Friday, November 24, 2017

On Writing (Stephen King)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King
Pocket Books
Nonfiction, Memoir/Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Prolific author Stephen King discusses writing - not just how to write, but what writing has meant in his own life.

REVIEW: I know, I know... I really should spend more time actually writing than reading books on writing, especially having actually landed one (albeit minor) sale. But I've seen this one recommended by sources I trust (and it was half price), so I read it anyway.
Having read enough how-to-write books, I've become familiar with the general format - a format generally eschewed here. On the cover, this is billed as "a memoir of the craft," and that's what King presents, starting with a brief rundown of his life and how he became a writer... not to mention why he remains a writer, as brought into sharp relief with his recounting of the 1999 accident that nearly ended both his career and his life. It's an interesting glimpse at the development of a best-selling novelist (and short story writer, and noveletteer), offering a human perspective of an exceptional career. King follows with his advice on writing, from the nuts-and-bolts "toolbox" every writer needs to suggestions on editing and submissions. Some of this is the same basic material one can find in most writing books, though put in King's own, occasionally blunt words. (Published in 2000, it was just ahead of the e-submission revolution, with advice geared toward physical manuscript presentation.) He closes with a list of suggested reads - not "how to write" books, but novels and such that he cites as good examples of the craft, positive influences, or just good stories.
On the whole, it's a good book, a little different than the usual writing advice tome.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of War for Writers (James Scott Bell) - My Review
Write Good or Die! (Scott Nicholson, editor) - My Review
Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb) - My Review

Monday, November 13, 2017

Crap Kingdom (D. C. Pierson)

Crap Kingdom
D. C. Pierson
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Humor
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Tenth-grader Tom Parking always dreamed of being whisked away to a magical world, the Chosen One fulfilling some ancient prophecy or another, maybe even earning a kiss from the requisite beautiful princess, but he figures the closest he'll ever get to leaving Earth is if his drama club stages The Wizard of Oz. He's just too ordinary for that kind of thing to ever happen to him.
Or so he thinks, until the wizard Gark turns up.
Now that he's been whisked away and named the Chosen One, Tom should be ecstatic, but the hard truth is that the kingdom he's supposed to save... really stinks. Literally, more often than not. It's a junk heap filled with cast-offs from Earth, entered through a portal in a donation bin behind the local K-Mart. The people are perpetually depressed. The king, who doesn't believe in prophecies or the treacherous hope they bring, hates him. The wizard's more likely to light himself on fire than cast a useful spell. And the beautiful princess is kind of a jerk. Plus this whole thing about traveling back and forth to another world has got to wreak havoc with his grades, and Mom's already threatening to make him drop drama class if he can't improve his report card. When the king offers him a job cleaning snot out of rat noses, Tom figures this whole "Chosen One" thing's more trouble than it's worth. He walks.
When his best friend Kyle is summoned to replace him, Tom slowly realizes that he's made a mistake... but is he really Chosen One material, or will trying to go back only make things that much worse in a kingdom already stuffed to the gills with misery?

