Tuesday, November 10, 2020

New Chapter

I wanted to give my loyal readers a heads up that I will be discontinuing my blog. 

I have enjoyed the past ten years of reviews, but I want to dedicate more time to my own writing and pursuing publication of my novels. 

I will keep my blog up for the rest of November, but sometime in December or January it will go offline for a while and then re-emerge as a slightly redesigned author website. 

Thank you to everyone who has read some or all of my many reviews, especially those of you who have taken the time to comment or reach out to me. Happy reading, everyone!

Friday, October 30, 2020

PRINCESS OF THE WILD SWANS

 Review of PRINCESS OF THE WILD SWANS by DIANE ZAHLER

 

Princess Meriel isn’t all too pleased when her father returns from a trip with a brand-new stepmother. The woman doesn’t seem that friendly and balks when introduced to Meriel’s brothers, snapping at Meriel’s father that he only mentioned the daughter, not all these sons. What a terrible coincidence then when Meriel’s brothers promptly go missing. It doesn’t take Meriel long to sort out that her stepmother is a powerful sorceress with some kind of nefarious agenda and Meriel’s brothers have been turned into the new swans swimming on the lake behind the castle. Of course, rescuing them won’t be half as easy as figuring out what’s going on. Not that a bleak outlook will deter Meriel; she would do anything for her brothers.

 

I love fairy tale retellings. It’s a matter of taste, I know: some people are so sick of how many are out there and others can’t get enough. I’m one of the can’t-get-enough readers, because I like seeing how different authors can create almost incomparable finished stories from the same base inspiration. I especially like seeing less commonly retold fairy tales, though, and Zahler seems to specialize in that. I’ve read more Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella retellings than I care to count and, though I do still enjoy them, I’m pleased when I stumble upon fresher ground.

 

The back of my book compares Zahler to Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, and E.D. Baker. I would very much agree. If you’re looking for more cute but empowering middle grade fairy tale twist fantasy, add Zahler to your list.

Friday, October 23, 2020

MARKED IN FLESH

Review of MARKED IN FLESH by ANNE BISHOP

(fourth in THE OTHERS series)

 

Anne Bishop continues to be one of my favorite authors and I always look forward to her latest book release. (Even if I don’t always read it promptly. Too many books and too little time, am I right?)

 

MARKED IN FLESH continues her latest series featuring “the Others,” various supernatural beings living on outskirts of human populations. Bishop’s stories focus on a community on the borders of these divisions, where the Others and humans interact abnormally frequently.

 

This latest installment sees the HFL (Humans First and Last) Movement ramping up their strikes against the Others. Of course, anyone who knows their history in this world remembers that only the mildest Others live among humans. The ones deep in the wilderness only come out when humans forget their place in this world and try to take more than what has already been generously shared. And you don’t want to give those Others a reason to come out.

 

There’s a lot of extremely discussion-worthy content here, one of the many reasons I enjoy Bishop’s books. For example, the Others are presented as the clear good guys in this world and in some ways there are obvious metaphors to indigenous peoples, but there’s also troubling subtext around the exceptionally powerful feeling entitled to take vicious action to defend their control.

 

On the other hand, there’s lots of mundane in Bishop’s worlds and I’d list that on my reasons I love her work. Yes, her heroines are exceptionally powerful, but they’re also avid readers themselves who crave nothing more than a night cuddled up with a good book. Bishop skillfully juxtaposes the thought-provoking and terrible aspects of her story with funny, cute, and sweet moments that feel heart-warmingly relatable.

 

In this book, I especially liked the development of the prophecy cards and the progression of how the characters understand blood prophet powers. Bishop has a knack for crafting magic systems steeped in intriguing and emotionally powerful metaphor.

 

My criticisms are more taste observations, as they’re not negatives by my assessment but may bother other readers. Bishop tends to write Mary Sue protagonists who everyone either adores or detests and there’s a formulaic quality to her storylines and characters. That said, I think it’s a winning formula and I will continue to gobble up as many books as she can write.

Friday, October 16, 2020

THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE

Review of THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by KATHERINE ARDEN

(first in the WINTERNIGHT trilogy)

 

I love novels that feel like both a familiar fairy tale and a distinct new story all at once. THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTGALE certainly fits that description.

