Archive for November, 2017

Wednesday Reflections #31 – Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Via: Daily Prompt – Faint & Dancing

the-rules-of-magic-9781501183874_hrTitle     Rules of Magic

Series     Practical Magic #00

Author     Alice Hoffman

Genre     Historical Fiction | Magical Realism | Fantasy | Witches

Publisher      Simon & Schuster

Publication Date      October 10, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     New York and Massachusetts in the 1960’s

ISBN     1501137492

Synopsis: The Owenses are one of the oldest witch families of the New World, their lineage dating back to Maria Owens, who fell in love and had an affair with a married man, John Hathorne, who in order to hide his sins, branded her a witch and tried her during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A brokenhearted Maria, then already pregnant with Hathorne’s child, had cursed her own future family to caution them from ever falling in love – a curse that would bring ruin to anyone they fell in love with. For generations, witches of the Owens clan tried to escape the curse, leaving their family home in the little town of Massachusetts to find a “normal life”, as did Susanna Owens. But magic born of blood cannot be eschewed and so Susanna instituted rules to keep her children from discovering their magical heritage. Yet Franny, Jet, and Vincent always knew they were different and, like any other children, they broke all the rules. The eldest Franny was difficult but intelligent and inquisitive; she always thought the fact that birds flocking to her was a curious power to have, but being protective of her siblings, chose to turn a blind eye to her abilities. Jet was the beautiful kind mediator; she could read minds but chose not to reveal what she discovered out of respect for others’ privacy. Vincent, the first male to be born into the family, was heart-stopping handsome and possessed a gift for music; his charismatic ability to cast a lure on others was discovered soon after his birth when a mesmerized nurse had tried to steal him away and he was the first of the siblings to enjoy wielding his powers. However, by the summer Franny turned seventeen, all three Owens children had their turns in experimenting with their abilities. And though they were not aware of any elderly Aunt Isabelle, when Franny and her siblings were called to visit her to learn about magic, they were excited to go. Over the course of the following few months, the siblings come to learn about their family history and power as well as the privileges, responsibilities, and tribulations that come with it. And over the span of the next few decades, the siblings come to learn how everything they learned from Aunt Isabelle was absolutely true.

Experience: I had originally planned to do the review for this novel the Wednesday before Halloween. However, I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South at the time and my head was still too full of Margaret and Thornton, so I put off reading Rules of Magic for a couple of days. Then it took me two weeks to finish reading this book – not because it was boring but because it was so languidly mystical.

Despite the topic of the novel, the central theme of the story was truly family and love. If one begins reading the book with expectations of bangs and pops, or potions and spells, one could sift through the entire plot without extracting more than a handful of notes. Rather the magic lay within the dedication Franny placed in ensuring her brother and sister were well taken care of, the undying love Jet possessed in her heart for a man born of the enemy to her bloodline, and the pursuit of self-worth that Vincent ventured upon even as he simultaneously accepted the magic in him while despising the fate his power portend. And through all this, each sibling must come to an understanding with the curse put on their love life and find the grounds upon which they build their own future – but not without plenty of encouragement and protection from each other. The life of magic is not for the faint of heart. The story demanded that it be read with heart and patience because patience is what each of the characters required most to endure all that entailed their inheritance.

The characters were so well developed that it was difficult for me to accept they were not real. It was as though Hoffman truly watched their lives unfold over the decades and were summarizing the events as she remembered them. There were little action or dialogue, the book having been written mostly in exposition, speaking more about how each character interpreted what their magic was and how their experiences with magic confirmed or refuted their original theories. And while this bode that I could not chase through the book in a hurry to reach the end – au contraire it rather slowed me down because there was no opportunity to skip a line lest I miss out on an important thought trail from one of the characters – the passages were by no means prosaic but rather lent the narrative a spiritual quality.

Having both read and seen Practical Magic, I felt Hoffman produced a historical account of the ancestors of Sally and Gillian, the protagonists of the original book. And in the process, quite dispelled the assumptions both the sisters of Practical Magic and I, as a reader, made about the aunts. Whereas in Practical Magic the aunts appeared rather matter-of-fact about their heritage and thought it pointless to shield their wards from the injustice magic rendered upon the family, both personal and social, here, we come to realize how much the aunts concealed about their own lives from Sally and Gillian. Once the girls became their charges, they set aside their past and allowed the girls’ happiness to become the central concern and were more than happy to let them live their lives and discover magic on their own terms without piling their own past fears, disappointments, losses, or even triumphs to overshadow the lives of their wards. While Rules of Magic may be faithfully read as a stand-alone and one need not have read or watched Practical Magic before venturing onto this book, reading Rules of Magic did give me a better understanding of the Frances and Jet in Practical Magic. I cannot help but respect the aunts in the original more for reading about the sisters in the prequel.

