Tag Archives: journey fiction

Book Review: Mystic and Rider: Internal and External Journeys as Foreground

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I hadn’t read Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider for four years. I’d reread all the other books in the Twelve Houses series at least once before returning to this first book. There’s much to draw me to the Twelve Houses books as I’ve discussed before, but there is something especially compelling to me about the deep friendships between the six primary protagonists. In this first book, those friendships remain unformed for the majority of the book, the six are instead plagued by prejudiced distrust and several brief fights that must be broken up by more level-headed and duty-driven members of the group. It was interesting to revisit this time before their friendship because I had foreknowledge; I know how inseparable this unlikely group becomes. More than that, I know the trials that they will face in the future, and I can see the foreshadowing in their dialogues. I enjoyed laughing and mumbling, “Oh honey, you don’t even know.” I can also enjoy a writer who foreshadows because it shows a plan and it shows forethought (usually).

The exterior action of the plot is concerned with assessing the attitudes of various regions and ranks of a kingdom. The worldviews of a society are the sort of detail that is usually relegated to an emblematic scene or a throwaway line of dialogue or exposition. It’s impressive to see Shinn maintain the readers’ interest in what is so often so condensed and shoved to the background by other writers.

Granted, Shinn supports this plot with a romantic co-plot and the drama of six diverse personalities in prolonged, close quarters.

I think Shinn does a good job of integrating these the internal and external plots so that neither seems to take precedence over the other. It could be read with either or neither as the primary focus.

Shinn also adds a bit of mystery by concealing one character’s background in particular and having another spend the book not trusting her because of that concealment. I never read the story without knowing Senneth’s story, having read the third book in the series first. I suspect though that that mystery helps too to drive the reader through the story.

Shinn writes fantastic characters, all invoking a great deal of empathy. She writes a fantastic, vast, and vivid world. If you haven’t yet been intrigued by my earlier reviews of these books, I advertise them one last time. Beyond this, there are no more books in the series for me to review, so this will be the last you’ll hear of them from me for a while. If you like high fantasy; poetic, solid prose; empathetic characters and stories of close friendships; if you like fantastical romance; if you enjoy a little politics and intrigue and fantastical religion, give these a try.

I’ve grown a bit with these books, and as I’ve grown, I see them differently, but they are only a bit tarnished for being away from a circle of friend and fellow fans. My rankings of them fluctuate a bit with my circumstances. What once I liked least, I think I now like almost best. And these books set the bar for fictional boyfriends very high. I’m glad that I have these books as warm friends’ smiles in my bookcases, and I considering purchasing the series a solid investment for all the times I will pick them up to smile over a scene or ask Shinn’s advice on worldbuilding.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book 1: Mystic and Rider. New York: Ace-Berkley-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon Shinn, Ace Books, Berkley Publishing Group, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Eternity Road: Strong World Building and Weak Characters

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I was caught by the blurb on the back of Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road. It is not my usual genre by any standards. It is adult, post-apocalyptic, journey fiction. A plague tore through the population. Centuries on, humanity has grouped again into large cities though much of the knowledge of the eons has been lost—everything from basic geography to Christian philosophy to the printing press. The main transport is horseback though man-powered and current-driven barges and boats travel the Mississippi and Hudson. Recently several cities have formed alliances and unified their governments. People remain nostalgic for the time before the virus, awed by the giant and enduring ruins of that culture, called the Roadmakers.

It was refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic world that was neither technologically advanced nor dystopian. Life in Illyria is fairly civilized. There are not government-sponsored death matches or even a focus on government corruption within the text.

McDevitt does a very good job building new cultures and societies out of the scraps of ours. Language evolution is visible in the names. There are new gods and religious traditions. He uses the journey to explore several ways of living, and particularly several views of sexuality, with which he frankly seems a little preoccupied to me, but then I read a lot of kid lit.

I’d expected from the blurb, a greater emphasis on the power of fiction—or a greater connection between this plot and that of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain’s novel serves only as proof that a sanctuary might have been discovered by a seemingly unsuccessful expedition where Roadmaker culture—American culture of at least several decades beyond present day—might have persisted or been preserved. There is still however a strong undertone of the value of literature to dandle every reader’s soul.

Chaka and Avila seemed very promisingly feminist characters. As too many do though, I felt as if this male writer didn’t quite know how to handle them. I don’t like to criticize on that front when my own story features at least one male protagonist, but Chaka particularly had the chance. She is the first to call for an expedition and the one to gather the crew, but she is never considered for a leadership role and seemed to not consider herself for one either. She is too preoccupied with the male characters, to willing to rely on male protection and leadership, making her more of a male fantasy than a feminist role model. Avila’s curiosity, readiness to break tradition, and resourcefulness make her a more feminist model, but she is also given less time in the text. I do have to give McDevitt a few points for his attempts to write feminist characters in these and then the very briefly present Judge… who is never named.

