Friday, May 30, 2014

Writers' Advice to Graduates

Ray Bradbury 2

Graduation season is almost upon us, which means that a whole new wave of potential is about to be released on the world from high schools, colleges and universities everywhere. Some of them will go on to write literary masterpieces, and some will go on to different fields entirely, but all can benefit from listening to these graduate speeches from famous writers. They're also a great shot of inspiration for those of us who have already graduated, and just need to be reminded that we can always follow our dreams and make an amazing difference in the world. So take a listen and go do what you love!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: "Bellman & Black" by Diane Setterfield

The blurb on the back of Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield hints at a debt to be paid for a thoughtless act. One summer, four boys were witness to a rare perfect moment in time: an impossibly far target, a slingshot, and the arc of just the right stone as it sailed through the air. A rook fell from a tree, dead, and the fate of all four boys was decided. But something special awaited William Bell, the boy who had killed the rook.

William, despite immensely humble beginnings, becomes the most prosperous man in his small town, taking over the mill and settling down to have a family. Meanwhile, the other boys who were with him on that long-ago day in the woods struggle and die. Bellman can't escape his own misfortune forever, and when disaster threatens to take away everything that he loves, he makes a dubious deal with one Mr. Black, a mysterious man known only to Bellman. His luck turns again, and he embarks upon another endeavor that will make him even more successful. But the deal he can't quite remember, the one he made with Mr. Black, haunts him and could be the very thing to finally bring about his downfall.

While the blurb and publicity made Bellman & Black sound like a ghost story or a tale of supernatural dealings, that's not what this novel felt like when I actually read it. It was more like a cross between a slice-of-life historical novel and a suspenseful Poe-inspired classic horror story. Bellman's shift in focus from family to business, his obsession with paying back a debt he can neither remember nor define to a man he can't remember, transforms him completely. But this book was much more psychological than fantastical, which in this case made for some slow reading.

From a writing perspective I understand why Sutterman took so much time describing in detail everything wonderful that happens to Bellman, the fruits of his immense capacity for industry. But the buildup to the fate that ultimately awaits Bellman is so slow that sometimes it seems to have stopped completely. While the writing itself is elegant and distinctive, and the relationships that Bellman does - or doesn't - form with other characters helped to emphasize his downward spiral, this was not a particularly gripping novel.

If you enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or other books that sacrifice intensity for a wonderful subtlety of both story and language, pick up a copy of Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield at your local independent bookstore. It's available right now.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Classic SciFi Books


There are some classic SciFi writers, like Robert A. Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin and Neal Stephenson, whose work has come to define the genre. There are other authors too though, like Thomas Pynchon or even Suzanne Collins, who have taken science fiction writing in strange new directions or written modern, popular series. I might not classify them all as "classic," but I do think that all theses aspects and recommendations of a wide-ranging and imaginative genre can be considered essential reading for the SciFi lover. Interested in finding out where you rank on the scale of SciFi literature expertise? This survey of  science fiction literature from the beginnings of its popularity up to the modern writing age will give you an idea of where you stand. Me? I scored 26, and Cryptonomicon is another one that I'd like to read soon. How many SciFi classics do you have checked off your list?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Review: "Mirror Sight" by Kristen Britain (Green Rider Book #5)

One of my all-time favorite fantasy series is the Green Rider books by Kristen Britain. It's full of magic, royal intrigue, adventure and just a touch of romance, and centers around Karigan G'ladheon, a member of His Majesty's Messenger Service. While all Green Riders face danger on their journeys across the kingdom of Sacoridia, and all of them have minor magical abilities, Karigan's experiences with magic seem to go above and beyond what is considered normal even for the messenger service. They land her in the middle of assassination plots, royal kidnappings, ghosts of Riders past and even the machinations of the gods.

Karigan's adventures are filled with diverse characters, beautiful settings, personal conflict, seemingly hopeless circumstances and a twisting, thrilling story line that will keep you flying through the chapters. The first four books are, in order: Green Rider, First Rider's Call, The High King's Tomb, and Blackveil. You can check them all out on Kristen Britain's website. The fifth book, Mirror Sight, is the one that I'll be reviewing here. If you're all caught up on the first four books of the series, read on. But if you're not familiar with the Green Rider books, I really don't want to spoil them for you! So instead of reading the rest of this review, you should head out to your neighborhood bookstore to pick up the first book, Green Rider.

I pre-ordered my copy of Mirror Sight a full six months ago. After the way that Blackveil ended with Karigan shattering the mirror mask to keep its power from Mornhavon, she and the rest of the Blackveil expedition were swept away by the magic that was released. I was beside myself! Where had she wound up? Who would find her? What was happening at the D'Yer Wall? And what was Second Empire planning? How were King Zachary and Captain Mapstone coping with Karigan having been gone so long? And what on earth was going on with Amberhill on his strange island? So many questions, and when Mirror Sight finally came out earlier this month I settled down with a mug of tea to get some answers.

