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Death by Books

Like you (I assume) I like books. I used to read fantasy exclusively, but these days I've branched out to pick up the occasional mystery, YA or steampunk novel. I also love to read about the art of writing and use that to improve my skills in my own work.

Worth the Wait

The Republic of Thieves - Scott Lynch

Like many folks, I have been waiting anxiously for this book to finally be released. It was worth the wait. I don't know what struggles Mr. Lynch went through to complete this novel, but he came through them with a fine story full of color and intriguing characters. Much of this was done through their time with a Shakespearean-like acting troupe, and added such a different (and yet perfect setting for the Gentleman Bastards) venue for the story, it really added to the overall atmosphere of the novel.

In the first book, one of my favorite aspects of the story was the telling of Locke and Jean's childhood. That was lacking in the second book, and while a good story, I found I didn't enjoy it quite as much. The Republic of Thieves brought back tales of the boy's youth, and with it other favorite characters lived again.

Another feature of the second book that I didn't much care for was the romance. I'm not big on romantic relationship stories, so when it was obvious that would be a big part of book three as well, I worried. While it still grated some for me, it was a much better fit for the story told this time around. I found Sabitha annoying as hell in many respects, but by the end of the story it is quite clear why Locke is so obsessed with her. She is a worthy adversary in the underhanded games of the Gentleman Bastards.

The ending was satisfying, with all of the main plot points neatly resolved. New and old evils are waiting in the wings, though, and I look forward to the fourth volume.

The True Meaning of Smekday - Adam Rex What a fun read this was! I laughed out loud several times. The characters are charming, well developed and highly entertaining.

Being as the main character is an 11-year-old girl, I would say the target audience is within that age range. Don't let that put you off though, the material is plenty entertaining for adults too. Even with smaller pages and slightly enlarged type, it's a fairly hefty read. Books were never this large when I was eleven.

As someone who has lived in Arizona for quite some time, I really enjoyed the part of the book that took place here. Mr. Rex knows what Arizona is like and did a great job of poking fun at the names and culture of the place.

The premise that the story is intended as an essay for a time capsule, is brilliant and works well with the first person "What I Did Last Summer" sort of story telling. Sprinkled throughout are fantastic "comics" and illustrations by Gratuity's (the girl heroine), alien friend, JLo. Picture the minions from "Despicable Me" and add a bunch of tentacle legs on the bottom and you get an idea of what the aliens look like.

I did find the constant references to the white man stealing the Indian's land rather heavy handed. The fact that the aliens come to the planet and send Americans to live in one state gets the point across well enough. He brings it up over and over again, though. That's a small thing though, and I ding the rating only slightly because of it.
The Blue Blazes - Chuck Wendig Okay, let me get my one bugaboo present and out of the way. I'm not big on stories written in present tense. I find it jarring and it generally makes it hard for me to become immersed in the story. That being said, I really enjoyed this book.

I've never read a book like The Blue Blazes before. It's a crime drama, it's an urban fantasy, it's an after school special about a teenager with daddy issues... if that teenager happens to also be an aspiring crime lord. However you choose to describe this book, it's chock full of action and vivid imagery. The next time someone critiques your writing and says, "Show don't tell!" pick up this book and read it. You'll come away with more creative metaphors and colorful descriptions than you can shake a gobbo at.

The characters are fascinating. Mookie Pearl is a seriously tough mofo. He's massive, he's effin' scary looking and he's done some pretty nasty things during the course of his career. Despite all that he comes across as honorable. He can't always face those he's hurt, but he owns up to his failings and in his own way tries to make things right.

There are a slew of other interesting characters, but quite a lot of the enjoyment of the story is derived from discovering and learning about these people. I will tell you this, I doubt you'll ever find another book with an undead stuntman. Or a rotting corpse of a woman who goes into battle with her army of zombie cats. Think about that a moment, and then go buy this book.
The Ruling Sea (The Chathrand Voyage Book 2) - Robert V.S. Redick Lots of surprises in this volume. Mr. Redick has managed to create a fantasy novel that follows a storyline much different than the norm. "The Ruling Sea" is a highs seas adventure, where heroes and villains alike are trapped on the same ship, attacking when they can and holing up to lick their wounds afterwards.

