Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gone Fishing

I'll be off on a fishing trip for the next week, so check back on August 11th for another book review!

In the mean time, remember that Lucy Frank's new book Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling is coming out soon! You can pre-order it any time at your favorite local bookstore.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book Review: "Jackaby" by Raymond William Ritter

New England in the 1890's was a great place to make a fresh start for various groups of people like craftsmen, religious refugees and social reformers. It was also an ideal place to escape to for a young woman of good family who had absconded with her college tuition funds to pursue a life of adventure. Such was the case of Miss Abigail Rook, recently arrived in New Fiddleham from Europe and in need of a job. Fortunately for her Mr. R. F. Jackaby, the town's resident paranormal investigator, was looking for an assistant.

Of course at first Abigail can't tell if anyone takes her employer seriously, Jackaby himself included. But then Jackaby takes on the case of a gruesome series of murders (without the consent of the local police force, I might add) and the culprit may not be human at all. Abigail will have her eyes opened to the possibilities that Jackaby's world presents, and her life may depend on her willingness to accept them.

This book was a great combination of fantastical creatures, including a frog that produces clouds of noxious vapors when stared at for too long, and good ol' fashioned murder mystery. It's a fairly straight-forward plot, with the usual "dead ends" and red herrings that one encounters in most mystery novels, but the supernatural nature of things and the very appealing characters kept me entertained if not in suspense. I picked the Bad Guy out of the cast pretty quickly, and he matches a pretty good list of stereotypes as far as villains go, but I didn't mind following the others around until they caught on as well.

Jackaby and Abigail are great contrasting lead characters, because they're such complete opposites. One (Jackaby) can see supernatural beings and clues to which others are utterly blind, and the other (Abigail) notices the mundane but important details that are too boring for Jackaby to appreciate or even identify. And while we know about Abigail's personal background, as she is the narrator of the story, much of Jackaby's situation remains unknown aside from a few vague but tantalizing allusions to a dark past. At the very least we know that it involves a ghost named Jenny and an assistant-turned-duck by the name of Douglas.

I wish that Jackaby himself had been a more developed character though. As it is I feel like some of his quirkiness, like his coat and its pockets full of random things, is just affected to make him seem zanier. He never seems to really use any of it, so it comes off as more of an affectation than anything. Additionally for all his purported expertise on the subject of paranormal beings, he doesn't actually discover the murderer; the culprit reveals himself, and his identity makes sense after the fact. If he'd just laid low, I don't know if Jackaby would ever have figured it out. I'll be curious to see if these annoyances will be addressed in future books in this new series, and if improvements on his character will be made.

Fans of the Dr. Who franchise will appreciate the whimsical nature of Jackaby, as well as his unique wealth of knowledge and penchant for using an odd assortment of tools. If you like Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books, Jackaby will appeal to your sense of supernatural suspense and adventure. It will be released on September 16th, and is available for pre-order now at your favorite local independent bookstore.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Antisocial Skills To Help Your Fiction Writing

Dialogue can be invaluable when it comes to fictional work. Not only does it help us get to know the characters, it helps to move the story along. But dialogue isn't always easy to write, especially if as a writer you're still not entirely sure what your characters are truly like yet. That's okay though, because maybe writing dialogue in your story can help you discover more about who they are by "listening" to what sounds right for them to say.

I'm a huge TED junkie, so when I saw this TED-Ed mini lesson entitled "Three Anti-Social Skills to Improve Your Writing" I had to check it out. In the quick video Nadia Kalman presents some really simple, creative, helpful ways to get your creative juices flowing when it comes to making your characters really become themselves through dialogue. Whether you're an aspiring novelist or just trying to crank out a short story for school, it's definitely worth four minutes of your time.

If you feel good about your characters and dialogue, but think you could use some guidance or inspiration in other aspects of your writing, TED-Ed's Writer's Workshop Series has a plethora of helpful, humorous, supportive lessons here. Pick and choose the ones that will be of most use to you and your individual writing!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: "Ruin and Rising" by Leigh Bardugo (Grisha Trilogy Book Three)

Ruin and Rising is Leigh Bardugo's third book featuring main characters Mal and Alina, and is the conclusion to the Grisha Trilogy. I've reviewed the first book, Shadow and Bone, here and the second, Siege and Storm, here. I loved the first book, and was excited by the potential that the series showed as an interesting and innovative story. But when Siege and Storm came around, I was frustrated by the fact that the romance line of the story between Mal and Alina seemed to be the main plot focus. I hoped that this turn of events was due to what I sometimes refer to as "Second Book Syndrome," in which the middle book of a trilogy is treated as a kind of eye of the hurricane, a lull between the excitement of the first book and the climactic finale of the third. And so it was with some trepidation that I approached Ruin and Rising.

