The Five Years Question

I am reading a really great book. A dive in and stay there kind of book. Only I am not, as it were. I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for days now. Why? Because I am in A Quandary.

I am loving the book when I’m reading it (a review will be forthcoming, of course) but my brain is so tangled up in other things that I can’t concentrate for long. Seriously, people, I have been reduced to playing Chuzzle. In Zen Mode. You know, the one that you can’t win because it never ends. (That said, I discovered if you play long enough you get badges. Why badges are necessary in a game that cannot be won is beyond me, but they’re cute.)

We’re coming off the holiday season, which this year has been insanely overstimulating for me… the low-key holidays of my past have been replaced with Sudden Influx of Large Boisterous Family. I do appreciate the bounty, but I am an introvert. There have been mental adjustments.

That’s been distracting, but it is not the Quandary. With the coming of the new year, I have been forced to reassess my life. I had a job interview a week before Christmas, and, while I didn’t get the job, it did get me pondering. Particularly when the interviewer brought up the infamous “So where do you see yourself in five years?” question.

There are several ways to answer that question. You can be obsequious and suck up, presuming you will be there and be Making Great Things for the company. You can speak to a broader career initiative. You can be honest, if you want. You can lie through your teeth. Whatever gets you the job, right?

I suspect that most people have no real idea, and even if they think they do, five years is a long time. Heck, I’ve gone through about half of the major life changes list in the last two and a half years. I’m certainly not the same person I was before then. No matter how well-prepared I am, the question always results with a deer-in-headlights moment. It’s a scary question.

The last two weeks, I have been thinking about that question outside the limited context of the job market. Unsurprisingly, to me, I found that I have no real answer. I have some vague proto-ideas, but nothing concrete enough to give me a place to land. At the same time, I am reaching the age where jumping around trying to find oneself is simply tiring. Whatever I want, I want some sort of stability.

I don’t have a particularly good history in the stability department. I’ve moved ten times since college, five in the last two and a half years. I’ve had many and various jobs, and I’ve been unemployed almost half as long as I’ve been in the workforce, for various reasons. It’s always something different. Sometimes I’ve made mistakes, other times I just got (un)lucky. To be in the job market means to put your work life (and often the rest of it by extension) in someone else’s hands.

And we’re conditioned to accept that. I remember, as a kid and a teenager, feeling like I was just filling out the life checklist. I went to school and college was expected. I went to college, and a Real Job was the next step. That’s about where I faltered, right out of the gate, and I’ve been stumbling through it ever since. The only thing that’s remained stable is the idea that this is how it works. Objectively, I know there are many alternatives, but the default programmed into the hindbrain is: There is only one path, and you fail to follow it. I keep trying to climb back into the lane and it works for a short while, until I fall out again.

That conditioning is tricky. We ask each other “what do you do for a living?” We are “making a living.” The implication is that if you don’t have a career, you are not living. If you don’t follow The Plan, you’re not alive.

There are so many things I haven’t done because I was looking for a job. The hindbrain constantly tells me I cannot participate in this or that activity because I don’t have an adequate response to “what do you do?”  It actively tries to shut me down; obviously, without a job, without a living, I am not a real person, I have no right to do those things.

Over the last two weeks, however, I’ve been wondering: if I keep doing everything according to The Plan and it still doesn’t work, maybe it’s not me. Maybe the plan is faulty. Maybe it’s only designed for certain use cases.

Maybe I don’t know where I want to be in five years because I’m looking at the wrong map. I’ve sort of come to this conclusion before, but it’s always been in the context of  This is How It Works. All the changes I’ve tried to make have been limited to finding that One True Career, of finding the slot that I fit into.

I’m wondering if I need to stop looking. If I need to work from the assumption that I am not going to get a job, as society would see it. Then I have to figure out how to live from there. If I find a job in the process, great. If not, I need to find out how to live without The Plan. And that’s going to be hard. I barely know where to start even thinking about it.

It may take more marathon Chuzzle sessions, but sometimes trying not to think is the best way to figure something out. If I need to think outside the box, first I have to get my brain to accept the fact that there is no box.

I don’t need a box to finish that awesome book, but I do need to make some decisions. They may affect my reading time, but hopefully only to make it better. Wish me luck.

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[Review] Brood of Bones

Brood of Bones

How’s this for a hook: Narcoleptic enchantress is summoned to discover why entire female population of a city is pregnant. It caught my attention, that’s for sure. Twice, actually, because I downloaded this in June, when it was free, and then promptly lost it among my gigantic to-read list until Christmas, when I rediscovered it while loading up my new Kindle Paperwhite.  First read on the Paperwhite, good omen.

This is the kind of gem that keeps me reading the freebies/cheapies. Not only is it generally well written, it’s refreshingly different. This is not your average fantasy novel. The protagonist is fascinating, if a mite stuck up and insecure (and human because of it), and the premise is frightening. It keeps you interested from beginning to end.

The magic systems in this world are varied, but each has their own perks and flaws. The paladin-ish class are healers as well as fighters, but using their magic eats up their capacity for emotion, leaving them functionally robots – or sociopaths – bound only by their order’s rules.   Our protagonist the enchantress can only perform her magic while asleep; additionally, it requires skin-to-skin (or steel, or whatever) contact and leaves the practitioner vulnerable to both physical harm and personal humiliation. Our villain’s magic is different still, and then there’s the Lord of the Feast…

The Lord of the Feast is one of my personal favorite archetypes: noble but evil. He is quite literally the stuff of nightmares; he and his followers cast illusions and feed on fear. The Lord never lies, but when he promises aid, our enchantress could stand to read a little deeper between the lines. The interactions between Enchantress and Lord are tricky and twisty, but there is a certain mutual admiration, even if at least one of the parties would not admit it.

