Friday, March 30, 2012
The Guardian's Deceit by Patrick Reinken
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've really enjoyed Patrick Reinken's previous work, so I started reading The Guardian's Deceit with high expectations, and I wasn't disappointed.
From the very first chapter, and the way that he reacts to finding three people shot dead in the side room of his local church, it's clear that Vector is no ordinary maths teacher. In fact, he was sent to Long Prairie by the Secret Service, specifically to guard the young woman who has just been abducted. He heads back to Washington DC to report, but when his superiors try to take him off the case, Vector's sense of duty kicks in and he isn't willing to be so easily dismissed. The resulting tale follows Vector across the country as he hunts for Jessica and the men behind her disappearance. Meanwhile, we also see glimpses of a war halfway around the world and events unfolding in the White House, and as the plot progresses everything starts to come together.
This is a fairly long book, but it keeps up a breakneck pace and I didn't want to put it down. An enjoyable read, and I hope there will be more Vector Smith novels to come.
Buy The Guardian's Deceit on Amazon
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
May Day by Jess Lourey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I picked up May Day as a Kindle freebie, a 'cozy' mystery to read as a bit of light relief between longer, more demanding books. And for the first few chapters, I was really enjoying the developing set-up... until it all got rather too silly for my tastes. The deliberately 'quirky' minor characters were just a bit too weird, and by the end there was almost no-one left in town without something to mark them out, making the whole thing feel like a grotesque Victorian freak show. Which is a shame, because Mira herself is a decent character, a down-to-earth woman who reluctantly turns to sleuthing when she loses faith in the local police, and her progress towards unravelling the mystery is well-paced and kept my interest. However, the fact that it got so silly, combined with various minor inconsistencies that feel like careless editing (such as Mira having to borrow some thoroughly unsuitable shoes in the first chapter, and then digging a pair of old cowboy boots out of her closet a few pages later), means I'm unlikely to read any more in this series.
Saturday, March 24, 2012
The Rostikov Legacy (Malykant Mysteries #1)
by Charlotte E. English
Konrad Savast is a man with a very peculiar mission: when someone is murdered, his job is to kill the killer. But first he has to figure out who's resposible, meaning this story is at its heart a murder mystery, albeit set in a fantasy world. The fantasy elements mesh perfectly with the mystery plot: Konrad has two spirit serpents who accompany and assist him, and his work is all at the behest of the Malykt, a cold power who has bound Konrad in his service.
I really liked the interactions between Konrad and his only friend, Irinanda (who doesn't know about his secret identity, and also has secrets and powers of her own). This is the first in the Malykant series, so I'm looking forwards to seeing how future books will develop this relationship. The bad guys were a bit less believable, but such a short format doesn't leave much space for developing all the minor characters, and this didn't really detract from my enjoyment.
Friday, March 23, 2012
Intelligent Life by Neil ArkseyMy rating:
Intelligent Life is the story of Jonathan Higgs Boson, a quiet teenager who wants nothing more than a quiet and uneventful life. Unfortunately, events seem to be conspiring against him, particularly when his mum has to travel for a few days and Jonathan goes to stay with his dad, a perpetually-drunk ex-journalist who's thoroughly convinced that a famous business magnate is up to no good.
From this inauspicious beginning, things don't get any easier for Jonathan (whose name overlaps with that of a theoretical particle: just one in a series of coincidences which have plagued his young life), and our unlikely hero is sucked into a series of adventures. There are secretive aliens, mysterious advanced technologies, and plenty of seemingly random events along the way. The characters are likeable, sympathetic, and often comical; there were several laugh-out-loud moments, and the description is excellent.
This book was an easy read (it's aimed at a younger audience) but no less enjoyable for that. The ending leaves plenty of loose ends untied, setting things up for a sequel, but (unlike many series titles) it's also a satisfying read in its own right.
Buy Intelligent Life on Amazon
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Key Lime Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the ninth Hannah Swensen mystery, and has all the elements I've come to expect: a murder (of course); an amateur investigation by Hannah and friends; a bit of good-natured 'competition' between them and the local police, usually leading to some silly decisions on Hannah's part; a food-related sub-plot to provide a source of recipes; continuing (still very slow) development of the romantic sub-plot with Mike and Norman.
