Sunday, October 31, 2010

GOOD IN A ROOM/Stephanie Palmer

This book is well-known among screenwriters. It should also be well-known among novelists, but it's also great for other business situations. In fact, the principles would probably work better in business situations outside of Hollywood because typically, no matter how competitive an industry might be, it's probably not as competitive as Hollywood.

It's a great book if you own your own business and are looking for clients, if you're looking for a job, AND if you're trying to sell your screenplay (or even your novel). Breaks down the infamous sell meeting (or job interview) into five parts, which I know exist from all the job interviews I've been on. Now I have a better idea of what to do and what to pay attention to.

But the best part was that it confirmed my suspicion that a lot of networking rules are bullshit. Yes, you really are supposed to build rapport with people you truly respect and not with everyone you meet. Just because you meet an editor or a well-known agent in an elevator doesn't mean it's an opportunity to pitch your novel. That's rude and you're more likely to be remembered in a way that you don't want to be. (Palmer addresses the problems of selling the screenplay in part because she's the former Director of Creative Affairs at MGM Studios.)

In a natural writing style, Palmer advises you on how you can sell yourself or your work without making the hard sell. A 'no' isn't the end of the world—it's actually an opportunity to find out what's not working and fine tune your techniques. Hard questions from a potential buyer are actually a good sign.

This is a great book for business people and artists alike. If you're mystified about business transactions and want to know more about how you can handle yourself before and after your published or in other business situations, this is a great book to read.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


1975, Laos: Dr. Siri Paiboun, who is 72, has been cordially invited (in other words, coerced) by the new communist government in Laos to become the national coroner (basically, he's the only person left after the revolution with a medical degree). Siri isn't thrilled about being denied retirement, but it turns out he has a knack for his new job. Furthermore, as the only official examiner of dead bodies, Siri is in the unique position of being able to spot a murder.

In this first book in Colin Cotterill's series, Dr. Siri faces two mysteries: the suspicious death of a politician's wife (appearances indicate an allergic reaction, but Siri's not buying it, for a number of reasons), and then, separately, the resurfaced bodies of two Vietnamese soldiers who were found in a Laotian lake. Unfortunately, there are those who, for various reasons, don't want Siri digging to deeply into either case, and soon it becomes very clear that his life is in real danger.

I chose to blog about this book because I was SO pleased by it. I immediately turned around and gave my copy to my mother, a devout mystery reader, and was gratified when she felt the exact same way. It's a really, really well done mystery, and very atmospheric. Although I am not really qualified to say the setting is authentic--I've never been to Laos--Cotterill's creation certainly feels authentic. Coming out of it, I feel better educated as well as entertained. I definitely intend to read his next book soon.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ladder of Years- Anny Tyler

Ladder of Years- by Anne Tyler

As I was sitting a month or so ago, twiddling my thumbs at Parent-Teacher Conferences, since I rarely have parents show up, one of my assistant principals came down to my room to chat with me. We somehow got started talking about books and our family lives and she recommended this book to me. She said it was one of her favorites, and promptly sent a student with a copy for me to borrow the next day. I'm always intrigued by book recommendations, especially since I get them surprisingly rarely, so I dove in and hoped for the best.

Ladder of Years features Delia (coincidentally the name that I chose for myself in high school Spanish class), a middle-aged housewife who feels rather, well, beige about her life. She married Sam, the doctor set to take over her father's practice, right out of high school, promptly had three children and now that her kids are mostly grown and her husband completely settled in his practice, she doesn't have much to do with her time.

The book opens at the grocery store, where an attractive young man asks Delia to pretend to be his girlfriend so he doesn't have to encounter his estranged wife and her new boyfriend. She is secretly thrilled by this little escapade and when she later bumps into him on the street, begins a clandestine, though small affair. Her building dissatisfaction with her home life comes to a head when she is with her extended family on their annual trip to the beach. She's fed up, so she picks up her beach tote and walks away without ever looking back.

Now, in theory, I should have loved this book. I have upon many occasions, since the age of oh... nine or so, fantasized about simply running away from my life to try something new. Not that my life is particularly dissatisfying, or bad in any way, but there's just something about how beautifully free I would feel walking away from it all. So, I should have liked this book. I should have related to Delia and her plight to start from scratch. I should have, but I didn't. At all. I was rather disappointed by the whole thing. The writing was lovely, but I had a really hard time getting a sense of time in the setting. The book itself was published in 1995, but the social morays and way people acted felt more like 1950 something. But, then there would be other indications that it was more recent, computers, medical stuff, etc. It probably shouldn't have bothered me as much as it did, but I just felt lost in time. The characters also felt flat to me. Now, that may have been the point, showing how Delia was really nothing in her world, felt see-through, blah, blah, blah. It still didn't work. The plot was meh and the end really left me wanting something more substantial.

I may not have connected as well to this book as the middle aged housewives this book was geared towards would have, but who knows. It just didn't speak to me. It was interesting enough, I guess. I did keep turning the pages because I wanted to see what was going to happen to Delia, but it's not a book that's going to stick with me. So, I guess, in the end, I would probably recommend this book to anyone who has kids, a husband and not much else on their reading list. Otherwise... skip it.

Read my other reviews HERE.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Deliver Us From Evil, by David Baldacci

Deliver Us From Evil
David Baldacci
Grand Central Publishing, 2010
416 pages

“Why do you need that?”
“Because I want to make sure I stop the pain before I kill you, of course.”
Abdul-Majeed tensed and began to chant under his breath.
“So your god is great, Abdul-Majeed?” said Waller, translating the words. “We will see how great he is to you.”