The enchantress herself is a complex and occasionally conflicted character. She wears her rank and honors literally, embodied in twenty-seven gowns she wears at all times. This leads to certain limitations. I can’t entirely be sure that the gown-wearing is a feature of her class, as she is the only enchantress we meet, or if it exists as a personal security blanket. She’s also so narcoleptic that she’s prone to fall over anywhere: her carriage and sleeping chambers are strung with complicated harnesses to keep her from falling over or hurting herself.

Her guardian, called a Spellsword, carries arms and armor in excess of 200 pounds, but can move with ease thanks to the enchantress’s magic imbued in his gear. This leads to some rather amazing tricks on his part (as he can make the armor lighter or heavier at will) but ultimately leads to his downfall and the enchantress’s as well.

The plot revolves around fifty thousand pregnant women and girls, from twelve to the very elderly. Many of the women are harassed and abused as their families punish them for nonexistent infidelity. It becomes apparent that such an encompassing plague, as it were, could not possibly be anything other than the work of a god…. or a mage. Our enchantress turns detective, using her magic to navigate political and societal challenges as she searches for answers.

The world is well-constructed, reminiscent (to me) of the Middle East  with touches of North Africa and the Far East while never pretending to be anything other than it is. The gods are omnipresent but never involved. Magic is definitely real, and the gods may be as well, but we see no sign of them save their priests. There’s Local Color detail everywhere, subtle but useful to the reader’s comprehension.

I found some details lacking, in particular whether or not the enchantress’s quirks were part of her position or simply her own. I also found the snarky maid character mostly irrelevant; rather, the presence of the maid is necessary, but her contributions to the conversation serve no real purpose.

I have to say, it lost a star for hitting my EDITING: GET YOU SOME button and the obvious empty spots where the story didn’t reach, but otherwise the marks are high. It’s only $2.99 on Kindle – check it out!

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[Review] Calculated Loss

Calculated loss

  • Calculated Loss
  • By: Linda L. Richards
  • Part of the Madeline Carter series
  • Rating: 3 (out of 5)

I generally don’t think of mysteries as books to review, because they are so formulaic by nature.  This one follows the formula, but seems to have a bit more depth than the average fluff mystery.

The first thing I noticed in this story was the reverse of gender stereotypes between the main character, Madeline, and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Braydon. Madeline is a career-oriented, rising-star stockbroker; Braydon is a laid-back chef. There is a distinct sense in opening flashback that even if  “chef” is still predominately a male profession, Braydon is the homemaker in this relationship.  He cooks for his wife and even tries to bring her lunch at work at one point.  Madeline gets up before dawn and lives for her work; she has come to the conclusion that Braydon is holding her back, so she divorces him.

The main part of the story takes place about ten years later, and Madeline has had a change of heart regarding her career. She’s now a day trader in Malibu, living with friends. (There is a reference that this was due to a relevant situation covered in a previous book, but I am not familiar with the series) The past rears its ugly head when she receives a call from her former sister-in-law telling her that Braydon has committed suicide.

Turns out that Braydon, too, has changed his life around, becoming a famous – and famously driven – chef with a huge food corporation. Madeline attends the funeral in Vancouver, and discovers that Braydon was no longer the person she knew. There’s not a whiff of foul play at the funeral, but after Braydon’s mother asks Madeline to look into the company’s finances, she discovers things are not what they seem. It’s a mystery, so you can probably guess the rest.

Now, I’ve read classics (I named my cat after an Agatha Christie character) and contemporary, series and stand-alones – though today’s mysteries seem to be mostly the former and seldom the latter. I’m pretty solid on the tricks. The formula is more old friend than plot device. It’s as necessary to the story as killer and victim.

Many mysteries seem to rely on character quirks to define their casts. They can be thin on detail except as it may be relevant to the storyline. Calculated Loss is relatively robust on detail, enough so that the characters generally seem more real than much of the genre. There’s still a fair amount of sketching but it works within the setting.

I found that the most intriguing part of this story was the backstory. This story focuses significantly on Madeline’s history and her relationship with Braydon. A casual reader may not notice the gender twists, and later the inversion of those twists. Madeline has become more of a woman, and Braydon more of a man. Where Madeline’s change of heart seems to have helped her become grounded, Braydon’s seems more of a devolution to spoiled child.

One thing that did strike me as unusual was the lack, otherwise, of dysfunctional relationships. Sure, Madeline and Braydon had their issues with each other, but both of their families are well-adjusted and loving. It’s another inversion of a standard trope, although one can’t say whether this is intentional. Later, broken relationships become a focus, but the core family values remain intact. Madeline calls her mother for comfort, unlike so many “strong” female characters who don’t believe in comfort.

There did seem to be a distinct theme of corporation vs. family. The entire premise of the plot revolves around Braydon’s corporation, and his family’s position within it. The family aspect, however, becomes inextricably entwined with the corporate, to the point that one can’t tell which motivation is more significant. There’s a certain devolution here, as well, as we discover Braydon’s company is far more unstable than he ever was.

Madeline is not a gumshoe, but her stockbroker background gives the story a direction that seems fresh. We read all the time about bad financial decisions in mysteries; it’s a staple motive. Rarely, however, have I seen it broken down into detail. Additionally, I learned a few things about stocks and how they work, as well as how they can be manipulated.

One of the things that fascinates me about modern mysteries in general is their fascination with place. Whether it’s a made-up small town, or a real-life big city, mystery writers are constantly hyping their setting. In this case, the author writes a glorious paean to Vancouver, especially Stanley Park. Though the park is irrelevant to the plot, and the story could actually have been set anywhere, the setting is probably the strongest detail in the book.

I admit a certain lack of understanding as to why location is the most prominent feature even in mysteries where it’s not relevant. It lends a lot of character to the story without actually impacting the characters, which could be the reason. I don’t disagree with the practice; it really can heighten what might otherwise be a not-great story. I just have to wonder why that is the detail of choice.

