Category Archives: Reading

The Real Magic of Narnia

 

Big Brother’s love of books started early. At barely 8 months old, he’d happily lie on his tummy and flip through books looking at the pictures. Bedtime stories were the norm by the time he was a year old, and they’ve continued to this day. (Don’t ask about Little Brother — he thinks books taste yummy.)

While he still loves looking through picture books on his own, we moved on to early readers a while ago for our evening storytime. Although the many misadventures of Spot are entertaining enough during the day, when night-time comes he wants to hear about Knights and Dragons, Beowulf and Grendel, or (at the very least) what that naughty Cat in the Hat has been up to this time.

I’ve approached the idea of reading him a “grown up” book several times — you know, the kind without any/many pictures — but he’d resisted. Last week, he agreed to give it a try. (He’s a Big Boy now, you know.)

I immediately borrowed The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe from the library, and Big Brother waited impatiently for bedtime to roll around so he could hear the start of the story.

It took seven nights to read him the book. Seven nights of two or three chapters read aloud while Big Brother snuggled under the covers and watched me with shining eyes and an excited smile. Seven days of, “Is it nearly bedtime yet?” and “How long until dinner time?” and “Can I have my bath early today?” as he eagerly awaited the next instalment of “Narnia! Narnia! Narnia!”

And over those seven nights I learned the real magic of Narnia  — and of any book magical enough to spawn generations of avid fans. Over those nights I was immersed in the world of Narnia through the eyes of a four-and-a-half-year-old child.

I saw hs eyes widen in horror when he realised Edmund was talking to the White Witch.

He was devestated by the idea of it always being winter but never Christmas (despite never having experienced a wintery Christmas himself) and enchanted by Mr. Tumnus. “Mr. Tumnus will be okay. He just has to be.”

He loved Mr Beaver instantly, cheered out loud when Father Christmas showed up, and staredin awed wonder when Peter received his sword and shield.

And Aslan… Oh, Aslan. I don’t think Big Brother knew whether to love him or be terrified of him at first. I saw the emotions warring across his face. But when Aslan roared his terrible roar and scared the White Witch away, Big Brother’s face lit up and he grinned at me in triumph. “Go, Aslan!”

His favourite part of the book was when Peter, even though he was scared, killed the wolf that was attacking Susan. Big Brother barely moved a muscle as I read the scene to him, his eyes wide, his little fingers clenched around the blanket as though ready to pull it over his face at any moment. As the wolf died, Big Brother gave a yell of triumph, pumping his fists through the air and grinning wider than ever before.

When we finally got to the moment — that moment — I read with trepidation. Would he cry? Would he be sad? Would he even want to hear the end of the story? I needn’t have worried. He listened with wide eyes at first, and then covered his own eyes when Susan and Lucy covered theirs. When the chapter ended with the two girls sitting and crying and crying, he clenched his fists and narrowed his eyes and said, “Now they really need to kill the White Witch!”

And oh, didn’t his eyes light up when they found Mr. Tumnus! And when the Giant Rumblebuffin thought Lucy was a hankerchee! “Rumblebuffin! Hee hee hee! Say the name again, Mum!”  And when battle was joined, and the White Witch defeated!

He wasn’t initially sold on the whole King and Queen thing. “I don’t know about Peter being the High King. What if Aslan turns him into a lion? That wouldn’t be good. Not good at all.” But by the end of the book he was announcing over and over,”Once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen of Narnia!”

And in the end, the magic of Narnia had engulfed him and worked its wonders. “Do we really have to take this book back to the library?” he asked, cuddling the picture-free paperback to his chest. “Can’t we keep it forever and ever and ever?”

I smiled and ruffled his hair, not telling him the Truth that he will learn in his own time: “Yes, you can keep it forever and ever. And you will. The whole story is written right there in your heart.”

 

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Writing Lessons from Janice Hardy

If you’re a writer and you don’t know the name Janice Hardy, you really should. If not for her books, then certainly for her blog:  The Other Side of the Story. This is one of my absolute favourite writing blogs, and I never miss a post.

On her blog, Janice provides a safe environment full of gentle encouragement, practical advice and a backlog of information on everything from generating ideas to improving your writing craft and submitting for publication. She runs an excerpt critique each Saturday (which I’ve taken advantage of in the past), and answers each and every comment left on her blog. Janice is a true “writing hero”, seeming to take every writer under her wing and help them learn to fly.

