Friday, February 12, 2016

ON WRITING


Review of ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT by STEPHEN KING

The subtitle of this book summarizes it pretty well: part memoir and part writing guide. Though now a recognized must-read for aspiring authors, many other readers will find plenty to enjoy here in terms of insight into writers and Stephen King specifically.

I have a unique relationship with King’s work. It’s not my taste and yet I still retain the utmost respect for his talents. I have read a few books and stories by him and I consistently admire the writing, plotting, and characterization...but I'm simply not a horror fan. His advice to fellow writers also pops everywhere a beginner writer looks and I admire and agree with pretty much every quote I’ve heard attributed to him. One of my favorites from this book: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” My critique partners, boyfriend, friends, family have all heard my similar rants - and now I’m definitely posting that quote somewhere around my writing desk.

As an aspiring writer myself, I’ll confess it’s always tempting to compare yourself when reading or listening to an established author talk about writing. I won’t go off on overly personal tangents here, but I will mention one thing that struck me as interesting simply from the standpoint of factors that can lead to becoming a writer. King says he was frequently sick as a child, and therefore often spent a lot of time indoors, usually reading. Myself as well. I have asthma and, up until a few years ago, had a terrible immune system, which led to pneumonia, bronchitis, strep throat, whooping cough, and mono that took me over a year to kick. King credits this misfortune, though, for giving him plenty of time to read and use his imagination. Personally, I feel the same about myself.

In summary, a humble and insightful peek inside a writer’s mind that only increased the respect I feel for this particular author.

Friday, February 5, 2016

FINDING AUDREY


Review of FINDING AUDREY by SOPHIE KINSELLA
(based on a review copy)

I love Sophie Kinsella’s work and FINDING AUDREY is no exception. Above all, I cherish this one for making me laugh on nearly every single page. That aside, the book is also sweet and smart and simply satisfying.

Audrey has some form of social anxiety. She doesn’t want to talk about the events at school that led up to her breakdown, her new shrink, her numerous neurotic needs, and her limited life hiding at home with only her family for company. She wants to talk about her progress graph and how, crazy though she may seem, she’s improving, always improving, always getting better.

When Audrey’s older brother Frank starts inviting his friend Linus over, Frank warns Audrey that her comfort zone is about to feel crowded. Frank wants Audrey to talk to Linus, get to know him, make him feel comfortable so he won’t feel too weird coming over. While that sounds simple, Audrey pretty much hasn’t talked to another person outside her family or therapist since her last day at school.

I could easily have read this entire book in one committed sitting - if only my schedule allowed it. I want to say that the humor should take the credit for my riveted attention, but in truth it was the masterful blend of laughs and sincere sentiment.

Frank gets credit for most of the laughs. He’s the starring comic relief of this novel, taking center stage and delighting the audience no end, while Audrey hides in the background and steels her nerves. Frank’s an aspiring professional gamer and spends most of his free time playing online with his team. Unfortunately for Frank, their mother has decided he has a gaming addiction and needs to be cured, by drastic means if necessary. The snarky tension between the two of them over this provides most of the hilarity. Take, as one example, how Frank passively aggressively torments their dad after their mom takes away his computer: by bursting into his dad’s study during conference calls to request, with honeyed words, the use of the only computer left in the house so poor Frank can look up something for his homework. Part of why this book reads so quickly is that it’s mostly dialogue, the back and forths between different characters, sometimes illuminating, sometimes side-splitting, all worth reading.

Now I want to warn readers already wondering at what event could have caused this reaction in Audrey that’s not the point of the book. In fact, to make it abundantly clear that’s not the point, the author isn’t going to tell you. It won’t be a spoiler for me to fill in what we do know - because, as I’ve mentioned, it’s not the point. Several girls bullied Audrey merciless until she snapped. It’s unclear whether the last day they reference was a particularly malicious event or a standard day in hell for her that simply turned out to be her last straw. And we never find out more detail. I’m torn on my feelings on this. From a psychological level, I mentally applauded the position that this is Audrey’s story, about her, not those girls, and not to be positioned only in relation to the actions of those girls. From a reader standpoint, it’s still a little unsatisfying not to know exactly what the character went through.