There are obvious flaws, however. The author is extremely fond of repetition, particularly triplicate (“location, location, location”) and alliteration. There are grammar errors, and sentences that could do with fine-tuning. Overall, the writing is good, but the editing needs some work.

As a mystery, Calculated Loss is well-done, and a step above the average fluff mystery. As a book, it’s average but not mediocre, if that makes any sense. It’s not a brilliant genius book, but it’s not intended to be. It does what it’s meant to do, and it does it fairly well. Worth reading.

 

 

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When to stop reading?

I am trying to figure out if I should continue reading the book that I’m reading. I haven’t had a lot of time for reading lately, because I’m trying to update my professional website in hopes of getting more attention from employers (very important, as I’ve been unemployed for over a year now). So when I do have time to sneak in some chapters, I’d like them to be chapters of substance. Or absolute fluff. Either works.

This book*, a space fantasy, is not bad. The writing’s decent. The plot concepts have a lot of potential. The storyline is functional. What it boils down to, however, is an average story with a somewhat interesting idea. It’s solid, and I’m sure a lot of people will love it, but somehow I just don’t want to read it any longer.

Which leads to the question: at what point does it become okay to stop reading? I know it comes down to personal preference in the end, but I’m trying to write a book review blog. Do I have an obligation (albeit internal) to finish and review as many books as I can? I don’t want to have a review blog of nothing but genius books. If the audience sees nothing but 5 star reviews, it would be a less effective blog, because there’d be no comparison by which to judge my ratings.

I have finished much worse stories than this one. I’ve also enjoyed books much worse than this. Those stories might have had miserable writing or trite plots, but they had characters worth following. Or a premise that keeps one’s attention.

I don’t know how many times I’ve kept reading a mediocre book because the premise had so much promise, I just had to see if the author could follow through. Most times I’m disappointed; once in a while I’m surprised. I don’t know how many books I’ve read where I can see the brilliance just past the place where the author settled. So many books that could be amazing in better hands. Sometimes I keep reading just to see if the author finds the higher level, because it’s RIGHT THERE CAN’T YOU SEE IT?

This is not one of those books. I think the issue with this particular book is that it hits my lazy-writing pet peeves. It begins in what is basically a fantasy world, then jumps into super crazy advanced civilization and technology. And of course, crazy advanced technology means our bumpkin heroes quickly get infodumped with The History of the Universe. This, in itself, could be a significant plot point, if addressed as anything other than a quick way to level up the characters. Yes, you now have an easier time telling the space opera part of the story, but you’ve taken away your characters’ agency in the process. You’ve established these characters as protagonists but you don’t trust them enough to get from point A to point B on their own.

That’s not counting the Mary Sue character who is genetically engineered so that men will be immediately attracted and obedient to her. There’s probably a way to turn that into a treatise on gender roles and society, but it would be a tricky path to navigate well. At the point I stopped reading, this has been made explicit but hasn’t really impacted the plot, but it’s practically a given it’ll be used as a shortcut eventually.

I could probably get a good review out of this book, considering what I’ve dealt with so far (and I’m less than halfway through). This book has Issues. I’m not sure it would be a worthwhile prospect in the end, because the issues would likely push me to frothing rage. And there’s benefit in the exercise of writing a measured review on something that hits one’s hot buttons. That said, there is a time for such exercise, and I don’t think it’s now.

Probably the easiest way to get me to stop reading a book is to remove the characters’ agency. Characters should further the plot, not be dragged along behind it. I hate prophecy stories as a rule, because they’re rarely done well. But prophecy is just one obvious example. Infodumping on characters is another; it’s one thing if you infodump your reader (in itself a hazardous process) but if you’re giving your characters “magical” knowledge just so they can interact in your plot, you’re doing it wrong. There are ways to elevate problematic plot devices if you look past the cliches; I have seen it done right, so it can be done.

I guess the answer to my initial question is: you stop reading when you hit the part where the problematic bits are more significant than the plot. In this case, even if the characters actually progress the plot, there will always be the underlying knowledge that they can only do so because the author artificially manipulated their situation. I want to read stories about people doing things and changing in the process, not just when the author wants them to have an epiphany. If you can’t write the story without lazy-writing the level ups, you might want to reconsider your plot.

*My personal policy is if I didn’t finish the book, it doesn’t get named. I feel it’s not a fair depiction of the actual book. If you ask, I’ll tell, but the name isn’t necessary to this particular discussion.

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[Review] Among Others

Among Others

I kind of adore Jo Walton’s writing. Walton loves to take familiar plots and inject fantastical elements; she has an excellent grasp of the tropes, using the stylistic frameworks as a solid base from which to spin her spell of words. It’s a pattern in her work:  Tooth and Claw is a comedy of manners populated by dragons. Farthing is a classic English cottage mystery in a world where Hitler won the war. And Among Others is a typical boarding-school tale with a twist.

We begin with a flashback, twin girls on a mission to save the fairies. They complete their task, but there’s no flashy spell bringing instant change to the world. Is it real? Or purely in their minds, little girls playing heroes?

Jump five years to one of the girls finding herself in her estranged father’s house. There has been a tragedy; her sister is gone, and she walks with a permanent limp. She does not know these people. And she’s bundled off to school in this strange place, her only choice unless she wants to go back to the mother she fled from, her own personal evil witch.

A synopsis does this story no justice. We all know how English boarding school stories go. This is a coming-of-age story, as are all boarding school tales eventually. The events that occur serve mostly to support the main character’s internal struggle to understand herself and her world.

