Chapters: My Growth as a Writer by Lois Duncan

Lois Duncan is one of my favourite writers and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned her on my blog yet! It’s time.

Last year I was fired up and researching whether writers I loved had written autobiographies or memoirs, hoping very much that they had, because one is curious about the person behind the magic pages that pulled you in, about their insights on writing and life, the experiences that shaped them, and you’re expecting their memoirs to be as engaging as their fiction. I don’t rush with this, because I’m usually involved in some extensive reading first, especially if the writer has been around a while and achieved a lengthy bibliography. Then there’s some digesting and thinking time after finishing a novel. It’s almost like I need to sit with the characters I met for a while before I move on to words directly from the life of the person who created them.

Chapters: My Growth as a Writer is a gem for many reasons. One of them is that between Lois Duncan’s memories and accounts of her writing, which are all absorbing in their own right, the book is basically an anthology of her riveting short stories (none of which I had read before!). She uses them to illustrate her growth and career, and while each point she makes comes across loud and clear, the stories themselves are a fantastic read, showcasing the incredible talent evident since Lois Duncan’s early years. They contain that unique suspense building up from the everyday experiences we can all relate to that is characteristic of her novels. What will happen? Will it be something bad? are the questions we keep asking ourselves when we read.

Visions of a woman’s life in a 1950s-60s America emerge, as a teenager, a young woman, a wife, a mother. The expectations, the preconceived societal ideas, the sexism, the condescension, the inevitable revolt against attempts, however small, to diminish a creative identity – unfortunately, some of it still exists today. One scene in which Lois Duncan describes her statement that she is a self-employed professional writer, while her conversation partner firmly insists it’s a hobby and not a “real” job is simply priceless.

Just like her novels, this memoir is a reminder that Lois Duncan was so much more than, as often mentioned in news headlines, the author of I Know What You Did Last Summer. She was a gifted writer, an attentive and precise observer and an amazing, engaging storyteller. She drew on and never disregarded her own experiences, more than proving the “Write what you  know” maxim, and she worked hard. She knew how to tap into that which scared us, young and old, what made us laugh in-between and how to grasp a life-changing moment, whether big or small, then put all this into written words.

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The Waterfire Saga by Jennifer Donnelly

Magic depended on so many things – the depth of one’s gift, experience, dedication, the position of the moon, the rhythm of the tides, the proximity of whales. It didn’t settle until one was fully grown; Serafina knew that. But she needed it to be with her now, and she prayed to the gods that it would be.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled on everything strong and sure inside of her, and started to sing.

Whales? Well, why not, it’s all explained in The Waterfire Saga, an absorbing four-book YA fantasy series about…mermaids. My exploration of the YA genre continues, and after some searching for something else about mermaids, I stumbled on Deep Blue, Rogue Wave, Dark Tide and Sea Spell. Serafina, Neela, Becca, Ava, Ling and Astrid are thrown together by adversity and destiny, and while a mission of global proportions awaits our heroines, discoveries about life, love and friendship are plentiful along the way. The usual, but always interesting components of the genre.

Clear-cut language and a lot of drawing from the richness of world history, folklore and linguistics make this an appealing read to all of us who had literature courses during our studies. We recognize origins of names, titles, countries, and the additional logic behind this is clearly presented in the novels. While these layers and background often rooted in humanities make the reading experience all the more enjoyable for those of us outside the target audience, they do not overload the reading process for a younger reader. I remember my reading times from a younger age very clearly and I am sure I would have enjoyed this series just as much as I did now, albeit with different accompanying thoughts.

Each heroine lives, breathes and swims right off the page and in to my imagination, going through identity struggles and the pains of self-discovery. The appeal of the series also lies in the fact that the end goal of this particular story, while dealing with romance, themes of home and family, longing, wanting more than what life turns out to be, does not revolve around the mermaids wanting to escape their world. In fact, not only is the warmth and energy of their patriotism palpable, so is the respect and focus with which the author includes descriptions of the seas and its creatures. This warmth and empathy extend to the depiction of one of the central themes of the novels – the strength of friendships.

How could she explain to them what her swashbuckler clothes meant to her? When she looked at them, she didn’t see frays and tears, she saw Sera and Ling eating stew in Lena’s kitchen after Ling had almost been captured by Rafe Mfeme. She saw Becca and Ava in the River Olt, fighting off the rusalka. She saw fierce Astrid battling Abbadon in the Incantarium with only her sword.

And she saw herself – being braver and stronger than she’d ever thought she could be.

The Waterfire Saga shows mermaids who are self-aware, intelligent, vulnerable, loyal and resilient. They are relatable, and if a younger friend or relative of mine was reading this series, I would not be worried about the ideas they might be getting.

Becca was not only good at making things, she was good at making things better. Life in foster homes had taught her that if she waited for someone else to make things better, she’d be waiting a very long time.

Well plotted, well written, well researched and probably created with a lot of enjoyment.