REVIEW: Crap Kingdom takes several fantasy tropes - the Chosen One, prophecies, and portal adventures, among others - and gives them a hard, often hilarious twist. Tom's a typical awkward teenager, stewing in uncertainty-spawned pessimism; when he takes one look at the kingdom he's supposed to save (a place that doesn't even have a proper name, just a generic mumble-sound, because even the people have given up hoping things'll get good enough to bother with a name), part of him figures that it's just his typical luck that even a magical adventure out of his favorite stories turns to crud around him. His feelings only get more mixed when Kyle becomes the new hero; the two have been best friends since forever, yet Tom finds himself chewed up by envy and, yes, even a touch of peevish hate to see Kyle showered with success and accolades - and even given magical powers! - where Tom only found filth and rejection. His inner monologue is both amusing and accurate in its depiction of a conflicted teen who can't seem to get the hang of growing up or even his own emotions.
But there's a lot more to Crap Kingdom (as Tom dubs it) than just a bunch of sad-sack villagers and a half-baked wizard. Beyond the kingdom's magical Wall awaits a civilization that has all the trappings Tom or most anyone would think of in a magical kingdom, crystalline towers and magic armor and gleaming cities - but is in truth something far more terrifying. It's a challenge even a "proper" hero like Kyle can't tackle alone... though Tom's efforts hurt more than they help at several points, as he trips himself up. It's a credit to Pierson's writing skills that I found his trip-ups believable and occasionally touching rather than aggravating; Tom is, when all is said and done, still a teen, still trying to be Mature and become a Man without any real idea as to what those words mean in general, let alone what they mean specifically to him.
The story moves fairly quickly, with many fun lines and characters plus the odd touch of mind's-eye candy, but it's not all surface fluff; there's a nice, solid structure under the humor, with sometimes-dark themes of growing up and taking responsibility lending weight to Tom's tale. He pays for his flippant dismissal of Destiny many times over, in blood even, but even he remarks that he apparently only learns his lessons the very, very hard way. I read it in a single day, and only shaved a half-point for the final wrap-up, which wrapped up a couple loose ends but also felt a bit like a baited hook for a sequel that doesn't need to happen. Overall, though, I found it a very enjoyable read, particularly for anyone who loves fantasy - or anyone who has ever been an awkward teen themselves, simultaneously dreaming of storybook glory while being secretly certain they'd foul it up even if it did happen to them.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold! (Terry Brooks) - My Review
The Divide (Elizabeth Kay) - My Review
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Unf*ck Your Habitat (Rachel Hoffman)

Unf*ck Your Habitat
Rachel Hoffman
St. Martin's Griffin
Nonfiction, Organization
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: Being disorganized can make you feel like a failure as an adult. In a world that constantly bombards us with Martha Stewart images of perfection, it's worse - especially when so many "solutions" cost too much money or take time and energy not all of us have. It's enough to make you want to give up and make peace with the filth... but it doesn't have to be like that. Whether you've always been messy or have become overwhelmed by life, there are ways to master the mess. Author and blogger Rachel Hoffman offers encouragement and advice on how to tidy up that don't require a third income or a time machine.

REVIEW: I'm not exactly the neatest or most organized person, as anyone who knows me can readily attest. I'm also not a wealthy person, so closet organizers or hired help or complete home makeovers (or just moving away from the mess in the dead of night) aren't viable options. Hoffman offers advice for "the rest of us": people who live with family or roommates who aren't always on board with cleaning, people with physical limitations or issues like depression that make it difficult to keep on top of things, people with limited budgets and/or limited living space, people who have fallen behind (or who never learned how to keep ahead of the dirt to begin with) who want help but never find it in those fancy magazines or slick talk show segments. In other words, unless you're already a nationally-syndicated home show host, this book is likely to be useful to you on some level. She discourages the marathon clean that so many of us do in our moments of desperation, preferring shorter bursts of activity that are more sustainable in the long run. Hoffman also offers advice for the "emergency" clean (when a landlord or service person needs access) and seeking help from friends or family - and what to do (or not do) if someone asks you to help them out. At the end is a useful section on how often to clean things, how to clean different rooms, frequently overlooked areas, and some extra resources for those dealing with issues like hoarding. With no judgment (but with some well-placed cursing and humor), Unf*ck Your Habitat offers practical advice for those of us who live in the real world, a world that's often messier than seen on TV but which can be managed with a little effort and some new habits.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Habit Fix (Eileen Rose Giadone) - My Review
Clutter Antidote (Caitlin Kaur) - My Review

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Woods Volume 3: New London (James Tynion IV)

The Woods Volume 3: New London
The Woods series, Issues 9 - 12
James Tynion IV, illustrations by Michael Dialynas
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Horror/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: On the deadly alien moon where they've been inexplicably transported, the staff and students of Bay View Preparatory High School continue their struggle to survive. As student president Maria steps into the void left by the deceased principal, pioneering new food gathering methods, the six students who followed the arrow-stone into the woods have been taken to New London, a city founded two hundred years ago by a previous wave of human abductees. What looks like a sanctuary, however, turns out to be a trap. Even now, soldiers from New London, led by the traitor Coach Clay, head back to the school to "incorporate" the Americans into what amounts to slavery. Meanwhile, Adrian has given himself completely to the powers in the artifact stones - but has he lost all trace of his humanity?

