Thursday, March 17, 2011

Between Shades of Gray— a book review

If they came for you, what would you do?

Imagine you are preparing for bed, when the knock comes on your front door— not a knock, but the pounding of a heavy fist. Armed strangers who do not even speak your language burst into your home. They cannot be resisted— they are your new “police.” Within twenty minutes, you, your mother, and your little brother are forced from your home with only what you can carry in a single suitcase, bound for a destination you do not know, in a land you do not know, for a fate you do not know.

What would you do?

For the fifteen-year-old Lina, there is no time for heroics or grand adventure— there is merely time to grab a few clothes— even her precious art book must be left behind. Soon she and her family are in a truck crowded with frightened strangers, headed towards a bitter, brutal exile very few of them will survive.

A thriller? A science fiction novel of an apocalyptic future? No. Rather, this is the story of over 300,000 Lithuanian refugees, torn from their homes by Josef Stalin’s secret police (the NKVD, later to become the KGB) during the early years of World War II. Their crime? Being free.

Between Shades of Gray is the debut novel by author Ruta Sepetys. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Ruta is the daughter of Lithuanian refugees who escaped Stalin’s horrific conquest of their homeland and came to America as children. But others— including members of Ruta’s own family— were not so lucky. Hauled away in filthy cattle cars (with signs reading “Thieves and Prostitutes”), hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, and their families— including children and infants— were forced to eke out a living above the Arctic Circle, in Russia's dreaded Siberia. They were given no tools and no supplies except a few grams of stale bread each day, because while Stalin did not wish to explain their outright execution to the world, he did not want or expect them to survive. If they died on their own, well, that was just nature. (The women and children, that is. Most of the men he simply murdered.)

Based on true events, historical accounts and interviews with survivors, Between Shades of Gray uses fiction to put the reader into the lives of the Lithuanian deportees. The result is both beautiful and brutal, an incredible tale of survival, remembrance, perseverance and love. Though filled with cruelty and tragedy, Lina’s tale will call to you just as spring calls you back from winter. Once begun, you will not stop. Once finished, you will not forget. Read Between Shades of Gray, and journey to a land where hope replaces heartbreak, and love is the ultimate key to life.

For more about Between Shades of Gray, visit
Available in bookstores around the world (yes, including Lithuania), March 22, 2011.

--- Howard Shirley

P.S. Ruta is a very dear friend of mine, and it has been my delight to watch this book come into being. I know what she writes is from her heart, because I have seen her heart in the midst of the writing. But don’t just take my word for it— read her reviews:

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Booklist (starred review)

Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

And those aren’t all. Get ready, this book is going to hit like a storm.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

45 Times Around the Sun, and 1/365th

Yesterday was my birthday, an auspicious occasion (at least to me). I've been following this circular* course around a star for some time now, and I've gotten rather used to it, and I must say all in all I like it. In fact, I think I'll try to keep it going as long as I can.

Someone else shared my birthday yesterday, an auspicious occasion for him as well, being the start of his very first trip around the Sun. His name is James Arthur Lewey, and he is my great-nephew, son of my nephew Daniel Lewey and his lovely wife Melanie. (Congratulations to both of you!) He's now made it 1/365th of the way on his first grand circle. Hang on, kid, it's a great ride!

Nothing more to share than that, but that's a lot to share.

--- Howard Shirley

*Yes, I know it's really an ellipse, not a circle, but I've got a poetic license and I'm gonna use it!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Sound of Stone

A brief fantasy tale by Howard Shirley

When you can’t hear your own breathing is when you realize that you miss it. I am not talking about when you don’t hear your own breathing. That happens all the time. I think we’re so used to it that we just dull it out and think of it as silent, just like we don’t really notice the sound our skin makes brushing inside of our clothing, or the way leather creaks as it twists against our movement. Thor knows I’ve even ceased to notice the scrape and dull jangle of my own armor on a long march. I put it on and as far as my ears are concerned, I might as well be wearing spidercloth. Unless of course there’s an enemy nearby with ears that will pick up even the slightest scratch of my axebelt against my hauberk, and then every sound I make might as well be the slam of a hammer against hot steel.

I’ve heard men like Brom say we dwarves are quieter than cats, even wrapped in breastplate on top of mail. I don’t know whether that’s true or not— I can’t stand cats, always eyeing my beard and braids like I’m dangling a fish on a line for them to swipe at. The Loki-cursed things creep up on you even when your ears could hear the ring of gold in a clay cup twenty shafts away. No dwarf is that quiet or that sneaky.