Sadly, I was to be disappointed. Despite the many threads of the story left dangling in Blackveil, Mirror Sight focuses almost exclusively on Karigan, who has traveled nearly 200 years forward in time. When I read this, I'll admit that I groaned aloud. She's traveled back in time as a ghost before, but having her dumped into a completely alien version of her beloved Sacoridia, where something cataclysmic happened and the magic has been gone from the land for a long time, felt much more like a fantasy stereotype to me than her other books, which have been more innovative.

Initially I hated the shift in Karigan's character: her headstrong, passionate and impulsive trademark attitude was smothered under the modern restrictions on women as well as her unfamiliarity with the current events. This kept her from getting into her usual adventures and perilous undertakings. But my opinion improved when I started to think of Karigan's more subdued character as a result of her honestly not knowing what to do with herself. Yes, she still terrorized the housekeeper with her unladylike ways, and she still practiced her swordsmanship with a broom handle, but these just seemed like filler events to pass the time and the pages. It made for some monotonous reading at times.

I did like how Cade and the professor, Karigan's two allies in the future Sacoridia, tried to keep the kingdom's history intact even though they went about it in ways that were ineffective or preserved aspects that were erroneous. I was also happy to see a horse still involved in Karigan's adventures, even if it wasn't Condor. But their efforts to accustom her to her new time and surroundings were no replacement for characters I spent four books knowing and loving. (I'll admit though, I'm losing patience with and sympathy for King Zachary.)

Overall, aside from focusing too much on Karigan's timeline, the whole book just felt a lot cheesier, more stereotypical than the other books in the series. The professor's betrayal and then near-immediate redemption, and the idea that Cade could go back to Karrigan's time with her come to mind immediately. Both were aspects of the story that made me think "No, the author wouldn't do something that obvious." Other parts of the writing, like Dr. Ezra Silk's character and the old castle tombs, were well done though. 'Hit-or-miss' is probably the best term I can come up with.

The odd reflection in a mirror shard of her real time period kept Karigan connected with her past, but the time that passes there while Karigan's away isn't addressed hardly at all. The only things we know are that conflicts with Second Empire are escalating, Estora is pregnant, and Amberhill is the Sea King reborn. All of these facts were implied at the end of Blackveil, so we've essentially lost months of time in the story line that won't be filled in. Normally I would assume that this is intentional, to try and simulate for the reader Karigan's experience, but there are occasional chapters and passages that take place in Karigan's true time, so my theory falls through.

While I still devoured this 800-page weapon of a book in just a couple of days, it wasn't nearly as satisfying as the other books in the series. But it does point Karigan in the direction of a new enemy, one who will turn Sacoridia into the magic-starved nightmare that Karigan experiences. It also gives her a clue about how to defeat him and identifies some potentially powerful allies back in her own time, if only Karigan can find a way to get there. I'm hoping fervently that the sixth book in the series will help make up for Mirror Sight's neglect of pretty much everything and everyone except Karigan. Keep up with the series and tell me what you think by heading to your local bookstore and picking up one of the Green Rider books by Kristen Britain. After all, spring sunshine goes best with a book!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rachel Ann Hanley: Reader, Author, Blogger

Rachel Ann Hanley was born in Cambridge, England and grew up in Davis, California. She loves books, dogs, running, and rain, to name a few. She writes character-driven stories, mostly young adult fantasy and published her short story "Medusa Complex" in Leading Edge Magazine. She's an eclectic reader, but her tastes lean towards young adult and fantasy. Her favorite authors include Tamora Pierce, Anne Bishop, and Ginn Hale. She reviews most of what she reads at, but if she doesn't like a book she won't review it; she'd rather spend her energy promoting good books than bashing bad ones. She also blogs author interviews and book-themed discussion posts, including a recent one about violence in stories.

Guest Review of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein:

This didn't sound like my kind of book, but enough people raved about it to me that I finally took the chance. Yup, they're raving for a reason.

If you're wondering about my hesitancy, I worried the book would be too dark for my tastes. That might sound funny to anyone who reads my blog regularly and can point out some very dark titles that I  list as favorites, but I find real life horrors far more depressing and scary than monsters. Most of said favorites are fantasy and while many do touch on real world issues and atrocities, whether directly or indirectly, it's not the same as reading fiction based on a real war.

As must as I loved this book, I didn't feel hooked until around the hundred page mark. In fact, I know others who gave up on the book before reaching that far, left wondering why everyone's so enamored with this novel. Let's back up a little bit, because explaining what the book is about also explains why it's a difficult read, especially at first. The narrative isn't that clear or reliable. The narrator is an Allied spy captured by the Gestapo. She's delivering her story to her captors via writing on whatever scraps of paper they'll bring her. You can't trust everything she says, because she's no doubt trying to confuse and mislead her enemies. As if that's not enough, she's being tortured. Short on sleep and food and full of pain, her story wanders and garbles. The New York Times called this a "mind game of a novel" and it's easy to see why. I struggled following the narrative at first as well as investing in our narrator (though her circumstances tugged my heart strings, I just didn't know how much of her story to believe). After one hundred pages of straining to "get into" the story, I abruptly felt extremely "into it." Mind you, I'm not saying something big and dramatic happens around that point, only that Wein's some kind of author and even when I thought I wasn't hooked she had been working her magic. Even when I thought I wasn't investing, I had been. It was only around that hundred page mark that my full investment hit me. My point is stick with it, because the only people I know who didn't like this book gave up too early.

