Book Review: Violins of Autumn

Book: Violins of Autumn by Amy McAuley

Series: (standalone)

Genre: YA WWII Historical Fiction (emphasis on women in the French Resistance)

Content for the Sensitive Reader: Three violent but not particularly graphic on-page deaths, amount of violence otherwise typical in WWII stories, some PG-13 and mild language scattered throughout, mild romantic themes.

BookmarkedOne Rating: 4/10

WARNING: Review does contain spoilers!

I picked up my copy of Violins of Autumn at the last Epic Library Book Sale (which has now been cancelled for the spring…*cries*). It had a really nice cover design and promised the exciting story of a young woman spy in WWII France.

What more did I need to know? Especially when violins were in the title?

A word of warning for oft-disappointed musicians like myself: Violins of Autumn refers to the D-Day code phrase. There is not a single violin in the book.

Which is fine. Mostly fine.

What I expected was a light and cheerful middle-grade novel about a teenage girl out to save the world from doom, darkness and your typical stereotypical Nazis. Something maybe a little unrealistic and too fluffy for the reality, but good-hearted enough to make me feel better about the world.

That is not what I got. The book is firmly YA. I was startled into the realization the first time we came across language completely inappropriate for a MG novel. In retrospect, I wasn’t the only one fooled by the book jacket design. It was smeshed in with the mostly middle-grade books at the sale.

So what was I in for? A gritty YA novel holding little back about the horrors of the war? One that gave you pulse-pounding excitement in a deeply-researched setting of what it meant to be alone in occupied France as a female spy? One that challenges the distinctions of who’s on the “right side” as the definition of who you can trust is blurred and undermines some of the “Nazi-monster” propaganda of the war by making them deeply erring humans rather than slaughtering German sausages?

Unfortunately not.

Violins of Autumn somehow walks the fine line between the two. And while I gladly would have read either, this middle ground just strikes me as lukewarm, poorly written, and not thoroughly researched.

Ouch.

I really do feel guilty saying that. The woman researched her book for seven years. I have no desire to mock someone’s tremendous effort. But frankly, there were little historical and plotting things that didn’t line up. Too much that felt like she was doing what everyone before her had done rather than creating something new.

A few examples?

Adele becomes a spy because a couple of soldiers in a London bar gave her the address. Sorry, but I’ve read too many unfortunate stories of people being jerks in bars to feel comfortable with this situation. It also feels way too easy to go wrong for the Resistance in general if all you have to do is have a funny accent in the local pub to find out where they are.

Adele is totally boy-crazy. Yeah, it’s fine. She’s an American girl who wants to have adventure and fall in love. Except she describes literally every male character she comes in contact with for longer than two minutes as if she’s ranking his value according to his appearance. Before the first chapter is over, she has three potential love interests, one of which is at least twice her age. Uncomfortable yet? As if the objectifying isn’t bad enough, she eventually emerges with two main love interests. When love interest 1 leaves, she’s passionately kissing love interest 2 in a ditch and having a conversation alone in a car that made me concerned this was going to be a very different type of YA book than I’d been prepared for. But oh, what shall we do about her apparent lovestruck situation with two boys?

Kill one of them off!

BookmarkedOne: *screams*

Okay, but seriously now. I have seen this plot device so many times. It drives me nuts. Let’s not have the girl make a mature, character-defining decision, let’s maker her totally subject to fate and make the choice for her!

Great! So now she’s probably going to marry love interest 2 with or without ever telling him about the passionate feelings for and behavior toward love interest 1.

BookmarkedOne: …

BookmarkedOne: why you two-timing little…

BookmarkedOne: And now I hate you.

Okay, so maybe I didn’t hate her as much as Sinbad of the Sea in the original Arabian Nights where I was practically stuffing junk food down my gullet while he suffered shouting “Just die already!” as I read. I still wanted Adele to make it out of the war alive and have a happy life. But I wasn’t really sympathizing as she went through the trauma of war. Or anything she had difficulty with. In my mind, she was now immature and a total jerk.

You can’t build a married life with somebody who forgets your existence the first moment you’re out of the room. So, yeah. I “ship” nobody in this book. Literally nobody.

(This is exactly why I hate love triangles, writing buddy!)

Moving on…

The writing style isn’t particularly wonderful. The author wanders off to talk about the trees or landscape or clouds in a way that makes me glaze over every time. Everything we know about the characters could be written on a 3″ by 5″ card each. Everybody has a tragic backstory and it’s told to you in dialogue rather than shown to you in characterization. And the characters are static for the most part. Very static.

And however much the author researched the book, the things she drops in feel more like tropes than anything else. Of course Adele is in solitary confinement when she gets captured. Of course she taps the Morse code against the walls. Of course she carries a cyanide pill in her pocket. Of course they pull out her fingernails. Of course.

Yes, all these things are at least marginally accurate. But by the end of the war, Nazi prisons were packed out. You’d probably have six people to a cell and rarely be in solitary unless you were a very, very important prisoner.

