Friday, September 14, 2018

CODE NAME: BUTTERFLY


Review of CODE NAME: BUTTERFLY by AHLAM BSHARAT
(based on a review copy)

This novel follows teenage Butterfly through typical adolescent issues shadowed by darker themes of political tension and occupation in the Middle East.

Butterfly’s voice is amazing, distinctive and convincing. I found myself glued to the page, because I could almost imagine Butterfly herself telling me all this, the flow a cross between conversational and storytelling.

At under 100 pages, the book felt underdeveloped to me. I enjoyed it, but felt it ended as soon as it began. The story made me feel, but didn’t have has much plot structure as I wanted. Also much more info is relayed through subtext than stated explicitly, which left me feeling this book benefits most from a very close reading.

Though CODE NAME: BUTTERFLY left me wanting more, Butterfly’s voice stands out among the wealth of complex themes packed so tightly into such a slim novel.

Friday, September 7, 2018

NO GOOD DEED


Review of NO GOOD DEED by KARA CONNOLLY

Teenage Ellie is an archery champion, in the running for a future with the Olympics. However, her success is dampened by the loss of her brother Rob, also an archery legend. Ellie’s specific skills with a bow and arrow come in handy when, logic aside, she finds herself thrown into the Sherwood Forest of the past, unintentionally playing Robin Hood.

Time travel is not usually my taste, but I think the same reasons this worked for me might be criticisms to others. Let me explain. Connolly uses time travel as the catalyst, but the science (or magic) is not explained. This works perfectly for me, because I most care about the characters and how they handle the catalyst anyway, and also almost every attempt at explaining time travel only further unconvinces me (explaining why I don’t particularly like the sub-genre). Connolly addresses some key questions quickly and efficiently, such as language barriers, but then focuses on what’s really important: the story.

Time travel stories can be vastly different, with potential for both serious and silly approaches. Connolly manages to ride that line and do both. There’s an underlying threat of danger fitting for the period, but the story doesn't swerve into any horrific directions that it certainly could. And the abundance of playful banter and silly snark adds a lighthearted layer to the adventure.

NO GOOD DEED is a fun read with the feminist twist of a female Robin Hood figure.

Friday, August 3, 2018

ARTEMIS GREY



Interview with ARTEMIS GREY

Artemis Grey was raised on fairytales and the folklore of Appalachia. She’s been devouring books and regurgitating her daydreams into written words since childhood. She can often be found writing by a crackling fire or romping through the woods on horseback, searching the depths of random wardrobes and wriggling into hollow tree trunks. She hopes to make her readers look at the world they’ve always seen, and see the world they’ve always envisioned.

What are you reading right now?

We’ve been on overtime at work for almost two months, and my reading has been happening only in audio from (graciously provided by a coworker who shares his audible account). Recently, I’ve been listening to the LEGEND OF DRIZZT series, by R.A. Salvatore. The books that started everything for me, were the original DRAGONLANCE trilogy, and the CRYSTAL SHARD trilogy. Specifically Raistlin Majere, and Drizzt Do’Urden have always been, and will always be, my two great loves in regard to character romances. Drizzt, in particular, is a comfort for me, and his stories are the ones I go back to again and again. From his character itself, to the fact that that character was actually created on impulse and without any intention of having the character “mean anything” Drizzt represents to me the what-ifs and the indomitableness carried within oneself.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I accidentally answered part of this with my first answer. Like many writers, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t telling stories, but it was reading fantasy books like the ones above that started me writing my own stories. That, and the desire to be able to maybe create characters that would mean as much to someone, somewhere, as characters like Drizzt mean to me. In more recent years, writing nonfiction (specifically for the theatre of conservation) has been sparked by the need to educate the public and spread information, to be a voice for the voiceless.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

What I love most about writing fiction is everything about the process and actual creation. “Meeting” new characters, learning about them, seeing their stories unfold. What I like the least is the need to try and convince members on the commercial side of things that my stories are “worthy” of being put into the public’s reach. In writing nonfiction, what I love most is being able to engage the public and teach them things they didn’t know. I also love, in a warrior’s sense, being able to combat those who would exploit voiceless animals, nature, and public ignorance, to make money, and damage that which they profess to care about. Most people are shocked to realize the truth about some of the most visible “conservationists” they’ve heard of. What I like least in nonfiction is the willful ignorance, and blind devotion that I’ve encountered on widespread levels. The willingness of humanity to warp or destroy principles, or overlook the same, even as they acknowledge it, in exchange for either their own gain, or because it’s more comfortable, or convenient to do so.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

In fiction I’m a panster to the core. A story, or character, or set of characters will blossom inside me, and for a varying amount of time decided by each, I’ll let them grow there, developing and maturing. Then I simply start writing. Most of the time, the greater story arch will already be visible to me. I’ll know the start, at least have an idea of the journey, and where things end up. But my rough drafts are very much that. My second drafts are where hard lines get drawn. I still write long hand in pen, when I’m able, and when that’s happened, it’s the transcription process that stands as my “second draft”. In nonfiction, I do a ton of research for articles. That’s very rewarding in itself. It’s all about taking hard science, and/or verified facts, and then presenting it in a way that reaches out and physically impacts the public, opens their eyes, and permanently alters them afterward, hopefully in all the best ways.

