Friday, October 30, 2015

October Site Update

The previous three reviews have been archived and cross-linked at the main site.

Hopefully, I'll get more reading time in November...


Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Fire in Fiction (Donald Maass)

The Fire in Fiction
Donald Maass
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: What is it that lifts some stories above others, both in the bestseller lists and the slush piles? How can a thriller fail to thrill while the tale of an average housewife keep us riveted? Theme, structure, story arcs... those technical tools make for a competent manuscript, but something else is needed to make it more than the sum of its parts, to make agents or readers sit up and take notice. That something is you, the fire you bring to your stories - a fire that's too often missing. In this book, noted agent Donald Maass explains how to turn flat prose into something dynamic, and possibly turn the next form-letter rejection into an acceptance.

REVIEW: As the title and description indicate, this book is aimed at intermediate writers, those who know the basics of storytelling and plot structure but need some help polishing their prose, adding the sizzle to attract agents and/or readers. From how to create interesting characters to developing dynamic worlds, from fixing the often-flabby "muddle in the middle" to the secrets of truly amusing humor, Maass offers examples from many genres, ending each chapter with exercises for the reader to try with their own stories. Since my current monstrosity-in-editing is a short story, I couldn't quite find an exercise that fit (likely a failing on my part), but they looked interesting and potentially helpful. On the whole, it's a good read, even if it made me terribly mindful of just how far I am from producing anything like a salable story.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Writing Tools (Roy Peter Clark) - My Review
Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass) - My Review
Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb) - My Review

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Boston Jane: An Adventure (Jennifer L. Holm)

Boston Jane: An Adventure
(The Boston Jane series, Book 1)
Jennifer L. Holm
Fiction, YA Historical Fiction
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Miss Jane Peck's life in mid-1800's Philadelphia was a carefree one, playing with the boys in the streets and sometimes helping her doctor papa with his patients... at least, until Sally Biddle's nasty comments made her realize how little like a proper lady she was, how unlikely she was to find happiness. When her father takes on a new apprentice, handsome young William, she feels her inadequacies all the more acutely. It takes a few years of hard studies, but Jane finally seems to be getting the hang of etiquette, the importance of knowing how to serve a proper cup of tea, and the horrors of showing one's ankles in public or committing the Great Mistake of allowing a young man a kiss without a wedding ring involved. Surely, despite Sally's ongoing barbs, she's a worthy bride for a young doctor like William! Only William's decided to pursue a fortune in timber, traveling to the remote Washington Territory. Still, she has his promise in writing.
At Shoalwater Bay, after a horrific voyage full of fleas and terror and tragedy, Jane disembarks to find... nothing. No city or town, save one filthy trading post. No Society, unless a gaggle of barefoot, immodest savages and unwashed traders count. And no William - who, for some reason, has been sent by the territorial governor on an unknown assignment deeper into the wilderness. A settlement like this has no place for a lady whose chief accomplishment was winning an embroidery contest at a finishing school. What is she to do, until her would-be husband comes back? And what if he doesn't come for her at all?

REVIEW: This is a quick-reading tale of adventure and hardship and finding oneself even in the most difficult circumstances. Jane starts out terribly impressionable and obtuse, letting Sally's barbs and William's vague encouragements override her beloved father's influence and her own nature in pursuit of proper ladyship. She clings to the promise offered by her finishing school handbook, that a woman's purpose is to find happiness by making others happy, like a life raft as one catastrophe after another upends her dreams. Indeed, it takes several proverbial mule-kicks to the skull to get anything through her head, though to be fair teen girls can be exceptionally stubborn. It still was a little trying to read, though. Holm's research lends a sheen of authenticity to the challenges of frontier life, particularly her interactions with the local Chinook tribe. The story starts fairly quickly and maintains a fair degree of momentum throughout, though the ending felt a little abrupt. It only lost a half-star due to Jane's occasionally-irritating stubbornness, both at the beginning (as she resolutely ignores her Papa and vital clues related to him) and the end. I might consider reading more in the series.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Beyond the Western Sea: Escape from Home (Avi) - My Review
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Doon (Laurie Langdon and Carey Corp)

