Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Traditional Airport Post

Some observations and events at the airport this week:

If only it was a Sopwith Camel.
1. I saw a "therapy dog" getting screened by the TSA. In defense of the TSA, the dog looked a little sketchy to me. I think it was the camouflage. 

2. The Naked Scanner suddenly needed to "recalibrate" when I stepped inside and put my hands over my head. Is this a comment about my weight, Naked Scanner? Fine. I'll just go back to my old friend the Metal Detector. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Flashback: Mahna mahna

I vividly remember watching this at my grandparents' house when I was staying with them for a couple weeks in the summer. I was laughing like crazy and my grandfather kept saying, "Why does he keep saying phenomena?"

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Movement Day, NYC

Today I'm in New York City for Movement Day, where I'll be speaking along with Tim Keller, Luis Palau, Richard Stearns and people like that.

Actually, they are plenary speakers, and I am speaking in an interactive track. So if you want a signed copy of every Tim Keller book, I cannot guarantee that I can provide it.

My topic relates to talking to people in the Millennial generation about Jesus.

I'm certain we will have a fun time during this conversation, and I'm looking forward to the conference. So, if you're in NYC and wishing you had a conference to come hang out at today, drop on by.

P.S. This is pretty much the only context in which I hear the word "plenary" used.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Guest post and giveaway from Morgan Keyes, author of Darkbeast!

Today's guest post comes from Morgan Keyes, author of Darkbeast. Be sure to leave a comment and get entered for a chance to win a free copy of Darkbeast!

Many thanks to Matt for allowing me to visit and tell you about my middle grade fantasy novel, Darkbeast.  Due to the generosity of my publisher, Simon & Schuster, I will give away a copy of Darkbeast to one commenter chosen at random from all the comments made to this post by 11:59 p.m. EDT tonight.

In Darkbeast, twelve-year-old Keara runs away from home rather than sacrifice Caw, the raven darkbeast that she has been magically bound to all her life.  Pursued by Inquisitors who would punish her for heresy, Keara joins a performing troupe of Travelers and tries to find a safe haven for herself and her companion.

Even at a glance, Matt's The Sword of Six Worlds and my Darkbeast have something in common:  They both have young heroines who are the focus of the story.  (Okay, they also both have animal companions, but that's the subject of another post.)

I offered to write a blog post about female main characters and how they shape books for young people.  And then, I stared at my computer screen.  I got up and ate a snack.  I stared some more.  I walked around the block.  I stared for a while longer.

I started to write a few different blog posts.  But time after time, I came back to a simple reality:  Keara isn't special in Darkbeast because she's female.

Keara challenges many of her society's basic assumptions.  The first section of the novel is called "Rebellion", and Keara rebels against just about everyone – her mother, the Primate's tax collector, the priest of the god of darkbeasts… 

But Keara's rebellion isn't based on the fact that she has two X chromosomes.  It's not because she likes pink and purple and rainbows and glitter.  (Her favorite color is a strong, true red, and neither rainbows nor glitter make it into the pages of the novel.)  It's not because she primps and preens in front of a mirror, or dreams of the prince she'll marry some day, or idealizes the children she'll eventually give birth to.

Keara doesn't match any stereotype of a girl, at least one from our rather gender-driven society.  (As an aside, there was recently much Web-based merriment over Bic pens "For Her" – pink, glittery pens intended for women, but satirized by all.  Keara would have been first in line to write a snarky review over such a ridiculously gender-defined product.)

If Keara isn't a "girly" girl, then, what is she?  And how does she drive the story of Darkbeast

First, she's loyal. 

Second, she's brave.

Third, she's clever.

Loyal, brave, and clever.  Girls can be all those things.  So can boys.  In fact, Keara has friends who are male and friends who are female.  (There are no romantic relationships in my middle grade novel, so many gender-based complications are beyond the scope of my story.)

So.  I'm letting Matt down here.  I'm not really writing a blog post about female characters and how they carry the weight of a story in special ways.  Can you help me out?  What are your favorite middle grade or young adult novels with a female main character?  Bonus points if that character's gender actually matters to the theme and plot of the book!