In truth I think it is less a problem of not knowing how to handle female protagonists than a problem of not knowing how to handle characters or maybe a group of characters. None of the characters develop as fully as I’d have liked. I had a difficult time distinguishing between the men of the expedition. McDevitt made attempts to differentiate them and to have them exhibit growth, but the characters never came alive.

Without vivacious characters, I had a difficult time investing in the journey, which, granted, took the team through some interesting ruins but one ruin did not really build to another so that the journey read as scenes of excitement bridged by lulls filled all too often with the characters’ romantic and lustful relationships with one another. One Goodreads reviewer compared the book to a bus tour, and that’s not inaccurate. Journey fiction is difficult. The lull between adventures is difficult. It really takes at least one strong character to uphold the reader’s attention. Stronger characters are I think one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings works better than The Hobbit, for example. The Lord of the Rings has a whole company of strong characters. For me, Bilbo is perhaps the only standout in his company, the dwarves mostly blending together in the text. For me, Eternity Road’s crew seemed more like the dwarves of The Hobbit, acting mostly as a group than a collection of individuals. That might be one more reason why the romances between the characters felt so jarring.

***

McDevitt, Jack. Eternity Road. New York: Harper Voyager-HarperCollins, 2011. First printed 1997.

This review is not endorsed by Jack McDevitt, Harper Voyager, or HarperCollins Publishers .  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

October April Picture Book Roundup

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Working mostly at the registers this past month, I didn’t get to read any new picture books for kids, and really, it’s quite upsetting, not least of all because I feared I’d have nothing to give you all for the month.  But I’ve found a way to rectify the misfortune–at least as far as the blog is concerned:  Instead of reviews for picture books that I read in October (as that would be a very boring post), I’m going to reprint some of the reviews that I wrote and posted on Goodreads back in April, which is the last month (prior to June when I began these roundup posts) in which I posted any picture book reviews.  So without further ado: April’s Picture Book Roundup in October:

Les Petits Fairytales: Cinderella by Trixie Belle and Melissa Caruso-Scott and illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Gibbs Smith-MacMillan, 2012.

[Note from the present-day Kathryn: This was/is my first review of a Les Petits Fairytales book.]

This is a supremely succinct retelling of the tale of Cinderella. Each of the main elements is captured in a single word or phrase, “Girl. Chores. Mean stepsisters. Fairy godmother,” being the text of the first few pages. Each idea is simply but completely and colorfully illustrated. Unlike the Favorite Words books attributed to Eric Carle, Belle, Caruso-Scott, and Lake manage to tell a complete story. Granted, some of this story I may have subconsciously filled in myself. The subject matter well lends itself to such a succinct retelling as it is a tale that children can grow into (which I know is the idea behind the Favorite Words books, but with Cinderella there is so much more growth to be had, not from nouns and matching pictures to a board book with a simple story, but phrases and matching illustrations to a modern English picture book, to an illustrated picture book of the original story with a cleaner ending, to a modern English short story, to the original short story with the original ending, to a modern retelling in novel format, to a comparison of Cinderella tale types from around the world).

Belle et al.’s book is a more standard board book size as compared to the very little size of Carle’s Favorite Words books, giving the illustrator (Oliver Lake) more room for illustration. Rather than being a complementary illustration of a noun as are Carle’s, the form leaves room for a complete picture with subject and background and secondary characters or plot points.

I would be interested in parents’ reviews of the book. To me, Belle et al.’s book would seem to invite its own retelling by a child in time, for which I’d laud it. However, to me, the book seems to suffer the same flaw as the Favorite Words books: They cannot really be read aloud–or would be dull and extremely short to read aloud. These are books to give to young readers or would-be readers, essentially a set of flashcards in board book form attempting to tell a tale because of their arrangement.

***

Andrew Drew and Drew by Barney Saltzberg.  Harry N. Abrams, 2012.

A story of imagination and art, surprise is the key to this flap book. Andrew likes to doodle. The illustrations show the process of his doodling from a line to a full illustration, and the text closes with a reminder that there is always time for more fun tomorrow, making me think that its intention is to be a bedtime story. Akin to Harold and the Purple Crayon, though Drew’s illustrations are far more detailed and realistic if involving more subject and less landscape, there is something far more memorable about a purple crayon than a pencil.

