Friday, December 28, 2018

INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME


Review of INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME: A PORTRAIT OF DOMESTIC LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND by JUDITH FLANDERS

I read this book as research for a short story I’m writing set in Victorian England. However, the content here is so well delivered and organized that I believe this would be an enjoyable read for anyone remotely interested in this era.

While a thick book, these approximately 500 pages only scratch the surface of possible topics regarding an entire era. Even with long chapters, the book reads surprisingly fast, because practically every sentence contains interesting information conveyed through strong writing and a logical flow. Flanders organizes her content by room, which is fitting for the ideology of the era: that each room should have a specific, distinct purpose. Flanders also uses each room as a jumping off point for relevant topics such as money, servants, food, etiquette, and fashion. Add in several sections of lovely color photographs and this book is well packed with fascinating content.

INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME is clearly very well-researched with a hefty chunk of pages at the end devoted to footnotes and further reading. While this is the only research book so far that made the cut for a review (in other words, that I thought someone not specifically doing research would still enjoy), it also proved a great starting point for discovering other resources, especially nonfiction from the era (like the infamous Mrs. Beeton).

If you find yourself at all curious to know more about the Victorian era, I doubt I could recommend a better book.

Friday, December 21, 2018

THE HUSBAND'S SECRET


Review of THE HUSBAND’S SECRET by LIANE MORIARTY
(based on a review copy)

I have a growing love-hate relationship with this author’s work. I love her work, love love love her work. None of my criticisms will keep me from gushing about her to others or eagerly snatching up everything and anything she writes. However, she employs a specific suspense technique in all her work that is one of my top pet peeves in writing. 

The pet peeve in question is withholding information for as long as possible to build suspense. The reader knows that there is important information being withheld, but not what, the idea being that the desire to know what will keep one reading. In Moriarty’s case, she establishes very early on in her novels that there’s a big secret, almost every chapter will continue to elude to and tantalize about this secret, but typically the secret is not revealed until halfway or even two thirds of the way through the book. As a very character-centric reader, I find this technique skews the focus in a different direction than I want and only serves to frustrate me.

THE HUSBAND’S SECRET establishes the withheld information right in the title. What is the husband’s secret? Then the book opens with a wife finding a sealed letter addressed to her in her husband’s handwriting buried amide old boxes of paperwork. He’s out of town and when she innocently mentions the letter she found, he begs her not to open it, to throw it out and forget about it completely. Suspicious. The letter’s secret is not revealed until almost halfway through the book. Meanwhile, the chapters include plenty of scenes excessively reminding us about this unrevealed secret: the wife repeatedly staring at the letter in a battle of conscience, the husband telling her multiple times not to open it and not so artfully inquiring into where she put it.  

That’s not to dismiss the entire first half of the book. This technique annoys me enough that I would not like this author’s work if something didn’t more than redeem her books for me. That something is characters (and writing, though you can lump them together in this instance). Moriarty always presents a large cast of distinct and complex characters and I relish getting to know how each one sees the world differently. Even when I find myself frustrated at the slow reveal aspect, I nevertheless enjoy every word as I get to know the characters, their motivations and relationships. As a writer myself, I understand that Moriarty is prepping us for the big reveal by giving us time to invest in the characters. The first book I read by her - BIG LITTLE LIES - is in my mind a perfectly paced example of her own style. I never found myself frustrated about withheld information and the big reveal both surprised me and made perfect sense. Unfortunately, with the others I have read since then including THE HUSBAND’S SECRET I called the reveal before it happened, which then takes away from the effect of that moment and makes me all the more frustrated for how long I waited for that information.  

Another issue I had with this book is that the ethics of everything seemed black and white to me. This author specializes in complicated dynamics and moral grey areas, but nothing was grey here for me, though I expect others will feel differently. I do not mean this as the criticism it no doubt sounds like, for I still enjoyed reading about why these tortuously conflicted characters, with all their unique perspectives, see grey where I see black and white. Yet a small part of me felt much of their inner turmoil could be chalked up to nothing more special than self-justification and I couldn’t help wanting them to set aside all their excuses and do what’s right (in my opinion). That all said, this is exactly what I love so much about Moriarty. She makes me care. I feel so opinionated on everyone’s actions in her books, which isn’t the case with a dull or unbelievable character. I can’t wait to read what happens next to everyone and I have genuine emotional responses to decisions the characters make.

