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Review: Write Draft Critique Virtual Writer Workshop

Write Draft Critique: Virtual Writer WorkshopAs you are no doubt sick of hearing by now, I was privileged enough to be accepted into the virtual writers’ workshop MJ Kelley founded a little over a year ago for this year’s spring session. For all my experience as a professional editor and literary arts magazine editor, as well as with other critique partners over the past almost 30 years, this was my first experience with an open forum run under strict rules and guidelines dedicated solely to fiction development. It was at once a fantastic growth experience for me as well as an almost overwhelming amount of work. Because I loved it so much, I’m the newest in what appears to be a group of evangelists, so am immortalizing my connection and proselytizing for other writers. (Check out Nillu Nasser Stelter’s thoughts on the workshop, too.)

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The explicit expectation-setting from the outset, as well as the moderators’ participation within each of the groups we were divided into, allowed us to almost immediately bypass Tuckman’s stages of group development to reach a level of trust and intimacy with each other that is not only rare, but the only way to truly develop on our creative paths. I don’t know if this was also partly driven by the selection process, but I was told that not everyone who applied made it into the workshop, so suspect that contributed to our success. Not to say we were all in the same genre, but we did all appear to have met a certain standard of professionalism–however we reached that mark.

The workshop took as much time, dedication, and attention as any of the Master’s level classes I’ve taken. This is not for the faint of heart. The payoff for that investment was feedback thatโ€™s helped me expand my view of the elements of my storytelling I need to improve on. I would highly recommend this to any author whoโ€™s interested in expanding their circle of connections to additional, motivated writers who will support their growth with honest feedback couched in a safe environment.

I’m looking forward to taking advantage of the privilege completing in good standing gave me: Returning to future editions… But I’ll be sure to plan around the time commitment involved–both on preparing new texts for my group members to vet, as well as reading 5-7,000 words for both line and developmental feedback each night. I suspect I’ll only ever manage the spring version, given those constraints.

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However, entries are open for the fall version already at the Write Draft Critique page, so I urge any serious writers to consider applying.

Book Review: The Day Before

day-beforeI’ve reviewed other books by Liana Brooks (Fey Lights, and Even Villains Fall in Love) and follow her socks on Twitter, so I was lucky enough last week to get the opportunity to win an ARC of her latest release (HAPPY RELEASE DAY!), The Day Before. I kept telling myself I was only going to read just one more chapter, but in the end, the only reason I took a break at all was because hungry puppies will not countenance a book addiction.

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Over the past year, I’ve seen Brooks reference “Jane Doe” periodically (and honestly wasn’t sure that what she was describing in 140-character snippets was exactly my cup of tea), so didn’t know much else about the book when I received the ARC.ย  Given the body in chapter 1, it was evident pretty quickly that this was a mystery. Given the references to clones and legislation about them, it was also obvious that this was a sci-fi story set in the near future, when the U.S. has been absorbed into the Commonwealth of North America. I’m a fan of both genres, so she hooked me quickly with the premise that only certain kinds of bodies are worthy of a murder investigation.

Brooks has taken her world-building to a whole new level with this first installment in her Jane Doe series. I’m completely in love with the fictitious quotes from future selves of characters both in and outside the narrative that start the chapters:

Picture a wave, it crests and collapses without losing anything. There is energy. So much energy! Time is much the same, choice creates energy, the energy crests into a wave of possibility, a thousand iterations rising, but in the end, the water returns to the ocean. The prime iteration is stable. In the end, all possibilities lead to our reality.

The characters, especially Agents Samantha (Sam) Rose and Linsey MacKensie (Mac) of the Commonwealth Bureau of Investigation (CBI), are both flawed as well as people readers will be anxious to get to know over the course of the narrative. Brooks takes on prejudice on multiple levels, with race and clones being the two convenient targets for her characters to have conversations like this one:

A basic Hispanic face, nothing out of the ordinary, but disconcerting in its similarity to what Sam saw in the mirror every morning. She grimaced as the computer added wavy black hair and a dark skin tint. Sam surreptitiously glanced at the ME to see if he was smirking. Both the men stared at her face on the screen without recognition.