What are your passions?

Writing. Being a voice for those (animal or human) who have none of their own, but doing so in a way that remains true to them. Being alone, surrounded by nature, with as little indication of the presence of humanity as possible. The intangible connection and exchange possible with nature and animals that requires you to step outside yourself and not perceive the world in the manner of how it exists in relation to you, by rather in how it exists without you.

What inspires you?

Everything. Literally everything. From the things I love, to the things I most hate, or fear, it all inspires me in some way.

How was CATSKIN born?

I have always thought humans with albinism to be exceptionally beautiful not just in form, but in the sameness so often denied them by the rest of society. I feel likewise about all other “differences” perceived and maintained by society. At the same time, there were no male characters (that I knew of) which embraced “broken” females as they were, without trying to “fix” them because they saw them as not actually “broken” but simply the same as everyone else in a different way. The parallels of society treating those with albinism as being “different” and society treating those who have suffered a trauma as “different” developed into a story about a boy who was just the same as everyone else in his “differences” falling in love with a girl who likewise was the same in her “differences,” but who had been conditioned to believe she wasn’t “right.”

Do you think you will ever return to write more with Ansel and Catskin?

I sincerely hope so! I actually have outlines for two more books, one which follows Catskin before she met Ansel (which would address some issues like you can’t really walk around in Alaska for months surviving on nothing as it seems like Catskin did before meeting Ansel. I'm looking at you, Erynn) and one which follows them after the events in CATSKIN. Because CATSKIN was released through a very small press (Clean Reads, you’re the best ever) and because my writing is rich in satisfaction and joy, but poor in monetary matters, I have to split my time between a full time job, and my writing efforts. Clean Reads was the only publisher willing to publish CATSKIN (seriously, Clean Reads is a phenomenal group of people) so I’ve been trying to work on other projects which might be more commercially viable in the hopes that subsequent contracts would provide me with more time to write. Still working on that but also still working on CATSKIN related books!

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

The best advice I can give aspiring authors is to take the time to learn themselves, to learn their inner beings as far as their writing goes. Learn, accept, and respect what matters the most to you. Do you want to write for the love of writing? Do you want to be commercially and monetarily successful through your writing? Do you want to achieve some functional change in the world with your writing? The answers are vital, because they will guide you, and embracing them will allow you to be happy. Also, there is no wrong answer, and the answer can change dependent upon subject matter and situation. If you want to be a monetarily successful author, if what will make you happy is seeing your name in headlines, then you can shape your writing, what you write, and how you write it, with the goal of achieving those things. Yes, unexpected lightning does strike. But documenting the lifecycle and daily struggles of a hellbender salamander in an Appalachian stream-bed is not likely to gain you red-carpet receptions, or invitations to Dragon-Con panels. However, if what you love most is being able to take something that most of society doesn’t even know about, and turn it into a gripping tale that might mean everything to just a few people, then red-carpets and Cons don’t matter. A writer who wants to make money off their writing, is no less an author than a writer who wants only to document the comings and goings of the field mice in their backyard, and vice versa. Neither are the two exclusive. You can desire monetary success through one type of writing, while wanting only to document something for the sake of that thing with another type of writing.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

Because I took over a month to get these questions answered and sent to Rachel (and I love Rachel immensely and very much appreciate her interest in interviewing me) I think she, and readers, deserve something extra, so I’ll tell you a secret: I have a habit of leaving scraps of paper sort-of hidden in all the places I go (public, or natural) with little things written on them. It might be a little stanza of poetry (I’m not an accomplished poet but I try) or a (hopefully) inspirational quote, or it might just say something like “You are enough in yourself.” Or something like that. But I believe that little unexpected bits of magic, and discovery like that help keep us alive in all the important ways, so I try to help them happen whenever I can.