Which frankly, I’m not certain Adele is. Especially if they apparently “already know” everything she has to tell.

And pulling out her fingernails? Nazis were desperate for a labor force to keep the war going at this point. It’s far more likely they’d put her to work like Corrie Ten Boom building radios in a factory or Diet Eman doing laundry for the soldiers within the prison itself. Again, this is unless Adele was an incredibly important prisoner. Is she? Does she really deserve all this attention? She calls herself a liar, and probably could have worked her way out of it if she tried. Say she was out for a hike late at night with (one of) her boyfriend(s). Then her only crime is being out after curfew. If they already know everything about Resistance operations, why bother with her? If someone hiding Jews isn’t tortured at all, why take so much care with Adele?

Gut instinct tells me for plot. It’s an incredibly dissatisfying answer.

But the thing that irritated me the most about this inaccuracy?

Adele’s charm bracelet.

Early on, we’re introduced to the fact that Adele has one prized possession, a silver bracelet from her aunt. She’s clever enough not to wear something that valuable in public. Carries it in her pocket.

Including when she gets captured.

Clever girl, right? Hides it in the seam of her wool trousers. And escapes prison with it when her faithful friends raid a highly-guarded prison just to rescue her.

Okay, enough! This is ridiculous! Are we serious right now???

  • Problem 1: McAuley honestly describes the full-body search done at all prisons. What she tries to do is tame the situation somewhat by making the search overseen by other women. Afraid that’s not the case in reality. Men oversaw the search, and it wasn’t just once, it was often. Another form of psychological torture. There’s very little opportunity for smuggling, although, admittedly, it can be done.
  • Problem 2: Adele keeps her own clothes–not a prison uniform! And with them, the charm bracelet. She should have been given a uniform instantly after the search, wool trousers and charm bracelet gone forever.
  • Problem 3: It’s a charm bracelet! Why does nobody hear it jingling?
  • Problem 4: Adele happens to get the one “nice matron” in the entire prison. Apparently continuing her streak of ridiculous luck. None of the female guards in the story are nearly as scary as actual prisoners described them.
  • Problem 5: Adele’s buddies break her out of prison in broad daylight and get away with just her. That’s just not logical. The entire prison is full of people probably going to die after a little more torture, and they only care about her. Who in the Resistance is not only that selfish, but that wasteful? You broke in already, make use of your opening! Take everybody with you!
  • Problem 6: She’s still wearing the wool pants with the bracelet! Despite describing the temperature of the prison and apparently exchanging them for lighter attire!
  • Problem 7: They go back to Adele’s safe house in the middle of Paris as if everyone suddenly isn’t looking for her.
  • Problem 8: (my personal favorite) Denise buys her new charms for the bracelet at the end of the story. Her silver bracelet. As France is still trying to get rid of all the occupying soldiers. Black market or not, let’s be serious. Where are you getting custom silver charms, Denise? Where?

It’s as if at the end of the story, McAuley just threw her research aside for the sake of this bracelet illustration.

I don’t really find fault with the author for this. Historical fiction is super hard to write. They’re just little slip-ups, like asking for black coffee in occupied France, to borrow her own illustration. Things that make the careful reader realize this isn’t all it seems to be. If she’d had winning characters, a dazzling plot, and high-stakes adventure (or even one of the three), it could probably be overlooked.

As it is, the book drags. It feels as if the author herself couldn’t decide what sort of story she wanted to write and it just winds up being full of clichés. Another case, perhaps, of the lie of “write what you know.” She knows her material so well, none of it seems exciting or important enough to draw attention to. It’s just a passing thing.

Sorry. It’s true.

Yeah. Violins of Autumn. It’s fine. Nothing particularly objectionable. Just not for me.

So next week I’m probably going to be writing a blog post about all the WWII books I’ve come across and could actually enthusiastically recommend.

‘Till then.

Reading Update: May 18th, 2020

Writing Status: …

Just finished another fantasy short story. I was a smidge worried about the reception since I’d written the better half of it during final exams…and, well, that’s not a good idea at the best of times.

I massacred an entire city of people in a NaNoWriMo project for the sake of backstory and didn’t even realize until I was reworking the story a couple of months ago. Then there was the inevitable

“Wait, I did what now?”

This short story had nightmares coming to life and a super spiteful/violent main character…I was aware of these features while writing it, so I gave my alpha readers a big warning: yes, I’m fine, no, I don’t need therapy, please prepare yourselves because this might get weird and I’m not sure what else slipped in at 2 a.m. when I wasn’t looking.

To be fair, I love the main character in all her deadly glory and think the monster sequences were fairly mild…but my opinion doesn’t matter. I wrote the thing.

The result?

Alpha Reader no. 1: Ships two main characters that were not meant to be shipped, is my most finicky reader and had no problem with the violence, thinks this is one of my best stories…

*screams in agony at having characters “shipped” when there is no romantic attraction again.*

Frankly, most of my stories have a romantic thread to them. A very slim romantic thread. Understated. Subtle. This one did not. I waited to see what my other readers would say before considering a massive rewrite.