The backdrop for this particular novel is the Tri-County Fair, so Hannah's friends and family are all a bit preoccupied, competing for recognition in the various contests. Meanwhile, Hannah is judging the cookery contests, and novelty recipes abound, such as cookies made with a packet of crisps (sorry, 'chips').
I find the quality of these books extremely variable, and this was a middling example. There was, for my taste, too much emphasis on the social aspects of Hannah's life, and not enough on the actual murder investigation. And the ending was a bit too neat. I haven't decided whether I'll plough on with the rest of the series in spite of these things; I enjoy reading them, but I have limited reading time to spend on things that aren't my favourite.
Buy Key Lime Pie Murder on Amazon
Sunday, March 18, 2012
Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a police drama which reads something like an episode of The Wire, frequently switching perspective between the LAPD cops and the various miscreants they're trying to police. Nor is there a consistent point of view within a scene, which I found quite hard to read at first. However, once I started thinking of it as a TV series on the page, rather than a regular novel, I started to really enjoy it. There's a colourful cast of characters on both sides of the law, and the Hollywood backdrop is so surreal as to be hardly believable... which makes me suspect it might be quite a realistic portrayal. I'll definitely look out for later books in this series.
Buy Hollywood Station on Amazon
Friday, March 16, 2012
For her second book, Veronica Li took on the daunting task of writing her mother's biography. The result, Journey across the Four Seas, is a stunning portrait of a very determined woman (which I reviewed earlier this month).
Just in time for Mother's Day (which is this Sunday, in the UK, at least!), I asked Veronica a few questions about her mother and the book they wrote together.
Your mother always wanted to write - how does she feel to finally see her life story in print?
First of all, thanks very much for interviewing me on the occasion of Mother's Day. I'm happy to talk about my book Journey Across the Four Seas: A Chinese Woman's Search for Home. It's a memoir of my mother's life in Asia before she took the family to the U.S.
When my aging mother moved in with me, I seized my last chance to record her life stories. For the first time, she told me her ambition had been to be a writer. She was too old to start then and wanted me to write down her stories for her.
The book came out when she was still alive and well enough to read. She was ecstatic about it. She felt that her life had been validated. The most touching moment happened a year later, several days before she passed away. I showed her the book again and told her that thousands of people had read about her and thought that she'd led a wonderful life. She smiled her last smile before slipping into a coma.
This book is the greatest gift between mother and daughter. It's a gift to me because it gives me my past. It's a gift to my mother because it gives her immortality.
There are times when your mother seems resentful of her children - did this cause any problems in your relationship?
My mother's resentment stemmed from her disappointments in life. As you pointed out in your book review, "She feels she has wasted her education, spending her life instead as a refugee and then as wife and mother." Here she was, a university graduate, rare for a woman of her times, stuck with a bunch of screaming babies at home. Of course she resented the babies! Fortunately, I was the fourth child, so I had plenty of buffers from my older siblings.
I felt her resentment much later when I became her primary caregiver. She was unhappy no matter what I did for her. I felt inadequate until I discovered that her unhappiness was over the regrets in her life, and had nothing to do with me.
How has your relationship changed since working on this project together?
My mother belonged to the first generation of Chinese women liberated from the horrible tradition of foot binding. For the first time in Chinese history, women could have a life outside the home. However, her generation was the pioneer and had to face many barriers. She was a writer who never had the chance to develop her voice. When she spoke into my tape recorder, she knew she'd found it. Her agitation went away and she stopped complaining about anyone, not even her husband!
My mother always said she was an ordinary person doing what was necessary to survive. Frankly speaking, I don't think I could have overcome half the difficulties that she had. They include trekking through China during wartime, propping up an unstable husband, and uprooting herself so that her children could have a future in the New World. The things my mother did for her family were absolutely heroic. I thank her on Mother's Day and every other day.
How much input did your mother have into the finished book, after recording her stories onto tape? How did you find working together?
