Monday, October 28, 2013

Four Days Before the Black Hole

Alright folks.  It's October 28st, which for the semi-insane of us, means it's four days until NaNo starts.

For those who are not "in the know" and who have not crossed into the crazytown that is National Novel Writing Month, let me explain to you:
1. You start writing a 50,000 word novel on November 1st.
2. You continue writing at least 1667 words every day, writing until you finish your 50,000 words. 
3. At some point between November 1st and November 30th you go semi-insane.

Now let me define "semi-insane."  For me it involves a lot of daydreaming about this fictional (and let's face it, somewhat idiotic) characters I have created.  I sometimes dream about them.  Sometimes this is beneficial.  "Hey [spouse}!  I had the best dream last night and now I know what I'm going to do with that scene that isn't working for me."  The rest of the time these dreams are  more freestyle.  "Hey [spouse].  I had a dream last night that my character stole my laundry and when I told you about it, you said it was my fault because I left the shirts in the dryer overnight.  Then the cats turned into burritos and flew away."

Honestly, the semi-insanity is one of the highlights of the month.  There are few things people do in life that are 100% your own and that you completely control.  It's nice when things start forming in your mind without you consciously thinking about it.  Feeling something grow almost organically because of your own imagination is liberating.

This tends to mean that you lose touch with a lot of things.  TV shows.  The gym.  Facebook (unless that's your distraction of choice).  I fall into the NaNo Black Hole every year.

No, let me correct that.  I plunge into the Nano Black Hole.  I bathe in it.  I wear the Black Hole like my favorite ratty sweatshirt.  I love having a somewhat ridiculous excuse for just not calling or talking to anyone.  I love having week after week where I pretty much sleep, work and write.  "Sorry, guys.  I can't go drinking tonight because I'm 2000 words behind on my word count."  "I was going to return your call last night, but I was on a roll with my word count."  (Applies equally to "I was going to call you last night, but I was behind on my word count.")  Friends might get sick of hearing about "word count" but I get so sucked up in it it's hard to be too concerned.

The problem is that this year, just like last year, I have no ideas.  A couple years ago, when I wrote one of best pieces I've done (not that it's a masterwork by any stretch of the imagination) I knew what I was going to write in July.  I spent months letting it formulate in my mind.  Last year?  I came up with my idea a day or two before and my story sort of derailed about around the 30,000 word mark.  My coblogger came for a weekend and while she wrote, I pretty much stared out the window and rewrote the same scene eight times because it never made any sense. Not my finest moments. 

Fortunately, my coblogger has told me that she is in the same boat this year.  Getting to be the last minute.  No ideas.

So here's to last minute panics, writing a horribly bloated story and for rediscovering just how creative you can be in a pinch!

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Shining Part Two

Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the boy protagonist of The Shining) and the very special twelve-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals (from Goodreads).
I did feel the book moved slowly in the beginning, only gaining speed near the end.  There was one unanswered question I had from The Shining. It was the part when Jack is thinking about what happened when he beat up a student of his. Because it was from Jack’s perspective you can see why he was so angry at the kid but there was one small line that I only caught because I was listening to the story. Jack hinted at believing that the kid “knew something” about Jack and I could never figure out what Jack thought the student knew. Jack never mentioned it aloud or in his thoughts throughout the book  and it was never referred to again. There is a twist in Doctor Sleep that answers that small question. I have no idea if anyone ever caught it but it bothered me.
Only one inconsistency I found between the two books was that Dan in Doctor Sleep mentioned something about his mother Wendy never going to college, where in The Shining she did go to college. It is where she and Jack first met. I cannot remember if she finished and got a degree or if she quit once they got married but either way it was a small detail that seemed incorrect.
This book was not scary like its predecessor but I do not think it was meant to be. We learn more about the gift of shining and the area of the Overlook Hotel is still important. The main point of the book was to see Danny again and find out if he can live after that horrible winter in the mountains.
I enjoyed this book and am glad that King took the time to write about what happened to young Danny. This is a slow-moving book and King takes his time in telling it. Avid and loyal readers will enjoy this book.
3.5 stars

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Was "Forced" to Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

Here's the thing about me:  you can recommend me books until you're blue in the face, but unless it's required reading or there will be an exam you can't force me to finish.  If you have a favorite book I "should" read, you'll have to tell me several times.
But most of the time I friggin' love books that other people consistently recommend.  You just have to out-stubborn me.

Ten Stellar Successes (and One Miserable DNF Failure)

The Great Gatsby - A required high school read.  I'm glad I read this with a youthful, exuberant teacher.  The style is not the easiest thing to read as a 16 year-old, but with the discussion I found myself loving it the more we read.  I appreciate it more now than I did then, but it's still a good book for anyone to read.

