Friday, September 14, 2018

CODE NAME: BUTTERFLY


Review of CODE NAME: BUTTERFLY by AHLAM BSHARAT
(based on a review copy)

This novel follows teenage Butterfly through typical adolescent issues shadowed by darker themes of political tension and occupation in the Middle East.

Butterfly’s voice is amazing, distinctive and convincing. I found myself glued to the page, because I could almost imagine Butterfly herself telling me all this, the flow a cross between conversational and storytelling.

At under 100 pages, the book felt underdeveloped to me. I enjoyed it, but felt it ended as soon as it began. The story made me feel, but didn’t have has much plot structure as I wanted. Also much more info is relayed through subtext than stated explicitly, which left me feeling this book benefits most from a very close reading.

Though CODE NAME: BUTTERFLY left me wanting more, Butterfly’s voice stands out among the wealth of complex themes packed so tightly into such a slim novel.

Friday, September 7, 2018

NO GOOD DEED


Review of NO GOOD DEED by KARA CONNOLLY

Teenage Ellie is an archery champion, in the running for a future with the Olympics. However, her success is dampened by the loss of her brother Rob, also an archery legend. Ellie’s specific skills with a bow and arrow come in handy when, logic aside, she finds herself thrown into the Sherwood Forest of the past, unintentionally playing Robin Hood.

Time travel is not usually my taste, but I think the same reasons this worked for me might be criticisms to others. Let me explain. Connolly uses time travel as the catalyst, but the science (or magic) is not explained. This works perfectly for me, because I most care about the characters and how they handle the catalyst anyway, and also almost every attempt at explaining time travel only further unconvinces me (explaining why I don’t particularly like the sub-genre). Connolly addresses some key questions quickly and efficiently, such as language barriers, but then focuses on what’s really important: the story.

Time travel stories can be vastly different, with potential for both serious and silly approaches. Connolly manages to ride that line and do both. There’s an underlying threat of danger fitting for the period, but the story doesn't swerve into any horrific directions that it certainly could. And the abundance of playful banter and silly snark adds a lighthearted layer to the adventure.

NO GOOD DEED is a fun read with the feminist twist of a female Robin Hood figure.

Friday, August 3, 2018

ARTEMIS GREY



Interview with ARTEMIS GREY

Artemis Grey was raised on fairytales and the folklore of Appalachia. She’s been devouring books and regurgitating her daydreams into written words since childhood. She can often be found writing by a crackling fire or romping through the woods on horseback, searching the depths of random wardrobes and wriggling into hollow tree trunks. She hopes to make her readers look at the world they’ve always seen, and see the world they’ve always envisioned.

What are you reading right now?

We’ve been on overtime at work for almost two months, and my reading has been happening only in audio from (graciously provided by a coworker who shares his audible account). Recently, I’ve been listening to the LEGEND OF DRIZZT series, by R.A. Salvatore. The books that started everything for me, were the original DRAGONLANCE trilogy, and the CRYSTAL SHARD trilogy. Specifically Raistlin Majere, and Drizzt Do’Urden have always been, and will always be, my two great loves in regard to character romances. Drizzt, in particular, is a comfort for me, and his stories are the ones I go back to again and again. From his character itself, to the fact that that character was actually created on impulse and without any intention of having the character “mean anything” Drizzt represents to me the what-ifs and the indomitableness carried within oneself.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

I accidentally answered part of this with my first answer. Like many writers, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t telling stories, but it was reading fantasy books like the ones above that started me writing my own stories. That, and the desire to be able to maybe create characters that would mean as much to someone, somewhere, as characters like Drizzt mean to me. In more recent years, writing nonfiction (specifically for the theatre of conservation) has been sparked by the need to educate the public and spread information, to be a voice for the voiceless.

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

What I love most about writing fiction is everything about the process and actual creation. “Meeting” new characters, learning about them, seeing their stories unfold. What I like the least is the need to try and convince members on the commercial side of things that my stories are “worthy” of being put into the public’s reach. In writing nonfiction, what I love most is being able to engage the public and teach them things they didn’t know. I also love, in a warrior’s sense, being able to combat those who would exploit voiceless animals, nature, and public ignorance, to make money, and damage that which they profess to care about. Most people are shocked to realize the truth about some of the most visible “conservationists” they’ve heard of. What I like least in nonfiction is the willful ignorance, and blind devotion that I’ve encountered on widespread levels. The willingness of humanity to warp or destroy principles, or overlook the same, even as they acknowledge it, in exchange for either their own gain, or because it’s more comfortable, or convenient to do so.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

In fiction I’m a panster to the core. A story, or character, or set of characters will blossom inside me, and for a varying amount of time decided by each, I’ll let them grow there, developing and maturing. Then I simply start writing. Most of the time, the greater story arch will already be visible to me. I’ll know the start, at least have an idea of the journey, and where things end up. But my rough drafts are very much that. My second drafts are where hard lines get drawn. I still write long hand in pen, when I’m able, and when that’s happened, it’s the transcription process that stands as my “second draft”. In nonfiction, I do a ton of research for articles. That’s very rewarding in itself. It’s all about taking hard science, and/or verified facts, and then presenting it in a way that reaches out and physically impacts the public, opens their eyes, and permanently alters them afterward, hopefully in all the best ways.

What are your passions?

Writing. Being a voice for those (animal or human) who have none of their own, but doing so in a way that remains true to them. Being alone, surrounded by nature, with as little indication of the presence of humanity as possible. The intangible connection and exchange possible with nature and animals that requires you to step outside yourself and not perceive the world in the manner of how it exists in relation to you, by rather in how it exists without you.

What inspires you?

Everything. Literally everything. From the things I love, to the things I most hate, or fear, it all inspires me in some way.

How was CATSKIN born?