REVIEW: The third installment adds some nice twists to the plot and characters, while introducing new allies and enemies. The alien energies behind the artifacts and the malevolent woods still threaten, but the more immediate human threat takes (temporary) precedence, as friendships are tested and old antagonists resurface. I look forward to seeing where the tale goes from here.

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Abarat (Clive Barker) - My Review
The Dark World (Henry Kuttner) - My Review
Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow (James Rollins) - My Review

From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E. L. Konigsburg)

From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
E. L. Konigsburg
Atheneum Books
Fiction, CH General Fiction/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When young Claudia Kincaid grew tired of being taken for granted by her family, she resolved to run away - but not alone, and not just to anywhere. She's too good a planner for that. Of her brothers, she selected Jamie, who is as good with money as she is poor with it, and as adventurous as she is cautious, as her companion. For her destination, she chose the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; not for her the dirt and grit of the outdoors or the streets. She even mailed a letter to her parents telling them not to worry, that she and James would be back soon - when Claudia would be appreciated. But once the excitement wears off, running away turns out to be less exciting than she'd thought... until she sees Angel, a marble statue that may be an undiscovered work by the Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo. Though the truth has baffled the public and the experts, Claudia is determined to solve the mystery herself.

REVIEW: Konigsburg's award-winning classic reveals a love of both museums and childhood, with a smattering of secrets and growing up on the side. The idea of running away to live in a museum is sure to spark young imaginations, and the characters are authentically children, not just crouching grown-ups as some writers present, if children inhabiting a now-lost world where two unaccompanied kids raise few eyebrows (and security cameras aren't yet a thing.) The plot is a bit thin and shaky, though; it takes some time before they even "meet" Angel, and most of the book before they encounter the titular former owner of the statue, the eccentric Mrs. Frankweiler - who, in an odd literary conceit, is dictating the story as a letter to her lawyer Saxonburg. The meeting itself sometimes feels like an author explaining the tale to the characters for some reason, not necessarily a natural encounter. The story isn't so much about Claudia running away as Claudia looking for something, not quite knowing what it is, and being unable to go home until she finds it. Jamie's along for the ride, though he makes a fun and valuable companion; both kids pull their weight on this adventure, and both do a little bit of growing up, if Claudia does the bulk of it. It lost a half-point for some of the wandering, and an ending that felt off for reasons I can't quite identify, but had something to do with the tonal shift once the kids left the museum, a shift that had barely started before the book ended rather abruptly. Still, it remains a readable classic, especially for younger audiences, and Konigsburg crafts very distinct characters readers will probably love.

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The Thief Lord (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
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Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Woods Volume 2: The Swarm (James Tynion IV)

The Woods Volume 2: The Swarm
(The Woods series, Issues 5 - 8)
James Tynion IV, illustrations by Michael Dialynas
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Horror/Sci-Fi

**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Deep in the deadly alien woods, six students from the displaced Wisconsin high school have encountered wonders and terrors, weighted toward the latter. Computer geek Adrian continues following the alien call from the arrow-stone, regardless of the cost to his companions Karen and Calder, while Sanami, Isaac, and big Ben Stone find themselves captured by strange humans. Just where have they come, and why have they been brought here - and will any of them survive, or is Adrian right that the only way to succeed is to stop thinking of others altogether?

REVIEW: Intercut with flashbacks to a school play one year ago, this issue creates more character depth even as it raises the overall stakes. The school itself is largely left behind, save for the flashbacks, as the wayward teens become the driving stars - or possibly villains, in the case of Adrian, who has all the amoral earmarks of a sociopath. More strange sights and dangers await the explorers, with odd touches of humor even as the violence continues to escalate; the series earned an M rating. So far, it remains interesting and intense enough to keep me reading. (Plus, at least the next volume is available via Hoopla - free's usually a good price.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Remnants: The Mayflower Project (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
Life as We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) - My Review
Mirror World (Tad Williams) - My Review

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Woods Volume 1: The Arrow (James Tynion IV)

The Woods Volume 1: The Arrow
(The Woods series, Issues 1 - 4)
James Tynion IV, illustrations by Michael Dialynas
BOOM! Studios
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Horror/Sci-Fi

