Friday, November 29, 2013

Book Review: "Fortunately, the Milk" by Neil Gaiman

The name Neil Gaiman is something of a magical incantation for fans of dark sci-fi and fantasy. I was first introduced to his work when I read the first volume of his graphic novel series The Sandman in middle school, and from there I moved on to The Graveyard Book and Coraline. At present I recommend American Gods, Neverwhere, and Mirror Mask to all and sundry. And yes, with an author as talented and well-known as Gaiman, it seems like everyone is constantly boasting about what big fans of his work they are. But his popularity and the mountain of devoted fans that come with it don't mean that you (yes, you) shouldn't perk up your ears too whenever he releases a new book. Because sometimes, it's really worth it to be "one of the masses." Otherwise you might really be missing out on something.

Fortunately, the Milk is Gaiman's latest children's book and continues seamlessly his record of creative, engaging writing. This is an engaging story about a father's mission to get milk for his children's breakfast (and perhaps a little bit for his tea), which helps to inform the somewhat odd title. What starts out as a quick trip to the corner grocery becomes a harrowing adventure across space-time, with milk in hand (or pocket) almost all the while. By page 66 we've encountered pirates, aliens, dinosaurs, lost tribes, volcano gods, ponies, and vampires who have trouble mixing up their "v"s and their "w"s. There are also piranhas and three dancing purple dwarfs that make a brief but entertaining appearance.

The story moves at a quick pace that will keep young readers hooked, but the parts all tie together in the end with a simple yet nonetheless delightful conclusion. As the father tells his story to his children once he finally returns with the milk, his son and daughter interject at certain points in the book to ask questions or address flaws in the tale their father is spinning. This detail adds some reliability for children reading the book, as kids are no fools, and get suspicious if a story is too outrageous.

As I read both the father's account of his adventures and the dialogue (especially the exchanges between the father and Professor Steg) I was reminded of Monty Python-type sketches, full of absurdity and abstractly funny details. While the story itself may have been a little bit simplistic on its own for an adult reader to enjoy, this humorous writing style kept me giggling to myself over my lunch. (It took me only about an hour to read.)

In the context of the story Gaiman also gives young readers beginner lessons in the space-time continuum, concerning the father's travel but also interactions that he has with himself in different time streams. He uses this time-hopping ability to  contact himself for help and escape more than one hairy situation. All while, of course, keeping hold of the milk for his children's breakfast.

The book has text interspersed with drawings on nearly every page. Skottie Young was the perfect choice of an illustrator for the project, with his wacky, whimsical depictions of characters and incidents. He captures flawlessly the simple but engaging events as they unfold, including the children as they question their father's story and try to poke holes in it. It was almost as if Young drew the story as one of the two children was imagining it, listening to their father.

Gaiman's latest is a guaranteed hit with all young readers and, thanks to the illustrations and fast-paced story, would be an excellent read-aloud option for parents with readers who aren't quite ready to tackle the book on their own. Fans of Doctor Who and, as I mentioned, Monty Python will enjoy sharing this book with the young readers in their lives. Fortunately, the Milk was released in September and can be found at your local independent bookstore, just in time for the holiday season!

Monday, November 25, 2013

26 Hilariously Terrible Rough Drafts


These fake rough drafts of some titles you'll recognize from pop culture may not be real, but the sure are funny! And as high-stress as writing can be sometimes, it's fun to play around with it. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Book Review: "Tsarina" by J. Nelle Patrick

Russia possesses a very rich cultural history that remains largely overlooked in popular American literature. Recently though books like The Age of Ice by J. M. Sidorova and Baba Yaga by Toby Barlow have started to bring Russian fiction potential into the light, combining innovative writing styles with the rich creative resources available in Russian history. J. Nelle Patrick jumps on the bandwagon with Tsarina, a tale of conflict and magic during the Russian Revolution.

Natalya Kutepova, the daughter of a prominent Russian general, is madly in love with Alexei Romanov, the heir to the Russian throne. Even though they're form different social tiers within the Russian nobility, everyone knows they'll be married, and Natalya will be the Tsarina. One night at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg Alexei, who has always been a prisoner of his hemophelia, shows Natalya the greatest and most powerful Romanov secret: a Fabergé egg that contains the power of Russia itself, protecting the Romanov family and those they love, and acting as a symbol that they are the true rulers of Russia. It is this power that has kept Alexei save all these years, a gift from Grigori Rasputin.