The tapes were the "official" version. The juicy tidbits leaked out while we were cooking together. I would ask her, "How many boyfriends did you have before you met Baba?" Without the mike on, she spoke freely about her escapades. These stories added color to the narrative.
There was a clear division of labor between us. She did the storytelling and I did the writing. She gave me a free hand to weave the bits and pieces into a coherent story. I never showed her my drafts because I didn't want her censorship. She would have worried about offending one relative or another. Fortunately, most of the people in her stories are already dead.
I know you've also written a novel. Can you say a little about the similarities and differences between working on these two projects?
My first book, Nightfall in Mogadishu, is a spy thriller set in Somalia, told in the third person point of view. It's also a historical fiction based on actual events that led to civil war in the country (I used to be an aid worker in Somalia). The plot contains the suspense and exploits of a James Bond movie. The writing style is fast-paced and action packed. In order to place the reader in an exotic country, I took care to give detailed descriptions of the place.
These skills helped me a lot in my second book, Journey Across the Four Seas. The narrator is my mother, and in the book she's telling me her life stories in Chinese. Her voice is gentle and conversational, night-and-day from the sinister tone in my spy thriller. But the other elements of story-telling are the same. Actually my mother’s life is as exciting as a thriller. The book contains scenes of her dodging bullets, outwitting kidnappers, fighting TB and braving U.S. immigration officers. The plot is fast-paced and action-packed, and I try to bring her world to life with vivid descriptions.
In other words, I really didn't find much difference between the two projects. The only difference is the degree of liberty I allowed my imagination. In the novel, I fabricated characters and scenes. In the memoir, I used creative license to convey the characters and scenes. However, they were real people and real events. I was careful not to cross the thin line between fiction and nonfiction.
Is there anything in the book that you would have preferred not to know?
My father's philandering while he was a businessman in Thailand was a shock to me. I always thought that my parents were happy there. My mother belonged to a large Chinese clan who dominated the economy of Bangkok. We lived in a large house and were catered to by servants. Little did I know that this was the most miserable period in my mother’s life. My father was out nightclubbing with clients every night, while my mother was stuck at home with four children ranging from five to one. When I wrote up her stories, I could feel her pain even after forty some years.
How old were you when the family moved to America? And as an adult, have you returned to visit many of the landmarks in your mother's life?
I was fifteen when the family moved to the US. After getting a degree in International Affairs, I joined the World Bank, which is a UN affiliate. My job took me to countries in Asia, including many of my mother's old haunts. Having first hand experience in those countries is an advantage in retracing my mother's footsteps. I had no problem picturing her in Chengdu, Kweilin, Shanghai, Nanking, and Hong Kong. The best trip was taking my mother to Bangkok to visit her relatives one last time. They were all in their eighties and nineties and bursting with reminisces. They told me stories about my mother’s childhood and gave me invaluable material for my book.
Intrigued? Buy Journey Across the Four Seas on Amazon
Thursday, March 15, 2012
The Absolutely Amazing Adventures of Agent Auggie Spinoza by Steven SticklerMy rating:
Auggie is a perfectly normal ten-year-old boy, who finds a hole in the curtain one day and discovers that he can crawl through time. From this, a series of adventures naturally result.
As it's aimed at children about the protagonist's age, this was a very quick read with simple language. There are little bits that don't quite ring true - like why no-one in the past is remotely perturbed by Auggie's modern ski clothes - but this is really a minor niggle. It would be hard to write a time travel book with no paradoxes, and Stickler doesn't even try. The story itself is a lot of fun, and the writing is very well-suited to its audience, with various similes straight from the playroom (something is compared in size to a 64-pack of crayons, which was delightfully specific).
Buy The Absolutely Amazing Adventures of Agent Auggie Spinoza on Amazon
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Under Heaven is set in a fictionalized version of ancient China. It has a hint of fantasy (there are ghosts, and shamans), but these elements are subtle. For the most part this is a story of intrigue and plotting, on both a personal and national scale.
When we meet the main character, Shen Tai, for two years he has been living a quiet life beyond the borders of his empire, burying the bones of long-dead soldiers. But an unexpected visit from an old friend, and news of a vastly generous gift from a faraway princess, conspire to disturb his peaceful lifestyle. Suddenly Tai has no choice but to go back to the heart of everything, and somehow beat the political players at their own game if he's to stay alive.
