Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Think Outside the Book (Rules)

Howl's Moving Castle

There are certain rules that are generally accepted within the SpecFic writing community, and by writers in general. They are basic ideas that help to preserve story cohesiveness, character perspective, and timeline. Fantasy publishing house Tor recently put together a list of books that break these rules, and have still been successful. All of the books here somehow subvert the Big Rules of Storytelling, and yet still draw readers. In fact, it's this innovative approach of breaking rules and still successfully telling a good story that draws some readers to these titles. My favorite on the list? "Howl's Moving Castle" by Diana Wynne Jones. It's quite different from the Studio Ghibli movie by the same name. Check them out!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review: "The Fog Diver" by Joel Ross

Joel Ross, already the author of two adult WWII thriller novels, premiers his middle-grade writing career with this exciting, endearing tale set centuries in the future. Chess, an orphan, was found and raised by Mrs. E. He wasn't the only one, and he and his four adoptive siblings make one of the best salvage crews in the Junkyard, a series of floating docks tethered to a high mountain peak. They sail their rickety airship out over the Fog, a deadly layer that encompasses the world and infects any human who stays in it for long, earning their living by bringing up salvage from beneath the murky vapor. But Mrs. E has finally succumbed to fogsickness, and in order to save her, Chess and his created family will need more than the good luck of one prosperous salvage; they'll have to escape the Junkyard altogether and seek out Port Oro, a city forbidden to anyone living in the Junkyard, under control of the power-hungry Lord Kodoc.

But plans are accelerated when Chess finds something miraculous on a dive: a diamond. It'll be enough to buy their small family passage on a smuggling vessel, if they can keep it safe until then. Other forces are conspiring against their ragged but talented group, though; Kodoc is looking for a boy with strange powers like those Chess displays in the fog, a boy with the same fog-clouded eye that Chess hides behind his hair. If Chess should fall into Kodoc's hands, illegal possession of a diamond will be the least of his worries. So as the net closes around them, Chess and his crew race to find a way off of the mountain, to safety, and for the medical technology necessary to save Mrs. E.

Ross's vision of a future world is both creative and insightful: he blends elements of sci-fi and steampunk to form a unique back story about the rise of the fog, what it is, what it means and how it might be controlled. Even designing the fog and its makeup to specifically target humans, leaving the plants and animals to thrive within it, was a stroke of creative genius. It's a cautionary tale as well as a story of human audacity and survival, living off the bare minimum and hoping for a better future.

Especially humorous to me were the references to what life was like before the fog. Looking through newspaper clippings and other remnants left behind for Chess in his father's scrapbook, the crew learns about pop icons like Elvis Parsley, can identify the constellation Oprah, and knows about now-extinct species like spelling bees and hello kitties. Adventures were even had by the spaceship the X-Wing Enterprise (It's good to know that in the future, apparently the disagreements between hardcore Star Wars and Star Trek fans were set aside.) These hilarious mistaken references had me chuckling throughout the book, and both young readers and adults are sure to find them amusing.

The other focal point of this book that I especially liked was the emphasis on the validity of a created family. Chess and his crewmates Hazel, Swedish, and Bea were all found and adopted by Mrs. E. Thanks to her they had a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, and people on whom they could rely. Each plays an important role in the family as well as on the salvage raft, a fact that is discussed by their group at one point as well. Swedish, the pilot, is the anchor of the group; Hazel, the captain, is their dreams; Bea, a gifted engineer, is their heart; and Chess is their hope. They all come from different backgrounds, but each brings something essential to the others and all are united by their love of Mrs. E and their commitment to each other. This story and the characters in it strike a perfect balance between the tale of adventure and the message of family ties.

