Monday, October 28, 2013

THE ISLE OF GLASS


Review of THE ISLE OF GLASS by JUDITH TARR
(first in THE HOUND AND THE FALCON trilogy)

I read another book (HOUSE OF THE STAR) by Judith Tarr (writing under the pseudonym Caitlin Brennan) a few years back and enjoyed it enough to hunt down her other works once I discovered she had published more under a different name. In THE ISLE OF GLASS we follow the monk Alfred as he leaves his comfortable life of faith for one of politics and must face the indisputable evidence that he is one of the fair folk, a fact that conflicts with his religious background.

The story feels like you’ve stumbled into the characters’ lives one day. Of course, we’re entering at a more dramatic point, but everything feels natural from the start and like these characters and this world continue on their own even when Tarr isn’t writing about them. The short chapters also help keep the tale trotting along at brisk pace.

I felt both riveted and somewhat disinterested in this book at the same time and it took me some deep thought to understand those conflicting reactions. Finally I decided that THE ISLE OF GLASS boasts fantastic writing and vivid characters, but nevertheless possesses a slightly disjointed quality that kept me from full adoration. I felt drawn into the book, but sometimes couldn’t tell you where the focus lies. In the long run, this wasn’t that distracting and I have high hopes that I’ll feel entirely engaged in the next two books in the trilogy.

The tension between magic versus faith ranked as my favorite aspect of this novel. The metaphorical possibilities of someone who feels rejected by the very God they worship jumped off the page, making Alfred’s fantastical life extremely real. Magic versus faith also examines the same conflicts as science versus faith - when compromise sometimes seem impossible, because the two ideologies clash by their basic definitions. Alfred is a monk as well as one of the fair folk. If his religion believes the fair folk all evil demons, what does that make him?

I have no predictions for where the story will go in the next book, but I trust Tarr enough as a writer to believe she’ll make the tale worth my while!

Friday, October 25, 2013

THE AGE OF ICE


Review of THE AGE OF ICE by J.M. SIDOROVA
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I would label THE AGE OF ICE historical fantasy, though the tale draws far more from history than from fantasy. Set in Russia beginning in 1740, history is as much a main character as our narrator Alexander. The speculative fiction element is slight, even debatable if you believe our narrator guilty of exaggeration, truth contortion, or flat-out lies. Prince Alexander Velitsyn possesses a peculiar resistance to cold. More than that, he creates cold. Much of the book follows Alexander’s attempts at understanding his unique qualities with varying levels of success, but he does pinpoint that extreme emotion chills his body past natural temperatures. This magical realism element has intriguing potential, but is hardly the story’s focal point. 

I felt a little trepidatious near the beginning of the novel as all these different names spilled across the pages. I do admit to the occasional character confusion in THE AGE OF ICE, but for the most part names distinguish themselves as and when necessary. Some historical figures flit across the story while many other names are extras in this play: their primary purpose being a contribution to the overall picture of a bustling, crowded stage more than additional in-depth character studies.

Though engaging, THE AGE OF ICE struck me as an imperfect novel. There’s an absorbing story here, but it’s buried underneath dense and longwinded writing. Most of the chapters weigh in at over 50 pages and, as someone who always admires concision, I felt the word count of this book could easily be cut in half or less without losing anything important. In fact, a shorter, more tightly plotted draft would have earned higher marks in my opinion. All that said, I’m convinced this writing will appeal - as is - to some readers and, thus, this point may be more a matter of taste.

THE AGE OF ICE drew me in effortlessly, but struggled maintaining my investment. It’s unclear where the focus lies. The book reads like a biography, especially with how Alexander will suddenly skip ahead on a tangent or ramble almost conversationally. I would highly recommend this novel for book groups, since it begs for discussion. Sidorova has packed her tale full of interesting themes, but the end result feels somewhat disjointed. I couldn’t tell you what this book is about much more than: Alexander. It’s his story, told how he wants to tell it, left open for us to interpret as we will.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A CLASH OF KINGS


Review of A CLASH OF KINGS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
(second in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

First off, I’m still amused by how little fantasy you’ll find in this fantasy epic. I remained on alert throughout this second book in the series for fantasy to play a bigger role, and it does…but not by that much. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is foremost a series about subtle court intrigue and not-so-subtle warfare.