**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: It started out a typical day at Bay Point Preparatory School outside Milwaukee. Students wrestled with college applications and figuring out the rest of their lives, while peers dealt with rejection and dismissal (or just streaked the halls, in the case of the attention-seeking jock), and faculty tried their best to keep over four hundred teens more or less behaving.
Then came the rumble, and the flash... and suddenly, losing out on a spot in the school play becomes the least of concerns.
The entire school has been suddenly and inexplicably transported elsewhere. Where, nobody knows, but a ringed gas giant planet looms like a malevolent crimson moon, and a primordial forest full of nightmarish beasts surrounds the building. Only a single strange artifact, an arrow-like construct, gives any hint at civilization. While the school body struggles to cope, a handful of students ventures into the woods, following the pointing stone in hopes of finding answers - if they can survive, that is.

REVIEW: This graphic novel kicks off a dark and strange new series. After a quick glimpse at the star players, adult and teen alike, the tale launches straight into survival mode on an alien world (or moon, rather, as it seems to be orbiting another planet.) While the school descends into dystopian chaos as the principal, the head coach, and the student council president vie for control amid food shortages and animal attacks (with brutal, even deadly consequences), six students set out into the woods, led by a computer nerd who may or may not be under alien influence. Disaster quickly brings out the best and the worst in the cast, while the new world targets its latest prey indiscriminately. It's a violent, paranoia-riddled tale, and things only look to get more intense as the series continues.

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Saber Tooth (Lou Cadle) - My Review
The Transall Saga (Gary Paulsen) - My Review
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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Fix Up (Tawna Fenske)

The Fix Up
(The First Impressions series, Book 1)
Tawna Fenske
Entangled Publishing LLC
Fiction, Humor/Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The day Holly opened her PR firm, First Impressions, was the day her dreams came true... and the day her marriage ended, her ambitious (now ex-) husband Chase unable to accept a successful, professional wife. Unfortunately, his name is still on the lease of the building she bought; she either needs to sell out and give up, or land the most lucrative contract in her life.
Ben may be the latest in a long line of business tycoons, but he's far more comfortable in a lab room than a boardroom. He doesn't even like looking people in the eye. Now, his father Lyle has made him CEO of the company, insisting he step up to the plate... but if that means acting like the workaholic and incurable woman chaser who perpetually sacrificed family for greed, Ben wants no part of it.
When Holly sees Ben in a furniture store, being bowled over by a saleswoman, she steps in to help - and discovers a brand new angle for her PR firm. Instead of a corporate makeover, Ben needs a personal one... and he's willing to pay triple her usual fee. There's just one catch with this plan: she can hardly keep her hands off her hot new client - and that's bad news, because, luscious as he looks, she's learned the hard way that ambitious businessmen and professional women can't mix. Or is Ben really destined to end up just like his womanizing father?

REVIEW: The Fix Up promises fun, light romance, and it actually delivers. Ben isn't quite as socially inept as he thinks he is, a nerd who (in romance tradition) is also a hottie, but he lives in fear of becoming like his father, a man he both hates and admires; he was, after all, the one who lived with the pain inflicted by Lyle's old-school style of leadership, where family was just a prop for success and skirts were to be chased, regardless of marital status. Holly's a driven professional who has built a successful firm from the ground up, but the voice of her ex still haunts her, telling her she can't have love if she dares to pursue dreams outside the home. There's an underlying theme of dealing with long-entrenched sexism in the workplace, though - this being a romance - it's not really about the theme, but about two lonely people coming together, figuratively and literally. Sparks, of course, fly from the first meeting, with some amusing dialog and innuendo-riddled situations as they dance around their mutual attraction. The climax felt just a trifle contrived, but overall this title is an enjoyable, fast-reading, and somewhat steamy escape.

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Some Like It Perfect (Megan Bryce) - My Review
When Lightning Strikes (Brenda Novak) - My Review
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Monday, November 6, 2017

How to Draw a Dragon (Douglas Florian)

How to Draw a Dragon
Douglas Florian
Beach Lane Books
Fiction, CH Art/Poetry/Fantasy/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons are big, but drawing them's easy when you take it in small steps - and when you have a cooperative model. In this rhyming picture book, learn the best way to draw a dragon.

