Gaia’s Secret by Barbara Kloss: A Book Review

I met Barbara Kloss a year ago at a California Writer’s Club workshop. We talked during the breaks, and later traded a few emails, based on a shared interest in young adult fantasy, but we lost touch when she and her husband moved to Phoenix.

Last fall, when Barbara emailed that she had published her first novel to Smashwords, I offered to review it here.  Due to the holidays and a penchant for multi-tasking, I am only getting to it now.

Daria Jones lives on a ranch outside of Fresno.  Her biggest worry is talking her overprotective father into letting her go away to college – that is, until her father disappears, and two non-human creatures show up at the ranch to kill her.  Family friends she has known all her life hustle her through a portal into Gaia, a world where magic not only works but can easily get you killed.

Gaia’s Secret introduces an appealing heroine whose 21st century sensibilities do not mesh well with the her destiny as a “special” child who was hidden away for her own safety.  Daria reacts as we might, with anger and fear, as all of her certainties crumble.  She doubts herself, her sanity, and her friends in turn.  It is her human failings, her pouts and impetuous actions, that make her so appealing, and save her from the “secret princess” cliche of so much YA fiction.

Early in the story, an ally of Daria’s father plays chess with her as her party hides from pursuit.  “You learn a lot about a person by their strategy,” he says.

“What about a person who has none?” Daria asks.

“Having no strategy is still a reflection of character,” her father’s friend replies.  “You’re impetuous and you don’t understand the consequences of your actions.  And you don’t have the patience to learn, which prevents you from making good decisions.”

Daria fumes but later admits that he’s right as her party ventures farther into a magical world where bad decisions become increasingly dangerous.

Structured along the lines of Joseph Campbell’s hero story, Gaia’s Secret also appeals as a quest tale and a romance, thought Daria’s temper and “bad decisions” lead to muddles on all fronts.  They ultimately deliver her into the hands of the traitor who started by sending assassins to kill her on earth.

Can Daria harness her newly emerging and uncontrolled magical powers in time to save herself, her father, and friends?  Since Ms. Kloss has said on her website that she is working on the sequel, I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say the answer is yes.

Author, Barbara Kloss

Daria attains her quest in the end.  She and her father are reunited in safety.  She and her heart throb finally admit their love for each other, but that doesn’t mean things end happily ever after.

The world of Gaia is ruled by a king, and though it’s a magical world, as a young woman at court, Daria has far less freedom than she did in Fresno.  When temper overrules caution, and she mouths off to the king, she winds up with guards outside her door – for her “protection,” and no chance to marry the man she loves.  Good thing a sequel is coming.

A click on the book at the top of this post will take you to Smashwords where you can read the opening pages.  Those who enjoy  YA fantasy will probably choose to download the rest of this lively story with its feisty and endearing heroine.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan: A Book Review

I’ve been less active on my blog this week because of the happy event of finding a book I couldn’t put down. Like most such discoveries, I came to it by word of mouth.  In December, we called my sister-in-law to ask what our fifth grade nephew might want for Christmas.  She said he had really enjoyed  The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordan, the first book in a middle grade series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  Without even stopping to read the blurb in that hectic season, we ordered the boxed set on Amazon, had it shipped as a gift, and forgot about it – until this month, when I spotted a display of the series at the local Barnes&Noble.

I was instantly impressed as I realized these books feature the 12 year old son of Poseidon and a mortal woman in a 21st century America where the figures of Greek mythology – and their numerous offspring – are on the loose.  If you remember your Greek myths, you recall that the gods were best avoided by mortals.  There was a lot of collateral damage in the Olympians’ constant bickering.  Think of Troy.

Percy Jackson, our half-blood (aka, demigod) hero, would not wish his fate on anyone.  Dyslexic, diagnosed with ADHD, and a D student, he has been shuffled from school to school six times in six years.  And that was when his life was easy – before one of the furies and the Minotaur try to kill him.  By sheer luck, he finds refuge in Camp Half-Blood, but not for long.  Zeus believes Percy has stolen his thunderbolt thrower.  If Percy does not return it in ten days time, a battle will erupt on earth, “that will make the Trojan war look like a water-balloon fight,” according to Chiron the centaur, Percy’s mentor.