As for the “rules of magic”, Hoffman does share many of them – first as instructions and then with the exceptions tot he rules. We are allowed to experience the rules as the siblings (returning to Franny, Jet, and Vincent) successfully break them, come to accept them, and then learn to circumvent them, each playing a cat-and-mouse tango with fate in their turn. It was delicious to watch sisters and brother experiment with the unique power inherited by each as well as the general rules they found in their family grimoire – and even the forbidden texts meant to lead them astray of the course of “not to bring harm”.

Although, I must say few of the witches or wizards in this book cared much for that mother of all rules, harming others and self frequently enough to get out of binds. If anything, I think this was one place where Hoffman could have added a little – including some direct consequences of the magical manipulations the siblings and their aunts rendered would have brought on consistency to the rules. However, all we get to read about is a few blisters from telling uncomfortable lies. Yes, the siblings face their share of hardship but those seem to be unavoidable lessons of their inherent magic rather than the consequences of harms they cause others. Apart from this inconsistency, I think Hoffman wrote yet another masterful tale, weaving together an utterly believable myth.

Recommendation: It will be a bit of a slow read, I tell you, but if you’re into magic and if you’re into the power of family, this book is for you.

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WRITING CHRONICLE #31: name game

Via: Daily Prompt – Panacea

elucidata-hello-my-name-is-640x456Naming characters is one of my favorite activities in the fiction writing process. There are so many beautiful names out there, entrenched in the regions from whence they originate, the time in which they were first derived, the meaning hoped the bearer would inculcate – as a storyteller, I feel as though we are blessed with the opportunity to use so many of them. Without having to really populate the earth with our progeny, of course.

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Image: The Illustration Cupboard

But naming characters requires some thought. Once our story is published, we’re stuck with them, so choosing names should be done wisely. And it’s not only the main characters that require such deliberate consideration. Think Mr. Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. Though not quite the minor character, he was no protagonist either; but his name was selected precisely for its phonetic traits, which were meant to be attributed to the role he plays in the plot. Mr. Gradgrind was a middle-class businessman and later MP, but more importantly, he was the head of an educational system that only ever dealt in facts and had no patience for the human frailties known as emotions. He ground the rules and morality into the students and he graded them on their ability to churn out factual statements. Anything more or less was unacceptable, even among his own children. The reason we cannot fully hate him, even though we are wary of his methods and can immediately sense the ominous results they portend, is because he genuinely believes his methods are there for the benefits of his charges. Such is the tragedy of the man Gradgrind and his name squarely sets that tone among Dickens’s audience from the very first paragraph of this iconic novel.

 

Now, I do not consider myself anywhere as accomplished as Dickens or Shakespeare in choosing character names but there are some great directions I rely on. I thought I’d share them with you this week:

Time Period. Not so much as the period in which the story is set, but rather when the character in question was born. Certain names come into vogue in certain eras and this is a good clue to keep in mind when putting the backstory together for the character.

Locality. Another important factor in making the character feel real is giving them a name popular in the region where they hail from. This obviously may be the place where they were born but another avenue one can take is naming the character after the place of their ancestors. One of the things I truly appreciate in the stories written by today’s authors is how diverse their characters are starting to emerge as, rightfully reflecting the globalized communities of our real-time world. If the author wishes to enhance on that, they can easily factor in the character’s ancestral region as source of their name.

Parents. To reflect upon the riddle from The Conjuring 2,

I am given and I am taken.
I was there at you first breath,
But you did not ask for me.
But I will follow you till your death.”

Our names are given to us by our parents/guardians. Therefore, our names are as much a reflection of who our parents/guardians are as who they hope for us to grow up to be. It is only later through the passage of life that our names begin to engender the traits that become us through our accomplishments or failures. Until then, our names are really the properties of our parent’s/guardian’s hopes and dreams. How is that for the name being an important part of the character backstory?

