Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Best Kind of Ending: CITY OF HEAVENLY FIRE by Cassandra Clare

The sixth and final installment of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments urban fantasy series starts off with the evil Sebastian Morgenstern attacking the Los Angeles Institute with a band of his Dark Shadowhunters. He needs to turn more of the angelic warriors to the dark side if he’s going to succeed in his quest to eradicate the Nephilim and destroy the world. His one weakness remains his passion for his sister Clary, who along with the other Shadowhunters of the New York Institute, is determined to stop him.

City of Heavenly Fire (The Mortal Instruments, #6)

City of Heavenly Fire

What follows is 700-plus pages of mayhem. Successes and reversals. Alliances and betrayals. Characters from across the series and its prequel trilogy–the incomparable INFERNAL DEVICES–work to either thwart or enable Sebastian’s insane plot. We also meet a bunch of fascinating new characters–mostly child survivors of the Los Angeles Institute massacre–who will carry Clare’s fictional universe into its next chapter, an upcoming series called The DARK ARTIFICES.

Clare manages to wrap up most of her long and tangled plot threads in satisfying, if unexpected, ways. But there’s also enough darkness on the horizon to leave readers eager to know what happens next. Clare’s world is an ambiguous one, where good and evil tread a fine and often blurred line.

(Warning: Spoilers below)

If I had to point out a few rough spots, the presence of a condom in the bowels of Hell would be one. Sure, it’s politically correct and responsible of a hero like Jace to have one at the ready for his big moment with Clary…but COME ON! No food, no water, no way home…but he has a condom? Also, some scenes in the middle of the book drag a bit as Clare jumps from point-of-view to point-of-view and from realm to realm. Finally, at about 100 pages, the epilogue is a bit dragged out. True, Clare had to write herself out of a corner created when she has Clary and the gang resort to requesting demonic assistance to get out of Hell. Demons do nothing for free and this little favor comes at a huge cost. The kind of cost that leads to enraged readers and authors in fear for their lives. Clare manages to give readers what they want in a way that serves and even enriches her story.

With CITY OF HEAVENLY FIRE, Cassandra Clare provides the best kind of conclusion…one that is the beginning of something that promises yet more excitement.

Love and Depravity on the Island of Crete: Neil Grimmett’s THE THRESHING CIRCLE

In Neil Grimmett’s taut thriller, the arrival of a young British couple on the island of Crete re-ignites a vendetta with its roots in the darkest days of WW II. It falls to Kirsty, a Scottish woman who owns a cafe, and Barba Yiorgos, a local bigger-than-life personality, to unravel decades worth of tangled secrets and half-truths and prevent a bloody history from repeating itself.

The Threshing Circle

The Threshing Circle

While I gave the book five stars, I had a serious love-hate relationship with it. The writing is fabulous. In use of language and character development, THE THRESHING CIRCLE is one of those uncommon genre works that rises to the level of literary fiction. Kirsty is a wonderful mix of vulnerability and vinegar. She just leaps off the page. Barba Yiorgos’s arrogance and provincialism is offset by great warmth and a delightful willingness to laugh at himself. In terms of setting, Grimmett gives us a Greece we haven’t seen before, full of hidden villages and seething resentments.

While the novel succeeds on many levels, there are two places where I believe Grimmett takes a wrong turn…

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD

First, the murder of Kirsty’s cat and dog and Barba’s lovely chickens. Nine times out of ten, violence against animals is a lazy way to incite reader horror and/or label the character behind the violence as depraved. Grimmett’s villains are fully realized almost from the moment we meet them. They’ve done horrible things to people and animals off-stage. So there’s really no point to this killing other than as an extra, and therefore gratuitous, dash of viciousness that falls emotionally flat. And replacing them at the end with a new kitten and puppy? I was incensed on Burns and Diego’s behalf.

Second, the level of sexual violence at the climax is not only over the top, it undermines what comes after it…and there’s a lot after it….Grimmett’s denouement is considerably longer than is usual for a thriller. Up until this point, the novel crackles with tension, dread and–yes–an undercurrent of sexual violence. This beautiful suspense, built chapter by chapter, scene by scene, is then shattered by a graphic sexual assault (and it IS an assault, even if the gang rape itself is averted) one would expect in the work of a troubled adolescent.

The climax makes it difficult to appreciate an ending that is almost lyrical in its beauty…Barba Yiorgos transfigured…man colliding with myth.

In spite of its problems, THE THRESHING CIRCLE is a standout novel. Grimmett creates a fictional world that is by turns sensual, humorous, tragic, and terrifying. Even (Burns and Diego, forgive me) unforgettable.