I have always thought humans with albinism to be exceptionally beautiful not just in form, but in the sameness so often denied them by the rest of society. I feel likewise about all other “differences” perceived and maintained by society. At the same time, there were no male characters (that I knew of) which embraced “broken” females as they were, without trying to “fix” them because they saw them as not actually “broken” but simply the same as everyone else in a different way. The parallels of society treating those with albinism as being “different” and society treating those who have suffered a trauma as “different” developed into a story about a boy who was just the same as everyone else in his “differences” falling in love with a girl who likewise was the same in her “differences,” but who had been conditioned to believe she wasn’t “right.”

Do you think you will ever return to write more with Ansel and Catskin?

I sincerely hope so! I actually have outlines for two more books, one which follows Catskin before she met Ansel (which would address some issues like you can’t really walk around in Alaska for months surviving on nothing as it seems like Catskin did before meeting Ansel. I'm looking at you, Erynn) and one which follows them after the events in CATSKIN. Because CATSKIN was released through a very small press (Clean Reads, you’re the best ever) and because my writing is rich in satisfaction and joy, but poor in monetary matters, I have to split my time between a full time job, and my writing efforts. Clean Reads was the only publisher willing to publish CATSKIN (seriously, Clean Reads is a phenomenal group of people) so I’ve been trying to work on other projects which might be more commercially viable in the hopes that subsequent contracts would provide me with more time to write. Still working on that but also still working on CATSKIN related books!

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

The best advice I can give aspiring authors is to take the time to learn themselves, to learn their inner beings as far as their writing goes. Learn, accept, and respect what matters the most to you. Do you want to write for the love of writing? Do you want to be commercially and monetarily successful through your writing? Do you want to achieve some functional change in the world with your writing? The answers are vital, because they will guide you, and embracing them will allow you to be happy. Also, there is no wrong answer, and the answer can change dependent upon subject matter and situation. If you want to be a monetarily successful author, if what will make you happy is seeing your name in headlines, then you can shape your writing, what you write, and how you write it, with the goal of achieving those things. Yes, unexpected lightning does strike. But documenting the lifecycle and daily struggles of a hellbender salamander in an Appalachian stream-bed is not likely to gain you red-carpet receptions, or invitations to Dragon-Con panels. However, if what you love most is being able to take something that most of society doesn’t even know about, and turn it into a gripping tale that might mean everything to just a few people, then red-carpets and Cons don’t matter. A writer who wants to make money off their writing, is no less an author than a writer who wants only to document the comings and goings of the field mice in their backyard, and vice versa. Neither are the two exclusive. You can desire monetary success through one type of writing, while wanting only to document something for the sake of that thing with another type of writing.

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

Because I took over a month to get these questions answered and sent to Rachel (and I love Rachel immensely and very much appreciate her interest in interviewing me) I think she, and readers, deserve something extra, so I’ll tell you a secret: I have a habit of leaving scraps of paper sort-of hidden in all the places I go (public, or natural) with little things written on them. It might be a little stanza of poetry (I’m not an accomplished poet but I try) or a (hopefully) inspirational quote, or it might just say something like “You are enough in yourself.” Or something like that. But I believe that little unexpected bits of magic, and discovery like that help keep us alive in all the important ways, so I try to help them happen whenever I can.

Friday, July 13, 2018

BENJAMIN LUDWIG


Interview with Benjamin Ludwig

Benjamin Ludwig is the author of GINNY MOON, published by Park Row Books of HarperCollins on May 02, 2017. To date it has been published in eighteen countries. His novella, SOURDOUGH, was the recipient of the 2013 Clay Reynolds Prize for the Novella. A former English teacher and new-teacher mentor, he holds an MAT in English education and an MFA in creative writing. He and his family live in New Hampshire.

What are you reading right now?

Right now I’m reading a book called FIFTEEN DOGS by Andre Alexis. It’s a great book, one that I hope people will pick up and devour. The pitch totally hooked me as soon as I heard it: “And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic.” I’m always interested in books about dogs, and this was utterly tragicomic. I’m reading it for the second time, now. I like to read deeply rather than broadly – there are several books that I re-read every year, and I think this might end up being one of them.

What first sparked your interest in writing? 

I caught the writing-bug in third grade, the same year I fell in love with writing. I wanted to impress a girl who happened to be a bookworm, so I picked out a copy of the same book she was reading, sat next to her, and tried to strike up a conversation. She completely ignored me. So I started reading the book…and fell in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder. My buddies weren’t impressed, but I was enthralled. Soon after, I started writing my own stories, most of which were about a family of raccoons crossing a dangerous meadow. They had a pet squirrel named Jack, as I recall.

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

The constant surprise. Most of the time, when I think I know what’s going to happen next, my characters end up surprising me. Ginny was like that. I made an outline to guide me through the writing process, but she refused to follow it. She had her own ideas about how things should go. It was all I could do to keep up with her.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I write in two places. In the morning before the kids are up, I write on the couch, with the woodstove burning, and the dogs sprawled out nearby. During the day, when everyone is at school or work, I write at the dining room table so that I can spread out all my notes, outlines, and papers. Most of my revision and planning takes place during the day because I can get to at all the things I need without worrying about waking up the rest of the family. My mornings, though, are for purely creative work.

What are your passions?

Aside from writing? I love chopping wood, and gardening, and being outside. Hiking has always been a favorite activity.

What inspires you?

Poetry and music. Or maybe I should say music and poetry. The playfulness of structure, which I find easiest to perceive in those two things. Creativity has always been, for me, about setting up expectations, and then thwarting them in clever ways. That’s what music and poetry do, I think.

Ginny has such a distinct voice and perspective. Did it take a while to get that right or did her voice come to you from the start? 

Ginny’s voice came to me in a very mysterious, exciting way. I came home one night in 2013 from my daughter’s Special Olympics basketball practice with a voice ringing in my ears. It wasn’t my daughter’s voice, and it wasn’t the voice of any of the other kids I’d just been talking with at practice.  It was a desperate, quirky, driving voice – one that demanded to be written. So I sat and I wrote, and immediately saw that I had something beyond exciting. After that I wrote out an outline – but Ginny refused to do what the outline said. And thank goodness! Her direction proved to be much better. 