Meanwhile, a parallel plot follows Tai's sister, showing that he isn't the only smart and strong-willed member of the Shen family.
I've always enjoyed Chinese history, and I loved the setting of this book. From the sumptuous luxury of the court, to the wild and windswept landscape of the steppe, every scene is so vivid that I felt I could easily step into it and lose myself. The writing is beautiful and evocative; I found myself reading slowly, soaking it up, and I just didn't want it to end.
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
A Spy at Home by Joseph Rinaldo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a very unusual novel. It's written in first person, from the perspective of an (almost) retired CIA agent, and while there are occasional brief flashbacks to Garrison's life in the field this makes up only a small proportion of the book. This is a long way from being a typical spy thriller, but it's an interesting read.
In the prologue, Garrison reveals that he shot his wife, something he clearly regrets, although it's at least half way through the book before the manner of this is revealed. It also soon transpires that he's stolen almost ten million dollars, money which the CIA was intending to fund a coup in an unnamed African country. For me, most of the tension came from wondering whether anyone (the CIA or the would-be rebels) would catch up with Garrison and his family. As for the family, there's a lot about Garrison's wife, and his son who has Down's Syndrome; their part as innocent bystanders adds a level of sympathy to Garrison's situation.
I found the style a little difficult, and it often becomes something of a stream of consciousness as the narrative follows Garrison's thoughts from one flashback to another. Without reading more of Rinaldo's work, it's hard to judge whether this is a conscious decision to fit the style to the narrator's situation in which he writes his story, but in any event I found it somewhat distracting.
Buy A Spy at Home on Amazon
Sunday, March 4, 2012
Xenofreak Nation by Melissa Conway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Xenofreak Nation is an imaginative and fast-paced sci-fi novel which grabbed me from the first few pages, and kept me coming back until I finished it (barely a day later).
In the near future, xenografts (transplants of animal skin) have overtaken tattoos as a fashion-and-lifestyle statement. The writing is full of vivid description, and I had no trouble picturing the strange grafts. We first meet our heroine Bryn as she watches with mixed feelings as her father gives an impassioned, if well-rehearsed, speech to an anti-xenograft mob. But on her way home, she's kidnapped by a group of "xenofreaks" and swept off to the secret headquarters of the XBestia gang. As an innocent and wholesome young woman, Bryn can only imagine what she's getting into. Meanwhile, Scott Harding is an undercover agent who's been working hard to build the trust of XBestia's leaders; he can't afford to destroy his cover for the sake of one girl.
There's plenty of action to keep things interesting, and everyone in this novel has their own agenda, which makes for a plethora of compelling plot twists and surprises. The narrative follows the oft-intertwined stories of both Bryn and Scott, leaving the reader in no doubt that they're both the "good guys" (despite some difficult decisions on both sides), but the same can't be said for the large and fluid cast of allies and enemies. I really enjoyed the play of shifting allegiances and complex relationships, and it all comes together in a satisfying and dramatic finale.
Saturday, March 3, 2012
Wyndano's Cloak is a fairytale for the modern princess, which I read last month and really enjoyed. Author A. R. Silverberry - who is actually a psychologist in his day job - was kind enough to answer a few questions about his novel and his writing process.
If this whets your appetite, you can read my review of Wyndano's Cloak or
buy your own copy now.
First, can you tell me a little about your inspiration for Wyndano's Cloak?
I had a mental picture flash into my mind of what the heroine does in the climax chapter. How we face adversity was a big question I was wrestling with, both on a personal level, as well as professionally as a psychologist. In part, the book is my exploration about one answer to that question.
The two men in Jen's life, her father and her brother Dash, are rendered helpless and immobile quite early in the story. Was it a conscious decision to give all the action to the girls?
