Monthly Archives: March 2016

Five Suns of Treason by Jim Heskett

Five Suns of Treason by Jim Heskett

Available from Royal Arch Publications 2014

This work was presented as a book for a review but is only part one of the full story. It is also too short to clock in even as a novel or novelette. Instead this is a handful of stories that follow different individuals dealing with the same event: the impending arrival of a meteor that will destroy the planet, or at least kill a ton of people. At the end of the collection, readers are invited to “continue” with part two, offered as a separate collection.

There isn’t much to recommend here. The collection format is misleading for readers who want to engage with deeper storylines, so book readers are out. The promise of interwoven stories that fans of linked short stories enjoy isn’t well done here, particularly as the offering ends at the first major turning point. And the writing, while not terrible, also isn’t much more than serviceable. The plotline has promise that is left unfulfilled, so the pacing turns out to be pretty slow.

2 stars.

If you enjoyed this review, please leave a tip!

Advertisements

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Published in 1895, this book has held up for almost 150 years now!

A great adventure through time with social commentary woven throughout. Consider that what Wells said then is relevant today: there are the ultra-wealthy who live lives of luxury, reliant on the workers to tend their crops and homes and bodies. Then there are the workers, stronger of body and knowledgeable of the machines that make life easy.

The divide between them is so vast they end up living in vastly different environments: one aboveground where the air is pure and light shines every day, the other belowground where the air is foul and darkness prevails.

And yet, when night falls aboveground, the Eloi retreat in fear. The Morlocks hunt them for food. Who has the upper hand now?
Simplistic in nature, to be sure, and it overlooks how leisure time allows man to create art and to consider his own existence. Yet somehow still a book for our times.

5 stars!

If you enjoyed this review, please leave a tip!

The Gratitude Messenger

This post introduces you to Deborah Krueger, who is working in the field of gratitude. Her middle grade novel is a fantastic read, and helps kids recognize what they have and face challenges in a positive way. Here, in her own words, is more information.

Deborah Krueger

The Gratitude Messenger

Children Need Us Too!

Greetings,

I’m so excited to tell you about my latest project, “The Red Pencil, a Dragon’s Tooth, and the Lost Treasure: A Gratitude Gang Adventure” book.

My first book is focused on empowering adults. But kids face “Life’s Sticky Issues” too. From school shootings and gang violence to broken families and poverty, daily stressors can place undue burden on our children, and can send them on a dark path.

I’ve always wanted to help others, but I didn’t know how. It wasn’t until I realized just how much the power of gratitude was helping me — and what it could do for others — that I found my purpose. Out of that passion, I wrote the book, LET’S PLAY GRATITUDE! With Life’s Sticky Issues, and the response was overwhelming. People reading my book passed it on to their kids, and I knew that I had to get this concept into the hands of our youth.

Learn more about the book and how you can help here!

The Red Pencil, a Dragon’s Tooth, and the Lost Treasure: A Gratitude Gang Adventure is both empowering and transformative. Aimed at middle graders, kids learn the power of gratitude, discovering how to handle “sticky issues” in their own lives. They can then turn around and teach these principles to their parents, creating a positive force in their family.

Here’s what Anna Unkovich, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul in the Classroom, had to say:

“We live in an era when our youngsters experience high levels of stress — the effects of bullying, depression, suicide attempts and completions — more than ever before. As adults, we have a responsibility to provide children with viable options … and hope.

Deborah Krueger has provided this perfect story to do just that. “The Red Pencil, a Dragon’s Tooth, and the Lost Treasure” will delight and encourage youngsters to choose positive options in difficult times.”

I would be so grateful if you would consider partnering with me on this project. Head toGoFundMe.com to find out how you can help. Any donation, big or small, will assist in getting this book into the hands of children everywhere. Together, we can create a joyful future!

Blessings of Gratitude,
Deborah Krueger

 
www.letsplaygratitude.com

The Lion Trees by Owen Thomas

The Lion Trees by Owen Thomas

Available from OTF Literary

This novel has garnered an eye-popping number of awards. I appreciate knowing up front when a book has won at least one award or been shortlisted for an honor but that generally doesn’t impact my impression. It might, in fact, lead me to anticipate a better-than-average reading experience, which sets me up for disappointment if the work doesn’t meet my personal standards.