Despite feeling secret-taunted, I would highly recommend Moriarty’s work to anyone who will listen, but especially those most interested in good character development. The short chapters make it a fast read and her nuanced relationships make every single page up to  and beyond the big reveal addictively enjoyable.
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Friday, December 14, 2018

SEBASTIAN


Review of SEBASTIAN by ANNE BISHOP
(first in the EPHEMERA series)

I adore everything by Anne Bishop. She’s one of my all-time favorite authors, no contest, and SEBASTIAN is no exception.

I believe everything Bishop writes follows her own formula, a word that has a negative connotation, but I think she’s found a brilliant formula that she executes to admirable results. My pros and cons for each book tend to remain the same, though, because they are my pros and cons for her formula. That said, it’s mostly pros: a complex and interesting magic system, a large cast of unique and lovable characters, a steamy romance, and an underlying theme of fate as the hand of justice with karma punishing the bad and rewarding the good.   

In SEBASTIAN, Bishop crafts an utterly singular and compelling fantasy world. People shape the world: with their hearts, that is to say their emotions and thoughts. Positivity and kindness will create a beautiful world while negativity and cruelty design something far darker. Special people are gifted with the ability to mold the world with more deliberate skill, nudging it in the right direction. I will mention here that Bishop has a passion for gardening that comes through in all her work. In this case, the worlds are maintained, metaphorically of course, very much like a garden: tended and weeded so they can grow and blossom. These worlds, called landscapes, are actually separate and linked by magical bridges. Some bridges take you to a specific landscape while others could take you to many, but regardless you cannot enter a landscape unless it resonates with you on some level.

This book follows (surprise!) Sebastian, an incubus who lives in a landscape designed by his cousin specifically for demons like himself. Though painted by outsiders as a disgusting den of sin, there’s actually a lot of playful undertones to Sebastian’s landscape, not to mention a strong sense of camaraderie and loyalty.

When a meek, inexperienced, mistreated country mouse stumbles into his landscape, Sebastian knows she doesn’t belong. Admitting as much pains him, for after a lifetime of anonymous incubus sexual encounters, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to this shy woman and craving an intimacy beyond his own experience.

Meanwhile, an old threat escapes, promptly wreaking havoc within the landscapes. This monstrosity is difficult to summarize, but can basically lure those trying to cross into another landscape into its own instead, where the unlucky victims meet appalling deaths. The...thing is truly horrifying, as are the other antagonists, not to mention the added layers and twists to their backstory and motivations.

SEBASTIAN is yet another stellar example of why I adore Anne Bishop’s work.

Friday, December 7, 2018

CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET?


Review of CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET? by SOPHIE KINSELLA

This one was a re-read for me and actually quite matched my original impressions of it. The book is a lighthearted chick lit novel with unexpected moments of subtle feminism.

Our protagonist Emma is a nervous flyer. When her plane hits some extreme turbulence, she starts spilling her every little secret to the man sitting next to her, convinced she’s about to die. Of course, she doesn’t die, but she does learn not long later that she confessed everything from her real underwear size to a fib on her resume to none other than her new boss. Well, her boss’s boss. Or her boss’s boss’s boss. Point is he’s the head of the company. Awkward.

Emma is a laywoman, written very much in the style of Brigit Jones. She sometimes comes across as superficial, but I find that true of most chick lit novels. I think of them more as pure entertainment reading, not intended to provoke deep discussions of the human condition or turn my understanding of the world upside down. Nope, this book is designed to make you smile and laugh and enjoy, and that it certainly did.

Friday, November 30, 2018

AMERICANAH


Review of AMERICANAH by CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE

I loved this book, no doubt because it’s all about character. I would describe it both as a sweeping love story as well as an immigration saga. The book opens with Ifemelu, who emigrated from Nigeria to the United States. From there, the story tips back to tell of her passionate college relationship with Obinze. A recent reconnection with him makes Ifemelu reflect on her life from then to now.   

I love the quality and quantity of conversations raised by this novel. After a brutal new immigrant experience, Ifemelu found financial stability in a blog about race. She specifically examines all the different variations of experience that find themselves rolled into one label. Nigerian emigrants have a vastly different perspective than African Americans, for example. The book further explores issues of race and perspective through Ifemelu’s relationships: her college sweetheart and fellow Nigerian Obinze, a white American, a black American. Every relationship is distinct and race is undeniably a factor.  

I hesitate to call anything in this book authentic, because I am not qualified to assess that. I am not Nigerian and have never been to Nigeria. However, I will mention that Ifemelu makes several comments that I have also heard, sometimes word for word, from Nigerians I know who now live in the United States.  So I may not have direct experience, but that alone convinced me this book must be a pretty authentic, relatable depiction of life for a Nigerian immigrating to the United States.