In the time that I’ve been following Janice’s blog, I’ve come to respect,  admire, and trust her. But there was always a little voice in the back of my head that wondered: ‘This is all well and good, but do you practice what you preach? Does your writing live up to your own standards?’

Janice writes Middle Grade fantasy — not genre that I would usually read! But I set out to find the first book in her Healing Wars trilogy: The Shifter.

This took quite some time to find. Eventually, I discovered that the book was released in the UK (and Australia) as The Pain Merchants. Or, rather, I suspected that it was. So I tweeted Janice to confirm, and she responded almost immediately in the affirmative. (Seriously — this is why I love both Janice and Twitter!) Within a couple of days, I had my hands on her book.

So, does she follow her own advice?

Let me answer your question with another question. Let’s say you were writing a book aimed at 10 – 14 year olds, set in a fantasy world, and you wanted to do the following:

  1. Describe the inside of a temple, including seven distinct statues.
  2. Introduce the religion of the country where the story is set.
  3. Give a brief indication of the political situation.
  4. Communicate the personality and beliefs of the main character.

How many pages of exposition do you imagine that would take? How many paragraphs of trying to “show, don’t tell” before you’d got your message across? Well, Janice Hardy does it in 260 words:

I crossed the geometric flower gracing the middle of the room — six overlapping circles centred under a seventh. The glazed tiles sparkled even in the weak light from the arched windows. Curved wooden benches radiated outward, two rows facing the seven alcoves where a statue to each Sister stared with blank eyes.

On the left, Saint Moed had her twin swords crossed above her head, though she’d done nothing to defend Geveg against the Duke when we needed her. Beside her, Saint Vergeef had one hand in a basket of pears, the other outstretched in offering. Cruel when so many went hungry. Saint Erlice had the smug look of one who never told a lie, not even to make someone feel better.

The right side wasn’t much better. Saint Vertroue planted her staff in the marble block at her feet, both hands gripping it and daring anyone to try and get past her. So much for her fortitude. Many had passed her and she’d never once pulled her staff from the stone to stop them. Saint Gedu patiently leaned against her alcove, clearly in no hurry to save anybody from anything. Saint Malwe smiled modestly, lids and eyes cast down as if embarrassed to have folks worshipping at her feet.

In the centre of the six was Saint Saea, hands open as if apologising. The mother of mercy; the grannyma of “sorry it had to turn out this way”; the one who made you think that this time it would be different.

Saints and sinners, this was the creepiest place in Geveg.

After reading this excerpt, I took that little, doubting voice outside and shot it.

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Books I’ve Read in 2012: Part 2

This year I set myself a goal to read a minimum of 50 books and to share them here on my blog. To that end, I will be writing a quick wrap-up/review every time I finish five. I love sharing the books I’ve enjoyed with other people, and would love to hear from you if you’ve read any of these, or if you decide to do so based on my recommendation. (Actually, I’d love to hear from you anyway. I’m addicted to comments.)

Check out my previous 2012 book reviews here.

Mind Games — Carolyn Crane

Description

Justine Jones has a secret. A hardcore hypochondriac, she’s convinced a blood vessel is about to burst in her brain. Then, out of the blue, a startlingly handsome man named Packard peers into Justine’s soul and invites her to join his private crime-fighting team. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal. With a little of Packard’s hands-on training, Justine can weaponize her neurosis, turning it outward on Midcity’s worst criminals, and finally get the freedom from fear she’s always craved. End of problem. Or is it? In Midcity, a dashing police chief is fighting a unique breed of outlaw with more than human powers. And while Justine’s first missions, including one against a nymphomaniac husband-killer, are thrilling successes, there is more to Packard than meets the eye. Soon, while battling her attraction to two very different men, Justine is plunging deeper into a world of wizardry, eroticism, and cosmic secrets. With Packard’s help, Justine has freed herself from her madness–only to discover a reality more frightening than anyone’s worst fears.

Review

This book is not your traditional Urban Fantasy story. It has an almost super-hero feel to the setting and the characters, but most of the characters are anything but heroic. Their super-powers come, not from a traditional source of power, but from their neuroses, flaws, and fears. I absolutely loved it.

