Monday, March 31, 2014

CINDER

Review of CINDER by MARISSA MEYER
(first in THE LUNAR CHRONICLES series)

I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, but somehow something else always bumped it down the list; now I think CINDER deserved a higher priority spot right at the top. In other words, if I had known it would be this good, I wouldn’t have waited!

In short, this is a Cinderella retelling with the main twist being that the Cinderella character is a cyborg. Of course, that description undersells the book by omitting all the other numerous twists and nuances. Working with all familiar elements, Meyer has welded everything together into something utterly unique and captivating.

Our heroine Cinder works as a mechanic, but her earnings go to her stepmother Adri. See, cyborgs don’t have the same rights as “full” humans, so Cinder is Adri’s possession. Then the prince brings Cinder his broken android for repair and Cinder’s stepsister becomes fatally ill and before you know it the story’s off and running at an addictively fast pace.

It took me a few chapters to invest, because I didn’t understand at first whether Cinder is a human or robot. (I read lots of fantasy but not much scifi and realized later that this confusion came down to my own misunderstanding of the term cyborg.) And, yes, I care less about a robot. But once it became clear that Cinder’s absolutely human, just with some robotic parts, I actually felt guilty for ever doubting this fictional person’s humanity! In fact, people’s distrust and prejudice towards cyborgs becomes a major theme in the novel. With so much of her rebuilt, Cinder can’t do simple things like cry or blush, which expectedly makes her seem all the more robotic. Since we’re in her viewpoint, though, I sympathized strongly with this character who feels embarrassment and anguish every bit as much as anyone else but can’t express the emotions physically. Crying and blushing don’t seem like good things, but the thought of not being able to do them makes me feel almost claustrophobic. 

I tore through this book and loved every minute, so I can count my halfhearted criticisms on one hand. First, there's a dramatic reveal at the end that I guessed hundreds of pages earlier (as soon as enough information had been provided), so I wished that something that seemed so obvious to me had been moved up much sooner. Second and more notably, the ending is significantly rushed. I would discourage someone from even reading this unless they already have the second book right there to pick up once they finish CINDER, because the end feels more like the story chopped off than concluded.

I don’t have the next book yet, but plan to pick up my copy in a day or two. I love thoroughly reworked tales like this, especially with such memorable characters, and can’t wait to see what Meyer does next!

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Art of Reading: Stopping Place


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: stopping place. When you pause while reading a book, where do you stop? At the end of a chapter? Page? Paragraph? Sentence? Or absolutely wherever you happen to be when you decide to stop reading?

This is kind of a funny topic for me, because I didn’t realize I was unusual until this came up with a group of readers. Most people I know stop whenever, wherever the urge strikes them. I, however, am a little compulsive about where I stop reading. Ideally, I like to pause at the end of a chapter (which is why I find myself so frustrated with the technique of ending chapters on cliffhangers)...but chapter length varies widely from book to book. I’ve read books where committing to a chapter means committing to another 100 pages! So most often I read to the end of a page. Worst case scenario: if I’m interrupted while reading, I still finish my paragraph or at least sentence before addressing whomever or whatever interrupted me. 

How about you? Are you compulsive like me about your stopping place or are you laughing at the thought of putting so much thought into this?

Monday, March 24, 2014

A SNICKER OF MAGIC


Review of A SNICKER OF MAGIC by NATALIE LLOYD
(review based on an advance reading copy)

What a wonderfully sweet and whimsical story. And what a perfect title! A SNICKER OF MAGIC isn’t what I would call a fantasy novel; it’s more like magical realism with a teaspoon or two of enchantment thrown into the mundane. The magic feels a little strange and abstract and like it’s not meant to be closely analyzed but viewed from a distance as flexible metaphors. The magic isn’t necessarily logical, because the story’s more about the characters and the mysterious wonder of these strange happenings.

