Monday, July 28, 2014

THE ENCHANTED


Review of THE ENCHANTED by RENE DENFELD
(review based on an advance reading copy)

My short review of this book: a great novel that skews a little away from my personal tastes. I would describe it as a literary prison novel, though that’s not at all how someone pitched the premise to me. Based on the blurb and promotion, I expected it to be more...magical - in a literal fantasy sense. Numerous quotes use the words “magic” or “magical” among words with similar connotations, but the story merely brushes up against a magical realism label with some fantastical literary metaphors.

Denfeld employs multiple viewpoints, most in third person with one inmate (the one who describes the prison as an enchanted place and observes his surroundings with an imaginative eye) recounting events in first person.

When I say the book skewed away from my tastes, I mean both in terms of content and style. As for content, I found the tone too dark and depressing and the storyline too violent. Not a surprise for a prison novel, but I’ve never hopped on board the trend of crime novels and television shows and only read or watch such material in moderation. One thing I will say in praise of the violence, though: Denfeld describes such scenes in emotional terms rather than physical ones...which I actually found more affecting. She doesn’t say in physical terms what is being done to another human being, but rather shares with the reader his confusion, his terror, and how horror can melt into numbness and later rebirth into a quietly simmering rage. Also, while I promote seeking out stories outside your own experience, I like having enough familiarity with the topic to make a judgment call on the author’s accuracy. In the case of a prison novel, I’m frankly no authority on whether or not THE ENCHANTED accurately portrays prison life.

As for style, I would call the writing dense. I found the voice hard to follow every time I opened the book again, but would gradually fall into step with the story’s particular rhythm as I kept reading. The author opts, quite deliberately from what I could guess, for far more telling than showing - often summarizing dialogue rather than writing out a conversation, etc. I also found the magical realism elements (or literary metaphor, as I interpreted them) more distracting from the actual story than a meaningful embellishment.

My favorite part of this book has to be the assorted quotes that so perfectly present a sliver of truth - especially those that speak about life and humanity overall rather than prison specifically. As one example: “I know there are some...who think ideas are like food they can taste and then spit out if they don’t like.”

Though technically this can be said of any book, I consider THE ENCHANTED a particularly taste-specific novel. I liked this book, but the right readers will doubtless absolutely adore it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

ROBERT L. SLATER

 
Interview with ROBERT L. SLATER
Bottom of Form

Robert L. Slater is a teacher/writer living in Bellingham, Washington. His stories and poetry have appeared in many small press publications. His first novel, ALL IS SILENCE: A DESERTED LANDS NOVEL, was released in early 2014. He has a should’ve-been-a doctorate B.A. in Theatre/Education, Spanish and History minors and a M.A. in Educational Technology. He sing;, plays guitar; acts/directs in regional theatres; brews; cooks; reads; practices Taekwon Do; writes plays, songs, and stories. He has six children, ages 10 to 29 years and one grandchild. His motto is Robert Heinlein’s “Specialization is for Insects.”

What are you reading right now?

I'm reading local authors mostly: Noble Smith's SONS OF ZEUS, Selah J Tay-Song's DREAMS OF A VAST BLUE CAVERN and Jesikah Sundin's LEGACY. On eBook I'm reading Platt & Truant's WRITE. PUBLISH. REPEAT.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

The answer seems flippant, but reading sparked my interest. I wrote songs, poetry, and plays from the time I could write. My focus has changed several times over my life, but writing of some sort has always been present.

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

The creative spark when I fall in love with an idea and later when I'm stuck and begging out loud for the muses to provide with answers. It's amazing how well that works.

The second, third, through penultimate rewrites. I like the first rewrite and the last, but the ones in between begin to drag. I'm really trying to learn to be more conscious so that I won't have to do more than two rewrites to solve that problem. I'm not there yet.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I used to be a “pantser,” writing by the seat of my pants, but that led to a lot of character studies and vignettes and unended pieces. Then I learned not to start a story that I didn't know an end for. Often the end I know is not the one I end up with, but it's like they say: if you don't head somewhere you'll never get anywhere.

What are your passions?

Music and words. Sensory experiences. Nature and travel. Reading myself into another world. Eating and cooking good food. Teaching and learning. Challenging myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. I'm pretty passionate about most of my life. Sticking up for the little guys. Fair play. RECYCLING. That last one's hard as a writer, so I use most paper twice. I'll print on one side and then when I'm done I'll print on the other side. I collect DOOS [Dirty on one Side] paper from other people to reuse.