 

Arden beckons in her readers with luscious, exquisite writing. Since I know writing is entirely a matter of taste, here’s an example of a line I really admired: “Ivan Kalita was a hard prince, eaten with ambition, cold and clever and grasping. He would not have survived otherwise; Moscow killed her princes quickly.”

 

I enjoyed this book, but I must confess that I didn’t feel it. Sometimes we read books that on a checklist seem good, but somehow we didn’t connect and as a reviewer (and a writer) I find pinpointing exactly why can be one of the most difficult aspects of assessing any story. My best guess here is that the narrative has a formal, distanced, detached tone and that discourages too much attachment from the reader. It’s one of those books that I would categorize as slow and quiet.

 

I also suspect pace as a major culprit in my hesitant investment. For me, this book dragged in Part I but really hit its stride in Part II, ultimately hooking me with the introduction of Konstantin. Unfortunately, that’s a good 100 pages into the book. Part I intrigued me, but felt unfocused, as if we were still waiting for the story to begin. In Part II, I felt I could identify a clear storyline with driving forces and compelling stakes.

 

I hardly ever say this, but I wanted more setting description. At times, I had the sense of a complex visual world full of snow and ice, fire and demons. Yet very little comes the reader’s way in terms of visual, physical description. I think this contributes to the detached voice as everything feels a bit too much to-the-point without the slanted, biased interpretation of a world through a distinct character that can make everything feel so unique and interesting.

 

Potential pacing issues aside, THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE is a haunting siren song of a story, luring readers into a cold Russian fantasy.


Friday, October 9, 2020

THE PRINCESS BRIDE


Review of THE PRINCESS BRIDE: S. MORGENSTERN’S CLASSIC TALE OF TRUE LOVE AND HIGH ADVENTURE by WILLIAM GOLDMAN

 

Though more people are familiar with the movie, this novel is a modern classic for good reason. It’s a timeless tale of adventure and true love that feels both nostalgically old-school and delightfully fresh.

 

Goldman implements a very unique observer narration style for this book. Goldman claims that THE PRINCESS BRIDE is a much beloved favorite from the country of Florin, written by S. Morgenstern. Goldman says that his father used to read this to him and now he’s been gifted the opportunity to publish an abridged version with his own notes. So throughout the story we encounter italicized interruptions by Goldman explaining what he cut and why, as well as sharing some personal childhood reactions to the story.

 

Funny anecdote: when I worked in a bookstore, an irate woman came in wanting to return this book. She insisted that she wanted the original Florinese book by S. Morgenstern, not this stupid abridged version with Goldman’s rambling and pointless interruptions.

 

I wish I didn’t have to clarify this: Florin is a not a real country. S. Morgenstern is not a real person. Fire swamps are not real nor are R.O.U.S.s (Rodents of Unusual Size). This fictional backstory is all part of how Goldman has structured his novel, all written by him.

 

The lengths Goldman goes for crafting such a backstory are, however, singularly extraordinary. In the foreword and notes, he tells story after story about his personal experience researching S. Morgenstern, not to mention his legal battles with Florin for publishing this abridgement – all fiction. He even references real people, with their permission I can only assume, such as claiming Stephen King has Florinese ancestry and criticized Goldman’s abridged version for omitting “boring” content that is historically and culturally informative. (In several places Goldman’s interruptions describe content he supposedly decided to cut from the story, such as several pages about packing or clothes or bureaucratic minutiae. This helps support the fantasy that he’s abridging a famous classic. As part of his elaborate fictional conceit Goldman claims these omissions are what upset King.)

 

Goldman’s story within a story is all the more enjoyable, because he makes every part so believable. It’s easy to mock the customer I mentioned earlier for gullibility, especially considering fire swamps or R.O.U.S.s. Except, even knowing it’s all fiction, Goldman almost convinces me they’re real. He approaches even the fantastic with a historical and scientific approach and seals his realism by underplaying the amazing: “Fire swamps are, of course, entirely misnamed…Simply, there are swamps which contain a large percentage of Sulphur and other gas bubbles that burst continually into flame.” Goldman’s bored recitation of fire swamp science implies normal and mundane to anyone willing to go along with him. Along these lines, to convince us of R.O.U.S.s, Goldman casually mentions the real largest rodent: the capybara. Little reminders of how crazy the real world is can be enough to convince us that maybe this fantasy world is as real as it gets.  

