Friday, September 12, 2014

VICTORY OF EAGLES


Review of VICTORY OF EAGLES by NAOMI NOVIK
(fifth in the TEMERAIRE series)

Warning: this review contains spoilers for the first four books.

The fifth book in this delightful series keeps the dragon Temeraire and his human companion Laurence separated for a good chunk at the beginning. Their decision at the end of EMPIRE OF IVORY to curb Britain’s efforts at bioterrorism and secretly deliver the cure for a weaponized dragon plague to France earned Laurence a treason sentence and Temeraire a direct ticket to the breeding grounds. As certain officials take such pleasure in reminding them, the only reason Laurence hasn’t been executed yet is to keep Temeraire, a formidable dragon by most any measure, corporative.

On a larger scale, Napolean finally succeeds in landing on British soil, a development that certainly makes Laurence’s crimes little more than a distraction. Speaking of distractions, Temeraire keeps up his persistent and insistent inquiries into dragon rights. He wants pay, he wants housing, he wants ranks and titles, and above all else he wants to do away with all this condescension towards dragons. As in the previous book, this brings forth all kinds of debates about patriotism and civil rights, especially the question: is there ever a good time for someone who loves and respects their country to demand change?

I continued to admire the style in which these books are written. Sometimes the overly formal word choice made me snort with amusement, especially when juxtaposed against touchy subject matter. In other words, the phrasing is as important to the humor as the content. The following quote isn’t nearly the funniest, but it’s the only one I remembered to actually bookmark when a line made me laugh aloud: “privately he could not help a certain resentment that a conscience seemed to be so very expensive, and yet had no substantial form which one might admire, and display to one’s company.” Along this point, the writing always remains so understated with a sense of restrained formality that it really lets emotions speak for themselves. This is one of those books where what isn’t being said often counts for more.

I enjoy the addition of the young, fire-breathing dragon Iskierka to this wonderful cast. She fits in well with established characters and I love the contrast of her fearsome capabilities with her immature recklessness. She’s scary and cute at the same time.

VICTORY OF EAGLES ends with an intriguing setup for the next book. I personally hope this series doesn’t actually end anytime soon.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Grammar Nerds: OK vs. okay


If you don't care much about grammar specifics, here's your warning that this series of posts won't interest you. However, I know plenty of fellow grammar nerd readers: people like me who feel thrown out of a good story by a misplaced comma or sudden tense shift.

Today's focus: OK vs. okay.

Both are acceptable uses. However, many grammar nerds like myself prefer one over the other and will passionately argue their selection. In terms of publications, OK vs. okay comes down to house style. Both appear in print and both are considered correct. It’s only a controversy among grammar nerds.

I prefer okay. I associate OK with texting. I also dislike seeing abbreviations in the middle of a sentence. Of course, the truth is that, while OK is indeed an abbreviation, it’s not an abbreviation of okay. OK dates surprisingly far back from the Old English phrase “oll korrekt” meaning “all correct.” Okay is a more recent evolution from the 1800s when people started spelling OK phonetically.

OK vs. okay is an unusual debate for me, because I often side with more traditional, old-fashioned grammatical approaches. This is one of the few cases where I opt for the more modern spelling. I suspect it’s mostly aesthetic. The capitalized OK looks tacky plopped in the middle of a sentence and always trips me up when reading. Okay might be a more modern development, but I think it reads much more pleasantly.

Do you prefer OK or okay? Why?

Monday, September 1, 2014

BIG LITTLE LIES


Review of BIG LITTLE LIES by LIANE MORIARTY
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Wow, wow, wow. I expected this would be a good book and that I would like it (otherwise, I wouldn’t have read it in the first place), but I massively underestimated how good. The novel pulled me in immediately with a hilariously satiric portrayal of wealthy mothers and then snuck up on me with a slow, steady slide into something far more serious.

We know from the very start of the novel that someone was killed at the elementary school’s parent trivia bee. Then the story backtracks to the start of the school year with excerpts from present-day police interviews regarding the inevitable crime tagged on at the end of each chapter. The chapters are short, too, adding to a sense of an extremely fast pace. 

