Category Archives: Book Reviews

Facing the Sky

Six years ago, we posted a review of a memoir, Facing the Sky by Rainee Grason. In light of recent  events, a repost might be in order, especially for readers seeking hope amid trouble.

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Self-Publish or Traditionally Publish?

Last night, I met with an author and her husband (who also happens to be a writer, as well as an artist) to discuss her self-published book, Facing the Sky. She had wondered about trying to find a traditional publisher to reprint the book and gain a wider audience, but after reading her unconventionally-formatted but powerful true story, I realized she needs to retain control.

The book is her life story, centering on a specific time in her teens but drawing in her childhood and adulthood in a sometimes linear, sometimes flashback/flash-forward style that works well for the material. She is a Christian, so her faith is very much part of the story, but traditional Christian publishing houses would probably gut the book, redacting the harshest elements, weakening its power.

In fact, a local bookstore refuses to stock the book because of a particularly raw scene describing the author’s rape by her boyfriend in her early teens.

This disturbs me. Rape isn’t pretty. It happens, even to children. It damages the psyche and the spirit. But Rainee Grason’s story shows that redemption is possible — not only possible, but triumphant. Remove that ugly scene, and the power of the truth is lost.

Unconventional Structure

Rainee Grason’s story is told inside-out.

We meet her as a teenager, facing the sky, feeling God’s love in the warm rays of the sunset. We overhear her thoughts about her boyfriend, their relationship, the rape.

One line of copy from back cover states, “She realizes she does have a choice — she can walk away from the imprisoning walls of the unhealthy relationship, but how?”

As events play out, she says goodbye to Gideon and hello to Cole. About a third of the way through the book, however, after she and Cole are married, Rainee pushes the curtain even further back, all the way to her earliest childhood memories, and reveals what led up to the night she stood, sixteen and pregnant, facing the sky.

Who Should Read Facing the Sky?

Teenagers and adults alike will identify with much in this true story, including the themes of worthlessness, hurt, shame, abuse, teen sexuality, awkwardness, fear, alcoholism, the desire for a better life.

This is an excellent book for mothers and daughters to read together and discuss. It reminds us that even the darkest night doesn’t last forever, we are worth more than we think, and God is waiting to lead us into the light of a new day.

NOTE: Fathers and sons can also benefit from this book, because it addresses — obliquely yet clearly — the importance of strong, kind fathers and husbands. It is in the embrace of Cole’s understanding and strength that Rainee is able to heal at last, after she is suddenly confronted by matters she thought long resolved. By reading her story, young men may also see the painful, tragic results of selfishness and pride: many girls used, even raped, their lives forever marked by Gideon’s sexual desires.

Contact the Author

Rainee Grason is available for speaking engagements.

E-mail:
HOCKRA153@gmail.com (Attn: Rainee)

Post:
PO Box 340953
Beavercreek, OH 45434-0953

Facebook:
Rainee Grason

Audio and paperback versions of Facing the Sky are available, and price breaks are available for larger orders.

Review: Laughing at the Moon

poetry anthology^front cover

A poetry book for a traveler! That was one of my first thoughts on reading my friend Elizabeth Easter’s poetry collection.

This slim volume challenges the reader to look into the poet’s skies-and asks the question of life’s wanderers: “What if I don’t want to be safe?” Should I take an uncharted route, a new daring direction in life?

Elizabeth writes of love, troubles, family, whimsy and travels. A prose poem begins the book, inviting the reader to sit with the author in a house she and her father restored and look out the window with her, searching for words to begin these tales with.

Some verses are short and poignant, like Companion. Others, like Sir Gallivant and the Dragon, tell a full, rich-detailed story.

Threads of emotion, courage and memory run along these pages like the blue lines on a map. Where they lead, only you can travel with the author.

Interested in reading this book and supporting Penworthy Press? Find the title here: Laughing at the Moon on Amazon.com.

 

 

Other Worlds: What One Reader Wants in Fantasy Novels

NOTE: In the post below, dated originally in September 2015, a Penworthy member writers about what he/she looks for when reading a fantasy tale. Although this was written last year, it has languished in the “drafts” folder so long that we don’t recall which of us wrote it. 🙂 Therefore, Elizabeth has edited it lightly and added paragraphing, and we hope you enjoy what you read.

A group I’m in has issued a prompt for readers to tell what they’re looking for in fantasy stories. The following three criteria are the main ones by which I judge all the stories I read, regardless of genre. (Readers be advised, this is a long post.)

