Friday, August 21, 2015

What makes a scifi world seem real?

My husband doesn't like fantasy. When we were dating he always told me he liked his science fiction real, with convincing science and logic holding its strange new worlds together - be they ours or alien planets in the future. So why does he love Game of Thrones? I think it's because the social science is so convincingly portrayed. The history hangs together. The characters act according to their nature, or else reveal their nature convincingly through action.

And what makes me enjoy science fiction and fantasy? To be honest, I like some logic too. Vampires for the sake of added vampire, fairy because we've already used up every other creature, or volcano because it fits the storyline will probably distract me. But creatures that build into essential parts of the plot--they'll hold my attention. And logic. Ex Machine is a brilliant movie! But deus ex machina is not a very convincing plot device.

Anyway, here are three science fiction novels I've read recently, staring with one that I absolutely loved. Grab a coffee and enjoy.

Ted Saves the World by Bryan Cohen is middle grade/young adult science fiction at its best, with age-appropriate affections, great characters, smooth humor, successful nerds, superpowers, and just enough left unexplained to keep the imagination's wheels a-turning. Watch out for the blue-light special, and read with some rich, elegant and complex four-star coffee.

Robin in the Hood by Diane J. Reed is a cool, fast romp through an almost modern world of robbing of banks, the bombing of enemies with red jello, occasional hints of murder, and a high-society girl fallen on bad times. It's also a tale of familial love and forgiveness, mysterious hidden societies, secrets and lies. All told with a cheerfully convincing teen voice, it makes for a fast fun furious read, best enjoyed with some lively, easy-drinking two-star coffee.

And then there's Adam’s Tiger by Lawrence Lapin. This one takes place much further in the future, after life on earth has been destroyed by a meteor strike. The mysterious Adam with his ark of frozen embryos and genetic engineering skills is trying to create a better world; one where man won't hunt creatures to extinction, and where populations will all be perfectly in balance. It sounds like Eden before the fall, but of course, there's humanity in the mix, waiting to fall again. No taste for religion in this one, and some rather odd attitudes to science (given our "success" with radiation, it seems a little odd to deliberately irradiate mice in search of better mutations...), it's a long slow novel, packed with intriguing detail, carefully imagined future history, and plenty of thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes dark and definitely intense, it's one to enjoy with a dark intense five-star coffee.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How do you build the world you already live in?

The first time I met the term "World-building" I wondered what it meant. I play lots of board games with my sons, so perhaps world-building meant the art of setting up rules so a game wouldn't be too easily lost or won. I watched my sons play lots of computer games and wondered if world-building was the writing of long lines of computer code to model the buildings, hills and roads. I read a lot of science fiction too. Is world-building the task of adding science to imagination so a new world makes sense? In historical fiction, is it the art of convincingly depicting a distant time? And in the present day?

The present day surely is what it is and doesn't need to be built. But what makes a reader believe in a novel? What creates that willing suspension of disbelief, that leaves us thinking these people lived real lives when we know they didn't? What keeps us turning pages to see what happened next to someone who never really existed?

I guess I'm convinced now that world-building is a part of every fiction, whether board game, computer game, book, movie, opera or more. World-building decides which pieces are needed to create a convincing whole. On the stage, where the whole won't fit, world-building dresses the set. In opera where the dialog's tuned to music, world-building dresses the notes with honest emotion. And in a novel of a present-day average widow falling in love, world-building adds those details that make me believe, she's human, she's real. Then I might care.

So here are some book reviews of titles set in the real world, in the present day. How real the world and characters seem might be a way to measure the author's world-building. So find coffee and see what you think. Meanwhile remember the ratings are there to help you know which coffee to drink as you read.

A Ripple In The Water by Donna Small invites readers to question preconceptions about rules of love and attraction. Can an older guy love a younger woman? Can an older woman love a younger guy? And how does the love of a parent learn to let go? Great details anchor this story in present day people and activities. Complex soul-searching invites the reader to search their own soul too. And a pleasingly honest relationship proves complex and hard to achieve. Enjoy this tale with some well-balanced, smooth, full-flavored three-star coffee.

