Book Review: I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak is probably best know for his #1 NYT bestseller, The Book Thief, which I thoroughly enjoyed (despite the tears and the massive headache which may or may not have been brought on by too much fangirling). I decided to venture into some of his earlier works. The first one I encountered was I Am the Messenger (alternatively titled The Messenger).

I Am the Messenger is “the story of down-and-out teenage cab driver Ed, who receives cryptic messages via playing cards that direct him to help strangers in need.” (Chicago Public Library) The novel starts off in a bank in Australia, where a gunman is keeping Ed and his friend Marvin hostage as he attempts to rob the place–

The gunman is useless. 

I know it. 

He knows it. 

The whole bank knows it. 

Even my best mate, Marvin, knows it, and he’s more useless than the gunman. 

The worst part about the whole thing is that Marv’s car is standing outside in a fifteen-minute parking zone. We’re all facedown on the floor, and the car’s only got a few minutes left on it. (Zusak 1)
The thing that struck me as soon as I began reading it was how different it was from The Book Thief. I opened it expecting sickness and death. What I got was Ed.

According to pretty much everybody (including himself), Ed is worthless past, present, and future. He’s illegally driving a taxi. The one girl who cares about him has stuffed him into the dreaded friend zone. His father died an alcoholic, and he’s stuck delivering coffee tables to his not-so-lovely mother. Depressing, I know, but I still found myself laughing and nodding along with Ed. 

Ed is hilarious in the self-depreciating sort of way that many millennials are. Through all the humor, I did sense the underlying theme of depression, which was remarkably well-done and touched me deeply. Zusak’s voice and style are incredible.

There was a bit of an info dump at the beginning, but it wasn’t too much of a sore thumb. The book was fast-paced, and it would’ve been hard to give out information and background about the characters as the plot progressed and quickened. So, forgivable.

Clichè? Perhaps a little. There was a little bit of the “chosen one” trope lingering among the pages, but I think Zusak may have done that on purpose–we realize as the book progresses that there isn’t anything special about Ed. Ed’s never really been on a journey to save others, anyway… he’s on a journey to save himself.
As to the target audience, I wouldn’t recommend it to elementary kids because of references to sexual abuse and, you know, “doing the do” in general. Also language. It’s not erotica, though, so it should be a safe and comfortable book to discuss in an older teen or adult book club, for example.

The story has elements of action, adventure, suspense, romance, and humor. It’s sweet, bitter, sad, happy, angry, and deep… something for everybody. It’ll take your emotions on a roller coaster ride, but it’s so worth it. If you’re looking for a page-turner that makes you both laugh and cry, I highly recommend I Am the Messenger. 4.5 stars out of 5 from me.

Until next time.

-L
Sources:

www.chipublin.org/markus-zusak-biography/
Zusak, Markus. I Am the Messenger. Knopf, 2006. Print. (ISBN: 978-0-375-83099-0)

Historical Fiction: The Struggle

I don’t consider myself an expert on historical fiction, but I have learned a few things in the five years I’ve spent writing a novel set in sixteenth-century Europe. 

That’s a lie. I’m still confused. This will probably end up as more of a rant than advice. Here goes–

A Good Percentage of People Don’t Know What a Baldric Is

Gawwsshh. Don’t you people spend hours of your weekend sitting at home researching obscure accessories?! Have you never read The Three Musketeers? Ugh. Peasants.

My Character Is Covered in Dirt and Blood but He Can’t Take a Bath Because That Would Be Historically Inaccurate

This is the point where I go stand in the shower and cry for all the beautiful people who lived under layers of dirt and grime because bathing regularly was un-Catholic.

Just… just take this bar of soap… from me to you…

My Character Doesn’t Feel Well. Shall We Visit a Doctor?

*Holds off storm of leeches, saws, opium, and other abstract medical instruments and medicines* NO. How about let’s just… pour a little balsam on that severed arm. It’ll feel better in a few days. No need to get “professional” help.

Glass Cost So Much That Rich People Took Their Windows with Them on Trips

This. This is one of the perks of historical fiction. I just want to hug this fact and have a chapter in my book dedicated solely to rich people taking their windows out and giving dirty looks to anyone who so much as looked at their precious glass.

World Building

Oh, come on. This is a thriller. You really expect me to pause and talk about the poor people who used oiled paper as windows?

Wait. No. That’s the glass thing again. I’m okay with talking about that. *Gives haughty look to all the peasants who don’t have glass*

The Frustration of Not Being Able to Quote Shakespeare

If I’d just set the novel thirty years later… 

But Still Stealing Shakespearean Insults

You egg.

*Exit, pusued by a bear*

Putting Off Writing a Scene Because You Still Don’t Know When Doorknobs Were Invented

Why. Why did I struggle so much with this. Doorknobs and locks and roofs and architecture and I don’t know anything–

Ya know what? Let’s just take that door away. Nobody needs to know about my doorknob struggle.

Being Angry That People Didn’t Wear Coats

But then realizing that cloaks are ten billion times hotter. Seriously. Cloaks and capes.

Still Loving Your Time Period Despite All Its Shortcomings

Because if it’s good enough for your characters, it’s good enough for you. I love you, 1521 Anno Domini.

Although you still quite literally stink.

