Thursday, March 30, 2017

Does the Real World Hide Behind Fictional Fear?

Fear wears many different faces in novels I've read recently. In one, a dying woman is afraid for the daughters she'll leave behind. Others fear revelations from the past and struggle not to touch its memories. One woman is convinced her memories are false because nobody believed them--now she calls herself insane. There's a man who fears, very sensibly, how misguided decisions will effect his land and neighbors. Another fears the end of the world; yet another, the end of the world as he's imagined it. Some take action to end their fears, others start more fear, and others hide. But all these fears can be seen as mirrors held up to the present world. Do we hide behind our fear? Do we hide our fears in fiction? Or does fiction help us explore and recognize fear so we can act wisely instead of hiding?

Find a mug, pour some coffee, and decide which fears and which books you'd like from these.

In South California Purples by Baron R Birtcher, rancher Ty Dawson can see trouble looming (and a gruesomely dead cow). The world of 1973 is changing, but he channels his fear for the future into wise care for the present, even taking on the unwanted task of preserving law and order for a fast-growing crowd of environmentalists, hippies and bikers. The story's told with unflinching detail, lyrical prose, fast action, and a wonderful sense for people, time and place. And it's set in my beloved Oregon. What more could you ask for? Some well-balanced, full-flavored three-star coffee perhaps?

As Close As Sisters by Colleen Faulkner takes place on the opposite coast, where four girls who grew up together now face forces that might drive them apart. One might be dying. Another contemplates having a child. A third is entering a new relationship. And a fourth keeps secrets for them all. Fear of living, fear of dying, fear for the future, fear for the secrets of the past--all these are in this novel, where communication just might hold the key to moving on. Enjoy with some elegant complex four-star coffee.

More wounded women star in Outrageous by Neal Katz, the first in a sequence of books depicting the real life of Victoria Woodhull. Home life, filled with abuse, is truly terrifying, but Vickie learns to trust the company of women over that of men, and finds solace as well as fear in spirits. The real world, life and scandals are truly outrageous, but the characters are achingly human. And fears are truly overcome. I wish it was more than just part one of the story though. Well-balanced with well-told research, this is one to enjoy with a well-balanced three-star coffee.

Play House by Saikat Majumdar is set in India. The Play House in question might be the theater where a boy's mother works as an actress. It might be the home run by his grandmother, where mother is soon unwelcome. Maybe it's the apartment, never quite a home, where the mother plays at being mom. Or is it the house in the young boy's mind, where he puts together half-images, draws half-conclusions, and brings the whole construction down on everyone? This is a truly absorbing haunting novel, filled with the fears of adolescence, and best enjoyed with some dark five-star coffee.

Nos4a2 by Joe Hill is meant to scare you, of course. It's horror fiction at its best, building terror on a seriously cool premise, and contrasting good and evil in the form of a woman who thinks she's crazy but dearly loves her son, and a man who truly is crazy and loves all children. I was lost from the very first mention of a bridge between lost and found, and didn't find myself again until the end. Enjoy with some seriously rich, dark, five-star coffee.

Similarly, 1999 by Stanley Baldwin is meant to scare readers. Of course, the dreaded Y2K has been and gone, but this depiction of religious fervor and fear remains as a haunting warning against seeing answered prayer in the temptations of success. A father is drawn into the web of a charismatic teacher. His wife is subtly torn down and driven to despise herself. And his career, his work for God is blooming, except... Well, you'll have to read it if you can find it. I really enjoyed how1999 is simultaneously wise, scary, entertaining, non-preachy, and a really good read. Pour some dark five-star coffee to go with it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Does the real world hide behind fantasy?

Does the real world hide behind fantasy? Or is fantasy a way to reveal what the real world hides?

I guess I'm including George Orwell's 1984 as a favorite fantasy novel, though I might have called it science fiction once (futuristic fiction?). It certainly hid a wealth of truths that time is still drawing to light. So did Animal Farm. And so do many other books, old and new. Perhaps even the ancient plays of the Greeks had the same allure--a way to reveal what we're not meant to see, not meant to talk about--or else a way to hide, laying those truths at fiction's door.

