Friday, June 24, 2011

THE BOOK THIEF

Review of THE BOOK THIEF by MARKUS ZUSAK


When telling a friend about this book, the most obvious hook is that Death narrates the story. However, Death isn’t nearly as intruding as one might expect and doesn’t crush the story’s own power beneath an overly intense tone. An interview with the author in the back of the book reveals that he originally wrote Death differently, a much crueler character, who reveled in the morbidity of his purpose. That didn’t feel right, so Death morphed into something else, a personality much more affecting for his subtlety. THE BOOK THIEF is historical fiction, set in Germany during World War II, and Death’s distanced, at times almost mundane, tone only heightens the horror.


Though Death’s narration doesn’t pull focus from the actual story of a little girl named Liesel with a habit of stealing books, such a mysterious character provides the author an unusual amount of freedom. Death gives away the ending. Multiple endings, in fact. Not at all in a way that ruins the book, but occasionally he will slip in a line about what happens to someone later on, another distanced reminder that these people have little control over their own endings. In Death’s voice, Zusak also inserts frequent tangents, musings, and emphasized thoughts with a unique formatting style.


* * * EXAMPLE OF AN EMPHASIZED THOUGHT * * *

They look like this,

cutting up a page.

They are short and blunt

and sometimes profound.


Since this story both takes place during World War II and is narrated by Death, it’s not much of a spoiler to admit that many characters die. My one disappointment with this book was that I didn’t feel any of the deaths. The book held my attention until the end, but I found it more intellectually engaging than emotionally affecting. Perhaps Death’s distanced tone played a large factor in that. Maybe when the narrator slips in mentions of the countless other bodies he has collected through the years, it pulls from the individual grief of a particular death and creates a collective grief, not quite as sharp a pain but one that never dulls or fades. While character deaths didn’t make me sad, I don’t mean to imply that this book never moved me, because that would be a lie. The moments that dragged forth my empathy were those of brave kindness, though I will avoid specific details for spoiler reasons. Whenever a character made a small but extremely powerful gesture of humanity at his or her own personal risk, I felt more than all the deaths combined, both in hope and in sadness, because those gestures couldn’t stop the end.


A great many individual lines in this book are worth cherishing. For example: “can a person steal happiness?” — only one of many lines that made me pause and consider. THE BOOK THIEF didn’t suck me in as I expected; however, the story lingers with me, and perhaps that’s something stronger.

Friday, June 17, 2011

JOSH LANGSTON

Interview with JOSH LANGSTON


Josh Langston has been a writer all his life, beginning as a child in Minneapolis, MN, and continuing to his current residence in Marietta, GA, which he shares with his bride of nearly four decades, their two undisciplined mutts, and an indeterminate number of over-sized goldfish. A graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in Journalism, Josh's writing tastes quickly shifted away from non-fiction. His short stories have been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His novel, DRUIDS, co-authored with Barbara Galler-Smith of Edmonton, Alberta, debuted in October, 2009. The first title in a series of historical fantasies, DRUIDS is set in the first century BC. The second book, CAPTIVES, released in May, 2011.


What are you reading right now?


LIVE WIRE, by Harlan Coben. His series about Myron Bolitar, sports agent, former basketball star, and all-around good guy, has given me more hours of entertainment than I can count. I started listening to audiobook versions while driving from Georgia to upstate New York where our son lives. Coben's characters, both the ensemble cast and those who appear only in a single book, are just plain fun. He's a genius at developing quirky characters. I read Karl Hiassen for much the same reason. While I strive to improve my craft by reading brilliant writers like these two, I get the added bonus of great stories told well.


What first sparked your interest in writing?


I loved to read as a child, and I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to do it. My father was a writer/director of commercial motion pictures and often worked at home. The odor of pipe smoke and the rattle of typewriter keys were impressed in my memory long before I could read. Probably before I could walk! My first attempt at fiction was a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story using a cast of raisens brought to life by some mysterious (and now long forgotten) means. I think I was ten. Dad didn't say a word as I labored away at his Olivetti portable (wonky Shift key and all). I managed nearly an entire page before I burned out. Such are the staggering demands of the writing life.


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


The absolute best part of a writing project is typing "The End." The simultaneous feelings of pride, relief, and accomplishment are addictive. For me, much of the work of writing is simply that: work. When it's going well I can lose myself in the characters or the crisis. There have been a few characters whose fictive deaths actually had me close to tears. I enjoy working with the same kinds of characters readers like to read about: profoundly evil bad guys and sympathetic good guys. Taking the time to make them matter to readers also makes them matter to me. The trick is to cultivate the reader's acceptance of what motivates a character to do the things she does. That takes time and planning. I'd much rather just jump to the "Ta-Da, All Done!" stage without having to do all the work. Sadly, I haven't figured out how to do that.