–L

Characterization in Art and Writing

I happen to be an artist as well as a writer. As I’ve grown in both areas, I’ve realized that there are similarities between the two arts. One of my favorite similarities is characterization.
Characterization is hands-down my favorite part of writing. And why wouldn’t it be? I get to make my own imaginary friends!
Characterization can be hard, though; sometimes we think we’re characterizing when in reality we’re merely describing.
Example:
Jace is a twenty-one-year-old woman. She has blonde hair and blue eyes. She is wearing a pink shirt with jeans. She likes history and cats and surfing the Internet. One day, her parents kick her out of the house.
Vs.
Jace is a twenty-one-year-old woman. She doesn’t go to college because of her severe social anxiety and depression. She lives in her parents’ basement with her three cats, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. She’s a YouTuber who is popular for her hilarious (yet somehow still informative) videos about the role legumes played in ancient conspiracies. Three framed pictures of Napoleon Bonaparte hang on her wall. There’s a picture of her crush from high school taped on her microwave. She makes her bed every day even though she’s the only one who ever sees her room. One day, her parents kicked her out of the house.
Why do you feel more connected to her in the second example? It’s because I focused on the things that make Jace Jace. Her pink shirt isn’t that important when it comes to understanding her character, but when you see that she named her three cats after characters from The Three Musketeers, Jace comes to life.
But what about in art? Take this picture, for example:
2017-02-25 22.21.41
I drew this using pencil and charcoal a few weeks ago. I often have a hard time putting exactly what’s in my head on the paper, but this time I was pleasantly surprised. The dude in the sketchbook bore an uncanny resemblance to the main character of my historical suspense novel, Andrè Valapart.
How?
It’s not easy. First, I had to make a mental checklist of Andrè’s most prominent characteristics. He’s schizophrenic (not a good thing in 16th-century Europe), so he’s got a lot going on in his head. He’s usually more annoyed at society than society is annoyed at him. He’s blunt. Introverted. Does mathematics in his spare time. Likes guns. The list goes on, but you get the idea. The real challenge is figuring out how to manifest those characteristics in a picture.
I started with his eyes.
20170113_214457
Why? Because visually, they’re the most important part of him. They characterize him. One of my characters says to Andrè when Andrè is in the process of telling a lie, “You have to be truthful with me. Your eyes give away everything. If anyone ever had the courage to look you in the eye, they’d see straight through you.” So I focused on the eyes first, trying to make them as intense as possible. After that, his jaw (a firm one to make him look determined), his scowl (to add a touch of rebellion), and his skin (pale as a symbol of how ostrasized he is from society). The combination (hopefully!) gives Andrè an interesting face.
So how do YOU characterize in writing and/or drawing? How do you think the two activities compare? Comment below; I can’t wait to hear from you 😀
-L

Starting a Novel: Part 2

Hey, guys! Here’s a continued list of tips on beginning a novel.


3. Not having a problem/goal

This will kill your motivation. I’ve tried to write scenes just for the fun of it (without all the work of figuring out why the scene is needed in the first place), and they always fell flat. Always. Great characters only make great characters if there’s an issue driving them, so be sure you know what the conflict is BEFORE you start writing.


4. …But I’m a pantser!

Sorry, my buddy, my pal, but yes. Even if you’re a pantser. Especially if you’re a panster. How are you going to be able to pants if you don’t know the thing that’s driving your character? Pants, but pants responsibly.


5. Not enough research

This one pains me. I write in the 16th century. When I started writing historical fiction when I was twelve years old, I knew nothing about the Renaissance, so I couldn’t visualize my story as I was reading it.

Luckily, I had the privelege of visiting Italy when I was fifteen, which helped me tremendously with my writing. I knew what the cobblestones felt like and absorbed the atmosphere of Venice. I also started researching extensively online; after that, I could write without getting stuck so much because I knew my topic. That’s not saying that you have to know everything before you start writing (only God knows how many hours I spent researching doorknobs when I should’ve been writing), but you do need to have a general idea of atmosphere before you start.
That’s that for today! Hopefully this advice is helpful 😀

–L

Starting a Novel: Part 1

So you’ve been writing short stories and poems since you were in kindergarten. Your laptop is littered with fifteen first chapters for fifteen different novel ideas. What’s the difference between you and those authors who have fifteen complete novels?

The writing process is different for everyone, of course, but here are a few things that made the difference for me:

 

1. Not knowing your characters

Your characters can (and will!) change over the course of the novel whether you mean for them to or not. That’s just how writing works. Don’t panic if your character starts the novel performing electric guitar solos in front of thousands of people and finishes curled up in bed, holding a cup of coffee and humming Vivaldi. (Not that those two things are mutually exclusive. I personally find anyone who can bang out Mozart on electric guitar disturbingly attractive.) That just means that you’re figuring out what character best fits your story.

However, that doesnt mean you can start a novel without having some idea of who your main character is. Not knowing your characters can lead to writer’s block very, very quickly. Writing becomes exhausting when you’re hitting a character with event after event who doesn’t have a fleshed out personality to anchor him or her to your story and to nudge him or her forward.

How to fix this? Write out a list of traits and quirks your character has. Write a short story in a different format than your novel will be in (first person instead of third, modern-day instead of 1912). Experiment with your character by hitting him or her with events and see how he or she reacts. Do you like your character? Is he or she interesting? Is there room for growth? Are you willing to spend the next 80,000 words with him or her? If not, fix it. If so, great! Let’s move on!

 

2. Obsessing over the first chapter

You want your first chapter to be perfect. And it can be perfect. Just not right now.

This got me the first few times I tried my hand at a novel. I don’t know how many times I rewrote the first chapter.

Repeat after me: STOP.

Your first chapter for your first draft is a placeholder. That is all. You don’t fully know your story or your characters or what the heck you’re supposed to foreshadow. It’s impossible for your first chapter to be perfect right now. In fact, it’s probably going to be downright trash.

And that’s okay.

Just go on to the second chapter.

 

To be continued. À plus tard!

–L