Tag Archive: setting

This magical image is by mariobraune and I found it on Flickr. Click the photo for more great images by this artist.

GONE by Michael Grant is totally set up to be a book about what kids would do if they had to build a society.  Picture it: all of the adults disappear one day, suddenly, for no apparent reason.  Simultaneously, a barrier made of God-knows-what-but-burns-to-the-touch encloses a large but limited area around the town.  It’s a perfect set up for power struggles and warring factions.  And GONE is that, but somehow it’s also much deeper.

It’s pretty cool how Mr. Grant managed the setting.  There are two maps at the beginning of this book, one of the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone, the area inside the barrier) and another of the town of Pardido Beach, California (the one small town within the barrier).  Let me just say, I HATE books that include a map at the beginning.  I usually think that means that the author doesn’t trust his writing enough to believe I can imagine his setting without pictures.  Amusingly enough, after my initial grumble I completely forgot they were there.  I didn’t need them, the setting was so clear.

It was fun to look at them after I finished the book, though, because despite the limit of the setting–it’s about 62 square miles enclosed under the dome–the setting is wildly diverse.  I honestly don’t think that this book could have been set anywhere other than California.  The FAYZ contains a beach (which plays a pivotal role in a chase scene), the desert (which plays a pivotal role in one character’s survival story), hills and forests (which offer a nice variety of wild-life to mutate and become terrifying), a gold mine, and some barrier islands.  As far as structures go, there’s one town, a nuclear power plant, a private school, and a marina.  Everything a pack of unsupervised children need.

However, the real treasures of this book are the characters.  Things don’t break down as utterly black and white.  Sure, we have our “good” characters: Sam, the protagonist; Astrid, his brilliant girlfriend; Edilio, the kid who’s got your back.  On the other side of the equation, we have the “bad” characters: Caine, the leader of the private school kids; Diana, his sort-of love interest; and especially Drake, the private school psychopath that likes to hurt people.

However, the bulk of the characters are the variety that is working each day to do their best.  Some of them are weak and some of them are clueless but all of them are complex.

  • There’s Mary, who later becomes known as “Mother Mary” who takes care of all of the little children.  She’s super-stressed, battling an eating disorder, and experimenting with self-medication.
  • There are the two local bullies: Orc and Howard.  Orc is the brawn and Howard is the brains.  While they’re annoying and potentially dangerous, they’re nothing compared to the evil that is Caine.
  • There’s little Pete, Astrid’s autistic younger brother.  Who knows if he’s good, bad, or neutral?  He joins my ranks of spooky little kids, though.
  • One of the most conflicted characters is Quinn, Sam’s best friend.  He longs to be special and wants to lead but lacks the courage.  He goes with the flow, even if the flow is being directed by some pretty dastardly dudes.
  • Or, my personal favorite, Lana and her dog Patrick, who find themselves stranded out in the desert when Lana’s grandfather blinks out as he’s driving them home.  She is On. Her. Own.  Stuck in a mining shack, surrounded by mutated coyotes.

I could go on and on.  These characters, the ones doing their best, were the best part of this book for me.  The idea that there would be a “good” side and a “bad” side was conventional.  The concept of a power struggle was utterly predictable.  But the idea that there might be kids filling roles with utter reluctance, in over their heads and coping badly was just simply beautiful.

Throw in the super powers and you’ve got one big mess!

So that’s the characters and the setting. On Monday, I’ll tackle the plotting.  This was a pretty long book and Mr. Grant kept the pacing good and fast.  I’ll see if I can’t figure out how this author does it!


TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN by John Marsden is another book where the setting is as important as the characters.  Actually, it’s a pretty cool set-up.  We have the fairgrounds in the middle of Wirrawee, a small town in Australia where this story takes place.  The fairgrounds are where the townspeople are being held by the invading army.  Surrounding the fairgrounds is the town–a blown-up abandoned tangle of streets.  Surrounding Wirrawee is the rural farmlands where our main character lives.  Surrounding the farmland is the Australian bush.  Since I enjoy symmetry, the concentric circles worked for me.