If you're looking for a high-flying adventure full of nanotechnology, derring-do, sky pirates and a delightfully horrible villain, then be sure to pick up a copy of "The Fog Diver" by Joel Ross. It's a treat to read and a good reminder that your true family - blood-related or otherwise - are the ones who will always be there to watch your back and embrace your quirks and follies. It will be released on the 26th of this month and is available for pre-order now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Things We Love About Bookstores

That bookstore vibe

With the days getting warmer and summer just around the bend (already?!), it's the perfect time of year to make an afternoon pilgrimage to your favorite local bookstore. Here in Bellingham, it's popular to find a good read at Village Books and then take a stroll on the waterfront boardwalk to a local coffee shop. There are benches, a sandy beach, and lawns on which to settle down with your book and your beverage to enjoy the lovely weather. To get you started on your own warm-weather book mini-vacation, here's a list of ten reasons to love brick-and-mortar bookstores. Enjoy!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: "To Hold the Bridge" by Garth Nix

Garth Nix won my heart a long time ago with his Abhorsen books (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen and most recently Clariel). The way he portrays his characters, in a matter-of-fact but sympathetic manner, always made me feel so much a part of their lives, especially when I was the same age as his protagonists. Getting to meet Nix during his tour for Clariel is still one of my most exciting moments as a bookseller to date. His latest work, To Hold the Bridge, is a collection of short stories similar to Across the Wall, a collection that he did after Abhorsen. My relationship with short story collections, particularly when they're all by one author, is decidedly hit-or-miss; either I adore an author even more for their bite-sized installments or I end up questioning myself as a fan.

This isn't fair on my part, and I'm aware of this. After all, it's exceedingly difficult to be able to engage a reader in a short story where, like poetry, every small word counts when you're accustomed to having an entire novel's worth of space to build entire new worlds and introduce readers gradually to nuanced, subtle plot and character details. Writers who can transition easily between formats and produce work that is equally impressive in both (or all) are in my personal experience very rare. While I still adore Nix's Abhorsen books and recommend them on almost a daily basis to customers, I have to say that To Hold the Bridge was a disappointment.

My initial excitement about this collection came primarily from the fact that the title story takes us back to the Old Kingdom, where the Abhorsen books take place. It's a fascinating world full of magic, mayhem and monsters, a constant battle between caustic (literally) Free Magic and the harnessed power of the Charter, which can be controlled by a trained Charter Mage using specific symbols. After having read this first story however, I felt somehow unsatisfied. The story had all the basic essentials: a young person struggling to make his way in the world, an objective and something held dear, evildoers to provide a conflict, a dangerous battle in which our hero must show his true mettle, and eventual victory. But to me it felt as though this story had been written just to appease fans with a nod to Nix's other popular work. Maybe it was the lack of development in the bad guys; you didn't really know who they were or why they attacked the bridge. It can be inferred, of course, but somehow the entire conflict felt unsatisfactory, if not in its execution then in its rationale and in its lack of follow-up.

Some of the pieces included in the collection were quite interesting. One about witches at a Hogwarts-like school of magic had me smiling to myself, and a very innovative story about a radioactive space lizard had me curiously turning to the next page time and again. A piece entitled "Vampire Weather" was full of the wry, dark humor that I generally like. But there were also overly simplistic or unnatural-feeling stories included that gave me the uncomfortable feeling of wanting to massage my brain and ask what went wrong. A piece about a teenage boy who stands up for a pair of new kids in school was stereotypical to the point of nausea, and another featured alien vampire nanomachines as antagonists.

Similarly, the question of intended audience was one that kept arising for me. Some of the pieces included were obvious coming-of-age stories, featuring young protagonists doing the difficult thing because it was right, and emerging victorious in the end. Classic. But the same book that featured a class bully being put in her place made reference to casual sex and whether or not to keep clothes on. I don't mind sexual references. In fact, some of what I read is quite descriptive about things like that. But given the fact that Nix's usual target audience is readers of Middle-grade fiction, I have to wonder about putting such different stories, featuring such an age discrepancy in their protagonists and containing such different levels of content, together in one collection.

Overall I'll say that if you're a Garth Nix fan who collects his complete works, you'll want to be watching for this one to be released in early June. But if you're hoping for a series of awe-inspiring tales that remind you of the Abhorsen books, you will be disappointed, as I was. I didn't expect this to be a continuation of those tales, but I was looking forward to the writing voice that I came to love there, and I just didn't feel it. Maybe you'll experience it differently.