Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Gospels of Cal’eia – The Book of Dean by Calandra Usher

The Book of Dean is the first book in The Gospels of Cal’eia tetralogy by Calandra Usher. Like the book I reviewed last month, this is also a debut novel although it came out last year. The story centers around Sarah who is on the run from something or someone. She stumbles upon a very odd property in the middle of rural North Carolina which starts her off on a very odd journey. Something is obviously very, very different about Sarah as she can speak and understand horses. One of the four men who live on the property discovers Sarah. When she is about to leave the next morning, an accident forces her to stay until she recovers. Her recovery allows her to and the men to cautiously get to know each other with each side quickly determining none of them are quite human.

The four men, Dean, Fabien, Warren, and Pete, are all very different from each other. Dean is the leader of the group, Fabien is the gourmet cook and joker, Warren is the big teddy bear, and Pete is the serious intellectual. For the most part they accept Sarah right away although they are cagey about seeking medical attention for her after a terrifying accident badly damages her leg. Sarah is okay with this despite the fact she has a difficult time trusting people. She justifies it because she sees auras around people and theirs apparently project they are okay. Sarah also has some other otherworldly capabilities like telepathy, assigning shapes to foods she eats, and has a deep spiritual connection with the world.

The men are able to quickly earn her trust although Pete is the most wary of the four as he realizes something is very different about Sarah and worries about the group being discovered. It bugs him that she was able to find their very large and oddly designed estate in the first place as they intentionally built it in the middle of nowhere. As the leader, Dean trusts Sarah and advises the other men to do the same. Slowly Sarah opens up about herself and questions the men before finally grasping who and what they are. It’s not until the end of the book that who and what Sarah truly is, is revealed thus setting up the next book and presumably is the rest of the series.

Despite this being subtitled The Book of Dean, we really don’t get to know Dean very well. He’s a nice guy, apparently is gorgeous because Sarah keeps telling the reader, and is smart and well-read but then again all of the men hold multiple PhDs in various fields. But that’s it other than an obvious attraction between Sarah and Dean. Despite all this, I didn’t find Dean all that interesting. Out of the group of four men, I found Fabian and Ren the most interesting for very different reasons. Dean was just too perfect and even when there’s a hint of a dark side, something we all have, it’s dropped until the very end when the men’s true identities are clarified.

I also didn’t like Sarah very much. Despite her age being stated as twenty-eight, she comes across as much younger. She’s a caring free-spirit and has this mystical air surrounding her but I found it grating at times to read her ADD-like narrative. Since my spouse has ADD it’s taxing enough having conversations with him that when I read a book I don’t want my lead to narrate that way. Sarah’s story isn’t helped by the first two chapters which are strictly backstory and could have been used later in the story when as it became relevant to the story. There were other chapters that, while had lovely writing and emotion, were distracting from the story itself.

There are little things which are never explained or resolved. For example, the reader is never given the reason when Sarah is still on the run. She initially leaves home around the time she graduates from high school because her mother has passed away but since the book begins when she is twenty-eight, who or what is she still running from? I wonder if this is something that is explained in the next book but more hints or at least letting the reader know, not necessarily the other characters, what is after her. Also, Sarah destroys a valuable object which surprises her and the four men yet again this isn’t explained.

I also felt like there wasn’t any real tension or sense of foreboding throughout the book. I don’t necessarily need a story to be dark and brooding but the whole book and the characters are just too nicey-nicey for me. Even when there are some darker spots, they’re microscopic. The ending, though, I think does hint that perhaps the story will get maybe a tick darker.

Overall, the book didn’t work for me. I wasn’t particular taken with the character of Sarah and felt the mystery surrounding the situation could have been resolved more quickly. I think there was way too much back story that added very little and I think dragged the pacing of the story down. There were also way too many grammatical errors I couldn’t just pass off as a product of how the main character speaks.

I did like some of the otherworldly descriptions and I think Ms. Usher captured the colors and shapes of emotions quite well. I also liked the interaction with the horses and cat because I’m an animal lover and talk to animals. Certainly not in the same way as Sarah, of course, but I appreciate that animals have thoughts, feelings, and unique personalities just like people. Ms. Usher also paints quite a lovely picture and I appreciated reading something different within the fantasy realm.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Gospels of Cal’eia – The Book of Dean two-and-a-half pencils.



Weekly Musing: What Is Critical Thinking?

I wanted to touch upon the concept of Critical Thinking as I feel it is something that is unforgivably lacking in society. Everyone’s a critic but does that mean we actually know what critical thinking is and engage upon it? The dictionary definition is that it is a noun meaning disciplined thinking which is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Notice in the definition it doesn’t state an emotional response or opinion. Yet whenever I try to participate in discussions about a book or whatever, I see more and more people believing their opinion counts as critical thinking. Far, far too often criticisms I see are based on emotion, irrational thinking, and personal biases. There’s this aggravating mentality of “I’m right and you’re wrong because…because you just are!” I find this incredibly painful to see. It truly hurts my heart to see people argue, not debate those are two separate things, over a point. Both sides have the critical part down to an ugly art but neither remembers to stop and think.

When examining a piece of literature in an intellectual manner, emotions need to be separated from the analysis. This is difficult because one of the beauties of literature is its ability to make us feel. Whether they’re positive or negative emotions, the written word has a glorious power on our heart. It’s also human nature to be emotional; we are animals after all. Yet our brains are wonderfully evolved to handle this separation.

When it comes to analyzing literature, our head must take center stage. Far, far too often we forget this. In our debates (arguments) we want to prove our interpretation is the only right one. We employ non-critical thinking techniques by calling each other names, claiming someone’s position is stupid or wrong because they don’t agree, and fail to cite any evidence to support our stance. When things get this way it gets no one anywhere; people shut their minds off when they argue and their hearing becomes selective.