When the characters enter the bush, they travel along a ridge called Tailor’s Stitch and climb down the cliffs into a crater named Hell.  This is where I start to have trouble with the setting as a reader.  Where some authors are sparse and light with description, Mr. Marsden is detailed and exacting.  I might even venture to say that the setting description is ponderous at times.  On the one hand, it created a vivid mental image of the Australian wild.  On the other hand, some descriptions of the setting are so extensive that I was getting impatient, skimming, and skipping whole paragraphs.

In the afterward, the author states that he based much of the setting on real places.  I don’t know if that might be part of the problem.  He seemed so intent on the reader seeing his version of the setting, that he seemed unwilling to leave much of anything up to the reader’s imagination.

The characters in this story are eight school friends.  Seven of them go on a camping trip and miss the foreign invasion.  The eighth survives the invasion in the town without being captured and joins up with the campers later in the book.

The main character and the point of view of the story is Ellie, an aggressive, rugged, capable young woman.  She’s the person who arranged the camping trip and she convinces her friends to make the precarious descent into Hell.  Here’s the odd thing (and I don’t know what it says about me): I kept thinking that Ellie was male.  Before names or genders were revealed, based simply on the voice, I was so sure this character was male that when her gender was revealed, it was actually jarring to me. That continued for me through the whole book, even though she has two male love interests. I’m not sure if this is my problem for buying into gender stereotypes or Mr. Marsden’s for not representing women accurately.

Perhaps if you’ve read TOMORROW, you can help me out.

The rest of the friends are a pretty typical ensemble cast.  The nearly as rugged, almost as capable, always faithful best friend (Corrie).  The troublemaker turned brilliant strategist (Homer). The beautiful rich girl who is tougher than she looks (Fi).  The genius, sensitive, artistic love interest (Lee).The best friend’s boyfriend (Kevin).  And the fainter (Robyn).  We are repeatedly told how each character blooms under pressure.

OK…sorry, sorry, sorry.  Like I said, I had trouble with this book so delving into it deeper is taxing my good nature.  But, again, let me remind you that this is the first of a wildly successful ten-book series.  Lots of people loved the TOMORROW series.

If you’ve read it, let me know how you feel.  See you Monday.

That gorgeous (and in this context, terrifying) photo was taken by tathamoddie and I found it on Flickr.

One of the interesting things about THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky is that I can’t really talk about any one character as a stand-alone entity without considering how they relate to others.  This hasn’t been true in most of the other books I’ve analyzed.  I believe that adolescence is a time that feels so solitary that crating loner characters is almost reflexive.  We see that in SPEAK, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, INDIGARA, TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY, and even THE HUNGER GAMES to a point.  Not so in PERKS.

The main character is Charlie and since I described him a little in the last post, I’m going to talk about the secondary characters first.  Patrick is Charlie’s, closest friend.  I can give a list of descriptive that would give an image of the character: friendly, loyal, gay, outrageous, intellectual, and sensitive.  However, the character really becomes round and real when we watch him relate to others.  He’s a joker around his step-sister.  He’s a sensitive romantic around the high school quarterback.  He’s an over-the-top ham when he’s playing Frank-N-Furter from THE ROCKEY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (Which, if you’ve never seen live, I highly recommend).  Furthermore, when the guy Patrick’s in love with turns on him, he has a very realistic and very painful breakdown.  I don’t know about you, but these are emotions that are very familiar to me.  And it’s not just how Patrick reacts, but it’s also the way his personality seems to shift depending on who he’s around.

On the other hand, Sam, Patrick’s step-sister and Charlie’s crush, is a stronger character.  She’s consistent no matter who she is around.  Like Patrick, I could describe her in a few words: attractive, protective, tough, and loving.  But, yet again, the author best reveals Sam through her relationships with others.  She kisses Charlie because she wants his first kiss to be from someone who loves him, even though they are not romantically involved.  She’s patient and honest with Charlie when he confesses his crush.  And when she feels that someone has been wronged–whether it’s Charlie being mistreated or Charlie doing the mistreating–she has the same outraged reaction.