Morgan can be found online at:

Darkbeast is for sale in bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores, including:  Amazon | B & N | Indiebound

Morgan Keyes grew up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Minnesota, accompanied by parents, a brother, a dog, and a cat.  Also, there were books.  Lots and lots of books.  Morgan now lives near Washington, D.C.  In between trips to the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art, she reads, travels, reads, writes, reads, cooks, reads, wrestles with cats, and reads.  Because there are still books.  Lots and lots of books.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sometimes people ask me "What's your blog about?"

And I say, well, a lot of things.

Here are the top ten searches that brought people here in the last 24 hours:

funny happy anniversary pic



abraham lincoln talking to jesus

half coyote half wolf

how big is a wolf

matt mikalatos

sad leprechaun

show me something funny

signs from god

ETA: My favorites are Abraham Lincoln talking to Jesus and sad leprechaun.

Undecided voters

I don't usually post about politics, but as an undecided voter I knew I needed to share this with all of you.

I have questions this year, too. Like: how long after the election until NPR starts doing shows I care about again?

How about you? What questions do you have going into this election season?

Monday, September 24, 2012

That's a lot of underwear for such a short trip

Last night I got home from a weekend Men's Retreat in Texas for Cypress Bible Church. I had a great, refreshing time with the men and I taught four times, which was fun.

I came home to a worn out, tired family. Apparently 3-year-old M got up extra early yesterday morning, exhausting everyone, and then she had the temerity to take a two hour nap.
So, by 11 pm she and I were the only ones still awake. She couldn't sleep.

I gave her a bath in the late evening to help her relax, and when I got her out we went into her room to get her some clothes, but when I pulled open her underwear drawer it was empty. I assumed maybe they were all in the laundry, and I said so to M.

She laughed and said, "No, they are in my suitcase."

She hasn't been on any trips lately, so I went into the laundry room but there wasn't any underwear in there. I checked the guest room bed, where clean clothes are occasionally dumped to await folding. But again, no underwear.

M kept laughing and saying they were downstairs in her luggage. So, finally, I went downstairs and gor her Dora the Explorer suitcase, brought it upstairs and lo and behold it was full of underwear. Packed full.

M picked the pair she wanted and I asked her, "Why were you packing all your panties? Where were you going?"

She said, "I packed them for my trip downstairs."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tolkien Week: One Sword to Rule Them All

In honor of Tolkien week and the release of The Sword of Six Worlds I've been inviting some friends to guest post about J.R.R. Tolkien and his influence on their work. Today's post (our last!) comes from Steve Bein, whose novel Daughter of the Sword comes out October 6th. You'll enjoy his post, in which he talks about using inanimate objects as characters in fiction.

One Sword to Rule Them All?

Sometimes people ask writers and musicians and artists where they get their inspiration.  I’ve learned that if you’ve got a novel coming out soon, you hear that question a lot.  In a sense it’s impossible to answer.  Inspiration for what?  This character?  This conversation?  This scene?  The whole book?  Inspiration isn’t one thing; it’s a gestalt, and usually an unconscious one at that. 

That said, sometimes I can identify kernels of inspiration—not the inspiration for the book, mind you, but a moment or an idea, something that latched onto a hundred other things in the deep recesses of my subconscious to make the story start to crystallize.  In the case of Daughter of the Sword, one of those kernels was the Ring of Power and a haunted sword.

In 2003 I published my first story, “Beautiful Singer,” about a samurai who insists his katana isn’t possessed by a slain geisha.  (It turns out he’s sorely mistaken about that.)  The story was published a few months after the theatrical release of The Two Towers and a few months before the release of The Return of the King, and since it takes me a long time to turn a story idea into a story, that means I was thinking about it well before The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters—which means some twenty-odd years after I’d first read The Lord of the Rings, one of my all-time favorite books as a kid and one that remains in my top ten list today.