The Lion Trees did not disappoint. The awards this novel (or diptych of two novels, depending on which production version you’re reading) has pulled in are all well deserved. The story follows a family of four: the aging parents and two adult children, as they muddle through some astonishing changes in their lives. They are, like most of us, ensnared by the tendrils of past hurts, wounds, harms and mistakes. They do their best to help themselves without hurting others too much.

Or at least, most of them try not to harm others. The father is the big exception here. The depth and breadth of his arrogance and selfishness keeps him from seeing even the smallest part of how arrogant and selfish he truly is. Even when his wife leaves him to live in a lesbian commune, he still doesn’t really see how entrenched he is in his own horrible ways.

But of course glimmers arise. He eventually, through a lot of suffering that is at times poignant and at other times funny, manages to start down the path of change. The remainder of his family—a son, a daughter and that AWOL wife—meanwhile manage to implement rather large changes. Not without their own suffering of course but they come out stronger, better people. As one might hope.

This is a long novel, clocking in at some 550,000 words. It is split into two parts mostly I assume for print purposes, because the physical book cannot easily be created or distributed as a single unit. This does lead to some issues with the transition from the first to the second “book.” At the end of the first part, I turned the page and knew that it doesn’t work well as two separate books. I was fortunate to have read it in electronic version and therefore did not feel the pain of having to go hunt down and then wait for delivery of a second print book.

That being said, the end of the first part is only one clear example of this author’s abilities. I literally read the last few paragraphs at the end of part one with a growing emotional response to the characters’ situations and, somewhere in the back of my head where the critical judge sits always hovering above the reading process, thinking that if the author ended it on that page, he was a genius. I turned the page and saw yes, there’s an end, and so yes, this author is significantly talented.

There are a few flaws in this work. Although the book is presented conceptually as if all the family members are equally important, two of the characters fall into a secondary role. These are the daughter and the wife. The wife receives noticeably less attention than the other three, as well. Taken together, it made me wonder if the author isn’t as familiar with female characters and had some trouble drawing them as fully as men in this narrative.

In some ways, even the men the daughter interacts with have equal roles as her, which strengthens the idea that the author has some trouble drawing women on their own (i.e., without the foil or support of male characters). The wife’s scenes in the all-female commune also don’t resonate with strongly drawn secondary characters in her plotline, so that seems to also point to the need for the author to work a bit on female presentation.

The story also drags a bit in book two. I strongly felt the second part could have been trimmed as much as 150 pages and still held the same emotional resonance and achieved the same plot elements. This might also have solved some of the two-book issue for the print version.

These two issues don’t detract much at all from the superb experience and exceptional writing readers will find in The Lion Trees. Pick up these books, and you’ll surely want more from this author.

I received a copy of this through a Goodreads giveaway.

5 stars!

If this story sparked your interest, try Message Stick, a literary novel about an Australian Aboriginal’s search for his family. Available on Amazon, B&N, Kobo and other sites.

Author Interview: Owen Thomas

 

Owen Thomas, author of the riveting novel The Lion Trees, gave us a TON of things to think about in his interview. Read on for one of the best interviews yet!

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

I am obnoxiously full of advice for new writers. There are a lot of things that stand between the new writer and something authentic and original that people will want to read. New writers typically spend a lot of time thinking about selling and marketing the thing they have not yet written. Selling is not writing. In many ways, especially for the new writer, the selling mindset is inimical to the creative process. If you have written a dozen bestsellers and have cultivated a fan base with specific expectations that you are hell-bent on satisfying, then the creating and the selling aspects of writing are no doubt well blended. But first-time writers really need to concentrate on three things:

(a) nurturing a love of writing,

(b) getting a strong sense of your written voice and

(c) honing the craft of story-telling and written expression.

All of those things are critical to success and all of them require a lot of up-front attention in the early years of a writer.

That first one – nurturing a love of writing – seems obvious, but is often overlooked. Writing takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. It isn’t for everybody, just like the space program is not for those who, however much they love rockets, have a strong aversion to math and confined spaces. New writers need to give themselves a chance to settle into the creative process and decide if this is something they love enough to invest the time. If so, then the new writer should spend as much time as possible indulging in the writing life and making room for it, coaxing it out into the open. But if not, then the odds of success (let alone fulfillment) are rather poor and it is better to know that sooner rather than later.

Second, a new writer needs to spend a lot of time finding her voice. The written voice determines a million different choices on everything from what to write about to how to structure a sentence. Voice is not something you go shopping for, but something you hear inside of your own head. A writer’s voice must be authentic to the writer; it is an extension of her personality, experiences and worldview. By way of analogy, when a person speaks, she may change the pitch and volume of her voice and may even have the ability to affect various accents, but all of that tonal manipulation is still within the context of her own natural voice.

