Monthly Archives: January 2016

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Oh, I so wanted to like this book. Great premise, and I really enjoy reading books targeting younger audiences. Usually there’s a spark in them you don’t find in adult projects.

But this book disappointed. The protagonist was just too special. She has such awesome abilities and they are revealed so quickly she doesn’t have to work too hard. So, no challenge for the protagonist, and therefore no challenge or fun for the reader.

DNF: no stars possible

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The Watchers by Jeffrey A. Ballard

The Watchers by Jeffrey A. Ballard

Available from New Rochester Publishing, 2015


This copy was provided in the hopes that a review would be written. Although I had expected a book, this is actually a long short story. The concept is that a number of individuals can split their awareness and send it out into the world to track criminals, gather information, and all the other things that governments might want done with that skill.

The protagonist is one of these individuals. He knows full well that splitting his awareness multiple times makes it harder for other watchers to watch what he’s doing…but it also risks splitting him into so many fragments he can never compile his consciousness again. The day comes when he must risk everything to save the one person who can save every citizen.

An exceptionally well written and engaging story. The pacing is fast, and since the concept is never buried under garbled language, readers of suspense fiction will love this even if they don’t usually read sci-fi.

5 stars.

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Author Interview: Jeffrey Ballard

Jeffrey Ballard writes speculative fiction…and is giving away the book reviewed on this blog for a very limited time. Check out his website here.

-How would your advice for new writers differ from advice you would offer writers who have been in the game for a while?

New writers or those writing their very first piece of fiction are often in a rush to get where they want to go—usually sign an agent or a traditional publishing deal, or jump in with indie-publishing. I understand the enthusiasm (I had/have it to!), but often I think the idea of practice is lost on some new writers.

I like to compare writing to learning to play the violin. Most people after one year of first picking up a violin wouldn’t expect to sign a record deal. Yet many new writers have this expectation about getting their first novel or story published, often at the expense of writing something new.

My advice would be after finishing one story, submit it to agents and editors, but start writing something else immediately, dive into your chosen craft and learn as much as you can through consistent practice.

-When you take a break from writing, is it a full and total break or is your mind constantly parsing the world for fodder?

“Breaks” from writing for me tend to be on the order of hours rather than anything extended. It’s not that I’m a workaholic, it’s that for me writing is a stress-relieving activity. It helps me stay sane.

Now publishing—that’s something I need breaks from. But I think as an artist, we’re always parsing the world around us to use in our art. It’s one of the reasons I now love to travel (I didn’t use to). Getting out in the world and seeing different cultures and meeting different people is a sure-fire way to turbo-charge my creative voice with lots of new ideas. I always come back with copious amounts of notes to one day use in my fiction.

-From your perspective as an author, what do you feel is the biggest challenge to the publishing industry today?

I think the advent of the e-book and the Netflix effect have dramatically changed the publishing landscape in the last five years. Netflix is changing consumption habits from a steady-drip type of consumption to a binge consumption model. Rather than watching one episode a week for thirteen weeks, consumers now wait until the entire season is available and watch the season over the course of a few days.

For publishers this means rolling out one book a year in a series is too slow, or at least not optimal. The series loses momentum as the binge-consumption part of the market waits until more than a few books are out before beginning to read. And because the traditional publishing industry often has long lead times (generally a year or so) associated with releasing books, I think many series lose out on that market and associated momentum, which can lead to a series getting prematurely killed by the publisher for low sales.

The introduction of the e-book has facilitated this trend to binge consumption. The e-book is much easier to both produce and distribute. In a single day, a publisher can generate the e-book and distribute it world wide, while a traditional print run takes months to print, warehouse, and then ship (not to mention determining the size of the print run and handling returns). The consumer can also purchase the e-book with minimal effort versus having to overcome the barrier of physically getting to the bookstore. This is why most indie publishers are focused on e-books and print-on-demand as it allows the rapid release cycle that is necessary to take advantage of the binge market.