“Wetback?” Marrins harrumphed. “Looks like a friend of yours, Rose. You know her?”

“I was born in Toronto, sir, and not all people who look Hispanic actually know each other.”

“She looks familiar,” Marrins said. “Think I saw a whore with that face back in Texas once.”

“Not all Hispanics look alike, sir, but it’s an easy mistake to make. All white people looked the same to me until I took the bureau’s sensitivity course about racial differences in the workplace.” Her commentary sailed over Marrins’s bald head with room to spare.

Everything about the story gripped me–the speculation about the nature of time and personhood, the way the story unfolded, and the world-building. I’m glad the book is available starting today, so more people can enjoy how Brooks has made a successful mash-up of the sci-fi and mystery genres, and I’m very much looking forward to the next two installments in the series. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes either genre, since the bad-guy reveal is equally balanced between both–and very satisfying to the reader. This is one I’ll be re-reading with particular attention to the chapter introduction quotes and the details that got thrown under the bus as I raced through the narrative to figure out whodunnit.

Book Review: Leaving Berlin

Leaving BerlinI got a chance at the pre-release ARC of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon as part of my membership at NetGalley. It intrigued me as a throwback to my time living in Berlin–and under Communist “secret informer” eyes even before that–, as well as a complete change of pace from my usual fare of scifi, fantasy, and romance novels. It was everything a political thriller should be: gripping, with small details that made the final reveal make sense.

The writing itself evoked Kafka and that hunted, haunted perspective of someone who has made a choice not to trust anyone. The politics of the U.S. Commie Scare drive the inciting incident, but the story has all the feeling of the titular location. The streets mentioned, the Brandenburger Tor, these were all places I’ve been, and the story felt every bit as surreal as a fantasy, being thrown back to when the walls still showed strafing–even as late as my last visit in the late 90s. But this story was also set in a time when the initial post-war fervor for ideology was at its height:

Alex looked at their bright, attentive faces, Brecht’s cynicism as out of place here as it had been in California, and for the first time felt the hope that warmed the room. Shabby suits and no stockings, but they had survived, waited in hiding or miraculously escaped, for this new chance, the idea the Nazis hadn’t managed to kill.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and this story, even with its early, disjointed jumps, captures the underlying reality that pushes questionable decisions. I know there’s a file somewhere in Berlin that documents the years I lived there with my family; my father has seen and read the redacted version. Knowing who the confidential informants were–who were also our friends–makes for another surreal echo for me in this story. As well as the classic German class distinctions and need for philosophical underpinnings and rationalizations. I don’t know how much of that will convey to someone who doesn’t have the personal experiences I do, but I suspect those echos will be as gripping and uncomfortable even for those without my perspective.

For that reason, I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes a “quiet” historical thriller, driven, in the end, just by the love of a father for his son–an echo across generations. It takes some getting used to the literary devices in the early chapters, but the action doesn’t let you go, either, so it’s likely a book for those who read a mystery once for the reveal, and then ten more times for the nuances that got you there. Even more, I strongly recommend this to anyone who thinks they know Communist history in its monolithic path. The details matter, as well as the personal lives and motivations that push forward such a stark ideology, and this story plays that out as clearly as any I’ve read on the subject.

Book Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies

Curtsies & ConspiraciesI’m finally catching up to my NetGalley obligations, posting reviews of books I’ve gained access to through my membership. In this case, it’s the second in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School Series, Curtsies & Conspiracies. As I mentioned last week, I inhaled both the first and this second book in the series in a sitting, enjoying the near-contiguous hand-off between the two.

In book two, Sophronia has started to settle in to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality when the group is warned that its members will face the first of the tests to determine whether the girls are, indeed, worthy to continue.

As usual, Sophronia sees conspiracies behind conspiracies, but has to suffer ostracism from her peers for her unusually high marks. Thus, she begins a closer association with non-student Vieve, Mme Lefoux’s niece, as well as the sootie, Soap, who’s been helping her keep Bumbersnoot well-fed. Together, the unlikely trio explore some of the details of the technology at the core of the series.