From there my opinion steadily improved until by the end I had fully climbed aboard the train full of people marveling at this tale. The story's broken into two parts and the second part makes the reader reanalyze their understanding of everything in the first part. This is definitely one of those "trust the author" books when you might find yourself confused or uncertain near the beginning, but Wein will lad you to the right revelations at the right moments. Trust her.

My only grumble over this novel is that it's very dense with aircraft terminology. It's clear why: the friends who star in this story work with planes. On the one hand, the terminology adds to how realistic the voice feels, because I'm sure that's how she would talk. However, for someone who doesn't know a lot of those terms and isn't that interested in the specific details about planes and flights, it's a lot to wade through.

Since this is a World War II novel, I hardly think it's a spoiler to say there are some heartbreaking moments. Wein's restrained approach to tragic scenes allows readers to fill in the blanks with their own emotions. I have a feeling Code Name Verity will linger in my mind for years to come.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Book Review: "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown

Despite the fact that it was written for children, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series remains popular with an adult readership as well. The same goes for the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the intense themes of struggle and revolution appealing to a broad spectrum of readers despite the book's listing as "Young Adult." If the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books had an R-rated child together, it would look like Red Rising by Pierce Brown.

Darrow is a Red, one of the hardy and long-suffering pioneers working hard to terraform Mars from the underground. His unparalleled skills as a miner help to provide the precious ore that will make Mars livable for other Colors, from his fellow Reds to the supreme Golds who rule over all. But for now he and the rest of his people toil and die anonymously under Mars's red soil. All that changes the day Darrow finds out that the Reds are living a lie. While the Reds slave day after day in the mines, Mars's surface has already long been terraformed. The Golds reign supreme thanks to the toil of faceless, nameless Reds who carry on because they believe that humanity's only hope lies in their unforgiving work.

Through turmoil and tragedy, Darrow finds himself in a unique position to infiltrate the Gold level of their social hierarchy. It's unheard-of, probably impossible, for anyone to successfully masquerade as a Gold, much less an uneducated Red from below the planet's surface. But if Darrow can succeed with the help of his new allies, and rise in the ranks of Gold society, he may be able to achieve a position from which he can bring the whole lying society crashing down. But to do that, in addition to changing his physical appearance and relearning everything from speech patterns to dueling techniques, he'll have to go through the Institute. There the best of the best are singled out through unknown means, and those who come out on top are offered fame, glory, position - everything Darrow needs to achieve if he's to bring the Golds to justice.

Brown combines the intensity and brutality of Collins's Hunger Games with Rowling's school setting, then smears the whole thing with a haze of raw violence. Alliances are formed and broken, atrocities committed, bonds forged and betrayals revealed in the space of a year as Darrow and the Gold students battle each other both physically and mentally under the watchful eye of their proctors. Their burnished existence quickly fades into a more basic, brutal way of life. While rapes and violence aren't described in detail, they appear frequently given the nature of the Institute. Brown uses these atrocities not just for shock value, but to illustrate the basic brutality and desperation of the formerly untouchable Gold students. Their transformation from snobby, upper-crust adolescents to hardened leaders is underscored by the lengths to which they will go not just to survive, but to win.

There is a strong Roman pantheon theme throughout the book. The Institute is arranged into Houses that are each dedicated to a particular Roman god. Students at the Institute are placed into houses depending on certain traits that they possess and how those traits relate to the different Roman gods. Additionally, the Golds attempt to emulate the Roman Empire in their culture and regard (or lack thereof) for other, "lower" colors. Even their names are distinctly Roman, where other colors' names are not, which to me helped to underscore just how far above everyone else the Golds see themselves.

And despite knowing that Golds are the "bad guys" in all this, both Darrow and I grew fond of some of them. Sevro in particular was somehow at once odd, terrifying and (to my mind) completely adorable. And while Cassius and his brother have a complex and unequal relationship, there is still familial affection there and a duty between them. The hardships of the Institute brought certain Golds together in the same ways that Darrow's family bonded through their lives of hard work and few resources, and he had to keep reminding himself that these people with whom he formed his alliances now would be the ones he would have to tear down later, when he helps the Reds rise.

If you enjoyed the Hunger Games trilogy or Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and are looking for something a little more hands-on that isn't ashamed of getting messy and violent, pick up a copy of Pierce Brown's Red Rising. It was released in January and is available right now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Have Your Cake And Read It Too!

Most avid readers will agree that there is a book for every occasion. Some of us would even take it a step farther and say that every occasion should have a book! A few people out there have demonstrated a fantastic commitment to that idea by featuring some amazing book-shaped cakes at weddings, birthdays, christenings, and other celebrations. Even e-readers make an appearance. So take a look, and get creative with your next cake-baking undertaking!