Did Ginny’s character require much research or did you write her more from empathy? 

I didn’t do any research at all, for Ginny as a character. Her voice made the character, if that makes sense. What she said, and how she said it, suggested a lot of the backstory, and pointed directly to some of her disabilities.

What made you decide on short chapters or is that simply what felt natural for this book?

I think Ginny’s own direct, to-the-point style demanded that the chapters be short. There were times when I tried to make some of the chapters longer, but she found my attempts to be (as she would put it) tedious.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Cultivate your ideas, and take them seriously. Human beings have creative thoughts all the time, but it’s so, so it’s easy to breeze past them, and to say, “That’s just a silly idea.”  The hardest thing for a new writer to do is to accept that a lot of their ideas can and should be developed. We sell ourselves short, I think, and underestimate ourselves all the time.

Friday, July 6, 2018

THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS


Review of THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS by NAFISA HAJI

With this beautiful novel, Haji spins a powerful and engaging family epic. The book opens in teenage Jo’s perspective as she struggles to reconcile something she learned in school about eye color with her own personal experience. From there, each chapter follows a different family member, coming back to certain characters again only much later. Each character connects to the others and we trace these connections along the way as we learn about this complex family tree. Everyone brings a unique perspective and life experience; however, together they form an affecting mosaic.

I fell in love with this book more than a little. For starters, the writing is gorgeous. I’m not usually one for picking out specific quotes, but the following insight into anger really moved me: “Anger is like milk. It doesn’t keep. It becomes sour.” The quote goes on to impress me further with: “Grief...ages better than anger. It is eternal.” And the quote is all the more touching in context: the woman speaking has her right to anger, but is explaining why she chooses instead to feel her grief to her fullest and treat the anger as something dangerous and unpredictable.  

As if that weren’t enough, the plotting is utterly compelling, too. I felt fully drawn into the story on every single page and, despite my habit of reading multiple books at a time or going days to weeks without continuing a specific book, I never had the least bit of difficulty keeping track of everyone in this story and picking up where I left off. This is one of those books about which my strongest criticism is that it had to end.

I worry that, gushing aside, I’m not explaining what this book is about enough for some readers. That said, the actual plot or “hook” is hard to describe without giving too much away as I’m convinced a great part of the wonder is in how skillfully everything unfolds detail by detail. If I tell you now how each viewpoint character is connected to each other, it robs you of the discovery process along the way, not to mention the other unexpected ties between their very different lives. It’s a beautiful family epic and we’ll leave it at that.

I finished THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS eager to get my hands on everything this author has ever published.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Art of Reading: Short vs. Long Books


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: short vs. long books. Do you have a preference?

Most of us will read and enjoy anything good, and I certainly believe the best story is told in exactly as many words as it needs, no more nor less. That disclaimer aside, we still have natural draws towards slim or thick books before we commit to reading it. Obviously, a huge tome is a bigger time investment, which makes you more wary about starting it if you’re not convinced it will be worth the effort. On the other hand, slim books can give the impression of less content = less value. Anyone who buys into the less is more philosophy knows that’s far from true, but still people balk at unexpectedly lean books.

Because I read so much, it probably makes even less difference to me whether I’m reading something short or long than it does to someone who reads a few books a year. I figure in terms of word and page count it all evens out in the end. However, I will confess that if I’m getting behind in reviews for my blog, I look at my to-read stacks and wonder if I should be plucking out a shorter and, therefore, faster reads rather than a 1,000+ page tome that will takes me weeks to months to finish.

Two short books I loved are I DON’T KNOW and BOY MEETS BOY. I DON’T KNOW is about our possibly harmful discomfort with simply admitting lack of knowledge or understanding. I DON’T KNOW may not be the best example for this post, though, as I do recall believing the short book felt more like an introduction to a topic begging for more pages. BOY MEETS BOY, on the other hand, is a beauty of a novel, a slim book told with exactly as few words needed to form a heartwarming tale about adolescent love.

Two long books I loved are INKHEART and SHOGUN. INKHEART is a middle grade, or possibly young adult depending on who you ask, fantasy. While fantasies tend to be longer than other fiction, INKHEART is still noticeably longer than other books on either the middle reader of YA shelves. The author created a complex world and follows several different characters with alternating POVs, making every page count, and with fairly short chapters the long book still reads faster than expected. As for SHOGUN, well, that classic makes INKHEART look short. Nevertheless, I remember eagerly racing my way through page after page of this gripping story about a fictional foreigner’s experience in feudal Japan.

Do you ever read books that you feel should be shorter or longer? I experience more of the former than the latter: when I read a great story but feel the author dragged it out and could have told the same, compelling story with a significantly reduced word count. An example is SHANTARAM. I enjoyed the book, but often felt it could be told in half or even a third as many pages.

I would also be particularly interested to hear from anyone who genuinely does prefer either short or long books. I feel there’s a stigma about admitting you don’t want to read a book because it looks long, but having worked in a bookstore for years I can tell you the sales prove it’s true!
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Friday, June 22, 2018

ABARAT: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR


Review of ABARAT: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR by CLIVE BARKER
(second in the ABARAT series)

I again highly recommend that anyone interested in this series purchase the illustrated versions. While I appreciate the writing and the story elements on their own merits, too, having the prose and complex, bizarre illustrations paired together is, in my opinion, an entirely superior experience.

Speaking of bizarre, I will again make mention that this is a weird series. Weird can be good or bad and mostly depends on the individual’s taste, but for me this book represents the best kind of weird: a mysterious, complex, surprising, imaginary world that feels as much a dream as a story. I feel as though the Sea of Izabella wrapped around me, too, and pulled me into the magical world of Abarat along with Candy.

This is very much a middle book, though I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing. There’s a lot of wandering and meandering and tangential adventures, sometimes with what feel like placeholder goals. I found every page engaging, but I knew we’re leading towards something bigger, a higher stakes conflict simmering beneath the lesser battles.

