Monday, December 31, 2012

The Art of Reading: Pace


The Art of Reading: Pace

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: pace. How many books do you read? Of course, there are countless ways to measure this. 10 books a year/6 books a month/1 book a week. 30 minutes a day/25 hours a week. 100 pages a day/1,000 pages a month. Not to mention that such measurements obviously involve rounding and guesstimates... unless you really do require yourself to read 100 pages a day, no more no less.

I read approximately 50 books a year or 1 book a week. I'm always trying to bump that number up to 100 books a year, 2 books a week, but I'm deluding myself if I think I have that much free time! I doubt I could give a page number estimate, but in terms of time I try to read at least an hour a day, right before bed. Yay for me whenever I get to read more than that!

Pace is a funny issue, though. Many readers can be rather quiet on this topic, often because such quantifications make them feel inadequate. There's always someone who reads more than you! I especially noticed this when I first started attending literature conferences. Compared to most of my friends and family, my 50 books a year seemed like a lot, but at conferences I meet people who devour books at rates that seem impossible to me.

Of course, there are a lot of factors that affect how much we read. I don't read one book a week because that's as much as I want to read, but because that's as much as I have time to read. If I didn't need to work or do errands and my entire day was my own, I'm sure I would read more! Some people simply have more time than others and it's odd to criticize, say, someone who works three jobs, is taking some college courses, and acting as a single parent for two children for reading less than someone retired, on vacation, or in between jobs etc.

Then there's how fast you can read. When two people read a page at the same time, they might find that one person has to wait patiently for the other to finish. Over my years of avid reading, I've noted that I read approximately one page per minute. True, it varies depending on words per page, font size, and how well the book holds my attention, but it's accurate enough that if I want to read for half hour, I slip my bookmark thirty pages from where it is now and don't even glance at the clock until I reach that bookmark.

Then there's how much you actually enjoy reading. Book addicts find themselves limited by free time and how fast they can read, but there are many people out there for whom reading might be a secondary hobby or even lower on the list. My primary hobbies are writing, reading, sketching/painting, more or less in that order. I adore all three and yet I devote my spare time first to my own writing, then to reading, and last to painting and sketching to the point that I hardly ever paint or sketch anymore. For someone who might have reverse priorities, they probably wouldn't read very many books despite claiming to love reading.

Don't forget size of the books! The page count of books I read varies so much that I might find myself finishing four books in one week, but only one book in the next month. So if you measure your pace by number of books, average page length becomes a factor, too.

How about you? How many books do you read? Feel free to measure in books/pages/ time - per day/week/month/year. We know it's an average! Have you had periods of your life when you hit a reading lull or, better yet, reading highs when your pace astounded you?

Friday, December 28, 2012

WHITE CAT


Review of WHITE CAT by HOLLY BLACK
(first in the CURSE WORKERS series, review based on an advance reading copy)

I didn't particularly like Black's TITHE series, so WHITE CAT wasn't really on my radar...until I heard Black speak at Sirens (a literature conference)
. She was hilarious. I not only shed tears of laughter, but I worked my abdominal muscles pretty well during her keynote! She more than earned a second chance and I'm so glad I tried WHITE CAT, because it lived up to high expectations.

The book hooks right from the start with a unique opening: Cassel, our protagonist, awakens from a bout of sleepwalking to find himself on the school roof in his boxers with a curious crowd watching the spectacle. On second thought, the book hooks even before the first word, with the premise. If you read anything about this novel before starting it, you'll note the compelling magic system. Cassel lives in an alternate world to our own. Much seems exactly or nearly the same from history to pop culture, except, of course, there's magic in Cassel's world. Magic users are persecuted and feared for their power and, since a magic user (called curse worker) has to touch someone to work magic on them, it has become common practice for everyone to wear gloves. As Cassel informs us, “In health class, our teacher used to say that if someone came toward you on the street with bare hands, consider those hands to be as potentially deadly as unsheathed blades.” As if that premise and opening weren't enough promise for a good story, Cassel confesses within the first few pages that he murdered his best friend. If you're like me, you will assume there must be more to that story and, sure enough, the entire book centers around that event and blossoms out with more complications and twists than I ever could have imagined during that first chapter.