The novel is epistolary, in diary format. Our protagonist is vague on various points, particularly regarding her sister and what happened, though it is mentioned that no one could tell the twins apart. Even her name is suspect; she refers to her sister as Mor, but as both twins were often referred to by that name, having nearly identical names, one can’t tell which Mor she is. She starts to refer to herself as Mori in her new life, which gives the reader a reference but doesn’t resolve the issue.

Magic and fairies still play a big role in Mori’s life; she tries to find some at her new boarding school, but they are not as common as they were in her home in south Wales. She also speaks of escaping her mother, the evil witch, and how she could still be found by her nemesis if she does magic. There are times she believes she’s being attacked by her mother’s spirit in the night.

The fairies themselves, and Mori’s mythology, are elegantly and uniquely detailed. They typically appear as leaves or gnarled like wood, or wisps in the air. One or two are described as mostly human, but they are otherwise no different. Fairies can’t act on the world, only tell her what they need done, though Mori admits they don’t speak in sentences and her diary contains what she thought they said.

School is isolating for Mori, outcast both for her Welsh origin and her disability. The school is heavily focused on sports, so she spends a lot of time in the library, reading. Oh, does she read… and tells us all her thoughts on the books she reads, mainly science fiction. There are pages and pages dedicated to lauding one author or nitpicking another. Mori’s diary, whatever else it may be, is a paean to the stories of her time; she namechecks most of classic SF’s best and brightest, as well as a few that may be more obscure to the modern reader. I haven’t read most of what she mentions, but I’m familiar enough with the genre classics to follow along.

Mori writes of her life, but even she admits that some of the stuff she does may not be what it seems. Her magic is of the coincidental sort; “deniable,” she calls it. When she casts a wish-spell and her wish comes true, is it because magic rearranged the world so she could have it, or is it a mere set of coincidences that just happened to lead to her desire? If it is true, does that mean the new friends she finds actually like her, or were they manipulated by her spell? Are her fairies, who often look like pieces of nature around her, really there or is she imagining it all?

I remember being this age. I remember being this isolated, and how books kept me company. I remember believing in magic, real magic, deniable magic… I remember living in a world where maybe, maybe, things were not quite what they seemed.

This is a world of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Any magical happenings occur when Mori’s alone. When the truth comes out about the accident,  Mori says there was magic involved, but admits the exact event was purely mundane. We never really find out why she fears her mother, or what sort of magic was done in their battle. We can never be sure if her family even recognizes her mother as the madwoman Mori makes her out to be. I even found it unclear as to whether there were two girls before, or just one. Mor’s ghost inhabits the story even when she’s not on the page, but Mori only speaks of her sister to her diary. No one else seems to mention her either. The family doesn’t seem to question, but neither do they outright acknowledge her twin’s existence. And we only have Mori’s word that they’re saying what we think they’re saying. I find that part of the charm, however; I think everyone can relate, at least a little, to needing their own version of reality once in a while.

Walton’s writing is gorgeous; Mori’s voice is mostly matter-of-fact, but her world is often wisps and shadows. Places are strong, especially the descriptions of South Wales. The reader feels how connected Mori is to her birth home, and how tenuous her connection to posh and strange England. We hear her brittleness when she speaks of her tragedy, even as she fights to maintain a calm facade. We feel the love inherent in the libraries and bookstores, the comfort of having words to read, and the passion of a true book-lover for the freedom and escape found in story. There’s truth in this fantasy; the questions are real even if we never know the answers.

I may love this book more than is rational; I can’t say for sure. (Oh, the irony!) The details may be different, but this is my story. The isolation, the imagination, the books… oh, the books. This is the magic of Among Others: it’s real.

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[Review] Hedy’s Folly

Hedy's Folly

I don’t read much nonfiction, in the grand scheme of things. I’m getting better about it; I’ve found a number of fabulous nonfiction pieces in the last couple of years, which has helped me be more open to topics that pique my interest. I am probably not as good a judge of nonfiction quality as some, but narrative is narrative and I know what I like.

Hedy’s Folly is the story of how Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr and her inventing partner, composer George Antheil, tried to help the war effort by inventing a radio-controlled torpedo. What they created, however, was more than just a weapon and rather unintentionally landed on a new communication technique that was years ahead of its time. They called their concept “frequency hopping”: an early technique for synchronized radio channel jumping. Later evolutions on this theory would lead to the birth of spread spectrum communications. You may or may not be familiar with the concept but it’s the way that modern devices – cellphones, wi-fi, bluetooth, everything – talk to each other without wired connection.

Yeah, the woman who epitomized Hollywood glamour in the 1940s was a badass inventor who made modern wireless technology possible. Your argument is invalid.

The lady was definitely a geek; inventing was her preferred hobby all of her life. She wasn’t, however, a brain. Her smarts didn’t come from studying science as much as from studying people. She listened to powerful men as they spoke freely around her, considering her mere decoration. She had an excellent memory, and while she may not have understood all they were talking about when the conversation got technical, she knew enough to know the stuff she heard could be important. And she knew how to utilize it.

The story itself gives a fair history, though much of Hedy’s early life is glossed over as the author pays attention to broader history and context. Details mentioned in passing spark readers’ curiosity only to vanish, including references to other inventions; the singleminded focus on her most successful creation overshadows any other creativity she might have expressed. There’s also a fairly detailed bio of her partner George Antheil, detailing his life and progress at least as much as Hedy’s. (To the point where one suspects the title is purposefully misleading.) Antheil, with his avant-garde compositions and roller-coaster finances, is at least as compelling a figure as Hedy, and essential to the process. The Secret Communications System would never have existed without both parties involved.