The mysterious super-operative known as Shaw is back to face an even more deadly foe in Deliver Us From Evil. Fresh off of Baldacci’s The Whole Truth (4.0 stars, Recommended) he finds himself tasked with bringing in monstrous Evan Waller, a businessman who’s dealing in sexual slavery and nuclear material has him in the crosshairs of Shaw’s organization. But there is far more to Evan Waller than Shaw knows. Shaw also doesn’t realize that he is not the only one targeting Waller and not everyone has the same agenda that he does. They all come together in the quiet French town of Provence, as everything quickly falls apart.

As always, Baldacci sets his scenes beautifully and provides his trademark sharp dialog. The action is intense at times, but the story lacks the punch of a great thriller relying on dramatic scenes instead of building the tension continuously. There is a feel of inevitability to the first half of the book, with a culmination that is quite predictable. The second half of the book is disjointed and at times feels likes some of the story that should have been there had been cut out of the book. And while the characters are interesting, they often feel too one-dimensional and I didn’t really feel any emotional tie to them.

The ending had some interesting twists, but it really didn’t engage me in the way The Whole Truth did. The characters seemed more clichéd on the second trip around and I’m not nearly as courteous about what happens to them next as I feel I should. That said, the book is very readable and I never felt bored. It’s a good story, but not a great one. I’m hoping for much better from Baldacci with this series the next time.

You can read more of my book reviews here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

BLUE FIRE by Janice Hardy

Blue Fire by Janice Hardy
The Healing Wars: Book Two
Balzer + Bray, 2010
Middle Grade (ages 10 & up)

The second book of The Healing Wars trilogy, Blue Fire, is just as amazing as the first (my review of Book One: The Shifter is here). From the back cover:

"Is that you, Shifter?"

I swallowed my gasp. She had to be guessing. She couldn't possibly know it was me.

"I'll leave the girl alone if you show yourself. You're a much better prize for the Duke than she."

The dock creaked again.

"You can't evade me for long, Shifter," the tracker said in that irritating singsong voice.

Maybe not, but that didn't mean I wouldn't try.

Nya and company have a knack for finding trouble. But I guess that tends to happen when you're only fifteen and trying to overturn a corrupt government... and you're wanted for murder, with a price on your head.

In this second installment of the Healing Wars trilogy, Nya is hunted down by the Duke's best tracker. She is again separated from her sister, Tali, and also her friends, Danello and Aylin. But this time the story shifts from the city of Geveg to Baseer.

If you've read book one, you know what a horrible fate that would be. Gevegians hate Baseeri, and vice versa. Bringing the story into one of the most hostile territories possible for the MC was brilliant. As in The Shifter, Nya is face-to-face with danger on just about every page. The pacing is at a constant high, making it a quick and fun read.

In addition to physical dangers, Nya makes some unsettling discoveries about her family history. Along the way, her skills continue to sharpen. Her ability to flash pain from pynvium is not so unreliable anymore. She's been learning physical combat under Danello's trained hand. But she's still the same stubborn Nya we grew to love in book one; she doesn't always make the best decisions when the emotions involved are strong.

And true to "middle  book" style, the story ends on a huge cliffhanger. Book Three will not be released until October 2011. I'm drooling in anticipation. This is by far one of the best series I've read in a long time.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Whisperers, by John Connolly

The Whisperers
John Connolly
Atria, 2010
416 pages

“‘Oh, little one,’ he whispered, as he gently stroked her cheek, the first time he had touched her in fifteen years. ‘What have they done to you? What have they done to us all?’ ”

The border region between Maine and Canada becomes a dark and dangerous place in John Connolly’s latest thriller featuring private detective Charlie Parker – The Whisperers. But there seems to be more at work among the cool forests than just treacherous former solders as voices of a paranormal nature are said to be directing things. While this adds additional tension to the story, The Whisperers is first and foremost a detective novel. Charlie Parker has become a well-worn detective by the time of this ninth installment in the series. Even so, the book reads well as a stand-alone work, with only minor references to the previous stories. Connolly never lets the tension slack from the first paragraph to the last sentence. His writing wastes no momentum with clean imagery and engaging characters throughout. The entire story feels very realistic as the allegiances of the characters are never completely clear, leading to one dramatic scene after another as the story builds to its startling climax.

Some readers of detective novels might balk at the idea of the paranormal in the story. However, Connolly does a wonderful job of ensuring reasonable doubt from beginning to end. The characters are the drivers of the action and there is plenty of it. The dialogue is crisp and authentic and many of the characters are as genuinely interesting as the protagonist – at least until they meet an untimely end. There is no letup in the story and I cruised though it from start to finish. In the end, I wanted even more. I finished the book and began looking to find copies of the first eight books in the series –a fitting compliment for any work.