What inspires you?

Hugh Howey. Really. My kids. Music of almost any sort. My books have lots of little references that connect me to something I heard playing while I was writing or plotting.

Why speculative fiction?

Because it asks the question, “What If?” as it’s most important component. It allows us to escape and the good stuff makes us ask ourselves why we want to escape. It's also what I'm most drawn to reading, though I also love history and science nonfiction, which helps with the speculative aspects as well.

Why young adult?

I'm not even sure ALL IS SILENCE is Young Adult fiction. I mean, it's a category that it probably fits best in, but I would also classify it first as Science Fiction. I worked hard to make the science realistic. I think it also borders on the category New Adult. The next series after Lizzie's will center on a pre-teen boy, so that one will be more of a YA book, but the story is the story and hopefully it crosses those arbitrary borders while still helping people looking for that genre to find it.

How was ALL IS SILENCE born?

The original germ of the idea was a response to LORD OF THE FLIES. I was angry after reading it, because I felt the message was that human beings would quickly devolve into savages given a bad situation. In response I wrote a short story about a disease that wiped out all but some prisoners in a jail who had been taking a medication to keep them calm. But the story never satisfied me. So, many years later when I wondered what would happen to an at-risk teen girl in a similar apocalyptic scenario, I found the story I needed to tell.

Setting (Bellingham and Northwest Washington specifically) play a strong role in the book. Was this deliberate?

Yes and no. I knew very early in the idea stage that the story would be about people trying to reach each other across the plague-stricken country. Bellingham is about as far away from the rest of the country as you get without leaving the lower 48. I knew I could set a realistic novel in this area best. It was important to establish verisimilitude and what better way than to write about where I've lived the past 23 years.

ALL IS SILENCE has a large and varied cast. Was any one character more fun to write?

I loved writing about Spike, but I think I enjoyed them all, even when I didn't like what they were doing!

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Write. Write some more. Share it with people. Write some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. I talk about Robert's Rules of Writing in a blog post. Robert Heinlein's rules of writing adapted by Robert Sawyer and then adjusted for me. Each writer must find what works for them. It's a long arduous process of trial and error.

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

I'm 60% finished with the first draft of Straight Into Darkness and almost done with a novella set in the Pacific Northwest that is also set in the DESERTED LANDS universe. I plan to release the novella, TOILS & SNARES, as an ebook sometime this fall and STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS in print and ebook during the first half of 2015. People can sign up for free fiction, newsletter updates, and more at www.DesertedLands.com.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Art of Reading: Moving

 
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: moving. Sure, some readers attach their devotion more to the elusive story than the physical book, but many of us bibliophiles can also be called book hoarders. If that describes you, what do you do when it comes time to move? Bring every last book? Pare down your collection?

This is a timely post for me. Right now I’m making a big move from Washington to California...with a big book collection. Whenever I move, I trim down my plethora of books. This time I gave a handful to friends, sold dozens to a used bookstore, and donated multiple bags and boxes worth to charities. Despite all that, I still have plenty!

Each time, moving strikes me as chance to see which books are truly exemplary. Whenever I finish a book I decide whether or not I consider it worth saving. My judgment tends to be more generous soon after finishing a story, but years later I might not care about that book as much. I can tell which ones really made an impression on me by which ones never find themselves weeded out.

Feel free to weigh in on the topic of moving with books! Ever had to do it? Too much hassle or worth the effort?

Friday, July 18, 2014

LOLCAT COLLECTION


Review of the LOLCAT COLLECTION by PROFESSOR HAPPYCAT

This humor collection currently features four books: I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER?, HOW TO TAKE OVER TEH WURLD, HOW 2 BE AWSUM, and THE ITTEH BITTEH BOOK OF KITTEHS. Anyone at all familiar with LOLcats will recognize “I can has cheezburger?” but perhaps you didn’t realize the phenomenon goes farther than that.

Courtesy of icanhaz.cheezburger.com, these books collect funny pictures of cats with even funnier captions. Like UNDERWATER DOGS, these ones are tricky to review without presenting the images themselves. While I highly recommend this website and these books for a good laugh, the best review is to suggest you click on over to the website yourself and peruse a few captioned kitties. 





Monday, July 14, 2014

THE HOUNDS OF GOD


Review of THE HOUNDS OF GOD by JUDITH TARR
(third in THE HOUND AND THE FALCON trilogy)

As with earlier books in this series, I immediately invested in the characters. There’s another jump ahead in time with the start of a new book; each novel has its own distinct plot with the major unifying factor being the characters.