Seeing the movies and re-reading the book (I now read it about once a year) got me thinking about how on earth Tolkien managed to make the One Ring such a compelling character.  The word “character” doesn’t usually stick to inanimate objects very well, but the ring has a will of its own.  It has desires, and it exerts its will, and other characters have to react to that.  We even have a strong sense of its personality.  So there you have it: it’s a character.

Then “Beautiful Singer” came out, and I did some public readings, and it struck me that Beautiful Singer (the eponymous haunted katana) is also a character.  She has a goal and she tries to bring it about, and other characters ignore that fact at their peril.  So I started thinking: how cool would it be to write a whole book where the swords were the characters that drove the plot forward?  Call it naïve audacity, but I thought I’d try to do with samurai and swords what Tolkien did with hobbits and rings.

Daughter of the Sword is the result of that.  Beautiful Singer already existed, and I knew she was going to be very easy to characterize as the evil sword.  As much as I love Tolkien’s idealism, I prefer to push beyond good-and-evil, black-and-white, cowboy movie ethics.  So there isn’t “the good guy sword” and “the bad guy sword” in this book; there are three swords, and any one of them can oppose any other, and all three exert their influence over the characters that wield them.  They’re Saruman-like, fickle, equally capable of defending and backstabbing. 

There are other comparisons to be made between The Lord of the Rings and Daughter of the Sword—Mariko certainly has a bit of Éowyn in her—but it’s the swords that are the real homage.  So in this Tolkien Week, thank you, dear departed master of fantasy, for proving it’s possible to cast objects as characters.  In this as in so many things, he redefined what’s possible in the genre.  The best the rest of us can do is to emulate.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tolkien Week: Top Ten Hobbit Covers from around the world

As you know, in honor of Tolkien Week and in celebration of my new book, The Sword of Six Worlds, we're talking about all things Tolkien here at BHR. Today I thought it would be fun to take a look at my Top 10 Lord of the Rings covers from around the world.


I like how Bilbo looks like a baby in this one, and he's fighting the creepy monster, whatever it is.


This cover gives me hope that my kids have what it takes to make professional book covers in some countries of the world.


This is pretty much how I pictured Bilbo when I first read the Hobbit, though the pipe is rather longer than expected.


Weird things to like about this one: It appears to be saying that by far the most important thing in the book is the pipe smoking. Notice the return of the giant pipe, and also that the dragon in the background is about the size of a sparrow. Bilbo doesn't seem to mind the dragon, and why would he? He has a pipe, after all. Also, the moon has managed to get itself stuck in that tree. Notice how it overlaps the branches. 


We might as well stick with the pipe theme. Apparently, if you live in Europe, the Hobbit is mostly a story about a little hairy guy who really likes to smoke his pipe. In this cover, in addition to being called a "Gnomo," Bilbo gets to lay his head down on a mushroom. Are there lots of mushrooms because the Hobbit is a kids' book and we must use mushrooms to show how small he is? Or is it a reference to the pipe? You decide.


I like this French edition, but not because of anything weird. I just enjoy the decorations around the edges, and the fact that it appears to actually have a scene from the book on the cover.


I enjoy the comically unconcerned Bilbo on this cover. "Look, I found this diamond in a hole. Isn't that wonderful? Hmmm. What's that I hear above me? A snarling dragon? Ha ha ha ha. Wonderful!" Also, the art appears to be by Pauline Baynes, who did all the illustrations for the Narnia books that I read as a kid. Anyone know if that's actually her?


I really enjoy the depiction of Smaug on this cover. He looks so happy, like he's about to fly down and take someone for a joy ride. I also like the tiny guy in the pink robe threatening him with an axe while all the others are running away (?).


I find the style of this cover absolutely charming. It shows a scene from the book that is pretty much constant: Gandalf sitting Bilbo down to give him a speech. The hats are awesome, and Bilbo's little checkered jacket makes me laugh. This is a winner.

NUMBER ONE. The best cover to "The Hobbit" ever.