It takes time and effort to sort through all of the noise and to get past the voices or styles that are too self-aware, pretentious or imitative to come off as genuine to a reader. It is a fascinating exercise to look at the early voices and styles of experienced writers and to realize how they evolved over time into the writers they became. There is a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimenting, a lot of imitation, a lot of pretending, and a lot of rejection that goes on behind the scenes before the new writer ceases to be a “new” writer and finds that comfortable groove of expression.

Finally, creative writing, like any art, requires the mastery of a medium of expression. Artistic passion is never sufficient. The painter must learn how to use color and shape. The musician must learn how master an instrument in order to make the right note at precisely the right time. The dancer must train muscle to shape meaning. The new writer must develop a working intimacy with language. She only has twenty-six letters to use. The words she makes with those letters must be arranged in a particular sequence, one that will best accomplish her objective, whether that is describing ancient Rome or a thriving colony on Mars, building suspense, sowing distrust, seducing empathy, inviting sorrow or provoking laughter. There is a skill to writing a sentence. There are mechanics to the art of storytelling. All of that requires work.

So my advice to new writers would be to try kick the ‘commerce’ part of writing out of the room. Try to write from a place of genuine enthusiasm for writing. Avoid efforts to reverse engineer a creative existence from a success that you do not yet have or, worse, from the success of some other writer. Avoid ‘writing to sell’. Write for the love of writing. Hone your craft. Find an authentic voice. Be original. Take some risks. Amaze yourself. Enjoy yourself. The rest will follow.

When you take a break from writing, is it a full and total break or is your mind constantly parsing the world for fodder? What does that parsing look like? How does it make you feel as an artist? As a human being?

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I am always writing. Putting words onto a computer screen, or editing those words, is only the last part of the process I consider to be writing. Writing is an extension of thinking and imagining. Writing is a process of distillation; bringing ideas, characters, plot lines and so on out of the head and into the world of language. Getting those ideas into the conscious brain and shaping them requires a lot of head time.

I spend a lot of time in which I am not fully present in the real world because I am thinking about whatever I am writing. Alternatively, I spend a lot of time actively mining the real world for things that I can use in the imagined world I am constructing, not unlike those guys you see wandering the aisles of Home Depot drawing things in the air with their fingers and muttering things like: I need a thingy about so long that has a little hook on the end and it bends enough to fit into a hole in that damn countertop at an angle of about sixty-one degrees. And forest green; it needs to be forest green. So there is a lot of writing to be done when I am not sitting at a computer. Taking a break from writing is a difficult idea for me to accept.

You ask how that makes me feel as an artist. It makes me feel that creative writing is an integral, inseparable part of my life, which is what any art should be. It should hurt the artist when artistic expression is denied for too long; like holding your breath. When I feel like the writer in me is looking through my eyes, no matter what I am doing in the world, then I feel whole. When I do not have that sense of my own creative consciousness, I feel unnatural and alien. I feel like I am wasting time.

You ask how that makes me feel as a human being. It makes me feel complete. But I would be remiss not to add some mention about being in a relationship with a writer. There is a passage in my book The Lion Trees that fairly represents the difficulty:

Away. I say that word. Away. As if to imply some geographical distance. Writers are away as they sit across from you. They are away as they eat their dinner and nod as you talk about the neighbors. They are away in bed. They are away as they drive the car back from Christmas dinner at your parents’. Writers are always away. Always leaving you alone as their eyes glaze over and they disappear down into their secret rabbit holes. Writers inhabit other, half-formed worlds. We live other, inchoate lives. No one can come with us. No one can follow us into those dark, crenulated warrens. Everyone must wait until we decide to reappear, triumphant with pages in our hand like the head of some foreign king that we have severed with the nib of a pen.

You can see the problem. I have a special sympathy for the people who are in relationships with writers. Always waiting for that laptop to close. Always waiting for him or her to come back to the here-and-now. I have been extraordinarily lucky in that regard.

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?

The big challenge for the publishing industry is the same big challenge confronting the music and film industries: the digital revolution and the democratization inherent in binary code. For better and for worse, the Internet has placed the power of publication and distribution into the hands of the writer (as it has with the musician and the film maker); the good and the bad, the moneyed and the impecunious, the serious and the dilettantish.