Except me, right now. I glance down at the quarrel in my crossbow. It doesn’t look any different from the others in my belt. You’d think it would glow or even gleam, like a dwarf craftspell would. But it doesn’t look one bit different— just black, with only the faintest hint of a glimmer from the sharpened edges I honed yester morning. The only thing about it that tells me Thalin’s spell is on the bolt is that I can’t hear anything— not my armor, not my leather, not even my own breathing or the pounding of blood in my temples. Even the vibrations of my feet against the floor are missing, sounds I’ve always felt with my body even if my ears have tuned them out. I can feel the rise and fall of my breath shoving my chest against my hauberk, I can feel the weight of armor and pack, the warmth of the crossbow’s stock against my hand, the tension in the trigger, even the pressure of my booted feet against the stone floor. I can smell my sweat and Brom’s strange human odor, and the hints of incense that drift from Thalin’s robes, even the tiniest tint of blood that lingers on Mada-Thor’s knife blade from this morning’s sacrifice. If I turned my head to look at them, I would see them all, stepping behind me, instinctively trying to be silent themselves, though with the magicked quarrel there is no need. I can’t hear them any more than they can hear me, or even their own breathing.

It is a . . . disquieting feeling, which seems an odd word to use given that silence surrounds us utterly. But there it is. And for an old dwarf like me, used to gauging the soundness of stone and shaft by the echoes and creaks no one but my own kind can hear, it begins to approach terrifying. “May you hear no stone,” is an old dwarven curse, a wish for disaster to befall another. Deafness among my people is like a death, for it means one can never travel alone again into the mountain ways, but must be guided as if blind, or spend the remainder of ones long years above our sacred delvings, forever an outcast amidst our kind. It is not a curse said lightly.

Yet here I am, under just such a curse by my own agreement, if however temporary. And the thought comes to my mind, What if Thalin erred? What if the spell lies not upon my quarrel, but upon my hand that held it up? I know that man’s magic is not always permanent without great labor by a mage, but dwarf and magic goes not well together, save for our own craftspells. I once heard of a dwarf who had permitted a human mage to give him wings, and instead his beard turned into feathers. If this magic of silence dwells now forever upon my person, I am cursed beyond all dwarfdom. It had seemed like a clever, even crafty idea at the time Thalin suggested it, but now with not even my own thoughts entering my ears, my fear arises that we may have mined into loose shale, as the saying goes.

Even though the pressure comes through hauberk and jerkin, the hand upon my shoulder makes me jump— I almost pull the trigger on the bow on the spot. I turn to look; it is Mada-Thor who has touched me. The look in her eyes says she understands my discomfort, she who has been my friend since before Brom held his first sword. In the overwhelming silence she can only gesture upwards. I follow her eyes, beholding the black scrawl against the ceiling, a crude sigil of a misshapen skull, cloven in two. The Damned Ones must have stood upon each other’s twisted backs to scribe it there. I am ashamed that I, a dwarf within my native realm of stone, did not see the khohbhauluth sign first— but then, Mada-Thor is guided by a god. I see Brom and Thalin turn their eyes upwards as well, and Brom mouth out the man-word “Kobold!” though not even he can hear his exclamation. Just as well— I hate hearing our sacred tongue corrupted in another’s mouth, and his cry might have alerted our quarry. For once I bless Thalin’s ploy— in one respect, it is serving us now. Brom starts at not hearing his own words, then I can see it break upon him that his outburst would have proved dangerous. He throws his head back in mirth and slaps Thalin upon his back. The mage startles at the blow, then his mouth splits into a sly grin. I like a mage with a sense of humor about themselves— all too many laugh only at the discomfort they can cause to others.

Brom shares Thalin’s grin and nods to me to advance. I’ll say this for the man, he may not be as cautious as need be, but he doesn’t swagger forth into the lead like those fools who think their bulk is proof against all comers. Brom has an inkling for tactics and a respect for where others’ abilities may be more useful than his own. In my case, I’m familiar with the nature of these passages. And I’m the best shot in the Twin Kingdoms, Above and Below, if I say so myself— even in silence.

I glance at Thalin. He needs no explanation, and waves his hand in an odd caress across the rough-hewn crystal atop his staff. The glow from it fades to a dull glimmer. My eyes adapt quickly to my native dark; I worry that perhaps even these faint beams may be too much and reach the khohbhauluth with warning. But no, even the sigil cannot be seen. I turn back to my companions. Brom has his sword out now, fine make for man-work, held cautiously wide to avoid the rest of us. Mada has her hammer ready, mouthing silent blessings over it— I wonder if Thor can sense her prayer, devoid of sound? I think one of my own for that, not much considering the irony. Thalin merely places one hand on Mada’s shoulder for guidance, she does the same for Brom, who moves forward and places his free hand on mine. We move off, the deaf leading the blind through halls of stone— how my ancestors would shudder at the thought!

