Sunday, November 20, 2005

Afterburn by S.L. Viehl

I have this accidental tradition that has stayed true two National Novel Writing Months in a row, this one being the second. No matter when I purchased the book in question, one of Sheila's books attempts to draw me away from my words. This time, the book got lost on my crowded desktop where it should never have been but for my husband reading it first. And sure enough, I unburied it just in time for the middle of NaNo. A wise NaNo participant would have set it aside, but is there such a thing as a wise NaNo participant? Needless to say, I just finished Afterburn in half a week, an amazing rate for me. I'm thrilled to have read it and sorry to have done so because I wait ten years or more before rereading. However, she does have a new StarDoc novel, Rebel Ice, coming out in January that I can hunt down :).

Anyway, on to Afterburn itself. Her science fiction novels have a good habit of sucking me in with well-drawn alien cultures along with cross-species romances and relationships all tied up in some desperate situation the characters must resolve. Afterburn was no different while at the same time it was completely different. I do not find any trace of formula in these novels even with certain reoccurring elements, basically those I just described. My husband commented that Afterburn was heavily dependent on having read Bio Rescue, the first in this new series that shares worlds with StarDoc. I personally don't think so. I think a person can come in with only this book and will enjoy it enough seek out the first one, and probably also the StarDoc novels.

There is nothing specific I can say without giving something of the plot away because everything is tightly entwined, and I try hard not to do that. It's fast-paced, adventure science fiction that manages to convey complex cultures and inter- and intra-cultural relationships that make sense. Once again, I found this novel an amazing blend of what I classify sociological SF and adventure SF. So, if you like page turners that keep you on the edge of your seat, you should love Afterburn. If you like complex cultural interactions and conflicts, along with detailed, imaginative alien species, you should love Afterburn. How Sheila manages to take these disparate elements and blend them together seamlessly never ceases to amaze and delight me. And I'm happy to say with this one that, while the story comes to a satisfying conclusion, the novel offers several outstanding elements that cry out for another book or two. I expect she'll offer those up for my enjoyment shortly...probably just in time to miraculously appear during the middle of NaNo when my own, not her, words should be my main focus :D.

Enough said. If you haven't given her SF a try, go ahead. I really doubt you'll be disappointed. I certainly wasn't.

Left Horse Black by S.J. Reisner

Left Horse Black had both pluses and minuses in my opinion, but that's reading as a writer and editor. My son Jacob read this book and he loved it. His first comment was, "where's the next one?" which is just what a writer wants to hear.

The book did not have a clear main character in the way I'm used to seeing, but rather had several characters share that role, each starting from a different place and slowly working themselves toward each other until they ended up in the same place. If you'd described the technique to me, rather than me reading it myself, I'd consider it unlikely to work. However, I found this method highly effective. Not only was I involved with the various characters, but also I didn't feel that any random secondary characters had stolen the lead. Rather, it was almost the way a group shares the point of view such as in the Narnia books, only these characters started a world away. I was impressed by how that all came together.

That said, two things bugged me. First, there were many places where I felt the editing could have been done better. As an editor myself, I'm more picky about such things than most, but I did see that as a failing. The second is that I've grown used to the standalone book. This is an expectation that came completely from me. The book is clearly labeled Book 1 and in no way promises a wrap up ending, so any disappointment that it left me at a cliffhanger is my own. However, if such an ending bugs you, this one has it. I saw ways that an interim ending could have been possible with what was presented. It just wasn't written in a way that treated the ending as conclusive; it felt like I had to wait for the next book to achieve the satisfaction of a plot gone full circle.

My overall impression though, despite my issues, was that Left Horse Black is a strong story. I enjoyed the piece of the tale contained within these pages and the characters that carried it along. While I felt the book showed signs of being a first novel (and I believe it is one), I also thought the writing was well done, sophisticated in some techniques and clearly strong enough to draw me in and keep me turning pages.

Dragonsblood and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew

Okay, I've fallen behind on the posting, but here are a few book reviews I've written.

Dragonsblood by Todd McCaffrey

This book is the first ever authorized Pern novel by another author, Anne McCaffrey's son. She says in the preface how this was difficult for her, but she wants to focus on other projects despite the many stories still waiting in the Pern universe. Is this book identical to the Pern novels we know and love? Not quite. The style is odd, working through a story simultaneously in the distant past and present, and the level of scientific material is greatly increased. Were this book the measure, no one would consider Pern science fantasy as it is now classified. Do any of these changes harm the book? I don't think so. It took me a bit to get used to the past and present thing as I couldn't see the ties between the two story lines at the beginning, but this is no different than a book that explores two POV characters whose stories later blend together. I was impressed by the way this novel retains the sense of Pern. I grew up on the Pern novels. They were among the first science fiction I ever read (and yes, they were science fiction back then, dragons notwithstanding) and formed part of the foundation that is what I love today. I often read shared universe novels, but Pern has never been open to that before. All I can say is this book has definitely not turned me off future novels by Todd McCaffrey or from Pern as a thriving universe with many tales to tell.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool

I told myself that I would not bother putting up a review of non-fiction texts and seeing as I am behind, it seems foolish to do so now. However, this book is a fabulous resource for those who want to understand 19th-century England whether as an avid reader or a writer. It is not definitive as no single book can ever cover everything there is to say about 100 years, but Pool offers the highlights version of the century, focusing not just on what went on in that time, but why. The notes extend from the workhouse of Oliver Twist to the drawing rooms of Pride and Prejudice, using period novels to inform the elements chosen. Nearly half the book is a glossary of terms that is interesting enough in and of itself to read straight through. I learned the original meaning of whip as in Senate Majority Whip while also finding out the difference between a taper and a tallow candle. Though clearly intended as a reference book rather than a good read, based on the amount of times relevant information repeats between sections, I enjoyed absorbing what Pool offers and found several details that will make a historical romance I wrote even more closely tied to the period. An extensive bibliography also offers resources to explore at greater detail. This book was recommended on the Forward Motion forums and, though I read it out of the library, I now have a copy for my shelves. If that doesn't speak to its value, I don't know what would.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Books We Read

Okay, first the question: what is it that people see in characters who treat others in a nasty way for no real reason?

And now on to why I ask. I want to make it clear this is not why I left my book club, because honestly, when I only have time to read one or two books a month, I prefer for them to be my own choice. However, the dichotomy between my opinions and those of the other book club members did have a factor in this question bubbling to the top.

We most recently read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Several of the other readers adored this book while I found moments interesting, the overall well written and a main character that left me cold. This is the same reaction I had to The Kite Runner, another popular and much lauded book.

I started to suspect I had lost my taste for mainstream writing as the majority of my reading has been science fiction/fantasy and romance novels of late. And before anyone says that those are "fluffy" books, they should take on some of my favorite science fiction which explores the political, cultural and social ramifications of change, what I classify sociological science fiction. Anyway, I had a novel recommended to me as research for a character who is going feral. The novel, A Girl Named Disaster, is young adult mainstream fiction about a young girl from Zimbabwe and what happens in her life. Now, if my suspicions were true, this would hold no interest. Instead, I find myself extending the few reading periods I can carve out of my schedule and moving through the book at what, for me, is a good clip.

Being of an analytical frame of mind, I started asking questions about why one novel about a young girl in horrible circumstances who had lost her mother should enthrall me while another leaves me cold.

To add to the confusion, a show I've been watching called Ghost Whisperer had appeared to be changing formats based on the "next on" advertising. I'd been willing to give it one more chance, but if it went the creepy horror route, I would stop watching. As it turned out, the advertising was misleading and the show continues along the path of Dead Like Me or Touched by an Angel where a person with a gift or special ability goes out and helps those in need.

These bits and pieces of information led me to an answer of sorts and the question above. What I didn't like in both those mainstream novels was not that the novels had no fantastical elements, was not that they plodded through "normal" life, but that the characters were not nice. Now, I don't mean to come across as wanting goodie two shoes as the main characters. In A Girl Named Disaster, the MC has nasty thoughts and does things that are definitely not nice. But they are provoked. Not only that, but she feels guilty about it as well. In The Secret Life of Bees, the MC treats her housekeeper like an idiot, is scornful of the woman's lack of culture and rough ways. I was given the argument that she's a product of her times and her culture. I personally believe people have the opportunity when faced with direct interaction that proves them wrong to grow beyond their culture. While it doesn't always happen, I'm not interested in reading books about the people who failed to do so. I see enough people failing to grow and be open to new information and ideas in real life. I don't want to spend my rare reading time with the same narrow-mindedness.

And the same held true for The Kite Runner, where a boy raised by a man who saw beyond the bigotry of his people chose instead to follow the example of his culture, even when it meant lying, stealing and condemning another. This type of behavior is not what I want to hang out with in my friends or in my reading time. With my friends at least, I can point out another perspective. With a book, you have to accept the character as it is written.

Maybe this is why I read so many romances. Though the characters usually start out in opposition because of misinformation, misunderstandings or just unresolved conflicts, as the novel progresses, they grow and change until they can see beyond their prejudice to recognize the other person's value. Now that's something I'd like to see more of in real life as well.

I find my own writing getting darker and harsher as I go along. I am a product of my environment and this is not something that brings me pleasure. Instead, what calls to me are those few souls, both in real life and in fiction, who offer of themselves to make the world a better place. It can be something as simple as my son volunteering to help at the school all on his own or something as huge as Lazette Gifford taking on Forward Motion so writers wouldn't be turned away at the door. I have to wonder how many other people would take these steps if instead of always watching and reading about doom and gloom, their environment reminded them of the good things. Reminded them that sometimes it only takes a smile to make a bad day into a good one, that helping others gives as much if not more than it costs and can cost as little as a moment to help someone figure out a bus schedule. You won't find these self-centered, egotist characters reaching out to help others, but there are enough books out there with people who feel responsible for their failings and who enjoy offering a little bit to others. These leave me with a smile rather than a frown.

Okay, I've given my reasons for my reading choices. How about you? If you like the type of books I'm panning, what draws you to them? (I'm not being facetious. I'm doing market research ;) and trying to understand.) And if not, what kinds of characters do catch your eye?