AMERICANAH is one of those books that I truly believe is for everyone, even if you’re not convinced. The writing is effortlessly seamless, the characters dynamic and compelling, the relationships all the more enthralling, and the themes highly relevant.

Friday, November 23, 2018

THE IRISH PRINCESS


Review of THE IRISH PRINCESS by KAREN HARPER

This historical novel follows the Irish royal rebel Elizabeth Fitzgerald, known as Gera, during the period when Henry VIII brought most of her family to destruction. I enjoyed the book, but it did fall a little short of my personal historical fiction standards. 

I found the voice difficult to follow and, thus, distracting. I have read many great historical novels where the dialogue is more modern than period-accurate. This never bothers me (assuming we’re avoiding overt modern slang), because the style keeps the story moving along and makes the flow more natural. I have also read historical novels that aim for something closer to how people talked during the period. However, in the case of THE IRISH PRINCESS the book doesn’t fully commit to either, which produces an awkward blend of old and modern speak.

I also didn’t invest in the romance. Historical fiction binds the author to predetermined outcomes regarding relationships, but skilled authors either convince us why two unlikely people fell in love or clarify why unwilling partners found themselves married off against their wishes. Historical fiction also comes with the added challenge that sometimes period romances look, shall we say, less romantic to a modern eye. In this case, the man is much older than the girl. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact age difference from the novel’s description, but looked it up later and confirmed he was 11 years older than her. However, I would have guessed the age gap was double to triple that from how the man is described in the book, which then left me confused, unconvinced, and squeamish about Gera’s intense attraction towards him.

The pacing also felt a little lacking. Gera fixates on revenge, but doesn't take much action. While that may be historically true, the best historical fiction (and fiction in general) makes the events feel driven by the characters. Unfortunately, Gera felt more like a witness to history and you could easily remove her from her own story without changing much. I also didn’t understand the choice of opening scene; it seems misleading, putting focus in the wrong place.

On the other hand, what I loved the most about the book is Gera’s passion. Not romantic. I mean the passion in her spirit. Her passion for her family. For Ireland. For revenge. She’s a driven girl who blooms into a driven woman, which also means she’s ahead of her time unfortunately.

Harper certainly presents Elizabeth Fitzgerald as an intriguing figure in history. Immediately after finishing the book I started looking into Gera some more. THE IRISH PRINCESS is a bit like a drink that only makes you thirstier. I enjoyed it, but now I need more about this fascinating Elizabeth Fitzgerald.    

Friday, November 16, 2018

THE WRATH AND THE DAWN


Review of THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by RENÉE AHDIEH
(first in THE WRATH AND THE DAWN series)

This book almost didn’t make my cut for a review; I have such strong criticisms that I feared a review would read mostly negative. However, when measuring whether or not to review a book, I try to ignore all the little (or big) aspects I disliked and simply ask myself: did I like the book? Would I recommend it to someone else? And, yes, I liked THE WRATH AND THE DAWN. I would recommend it to young adult fantasy readers, especially those who prioritize a strong setting.  

The summary of my criticisms is that I found this a good story full of plot holes. If you’re so inclined, you can easily rip at those holes until the story is in shreds. I suppose it’s a matter of credibility and suspended disbelief.

Let me describe the premise. Every night, Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride, only to have her executed at dawn the next morning. After he murders Shahrzad’s best friend, she volunteers as his next bride, determined to murder Khalid herself before he can continue his vicious, unexplained killing streak.

The book is gorgeously atmospheric and one can easily imagine yourself there, living the plot with these characters. I liked Shahrzad; rooting for her comes naturally. She’s obviously brave with cunning patience and well-spoken poise. I also liked the romance, though I won’t say I bought it 100%. Enemies to lovers is difficult to write and when not executed perfectly ends up feeling like, “Uh, why is she now making out with the enemy?”

My primary criticism is that I wanted to know why Khalid kills his brides at the start of the story. I couldn’t invest without this information and grew increasingly frustrated the longer that remained a mystery, only to discover the explanation is being withheld as a big reveal for the end. That meant I never fully invested. Without specific spoilers, there are also numerous other, smaller questions that distracted me throughout the story. Either it’s a genuine plot hole or my question wasn’t addressed to my satisfaction. Regardless, the book presents several circumstances as a no-other-choice situation....except I see other choices and find myself thinking, “But why don’t they just...?” One specific I can share is that it’s never clarified for me why Khalid spares Shahrzad that first night. It seems to come down to an emotional, lucky fluke, but I want her actions to have saved her and instead it feels like she owes her life to well-timed chance. In general, the author hand feels heavy. If asked why a character did something, I would say it’s because the author needed them to do that to move the story forward rather than because of any logical motivation on the character’s part.