Come on. Smaug as mutated butterfly lizard? Bilbo is dancing on his back as if it's a Broadway musical, complete with top hat. This cannot be beaten. I love it forever.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Which cover is your favorite? Or is there another that you prefer that's not listed here?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Let the music play... Ben Folds Five meets Fraggle Rock

Fraggle Rock, to me, is mostly a reminder that I didn't have cable as a child. I loved the muppets and here was this whole television show full of them that I couldn't see. It wasn't available on VHS. There was no Internet. It was maddening.

The Ben Folds Five was a mysterious but beloved rock band who apparently wanted to prove that the piano is more important than the guitar.

And now, at long last, they are rightfully together:

How about you? Any memories of Ben Folds Five, Fraggle Rock or the Muppets you want to share?

Tolkien Week: Frodo's Journey

This week we've been having guest posts in honor of Tolkien Week and celebrating the release of The Sword of Six Worlds. Today's post comes from Matthew Johnson, whose short fiction has appeared in places like Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Strange Horizons and has been translated into Russian, Czech and Danish. His first novel, Fall From Earth, is available from Bundoran Press and Irregular Verbs, a collection of his short stories, will be published in early 2014 by ChiZine Publications. His website is

Frodo's Journey

Is Frodo a hero? He's undoubtedly the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, and he does a great many things that may be called heroic, but the question of whether he is a hero -- and, in particular, of whether his story follows the pattern of the Hero's Journey -- is a good deal more complex.

The Hero's Journey, of course, is the story-pattern identified by Joseph Campbell and described in many of his books, most notably The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Though his work became widely known within his field, it didn't reach far into public awareness until George Lucas used it as the structure for Star Wars; this led to tremendous interest in Campbell's work and, later, to the hero's journey pattern being taken nearly as holy writ among screenwriters.

Campbell's aim was to identify the common patterns that are found in hero myths worldwide, in part to show that similarities between myths found in different places were due not to diffusion (the spreading of stories from place to place) but, in his opinion, due to the presence of particular archetypes within the human psyche. According to Campbell, King Arthur, Jesus and Gilgamesh don't have similar stories because the people who told stories about King Arthur had heard about Jesus and the people who told stories about Jesus had heard about Gilgamesh, but because all the stories we tell are psychological adaptations designed to help us through universal human experiences; in the case of the hero myth, the transitions between childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

That's why the basic outline of the Heroic Journey begins with a protagonist who, though seemingly normal, has a special or mysterious parentage and then receives a call to adventure that's often tied to those mysterious parents in some way. After trying to refuse the call once or twice the hero finally accepts it and is brought into a new world of wonders, where he makes allies -- often including a wise old mentor -- and typically acquires one or more magic tools that help him win his first victories over beasts and monsters. The hero must pass through an underworld or abyss to face Death, or someone or something closely symbolic of it (often a dark double of the hero), before emerging as a genuine hero. Once this has been accomplished the hero either returns home to take his place in society -- typically one of much greater importance or authority then if he had stayed home -- or else finds a new home in which he does the same.
(click to see a larger version)

What does this have to do with Tolkien? Certainly neither The Hobbit nor The Lord of the Rings could have been directly influenced by Campbell, since his first work on the heroic journey wasn't published until 1949. Still, considering the great influence of myth and folktales on Tolkien's writings (as well as the unconscious influence of his deep knowledge of these subjects) if there is any truth in Campbell's analysis then we should be able to find at least some aspects of the monomyth in Tolkien's work. And, as it happens, we can: many of his characters' stories have numerous elements of the Hero's Journey, and one of them follows it so closely it's almost hard to believe that Tolkien didn't know Campbell's work. I'm talking, of course, about Bilbo.