But the Russian Revolution interrupts Natalya and Alexei's fairytale romance, driving the Romanovs into hiding and eventual capture by the Reds. Natalya goes into hiding as a peasat, along with her friend Emilia. Natalya is determined to sneak into the occupied Winter Palace and find the Fabergé egg, to keep it safe with her and Emilia in Paris until the revolution dies down, thus preserving the Romanov connection with Russia itself. However, Natalya isn't the only one who wants to claim the fabled egg; a Red Party member and an old mystic both want the power of Russia for their own people too. And so across the harshly beautiful backdrop of Russia Natalya battles doubt, thugs, and even her own heart to save the man she loves and secure the future of her country.

This book makes me want to visit Russia even more. Patrick does an exceptional job describing the vibrant colors of the city and how they stand out against the landscape. She also describes how harsh Russia can be as a place, especially during the winter, by relating stories of Napoleon's army and Polish invaders. Neither force was able to withstand the brutality of a Russian winter.

In order for the concept of the Fabergé egg to really work as a vessel for the mystical energy of an entire land, there had to be a certain amount of anthropromorphization present in the writing. That is, Russia had to be a vibrant, living entity on its own to be able to use its power to willingly protect its monarchs. This concept was very skillfully worked into the writing, so that as a reader I didn't feel like it was a shock to have the idea of the land's sentience introduced. Maybe that's because Natalya always thinks of Russia as an independent entity, separate from its people.

**SPOILER ALERT** At the end of the book Natalya winds up destroying the egg, but this is not covered in the text. I felt that this was a huge mistake on the part of the author, since the egg has been the focus of most of the book's conflict. The only thing the reader is told, though, is a brief mention in passing as Natalya and Leo sit together on a train. This was a very big turn of events, in my mind, and should have had some detail attributed to it in the last chapter.

I was also disappointed to learn how historically inaccurate the story was, regarding the events of the Russian Revolution. This is something that Patrick admits freely, and doesn't detract from the story line, but to me personally it was something of a letdown. Patrick did do a lot of research though, and was able to describe in the Author's Note some of the specifics of what she changed and why. For example, main characters Natalya and Leo are both completely fictional, and the revolutions in St. Petersburg and Moscow, which were events separated by an entire winter, were pushed together for the sake of the story. While these key parts were far from historically accurate, the details in the book like clothing, weather, and expression of political attitude all felt very genuine.

Fans of Russian folktales and wartime romance will love this book, as will readers of dark fairytales (like the original stories by the brothers Grimm). While the protagonists here are around 18 years old, their challenges are so very adult that I would not just classify this as a Young Adult novel. Instead, I believe it to be equally suitable for teen and adult readers. Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick will be available on February 27th. You can talk to your local independent bookstore to see about pre-ordering.

Monday, November 18, 2013


For those of you who haven't heard, November is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately referred to as "NaNoWriMo." In just 30 days, intrepid and sleep-deprived writers everywhere complete a 50,000-word first draft of their novel. For those of you doing the math, that's about 1,600 words per day. It's grueling, it's stressful, you become a caffeine-fueled shut-in who needs to be reminded to shower, and at the end of it you, my friend, have written down the bones of what could someday be your published work.

Sound intriguing? Check out NaNoWriMo's website here! It'll give you an idea of the resources available to help you keep on track. Also, check out the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Even if you're not doing NaNoWriMo, it's a great resource for one of the hardest parts of writing a novel: actually getting it on the page. It's entertaining, easy to read, and immensely helpful.

In the mean time, here's a list of published novels written during NaNoWriMo. Fill up that coffee pot and keep writing!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Book Review: "City of Bones" by Cassandra Clare (Mortal Instruments Book 1)

I'm normally not drawn to given books just because they've been adapted to film. But when customers at my workplace started asking me about the Mortal Instruments series a couple of months ago, wanting to read it before they saw the movie, I figured I'd better do some research of my own. And while I initially feared that City of Bones would be just another generic teen romance, it was actually a fun and creative read.

Clary is so normal that she's bordering on boring, as is often the case at the beginning of books like these. Her father died before she was born and her mom is a talented but sometimes flighty artist. With her uncle Luke and her best friend Simon, Clary is pretty content with her life. But everything turns upside down the night she sees three people her age kill a blue-haired demon in a nightclub storage closet. The weird thing is, nobody else seems to have noticed it but her. 

The next thing she knows, Clary is swept into the world of the Shadowhunters, to whom she has some unknown connection. Her mother goes missing, crocodile demons are attacking her in her own kitchen, and one of the Shadowhunters she saw at the club, Jace, keeps popping up wherever she goes. To try and find out who she is and what's happened to turn her normal life into such a wreck, she joins the Shadowhunters at their New York Institute and learns more about their purpose, tradition, and history. The upshot of their investigation is that Clary is somehow of Shadowhunter lineage, and that an evil Shadowhunter long thought dead is regaining his power. 