Barker wrote a “good” villain, by my standards, and by good I mean complex. I find “pure evil” villains boring. Carrion certainly has an evil streak, but there’s also interesting layers and backstory there that unfolds even more in this second book.

The short chapters switch between various points of view and with constant conflict of some variation or other, this chunky book reads faster than you may expect. The first two books were re-reads for me, so I look forward to reading the rest of the series fresh and finally learning how this dreamlike story concludes.

Friday, June 15, 2018

TELL US SOMETHING TRUE


Review of TELL US SOMETHING TRUE by DANA REINHARDT
(based on a review copy)

I almost gave up on this book, but I’m glad I didn’t. I struggled relating to the protagonist for perhaps even the first half, but it’s such a short book that I kept reading and was pleasantly rewarded with a satisfying character arch.

The premise of this novel is that teenage boy River feels completely lost when his girlfriend Penny dumps him. He shaped his life around her, became completely reliant on her. Left wandering without a ride home after Penny cuts him loose, River meanders into, of all things, a support group for teens with addictions. As his relationship with Penny demonstrates, River kind of goes with the flow, so he stays for the meeting, even convincing himself that he belongs. After all, he was more or less addicted to Penny and could now be considered “going clean” and suffering “withdrawal.” (Of course, he tells the group that he’s addicted to weed.)

My problem with River is that he seems like a boring guy with a boring problem. He doesn’t have interests or hobbies. He had friends, but he lost touch with them after he started dating Penny. He barely has a personality. Then, of course, it frustrated me how much he believes the world is ending upon his breakup and, even stumbling into the addiction group, doesn’t grasp any bigger picture, like that his life might be okay after a breakup or that other people might have much bigger problems.

What redeemed this book for me is that my complaints about River are kind of exactly the point. This coincidental, random tug towards an addiction group acts as a catalyst for him and it’s very gratifying experiencing his shift in mindset not to mention his expanding awareness of a bigger world full of, well, other people with other problems.

The story also pulls together in a way near the end that I found entirely unexpected, but it was very well executed and affecting. If your experience is like mine, this book may not pull you in early on, but it will be well worth the read anyway.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Art of Reading: Slumps


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: slumps. Do you consider yourself a book addict and yet you’ve gone for long, disappointing stretches without even picking up a book? Or you continued reading, but either didn’t enjoy reading or what you’re reading as much as usual?

It’s frustrating, to say the least, when your interest level for an old passion wanes (or in some cases, you just don’t have the time).  Like anything else in life, reading can come in waves with ups and downs as well as more steady, stable periods: ups being when you tear through book after book that you adore and downs beings when nothing hits your literary cravings or you stop altogether. We have up and down waves with what we watch on TV, too. In relationships, be it romantic partners, family members, or friends. Job satisfaction. Hobbies. I’m focusing on reading slumps, but ups and downs in general are simply a part of life.

There’s obviously a huge difference between not reading because you don’t have the time versus not reading because you’re losing interest in doing so. In some cases, maybe you have a lot going on in your life that’s zapping your attention and energy away from favorite pastimes. Or maybe you read several books in a row that you didn’t like and you need a break from that disappointment.

For my part, I usually manage to keep reading despite whatever’s going on in my life, but certainly the amount I read drops when I’m really busy. Also I’ve definitely gone through content slumps where I read a lot I don’t like very much before finally stumbling into something so gush-worthy it reminds me why I’m obsessed with books in the first place.

True readers always find their way back to books. I know people who read a lot as teenagers, fell out of the habit in college, and then picked it up twenty years later. Long slump, sure, but that’s part of what I love so much about books. They’re always there when we need them.

How about you? Is your life a tale of reading ups and downs? Anything in particular cause the downs? Do you do anything about it or wait for reading to naturally sweep you up again one day?

Friday, June 1, 2018

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL


Review of WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: INSIDER ADVICE FOR TAKING YOUR FICTION TO THE NEXT LEVEL by DONALD MAASS

Recently, I started reading more books on writing. Generalizing, I find there’s not a lot that’s new conceptually for me (which explains why I didn’t read writing books much before). However, buried beneath more familiar advice I always find something especially worthwhile, whether it’s a truly new perspective or merely an original phrasing of an already accepted idea.

There are several approaches to writing about writing. I very much believe that writing advice and discussions can be subdivided into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business is more about the publishing industry than actually about writing a story. Craft is more about, well, writing the story. And philosophy is more about mindset and is often motivational: how to keep your spirits up in a rejection filled business, etc.

Maass’ book is definitely a book about craft, though even that can be subdivided into specific approaches. I would say that Maass talks more to the big scale aspects of a novel in generalized terms. That is to say, this is not a book full of writing exercises but rather insight on an overarching level in terms of what tends to work and what doesn't. (And by work, I do mean sell.)

In particular, Maass focuses a lot on how to write engaging stakes, characters, and conflict. He phrases some of his stakes advice in uniquely accessible terms. As for characters, he breaks down exactly what makes us invest in individual characters, both protagonists and antagonists. With conflict, he lists the disparate elements of conflict that must each work well to fuse into a can’t-put-down story.

I made note of two opinions with which I very much agree. 1. Don’t write what you know; write what you care about. I’ve heard that advice before and it changed how I write. Your passion for any topic will seep into the story far more effectively than your apathy for anything you think “should be” exciting. 2. The craft of writing is only a mystery as much as we let it be; it can be broken down into a science and the data we collect used to deliberately create bestsellers. I have never much been a fan of the elusive muse mindset that makes accountability for one’s work external. I, too, believe you can deconstruct what’s working and what’s not and use this evidence to more scientifically, not mysteriously, improve your work.