Many of the reviews I’ve read of this book focus on the fact that Justine is, shall we say, somewhat depressing. She suffers from a severe mental illness, and that colours everything she sees and does. The first quarter of the book is particularly heavy on the woe-is-me, I’m-so-helpless aspects of her personality and even after she learns how to use her illness as a weapon for good, she still has moments where she devolves into angst.

Normally this type of character wouldn’t appeal to me at all, but in this case it was so completely warranted, and so utterly authentic, that Justine’s anguish took the book from being an interesting premise to a truly enthralling story. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes gritty, disturbed heroes and vibrant world-building — just be warned that Justine Jones is not an upbeat, happy-go-lucky protagonist.

Writing the Paranormal Novel — Steven Harper

Description

Writing a paranormal novel takes more than tossing in a sexy vampire or adding a magic wand. It takes an original idea, believable characters, a compelling plot, surprising twists, and great writing. Broken down into four parts, “Writing the Paranormal Novel” explores: Prewriting – what a paranormal book is, how to choose supernatural elements, deciding what impact the supernatural will have on your fictional world, research tips, and how to deal with cliches; Paranormal Character Building – techniques for creating different types of supernatural protagonists and antagonists, supporting players, and – of course – the non-human; World Building – developing a strong plot and complementary subplots, controlling pacing, writing fight scenes and flashbacks, using dialogue, and much more; and, Submitting – tips for preparing your work for submission, polishing sample chapters, and more.

Review

The main theme of this book could best be described as: “Paranormal novels are so hot right now.”

While there’s plenty of helpful advice on world-building, race-building, and ensuring that the paranormal aspects of your story are authentic, the focus seems to be on taking an idea or a fully written piece of work, and tweaking it so it fits into the paranormal or urban fantasy genres. Got an aggressive boyfriend? Turn him into  a werewolf! Wondering how to throw a spanner in the works of their romance? Turn one of them into a vampire! As a spec fic writer, I found this attitude borderline offensive, if understandable.

I wouldn’t say it was a bad book, and I certainly don’t regret reading it. There were some genuinely useful pieces of advice, including a how-to guide explaining how to contact professionals to research aspects of your book, from law enforcement officers to scientists. But the mix of extremely basic writing tips, combined with the idea that any book can be made more marketable with the careful application of magic, made me question the target audience of the book.

Plain Truth — Jodi Picoult

Description

The discovery of a dead infant in an Amish barn shakes Lancaster County to its core. But the police investigation leads to a more shocking disclosure: circumstantial evidence suggests that eighteen-year-old Katie Fisher, an unmarried Amish woman believed to be the newborn’s mother, took the child’s life. When Ellie Hathaway, a disillusioned big-city attorney, comes to Paradise, Pennsylvania, to defend Katie, two cultures collide — and for the first time in her high-profile career, Ellie faces a system of justice very different from her own. Delving deep inside the world of those who live “plain,” Ellie must find a way to reach Katie on her terms. And as she unravels a tangled murder case, Ellie also looks deep within — to confront her own fears and desires when a man from her past reenters her life.

Review

It will probably come as no surprise to my regular readers to know that I’m not traditionally a Jodi Picoult reader. I know of her, of course, and I’ve read about her, but I’ve never felt any inclination to read one of her books. (I understand they’re fairly light on swords, sorcery, and magic rings.) Then I read Kim Pugliano’s review of Plain Truth and I changed my mind.

Part of the reason I decided to read this book because I’ve always been fascinated by the Amish way of life, and I was curious how it would be presented. In that, I was not disappointed. The details of the Plain way of living are authentic, honest, and presented in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s easy to believe that Picoult herself spent the last few years living amongst the Amish. Although I have  no way to confirm the accuracy of the facts presented, I have no reason to doubt their veracity.

There was nothing stand-out about the story itself — I saw the plot twists coming well in advance, and was entirely unsurprised by the ending. But the beautiful prose, truly authentic characters and fabulous setting combined to make this book one of the most compelling books I’ve read all year. I enjoyed my time with Katie Fisher and Ellie Hathaway, and am pleased to have made their acquaintance. So while I may not be inspired to race out and read the rest of Jodi Picoult’s backlist, I can’t say that I won’t read another of her books if I come across one with a setting and/or characters that sound interesting.