Felicity Pickle has returned with her mama, little sister Frannie Jo, and their dog Biscuit to her mother’s hometown where they stay with Felicity’s aunt Cleo. Felicity’s mama has a wandering heart, as people like to say. Their family never stays anywhere for long before she’s packing them all up again, and Felicity’s heartfelt yearning to settle somewhere tugged at my sentimental side in the very first chapter. She befriends someone special at school and soon her new friend convinces Felicity to enter a school competition. Despite some serious public speaking anxiety, she agrees mostly in an effort to convince her mama that they have to stay at least until the competition.

See, Felicity has a magical gift of her own. She can see words. They hover around people, each one distinct and inventively animated. I adored Lloyd’s (or Felicity’s) descriptions of the words. As one example, consider how she captures the word “believe”: “The letters were made of melted sunshine. They dripped down the window glass, warm and tingly against our faces.” This is what I mean by the book being more magical realism than fantasy. Felicity’s word gift isn’t logically explained or dissected as a kind of magical system or fantastical worldbuilding effort, and it doesn’t serve much purpose except as both a blessing and a burden for Felicity - blessing by making her special and burden by making her different.

Lloyd has a word knack of her own. In full honesty, I didn’t find the story that captivating on its own. Don’t get me wrong - it’s a good story, but it’s not remarkable or gush-worthy. However, I found the writing remarkable and gush-worthy, so much that it elevated everything else about the book. Lloyd’s a little magical with words herself, creating so many apt and unique descriptions and metaphors. Consider Felicity’s observation of her mother’s eye color: “Her eyes used to be as bright blue as a summer sky, but now they looked like jeans faded from too many tumbles through a washing machine." This talent’s especially apparent in characterizing the words Felicity sees everywhere she goes. Naturally, I consider great writing particularly important in a book that focuses on words and Lloyd certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Really my only small criticism is that I struggled pinpointing Felicity’s age. I’m sure Lloyd mentioned it early on, but I think only once or twice. I didn’t absorb the information and tried going back and re-reading earlier chapters for her age but couldn’t find it. I’m guessing pre-teen, around 12. I would be surprised if it’s any older than that and not terribly shocked if she’s actually as young as 8. That’s a wide range and the age doubt could be a little confusing.

That note aside, what a splendiferous book!

Friday, March 21, 2014

STARLING


Review of STARLING by FIONA PAUL
(third in THE SECRETS OF THE ETERNAL ROSE trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)

I devoured the first two books in this trilogy, so I jumped eagerly into this final installment as soon as I snagged a copy. For this series, Paul has created a masterful blend of genre elements, including young adult, mystery, historical fiction, romance, and suspense. Basically, she’s telling the story as it should be told without worrying too much about stuffing the book into a particular label.

While still good, I’m afraid STARLING didn’t quite live up to its predecessors. In the first two books, I found the writing so natural that it faded into the background, leaving the spotlight for the story. This third book had some phrasing here and there awkward or clumsy enough to halt my reading. Sadly, there’s also an abundance of cheesy, cliché, or otherwise cringe-worthy dialogue that detracts from what could have been far more engaging scenes.

Rest assured that STARLING addresses pretty much every single one of the many interwoven plot threads before concluding. Unfortunately, many resolutions didn’t fully satisfy me; either they don’t answer all my questions or they feel forced or unbelievable.

Despite a review that feels like it’s leaning more towards the negative, I did enjoy this book - in fact, found it difficult to pull down even when criticisms popped into my mind. I describe THE SECRETS OF THE ENTERNAL ROSE series more as fluff reading than great works of literature. Nevertheless, the first two felt like the very best of fluff reading - with great writing, distinct and complicated characters, and an unpredictable plot. I might not recommend STARLING as highly on its own, but it’s a must read for anyone wanting to know how the trilogy ends.

I do want to say that Paul’s series has one of the few love triangles that held my interest...but again that lessened in the third book. Part of why I invested in this trilogy is how entirely I understand what Cass sees in these very different men, including how they appeal to different parts of herself. Of course, the more she bounces from one to one (the most deciding factor usually being which guy she spoke with last) the more I wonder if she deserves either.

Though not quite as pulled together as the earlier books, I would still recommend STARLING to anyone who enjoyed the first two in the series.