This is another picture book where the illustrations and ingenuity of the design outshine the text.

***

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen.  Little Brown Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I wanted to be more impressed than I was by this book, which I suppose is also how I feel about A Series of Unfortunate Events (of which I’ve only actually read A Bad Beginning, because I was not impressed enough to continue on with the series). Jon Klassen’s illustrations are as evocative and simple as ever and just the use of the name Laszlo speaks of the inclusion of Snicket’s refusal to tread towards the norm. But the plot relies heavily on personification (a common enough technique in picture books), and its use of personification is just a little unsettling, mostly in that by having the Dark show Laszlo where to find the fresh bulbs in the basement, the Dark seems almost suicidal or self-harming. Moreover, the solution is temporary and so the ending is not entirely fulfilling. Laszlo ventures into the Dark’s home to retrieve the weapon to use against it, led there by the Dark itself, but while that weapon pushes back the Dark, Laszlo’s fear of the Dark does not seem truly overcome. He is not but for a page or two left in true dark. Otherwise, he is armed with a flashlight.

The absence of parental involvement is a very Snicket-y and unique element, one of which I was glad because a parent should not necessarily have to be involved in a child’s development and sometimes cannot be and that is a good lesson to learn as well as that a parent can help.

I suppose, given Snicket’s publishing history, I should expect to be left a little unsettled by his picture books, but it is not really a sensation that I relish–not for this intended audience, not without a sequel.

I’d advise parental discretion on this one. Some kids will probably relish the unsettling air of this picture book.

**

A Long Way Away by Frank Viva.  Little, Brown Kids-Hachette, 2013.

For its unique style, this book will show up in Children’s Literature classrooms. I can almost guarantee that. Viva has written a book that can, should, and almost must be read two ways. By the second time reading the text (down-up instead of up-down), it was beginning to make sense. A third reading (up-down a second time) and I understood what he was doing and became excited.

The plot is that of an alien either traveling a long way away from his home, through space, to earth, and to the bottom of the ocean, or of an alien traveling from a long way away from his home, up from the bottom of the ocean, out into space, and back to his planet and parents.  The journey fiction genre of this story lends itself well to two-directional reading.

The text of the story is… loose. I’m not sure it needs to be as loose as it is, but I understand that it must be at least somewhat loose to be able to be read as a story from two directions. The pictures paired with the text, the vocabulary and sentence structure of which are simple and short, are evocative, and the story truly exists in the emotions that it elicits: either of the sadness of being ripped from one’s home and parents’ love or the joy of return to such delights.  The vocabulary, colors, and expressions of the characters are what draw those emotions from the reader–or from me.

It is an ageless story. It is one I would recommend to the very young, who will relate to the emotions expressed by the protagonist, and also as a gift from a parent to a child leaving for college or having otherwise flown the nest. I hope someone thinks to market it as the latter. I think it would do very well among books for graduates.

Reading this the first time, I think I all but squeed in the middle of the store and did share my effusive excitement with both a passing customer and our children’s department lead.

****

Challenge: Camp NaNo: Day 22

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April 22

When journeying and out of plot ideas, just add rainwater?

Also, cartography is hard, but I think it’ll be very rewarding.  When synced with my itinerary, I should have a very clear picture of the land.  I’m very much looking forward to this.  It’s already shown me that I inaccurately guessed the day that they’d be passing a major landmark.  Time to add a scene to earlier in the book!

Today’s goal: 36666

Total word count: 34816

Day’s word count: 1417

Average daily word count for April: 1584

Death count: 1

Total word count towards other projects (including this project, Facebook messages, cover letters, etc.): 257 words towards direct story planning, 936 total

Daily word count towards other projects: 25350

Average daily word count for other projects: 1234

Cups of tea: 1 caf, 1 decaf

Sugar: a bowl of ice cream and 2 cookies, 1 Cherry Dr Pepper

Hours spent at work: 0!

Hours driving: 1

What else distracted me: Friends and chores, looking for videos of Quidditch to demonstrate it to a friend.

Other campers: Apprentice, Never MasterMore Than One Page

Challenge: Camp NaNo: Day 13: One Foot in the Quagmire

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April 13

Tonight I’m putting Ernest Hemmingway’s adage—“Write drunk.  Edit sober.”—to the test.  Though instead of “drunk,” I am “sleepily tipsy.”  It doesn’t seem to be working for me as he says it should.