Though this book is aimed at a young audience, it has all the attributes writers are taught to build into their novels:  an engaging protagonist, a unique premise, tension on every page, and ever-rising stakes.  I love the way this story encourages younger readers to explore the classics.  One of the items I saw on display at the Barnes & Noble was an illustrated summary of the figures of Greek myth, presented in contemporary form.  Zeus had shoulder length hair, a pin stripe suit, and the good looks that could land him on the cover of a romance novel.  Dionysus was a pudgy, middle-aged reprobate, given to loud Hawaiian shirts.  Such images make the gods more immediate than the older toga and grape-eating portraits.

I am late to this party.  The Lightning Thief was published in 2005. A movie version was made in 2010. I don’t know if it was ever released, but the Wikipedia summary shows it diverges significantly from the novel.  That makes me wary since I liked the book so much.

Most of the online reviews I read were written by adults who enjoyed Riordan’s stories as much as younger readers. Several mentioned the kind of pleasure they found in Harry Potter.  I can’t say for sure, since I’ve only read the first book, but I know I’m looking forward to reading the others.

Great Info on Charles Dickens From a Reader

I enjoy all the comments I receive, and sometimes they lead me down the trail to another post. One like that came in this morning, when blogger, Nixy43 (aka, Helen Nix) left a note on my recent post, Humbug Revisited:

Ms Nix, a Londoner, is compiling a detailed list of 1000 interesting things to do in London for less than a tenner.  Any idiot can enjoy London on a large bankroll, she says, but it’s not so easy for the frugal tourist or people who live there.  She sent me a link to her marvelous post, “Thing 86:  Enjoy a literary evening at Foyles and bond with Dickens at Christmas.”

There is much information about Dicken’s, about changing attitudes to Christmas when he wrote A Christmas Carol, and links to much information about this classic.  London is gearing up for an all out celebration of Dicken’s in 2012, the 200th anniversary of his birth, so if there is any chance you will visit next year, this post is a must.

Stop by, enjoy the story, and thank Helen for posting it!

Charles Dickens

Back When Vampires Were Vampires

Bella Lugosi's Dracula

When I was 15, my family lived in Europe.  My room, at the far end of the house, opened onto a patio through French doors that you could unlatch with a butter knife.  I decided it would be fun to read Dracula late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed.  Dumb – really dumb!  I know I’m not the only one to seek the thrill of a scary movie or book and get a whole lot more than they bargained for.  Let’s just say that for weeks after that, I took a clove of garlic to rub the French door frame every night before bed.

When I first went to college, we had a saying:  “Wherever two or more are gathered, they will start a film society.”  Friday nights on campus, I watched, Nosferatu, 1922, which made Bela Lugosi’s count seem tame.

Count Orlock in Nosferatu

Then there was Carl Dryer’s 1932, Vampyr, a movie whose plot I have never been able to decipher, but whose haunting imagery gives a truly creepy feeling of being in a coffin and seeing the face of the vampire who killed you peering through the glass in the lid.

The young protagonist of Vampyr. Is he really dead or only dreaming?

Once upon a time, vampires were not sensitive hunks and hunkettes.  Team Orlock?  I don’t think so!  And trust me, you don’t want a date with Dracula’s brides:

Dracula's better halves? Don't you believe it!

But alas, we are so besotted with undead who love poetry and walks on the beach that not even the current owners of Bran castle in Romania, the one that inspired Bram Stoker, are immune to draw of vampire fandom.

Sign on the way to Bran Castle, Romania

It turns out that the castle that overlooks the town of Bran is not even scary, although the real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, is supposed to have passed through the valley in the 15th century. And NPR correspondent, Meghan Sullivan, says it’s a little disconcerting to see t-shirts on some of the pilgrims proclaiming that, “All Romanians are Vampires.”

Castle Bran, which inspired Bram Stoker

I guess it will just have to fall to the next generation to restore a fictional world where, to paraphrase Garrison Keeler, “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, all the children are above average, and vampires are nobody’s sweetheart!”

Structure in Folktales, continued

Red Riding Hood, by Gustave Dore

In my last post, I said I was going to review some folktales to see if any conventions of the “three act structure,” used in contemporary fiction and cinema, apply.  Lest I be accused of hubris, I did not say I was going to be systematic about this.  My qualifications are simply a lifetime of love for this stuff.  Here are a few random observations.