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Genre. We can just as easily rely upon the fictional realm in which the characters exist. Depending on the theme of the story, we can name the characters to symbolize the story’s distinctive features, e.g. a whacked up title like Lord Voldemort for an evil wizard bent on being unique and reigning over magic and non-magic folks alike. Obviously, Adolf Hitler was taken.

giphyRoot Meanings. Or we may name the characters the way parents often name their children in real life – to attribute certain qualities upon the bearer of the name. I always found it curious that Emily Deschanel’s character Temperance from the popular TV series Bones should have been named thus by her outlawed parents. Perhaps they wished for her to have a more moderate lifestyle than they experienced. In any case, Temperance Brennen certainly did grow up to demonstrate restraint in all things emotional, which allows her to so objectively and pragmatically view the world around her. However, we can get more creative with this where, instead of simply picking qualities for names, we name characters after roots of the characteristics we hope for, e.g. naming a very pious woman “Lisa” (meaning Devoted to God). There are a great many websites dedicated to relating the roots and meanings of each name. I started off with behindthename.com but trendier sites have cropped up since.

Alliterative Names. I love alliterating when writing. I know it is almost taboo in the author craft management community (unless specifically used as humor, of course) but there you have it – it is one of my writing vices. But you know where alliteration is perfectly acceptable? Names. Daniel Deronda, Peter Parker, Severus Snape, Bugs Bunny, Steve Stifler… Regardless of genre or medium, history is full of famous fictional characters with alliterative initials for their names.

Pronunciation. Speaking of alliteration, it does make for some tongue-twisting prowess to make them roll off the tongue. A character’s name should ideally be easy to pronounce without needing an instruction manual from the author. However, sometimes authors like to throw us off on purpose to add mystery to the characters, e.g. in Jane Eyre, until the titular character tells her young student Adele her name and Adele repeats after her, who – other than people from old England – could have guessed Eyre to be pronounced “Aire”? I always thought it looked more like “ire” myself (but that might be due to my personal rather-abrasive feelings towards the author). Or the fact that my brother still protests, “What the hell kind of name is Her-my-oh-knee? It’s supposed to be Her-me-own!” Well, take it to the Greek. While Brontë and Rowling could get away with it, not all of we possess the genius to follow suit and survive.

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Name Generators. If the above guidelines are of no help to finding you the perfect name, chuck ’em and just generate a name online such as with fantasynamegenerators.com. This particular website, really a cure-all for me, has a solution for all sorts of permutation-combination of names according to genre, region, pop culture, and whatnot. Also, sometimes it’s just fun to click around to see what the site spews up.

A FINAL WORD OF CAUTION

The idea of coming up with names for your characters is to make them sound realistic (unless you are deliberately aiming for exotic) that is in keeping with the theme and setting of the story. However, at the same time, one needs to cross-check that the characters’ names do not echo in the real world, i.e. to avoid at the best of one’s ability to have a real-life person come back and say you stole their name for your character. Remember: in fiction, murderers have no middle names. It is a trick of the trade to leave out the middle name to avoid accidentally matching your character names with real people. The good news is that while editing, you still have the opportunity to change the names of your characters as many times as you like – only also remember to change the name EVERYWHERE that it appears in the manuscript.

Once you have named your characters, for the sake of skillfully managing them, try to keep the names consistent, which is, there should be a standard name by which the character is addressed unless there is a certain sect within the story which addresses the character with a variant or pet name, as well as dissimilar to other characters, i.e. try avoiding too many characters with names starting with the same initials, similarly sounding names, or names that rhyme with one another, etc.

But most importantly, have fun naming names!

 

[Now, for a personal message: This will be my last WRITING CHRONICLE post for the month of November as well as what I am assuming the first-half of December. I will be posting a blog for WEDNESDAY REFLECTION this week too but after that I’ll be out of commission until somewhere mid-December or however long it will take to recuperate from the surgery I will be undergoing next week. Not to worry! At this moment, the doctor says it is a precautionary measure and we will know more once the post-surgery tests are completed. Wish me luck because I hear it’s going to hurt like @#$% once the local anesthesia wears off!]