If you've read The Hobbit that description of the Hero's Journey probably sounded pretty familiar. Unusual only in his being descended (on his mother's side) from the formidable Took family, Bilbo is chosen by Gandalf to leave his comfortable home and go on an adventure. Of course he tries to turn the wizard down, but soon his "Tookish" side is awakened and he agrees to go. Early in his journeys he has to rely heavily on his mentor, but when they're separated (during a long journey underground) he acquires a magic ring and overcomes Gollum, a creature whose wet, slimy cave is a dark reversal of Bilbo's own comfortable hole. After he emerges from underground Bilbo is a much more formidable character, becoming the savior and de facto leader of the group in Gandalf's absence (especially with the aid of his magic ring) and, after being key to the defeat of Smaug he "dies" twice more: once when he is knocked unconscious during the Battle of the Five Armies and, in a more mundane but also more meaningful context, when he returns home to find that he has been declared dead and his relatives have moved into his house. Following his "resurrection" he takes his place as an important person in the community and the world, knowing that he has played a part in bringing ancient prophecies to life.

Though the connections between Bilbo's story and the Hero's Journey are striking, they're not really that surprising; Tolkien's theory about how different myths were connected, which he refers to as "the soup pot" in his essay On Fairy Stories, was very similar to Campbell's, though the two came to their conclusions from very different directions. In Tolkien's words, the Pot of Soup, or "the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty." Both historical and fictional figures may, over time, be put into the Soup, where they mix with "many things older, more potent, more beautiful, comic, or terrible than they were in themselves." It's not surprising, then, that Tolkien's stories might be made up largely of ingredients taken from the Soup that once belonged to Theseus, Beowulf and so on. What is surprising is how poorly Frodo's journey fits the pattern.

To begin with, Frodo doesn't acquire his magic tools as he goes along, but has them from the beginning. He doesn't receive, or try to deny, a call to adventure: his journey is originally supposed to end at Rivendell. Like Bilbo he does undergo several underworld journeys, and when he encounters Gollum the creature is more explicitly a double (being identified in The Lord of the Rings as a hobbit who was warped by the Ring). Rather than triumph over him, however, Frodo is simultaneously betrayed and saved by Gollum. Most importantly, Frodo never truly returns home: like Bilbo he has been transformed by his experiences, but instead of being made into a solid member of society (symbolically, an adult) he "dropped quietly out of all the doings of the Shire." Nor does he return stronger than before, as the wounds he suffered on his journeys pain him until his final passage to the West.

It's not just the greater complexity or the darker tone of Lord of the Rings that keep Frodo from following the Hero's Journey: Merry and Pippin's stories fit the pattern nearly as well as Bilbo's does. For them the journey is truly an adventure, and their transformation is a positive one (they literally "grow up") as they become first heroes and then leaders back home. It seems likely, then, that Tolkien made a conscious choice to make Frodo's story not just not a standard hero narrative but almost a parody of one. Is if Frodo isn't a hero, then, what is he?

Take another look at the differences between Bilbo and Frodo's stories. Bilbo is undeniably the hero of his story, to the point where he sets in motion almost everything that happens in it: if he had stayed home the status quo would have remained almost entirely unchanged. Frodo, on the other hand, has no choice: war is coming, whether he wants it or not -- but when he does get to choose, his choice is motivated by duty, not adventure, and his experiences are largely mundane, made up more of slogging through mud than colorful adventures. That's not a hero's story, it's a soldier's.

As for why Tolkien chose to make The Lord of the Rings a soldier's story rather than a hero's, there are a number of possible answers. He may simply have been a more mature writer, or he may have been freed by the success of The Hobbit to choose a more unconventional narrative. As well, much of The Lord of the Rings was written while a war was going on -- a war in which one of Tolkien's sons was serving.

Tolkien had himself been a soldier in World War I, where he saw action at the Somme and was returned to England afterwards due to "shell shock" (what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder), the symptoms of which are quite like Frodo's condition after returning to the Shire. Though Tolkien seems to have recovered more or less fully, he surely remembered the effect the war had had on him, and likely knew others for whom the effect was longer-lasting. It seems likely that when writing a much more serious and personal novel, one about a war that he saw, as he did the war he had served in, as "for all the evil of our own side with large view [one of] good against evil", he would have felt it dishonest to gloss over the pain and sacrifice he knew so well by casting it as a hero's story.