Do you have a writing process?


I don't follow a particular schedule, although I tend to be very narrowly focused when I'm working on a project. Writing DRUIDS and the books that follow it required a very strict process, since two authors were involved at every stage. We developed detailed outlines and worked out the entire story before the actual writing began. From time to time one of us would stumble into a character or event not covered in the original plan. We would then stop writing and decide whether the issue warranted a change to the road map. If so, we went back through the plan and completely revised it to account for the new element. The process was involved, at times annoying, and undoubtedly resulted in vastly better books.


When working on my own, the process is quite different. For one thing, I don't have to bargain with someone else, convince them to trust my instincts or, hardest of all, trust their instincts. I typically dig into a story based on an idea and notes thrown together at odd moments. For the last three novels, all contemporary thrillers, I wrote the first half sans outline, and then stopped long enough to chart all the steps needed to reach the end. This seems to work well for me, and I'll very likely stick with it.


Most writers I know will admit to a certain lack of discipline. I'm certainly not an exception. Having a process one can follow easily can go a long way toward building discipline. If you don't already have a process of your own, start by removing the games from your workstation. That's probably the only advantage typewriters have over PCs.


What are your passions?


Writing definitely qualifies as a passion. I'm serious about it, whereas I tend to joke about pretty much everything else in my life. I'm blessed with a wonderful spouse who keeps me grounded and inspired at the same time. We have two kids and two grandkids, thus far, and I'm pretty passionate about them all. Beyond that I enjoy playing golf, listening to music, and drinking bourbon, though none of those things could be termed "passions."


What inspires you?


I'm an absolute sucker for stories of perseverance leading to success. That said, I've never read a Horatio Alger novel, nor am I likely to. (I'm not averse to all 19th century lit; Dickens and Twain are faves.) I admire self-reliance. When I read news stories or web-spread tales of people who've made it despite handicaps or great personal risk, my faith in people is validated. In real life there are many kinds of heroes, and not all of them are human. And if art really does imitate life, fictional heroes should be at least as diverse. I'm also greatly inspired by acts of love, no matter how corny. Macaroni art bestowed upon me by a proud 5-year old will get to me every time.


Why fantasy?


I've always written stories with a fantasy element, because my grasp of science is, well, pretty thin. Otherwise I'd be cranking out SF all day, every day. One of my all-time favorite authors is Robert Heinlein. He was a master at using one clearly impossible element to change his fictional landscape. Readers only had to buy into that one idea, and suddenly the story opportunities multiplied exponentially. And yet the "What If" trick has been around a long, long time. It predates writing. Storytellers were using it to entertain audiences long before anyone figured out how to jot things down.


In DRUIDS we adopted a single fantasy element, woadsleep, which among other things, has the effect of putting characters in a state of suspended animation. But it's not what drives the story. History and the characters do that. Woadsleep makes it a great deal more interesting. That said, one of the challenges we faced was limiting its use. Scarcity enhances value. The same applies to fantasy. If everyone can perform magic, its value is diminished. You have a problem? Just wave your magic wand. Yawn.


Make things too easy, and no one cares. Nor should they.


J.K. Rowling deals with this in delightful ways. Magic is plentiful in her world, but it's also difficult to use. Not even the esteemed Harry Potter can just pick up that magic wand and expect good things to happen. Rowling's built a fabulously successful franchise based largely on that concept.


One of the great things about "fantasy" is that it encompasses a panorama of story types. My new novels are contemporary thrillers, but they could just as easily be labeled fantasy, or, in a pinch, science fiction. Why? Because the title character -- A LITTLE PRIMITIVE -- is two feet tall. He's not a pixie or a leprechaun or a gremlin. He's just a guy with a very different world view.


How was DRUIDS born?


Sometime in the 90's, my DRUIDS writing partner, Barbara Galler-Smith, and I wrote a fantasy novella set in the year 800 (about the time Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor). It involved a strange little man named Spaldeen whose wood carvings came to life. As a pure fantasy story, it worked just fine. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that there was a much greater story to be told. It wasn't enough that Spaldeen could "feel" an odd life force in the wood he carved. We needed to know how that life force got there. In the process of working out the back-story, we wrote an entire novel.