One does get a sense, between these two portraits, of their place within larger contemporary events that would become historically significant, particularly WWII. The author has also made clear the reasons behind the partners’ motivations in developing their invention. Hedy was Austrian, and George was the son of German immigrants; both were deeply impacted and distressed by the actions of their homeland and wished to help the war effort in the US as best they could. George lost a brother to a Russian missile, his plane shot down on its way to Finland.  Hedy’s first husband was an arms supplier to the Germans and other factions; her initial escape from Europe was mostly an escape from him. They both felt a personal obligation to become involved, no matter how indirectly.

Ultimately, the Navy passed over the groundbreaking patent and it was thirty years before it would again see the light of day. There were plenty of advances in communications technology during that time, some of which employed theories similar to Hedy’s. It was her trophy-wife spying and Antheil’s player piano obsession, however, which brought the possibilities to light.

As a narrative, it holds together well in its individual treatment of both histories, but the jump from one to the other, especially in the beginning, is abrupt and sometimes confusing. In particular, while the reader knows Hedy’s inventing talents are a main focus, Antheil’s purpose in the story at all isn’t clear until more than halfway through.

The section describing the impact of the patent and the implications of its descendant technology was also fascinating but thin. I did learn the basics of how spread spectrum works, and why it was (and is) so significant. There were nifty anecdotes about this application or that, and the techy stuff was written for a general audience, keeping the descriptions recognizable.

This small but important piece of history is a competent general overview. I personally would have liked more detail, but it covers the bases. I am glad I read it, and the whole affair is fascinating, regardless of its flaws. Definitely worth a look, as long as you temper your expectations.

 

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[Review] Broken Shell Island

Broken Shell Island

  • Broken Shell Island
  • By: Dalya Moon
  • Book 1 of the Witches of West Shore series
  • Rating: 4 (out of 5)

I would classify this book as YA; despite the main character’s age, I would say it leans on the younger side, similar to the early Harry Potter books. I am certainly not in the target age group, but I very much enjoyed reading this one.

This story focuses on Opal Button, who has just turned fifteen. For her birthday she really wants a bike, but her grandfather (her only family, as far as she knows) gifts her with his battered old suitcase instead. And then he tells her to fill it with her belongings, because he’s sending her off to live with her great-aunt on Broken Shell Island.

Opal is somewhat distressed by this, because she has never heard of this great-aunt, and the only Broken Shell Island she knows is the one in the kids’ books written by her grandfather’s friend Flora. But her grandfather insists, so she packs, and they head off. Soon, her grandfather hands her off to a strange man in a small fishing boat. He takes her out to sea, tosses her suitcase in the water and then tosses Opal herself. As she’s trying to figure out what just happened, the dark man is motoring away, shouting “You must hold on to the suitcase!”

Now, Opal of course thinks the man is insane, but at least the suitcase floats. So she grabs onto it, expecting it to sink, but it doesn’t, and she realizes it’s actually taking her… somewhere.

After a while afloat, the suitcase brings her to a beach. With cliffs. And little else. She wanders around, but there’s no way up the cliff. Except… in the stories she’s read of Broken Shell Island, the kids drew doors or stairs with chalk on cave walls and the like. So she finds some chalk and makes herself some steps, and it works!

This is just the beginning of Opal’s amazing new life on the magical island. She meets the people, who have no contact with the mainland except for what washes up on shore. She discovers most of what she knew from the stories is… not quite what the island is. For instance, calling it Broken Shell Island is bad luck. People don’t draw doors that open. And We Don’t Eat The Goats. Who don’t talk. Despite what the two goats who led her from the cliff to civilization might have said when she wasn’t looking.

She meets her great-aunt (suitably strange), a boy who bugs her about movies and comics and all things mainland, and three witches in training, among others. The townsfolk dislike the witches and think they’re evil. Opal’s new friends take her to a magical chocolatier and help her buy new clothes (the poor suitcase didn’t make the trek inland) and she thinks they’re awesome. She even discovers her much-requested bicycle has come to the island for her. But things are not always what they seem even on a magical island, and, well, hijinks ensue. The witches are involved, of course. And the goats.

The worldbuilding (island-building?) details for Broken Shell Island are gloriously imaginative, with such gems as a forest where the trees themselves rain, birds that live in the ocean, and feathered snakes that get quite mad when you stare. It’s got the kind of impossible things that kids love to read about; charming, quirky characters; and rules and habits that make no sense but make perfect sense. Most of the characters are used to the strangeness, but only the West Shore witches actually create their own magic feats. And possibly Opal, but she’s not allowed to discuss that with anyone.

The mystery aspect of this story (and it is a mystery, at the core: there is a murder at the beginning, and a heaping cupful of whodunnit) is well done, in my estimation. It’s simple, but anyone who reads mysteries knows that the basic plot of any mystery is simple; the author does a good job with her red herrings and leading the audience from one missed guess to another. The final reveal is not a particular surprise, but this is also a mystery for kids/YA; it doesn’t need to be complex.

The author doesn’t shy from putting her characters in danger, though with such a magical location, the damage is relatively easily reversed. This makes for a mellower book, exciting in a way that won’t keep its readers up at night. Additionally, the author doesn’t stoop to magicking everything right; the challenges are ultimately overcome by the characters and by their own agency. That said, making the consequences disappear has the potential to undermine the story by making it appear too easy. I don’t think the author did this, but it’s one of those fine lines to be aware of.

I loved that the sheriff, a major character, was a woman, and that even thought there was little serious crime on the island, she was practical and knew what she was doing. She will make a good role model for Opal in later books, especially since the great aunt is… easily distracted.

I also liked that the nascent romance stays nascent and avoids the angsty early-crush drama that so often shows up in YA (as well as adult) stories these days. It’s not a significant part of the plot, so while there are hints, it remains appropriately in the background.

And I adored the goats, and the mythology of the goats. Yes, there is a mythology of goats. Who could pass that up?