The first thing I noticed – and I should have expected this – was the apples and oranges nature of my comparison between long fiction and short, between modern novels and screenplays and the kinds of tales you find in Grimm and other folklore collections.

Some longer epics do mesh with the three act structure.  In Homer’s Iliad, plot point #1 is Paris taking Helen to Troy, and plot point #2 is the Trojans wheeling the horse into the city – this is how the 2004 movie, Troy, is structured too.  It seems the three act structure only really fits longer fiction.  This leads to the question of whether the concepts apply to short fiction at all and to folktales in particular.

Every one of the folktales I reviewed has what Syd Fields called, an “inciting incident,” an event or situation that sets the action in motion.  The king is sick, the princess is missing, a dragon is loose on the land.  Often this is right where the tale begins, without any other preamble.

In terms of the major plot points, most of the folktales I looked at only have one.  Some have two and a few do not have any.  Are there any plot points, in the sense of a major crossroad, in the tale of Red Riding Hood?  Not really.  The unfortunate girl obeys her mother – “Take this basket to grandmother” – and events roll on to their unfortunate conclusion.

Cinderella has a single plot point.  The fairy godmother asks, “Do you want to go to the ball?”  When Cinderella says yes, her happy fate unrolls like destiny.

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

Another common folktale set up has just one decision point:  three brothers or three sisters set off on quest.  Each of them meets an “insignificant” or repellant creature as they set out.  The older siblings are arrogant and come to an unfortunate end.  The younger sibling behaves with respect, and the creature’s advice and boons are key to fulfilling the quest and often finding love and riches as well.

A Grimm’s fairytale, “The Water of Life,” is a good example.  The king is sick and only the water of life will heal him.  Two brothers set out, but disparage an “ugly little dwarf” who offers advice.  They wind up stuck – literally – in a mountain pass.  The youngest brother, who is open to help, receives it in abundance, both for the immediate quest and in overcoming the treachery of his brothers later on.  Although the action is rather complex, the only real decision the brothers face is whether or not to befriend the little man at the side of the road.  That choice determines their fate.

Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble

Some stories with two plot points echo the three act structure.  An example is, “The Pedlar of Swaffham,” which I discussed here a year ago:  A poor pedlar in the English village of Swaffham dreams he will find gold if he travels to London Bridge.  Unlike most people who do not act on their dreams, he decides to go (plot point #1).  He spends three days waiting fruitlessly.  His decision to stick it out, to believe in his dream, is the second key plot point and is rewarded when a shopkeeper asks what he’s doing.  When the pedlar tells him, the shopkeeper says dreams are a lot of foolishness:  “Why just last night I dreamed of a bag of gold under the peddlar’s oak in the village of Swaffham, wherever that is, but you don’t see me running all over the countryside, do you?” 

A story like this seems so modern in it’s emphasis on trusting oneself and following dreams, it may be surprising to know that Rumi recorded the first version 900 years ago.  In other variations, the poor man travels to Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Krakow.  Still, in conforming (sort of) to the three act structure, “The Pedlar of Swaffham” is the exception and not the rule.


Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  How long the sections are and how we move between them is the province of structure.  If you’ve ever heard a good storyteller, you’ve seen them adjust the pacing to match the mood of the audience.  You’ve seen gesture, expression, and silence used to enhance the tale in ways a written transcription can never capture.

It’s easier to gain an intuitive sense of how to tell a story aloud than to write one, and easier to structure a short story than a novel or screenplay.  Some people may gain a sense of how to structure a novel by reading them, but for the rest of us, constructions like the three act structure form a useful skeleton to build a story.  It isn’t the secret of what makes a novel or movie compelling, but I find it a useful bridge to that destination.

In a similar way, structure alone does not explain the magic in my favorite folktales.  For that I will have to slow down and consider each one more closely.  And there is a topic for more than one future post!

Puss In Boots by Gustave Dore

Structure in Folktales

I found a great post on story and movie structure on one of the blogs I follow, Albert Berg’s Unsanity Files.

Despite Mr. Berg’s caution that discussions of structure has been known to cause some Californian’s heads to explode, I suffered no ill effects (well, maybe a facial tic or two, but I’m still perfectly normal…honest!).