The story's packed with turnabouts and shocking revelations. I actually predicted most of the twists, and yet that didn't lessen my interest in the new developments in the slightest. In fact, it might have kept me more riveted, since Black focuses on her characters and the emotional ramifications of each new wrinkle rather than a "Ha! Got You!" sense of satisfaction in blindsiding the reader.

The end kept to this trend. I pseudo called the final surprise, but nevertheless felt as slammed in the gut as Cassel must. Stellar ending. Perfect last line. Black's officially back on my radar.

Monday, December 24, 2012

RUBY RED

Review of RUBY RED by KERSTIN GIER
(first in the RUBY RED trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

I don't like time travel fiction much. I often find myself confused by the chronology of character's lifespan versus historical timeline and skeptical readers like myself usually find logic lapses. (Even when I don't, my brain starts hurting with the effort of juggling events that might not take place in the order one at first assumes or with the implications one at first assumes, etc.) That being said, I still enjoyed RUBY RED, perhaps because it's actually surprisingly light on the time travel.

RUBY RED has a strong first person voice that drew me in within a few sentences and the book turned out to be a quick, easy read from there to the end. Gwen has lived her life in her cousin Charlotte's shadow, whom the family believes carries a time traveling gene. As readers will expect, it turns out that Gwen's the one with the gene, to the surprise of everyone including herself. The story clings very close to the characters, with only a few days passing during the entire novel, and the emphasis remains on Gwen's inner monologue as well as her daily routine and mundane life juxtaposed against the magical elements. (I loved that with all the possibilities of time travel, Gwen’s mother wants her to go to a cellar - specific time period doesn't even matter - so she can finish her homework.) That close focus helped speed the book along towards an ending that still feels like only the beginning of a larger story. (Yes, this is the first in a series.)

RUBY RED contains minimal time travel, focusing more on Gwen's discovery of her power along with a few other intriguing mysteries that remain unsolved for now. The book is also surprisingly light on history. Most of the time travel scenes could take place anywhere, anytime without altering the core. The story roots itself in the characters rather than the premise. I've already mentioned Gwen's fantastic, realistic, and accessible voice, but she also has a fun, funny, awesome best friend named Lesley and a bickering family that, stripped of the time travel specific arguments, feels all too believable.

Friday, December 21, 2012

BRUCE COVILLE


Interview with BRUCE COVILLE

I was born in Syracuse, New York, on May 16, 1950. I started working seriously at becoming a writer when I was seventeen. Like most people, I was not able to start selling my stories right away. So I had many other jobs along the way to becoming a writer, including toymaker, gravedigger, cookware salesman, and assembly line worker. Eventually I became an elementary teacher, and worked with second and fourth graders. I feel like a very lucky person. From the time I was young, I had a dream of becoming a writer. Now that dream has come true, and I am able to make my living doing something that I really love.

What are you reading right now?

FOREST BORN by Shannon Hale, the fourth in her Books of Bayern sequence, which began with the fabulous THE GOOSE GIRL. The reason I'm reading it right now is that I've been directing a full cast recording of the book that I am producing for AudioGO. I'm really lucky in this regard . . . I don't just get to read great books; I get to bring them to life on audio!

What first sparked your interest in writing?

The first time I can remember thinking that I would like to be a writer came in sixth grade, when our teacher, Mrs. Crandall, gave us an extended period of time to write a long story on any topic we wished. I had a lovely and encouraging success with this, largely because I could write what interested me, not simply what was assigned . . . which had been a problem for most of the year.

The story I wrote was called "The Long Tramp" which was a mild rip-off of Sheila Burnford's great animal story INCREDIBLE JOURNEY. I had so much fun doing it that I started planning a book of animal stories. (I never got around to writing it, but that was the first time I can remember seriously thinking about writing a book of my own.)

After that it was all about writers. In 7th grade I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs. I fell in love with his John Carter of Mars  books and knew that I wanted to do what he was doing.

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

There is a time, sometimes, if you're lucky, when it no longer feels as if you are writing, but as if you are simply a conduit for a story that is somehow being told through you. For me, this usually comes toward the end of the book, after the long struggle to get there. It can be glorious.