Alpha Reader no. 2: ships none of the characters, generally likes monster stories, entertained by my careful dodging of tropes.

It’s actually a lot easier to dodge tropes than you think if you don’t know them. Or at least that seems to be the case with me. No. 2 is far more widely read in horror than I ever will be.

Anyway.

Alpha Reader no. 3: ships none of the characters, is reminded of acquaintances and happenstance from his youth, grumbles about having to go back to work after reading on lunch break. May have been holding dangerous thoughts toward me for creating inopportune suspense.

I love it when they say that. There are few things better than having all three readers arguing at full volume over the story while I can sit back and let the speculation grow rampant.

No. 3 described the possible romantic inclination as just a teenage boy having a crush–casually brushing it off and letting me breathe again. Boys fall in love at the drop of a hat at that age, he said, and of course why wouldn’t he when the girl was as awesome a monster-killer as that?

So I may change nothing, and just send the story to Writers of the Future as-is at the end of next month. Or maybe I’ll have a lightning strike of brilliance and write something entirely new.

Finishing a story though, usually means I have a little bit of an emotional slump. Modern life is so boring when there aren’t dragons and little needle-toothed monsters waiting to tackle you around every corner.

I had a nasty case of writer’s block. I was typing, but everything felt like gaggingly mawkish fluff.

Solution? Read a book. Not any book. A good book. Which leads us to:

Reading Update: Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell!

Yes. Very much yes. If you love heights and music and middle-grade fiction, this is a book for you.

I swallowed it whole in less than 24 hours.

I think I’ve been a little book-deprived.

I feel very much better. Like I could write something good again. Thieves and odd Victorian ladies living in the jungle, perhaps. Something whimsical and heart-wrenching.

Won’t say much more since I plan to make a full review…but still, it’s a wonder how I always seem to forget how good a book can make life feel.

Happy reading, all.

Writing Update: May 12, 2020

My writing brain tends to click on at the most inopportune times.

One o’clock in the morning on a regular basis. While moving house. During university finals.

So here I am, craziest time of the year, elbow-deep in urban fantasy.

Again.

Can’t say I’m anything but perfectly happy about it. It’s not great for getting work done, but when you’re spending all the free time you don’t have with a paranormal-style/Peter Pan vibe/nightmare creature/urban fantasy/super rude and snarky wizard girl…

…things could be worse.

It’s a story I’ve been trying to write officially since the end of March. And it’s finally starting to fall into place. So I’m not about to gripe that I’m too busy to have inspiration or write.

What else have I been doing?

  • Played a violin jury barefoot in my bookroom because virus meant everything was submitted by video and the camera wasn’t showing my feet anyway (Hobbit-child’s tacit rebellion against shoes was strong that day),
  • Tried not to have “dead-fish-face” while performing after last semester’s jury comments
  • Had existential breakdown and reconsidered almost all of my life choices after listening to said jury recordings because I hate hearing my mistakes, submitted them and died a little inside,
  • Discovered the “h” and “0” keys on my keyboard are starting to stick from being violently pounded too often during passionate writing sessions, leaving me highly irritating typos to find later,
  • Googled for images of combat boots, obsidian pendants, and actual bar slang/cocktails from the 1920s (only writers will understand why),
  • Sent incoherent text messages and emails to writing buddies/friends also in the rush of end-of-year things that make literally no sense in or out of context but assure us all that we’re still alive and at least partially functioning,
  • Scrambled to finish the last of my university finals while hunting through my brain for a single shred of willpower to keep studying.

…which is what I should be doing now.

In a few more days, things will be back to normal…or whatever level of weirdness is normal for me and my book dragons. Am fully planning to celebrate my escape of stress with ice cream and a lot of writing time.

Priorities, right?

Until then, happy reading!

Writing–so very worth it in the end

So about four months ago, I submitted another short story to the Writers of the Future Contest. Urban fantasy. New York. Tabby cat. Ink and glass. The usual works.

And as always, I went through the same phases of “submit-a-story-trauma.”

Feel free to read the gibbering little blog post on it…or let be enough to say that by the time I submitted a story this quarter, just few weeks ago, I was absolutely certain the urban fantasy story was a steaming pile of garbage that needed a massive rewrite and probably incorporation into the novel it was planned for rather than going it alone as a story. Not to mention the fact that I’d heard nothing from the contest–not even the usual “Sorry, better luck next time.”

I really thought they hated it.

Except…I was wrong.

Tuesday I got the email…my story got an honorable mention.

Brainfreeze is the wrong word. Brainblob or “who do what now?” are probably more accurate.

Having gotten honorable mentions before or not, this did not compute.

No way.

I spent almost ten minutes rifling through computer files to make absolutely certain it was the story I was thinking of. The one that I hit submit for only because I’d actually finished it and why not?

Yup, that was the one.

Reaction?

Stared at the ceiling.