Read more of my reviews here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

(intentionally left blank) of Leaves/Mark Z. Danielewski

You have to read this book.
Sometimes, a book comes along that defies genres. Such a book dares you to pin neat little one-word adjectives to it (they won't stick, even if you try); it refuses to be shelved with its kin, is often a classic, and is always worth reading.
This book is not a book like that. Not only does House of Leaves defy any classification or attempt to cubbyhole it, it actively fights the format in which it is presented, as well as fighting you, the reader, in your attempts to comprehend it. You will face a gauntlet of confusion, you will unearth meaning buried beneath meaning like Matryoshka dolls of fear, you will sometimes have to read upside down. In the end, you will win through to the end of this book - only to see the spirit of the thing burn the truth of the matter to keep it from you. Sound like fun? I didn't think so either - but it is. Is this a book? Not as such. I would feel more comfortable describing it as a labyrinth/crossword-puzzle-mystery on paper. What in god's name is that? I don't know. But you really, really need to get in on it.
These first few paragraphs really give you no insight into Mr. Danielewski's bad-acid-trip-horror-thriller-lovestory -(documentary?)-thing. This is because any attempt to describe the book can be nothing but a reproduction of the book. But for the sake of giving this review a semblance of normality (which doesn't seem fitting, given the fact that this novel seems to have fallen out of an alternate universe) I'll give it a shot.
Ok. So there's a young tattoo artist named Johnny who is taken by a friend named Lude to a dead old man's apartment named Zampano. There, he finds a ragged, half-assembled critique of a movie that may or may not actually exist. The movie is a documentary made by a famous photographer who moves into a house and quickly finds out that it is larger on the inside than on the outside, and may or may not be (spoiler! except it may not be) Yggdrasil.
Does that make any sense? No? I didn't think so. Buy the book.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael

This is my second read this week that blends fact and fiction to describe part of the life of a famous person, in this case Charlotte Brontë. The other one, you may remember, was Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell, which I liked but wasn't crazy about. Today I get to gush a bit, which is a nice treat.

There are some new rules out about bloggers declaring when they receive products to review, and quite right too. So I'm going to make a habit of telling you where I got my books, thus:

Where I got it: chose it myself at the library. I love my library.

Romancing Miss Brontë describes a slice of the life of Charlotte Brontë, starting with the appearance of Arthur Nicholls in the Brontë family's life. Nicholls had come to work as the curate for the Brontë paterfamilias, Patrick, who was going blind with cataracts. At this point in time the Brontë family--already diminished by the deaths of the mother and two children--was composed of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell, who had begun his slide into alcoholism and drug addiction.

Gael gives few or no dates in the novel so I had to grab Juliet Barker's seminal biography, which I'm currently also reading, to find out that the year was 1845 and Charlotte would have been about 29 (already an old maid by the standards of the day). Over the next ten years she would become famous, but when the novel begins the Brontë family are isolated, considered rather odd, and eking out a meager living on Patrick's stipend with no other sources of income in sight. Romancing Miss Brontë covers the next ten years and describes--or imagines--how Arthur's love for Charlotte grew despite the stiff, formal relations that existed between them for most of that time.

Well, I don't say it very often: I LOVED this book. It worked for me on the level of a fictionalized biography; I always take this kind of writing with a pinch of salt and remember that its historical accuracy is not guaranteed, but I had no idea in this case where fact ended and fiction began (until I read Gael's Author's Note at the end) and there were only two or three paragraphs where Gael dropped into a documentary tell-not-show style. Other than that, there was lively dialogue, plenty of action, and letters (some real, some, apparently, imagined, but very well done) to vary the diet and bring out some of the inner feelings of these reserved Victorian characters.

The characters were extremely well drawn; I have read a great deal about the Brontës but I've rarely felt that I've been given such a good sense of them. We also see their servants, friends and business acquaintances, all vividly depicted, and I truly felt a part of the story. If there was a jarring contemporary note in the dialogue, I didn't find it. It just worked.

Romancing Miss Brontë also, in its later chapters, worked for me as romantic fiction. Arthur Nicholls tends to be a subsidiary character in Brontë tales, but Gael managed to give him a touch of the Mr. Darcy's--outwardly stern and forbidding but with a heart of gold and a smoldering passion for Charlotte. It's pretty difficult to imagine the romantic and sexual side of a Victorian relationship with all its attendant repressions, but I found myself really hoping that things had, in fact, been as Gael imagined them to be. The creator of Jane Eyre deserved no less. By the way, that last link is to the new, Twilight-inspired cover of Jane Eyre, which is no less than sacrilege. Harrumph.

Anyway, this is a very nicely written novel that won't make Brontë purists wince and might just revive some interest in the Brontës' lives and work. I am now absolutely itching to reread Jane Eyre. Slam dunk, Ms. Gael.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Jack Rosenblum and his wife, Sadie, are refugees from the Holocaust who end up in England, where Jack, very grateful to his new home, takes it upon himself to become the best English gentleman he can be. There are some hurdles Jack can't seem to jump no matter how hard he tries, though--for example, he cannot get himself admitted to a golf club, since there seem to be no English gold clubs that admit Jews. When the failures begin to get him down, Jack decides to solve his problem himself--by building his own golf course. He and Sadie relocate to Dorset, where he invests his entire carefully accrued fortune in a plot of land and in efforts to combat some fairly insurmountable difficulties--among them, his hostile country neighbors, the rich neighboring gentry who look down on him no matter what, the notoriously soggy English weather, and the famous fearsome Dorset woolly-pig.

At first I was skeptical about Mr. Rosenblum, what with having no personal interest in golf myself, but in the end I loved this book. (As it turns out, Jack knows nothing about golf, either, so I was in good company.) It's a very sweetly told story of a family in great flux, and is a very different take on the post-War era than I have ever seen before. Jack faces some pretty awful challenges--fiscal setbacks, racism, classism, ill health, nasty neighbors--but he is indomitable, and his story uplifting. Solomons's depiction of Dorset is rich and lush, and the novel takes much joy in Jack and Sadie's prosaic encounters, like Jack's getting drunk with the antagonistic bully neighbors and Sadie's teaming up with the village wives to create Coronation chicken. I recommend the book as a real heart-warmer, a literary novel that is somehow also feel-good.