That single (half-hearted) criticism aside, I relished every page of this novel. Funny books are harder to find than meaningful ones and FINDING AUDREY is both.

Friday, January 29, 2016

MAGIC UNDER GLASS


Review of MAGIC UNDER GLASS by JACLYN DOLAMORE
(first in the MAGIC UNDER series)

Nimira feels like she has fallen in life. Once she was an admired and appreciated singer performing alongside her famous dancer mother in a breathtakingly beautiful palace. Then she moved to a new county to make her own way and seek her fortune only to discover performers aren’t as respected everywhere. Now she sings in dingy settings for little money and condescending patrons. When a handsome young man offers her an unusual position as accompanying singer for a wind-up automaton that plays the piano, Nimira knows she’s taking a risk running off with a stranger but doubts life could be much worse than it is now.

The handsome, rich stranger - let’s call him Hollin - warns Nimira from the start that he has already dismissed several girls from the same position because the automaton is so lifelike that they won’t stop raving about the idea that it’s haunted. Hollin reassures her that no such thing is true, but does admit that the automaton was made by fairies and is exquisitely animated and convincing.

This book boasts wonderful characterization. Despite some familiar “roles,” Dolamore avoids any stock characters. They each feel realistically layered and complex, like real people. The relationships, too, feel unique and truthful rather than like the same standard dynamics we see again and again.

I’ll take half the blame for my only complaint: that I didn’t realize this is the first in a series. I’ve mentioned before that I like to know that detail when I start a book, because I have this sense of expectation for whether the story will wrap up by the final page or leave threads open for the next installment. I thought MAGIC UNDER GLASS was a standalone right until I reached the end and the story practically cut off halfway. I look forward to reading the next one, but wish I knew that going in.

This is a quick read, too, easily digested in one or a few sittings. The fast pace of the story and the engaging characters keep the reader fully attentive on each page, so you can just keep turning, turning, turning until you abruptly find the end.

With this young adult fantasy, Dolamore spins a mesmerizing tale of automatons and fairies, love and betrayal, music and politics. This is an atmospheric story that pulls you into Nimira’s world of magic and melodies.

Friday, January 22, 2016

PLACEBO JUNKIES

 Review of PLACEBO JUNKIES by J.C. CARLESON
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Audie fancies herself a rebellious genius. She and her friends play the system by volunteering for drug trials, for which they receive reimbursement, of course. They lie about their ages, medical histories, what other medication they might be taking, you name it. Whatever it takes to get that cash in their hand. Sometimes they’re caught, some of them even permanently black marked from participating in future trials, but not Audie. She treats this like a job, a science even, calculating exactly what she can get away with and what her body can take.

Then Audie’s friend has a crazy idea. Rather than a trial here, a trial there, a slow pace to stay under the radar, why not push full speed for a short time and really cash out? Sign up for as many, or more, trials than any human body could possibly handle and collect as many payments as possible before getting caught. At first, Audie thinks, “No way,” but then she considers her boyfriend Dylan, the one bright light in her dark, dim, lonely life. Audie’s a mess really and she knows it, but Dyaln’s a good boy, someone with a more normal life, family, and home. Someone who’s sweet and considerate and much more wholesome than any of her friends. And, in a twist Audie finds standard for her life, her wonderful boyfriend Dylan is dying. They met because she’s always around hospitals searching for a score while he’s always around hospitals, well, you get the idea. It occurs to Audie that if she goes along with her friend’s one-last-big-payout idea, she could afford to do something incredibly memorable for Dylan’s birthday, maybe take him on a trip. And that’s how Audie finds herself tripping down a path of terrible decisions.