The way is windy and slopes downwards. My eyes and feet pick out signs of loose rock, the faintest pebbles, and my fear rises at not being able to hear the faint shift of stone that warns every dwarf of coming cave-in. This movement with half my awareness lost is beyond bearing.

I feel the faint change in the air current on the edges of my beard before I see the light. It is not the strange whiteness of Thalin’s staff, nor the warm yellow of dwarven fire— it is orange and sputtery, barely giving glow where it licks against the stone far ahead, but the air moves towards it, drawn towards some thin shaft that must serve as a flue. The kobolds must be burning bhakhumen. It gives poor heat and poorer light, but for Those Who Chose The Blackness it is the light of ritual. It is the light by which they take blood.
The odor reaches my noise now, despite that the air moves away from me. Instinctively my voice tries to growl in disgust, but I feel only the rough movement in my throat. I tap Brom’s hand on my shoulder quickly, to tell him we are there, then move my hand back to the trigger.

We step forward slowly, only because the others cannot see to move faster. The dull glow from the bhakhumen fire grows more, and I can see that it comes from a side chamber along our way. Strange shadows move across the glow where it hits the wall opposite the chamber— the kobolds have begun their rite. My beard prickles at the thought we may even now have come too late.

I race forward, crossbow at the ready, no longer concerned for my companions— even their Above eyes can see the light from the chamber. Stepping into the opening, I see the scene. A score of khohbauluth are dancing before a crude altar of jumbled stone. My sister Kima is stretched across it, her chest bared below her beard, her lower garments ripped and stained with blood— not hers, I know— the kohbauluth send their sacrifices on unsullied. Her eyes stare upwards at the jagged obsidian blade held aloft over her breasts. She does not blink or show tears— she is a dwarf. All this I see in the instant, just as I see the khohbaulutavak priestess who holds the blade.

I shoot, the bolt racing across the room, and suddenly a cacophony bursts upon my straining ears— Brom in mid war cry, Mada calling upon her god, the kobolds’ chanting, suddenly growing less as the bolt appears in the priestess’s shoulder. She lurches back, the knife falling from her hand to shatter silently against the floor. I drop the bow and reach for my axe, watching her recover and reach up to clasp her wound, her mouth moving to call upon her demon lord for healing— and then her eyes flair wide when she realizes her dark prayer makes no sound. She grabs desperately at the bolt, but the flared head is stuck fast in both mail and flesh.

I grin, letting her see the teeth behind my beard. “May you hear no stone,” I growl, and rush to battle, my axe singing gloriously to my ears.

--- ©2010 by Howard Shirley

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

There and Back Again: A Writer's Journey

I am far above the ground as I write this, high in the night sky over America. I have flown to New York, and now I fly back, soon to be home again. It has become a different trip than I imagined.

I flew with a purpose— to attend a conference of writers, hoping to meet and impress an agent or an editor with my work. New York was merely the place the conference was— nothing really more than that. Yet it seems I have traced a strange circle.

You see, I flew to New York for the first time twenty-five years ago. I was nineteen, and I was there to enjoy a week with my aunt and uncle in Manhattan, seeing the sites and incidentally (yet of very great interest to me at the time) purchasing my first “real” computer for my coming start to college.

As you might imagine, I fell in love with the city. As I looked around, it seem to thrive about me as no other place I had ever known. The city moved, a wondrous living thing, its eyes the millions of eyes with in it, its breath the whoosh of taxi cabs or the curl of steam rising from beneath the streets, its blood the silver subway cars endlessly thrust along the city's tunneled veins. I watched the people, moved with them, went where they went, rode what they rode. I saw museums and shops and shows, and pleasured in the last summer symphony, lying in the grass of Central Park as the music filtered through the warm night air. It seemed a magical, mystical place.

On that trip something else happened that I had not intended. I slept in a tiny extra bedroom in my aunt’s apartment. The room was barely larger than a long closet, but it had a desk along one wall next to a window. I set my new computer on that desk and learned to use it, sitting next to the open window, listening to the sounds of the city filtering in from the warm August nights. And I began to write.

I had written before, but never on a computer. Indeed, my interest in computers at that time was in programming them, preferably to create games. I had never really used a word processor. My new computer (the very first Macintosh) did not come with Basic (the only computer language I knew). But it did come with MacWrite. So I opened that program up to learn it, and to learn it, I began to write. What I wrote was a story— the start of a book, in fact. I would write it at night before bed, and I would write again in the morning when I woke. Writing became the buttons of my day.