At the time of this book's publication (1997), Earley was the only writer to interview Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent and KGB spy. Earley did more than 50 hours of interviews with Ames before the CIA got wind of things and whisked Ames off to federal prison. When I first started the book, I had barely heard of Aldrich Ames, so I suppose I was as open-minded as one can get. The results are less than revelatory—but that's not due to Pete Earley's writing.

It's natural to want to know why someone would commit treason. Did Ames compromise more than 100 operations and turn over to the KGB twenty to twenty-five names of KGB agents who were working for the CIA and FBI because he no longer believed in the principles for which the CIA fought? Or, more accurately, because he believed the CIA no longer believed in them? He cites this in his interviews, but it feels perfunctory. Really, he did it for money. Initially he convinced himself he was desperate for cash due to his divorce from his first wife. He waltzed into the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C.—without even being recruited!—and started turning over information.

Besides the damage he did to CIA operations, he was responsible for the executions of no less than ten Soviet men who were helping the CIA. (One other committed suicide.) Most often noted is General Dmitri Polyakov, who was a CIA spy for 18 years. He was already retired when Ames gave the KGB his name.

Though hindsight is always 20/20 in these situations, it's hard to fathom how the CIA could have missed a mole in their ranks when twenty to twenty-five Soviet agents went missing in 1985 over a period of just a few months. Ames turned over the names of virtually every spy he knew about (he was rather high-ranking himself in the CIA, and had access to everything the CIA was running on the Soviets) and by the end of fall they had all disappeared. Only a few people in the CIA suspected Ames was the mole.

Why? Though Ames (called "Rick" throughout most of the book) was a known lush, drinking in the CIA was part of its culture. In itself getting drunk at gatherings was not enough to point the finger at him. Additionally, a list of people who knew of at least one of the spies Ames had named was a total of 198 people. Mountains of paper had to be sifted through, financials had to be checked, and the team had to interview people on the list without raising suspicions they were looking for a mole.

Mistakes were made, most notably by the FBI, who later took the vast majority of the credit for their role in catching Ames. Ames made no less than four drops right under the FBI's nose. It defies explanation.

Yet Earley manages to play fair to all parties involved. As already pointed out, Ames's drinking was not enough for people to point the finger at him as the mole. And the CIA team was misled by an informant to believe that Rosario's (Ames's second wife) family was stinking rich, which explained the $540,000 house and a succession of three Jaguars, as well as $30,000 monthly credit card payments. But the mole hunting team kept digging, and eventually Sandy Grimes (one member of the team and the only one convinced Ames was the mole they were looking for) made the connection that he was working for the KGB. Reading the book, it's easy to see how they could miss this until she logged his deposits into her already-existing time table of his meetings with Soviet officials. Many of the deposits were made the day of the meetings or the day after.

The book drags when Ames is quoted extensively, as he is in nearly every chapter. Giving every appearance of enjoying himself, he gives winding and self-serving explanations about why he turned over the names of the men who were later executed. He notes that these men were "not innocent" bystanders, but knew how the game was played. Jeanne Vertefuille—the lead investigator on the mole hunting team—counters this, saying, "Traitors are not all the same. Sure, some of the Russians we recruited were doing it for the money. Some of them were despicable characters. But others were not. We in the United States have so many outlets if we don't like what our government is doing . . . They didn't have these outlets, particularly Eastern Europeans who didn't like what the Soviets were doing to their countries. For many of them, espionage became a way of protesting the injustices they saw."

If you're looking for insight into why Ames did what he did, you'll find it here. For me, though, it wasn't all that enlightening. But I found learning more about the relationships between members of the CIA at the time and between the CIA and FBI fascinating reading.

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell

There's a whole sub-genre out there of historical novels that are based on real people, and this week I'm sampling a couple of them from my favorite literary era, the 19th century. I'm never 100% convinced that I like this kind of blending of fact and fiction in principle, but in practice I invariably find them escapist fun while taking everything that's written with a large pinch of salt.

Claude and Camille is about Claude Monet and his first wife (and before that long-time mistress), Camille Doncieux. It begins much earlier in Monet's life, at the point where he first began to paint in oils at the age of 17, and traces the early steps that led him to join forces with the group of painters that became known as the Impressionists. It ends somewhere in the middle of Monet's career, I think, at about the time he was starting to have some success but his finances were still extremely precarious.

I enjoyed reading this book, although to me there was a big difference between the middle part of the book and the first and last 50 or so pages. The beginning and end of the novel seemed to have a somewhat documentary tone, perhaps because they were moving faster through the events of Monet's life. The part I really liked was the middle, where Monet was constantly struggling with the tension between remaining true to his artistic vision and providing for his family. I think Cowell brought out well how Monet lived for his art to the point of rejecting all other offers of work and, in effect, to the point where art became a destructive element in his personal life.