What do I like least? All the work it takes to get to the point I just described above!

Tell us a little about your writing process.

Oh, lord. After 100 books and 40 short stories I'm still not sure that I have "a" writing process. Sometimes I just sit down and start, sometimes I kind of flutter around trying to find a way into a story.

I can tell you that I usually outline. Sometimes I follow the outline and sometimes I end up tossing it out and going by the seat of my pants. Other times I do what I call an "ever-expanding outline" where I keep writing ever more detailed versions of the outline, adding dialogue and descriptions, until the outline is almost a book in itself.  And sometimes I make repeated runs at a story, getting ten pages into it the first time, then revising and adding new material, then when I feel stuck going back to the beginning and revising what I have and pushing farther in. When I work that way I may be on the fifth or sixth attempt before I have a full draft. I am a demon reviser, and will keep working on a story until my editor hits me over the head and tells me I have to stop!

What are your passions?

Story, performance, and politics.

Story: I love stories, believe that sharing them is one of the essences of being human. We need stories to understand the world, and even more to understand each other.

Performance: One of the surprising things about achieving some success as an author was that as soon as it happened people wanted me to come out and talk about it. I did not anticipate having a career as a public speaker, but that has evolved out of the writing. I now spend about a third of my year on the road talking at schools and conferences. I've discovered that I love being in front of a group, whether children or adults, and trying to delight and inspire them.

Politics: I care deeply about my fellow humans, my country, and my world. Though many people are very cynical about politics, I believe in my heart and my gut that if we want to change things for the better we have to engage in the political process. While it is undoubtedly true that there are many corrupt politicians, I am not one who believe they are all that way – I think many of them sincerely want to serve the people and improve the world.

What inspires you?

Great art, smiling faces, children, honesty, and stories.

Why fantasy?

Why reality? ; )

Okay, okay . . . first off, I love to read  fantasy, so naturally as a writer it is the genre that I most gravitate toward. Modern fantasy is a natural extension of myth, legend, and folklore, which are the forms in which humankind has long expressed its deepest dreams, fears, and desires.

The human heart longs for a bit of mystery, a touch of wonder, a sense of the unknown. As the world becomes ever more mapped and explored, fantasy literature helps soothe that longing by providing new places to dream on.

How was THE UNICORN CHRONICLES born?

Back in the early 1990's Jean Feiwel, who was then publisher at Scholastic, invited me to come into her office to discuss creating a new series for them. We talked about a few ideas, and the one that sparked for me was a world of unicorns.  I had already written about unicorns – heck, my second book was SARAH'S UNICORN, one of the first picture books about unicorns – and I was excited to do so again. To me they are the perfect fantasy creature.

The original contract was for three novels of about 150 pages each. I had no idea when I signed it what I was actually embarking on . . . or that in the end it would take me 16 years, 4 books, and nearly 1500 pages to tell the complete story!

Back when I first started writing, my dream had been to create a fantasy world of my own. Luster, the world of the unicorns, turned out to be that world. The story that unfolded in that world turned out to be grander, more complex, more layered, than I had begun to imagine when I first started planning it. Writing it stretched me in ways I had never anticipated, and I am still astonished at what an epic it became.

You have written, well, a lot. Do you have a favorite book or story among your own work?

Ah, the "favorite" book or story question, which is pretty much the equivalent of "Which of your children do you love the most?"  Parents know better than to answer that one!

Still, if pressed, I could narrow down this list. And if really pressed, it is likely I would settle on a short story called "The Box." To be honest, I think it is the best thing I've ever written, and (this is somewhat distressing) likely to be the best thing I ever will write. 

Oddly enough, I don't feel I can take much credit for the story. I wrote it on assignment in a graduate class on writing for children taught by Helen Buckley Simkewicz, and it just . . . came to me. I think of it as a "gift story" – I was in the right place to catch it as it went whizzing by! It is a story that I love to tell when I am performing.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Click here to read Bruce’s writing advice on his website.