A Son Struggles to Survive His Mother’s Schizophrenia: THE ISOLATION DOOR by Anish Majumdar

A young Bengali-American struggles to find an identity separate from his schizophrenic mother and brokenhearted father.

This is not an easy book. Both the subject matter and the language can be hard going. There is a wonderful immediacy to Neil Kapoor’s tale of life with a mentally ill parent. Even when the surface of a scene is placid, there’s a tension, as if something is about to explode and there is no sense warning anyone, because there is no way to escape. So it’s business as usual. Home. Class. Home. Class.

The Isolation Door: A Novel

The Isolation Door: A Novel

Neal is a mysterious character, especially to himself. His sense of otherness and separation is tragic. When he tries to venture out into the world, he ends up tangled in a love triangle…quadrangle???…with three other drama students, each troubled in his or her own way. This crew alternately destroys and saves one another. In a way, they also provide Neal with proof that his family secret isn’t so unique. That others have their madness and therefore maybe, just maybe, they can be trusted with Neal’s truth.

I will say that I found the author’s language quite overwrought in places. The similes and metaphors, though often lovely in themselves, weigh down a narrative that is already quite heavy. The point-of-view is also an issue. Ostensibly, the story is told in the first person with side trips into third person(present)for dreams and Neal’s projection of his mother’s experiences in the psychiatric hospital. But the first person often slips into an omniscience that blurs reality. In some ways this works well…we wonder if Neal himself is showing signs of schizophrenia. On the other hand, it robs the other characters of their own “reality” as Neal ascribes to them feelings, reactions, and motivations that may or may not be accurate. Combine this with some murky dialog tags, and the reader can end up feeling lost.

Overall, THE ISOLATION DOOR is a well-conceived, often harrowing look at life in the midst of mental illness. Well worth the close reading necessary to get the most out of it.

Murder as an Immersion Experience: THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith

In this second of Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike books, the moody London detective is hired by the wife of an eccentric novelist known for theatrics and periodic disappearances. Owen Quine has vanished yet again, this time with his latest manuscript, a novel which has more than one member of London’s publishing community outraged and threatening legal action. Cormoran isn’t sure why he’s bothering with the case since the guy is likely just hiding out with another woman and, anyway, the wife can’t pay his bill. But Cormoran does take the case and soon discovers that his “missing person” is a murder victim.

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)

The Silkworm

This book is not for the squeamish. The murder of Owen Quine is vicious and messy, and Galbraith spares us none of the gory details. Balancing this violence is a cast of quirky, eccentric characters, each with enough back story to fill his or her own novel. There are few if any true innocents in THE SILKWORM. At the same time, the author manages to allow even the most unlikable of his creations to reveal moments of pathos and humanity. Galbraith’s London, in the grips of winter, is yet another strong character, hard and grimy, holding ugly secrets behind the doors of even its most esteemed addresses.

Over the course of the investigation, Galbraith continues to build the awkward, often uneasy relationship between Cormoran and Robin, his receptionist/apprentice/conscience, started in THE CUCKOO’S CALLING. Cormoran sublimates his confused feelings for Robin in his pathological dedication to his work–riling police officials and nearly everyone else he comes into contact with. For her part, Robin attempts to plan her wedding to a man she doesn’t seem to like very much, while yearning to know what her true role is in Cormoran’s world, which holds a macabre fascination for her. Rather than running from the darkness and violence, she campaigns to get even more involved with it. We also get hints that, like Cormoran, Robin has a past that weighs on her.

One technical hiccup mars a generally excellent reading experience. The dialog. Galbraith can be miserly with speaker tags. And sometimes the tags are misleading, especially when the speeches extend, as they often do in this book, into multiple paragraphs.

In spite of the periodic speaker confusion, THE SILKWORM is an enthralling read that left me even more addicted to the Cormoran Strike series, where singular characters and twisting plots transform murder into an immersion experience.

Fast Writing Isn’t Easy. A Reveiw of 2,000 to 10,000: How to Write Faster, Write Better, and Write More of what You Love by Rachel Aaron

Fantasy author Rachel Aaron first presented the method she used for drastically increasing her daily word count in a guest post written for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website.┬áThe feedback encouraged her to write this short, useful book. But writers looking for some secret key to writing at supernatural speed and with little need for revision will be disappointed. According to Aaron, increased productivity is built on extensive preparation. So much preparation, it could be said that the reason Aaron can compose her novels so fast is because she’s done all the real work ahead of time.