Here’s something interesting: Charlie has a brother and a sister in this book and they aren’t given names.  They are solely defined by their relationships as “my brother” and “my sister”.  I usually don’t like gimmicky things like this but honestly, it’s so well done that I didn’t even notice until I did a re-read.

So that brings us to Charlie, who is like water: he fits whatever container he’s poured into.  His sister needs a shoulder to cry on?  Charlie can do that.  Sam just wants to be friends?  Charlie can do that.  Patrick needs someone to go to the gay hook-up site with him.  Charlie can do that.  The only character that notices is steadfast Sam who says at the end of the book:

You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of your own and think that counts as love.  You just can’t.  You have to do things.

She tells him to be active and the moment he does, he has a life-altering break-through.  He discovers that all of his strange little quirks–his uncontrolled crying, his obsession with gifts, and his unusual attitudes around sex–are a reaction to events from his past.  And the puzzle that is Charlie starts to make a whole lot more sense.  So much so, that it makes you want to read the book all over again.

Finally, it’s worth it to mention that this book is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Although it could have been set just about anywhere, there is one feature to Pittsburgh that Mr. Chboski used beautifully as a metaphor in the story.  As you travel to Pittsburgh from the north, it’s pretty bleak.  Then you come to the Fort Pitt Tunnels.  When you exit the tunnels, the city of Pittsburgh is right in front of you.  It’s like you’re in Oz; the world is suddenly in color again.  That’s like Charlie’s journey in this book.  It’s bleak until he bursts out of his own tunnel and then the world is in color again.  It’s pretty cool.

Clearly, I could go on and on (and on and on) about the characters in the book.  In fact I would like to because the plotting may very well have me stumped.  Let’s see what I can come up with before Friday.  Until then…have a great week.

That great image is by Filomena Scalise and I found it on freedigitalphotos.net

You might have already noticed my fondness for opening lines.  According to Mary Kole, this is a writer’s prime real estate.  In THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding, the opening line establishes the setting.  The first sentence of HAC is:

The airship lumbered low overhead, its long, lined belly a dull smear of silvery light in the fog as it reflected the gas lamps of the city beneath.

Gas lamps AND airships.  This tells me that we must be set somewhere at the turn of the century.  As we progress through the first two paragraphs, Mr. Wooding establishes that this is London, the streets are cobbled rather than paved, and that horse-drawn carriages are the primary mode of travel.  But the history isn’t correct.  In this version of world events, the “Prussians” strategically place their silent, and secret, airships over London one night and bomb the city.  The destruction is immense and the British spirit is broken.  Parts of the city have gone almost feral; wild wolves roam the streets and hoards of demonic monsters terrorize the people.  This is one bleak city.

I don’t mind admitting that I loved the setting of HAC.  It is a familiar place–London–with very unfamiliar qualities.  Like the packs of wolves.  The juxtaposition was delicious and created a strong mental picture of this world.  The drawback?  HAC has a pretty slow pace.  If you’re familiar with H.P. Lovecraft you’ve already had a taste of this style.  When it doesn’t work, the story becomes a plodding tar pit.  Fortunately Mr. Wooding’s writing is engaging enough to make it work.

The main characters of HAC are Thaniel and Alaizabel.  They’re very familiar archetypes.  He is a gifted wych-hunter–young, handsome, and stubbornly single.  She is the damsel in distress–beautiful, hunted, and alone in the world.  In my opinion, that’s all you need to know about Thaniel and Alaizibel.  Neither one did much of anything that shocked me.