3) Setting: there are two aspects to this. I care about not only how the setting is built, but also how it feels.

The time and place — the universe, if you will — in which the story is set is not required to obey the real-world laws of science, but it must remain consistent with itself. The rules by which the universe operates must be clearly laid out and then obeyed. Rule-bending and seeming contradictions must be rationally explained.

The world as a place should also give me a feeling that it’s many times bigger than whatever portions we see in the story, just as the real world is so much bigger than the portion any one person can see, visit, or otherwise experience in a single journey or lifetime. Even if the story is set in a place that’s completely “unrealistic”, I want it to feel real enough that I could plan a vacation there (or a detailed escape plan, as the case may be).

2) Storytelling: However the story is told — first, third, or even second-person, past or present tense, fantasy or sci-fi or mystery or any other genre — it must flow smoothly. As with above, there are two sides to this aspect: the mechanical construction and the semi-nebulous “story-feel”.

In regard to mechanics, choppiness and unusual constructions only work if properly and consciously manipulated. Prose is as much an art as poetry, and should be crafted as carefully. Stories should be written in a way that strikes the ear pleasantly when spoken aloud, since a reader hears the story recited in his own voice even if he does not read it aloud. The sound and cadence of a story don’t spring to the forefront of my attention on a casual read-through, but after I’ve finished reading, when I’m trying to analyze why I like or dislike a story, the flow of the words and the flow of the action almost always factor in. The sound of the words affects the image that forms in my mind. The right sound, the right flow, the right imagery: these things can cause the words on the page to fade away, so that what I see is not the words on the page, but the story itself playing out like a movie in my mind.

Concerning feel, the main thing is balance. Action and calm, lightness and seriousness: these should be woven together smoothly and in proper proportion to the type of story. Characters the readers are supposed to take an interest in should all be given enough page time to properly develop, and should all have equal (but distinct) roles in and influences on the outcomes of events. However neatly-constructed the setting, and however beautiful the prose (and however engaging the characters, see Reason 1 below), a story will not be worth a re-read unless it’s actually a good story.

I have no problem with tropes such as the coming-of-age journey, the dashing knight rescuing the fair maiden, or the Chosen One versus the Evil King; however, I’m also drawn to fresh and unusual concepts. But whatever the basic idea, the story must be told in an interesting way. Every scene has to matter, and every situation should be approached in a creative fashion. Even when using tropes, originality is a must, and subverting the expected is especially desirable.

1) Soul: The most important point on my informal mental checklist, the thing that draws me in to a story and keeps me reading, is the people. I want to see characters to whom I can relate. This is one of the most-repeated pieces of writing advice, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Strong characters are the heart and soul of a good story. I can’t love a protagonist unless I can get inside his head, understand what he wants and why, and sympathize with his struggles. Likewise, the villains I love to hate are those whom I understand. Show me what drives a person, and I’ll care about what happens to him.

All of the above is achieved only when an author gives his character a “soul”.  A character must be put together like a real person, with real needs and desires, and flaws that are believably balanced with his good traits. The best character development is accomplished when a person is revealed to the reader slowly: At first, we see just enough to make us interested in the person, but details and histories are revealed slowly, tentatively, much as a real person gradually opens up to a new friend.

When characters are realistic, I cannot help but care about their futures.

When I care, I want to know what happens in the whole story.

Then, even if I never read the book again, even if I forget the title and the author and the characters’ names, a good story will stick with me in the form of people — friends, of a sort — whom I remember for years after.

In summary, here’s a short version of my list, in order.
1) Characters matter the most.
2) Style matters a lot too.
3) World-building also matters.

On a side note, this is the first time I’ve ever put these ideas into words. Funny, how long it can take to put one’s thoughts into shareable form. 🙂

Laughing at the Moon

Introducing the latest offering from the Penworthy Press collective!

FREE-Laughing at the Moon

poetry anthology cover^salt flats and moon

Click on either image to purchase a copy — available in Kindle and paperback formats.

Note to other Penworthy Press members:
C’mon, writers! Let’s aim for a book apiece this year!

Keanan Checks In — and Reviews a Book

The last month of the year — already? 2015 has flown on invisible wings.

This year, publishing plans have been adjusted or abandoned or pushed until 2016. In my (Keanan‘s) case, a fantasy novel I wanted to publish by December must wait until Spring 2016, at the earliest, while I scramble to finish a space opera novel. (Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction.)