Clockwork Angel — Cassandra Clare

Description

It’s London, 1878: sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray’s priority should be finding her brother, not falling in love, especially with two boys. Tessa is soon caught in a dangerous love triangle where a wrong decision could prove fatal. She will need all her strength to save her brother and stay alive as she learns the chilling truth of what really lurks on London’s streets after dark. Discover more about the mysterious and sexy Shadowhunters in this first book of the thrilling prequel trilogy to the bestselling “Mortal Instruments” sequence.

Review

It’s Paranormal. It’s Steampunk. It’s magical and mystical and full of adventure. It is, in a word, amazing.

Tessa Gray starts out as your average, clueless, sixteen-year-old girl abducted by evil necromantic sisters and forced to learn how to magically contact dead people. Then she meets the Shadowhunters. Specifically, she meets the alternately dashing and abrasive Will and the quiet, sensitive Jem and is dragged into their world — a society of Nephilim who patrol the world on behalf of angelic forces, keeping demonic forces and Downworlders (vampires, werewolves, witches, etc) in check.

Of the two boyish Shadowhunters (both seventeen years old), I have a hard time deciding which I like best, and which I would prefer Tessa to fall in love with. Will is everything you expect in a brave and dashing hero (smoke him a kipper, he’ll be back for breakfast!), but he has a dark past that haunts him and causes him to lash out when he thinks people are getting too close. What girl wouldn’t fall for a handsome, strong bad boy like him? Jem, on the other hand, is quiet and soft-spoken, with never a bad word to say about anyone and the simple courage of a true hero. How could any girl fail to fall for him?

But despite my gushing over the two male leads, this is not a romance. This is an action-packed, mystery-fuelled ride through Victorian London, where vampires are vicious and cold, magic demands dark sacrifices, and the forces of good and evil battle openly. I was entranced by the setting, enthralled by the story, surprised by the revelations, and fell in love with the characters. I can’t wait to get my hands on book 2 in this trilogy (Clockwork Prince), and explore more of Cassandra Clare’s work. I may not have read it yet, but if her Mortal Instruments series is as well written and as this prequel, I completely understand how it became a bestseller in seven countries. 

Shatter Me — Taherah Mafi

Description

`You can’t touch me,` I whisper. I’m lying, is what I don’t tell him. He can touch me, is what I’ll never tell him. But things happen when people touch me. Strange things. Bad things. No one knows why Juliette’s touch is fatal, but The Reestablishment has plans for her. Plans to use her as a weapon. But Juliette has plans on her own. After a lifetime without freedom, she’s finally discovering a strength to fight back for the very first time—and to find a future with the one boy she thought she’d lost forever.

Review

 I don’t know how to write this review. If I just tell you it’s a “game changer” and a “wonder of modern literature”, will you go out and read it? Please? 

Shatter Me is a YA dystopian novel. I think. The story itself is almost a superhero origin tale, and the writing is modern literature in motion. It’s beautiful and flowing, sharp and discordant, crystal clear and maddeningly indistinct — all of these things at the exact right moment.

Juliette is a teenage girl with a special ability curse. When she touches someone, they die. She was locked up, put in solitary confinement, when her touch caused the death of a small child, and she has dwelled there alone, untouched, unloved, for years — reliving the moment she tried to help but instead brought pain and death to a toddler. At the start of the book, her sanity is hanging by a thread. And then things get worse.

The world of Shatter Me is disturbing, amazing, and Real. Juliette is a beautiful and tragic heroine. Her would-be boyfriend, Adam, is exactly what you want to see in a male lead. And then there’s the bad guy — the psychopathically evil, and yet strangely fragile and sympathetic, Warner. But even with all these amazing elements, the real magic of the book is Taherah Mafi’s voice and style. Every page, every sentence, every word is perfect. No word is chosen by chance — each one has meaning and feeling and sound beyond my wildest expectations.

I loved this book. I didn’t just read it, I lived and breathed and slept and ate it. And then I got to the end, and felt a horrid sense of disappointment… until I realised that it’s the first book of a trilogy. Bring on Fall 2012 when book 2 is due to be released!

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Books I’ve Read in 2012: Part 1

This year I set myself a goal to read a minimum of 50 books and to share them here on my blog. To that end, I will be writing a quick wrap-up/review every time I finish five. I love sharing the books I’ve enjoyed with other people, and would love to hear from you if you’ve read any of these, or if you decide to do so based on my recommendation. (Actually, I’d love to hear from you anyway. I’m addicted to comments.)