(A Doon novel, Book 1)
Laurie Langdon and Carey Corp
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When Veronica's boyfriend cheats on her with her school rival, she almost expects it. After all, everyone else in her life leaves her or betrays her; first her dad disappeared after succumbing to drug addiction, then her mother latches onto a creep and ignores her. Vee's only constant is Mackenna, her BFF since forever. Ken's been begging her to join her at the family cottage in Scotland for the summer - a change of scenery that Vee desperately needs. Especially since she's started hallucinating in broad daylight, visions of a blonde, kilt-clad demigod of a man beckoning her.
Mackenna's life is going just the way she wants, with an theater internship in Chicago waiting this fall. The cottage in Alloway has always been her sanctuary, home of her beloved aunt Gracie, so hopefully it'll help her best friend Vee. Unfortunately, Gracie was something of a dreamer and a storyteller, not helped by Alloway being the home of the famed Brig o' Doon, a bridge made famous in Robert Burns's poetry and the musical Brigadoon as a gateway to a magical Scottish kingdom suspended in time. With Vee on the edge of a possible mental breakdown, this may not have been the best place for a vacation... especially when she claims to find "proof" of her hallucinations in Gracie's old journals.
When the two best friends don a pair of magic rings - legacy of Gracie - and step onto the bridge, they find themselves pulled into the kingdom of Doon, a realm that only rarely touches on the real world. Here, Vee finds herself face-to-face with her Scottish vision - but he hardly welcomes her with open arms. Indeed, the girls' arrival creates little but unrest, tied to disturbing signs that Doon's ancient enemy, a coven of witches, is once more threatening their paradise.

REVIEW: This one looked to be headed for a Good rating fairly early on. Vee and Ken are believable best friends, balancing each other's moods and practically reading each other's minds after so many years together. Vee's the tortured one, with little money and a loveless home life, expecting rejection and disappointment around every corner, though Ken's not impervious to trouble and doubts herself. Likewise, the royal brothers Jamie (Vee's vision) and Duncan (who takes to Ken) have enough flaws to keep from being cardboard cutout Scottish hotties. Responsibilities and conflicting dreams, not to mention some personality conflicts that no visions could have adequately alleviated, place extra strain on the budding relationships. There's sufficient angst over these, pushing close to my personal limit but not quite crossing the line to outright tedium. Though there is common acknowledgment of "Callings" of True Love, this story actually allows for free will; being Called is not the all-powerful trump card, and sometimes things just can't work, even between "soul mates."
Doon isn't the village from the musical, but a full-blown kingdom that is not immune to the outside world so much as highly selective about what it adopts during each "Centennial" opening of the bridge (occurring once every hundred years of Earth time, but twenty-odd years apart in Doon.) With outsiders "called" to the bridge by the kingdom's Divine Protector (more on this in a bit), the end result is a more inclusive magic kingdom, with indoor plumbing and printing presses, as well as African watercolor artists and international cuisine. This, thankfully, alleviates some of the common portal-fantasy cliches, such as locals completely misunderstanding modern slang (or considering them "wizards" for knowing about electricity and gunpowder) or modern visitors looking down on the locals for not having modern conveniences. It also puts the characters on more even footing... but then there's the whole threat of the evil witches and the demands of the Divine Protector.
And here is where the story lost its fourth star, as it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not a young adult fantasy/romance revisit to Brigadoon, but a work of Christian fiction that tries to hide itself by only belatedly using the word "God." The witch is an evil hag who only exists to be evil - and, naturally, perpetuate the whole wicked witch stereotype. She's an enemy who, in a tradition that extends far beyond Christian fiction to many genres, apparently has the power to squash all the good guys like so many bugs, but would rather monologue and engage in theatrics than doing The Thing they've warped their entire existences to do. The Divine Protector seems capable of doing everything but actually defeating the evil threatening the kingdom - indeed, if It's so powerful, how the heck is Doon ever threatened by the minor, petty failings of Its two-legged tools? And the more the story goes on, especially as the climax closes in, the more the plot boils down to the power of blind faith - in other words, if evil's winning, you're just not praying hard enough, so failure's your fault for not believing. (There's also a not-so-subtle subtext that a woman can only fulfill God's will and find True Love if they're willing to give up their own dreams, and failure to do so will result in lifelong regrets.)
I liked the character interplays, and the descriptions of Doon were lovely, evoking a fairy-tale world for young adults. But the message of Faith and God grew nauseatingly blatant by the end. While I'm somewhat curious about the sequel, I don't know if I can take another story that boils down to "pray like there's no tomorrow, if you flinch you lose, but, hey, supposedly God loves you or you wouldn't be suffering to begin with."

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Inscription (Pam Binder) - My Review
The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis) - My Review
Brigadoon - Amazon DVD Link