Ran around my house for a while. Did not cry from sheer disbelief atop stressful life situations (don’t judge). Spoke in fragmented two and three word sentences trying to articulate to a loved one exactly what had just happened. Seriously, anyone who says writers are good with words should try talking to one for longer than 60 seconds. Fortunately, my loved ones are (mostly) used to me by now. Interpretation didn’t take long.

And now?

Now I’m still shaking my head a little that they liked the story. Hoping everybody (me included) takes this as one more reason to defy the terror attached with smacking the button for “submit.”

Editing a little of the very first story I ever submitted to WOTF (and literally haven’t touched since 2016 because I thought it was a lost cause) while listening to Oonagh’s beautiful “Zauberwald.” The two seem to belong together.

But for right now…

I’m taking the afternoon off. I think I’ve had enough pressure on myself the last couple of weeks, and no deadlines are threatening doom over my head. So I’m going to take a deep breath. See what it feels like. Waste some time, even.

Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

Until then.

Do and Don’t Read

I don’t read because I think it makes me sound cool.

I don’t read to learn new things.

I don’t read so I can say I’ve read it.

I don’t read because someone else tells me to.

I don’t read so I can seem smarter than everyone else.

I don’t read because the book has won awards or sold millions of copies.

I don’t read because whatever the book is about actually happened.

I don’t read to better understand complicated social issues.

I don’t read so I can run a book blog.

I don’t read so I can talk about books.

I don’t read so I can argue about whether the story was any good or not later.

I don’t.

I read because I need to.

I read because if I don’t I can’t stand hearing all the thoughts in my head screaming at me how starved they are for words.

I read because I’m lonely.

I read because I need to disappear. I need the world to disappear.

I read because the world is boring and I want to see something new.

I read because I want to see dragons.

I read because I need words.

Because I get book-hungry.

I don’t.

I devour books like a ravenous wolf.

I tear them apart and let them do the same to me.

I shout, I cry, I make strange faces that earn stares from the odd passerby.

I earn terrible library late fines.

I open the cover and climb inside so I can forget about the world.

I hike up a mountain of pages to find what book is waiting at the top, what forgotten secrets it holds.

I fall in love and let my heart be broken time after time.

I meet old friends and make new ones and throw others away because they betray my trust.

I climb mountains, feel the wind in my hair, race horses across green meadows where the shadows flicker from distant clouds,

I spend the night staring up at the stars peeking between the deep black sky with a red fire at my feet,

I feel the weight of a sword and the weight of a heavy book.

I dwell in a realm entirely my own, a bulwark of bookshelves the fortress walls, ignoring thrones of overstuffed chairs and sitting gemütlich on the floor.

I spend hour after hour alone. In a book. Sitting still.

Far away. In another world. I can’t say I ever really was alone.

Reading Update: April 11, 2020

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

I may be falling in love.

It would be nice, I think, if I fell in love with a gentleman of a book for a change. The last one I fell in love with was The Kingkiller Chronicle. I have not fully recovered as of yet. Thinking on it too long only brings the threat of screaming and/or tears.

But this book has whispered sweet, innocent promises like a summer breeze carrying the scent of strawberries. Things I’ve always loved, things I’ve never seen, tucked into pages, neat as you please. The sort of book you’ve never met before, but reading feels like coming home.

Within the opening of The Neverending Story I have

  • Met a curmudgeonly book hoarding dragon of a man who reminds me strikingly of Elinor from Inkheart (and yes, probably myself in some version of the world as well),
  • Wanted to tackle the main character with a hug because he’s so perfectly imperfect, childishly illogical, and actually goes and does the horribly irresponsible things we all secretly wanted to,
  • Read sublime descriptions that make the world spring to life in a vision of full color without being overwhelming–a feat and a half in itself,
  • Already read several gorgeous bookish lines that may be worthy of being etched on my walls (don’t ask about the writing on the walls thing. We all have our bad habits–biting our nails, sleeping too late, eating raw cookie dough–and inopportune calligraphy is one of mine).

I’ve heard this book compared to Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart (another book love of mine) enough to be curious–German author, book in a book in a book, fantasy, what are you waiting for–and after it was highly recommended by a friend, I snagged an (almost) new-condition copy from an Epic Library Sale.

It sat on the shelf for a while, somewhere behind Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern and between the LeGuin books and The Riddle of the Wren. Waiting until the special rainy-day when I’d pick it up and read it.

Well, it rained today. The brilliant kind of white-fire lightning I like best. And a local theater is planning the story as a play in a few months. So it seemed like it was time.

I hope it suits me perfectly. It is so satisfying to find a book you can completely love.

Writing Status: Unblocked, but who has time to write?

After shipping off my latest short story to the Writers of the Future Contest…and reading the Vol. 36 ARC…and the usual April madness of university life…writing has been taking a mini break.

Mostly.

When I can’t think straight because a new character is stomping and doing trampoline flips on my brain, then I have to write it down. And I’ve had a couple new characters demand attention in the last couple of days–not I’ve had to go looking for them, but that they’ve just stepped directly in front of me and started spilling the stories.