I believe long-time writers, myself included, often fall into the trap of thinking someone has nothing new to tell us. That’s pretty much never true. As this very book tells us, we’re all telling the same stories again and again but the same thing said in a slightly different way can still be revolutionary.
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Friday, May 25, 2018

BE NOT AFRAID


Review of BE NOT AFRAID by CECILIA GALANTE
(based on a review copy)

This book is not my usual taste: a story about demonic possession. I like speculative fiction, but that’s a wide net and, like most people, my individual taste is more specific. I have never been a fan of: possession, ghosts, and the undead (think zombies and vampires), to name my strongest dislikes. Nevertheless, I found myself pulled into BE NOT AFRAID thanks to the book’s high suspense.

Much of the plot felt contrived and predictable to me, and it’s definitely a novel that puts plot before characters, another reason it goes against my usual taste. However, the author keeps the story plugging away at a fast pace with mystery woven into every page, so I still liked the book and would recommend it to others, especially those who think it sounds more like their taste to begin with.

Let me back up and describe the premise some more. Ever since Marin’s mother committed suicide Marin gained an unusual gift (or is it curse?). When she looks at people, she sees colored shapes indicating places where they’re experiencing pain, and, yikes, is the world ever full of pain. Suddenly, Marin’s life turns into a kaleidoscope of other people’s physical pain, making her retreat into herself socially. Then popular girl Cassie, with whom Marin has some unpleasant history, stands up in the middle of an assembly, points at Marin while whispering, “YOU,” and proceeds to have some kind of bizarre seizure. From there, Cassie’s older brother pursues Marin’s help in figuring out the cause behind Cassie’s increasingly concerning behavior. 

Aside from somewhat underdeveloped characters, I believe the main reason I struggled suspending my disbelief enough is that the story seems to assume the reader believes in God, demons, and possession rather than starting off with the assumption that we don’t and then working to convince us. As someone especially skeptical on all three points, I felt perhaps even more distanced from the story than someone who fully believes in or at least considers possible any or all of those three things.

I really liked that Marin’s grandmother plays a central role in her life and found that one of the more distinctive aspects of this story. Not everyone has grandparents active in their lives, but I have a suspicion that most real life teenagers interact with their grandparents far more than most fictional teenagers.

This novel doesn’t break molds by any means, but not every book has to. If you’re looking for something fun to do with your free time, you can add reading BE NOT AFRAID to your list of possibilities.

Friday, May 18, 2018

THE BEATRICE LETTERS


Review of THE BEATRICE LETTERS by LEMONY SNICKET

Oh, you thought Snicket’s thirteen-book-long series was over, did you? Not quite. Here the puzzles continue with a collection of letters between the mysterious Beatrice and our fictional author Lemony. The letters, of course, include the characters’ usual efforts at coded messages as well as the rambling, subtextual wit that I consider the signature of this series.  

I found this installment a little too young for my tastes, but expect the target audience of middle grade readers will thoroughly enjoy analyzing each letter for hidden messages. The book is also a little more interactive with pop-up and fold-out pages as well as pockets for things like a poster. Definitely a fun addition for young fans of the series.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Art of Reading: Recommendations


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: recommendations. How often do you read something at the recommendation of someone else? Do you tend to like books that have been recommended to you? Or does it really depend on who recommends them? Is there a particular person whose recommendations you especially trust? Do you yourself recommend books to others? Do those recommendations usually go over well or not so much?

Anyone who follows my blog regularly likely noticed I’ve been in a blogging slump lately. Well, silver lining is that it did give me an idea for this non-review post about recommendations.

The truth is that I have been reading, just as much as always, but sadly I haven’t been liking a lot of what I read, and, although I always mention my criticisms, I only review books if I like them. Given this spree of disinterest in what I read, I had to ask myself, “Is it me? Is it them?” Perhaps after decades of addict level reading, I’m becoming a more cynical, critical reader. I do think that’s true, but I also noticed a trend. Lately I’ve mostly been reading books people recommended rather than ones I picked out myself. And all the ones I haven’t liked are ones someone else urged me to read. To clarify, I do read plenty of recommendations that I love, including some I’m still finishing now, but my point is that there was a common trend in the ones I wasn’t liking: someone pushed me to read it and, despite this small, internal voice that suspected I wouldn’t like it, I caved to the reader peer pressure.

Next I wondered about the difference between the recommendations I liked and those I didn’t. I do think recommendations are far more likely to be a hit if the recommender and recommendee already have similar tastes. Certain people, such as booksellers and I like to think reviewers like myself, have a distinct skill for knowing who will like which books even if they themselves feel differently. However, most people tend to assume that if they like something other people will, too. In my case, I have eclectic tastes but a special draw towards speculative fiction. I am utterly and completely guesstimating but I would say 75% of what I choose myself is spec fic while only 25% of what people recommend to me is spec fic. Given that I’m almost done with two non-spec fic novel recommendations that I cannot wait to rave about in reviews, a book not being spec fic is not a deal breaker for me. However, I do think it demonstrates differences in my average taste versus the average taste of those recommending books to me.

Now the last thing I want to suggest with this post is that we all know exactly what’s good for us and should never consider anyone else’s opinions. Word of mouth is the single most powerful advertising tool in the world. We make most of our purchasing decisions, not just with books, based on recommendations by those whose opinion we trust. The truth is that I have had plenty recommended to me that I thought I wouldn’t like and found myself happily proven wrong. It’s wonderful, in fact, to broaden your horizons that way, but my point is that it’s equally disheartening when you try broadening your horizons and don’t feel anything more uplifting from the experience than that apathetic “meh” response.

I want to mention some recommendations that pleasantly surprised me. First, Jane Austen. In all honesty, I now realize I was making a judgment about the type of person who raved about her novels: from my experience, often young women gushing over the romantic male leads. Then when I finally read one of Austen’s books, I was startled by how much feminism I encountered. Second, a friend recommended Abarat to me and a peek at the illustrations had me thinking, “Boy, this looks weird. “Little did I know I would consider it the best kind of weird and find myself dreamily pulled into this fantastical world. Third, a publisher sent me a copy of The Original Ginny Moon. I don’t read everything people send me for review, especially when I didn’t ask for it, but neither am I someone to turn my nose up at free books so I try to give as many of these review copies a decent chance as I can. The premise didn’t sound to my taste by description alone, but - wow, oh wow - what a compelling and unique narrator voice.