I'm not usually fond of talking animals, but the "awakened animal" idea in the story works. It has extra meaning by the time you get to the end of the story. I don't want to spoil the surprise, though.

I'm tempted to label this as YA, but the fact that several of the adults do useful things throughout the story keeps me from doing that. The main heroes are three teenagers, though, so at the very least it might be considered a hybrid of YA and adult fantasy.

I have few complaints about the story. Perhaps the boys, especially Neeps, are just a bit too exaggerated in terms of their hot headed behavior, but overall everyone is consistent and interesting. This volume made Thasha's father more sympathetic, and the period of his imprisonment it quite creepy. I liked that part quite a lot.

Overall, I think I liked this volume better than the "Red Wolf Conspiracy" and I plan on continuing to read the rest of the books in the series.
Pronto - Elmore Leonard This was my first exposure to an Elmore Leonard book. Initially, I was put off my his very "unwriterly" means of writing. I loved the dialogue though, so I kept reading along. For the most part, I really liked Raylan and Joyce. Harry was a prick and I would have let the mob have him.

The story was never slow, and kept me interested, so despite Mr. Leonard's unusual style I came away wanting to read more. At the end of the story was an article by Mr. Leonard that went into detail why he chose his particular style. It cleared up some of the questions I had and made me admire his writing more. I wish I'd read the article first as I would have appreciated the story more right from the start.

Buck Fever (A Blanco County Mystery #1)

Buck Fever (A Blanco County Mystery #1) - Ben Rehder This is a cute story, full of eccentric characters. The mystery is very light. You know who the culprit is and what he's up to, it's simply a matter of following along to see how the characters figure things out. A little heavy on the telling, the dialogue seems a bit awkward, and the sex scene seemed a bit thrown in, but overall a fun read.

I'm told Mr. Rehder's skill with dialogue improves as the series progresses, so I may revisit Blanco County in the future.

Evoking Emotion (Writing Lessons from the Front, #5)

Evoking Emotion (Writing Lessons from the Front, #5) - Angela Elwell Hunt Ugh. This and several other "books" like it showed up in an e-mail from Amazon to me. I thought the titles looked intriguing, so I popped over to take a look. Most of the volumes were $4.99, not bad if the book really provides useful information. Then I saw the page counts. These are not books. This particular one is 42 pages. It was the only one which was free, so I decided to check it out. If it was outstanding then I would consider handing over $5 for one of her other mini books. I'm glad all I wasted was my time.

First of all, what is the deal with explaining writing concepts by linking music videos and film excerpts? I'm sorry, they are very different mediums and the sort of information you need to provide in a novel to evoke emotion is going to require different skills than acting, singing, and dancing. You don't have the visual queues available to you in writing that come with a visual medium. Somehow you need to get the reader to visualize those things in their head without you dropping in a YouTube link every few paragraphs. This means of teaching was non helpful in the extreme.

The author also provided some excerpts from her own work as a means of illustrating what she was trying to convey. This was a better choice of teaching methods, but her writing is not really of high quality. She states in the lesson that she uses her own work because she didn't want to fuss with copyright issues. Seeing as there are many high quality public domain books out there, this struck me as either the author being disingenuous or just plain lazy.

And lastly, I don't usually fault people for their religious beliefs, but I got very tired of the author making a point of telling me over and over again she was a Christian. That's nice. I'm happy for you. It has nothing to do with teaching me how to write better. Leave it out of the book.