Meantime, one of my new favorite authors has returned with an excellent start to The Darkwater Saga.  The review below is re-posted from my blog, Adventures in Fiction:

The Shock of Night

The Shock of NightWelcome! Step inside for Day 2 of The Shock of Night blog tour. (My brief introduction to this month’s feature novel for the CSFF Blog Tour can be read here.)

Due to life-related factors, today’s entry will be equally brief. Others in the tour have delved into the writing itself and the spiritual and theological aspects of this fantasy-mystery tale, but I was struck by the inclusion of a PTSD-stricken protagonist (although such modern terminology was not used). In Carr’s previous series, the hero was an alcoholic young man who was abused since childhood — not typical fantasy fare.

In this series, the hero — Willet Dura — is a would-be priest who was sent to war, but his mind has shut out an important chunk of those experiences. Not only is part of his memory missing, he sleepwalks, and his job as one of the king’s reeves means he encounters death in many forms. In fact, he has a strange fascination with it, and he questions the dead about what they know now that they’re, well, dead.

I like that I can connect with Carr’s fictional folk. He knows that externals do not make up a man’s character, that not everything is what it seems, and that anything and anyone can change.

And they do.

Dura’s study of the dead takes a step toward the further-weird when he gains the ability to read the thoughts of the living.

I wrote yesterday that this is fantasy for grownups, but I think teens would like it, too.

And for readers who don’t want only mystery-solving or action scenes, there’s a quiet romance between Dura and Gael, a well-off young lady whose uncle is scheming up an advantageous marriage that doesn’t include Dura.

One thing that leans this story toward the grownup end of the readership is precisely that romance, and the other decisions and sacrifices that must be made. These characters aren’t teenagers in a coming-of-age tale, but are already adults who’ve been shaped by war and torment, hardship and abuse. Even allies can be at odds with one another, and pride and ignorance still cause folk to stumble, but — as a forty-something reader — it’s refreshing to encounter a fantasy yarn for readers older than sixteen. 😉

————

Go to the end of the post on Adventures in Fiction to find a list of other bloggers reviewing the same book. Just as with medical issues so with literary issues: It’s always good to get a second opinion. 😉

I recommend this book — and anything by Patrick Carr — for fantasy fans in search of the next good read.

A Reading Wonderland

Some of my most calming, curiosity-piquing, wonder-filled memories are of libraries and bookstores. Even the smallest or dimmest or least organized are magical places, perhaps made more so by their imperfections and the sense of exploring a cavern of delights.

Years ago, I used to spend my lunch breaks at The Snooper’s Barn on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith, Arkansas, poking through the dusty stackes in the back where history books and old volumes — some antique — were shelved higgledy-piggledy, sometimes in precarious Jenga-like towers.

I recently introduced my eldest niece to an excellent independent bookstore in Oklahoma City. When we entered Full Circle Books — serving readers for more than three decades — we stepped not through the looking glass, nor through a wardrobe, but through a modern glass and metal door, yet the magic still welcomed us.

entryway, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
entryway, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
fireplace and sitting area, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
fireplace and sitting area, Full Circle Books, c2015, KB
an old friend, c2015, KB
an old friend, c2015, KB

She fell in love with the rambling space filled with hidden rooms and cozy nooks, and the old-fashioned ladders that travel back and forth on metal tracks in need of oiling.

The children’s rooms are well-stocked with old friends and new, including a French copy of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish — my niece’s first excuse to climb a ladder, but I don’t think she really needed a reason. 😉

children's reading room, Full Circle Books (c2015, KB)
children’s reading room, Full Circle Books (c2015, KB)
IMG_2986^cropped
the red ladder (c2015, KB)
IMG_2989^vignette brown
by the light of Winnie the Pooh (c2015, KB)
IMG_2994^cropped
French Seuss (c2015, KB)
IMG_2999^light
I love Sandra Boynton books. (c2015, KB)
IMG_3000^light
another old friend (c2015, KB)
IMG_3006^vignette pale
familiar author names (c2015, KB)
IMG_3003^HDR soft
funky covers (c2015, KB)

Same spaces have the atmosphere of a comfortable corner of someone’s home, and every doorway welcomes.

a comfortable study (c2015, KB)
a comfortable study (c2015, KB)
c2015, KB
c2015, KB
IMG_3008^HDR soft
c2015, KB
IMG_3028^cropped
a cheery welcome at one of the several doorways (c2015, KB)

I came around the corner and encountered mysteries. There’s a metaphor there, I’m sure.

