2017 Reading Challenge: A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

As I work my way through the Year of Fun Reading I am finding it a bit tricky to keep my focus on finding a book that meets the category for the month as well as keeping to my own standard of that book being one in the speculative fiction genre.

This month, in which I was to read a book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit, was particularly challenging. I mean, I suppose there are lots of fantasy worlds I would love to visit–Narnia, Middle Earth, or The Land (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) spring to mind– but I wanted to keep the spirit of the challenge, which meant finding a speculative fiction novel set on Earth.

So. I browsed through some of the suggested titles, and, eureka, found one I thought would fit.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Book 1), by Liani Taylor, is  an urban fantasy, set in modern-day Prague. So, seeing as anywhere in Europe is on my bucket list of places to visit, I figured this one might just work. And I love urban fantasy, so, bonus.

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Cool cover!

Karou is seventeen and attends school at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia, a private school for students of the arts. She has blue hair and interesting tattoos, and a secret: she has been raised by  half-human creatures called chimaera, the chief of which is a demonic looking being named Brimstone.

Brimstone is the Wishmonger, who barters teeth for wishes. He is her adopted father, who has raised Karou since she was a baby. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, and she longs to discover who she is and how she is connected to the chimaera.

Brimstone’s workshop is in another place, separate from Earth, which she accesses by going through a door that is opened to her from the inside, by the Gatekeeper, Issa, who is half-snake. These portals are all around the world, and Karou uses them when Brimstone sends her on errands to collect teeth from various traders and dealers.

Karou isn’t exactly sure what the connection is between the teeth and the magical crafting of wishes, which Brimstone makes into beads of various size, shape and power, but her questions are left unanswered, as do the ones about her own origins.

An encounter with the seraph Akiva in the streets of Morocco starts a chain of events that leads Karou to the answers she seeks, even though they are not necessarily the answers she wants to hear…

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I am always amazed at fan art. This picture of Karou and Brimstone was done by the talented Natalie Braconnot, on Tumblr.

Taylor is a New York Times bestselling author, with many books to her credit. This book (published 2011) is the first of a trilogy, all of which are available now. Her new book, Strange the Dreamer, which begins a new series, has just been released.

I will admit to feeling a bit conflicted about Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Taylor writes well, and the plot had enough twists and turns to keep me reading.

However….although I can see that this book would be very popular with a certain audience, I can’t say I loved it. Here’s why:

  1. It’s Young Adult. I didn’t realize that this was a young adult book until I started reading it. I know that young adult is one of the most popular type of books out there, especially when it comes to speculative fiction, but they are just not my cup of tea. I find the plots often revolve too much around teenage angst, which, while great for teenagers, is not too interesting to me. Too often the plots and character development can be a bit simplistic, as well. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a little better than some in the plot department, but I did find the characterizations a bit ho-hum at times. I also have a problem with the romance that is usually part and parcel of this genre, and is in the forefront here. In this book, Karou is seventeen and as the book opens she is recovering from a relationship gone bad. And although I know that there are many teens out there who are involved in sexual relationships I can’t help the jarring feeling I get when I read about these when they are presented like it’s no big deal. Call me a prude, whatever.  Karou gets involved with another partner, and things get quite steamy indeed. And all the while the voice in my head is saying, “She’s only seventeen!” There are certainly a lot of “paranormal romance” books out there featuring adult characters, and while I don’t particularly like those either, when they are aimed at teenagers I find it icky.
  2. Tropes. I, for one, am heartily sick of the warrior chick with the vulnerable heart trope. Although Karou has an interesting back story and is well fleshed-out, basically her character embodies this trope. I find myself getting bored by it, to tell you the truth.
  3. The world building. So, as I mentioned above, one of the main characters is the seraph, Akiva. Seraph is short for seraphim, and yes, he is supposed to be an angel. But not an angel in the Christian tradition, of course. For, as Karou is confronted with Akiva the first time, she recalls what Brimstone has taught her:

She’d heard the word before; seraphim were some high order of angels, at least according to the Christian mythos, for which Brimstone had utter contempt, as he did for all religion. “Humans have gotten glimpses of things over time,” he’d said. “Just enough to make the rest up. It’s all a quilt of fairy tales with a patch here and there of truth.” 

Ok, fine. Let’s dismiss all of religion, except use bits and pieces of it where convenient for the plot. And it is very convenient to have an utterly beautiful otherworldly being with wings and supernatural power for Karou to fall in love with.

I realize for the average reader, this dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular would not be a problem, but it irritates me.  Especially when it has to be dismissed to make a major part of the story work, as in this case. And doubly especially when the author dismissed all of the world’s religions as “myths” and then runs smack into the problem that her characters actually need some kind of religion or mythos of their own to make the story work. So, when Akiva and Karou discuss how Brimstone makes his wish-beads, Akiva says, in answering Karou’s question of why pain and not joy is necessary in the crafting of wish-magic, Akiva says,

“That’s a good point. But I didn’t create the system.” 

“Who did?”