But that’s OK because Mr. Wooding has an absolute talent for creating secondary characters.  At the same time that wych-kin terrorizes the people of London, there’s also a serial killer on the loose.  His name is Stitch-face because of the stitched-together mask he wears when he kills.  Yes…this feels like it draws strongly from the Jack the Ripper killings.  Alaizabel has a hair-raising scene with Stitch-face and, crazy as this sounds, I found myself enjoying his personality.

There’s also the strange, supernatural Devil-boy Jack.  His eyes are sewn shut, but he can see the future and ward off wych-kin like a professional.  Devil-boy Jack has all the answers because he knows what’s going to happen.  Of course, he can’t tell you anything useful because it might throw things off course.  You gotta love characters like that.

And finally, there’s the scrappy, Captain Jack-like Lord Crott.  He’s a Fagan-style character with a band of merry beggars. They go out and get the money and Lord Crott makes sure that they are fed and protected.  People in need of information, visit Lord Crott.  And our sweet amnesiac Alaizabel is in desperate need of information.

That doesn’t even touch upon the gooey, creepy population of wych-kin.  Not only are the monsters the stuff of twisted fairy-tales, Mr. Wooding gives them the full force of his descriptive abilities.  He also gives them really awesome names like Cradlejack (Kidnaps babies), Rawhead (Appears when you look over your shoulder three times), and ghasts (Hides in children’s tombs).  If you like horror because of the monsters, this book is for you.

So that’s a few of the characters and the setting of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by Chris Wooding.  Honestly, there’s a whole cast that I haven’t mentioned.  This book is populated.  However, because Mr. Wooding paints such a vivid picture of each character, I didn’t get confused as the story progressed.  That is no easy feat!

The super-creepy artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.

Nazi Germany.  It’s so familiar; it almost feels like a cliché.  In THE BOOK THIEF we see something new in Hitler’s Germany.  And I think that’s  because Markus Zusak thinks small.

The setting for THE BOOK THIEF is Molching, Germany, a small, fictional town outside of Munich.  Within the small town setting, Mr. Zusak focuses on Himmel street.  By page fifty of THE BOOK THIEF, we get a roll-call of the people of Himmel street.  Liesel and her foster parents, the Hubermanns; Frau Holtzapfel and her decade-long grudge against Mrs. Hubermann; Ruby Steiner, Liesel’s best friend; Frau Diller, the loyal Nazi, Tommy Miller, a twitchy, sweet misfit; and Pfiffikus, the man who whistles and swears too much.  It’s a microcosm of the war.  One loyal to Hitler (Diller), one defiant (Liesel’s foster father), and everyone else just trying to survive.  And it’s few enough characters that in a five-hundred and fifty page book, you can get to know each one pretty well.

Using such a small town setting was a brilliant choice.  In ways, it felt almost like Mayberry or Maycomb, Alabama.  I know this sounds crazy: Liesel’s foster mother is vicious with the wooden spoon, bullies grasp for power among the small-town childhood gangs, and starving Jews are marched through their town on the way to Dachau.  Still, at the same time, the children played ball games in the street and got into mischief (or even a little trouble).  There’s a little light romance.  If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you could almost envision the kids.  At the same time, this horrible war and genocide is happening.  Can you feel my unease at the two conflicting images?  It’s boggling.

Here’s another place where thinking small really worked.  There was really only one Jewish person in THE BOOK THIEF.  Although there are nameless lines of Jewish people marching to Dachau, only Max Vandenburg, the man hidden in Liesel’s basement, represents the Jewish point of view.  Just one name and voice for the millions killed during the Holocaust.  And, man, is it effective.  You feel his guilt and fear and anger.  He daydreams about having a fist-fight with Hitler.  He is a stark representation of the rage that German-Jewish population must have felt and their confusion as to where to focus their anger.