No surprise given the nature of this blog, but I recommend books to people constantly, sometimes upon request, sometimes unsolicited. I also worked as a bookseller for four years where that was the nature of the job. Recommending at the bookstore was even trickier than recommending to a friend, because you have to attempt assessing someone’s taste within a brief, few minutes long conversation. I like to think that I have a knack for recommendations. People usually come back to me for more suggestions and sometimes there’s impressed surprise, because they were skeptical and then found my pick for them to be spot on. Of course, I have had experiences where someone doesn’t like what I recommended, but, if I’m really honest, I think I saw it coming in those cases. Every now and then I push a book on someone not because I truly believe they will love it but for more selfish reasons. I love it, and poor me but I cannot find anyone else I know who’s read it so I’m all alone in my quiet adoration. I don’t do this on purpose, but when someone admits they didn’t really understand the appeal of something I recommended I often realize that small, internal voice warned me: “This isn’t really their taste...but maybe, hopefully we’ll both be surprised and then we can gush over the book together.”

Speaking of recommending books for selfish reasons, I want to end this post on a funny note. I have a friend who several times has pushed and pushed me to read a book: “You have to read this. Have you read this yet? You have to read it. I really want to hear what you think.” Then when I finally read the book...I hate it. So I say to this friend, “Well, sorry, but...I didn’t really like it.” only to hear, “I know! Isn’t it awful? I hated it, too!” Did your brain just explode the slightest bit, too? Turns out when this friend encounters a book he really detests, he plays the same game I do when I encounter one I absolutely adored: he goes looking for someone else, anyone else, he can get to read it so they can talk about it together. Well, needless to say, I don’t read books recommended by this friend anymore.

So how about you? How often do you read based on recommendations? How often does that work out for you? Do you recommend books to others, and do they like the ones you suggest?

Friday, March 30, 2018

PERFUME


Review of PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER by PATRICK SUSKIND
(translated from German by JOHN E. WOODS)

Jean-Baptiste is not like other humans. He lives for smell and smell alone. Yes, you read that right. Everything else about the world is immaterial to him. All that matters is scent. His sense of smell borders on something superhuman as he can pick it apart down to its base elements as well as separate out and follow one smell amid a chaotic environment overwhelmed with different complex scents. This fixation leads him to a life as an extraordinary perfumer. However, Jean-Baptiste cares nothing for fame, fortune, or even his work. His true, secret goal is more sinister, rooted in a dark experience from his youth when he tracked the most exquisite, perfect scent to a young girl and unsuccessfully tried to take her scent for himself.

I would call this story magical realism. It’s not fantasy as it doesn’t explicitly call anything magic, but rather the magical elements are catalysts for unusual characters and plot threads. However, I consider the novel some branch of speculative fiction without a doubt since what Jean-Batiste does lies beyond the bounds of realism as we know it and his whole character is portrayed almost as a type of demon.

I hesitate to comment on the writing, since I know this book is translated from the German, but I will assume the English translation bears some reflection of the original German. I cannot call the writing anything other than luscious, skillfully taking us inside a very warped, tunnel vision obsessed mindset. The story is filled with vivid, unusual metaphors putting Jean-Baptiste’s bizarre view of the world into some comparison most of us can understand. Also as a writer myself, I struggle with scent more than any other sense. I know smells, but putting a specific smell into descriptive words a reader can understand is very difficult. Yet Suskind (and/or Woods) finds the words, over and over and over again, to describe a small fraction of the countless distinct scents we encounter in our daily life.

This is a weird story to be sure, but weird can be good or bad. Some will find Jean-Baptiste’s creepy obsessions merely off-putting while others, like myself, see the story as an exceptionally unique point of view. I believe most everyone will agree this novel is one of a kind.

Friday, March 2, 2018

TONGUES OF SERPENTS


Review of TONGUES OF SERPENTS by NAOMI NOVIK
(sixth in the TEMERAIRE series)

After being convicted of treason and striped of his title in the last book, former Captain Will Laurence and his dragon partner Temeraire are transferred to a prison colony in Australia. They accept an assignment to blaze a trail through uncharted territory in hopes for leniency on their sentence. Along the way they encounter smugglers and unfamiliar, dangerous, wild beasts.

As always, I LOVE the voice in this series. It’s so unique, wittily formal, and in a word delightful. Temeraire in particular never ceases to tickle me: the proper dragon with a sense of etiquette and a firm moral code.

I also love the Australian creature introduced in this book, though not in the same way I love Temeraire. I don’t want to say what it is to avoid spoilers, but the interpretation of this mythical beast is the right amount of creepy and intriguing. Not to mention the thing’s knack for showing up at the worst possible moments and making those moments worse.  

I love every new Temeraire book I read and this is one of those series that I naively hope will never end.

Friday, February 23, 2018

PRINCESS BEN


Review of PRINCESS BEN by CATHERINE GILBERT MURDOCK

In full honesty, this book almost didn’t make the cut for a review. I love the story, characters, and themes, but I have nothing positive to say about the writing.

My approach to reviews is that I would rather focus on praising books I adore than bashing those I dislike. This comes from being a writer myself and understanding how much work goes into even books I think are terrible as well as a general preference for putting more emphasis on positive than negative. That said, with books I detest it’s an easy decision: no review. The tricky part comes with books where I have both glowing praise as well as harsh criticisms, in which case I weigh them in my mind and ultimately ask whether or not I still recommend the book. I may like being positive, but I care more about honesty so I feel if I’m going to review a book I have an obligation to call out both strengths and weaknesses as I see them.