REVIEW: With simple, childlike drawings, this book caters to the young dragon-loving artist who wants to have fun while creating art, without all that bogging down in anatomy or perspective. Each page focuses on a particular part of dragons or their personalities, incorporating both European "Western" and Asian "Eastern" traditions. At the end is a cheat sheet summary. You won't end up with a Picasso or a Whelan, but you will have fun doodling the various dragons for your "art gallery." It's a nice place to start, even if the art was a little simplistic.

You Might Also Enjoy:
How to Draw Your Own Story: The Dragon, The Knight, and the Princess (Don Bolognese) - My Review
Ed Emberley's Big Green Drawing Book (Ed Emberley) - My Review
The Dragons Are Singing Tonight (Jack Prelutsky) - My Review

Thursday, November 2, 2017

It (Stephen King)

Stephen King
Signet Books
Fiction, Horror
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In the summer floods of 1958, Bill Denbrough's kid brother, George, went out to play with a paper boat... and was found dead, mutilated in the streets of Derry, Maine. Thus began another season of killing, a cycle of supernaturally vicious crimes that had played out, generation after generation, in the former logging town for centuries - only, this year, Bill and six other children stood in its way.
In 1985, the former "Losers' Club" has grown up and drifted away... all save Mike, now the town librarian. When the killings begin again, he calls on his old friends in the name of a blood-oath they swore, an oath they no longer remember - just as they no longer remember each other, or the thing they discovered lurking under the streets of Derry. They bested it once, in the forgotten summer of 1958, and only they can beat it for good, but that means returning to their haunted home town to confront once again the murderous face of all fears made manifest, the ageless entity known sometimes as Pennywise the clown, sometimes as Robert Gray, but truly known only as It.

REVIEW: Yes, I suppose I'm a bit late to the party on this one. (The reading backlog's pushing triple digits, counting digital files...) In any event, the 2017 movie remake release prompted me to finally get around to trying it. Well, that, and numerous recommendations, not to mention having been unexpectedly impressed by King's 11/22/63, which made me suspect I might enjoy other longer books of his. And this thing is, indeed, a long book, a doorstop volume north of 1100 pages. It takes a lot of story to fill that many pages, a tale of epic proportions - and Stephen King delivers.
Cutting back and forth between 1958 and 1985, between childhood and adulthood, with the odd trip even further back in time to previous outbreaks of It, King builds remarkably complete characters in a town with a complex, haunted history stretching back hundreds of years. It takes some time to build momentum, not to mention time to sort out the cast, but King masterfully weaves the mundane with the supernatural, the ordinary with the extraordinary, to keep the reader (at least, me) interested while creating a growing sense of horror, not to mention a sense that nobody, not even the main crew, is guaranteed safe passage, let alone a happy ending. His 1958 child's-eye view of Derry brilliantly depicts a lost age, not just in years but in maturity: childhood here doesn't have the blinding golden glow of nostalgia that some authors create, and can frankly suck even without supernatural entities stalking the streets, but it has its good points, too. The era comes alive again as a child experienced it, with favorite TV shows and double feature monster films and whole days spent wandering and playing in a way few children get to experience in this overwired, overscheduled, and (in some ways, at least) overprotective age. As adults, returning memories slowly remind the characters how they became who they are, in good ways and bad; there's no Hollywood moment where everything becomes magically fixed by a Moment of Truth or power montage, but there are answers and some sense of closure. Meanwhile, they must remember the power of their former friendship, even as they try to evade the gruesome traps It sets to stop them. In many ways, the tale is as much about the struggle of childhood, the repeating cycles of life, and the rites of passage (and necessary sacrifices) as one grows up and changes, even into adulthood, a struggle made manifest in the fear-feeding entity of It.
The whole comes together in a brilliantly powerful conclusion, both past and present, followed by a bittersweet yet inevitable ending. It fully deserves its status as a classic, not just in the horror genre but in overall epic fiction - and this is, indeed, an epic tale, even if it takes place mostly in one haunted New England town. I only shaved a half-point for a little bit of excessive wandering, particularly in the interlude flashbacks beyond the main scope of the characters' tales.

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Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
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Rough Draft (Michael Robertson Jr) - My Review