“My people believe it was the godstars. The chimaera have as many stories as races.” 

Ok, so every Earth religion is a quilt of fairy tales, but the seraphim and the chimaera have their own stories and myths, which are….what? Fairy tales too? Or are they the truth behind the stories?  And if so, why?

This highlights the problem of the philosophy that says every religion is just as good as another. If it brings you comfort, go for it, in other words. Any religion will do. But if it brings you comfort and isn’t ultimately TRUE then what is the point?

This is a minor part of the plot and to be fair, Taylor builds just enough of the world of the seraphim and chimaera to make it work for the book’s purposes, which is to serve as a backdrop to the story of Karou and Akiva.

I guess what I’m saying is that sexy angels just don’t work for me.

I give this one two stars/five, with the caveat that I know a lot of people would probably like this more than I did. If you like young adult fantasy featuring Romeo-and-Juliet-type love angst, and it doesn’t bother you that a handsome, poster-boy angel is the love interest, you will probably like this book.

Next month: A book I’ve already read. Oh, so many to choose from! Tune in on the last Friday in the month of May to see my pick. 


 Other posts in this series: 

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

2017 Reading Challenge: The Unputdownable Book

I am working my way through my 2017 Reading Challenge , albeit slightly chaotically, and this month I decided to read a book that is said to be unputdownable.

I am trying, as much as I can, to choose books that are generally speculative fiction for the challenge. I do read any genre, pretty much, but my aim is to keep this blog focussed on Dark Ages history (relates to my work-in-progress historical fantasy book), a little bit about my own personal writing journey, some short stories, and book reviews or author interviews. I don’t want to widen the scope of the blog too far, if I can help it.

Over at the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog she has some suggestions for the books on the list, and this science fiction thriller was one of them. Perfect!

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This is NOT a book I would pick up because of the cover (see my first post in this Reading Challenge) but once you read the book the cover makes sense, stylistically.

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, was published in 2016, and is about a college physics professor, Jason Dessen, who is abducted and knocked unconscious. When he wakes, he finds himself in a place that is similar to, but significantly different from, the world he knows.

He quickly realizes that the people who greet him enthusiastically think that he is a scientist who has invented a machine that would allow him to explore other, parallel Earths, and they think he is the first person to come back to them after making such a journey. In this new world, the happy family life he has come from has evaporated. Here, he is unmarried; a driven, brilliant researcher who has is doing ground-breaking work in physics.

But that is not his life….or is it? Is the world he thought he knew not his life, and this one the true one? Who was the person who abducted him, and why? And how can he get back to the one life he wants above all others?

Oh, yes, this was unputdownable – which means that I would give myself a half hour longer here and there to keep going, because I had to find out what was going on. That’s as close to binge-reading as I can get these days. But it was a great deal of fun. It’s been awhile since I got quite so caught up in compulsive page-turning.

The physics behind the invention are a little over my head, to be honest, but Crouch does a good job of giving you just enough information to help you grasp the concept, but not so much you get lost in the weeds. For books like these, I want just enough tech-talk to know that such a thing might be possible in theory, and then I don’t worry about the hows. I do have a lot of admiration for authors who write science fiction, though, especially this type of “real world” science fiction. They have to know how it works to make it believable. I think Crouch succeeded in that task in this book.

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“…physics ARE coming…”? Hmm…Nope. Awkward.

The great thing about this book is that it is not just a science fiction thriller. There is some  thought-provoking philosophy in the story as well. Just before he gets knocked out, his abductor asks Jason, “Are you happy with your life?” This  question is the foundation of the book in many ways, and it is one that we ponder about our own lives as we see Jason’s attempts to get back to the life he wants.

The book also forces you to look at the consequences of the choices we make every day: to date that person or not, to take that job or not, to give up that opportunity for career advancement at the cost of your family life, or not. In the book Jason gets to visit several different versions of himself and the life he could have had, and it makes us wonder about what those “other” lives would be like in our case, as well.

Technically speaking, from a writing point of view, for the most part I had no issues with Crouch’s writing. He certainly knows how to keep you turning the pages! The only thing that began to wear on me after awhile was use of lots of short, choppy sentences.

For example, here’s a scene from the beginning of the book, just after Jason wakes up after being abducted and is getting debriefed about his experience.

“Let’s try a different approach,” Amanda says. “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up in the hangar?” 

“I was at a bar.” 

“What were you doing there?” 

“Seeing an old friend.”

“And where was this bar?” she asks. 

“Logan Square.” 

“Okay, can you describe…?”

Her voice drops off into silence. 

I see the El. 

It’s dark.

Too quiet.

Too quiet for Chicago.

Someone is coming. 

Someone who wants to hurt me.

My heart begins to race. 

My hands sweat.

I set the glass down on the table.

“Jason, Leighton is telling me your vitals are becoming elevated.” 

Her voice is back but still an ocean away.

Is this a trick? 

Am I being messed with?