I am now writing the middle of the story, the section of the story arc that has always given me the most trouble, the nebulous journey from point A to point B.  Journeys have been central to the middle of each book of this series.  I have little confidence in writing journeys either.  I’m always hunting for well-written journeys, and I try to learn from every journey that I read.  (If you’ve read any fantastic journeys, please let me know.)

When writing the first book, I calculated the distances traveled daily and the number of days required to travel a particular distance by my heroes by figuring the speed at which the horses were traveling (and assuming that the horses were traveling at the average speed for each pace) for what length of time.  I’ve realized that I need to do this for the second book.  I think this will help me to cement the middle.  Once I can figure out how many days my heroes will be covering a particular area, I will be able to fill in the gaps with appropriate prose.

78 words of my word count towards other projects are these calculations, so while not strictly NaNo words, they’re proving vital for NaNo plotting.  It’s also making me rethink the distances of the first book.  I understand that the heroes’ hometown is isolated, but 125 miles from the road?  Why did I think that was a good idea?  That’s a problem for another day.  What do you all think?  Too far in a medieval-like/early colonial setting?

Today’s goal: 21666

Total word count: 18879

Day’s word count: 575

Average daily word count for April: 1452

Death count: 1

Total word count towards other projects (including this project, Facebook messages, cover letters, etc.): 17201

Daily word count towards other projects: 1604

Average daily word count for other projects: 1461

Cups of caffeine: 2 caf, 1 Coke, and 1 glass of wine to kill all the caffeine effects

Sugar: 0!

Hours spent at work: 8

Hours driving: 1+

What else distracted me: My friend has finished BBC’s Robin Hood.  I joined her for the 2 part finale.

Other campers: Apprentice, Never MasterMore Than One Page

Book Review: Wolf Tower: Ahead of the Pack

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Click to visit the Amazon page, for links to order, reviews, and a preview.

Claidi is an unlikely, “plain” girl trapped in a love triangle.  On the one hand, there’s the golden prince, Nemian, with whom she is instantly, on sight in love.  Though he can be short with her, he always comes back and apologizes and assures her that he needs her.  On the other, there’s Argul, the leader of a “family” of bandits, of whom she is at first terrified.  He comes to her rescue, but she then has rather little interaction with him because he is busy looking after everyone in his train till during a celebration in a city of clockwork and colored glass he spends the whole night dancing with her.  She respects him.  He is a true leader, but she has promised to follow Nemian.

Now, that sounds like the plot of Twilight and all its hoard, but Tanith Lee wrote Wolf Tower and The Claidi Journals before Stephanie Meyer published a word and while Claidi may fall quickly and mushily for Nemian and while I think I would prefer the story if Claidi relied less upon her men (she really could have probably executed her escape from the City without Argul, though certainly it was convenient for him to provide the horse and to be about so that they could ride off together into the figurative sunset), there’s still much here to appreciate.

Wolf Tower is a journey book.  It begins with a disruption of Claidi’s life of drudgery and structure, which leads to her escape from that life, and then the majority of the novel is spent in Claidi’s discovery of the various cultures and wonders of the world beyond the House in which she grew up.  Lee paints vivid pictures of some of the places: Peshamba and the Rain Gardens.  Her cultures are varied and fairly well formed for the short amount of time that we get to spend with most of them.  All this too Lee paints while still having Claidi believably in the dark as to the people’s languages, picking up only slowly on the language of the Hulta, Argul’s train with whom she spends the most time.

Color might be the word of the novel, color and vitality.

Here, the epistolary format (journal) is done, I hope, to underscore Claidi’s disregard for rules, as foreshadowing for the rules that she will break.  It also helps to show the passage of time as sometimes Claidi simply puts “NTW” (nothing to write) (6) before her life becomes exciting.  Even in the Waste, some entries simply state “Depressed.  /  Have now been here eight days, also depressed.  /  Depressed” (77).

The epistolary form here is not too jarring or awkward, though Claidi’s frequently describes her current emotional or physical state before saying that she had better leap back and tell it from the beginning because we, her imaginary reader, would probably prefer that.  By referring to the imagined reader, Claidi draws the reader into her story.

My impression Wolf Tower is rather colored by the recommendation that I received from my friend at Building a Door, whose writing has, I think, been pretty heavily influenced by this childhood love of hers.  I enjoyed the game of drawing parallel’s between my friend’s writing and Lee’s.

Wolf Tower left me initially wanting just a little more resolution.

***1/2

Lee, Tanith.  The Claidi Collection, Book One: Wolf Tower.  New York: Dutton-Penguin, 2003.

Wolf Tower first published 1998.  British title, Law of the Wolf Tower.

This review is not endorsed by Tanith Lee, Dutton Children’s Books or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.