I got a good sense of Monet's relationships with some of the other Impressionists, which is always interesting as we tend to see these painters studied in isolation with the other characters just dim figures in the background. I did a lot of reading about these people when I was writing a master's thesis on Zola and Henry James, and that whole society of artists, writers and intellectuals holds a fascination for me. In fact I would have liked to have seen more detail and more names, but then I suppose we would have had a different type of novel, and Cowell does a good job of sticking to her main focus, the relationship between Monet and Camille. All in all, it's an entertaining read.

For really detailed descriptions (straight from the source) of the artist's life in 19th-century Paris I would recommend Zola's L'Oeuvre, generally titled The Masterpiece in English, and the de Goncourt brothers' Manette Salomon, which unfortunately is not available in English (it's a hard sell because of some anti-semitic elements, but it really is a good picture of the artistic life of the time). Incidentally, this is one of those instances where e-books and POD are an absolute boon - it always amazes me how few people actually want to read books that are, after all, only 140 or so years old. If Claude and Camille inspires a few people to dig a bit deeper, I'll be happy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I AM DAVID by Anne Holm

'I am David', David repeatedly explains. If he seems slightly obsessed with his own name, it can be excused since it is all he really has. For as long as he can remember, David has grown up in a Eastern European concentration camp. He has no knowledge of the outside world. However, all that is set to change when a camp guard helps him to escape and encourages him to head north, towards unknown freedom.

Although I found the novel hard to get into at first, I started to warm to David's character. He is fiercely independent and very mature for his age. His wonder and naivety at the world is refreshing to read. Witnessing him experience his first smile is genuinely touching, and his character had more than enough quirks to keep me reading.

Anne Holm's prose is simple but effective, although I sense its effect has been somewhat dampened by translation into English. The geographical and political context seems to be intentionally vague, perhaps to both reflect David's own confusion, and to allow the reader better access to the narrative. This didn't bother me, but could annoy some readers, especially inquisitive children.

This is a novel probably best marketed at young girls, and adults, since younger boys would probably find some of the more emotional aspects of the book slightly sickening! For me however, the relationships which David strikes up throughout the book with both adults and children rang true. It is a book which certainly makes you appreciate what you have. The plot runs slowly at times, but builds momentum, to the extent that the final passages seem a little rushed.

All in all it is a thought provoking, orgininal novel which focuses upon a little talked about time and place.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

THE SHIFTER by Janice Hardy

The Shifter by Janice Hardy
The Healing Wars: Book One
Balzer + Bray, 2009
Middle Grade Fantasy

Without thinking, I grabbed the night guard's shin and drew, knitting bone and yanking every hurt, every sting from his ankle. His pain ran down my arm, seared my leg, and chewed around my own ankle.

I seized Heclar's leg with my free hand and pushed. The agony the night guard hadn't revealed raced up my other side and poured out my tingling fingers into Heclar. Heclar screamed loud enough to wake the Saints.

~excerpt from chapter one, also quoted on the back cover

Aside from having some of the best cover art I've ever seen, Janice Hardy's Healing Wars series is a definite must-read for children and adults alike... and I'm saying that after only reading the first book.

Nya is a Taker with a rare gift -- she can also Shift. She has the ability to draw pain from someone, hold it, and then push it into someone else. Nya's younger sister, Tali, is an apprentice in the Healer's League. They had been orphaned during a previous war, and while Tali spends her days at "school", Nya wanders the streets in search of odd jobs to afford food in their bellies.

Nya's mother had warned her to keep her talents secret, but when life or death necessity forces her to Shift, more and more people -- both good and bad -- learn of her abilities, and she discovers just how much danger she is in. But it's too late. Once the events are set in motion, she cannot turn back. Around every corner, something new thrusts her into making tough decisions... I mean, really tough decisions that even I, as an adult, would not want to be faced with.

Apprentices at the Healer's League are disappearing, and when Tali is among the missing, Nya does what she feels she must to find her, even if it means using her gift to hurt instead of heal. But when she learns of a conspiracy among League authorities and an undercover connection with the nefarious pain merchants, her simple rescue mission turns into an all-out war.

This book has everything I crave in a good spec fic story. World building without boring infodumps or getting lost in lengthy descriptions. A strong-yet-conflicted viewpoint character. A plot that keeps you guessing. High concept and high stakes, and a pace that, at times, literally leaves you breathless. Highly recommended.

Book Two in The Healing Wars series, Blue Fire, RELEASED TODAY! I just picked up my copy and can't wait to dive in.

Like, right now. See ya!


About the author:

A longtime fantasy reader, Janice Hardy has always wondered about the darker side of healing. She tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing could be dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. She lives in Georgia with her husband, four cats, and one nervous freshwater eel. Janice offers helpful writing tips and advice through her blog, The Other Side of the Story.

Monday, October 4, 2010

rediscovering Brother Cadfael, medieval monk-detective

Over the summer, I embarked on a mini-project to get to know the mystery/thriller genre better. And by that what I really mean is I decided to go back and read all the Brother Cadfael books (I threw in a couple other mysteries here and there, to be well-rounded).

For those who have missed Brother Cadfael up until now, he is a 12th-century Welsh Crusader-turned-Benedictine monk with a big heart and a knack for happening upon and investigating murders. Ellis Peters, who was also an academic and Czech translator, was painstaking in her creation of the medieval abbey of St Peter and St Paul, its environs, and its characters, and the whole mystery series is rich in historical detail--perfect for armchair time-travelers. The series, which was published between 1977 and Peters's death in 1994, includes 20 books (to the best of my counting... there are a couple of associated stories, too). The mysteries are pretty feel-good in the sense that they are, for the most part, peopled with loving and well-meaning characters, and there are generally happy threads of true love that emerge over the course of the book.