Monday, December 17, 2012

RENEGADE


Review of RENEGADE by J.A. SOUDERS
(review based on an advance reading copy)

What a delightfully shiver-inducing opening! RENEGADE follows Evelyn's first person account of her life in a reclusive underwater community designed for those fleeing the war and horror on land...among the dreaded, evil "surface-dwellers." The first chapter opens with Evelyn's saccharine inner monologue, including repetitions of: My life is pretty much perfect. She will be coupled soon with a boy she likes and as daughter to Mother, who leads all of Elysium, she will doubtless play an important role in this society. Then Mother kills someone Evelyn loves right in front of her as punishment for a minor offense. We're still in Chapter One, by the way. Chapter Two, which takes place the next day, causes some serious déjà vu. Not only does Evelyn not remember any of the violence and betrayal from yesterday, but her thought pattern is near identical to the previous day's as she follows a set routine and continues her determined mental chant: My life is pretty much perfect. As I said, delightfully shiver-inducing as it sinks in that Evelyn will not be a reliable narrator and her paradise is a dangerous facade.

Returning to Chapter One, though, Souders seriously impressed me. Killing a character early on can be problematic, because readers often won't feel the death as much if they haven't had a chance to befriend the characters and envision them as real people. In only a few pages, I cared about the character who dies, and a writer's kind of magic - the right words - caused me to feel that horrific scene with all of Evelyn's pain, confusion, and despair, which makes it extra creepy when I still remember what happened vividly and Evelyn's clueless about both the events and her own emotions.

From there, the story morphs into an action book as Evelyn realizes what's really going on...and fights hard to keep that realization. The fact that she can't really trust anyone - even herself - ratchets up the suspense and danger. She only has a handful of allies and none of them convinced me of 100% loyalty. Then there's the issue of Evelyn's mind turning against her so that she betrays herself.

The romance is rather rushed. I usually groan and grumble when characters toss around the word "love" after knowing each other 1-3 days. However, it works in RENEGADE. Of course, it's always open to reader interpretation whether you believe the characters are really in love or just think so, but regardless it's understandable for two people to grow so dependent in so little time when they're literally each others' only hope for survival.

The ending pulls off another eerie, creepy affect similar to the opening. Without spoilers, Souders writes a few pages so that you don't know whether Evelyn has accomplished her goal or if everything has been horribly shattered. I've read numerous reviews of this book that use the phrase "on the edge of my seat!" I hesitate using that phrase, not only because it's cliché, but more because it's hyperbole and I prefer a more literal, if less exciting, description of what a book made me feel. However, RENEGADE really did make me sit up straighter and hunch over the book as though the story might draw me into its depths. What a read!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Identity Crisis Fantasy


Discussion Topic: Identity Crisis Fantasy

Over the years I've become increasingly aware of a baffling trend - fantasy that does not want to be categorized as fantasy. (Same can be said of science fiction or the umbrella term speculative fiction.) Now I'm not trying to assign any blame here - it could be the idea/intention of the author, agent, editor, publisher, etc. and it doesn't really matter - but the end result is a book with magic or other fantasy elements doesn't sit with its siblings in the fantasy sections of bookstores and libraries, but with regular fiction.

To be candid, this annoys me. The usual hope is that the book will sell better to mainstream audiences if it isn't labeled "fantasy," a stereotyped genre that many readers avoid. Of course, it's a little insulting to the fantasy genre - the implication that this particular book doesn't want to associate with its lesser peers. Fantasy, as with any genre, encompasses countless styles, tones, and sub-genres not to mention varying levels of quality. The fantasy stereotype usually jumps straight to Tolkien and other authors of high fantasy that can feel very Tolkien-esque. Not that I'm implying there's anything wrong with Tolkien or high fantasy works, but what few non-fantasy readers realize is how innovative and complex the genre is, from urban fantasy with magic intertwined with the mundane…to the increasingly popular steampunk with a nod to steam-powered gadgets and Victorian style…to slipstream fantasy that broaches boundaries between fantasy and science fiction, fantasy and horror, fantasy and mystery, etc. Yes, there's bad fantasy, and, yes, mainstream readers will judge genres they don't read based on what few books from that genre they know. However, there's something to be said for taking pride in what you are and whenever I see a book with magic, vampires, witches, curses, etc. shelved in mainstream fiction, I think we need a separate section entitled "identity crisis fantasy" for those magical books that can't figure out where they belong or simply don't want to go there.

