Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

Look at me, I'm on a bit of a roll. Spending some time in hospital waiting rooms and next to a sleeping wife really helps get some reading done. (All is well, nothing to worry about!)

I've been looking forward to this one for a while and when it came up in Net Galley, I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did. I'm not the biggest Abercrombie fan...I know, I should have my epic fantasy fan/writer card taken away for saying that. I started The Blade Itself, couldn't get into it and put it aside. Several years later, I picked it back up and started to get into it and it disappeared on me. (I think a certain little girl might have put it somewhere on me and I just have to find it again.) But I was eager to see what "Lord Grimdark's" take on "young adult" was like and it's quite stellar. It reminds me, in many ways, of a slightly more grown up version of the Ranger's Apprentice series, which I loved. (I'm only on book 5 and that's in my queue.)

Yarvi is an unlikely king. Born crippled but with a keen mind (a rather timeless trope really), he reminds me of a much more innocent and altruistic Tyrion Lannister. The parallels to ASOIAF are well anyone writing a YA fantasy that isn't filled with nods and allusions to Martin now? That's not a critique, just a comment, because God knows I'm guilty of that as a writer. He's a great character that develops and changes over time. His naivete is hardened as his world crumbles around him from not becoming a minister (think Hand of the King) to losing his kingship and trying to regain it while plotting revenge against those who stole it from him.

The plot is pure Abercrombie. It snappy, filled with tense action and thrills. It moves and there is little in the way of slowing down with just enough places for the reader to catch their breath. His action scenes are second to none. I see the great appeal of his writing to so many people in the way that he draws these scene with words. I'm usually terrible at "seeing" these things, but Abercrombie makes it work. I wonder if studying the entire Abercrombie catalog might help my action scene writing.

His world building is sharp. I can imagine this place in my mind and the culture he's built. Inspired by Viking culture, there's a bigger world around them and Ambercrombie gives us some hints of that without overwhelming the reader. The analogous conversion to Christianity is a big idea in the story that I feel might show up in later volumes and make for a really interesting book.

Where this book shines is the characters. Yarvi is sympathetic from the outset. He's a hero worth rooting for and when things start to click for him about half way through the book, he wears the mantle well, very similar to the way Tyrion does in ASOIAF. His mates are well drawn and become the rag tag group of "brothers" that a book like this needs, especially in YA. The mystery of the character named Nothing, the grizzled Rulf, the obvious crush Sumael, the big guy Jaud and the heel turn face Ankran could easily become little more than the tropes that the embody, but they are deeper than that and become important to the story and integral in Yarvi's growth as a character. His antagonists, for the most part, aren't one-dimensional and have depth and layers. Even background characters have a little depth to them that make you feel like they are real people.

Ambercrombie knows the tropes and, like a good author should, knows how to play with them. I think using tropes properly and in the right way is the sign of a good fantasy writer. You can't avoid the tropes, you just have to learn how to play with them. Half A King is a great place to look at the right way to play with the tropes of fantasy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

Every culture, nation, people, town, city, village, school and even neighborhood has it's own myths, legends and folklore. I firmly believe that it comes from our base need, as a species, to tell stories to explain the things about the world around us that scare us. Starmer explores both of these ideas in this brilliantly written book that brings me back to my youth while keeping me grounded in who I am today.

Childhood abduction/disappearance is a terrifying thing, both as an adult and as a child. As a child, from early on, we fear being taken from our parents. One of my earliest memories is being lost in the woods when I was a kid on vacation with my grandparents. It still kind of makes me chilly thinking about it. As an adult, the fear is amplified and much more intense as we think about our own children. Starmer tackles this difficult subject by wrapping it in a mythic story that uses just the right level of intensity, suspense and just plain weirdness as Alistair Cleary (interesting choice of name, BTW) is asked by his quirky neighbor Fiona Loomis to write her biography. The tale she weaves is mythic and Cleary tries to apply common sense to something that doesn't seem to require any sense at all.

As Alistair spends time with Fiona, he is left with more questions than answers...but the one answer he gets is the one that changes him the most. He develops feelings for Fiona that are deftly handled in a great series of scenes that lampshade the tropes that this book could have very easily fallen into. For all the mythic elements of the story, in a lot of ways this is as much Alistair's story of growth as it is a record of Fiona's story of fantasy.

Starmer blurs the line between reality and fantasy quite brilliantly. I'm still not sure if Fiona's whole story is real or just what she imagined. It's a testament to Starmer as a writer that I'm still not sure even a day after finishing the book AND reading several other reviews whether or not the Riverman is "real."