Speaking of warfare, note that this is an incredibly violent series and not for the faint of heart. I’m second guessing myself at this point as to whether book two is really that much more violent than book one or if I’m only noticing it more this time. However, book one leads up to all-out war whereas book two chronicles all-out war, so more violence would make sense. For the squeamish, be forewarned: lots of death, lots of blood, lots of rape.

The short chapters hold the reader’s attention well and make it easy to forget what a thick book you’re reading. I have mixed feelings on the alternating perspectives. On the positive, it’s always fun seeing a world from so many different viewpoints, especially when their outlooks and lives are so vastly different - and it makes a long book a surprisingly fast read. On the negative, it can be annoying when you want to stay with a certain character and find yourself pulled away for as much as a hundred pages - or when a chapter ends on a cliffhanger and you know you better be patient, because the story won’t be returning to that character’s viewpoint for a while yet.

These books have become wildly popular bestsellers, but the interesting thing is that they’re selling even to people who don’t normally read fantasy. It’s easy to see why. As I say in my first paragraph, court intrigue and warfare summarize this series far better than the genre label fantasy. Labels aside, an addictive series heavy with characters and impressively complex worldbuilding.

Friday, October 18, 2013

LISA ROGAK


Interview with LISA ROGAK 

Lisa Rogak is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 40 books. Her works have been mentioned in The Wall Street Journal, Parade Magazine, USA Today, Family Circle, and hundreds of other publications. She has also appeared on Oprah. Her latest biography, AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTHINESS: THE RISE (AND FURTHER RISE) OF STEPHEN COLBERT, was published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall of 2011. THE DOGS OF WAR: THE COURAGE, LOVE, & LOYALTY OF MILITARY WORKING DOGS followed shortly after.

What are you reading right now?

I usually have 10 books going at once. I am reading lots of books on farming and raising sheep, though I have no desire to do so…in my stack: THE DIRTY LIFE, SHEEPISH, THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN, STRINGS ATTACHED.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I read voraciously as a kid, but I didn't think of being a writer as an adult. I like to say I became a writer when I learned I could get paid for indulging my curiosity and getting to ask total strangers nosy questions.

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

I love the research part the most.

The least: waiting to get paid.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I spend very little of my time writing, only about 10%. I'm not sure if that is the case for most writers, but the research takes up the bulk - after I start a book, I research various stories, figure out who to contact, and then how to contact them, and then communicate with them - along with the business end of things. Research is the polar opposite of writing, so I can't do both at once. The writing goes very quickly once the research is done.

What are your passions?

I love to bake and cook. I used to love to travel and spent a few years as a nomad, but now I'm settled back in New Hampshire quite happily. And I have to get outside and move - walk or bike - every day or else I'm cranky at day's end.

What inspires you?

Getting up every day. Each day is a gift.

Why write about dogs?

A lot of the books I write are based on ideas from editors, publishers, and my agent. I've never owned a dog, but am surrogate aunt to several dogs here in New Hampshire. After researching DOGS OF WAR and DOGS OF COURAGE, I really understood dogs a lot better; in a past life I was a crazy cat lady. Today I have no animals.
 
Why biographies?

Again, because of market conditions: who's popular, who doesn't have a current biography available, etc. That's the kind of writer I am. That said, once I dig into the subject of my book, I'm intrigued and energized by the topic for the length of the research.

How was THE DOGS OF WAR born?

After the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, word got out there was a military working dog on the mission. All of a sudden, people wanted to know more about these dogs. My publisher asked if I wanted to do a book, and we were off and running.

Which do you enjoy more: research or writing?

Research.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Read everything and just start writing. Create your own reality and ignore the rules. 

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

If the photos in my new book ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY: HEARTWARMING STORIES OF ANIMALS CARING FOR ONE ANOTHER don't make you go “awwwwww,” then you should check for a pulse.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A QUESTION OF MAGIC


Review of A QUESTION OF MAGIC by E.D. BAKER
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This is one of those books I expected I would like, but - to my pleased surprise - ending up loving. The voice pulled me in immediately and presents a world similar to our own but not quite ours. Serafina’s thoughts and emotions combine universal elements with her individual priorities and passions. 

The story opens with Serafina’s excitement over receiving a letter. Letters come rarely, so her entire family gathers round while she reads the unexpected note aloud. The letter’s from Serafina’s great aunt in another village, promising an inheritance. No one in her family has heard of this great aunt before, but they insist Serafina must go see about this inheritance. She soon learns - the hard way - that this distant relative is Baba Yaga and she has lured Serafina to her home as a replacement. Now Serafina becomes the new Baba Yaga, magically enchanted to answer the first question anyone asks her.