Some bestseller examples of fantasy books considered mainstream fiction include THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman about a college that teaches magic, THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern about a duel between two magicians, and A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness about a scholar who finds a bewitched manuscript that awakens a fantastical underworld. I haven't read any of those three, so I would need someone else to present theories on why they're commonly considered mainstream fiction. However, turning towards books I have read, consider Kate Mosse's work, including LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE, historical novels with a hint of the supernatural thrown in. Or THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI by Alma Alexander. For that one, the fantasy element doesn't come into play until a long ways into the book, which could serve as explanation for its placement in fiction.

Of course, this trend isn't limited to fantasy. NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro and THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood are both science fiction novels that I never see in the science fiction section. One can find similar examples of rogue books for mystery, romance, and any other genre. Really, genres are just marketing categories that give readers an idea of what to expect. Still I’m confused when a book with magic isn’t in the fantasy section.

To be fair, some books are hard to classify. THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville not only refuses to fit neatly in one genre, but certainly doesn't qualify as mainstream fiction either. If forced to choose, I view it more as mystery and the speculative elements the setting. However, even when you look closer at the speculative elements, there's room for interpretation, and depending on your perspective, this book could count as fantasy or science fiction or neither.

Then there's the "Is it? Isn't it?" type of fantasy book. The ones that might contain magic, but the author won't tell you for sure. WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, follows a girl with an eating disorder. However, the girl's being haunted by her dead best friend...or she isn't. LIAR by Justine Larbalestier could be fantasy, except the compulsive liar protagonist might just be feeding readers another lie.

I understand when the harder-to-define books bounce around categories or steer away from the fantasy section, but when I notice a without-a-doubt fantasy book hiding out in fiction I wonder if it isn't having a bit of an identity crisis.

Your turn to chime in. Has anyone else noticed this trend? What are your thoughts? Can you think of more examples of "identity crisis fantasy" books?

Monday, December 10, 2012

THE ART FORGER


Review of THE ART FORGER by B.A. SHAPIRO
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I enjoyed THE ART FORGER throughout, but enjoyment never bloomed into adoration. In terms of strengths, the story has a natural, relatable first person voice that put me in mind of some of my favorite chick lit novels, boasts impressive research, and delivers a fascinating mix of fictional and nonfiction art history as well as an intriguing "what if." All those aspects held my investment even when my inner critic caught something worth nitpicking.

It would be misleading to call THE ART FORGER predictable. I never "guessed" exactly what would happen next, but the word predictable still popped into my mind because I never found myself surprised, even at the most climatic moments or dramatic twists. I also felt mildly disappointed when I reached the end and discovered the two distinct plot threads would not intersect, which led to the realization that the secondary one (her volunteer work with troubled teens) could be carved away without changing the plot. While on that plot thread, I did catch a glaring factual error - not art related; Shapiro’s art research seems meticulous, though I'm no expert - that distracted me all the way to the end with wondering, "Mistake? Foreshadowing?” I don't consider it a spoiler to specify: Claire mentions that she's never been fingerprinted, but she could never volunteer with minors, let alone such troubled minors, without being fingerprinted. That detail being outright stated led me down an incorrect path that this inaccuracy would somehow play into the plot, but it appears to be a simple error. My last distraction concerns the romances. The book involves a present romance and a past one that informs the story. Unfortunately, in both cases I couldn't understand why Claire's attracted to these men. In regards to the past one, we only see glimpses of the end of the relationship, which means we only see the bad and not the good that sparked the affair in the first place. As for the present romance, the guy's a typical closed off alpha male who shares none of his thoughts or emotions, leaving Claire and the reader to interpret or project their own analysis of his motivations without any confirmation. In general, though, I found all the characters other than Claire "painted in broader strokes."