Now, to be fair, Aaron Starmer and I grew up under very similar circumstances in the same area of upstate New York at about the same time, so I like him already. I've gotten to know him a little, well as much as you can via social media, and I like him even more, so it was easy to root for this book and that fact that it is so good makes me even happier. He peppers the book with references to the late 80s that a kid reading this book probably wouldn't get and Central New York that someone not from this area would completely miss. I completely enjoyed them.

The Riverman is listed as a MG book, but I'd recommend it for anyone. It's a quick read that does a nice job of balancing mystery and suspense with the themes of the importance of stories to people. And that is what I can take from it as a writer.

In the contemporary YA I've been sort of chiseling away at, the main character is a writer. I'm drawn to stories like that. Grasshopper Jungle was about a writer and I loved that. The movie Almost Famous was about a writer and is one of my favorite movies of all time. People love stories, even stories about stories.

Also, Starmer makes setting as much a part of the story as any writer I've seen. His world building (and yes, even in contemp stories, world building is important) is brilliant. As I said, it's easy to see his inspiration and it works in this story. I've often said that you can tell a story is mine when the setting is very similar to Central New York...even if it takes place in a fantasy world with knights and wizards and dragons. \

Starmer also makes nostalgia viable in this. Sure, most of the 80s references will go over the kids heads, but that doesn't distract from the story. Aaron and I had a Twitter conversation about my desire to write an epic CNY skiing story that takes place in the early 90s. Aaron challenged me to write it. I actually set some planning notes in my notebook for it, but I'm also going to go in a bit of a different direction. After reading this book, it makes me think that it's possible. Fresh off of finishing this and Grasshopper Jungle, I also started writing a very weird story, that like these two books, are going to do two things at once: be a coming of age story and a monster story at the same time. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Reviewing Books

For a long time I was hesitant to review books on my blogs. Who am I to judge someone else's work, especially critique it for some sort of merit. I was always afraid that any review that I would write would almost immediately come across as sour grapes and jealousy.

A few months ago, I amended that a little bit by joining the group blog Guys Lit Wire to do a monthly review of a book. I also went out of my way to write longform reviews on Goodreads and Amazon of books that I really liked, because that's the best way to support an author you like: review and recommend.

I've also discovered Net Galley and decided that I wanted to add an element to my blog (mostly in an attempt to increase my blogging) where I review books. I'm pretty much only going to review books I like and they'll be pretty much copy and paste jobs for my Goodreads/Amazon reviews. But for the purposes of this blog, I'm going to add a section of where I discuss what I've learned/what I can steal from that book....because good writers borrow and great writers steal.

Also, I've decided I'm going to restart my DRAGONLANCE re-read and blog this summer, so keep an eye out for that.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How Did It Get To This?

Being a writer can be vexing even in the best of times. I'm in a bit of a crunch right now and I'm trying to figure out how I got here. I don't know how to end this rewrite. My confidence is shaken. Seriously. Between reading amazing books recently and remembering how awesome GRRM, I'm really scrabbling here.

It's baffling to me that I got this far. I've rewritten/revised/edited this thing about three and a half times. As I'm working through this rewrite, I'm realizing that I don't have a good ending. The end of this book is a freaking mess and I have no idea how to fix it. I'm happy with what I've written thus far. The story up to this point is pretty good. It's going to need one more pass before it's "ready, ready" but I think the story is in good order...needs one more good polish and there are parts that I know I can still fix. But I'm not going to get there until I figure out this ending.

I have the set pieces and a vague notion of what I want to do....I just can't seem to grasp how to fix it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Little Change Is Good

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
                                                                                                      -Jojen Reed, A Dance With Dragons

It's no secret that George RR Martin is one of my literary idols. I worship the man's words. So today I was thinking about my writing. I was also thinking about my reading. This quote was sort of rolling around in my head and considering how important GRRM is to me as both a reader and a writer, I thought that this was appropriate change. I have lived a thousand lives as a reader, but I've also lived a thousand as a writer as well. And that is exciting to me. So, I decided to change the blog title to reflect that...and let's be honest, "Pantless Writer" for a YA writer was a little creepy.

 I have been cruising along on a rewrite of my YA fantasy adventure The Sisters of Khoda. It's the end of the year and my students are working on projects, so I've been chugging away, putting in 5-7 hours a day of writing, so I've gotten through about 290 pages of the rewrite. But the last quarter of the book needs to pretty much be written from scratch. I'm sort of treating it like writing a novella to move forward. When I finish that, I'm going back to the contemp I was working. The hope is that I can continue the groove I was on with it and make short order of it. Then the scifi project is up next, I think.