Traditional publishing and bookstores aren’t going anywhere. But I think the traditional market is already trying to adapt and will continue to adapt to tap into this binge market.

-What books are you currently reading?

I just started the Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld. The opening drew me right in, and I’m very excited about the unique setting. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the world building as the series progresses.

-Which authors do you think are underappreciated in the current market, and why?

Orson Scott Card is the first name that popped to mind, oddly enough. Not in the context of sales or other metrics of success, but rather in appreciation of craft. Every time I read Card, I’m blown away at his mastery of craft.

He’s made some controversial statements in the past, and I’ve heard other writers call for boycotts of his works in response to that, which I think is too bad. Card is one of the greats that many writers can learn from. And it’s worth mentioning that there are legitimate ways to read (and by extension, learn from) authors who one does not wish to financially support, such as libraries or discount book stores.

-Which new writers do you find most interesting, and why?     

I am horribly delinquent on finding new writers to delight in. However, Ramez Naam who wrote Nexus is on my radar. He gave a very compelling seminar on mind control at the 2013 Worldcon in San Antonio that has stuck with me ever since. In answering this question I went and pulled Nexus off the shelf and then browsed online and saw that the trilogy is complete as of May 2015. So now I know what I’ll be reading after I finish the Leviathan Trilogy (binge-consumption again!).

– Which “get writing” techniques are most effective for you?

I recently read the book The Diary of a West Point Cadet by Captain Preston Pysh, and one sentence in particular struck a chord with me: “Habits become character, and over time, one’s character becomes his destiny.” Make writing a habit rather than a task.

Personally, I wake up early every morning to write. Some of those sessions are stellar with one to two thousand words written, others are abysmal with no words written. But there’s a great quote by Madeleine L’Engle, “Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.” Which I’ve found to be true in my own work.

When I’m stuck in a story, or just not feeling “it,” I sit down anyway, tell myself it’s okay to have a bad writing session and then see what happens. Usually getting started is like pulling teeth, but once started the creative juices start flowing and I end up further along in the story than before I had sat down–even if it’s only fifty words.

-Can you give us a sneak peek into your current project?​

I’m busy writing a new novel series tentatively titled Sunken City Capers. It’s based off a novelette I published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and subsequently Indie-published.

The premise is that much of the world is underwater due to a major terrestrial event in the past and our heroes make their living by pulling underwater heists in sunken cities. The character interactions in this series crack me up, to the point that I was laughing out loud while writing in a coffee shop. I had to stop writing to explain to my spouse who was with me, what I was laughing at.

The first book is scheduled to be released in October, 2016, with new novels being released in November, December in the same year, with more in 2017.

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Rivka’s Way by Teri Kanefield

Rivka’s Way by Teri Kanefield

Available from Armon Books, reissued in 2011.

What a beautiful, magnificent story.

By beautiful, I mean well written with a flowing storyline that captures readers—especially those interested in the coming of age tales of young women in historic time periods.

And magnificent doesn’t mean what reviewers usually mean, that it’s full of action stuffed in there just for action’s sake. No, Rivka’s Way is magnificent for all the right reasons to call a book magnificent…because it moves you as a reader, because it takes you into a new world and a new time, because it conveys the world of the protagonists in a manner that creates emotional connections.

The story takes place in Prague in 1778. This is the Jewish quarter, a walled enclave. The wall both protects the community from those who would destroy it and separates members who wish to know about the wider world, the one where change is sweeping through at an ever faster rate.

When Rivka finds the daring to dress as a gentile boy and explore that world, her heart is drawn to many things. The city, its vibrant life, a gentile she meets…and the particular beauty of her own small home world.

This is a story that you won’t easily forget. I would love to see more from this author, and I’ll bet that you’ll agree after reading only a few chapters.

I received a free copy through Goodreads for review.

5 stars!

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Author Interview: Teri Kanefield

Teri Kanefield is a prolific author who has written a number of juvenile books. Tomorrow a review of a novel that is suitable for readers of every age will post. Meanwhile, Teri gives us a peek into the author’s life!