Sometimes it's not just the weather that seems dark around here. But perhaps I'm influenced again by Brexit and the pain of my once-safe world growing ever more strange. Things that weren't talked about are okay. Things that should be talked about are hidden. And fantasy novels both hide and reflect, reflections that, maybe, reveal truths.

And maybe you'll want some dark cups of coffee with these novels:

First, not too dark, is The Trials of Nahda by Merita King. The story's narrated by a somewhat jaded investigator, sent to arrest an art thief who might hold the key to reality. Combining myth, magic and science, and reading like a science fiction adventure game, it just might make you wonder what makes you believe, and what belief entails. Enjoy the lively tale with some lively easy-drinking 2-star coffee.

Droidal by Andy Graham is a short story offering an odd blend of dark and light. Set in a dark, 1984-style world, it slowly reveals a character who is more than he seems, wounded by more than should be allowed, and strangely at peace with himself. It's an elegant, well-wrought story, best enjoyed with some complex elegant four-star coffee.

Growing darker, the next book is another short story. Tony Bertauski’s The Maze blends two different worlds—a real world tale of genius, family and loss; and a cyber-world adventure of death and rebirth, leading into different lives and the clues to escape. But will the cyber-protagonist ever be free? The story’s computer Maze blends into a maze of memories half-lost, and the reader is pulled inexorably toward a solution, just as the protagonist is pulled toward escape. Rumor has it this story might become part of a trilogy or be included in the Game Chronicles, so watch out for it. I love Tony Bertauski's books, best read with elegantly complex four-star coffee.

Everville the First Pillar by Roy Huff is set, at least in part, on our own world. Aimed at teenage readers, it offers wise lessons hidden in intriguing adventure, as college freshman Owen Sage is drawn into a mysterious world outside time, whose fate might be tied to ours. The story's slow, combining epic prose with prosaic modernity. But it's an intriguing tale, complete in itself and clearly promising more.

Aijlan by Andy Graham is a novel of a broken world not so unlike our own, mistrustful of foreign people or ideas, overly committed to technology, and where power is valued more than honesty or relationships. It holds a mirror very effectively to present society. And it's definitely dark, best enjoyed with some definitely dark 5-star coffee.

Finally, The Angel Solution by John C Stipa is set in the real world, but has a computer game feel that just might be more than fantasy. As duelling archeologists seek a precious treasure, some people might be both present and absent, and some items might hold more power than can be imagined. It's an oddly enticing tale of science gone awry,computer gaming perhaps, and human ingenuity misapplied. Enjoy with some more dark 5-star coffee.

And the tales, like the world, have grown increasingly dark.



Friday, March 24, 2017

Do Pictures Tell A Story?

I love picture books, and I used to dream of filling the bookshelves with ones written and drawn by myself. As time went on, I learned how much time it takes to paint, so I narrowed my goals down to words. Then time went on.

When I had kids, I filled the bookshelves (bottom shelves so they could reach) with picture books written and drawn by somebody else. My head was still filled with stories, but my time belonged to the boys. One night my son rejected all the books I wanted to read. "Okay, I'll tell you a story," says I. But, "No," says he. "It's not a real story if it's not in a book." I bought a notebook and filled it with pictures and stories about a boy and his cat. Then they had "book week" at school. My son took the notebook to show his teacher, it went on a display stand, and it disappeared.

The pictures and the stories are still in my head. And the pictures really did tell half the story. But the kids are grown and now my picture book shelf is high on the wall filled with books just for me--and for my imaginary grandchildren I guess. There's a part of me that still feels like a small child, eager for that comfort of a different world, a well-bound world, a world with beginnings, middles and ends, and a picture for every stage. So here are some picture-world reviews. Fill a coffee mug and enjoy.