The premise didn’t sound that fascinating to me, but once Baker starts exploring this magic system - the inner workings; the rewards; the sacrifices - I found myself entirely fascinated. A QUESTION OF MAGIC is a slim book, but I would have happily read something five times as long following Serafina’s complicated exploits answering strangers’ pressing first questions. For a few examples of interesting tidbits: in terms of inner working, emphasis on first question. If a stranger asks Baba Yaga, “So I only get to ask you one question?” and she responds, “Yes, only one”…well, too bad for that stranger because that was in fact their one and only first question. As for rewards, people often bring Baba Yaga a gift when they visit. Her oracle abilities prove more self-sustaining than one might expect. Rather than money, people bring whatever Serafina needs, so she never wants for anything…at least not anything material. Sacrifices abound, but one glaring negative occurs whenever Serafina’s answer to someone’s question is negative and they resent her for delivering the bad news. I’m barely grazing the surface of all the intricacies of this magic system, which lends itself to discussion and naturally continues off the page and into the imagination.

By the end of the book, I decided A QUESTION OF MAGIC is a romance at the core and yet Baker understates the romance - crafting a tale more about someone finding herself before she can commit to being part of a duo. The loyalty and consideration both parties show each other warmed my heart and never felt forced. 

Lack of control jumped out at me as the biggest theme running across this story, a universal theme with which many girls (and boys) this age (and other ages, both older and younger) can easily relate. Even if Serafina’s trapped by a curse, underneath the fantastical dressing it’s the same issue. My absolute favorite aspect of this book was how Serafina found ways to take control of her life against all odds and assert her own will and sense of ethics using nothing more than her wit and logic.

My only criticism is that I seriously underestimated Serafina’s age for a greater part of the novel. I estimated her age as anywhere between 8-12, based mostly on the cover depicting a girl who looks about such to me and a lack of her age being provided in the story (or if it was mentioned early on, I missed it). Later her age is clearly stated as 15, but before that revelation certain aspects of the story confused me.

A QUESTION OF MAGIC is a sweet tale of a young girl with a curse that supposedly decides her destiny and her determined resolution not passively accept that destiny but instead make her own. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

SUZY SORO


Interview with SUZY SORO

Suzy Soro is a comedian, actor, and writer. On Seinfeld she got the last chocolate babka, and on Curb Your Enthusiasm Larry David called her a very bad name. Her first memoir, CELEBRITY sTALKER, was published in 2012. She lives in Los Angeles, waiting for the next earthquake to destroy her enemies.

What are you reading right now?

IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME? by Mindy Kaling, BOBBED HAIR AND BATHTUB GIN by Marion Meade, and ALL MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO BE STRANGERS by Larry McMurtry. 

No, I don't have ADD.

What first sparked your interest in writing? 

When I was sixteen, I told my Dad a story and he said I should write it down on his old upright Underwood, which weighed about a hundred pounds because it was surely made out of Civil War cannonballs. He was an intimidating Army Colonel and I was scared of him so I did. I still have his typewriter. It's in a closet because I can't lift it.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?
 
The thing I love the most about writing is when I finish a chapter and consider it perfect.

The thing I love the least about writing is discovering that my perfect chapter really isn't so perfect after all. 

Moral of the story: Reread at your own peril.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

First I make sure there's nothing good on TV or Netflix. Since there's always something good on one or the other, I persuade myself that the sale of what I'm writing will pay my rent. Obviously I'm delusional.

What are your passions?

Acting, traveling, reading, staging people's homes for resale, feng-shui.

What inspires you?

Sometimes I reread Sedaris or Burroughs and they inspire me to try harder. 

Did you know without a doubt what you would write about in your NO KIDDING essay or did you have a few topics from which you narrowed it down?

While others struggled with their innermost thoughts on the subject and came up with insightful responses, I didn't even have to think about it. My goal in writing is the same as my goal in being a comedian. If I can't be funny, I should choose another profession. So How Can I Make This Funny trumped Why I Never Had Children.

Was if difficult writing about something so personal? 

I'm not Jon Stewart. I don't talk about politics. I'm not Jerry Seinfeld. I don't talk about lost socks in the dryer. I'm a blabbermouth who talks about everything personal. 
If my therapist ever publishes the notes on my sessions, my point will be proved.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? 