Let me mention right now that this isn’t the book you think it is. Trust the author. Things that don’t make sense now will make sense later. I had a lot of doubts and questions undermining the story for me at first until the pieces filled in enough for me to see the big picture. It’s an emotional wham! when it hits you, what’s really going on. Audie isn’t a reliable narrator with how many drugs she’s taking and as the story progresses, you’ll figure out where her version of the truth isn’t the actual truth.

PLACEBO JUNKIES is a skilled mind-trip that made me want to immediately re-read the book the moment after finishing it so I could catch every twist and nuance that would have been lost on me in the first read.

Friday, January 15, 2016

IRON COUNCIL


Review of IRON COUNCIL by CHINA MIEVILLE

This evocative spec fic story cuts between a few different perspectives, all of them revolutionaries trying to overthrow the current system. In a world that fuses magic with science, we follow the epic legend of the only people to escape the militia, the Iron Council. Though the premise of the Iron Council strained my suspended disbelief (refugees fleeing through the slow process of laying down train tracks), it’s a tantalizing hero story.

I should warn readers that I’m uncertain whether IRON COUNCIL is a standalone or part of a series. From my research and experience, I believe it’s a standalone but the third book set in a particular universe. The writer uses the immersion approach to introduce readers to his world and sometimes I found myself confused when unusual elements or words are referenced without explanation. However, I can’t say without reading the other books whether that lack of clarification is simply the author’s style or if it’s better to read the books in publication order.

The writing is at times a little heavy for my taste. Neither to the point nor admirably poetic, just wordy. Of course, I think it’s weighed down by a lot of worldbuilding words and if those aren’t familiar to you it can make the whole experience a little dense.

I found this book unexpectedly feminist. I can’t expound on the “unexpectedly” part without ruining the pacing of the story, but I will say that women play active roles, and some readers will likely be surprised by which women and which roles.

In general, the novel boasts plenty of unique twists I didn’t see coming. Even the ending strays away from the classic triumphant-defeat-of-evil-enemy model. The end is neither a final win nor loss, but a startling closure point with a little of both.

Friday, January 8, 2016

THE FAIRY'S RETURN


Review of THE FAIRY’S RETUN by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(sixth in THE PRINCESS TALES series)

This final installment in Levine’s charming PRINCESS TALES series spoofs “The Golden Goose.” Baker’s son Robin meets princess Lark and they like each other right away, especially each other’s sense of humor. Then Lark’s father, the king, tells her she can’t marry a commoner; she must marry a prince. In her version of the silent treatment, Lark stops laughing and smiling entirely after that ultimatum. Desperate to cheer up his daughter, the king finally announces that she can marry the first prince who makes her laugh.

We already know it’s Robin who will make the sulking princess laugh, but as to how he slips by the prince requirement you have to read the book to see. Of course, how he makes her laugh provides plenty of entertainment in itself, too.

As for all these short tales, Levine populates her slim story with amusing, colorful characters. Robin’s father tells pompous, piteous poems. His brothers invent words, in the same manner as a lot children do or people who are either intoxicated or simply silly, but the punch line here is that the brothers think themselves utter geniuses for their stuplorable vocabulary. You also have to love Robin’s unrequited admirer, whose personality might be lacking in some ways but certainly not in confidence.

I’m sad to see this series end as I could happily read as many PRINCESS TALES as Levine could write. Who knows, maybe she’ll add a few more in the future.  

Friday, January 1, 2016

Favorite Books Read in 2015


For those who have been following my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2015. All the books I reviewed or authors I interviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I read in 2015, not necessarily books published in 2015.

1.     THE BOOK OF TOMORROW by CECELIA AHERN

Rich, spoiled Tamara’s perfect life shatters when her father commits suicide to avoid the fallout from his bankruptcy. Tamara and her grief-induced comatose mother move out to quiet boringville where Tamara stumbles upon a journal that tells her what will happen the next day. The theme of “tomorrow” becomes a character itself, brimming with power but not as much control as we would like.

2.     PURE by JULIANNA BAGGOTT

This post-apocalyptic novel explores a grotesque world wrecked by bombings and divided by class, specifically between the privileged few who made it to a designated shelter before the explosions and the rest who found themselves fused to other objects and creatures when the bombs dropped.