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTION #30: Crimson Peak

Via: Daily Prompt – Ghoulish & Mystery

ec22screens_1_webTitle     Crimson Peak

Starring     Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston

Director     Guillermo del Toro

Writer(s)    Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins

Genre     Drama | Fantasy | Horror

Release Date     October 16, 2015

Filming Location     USA | Canada

Parental Guidance     R

IMDB Rating     6.5

Synopsis: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) always knew there were ghosts. As a child, she lost her mother to the Black Cholera. The night Mrs. Cushing was buried, her ghost appeared to Edith with a cryptic warning to “Beware of Crimson Peak”. Edith received a visit again with the same warning fourteen years later, when she had blossomed into a young woman of unassuming charm – albeit bookish – and keen determination to prove herself as a novelist, with the blessing and encouragement of her businessman father Mr. Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). While Edith prefers writing to society, she suddenly finds her world expanding with the return of her childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who just set up a practice in town after completing his medical studies, and the mysterious inventor Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is trying to gain her father’s confidence in order to gather the capital to build the machine that would help him mine the red clay on which his family estate sits in Cumberland, England. Attraction between Edith and Thomas is instantaneous and he takes advantage of this in hopes of gaining an ally before her father. Thomas’s sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), who accompanied him to help gain the capital, is not impressed, having hoped her brother would have picked a more affluent and vapid quarry. Neither are Mr. Cushing and Alan, who had their own misgivings about the brother-sister duo from the start. Mr. Cushing hires an investigator to learn more about the newcomers, only to discover their very disturbingly suspicious history, and confronts the siblings about their intent towards his daughter, writing them a cheque to leave Edith alone and return to England. He also tells Thomas to break Edith’s heart so that she may move on, which Thomas does with angry reluctance but publically, announcing he will be gone the next day. Except the next morning, Mr. Cushing is brutally murdered and Thomas, who stayed back even though Lucille left, confesses to Edith that he had broken up with her under her father’s instructions. As Edith comes to learn about her father’s murder, Thomas takes advantage of her distress and marries her. Thomas takes Edith back to his home in England, with Edith hoping to have a new beginning with her husband. Only now Thomas is physically distant and avoid consummating their marriage while Lucille is cold towards her and perhaps a bit too intrusive about their marriage bed. Pretty soon Edith is visited by gruesome red ghosts on a nightly basis and is told that the family estate is referred to by the locals as “Crimson Peak”.

Experience: I’m not easily scared by horror movies, only ever startled when things jump out of the shadows and have actors screaming. This movie, however, instated its creep-factor from the first act. I’m not sure what it was, really. Maybe it was the hovering carcass-y melancholically-draped specter of Edith’s mother that crawls into bed with her when she is a child that did it [I mean, who hasn’t ever slept with their back to the wall out of vigilant fear as a child, right?] or the historic setting of the movie and romantic undercurrent between the various characters that made me feel invested and empathetic, or the appallingly possessive way that the Baronet’s sister watched his love and married life progress, but I could feel the morbidity of this movie take hold from the preamble. It definitely put me in the mood for all things evil and ghastly for this Halloween.

I felt the casting of the movie was very well done. From Jim Beaver to Jessica Chastain, everyone showed just the level of curiosity and invasiveness that the characters needed to possess to make the relationship dynamics – one of the most important mechanics of the plot – emanate from the screen. The characters themselves were well-developed and complementally contrasted one another. On the one side you have the open and honest friendship between the Cushings and Alan, on the other side you have the sinisterly co-dependent devotion between the aristocratic siblings. Watching the two worlds merge, split, and then reconnect was interesting and rather flawless.

Going back to the actors, Beaver was as usual just the right level of encouraging and frustrating as a parent to the honestly devoted daughter that Wasikowska played. As always, Hiddleston pulled off the younger sibling, misunderstood and committing immoral acts against those nearest to him (though here misguided by his sister) with aplomb. Once again I found myself wondering should I be disgusted by the character he portrayed or accept him for his redeeming potentials. I found Chastain, as always, alluringly potent. I think it might be her strong bone structure or set facial features or the matter-of-fact regard of her eyes, but Chastain always casts best as a woman of indomitable resolve, which her acting ability greatly complements. Next to her, Wasikowska featured a pale contrast, which cast a perfect effect to play the deceptively polite but equally gritty new woman of the household (I loved how Edith chased after the ghosts to get to the bottom of the mystery despite being utterly petrified by them). Hunnam took a back seat for most of the movie, acting mainly as a supporting role and a necessary plot device to help Edith out once she solves the mystery and rescues herself, but I admired the fact that he could remain subtly in the background until called to action without trying to overpower the screen.

With regards to the plot itself and the script was written and directed with a steadily accelerating pace. While there was little in the way of plot twists (the audience today has wizened up too much to the evil that lurks in people’s hearts to really be surprised with anything), the real mystery was how the truth will unfold and what will Edith do once she is faced by it (I think I was surprised by her last reaction more than anything). But all in all, there was just enough creepiness to make it interesting.

Recommendation: Totally worth watching this Halloween! Or any dark wintry night, really.

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