Of course they have busy lives of their own and don’t care the slightest fraction of a dirty coin I might have other things going on.

Which, to be fair, neither do I.

So I’ve been happily plunging down the futuristic fantasy/sci-fi rabbit hole, or climbing to the distant sky, as happenchance would have it, following the threads of my last short story deeper into the world I discovered.

I never really considered writing in this direction. Into this futuristic thing instead of medieval fantasy. It’s all the fault of one exceptionally infuriating character I let in one day…on another rainy day, perhaps.

The kind of day strange new things can happen.

If you’re a writer.

Or a book.

Love books? Do please stay to chat! Half the fun of reading is sharing the stories you like best.

ARC Review: Writers of the Future Vol. 36 (Part II)

Picking up where we left off yesterday,

“Making Collaboration Work for You or Co-writing with Larry and Sean” by Sean Williams

Another segment of writing advice, and probably good…but to be frank, it sounds so mercenary to my ears.

I started collaborating with a friend about a year ago. We didn’t plan to launch ourselves at the NY Times Bestseller List. We didn’t quibble about who was right or where we were going.

We were just in it for the adventure.

Maybe later I’ll get more cynical and realize the worth of what he writes, but for now, I’m happy with the flow of words tumbling one over the other.

If I get stuck, I’ll know where to look.

“The Phoenix’s Peace” by Jody Lynn Nye (based on the cover art)

Trigger/Content Warning: cultish religion, romantic relations depicted in some detail.

Confession: I have been wanting to read a Jody Lynn Nye story since the last Writers of the Future volume came out and have not been able to get my hands on one. My public library did not have a single one! What atrocity!

Reading this one…didn’t quite live up to the expectation.

It wasn’t the fact that it featured priestesses in a fantasy cult of an egg. It’s just that I apparently get super irritated when a couple gets into a romantic relationship after only hours of being together.

Really? Why? It just feels like a plot point.

From that perspective, I couldn’t help finding it a more descriptive version of Eragon with a girl and a phoenix (at about 80x speed) instead of a boy and a dragon.

Pity. I was hoping this story would be one of her humorous ones.

Rating: 2/5

“Educational Tapes” by Katie Livingston

Dystopia ahoy! This story had a lot of things going for it. Interesting characters, different form, good solid worldbuilding–the artwork for this one was gorgeous too.

The religion/government structures feels a bit like a weird cultish Christianity, which I’m not fond of. But I think that’s my only complaint.

Definitely a school story more in my style.

Rating: 4/5–excellent, but not quite life-altering.

“Trading Ghosts,” by Mason Matak

Trigger/Content Warning: casual use of religious imagery, clearly implied sexual content.

Again, my pet peeve of existing religion being repackaged for fantasy/sci-fi purposes. Why would someone think it unoffensive to have a nun run a bar complete with prostitutes?

Aside from that, the imagery is quite thorough. I can imagine the gritty world perfectly…even if there is little reason for me to enjoy it.

Rating: 2/5

“Stolen Sky,” by Storm Humbert

This one was quite gorgeous, artwork included. The different interplanetary races were fascinating and the description of each sunset equally beautiful as the artist’s depiction. The Hobbit-sized main character was easy to relate to from the first page. She was so sweet and innocent, yet determined at the same time.

Not to mention the otherworldly song at the beginning–you know that sparked my musician’s imagination!

The plot, however, felt like a faint mirror of “Europe colonizes the world,” repackaged. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but I prefer SF/F to be an imagining of what could be, rather than a reliving of what was. Still worth the read.

Rating: 4/5

“Breaking In,” by Mike Perkins

Trigger/Content Warning: 1 instance strong language

Another essay of advice, this one for illustrators. Charming in its own right, just the same.

“The Winds of Harmattan,” by Nnedi Okorafor

Trigger/Content Warning: sexual imagery

It’s quite fascinating to see a fantasy story with African roots. And this story was researched down to the smallest detail and packed with imagery. I could picture the marketplace and garden perfectly.

The story itself wasn’t quite my style. I was too disappointed after being introduced to flying people that ours never actually got in the sky, instead being locked in a story more about gender and society than fantasy.

Pity.

Rating: 3/5

“As Able the Air,” by Zack Be

Trigger/Content Warning: sexual imagery

The surprises in this one were quite good–especially the fact that the author didn’t keep anything from the reader. I simply didn’t pick up on things because of my expectations. A good story for AI in warfare and the loneliness of humans.

And so much purple in the illustration! The world needs more purple like this.

Rating: 3/5

“Molting Season,” by Tim Boiteau

Trigger/Content Warning: sexual content

This one was a bit strange for me, but remember, I’m more a high fantasy girl than a H.P. Lovecraft/horror type. Still, a gentleman too polite to know what to do when someone’s broken into his house and is on the couch asleep–that’s quite amusing.

As for the rest of it…well, it felt as if someone were trying to interpret the moody poems everyone writes in junior high (because apparently that is a traumatic experience?) that I read judging contests in the spring. Maybe it really is about a strange dystopian future where skeleton-like creatures book hotel rooms in industrial cities…and maybe we shouldn’t ask too many questions and just give the poet a cookie and some warm milk and ask if they need to talk.

