Friday, October 24, 2014

Duck The Halls (Meg Langslow #16)

I think Donna Andrews is one of the funniest mystery writers writing today (RIP Elizabeth Peters!). Meg Langslow is a terrific character: smart, grounded, humorous.

Duck the Halls by Donna AndrewsOnly days before Christmas, perpetrators unknown leave a dozen or so skunks in one of the local churches, and Meg's organizational ability is called upon to rearrange all the church events while the building is fumigated. But as the pranks escalate to arson and someone dies, Meg's has to use all of her skills to solve the mystery before it ruins Christmas.

This particular installment wasn't one of my favorites. It had all the right elements: bizarre crimes, Meg's eccentric family, the quaint setting. I liked it--I'll no doubt read the next one (I mean, I've read all sixteen so far)--but it wasn't my favorite.

I'm trying to make a conscious attempt to study author techniques as I read, instead of blitzing through on a buzz of plot-fueled adrenaline. One thing I did admire was the way Andrews set up a personal as well as professional goal for Meg. Alongside the murder, Meg and her husband struggle to find quiet time to recreate the idyllic Christmas of Meg's childhood (and one both her mother and mother-in-law seem determined to ignore). The resolution of this particular goal was my favorite part of the whole book--it reminds me that readers need emotional payoffs (of the good kind) as well as just plot resolution.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dreams of Gods and Monsters (also a bit of Pitch Wars)

So, yeah, I get that I haven't posted in almost two weeks.

Part of that is because I was savoring Laini Taylor's Dreams of Gods and Monsters, which took me longer to get through than most of the books I read.

Also, I've been buried up to my eye-balls in Pitch Wars revisions. The revision has been a pretty big overhaul--my MS has gone from 90,000 words back up to 96,000 and down to 87,000--but in between all that I've cut almost 28,000 words and written 25,000--in three weeks. But I'm pretty excited about the way things are shaping up. I think I've fixed some of the major pacing problems in the story.


On to the review.

I've been a fan of Laini Taylor since her Fairies of Dreamdark series. But I didn't love Daughter of Smoke and Bone as much as I've loved her two most recent books. That's rare in a trilogy, for the later books to wow me more than the original one.

Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #3)In this conclusion, Karou (a chimera) and Akiva (seraphim) struggle to reconcile their warring people, prevent Jael from acquiring nuclear weapons on earth, and put an end to his cruel rule (how's that for an awkwardly half-rhymed sentence?). As if that weren't enough, Taylor also introduces a new set of characters, PhD student Eliza who has (she thinks) put her family's crazy cultish history behind her, and a race of seraphim whose duty it is to protect Eretz from some unnamed threat.

As always, the stakes are high. And Taylor's prose is breath-taking. Heart-breaking.

I thought she did a terrific job of working together several very complex plotlines and keeping the pace moving forward. I was confused for a little while in the middle, but I was invested in the characters and kept reading anyway.

And if the end seemed a little drawn out and indulgent, well, Akiva and Karou earned it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

IWSG Wednesday: Feeling blessed

IWSG Badge

As a writer, it's easy to get caught up in my craft--to daydream about the snapping dialogue I'm going to write, to feel intimidated by the massive plot revision I'm in the middle of, to wonder about my publishing prospects. I spent a lot of time with my mind spinning in the future.

It's easy to think: as soon as I reach *this* milestone, things will be better/easier/more worthwhile: once I finish this draft. Once I've finished revisions. Once I get my first partial request. But of course, each milestone only brings new ones in its place.

Last night, I had an epiphany. I was thinking about my children, what I want for them in life.

*I want them to life faithful lives.
*I want them to have work that interests them.
*I want them to have good friends, and family.

That's it. I mean, other things would be nice (health, sufficient wealth for travel and a few perks), but these are the essentials.

And then I realized: I already have all these things. By my own definition, my life is rich. And this writing work is some of the most fascinating work I've done. Hard, not always financially rewarding, but always intellectually rewarding.

So I've decided for now to focus on this: on enjoying what I currently have, and not what I think I want. There are a lot of things I can't control about my writing, starting with what happens to it once it leaves my  hand. I can't force readers to enjoy it; I can't force an agent to pick it up.

But I can write.

And I can enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings I read quite a bit about the Grimke sisters in graduate school while studying nineteenth-century women's rhetoric (including both Sarah's treatise on the equality of the sexes and Angelina's letter to the Christian ministers of the South), so I was fascinated to find that Kidd had built her latest novel around their lives.

Although there were places where the pacing dragged a little for me, I thought Kidd did a nice job of presenting two distinct experiences with slavery: Sarah Grimke, who grew up benefiting from the practice but who resisted it (though she spends a long time trying to figure out how to shape that resistance), and Handful, one of her family's slaves. I liked that Handful never let slavery define her, and she did what she could to resist it (though her actual involvement with Denmark Vesey seemed a bit of a stretch--she also seemed to have an unusual amount of freedom to visit Charleston).