My plan is to make it through the whole series sequentially (not skipping around to "the good ones" like my father does). For now, here is a brief synopsis of each of the first two.

The first mystery in the series is set in 1135, when ambition seizes the quiet abbey of St Peter and St Paul in Shrewsbury (an English town very close to the Welsh border). The abbey has no holy relics or resident saints of its own, and in order to encourage the flow of pilgrims and patronage the abbot okays a quest into Wales to bring back the bones of St Winifred, a martyred virgin whose Welsh village has mostly neglected. The monks set out on an ostensibly simple operation to dig up the bones and bring them back. Brother Cadfael, who has grave misgivings about this venture and the motive behind it, is forced along as a translator. Unfortunately, his misgivings are well-founded; the village of Gwytherin is not keen on the idea of letting a bunch of English monks make off with their "little saint." Tensions between the monkish delegation and the Welsh villagers are coming to a head when the local lord--and chief opponent to the monk's scheme--is discovered murdered.

The second Brother Cadfael mystery takes place three years after the first, in the midst of the chaotic civil war between Queen Maud, who has fled her lands under duress, and King Stephen, the usurper. Peters plays off of the real historical event of King Stephen's siege of Shrewsbury castle for her mystery--after the battle, Brother Cadfael is chosen for the sad task of blessing the bodies of the 94 men who were hanged for resisting the siege. Alas, Cadfael counts 95 bodies where there should only be 94, and some closer scrutiny reveals that one of the young men wasn't hanged at all--he was strangled by hand, and his body dumped into the pile of resisters so that a murderer can disguise his crime as a war casualty. Luckily Brother Cadfael is more observant.

For those who are big nerds like me and were wondering if, after reading each of these books and then forcing my roommate to read them as well so we could compare notes, I subsequently went and rented the BBC video adaptation to watch and compare further notes, the answer is obviously yes. And while I enjoyed the movies (again--I'd seen them all before), the movies felt rather pale in comparison to the books. For A Morbid Taste for Bones in particular I found my tolerance for hokey adaptation tested. Apparently the producers thought the Welsh names would be too much for viewers, as several key characters were renamed, and (more frustratingly) several great plot elements were made less interesting in order to give Cadfael more screen time. One Corpse Too Many was more faithful and a little better executed (weirdly, as it was made two years earlier). In any case, we enjoyed both watching the movies and griping about why we liked the books better. A very satisfying activity for anyone who delights in purism!

Any other series fans out there?


The Iron Daughter by Julie Kagawa
Harlequin Teen, 2010
Young Adult Fantasy

Julie Kagawa has done it again. Her second book in the Iron Fey series is another incredible page-turner.

Please do not read any further if you have not yet read The Iron King. These books are best read in order, and there are a few spoilers in this review regarding the first book because book two picks up almost immediately after book one ended. We skip Meghan and Prince Ash's journey back to Tir Na Nog, the realm of Ash's mother Queen Mab, although it is briefly mentioned in the beginning as a memory. If you're curious about the details of that journey, check out the ebook novella, Winter's Passage. But you don't have to read that to understand what happens in The Iron Daughter.

The story begins in the land of endless winter, with Meghan being held hostage by Queen Mab. Prince Ash, the guy she thought she loved and was in love with her after their near-death experience together in the Iron realm of King Machina, is now acting no better than his older, icier brothers. As the half-human daughter of Oberon, the Summer King, Meghan is hated by everyone in the Winter Court, including Ash. Then everything gets turned upside down and inside out when the Scepter of the Seasons is stolen by the Iron Fey, and Meghan is blamed for, not only that, but also the murder of Prince Sage, Mab's oldest son.

Well, crap, that isn't good. Fortunately, Ash comes to her aid, explaining that he really shouldn't, but he'd only been acting like he hated her so they wouldn't both be banished or put to death. Summer and Winter aren't supposed to love each other. That's just the way things are.

Together, they escape, and then begin their quest to find the Scepter and return it to the Winter Court -- who is, of course, blaming the Summer Court for its disappearance and they've subsequently declared war. And who should show up then? Puck. Like, the best character ever.

I love Puck. And he totally gets screwed over in this book. Saying that doesn't really give anything away, either, because it's quite clear from the moment he enters the story.

While the trio again journeys through lands of the strange, both in the Nevernever and in the human world (and even somewhere between), and they face opponents both familiar and new, a clear love triangle emerges. Both Puck and Ash have strong feelings for Meghan... and this is where I kind of got annoyed. It was awkward at best. Puck and Meghan had already been good friends in book one, since Puck had been assigned by King Oberon to watch over her in the human world. But that's all I'd ever viewed him as -- just a friend -- and you get the same feeling from Meghan even after Puck declares his love for her (which comes out too abruptly, in my opinion, not enough substance to back it up), so the love triangle is almost entirely one-sided toward Ash.

And it should be. Ash and Meghan have a clear chemistry despite being totally wrong for each other, and even though Puck has risked his life for her on numerous occasions, there just isn't that same romantic tension between them. It totally fell flat, in my opinion, and then it made Meghan seem shallow that she would even consider anything romantic with Puck when Ash was so obviously the clear choice.