The premise sounded silly to me, almost trite even. Once I started reading, I decided it is a little silly, in the best sense, and threw out that word “trite” altogether. For one thing, it’s silly in an incredibly smart and sophisticated sense. Moriarty describes these mothers' questionable priorities with a laugh-out-loud dry wit. Some of the funniest lines are the most insightful. Then, slowly, the novel takes a more serious turn. The shift sneaks up on you. Moriarty opens with almost entirely humor and gradually interweaves heart-wrenching sincerity into her formula. The story tilts ever more towards the serious end the farther it progresses until what I would have described in the first few chapters as a hilarious book turns in to what I would call a grave, unflinching story with some comic relief.

Though entirely unique, BIG LITTLE LIES joins a long established collection of tales about how we all put on public faces that hide the hidden complications we suffer in private. One school project emphasizes this disparity. A kindergarten teacher requires her students to draw a family tree and, wouldn’t you know, most parents hate this assignment. There’s the little boy who is the product of a one-night-stand and tells his mother that the teacher said he has to put a name down for his father. There are the divorced families with new stepparents and half-siblings that can leave one scratching their head at all the extra lines on their tree. Then there are the families with perfect trees that fit expectations to a tee, except the implied perfection is a deceit.

BIG LITTLE LIES features a large cast of parents and their children, but primarily focuses on three women: Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. Madeline and Celeste are already fast friends at the start of the novel, but they both meet newly arrived Jane for the first time when she helps Madeline with a twisted ankle. Madeline is the one with the complicated family tree. She had a daughter (Abigail) with her first husband who one day decided he couldn’t handle parenthood and left them. Now she’s happily remarried with two more children from the second marriage. Except her ex-husband had to move back to town with his young, infuriatingly sweet and polite (and sincere about it) new wife and their daughter. To rub salt in the wound, Abigail not only forgives her father for the abandonment but seems to prefer his family to Madeline’s. Celeste is the perfect-on-the-surface character. Absolutely gorgeous with an equally handsome, rich, charming, and generous husband and two adorably rowdy twin boys. The only thing Madeline doesn’t envy about Celeste’s life is the boys’ ceaseless shouting. Celeste is quiet and sometimes comes off a little inane with the way she’s constantly daydreaming and losing track of the conversation. In her viewpoint, though, it becomes apparent that behavior that might seem ditsy is actually just distracted as she considers her life and her options. Jane’s name was obviously deliberately selected to put the reader in mind of “Plain Jane.” She’s a single mother who wants nothing more than to hunker under the radar and avoid others’ scrutiny...which turns out to be hard after she unintentionally befriends outgoing Madeline. Incredible, dynamic characters, all of them.

You need to be patient and trust the author with a construction that involves any jumping back and forth in time. Each chapter ends with snippets of interviews regarding the impending death. We don’t know who died yet let alone why the police suspect murder and who they suspect. Like the rest of the book, these snippets are mostly funny at first when interviewees make catty remarks or obsess about the trivial in a murder investigation, but the comments become more meaningful as the reader figures out who everyone is and how they fit into the bigger picture.

Speaking of the death, I worried a little about that part. You know right from the beginning that someone will die and I feared a cop-out sense if Moriarty killed off a trivial character after so much build-up or didn’t handle a more prominent character’s death satisfactorily. I refuse to hint at who dies, but I will say that I felt entirely satisfied with how the author handles her selection. 

I made a few correct predictions far in advance, but didn’t like the book any less for that. I still felt the anticipated revelations with my gut and didn’t call perhaps the biggest twist revealed in the chaotic climax.

This is an extremely discussion-worthy novel. Moriarty’s debut novel, THE HUSBAND’S SECRET, has been selected for countless book groups and now I understand why and hope the same happens with BIG LITTLE LIES.