A wonderful sense of place and weather anchors Aaron Paul Lazar's The Seacroft in the present day too, as two employees at a coastal mansion try to unravel the mysteries of their feelings for each other, loss and betrayal, and a curious employer who's husband is far from home. Sensual, with some serious but nicely drawn sex scenes, it's a story of love in its various forms, trust through all its betrayals, and hope; best enjoyed with a well-balanced, full-flavored three-star coffee.

Fairy Tale Murders by Kelly Money is set in present day Topeka. While I don't know the location and have never worked in a crematorium, the author's attention to detail makes me sure she knows both well. But details in the lives of every soon-dead victim somehow didn't make me feel for them. I'm not sure what that says about me. There's a nice contrast between strong female protagonist and women viewed as helpless by the killer. But there's a heavy darkness in this novel, so drink some bold, dark, intense five-star coffee as you read.

Khawla’s Wall by Andrew Madigan is set in the present day too, but in a very different part of the world, where women are veiled, poor men send money home to their families, and "wasta" is the hand that guides every aspect of life. The author brings his world and characters to vivid life, giving serious depth to their emotions and concerns, and offering a powerfully convincing glimpse behind veil and wall, as a young married woman takes the risk of a job, and a young man builds the wall she will hide behind. Enjoy this rich, elegant tale with a rich elegant four-star coffee.

Then come back for some science fiction reviews, coming soon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

When is a book just for kids?

As a child, I hated fairy tales. I'm not sure why. I loved my brothers' books of adventure stories. I even volunteered to clean my older brother's room so I could read his classics while dusting his bookshelf. But offer me the Snow Queen and I'd run a mile. Alice just felt wrong. Snow White might as well have been Red, but she certainly wouldn't be read by me.

As a young teen, I hated hearing the Hobbit read aloud to class. I therefore refused to read Lord of the Rings. I cleaned my parents' bedroom so I could "borrow" their library books while vacuuming. I loved the novel Oil. I loved one about a farmer trying to tame the top of a hill while his son tamed his love life. I loved... Oh, I just loved books... as long as they weren't fairy tales, or the Hobbit which I now know I had so clearly mis-classified.

As a mom... I still didn't read the sort of fairy tales I'd grown up on. But I read the new ones, the nuanced ones, the Paper Bag Princess... I read fairy tales that had something in them for grownups too. And my kids didn't hate fairy tales (or else they didn't tell me).

Just for reference, I now love the Hobbit, I love Lord of the Rings, I love Alice and all things Carroll, but I'm still not sure about the Snow Queen.

So when is a book just for kids? I'm not sure. I suspect when I review children's books, I'm looking for something that pleases both the child and the adult in me. If there are pictures, I don't want my inner child to complain they're not right. If there are concepts, I don't want my inner adult to say they're riskily simplified. If there's a storyline, I want a depth that lets me believe I can swim... and maybe that's it. I hated fairy tales because they kept me tied to my fairy-water-wings.

And maybe that's it. The best kids' books really aren't just for kids.

So skip the water-wings, grab a coffee, and read on for some children's (and not-so-children's) book reviews:

First is The Green Musician by Mahvash Shahegh, illustrated by Claire Ewart. The words and illustrations are beautifully matched in a story that encourages hope and persistence, evokes Persion history, and even includes characters who age convincingly - all in one short picture book. Enjoy with some well-balanced, smooth, full-flavored three-star coffee.

Another beautifully illustrated hardback is The Hunter’s Promise, An Abenaki Tale, by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. It's a story of mankind, nature, loyalty and love, deceptively simply and delightfully deep. The pictures have a haunting darkness of natural forest and stream, and it's a truly lovely book. Enjoy with some bold, dark five-star coffee.

Now I am Paper, by Uvi Poznansky, is illustrated by author/artist in beautifully simply and flowing style, perfectly complementing the poetry of the tale. Combining the honest truth of how wood becomes paper, with the poetic truths of whispering leaves, this is a delightful book to enjoy with a child and some elegant, complex four-star coffee.

Jess and Wiggle by Uvi Poznansky is beautifully illustrated too with an enjoyable mix of styles, combining harlequin cutout with a child's smoothly convincing facial frown (which of course, is turned to fun). It's fun and nicely untethered, perfect for any child with any caregiver to enjoy. Pour some well-balanced, smooth, full-flavored coffee to go with it.