-How would your advice for new writers differ from advice you would offer writers who have been in the game for a while?

The age-old advice given to new writers is to be patient. It takes a while to really learn the craft of writing and to find your own voice. But new writers don’t want to be patient! Most new are impatient and optimistic. (After all, as Flannery O’Connor once said, only an optimist sits down to write a novel.) So my advice would be: Don’t get discouraged. Write the kind of books you love reading and have faith that eventually your readers will find you.

-When you take a break from writing, is it a full and total break or is your mind constantly parsing the world for fodder?

I’m always writing something. I think being a writer is a way of life rather than an occupation. As soon as I finish one project, I begin another. As far as what the parsing looks like: My friends tell me I analyze too much. I’m always wondering what makes people tick. If I don’t understand something or someone, I keep mulling it over. Eventually it ends up in a book, usually as a facet of a character.

-From your perspective as an author, what do you feel is the biggest challenge to the publishing industry today? 

The publishing industry is going through a major upheaval. Personally I think the major changes—the rise of ebooks and the ease of buying books online—are good for most authors and all readers. It’s good for readers because now millions of books are available at the click of a mouse. Think of readers who would ordinarily have a hard time visiting bookstores: People in hospitals or nursing mothers.

I think the changes are good for writers because self-publishing and sites like Wattpad open up new opportunities. These changes, though, are causing traditional publishers to lose marketshare. There isn’t an easy fix for publishers, particularly because most are corporate owned, so change comes slowly. What I’d like to see are new ways for self-publishing to become even more viable, particularly for children’s book authors. This obviously won’t help publishers, but my interest is seeing opportunities expanding for writers.

-What books are you currently reading?

I am reading a book from 1999, George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human. In election years I become a political junkie.  My two favorite books I read in the past year were The Little Book, a Novel, by Selden Edwards, and Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen.

-Which authors do you think are underappreciated in the current market, and why? 

I was bothered a few years ago by a study showing that traditional publishing still favors men authors over women, even though most book buyers are women.

In contrast, I’ve seen studies showing that in the world of self-publishing, women are doing just as well as their male counterparts. I think there are subtle ways the traditional industry still favors male writers and masculine stories.

-Finding the discipline to keep writing can be tough. Which “get writing” techniques are most effective for you?

I don’t know that I have a technique other than to focus on the work itself and not think about whether it will sell or whether readers will like it. I think most writers block comes from fear.

-Can you give us a sneak peek into your current project? 

I am finishing a series called The Knights of the Square Table, which came from a New Year’s Resolution to write the book of my heart, the book I really wanted to write. It turned into a three-book series. It has a rather conventional opening: A group of supersmart kids are stranded on a remote island in the North Atlantic when their plane makes a forced landing due to avionics malfunctions.  Their experiences on the island convince them that they can solve the major problems in the world. So they try. The book started out as an attempt to write a true utopia, but went in directions I didn’t anticipate when I started.

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A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Be sure to read the exclusive interview with Jane Smiley here.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Anchor Books, Dec 2003

Told in five “books” or parts, this prize-winning novel blew me away. On the surface as quiet and unchanging—or as slowly changing—as its rural setting, the work plunges deep into the lives and relations of a family struggling to keep a farming lifestyle alive.

Having lived in the Midwest and seen the daily struggle of farm families to continue to make something of the work that feeds a nation, I know that Smiley’s depictions are true to life. The details she selects to illuminate the interior feelings of the characters also expand upon their actions. Although mere single lives when considered individually, each of these characters becomes as wide and as wide-ranging as the plains on which they live and work and struggle.

A novel not to be missed. I’ll be sure to seek out more of Smiley’s work.

5 stars

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Author Interview: Jane Smiley (Exclusive)

Pulitzer-Prize winner Jane Smiley graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about writing, the creative process, and the life of an artist.
–When you take a break from writing, is it a full and total break or is your mind constantly parsing the world for fodder?