We were quite pleased with it even though it didn't completely answer all the questions leading up to Spaldeen's story. So, we wrote a sequel.


I can't say whether or not the second book was better because of the plot or because our writing skills had improved. Either way, it turned out to be more compelling than the first book. And it was entirely due to one character, who was so intriguing that we absolutely had to go back and tell her story.


After a marathon bout of argument, counter-argument, and soul-searching, we opted to re-write book one. So, technically speaking, DRUIDS was the third book we wrote, even though it's the first book in the series. We then revised and expanded book two, CAPTIVES (which was released in May, 2011), and went on to write the concluding volume, WARRIORS, which is scheduled to come out in May, 2012.


What was it like collaborating on a book?


It was terrifying. And exhilarating. Demanding and liberating. Frustrating, yet educational. Barb and I brought different skill sets to the project. In the beginning it was fairly easy to assign tasks based on strengths. Back then, Barb's included a profound grasp of Celtic history and the ability to write beautifully descriptive narrative. My strengths lay in plotting and dialog. Together we had a reasonably well-stocked fiction-writing tool kit.


Over time, our skills improved. I studied ancient history, particularly the writing of Plutarch and Julius Caesar, and Barb enhanced her plotting and dialog skills. By the time we started work on WARRIORS, we had both matured as writers, and our skill sets were more redundant than complementary.


One thing that never changed was our appreciation for, and dedication to, the outline. Had we not worked so hard to detail point of view, what the reader needed to learn, and why the scene was critical to the evolution of the story, we would never have finished. Somewhere along the way our collaboration would have ended up in the trashbin that houses most such efforts.


The bottom line: If you can't check your ego at the door, don't even bother to attempt a collaboration.


Did DRUIDS require a lot of research?


Absolutely. Unfortunately, the ancient Celts weren't terribly keen on making written records about themselves, even though they had their own unique writing system (which doubled as a sign language, by the way, and was quite possibly the first ever devised). So, virtually everything we know about the Celts was written by non-Celts, and most of them were sworn enemies. Julius Caesar is the best example. His commentary on the Roman campaign in Gaul is amazingly detailed. It's also amazingly self-serving. But then, Caesar was the prototypical politician. Imagine using any of today's most popular pols as a definitive source about anything. Time hasn't diminished that problem at all.


Okay then, how to proceed? First off, we slewed the entire series toward a Celtic viewpoint. Our thinking was that history is recorded by the victors, therefore the Roman world view predominates, and there are countless volumes of historically oriented fiction which favor the Roman point of view. Why add to it? So, DRUIDS and its sequels were devoted to the Celtic perspective. We didn't cheat on the history; we just tried to look at it from the losers' angle. What we discovered was that Julius Caesar and Adolph Hitler had a great deal in common.


The series contains many detailed and highly ritualized ceremonies. All of that is pure conjecture. In those rare instances where we had some concrete historical evidence for how things were done, we strove to keep our narrative in line with the latest anthropological discoveries. (For instance, websites devoted to British recreations of ancient Celtic villages were extremely helpful.)


Beyond that, it was a blend of history and imagination. We had Plutarch's notes on the Roman expatriot general, Sertorius. We knew the brilliant kind of man he was, and the extraordinary lengths he went to in order to enlist the aid of the Celts living in ancient Spain. Working our characters into that historical perspective was not only challenging and educational, but fun! Admittedly, we got lucky.


I should add a disclaimer here, which relates to the whole issue of research. Just because you had to dig through a mountain of miserably boring material doesn't mean that your reader must, too! Your job is to pick through that great hulking garbage pile to salvage the jewels your readers really want to see.


One of the most rewarding aspects of our historical research was the discovery of little things into which we could plug our fictional characters. For example, there is ample evidence to suggest that Julius Caesar developed the first alphabetic cipher -- a way to disguise the meaning of his written directives. In CAPTIVES, we took the liberty of giving that invention to one of our characters, who used it as a bargaining chip with Caesar. Could it have happened that way? Why not? Did it happen that way? Who knows? That's why it's called fiction.


Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?


To quote "Galaxy Quest," one of my favorite films, "Never give up. Never surrender!" Treat your creativity like any other muscle in your body: exercise it. If you don't, it will atrophy. Writers write. Do it every day. When you're not writing, you should be reading. Or taking care of your Honey Do list -- never ignore that either!


Finally, if you haven't already, join a writer's group. You'll learn more from giving critiques than receiving them. And when you eventually make it to stardom, help out a beginner.