To get the negative out of the way, almost every single sentence irritated me. It feels like a thesaurus has been taken to the entire novel and the style frequently opts for unusual, obtuse word choice over something simpler and more accurate. I might have been able to get past a formal, wordy writing style were it not for the fact that the book is told in first person. I cannot fathom anyone who thinks this way and it doesn’t feel natural as Ben’s voice.

However, I stop reading a book when I realize I’m not enjoying it and yet I liked this story so much that being annoyed about word choice in almost every sentence still wasn’t enough to make me put down the book. Princess Ben is a great protagonist with an array of both strengths and weaknesses like any real human being. She whines about other people judging her constantly, but doesn’t realize how much she misjudges those around her.

Let me back up and describe the premise. Princess Ben is not an ideal princess. She’s overweight and uncouth, argumentative and tactless. When her father the king dies, she’s left in the care of her stepmother until she comes of age to rule. And her merciless stepmother finds fault in every little thing Ben does. Then Ben makes some magical discoveries that lead her down an unexpected path to even more important discoveries about the fate of her country and the people she thought she knew.

And the thing is, now that I’m done with the book, I’m not thinking about that word that seemed especially out of place on page such and such. I’m still thinking about Princess Ben and how she changed for the better over time and all she learned about people she thought she had all figured out.

Friday, February 16, 2018

INKSPELL


Review of INKSPELL by CORNELIA FUNKE
(second in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

Meggie’s magical bibliophilic adventures continue. After defeating the villain that her father accidentally read out of the infamous novel Inkheart years ago, she returns to her normal life. Better than normal, in fact, since now she has her mother back. Unfortunately, sometimes moving on is easier said than done and despite all the terrible things that have happened because of that book Meggie cannot get Inkheart out of her head. She idolizes that magical, fictional world and hopes desperately to be read into the story so she can experience all the wonder firsthand. Everyone warns her that the world of Inkheart is as horrible as it is beautiful, but she becomes obsessively fixated on seeing the beauty for herself. So she resolves to find a way to read herself into the book.

This is a re-read for me and I confess that I didn't adore this one as much as I did the first time. I suspect it’s a matter of taste. I don’t normally gravitate towards either epic fantasy or multiple POVs. At times the story felt longwinded and unnecessarily complex to me. (Whereas I recall thinking on the first reading that the layered stories and worldbuilding were impressively complex.) The story also feels too dark for my taste at times, especially with that sense of romanticizing the darkness.

That said, I still enjoyed this book cover to cover; I think I only overhyped it a little in my own mind over time. Dustfinger will always be a favorite character for me, despite falling into the exact trope of trapped in an endless cycle of tragedy that I took issue with in the above paragraph. In INKSPELL specifically, I love the complicated, thought-provoking role that Cosimo ends up playing, along the lines of which it’s constantly fascinating to consider the effects an author could have living in the world he created.

Above all, I cherish this series for the book-obsessed premise: book magic, lots of avid readers, quotes from real books, stories within stories. These novels were written as a love letter to bibliophiles everywhere and have set up a permanent place of affection for themselves in my heart. I look forward to seeing how the last book in the trilogy holds up on the second read.

Friday, February 9, 2018

BURN


Review of BURN by JULIANNA BAGGOTT
(third in the PURE trilogy)

The final installment in Baggott’s complex and beautiful PURE trilogy sees all of our favorite characters held captive by terrible circumstances and scrambling for even the tiniest bit of leverage to help their cause. If you’re avoiding spoilers of the first two books, don’t read this review.  

Partridge’s storyline in particular ran dangerously close to be boringly passive, but Baggott makes it work in same way she does the others, by evoking strong emotional empathy for her characters. Partridge finds himself stuck as a powerless figurehead. He carries on with his fake engagement, following a schedule of trivial activities and photo ops while what he really wants is to be plotting the Dome’s downfall with the woman he truly loves, Lyda. As mentioned earlier, all the main characters find themselves trapped in frustratingly powerless circumstances. Lyda misses the outside something fierce. It was dangerous but liberating. Now she plays the damsel in a tower role, hidden away in a beautiful apartment where she can’t see Partridge and she doesn’t have the freedom to come and go as she wishes.  

The only drawback for me was the ending. The entire series has a very slow, character focused build towards an inevitable showdown between those inside and outside the Dome. Then the hurried climax comes abruptly and the series ends without much denouement. I have always been a reader more interested in the aftermath of an explosion than the explosion itself, so it disappointed me that we aren’t privy to much aftermath.

Regardless theses characters made themselves comfortable in my heart and I won’t soon forget about the girl with a doll for a hand, the boy with birds on his back, the brothers fused together, or the girl who crafted spears from a crib.

Friday, February 2, 2018

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS


Review of IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by ERIK LARSON

With this nonfiction history book, Larson follow the American ambassador in Germany before World War II. The book almost reads like fiction with a well-paced sense of storyline and plot threads as Larson leads readers through a wealth of complicated, layered information.

Above all this is a true tale about the ambassador William E. Dodd, but his daughter Martha also plays a significant part. Starting with Dodd, though, he had an admirable view on the role of politicians that I wish we saw more of today. He believed politicians, diplomats included, serve their country and their people and should not be extravagantly rewarded for service he considers more a duty than a favor. Dodd took his pay at a much lower rate than offered and frequently turned down luxuries in favor of more practical, cost-efficient alternatives. Nobel as this may sound to some, myself included, this modest approach earned him countless enemies and he spent most of his career fighting off one attempt or another to oust him from his position in favor of someone more traditional (and by that I do mean more of a spendthrift). The official stance against Dodd was that part of a diplomat’s role is to pamper and impress his peers. However, I believe (and this is me talking, not something taken from the book) that people like Dodd threaten those more attached to their bloated salaries and excessive lifestyles. Dodd focused on the work: on who he needed to talk to and more on what should be said in that conversation than what fancy restaurant or party they should attend, what they should wear and eat, or how he could phrases bribes as gifts, etc.

