Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: Strong Enough to Die

By Laura M. Campbell

I’ve been told that to be a better writer, you must read what you’re writing. I strive to write stories with strong female characters because they’re role models I didn’t have growing up. I came across John Land and his ass-kicking character Caitlin Strong in an online article, so I purchased the first of the action-packed series, Strong Enough to Die.

Overall, I really liked Caitlin and the fast-paced novel. When it comes to being a strong female character, her strength comes across as more masculine than feminine at times. Keep in mind she is a third generation Texas Ranger, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and father. I find it easier to relate to her when she faces societal choices (e.g. marriage, children, reputation).

Before the story begins, you learn Caitlin left the Texas Rangers after a gunfight near the Mexican border killed her partner. She makes the choice to run away, seeing it as the only viable alternative to dealing with the intense feelings. We all know running away does nothing but make matters worse, which plays out in the novel, forcing Caitlin to face all the feelings she’s locked away.

Creating a story with an interwoven past and present, Land chooses to include the scenes from both, which at first I thought would get confusing, but he indicates at the beginning of each chapter when and where the characters are in the story timeline. He skillfully leaves you curious and eager to read more at the end of each chapter that you aren’t thrown off by the jumps in time.

You want to find out exactly how things ended between Caitlin and her husband, why Cort Wesley Masters, the criminal she put away, is being released from prison, and how the gunfight at the Mexican border plays into the entire story. So, Land shows those exact scenes instead of telling you through a character’s internal or external dialogue. 

There were a few places I found it hard to understand what was going on or being said because of the sentence structure, but I’m not sure if it was due to Land’s writing style or due to reading it on my phone via the Kindle app.

Land’s storytelling hooked me by leaving little breadcrumbs of information that coaxed me through the novel to discover how it all ties together; and he created a dynamic and round character with tomboy Caitlin. She doesn’t stand around waiting. She takes charge, even if it does mean crossing a line, but she owns her mistakes and lives with the consequences and memories of crossing those lines, which I find is an admirable trait.  If you like gunfights, tough protective women, and suspenseful stories, you’ll love Strong Enough to Die.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: Try Not To Breathe

DON'T FORGET! ENTER OUR BOOK GIVEAWAY! Signed books by YA Fest authors - deets here.

I don't read much contemporary YA. I'm not really drawn to realistic narratives. I like my angst with a side of fantasy, supernatural, demons and witches. So I don't know why I started to read Jennifer R. Hubbard's  books, other than she was appearing at the YA Fest I was going to and I was curious about her work.

First I read her debut, THE SECRET YEAR. I was immediately hooked and quickly picked up TRY NOT TO BREATHE (which she kindly signed for me at the event.)

It's a very different kind of read when you read about teens and don't expect one of them to shoot sparks from their hands, or confess they are fairies. I'm not knocking those books, they are the kind I love (and the kind I write) I'm just saying that realistic contemporary books engage different, quieter parts of the brain.

Ryan is a sixteen year old recovering from a suicide attempt. It's a remarkably melodrama free situation - He's not the kind of kid that has so many insurmountable problems that you can't relate to him - he's just like you. The thing he lacks is the ability to cope when things progressively spiral downwards. Hubbard does a very good job of making his situation and his responses understandable. You may not ever find yourself in the same position, but you can see the path that Ryan took to get there.

Hubbard is never patronizing and never goes for the cheap emotional tug, even when Nicki, a girl tormented by her own father's suicide, seeks Ryan out - looking for answers he just doesn't have.

Suicide is a heavy issue, and it can be handled awkwardly by writers trying to do 'right' by such a loaded topic. But I think Hubbard's touch is light and truthful. What amazes me about both her books is how authentic the voice is - I never had that feeling of "Wait, no teen would ever say that," that I've had with some other YA books.

One last thing about Hubbard's writing. I liked THE SECRET YEAR a lot. I was looking forward to reading TRY NOT TO BREATHE, but I still was surprised at how good the writing was. It had gotten better in the second book - no small feat considering that the first book was already a win.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Giveaway!

Laura and I had such a great time at the YA Fest in Easton that we want to celebrate by giving away some of the awesome signed books we picked up - not to mention the SWAG!

OKAY, will mention.

Here's what we're giving away:
Signed copies of:
FAIRY TALE by Cyn Balog
YOU by Charles Benoit
ROT & RUIN and DUST & DECAY by Jonathan Maberry
Plus a ton of bookmarks, signed postcards, buttons and other goodies.

Here's what you need to do to enter your name in the giveaway:
1) Comment on this post. You can just say 'hi' and leave your email address - or you can also tell us what your favorite, quirky, writing tip - share whatever gets you motivated.
2) Follow this blog, if you aren't already following
3) Please just enter one time.

That's it! You have until August 31 to enter. On September 1st we'll randomly pick one winner and let you know by september 5th. 
Good luck!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

By Greg Hardin

Sometimes the first published novel by an author will make you want to throw up, ram your head against a wall, and go cry in a corner for a few days.  And sometimes it’s not because the novel is bad.  I tried to suggest to a new book group that our inaugural book be Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but when my friends saw the 300,000+ word count, they balked.  I read it anyway. 

Neil Gaiman said it was, "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years." Now, that comment is a little out of context, but I don’t care.  I’m going to hold him to the outrageous statement.  Whether or not he’s right, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an incredibly unique and well-written book that should be on everyone’s summer or fall reading list.  And it won the Hugo Award in 2005.  So, there’s that.

Now, it might be strange that I am reviewing a book that’s been out for over 7 years, but what I’ve discovered is most of my friends, who like well-written books of a fantastic nature, have never heard of this particular tome.  Sad.  I’d like to rectify that.

Almost an alternative history book, rather than a fantasy novel, Clarke’s first novel takes place in pre-Victorian England.  That’s the early 19th century for you Philistines.  The wording and style reads like a Dickens novel or something by Jane Austen.  (I almost felt at times like I was reading Pride and Prejudice and Magick.)  Clarke presupposes that there was a long tradition of magic used in England, mostly centered on mystical figure called, The Raven King, who is kind of like King Arthur and Merlin combined.  The Raven King has long since disappeared, and his disciples have also passed away or vanished.  In fact, practical magic users have basically gone extinct in England.  All that is left are theoretical magicians.  Being a theoretical magician is viewed as a perfectly acceptable profession for a gentleman and whole magician societies exist, all ignoring the painful reality that they cannot do any of the magic they discuss so much.  It’s delightful when not one but two new practical magicians appear on the scene and that is the main story:  What happens in England when magic comes back?  It puts a whole new spin on the Napoleonic wars, for one thing.  And it’s just pure fun.  The characters are dynamic and well crafted.  The plot is complex but woven together with an ease that makes it simple to keep track of everyone and every event. 

It’s a long book, but it won’t feel like it.  Or maybe it will, but you will be happy it’s so long.  As a plus, Clarke sprinkles hundreds of footnotes into the material, giving a broader background on the magical history of England and including several expository short stories.  If you like historical novels, if you like alternate histories, if you like really good fantasy, read this book. It is technically very well written, and creatively: a masterpiece.