Montana 1948.  Thanks again, high school!  I would never in a million years have picked this up off the shelf had it not been part of a course.  Rural Montana 1948:  a young man learns what his father, the sheriff, must do when his charming and affable uncle is accused of some heinous crimes.  Some skeevy, sad moments, but all in all a very memorable book.  A nice companion to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Cold Sassy Tree - Another high school read.  The story of an older man finding new life and new love with a younger woman in a Southern town, over the disapproval of his family and the town.  The hero, a young man, finds new love and heartbreak and learns about growing up while staying young.  This book is oddly touching in a lot of ways. There is also a sequel that was left unfinished by the author's death.  I didn't have the heart to start it. 

The Inferno - For reasons defying understanding, I read this book three times in my first two years of college.  Once in the original Italian.  I think it was interesting (as opposed to "good") because it was taught to me.  If I were to have read it randomly, I don't think I would have appreciated it as much.

The Three-Inch Golden LotusThis is both and terrific and a terrible book.  It makes you think hard about a difficult (and gross) issue: foot binding.   It makes you care - horrendously - about the characters.  It doesn't leave you with any good fuzzy feelings at the end.  And as you turn the final page, you still care.  Deeply.  Some scenes are outright gross, and some characters are reprehensible, but the fact that I can describe scenes from a book I read once twelve years ago should tell you a lot.

Ender's Game - Sci-Fi is not really my bag.  I don't gravitate towards it, though I have nothing against it.  This book is mind-blowingly great and I did not see it coming.  If you haven't read it, you totally should.

Outlander - While studying abroad, we students had to pool our resources, so to speak.  This was recommended over and over by one person until I caved.  Word to the wise: Once she goes back in time, the book gets really good.  Feel free to skim away until you get to that part.  Oh, man.  Now I want to read it again. I've never finished the series, but I could read this first one over and over again (minus the first part before the time travel happens.  Like I said, just skip it.). 

Memoirs of a Geisha - Same deal as above.  Either read book in Italian, do actual homework or read this from another student's private library.  This was far better than the other two options.  I've read it a couple times since then.

Pillars of the Earth/World Without End - Are these the best books ever?  Of course not.  Starz adapted it for TV.  Starz, people, Starz.  Are the characters purely good or purely evil?  Yeah, pretty much.  Does that make it less engaging and fun?  No.  As a bonus, there are two mini-series you can watch (and mock or enjoy, your decision) after you've read them.

The Hunger Games- At the time this came out, my coblogger Panther told me about it.  It didn't really trip my trigger.  She told me it was good and lent me her copy.  I had to go out and buy my own almost the second I finished.  Well played, friend.  Well played, indeed.

Left Behind - Nope nope nope.  No.  Nuh-uh.  Never again.  "Oh, you'll love it.  It's about the Book of Revelation and the Rapture."  No only did I not like it, I couldn't even get past the first few chapters.  Even as a teenager the writing style chafed my brain.  Don't do.  It's really bad.

Anyone else?  Feel free to post links to your own list in the comments!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Book Review: The Bone Season

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
Book 1 of "The Bone Season"
It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

It's here!  The next Harry Potter!

Oh, wait.  No it's not.  I was hooked by the very first few pages of Harry Potter:  who were these wizards?  How did that one have a putter-outter?  What was going to happen to this kid?  The Bone Season?  Not so much.
It's not the book's fault.  Not really.  When publishers start crying "THIS IS THE BEST THING SINCE THAT OTHER REALLY GREAT THING," I start getting excited like any well-trained book-reading seal.  When I read rave reviews, I can't help but get a thrill when my copy arrives.

And then about 100 pages into this book I realized I wasn't really enjoying it.  I was reading it because I assumed there must be something coming that these other readers saw and enjoyed.  Perhaps I just wasn't memorizing the lingo quickly enough.  Perhaps my callused unfeeling heart just had no empathy for other human beings.

It's not the book's fault.  When publishers start hyping something as much as they can, there's essentially no way that the book can satisfy every reader.  I was unfortunately left unsatisfied. 

I appreciated the world building - the idea that England could become a totalitarian state that would lead other nations into a similar political climate: very interesting.  Clairvoyants running around?  Cool.  A strange race of creatures whose lifeblood and essence appear to be tied to the aether?  Alright. 

