dragonian virtues of adventure and exploration, which make perfect topics for summer reading. Jennifer Thermes’s Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail shows us how anyone with enough determination can become a great adventurer. Stacy McAnulty takes us on a tour of the wonders of the world with EARTH! My First 4.5 Billion Years, while her new novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, promises to sail into the wild and uncharted waters of Middle School. Makiia Lucier’s new duology blends the strangeness of fantasy with the uncanny realities of the age of exploration. If I had to pick a favorite on this list, Isle of Blood and Stone might be it. After all, it has a dragon on the cover and sea monsters on its map.

Other authors on the list also take on historical settings, writing through the pains and the triumphs of the past. Carole Boston Weatherford has told the stories of important historical figures from Harriet Tubman to Dorothea Lange to Fannie Lou Hammer. In her latest book she traces the history of a song: Amazing Grace. T. R. Simon’s work also celebrates a great figure in American history, telling a fictionalized tale of the childhood of Zora Neale Hurston. Joyce Moyer Hostetter, rather than focusing on famous icons from the past, has her characters deal with the reverberations of historical events on a local level in their personal lives. Blue, Comfort, and Aim are all set in rural North Carolina during World War II and the polio epidemic.

2643And of course, we should not forget the dragon in the room: Dav Pilkey, an author of such accomplishment and renown that he will be giving the first-ever Bookmarks Kids’ Keynote address. There is something in this great author’s oeuvre for practically every species, from dogs to cats to gooses, gargoyles, bunnies, robots, pigs, sentient underpants, and, of course, dragons.

Now if only he would write a book about a kraken…

 

Happy Summer Reading!

Daisy the Dragon