My only warning has nothing to do with the quality of the book. Moriarty depicts her characters with such raw, heartfelt honesty that I fear some themes of domestic abuse and other violence will likely be triggering for anyone who has experienced something similar in their own life.

An unassuming book, BIG LITTLES LIES is smart and well-written. I expect I will reflect back on this one for years to come.

Friday, August 29, 2014

DIANE ZAHLER


Interview with DIANE ZAHLER

Diane Zahler is the author of four middle-grade fairy-tale retellings: The Thirteenth Princess, A True Princess, Princess of the Wild Swans, and Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters. She has also written two nonfiction books for older readers, The Black Death and Than Shwe’s Burma, and an incalculable quantity of textbook materials for elementary and high school students. She’s made her home in Seattle, Morgantown, Ithaca, Solana Beach, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Belgium, but now lives with her husband and dog in an old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. She really likes chocolate.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a fabulous middle grade adventure story that I can’t tell you about, because I’m doing it for a job I’m working on. It’s in galleys and I’m sworn to secrecy. So instead I’ll say I’m just finishing Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES, which is brilliantly written. I can’t remember when I last read something that made me stop every few pages and just marvel over a turn of phrase or the construction of a paragraph.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write, so I can’t really answer that. My earliest memories of reading combined joy in the work itself with a burning desire to write something as wonderful.

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

There’s not much I don’t love about it. For me, being struck with an idea is almost magical, and the early stages of writing, when nearly anything is possible, are wonderful. Later, the challenge of figuring out where a story is going and how best to get it there can be frustrating, but I still find it enjoyable. I don’t love getting stuck at points in the narrative, but even the difficulties of working out what seems not to be right in a story is a fascinating challenge. I’ve never been a writer who agonizes over writing (though my husband, who has to listen to me moan and complain, might disagree!).

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I’m not sure I have a process. I like to have my day’s work in my head before I put words on paper. So often I’ll figure out what I’m going to write while I’m driving somewhere, or walking on the treadmill. Then, after I’ve finished my other writing (usually textbook materials), I’ll open the manuscript I’m working on, read the previous day’s work, revise it if it needs it (and it always needs it!), and then write what I’ve been mulling over all day. (Reading this over, it seems like I could have a better process. But somehow it works for me.)

What are your passions?

Reading. Writing. Chocolate. Belgian beer. Travel. Chocolate. My husband and son. My new(ish) rescue dog, Flora. Did I say chocolate?

What inspires you?

Travel, more than anything else. If I’m in a place that’s unusual or marvelous in some way – lost in the maze of Venice’s canals, wandering through an ancient Irish graveyard, paddling a canoe along the moon trail of a Maine evening – I file it away in my head to pull out when I’m thinking about what I want to write next.
 
Why middle reader?

The books that meant the most to me and that I remember most clearly are the ones that I read when I was a middle-grader myself. I write for that girl, as well as for the kids who are my readers today. I can’t imagine anything better than having my books affect a reader the way the books I read at that age affected me.

Why fantasy?

That middle-grade reader in my head always loved fantasy best. That’s not to say it’s all I loved to read, but books by Edward Eager, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Susan Cooper, E. Nesbit – those were the ones I returned to again and again.

Why fairy tale retellings?

Fairy tales focus on such universal feelings and fears – the feeling of powerlessness, the fears of being left behind, of being lost, of losing parents…the stories have meaning for just about everyone. And most people are familiar with them. So the idea of taking these well-known stories and doing something different and new with them was really intriguing to me.

How was SLEEPING BEAUTY’S DAUGHTERS born?

The title actually came first.  I had a contract for two books, one that I’d finished and one called “Title to Come.” My editor and I had lunch, and we were tossing ideas back and forth. She was the one who came up with “Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters,” and immediately that struck a chord with me. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do with it, but by the time I was ready to write, there was a story in my mind to tell.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I tell aspiring authors three things: read as much as you can, write as much as you can, and be persistent. Reading in the genre and at the age level you want to write will help you figure out how to write in that genre and for that age group. Writing – well, it’s a craft, and practice is the only thing that will make you better at it. Every published author has drawers or files of manuscripts that never saw the light of day. Those are part of our practice. Each failed story or manuscript makes us better writers. And persistence – and sometimes a thick skin – is absolutely necessary. Often publication is the result of luck and timing, your story hitting an editor’s desk at the instant that editor is looking for something like what you’ve written. But that happy moment can take years to come about. DON’T GIVE UP!