Probably reading into this too much after that poetry contest…

Rating: 2/5–just not my thing.

“Automated Everyman Migrant Theater,” by Sonny Zae

I thought this one was going to be a favorite, theater and Shakespeare and a circus vibe…but it turned out to be just too noisy for my tired brain. I’m sure the allusions to Conneticut Yankee and Death of a Salesman would have amused someone else, but I was lost trying to remember who all the characters were. And being robots (perhaps intentionally), most of their characterization was static and rather flat.

I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Rating: 2/5

“The Green Tower,” by Katherine Kurtz

This one was more my style, with the familiar high fantasy setting. It felt very good after so much sci-fi in the volume to settle back into a good stone castle. But in the end, it felt more like a coming-of-age story, or political courtly drama, or a history to Katherine Kurtz’s books I haven’t yet read.

It’s so hard to encapsulate all of fantasy in the short form.

Rating: 3/5

Final Conclusion?

I almost always have this reaction to anthologies. Usually there’s one or two I love ( “Borrowed Glory!” “Yellow and Pink!”), and the rest I don’t really care for, regardless of what accolades they’ve gotten. I am one of the world’s pickiest readers.

On the other hand…

The stories I fell in love with were definitely worth the trip. The sense of adventure at the heart of them, the setting stitched so completely into the story, the sweeter romances, the sense of family,

That’s the kind of fantasy and sci-fi I like.

So three huzzahs for the winners, and back to writing with me.

Happy reading!

ARC Review: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Vol. 36

So! Time to plunge into all things science fiction and fantasy with this year’s collection of the best of the best contest winners.

A few explanations and bookkeeping notes before we start:

Writers of the Future, and the accompanying Illustrators of the Future is an international contest for writers (and artists) in the field of science fiction and fantasy. The rules? Write a super awesome story that stuns the coordinating judge David Farland, who has seen and read every SF/F plot (twice), into weepy, awed silence in 17,000 words or less.

It’s even more difficult than it sounds. I’ve entered six stories myself, so believe me when I say the winners of this year’s contest deserve the world’s notice.

As for reviewing the book?

Yes, I received an advanced reader copy from the publisher. No, that will not change the way I do my reviews if I can help it. I can be a brutally honest and a curmudgeonly writing critic regardless of if the book was free.

I also think it’s unfair to rate an anthology as a whole when every story is so stunningly different…so I’ll be rating each one individually, and you can judge for yourself if you think the anthology is worth a read.

“The Trade” by C. Winspear

Trigger/Content Warning: 1 instance strong language, mild language, 1 violent death.

This turned out to be one of my favorite stories of the anthology. Presenting one Lena Sokolov, astronaut, and beautifully conflicted character. In one brief story, Lena must decide between what she wants, who she loves, and what the world needs. She is set in the sort of situation you can spend a week contemplating, wondering if there ever was a right answer all along.

That being said…it did verge a little on being just an essay of “what is ethical for this situation…” but not enough to be too distracting.

What I loved about this one the most? There’s no real way to put it, but a lot of SF/F stories have a–wanderlust. The reason we write this genre is because we constantly want to experience something new–what’s beyond the next horizon? Can we really ride on the back of the sinking sun? Tell us, show us, let us taste and feel.

So many stories I’ve read recently haven’t had that feeling. This one embodied it to its core.

Also, the artwork was super gorgeous. I’m not even going to attempt to describe it. Too good.

Rating: 3/5: Good, but didn’t stir me deeply as others.

“Foundations” by Michael Gardner

Trigger/Content Warning: mild language, some skeleton/horror imagery.

Confession: I don’t read much horror, so to me, this was a bit weird.

But weird can be said for most of the stories in the SF/F genre, and this one was also a sweet fantasy horror story about father/daughter relationships and family.

It’s refreshing once in a while to have a story that takes the family side of things rather than the trope of “parents-must-die-so-adventure-continues.”

Even though I really wanted more worldbuilding. So many little things–! Where did the houseless live? How did one become tied to a house? Where were we? When were we?

I’m guessing the grumbly questions just mean I liked it more than I’m willing to admit.

Rating: 3/5: Interesting, but plot is somewhat guessable for someone who’s read a lot of these, and horror is not my personal style.

“A Word That Means Everything,” by Andy Dibble

Trigger/Content Warning: innuendo, religious themes in science fiction context.

It’s a personal pet peeve when existing religion is repackaged for story purposes. This story didn’t do that, but the similarity was enough to make me fear the trope monster hiding under the bed.

The fact that I can’t claim to be a Biblical scholar aside, the concept of the story was fascinating. Presenting two translators locked in an argument over a single word, over language, over the ever-present question of how religion in fantasy or science fiction actually could exist.

Smack in the middle of a dystopian, multiple-planetary world with Cthulhu vibes. Well-researched, too.