In this third and final installment, Thea is now pregnant (though still refusing to marry her beloved Alf). She and Alf live in the fey court now with other familiar characters from earlier books. Life seems peaceful...until a crazed religious fanatic kidnaps Thea and their newborn twins. Religion versus magic has been a prominent, if not the most prominent, theme in this series with THE HOUNDS OF GOD being no exception.

Our newest antagonist views magic as sin and, therefore, the fey as demons, and he intends to see every last one of them purged from the world. Right now he’s fixated on Alf. Not only does Alf’s exceptional magical talent make him a prime target, but our villain considers a fey man like Alf having a religious background absolute blasphemy. He makes no secret that he will kill Thea and their children once they’ve served their purpose, but for now their purpose is to lure Alf directly into the beast’s mouth.

My praise and criticism of this book stays consistent with what I’ve said about the earlier two. In terms of praise, I admire the theme of being rejected by the group with which you identify. As for criticism, I still found the writing dense and sometimes unclear, especially with actions scenes where not only can’t I picture what’s happening but I’m not even sure I know what’s happening.  

This was a satisfying series that encourages me to read everything else by this author. I believe most of her works are rather obscure at this point - if not out-of-print - but I expect her books will be worth the effort of tracking down copies.

Friday, July 11, 2014

THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING


Review of THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING by ERIKA JOHANSEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

In short, THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING is a decent book that severely suffers from overhype. Though I enjoyed the story, this novel couldn’t live up to all the raving marketing. The primary selling point for this book seems to be that Emma Watson agreed to play the heroine in a movie adaptation even before the book’s publication. (Side note: once you read the book it’s apparent that’s a horrible casting choice. Nothing against Emma Watson. In fact, it’s because she’s too pretty. The book makes a big deal out of the fact that the heroine is not attractive.) A lot of the buzz also describes THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING as a cross between A GAME OF THRONES and THE HUNGER GAMES. After reading the book, that comparison strikes me as a hollow publicity gimmick of throwing out familiar, bestselling book titles. The only similarity I see between THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING and A GAME OF THRONES is the medieval-ish setting. For THE HUNGER GAMES, the fact that there’s a female lead.

I did invest in an engaging plot early on, but never became full absorbed because every time I started to do so my reviewer brain would find itself snagged on some little detail and thrown out of the story back into the real world. My criticisms are petty but numerous. I found this to be a good book, but not great. Entertaining, but not gush-worthy. I would recommend it to people like me who read at least a book a week, but it wouldn’t make the cut if I were talking to someone who reads 10 books or less a year.

The premise sounds like a familiar epic fantasy formula. Princess Kelsea has been raised in hiding and the book begins as she sets out to reclaim her throne and heal a dying land. From there, this story distinguishes itself from other similar ones. Despite a wealth of “book knowledge,” Kelsea’s guardians kept her ignorant of her land’s politics. (A decision that never made sense to me. Why is it a good thing for a leader of a land not to know what’s going on in said land?) THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING is the first in a planned trilogy and the biggest hurdle in this book revolves around Kelsea standing up to a bully of a neighboring country. For years, Mortmesne has demanded a monthly shipment of citizens from weaker lands to be sold into slavery, threatening to obliterate any country that refuses to provide this tribute.

Though she had her moments, Kelsea isn’t quite the heroine I wanted her to be. Too much telling rather than showing. In other words, I felt like author used other characters’ awe and admiration to nudge the reader into feeling the same, but for the most part I remained unimpressed. Kelsea strikes me as rash and lucky. She has a magical family heirloom gem that seems to do most of her work. Some of her actions would be impressive, except she didn’t do anything. Instead the magical stone comes to life without any intent or skill on Kelsea’s part and solves her problems for her.

I’ll summarize my other complaints. I found the storyline rather predictable. I guessed the traitor as well as two late revelations about Kelsea’s foster parents. The setting also confused me. It’s the 24th century, but medieval-ish. Technically future but feels like past. It seems some great humanity crash set everyone back to older ways, but we’re never provided further explanation. Honestly, I only know that much from reading writing about the book rather than the book itself. Last, the writing had some silly, petty slips that I found distracting. As one example, something along the lines of: “She heard an audible snap.” If a snap is a sound, why specify audible? For that matter, why specify audible if she heard it? Far from appalling writing but I do start thinking these thoughts instead of focusing on the story.