On the negative side, there were a fair number of instances where the magic jumps the characters just to where they need to be with no real motivation beyond “it’s magic.” There’s a lot of coincidence. The line between using magic to augment the plot and using it to direct the plot is a thin one at best, but it does make the transitions a little abrupt. The target audience is unlikely to notice, I realize, but tailoring the plot to the audience’s limitations could potentially backfire.

The writing is solid, and the grammar’s pretty good. It’s obvious that the author’s writing from a British Isles perspective; there is that slight, definitive British tone to the text which I personally find charming. Some of my favorite books from when I was a child came from British authors, and back in my day (as they say), publishers didn’t try to Americanize the language to make it “more accessible” or whatever.

This is a solid, enchanting, magical-world YA, with a good storyline and some brilliant hooks. In all honesty, I rarely see as much unbridled imagination in play these days. Where are the Broken Shell Islands of grownup books?

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[Review] Progeny (The Children of the White Lions)

Progeny (The Children of the White Lions)

  • Progeny
  • By: R. T. Kaelin
  • Book 1 in the Children of the White Lions series
  • Rating: 2 (out of 5)

I have read many, many epic fantasies. Most of them are mediocre. Some are more mediocre than others. This one, I should have treated as a drinking game – even though I don’t drink; it might have been more enjoyable.

The basic premise is: suddenly magical teen siblings Nikalys and Kenders find out that they are a) suddenly magical and b) their parents aren’t their parents. Their village is destroyed by an evil wizard, who kills their adoptive parents but the kids of course get away. Cue epic running-away, which is pretty much the rest of the book.

There’s a bit of a twist involving Jak, their “older brother” and the true son of their adoptive parents, who gets the usual cryptic message and package of unknown origin that should go to the Special Siblings. Eventually he catches up with them and they discover that, of course, said cryptic message has to do with the facts presented in the above paragraph, and the package ends up being a sword (which is pathetically obvious from the shape of the package when it’s first revealed.) Because you can’t have magical heroes without a magic sword. But that comes later.

Enter Broedi, a magical shapeshifting giant who just happens to be one of the mythical magical White Lions. He was (is?) a friend to the Real Parents, who were also White Lions. The White Lions were heroes granted special abilities by the gods. However, despite being a significant factor in the story, the author can’t decide how many White Lions there were originally (the number switched between eight and nine at various places in the book).

Broedi is, of course, the mentor figure, and of course nobody trusts him, especially after he infodumps the kids on their backstory. There’s a prophecy. The teens are Super Special Going To Save The World. Their Real Parents abandoned them when they were babies to protect them. Kenders can do any type of magic ever except she doesn’t want to, until she needs to. The sword goes to Nikalys, who also has super strength and speed except he can’t figure out how to use it. The sibs whine and angst over their heritage, but keep trying to get rid of Broedi – who has been nothing but helpful and is sworn to protect them and all the usual stuff – for about a third of the book. As near as I could tell, they were just being petulant teenagers who don’t want to be told what to do. Of course.

Now, I wanted to like Broedi, particularly as he’s the only competent member of the group for most of the book. Unfortunately, he’s such a blatant Noble Savage that the appropriation sticks out like a blinking neon sign. He’s a shapeshifter from a “mythic race” that’s distinctly tribal, his real name is completely unpronounceable, he’s got magically enhanced senses, etc. Add to this his role of Wise Man/mentor, where he’s aloof and condescending toward his charges, and hoards secrets like a dragon hoards gold. I get that the author is trying to dole out information slowly, but it’s so baldy obvious – not to mention being all tell and no show – that it undermines the entire Wise Man aura that seems to have been the intent.

Later on, we get random things happening for flimsy reasons. There’s a random hobbit who knows too much. The bad guy apparently stole his playbook from Wile E. Coyote.  There’s a random plot jump to another part of the country to introduce Obvious Arab Stereotype Guy, who ends up captured by monsters, etc. Some of these involve completely laughable circumstances, such as Obvious Arab Stereotype Guy escaping the monsters by following the bad guy through a portal. He lands in a stable so he can conveniently steal a horse and tack and wander aimlessly until he randomly runs into the heroes. Finally, there’s a battle with the monsters where our heroes are rescued at the last moment by allies who aren’t supposed to be there. Literally. They’re all “well we were in the neighborhood even though we weren’t supposed to be in the neighborhood, so… lucky you?”

Half the characters in the book are magical and special for some reason or another. Far too many of them are magic users. For a place where mages are outlawed, there’s a lot of magical specialness bouncing around. And nobody notices, except once and even then they can’t find anything. This happens EVEN WHEN THERE ARE MYTHICAL MONSTERS INVADING THROUGH MAGIC PORTALS. ::facepalm::

The plot itself is insanely deus ex machina: the only reason our heroic party manages to meet up with each other is a string of coincidences revealed to have been the work of a deity. I would say 80-90% of the action involves obvious, sometimes even sloppy coincidence. The author attempts to address this at one point late in the book, but the fate vs free will argument made is hand-wavy at best.

Especially ludicrous is the idea that the hobbit- excuse me, tomble – finds a secret letter and goes running to the other side of the planet just because he knows… something. Why? Because he read about it in a random book in a random library.  And he gets there by tricking a random mage into opening a portal that just happens to be in the vicinity of his quarry. At least when he’s confronted, there’s a logical reason he can slip through the cracks (he can do Will magic).

I intensely dislike deus ex machina plots on principle. No matter how the author tries to spin it, they completely negate the characters’ agency.  The worst part has to be the prophecy. Prophecies are tricky to do well. Authors fall into using a prophecy as a crutch far too easily. Your prophecy is not your outline. It should augment your story, not dictate it. And if you can’t get your characters from point A to point B without stooping to “the gods did it” for everything, you need to rethink your plot.

As for the worldbuilding, it’s sparse on detail at best.  There are too many places –  most of them irrelevant and mentioned only for local color. All these places are, of course, inhabited by fantastical creatures. Way, way, way too many fantastical creatures.