When I returned home from New York, those buttons faded away. I had other needs for the computer— school papers, then a college bulletin board, and of course the inevitable games. The story languished and slipped onto floppy disks. I did not pick it up again.

It would be many years before I returned to that love of story, to let it lead my life more fully. Even now, as I seek to be the writer I set out to be, I have let other things slip in the way of it.

Yet in New York again, in that same room from so long ago, on those same streets and tunnels, I rediscovered story. I watched it happen around me, in the movement and sounds, in the faces of the people, in the delight of a young girl dancing about her father as she waited for the train to come and take them on some adventurous outing. Soon my mind was filling up with ideas and stories, and I pulled out a little notebook I carried and scratched down those ideas. Later I pulled out another notebook and wrote a little more, so that when the time was right I could return to those ideas and recall them from the moments of my memory. And one night I opened my computer in that same tiny room, and wrote.

I had come full circle.

I learned a lot at the conference, as I always do. But I learned more from the city, from being there again, steeped in people, surrounded by story. But as I left I learned something else— the story was never truly in the city or in the surroundings. It was always in me. I had merely forgotten it.

Now, as I finish this entry, I sit at home in front of another computer, descendant to that first one, in my own room, near my own window. And I know that it’s time to start a new circle, or rather to truly finish the one started on an August night so long ago. It is time to continue the story.

--- Howard Shirley

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Well, we're two weeks into 2010, and I'm looking ahead into the new year. Last year had some ups and downs. No book sale yet, but I've built some connections and after my trip to the Rutgers Council on Children's Literature conference I have a number of queries and manuscripts for The Weaver of Atreia out "on the waters." Only three replies so far—rejections, alas— but two were very positive, with specific comments about the book and praise for my writing. Each was more of a case of "not the right fit" than anything else. The third was the beloved form response (oh, how we writers hate those). But I remain hopeful that the "right fit" is out there.

I'm gearing up for another round in that quest— attending the SCBWI Annual Winter Conference in New York City in a few short weeks! I've been to the L.A. Summer Conference twice, but this is my first time to brave the icy cold of the North. (I plan on bundling like Nanook. Given that it's been in the 20s down here recently, I've had practice.)

This will be my fourth trip to New York: my aunt and uncle live in Manhattan across from Central Park, so they're excited to see me again. The last time I stayed with them was when I was 21, returning from a summer volunteering at a camp in Israel. It's been a loooong time since then. So it will be good to see them (and good to save on the ridiculous room rates in NYC too).

As the New York conference is shorter, I expect to cram a lot in. I was fortunate to get into the "Writer's Intensive" sessions which are held the day before the official conference start. I'm looking forward to sharing my work and hearing back from editors, agents and fellow authors.

What am I bringing, I hear you ask? (I'm a writer; I get to put questions in your head.) I will most likely be sharing my current work-in-progress The Knuckerhole, about a girl in the Civil War South, a runaway slave she befriends, and a very real dragon. There's adventure, danger, war, friendship, loss, and a dash of history; I think I've found a winner.

So stay tuned; I expect good things from this year! I hope you do too.

--- Howard Shirley

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In...

A little gift for my blog readers that ventures outside of my writing, just a tad. Earlier this year my son had a school assignment on the explorer John Cabot. While researching the good explorer, we stumbled upon a replica of his ship, a reproduction of a 15th century caravel, christened the Matthew. (You can read about Cabot and the Matthew here.)
I got it in my head to create a paper model of the Matthew... and here is the result!

I think it looks rather spiffy, if I say so myself.

So as a Christmas gift to you, here are three caravels in PDF (Acrobat Reader) format that you can build— includinga 15th Century English Caravel in the Matthew's colors, a pirate version, and a version that lets you add whatever colors you like! You can find them all (and the instructions for building them) here.

Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

--- Howard Shirley

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bloggin' from Rutgers

It's the night before the Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature One on One Plus Conference, and I'm sitting in a hotel room with three fellow writers from middle Tennessee, going over notes about which editors and agents we plan to descend on—okay, "introduce ourselves to—" at tomorrow's conference. I can't post photos tonight (we've taken a few silly ones; it's late), but our "gang of four" for this event is myself, Sharon Cameron, Hannah Dills, and Jessica Young, all from the Nashville area. We've had a great time planning together, traveling together, and encouraging each other.

There's more to do tonight, but I'll close with a look at that last. Writing is a process done alone, but it need not be a lonely process. Nothing makes you better able to write, or helps you bear the frustration and disappointment, or lifts your spirits, like a group of fellow writers— friends who understand what you are going through, because they are going through the same experiences yourselves.

So write, but find friends. They'll keep you going; and as a writer, keeping going is sometimes the most important thing you'll do.

--- Howard Shirley