First is a picture book that satisfies the adult and the child in me. Inspired by Art the edge of revolt by Uvi Poznansky accompanies the author's definitely adult novels of the Biblical King David. But it stands alone as a beautiful picture book of famous and less famous art works, an introduction to different painting styles, and a background to the world's envisioning of the Biblical tale. The pictures may not all be "pretty," but neither's the story--as a child I would have been intrigued by its darkness without understanding of course. So... I'm not sure I'd recommend this book to children , but it's highly recommended for adults. Drink some darkly powerful five-star coffee and enjoy.

Next is another adult book (I'm saving the kids' ones till last). This is a novel I picked up because of the haunting image on its cover. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro explores memory's impact on reality through the lens of myth and legend, blending Arthurian characters with evocative history and geography, and maybe waking the sleeping giant behind relationships. The novel's as haunting as the cover, and best read over some more dark five-star coffee.

And now for children's picture books:

Clio – The Cat Who Loved To Eat by Rivka Bar-Giora is set in the very real world of a grumpy mom who doesn't want a pet, a child who does, and a street-cat who knows exactly what he wants. The pictures convey emotion and character delightfully, and a special treat is a collection of printable coloring pages for children at the end. The text is a little odd at times, but it's a fun book. Enjoy with a crisp sharp one-star coffee.

The Mouse and The Carpenter by Shabtay Benny revolves around food as well, as a mouse sets out into the world to find his own dinner, and decides to stay with a carpenter. The story offers a nice lesson in the value of compromise, and I just wish it was a little longer. Nice pastel images are pleasingly evocative. The rhythm and rhyme is smooth and unforced. And this nice short story can be easily enjoyed with a nice easy-drinking two-star coffee.

Then there's my favorite - starting and ending with the best. Princess Sophie and the Six Swans by Kim Jacobs retells a Brothers Grimm tale  with a pleasing blend of fairytale myth combined with modern day self-awareness. The princess isn't gorgeous, pampered or boring. The princes are neither fools nor heroes. The wicked stepmother's not nice, but she has reason. and the lessons of perseverance, respect and obedience are wisely drawn, as is true love. The illustrations are really amazing too! Enjoy with some well-balanced, full-flavored three-star coffee, and share it with your kids, your grandkids, or your favorite picture book bookshelf.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What will you read in a dangerous world?

The news is of danger. The world's not as safe as we'd choose. Though, to be fair, we never thought London was safe. Not when I was growing up and gangsters were a strange phenomenon. Not when the IRA held sway. Not when friends asked if we really wanted to risk taking our children there before we left the country. And surely not now, because nowhere is safe. Because safety is an illusion. So I read for escape... maybe. But which books help you escape?

Self help books perhaps? They'll tell me how to protect myself against everything I've thought of that might go wrong. Except my protection goes wrong and I never thought the basement would flood that way.

Children's books? I've read lots of those. They gather me back into innocent certainties with beautifully illustrated calm. But then I grow up when I close the book.

Fantasies? They help, I guess, though I always end up ascribing fantastical beasthood to modern day fears.

Action and adventure? At least for a while I can imagine people who win.

Mystery? As if the mysteries of good and evil can be solved as completely as Sherlock Holmes on the moor.

What else? I'm not sure. But these reads were all action and dark, so find a dark coffee and choose your words well.

First is a short novel or novella, Hunted by Alison Golden. The protagonist certainly sees her world fall apart, and it's a great start to series though I'd have liked more completion in the initial story. I find myself wondering if the questions will be answered or if they'll just be a background to what comes next. It's got cool characters though, and an intriguing premise that leaves the reader free to guess. I'm not sure it will soothe your fears in a dangerous world though, since it leaves things even scarier than they started. Enjoy with a nice short shot of dark 5-star coffee.

Cold City by LH Thomson is much more down-to-earth, though it's still not always clear who the good and bad guys are--oh, how like real life! Solving a dangerous mystery while simultaneously looking at society's outsiders, recognizing the values and strengths of minorities, and bringing to life the intricacies of culture and place, Cold City is a fast, enticing read (no mean feat when it's also filled with psychological musings). It introduces a great cast of characters, and it's a great start to a series I'd love to follow. Nicely nuanced, it offers real danger with a possibility of resolution. Enjoy with some elegantly complex 4-star coffee.