I waffled about reviewing this one, because I know my criticisms sound very harsh. However, when I asked myself if I would recommend it to others my answer is still a confident yes (especially if I can tell you up front that you won’t find out why Khalid kills his brides until the end, so don’t wait on that). At its core, this novel is beautiful and successfully transports the reader to another world.
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Friday, November 9, 2018

LIRAEL


Review of LIRAEL by GARTH NIX
(second in the ABHORSEN series)

This second book in one of my favorite series follows not one but two main characters: Lirael and Sam.

Lirael lives with the Clayr, those gifted with the prophetic Sight. Each year she watches more and more of her sisters gain their Sight while Lirael remains Sightless, wondering if the power will ever come to her. She makes do, finding work as a librarian as well as an unlikely friend in the Disreputable Dog, a magic canine creation as entertaining as she is loyal.

Sam is Sabriel and Touchstone’s son, destined to follow in Sabriel’s footsteps and become the next Abhorsen. Except Sam is terrified of death. He can’t bring himself to admit as much to his parents, but becoming the Abhorsen is about one the last things in the world Sam wants. Unfortunately, rather than communicating his doubts, Sam lets his fears turn to procrastination by refusing to study his assigned materials. That lack of discipline could prove detrimental to the entire realm when an undead threat emerges, Sam is expected to help stop it....and he’s barely studied anything regarding how his powers should work.

Both Lirael and Sam feel more adolescent to me than Sabriel ever did. Not to diminish the scale of their problems, but they both come across as whiny at times and occasionally I simply wanted them to get over themselves. Lirael wants a talent she doesn’t have. She clearly has other talents that she refuses to acknowledge, because in her mind they are not The Talent. Sam doesn’t want to follow in his parents’ footsteps. Again, the scale adds complications and pressure, but these are typical problems at their root. I mean none of this as a criticism by the way. I found the teenagers believably egocentric and enjoyed watching their character growth. I admire how Nix makes the fantastical so relatable. One apt line in particular stood out to me, referencing Lirael obsessing yet again over her desperate desire for The Sight: “It was like worrying a toothache with her tongue. It hurt, but she couldn’t leave it alone.”

I love the Disreputable Dog. I love animals in my stories in general, especially when they play an active role and have strong personalities. Mogget makes an appearance, too, and I’m especially pleased to say the two animals cross paths since their mysterious-magic-dog versus ancient-demon-cat banter is not to be missed.

I found LIRAEL a little slower than SABRIEL and suspect it’s because this installment cuts off to be continued in the next book. Though all part of a series, SABRIEL works as a standalone while LIRAEL does feel like half a book...and I cannot wait to start the next one!

Friday, November 2, 2018

THE SERPENT KING


Review of THE SERPENT KING by JEFF ZENTNER
(based on a review copy)

If I ranked all the books I reviewed this year, this one might very well snag the number one spot at the top of that list. I loved it. No, I’m a little in love with it.

The publisher sent me this one unsolicited along with others I had requested and, in all honesty, it doesn’t sound like much. The blurb on the back doesn’t make it sound intriguing and if I summarize the premise without any gushing, I probably won’t make it sound intriguing. It’s a story about three misfit friends navigating high school. Well, aren’t they all? But wait: you really need to meet these ones.

First there’s Dill, probably the most unusual of their small pack. His father, nicknamed The Serpent King of the title, essentially led a cult and is now imprisoned. Dill feels buried under his parents’ expectations. His father expects Dill to continue his twisted legacy while his mother expects Dill to drop out of high school so he can start working full-time to help support the family. Dill is also a talented musician, though shy and hesitant about showcasing his skill since his father saw Dill’s musical aptitude as merely another way “to spread the word through song.”

Second there’s Travis, easily my favorite character as I’m a sucker for anyone who lets their dork flag fly out in the open without shame. Travis is obsessed with a fantasy series and even carries a staff with him everywhere. He knows doing so makes him as easy target for ridicule but the staff is meaningful to him and above all else Travis is true to himself. However, his adorable geekiness is shadowed by his abusive father. Not even his closest friends know, and as Travis suffers along with his mother he wishes he could be like the brave, strong heroes of his favorite series.