The whole book is not like this, but there is quite a lot of it, and I did find it a bit tiresome in places. But this type of short sentence structure is one trick an author can use to keep a reader barreling through a story, and is particularly effective in this kind of thriller.

A well-crafted story, with high page-turnability, and which leaves you something to think about once you have finished. I give Dark Matter five stars.


Previous posts in this series: 

A Book I Read Because I Liked the Cover

A Book I’ve Been Dying to Read

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Trouble with Tropes

If you are a writer worth your salt, one of the cardinal rules you must follow is to make sure you follow the submission guidelines of the publications in which you hope to be published.

Mainly these are fairly prosaic: guidelines about line spacing, font preferred, word count, type of file to send, etc.

But often I will see other recommendations, not so much about the nuts and bolts but more about the meat and bones of the story. These are equally as important to pay attention to, if you want to give your work any kind of chance at all.

Often these will mention avoiding tropes. Tropes, according to Wikipedia, are “commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative work.”

Every genre has its own tropes. Think of the hardboiled detective in mystery novels, or the swashbuckling hero in romances. Fantasy is no exception. There are many of these tropes, but just to give you an idea, here is some of the advice given to hopeful writers from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly:

Witty banter usually isn’t.

Stories that start in an inn are usually out.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious individual who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire).

Double ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious man who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire) who then turns on the very adventurers he/she/it hired only to be thwarted by the one dwarf in the party.  In fact, toss us a dwarf curveball.  So far we’ve never seen a story with a dwarf character where that character doesn’t kick ass from beginning to end.

We are not all that interested in stories with vampires.  We feel much the same re: zombies.

Neither are we terribly keen on pirates; just remove that word and your odds go up.

There’s more, but you get the drift. (Let us all spare a moment of sympathy for editors everywhere, who have to sort through piles of drivel in order to strike gold, and who,in most cases, are doing this just for the sheer love of stories, with not a coin exchanged in compensation.)

A few of the fantasy tropes are listed here, such as the inn as meeting place, the overuse of sorcerers/vampires/zombies, the hard-as-nails dwarf. Once you start thinking about it,  if you have read any fantasy at all, you will be able to come up with quite a few more. How about:

The orphan whose mysterious past vaults him into the role of hero, sometimes (often) reluctantly. Chosen One, anyone?

The peaceful, nature loving, mysterious elves; the grumpy dwarves; the terrifying orcs/monsters; the wise wizard/mentor. 

The quest for the sacred sword/jewel/manuscript/whatever. 

The evil Empire. 

Fake-medieval Europe/England setting. 

Weird names with apostrophes. Tal’c or Ryl’d or Sh’one or whatever. (I first encountered this in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, and there, the Dragonriders were given a new name that was a shorter form of their original name, as a form of honorific that denoted they had become Dragonriders. Fair enough. But I see this so often now, and often for no reason except that it looks exotic.)

One evil twin, one good twin, separated at birth. 

The school for youngsters where they learn how to use magic.

Villain is hero’s father. 

I could go on, and likely you could think of many more.

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The scantily clad, ferocious warrior-chick is a fantasy trope I’m more than happy to say good-bye to!

It’s a bit terrifying as a writer, to be honest. How do you avoid all these clichés? They are so ingrained in our collective well of story-telling that often you find yourself using them, even though you are trying to be original.

The good news is, you don’t have to, at least, not entirely. It is true that it is easy to fall into the trope-trap, and if your story has too many of these, it is likely not going to be published. However, there are plenty of excellent stories and books being published today in which you can find more than one of these tropes and yet they still feel fresh, exciting, and original.

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“An elf, a wizard, and a giant walked into an inn…” (Horsemen and Travellers Outside an Inn, by Pieter van Os, on Wikicommons. )

Take The Name of the Wind, by Pathrick Rothfuss, for example. That book is full of standard fantasy tropes including the orphaned hero, the school for magic-learning, the vaguely medieval setting. And it even starts in an inn!  But Rothfuss takes these tropes and, through the power of strong storytelling and beautiful prose, creates a compelling and original book.

Of course, George Lucas famously studied Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and used it as the basis of his Star Wars movie. Which of course became a cultural force to be reckoned with (pun intended!).

So tropes aren’t necessarily bad. Including them in a story isn’t necessarily lazy storytelling. In fact, in some cases such as The Name of the Wind, or Star Wars, readers and movie-goers have rewarded the storytellers who use them in their works.

Why? Perhaps it’s because there is something about the hero’s journey (embodied in many of the tropes) that speaks to us on a deep and subconscious level, something that resonates with the story of the backwater nobody who becomes the hero, the forgotten prince who arrives on the scene to rescue his people, the group of friends who band together and conquer the evil in their world.

The great Christian writer and philosopher, C.S. Lewis,  would explain this resonance by saying that there are deeper truths hinted at by the hero’s journey. In other words, we long to be rescued, and stories allows us to vicariously fulfill that longing, which is why they are told over and over again and continue to be popular. Lewis would say that the  story of the prince who came to rescue his enslaved people is the true story which is the foundation of all the hero stories, and it is the story that is told over and over again in the Bible, culminating in the final telling of the story of the life of Jesus.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. Half the battle is being aware of them, and the other half is using them sparingly and wisely.