Marry for money. Then you won't have to write.

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

Yes, but this is a PG site.

Monday, October 7, 2013

EMERALD GREEN


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

In my review of SAPPHIRE BLUE, I wrote that the book definitely feels like the middle of a story - more like the bridge you have to cross to reach your destination than a destination in its own right. Well, if book two felt like a build up to the really good stuff, then EMERALD GREEN is indeed the really good stuff. The final installment in this trilogy gave me everything I wanted and more.

I finally found the romance satisfying by book three. In the first two books I couldn’t get past how quickly these teenage characters start tossing around the word love. There’s still a rushed sense (and there always will be for any romance that jumps from nothing to soul-mates in a matter of days to weeks), but I understand why these two characters feel drawn to each other and, especially under the high-pressure circumstances, believe their initial attraction has developed into something more substantive.

There’s also a greater depth to the villain than I anticipated. In the first two books, I wasn’t quite convinced there was a villain other than the general mistrust within the Guardian ranks. In fact, Gwen’s unease around certain characters has been well-founded all along. Not only that but he’s far more cunning than I gave him credit for, with carefully managed plans that won’t be easily overturned. What seemed a petty threat to me in earlier books became quite terrifying and unpredictable.

EMERALD GREEN boasts many other plot twists that I didn’t see coming at all. So little happened in the first two books (RUBY RED mostly follows Gwen’s discovery of her power and SAPPHIRE BLUE a back and forth between trust and mistrust in her romantic relationship) that I started to underestimate the series. EMERALD GREEN bolts into a much faster pace and it’s clear Gier has had much of these startling revelations carefully plotted out and patiently lurking behind corners all along.

My only complaint is that I don’t understand why the book focused so much on Cynthia’s party, especially on what everyone would wear. My best guess is that the focus was an effort to keep some mundane in Gwen’s life as it turned increasingly outlandish, fantastical, and downright dangerous. Also, at the party it seems Charlotte’s finally about to receive a more compassionate treatment, but then she’s brushed aside again and Gier doesn’t follow-up on that brief attempt to view everything from her perspective.

Like its predecessors, EMERALD GREEN is a fast and easy read, but one that bests the earlier books by almost any measurement. The story ensnared me to the end, satisfied many of my earlier quibbles, and layered on far more depth and detail than I expected. A wonderful finish to an enjoyable trilogy.

Friday, October 4, 2013

THE WOLF PRINCESS


Review of THE WOLF PRINCESS by CATHRYN CONSTABLE
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Here’s a wonderful discovery! THE WOLF PRINCESS is a magical story without any magic and feels like a retold fairy tale, though I wouldn’t know what tale. (Stated otherwise, the story feels both faintly familiar and pleasantly unpredictable.) The book opens with a mysterious, haunting tone that lurks throughout the rest of the novel, pulling me into this world.

Sophie knows there’s something odd about an obscure Russian princess inviting her and her two friends to her isolated castle during their winter vacation, but all three of the girls are so caught up in the majesty and wonder of Princess Anna’s secluded but glittery world that none want to ask the hard questions.

The story held my attention more firmly than I would have expected. I particularly loved the wolves as good guys. Being a big dog lover, I have a soft spot for wolves in fiction, but resent that they’re usually on the side of evil. Mind you, wolves don’t make a big appearance in this book. They’re mostly shadows prowling around the fringes of the story, but they were once the guardians of Princess Anna’s royal family and Sophie can’t help but fixate on and connect with the howls carried to her by the wind.

THE WOLF PRINCESS is an absolutely perfect book to curl up with on a chilly winter’s evening. The setting plays an integral role in the story. I often felt chilled by Constable’s descriptions of winter and snow and cold as well as ensnared by her depictions of a glittering winter wonderland as tragic and dangerous as it is beautiful. Hmm, as tragic and dangerous as it is beautiful: the exact same could be said of Princess Anna. 

My single criticism of THE WOLF PRINCESS is that Sophie’s two friends Delphine and Marianne sometimes feel more like set dressing than characters in their own right. From a writer’s perspective, I see how Sophie needs other humans with whom to interact so the story doesn’t feel static, but Delphine and Marianne prove quite forgettable. (Case in point: I had to reference my copy of the book to recall their names for this review.)

Besides that one minor complaint, I loved this story backwards and forwards. I describe it as perfect winter reading, but in truth it’s a delicious treat of a novel anytime of the year.