Monday, March 17, 2014

CITADEL


Review of CITADEL by KATE MOSSE
(third in the LANGUEDOC trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)
My overall impressions of Mosse’s latest book line up with what I consistently say about her work: mediocre writing but brilliant story. As always, some strange gimmicks in the writing (like the phrase “the woman known as Sophie” used in place of the name “Sophie” in the opening, not once but repeatedly) as well as clumsy or grammatically inaccurate sentences distracted me at first. Like I experienced with the first in this trilogy, LABYRINTH, though, once the plot sucked me in I stopped my nitpicking and hardly noticed the writing anymore. Also like LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE, I found myself increasingly engaged as the story continued: apathetic in the prologue, lukewarm near the beginning, intrigued well before the middle, committed by the halfway point, and zealous as I neared the end.

Though it’s no SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, there are a lot of characters in these books. I did occasionally struggle keeping track of who’s who, but thankfully that was more in the beginning than as I kept reading. What throws me more is the connection between these books. LABYRINTH, SEPULCHRE, and CITADEL are technically a series, though doubtless one of the most loosely connected series I have ever read. (You can easily read one of them at random without reading either of the others.) Set in entirely different time periods, very few characters carry over. Unfortunately, probably due in part to how long it was between books for me, I often found myself fighting to keep the wider arching plot lines over all three books straight in my head. I often worried that I’m missing something, a frustrating feeling for the reader.

The extremely short chapters make this chunky tome of nearly 700 pages a much faster, easier read than it looks from the outside. A long chapter might be five pages. Chapters this short aren’t for everyone, but I definitely think the style works for this book.

Mosse always anchors these novels in rich historical context. Her intensive research shines through without the lengthy bibliography in back and she spices most every scene with historical details. Set in France during World War II, CITADEL follows a group of brave, indomitable young women who form their own resistance group…as well as the man determined to destroy them all for both political and personal reasons.

I sometimes complain about novels, especially World War II novels, leaning on the pathos of their subject matter rather than creating characters who can win over the reader. CITADEL does not fall into this pitfall and Mosse has crafted a touching and heart-tugging story about some of the countless individuals swept up in the chaos of war. Perhaps more so than any story I’ve read to date, CITADEL does an amazing (if chilling) job of demonstrating how horror can become mundane…which is really a new kind of horror in itself. The character Marianne also presents some wise insight into why seemingly “good” people will turn on their neighbors in ruthless times: many people are prepared to betray a stranger, or even a friend, if they can justify it as protecting their own. “Their own” varies from individual to individual: it could be themselves, their spouse or lover, their children, their family, etc. The ones least likely to commit these kinds of betrayals are those who cast the widest net in defining “their own,” perhaps meaning anyone they’ve ever met personally, anyone from their country, or even any fellow human being. Be warned that Mosse doesn’t sugarcoat the atrocities of war. Minor and major characters alike go through some extreme physical and emotional agony for their cause.

I found the ending ideal for this book: a reminder that any individual’s story is one small piece in a greater story about mankind...and it takes a remarkable person to recognize that and sacrifice their own story for the improvement of humanity’s.

Friday, March 14, 2014

CROWN DUEL


Review of CROWN DUEL by SHERWOOD SMITH

I’ve been meaning to read this book since I met the author at a literature conference called Sirens in 2009. I already owned her book A POSSE OF PRINCESSES, which I later read and reviewed on this blog, but it took me a while to finally read the one I heard so much about at Sirens: CROWN DUEL. Now I wonder why it took me so long!

Investing in the novel from the get-go felt easy and I found the whole thing utterly engrossing and addictive. Not simply good-book-addictive, but why-can’t-i-read-while-driving-addictive and oh-right-i-was-supposed-to-be-eating-lunch-addictive. I resented real life a little whenever it made me put the book down!

Smith originally published CROWN DUEL as two shorter books, CROWN DUEL and COURT DUEL, but note that I’m reviewing the more recent edition that contains both books as Part One and Part Two. Smith divides the story in an effective, orderly manner: Part One covers a war and physical challenges while Part Two covers court intrigue and more verbal challenges. Both parts earned and held my full investment.