Friday, July 13, 2018

BENJAMIN LUDWIG


Interview with Benjamin Ludwig

Benjamin Ludwig is the author of GINNY MOON, published by Park Row Books of HarperCollins on May 02, 2017. To date it has been published in eighteen countries. His novella, SOURDOUGH, was the recipient of the 2013 Clay Reynolds Prize for the Novella. A former English teacher and new-teacher mentor, he holds an MAT in English education and an MFA in creative writing. He and his family live in New Hampshire.

What are you reading right now?

Right now I’m reading a book called FIFTEEN DOGS by Andre Alexis. It’s a great book, one that I hope people will pick up and devour. The pitch totally hooked me as soon as I heard it: “And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic.” I’m always interested in books about dogs, and this was utterly tragicomic. I’m reading it for the second time, now. I like to read deeply rather than broadly – there are several books that I re-read every year, and I think this might end up being one of them.

What first sparked your interest in writing? 

I caught the writing-bug in third grade, the same year I fell in love with writing. I wanted to impress a girl who happened to be a bookworm, so I picked out a copy of the same book she was reading, sat next to her, and tried to strike up a conversation. She completely ignored me. So I started reading the book…and fell in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder. My buddies weren’t impressed, but I was enthralled. Soon after, I started writing my own stories, most of which were about a family of raccoons crossing a dangerous meadow. They had a pet squirrel named Jack, as I recall.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

The constant surprise. Most of the time, when I think I know what’s going to happen next, my characters end up surprising me. Ginny was like that. I made an outline to guide me through the writing process, but she refused to follow it. She had her own ideas about how things should go. It was all I could do to keep up with her.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I write in two places. In the morning before the kids are up, I write on the couch, with the woodstove burning, and the dogs sprawled out nearby. During the day, when everyone is at school or work, I write at the dining room table so that I can spread out all my notes, outlines, and papers. Most of my revision and planning takes place during the day because I can get to at all the things I need without worrying about waking up the rest of the family. My mornings, though, are for purely creative work.

What are your passions?

Aside from writing? I love chopping wood, and gardening, and being outside. Hiking has always been a favorite activity.

What inspires you?

Poetry and music. Or maybe I should say music and poetry. The playfulness of structure, which I find easiest to perceive in those two things. Creativity has always been, for me, about setting up expectations, and then thwarting them in clever ways. That’s what music and poetry do, I think.

Ginny has such a distinct voice and perspective. Did it take a while to get that right or did her voice come to you from the start? 

Ginny’s voice came to me in a very mysterious, exciting way. I came home one night in 2013 from my daughter’s Special Olympics basketball practice with a voice ringing in my ears. It wasn’t my daughter’s voice, and it wasn’t the voice of any of the other kids I’d just been talking with at practice.  It was a desperate, quirky, driving voice – one that demanded to be written. So I sat and I wrote, and immediately saw that I had something beyond exciting. After that I wrote out an outline – but Ginny refused to do what the outline said. And thank goodness! Her direction proved to be much better. 

Did Ginny’s character require much research or did you write her more from empathy? 

I didn’t do any research at all, for Ginny as a character. Her voice made the character, if that makes sense. What she said, and how she said it, suggested a lot of the backstory, and pointed directly to some of her disabilities.

What made you decide on short chapters or is that simply what felt natural for this book?

I think Ginny’s own direct, to-the-point style demanded that the chapters be short. There were times when I tried to make some of the chapters longer, but she found my attempts to be (as she would put it) tedious.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Cultivate your ideas, and take them seriously. Human beings have creative thoughts all the time, but it’s so, so it’s easy to breeze past them, and to say, “That’s just a silly idea.”  The hardest thing for a new writer to do is to accept that a lot of their ideas can and should be developed. We sell ourselves short, I think, and underestimate ourselves all the time.

Friday, July 6, 2018

THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS


Review of THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS by NAFISA HAJI

With this beautiful novel, Haji spins a powerful and engaging family epic. The book opens in teenage Jo’s perspective as she struggles to reconcile something she learned in school about eye color with her own personal experience. From there, each chapter follows a different family member, coming back to certain characters again only much later. Each character connects to the others and we trace these connections along the way as we learn about this complex family tree. Everyone brings a unique perspective and life experience; however, together they form an affecting mosaic.

I fell in love with this book more than a little. For starters, the writing is gorgeous. I’m not usually one for picking out specific quotes, but the following insight into anger really moved me: “Anger is like milk. It doesn’t keep. It becomes sour.” The quote goes on to impress me further with: “Grief...ages better than anger. It is eternal.” And the quote is all the more touching in context: the woman speaking has her right to anger, but is explaining why she chooses instead to feel her grief to her fullest and treat the anger as something dangerous and unpredictable.  