Last but not least there’s Lydia, whose strong will and bossy demeanor can be both admirable and overpowering. When people tease their trio at school, she returns with whip-speed, smart, withering comebacks. Lydia wants more for herself than this small town life. She maintains a successful fashion blog and has plans for New York next year. However, her critical remarks about their hometown and everyone in it cause tension with her friends, both fearful she can’t wait to leave them in the dust, too.

I found this book absolutely stunning. The more that I read, not to mention the more that I write myself including studying and breaking down a book into its pieces, the more critical a reader I become. Even when I love a book I almost always have some nitpicky criticisms. THE SERPENT KING I simply adored. Read it.
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Friday, October 26, 2018

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL


Review of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by PHILIPPA GREGORY

I re-read this one and it more than lives up to my memories of its singular quality. Even knowing what’s coming, at least the major points both from history and my first read, did nothing to lessen my investment in the story; I adored every page.

Gregory is a master of beautiful, dramatic depictions of history bursting with the haunting sense of the inevitable. She makes me invest in all of her characters (even the despicable ones), because she makes me understand them. Though a part of me keeps wishing all these tortured souls will just, hey, go to therapy, make better choices, and live happy lives, the history becomes a character as well, a constant and inescapable reminder that in this time people had fewer choices. (Therapy wasn’t usually one of them.) So instead I find myself on a kind of empathy overload, utterly gripped by the tragedy of their circumstances.

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister, who was Henry VIII’s mistress before he divorced his first wife and married Anne.

Gregory’s work always makes me feel, intensely. I know I’m reading a good story when I have strong emotional reactions where I have to look around me and remind myself that, in real life, nothing’s happening besides me on the couch with a book and a cup of tea. With THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (and all of Gregory’s books), I become infuriated at betrayals, my breath catches at true romance amid all the forced marriages, a deep sadness sets in at characters resigning themselves to unhappy fates, and a contented warmth uplifts me when someone I consider deserving finally gets something they want.

Gregory’s writing is beautiful, of the invisible variety, meaning it’s so skillfully written that every word feels natural and I forget to think about the writing and only think about the story and the characters. Mary’s voice is so compelling and believable. I have read historical fiction by other authors that leaves me unconvinced about the character they have created: I don't buy that the fictional interpretation of that historical figure would really do what we know from history the real life person did do. Gregory is a master at forming characters with such clear motivations that for a moment I think she must have stumbled onto some diary none of the rest of us know about and discovered the actual mindset of the real person.

Among all her other strengths, Gregory is an expert with her pacing, especially impressive to me in this genre. Sometimes the timeline slows down to focus on one period intensely when a lot happened and other times the timeline speeds up and skips over a good chunk when not much interesting took place, but Gregory makes everything feel current and urgent. Anne may have been seducing Henry for years, but I feel as though I experienced every agonized second of wondering if she overestimated and overextended herself.

Greogry continues to be my historical fiction measuring stick. Whenever I read a historical novel by anyone else, I ask myself, “Is this as good as a Philippa Gregory novel?”

Friday, October 19, 2018

FIRE STUDY


Review of FIRE STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(third in the STUDY trilogy)

I re-read this entire trilogy and found, unexpectedly, that the first two books exceeded my memory of them. However, this third one, in contrast, didn’t quite live up to my memory.

The flaws are more vague than specific and are probably best described as a lack of polish. I think the heart of the story, the core characters, and so forth are all good and enjoyable, but a lot of the specifics fell short. As one example, I often struggled understanding motivations of villains and heroines alike. As a character-centric reader, the plot loses much of my investment if I cannot understand the character motivation behind why events are unfolding as they are.

To back up, let me describe the premise of this final installment (spoilers for earlier books included). At the end of book two, Cahil, devastated upon learning he is not the lost prince he believed himself to be, frees and flees with Ferde, the vicious Soulstealer who has already taken the lives of many innocents in a particularly cruel and slow manner.

FIRE STUDY concludes the plot-driven, fast paced STUDY trilogy. Above all, I will remember Yelena as someone who never makes the easy choice.

Friday, October 12, 2018

THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE


Review of THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE by AVI

I last read this book back in sixth grade and remember my mind boggling at everything Charlotte experiences. I consider this one of my formative feminist reads as I remember having thoughts like, “A girl can do that? A girl can have adventures like that?” To my sixth grade brain, this was a boy adventure book featuring a girl, and that was both revolutionary and worthy of my complete adoration. I’m pleased to say that the book holds up on a re-read in later life, though my enthusiasm is mildly tampered only by having much more life experience now. This may have been one of my first feminist reads after all, but it was certainly not the last.