“The first aether-borne dirigible flight, and we get to witness it! Do you realize, if Giffard’s calculations are correct, this could halve float times? Can you believe it? We could get all the way to Scotland in four days! I wonder how he is handling aether-current monitoring. Can you imagine being that high up?”

Sophronia was not as impressed as Vieve thought she should be. “It is still faster by sleeper train.”

“Yes, but this is floating. Floating! Using aether currents. The possibilities are endless. It’s so exciting!” Vieve bounced up and down on Sophronia’s bed.

The young inventor had stopped by for a visit after breakfast. Sophronia had no idea where the scamp ate, but clearly it was within hearing distance of the assembly.

The expanding circle of incongruous names (Lord Dingleproops?! Felix Golborne, Viscount Mersey?? Professor Shrimpdittle! Picklemen, for crying out loud!) accounts for a reliable thread of laughter on its own, without considering the string of ridiculous circumstances Sophronia injects herself into. So while the author defined the Parasol Protectorate series as a comedy of manners, this series is shaping up to take the ridiculous deeper into the sublime.

I very much appreciate the association of the very fine points of etiquette with profound silliness, since it serves to underline the constraints under which people have chosen to operate while also illustrating that from another perspective, even constraints can serve a purpose and bring greater meaning to any given set of interactions.

So once again I will highly recommend a Carriger book for those looking for immersive, addictive escapism to a world that, while in some ways is staid and antiquated, also has interesting parallels to ours. The steampunk crossover with paranormal should appeal to a wide audience, even with such a young protagonist.

Book Review: Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & Espionage: Finishing School Series Book 1This is another book I picked up through my NetGalley membership. I’d thoroughly enjoyed Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (and reviewed Soulless, Timeless, Heartless, Changeless, and Blameless on my blog), so even though this new series falls into the YA genre, it carries over enough of the steampunk world-building and even a few of the characters from that first series that I was tipped into wanting to read it. After all, a series intro like the one that comes with this book promises great things:

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

The writing style shows Carriger has continued to strengthen her trademark voice. The humor is deeply embedded in the story–but in a British, stiff-upper-lip tone that reflects what I enjoy most about Monty Python:

“How do you do? Isn’t this a spiffing day? Really, quite spiffing. I’m Dimity. Who are you?”

“Sophronia.”

“Is that all?”

“What, isn’t it enough?”

“Oh, well, I mean to say, I’m Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott, actually, in full.”

“Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.”

“Gosh, that’s a mouthful.”

“It is? I suppose so.” As though Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott were a nice easy sort of name.

The nicest part of the story is Sophronia’s evolution from family misfit to something even more interesting–and the subversive commentary on women’s roles even in very early 20th-century England. Above all, this finishing school is a way for young women of quality to become aware of the wider application of feminine wiles and tricks of accoutrement. It’s easy to imagine a school like this turning out the Mata Hari–in fact, the timeline of that woman’s life falls neatly into the framework established for this story, and I’m having a head-slapping moment for not having tumbled to that fact earlier.

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For the first in a series, this book does not suffer from over-explanation–though I suspect my deep familiarity with the Parasol Protectorate series may also mean I would have been irritated had the author gone into additional detail about the politics and world in which Sophronia is making her way. In fact, the inclusion of Mme Lefoux and her niece operated as something of Easter Eggs for me, and served as tidy reminders of the wider world Sophronia faces. Because, certainly, she is young and naive when she starts at the boarding school, and needs the perspective their experiences can bring to bear.

In view of the fact that I swallowed the book (and its sequel) in a sitting last year while I was supposed to be focused on finishing homework myself, I can highly recommend this book for its ability to draw the reader into an escapist fantasy operating on a consistent set of internal rules. For anyone who wants a more scientific take on young people away at school for the first time (as opposed to the magic in Harry Potter‘s universe), this should fit the bill nicely.

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