For the publishing industry, that means contending with a supernova of content. Finding the talent worth promoting is simultaneously easier (because the opportunities for discovery, no longer limited to traditional channels, have multiplied exponentially) and harder (because the number of writers – including really bad writers – slinging their manuscripts has multiplied exponentially).

For the writer it means that getting your content published and distributed is easier, but getting recognized is as hard or harder than ever amid the growing oceans of writers trying to do the same thing. Writers and publishers are living in very interesting and, yes, challenging times.

You ask if there is a way to solve those challenges. The challenges are simultaneously opportunities. The way to take advantage of the opportunities presented in the digital age are the same, ironically, as it was when writers were dipping their nibs in inkwells and writing by candlelight: keep writing; finish one thing and start on the next; work on getting better; write the thing no one else has written; don’t give up.

What books are you currently reading?

I just finished Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. I am currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, and Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam. Cued up on my nightstand are The Dolphin People, by Torsten Krol; A Good Hard Look, by Ann Napolitano; Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle; The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber; The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Greer; and The Likeness, by Tana French.

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

In all honesty, that is a tough question to answer because I do not claim to have any real sense of which writers are underappreciated, over-appreciated or appropriately-appreciated. I enjoy a very wide variety of writers, most of whom may fairly claim themselves to be successful and probably all of whom nevertheless wish they were more successful, except Stephen King, who is likely to write his next six-hundred page novel on the face of five dollar bills.

So let me answer the question this way: I would like to see an uptick in appreciation for works of literary fiction, which I think is an underappreciated genre. Actually, to call literary fiction a “genre” is a bit of a misnomer since literary fiction is characterized less by plot convention, subject matter or even the style of writing than a fidelity to character and the exploration of the individual’s relationship to family, society, the environment, time, space, life, etc.

Genre fiction really gets the lion’s share of market attention, at least in this country, and while there are some spectacularly entertaining books in each of those genres, they tend not to offer the same depth, reflective opportunity, and emotional resonance that well-written literary fiction can deliver. We are awash in television, movies, and social media applications. All of that video culture has a place and, believe me, I am a consumer.

But as an individual pastime, reading offers a unique potential for substantive change, development and understanding. Much of today’s genre fiction seems to mirror the paint-by-numbers predictability and the shallowness of run-of-the-mill video entertainment, almost as though the novel is a draft of the screenplay yet to be written. One of the best things about good genre fiction is that it is immediately compelling and entertaining and is responsible for a lot of interest in reading, particularly among the younger set. I shudder to think about what would become of our national readership if it were not for genre fiction. So my point is not to run-down genre fiction, but simply to lament the lack of balance and to observe that as a ‘non-genre’, literary fiction seems underappreciated in our culture.

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

I am awestruck at the quality of the some of the debut literary fiction in recent years. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton comes to mind (actually, I think The Luminaries might be her second book, but still, to win the Mann Booker prize with your second book is a phenomenal accomplishment and bodes well for the quality of her future work). Other new authors I am interested in keeping an eye on include Bonnie Nadzan (“Lamb”), Margaret Wrinkle (“Wash”), Eowyn Ivey (“The Snow Child”), Andy Weir (“The Martian”), and Max Berry (“Lexicon”), who may or may not be so new, but who is new to me. Although they come from wildly different backgrounds and create in wildly different voices, they each know how to write, how to tell a story and how to grab hold of their readers.

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

I think it is less of a “technique” than a “mindset.” One of the most formidable barriers to progress is the mentality that keeps you from making any effort at all until you are comfortable that you will be able to accomplish a lot as a result of that one effort. So, for example, stories of writers who will not stop writing for the day until they have written fifteen pages abound. That is a great approach if you have the time and inspiration to produce fifteen pages, let alone fifteen good pages. But, with that standard of accomplishment, if you do not have either the time or the inspiration to fill fifteen pages, then you will never even turn on your computer.

In the long run, a much more productive mindset is the willingness – the eagerness – to spend whatever time you have, however brief, to advancing your story even just a little. I have spent hours with nothing more than a paragraph to show for the effort. Sometimes the only thing I accomplish is a bit of editing work or just filling in details here and there. Sometimes I only have ten or fifteen minutes to polish a section with which I am unhappy or to make an outline of what comes next in the story.

When you realize that all of that work counts as writing, that all of it is important and will need to be done sometime, then it is not necessary to find a four-hour block of time in order to “get writing”. Writing progress is often measured in very tiny increments. But those tiny incremental steps can accumulate over time into an amazing literary distance. Furthermore, you will be amazed at how often the little ten or fifteen-minute commitment develops its own surprising momentum that keeps you writing for several hours that you did not think you had to spare or the creative inspiration to fill.