How to Swat the KILLER BEs Out of Your Writing: A Writing Skills Handbook on How to Write in Active Voice

How to Swat the KILLER BEs Out of Your Writing - Nancy Owens Barnes Short and sweet and to the point. I've read other books that went into more depth, and covered more ground, but Nancy Barnes' efforts are worthwhile. Because of her more focused topic, it's easier to keep straight the lessons being taught. Contained quite a few concrete examples, some of which I bookmarked on my Kindle to use as reference material in the future. About the last quarter of the book covers a few other areas people have trouble with, such as affect/effect, you and I/you and me, and lay/lie. Obviously, this section strays from the primary function of the book, but it is tucked into the back of the book in a quick reference format and does not distract from the main topic.

So, while there isn't anything new here, it's presented in an accessible manner, and concise enough, it's easy to use as a reference. I'll be keeping it loaded on my Kindle for those all-to-frequent times when my brain refuses to function and I need a quick refresher on avoiding passive voice.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success - K.M. Weiland What K.M. Weiland calls outlining and what I call outlining are vastly different. Outlining is a road map for me to make sure that when I get to the end of my story I don't end up painted into a corner, resorting to sticking a stupid space spider in as my evil monster (yes, I'm referring to "It" by Stephen King). K.M. Weiland seems to view outlining as a complete and utter diagram of every aspect of the story. In reading through her examples, they come across as free form brainstorming sessions. By the time she gets done (several months later) she has to go back through and do an abbreviated outline to keep from getting bogged down in all the minutiae of the "first draft" of her outline.

Most of the book isn't about outlining, it's about story construction in general: creating characters, theme, POV, world building/setting. Within these sections I did find some useful information (ie. using the Ennegram chart to work through character creation), but in terms of actual determination of story organization - Beginning, Middle and End, I did not find the book all that useful. Perhaps because, in my mind, outlining is a simple thing that requires a handful of pages to explain and not almost two hundred.

One other complaint I have is her lack of concrete examples. She refers to many books and scenes, but does not actually provide excerpts from the stories in order to make her points clear. She instead describes the scenes. I had read a couple of the books she referred to, but not many, and so I was unable to think to myself, "Aha, that's what she means when she talks about personal conflict."

I'm giving the book three stars more for what it is than for what it was meant to be. There are some good ideas present for the creation process of a book. She also provides some links to software and personality charts that may be of use.
Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing - Jessica Bell It was concise, so yes, I guess it is aptly named. Don't let the 102 pages fool you, none of the pages has more than a paragraph on it, and the others are a page with words pertinent to the scene (five words at the most), a page with a "tell" version of a scene (only 2-5 sentences) and then a page with the "show" version of the scene (the paragraph). The last chapter (if you can call it that) is a collection of words that you are then supposed to work into your own "showing" scene.

Based on the reviews by others, I am in the minority in thinking the $1.99 I paid for this pamphlet was way too much. Others got something out of this "book", I did not. At least it only took me about 15 minutes to go through the whole thing.

I believe you would do better to pick up a book by a skilled writer and simply study a few paragraphs of their work to see how they create an exciting and dynamic world.
Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey - Chuck Wendig This isn't your typical "How to be an Awesome Writer and Break into the Business" book. You're not going to come out of it with a magical ability to outline your story, hunt down and kill "to be" verbs, or build a unique world. Instead, what you get is a lot of insight into what it is like to be a freelance writer. "Confessions" is a collection of Chuck's blogs from his website, each one giving the reader a glimpse into the highs and lows of writing as a career. No punches are pulled. Chuck makes it clear that writing is hard work, takes discipline, and requires patience. It is often a frustrating career, even for established authors. You must be willing to put in the work, not just as a writer, but as an editor, a marketer, and a human being. And all of this is presented in Chuck's irreverent, crude, hilarious voice.

I'm giving the book a 4.5. Even if I hadn't gleaned a drop of useful information from it, the book was massively fun to read. I did come away with some useful information though, and a stronger sense of how I wish to pursue my future as a writer. I'm being a squid and docking the book half a star because of the typos and missing words that were sprinkled throughout the text. Chuck was quite adamant about copy editing your work before presenting it to the world, so this is my way of hitting him on the nose with a rolled newspaper.