3.     THE ROUND HOUSE by LOUISE ERDRICH

Teenager Joe’s happy family is shattered by a horrific crime committed within their American Indian community. Sadly tribal politics and laws complicate bringing the criminal to justice. Though a gripping story in its own right, I primarily admired this book for the exceptional writing.

4.     THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS and THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE by BRIAN GREENE

In both these nonfiction books, physicist Greene presents several key physics discoveries in a simplified, accessible manner. THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS covers a wide range of concepts including relativity, entropy, and spacetime, while THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE zeros in on Greene’s primary interest, M-theory (otherwise known as string theory). 


Each of these delightful installments in Levine’ Princess Tales series spins a different fairy tale with witty whimsy and charming humor. These slim, middle grade novels are easily read in one sitting, and worth re-reading again and again.

6.     EVERY DAY by DAVID LEVITHAN

Teenager A wakes up in someone else’s body every day. A lives on borrowed time, always borrowing a body, a family, friends, a life, all for a single day. A doesn’t have the luxury of fully defining and crafting a unique identity, because A must hide this strange magic by acting like a different person each day. Until A meets someone who makes A yearn for a genuine, long-term relationship of A’s own.

7.     A FEAST FOR CROWS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

The fourth book in Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire medieval fantasy series continues the popular saga about all the lesser battles (both on fields and through politics) that comprise a war. Don’t get too attached to anyone in this world, though; Martin’s a stickler for bloody, brutal realism and that includes refusing to spare characters hardship simply because they’re likable.

8.     DEWEY by VICKI MYRON

After being found deposited in the book return - cold, wet, shivering, and hungry - little kitten Dewey found himself adopted by the local library. This isn’t fiction, folks, but a true story about a cat who affected not one but countless people’s lives simply by strutting around a library and being himself.

9.     DARK SHIMMER by DONNA JO NAPOLI

In this twist on Snow White, Dolce grows up thinking of herself as an ugly monster until she realizes the rest of the world considers her dwarf family and friends the deformities and Dolce a breath-taking beauty. She marries a wealthy man and inherits a sweetheart stepdaughter, but Dolce’s work with mirrors and specifically quicksilver poisons her mind with paranoia.


Kai in Georgia and Leila in Pakistan each discover an empty book. When one of them writes in the book, it appears in the other’s copy as well, with mysterious additions materializing from nowhere to tell a story that relates to them more than they realize.


I re-read these childhood favorites about a sky-scraper school and it’s wacky students and teachers specifically to review on my blog. While at times the books are little juvenile for me now, a lot of the humor still stands strong. With a plethora of convoluted logic, discreet social commentary, bizarre twists, and plain weird characters, there’s plenty for adults and kids alike to love here.


Preteen Rebecca discovers a magical box that will give her anything she wants, as long as it’s small enough to fit in a bread box. This book doesn’t really need the fantasy element, though. At its heart, this is a story about how the things we really want don’t fit in a bread box.

13.  GOODBYE STRANGER by REBECCA STEAD

I read so many speculative fiction novels with epic fantasy twists, but Stead makes the mundane magical with her story of three friends starting middle school. Quiet Bridge is questioning why she survived a car crash, revolutionary Tab learning to define her own opinions instead of repeating others’, and gorgeous Em considering sending an older boy a certain kind of photo he requested.

14.  DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS by LAINI TAYLOR

The final book in Taylor’s epic fantasy trilogy about a war between chimera and angels satisfied me more than expected, earning every wisp of resolution through careful plotting and heart-tugging character struggle. The entire book spans only a few days, jumping between perspectives in a frenzy of twists and high stakes decisions.

15.  EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING by NICOLA YOON

Due to a rare autoimmune disease, eighteen-year-old Madeline lives a sheltered existence, locked away in her meticulously dust-free house with only her mother and nurse for company. She makes peace with her limited existence until a new boy moves next door and tempts her into wanting more for herself.