Oliver and Jumpy 22-24, by Werner Stejskal, continues a long-running series of childrens picture books starring a svelte, well-dressed cat and a bouncing kangaroo. The writing has a read-aloud feel and the stories sound like ones a fond grandparent might tell as children gather around his knees. Computerized pictures are bright and fun, and kids, I'm sure, will continue to enjoy the series. Brew some crisp mild one-star coffee to drink as you read these ones.

Mommy What Do I Feel by Sagit Cohen has a slightly stilted style, but offers a nicely illustrated way of describing the sense of touch. It's part of a series of books for children on the five senses. Enjoy with some mild crisp one-star coffee, and see rabbits getting their feet wet.

Finally, here's a book that I thought would be for children, but probably isn't. It's aimed, I'd guess, more at teens and adults and would make a great resource for youth group or Sunday school (for all ages). The Life of Noah by Adrian Pelzer includes patriarchs, pharaohs and more, and is an intriguing combination of ancient and modern - see Noah playing computer games for example. Thought-provoking and fun, enjoy with some well-balanced smooth three-star coffee.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Where do books go when they die?

Ah, the scent of the used book store. Charing Cross Road in London is filled with noise, people, traffic... and books. There's the famous Foyles for the bright and new, a reminder that books are alive and vibrant and fun. Then there are the used book stores, with their peculiar, wonderful scent, and their peculiarly wonderful assortment of fascinating literature. Used, perhaps; rejected even; but these books most surely aren't dead.

Closer to home, Oregon has  Powells, where new and old books share the walls, stand side by side, and proudly complain, we're not dead!

And then... One of my book reviews today proved peculiarly elusive. Not listed on Amazon. Not listed on Barnes and Noble. Not listed on Powells. I tried Smashwords - perhaps it's "just" an ebook - but it wasn't listed there either. I'd only been given the book in May, and my review's just a month overdue. So I wondered, where could the book have gone to in so short a time, and where do books disappear to when they die.

Proving it's not quite dead, I eventually found the book on Goodreads and posted my review. But there's something sad about the fact that the buy link goes nowhere. It renews my determination to keep my books on sale, somewhere, somehow, even if my latest quarterly payment won't buy me a single cup of coffee.

You'll have to buy your own coffee while you read this blog, I guess. Meanwhile I'll  savor its scent and offer you book reviews. Don't forget, the stars are for flavor, not for ratings.

First, I guess, is that absent, semi-demised friend, The Mind of the Living, by J Kaihua. It's more of a short story really, slightly mystical, ponderous, and gorgeously illustrated. Enjoy its answers to the questions of mankind and happines with a suitably intense cup of five-star coffee.

The Last Orphans by N W Harris poses questions of happiness and survival in the guise of a teen horror novel where a teenager balances love for family against care for himself and others, ultimately ending up caring for a band of survivors when the world falls apart. Gory but relatively clean, it's one to enjoy with a suitably bold, dark five-star coffee.

Shadows over Somerset by Bob Freeman is contemporary horror for a more adult audience, but it adheres pleasingly to the old rules of horror, with an authentic feel of plot and counter plot, age-old protagonist, new member in ancient society, and powers greater than mankind. Lots more dark five-star coffee required when reading this classically terrifying tale.

Eternal Curse, Giovani’s Angel, by Toi Thomas is another contemporary horror tale, set around another dark American mansion. The romance is heavier, and the faith more real and weighty than in Somerset. But the backstories run to greater length making it a slower read. Enjoy with another dark five-star coffee, and then...

Twin Powers by David Pereda is more suspense than horror, though there are some pretty horrifying scenes. When a child is kidnapped, both parents find they have dangerous secrets to reveal. The Castro family's involved, but the book spans continents and is chock-full of action, sensual and otherwise. Enjoy with another dark intense five-star coffee---I seem to be drinking lots of five-star coffee at the moment.

But here's something completely different: Storyality, by J T Velikovskyy, claims to present a scientific and empirical analysis of movies in an attempt to determine how they go viral, returning high percentage returns on investment. The result's not terribly scientific, though it's certainly interesting. And the best bit, well-hidden more than half-way through, is the use of golden ratios to design your story/screenplay. Skip the pseudo-science, and jump to the spiral, while enjoying a mild one-star coffee. Then write a book or screenplay that doesn't die.