Actually, I credit a Californian, Syd Field, a hugely influential teacher of screenwriting, with formalizing the three act structure as we know it in movies and novels.  You hear Field’s book, Screenplay, recommended at writer’s workshops and conferences.  It is one of the best references I know on plot and structure. For anyone interested in writing, the “Three Act Structure” is required learning.  Even to rebel against it, you need to know what it is. Here is a simple diagram:

This, of course, is a variation on Aristotle’s observation that every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  In modern usage, it has become more formal than that.  The length of the acts in movies and in books is not arbitrary:  it’s 25%, 50%, 25% by default.  These numbers are sometimes even spelled out in screenplay contracts, and they are quoted in numerous other books on writing.

In a similar way, the plot points are not just ordinary troubles:   they are sometimes called, “doorways of no return.”  Examples of Plot Point 1, the first doorway, are when Luke leaves with Obiwan, when Frodo agrees to carry the ring, and when Louise pulls the trigger.  After a character steps through the first doorway, plot point #1, their old lives are gone, no longer an option.  Plot point two is when the last battle is joined.  When Frodo and Sam gaze down into Mordor, they still have an option to cut and run.  That choice disappears once they continue.   Once they reach the valley, their only options are victory or death.

If you know the running time and have a watch, you can spot these plot points occurring right on time in recent movies.  One thing I like to do, because I love old films, is try to see when and if they occur in the classics on TCM.  I watched for this recently as I viewed Lost Horizon, and sure enough, this structure was there.  I’ve come to the realization before, that Syd Field was not creating something new, as much as clarifying and codifying something successful screenwriters had already been using because because it works.

Which finally brings me around to the point of this post:

I was paging through some Google search results on “three act structure” and saw one author claim it was “fundamental to storytelling.”  As someone who spent 20 years in the Sacramento Storyteller’s Guild, I thought, “Wait a minute.  If you want to get ‘fundamental’ you aren’t going to do it with written fiction.  Fundamental storytelling means our worldwide oral tradition.

You find it in collections of folklore, the older the better:  in epics and fireside tales and sacred stories from all cultures:  in recordings of storytellers from library archives or recent storytelling festivals.

It also means stories we can hear at this years Tellabration, a day of storytelling that will happen around the world this year on November, 19.

What I am going to do is informally browse and listen to some of my favorite folktales to see what relationship they may or may not have to the three act structure as it has evolved in our literary and cinematic arenas.

We know that every story has a beginning, middle, and end – if it doesn’t, it may be a vignette or a character portrait, but it is not a story. We also know that the progression of folklore and myth tends to be “simple” rather than “complex.” In other words, you aren’t going to find a lot of twists and reversals.

What else?  That is what I am going to explore for next time.

Shangri-La in Books, Movies, and Legend

I recently wrote a short story about a group of people trying to find Shangri-La. For decades, the name has stood for an earthly paradise, difficult to attain. The name was so popular in the 30’s and 40’s that before it was renamed Camp David, Franklin D. Roosevelt named the presidential retreat ground, Shangri-La. After my story was finished, I began to research this mythical place about which I realized I knew very little.

The name, “Shangri-La” entered public awareness through a novel and a movie, which I will discuss today. In my next post, I will explore the Tibetan legend of Shambhala from which core elements of the story may derive.

In David Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, Hugh Conway, a world-weary British diplomat and WWI veteran, along with three others refuges from an uprising in India, board a plane that is hijacked to the remote mountains of Tibet. They crash land in the snows and find their pilot dead. The group is rescued by a postulant lama named, Chang, who leads them to the hidden lamasery of Shangri-La, high above a fertile and temperate valley. Here Conway finds peace, the stirrings of love, and a sense of purpose when the High Lama tells him he has been chosen to oversee the mission of Shangri-La – to preserve the best of modern civilization during a world war the lama, (who is 300 years old), has seen in vision.

Did Hilton foresee WWII when he wrote his book in the early 30’s? Perhaps, but he also studied a 1931 National Geographic account of an expedition to the borders Tibet. Unexpectedly temperate valleys lie along the Nepalese border, and Hilton may also have read of the legend of Shambhala, with a similar prophesy of a world war. This prophesy is part of the Kalachakra teaching cycle the Dalai Lama presents, most recently in Washington, DC, last summer.

Lost Horizon won public notice only after Hilton published, Goodbye Mr. Chips, the following year. Because it was later published as Pocketbook #1, Lost Horizon has been mistakenly called the first American paperback.