Wintersmith — Terry Pratchett

Description

Tiffany Aching put one foot wrong, and now the spirit of winter is in love with her. He says it with frozen flowers, which is sweet. But he also says it with snowflakes, icebergs, and avalanches. If Tiffany can’t find a way to deal with the Wintersmith, there will never be another spring. Fortunately she’s got Granny Weatherwax and the Nac Mac Feegle to help her. Crivens!

Review

There was no doubt in my mind that I would enjoy this book. I love almost anything Discworld, and Granny is my second favourite character (after Vimes). The story was simple but elegant (in the tradition of all the Nac Mac Feegle tales), and the book definitely didn’t disappoint. If you’ve not read any other Discworld novels, this is not the one I’d suggest you start with (there’s a lot of references to previous books, and very few really “new” characters), but it was a fun, fabulous read.

As a side-note, I didn’t technically “read” this book at all — I listened to it on audiobook during my drive to and from my parent’s house at Christmas time. This is the first time I’ve listened to an audiobook and I have to say: I was impressed. I laughed out loud, got teary at the right places, and enjoyed the experience of hearing the characters “speak”. But what I find most interesting is that, when I think back, I don’t remember it as an audiobook at all. I just remember it as a book. I have no more recollection of the narrator’s voice than I would normally have of the font size or type. I just remember the story.

I will definitely be listening to more books in the future.

 

Brave New World — Aldous Huxley

Description

This classic novel is a darkly satiric vision of a utopian future. All negative emotions have been removed from the human experience. There is no anger, grief, jealousy, or unrequited love. Everyone is happy. Perfectly happy. All the time. They’re engineered that way through genetics, pharmaceuticals, and childhood training. The loss of family, romance, and art is but a small price to pay for the eternal contentment of mankind.

Review

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’d never before read Brave New World. In some ways, I really regret not having read it a long time ago. In others, I’m glad I didn’t.

The world in this novel is, quite frankly, terrifying. Between the enforced sexualisation of children and the training rooms where babies are taught to hate books and nature through the use of electric shocks, there is very little pleasant about the means they use to reach their contented end. This is a world where the word “mother” is pure smut, love is unheard of, and a pro-consumerist mentality is programmed in utero, and that’s disturbing enough. But the thing that I found most terrifying is the logic behind this “perfect” society. Logic that makes inexorable sense.

It’s simple, really: If no one wants for anything they can’t have, no one will be unhappy. If all your hopes and desires are fulfilled the moment you have them, there’s no cause for angst or frustration or anger. So the solution is simple. Step 1: Make sure people only want the things that you want them to want. Step 2: Provide those things on demand.

But the truly terrifying part of this novel is not just that it makes so much sense, but that I can see parallels between this mentality and the real world.

I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed this book. At least, not in the sense that I usually use the word “enjoy”. It was powerful. It was monumental. It was amazing. But it wasn’t something to be savoured or enjoyed. That being said, I do recommend you read it. Just don’t expect to walk away from it feeling happy.

The God Engines — John Scalzi

Description

Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this — and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given. Tephe knows from that the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It s what he doesn t know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put — and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely.

Review

John Scalzi is best known for writing science fiction, but this novella is tagged as fantasy (despite its futuristic setting). It’s only a short book (136 pages), but it definitely packs a hefty punch. Right from the first sentence, this book grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. In fact, it has one of my all-time favourite opening lines:

It was time to whip the god.

In this world, the people all worship and serve Our Lord, the strongest and only “true” god in the Universe. Many centuries ago, Our Lord bested all other gods and chained them to His service. These bested gods now serve as engines in the fleet of space ships that patrol the galaxy and keep order. For the most part, the gods do as instructed. But if they don’t… well, Our Lord’s justice is absolute.

The characters in this story are so real, they could have stepped out of the pages and had a party in my kitchen and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. The story is intricately woven and well told. The writing is superb –I’d read another of Scalzi’s books without a second thought.

But.

My only criticism is that I felt the story was wrapped up too quickly. I loved the character of Captain Tephe, the world-building was phenomenal, and the story held me enthralled. And then it was over. I turned the last page and had to sit and catch my breath, sure that a few dozen pages must have fallen out of the book somewhere. Don’t get me wrong — it doesn’t feel incomplete. It doesn’t even feel particularly rushed. It just ends too soon for my liking.