As if that weren’t enough, the plotting is utterly compelling, too. I felt fully drawn into the story on every single page and, despite my habit of reading multiple books at a time or going days to weeks without continuing a specific book, I never had the least bit of difficulty keeping track of everyone in this story and picking up where I left off. This is one of those books about which my strongest criticism is that it had to end.

I worry that, gushing aside, I’m not explaining what this book is about enough for some readers. That said, the actual plot or “hook” is hard to describe without giving too much away as I’m convinced a great part of the wonder is in how skillfully everything unfolds detail by detail. If I tell you now how each viewpoint character is connected to each other, it robs you of the discovery process along the way, not to mention the other unexpected ties between their very different lives. It’s a beautiful family epic and we’ll leave it at that.

I finished THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS eager to get my hands on everything this author has ever published.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Art of Reading: Short vs. Long Books


All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post’s theme: short vs. long books. Do you have a preference?

Most of us will read and enjoy anything good, and I certainly believe the best story is told in exactly as many words as it needs, no more nor less. That disclaimer aside, we still have natural draws towards slim or thick books before we commit to reading it. Obviously, a huge tome is a bigger time investment, which makes you more wary about starting it if you’re not convinced it will be worth the effort. On the other hand, slim books can give the impression of less content = less value. Anyone who buys into the less is more philosophy knows that’s far from true, but still people balk at unexpectedly lean books.

Because I read so much, it probably makes even less difference to me whether I’m reading something short or long than it does to someone who reads a few books a year. I figure in terms of word and page count it all evens out in the end. However, I will confess that if I’m getting behind in reviews for my blog, I look at my to-read stacks and wonder if I should be plucking out a shorter and, therefore, faster reads rather than a 1,000+ page tome that will takes me weeks to months to finish.

Two short books I loved are I DON’T KNOW and BOY MEETS BOY. I DON’T KNOW is about our possibly harmful discomfort with simply admitting lack of knowledge or understanding. I DON’T KNOW may not be the best example for this post, though, as I do recall believing the short book felt more like an introduction to a topic begging for more pages. BOY MEETS BOY, on the other hand, is a beauty of a novel, a slim book told with exactly as few words needed to form a heartwarming tale about adolescent love.

Two long books I loved are INKHEART and SHOGUN. INKHEART is a middle grade, or possibly young adult depending on who you ask, fantasy. While fantasies tend to be longer than other fiction, INKHEART is still noticeably longer than other books on either the middle reader of YA shelves. The author created a complex world and follows several different characters with alternating POVs, making every page count, and with fairly short chapters the long book still reads faster than expected. As for SHOGUN, well, that classic makes INKHEART look short. Nevertheless, I remember eagerly racing my way through page after page of this gripping story about a fictional foreigner’s experience in feudal Japan.

Do you ever read books that you feel should be shorter or longer? I experience more of the former than the latter: when I read a great story but feel the author dragged it out and could have told the same, compelling story with a significantly reduced word count. An example is SHANTARAM. I enjoyed the book, but often felt it could be told in half or even a third as many pages.

I would also be particularly interested to hear from anyone who genuinely does prefer either short or long books. I feel there’s a stigma about admitting you don’t want to read a book because it looks long, but having worked in a bookstore for years I can tell you the sales prove it’s true!
-->

Friday, June 22, 2018

ABARAT: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR


Review of ABARAT: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR by CLIVE BARKER
(second in the ABARAT series)

I again highly recommend that anyone interested in this series purchase the illustrated versions. While I appreciate the writing and the story elements on their own merits, too, having the prose and complex, bizarre illustrations paired together is, in my opinion, an entirely superior experience.

Speaking of bizarre, I will again make mention that this is a weird series. Weird can be good or bad and mostly depends on the individual’s taste, but for me this book represents the best kind of weird: a mysterious, complex, surprising, imaginary world that feels as much a dream as a story. I feel as though the Sea of Izabella wrapped around me, too, and pulled me into the magical world of Abarat along with Candy.

This is very much a middle book, though I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing. There’s a lot of wandering and meandering and tangential adventures, sometimes with what feel like placeholder goals. I found every page engaging, but I knew we’re leading towards something bigger, a higher stakes conflict simmering beneath the lesser battles.

Barker wrote a “good” villain, by my standards, and by good I mean complex. I find “pure evil” villains boring. Carrion certainly has an evil streak, but there’s also interesting layers and backstory there that unfolds even more in this second book.

The short chapters switch between various points of view and with constant conflict of some variation or other, this chunky book reads faster than you may expect. The first two books were re-reads for me, so I look forward to reading the rest of the series fresh and finally learning how this dreamlike story concludes.