My complaints? The characters were so petty! Pius spends as much time being hateful as he does translating, and very little time praying, which you would think an evangelist would do. It’s further ironic that despite arguing over a single word, the main characters unhesitatingly accept the “old earth” theory with millions of years…and I know more than a few Christians who would fight to the death over that one.

Religion in sci-fi. Never yet seen it perfect. Exceptional attempt, though.

Rating: 3/5

“Steps in the Right Direction,” R. Walton Willems and L. Ron Hubbard

I tend not to say too much about writing advice…at least not until I’ve used it for a while. So we’ll skip ahead for now, and if my writing is suddenly illuminated by brilliance, we may have another blog post.

“Borrowed Glory” by L. Ron Hubbard

My personal favorite of the anthology–tied with “Yellow and Pink.”

AAH! Tear my heart out, will you?

This is actually the first time I’ve read an L. Ron Hubbard short story–everything else I’ve gotten my grubby claws on was an essay or writing advice (usually both). I didn’t really have expectations.

If I had, they would have been blown to bits in disbelief.

Oh, this story.

It reminded me of a lot of Tolstoy short stories, and fit my reading tastes perfectly. Meredith and Tommy–this is the sort of love story I really can appreciate. Just when I was starting to think it was impossible in the genre and give up on it entirely.

Artwork for this one also beautiful. I have a weakness for rich colors, and the illustrations of the anthology made that very clear.

Rating: 4/5–opening somewhat lackluster, cannot reconcile myself with tragic ending.

“Catching My Death” by J. L. George

Trigger/Content Warning: strong language, implied unconventional relationship

Everybody has their own death, as much a part of them as their identity. But what if that death is about the size of a mixing bowl, and warm and fluffy like a cat?

I can say with some certainty in all my fantasy wanderings, I’ve never seen death like that. Caught with butterfly nets and carried everywhere. Put it on the shelf next to the “affable” Death in The Book Thief.

I’m less keen on the social/political side of it–I’ve always been an adventure rather than political drama girl–but that’s my personal taste.

Rating: 3/5

“A Prize in Every Box,” by F. J. Bergmann

Trigger/Content Warning: 1 instance strong language, heavily implied adult content in television show.

The plot is one we’ve seen before…but hey, why not have miraculous things as prizes in your cereal instead of cheap toys? Couldn’t the future be the age of wonders for everyone? Especially for kids who want to help each other?

If only it didn’t fall into the school story trope bullies and distant, unintelligent parents…

Rating: 3/5–interesting, but plot and setting too familiar to be really engaging.

“Yellow and Pink,” by Leah Ning

Personal Favorite (tied with “Borrowed Glory)

ARE ANY OF THESE STORIES HAPPY ONES? AAAAAAAH!

I had tears in my eyes at the end. I’m probably going to burst into sobs a month from now and have everyone stare at me just because I’m looking at a yellow daisy.

Murdery time travelers with gorgeous romance, anybody?

So stunning.

The half of Writers of the Future Vol. IX that I read was horrible when it came to girl characters in romance. Every last one irritating and dull. But between Meredith and Tommy in “Borrowed Glory” and Nathan and Holly in this story–could someone please write a sweet fantasy romance like this with a happy ending, now that you’ve restored my faith that it exists?

Excuse me while I stare at a wall and pretend I’m not crying.

Rating:…yeah, 5/5.

To be continued…

There are too many stories in the anthology for me to write about them all in one post without it becoming longer than anyone is willing to read, so we’ll stop on my favorite for now.

A link to the Writers of the Future blog for the curious:

For writers: come join me in this contest and see what weird and beautiful things we can add to David Farland’s reading pile!

For illustrators: contest for you too!

As always, happy reading. More stories are on the horizon.

A Brief Book Blog Post

So a big drumroll please, because tomorrow, Writers of the Future Vol. 36 is released!

And somehow I made it onto the advanced reader list for one of the biggest science fiction and fantasy anthologies of the year.

One does not turn down that opportunity, however madcap the schedule. So in between the usual life stuff, I’ve been spending my week with more friendly neighborhood automatons, time travelers with vicious intent, and fluffy deaths than usual.

By slightly, at least.

For those of you not familiar with the science fiction and fantasy writing contest world, please feel free to check out the official Writers of the Future blog and be amazed…

I’m planning on a blog post ranting about each of the stories in at least a little detail (without spoilers), but it doesn’t look like that will happen tonight…somebody has a paper to write, even if all the goblins of a greenwood are sitting in a line on her desk, eating crumpets and drinking tea.

And since I’ve been most politely forbidden from sharing any of the other awesome artwork included in the volume until the release, do please take an extra minute to notice the cover art at the beginning of the post. It’s just a sample of the glorious color and loveliness inside.

So happy early birthday to the book!

More to come soon!

Never-reads

Falling in love and wishing I hadn’t…

There are some books I can’t read. Not because I don’t want to. Simply because I can’t.