It’s worth mentioning a little more about the Sirens conference, since it’s relevant to the book. Sirens is a literature conference dedicated to strong female writers and characters in the fantasy genre. Sherwood Smith was one of the guests of honor at the inaugural conference and, though I already had a copy of A POSSE OF PRINCESSES, when discussing Smith’s work at Sirens I primarily heard about Meliara from CROWN DUEL.

Now I see why! Mel will likely become one of the heroines who lives on in my memory while other good, and even great, characters fade from recollection with passing years. She’s no Mary Sue perfect heroine, mind you, but as far as I’m concerned that’s all the more in her favor. Frankly, Mel has quite a few flaws: she can’t admit when she’s wrong, she’s ornery and quarrelsome, and she lets embarrassment force her into hiding. However, I found myself far more concerned with her strengths, of which she has more than I care to list, and I admired her both as a person and a character for not being idealized. She felt multi-faceted and all the more real for her complexity and sometimes even contradictory natures. By that I mean how Mel both seeks out and avoids confrontation. When faced with another person she won’t lie, even lies of omission, and bluntly speaks her mind, a trait that often leads to bickering or more impassioned arguing. Yet Mel tries to avoid facing other people as much as possible, probably in large part because she has trouble connecting. When she anticipates a possible conflict, she’ll avoid the individual like her life depends on it. These tendencies seem opposing, but have a definite believable logic. Mel isn’t a people person. She knows this and she prefers solitude.

Speaking of believability, my only very minor quibble with the book involves suspended skepticism. Certain things seem so obvious to me as the reader that I don’t understand how Mel can’t pick up on them, too. I won’t say what; in case said things aren’t obvious to every reader I don’t want to spoil anything. (Though I will specify below after a spoiler warning.) Said things seem so predictable to me that I became curious about the author’s intent: whether this is supposed to be dramatic irony or whether the reader is meant to be as surprised as Meliara. Even this potential fault in an otherwise captivating novel felt easy to brush off due to Mel’s genuine and plausible personality. She’s stubborn. More details below if you don’t mind possible spoilers.

Note that there’s not much fighting description for a war book, but that’s okay by my standards. Smith does include some interesting tactical details not to mention minutiae of court life that contribute to the glimpse into these characters’ lives. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of well-written action, more along the lines of chase scenes. I don’t consider it a spoiler to reveal that Mel finds herself captured quite early on in the novel and Part One focuses primarily on her riveting tug-of-war escape efforts.

I’ve only mentioned Mel in my review and that feels a bit silly given how many wonderful, rich characters populate this novel: Mel’s brother Bran who’s helping her lead the small but determined uprising against the cruel king and the Marquis Shevraeth whose loyalties Mel cannot decipher - to name two major players from Part One. Part Two introduces numerous additions as Mel steps off the literal battleground and into the figurative one of court alliances and double meanings.

Long story short: if you’re at all interested in this book, don’t wait. Read it now!


SPOILER ALERT


My quibble has to do with the Marquis. In Part One, my interpretation of the author’s intent is that he’s meant to be an incomprehensible enigma, one moment a possible ally and another likely a villain. Except I never doubted from the first moment of his introduction that he’s an ally. I can understand why it might take Mel longer to notice such (They do meet when he captures her and brings her to the king for her death sentence.), but not why she wouldn’t pick up on the obvious with each new clue. I mentioned earlier that I can set this complaint aside due to Mel’s personality. She’s leading a rebellion pretty much doomed to failure as a last ditch effort against a tyrant and for obvious reasons she’s grown into quite the cynic, quick to believe the worst of people and slow to amend those initials judgments.

Part Two presents a similar obvious-to-me-but-not-to-Mel conflict. Shevraeth has feelings for her and he’s her secret admirer, two facts I deduced early and easily and never doubted. I found this blind-spot easier to believe than the earlier one as Mel doesn’t know much about romance and probably wouldn’t recognize obvious signs, not to mention how she avoids the Marquis and then interprets his every sentence as negatively as possible in their infrequent, brief interactions.