So let your wizard wander into an inn. Carefully.

 

Featured image: The Wizard, by Sean McGrath, on Wikicommons

 

 

 

 

Amanda McKitterick Ros – A Cautionary Tale

I am currently forging into revisions on my book, trying to follow my editor’s advice. I would be foolish not to follow it; first of all because I refuse to waste the money I paid her to give me her objective and educated opinion, and secondly, I will be the first to admit that there are lots of people who know a lot more than I do about how to make a story sing, and she is likely one of them.

So, after a month or so of gloom as I digested her advice, I am now ruthlessly doing as she suggests, which could be boiled down to “Look, you don’t have three books, you have one. How about if you take out all the scenes that aren’t necessary and see what happens?” Or, as I am sure she wanted to say but was too professional to do so, “Only one-third of your words are necessary, and instead of enhancing the story, they are bogging it down. Cut, cut, CUT!” Or, as Stephen King succinctly says, “Kill your darlings.”

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Oh, it’s hard!

It all boils down to, what is good writing, anyway? Well, one of the ways to find out what good writing is, is to take a look at what good writing isn’t.

Enter our heroine, the famous (infamous?) Amanda McKittrick Ros.

Amanda was born Anna Margaret McKittrick  in 1860 in Ireland, and became a teacher. She married Andrew Ross in 1887 and on their tenth anniversary in he financed the publicatioin of her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, which turned out to be a gift not only  to her, but to the whole world.

She wrote under the pen name Amanda McKittrick Ros, which some feel was an attempt to suggest a connection to the influential de Ros family of County Down. This gives you a little hint of her personality.

Let’s put it this way. Our Amanda was nothing if not sell-confident in herself and her writing abilities. She wrote of the “million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen”, and predicted that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years.” Which is likely true, but I think you might be getting the idea that it might not be precisely for the reason she thought it would be.

Unfortunately, only her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, is available (for free, on Kindle), unless you want to spend big bucks buying them at auction, if you can find them. She wrote two novels and a couple books of poetry.

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Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860 – 1939). 

It’s hard to explain her writing without giving you a taste of it, so here is the opening line of Irene Iddesleigh:

Sympathize with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futility; dash it against the rock  of gossip; or better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosum of buried scorn. 

Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected. Sympathy can wound the breast of trodden patience,- it hath no rival to insure the feelings we possess, save that of sorrow.

Er. Yes. You are probably starting to get the picture, no?

Ros is championed as possibly the worst writer ever. She was fond (to put it mildly) of what is called “purple prose” – the overuse of adverbs and metaphors to the point of being ludicrous. In fact The Inklings, the writer’s group in Oxford made up of writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and others, famously held competitions to see who could make it through a reading of Ros’ work the furthest without breaking into laughter.

Which would have been hard. I would love to be able to read her poems but they are not in print. But you can find excerpts from some here and there on the internet, including this opening verse to the poem, “Verses on Visiting Westminster Abbey”:

Holy Moses! 

Take a look! 

Flesh escaped in every nook!

Some rare bits of brain lie here, 

Mortal loads of beef and beer. 

Her poetry books are called Fumes of Formation and Poems of Puncture. Well it emits fumes, alright, but I’m not sure “formation” is the word I would use to describe the source of the fumes….

Lest you think I am perhaps judging her by the standards of our day, not her own, be assured that the critics of the day did not think too fondly of her works. A copy of Irene was sent to humorist Barry Pain, a contemporary of hers, who in a review  called it “a thing that happens once in a million years”. He wrote that he initially was entertained, but soon “shrank before it in tears and terror.”

Mark Twain called Irene, one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.”

I am tempted to feel sorry for Ros, a fellow writer who basically self-published her treasured words and faced the scorn of many. However, she would not accept my pity, I am sure. In her preface to her second novel, Delina Delaney, she called Pain a “clay crab of corruption,” and called others of her critics “bastard donkey-headed mites” and “evil minded snapshots of spleen.”

So, here’s what I need to learn from Amanda McKittrick Ros:

  1. A little humility goes a long way. Even if I think my writing is okay,  I have to be open to the possibility that others might not see it in quite the same rosy light. And seeing as I imagine her husband told Amanda she was the best writer ever (I mean, can you see him disagreeing with her? Me neither.), I need to remember that family and friends might not be the most objective readers in the world. Which is not to say I don’t value their feedback. I certainly do. It’s just that I need to make sure theirs is not the only feedback I get.

2. If a professional, objective editor tells me I need to cut, I had better cut. So, I going through my book and taking a scalpel (and in some cases, an ax) to it. Scenes that are dead-wood, that don’t move the story along, are gone. As are passages that repeat what I said earlier, and places where there is too much exposition and not enough action. And in general I am tightening everything up, particularly descriptive passages, where I have used too many words to describe something.