Set in 1832, the story follows thirteen-year-old Charlotte, sent to meet her parents across the Atlantic Ocean via ship. It was expected she would have companions her own age and station, but due to unforeseen circumstances she winds up travelling alone. Luckily, the charming captain promptly befriends her and promises to look out not only for her safety but also her comfort during this rigorous journey. So you can imagine Charlotte’s confusion when one of the crew starts warning her against the captain and then her further alarm at hearing whispers about mutiny.

The book is much shorter than I remember, but then again I did read it when I was younger. Then and now, it amazes me how much is packed into such a small book. At times, the older me did want more development, of the characters, the relationships, but I also recognize the book is probably perfect as is for the middle reader target audience.

I’m a bit nervous about re-reading old favorites, concerned I might actually dislike books I adored and considered formative. THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE holds up as worthy of the high place it held in my memory for so long.  

Friday, October 5, 2018

CRUCIBLE OF GOLD


Review of CRUCIBLE OF GOLD by NAOMI NOVIK
(seventh in the TEMERAIRE series, based on a review copy)

This installment in one of my favorite fantasy series finds the dragon Temeraire and his human companion Lawrence stranded among Incan islands in South America. Since the Incans are considering an alliance with Napoleon, this proves...problematic. However, courtesy of their unyielding moral compass, Temeraire and Lawrence frame this as an opportunity, to perhaps sway the Incans away from a French alliance.

I love the growing cast of dragon characters and that the dragons have an equal role in the story as the humans. In fact, one of my other favorite aspects is how the different settings of each book explore the difference in dragon treatment based on each culture. Some revere the dragons like gods while others control them like slaves.

I will never tire of the dragon banter, both amongst themselves and with the humans. Temeraire is a lovable blend of majestic and juvenile. His petty squabbles with Iskierka, usually over who has the most treasure or is best looking out for their human, never cease to amuse me. Temeraire can be equally worked up that Lawrence’s jacket is in tatters as he is regarding political debates. Novik has brought decorum to dragons, crafting a unique interpretation of these vain, materialistic, noble creatures.

This is one of those series I hope will never end, although I believe it already has and that I only have two books left before the end. Oh, well. Temeraire will live on in my heart long after I finish the last word.
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Friday, September 28, 2018

TOLETIS


Review of TOLETIS by RAFA RUIZ
(based on a review copy)

I enjoyed this slim, illustrated middle reader novel far more than I expected. In all honesty, the publisher sent me this book along with another than I had specifically requested. I had no qualms about trying it, but wasn’t expecting it would align with my tastes and found myself surprised when I enjoyed this one even more than the one I requested.

The story follows young Toletis, each chapter focusing on a significant moment in his life, and united more by theme than overt storyline, the theme being, foremost, environmental battles.

I really liked Toletis, and his friends. They’re mature, but not unbelievable; I’ve met countless children who surprise me with wisdom beyond their years. The story also has an appealing dreamy tone, a tall tale feel with folkloric hyperbole and metaphor.


TOLETIS juxtaposes the hope of the young against the cynicism of those older, and in so doing manages to instill some of that youthful hope in its readers.

Friday, September 21, 2018

THE FAIRY BIBLE


Review of THE FAIRY BIBLE by TERESA MOOREY

This book is a must for any fairy addict. It could as well be called The Encyclopedia of Fairies for that’s what it feels like: a half page to two pages each devoted to numerous types of and lore regarding the fey.

I will say that the approach, with regards to the tone, was a little too spiritual for me, but perhaps better explains the choice of Bible over Encyclopedia in the title. I genuinely couldn’t tell if the style was a gimmick or sincere, but the book is written with the understanding that fairies are real. It speaks of science closing our minds to magic and includes specific rituals for summoning fairies or finding fairyland. Numerous times, the book refers to itself more as a “field guide,” to be utilized during one’s search for fairies. While leaning towards the notion that this approach is more tongue in cheek (but not entirely convinced), I regardless find it annoying and distracting. I would have much preferred an objective overview of fairy folklore, something presented with analysis but minimal speculative judgment, more like an anthropologist’s approach.

It’s also sometimes a stretch what they call a fairy, but for me that wasn’t a problem; I’m interested in pretty much of every branch of mythology, folklore, etc. I don’t consider a valkyrie part of the fey, though, for example. 

This book is perfect for reading in little snippets given the brief sections focused on one specific topic. And, of course, you can easily read it out of order.  

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.