The author tosses out races like candy, maybe just because they sound nifty. There’s Broedi’s Noble Savage giant race, the hobbit-like race which spawns our random bookworm meddler, and probably a dozen more we only hear of by name. Particularly egregious are the frequent, and inconsistent, mentions of the elven-ish ijul/saeljul/erijul/whatever-jul’s.  Are they the same race? different races? some sort of rank designation? The author can’t even decide what kind of  *jul the bad guy is, switching terms sometimes within two sentences for no apparent reason. Make up your mind, please, and be consistent! Otherwise you confuse your readers at best and alienate them at worst.

There were some decent characters, all of them from the Not Super Special camp. That said, the deus ex machina stuff gave them little to do most of the time, except to be confused about what was going on. Jak was probably the best of these, with the most apparent agency and intention. Most of the others quite literally had no idea why they were there.

There were a ton of threads left hanging, as is expected from a first book in a series. Hope most of them will be attended to in later books, but with the story being so confusing and muddled (despite being mostly predictable and obvious) one wonders which are going to get lost.

A few more nitpicks:

  • Nikalys and Kenders: I hate their names. As someone who used to make up insanely unpronounceable names as a teen, I know from bad names. “Nikalys” is, frankly, hard to read. “Kenders” in my mind = the D&D race, which is distracting. Most everyone else has a reasonably pronounceable name; it comes off as another cheap trick to elevate the heroes, who must be magical and special and different.
  • The author uses “sweet” and “sour” as local-color slang for “better” or “worse,” and it’s such an obvious attempt that it stands out every time those words come up. It’s also horrendously twee, especially when the grown men are using it. I gritted my teeth every time it came up.
  • Also, the term “White Lions” kept putting Three Lions by the Lightning Seeds in my head, which is, of course, completely unrelated and no fault of the author’s.

The decision to keep the gods “grounded” and unable to get back to their celestial realm from earth had potential, but wasn’t established enough to have any real meaning. The Constable Trackers, who hunt the mages, were a minor stroke of genius. For once, an author didn’t resort to killing off the entire family for conveniency/plot sake. And the decisions to have the soldiers accompany the heroes instead of arresting them was a nice change. Some of the magic tricks were nifty, though the use of Strands and Weaving as the magical framework has been done better. The grammar wasn’t great but it wasn’t the worst I’ve seen.

Honestly, I almost stopped halfway through this book because I was so tired of the mediocrity. It might sound like I really hated this book, but actually most of it was too bland to seriously dislike. The writing is inconsistent and most of the action is pretty standard fare. There may be a salvageable story in there somewhere, but it needs so much work that I’m skeptical. Unfortunately, the end result is a mishmash of poorly-rendered stereotypes, bog-standard tropes, and very little actual invention.

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Why I am not a writer

When I was sixteen, I wanted to be a writer. (There’s an amusing anecdote regarding that decision, involving me falling off a horse in Australia, but… not today)  Thus, when I went away to college two years later, I signed up to major in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. As I fought my way through the hazards of college, I held to my goal all the way.

Then came the dreaded After College. During battles with jobs and lack of jobs and general life issues, writing came and went. I was still determined to be a writer, but making a living had to be first priority. After a few years, I resigned myself to the constant guilt. A few years later, writing dropped even lower on the list as I went back to school for an interactive design degree.

If web design had existed in 1993, I might well have pursued it instead of writing.  As most writers know, words rarely pay the bills. Design is my second love, next to writing/reading, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to learn about and later work in that field. No complaints there.  Alas, no writing either.

At some point a few years ago, I declared that I was no longer a writer. There was a lot of angst behind that decision, but in the end I felt it necessary. Thinking of myself as a writer while not producing work meant that I was a failure. So I gave myself permission to do what I’d been doing all along – not write.

This led me to be able to focus on other things, and allowed me more freedom than I’d felt in a long time. Now that I’ve become more comfortable with not writing, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to put words down than it used to be. I am no longer defining myself by artificial limitations. Strangely freeing, that.

Right now I am Not A Writer and also Not A Web Designer. The latter is, alas, a factor of the current job market. And so I find myself with an excess of free time. I won’t lie, there’s not been much writing so far… but there’s also been a lot of dealing with life issues and trying to make ends meet and the like. Some days, getting out of bed is my biggest accomplishment.

But lately, I’ve been needing a bit more action, so to speak. So I started this blog; I read up to a book a day, so there’s a lot of fodder, and I spend enough time grumbling at the books as is, I might as well do something practical with that energy. Both of my degrees put great emphasis on constructive criticism and proper critique methodology; thus it seems only natural that I start a review blog.  I am only now, as I begin this endeavor, recognizing how much my skill in critical interpretation has evolved purely due to constant internal use.

Of course, reading so much has also sparked a number of ideas rattling around my brain. I’ve recently determined that a storyline I’ve been fiddling with for nearly 20 years has evolved beyond all recognition; in fact, I just chopped out the original main character and put her in a completely different universe, while maintaining the original storyline with a new main character. So now I have two universes to populate, and of course they go in opposite directions. (This will likely be fodder for future blog posts) I’ve also come up with a few new prospects, as well as reviving old friends. I can tell that I wouldn’t have been able to justice to these concepts when I was A Writer.

Even if I somehow magically find a way to write full-time, I may never rescind my Not A Writer status. I’ve seen so many turns on “you can’t call yourself a writer if…,” and maybe that really is what works for some people.  Being A Writer involves a constant struggle to retain that identity, and constant “you’re not good enough” internal monologues. I follow enough writer blogs to know that even successful authors mainline the guilt.