Nevertheless, despite noting these criticisms, my attention never waned in the story. The themes kept me reading more than anything else. In particular, I found myself fascinated by the musing that many masterpieces could be forgeries so skillfully done that they fool the so-called experts and also drawn in by the injustices in Claire's life and her response. THE ART FORGER may not be groundbreaking, but it's certainly a worthwhile read.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Random Acts of Reading - Holiday Gifts


JAY KRISTOFF

Interview with JAY KRISTOFF

Jay Kristoff is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author. His first trilogy, THE LOTUS WAR, was purchased in the three-way auction by US publishing houses in 2011. He is as surprised about it as you are. The first installment, STORMDANCER, is set to be published in September 2012 in the US, UK and Australia. Jay is 6’7, has approximately 13870 days to live and does not believe in happy endings.

What are you reading right now?

I actually just finished WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN yesterday, so I’m totally between books atm. I think I’ll go back to the fantasy pile next, so maybe THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRINGHEEL JACK by Mark Hodder, or RAILSEA by China Miéville. I got all of China’s back catalogue from my 100% awesome UK publishers, but they’re all signed and I’m kinda afraid to read them in case I crack the spines. Which I realize is utterly ridiculous. They’re books for crissakes…

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I’d always written as a hobby, but for over ten years, writing was also my job (I worked in advertising), and the last thing you want to do after writing TV scripts all day is come home and work on a book. When I changed jobs, that freed me up to use my brainmeats to write something other than ads for toilet paper. But I’ve always loved writing, telling stories. Lying, basically. I very much enjoy lying.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?
 
The Most: that moment when you write something that makes the hairs on your arms stand up. Those brief and all too rare moments where it’s like the universe is telling you “Yeah, you can do this.”

The Least: Copyediting. Hunting for rogue commas and misused quotation marks, re-reading the same text over and over until it ceases to have meaning. I described it once as “like being bludgeoned to death with a bag of dicks.” I was quite proud of that one…
 
Tell us a little about your writing process.
 
I’m a total pantser. I’ll get an idea for a scene in my head and just run with it. The first scene I thought of for STORMDANCER was the hunt for the arashitora. A big sky-ship hunting a griffin in the middle of a lightning storm. The next books I’ll be working on in downtime (when I’m not doing books 2 and 3 of the LOTUS WAR) are all just embryonic scenes in my head atm. I’m stabby-envious of people who can plot meticulously – to have a grand plan and work towards it. It’s sometimes terrifying not knowing what comes next. But at the same time, you sometimes get these flashes of inspiration that totally surprise you – those moments in STORMDANCER are my favorite in the book. 

What are your passions?
 
My bride. My books. My booze (hmm, how long can I stretch this “B” thing for). I’m a huge film buff and a colossal nerd. I’m also very passionate about issues like the environment, overpopulation, resource depletion. But I don’t talk about that very often because a) it’s depressing, and b) people find it very easy to write you off if they can label you with some kind of “-ist”. 
 
Shenanigans, I say.
 
What inspires you?
 
Do you mean “where do I get inspiration for my books?” There’s no good answer for that. No writer knows where their ideas come from. Anyone who tells you they do is likely trying to sell you something. Probably a book called ”Where great ideas come from.” I sometimes tell people I get them “at the idea store,” because I’m something of a smartass, truth be told. 
 
Why fantasy?
 
I’ve always loved it. I’ve always been a nerd. I still remember the feeling I got when I first read THE HOBBIT at 9 or 10 years old and realized there were books out there for “people like me.” I love the freedom it brings – the absence of rules, the complete lack of limitations it places on you as a writer. To be able to create a world that’s anything you want it to be – that’s a combination of time-travel hovercar awesome and panty-soiling terror.
 
How was STORMDANCER born?
 
It started as a dream I had. A little boy was standing in front of a griffin in a field of dead grass. The kid was screaming at the griffin to fly, but its wings were broken and it couldn’t get off the ground. That imagine – a griffin with broken wings – just stuck in my head. Which is a terribly boring story. If you can think of a better one, let’s run with that.
 
Just make me funny in it. And preferably handsome. Rich would be nice too. 
 
Why did you choose to write a Japanese influenced story?
 
I wish I had a good answer for that. I could make up one about being the scion of a line of gaijin who travelled to Japan in the 19th century and learned the Ancient Art of Awesome… but that’d be pure lies.