I’d recommend this book to those people who aren’t afraid of a heavy premise and story (despite the light page count) and to those who like fantasy elements in their science fiction.

The Big Over Easy — Jasper Fforde

Description

It’s Easter in Reading — a bad time for eggs — and no one can remember the last sunny day. Humpty Dumpty, well-known nursery favourite, large egg, ex-convict and former millionaire philanthropist is found shattered beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Following the pathologist’s careful reconstruction of Humpty’s shell, Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his Sergeant Mary Mary are soon grappling with a sinister plot involving cross-border money laundering, the illegal Bearnaise sauce market, corporate politics and the cut and thrust world of international Chiropody. As Jack and Mary stumble around the streets of Reading in Jack’s Lime Green Austin Allegro, the clues pile up, but Jack has his own problems to deal with. And on top of everything else, the Jellyman is coming to town.

Review

After reading a couple of really heavy stories, I felt the need for something light. Something fun. Something that I could sink my teeth into, only to find it was full of chocolate. And that’s why I picked up this book, at this time.

Many, many years ago I picked up Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’ at a small bookshop when I was desperate for something to read. I went on to devour the rest of the Thursday Next series, and fell in love with Fforde’s voice and style. He’s the type of storyteller who can spin a ludicrous tale with a straight face, and have even the most sceptical listenere wondering if perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a measure of truth to his story.

Humpty Dumpty is an egg. A four-foot tall egg. He’s found dead, having apparently fallen off his wall in the middle of the night. Or was he pushed?During the course of the investigation, DI Jack Spratt and DS Mary Mary encounter three little pigs, the gingerbread man, magic beans, three bags of wool, Georgio Porgia, and a host of other familiar characters.

The whole story is full of little in-jokes and cute coincidences, but the key word in “nursery crime” is definitely “crime”. Fforde tells the story straight — it’s a police procedural with nursery rhyme characters. There’s a CSI team, a medical examiner, forensic evidence, clues and red herrings, unexpected confessions, jealousy, subterfuge, lies, and enough straight-faced satire for any three books.

Fforde’s writing is hilarious — effortlessly so, it would seem — but this is so much more than just a comedy. It’s one of the best mystery stories I’ve read in quite a while.

Working Stiff — Rachel Caine

Description

Bryn Davis knows working at Fairview Mortuary isn’t the most glamorous career choice, but at least it offers stable employment — until she discovers her bosses using a drug that resurrects the clientele… as part of an extortion racket. Now Bryn faces being terminated (literally) with extreme prejudice. With the assistance of corporate double agent Patrick McCallister, Bryn has a chance to take down the bigger problem — pharmaceutical company Pharmadene, which treats death as the ultimate corporate loyalty program. She’d better do it fast before she becomes a zombie slave — a real working stiff. Some days, you’re better off dead.

Review

Let me start this review by saying: READ THIS BOOK!

Seriously.

I saw Working Stiff reviewed a while ago on All Thing Urban Fantasy, where it was rated 5/5. The description of the book didn’t really appeal to me — zombies? really? — but the reviewer (Julia) was so enthusiastic that I added it to my TBR list anyway.  And, let me tell you, I’m so glad I did.

Bryn is just your average, ordinary working girl. Well, assuming that by “average” you mean someone who grew up in a small town, joined the army to help her pay off her student loans, spent 4 years as a soldier in Iraq, and discovered that she had a quiet respect for the dead; the kind of respect that had her deciding to train as a funeral director when she left the military.

I liked Bryn right from page one. She hooked with her no-nonsense attitude, her strength, and her compassion. And then she got turned into a zombie, and somehow that made her even more relatable. (Not a slobbering, brain-eating, apocalypse-causing zombie. Oh no, something much better. A zombie created by… (wait for it!) Science! )

Yes, inside the beckoning pages of this book, you’ll find such wonders. Zombies! Nanobots! Spies! Gunfights! Double-crosses! Triple-crosses! Ticking clocks! Secret conspiracies! Evil corporations! Mad scientists! Thrills! Spills! Automobiles! And in between the mystery, the action, the corporate espionage, and the themes of life vs death, there’s even a hefty dose of romance.

Seriously, what more could you want from a book?

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Jacket Blurbs: Too much, too little, or just right?

While everyone else seems to be making New Year’s Resolutions or preparing themselves for another party, I spent today finishing the book I was reading, so I could add it to the list of books I read in 2011.