2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love

2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love

Aaron advises writers to carefully analyze their work habits to pinpoint the when, where, and how of their best working conditions. No point in working late if you can keep your eyes open after ten. Or working at home if you’re the type who can’t settle down if there’s a dirty dish in the sink…or if there isn’t, you feel compelled to use one and then wash it!

Once you have the best conditions for a work session figured out, Aaron suggests keeping a log of how many words you write in the time you’ve allotted and analyze the results. Are your sessions too long, so that you’re productivity starts off strong but then peters off? Are they too short, so that by the point your revving up to the good stuff, you run out of time?

All of this analysis and exploration is just a prelude to the real heavy lifting: planning the actual writing of your project ahead of time. Aaron is a proponent of outlining. Serious and detailed outlining. She doesn’t begin writing a novel until is outlined chapter by chapter and scene by scene. Working in this way, any given day’s writing is already done–whether via scribbled notes or in your head–and simply pours out when you sit down. This should, according to Aaron, result in a marked increase in the number of words produced in a single session. This word count doesn’t include revising the work, though, having been planned in such detail, first drafts will be far more polished and require less tinkering. Even so, Aaron also provides her method for revising with speed and efficiency.

If you have the discipline necessary to track and evaluate your writing habits and apply the results with consistency, Aaron’s book will help you. But it won’t instill you with drive or inspiration. That you still have to provide all on your own.

Fast Cars and True Love: Melissa Foster’s HEARTS AT PLAY

HEARTS AT PLAY is book six in Melissa Foster’s “The Bradens” contemporary romance series. This one focuses on race car driver Hugh Braden and single mother Brianna Heart. Hugh lives the standard wealthy playboy lifestyle–lots of cash, fast cars and women. But he’s getting weary of all the flash and glamour. I wouldn’t say he’s actively looking for true love. More that he’s at that point where people who’ve found success stop and ask, “Is this all there is?” Brianna is a waitress in a bar in rural Virginia, not too far from one of Hugh’s homes. He comes in for a (disastrously funny) blind date and falls for Bree. But she’s given up on men and dating–at least until her young daughter hits eighteen.

Hearts at Play (Love in Bloom, #9, The Bradens, #6)

Hearts at Play

And so begins a race for Happily Ever After.

As we’ve come to expect from Foster, HEARTS AT PLAY is populated with likable, well-realized characters. Even Bree’s daughter (Layla) lives and breathes and has an active part in the story. Too often kids in romance novels are no more than window dressing, or, worse, a means to evoke instant reader emotion–just add “cute” and stir! Foster is a better writer than that. She builds Hugh’s relationship with Layla in parallel to his relationship with her mother, and we see all three characters blossom.

Another way HEARTS AT PLAY stands out is in the focus on Hugh’s point of view. Usually it’s the heroine of a romance novel who gets the most air time. Here, though, attention is weighted toward Hugh’s efforts to come to grips with his changing personal values and his determination to win over Bree…and Layla.

This book doesn’t have the thematic heft of some of the others in the series. Both LOVERS AT HEART and SEA OF LOVE deal with scary real-world situations like sexual violence and serious phobias–the kind of crippling fear that scars the memory and stifles living. HEARTS AT PLAY is lighter. The conflict can seem a little forced in places. The kind of molehills-for-mountains stuff that makes you want to knock the main characters’ heads together and order them to get over themselves.

On the whole, though, HEARTS AT PLAY is a fun, touching book. Well worth an afternoon curled up on the sofa with your Kindle and a cup of tea.

Gateway to an Epic: THE DARK CITADEL by Jane Dougherty

I am always hesitant about “post-apocalyptic” fantasy novels. The pervasive darkness. The unending parade of grotesque mutants. The elitist, merciless “new regime,” concrete evidence that all the death and destruction was truly for nothing. In my experience, there’s never enough hope at the end of such books to justify slogging through them.

The Dark Citadel (The Green Woman, #1)

The Dark Citadel

THE DARK CITADEL, book one of Jane Dougherty’s THE GREEN WOMAN trilogy, manages to elevate this bitter recipe of joylessness and desolation and create something fresh. The Last War has been fought. Demons have been unleashed and rage across the barren earth. What remains of humanity–most of it anyway–exists within a domed city called Providence. Society is organized as a fanatical theocracy. The focus of worship are so-called “wise Gods,” but there’s an undeniable darkness at the heart of the city. Men rule over women, but even men are subject to the harsh, strictly stratified social classes. There’s a preoccupation with a figure known as the Green woman, a blasphemous, pagan-type figure determined to take the city and hand all the goodwomen and goodmen over to evil. In actuality, the Green Woman is the last keeper of Memory and has the ability to awaken this memory and rebuild the world. But to succeed she needs her daughter, who has been held hostage by the leaders of Providence for ten years. THE DARK CITADEL focus on young Deborah’s discovery of her past, her escape from Providence, and the start of her quest to find her mother.