Alina and her companions start out under the protection of the Apparat and his army of Sun Saint-worshipping refugees. But Alina knows that she's truly a prisoner there, especially since she's too far away from the sun in their underground hideout to use her powers. She and her friends need to reach the surface again to find Nikolai and track down the third and final amplifier in order to confront the Darkling and destroy the expanding Shadow Fold, reuniting Ravka. They face some resistance but eventually escape, and are soon on the run from the Darkling once again. Thankfully Nikolai has survived the fall of the capitol and has reverted to his Sturmhond ways in order to distract and harry the Darkling and his forces. But they'll need more than clever flying ships and dry commentary to stop the Darkling; they'll need the third of Morozova's amplifiers for Alina.

Once again, I felt like romance ate what would have been an otherwise interesting story. The ambiguous but all-consuming relationship between Mal and Alina continues to simmer, and Alina becomes a powerful leader only in appearances; really she just keeps pining after Mal and feeling lost and alone without him there to support and love her. Additionally, you have Nikolai making advances over which Alina seems to battle with herself, because she's developing feelings for the prince despite declaring her distaste for political marriages and simultaneously considering that it might be what her country truly needs of her..... *sigh* Sure, some indecision would be understandable in the situation because honestly, Alina has more important things on her plate than deciding for whom she has stronger feelings. Who has time to consider romantic entanglements when you have to worry about defeating a crazy shadow mage who wants to cover the world in darkness? But she just kind of plods along on her quest to defeat the Darkling while being consumed by her love life.

Even there though, you got another romantic interest popping up where in my opinion there just should not have been one: between Alina and the Darkling. I understand the pull of their similarities in magical strength, but the draw ends there. The nature of their relationship didn't warrant the kind of romantic tension that was built into all of their interactions, to the point where I just found myself annoyed whenever the two of them faced off, because I knew nothing was really going to happen: there was just going to be a lot of talking in the vein of "come to the Dark Side," veiled declarations of a twisted, lonely love, and then a daring escape on the part of Alina's party.

There were some details in the story that I liked: Genya's unapologetic but sincerely good nature, the curse that the Darkling unleashes on Nikolai during the battle at the mountain hideaway, and the explanation behind why Mal has his tracker intuition despite not being Grisha. But in my mind they didn't make up for the black hole of romance and some omissions in the plot that frustrated me. For example, we're never told why Morozova created the amplifiers in the first place. The idea in the first book that Alina gets the stag's power by showing it mercy is completely turned on its head, making the acquisition of her third amplifier in particular feel kind of hollow and anticlimactic, given the circumstances. It was too easy for her to do. By the time everything's over, Alina is reduced to the same wandering little soul she was in the beginning, completely dependent on Mal for support, encouragement, love and general well-being.

If you're a reading completionist with a driving need to finish every series that you begin, you can pick up your copy of Ruin and Rising at any local, independent bookstore.  But if you don't feel particularly bad about leaving a series partially read, I recommend you read Shadow and Bone but let Mal and Alina sail off into the sunset at the end of that story.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Best Book-to-Movie Adaptations

Life of Pi

Books and movies share different storytelling strengths and weaknesses because of their very different modes of communication. Movies make us immediately think of imagery to tell a story, but there are also aspects like music, color, animation techniques and special effects that help to make the film come to life. Books, on the other hand, have only the writing style to convey the story. Things like fonts, formatting and possibly cover art do impact the reader's perception of the story, but it's much more a marriage between what the writer is able to convey combined with the reader's imagination that gives us the story contained in the pages (or digital file) of a book.

Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon used their readers' suggestions to put together a list of the 23 best book-to-movie adaptations of all time. It's a great list with a broad range of genres as well as release dates, and I have to say that I completely share the sentiment when it comes to the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Additionally, not all the movies on the list are featured because they parallel their literary counterparts exactly; some of them are acknowledged for being all-around fantastic adaptations of and different takes on the original work, which is acknowledged in the comments. Take a look at the list, and maybe add some titles to your "To Read" and "To Watch" lists!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Book Review: "Siege and Storm" by Leigh Bardugo (Grisha Trilogy Book Two)

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've probably noticed a few things about me as a reader: I like dark themes, convincing characters who aren't perfect, and sweeping story lines that transport me to new and exciting places. I'm also really not good at waiting for the next book in a series to come out, because when a story is written to my tastes, I want to find out what happens now, not a year from now. So when Leigh Bardugo started releasing books for her Grisha Trilogy and I picked up the first one (Shadow and  Bone, my review for which can be found here), I was pretty much doomed to fall in love with her novels and simultaneously curse the book release waiting period.

Siege and Storm, the second book in the trilogy, was released in June of last year. Having already agonized about what happened next in the series once, I made a conscious decision as a reader to wait until the series was complete before reading any further. As I said, I'm usually not very good at waiting for the next book in a series to be released, but sometimes it beats getting invested again only to repeat the same frustration of having to wait for the next installment! Thankfully the third and final book, Ruin and Rising, was released in June and I was finally free to devour both in one go.

At the beginning of Siege and Storm Alina and Mal are fleeing Ravka in search of a new start away from the Darkling and Alina's identity as the Sun Summoner. But fate, alas, has other plans. Alina and Mal find themselves taken back to Ravka, where the Darkling has become more powerful than ever and is attempting to overthrow what's left of the kingdom with most of the Grisha from the Second Army. Despite the overwhelming odds Alina, who some are now calling a Saint, may still have a chance: she still wears Morozova's collar, which greatly magnifies her powers as the Sun Summoner and which turns out to be only the first piece of a bigger puzzle. She also acquires some very clever - and highly unlikely - allies who prove instrumental in the plans that they lay to defeat the Darkling and destroy the Unsea that's divided Ravka for hundreds of years. But as events unfold and a head-on confrontation with the Darkling becomes inevitable, Alina finds herself moving farther and farther away from Mal and the girl who she ways, the life that they always dreamed of together. It's possible that she simply can't be the person she has to be in order to save Ravka, and still be the girl who Mal loves.

The characters I loved in Shadow and Bone were back in the second book, but they were changed by the events that had transpired. The relationship between Zoya and Alina was of particular interest, especially given their history and the strain that Alina's duty was  putting on the relationship between her and Mal. At the end though I wasn't exactly sure what the situation was between Alina and Mal, whether or not they were still together or even if Mal still had feelings for Alina. I wish that had been a little bit better defined, especially since it would have helped me to tell the difference between what he did out of a sense of duty and what he did for the love of her. It was a little bit annoying that this book focused so much on the romance aspect of the story taking place, but progress was made on other fronts as well.

With all the doom and dire straits, I'm happy to say that the dry, acerbic remarks and absurd, slightly manic sense of humor that I'd come to love in Alina were still very much present. There's a particular bit about a fancy hat for Mal that still makes me giggle when I think about it. It may seem counterintuitive to insert humor into a very dark story, with a horrible enemy at the gates and no easy solution in sight. But with so much at stake, I got the impression that Alina was really trying to grasp at whatever glimmers of happiness came her way. And she found them with other characters who shared her burden, like Genya and Nikolai, as well as with Mal.

Everything seems lost at the end of this middle book of the trilogy. The Darkling's new powers of creation and his creepy connection with Alina made me feel like the only possibility was for her to join him and then try to find some way to defeat him from the inside. But the twist at the end of the book disproved my theory, leaving me once again on pins and needles about what's going to happen with the last part of Morozova's puzzle, Alina's integrity, the corruption of magic, Nikolai's future and what on earth the Darkling has planned for them all. Thankfully I had Ruin and Rising, the third book which was released in June, at the ready! (You can probably guess what I'll be reviewing next week....) Head out to your nearest independent bookstore and pick up your own copy of all three books in the Grisha Trilogy, because they're all proving to be fabulous reads!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Classic Book Covers, Redesigned

William Golding - Lord of The Flies

As readers we're constantly reminded, sometimes jokingly and sometimes chidingly, that we should not choose or judge a book based on its cover. But the simple truth of the matter is that how things are presented to us visually impacts our perception of them, and the effectiveness of different approaches has changed over time. These twelve redesigned covers for classic literary works are all very striking, especially when you compare them with their original covers. Looking at the changes in these rethought covers, it makes me wonder: how might our perceptions of an taste in cover art for books change in the coming century?