That’s why I prefer the freedom of writing for the writing, not because it is something that defines me. I am not less because I did not finish that story or I had to chuck that blog post. I am me, and if that includes writing, well, fine by me. If it doesn’t, I don’t lose anything. And I’m perfectly happy either way.

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[Review] Heart-Shaped Box

Heart Shaped Box (cover)

My first thought upon starting this book was “dang, this boy knows how to write!” He also knows his horror. One could blame it on his genes, I suppose, but that would be denying the skill and hard work involved in creating this book in the first place.

This is the story of Judas Coyne (and only now that I type that do I get the pun ::shakes head sadly::) otherwise known as Jude. An aging rocker who apparently thinks black isn’t dark enough, he’d have been Goth in another life except he lacks the fashion sense and emotionality. Jaded and curmudgeonly, he basically avoids most of the world in favor of his farmhouse and dogs. The exceptions to this are his personal assistant Danny and his groupie girlfriend.

Jude goes through groupie girls the way most folks go through socks, and with about as much connection to them. He calls his girls by their state of origin; the girlfriend du jour at the opening of the book is Georgia (which she accepts, in part to separate herself from her past as Marybeth). It is something he recognizes, vaguely, as being wrong, but it takes most of the book to recognize these women as individuals.

The plot opens with, of all things, an eBay auction. Jude loves to collect death-related items, and this one is just too perfect to pass up: the suit of a dead man, ghost included. He has his assistant purchase the item (because of course he hates computers, too) and promptly forgets about it until a heart-shaped box shows up on his doorstep, containing his prize.

This is a horror novel, so of course the suit really is haunted, and the ghost hates him with a passion beyond life itself. Why is a puzzle to both the reader and Jude himself, until he contacts the lady who sold him the suit. She is, to put it bluntly, batsh*t insane. She set all this up so that Jude would in fact be haunted out of his mind (and life). 

You see, a previous groupie girl of Jude’s, known to him as Florida, was this lady’s sister. I say was because Florida committed suicide and Sis blames it on Jude. Apparently so does their stepdad, who is our suit’s vengeful inhabitant. Cue gloomy specters and things moving of their own will and other ghostly tricks, which Jude tries to pass off as just his imagination. That is, until his assistant runs off and Georgia admits to seeing things, too.

Ghost Daddy used to be a hypnotist when alive, and he does some nasty things to both Jude and Georgia, like trying to talk them into killing each other (or themselves) as well as the usual poltergeist action. Getting rid of the suit won’t work, as they discover: the curse is now bound to Jude himself.

In the process of trying to escape Ghost Daddy , they discover he doesn’t like Jude’s dogs (and the feeling is mutual). Ultimately, humans and canines abandon the farmhouse in New York and head to Florida to find out if Crazy Sis knows of an off switch for Ghost Daddy. On the way they both come to terms with their histories and each other; tellingly, Georgia starts to morph into Marybeth, both for Jude and for herself, finding the person that she’d locked away. And then they arrive at Crazy Sis’ house and find out there are worse things than being targeted by a manipulative spirit.

There’s dozens of stereotypes and tropes in this story; horror as a genre tends to be stereotype-heavy, as there’s only so many types of evil critter out there. The trick is to elide the stereotype-ness of elements by giving them “personality,” so to speak. And, as I mentioned, the stereotypes are almost impossible to ignore when introduced; that said, I believe at least part of the author’s intent was to use this obviousness in service to his story.

All the characters could easily have turned into sketches; luckily, they have far more depth than initially expected. Every major character fleshes out as the story goes on, even Ghost Daddy and the dear departed Florida. The one who gets the least personality, I think, is Crazy Sis, who rants like a televangelist and is particularly one-note. Any sympathy the reader might have for her comes purely from her circumstances, not her personality. This may have been intentional, but I found it (and her) annoying.

The author’s choice to begin with an obvious stereotype and gradually build up character as the story evolves echoes the growth the characters find within themselves as they progress. One could argue that this is simply the way characters are created, but the artificiality of the opening vs. the depth of character at the end seems deliberate.

This is a visceral story; the core of the horror is in the character’s minds and in their unreliable (even to themselves) grasp on reality as the story progresses. Ghost Daddy is a master manipulator; being dead has given him a boost at sneaking into minds to work his mischief. Jude, initially a burnout, gets a serious wake-up call; his apathy disappears fast when his life’s at stake but he spends a great deal of the book trying to figure out who he is and what matters beyond simply staying alive. Georgia starts out as arm candy, but she turns out to be determined and absolutely devoted to Jude; she fights every bit as hard as he does to get them out of their haunted situation, and in the process finds her own core of personhood.

Two things I feel the need to mention:

  • Obviously, this book is published through traditional publishers and has gone through the  strict regimen of edits that such publication usually implies. The edition I read, however, contained a ton of spelling errors. On the plus side, they were obviously due to bad scans, not authorial inattention.
  • I was initially wary when I saw there were going to be dogs in the plot. In my experience, and especially with horror stories, dogs are used as plot devices either to prove how good the hero is, or to be tortured by the villain to show how evil he is. I could write a manifesto on that particular authorial trick. In this case, the handling of the two dogs, Angus and Bon (think our hero’s a rock fan?) was generally well done. The dogs themselves seemed to have dog personalities, and while they turned out to be quasi-magically able to help the hero, I loved the fact that the dogs themselves weren’t treated as magical beasts.

The horror in this novel is fundamentally supernatural, but over the course of the book one discovers that its roots are solidly grounded in the mundane. The mundane horrors are unsurprising, foreshadowed obviously (of course there’s more behind Florida’s suicide and the revenge plan than originally seen) and ultimately mediocre. Their presence is salvaged somewhat by the fact that the revelation does not affect the major focus on the supernatural horrors.  The literal demon of this story is merely a catalyst, opening the path for the characters’ inner demons to come out and play.

 

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