Jane Dougherty gives us a richly layered, character-driven story. Part I, which takes place exclusively in Providence, reminds me of a Dickens novel. The thick, unhealthy atmosphere, twisted characters, and pervasive corruption is BLEAK HOUSE transported to a dome at the end of the remembered world. As in a Dickens novel, the major players come into contact with one another only tangentially at first. We readers can see the subtle, fateful intertwining of individual stories, while the characters often remain oblivious, caught up in their own struggles.

Part II of the novel takes us out of the dome into the desert, which turns out to be populated by an assortment of living and demonic beings. The action ratchets up as Deborah and her guide Jonas struggle north with only a pack of wolf pups to protect them. Dougherty takes care developing the relationship between these two, but the romance is always subordinate to their fight for survival against marauding desert creatures and the minions of evil sent to intercept Deborah. The farther north the couple gets, the more myth begins to invade reality, as various races of creatures werewolves, centaurs, river gods, etc. make themselves known and begin to choose sides in a coming battle (encompassing the whole of human myth and history) that will decide more than the fate of a couple of teenagers or even the city of Providence.

I have to admit that parts of this book are difficult to read. There is such cruelty, darkness, and loss. Sometimes, I had to put the book down and regroup emotionally. When I returned, Dougherty’s lyrical writing–it really is a beautifully crafted book–carried me through.

Another warning: this is not a stand-alone work. But it’s also not a cliff hanger. I detest cliffhangers. That’s where the action stops dead at a high point and you have no idea what will happen to the main characters. Too often this is a cheap and easy (and artificial) way to manipulate readers into buying the next book. The end of THE DARK CITADEL provides a definite pause. We know exactly where the characters are. It’s a point where choices are made, transformations happen, and then things get quiet in preparation for something even bigger.

THE DARK CITADEL is a breathtaking book, but it’s only the gateway into a deeper experience. In this case, based on the quality of this introductory work, I’m willing to trust that what comes will be everything I expect.

How to Carry on a Lifelong Affair…with Books

There are piles and piles of books about being a writer. It’s refreshing to find one about being a reader. Thomas C. Foster, a literature professor, employs a fun, breezy style to teach people how to get the most out of their reading. Chapter by chapter he takes readers through the major aspects that comprise “the novel”–quite a trick considering what a slippery creature it has shown itself since its debut back in the 1700s.

How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favorite Literary Form

How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form

Here’s a quick sample of some chapter headings. They give a good sense of the Foster’s friendly, approachable style.

–Pick Up Lines and Open(ing) Seductions or Why Novels Have First Pages.
–Never Trust a Narrator with a Speaking Part.
–When Very Bad People Happen to Good Novels
–Everywhere is Just One Place
–Who Broke My Novel?
–Untidy Endings

Within each chapter, Forster uses pointed examples from both classic and contemporary fiction. I’m glad I have a habit of reading with a pen in hand, because I ended up with quite a reading list by the time I finished this book. The basic “lesson” of each chapter is summed up by a general (and pretty tongue-in-cheek) rule. Below is a sample of Foster’s useful little nuggets.

–The Law of Getting Started: The opening is the first lesson in how to read a book.
–The Law of Narrative Unreliability: Stop believing the narrator when you see the word “I.”
–The Law of People and Things: Characters are revealed not only by their actions and their words, but also by the items that surround them.
–The Law of Crowded Desks: When a novelist sits down to begin a novel, there are a thousand other writers in the room. Minimum.

If you are a writer, this book is doubly useful. It’s chapters provide a neat checklist of thing to look for in your own work. Foster manages to provide lots of good direction without hampering individual style. His whole philosophy is based on the flexibility of the novel as a literary form. One that can accommodate sensibilities as wide ranging as stalwart Victorian Charles Dickens, noir writer Raymond Chandler, and contemporary novelists like Barbara Kingsolver.

Foster emphasizes that, in all literature, there is only ONE story. And yet it’s also true that we can’t read the same book twice. We’ve changed and therefore so has the book. It’s his treatment of books as living, evolving entities that makes it likely his own HOW TO READ NOVELS LIKE A PROFESSOR will stand up to multiple readings.The discussions and theories he presents seemed designed to support a literary taste that grows and changes.