Friday, June 10, 2011

MIDNIGHT NEVER COME

Review of MIDNIGHT NEVER COME by MARIE BRENNAN
(first in the ONYX COURT series)

"A great light casts a great shadow." The truth behind that line echoes in every page of MIDNIGHT NEVER COME, a historical fantasy set in late 1500s England under the rule of Queen Elizabeth. What history textbooks forget is the second queen, the darker fey queen, Invidiana, who rules her own faerie court, the Onyx Hall, beneath the city of London.

As one might expect given their mischievous reputation, the fey do interfere in mortal matters — sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in major ways. Queen Invidiana in particular works hard to ensure the politics in the human city above suit her purposes below. Brennan does an impressive job fitting fantastical events seamlessly into a historical context and the book left me with a desire to research this time period a bit more so I can fully appreciate each fey-related event slipped into the cracks of a mortal history.

The story alternates between the mortal Michael Deven and the faerie Lune. Michael recently joined Queen Elizabeth's bodyguard, the Gentleman Pensioners, with faint hopes that the right connections could save him from his massive debt, a reasonable goal that takes turns he never could have foreseen. In the mirror image of Michael's new arrival and fresh opportunities, Lune finds herself shunned down in the Onyx Hall for a negotiation with the folk of the sea that didn't go as Invidiana wished. Predictably, Michael and Lune's stories collide, but exactly how came as an intriguing surprise, so I won't spoil that twist for new readers.

Like most historical fiction, everyone's goals and motivations revolve around the monarch. While Lune grovels, begs, and scrapes to regain her position in the fey court, Michael adjusts his interests and priorities around Queen Elizabeth's desires and needs. Everyone, mortal and fey alike, climbs over others for favors and status, a dynamic that only makes selfless gestures and freely given kindness all the more heartwarming.

Though it exists, the romance element here is very light. Nonetheless the development feels real and natural and the fact that the romance doesn't constantly challenge the other plot lines for the spotlight is actually refreshing!

There's more to this story, though, than the novelty of a troublesome faerie court. Lune's disfavor leads her through a series of darker and darker revelations about her faerie queen until she understands that mortals aren't the only ones Invidiana deceives.

The fast pace and frequent, unpredictable turns held my attention from start to finish, not to mention the beautiful writing style, at times invisible and at times stepping forward with a particularly lovely turn of phrase. MIDNIGHT NEVER COME combines the historical fiction nostalgia of "what was" with fantasy's wonder at "what could be."


Friday, June 3, 2011

LORD OF THE WHITE HELL BOOK TWO

Review of LORD OF THE WHITE HELL BOOK TWO by GINN HALE
(part two of two in LORD OF THE WHITE HELL)

Given my favorable review of the first book, the fact that I loved the second might not be a big surprise. It's still impressive, though! Especially since oftentimes when an author wins us over we then raise our expectations unreasonably high. I devoured book two in less than a day, even putting off tasks I really should be doing instead.

Those who read the first book will expect the tension and awkwardness at the start as Kiram struggles with that mundane (but no less difficult!) challenge of interacting with an ex-lover he must see every day. I don't consider it too terrible a spoiler to reveal that Kiram does find his way back into Javier's bed. The problem still remains that while Javier lavishes Kiram with heartfelt devotion in private, he refuses to publicly acknowledge his feelings for another man or promise any long-term attachment, and Kiram fears an inevitable broken heart.

Then Hale takes the book's dynamic and gives it a good, hard shake by whisking all the students back home for their break. After Kiram and Javier find a comfortable, if not wholly fulfilling, balance of what they want from and can offer each other, this new twists tears them away, leaving the reader with the same questions as Kiram: Will Javier still feel the same way about him? Will he still feel the same way about Javier? A change of location can force one to analyze their life and realize the flaws they couldn't see before. The break also keeps the book's pace moving along and it's rewarding to meet Kiram's family and see more of Haldiim home life where there is no shame in men dancing or flirting with each other in public.

Though the book revolves around Kiram and Javier's romance, the fantasy element, specifically the curse, demands much more attention in the second part. Kiram realizes he will never even discover what choices Javier would make if the curse kills him first. For me at least, the mastermind behind this evil came as a surprise and Kiram finds himself in a tricky situation. Solutions exist, but none of them are easy or simple; they all come with pain and loss and some kind of sacrifice.

The ending satisfies, a blend of happy and sad with that sense that the story continues off the page, like it should. As all the politics unravel throughout the book, it becomes clear that a happily ever after for Kiram is asking too much, but don't fear - he earns some happy, enough happy to lessen the inevitable hardships in his future.