Together with their Shadowhunter friends and a tagalong Simon, Clary and Jace face down Foresaken humans, various demons, vampires, werewolves, and even crash a party at the home of New York's most prestigious warlock. All the while feelings between Clary and Jace continue to grow, even as their situation becomes more and more dangerous. Because Valentine, the turncoat Shadowhunter, is looking for a relic that will allow him to raise a Shadowhunter army that will destroy all demons and ruin the fragile peace that exists between worlds. Clary is the only one who can find it first. 

Buffy pretty much takes the cake as the quintessential teenage demon slayer, but Clary gives her a good run for her money. I feel like a big part of why City of Bones didn't feel stale or predictable even though it was another paranormal teen book is that the Shadowhunter back story is so meticulously thought out and presented with so much interesting detail. Clare has thought up a whole alternate existence for the Human Race, with flair and creativity. This would also encompass three other Shadowhunter novels set across the pond in London: Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince, and Clockwork Princess. Clare has put a considerable amount of time and effort into thinking about this world of Demons and Shadowhunters, how they interact and get along with humans in everyday life, why they haven't been discovered, and the Shadowhunters' role in all this. And that effort is what makes this book really shine in its genre. 

As far as the romantic interest goes, you have the sexy, mysterious and hilariously cocky Jace vying (though he'd never admit it) against the sweet, open, determined Simon, whom Clary's known for almost her entire life. A pretty standard conflict, right? Except that - plot twist! - one of them turns out to supposedly be Clary's older brother! Sound familiar? 

Despite the solid amount of action that appeared in a near-continuous stream, I sometimes felt like nothing was happening in the big picture of the story line. In retrospect though, I think a lot of that feeling was because of how the puzzle in the plot was laid out: All the pieces that Jace, Simon, Clary and the others uncover have to context at all, to the point that I as a reader didn't even know that some things would have any connection whatsoever to the main story line, like the vampire battle. It wasn't until the very end of the book, when Clary figures out where her mother's hidden the artifact (independent of any of the challenges they've just faced) that the other things they've discovered actually come to mean anything. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not on Clare's part, but as adrift as I sometimes felt in the narrative, I did find myself wanting to read more. I don't plan on seeing the upcoming City of Bones movie adaptation, but I may eventually read the rest of the Mortal Instruments books. (I cheated and took a look at their blurbs, and they all sound just as creative as the first book.) 

If you like vivid story lines and characters, action, and paranormal adventure, and if you don't mind romantic tension without a lot of actual romance, pick up a copy of the first book in Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series. City of Bones, along with a plethora of other Shadowhunter books, are available now at your neighborhood independent bookstore. The film adaptation of City of Bones was released in August. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day 2013 - Military Books

The brave men and women who choose to serve their country by entering into military service have a long record of being honored and emulated by characters in print. In celebration of Veterans Day, please enjoy this list of military fiction titles, which includes both classics and more recent writing, brought to you by indie bookstore Powell's Books in Portland, OR.

(Photo courtesy of Friends of Ocee Library)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs

This YA fantasy novel has been in my "To Read" stack for a while, and I recently got around to reading it despite all the other books clamoring for my attention. And now I'm chastising myself for having waited so long to pick it up. It's a combination of historical fiction and fantasy, with just enough horror to make your toes curl in your slippers. I can see why Riggs's first novel has been getting so much positive press, and I'm about to add to it.

Average 16-year-old Jacob adores his grandfather, even as the rest of the family shies away from his strange stories and the cabinet that he keeps well-stocked with all manner of weapons. Ever since he was little Jacob has loved the tales of his grandfather's childhood on an island in Wales after fleeing the Nazis in Poland. He even showed Jacob photos of his fellow orphans, strange children with strange abilities under the strange care of one Miss Peregrine. Of course as he grows older, Jacob inevitably comes to doubt the truth of his grandfather's tales. The photos that once fascinated him become nothing more than badly altered pictures, and the "monsters" that his grandfather left the island to fight lost their literal interpretation and are assumed to be Nazis. But the night that his grandfather is killed, Jacob sees a horrible creature in the shadows and realizes that everything he'd come to rationalize away was the truth. With his dying breath, Jacob's grandfather tells him to find the bird in the loop on the other side of the old man's grave. That Jacob will be safe there.

Following these cryptic clues proves unfruitful, even with the guidance of his therapist, who believes that following up on his grandfather's dying words will allow Jacob to find closure. In a last-ditch attempt to find something, anything, Jacob convinces his parents to allow him to travel to Wales, to the island where Miss Peregrine lived with her brood of peculiar children. But when he reaches the rocky island and ventures out to what remains of the orphanage, there's not much left for Jacob to discover: a Nazi bomb hit the building the night his grandfather left, destroying it. But Jacob pokes around anyway, just to be sure he can learn nothing more. His interest earns Jacob attention from one of the girls in his grandfather's photos, who mysteriously appears there. Jacob chases her through a bog and into an ancient cairn, and when he emerges he's in 1940, on the night that the bomb hit the orphanage. There he meets the children from his grandfather's photographs, as well as Miss Peregrine, who explains to Jacob that she has protected them all in a time loop against Hollows and Wights, the creatures that killed Jacob's grandfather and the monsters that he left the island to fight all those years ago.