Dark Tide by Elizabeth Haynes takes me back to England, contrasting the peace of houseboat life with London's dark underbelly, and filling its world with flawed characters, terrifying danger, and truly scary waters. It won't make you feel safe, but it might make you believe in escape. Enjoy with some seriously dark 5-star coffee.

Then The White Devil by Domenic Stansberry carries its readers to gloriously romantic Rome, except this really isn't a romantic tale. It's dark and cruel, told by a seriously flawed protagonist, and definitely more noir than action adventure. Set at a memorable recent time in history, filled with authentic detail and evocative scenes, and written in short sharp chapters, it's a fast furious read filled with trials and temptations. The danger's very personal though, so perhaps it serves to hide the world's more global, more real threat. Enjoy with several short sharp shots of dark 5-star coffee.

Meanwhile, the world remains dark but the sky is blue, and it's probably time I read something even scarier - Nos4a2 perhaps? I need coffee!






Friday, March 3, 2017

Do you feel Beloved, Loyal and Lifted Up?

I'm still living in chaos, typing at a desk that echoes every keystroke, louder and louder and LOUDER throughout the day; piling books on a bed that's so loaded with spare blankets everything slides to the floor; carefully positioning my feet between the air-vent and the multi-plug, with boxes oneither side; and leaning over a wire rack every afternoon to half-close the blinds against the sun--yes, it really does shine--it shines straight into my eyes. Meanwhile I'm trying to organize times and schedules so our basement--my office, spare bedrooms, and our family room--will get put back together in reasonable order. Plumber comes before handyman comes before painter comes before electrician comes before painter comes before... aghghgh!

Meanwhile I hide in alternate universes and read. Recently, those alternate universe have been the brightly illustrated worlds of childhood. The lessons of children's books seem oddly appropriate to me--perhaps I'm throwing childish temper tantrums as a consequence of our flood. Anyway, I've really enjoyed the books. So pull up a chair, pour a coffee, and see what you think.

Starting with love:15 Ways To Say I Love You by Efrat Shoham introduces many languages and a storyline just waiting for a child to put it into words. The pictures entice the imagination, the languages encourage learning and understanding, and the globe grounds it all in the real world. 15 more ways, with a completely different style of illustration, makes a great companion book. Enjoy them both with some smooth imaginative three-star coffee and have fun getting your child to tell their own tales.

Natasha Yim's The Rock Maiden offers a Chinese folktale with a fairytale ending and beautifully fluid illustrations. It's another story of love, this time with an underlying theme of loyalty rewarded. The text forms an enjoyably smooth read, and the pictures offer an enticing view into ancient Hong Kong fishing life.  Enjoy this one with some two star easy-drinking coffee.

A third picture book, When God Made You by Matthew Paul Turner, is enjoyably uplifting and pleasingly imaginative. Naturally rhyming text offers meaning and purpose to life and creativity, and gorgeously illustrations are filled with the splashy colors of a child at play. Read this while drinking some light crisp enjoyable one-star coffee.

Not all children's books are picture books of course, so here's a review of a middle grade novel, Wily and the Canine Pandemic by Michelle Weidenbenner. It's a tale that starts oddly with the point of view of a dog (or does it start with a poem...), but it quickly becomes the adventures of a misunderstood boy genius who loves dogs, some misunderstood creatures from mythology, plenty of science fiction action, and... well, it's just plain fun. Plus there's the lesson that being misunderstood doesn't mean you have to misunderstand, and persistence just might may off. Enjoy this one with a well-balanced three-star coffee.

And not all books about children are children's books. I'll add a few more reviews here, starting with an adult novel about a mother with an autistic child. Yes, I'm personally interested in autism, so the topic was bound to catch my attention. But Daniel isn't Talking by Marti Leimbach isn't a personal experience story or a self-help book. In fact, it would probably be risky to use it for self-help as, among other things, it explores the honest doubts a mother might have about the vaccines and the prognoses given her child. But it's an enthralling novel, filled with memorable characters, humor, pathos and hope. Enjoy with some well-balanced three-star coffee.