Still, this wasn't enough to keep me from absolutely LOVING the book (and I have a slight inkling that the motives behind Puck's actions were *zips lips*). Not only do we see the return of Puck, but we also see the wonderful Grimalkin and his answer for everything (I am a cat), the bellowing Ironhorse in a new role, and Virus of the Iron Fey becomes the main opponent as she strives for sole ownership of the Scepter of the Seasons.

The combat scenes in this book never disappoint, and neither does the intense emotional drama. Meghan also learns some new tricks that will no doubt become crucial in the next book. Which I can't wait to read. I seriously don't know how I'm going to make through the next few months. Book two ends on a huge cliffhanger... like at the end of Star Wars Episode V, when Han is encased in carbonite. *That* story is complete, but your worry for the characters is exponentially greater than when you started.

This is an excellent series by an outstanding new author. Julie Kagawa is definitely one to watch.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

**HUGE spoilers, but only if you haven't followed the recent controversy.**

Well, I missed Banned Books Week by one day. And besides, I don't spend a lot of time protesting censorship. Censorship has been proven self-defeating again, and again, and again. Way back before the internet, banned books had a way of getting to those who wanted to read them--now, the process is almost instantaneous.

Case in point: if Dr. Wesley Scroggins had not included Speak among his examples of "filthy books", I for one would never have read the novel (under my Intellectual Honesty Rule, which says that if I want to discuss a book I must read it first). Many other people were likewise inspired to read the book, with the result that sales have seen a nice, healthy spike. Er--yay censorship?

Before I head into the review, though, I want to tackle the controversy. First, I want to note that the other two examples given by Scroggins, Slaughterhouse Five and Twenty Boy Summer (neither of which I have read) seem to have remained undefended and, according to the editor's note at the end of Scroggins' article, Slaughterhouse Five was withdrawn from the curriculum and Twenty Boy Summer was "being reviewed". Which implies that someone, somewhere, may have actually read those books and found them a little strong for the age group for which this particular curriculum was destined.

Before you get all defensive about these two books, let me just say this: I never censor anything my own teenagers read, but neither would I force them to read any particular book. Putting books on a curriculum effectively forces the children to read them, and should be a careful choice. Unless the school actually removed copies of the books from the library and took measures to prevent teachers from recommending them to students, they were not "banning" them: they were giving their students the choice about whether they read them. That is not suppression.

Now let's fast-forward to the Rejectionist's post that caused the Intellectual Honesty Rule to kick in because I got involved in the discussion (I'm not going to use this forum to justify my opposition to the Rejectionist's post; read the comments if you care about that). The R's post was a response to this nicely balanced defense of Speak, with which I concur wholeheartedly. Now that I've read the book AND Dr. S's post AND reread the Rejectionist's, I need to point out that she (R) quoted Dr. S's remarks on Slaughterhouse Five and Twenty Boy Summer in a way that implies that he (Dr. S.) was talking about Speak. Naughty, naughty. With great blog popularity comes great responsibility, Rejectionist.

And now to Speak. Dr. S's exact words on this novel were:

In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.

One such book is called "Speak." They also watch the movie. This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

Bear those (yes, badly written) words in mind as I FINALLY get to the review. Moonrat, you really shouldn't have given me that 60,000 word limit.

Speak tells the story of Melinda, who begins her freshman year at high school with none of her former friends speaking to her because she called the police to a summer party. As she observes the cliques and teachers and her grades slip ever lower, we learn the reason for the call; she was raped at the party. Her parents are too absorbed in their jobs to interpret her changed personality as anything other than teenage bolshiness, and she is too paralyzed by shame and fear to speak out in her own defense.

This is a beautifully written novel, and far from being "pornography" it's intensely moral. And quite frankly, one of the cleaner YA novels I've seen (not that my experience is broad). There's no swearing, the kids are really pretty well behaved, and the subject of the rape doesn't even come up until two-thirds of the way into the story. And then it's heartrending; the transition of the dream-come-true of being asked to dance by a gorgeous senior boy into a nightmare (with absolutely no graphic description of any kind) is so sparely written that it leaves many horrible things to the imagination and allows the reader to insert her own 13-year-old self (or in my case, worse still, my daughters) into the scene.

The resolution of the story is tightly written, restrained and free from any kind of sentimentality, and I just loved it. The only point on which I agree with Dr. S. is that the parents, teachers and all adult figures of authority are portrayed as complete losers; maybe it's just giving the teenage point of view, but I get rather tired of the "Cinderella syndrome" where all adults are either absent or idiots and it's left to the kids to save the day. Believe it or not, folks, there are some pretty good parents and teachers out there, and young readers might benefit from the occasional adult hero.

When I mentioned Speak to my youngest daughter, I discovered that she'd been assigned the book in 7th grade. If anything, I would worry that this novel fitted in to our own school districts' apparent attempt to scare our kids off sex completely. OK, this is probably a slightly more responsible attitude than the way my generation was encouraged to "do it if it felt good," but how about we work on a middle ground here?

Bottom line: I was left cheering for Melinda and for Laurie Halse Anderson. Wish I'd written this book.

Oh yeah--and absolutely the best cover art I have seen for a long time. A totally brilliant interpretation of the book. Yow.

Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson

I had just finished A Room of One's Own (second time around) when I picked up a pristine copy of Nigel Nicolson's short biography at a library sale. It's a Penguin Lives edition, and might be a little difficult to track down online. By the way I won't be reviewing A Room of One's Own here, because I'm saving it for a post on my blog. Besides, reviewing a revered classic is a bit like painting an elephant: you never know where to begin, and perhaps it's better never to start.