However, things that are not cool:
1. An eight-page glossary that you have to consult just about every page for the first half of the book.  Sometimes it feels like reading a prose version of "Jabberwocky."  You'll be reading a paragraph and everything is great and then the blorgsnafs started slipsnakking around with your greemer.  And then it's off to the glossary to make sense of what you just read.
2. A chart on the "order" of clairvoyants which should mean something but really doesn't help make the story make any more sense.
3. A huge cast of characters that are largely interchangeable, from physical description to job to personalitiesSeriously.  I could have used a "Cast of Characters" and I usually don't have problems keeping fictional people distinct in my mind.
4. A concentrated effort to make the world dark and gothic which only succeeds in jarring the reader out of the story.  Constant references to sad, depressing songs or gothic novels.  The first song Paige hears ("Gloomy Sunday") has an urban legend around it that says it makes people commit suicide. 

I couldn't relate to any of the characters, except one, and even that one wasn't exactly my BFF.  When one "important" character dies, I just shrugged and turned the page.  There are so many Rephaim and "voyants" and with few exceptions they are not really memorable.  I don't even know much about the protagonist and would be hard-pressed to describe her beyond "occasionally self-destructive" and "a rebellious when the plot calls for it." 
And of course, because this is being marketed as Young Adult, there is the requisite romance, shoe-horned late into the story which smacks strongly of Stockholm Syndrome. 

I guess here's a tip for publishers: 
I'm not looking for "the next Harry Potter."  Really, I'm not.  What I'm looking for are well-told books that capture my imagination or emotions.  If that is a book about goblins under a hill, I'm on board.  If it's about a sassy assassin fighting for her freedom, I'm cool with that.  And if it's just a teenager in the late 1940s trying to be more grown-up than she really knows how to be, I can be a good sport.  But if you start trying to sell me on something by telling me how frickin' amazing it's going to be and how it will leave a mark on my reader's soul to the extent that Harry Potter did, you are setting yourselves up for failure.  Just stop.  Please.  I don't like taking your crazy pills.

I commend the (young) author for her imagination and the effort required to tell a story of this scope.  For a first novel, this is a good book, even if it didn't work for me personally.  However, I have to shake my finger at the publishers who held her up as the new arrival of the Best Author Ever. 

2 out of 5 stars.  Probably won't look for the sequel.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Cold Magic

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Book 1 of The Spiritwalker Trilogy

It is the dawn of a new age... The Industrial Revolution has begun, factories are springing up across the country, and new technologies are transforming in the cities. But the old ways do not die easy.

“I was not a bard or a djeli or an historian or a scribe and I was certainly not a sage, but that didn't mean I wasn't curious…”

Young Cat Barahal thinks she understands the world she lives in and her place in it, but in fact she is merely poised, unaware, on the brink of shattering events. Drawn into a labyrinth of politics involving blood, betrayal and old feuds, she will be forced to make an unexpected and perilous journey in order to discover the truth, not just about her own family but about an ancient secret lying at the heart of her world.

Cat and her cousin Bee are part of this revolution. Young women at college, learning of the science that will shape their future and ignorant of the magics that rule their families. But all of that will change when the Cold Mages come for Cat. New dangers lurk around every corner and hidden threats menace her every move. If blood can't be trusted, who can you trust?

As discussed in previous reviews, I have a difficult relationship with steampunk.  The aesthetic of the steampunk universe tends to take precedence over the story itself, something that can derail even the strongest of writers.  Once it becomes airships and goggles, corsets and red-headed lady pirates, I tend to lose my interest in the book.  It's not that such stories are bad, per se, it's just that the steampunk subgenre can do better.

Therefore, I was surprised when I picked up this book and was about 25% of the way through it before I realized that one could classify Cold Magic as steampunk.  I didn't see it coming. There are airships and strange technology.  However, the strength of the book lies in the fact that Elliot doesn't rely entirely on the appearance of steampunk but instead takes huge chunks from both the alternate history and historical fantasy subgenres.  This is a world in which the New World is at least partially settled by trolls - feathered creatures who fly airships.  The Roman Empire collapsed, but far more slowly, leaving smaller principalities and cultural groups to evolve into a more modern society.  Those familiar with Roman-era place names will find themselves at home here.  

Our heroine, Cat, is trying to finish the university in her town alongside her cousin while living with her aunt and uncle.  Her plans are put on indefinite hold when a family debt is called in and she is married off to a Mage, Andevai, who can barely give her the time of day.  There are some misunderstandings and some skullduggery and Cat finds herself on the run, looking for ways to save her life and for answers.  