I realize this doesn’t make any sense. I have a world of words and my fingertips. Any book I want, I can hunt out, even if it takes me years. I’ll find it, from the Prose Eddas to The Revenge of Magic or the latest Cornelia Funke book yet to be translated to English.

But out of those thousands of millions of wonderful words, there are some books I just can’t read.

Game of Thrones. Buttercup’s Baby (Yup, the sequel to Princess Bride you didn’t realize existed). Thieves’ World. King of Scars, Amanda-Miranda (started all these and gave up). The Wise Man’s Fear (for the moment. Somebody hand me any form of chocolate to drown my tears in please).

Same idea with TV series–Game of Thrones again, Carnival Row, The Witcher. Super awesome worldbuilding and gorgeous sets, huge fandoms ready to embrace reenactments and nerd cons.

I want to hear their stories. I want to plunge headfirst into their worlds. I want to see them shake the reality I know into confetti and then magic it back into stone.

Just can’t.

I’ve thought a lot about this. And I keep coming back to what someone who knows me well said:

As close as I can remember it (she’s forgotten this occasion herself by now), “I don’t think you actually read books. It’s like you live them as the character and feel what they feel.”

It was one of those horrible moments when she didn’t realize just how right about me she was.

I read once that when you watch someone do something, your brain is making the same synaptic connections as if you were doing the action yourself–essentially, your brain knows how. And the only thing barring you from doing it is teaching your muscles to make the motions.

I think the same thing happens with books.

For whatever reason (a Quixote-style book overdose, hazards of being a writer, just inborn personality), there’s no division for me when I’m reading between reality and what’s on the page. As long as I’m in the story, that’s what’s real. Westley, Buttercup, Kvothe, Auri, Elodin, fairies, goblins, monsters, warriors, humans–doesn’t make a smidgen of difference. That’s what’s real. And I’m there with them, climbing Mount Doom to chuck a ring of power into lava, feeling the sting of a broken lute string across my hand.

It’s not just being there, watching them. It’s slipping inside their skin and looking out through their eyes.

Everything they feel, I feel. I’m there.

So if something wonderful happens, Runaway King style snark, I’m elated. On top of the world. I’ve felt the glory of a faerie feast and heard the rhythm of pounding drums. I’ve gone and seen so many beautiful things. If I close my eyes right now, I can still imagine the Hall of Fire in Elrond’s house, when we readers of the Fellowship see Arwen look at Aragorn for the first time. It’s all there.

But with every story, there are terrible things too.

Most of the time, I don’t mind them. The horrible plague-infested world of Avi’s Crispin? Not a problem. Fighting orcs with Samwise Gamgee? My afternoon is clear. Even living three years in Tarbean with Kvothe, slowly feeling as if you’re going insane? I’m there until the end. The very end.

But there are some points that even my loyalty breaks. Sometimes there are things I just can’t take.

I can’t keep watching through the eyes of a character during rape. I can’t sit there and watch as they walk down a road that’s going to lead to a horrible fate. I can’t listen to other characters curse them with a thousand deaths. I’m there. I can’t just observe.

Nobody who stood in those shoes would.

I know as well as any writer that hard, sad stories can’t be ignored. I struggle with the balance of it every time I write.

But I wonder if other writers would be as eager to shock and dramatize things no one should experience if they knew there was someone out there like me. Would they look me in the eye and wish me to feel everything their characters did?

Reading isn’t living. It isn’t close to the same. But once I’ve seen things, abuse, curses, betrayal, something shatters inside me every time. Maybe it’s because every time I read a good book, I fall a little bit in love.

And I’ve also been blessed (or cursed) with a needle-sharp memory. When it comes to stories, especially book-trauma, I never forget.

I can’t forget. It’s there forever.

And if I fall head over heels for the book?

It’s worse.

I can eventually forget some things about characters I didn’t fall in love with. It’s different when they’re more than real. When they’re better than anything I could have dreamed.

That’s why I won’t read the big names like Game of Thrones. Not because I think it’s worthless and I won’t like it. It’s because I know I probably will–and after rumors I’ve heard, that’s even scarier.

There are short stories I read over a year ago I still can’t think about without hurting. Stories I didn’t even really like. Once I stumbled out of reading something, suddenly hugged a loved one, and started sobbing on a shoulder. No explanation. Other times, it’s like trying to end an abusive relationship–still love him, but you know it’s never ever going to work out, so it’s probably better you don’t try. Pass around the cold pizza and hand out the fluffy socks. Let’s watch a super violent movie with nonexistent character arcs and forget the world exists. Tomorrow will be another day and we can believe in love then. Not now.

I have no idea if anyone else reads like this, the way I do. But from little hints and guesses, things people answer, things I say that stick out in conversation like an eggplant in a field of strawberries…

I begin to think it’s just me.

Maybe that’s for the best.

Elinor in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart once said that books “love anyone who opens them.” It’s not true. Books bite.

So I’ve gotten to be a bit like Inkheart’s Dustfinger. I’ve gotten very careful to guard my silly writer’s heart.

I’ve learned a time or two what it feels like when it breaks.

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started