Meanwhile Dodd’s daughter Martha loved the attention her father’s role brought her. She became infamous in their circle for her promiscuous dating life. Her lovers included some men very powerful in politics at the time, including the first chief of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy. My impression at least, though, is that Martha seemed to care little for the political connections of these men beyond a novelty that contributed to their complex and intriguing characters as men romantically interested in her.

It feels odd to make such statements about Dodd and Martha, as if I knew them at all. Larson, however, includes plenty of first hand quotes from speeches, interviews, conversations, and letters, enough that the reader can start to believe they have an idea of what kind of people contributed to this part of history. It’s particularly eye-opening reading direct quotes on how people reacted to Hitler at the time, not to mention direct quotes from Hitler himself. Larson paints a not unfamiliar portrait of a world in denial and a U.S. preoccupied with their own priorities. Sadly, and again all too familiar, Dodd’s warnings become lost in pettier politics. His peers look down on him as an idealistic nonconformist due to his financial beliefs and then their dislike of him turns to an eagerness to dismiss anything he claims, including warnings about the threat Germany poses to Jews, to the U.S., and to the world.

Dodd might sound like a heroic underdog in my descriptions, but Larson is carefully avoids idolizing him. Both Dodd and Martha make anti-Semitic statements, establishing that while they abhor the thought of genocide they do both agree that Jews are a worldwide “problem.” Near the end of the book there’s also brief mention of something terrible Dodd does once back in the U.S., a seemingly random story except as a reminder of who he was as a complete, flawed man of his time.

The short chapters make this thick book read faster than expected. With the excerpts from historical documents providing real words from real people, Larson gives his readers at least a subtle sense that we were there. He treats these figures with careful attention to their hypocrisies and nuances, piecing together a familiar world of flawed human beings and how those flaws can sometimes leave big gaps in mankind overall, gaps that can be exploited in the worst ways imaginable.

It’s only in the past five years or so that I have taken an interest in nonfiction as well as fiction, but Larson’s unique way of making history read like a story makes me eager to hunt down his other books.  

Friday, January 26, 2018

MAGIC STUDY


Review of MAGIC STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(second in the STUDY trilogy)

After being banished from her homeland (kind of; we’ll get to that) for having magical powers, Yelena sets off to learn how to control her magic before it takes control of her. Along the way, she reunites with her birth family. Kidnapped as a young girl and raised in another country, Yelena had her early memories magically erased by her kidnapper. So this overjoyed, welcoming family nevertheless feels composed of strangers. Not to mention that her brother hardly seems pleased about her return, going so far as to accuse her of impersonating his long lost sister. Then someone starts preying on young girls in a way all too familiar to Yelena. Her past experiences and particular skills make her the obvious choice for tracking down this sociopath, but she’s far from ready for a challenge of this magnitude.

Snyder does an incredible job “filling” every corner of her story. Many books lag in the middle, and many trilogies have an entire middle book less interesting than the first and last books. Not Snyder. From the every day details of Yelena’s lifestyle to her developing relationships to the higher action and drama, Snyder makes every page worth reading.

This trilogy may be one of the few cases where I actually like the books more upon a second read. From my first read, I recall enjoying the series with some harsh criticisms, but upon a second read those criticisms seem much exaggerated in my memory. I’ve written about how expectations affect our final opinion and in this case I suppose knowing already what I consider the book’s drawbacks allowed me to simply enjoy the story to the fullest. And with a weaving, layered plot lush with interesting characters, there’s plenty to enjoy.

My main remaining criticism is that Yelena presents as a typical Mary Sue trope. Power beyond what anyone knew possible. Defies traditional rules, without the traditional consequences. Perfect in many people’s eyes, either the love of their life or the greatest friend they ever expect to have. Pursued by multiple of this world’s most intriguing bachelors. Detested by the villains to the point of single-minded obsession. As one particular example of her greater-than-thou qualities, there are several instances in the book where Yelena meets someone and has a very strong first impression of whether they are a good or bad person. Now based on the interaction alone, I as the reader cannot understand why she has this impression. However, she’s always right, eventually and at least partially. This makes me feel a little left out as the reader, because her ability to anticipate people’s true trustworthiness seems more like some all powerful magical sense than anything logical I too can detect from subtle descriptive clues.

I forgot, though, how much Snyder’s books suck me into the story. I cannot wait to re-read the last in this trilogy. I cannot recall at all how she wraps everything up, but I trust she will make every page along the way a good read.

Friday, January 19, 2018

PRINCESSES BEHAVING BADLY


Review of PRINCESSES BEHAVING BADLY: REAL STORIES FROM HISTORY - WITHOUT THE FAIRY-TALE ENDINGS by LINDA RODRIGUEZ MCROBBIE
(based on a review copy)

I love my remarkable women fiction, but how about some nonfiction? This book features not a few but dozens and dozens of incredible accounts from different points in history and around the globe of unforgettable princesses.

The stories start becoming a little repetitive but I don’t even mean that as the criticism it sounds. The similarities between the stories add to a resounding theme of brave/bold/smart/manipulative/strategic/vicious/carefree/permiscuous women. The book sorts these dynamic figures as best as possible into the following categories: warriors, usurpers, schemers, survivors, partners, floozies, and madwomen. Each chapter focuses on a specific woman, but the author nevertheless sneaks in even more stories by making brief mention of similar tales at the end of some chapters. 

I hold nonfiction authors in high regard for the amount of research required for their work, especially those who document their sources and biases well. Rodriguez McRobbie makes mention whenever accounts vary or are unclear, as well as acknowledges what comments fall under speculation.

To be honest, this book is so overflowing with badly behaved princesses, I don’t know where to start picking examples. I genuinely think every single story is worth reading. I will say I laughed aloud at several points in the section on women who pretended to be princesses, mostly unsuccessfully with some surprise success stories in the mix.

In general, this is a book full of tales of women who made their own story. Some are most definitely not stories I would want for myself, but nevertheless I enjoyed all the accounts of women defying expectations and social limits. Some use their power for good...and some don’t, but each of the many tales in here deserves its place on the page.