How do I do that? Well, for example, here’s a random sentence from Irene, typical of most of them (!), where Ros is describing the garden outside the mansion where Irene lives:

Within the venerable walls surrounding this erection of amazement and wonder may be seen species of trees rarely, if ever, met with; yea, within the beaded borders of this grand old mansion the eye of the privileged beholds the magnificent lake, studded on every side with stone of costliest cut and finish; the richest vineries, the most elegant ferns, the daintiest conservatories, the flowers and plants of almost every clime in abundance, the most fashionable walks, the most intricate windings that imagination could possibly conceive or genius contrive.

Now, if you were Amanda’s editor (one shudders to contemplate it, but play along), how would you suggest she rewrite that?

How about:

The mansion had a beautiful garden. 

Or, if you want a little more detail:

Crumbling walls bounded the mansion’s garden, enclosing a beautiful garden.  Walking paths wound through it, edged by ferns and delicate flowers, leading to the lake that was in the middle. 

That’s still not great, but at least it doesn’t exhaust you, as Amanda’s description does.

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It has been hard to do such drastic cutting from my book. Getting rid of two-thirds of it is not easy! And I’m not sure that I will be able to condense it all into one book, to tell you the truth. But I’m going to make the attempt, at any rate, just to see what happens.

It’s interesting. I am finding that as I cut and trim, the story is starting to sparkle, my characters have more room to breathe. Perhaps all those words were tying them down, suffocating them and the story they want to tell.

I’m doing my best to set them free, and with Amanda’s shadow looming over me, I dare not hold them back.

And if I’m tempted to think that I really don’t need to trim quite so much, I shall read the following quote from Irene Iddelsleigh, and get right back to work:

He was tempted to invest in the polluted stocks of magnified extension, and when their banks seemed swollen with rotten gear, gathered too often from the winds of wilful wrong, how the misty dust blinded his sense of sight and drove him through the field of fashion and feeble effeminacy, which he once never meant to tread, landing him on the slippery rock of smutty touch, to wander into its hidden cavities of ancient fame, there to remain a blinded son of injustice and unparalleled wrong!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: Cover Crush!

Here I am at the first book of my (fun) 2017 Reading Challenge, which I got from the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. I don’t suppose that the books have to be read in any certain order, but because I only had about a week and a half to read the first book of the year if I wanted to get one read in January, I didn’t have a lot of time to fuss around.

So I figured the easiest one to pick would be the first one on the list: a book I read because I liked the cover.

Now,  caveats abound on this one. First of all, I live in a small town, and I don’t have a book store to visit. And although there are a small selection of books in a few stores around town it seemed to me easiest to go to the library and pick a book from there. However, I quickly realized this was not such a great idea. I don’t know about your library, but mine is fairly small, and most of the books are lined up on the shelves, with a few scattered here and there on the tops of the bookcases or in special displays. And who’s got time to go through all the books on the shelves to look at their covers and find one I like? Not me! Although I did briefly flirt with the idea of picking the spine I liked the most….but that’s not really fair. Not a lot of books have much happening on the spine, although I will admit to being intrigued by a couple. So I limited myself to picking a book from the ones displayed in the library.

Secondly, even with the limited selection available, I got bogged down. I would find a cover I liked, but the description didn’t intrigue me. I realize that perhaps to stick with the letter of the law on this one I could have picked one of those, but with the short time I had to get it read, I just couldn’t pick a book I would have to force myself to read. So, it had to be a book with a cover I liked and that I thought I would enjoy.

Even so, this was a fun exercise. Without further ado, here is my choice for the book I read because I liked the cover:

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This one was sitting with a few others on top of the bookcase set aside for sci-fi/fantasy, and it attracted me right away. Ok, first of all because it was on top of the fantasy section, but the black and white picture with the hints of green drew the eye. The cityscape with the tunnel (?) underneath hinted at some subterranean goings-on, and I like stories about other worlds or civilizations under our own, found in the forgotten tunnels of subway systems or abandoned cellars or whatever.

The clincher for me was the man in the overcoat with a gun in one hand and what looked like a wand or stick in the other – probably a wand, due to the intriguing symbols spurting out from it.

Man in overcoat, city scape, a possible magic wand…oh, this was ringing all my Harry Dresden bells, and I love me some Harry Dresden! And when I picked up the book to look at it more closely, I saw to my delight I was right. You can see the byline on the top: “A potent mix of gangsters and magic…” (unfortunately the rest is cut off, but that’s enough to hook me).

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This is my favourite Dresden cover. Also mainly black and white. There seems to be a pattern here…

The description on the back begins:

Mick Oberon may look like just another 1930s private detective, but beneath the fedora and the overcoat, he’s got pointy ears and he’s packing a wand. Among the last in a line of aristocratic Fae, Mick turned his back on his kind and their Court a long time ago….

Oh, I was definitely in now. The Dresden similarities are many, of course, but I liked the 1930s twist and I especially liked the fact that this private eye is an exiled Fae, not a wizard. You might say I have a thing for stories featuring the Fae hiding among humanity, it’s the premise of my own novel.

