Juliet’s Favorite Reads for 2013

Becoming a publisher in addition to being a writer has cut into my reading time quite a bit this year, so instead of my usual rate of four books a month, I read fewer than three a month in 2013. But the five I’ve chosen would stand out in any year. (Please note that not all were first published in 2013 because sometimes it takes me a while to discover the book everyone else read the year or so before.)

# 5 – Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (2013)

When I spotted this novel on the new and current shelf at my local library, its intriguing title and cover drew me to it. I picked it up, scanned the cover with the picture of a dragon shown partly in anatomical detail, and read the back cover. I put it back since mostly I read mysteries. But the clever concept of a fictional memoir of a lady scientist writing about her lifelong study of dragons drew me back. I checked it out and read it with great pleasure. This story of a bookish young girl drawn to dragons from an early age and determined to find out more about them in a somewhat Victorian setting did not disappoint. The Tropic of Serpents, the second in the series, comes out in March 2014 and I’ll buy it in hardcover, along with the trade paperback of the first.

# 4 – Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012)

When I found out how this book was written, it intrigued me for a rather specialized reason. It’s a fictionalized compilation of emails, articles from scholarly magazines, school documents, letters, etc. As such it goes back to two early traditions in English literature: the epistolary novel, that is, written in the form of letters, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and fiction written in diary form, like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. (I have a vested interest in the latter style since I wrote my dissertation about thirty-plus pieces of fiction written entirely or partly in the form of journals. And actually, A Natural History of Dragons fits into the third tradition for the novel in English: the fictional memoir like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.) But no matter why I picked Semple’s novel up, I read it because it’s a touching story of a loving daughter trying to find where her eccentric mom has gone.

#3 – Colin Cotterill’s Killed at the Whim of the Hat (2011)

I’d been a fan of the Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries for their humor and exotic setting in Communist Laos for some time before I discovered Cotterill’s new series with Jimm Juree, a young woman journalist who lives with her eccentric family in a southern Thailand resort town. Just thinking about the title and other quotations from George W. Bush that start the chapters makes me laugh out loud. This is a very enjoyable, lively read.

#2 – Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession (2013)

I’m putting this first novel near the top of the list not because one of my former students wrote it or even because it’s beautifully constructed of three different plot lines skillfully interwoven, but because at its heart it contains a touching and timeless story of a young man who finds the love of his life through books, loses her, and finds her again, also through books. It is not my top pick only because of my pick is

#1 – Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In (2013)

When my friend Sally Ooms gave me this book for my birthday this year, I hugged it to my heart and beamed. (You can see my joy in my picture on my Facebook profile page.) The ninth in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series demonstrates this masterful writer at the top of her game. The bad news for those of you who haven’t read these books is I can’t recommend this book to you. The good news is you get to read Still Life, the first in the series, and the other seven wonderful books that precede How the Light Gets In.

The Hunger Name Games

Naming Characters Can Be Hard

When I joined an online fiction writers group some time ago, the current topic of discussion was naming characters. I identified with this since I had a terrible time naming a set of characters in Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel. I won’t say who they are precisely but here’s a hint: there are seven of them and they’re all extremely short. Initially I gave them names that alluded to these characters as presented in the first Disney full-length animated feature. But I worried through several drafts that the Disney lawyers would not consider this fair use and would sue me up side and down the other for copyright infringement. So I finally decided I had to revise the names and also the characters of my little seven.

But how?

Suzanne Collins supplied the answer to my question in the thoughtful, systematic, evocative way she named the places and characters of The Hunger Games. Character names also suggest things about the nature of the characters and often hint at the roles they’ll take in the plot.

Effie Trinket, who escorts Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark to the Capitol for the games, has a downright satirical name that reminds this English major of Mr. Thwackum and Squire Allworthy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. She could hardly be more aptly named. Doll-like, superficial, and artificial with her pink wig and heavy make-up, she counts for very little in the overall world of the Hunger Games.