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

Did I mention that I am a huge fan of chocolate?

Monday, August 25, 2014

COCKTAILS FOR THREE


Review of COCKTAILS FOR THREE by MADELEINE WICKHAM

Sophie Kinsella is my all-time favorite chick lit author. If that sounds like a tangent, let me mention that Madeleine Wickham is merely another pseudonym for Sophie Kinsella. I actually counted both authors as my top-two favorites for a few years before discovering they’re the same person! So why use two different names?, you might wonder. After putting some thought into the matter myself, I’ve concluded that her Wickham books are a little grittier than her Kinsella ones. Note an important distinction: that’s “a little grittier” not “gritty.” Characters swear more, might engage in illegal activities, and make less responsible decisions. A Wickham character might smoke pot, but not a Kinsella character. In the case of COCKTAILS FOR THREE, we’re quickly introduced to a pregnant woman drinking alcohol and a woman having an affair with a married man, both things Kinsella protagonists likely wouldn’t do. In other words, Kinsella books play it safer and steer away from potential controversy, but both possess the same lighthearted, humorous tone that has made her work so popular regardless of which pseudonym.

Also, if I’m remembering correctly, I think Kinsella books always focus on only one heroine. Whereas COCKTAILS FOR THREE follows three different women who work for the same magazine, enviably close friends who meet the first of every month for cocktails. It’s at one of these traditional happenings that Wickham first sets the stage. (Impressively, I might add. In retrospect the novel put me in mind of a skillful play where the first scene lays out groundwork for future problems with natural dialogue and believable - if ticking time bomb - developments.) We meet Candice first. Sweet, young, trusting Candice who would chide herself for complaining about her current problem if she knew what was to come. What is her current problem? Her ex-boyfriend, who also works for the same magazine, has taken over as her boss and she fears some inevitable pettiness and tension. He’s replacing Maggie, second in this friendship threesome, who is nervously about to embark on a new life of stay-at-home motherhood out in the country. Last but not least, there’s Roxanne, who manages to stun people with her looks, charm, wit, wardrobe, and spunk. Her friends know she’s been having an affair with a married man for six years now, though Roxanne refuses to reveal his identity even to her closest friends. She speaks casually and callously about her romance and only in her own viewpoint is her pain and insecurity apparent.

Enter Heather, a cocktail waitress but also someone who dredges up painful memories for Candice. In an effort to make amends for (and I’ll emphasize this word) perceived wrongdoings, Candice reaches out to Heather and unknowingly welcomes said ticking time bomb into her life.

This one was a re-read, specifically so I could review it on my blog, and I found the novel just as engaging as the first time. It’s a fast, easy, fun, and entertaining read about how strong friendships strengthen us an individuals. I tore through the story and found myself wanting to bump all my re-reads and first time reads by both Wickham and Kinsella higher up on my mental read-next list.

I particularly admire how Wickham makes all her heroines likeable but still flawed. In fact, I’ve mentioned on this blog how sometimes cheating characters can put me off a book, but Roxanne didn’t do that. Or perhaps I should say Wickham didn’t do that. I’ve come to realize that it’s not the character cheating that puts me off; it’s when I feel like the author is attempting to justify the character’s decisions and steer my reaction towards what the author wants it to be. I like books where the author simply presents real and believable characters and allows me to think whatever I will about them. Wickham does just that. She makes Roxanne an authentic person, but doesn’t attempt to explain away any of her decisions.

Another triumph from Wickham/Kinsella!