Besides historical fantasy, urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres, so I took this home happy to delve into it and see if I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.

And in a word, yes!

Oberon is a PI in 1930s Chicago, and he is given the case by a mobster’s wife to find her daughter, her real daughter, that is, because it is quickly becoming evident that the girl she thought was her daughter is actually a changeling – some kind of Otherworldly creature swapped for her real daughter at birth. The changeling is 16 now and starting to, well, change, and Mrs. Ottati wants her real girl back.

So really, it’s a historicial urban fantasy. I really couldn’t go wrong, could I?

Just like in the Dresden books, in this book most humans don’t know that they are occupying Earth with various supernatural creatures, but there are some who do, including the Ottati family, whose matriarch is a foreboding witch who, as it turns out, has her own reasons for aiding Oberon in his task.

The story is a great deal of fun, as we follow Oberon through the underbelly of 1930s Chicago, mobsters and all. The case is tricky, and he ends up having to go to the Otherworld to get some help and in the process ends up owing a favour to the Unseelies, which you know will come back to haunt him someday.

The book is firmly set in 1930s Chicago, referencing real-life figures such as Al Capone. Mick uses a lot of slang from that time period, which can be a bit confusing, but I didn’t mind it, as it helped to ground the story in that time period.

Through the first part of the book I thought that I was actually reading the second book of the series, as there was obviously a lot of backstory that Oberon hints at but isn’t explained. This was driving me slightly crazy as I really, really hate not starting at the beginning of a series (or a TV show, or whatever. Ask my hubby how many times I have forced him to rewind to watch the first minute of a movie that really didn’t matter anyway, but hey. It’s how I roll.).

It got to me enough that I had to stop part way through and find out how many more books came before this one, and lo and behold this is the first of the series. The Dresden books are like this a bit, too, there’s a lot going on before the first book that is eventually filled out in subsequent novels.

And speaking of Dresden comparisons, which you can’t really help, the one thing that I didn’t like much about this character and the magic system was his wand. It makes sense that Dresden has a wand (well, ok, a staff) because he is a wizard. But Oberon is Fae. Why does he need a physical object to do his “magic” – which mainly consisted of stripping or enhancing people’s (or his own) luck in order to make events move more or less smoothly (someone might trip when they are running after him, for example)?

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This is another cover for the book, from GraphicAudio. I don’t like this one nearly as much. You can see the pointy ears under his hat, but the coat’s belt makes it look like he has a tail. The tag line “A Mick Oberon Job” is bigger than the title. The whole thing is a bit messy, in my opinion.

I like the way the Marmell toyed with the Fae mythology and included glamour, and the twisting of luck, and their connection to the nature as part of the magic system. I think he could have gone further with this, though, to make it more Fae-like and less wizard-y.

There’s a references to vampires and a policeman friend of Oberon’s seems to be a werewolf (but this is just hinted at), but other magical creatures,  except for those familiar to English folktales such as kelpies, pixies, leprachauns and the like, do not appear in this story. So I’m not really sure why they are even mentioned, although I suppose they might come in handy for future books.

One other small negative – the language is a little rough at times. Quite a lot of f-bombs, especially from one of the mobster characters. It jarred me a bit. Aside from the profanity, was that word used commonly as a swear word back then? I suspect that it possibly wasn’t, but I’m not certain on that, so I’ll hold off judgement on the historicity of it.

I give this book three stars (out of four). I don’t mind that it’s a Dresden wanna-be, but in my opinion the author could have branched out a little further from the Dresden template and done a little more with his world to make it (and his hard-boiled wise-cracking main character) stand out a bit more from Dresden’s Chicago other than move it back to the 30s as opposed to Dresden’s present-day setting.

There’s three books in the series so far. I liked this one enough to pick up the next one to see how it unfolds. A fun historical urban fantasy read, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

 

Year of Important Books: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

So it’s come to this, the end of my Year of Important Books! Although I had a few times this year where I wasn’t exactly sure what book to read in a given month, my last book of the year I had decided right from the beginning. I wanted to end with The Lord of the Rings.

As I started it this month I realized that I would not be able to read all three books in December – there was just too much going on. So I ended up just reading the first of the trilogy.

It might seem strange to you that in this series of re-reading important books of my childhood that I chose this book and not The Hobbit. There is a simple reason for this, and that being that I actually discovered and read LOTR first, and once I read it I went looking for other books by Tolkien and found The Hobbit.

John Ronald Rauel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892, where his father, Arthur, a bank manager in England, had been promoted to the head of the bank in Bloemfontein. He lived in South Africa with his family, which included his younger brother Hilary and his mother Mabel, until he was three, when he and his mother and brother went to England for an extended family visit. While they were there, his father died of rheumatic fever in South Africa and they stayed in England.