But the time you reach about the 3/4 mark of the book, the story will sweep you away right to the end.  However, the first part of the book is slow, and had I not been warned that Elliot's books tend to start on the slow end, I might not have finished it.  It's not that the book is bad or that the characters are uninteresting, it's that the book's plot doesn't seem to have a clear trajectory for a long time.  By the time the reader understands what is going on, they are well into the book.  If this is the sort of story writing you like, it won't bother you.  I generally prefer to see, if not the details, the likely path a plot might take:  a romance, an adventure, a murder mystery.  

The world itself is fascinating, with some holdouts from Imperial Rome still around with many Industrial Revolution features starting to pop-up.  I can't speak to the accuracy of any historically researched details in the book; that's not really my thing.  I have a feeling, though, that if you are the sort of person who spots such inaccuracies, steampunk/alternate history is probably not your thing.

The characters are fairly strong and the dual mysteries of "who is Cat" and "what is the truth about her family" will carry many readers to the end of the story.  For those readers who need a dynamite beginning to get hooked, you might be disappointed.

3 out of 5 stars.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Best/Worst Series Enders and more

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

Confession time:
I HAVE TERRIBLE SELF-DISCIPLINE.  I get terrible "series fatigue."  Even good books can be a chore to finish. I have a mistrust, if not outright disdain for series that are longer than a trilogy (unless the books themselves are rather short, like the Chronicles of Narnia).  I am terrific at reading the first book in any given series, but less terrific about finding and finishing the last one, especially as the series gets longer and longer.  So I'm going to tweak this one a bit and break it down a bit farther.

Worst Series Finales

Breaking Dawn of Twilight.  Do you know what's compelling about a story in which the protagonist(s) get everything they want and no one has to sacrifice a dang thing?  Nothing.  Also, Bella's baby and the whole imprinting thing are just WRONG and icky on so many levels.  Of course, the whole series was sort it might be beating a dead horse to put it on this list at all. 

The Last Battle from the Chronicles of Narnia.  The series as a whole is incredibly solid, which makes it all the more bewildering when you read this one.  Ham-handed allegory, a kamikaze-Sherlock Holmes-esque "I'm never writing more books in this series" ending and a tediously grim plot.  No thanks.

Inheritance of the Inheritance series.  Not that this series is a stunning literary achievement, but this book pretty much topped off this turd sundae of a series.  The protagonist becomes a massive, massive Gary Stu (he discovers, apropos of nothing, that the world is round).  Pretentiousness and purple prose become the order of the day.  There are chapters in this book called "Lacuna Part the First" and "Lacuna Part the Second."  Thesaurus abuse and a predictable plot.  Nope nope nope.  

Best Series Finales

Iron Knight from "The Iron Fey."  I have made no secret of how much I love these books.  I'll admit, the fake-out finale chapters from Ash's book thawed my ice-cold heart enough to make me misty-eyed.

The Realm of the Gods from "The Immortals."  The final scene with Daine and Numair, while rather innocent, is so full of passion that it's hard not to squee just a little.  My ship came in!

Slightly Dangerous from the Bedwyn saga.  I don't read many romance novels, but this series was terrific.  Napoleonic wars, Waterloo, lost siblings, broken hearts.  And finally, the last book delivers a heroine that makes you laugh and whose spirit softens the icy demeanor of the last unmarried Bedwyn.  This one might have made me cry, too.  If you want to read a decent Historical Romance series, you could do far worse than to start with this one. 
Series I Never Finished and Never Intend To

Book Eleventy-four or whatever of "Wheel of Time."  Did this series ever end?  Is it still going?  I honestly lost my ability to continue reading around book three, when the characters never finished an arc and never reunited to sum up the story.  It was just one long string of introducing new, horrible people and the ways they abuse one another.  YAY.  See these reviews for why I'm glad I quit.

"The Iron Elves" series.  I appreciate what the author was trying to do with this series, and I feel bad for hating the first book as much as I did, but it tanked so hard that I took both the first book and its sequel (unread) to Goodwill.
Series I Have Started and WILL Finish.  Eventually.

Lord of the Rings.  Just like getting a head of steam built up before jogging up a steep incline, I have to gird myself to barrel through LOTR.  The endless asides, the campfire songs in Elvish, characters who appear to have their entire lineage recounted only to disappear two pages later - it's too much.  But I do intend to finish the series someday - after all, I didn't like Austen the first time I read her, either.

Stephen Brust's Vlad Taltos books.   Every book in this series is self-contained and even if you read them in publishing order, you're not reading them in the universe's chronological order.  There's something liberating about that.  Each of them is pretty great, but the series is long.  I just haven't gotten around to plowing through all of my omnibus editions. 