Frank Capra read Hilton’s book and immediately decided to make the movie version. Production began in 1936, with a budget of $1.25 million, the largest for any film at the time. After a $777,000 cost overrun, Lost Horizon, was released in 1937 to critical acclaim. A New York Times reviewer called it, “a grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played.” It won Oscars for Art Direction and Film Editing, and was nominated for Best Picture.

Both the book and the movie seem dated now. The romantic vision of humans-as-noble-savage will not appeal to our modern sensibility. The idea that people will be good if freed from want echoes both the pacifism that flourished after the first world war and the socialism that grew in response to the hard times of the ’30’s. I believe in the “higher vibration” of certain places, yet when Chang tells Conway the healing properties of Shangri-La have even eliminated human jealousy, it breaks my “suspension of disbelief.”

Even with this kind of flaw, I enjoyed the book and the movie. The specifics of the Lost Horizon’s 75 year old vision may be dated, but the archetypal longing for a golden age and heaven on earth is not. The book and movie tap into this, and the tale of paradise found then lost evokes our longing for the Garden of Eden, Atlantis, Avalon, and Shangri-La. “We are stardust / We are golden / and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” sang Joni Mitchell in her song about Woodstock, another manifestation of longing for a world of peace and joy.

This longing will not go away because it expresses our true nature, according to the view that gave birth to the legend of Shangri-La. Next time we’ll look at the legend of Shambhala, which carries predictions that will echo some we have seen in Lost Horizon.


Recently I was chatting with a group of other writers about the rule of thumb that you have to grab your audience in the first few pages or lose them.  The consensus was that nowadays, you have just the first few lines.  One man said, “And you have to start with action.”

I don’t believe this, and said as much here last year (  For me, character is primary, and I also have a penchant for mystery.  Action for action’s sake usually puts me off – I need to bond with Jake and Elwood before I care about the car chase.

Yet the conversation started me thinking about the kind of books that instantly draw me in.  When I got home, I pulled down some novels with openings I admire to look again at what the authors do.

One of my favorite reads of the year was Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, a stunningly original story and beautifully written as well.  It includes one of the best openings I have ever read.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.”

In four sentences, we learn a lot about who we’re dealing with:  an articulate girl who notices details, loves her sister, does not have a father or very much money, and soon has to face something ominous called “the reaping.”  We meet an appealing character, two mysteries (where is her father and what is a reaping), and an instant sense of dread.  The opening of this best seller proves that you don’t need action to grab a readers attention:  nothing “happens” except the narrator reaches out and finds her sister is not in bed.

Another memorable book I read this year was The Cypress House by Michael Koryta.  The first two sentences drew me in:  “They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.  To that point it had been a hell of a nice ride.”  Nothing “happens” except one man has a very unusual vision.

A favorite literary novel, Ariel’s Crossing, 2002, by Bradford Morrow starts like this:  “Dona Francisca de Pena never believed in ghosts, and even after she became one herself she couldn’t help but have her doubts.

Maybe its just the season, but half the stories I pulled down featured ghosts.  Here is another, a favorite YA novel, Ghosts I have Been, by Richard Peck, which begins:  “I tell you the world is so full of ghosts, a person wonders if there’s a soul to be found on the Other Side.  Or anybody snug in a quiet grave.  I’ve seen several haunts, and been one myself.”

Such a compelling hook does not happen by accident. Once at a reading, someone asked Richard Peck how many times he revised his opening pages. “Sixty or seventy times on average,” he said.  Because of that focus, you can open almost any one of his more than 30 novels to find an enticing beginning.  On the Wings of Heroes, an historical novel published in 2007, even begins with action, but it is not action for it’s own sake.  It is action crafted to draw in an audience of middle-grade boys:

“Home base was a branch box elder tree in front of the Hisers’ house out by the curb.  We could count on the Hisers not to mind when we pounded in from all directions to tag out on their tree.  We plowed their sod when we skidded home, bled all over their front walk when we collided, knocked loose the latticework under their porch.”

This is admittedly a small sample of books that appeal to my taste, but they prove several points.  Book openings are critical.  It takes real art and sometimes sixty or seventy drafts to draw a reader into a story.  At the same time, it is no more correct to say a book must start with action than to say that it can’t.  There are lots of ways to pique curiosity and interest, and that is what it’s really about.