Not things that made me like the book any less, but I am very curious if other readers found these things obvious as well.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Art of Reading: Marking Up Your Book vs. Never!


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: marking up books. Do you make notes in the margins of your novels? Circle or highlight favorite quotes? Dog-ear pages? Or do you shudder a little at all those suggestions?

I shudder. When people talk about the book as a sacred object, some people mean the intangible story and others the physical book (and many mean both). Countless bibliophiles cherish their favorite tales and consider water damage, food stains, creases, scribbles, etc. proof of how much love they’ve poured into the book, wearing it to shreds with re-reads or taking it all over the place. I, too, value the untouchable story, but I also value the tangible book. I accept slight damages when they come as expected signs that the book is being put to its intended use, but for the most part I try to keep my books in as pristine condition as possible and will never willingly inflict perceived damage such as dog-earing pages, cracking the spine, or writing inside.

Of course, my real pet peeve is when others do these things to my books. To each their own summarizes my philosophy on many things and I don’t care if someone wants to highlight or write in their own book even if I would never do so in mine. However, I care very much if they borrow my book and do any of the things I’ve mentioned: write, highlight, dog-ear, crack the spine, etc. This extends from a conversation about books into a more universal discussion about how we should treat each other. Respecting each other’s property has always been an issue for mankind, because we have very different ideas about both the terms “respect” and “property.” People who don’t really think any human can claim something tangible as theirs alone probably don’t think that person can dictate what can be done with that item. More commonly, though, cases of borrowing property turn into conflicts when the borrower treats the item the same way they treat their own...and that’s not the same way the item’s owner treats their stuff. To someone who dog-ears pages rather than using a bookmark, doing so probably doesn’t seem like a big deal. To that person, it isn’t. My opinion, though, is that when you borrow someone’s stuff you should treat it like owner would.

Back to books, though, I do grasp the benefits of these practices. Dog-earing pages isn’t only useful as a bookmark substitution, but also for marking favorite lines or parts in a story. Then if you pick the book up later, you can easily flip to these beloved sections. Highlighting serves a similar purpose in singling out esteemed quotes. Writing gives the reader even more freedom to expand with their own reactions and opinions. Some people I know who write in books say they like to re-read the book later and see if they have the same responses. Some add new or differing insight in another color. I also know people who specifically search out used books with writing in them to see how their opinions match up with whatever stranger wrote in the margins. As for cracking the spine, I don’t think people who do so give it much thought. It makes the book easier to read and hold. I do cringe, though, when I see people do this in bookstores by habit and then not buy the book (which returns to the debate about respecting property that isn’t yours). As for food stains and water damage, the real question there is whether it’s more important to you to keep your book in good condition or read it wherever you are, even if that’s in the bathtub or while eating dinner.

What about you? Do you do any of these things to your books? Why or why not?

Friday, March 7, 2014

THE GOLDEN HORN


Review of THE GOLDEN HORN by JUDITH TARR
(second in THE HOUND AND THE FALCON trilogy)

I started this book with no predictions, especially since Tarr avoids a formulaic feel and consistently surprises me. Strangely, I have clashing feelings about my investment level with this series. On the one hand, I didn’t find myself pulled back to the story if I stepped away from it. If I put the book down, it didn’t call me to pick it back up again and I could go quite a while before returning to it. On the other hand, whenever I did pick the book back up again I found myself immediately and entirely invested in the story.

There’s an unclear focus in terms of plot, but characters are doubtless the driving force in this series. Alf is a living riddle: fey raised as a monk. The clash between magic and religion becomes one of the most prominent, metaphoric themes in the entire series. We also met Thea in the first book, THE ISLE OF GLASS, another of Alf’s kind. Alf used to believe himself incapable of desire before meeting Thea and realizing he’s attracted to fey women, not human women. Three main plot threads dominate this second installment: a war, the continuing sexual tension between Alf and Thea, and Alf’s relationships within a family that more or less adopts him. Still a monk at heart, Alf wants to resist any carnal sin, but Thea teases him physically, emotionally, and intellectually. As for the family, Tarr introduces a handful of new and interesting characters, including a deafmute human boy that everyone believes hopelessly dumb but Alf recognizes a power humans can’t sense.