 Any currently-incomplete series that I have loved so far:  Grisha, Song of Ice and Fire, Throne of Glasss.  It's hard to finish when the books aren't published yet.  I will be religiously ordering these as they are released...unless the quality starts to decline.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Book Review: What I Saw and How I Lied

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
When Evie's father returned home from World War II, the family fell back into its normal life pretty quickly. But Joe Spooner brought more back with him than just good war stories. When movie-star handsome Peter Coleridge, a young ex-GI who served in Joe's company in postwar Austria, shows up, Evie is suddenly caught in a complicated web of lies that she only slowly recognizes. She finds herself falling for Peter, ignoring the secrets that surround him . . . until a tragedy occurs that shatters her family and breaks her life in two.

This is not generally the sort of book I pick up from a shelf, let alone read and enjoy, which makes my appreciation of the story all the more befuddling.  While I like historical fiction, I don't usually seek out 20th century pieces.    Nevertheless, I was sucked into this book and remained hooked until the end, not something that happens all that regularly. 

Our heroine, Evie, captures the feeling of being 15 perfectly:  far closer to adulthood than childhood, and yet the last few steps into actual adulthood are giant ones.  She desperately wants to be taken for more of an adult than she actually is, but often makes stupid mistakes and rash judgments.  Blundells captures such yearning desperation perfectly.  Dinners at a table with an attractive man become fonts of drama.  Every clever statement becomes a victory and every dull silence becomes a crushing defeat.  Wearing lipstick means adulthood, even if the women around her wearing such lipstick have troubles and secrets enough of their own. 

In case it wasn't obvious in the first chapter, antisemitism runs rampants throughout the characters in the story.  Even Evie herself isn't above pettiness early in the story, though her moral compass guides her better when she sees adults acting in similar ways on a larger scale.  In in many ways, Evie is just as mature as those she aspires to be like, and it takes the events of the story for her to realize it. 

The language was simple though not simplistic and the books reads quickly.  I would recommend this book to almost any reader.

4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: "Shadow and Bone" and "Siege and Storm"

For those of you who have been living under a rock, sheltered from the YA book world, you might not have heard of Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy.  If you're reading this, though, odds are that you are well aware and nothing here is going to be revolutionary.  I finished the first book weeks ago and it took me so long to figure out what I wanted to say that I had read the second book before I posted anything. 
I am heartily ashamed. 

If you like short versions of reviews, here's my summary:
These books are terrific.  Great characters, interesting setting, compelling relationships and genuine drama.  4.5+ stars.

Let's start with book one:  Shadow and Bone.
Our heroine, Alina, has a thankless job in an underappreciated and overworked army as a mapmaker, where she can be largely overlooked but at least she is close to her childhood friend and (secret) love of her life, Mal.  Problem is, she's not very good at her assigned career and the love of her life probably doesn't know how she feels.  But then, in a moment of danger, a rare and important power manifests itself and she is swept into the world of the Grisha and into the the path of the Darkling, the most important Grisha in the country. 

Okay.  So there's your synopsis, complete with setup for the requisite YA love triangle.  Here's the thing:  I actually loved this triangle.  Mal, so easy with the ladies, hardly notices Alina (not that she starts out as a catch or anything).  The Darkling, while giving off some serious creepster vibes, is also the perfect misunderstood tortured soul.  He takes Alina under his wing and gives her something she's never had:  a place to belong. 
To sum up in a gif:
That's before the sh*t hits the fan, of course, and as soon as you read the synopsis of the second book, you'll know what happens.
G'ah.  So many feelings.  I tore through this book in an afternoon.
4.5 stars.  I might rate it higher on a second read-through.

Now.  Siege and Storm.
Adding to the awesomeness that was Shadow and Bone, Bardugo now introduced the infamous Sturmhond, a pirate with an attitude and some serious get-it-done skills.  (See gif above for reaction.)  Mal is still around and despite his frustration and the book two angsting, has started to grow on me.  The Darkling has become a bit of a jerk, but there's still something alluring about him, even if he is the devil incarnate. 
Not only do we have pirates in this book, but we also have sea monsters and secret magics and rebellions and Alina putting a Snooty McBetterThanThou in her place.  All in all, incredibly satisfying. 
Book ends on a did-not-see-that-coming cliffhanger and I want the next book right now.
4.5 stars.  At least.

Overall thoughts:
It's really hard to write "OMG LOVE IT" reviews, because what can you say that isn't rabid fangirling? 

Read these books.  Read them now.  Support bookstores and libraries and authors that do clever things and write interesting characters that have more personality than a damp tissue!