Sad but true.

So I just finished reading Bleak History by John Shirley. I grabbed this book from the library on the strength of the statement: “John Shirley is co-screenwriter of the cult film The Crow.” To be honest, I didn’t even read the jacket copy. I just read that statement on the book cover, along with a blurb from Clive Barker, and figured I’d like the book.

It was only after was about halfway through that I read the back of the book.

As far as Gabriel Bleak is concerned, talking to the dead is just another way of making a living. It gives him the competitive edge to survive as a bounty hunter, or “skip tracer”, in the psychic minefield known as New York City. Unfortunately, his gift also makes him a prime target. A top-secret division of Homeland Security has been monitoring the recent emergence of human supernaturals, with Gabriel Bleak being the strongest on record. If they control Gabriel, they’ll gain access to the Hidden — the entity-based energy field that connects all life on Earth. But Gabriel’s got other ideas. With a growing underground movement called the Shadow Community — and an uneasy alliance of spirits, elementals, and other beings — Gabriel’s about to face the greatest demonic uprising since the Dark Ages. But this time, history is not going to repeat itself. This time, the future is Bleak. Gabriel Bleak.

If I’d read this before I started reading the book, I would have had certain expectations.

  1. Gabriel Bleak would utilise dead people (ghosts) regularly in his line of work.
  2. It would be widely known that Gabriel Bleak is the strongest “human supernatural” recorded, if not by Gabriel himself, then certainly by other major characters.
  3. Early in the book, it would become clear that the bad guys want to control Gabriel in order to access the Hidden.
  4. Gabriel would be aware of this threat, and would join forces with the Shadow Community (and other creatures) to quell a demonic uprising.

But here’s the thing.

  1. Gabriel Bleak doesn’t use ghosts in his line of work. Ever. Although he does (on occasion) talk to them, it’s only to tell them to move along.
  2. I don’t think it’s ever mentioned that Gabriel Bleak is the strongest “human supernatural” on record. It is implied, but that only happens about 2/3 of the way through the book. Prior to that, he’s just another dude with super powers who happens to be the protagonist.
  3. Gabriel spends the majority of the book trying to work out what’s going on, and avoiding the bad guys without any clue why they’re so interested in him. This tidbit of information is finally revealed on about page 340. There’s 370 pages in the book.
  4. As above, Gabriel spends most of the time just trying to survive. The Shadow Community try to recruit him, not the other way around. And even the demonic uprising isn’t revealed until the final 60 pages.

So, my question is this: Why provide information on the jacket copy that is either (a) incorrect, or (b) a major reveal at the end of the book? Is it because it helps to know this information before you start reading? (Otherwise, you have no idea why Gabriel’s being hunted at all.) Or is it to make the book sound more appealing?

Sure, if the blurb read: “Gabriel Bleak is just another guy with supernatural powers. But now he’s being hunted down by a division of Homeland Security.”, that would be too little information. It’s not appealing, it’s not enticing, and it’s not going to sell books.

But revealing one of the final reveals of the book feels to me like it’s too much.

What do you think? Would you rather too much or too little info in the jacket copy? And what do you consider to be “just right”?

** Note: This is not a review of the book itself, which I quite enjoyed. This is just a review of the back cover copy.

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The Problem with eBooks

The industry’s changing, that’s what they all say.
People don’t want to read paper all day.
They want to read Nooks and Kindles and phones
They want to read eBooks when they’re not at home.

“You can take your whole library to here and to there!”
“You can buy a new book without leaving your chair!
“You’ll never again be with nothing to read!”
(Unless you read books with astonishing speed.)

The hype is all good and the net is a-buzzing,
The lines between “indy” and “trad” are a-fuzzing,
It’s got to be good news for authors, they say,
There’s so many ways to be published today.

But a book is a book is a book is a book,
On paper or Kindle or iPad or Nook,
The story’s the same, however you read it.
(And if there’s a sequel, you’re still gonna need it.)

But back to the topic at hand for today,
eBooks are clearly not going away.
But the problem with eBooks is easy to see:
An eReader doesn’t just grow on a tree.

You actually have to go buy one, they say,
If you want to read eBooks when you are away.
I don’t have a Reader or laptop that works
My phone is not smart (but it’s got other perks).

My desktop is piled up with eBooks galore,
But I’ll never read them, it’s too much of a chore,
To sit at my desk and read into the night
When I’d rather be reading in bed with a light.