Friday, August 22, 2014

SOMAN CHAINANI

 
Interview with SOMAN CHAINANI

Soman Chainani’s first novel, THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL, debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List, has been on ABA’s National Indie Bestseller List for 15 weeks, has been translated into languages across six continents, and will soon be a major motion picture from Universal Studios, produced by Joe Roth (SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, OZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL) and Jane Startz (TUCK EVERLASTING, ELLA ENCHANTED). Soman is a graduate of the MFA Film Program at Columbia University, and the recipient of the school’s top prize, the FMI Fellowship for Writing and Directing. His writing awards include honors from Big Bear Lake, the Sun Valley Writer’s Fellowship, and the coveted Shasha Grant, awarded by a jury of international film executives. Before joining the Columbia University film program, Chainani graduated Harvard University summa cum laude, with a degree in English & American Literature. While at Harvard, he focused on fairy tales and wrote his thesis on why evil women make such irresistible fairy-tale villains, winning the Thomas Hoopes Prize and Briggs Prize for his work.

What are you reading right now?

THE MAGICIAN’S LAND by Lev Grossman

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I just always seemed to have a gift for storytelling and really enjoyed the process of working out the perfect story structure. I'm not a linguist like some authors - more a dramatist, and enjoy the process of finding ways to surprise readers and myself in the process.
 
What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I love being stunned by something as I'm writing - and getting caught up in the fever of a particular plot moment or a character arc. When it's all racing along and you feel the book writing itself is when it's all very special (usually towards the end of a book.)

As for the least, I think sometimes the solitude and the deadlines, which preclude you from taking your time with it and really enjoying the process at times, can be tricky.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I write from about 10am-4pm every day, with a short lunch break in there. I try to get 500 solid words in a day in terms of new material, plus reviewing the material from the day before. I write fairly slowly but consistently.

What are your passions?

Tennis, movies, and storytelling.

What inspires you?

Good characters and a penchant for high comedy.

Why middle reader?

Because it's so undefined. I feel like the teen genre has been a bit John Green-ified in recent years, so there's not much room to find a tone. In middle grade, it feels like I can really dive in and work with a blank canvas.

Why fantasy?

Fantasy requires the strongest characters to make up for the lack of grounding in the world.

How was THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL born?

I'd had the idea for a very long time - I've been a fairy tale “expert” since college, to some degree, so the idea of a princess and witch switching places was irresistible to me.

This series seems like it must be so much fun to write. Is that true?

It's definitely a blast at times - but it's a very, very difficult series to write. The number of characters, the level of difficulty, the intensity and complexity for a first series is a bit insane.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Only write a story you care deeply about.

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

Check out the interactive website at www.schoolforgoodandevil.com. All sorts of fun things on there, including my personal blog, which features a lot of tips about writing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

THE BUNNY SUICIDES

 
Review of THE BUNNY SUICIDES by ANDY RILEY

Soooo...these books will only appeal to those with a morbid sense of humor. The series includes: THE BOOK OF BUNNY SUICIDES, RETURN OF THE BUNNY SUICIDES, and DAWN OF THE BUNNY SUICIDES.

Praising quotes on the back of the first include statements such as: “If you are a bunny contemplating suicide, then this is the book for you.” and “Very imaginative, very funny, very worrying if you're the author's mother.”

It’s not so much bunnies killing themselves that’s entertaining; it’s how creative these bunnies get in inventing more and more bizarre and complicated ways to off themselves. Like hiding in a piggy bank as a kid’s about to take a hammer to it. Or putting their ears in electrical sockets. Frankly, many of these schemes are so elaborate that I can’t easily summarize them.

Each page presents one of Riley’s wordless cartoons depicting yet another possibility for bunnies who have had enough. (And for readers who have had enough, there is a lovely intermission halfway through that features bunnies frolicking happily in a meadow.)

This is the kind of book that manages to elicit amused chuckles in the same breath as appalled gasps. Amulled chusps? Appused gackles? An especially wonderful coffee table book. Even more so if your intent is to scare away visitors.