Because I enjoyed this book so much I have purchased two more of his books, and subscribed to his blog. He must be doing something right.
The Wurms of Blearmouth - Steven Erikson I'm a huge Steven Erikson fan, and I adore his stories involving Bauchelain and Korbal Broach - a demonologist and necromancer (and one cannot forget their manservant Emancipor Reese). The tales involving these three are always full of dark humor and a high body count. Like all of Erikson's stories there is a lot of banter between characters, and creative use of language. In some of Mr. Erikson's more serious works this can get pedantic with characters waxing philosophical. As much as I love his dialogue it sometimes seems as if Mr. Erikson loves it even more - to the point of excess. However, not to worry about that with any of his Bauchelain and Korbal stories. They are generally quite short - either set up as a collection of short stories, or, as in this case, a novella. So, while he definitely indulges in a great deal of back and forth between characters it isn't enough to become tiresome and serves to move the story forward.

While it isn't absolutely necessary to have read any of the prior stories involving these three, it would be worthwhile to have read at least one in order to be familiar with them and their world. They are introduced in "Gardens of the Moon", the first in Erikson's Malazan Empire series (which I highly recommend), but that may be too much of a read for some folks. For that reason I would be more likely to recommend "Bauchelain and Korbal Broach: Three Short Novels of the Malazan Empire, Volume One" as a starting point. That collection includes "The Lees of Laughter's End" which precedes the events in Wurms.
Broken Elements - Mia Marshall Broken Elements had a lot of biases to overcome with me. I’ve always maintained that I don’t like first person PoV, I don’t like urban fantasy (I prefer to have my fantasy in a totally made up world, not my own), and I am not a huge fan of shifters. Broken Elements has all three. So, when I say this ended up being a really enjoyable read, you know the writer must have done something right.
First of all, it’s a very polished, professional product. I know that sounds odd when talking about what is essentially an artistic endeavor, but I have read quite a few self-published or first time writings of late that were poorly edited, clumsily put together, and made me wonder just what the person was thinking by presenting their work to the world. No worries here. Even the cover has a professional look to it, not just a canned photo with a bad font stuck on it. It has almost a layered, paper cut-out look to it, and the more you look at it the more you see.
Second, the dialogue is entertaining without being overwhelming. I reviewed another book recently where there was lots of snappy dialogue and inner thoughts, but it was so unrelenting that it became wearisome instead of entertaining. Not so with this book. The back and forth between the characters seems much more natural and stops when there is an actual serious conversation that needs to take place. I laughed audibly several times throughout the book and that is a rarity for me. The PoV character is likable – a real must when you don’t have any other PoV to turn to.
Third, the story itself is interesting. There is a murder mystery involving a serial killer that our heroes are desperate to solve since their friends are dropping like flies, and the murders themselves point to an “elemental” being involved (about half the characters in the story are elementals). I figured out fairly early on who the culprit was, but there were other twists in the story that made up for it. Who Ms. Brook’s father turned out to be surprised me and made me happy since he was one of my favorite characters.
Okay, so that still leaves a couple of things that would normally get up my nose – the urban fantasy genre and the shifters. The story takes place primarily in Tahoe, in a small area with cabins and camping. This lends itself to isolating the characters and making it harder to track the murderer. I was happy that I didn’t have to wade through another Seattle or New York setting. The world is big and full of interesting places, no need to always set a story in one of the overdone cities. Urban fantasy also has a tendency to be very “Mary Sue”. That wasn’t nearly so apparent in this story. Thank you!! Our heroine is flawed, she’s not super woman, and while her love life is involved in the plot, it isn’t overpowering.
The shifters are a bit different from what I’m used to. This isn’t the clan of werewolves that stink up the book world these days. These are people who are mostly loners (thus far – I’m told there are otter shifters in book two and it’s hard to imagine otters as loners). One chap turns into a large black bear and the other turns into a small house cat. Simon the cat is especially entertaining. He has a penchant for lounging around nude and is truly oblivious to why anyone might be uncomfortable with that.
Overall, I was quite happy with the book. It wasn’t too long, it wasn’t too short, left room for sequels, but solved the primary mystery – at least for now. I’m giving the story five stars. I will be reading the second book soon.