At an early age Ronald, as he was known in the family, was interested in languages, reading and writing. He was a keen pupil, from all accounts. His mother converted to Catholicism when Ronald was 8, and he remained a devoted Catholic for all of his life. When Ronald was 12 his mother died at the age of 34 from the complications of diabetes. She had arranged previously that her sons would go live with her close friend Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan, as their guardian, and Tolkien remained grateful to Fr. Francis’ influence on his life ever after, seeing him as the father figure he had missed.

Tolkien married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt, in 1913, and in 1914 when war broke out he did not immediately enlist, to the vast disapproval of his relatives, but instead delayed enlistment as long as he could until 1915 by entering an agreement which allowed him to complete his degree first.

Tolkien did not have a particularly robust constitution, it seems, for he was sickly on and off during his war service and was eventually declared unfit for regular duties and was given garrison duties for the latter part of the war. This likely saved his life, for as he said, “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

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J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, in the midst of his war duties, when he was 24. His eyes look a bit haunted, don’t they? Photo from Wikicommons.

After the war Tolkien continue his work in languages, notably Anglo-Saxon, and eventually ended up in Oxford in 1925 as a professor of Anglo-Saxon. It was during this time at Pembroke College in Oxford that he wrote The Hobbit and the first two books of The Lord of the Rings, but it wasn’t until 1948 that it was complete, nearly a decade after he began it. LOTR was published in 1954, and it has since become of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Fantasy books are standard fare for children’s stories, but LOTR brought fantasy popularity as a  genre for adult books as well. Not that there weren’t adult fantasy books before its publication, but the success of LOTR certainly legitimized the genre and inspired many, many writers to try their hand at it.

I can remember reading LOTR for the first time and falling under its spell from the very beginning. Here was a book that included the fantastical elements I had loved so much in my books as a child, but they were brought in to a complex, grown-up story. And thus began my life-long love of the fantasy genre and inspired my own desire to write my own. LOTR became one of those books that I re-read every couple of years, although I admit that it has been far too long since the last time I picked it up. It was so nice to revisit it again this month.

One thing that struck me anew as I re-read Fellowship was Tolkien’s masterful world-building. There are reams of words written about how he built his Middle -Earth and the extensive time he spent on its history, languages, and culture. I won’t go into all that here, but suffice to say, it works. You know there is a lot going on behind the scenes in this world, and that we are just seeing a small slice that begins in the hobbits’ sheltered Shire and gradually expands as we journey along with Frodo on his quest, and it is a great deal of fun to discover this world along with him.

Tolkien paints a rich an full picture of Middle -Earth, using some lovely lyrical language. For example, as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leave the Old Forest after their sojourn there with Tom Bombadil, they pause for a moment to to get their bearings:

“Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.” 

That sentence, all on its own, makes me want to be a better writer.

The story that Tolkien gives us is an adventure tale, with a small and ordinary hobbit from the back waters of the Shire suddenly presented with an onerous task and even worse, the ultimate responsibility to carry it out: to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, deep in the heart of Mordor.

One of the beautiful pictures Tolkien paints in this book is the importance of friendship to help us carry our burdens, big and small. Frodo is not alone in his quest. Fellow hobbits Sam, Merry and Pippin accompany him from the Shire; Gandalf gives him instruction and help along the way; the mysterious Ranger, Strider, joins their company at the opportune time; and of course once they get to Rivendell the elf lord, Elrond, gives Frodo eight companions to share the journey with him.

Tolkien, himself, had a band of companions which greatly helped him not only in the writing of The Lord of the Rings, but who journeyed through life with him as well. The “Inklings”were a band of like-minded friends and writers at Oxford who met regularly to discuss their works-in-progress and to share a pint and great conversation at the Eagle an Child pub in Oxford. C.S. Lewis, a fellow Oxford don, was a member of this group (he famously nicknamed the pub “The Bird and Baby”), as was Charles Williams. The value of this group to both C.S. Lewis and to Tolkien’s writings cannot be underestimated, and its influence upon Tolkien’s view on the importance of having a group of friends behind you in any great venture can only be guessed at.

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The Eagle and Child in Oxford. Wouldn’t you love to have had a chance to overhear some of the conversations that took place here?

Another theme that runs throughout  Fellowship is the idea that small people can do great things too, and in fact may, in the end, be better suited for those great things. Elrond sums this up during the Council when they are deciding what should be done with the One Ring:

“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” 

From all accounts Tolkien came out from his war experiences with a profound appreciation for the men under his command: the ordinary, enlisted men from the agricultural counties of England. It is possibly this real-life experience that brought him the understanding that it is not always “great” men who do the great deeds. But  however he came to see this, it is this portrayal of unsung hereoes like Frodo and especially Sam, that gives The Fellowship of the Rings, and indeed the whole LOTR saga, its heart.

I wish I had the time to read the other two books of the trilogy this month, but I was very glad to at least get the chance to read the first one. It was a fitting end  to my Year of Important Books, for it provided me a bridge from my well-loved childhood classics to the more mature books of adulthood. This book cemented in me my life-long love of fantasy, and showed me that these tales of heroes, dragons,wizards and elves need not stay as nursery stories, but could be told to adults as well. 

Speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin summarized Tolkien’s views on fantasy stories this way:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

I’m sure I speak for many of you when I give my hearty thanks to J. R. R Tolkien, for taking us all with him in his escape to Middle-Earth

Book Bingo: Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers

Quite awhile back I announced I would try to do a Book Bingo this year. I have failed miserably at it so far. And seeing as there are only four months left in the year, I’m under the gun, so to speak (or is that, under the B?).

Just as a quick reminder, I have set myself the challenge of filling in the middle row of the following Bingo card:

 

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It’s not like I haven’t done anything. I have read a short story collection by Canadian Tom Simon.  I will put up my review of that book sometime in the next month or so. Then I got distracted and well, forgot.

But I recently got renewed in my search for books to fill my card, because I read an absolutely spectacular book about by a Canadian author, and I realized it would fit as part of my Book Bingo! The book is Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers, and it was published by ChiZine Publishing in 2012. So, I now have two books that will fit on this card.And they are in the same line, under the “G”.  I’m on a roll!

It’s funny how some books come into your life. Most of the books I have read have been books I have chosen. Some of the rest are gifts, some are recommendations by friends, some are books read for my Book Club. But a few arrive in your life by magical means, maybe as a BookCrossing book, a book left behind on a bus, or won in a door prize.

This is one of these magical books. While I was the When Words Collide festival in Calgary last summer, I visited the book store, of course. I didn’t buy anything, I had too much to read on my plate already, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of adding one more book to that pile. But as I was going through the room I saw, off to the side, a bunch of books on a table with a sign, “Take one free for an honest review.” I glanced at them but kept on going. No time, and all that.

But I passed that table again and my conscience got the best of me. After all, soon (I hope) I will be entering the Published Authors Club and it will be me looking for reviews on my book on Amazon and other book sites. I am beginning to understand the importance of reviews and so I decided I should do my duty to my fellow authors and so I scanned the books on the table. There were a few books offered, but this one caught my eye. First of all, because it was small, and not too long (240 pages). And I liked the cover. And once I picked it up to read the back cover and reviews, I began to get more interested.

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So, I popped it in my bag and took it home. It sat beside my bed for a few months until last month, when I (sigh) picked it up to read it in order to get it over with and stop my conscience from bothering me.

Well. I devoured this book. Not exactly devoured, I suppose, this book is too thought-provoking and emotional to use that word, but wow. Every ringing review on this book’s cover is true, and then some. I hurried over to Amazon and gladly gave it five stars.

Westlake Soul is the name of the main character of the book, a young man who has been horribly injured in a surfing accident, and is now in a vegetative state. At least that is what it looks like from the outside. He is unresponsive and unable to react to the world at large. But inside his mind, he is absolutely all there, and in fact the accident has given him some “superpowers” in the form of a greatly increased intelligence and the ability to project himself out of his body to anywhere he likes, like a form of astral projection.

Oh, and he can talk with his dog, Hub, which makes this already-marvellous book even that much better. Just for fun, here is the link to the youtube trailer for the book. I don’t like the surfer-dude voice, Westlake is Canadian, after all, but still, you get a small feel for the book. The music definitely fits the melancholy nature of the book and Westlake’s cool vibe, though.

Like all superheroes, Westlake has an arch-nemesis, Dr. Quietus, the embodiment of Death. Westlake has beaten him into a corner for now, but he’s lurking in the background, ready to do his mischief. And soon Westlake realizes that something bad is coming, and he had better be prepared…

This book is a wonderful reflection on big themes of life, death, friendship, family and humanity. Pretty big subjects, but Youers handles them deftly with sparse but lyrical prose. The book is told from Westlake’s point of view which helps to really immerse us into his world.

I couldn’t’ help but wonder if Youers wasn’t inspired to write this book by the story of the “Ghost Boy” – the young Australian man who contracted a mysterious disorder which caused him to retreat into a vegetative state, but whose mind slowly returned, and due to his physical limitations could not communicate that to his family. There are similarities here to that heart-wrenching story, and the news of the “ghost boy” was being reported  in the couple of years before Westlake Soul was published.

But no matter how he got the idea, Youers has taken it and given us a beautiful book. It was nominated for a Sunburst Award in 2012 as one of Canada’s best speculative fiction books. I am amazed it didn’t win (if it did, it would have qualified for another square on my bingo card, heh). I’m really surprised I haven’t heard of this author, but like all Canadian authors, I’m sure he struggles to be heard over the  noise from our fellow writers to the south. The good news is he has a new book coming out in June 2017 with a major publisher (St. Thomas Press/Thomas Dunne Books) which I am looking forward to reading. It’s a supernatural thriller called The Forgotten Girl, and it looks really good! Hopefully he will start to get some recognition.

In the meantime, grab a copy of Westlake Soul and a box of kleenex (trust me, you will need it). As Hub would say, Dude, you have to read this book.