The book’s told in short chapters that keep the story clipping along a brisk pace. I suspect part of why I don’t feel a siren call luring me back to the book is that Tarr avoids any sensational feel. There aren’t any melodramatic cliffhangers luring the reader along with the promise of satisfied curiosity. Her writing has an understated quality and she’s subtle even when describing big moments. My only complaint there is sometimes I found the phrasing too subtle and often had to read very closely lest I miss something.

Again I find myself lacking in predictions about the next book, except that I expect (and hope) there will be more on the boy with unexpected gifts.

Monday, March 3, 2014

JOSH LANYON


Interview with JOSH LANYON

A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author Josh Lanyon has been writing gay mystery, adventure, and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed ADRIEN ENGLISH series, including THE HELL YOU SAY, winner of the 2006 USA Book News award for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.

What are you reading right now?

I'm just about to start work on a short story set in the 1940s, so I'm reading crime fiction from the 40s to make sure I've got the tone and the feel right. I'm reading Howard Browne, Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Nebel, etc.

 What first sparked your interest in writing?

Oh! That's going back a ways. I don't know. I was one of those kids who was always telling stories to the other kids. From the time I was very small my teachers were telling me I was going to be a writer, so I guess I went with it.

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

I love that almost magical (call it a waking dream state) that takes over when the work is going well. When you really are lost in the story, completely immersed in the world you've created and the lives of your characters.

I hate deadlines, but I would get nothing done without them. And I dread the first draft. My first drafts are sheer torture. They are hell to write, I have to drag the words out, my endings are never more than a rough sketch. I write horrible first drafts.  

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I don't know if it's anything as organized as a "process." Basically I get an idea and let it stew for a while. Then I start by jotting down a lot of notes as I do my research, working out some of the general details, and then I start writing my really ugly first draft. I try to write about two thousand words a day. I write most every day. Then I hand it off to my editor and ideally they hang onto it for a week or so, long enough that I can come back to it with fresh eyes. I enjoy the rewrite stage a lot. That's where the magic happens. 

 What are your passions?

This week? This week my passion is for Wallace Nutting's tinted photographs, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and Italian cooking.

What inspires you?

Music in particular. In fact, I usually can't listen to anything with lyrics until the first draft is done. I have different Pandora channels set up for my writing moods. First drafts require something called "Meditation by the Sea."
 
Why mystery?

Well, I'm mostly interested in character. All my stories are character driven. And mystery is all about motive and motive is essentially what drives people to do the things they do. The stakes are always high in mysteries, even if the crime isn't murder (though it usually is) and so the things that drive people to crime or to conceal crime are usually - at least in fiction - fascinating.

Why romance?


How was “Green Glass Beads” born?

The poem "Green Glass Beads" is one I remember from my childhood. I always loved it, loved wondering about the mysterious backstory of the nymph and the goblin, wondered about those green glass beads. And I knew I wanted - needed - to come up with some different angle for the anthology, so I thought what if my story was told from the perspective of someone on the other side of the law. Somehow those two ideas meshed.

What was it like writing a story for a shared world anthology?

Tricky! I'm not used to having to consider the creative ramifications of any of my storytelling choices. That's where having an editor like Nicole is invaluable. She kept us all on track and focused.

Of all your published books (and you have a lot!), do you have a personal favorite?

I like different titles for different reasons. Some, like OUT OF THE BLUE or SNOWBALL IN HELL, I'm especially proud of because of the research or the challenge of writing something I really had to stretch for. Some, like the ADRIEN ENGLISH series, I love because of my connection to the characters.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Don't be satisfied with "good enough." Every single thing you write should be the very best effort you have in you at that time. It won't save you from looking back at earlier work and wincing, but you can reassure yourself that you did the best work you were capable of. That means a lot.