It was. Jen and Bit are the heroines, so the action needed to center around them. The father and brother are trapped in an enchantment, and this serves as a catalyst for Bit to act. Jen’s mother also is rendered helpless, and that becomes Jen’s catalyst. By virtue of their age, Jen and Bit are seemingly the least likely to impact the situation. Bit is inconsequential to the villain, Naryfel. And Naryfel only sees Jen as a way to hurt Jen’s mother. She doesn’t see Jen as a threat to her plans. Big mistake!
The story of Wyndano's Cloak takes place across a number of lands, including the 'Plain World' which doesn't have magic. How did you design these different settings, and do you subscribe to the theory that "place is a character"?
When I read The Hobbit and Tolkien’s trilogy, I wished that I lived in the Shire. The rest of Middle Earth I’m not so sure about. You can keep the orcs and giant spiders. But the Shire was cozy, different, and was situated in a world where there was magic. I wanted Aerdem to be like that; to feel so real, that readers believe it exists, and long to go there. The Plain World is dismal and rainy, and the people plod through their lives. Nothing changes. Dreams are lost. Imagination and creativity haven’t sparked for years. You didn’t want to live there! The gray Plain World is a foil for Aerdem, making it all the more intense, the way neutrals make colors pop out in a painting. Both worlds needed to be vivid, though. I had references for most of my scenes. If it wasn’t a place I had visited, I used photographs. Regarding place as character, I think that might depend on the book. In the novel I’m currently working on, place is not only a character, it’s the main antagonist.
Jen feels very strongly protective of her family, though she hasn't known them for very long. Why do you think she feels so responsible for everyone around her?
When Jen was two, her mother hid her in the Plain World and never returned. She grew up as an orphan in a world that did not seem to fit or accept her. Flash forward to the present. Intellectually, Jen knows her mother left her to protect her, but deep down, I think she must have felt abandoned. That wound molded her personality. Having found her family at last, she doesn’t want to experience another loss. Then there’s another layer. Jen’s guardian in the Plain World, Nell, was old and sickly. With that loss issue already festering, and the fear of losing Nell, Jen was ripe to feel responsible for Nell. Right before coming to Aerdem, Nell dies. Now Jen has a double loss. Enter Naryfel, the one person capable of ripping Jen away from the seemingly peaceful, fairy-tale life she finds in Aerdem. She’s going to do everything she can to not let that happen! Jen embodies the archetype of the rightful princess, with a twist. Having come into her kingdom, she finds that she has to fight to stay there. Isn’t life like that? After our identities are solidified, don’t we have to work hard to navigate a complex, ever-changing world?
Despite being very different personalities, Bit and Pet both struggle to make themselves heard at home. Do you think this helps to bring them closer together?
Exactly. They bond because they’re on the same quest: To be heard, to be valuable, to express their talents, to be so much more than anyone expects. Children, by virtue of their age, size, and not having an adult’s power, often feel insignificant, that their thoughts and feelings don’t matter. I hope my tale helps them feel that they are bright, capable people with gifts to offer the world.
There's a lot of back-story hinted at throughout the book. Have you considered writing about Jen's earlier adventures?
The whole tale sits in my dresser drawer, where many first novels dwell. I like the story very much, but it’s got some problems I haven’t ironed out. I might take it up at some point, but there are other stories clamoring to be written. Let’s just say I’m letting it rest! It served it’s purpose. It set up the conflict, characters, and settings for Wyndano's Cloak.
And are you planning a sequel...?
Initially, I wasn’t. I wrapped everything up. After nine years with both books, I was ready to move on to new characters. But a lot of readers have been asking for a sequel. I outlined a plot, introduced some new characters, and got about a third of the way into the first draft. I liked what was coming out, but then something didn’t feel right about where it was headed. Right around that time, another story grabbed me hard, and I’ve been working on that one for about a year. Since setting the sequel aside, I’ve been playing with some ideas about it. For one thing, I think there’s a lot of mileage left in Blue and Pet. Can you imagine the two of them in an adventure together? They’d be at each others throats! Built in conflict.
Do you have children of your own? And if so, are they your biggest fans or your harshest critics? If not, who test-reads your books for you?