Don’t worry about making “big” progress. Take the pressure and intimidation out of the equation. Carve out whatever time you can, even little bits of time, and do something with it. It all adds up.

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

I could, but then I would have to kill you. And I’d have to do that before my wife killed me because, try as she might, I do not open that door for anyone. Our wedding vows – sickness and health and all the rest of it – included n0thing about sharing unfinished work.

This is a bit of neurosis that I have never been able to shake. For me, writing creatively requires a kind of internal pressure. The more I share about my unfinished writing projects, the less pressure there is in the creative pipes. Sharing, I think, leads inevitably to caring what the other person thinks, which leads to course-correction, which leads headlong to an abandonment of creative instincts in favor of writing on spec.

I prefer to write in the isolation of my head and my heart and then release the finished product into the world. It is not an approach I necessarily recommend, for the world may well send it back with a note attached reading Just what in the hell were you thinking? But I have always been that way and I am more likely to win the lottery than to start giving away plot points before the last edit.

But I will say this much: I am actively working on another novel, very different from The Lion Trees, that I hope to have out in late 2016 or early 2017, and another book of short fiction, very different from Signs of Passing, that I hope to have out in early to mid-2017. I am also in the process of sketching out a large, multi-volume novel that I would like to finish sometime before the Grim Reaper shows up looking at his watch.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Overall a great read!

As you likely already know, this book has two parts. First part, husband’s story of a marriage to an underhanded wife and the wife’s side through journal entries that become increasingly frightened of husband’s potential for violence. Second part, wife’s voice, turns out she’s in hiding and trying to frame her husband for her death.

Sounds like a great twist. And it is but there are some flaws that detract from the novel (but not, mind you, enough to ruin the great fun you’re going to have reading this book!). Because I’m an author, I’m going to look at those flaws here. Because I’m a reader, I’ll also note what was done really well!

First, part one. Great stuff, a guy who’s a little bitter but not enough to put off readers, with enough self-knowledge on the man’s part to hint at something more…whether he’s unreliable in part or in full, or whether he’s a psychopath lying outright is part of the intrigue that kept me reading. Score one!

The terrible part was the wife’s journal entries. Just so syrupy, so peppy and chick-lit-y, that I nearly put the book down several times in the opening 50 pages or so. But the husband’s narrative was so compelling I decided to suck it up and suffer through the journal entries in order to experience the book.

Of course, the argument can be made that the journal was false all along so any flaws reflect the wife’s lies. But people who pick up a dark suspense novel aren’t primarily those who read perky women’s lit, so there should have been more in the journal entries to ensure readers didn’t turn away. But that’s more a personal opinion. Clearly publishers and other readers didn’t have a problem with that!

Now part two. Great start, roared through most of the first half of the second part. Then came the issues, most dealing with believability. The scheme she has is great, workable on most fronts. But then she’s robbed by her neighbors in a rather bold way, and the boldness of that plot isn’t realistic. There are many ways to take someone’s cash even if they do carry it around all the time, and some of those ways are far less risky than what’s enacted here. So the narrative lost some believability there.

After being robbed, the wife falls back on a stalkerish ex-sort-of boyfriend from her past. He’s wealthy and ends up imprisoning her in a walled compound on his property…which itself is sort of odd and pushes the realm of believability on the surface. But really it functions as a parallel in this plotline. She has captured others and now is captive herself! What a stroke!

She kills him in order to get free. Fair enough, and even expected in this type of work. But then she manipulates details to keep her husband at her side. This part I found totally off the mark. I won’t say what she does because I don’t want to spoil anything for other readers but when you get to the end, you’ll see what I mean. The husband doesn’t consider the options that could release him and another innocent involved, making him a schlub. He’s not a schlub, as proven by his narrative in the first part. So the end isn’t entirely believable for me.

However, the big fail is mostly at the end. So, the rest of it provides an exceptional read. That makes it a great bet in my book!

4 stars

For a similar type of read with a female protagonist pitting her considerable wits against a killer, try He Drinks Poison available on Amazon, B&N, Kobo and other sites.

Break Time!

Had to share this:

“Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books.”
– Kanye West

 

“Whatever. Book’s don’t give autographs.” – David Siegel Bernstein
See what David is writing now on his blog.