I guess I wanted to write a steampunk book because I loved the aesthetic, but European-based steampunk seemed like it had already been done a lot, and done very well. The world had some incredible cultures in the 19th century, and I think fantasy is already shamefully guilty of a European focus.
 
Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…
 
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
 
Other people’s belief in your abilities is lovely, but optional. Your belief in your abilities is mandatory.
 
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?
 
Just that I feel very grateful and lucky to be here. Thanks for sharing the ride.

Monday, December 3, 2012

VALKYRIE RISING


Review of VALKYRIE RISING by INGRID PAULSON
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I usually open a book with expectations. Of course, what expectations varies depending on the book, but that's another conversation. With VALKYRIE RISING, however, I had the rare reading experience of starting with a blank slate. The cover and the blurb suggested I might like this book, but offered no convincing evidence for or against that hypothesis. I hadn't heard any buzz, I didn't recognize the author, and I'm not familiar enough with valkyrie mythology to know whether or not that's a selling point for me. Nevertheless, I read the book...and now you can count me among Paulson’s devoted fans!

In retrospect: valkyrie mythology - definitely a selling point. So much fantasy draws from the same wells. I'm not necessarily complaining. I enjoy seeing what different people can do with the same material, I love certain myths, fairy tales, or magical creatures so much that I can read about them again and again, and sometimes even a recognizable formula with familiar elements still satisfies. Of course, when the premise starts with less commonly utilized source material, already there's an implicit promise for a more unique read. VALKYRIE RISING delivers! I'm sure if you map the story arch after finishing the book, it might not seem so terribly groundbreaking, but I'm not talking about any intellectual analysis - rather the emotional impact. I couldn't name one moment during the book in which I could predict the plot's next turn and whether the route stayed fairly straight or took sharp curves the story always held me captive. Even if some twists look simple in an outline or summary, they were blanketed in fog as I was reading.

Voice is another key element and Ellie's voice absorbed me from the first scene. She's my favorite kind of protagonist, without being cookie cutter. She's rather quiet and introverted, but through her perspective we know just how much goes on in her mind. She's slightly cynical (or at least not frustratingly naive like some other shall-not-be-named YA leads) and has a wry sense of humor. She does have flaws, though, before you fear I'm describing a Mary Sue. All in all, she quickly became one my favorite heroines.

Moving past Ellie, her relationships also hooked me early on, in particular her relationships with her brother Graham and with his best friend Tuck. Graham has always been a typical overprotective big brother, but after Ellie recruited his help at a party with a guy who came on too strong, Graham took that as an invitation to scare off any guy from now until forever who expresses the slightest interest in her. While Ellie's certainly not a meek character, Graham has the sibling capability of making her feel like a little girl again, even dredging forth feelings of need and dependency, feelings Ellie naturally resents. The opening scene also establishes Ellie and Tuck's flirtatious, playfully insult-riddled, relationship. What Ellie would never admit aloud, though, is how much she really does like Tuck. For starters, he has a reputation with the ladies and Ellie knows better than assuming his interest in her is anything stronger than his interest in every other girl. There's evidence that suggests Ellie might be the one he really, seriously likes (but as his best friend's little sister is off limits), but we don't know for sure and I applauded Ellie's caution with her own heart.

Speaking of well-handled relationships, I also admired Ellie’s opponent/villain. Astrid’s first cocky saunter on stage might conjure up villain stereotypes, but it’s not long before we see glimpses of what’s behind the mask and it’s not evil. She might be an ally if Ellie plays her hand right…or a tragic enemy if circumstances throw them on opposite sides of a war neither one wants to fight.

Paulson choose her combination of characters and magic system well. Ellie has spent most of her life being protected by males, whether she needed the help or not, but as boys start going missing, it becomes clear that not only are males in the most danger here but Ellie might be the only one who can save Graham and Tuck and all the others.

I did catch a few logic lapses, but they're hardly worth mentioning. I can count them on one hand, they did not detract from a riveting story, and one can explain them away with the right interpretation. Sorry for being so vague, but I'm avoiding spoilers.

I particularly loved the ending, which surprised me not once but again and again before I reached the last line. Satisfying finish. Still, sign me up on the list for those who want the next book the moment it's out!