Writing is part of my regular day, which means that I also ride horses, do business, cook, do errands, travel, teach, socialize, read books, go on Facebook, talk to my husband and children, read the New York Times and the Guardian, etc.
When I am involved in a project, the things I do during the day are lightly filtered through my thoughts about the project, and vice versa, but I am not obsessive, I am mostly curious—would such and such an insight or image fit into the project? If I get a little stuck in what I am writing, which is mostly a failure of energy, I do something else, and almost always, the issue is resolved or I get an idea. If I really get stuck, then I travel to the place where the project is set, or I do some more research, or I go on Google maps and look around.

–How would your advice for new writers differ from advice you would offer writers who have been in the game for a while?

My advice is always the same—keep at it—novelists are tortoises rather than hares. But also read a lot and analyse, for yourself, why other authors’ books that you like work or don’t work. You have to be able to immerse yourself in your own project, but also to step back from it and understand how it is working or not. And then you have to please yourself most of all. Attempting to please others is frustrating and causes you to lose interest in your work—it becomes a job. The advice I would give would depend on the individual writer. I don’t think there are generalizations.

–From your perspective as an author, what do you feel is the biggest challenge to the publishing industry today? Is there a way to solve that challenge?

Publishing is constantly changing, so in that sense, I don’t think the challenges are greater. In some ways, it is easier to get you work to a reader today, though it may not be easier to get paid for it. I am not sure what to advise, because there are so many different audiences. I think you just have to keep trying to get in the door, knowing that doors close and other doors open.

–What books are you currently reading?

Books for a course I am teaching: Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile, Station 11, by Emily St. John Mandel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, and The Sign of the Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle (because Doyle and Wilde met at a dinner party when they were, apparently, working on these two books, and I am wondering if they traded any ideas.)

–Which authors do you think are underappreciated in the current market, and why?

I always promote Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy, because I read it two years ago and loved it for the landscape, the politics, and the psychological insights.

–Finding the discipline to keep writing can be tough. Which “get writing” techniques are most effective for you?

Taking a can of Diet Coke out the the refrigerator and looking into the candy closet.

–Can you offer a sneak peek into your current project?

Not yet.

Check back tomorrow for a review of Smiley’s Pulitzer-Prize winner, A Thousand Acres.

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No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

HarperCollins, Avail Jun 9, 2015

This novel works on so many levels: suspenseful without losing touch with the internal lives of the primary characters, conceptually significant, and very well written. I wasn’t familiar with this author before being provided with an ARC from the publisher but you can bet he’s on my permanent radar now.

No Harm presents a future that seems not so far away. The internet has been harnessed to provide predictions about common life events ranging from what type of rental car someone will prefer to whether they’ll get a promotion. Since every one of us encounters these algorithms while browsing…always a bit creepy when a news site hands me an ad for a shirt I browsed on some other site because it’s so out of touch with where my mind is while reading news articles…the novel’s concept feels real enough.

This is the backdrop of our everyday lives. And for a time, it seems to only be the backdrop of this novel. A man, a good man, decides to run for president only a year after his son drowned in the lake at the family’s second home. His wife and two daughters go along with his plans, supporting him as only a political family can—by tamping down their personalities with more PR-friendly activities. When Laurence’s campaign advisor Amit encourages him to apply for prediction results through ClearVista’s algorithm, his already somewhat difficult race turns tragic.

There’s the fact that ClearVista returns a 0% chance of success…and then there’s the video. Nightmarish for any father, the video shows the country’s worst terror, that of a war veteran who has finally cracked. While Laurence struggles to prove the video’s prediction wrong, Amit takes a twofold path that shores up his own career while trying to shove his candidate back on track. Laurence’s wife works quietly yet with a strength that cannot be questioned to help her husband and save her two remaining children.

The arc follows Laurence down his increasingly fractured decline along with the wife’s staunch support. Only in the final moments is Deanna forced to turn against him. Amit, meanwhile, is the only one to truly take all their fates into his hands and actively work against the prediction and the social machinery that believes in ClearVista with such evangelical fever.

Emotionally gripping and a true novel for our times.

5 stars!