Now Miss Peregrine and the other children, all of whom have different superhuman abilities, are in danger and Jacob is the one who has brought them into harm's way. Luckily, he's also the one who can save them: Jacob, like his grandfather, has the ability to see Hollows. The others cannot. When Miss Peregrine is kidnapped like other peculiar matrons in other time loops, Jacob and the children must fight to get her back and find out what the Hollows are planning to do with so many powerful peculiars in their custody.

Riggs's writing style is engaging and entertaining, and I was sucked into his world from the very beginning. Jacob is a very empathetic character who struggles with some big mental challenges: mentally unstable relatives, deaths of family members, and even wondering if you're going crazy. He's confused and uncertain, even about things like which side of Miss Peregrine's time loop he'd rather be on. But instead of feeling melodramatic and overblown, the situation felt really genuine to me as a reader. I got the feeling that Jacob was just trying to stay on top of events as they occurred; he's brave and creative because he has no other choice, not because he's always known he was meant to be a hero or anything like that. This made Jacob a much more interesting character to me, and one for whom I genuinely came to care.

Another great touch in this writing was the fact that Jacob was unsuccessful in following he's grandfather's clues. He went to the old orphanage in Wales as a last desperate attempt to convince himself that there was nothing else to be found, that he was just going a little bit crazy from stress and trauma. It's only after Jacob finds himself in the loop and in the company of Miss Peregrine that he realizes what his grandfather's clues meant. That arrangement of events was really a great surprise, considering that most times there are cryptic clues given and then the story gets bogged down in solving them all before the action can commence. It was a great twist of events to have the character follow a very different trail of breadcrumbs than the one that was laid out for him (and us). I can see how some people might consider this "cheating" on Riggs's part as a writer, gearing up for a quest or mystery and then backing out. But personally, I found this take very innovative.

I've always been a fan of multimedia projects, both in my own work and in others' projects, particularly when the worlds of art and writing can intersect. Riggs takes his storytelling to the next level by adding photographs, the ones Jacob's grandfather shows him, to the book itself. It's a nice touch to see what Jacob is seeing, but what really amazed me was learning that the photos used in the book are real. They were gleaned from mountains of random old shots by dedicated collectors and enthusiasts, of which Riggs was just one. Here I've included three photos of peculiar children and one of Miss Peregrine herself:



Overall this story was well thought out, innovative, and I'm genuinely interested to read the sequel when it comes out in January. In the mean time, if you like tastefully supernatural coming-of-age stories with a hefty dose of adventure and just enough horror to make you check your closet before going to bed, or (as was suggested to me by Rae from Parallel Worlds Magazine) you're a Doctor Who fan, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. It's available now in all of its glory at your local indie bookstore, and its sequel Hollow City will be available in January. Check with your friendly neighborhood bookseller to pre-order!

Monday, November 4, 2013

World Book Night 2014

It's time to start thinking about World Book Night again!

For those of you who don't remember of who have maybe never heard of WBN before, here's an overview: Every April all over the world, publishers and authors team up with bibliophiles everywhere to try and promote books in low-reading demographics. They do this by publishing special editions of a variety of books, sending them to volunteers, and having them passed out for absolutely FREE to total strangers. Each year a different lineup of books is selected. Here's the 2014 list:

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
The Ruins of Gorlan: The Ranger's Apprentice, Book 1 by John Flanagan
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Large Print edition) by Jamie Ford
The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen
Pontoon by Garrison Keillor
Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
Miss Darcy Falls in Love by Sharon Lathan
Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee
Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
Cuando Era Puertorriqueña by Esmeralda Santiago
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Large Print edition) by Maria Semple
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
100 Best-Loved Poems edited by Philip Smith

 As you can see there's a wide variety of subject matter available, and even Spanish language and large print editions, to help get everyone reading.

Here's how the giving works: If you want to hand out twenty books to random strangers this April, which I can tell you is a LOT of fun, start out by going to the WBN website here. Just pick out three books that you'd like to give out, and apply to be a giver. Their guidelines are very concise and helpful. If you're chosen to be a giver WBN will contact you via email. Your books will be sent to a community location (that you select through WBN) where you can pick them up, usually the week before WBN. Then, on April 23rd, go out and help spread the magic of books! You can sign up to be a giver until January 1st.