Virginia Woolf is a very intimate portrait of the writer, and for that reason I felt obliged to suspect Nigel Nicolson of bias; but then, all biographers are biased one way or the other. Nicolson had the huge advantage of knowing Woolf well as a child, when she was one of his mother Vita Sackville-West's string of lovers--how strange it must have been to grow up as a child of Bloomsbury!

Maybe it's the lapse of time between Woolf's death (1941) and the writing of this biography (1999) or maybe Nicolson was simply an extremely kind man (he died in 2004)--in any case, I found the overall tone of this book to be one of deep affection and respect for Woolf, her friends, her work and indeed the whole Bloomsbury milieu. Nicolson deals dismissively with some of the theories about Woolf--that she was traumatized by childhood sexual abuse, that she was frigid and so on--but he doesn't ignore them; in a very English way he tells us that everything was really quite all right, and that all the theories are rather exaggerated.

Nicolson obviously referred extensively to some or all of the Woof biographies while writing his own, which in some ways is a fairly conventional account. But the moments I loved were, of course, the private recollections and the little details. All in all, this is a good short introduction to Woolf's life and to the leading characters of the Bloomsbury Group, and I recommend it as a pleasant read. It has whetted my appetite for a chunkier biography; a few minutes' research on the internet suggests that Hermione Lee's 944-page tome might be the one.

The Convent by Panos Karnezis

Note: I got a LibraryThing early reviewer copy. The novel is due to be published in November 2010.

The Convent is the story of six nuns who inhabit a decaying convent in a remote region of Spain in the 1930s, and what happens when a baby suddenly turns up on the convent steps. The clue to the narrative is given in the very first line: "Those whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad." It's a simple story told in 214 pages; but like all good literary fiction, there's a lot more to the novel than meets the eye.

And this is very good literary fiction. The writing is characterized by lightness of touch and a fluid, understated style that pulled me through the story at high speed. The way the psychology of the characters is brought out in a few scattered paragraphs is just beautiful. Panos Karnezis also has a way of starting and ending chapters that has me wanting to hang on to this ARC for further study.

I was slightly unsettled by what was going on underneath the story. If this was the author's intention--and he hides himself so well that it's very hard to tell what his intention is--he succeeded completely. I couldn't make up my mind whether he was showing what the introduction of sin could do in a place of good, or whether he was laughing at everything the religious characters stood for. I suspect the latter. The novel is rife with images of decay, corruption, foulness and bestiality, although not once are these themes made explicit. They just sit there, waiting to be discovered; everything that Karnezis describes has a surface and an underneath. And of course there is also the convent's almost total isolation from what we'd call civilization; I'm always attracted by themes like this.

The Convent screams "book club"--it's the sort of novel that will provoke discussion, and yet it's not at all "difficult." An exemplary piece of writing. Recommended.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Preacher's Bride by Jody Hedlund

One of the fun things about making writer friends on the internet is that it leads me to explore unfamiliar genres.* I have never been a reader of inspirational fiction, and fortunately found a recent webinar to explain to me what it is. Apparently "inspirational" covers a wide variety of sub-genres, the connecting feature being that the characters have a spiritual arc as well as the usual emotional one. That's a little confusing to sort out in my head, so instead I'll adopt the Jane definition, which is that inspirational fiction keeps swearing, graphic sex and dwelt-upon violence to a minimum, appeals mostly to women and aims at telling a good story. It is moving away from the wishy-washiness of the past and is positioning itself to appeal to secular audiences as well as the traditional Christian ones.

The Preacher's Bride, which went on full release October 1, is Jody Hedlund's début novel. It is NOT an Amish book as the cover might suggest. It is set at the end of the Puritan era in England, when the Royalists are just poised to bring back the King and regain control of the country. It is based on the story of John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim's Progress, although the names and many incidents, including the ending, have been fictionalized.

In many ways The Preacher's Bride is a straightforward, well-written romance: when tinker and lay preacher John Costin's wife dies, strong-willed Elizabeth Whitbread becomes his housekeeper and cares for his children. Will romance blossom? You bet it will. Like all good romances, the spark between the characters is obvious from the beginning, and the interest lies in seeing how they both work through their own feelings to their inevitable destination. In romances sexual attraction is not enough, and the situation is never fully resolved until there is also an emotional bond based on trust and shared experiences. The Preacher's Bride plays by all of these rules.

What I found interesting was the background of a society in transition: I got a good sense of the radical split between the Puritan and Royalist factions, and the way a lay preacher fitted--or didn't fit--into a religious structure (in an era where the church ruled the country) which was just about to change. Those were violent times, and this is well represented; I had never really thought about just how vulnerable women were then, and I think that this was rather well brought out.

I liked Elizabeth Whitbread's ordinariness: she's plain, she can't read, and she has a practical turn of mind. Despite her strong will she can be pretty submissive; that and her overwhelming desire to get married and have babies are a bit irritating to this modern woman, but I did try to bear in mind that anything else would have been anachronistic, given the historical era and Elizabeth's social position.

I would have loved to have seen more description of what this part of England was like; John Costin spends a lot of time striding over a landscape that you never really see. I also had some issues with the way the characters spoke, which was possibly too uniform in tone given all the social and educational differences that could be found in the novel.

But my overall impression was of an enjoyable read with a good strong ending and plenty of appeal to a reader looking for a satisfying story.

* in the interests of full disclosure - I received a review copy from the author.