But I was more drawn to Sarah, mostly because I could relate to her struggle with knowing something is wrong but trying to figure out how to resist it. Sarah was a slow-blossoming character who didn't come into her own until her thirties--and I felt like that was a much more realistic approach than what I sometimes see, which is characters who immediately see injustice and know instinctively how to respond to it. I appreciated that Kidd focused her attention on the lesser-known of the two sisters, because I think Sarah has an equally interesting story (if not as flamboyant--if you haven't read Angelina's speech at Pennsylvania Hall, you should).

Friday, September 26, 2014

One Plus One

 A good friend of mine has been raving about Jojo Moyes' novels, so when I saw her newest at the library, I snagged it. And while women's fiction isn't always my first choice of genre, I did quite enjoy this one.

One Plus OneJess is a young single mother, struggling to raise her ten-year-old math whiz of a daughter, Tanzie, and her ex's son, Nick, a sweet-hearted but odd loner of a teenage boy. She works two jobs to make ends meet, and her life pretty much revolves around her children. But she can't seem to figure out how to protect Nick from the local bullies, and when Tanzie has the opportunity to go to a fantastic private school on a generous scholarship, she can't seem to find the money she needs to make that happen.

But then a freak opportunity presents itself: a math Olympiad with enough prize money to cover the remaining school fees. The only problem: the Olympiad is in Scotland, Jess can't afford train fees for the three of them (not to mention their enormous black dog, Norman), and her ex's old Rolls Royce barely runs, and Jess doesn't have insurance.

Enter "Geeky Ed," the man Jess has met only occasionally--as his cleaning lady. Deeply embroiled in his own woes (accused of insider trading when all he really wanted to do was uncomplicated his love life), Ed wants nothing to do with Jess and her crew. Yet somehow, he finds him taking all three of them--and the dog--to Scotland. And no one's life will be the same.

It took me a while to get into the story: there's a lot of POV shifting in the first little bit. And I still think Ed agreeing to drive them all the way to Scotland is a little far-fetched. Setting that aside, I did really enjoy this. The characters are engaging (particularly Jess), and Moyes does a great job getting inside all their heads. The last quarter of the book was unexpectedly wrenching.

Overall, a solid read.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

 I've got mixed feelings after finishing Kate Hattemer's debut, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. I loved the writing: I thought Hattemer was smart and clever and the English major in me admired the way she managed to weave in both Ezra Pound's Cantos and the rhetorical device of tricolon.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn AcademyI liked the characters too: they were messy and flawed and they made mistakes and used snap judgments. Ethan's ultimate realization that he'd been idealizing people because it was easier than dealing with them in their messy contradictions and depth rang true to me.

But I wasn't entirely happy with the plot. In the story, Ethan and his friends attend a private high school for the arts that has been overrun by a reality TV series. When their English teacher introduces them to long poems as a form of social protest, Ethan's charismatic friend Luke decides they  need to rebel--through poetry. (Note: I can't imagine very many places besides an art school where this would be considered cool, let alone rebellious). And for a while, it seems to work. Until Luke gets incorporated into the reality TV world and Ethan has to decide what it is that he really wants. The resolution to the whole reality show v. authentic art seemed far-fetched to me.

Aside from that, I think a lot of teens would like the fun relationships between friends, Ethan's hilarious triplet sisters, and the gerbil that's almost another character. Some readers have observed that the lack of romance (it never goes beyond the level of crush in any direction) makes the book seem young, but it seems true to life to me for a boy like Ethan who's still trying to figure out how to read romantic cues and doesn't know enough about himself to even know what he likes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Paper Magician

The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #1) I thought Charlie Holmberg's debut novel, The Paper Magician, was quite charming. I'm a sucker for historical fantasy (I adore Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecilia), and I was hoping this would be in the same vein. To my delight, it was.

When the story begins, Ceony Twill is less than thrilled to apprentice to a Paper Magician. In her world, once magicians have bonded to a material, they are bonded to it forever. She'd studied hard in school and hoped for something more impressive, like metal magic. But there aren't enough paper magicians, so paper it is.

But Magister Thane is nothing like what she expected--and Ceony discovers unexpected wonder in Paper Magic, where complicated folds of paper bring things to life. I thought Holmberg was particularly successful in setting up the magic here--I wanted to try paper magic myself!

When a dark secret from Thane's past shows up in the form of an Excisioner, whose dark magic uses the material of the human body, and rips Thane's heart from him, Ceony has to use her limited skills with paper magic to try and save him.

The magic system here was fun, and Ceony herself was delightful. I liked that she was smart, independent, and knew what she wanted out of life. I wasn't sure about the speed at which the romance here developed, but I could see why Ceony found Thane appealing and intriguing. And I loved that Ceony had such limited resources for saving Thane--it made the stakes that much higher. So often in fantasy the heroine has this incredible power, but Ceony didn't have any of that. She was just an ordinary magician who barely  had the training she needed to animate paper. It was refreshing.

I'll be interested to see where Holmberg takes the story in the sequel, The Glass Magician.