Snow Day

Snow Day - Dan Maurer I guess I'm going to have to change my "I hate first person PoV" description of myself. This is the third story I've read in the last two weeks that is first person, and I loved it.

This is Mr. Maurer's first "book" - actually it's a novella due to it's short length, but I will be reading more of his works when they come out. It starts out as a murder mystery, cuts to a slice of life tale about about a ten-year-old growing up in the 1970's and then turns into one of the coolest "chase" scenes ever with a massive fight for survival. There's a twist at the end that I admittedly saw coming, but it was written well enough that it was still quite creepy.

I'm giving this five stars - I hated to put it down to go to bed.
Inkheart - Cornelia Funke, Anthea Bell 3.5 stars. I liked the amount of description, and several of the non-main characters. Meggie's aunt Elinor, Farid and Dustfinger were my favorites. I especially liked the aunt, she was in many ways the most admirable person in the story, and I envied her her house of books in the middle of the woods.

The weakest aspect of the story was the villains. While they were unpleasant, they were generally uninteresting. The author tried to give Capricorn a quirk by having him wear loud outfits, but that did not add interest to him. Basta was tiresome and loud, full of threats he never went through with. Maybe we were supposed to find him semi sympathetic because he was so thoroughly under Capricorn's power, but instead I found him unintelligent and flat. The plot was a bit tiresome as well since not a whole lot magical really went on until the end. Most of the story involved the heroes being captured, escaping, being captured again, and escaping again. It was a long book, but could have been a good 100-200 pages shorter if the story had been rearranged so that one entire "capture/escape" could have been eliminated.

It sounds like I completely disliked the story, but that is not true at all. It was over 500 pages, and while I believe it could have been better at 350, it wasn't a real chore to get through. The description was done well enough that I was able to enjoy the scenes with all of my virtual senses. The little segments at the beginning of each chapter, pulled from many classic tales, suited the chapters very well and intrigued me enough that I may read a few of them. And as I said, I really did like several of the supporting characters.
Writing Fantasy Heroes - Orson Scott Card, Glen Cook, Ari Marmell, Jennifer Brozek, Steven Erikson, Janet E. Morris, Chris Morris, Brandon Sanderson, Cecelia Holland, J.M. Martin, Howard Andrew Jones, Ian C. Esslemont, C.L. Werner, Cat Rambo, Alex Bledsoe, Paul Kearney, Jason M. Waltz, Dleoblack I'm giving this book four stars because I enjoyed pretty much every word in it. So why not five? Because for the most part I did not come away from the book with any great insights that would change the course of my writing. It was a very entertaining read, especially Orson Scott Cards' section, but there wasn't anything terribly earthshaking in terms of the creative process. The one exception I will make in this claim is Jennifer Brozek's section on NPCs.

In her essay, Jennifer describes how the NPC can be used to display the thought processes of the hero. In one example she uses an injured horse, and what decisions the hero makes in dealing with it, to show what kind of a person he is. Later she uses another example with the hero's reaction to an object he finds on the corpse of one of his enemies. In other words, the NPC doesn't have to be an observer, making comments about the hero, it doesn't even have to be a living person, or a person at all. They are there to serve as a catalyst, to make the hero think, grow, show us his true self.

The other bonus I got from this book was a whole bunch of new books to add to my "to read" list. That was worth the read right there.

I definitely recommend this book. It's short, entertaining, full of interesting observations (which may or not assist with your writing), and may provide you with new sources of reading enjoyment.