 

My only criticism is small against my fondness for this novel, but as someone who loves a good heroine I find Buttercup disappointing. She isn’t in any way remarkable beyond her much-hyped beauty. Especially in a story populated with unique, dynamic, memorable characters, Buttercup stands out as a boring set piece. I personally like to project more bravery and intelligence onto her than we see but it’s disappointingly noticeable that she’s the only prominent female character in the book and arguably the least interesting.

 

This classic, epic tale has won over countless readers and lives on in our collective society’s memory with iconic lines like “Inconceivable!”, “You killed my father. Prepare to die,” and “As you wish.”

Friday, October 2, 2020

PRINCESS ACADEMY


Review of THE PRINCESS ACADEMY by SHANNON HALE

 

This one was a re-read for me. I last read it in early college and adored it; I adore everything I’ve read by Shannon Hale. I’m also happy to say that PRINCESS ACADEMY entirely lived up my memory.

 

Miri lives in small quarry village. She knows lowlanders look down upon mountain girls like herself, so it’s a shock when it’s prophesized that the prince’s future bride will be found within her little village. In preparation, all eligible girls are sent away to study for their possible royal future.

 

As for Miri, she can’t decide whether being a princess would be a good thing or not. It sure sounds like a good thing, and yet the thought of leaving her family and her friends, moving far away to marry a stranger, and following all these ridiculous rules and restrictions – well, let’s just say it’s enough to make a girl wonder at a crown’s appeal.

 

Hale has a knack for writing distinct, compelling voices. As a writer myself, my early drafts especially often suffer from that on-the-nose dialogue in which characters understand and articulate their own motivations all too well. Hale does a brilliant job of expressing Miri’s emotions in a humanly slanted manner; often the reader understands young Miri better than she understands herself.

 

As counterproductive as it sounds, “strong female characters” are becoming almost overdone these days. To clarify, I think some writers believe they can slap that label on a character and be done with it, but I don’t think we’ll ever have enough of true, deep, meaningful strength. Hale tends to write about the kinds of strength that I admire most: thought over action, study over born talent, quiet consideration over loud but empty talk. Books have always celebrated introverts in a way we don’t see nearly as much on screen, because some of the most interesting and complex conflict is all internal. Hale’s work skillfully highlights the often undervalued and unexpected strength found within those we overlook.

 

PRINCESS ACADEMY is a middle reader book, but an enjoyable read regardless of age for anyone drawn to strong heroines, underdog protagonists, and brains over brawn themes.

Friday, September 25, 2020

ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING


Review of ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING by RAY BRADBURY

 

This is a collection of, I believe previously published, articles by Bradbury on the philosophy of writing. (I categorize writing books as primarily being about: business, craft, or philosophy – this is mostly philosophy: what is writing and what does writing mean to the writer, as well as the reader.) I marked numerous quotes that moved me, even several from the poetry, which came as a surprise given my apathy towards most poetry.

 

Speaking of which, I begrudgingly agree with Bradbury’s advice that all writers should read poetry every day. Oh, I’m not going to do so every day, but I see his reasoning. For anyone curious about why I don’t like poetry, I think it’s because there’s so much terrible poetry out there. I find it much harder to find poetry I like (though I do find it) than fiction or nonfiction. I find the labels of good versus bad are far more variably subjective with poetry than other categories. The vague ambiguity of a lot of poetry hits me as self-indulgent: written more for the writer than for the reader. 

 

I marked a lot of memorable quotes in these essays. A non-writer friend of mine rolled her eyes at this hyperbole: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – but I think most writers, even most creatives, will relate. As long as we’re bashing reality, I also like the following phrase from his poem We Have Our Arts So We Won’t Die of Truth: “The World is too much with us.” In fact, Bradbury’s poems can go into the small category of poetry that I enjoy.

 

As I cannot possibly rephrase Bradbury’s own words better than he does himself, let me wrap up by sharing a few more of my favorite quotes:

 

We live surrounded by paradoxes. One more shouldn’t hurt us.

 

There will always be problems. Thank God for that. And solutions. Thank God for that.

 

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

 

Eventually quantity will make for quality.

 

To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then…There is no failure unless one stops.

 

I loved this book. It’s a short, fast, extremely worthwhile read that I would recommend to all authors regardless of career stage.