Overall, the names of girls and women in The Hunger Games resonate with meaning and portent. And often they arise from nature. In our world the plant katniss doesn’t exist, but in the world of the Hunger Games, it’s a healing herb. The last name Everdeen reminds us of evergreen, a kind of tree that’s always alive and green. What better name than Katniss Everdeen for the savior of her world? Katniss’s little sister Prim’s name evokes that character’s innocence. Her full name of Primrose evokes her sweetness. The tribute from District 11 is named Rue, which is a healing herb in our world, but the character’s name also evokes her rueful end.

The names for men are evocative, too, especially that of Katniss’s fellow tribute from District 12: Peeta Mellark. Presumably Peeta is derived from Peter, but it’s pronounced “pita” as in the Greek bread. Peeta is the son of a baker who earlier saved Katniss’s life by letting her have some bread when she and her family almost starved.

Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, the drunken Haymitch Abernathy, doesn’t have an out and out symbolic name. Yet his name evokes the strong Scots stock that populated Appalachia in the 18th century. And as a West Virginian born and bred, I must remind you of my home state’s motto: “Montani semper liberi.” Mountaineers are always free. Take that, you decadent Capitol citizens.

Many of the men from the Capitol have names that allude to ancient Romans, for example, Seneca Crane, the game designer, and Caesar Flickerman, the television host. (His last name perfectly evokes the flickering screen images that Panem citizens watch during the games.) These names make us recall ancient Romans with their cruel and bloody gladiatorial games. At least Roman gladiators were grown-ups trained to fight instead of children aged 12 through 18 chosen by lottery without consideration of their abilities to defend themselves and survive.

Speaking of Panem, I’ll do a little riff on place names. “Pan-” as a prefix means “all,” suitable for a nation’s name, but in The Hunger Games series, Panem is a country in which the individual identities of its states and regions have been replaced by nondescript Districts and numbers, from the rather privileged District 1, source of luxury goods, through the ill-fated District 13, destroyed many years earlier. Panem also alludes to “panem et circenses” or the bread and circuses with which the leaders of ancient Rome soothed the populace.

Coriolanus Snow, President of Panem, is very aptly named for the ancient Roman leader accused of robbing the populace of their bread. And while his last name comes from nature, Snow is a cold, mindless, harsh force.

You probably thought I’d forgotten Gale Hawthorne, Katniss Everdeen’s fellow hunter and confidant. But really his name provides an excellent example of Suzanne Collins’s systematic and thoughtful naming of the characters in The Hunger Games. His last name evokes one of America’s greatest writers, but also the sweet-smelling flowering shrub hawthorn, that has lots of thorns. Furthermore, his first name Gale evokes another mindless, powerful force. As you read Catching Fire and Mockingjay, you’ll be wise to keep an eye on Gale Hawthorne.

And so, with Suzanne Collins’ excellent examples in mind, I finally resolved my difficulties naming my short characters in Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel.

Seven? I asked myself. What else has seven? I wondered. Well, duh, the days of the week. And for that–oh joy! We have a popular nursery rhyme. And so my little people became members of the same family, got names or nicknames and at least one character trait apiece. The oldest is Moon, “fair of face” in spite of being extremely overweight. Next comes Toot, “full of grace,” especially with his hands. Wednesday’s child, “full of woe,” is Mopey, an epic poet always moaning and groaning about his work. (As a writer, I really identify with Mopey.) Thursday’s child is Thor, who has “far to go” because he’s completely deaf. His twin sister Frieda, the tiniest of the seven, is “loving and giving.” Saturday’s child Whip “works hard for a living.” As the mining company foreman he makes sure the others work hard, too. And finally Sunny, born on the Sabbath Day, is “bonny and blithe and good and gay,” that is, he has a really sunny, upbeat personality.

You can get to know these characters even better by reading Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel now available through Amazon.com as a Kindle eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI) or a trade paperback (ISBN 978-0-9899504-1-1).

And I’m very pleased to announce that Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories is now available as a Kindle eBook featuring Cinderella, P. I. in SIX NEW STORIES, twelve stories altogether, “twenty years, three kids, and a few extra pounds after the ball.” Buy it for only $2.99 at www.amazon.com/dp/B00GMMUSTI.