There are picture books written for adults not children as well, such as Uvi Poznansky's Inspired by Art series. I've just enjoyed Fighting Goliath and Fall of a Giant, amazing collections of images, ordered by storyline rather than by artists, and hauntingly portraying the battle of David against the giant. These picture books form part of the author's David Chronicles. Quotations and comments with the pictures bring artists and art to life, inspiring the reader to see David through different eyes, and surely enticing them to read the novels (which I love!). Enjoy this elegant art with some elegant complex four-star coffee.

And finally, there Christopher Geoffrey McPherson's beautiful little volume, the James Murray Mysteries Companion. Like Uvi Poznansky's Inspired by Art books, this book contains the pictures that inspired the author, together with his research on the history, people, movies, buildings and dreams of old Los Angeles. It's a cool book to read, a great book for LA history references, and a perfect addition to the series. Enjoy with some more elegant complex four-star coffee.

So... will the sun come out this afternoon? Will the basement stay dry if it rains (it has done so far--I think we're winning)? Will I ever get around to writing the rest of my overdue book reviews? I'm working on it...


Thursday, March 2, 2017

What if styles make more difference than style?

Today I'm delighted to welcome Julie Ann Wambach, author of Games of Make-Believe, to my blog. I read and reviewed Games of Make-Believe a little while ago (click on the link for my review), and I was intrigued by the different styles and voices used in the novel. Getting the chance to ask the author why she wrote it that way is a real treat. So, pull up a chair, pour yourself a coffee, and see what she has to say. If you leave your own questions in the comments I'm sure she will answer them.

So, Julie, thank you for joining me here, and please can you tell us:

When writing Games of Make-Believe, why did you decide to write in multiple styles?

To use multiple styles, as I did in Games of Make-Believe, is not new, but readers seldom encounter such a technique. Some readers, as Sheila has, recognize and question the use of multiple styles, while other readers either don’t notice it or instinctively reject it. I agree with those who criticize multiple styles that the technique challenges strong character development and tidy endings. I knew Games of Make-Believe would encounter such responses when I decided to use several styles. Here’s why I did it, anyway.

For me, the decision was focused on Games of Make-Believe being the story of a dysfunctional family with several characters agreeing to pretend they are the perfect family, until it becomes impossible to continue. I wanted subtle family dynamics, rather than the easier overt violence usually imbedded in family stories, and the fairytale feature was there from the start. To describe the family, I needed to show in what specific time with what specific pressures were family members impacted.

These basics meant don’t use a single point of view because a family is not one person. It meant don’t use a third person narrator with multiple points of view throughout. The voice of an omniscient therapist gave me the willies. It meant no series of first person chapters because the real outside elements would be distorted.
           
So, I decided on snapshots. You might see my design differently if you consider Games of Make-Believe a series of short stories with recurring characters told in several styles. Think of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Eagan.
           
This decision opened the possibility of varied points of view, as well as several persons, voices, and tenses. I didn’t make separate style decisions arbitrarily. I thought about each part, sometimes for months, and I often tried other styles before I knew I had the best way to tell that portion of the book. You might notice I even used a newspaper to show how Hal really received his honor. You can bet he’d tell a very different story. Renny, as any committed artist, is always in present tense. The fairytale portions are always in third person omniscient because that’s folk tale style. There are even two groups that speak as one in first person plural.

Open up, dear writer. Give yourself room to do more. To write this way is horrendously challenging, but it offers you vast opportunities for artistic expression. Especially when no single traditional style would work.

Thank you Julie. I love your reason for Renny to be present tense! Very cool. And I remember noticing the third person omniscient fairytale portions. It all works really well, and it's fascinating to see how you crafted all the pieces and characters together. Yes indeed, a family is not one person. And yes indeed, we should challenge ourselves! Thank you Julie for challenging us with this explanation, and for your novel.

My thanks to the Cadence group for putting me in touch with this author.