I’m not sure how or why this happens and that’s not my focus today. What I want to talk about is encouraging us all to work harder on critical thinking. Look again at the definition of critical thinking and let’s break it down by each of the key parts.

Clear: When analyzing something, is your argument clear? It doesn’t have to be a complicated stance in fact it’s probably better if it is communicated as simply as possible. This makes it easier to stick to the point(s) for all parties involved.

Rational: Is your criticism coming from a place of rational thought or is it based on an emotional response? Often times our emotions are irrational. How many times have you struggled to understand why you feel the way you do at a particular moment? Why does something make you happy today when yesterday it wouldn’t have? Again, employ the gray matter between your ears when analyzing something. Does criticism make logical sense, stripped of my known personal biases as well as emotion? Get in touch with your inner Spock if you will.

Open-minded: This is probably the toughest thing to do. Even more than trying to be rational. Based on our life experiences and values, being open-minded is damn near impossible for any of us. No one is taught be truly open-minded and it shows in our actions. That being said, through careful practice and lots of reading (after all the more reading one does the more exposure we get to the lives of others) we can open our minds. This isn’t the same as allowing others to try and change who we fundamentally are as a person. Just hear the other points even if you don’t agree with them.

Informed by evidence: Oh boy, how do I explain this simply? Evidence in this case refers to what is in the text. Not what the author’s intent was even if you’ve read or watched interviews with the author. Keep in mind whatever the author’s intent was when they wrote the piece isn’t the same as what the reader will get out of it. As humans we all bring our life experiences to the page as we read. Our points of reference are different from the author’s. We see and interpret things differently from the author. That’s okay and is wonderful. So when we speak about our analysis being informed by evidence, it needs to be based upon what the text says. From that we can then use the text to support our position or to try and refute the opposing point.

We’ve got the critical part done but the thinking portion is something that needs to be worked on by all of us. Keep the above points in mind whenever you engage in a discussion not only about literature but also about other aspects in your life. Keep in mind, though, it is okay to stick to your guns and principles but treat others with kindness and respect.



Weekly Musing: It. Has. Begun!

At the end of February I finished the initial draft of the historical fiction novel I’ve been researching for years. I’ve taken the last few months off away from it so it can sit and because I was mentally exhausted. During these last 4 months I worked on other stuff; mainly new short stories, jotting down new ideas, and accidentally starting another novel.

My self-imposed deadline to begin the revision process was July 1st. Well, as July 1st got closer, the more anxious I became. Excited, some, yes, but anxious because I know there is so much wrong with it. It is going to be an overwhelming amount of work just to get it to a coherent point.

Another cause for my anxiety was this is also going to be the first time I’ve tried revising a novel. Since I’ve never really revised a novel, I wasn’t sure where to start. On and off over the past 4 months I have thought about this process. Where to start? How long will this take me? And more than once, is this even worth it?

I chewed over the last question the most because the story is set during a little known rebellion that ultimately failed and how the ebb and flow of that rebellion is mirrored in the relationship between the two main characters. Because it’s not set in a popular time period or place I am concerned about if it is even worth revising since I suspect it will be a hard sell. Ultimately I realized that I need to continue the work on it. If I don’t I will regret it and even if I can’t get it traditionally published or decide to not even self-publish it, then I do need the practice on how to revise a novel.

Once that dilemma was decided, I focused more on trying to figure out what my process is for revising a novel. Writing is such a highly individualized sport that no matter how many books, articles, and interviews I read about revising, it still comes down to figuring out what works for me. I knew I simply couldn’t approach it as I would a short story due to my process for writing a short story is different from writing a novel. Thankfully I’m not under any kind of deadline so I can take my time.

The easiest part of the process was the day I printed out the manuscript. Apologies to the tree I probably killed to do it but hey, at least I recycle the paper. Since I hadn’t written it in order this meant I would have to cobble together in order the story. Messy but it’s how my brain works when drafting a novel.

Below is a picture of what it looked like when I put the book in order.

Organizing part 1
All laid out

Good thing I have a large expanse of floor space to lay things out. Since I need to visualize and touch things, I spent a couple of days staring at the finished product including reviewing scenes I was throwing out as well as noting scenes which still needed to be written.

What I happily discovered was by laying out the whole novel like I did was seeing each character’s presence in the story. It was also nice seeing the story falls into the classic 3 act structure.

Another problem I had to contend with was since I have two main characters who’s stories start off in different locations until they finally merge into one, how in the hell was I planning on ordering the story? Good for me I had written scenes down onto notecards with dates I worked on each scene. I connected the scenes together, dividing them into beginning, middle, and end. To solve the two main character question I further divided things by designating one column for each character and ordered things accordingly.

Compiling this proper like
Compiling this proper like

Essentially I’m revising two novels which will be combined in the next round of revision. At this point, this makes sense to me and I think will allow me to completely immerse myself into each character’s mind and world.

Next came the very scary step of actually starting the revision stage. Below is a picture of what I’m referring to as my command center: the dining room table. While I have separate desks for my computer and physical writing, neither are big enough for me to spread out. Since I’ll be fact checking and doing additional research during this phase, I need my computer nearby. And who honestly uses their dining room table? We certainly don’t very often.

The bridge
The bridge

As of this writing, I’ve revised the opening chapter which took a lot longer than I anticipated. In the months ahead I know more research will be done, scenes will be added and deleted. The least of my concerns is the harder examination of the prose itself. Yes, I’m trying to rewrite some of the crap I threw down on paper but once I have my facts straightened out, I can relax and focus on that.

What I’ve been telling myself during this process is to keep in mind to take it word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, chapter by chapter. This isn’t a sprint or even a marathon but an extreme marathon.