I promised I’d tell you the problems I see
With eBooks and iPads and technology
The answer is clear and I’m sure you’ll agree:
As it turns out, the problem with eBooks is me.

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Book Review: The Hunger Games

In a dark vision of the near future, a terrifying reality TV show is taking place. Twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live event called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed.

When sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place in the games, she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.

My relationship with The Hunger Games began long before I read the book. I first heard it about it online. Everyone was talking about it. (So it seemed.) According to the interwebs it was great, amazing, awe-inspiring, fantastic, inspirational, suspenseful, thrilling and phenomenal.

Not to oversell it or anything.

Initially I brushed this off with the same ‘meh’ attitude that I brush off all apparently superfluous hype. If there’s one sure way to convince me not to read/watch something, it’s to tell me it’s the greatest thing since the cat’s pyjamas.

(And that’s why I haven’t seen Avatar, The Dark Knight or Titanic.)

But the hype didn’t go away. It just kept getting bigger. And then I read an interview with Suzanne Collins where she explained the basic premise for the novel and her inspiration (quote taken from the back of the book, because I can’t remember where I read the interview):

I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.

Wow. I thought. The idea reminds me of Series 7: The Contenders, only with teenagers. I love that movie. Maybe I should look at reading this book.

Then I put the thought out of my mind and moved on. Until my birthday.

A friend of mine took me to a bookshop and told me that he’d buy me 2 books for my birthday. Well, what a choice! I’m fairly certain he immediately regretted it. It took me almost an hour to make my choice. (In my defence: I’m a struggling artist with 2 kids and a hard-working sole-income-earning husband. Buying books is a luxury these days.)

After trawling through the “paranormal” section looking for apparently rare urban fantasy picks, I suddenly remembered The Hunger Games. I made my way to the YA section and there it was, sitting brazenly on the shelf, tempting me with its shiny cover and shelf-talker proclaiming it to be a “great read”. To top it off, the whole trilogy was marked as “Buy 2, Get 1 Free!” I could have all 3 books as my birthday present!

But…

What if I didn’t like it? What if the hype didn’t live up to my expectations? No. Much safer to buy the first book (The Hunger Games) and see if I liked it before fully committing myself.

I brought home The Hunger Games  and sat it next to my bed. Then I read the other new book. And then a couple of library books. Then some magazines. And The Hunger Games still sat there, unread. For a whole month.

See, as long as I didn’t open the cover, the book could be anything. It could be good. It could be terrible. There was no way to tell. But the moment I started reading… well, the anticipation and mystery would be gone forever.

Note: I also love unopened presents. Wrapping paper can conceal anything. That envelope could be a tacky $2 card from Grandma OR it could be a fresh $100 note. Or a gift card. Or tickets to a concert. Or  details of a weekend away. But the moment you tear the paper off, the mystery is gone. Reality rarely lives up to my imagination.

Note the Second: An unread book is a bit like Schrodinger’s Cat.

But one night it happened. I was tired. It was late. I was weak. I picked up the book. I’ll just read a few pages, I said to myself. Just to see if I like it.

I started reading. I was hooked within 3 paragraphs. The next thing I knew, I was up to page 120 and didn’t want to put the book down. Ever. I loved Katniss. I was Katniss. I couldn’t stop reading — what if something happened to her? What if I missed something? It was too exciting, too horrifying, too real. I loved it.

The fact that I had to wake up in 3 hours was the deciding factor. But I still read for another 2 pages until Katniss went to sleep. Then I closed the book quickly so I knew she was safe. Nothing could happen while she was sleeping, right?

I rearranged my schedule the next day specifically to allow myself reading time.

I finished The Hunger Games that night while hiding in the bedroom, pretending to be doing the laundry. It took less than 24 hours to read a 450 page book, in between sleeping and looking after 2 children. I laughed out loud in places, winced at Katniss’s naivety, cheered her heroism, cried inconsolably (twice), and when I finished the last page I clasped the book to my heart and announced, “This is possibly the best book I’ve ever read.”

Then I cursed myself for not buying books 2 and 3.

Now that I’ve read it, I can say with absolute certainty: The Hunger Games is great, amazing, awe-inspiring, fantastic, inspirational, suspenseful, thrilling and phenomenal.

Not to oversell it or anything.

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