Unfortunately, I don’t have children. I imagine they’d be my harshest critics! My wife is my primary test reader, and she doesn’t pull her punches, nor does she stroke my ego. We’ve had quite a few arguments over her responses! She worked as a technical writer, so she’s also really good spotting things that are confusing. One of my cousins is a college English professor. She and her daughter, who was fifteen at the time, both marked up an early draft. I also worked with a critique group who saw the first hundred pages or so. I would have stuck with them, but the pace of the critiques was slowing me down. In addition to my wife and cousin, I’ve got a librarian lined up for my next book. By the way, if I had a child, I’d want her to be like Jen: Smart, persistent, courageous, and a big heart.
What's your writing process, and how do you fit your writing in around any other work/family commitments?
In the old days, I used to discover the story as I wrote. I know that approach works for many people, but I found that I had to work very hard to unify all the story elements. These days, I start with the germ of an idea, usually a compelling character or situation. Then I ask myself what metaphor or theme that idea suggests. I keep that theme in mind as I’m constructing the plot and the rest of the characters. After the first draft, I reexamine all the elements to make sure they fit. I use a lot of visual aids. For Wyndano's Cloak, I had the plot mapped out on a long piece of butcher paper that stretched across my wall. Nowadays, I’m using one-inch post its for each scene, and these are placed on the inside of a file folder. It’s great. I can open up the file and see the whole plot at a glance, and I can easily move scenes around or delete them. I make W charts for the main characters, so I can see how each one fits into the whole.
The work and family commitment question is a whole other kettle of fish. I was lucky with Wyndano's Cloak, because I commuted by train. That gave me two-and-a-half hours, five days a week to write. There were a variety of settings to see out the window, and many of these found their way into the book. That business about the squirrel on the blackberry bushes; I actually saw the little fellow running along the vines! I knew it needed to go into the story, but it took me a year to figure out where. It was a twenty-five minute walk from the train to my office; I filled notepads with snippets of dialogue and description. We’ve moved, so I no longer commute by train. What a loss to my writing! Fortunately, my wife is very understanding of my creative work, and I set my own hours as a psychologist. I try and write two hours in the morning. I usually can if I don’t check email or social media!
Sleeping with Paris by Juliette Sobanet
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was on the Eurostar to Paris, and I'd recently picked this up as a Kindle freebie. It sounded like the perfect combination: a little Parisian romance to keep me entertained en route.
But this isn't such a happy read. In the first few pages, Charlotte discovers that her fiance has been cheating on her. And when she sets out to reclaim her own life, instead of embracing her independence, she quickly becomes bitter and entrenched in negative views of all men. For the first half (or more) of the book, Charlotte struck me as a completely selfish and immature individual, so when things start to go wrong for her it does feel like she's had it coming. This wasn't comfortable reading, and I'd struggle to say I enjoyed it; I rushed through the middle to get away from Charlotte's self-created misery.
But I did really like the ending, and although this wasn't my favourite book, it was well-written and I will definitely look out for more by this author.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Journey Across the Four Seas: A Chinese Woman's Search for Home by Veronica Li
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Flora Li was born in Hong Kong, lost her father at an early age, and fought against society and family alike for her right to a good education. Her life story spans China's invasion by the Japanese, and the subsequent civil war with the communists - and through marriage to the son of Chiang Kai-Shek's deputy prime minister, she finds herself unwittingly thrust into the heart of national politics.
The first part of the book tells of childhood hardships and extended families; connections which will prove invaluable when the war starts. Indeed, the impression from this book is that almost everyone in China has relatives in every town. This all takes place before the "one child policy" - in Flora's world, a man isn't even limited to one wife! Then war makes Flora a refugee, and she has to leave her hard-won place at Hong Kong university to look for safety in mainland China.
Once she is married, Flora dedicates herself only to her family, throughout the chaos which carries her across China, to Thailand and Taiwan, and finally America. She feels she has wasted her education, spending her life instead as a refugee and then as wife and mother, and her enduring commitment is to give her five children every chance she never had.
This is a fascinating autobiography (or possibly a biography, as it's technically written by the subject's daughter, based on her mother's stories), and gives a number of insights into a turbulent period of Chinese history.
Buy Journey across the Four Seas on Amazon