Moving on to some of what I admired about the book, the story does raise numerous questions about vanity, one of the primary themes. Kelsea’s lack of beauty comes up early and often. She’s not quite ugly, but she’s entirely unremarkable and plain. She’s overweight, and when she cuts her hair short she realizes that some women can still look gorgeous and feminine with cropped hair...but she looks indistinguishably like a boy. There’s also the fact that her crush calls her “far too plain for [his] taste.” If he does fall for her personality later, will her vanity overcome the fact that he’s made it clear he’s not physically attracted to her in the least? Then there’s Kelsea’s clear contempt for vanity. Her guards even mistreat a woman and I picked up a subtext that it was okay because that woman is vain and, hence, deserved it - which contradicts Kelsea’s intent to be a better ruler than her mother or uncle.

However, I’m not sure Kelsea being a notably flawed protagonist, heroine, and ruler is such a bad thing in a story. I hope it means growth in future books. It certainly means ardent conversations about her strengths and drawbacks, what decisions a reader supports and what ones they don’t.

In general, that’s what I loved about this book: that it’s discussion worthy. I might have criticized this novel a lot in this review, but I certainly had plenty to say. Sometimes I enjoy a book and still find myself staring at a blank page when reviewing, struggling for anything to say about the story. THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING feels somewhat like a gem that could have been polished a lot more, but you can tell it’s a gem nevertheless and not any old interchangeable rock. I also have high hopes that the later books will deliver on the story’s (and the marketing’s) promise of an epic series I won’t soon forget.

Monday, July 7, 2014

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY


Review of THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by GABRIELLE ZEVIN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This book won me over almost immediately and more than lived up to its considerable hype. I had heard enthusiastic endorsements from well over a dozen people before starting this novel but the story nevertheless exceeded my expectations. Both droll and shrewd in tone, THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY is above all beautiful, heartwarming, and original.

Our star, the cynical A.J. Fikry, owns a small independent bookstore, but his passion for his work died with his wife. Now his job is, well, just a job. He gets through the day and often drinks through the night. Then someone abandons a baby in his store with a note suggesting he raise the child. Naturally A.J. balks at this proposition at first, but by the time Maya’s mother washes ashore after her suicide he can’t bear to send little Maya away. From there, the book has a wide time arch, covering A.J. and Maya’s unusual, moving, sometimes rocky, always book-dosed life together.

The characters feel so believable that they practically emerge from the pages. Sometimes Zevin utilizes hyperbole for humor (like the cop book group that has such impassioned debates about the mystery novels they read that someone pulls their gun), but that aside every moment feels so probable, and so human. The characters are complex and flawed and many embody a typical reader: more than a little cynical because they think they’ve seen every plot twist and that predictability drains a story of emotion.

This novel also features a strong voice (which goes along with dynamic characters) and excellent writing. I rarely pay as much attention to specific lines as I do to the overall story, but I stuffed THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY with so many post-its marking memorable quotes that my book looked more like my scrap paper storage unit. Sometimes I marked pages because a line made me laugh aloud and other times because a concise insight felt so truthful.

Speaking of laughing aloud, the humorous tone came as a wonderful surprise. Dozens of people told me to read this book: because it’s a book about books and book lovers, because it’s well written, because it’s moving, because the end made them cry. Yet not one person mentioned that it’s also hilarious. I smiled, chuckled, or cracked up more times than I can count and often quoted to anyone nearby (who then wanted to read the book as well).

Of course, I didn’t only mark funny quotes. As well as writing dry wit, Zevin can zero in on small realities about life (and reading specifically) that hit me hard with their truthfulness. As a single example, at one point A.J. muses on a conundrum with which many avid readers can relate. He read and loved a book that by all measures he should consider trash. He’s trying to write a review and doesn’t know how to justify his endearment for a book that’s poorly written and plotted, lacks depth, and features flat characters. Then he acknowledges that despite the book’s easy-to-name flaws he connected. And connecting is rather the point of reading (and life, he acknowledges with only a little recoil at his own sentimentality.)

Though I think many people will enjoy this book, I, too, must acknowledge that it’s perfect for bibliophiles, especially anyone who works in the book industry - be you bookseller, writer, editor, agent, publisher, etc.) The writing’s packed with spot on remarks about reading and literature, not to mention inside jokes about particular works and the bookselling/publishing/writing industries. (The comment about Maeve Binchy’s work made me snort out my drink.)

In short: a spellbinding tale of human connection that reads like a love letter to books.