Finally, thinking small leads us to Liesel and Rudy, the two protagonists of this story.  There’s a real advantage in telling the story from the most powerless position–that of children.  Liesel and Rudy each have their own small rebellions–Rudy’s very non-PC attachment to Olympic hero Jessie Owens and Liesel’s propensity to steal books.  But, for the most part, they have very little control over their own destiny.  Liesel is forced to leave her mother to live with her foster parents. They both go to Hitler Youth.  And yet, they each have more freedom than Max.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Death as the point of view character.  I thought this was amazing.  It could have been so cheesy but not it Mr. Zusak’s hands.  Death is a character bothered and intrigued by humanity.  He describes war as an over-demanding boss, always requiring more.  And he’s funny.  Some of the commentary actually had me snickering because of the dry, black wit.

The characters are so well put together, that I could probably spend a blog post on each one.  Honestly, the character development in Liesel from the time she comes to Himmel Street to the end of the book is so dramatic that you feel like you’re watching her mature.  Rudy’s arc isn’t quite so striking, but he’s still a well-rounded character with some beautiful depth.  Frau and Herr Hubermann, Liesel’s foster parents, deserve a mention but I don’t know where to start.  If I had to draw a comparison, I would use Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES.  And, yes, it sounds odd to me too.

So next time, I’m going to tackle the plotting.  What keeps me turning the pages in THE BOOK THIEF?  Because truth be known, I finished the book in under twenty four hours.  Until next time.

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

One thing that I loved about INDIGARA by Tanith Lee is that she managed to write a book with not one setting, but two.  Better yet, one is sci-fi and one is fantasy.  In INDIGARA, the “real world” is a future setting where people populate at least three planets, robotic dogs serve as baby-sitters, and the weather is controlled artificially. The movies they make in futuristic Ollywood are dreadful sounding titles like, Son of Beowulf Unchained, Building Rome in a Day, and (Turquoise’s big break) Fall of Super Troy.  I don’t know about you, but she had me at Son of Beowulf Unchained.

The other setting, INDIGARA, is the delightful compilation of all of the contrived, predictable plots since the beginning of story-telling.  Jet and her robo-dog Otis start their adventures in a dangerous forest.  The native people speak in another language, but luckily, there are subtitles to help her along (which really made me laugh).  The plot?  Brace yourself for this one: A beautiful queen is in love with the handsome leader of her mortal enemy’s clan.  Star-crossed lovers.  It never gets old.

You’d think that all this predictability and cliché would get tiresome, but it doesn’t.  Ms. Lee makes sure that Jet notices each and every oh-no-she-didn’t moment and point them out to the reader.  It has a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that worked for me.  I just don’t think that there’s much of anything harder to write than good humor.

As for the characters, here’s another case (Like FEED, but less artful) of an unfamiliar setting made more comfortable by very familiar characters.  Super familiar.  Too familiar.  In fact, all of the major players in INDIGARA are stereotypes.  The main characters are the three sisters: Turquoise, the gorgeous, prima donna eldest; Amber, the jealous middle child (Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!); and Jet, the invisible youngest.  With this book, you can take that stereotype to the nth degree times a billion and you have Ms. Lee’s characters.  Turquoise isn’t just gorgeous and popular–she’s set to become an Ollywood actress.  Amber isn’t just jealous, she’s obsessed.  Jet isn’t just ignored, she’s missing for forty hours before anyone even notices that she’s gone.  And you extend that analysis to just about every other character in the book: the artiste director, the super-hot leading man, and so forth and so on.  Oh, and we can’t forget Jet’s dog.  Otis is robo-Lassie on steroids.

Here’s why it works: Ms. Lee knows what she’s done.  She doesn’t create these character “types” even though, as a writer, she knows better.  She chose to break this writing rule to further the B-movie tone of the book.  Why do I think this?  Because, by the end of the book, we’re seeing glimmers of depth from each of the characters.  They’re break out of the mold and start to act like real people.  It was a pleasant surprise.

So next time, I’m going to analyze the plotting of INDIGARA.  What made me keep turning the page?  Everyone have a great weekend and I’ll try to answer that question on Monday.

The cover art image is used with the permission of the artist, Daniel Dos Santos.  Visit his site for more of his fantastic artwork.