IMG_3014^saturated
c2015, KB

My niece later found another reason to climb a ladder — various collections of Edgar Allen Poe, to which she coined a pun: “If one is perusing the works of Edgar Allen, one could be said to be reading Poe-etry.”

We are a silly lot.

Jamie reading Poe (c2015, KB)
Jamie reading Poe (c2015, KB)

On the mantel of one of the fireplaces stands this whimsical fellow:

c2015, KB
c2015, KB

If you ever visit Oklahoma City, try to carve out time to visit Full Circle Books, especially if you’re an independent author. The staff are friendly and professional, and the store supports indie and local authors, and the variety of books is vast.

front desk and beyond (c2015, KB)
front desk and beyond (c2015, KB)

 

reposted from Adventures In Fiction

The Rise of Fallen Stars

RiseofFallenStarsThe first book in The Third Heaven series, The Rise of Fallen Stars by Donovan M. Neal is an original piece of fantasy fiction, incorporating the limited Biblical account with a rich creativity to imagine what might have happened when Lucifer defied God and took a third of the angels with him.

In the beginning (wink and a smile), Lucifer saves Michael’s life, and all of the angels are shown as being in harmony and brotherhood, but someone steps outside his assigned task, setting in motion a chain of tragic events. Pride and grief, anger and bitterness, fester and work wedges between brothers until a powerful angel goes on a rampage and kills another, and Lucifer dares plot rebellion against his Maker, unleashing war in Heaven.

Lucifer is present in such vivid fashion one can “see” and “hear” his beauty as the most beautiful angel. Heaven and Hell are described in rich detail, and the clever use of Biblical language and verses lends a depth and an authenticity to the tale.

There are a few instances where Neal makes interesting parallels between his novel and the Bible, such as when El (God) tells Lucifer, “What you have to do, do quickly,” echoing what Jesus tells Judas on the night the disciple betrays the Messiah to His death.

The Rise of Fallen Stars is action-packed, and is densely populated with angels of many ranks and myriad names. They are sometimes difficult to keep straight, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the story.

What did take me out of the story were occasional awkward phrases (“gastric acids of the abomination of punishment”), and descriptions that incorporated or described flora or fauna not yet created (such as when one heavenly being grabs another as one would grab a cat by the scruff of the neck). And, in an Indiana Jones-like scene, Michael and Raphael traverse a chamber of perils to enter the Hall of Annals, and Michael is afraid. Such fear in that situation seemed out of character for an angel.

One thing I found interesting was Neal’s incorporation of Greek myth names into the setting (Adonis trees, Elysian Fields), and the use of Greek god and German folklore names for some characters (Charon, Mephisto, and more).

The cover evokes the story, and is well done.

The Rise of Fallen Stars is by no means a perfect book, but it is original and interesting. Recommended reading.

Author Interview: Keanan Brand

Donovan M. Neal, a blogger and the author of the Biblical fantasy series The Third Heaven, recently interviewed one of our authors, Keanan Brand, about his journey toward publication, the challenges in writing and in life, and how his faith informs his writing.

Below are a couple excerpts:

new cover^for SmashwordsWhat advice would you give new novelists?

“Patience, grasshopper.”

I lifted that line from the old Kung Fu television show, but it’s a solid Biblical and literary concept, too. Patience isn’t staying still, necessarily. It’s persevering, it’s trying again, until the goal is achieved.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The adage about having to write a million words before being able to call oneself a writer? I don’t know how many words I’ve written in my lifetime, but I produced at least the equivalent of three copies of Dragon’s Rook before finally settling on a completed version that worked…

I am pleased with the end result, and early readers have said that portions of it stay with them, coming to mind long after they closed the book, and some have said it is far different from what they expected of a swords-and-dragons yarn. One reader (who had never read fantasy) said she couldn’t put it down. I hope that you, too, enjoy this tale.

RiseofFallenStars

This is only a fraction of the interview — read it here in its entirety. (Read more about Keanan here and here.)

We thank Donovan M. Neal for his generosity.

Coming soon: A review of The Rise of Fallen Stars, the first book in Neal’s The Third Heaven series.

Captains Courageous vs. A Little Princess: tales of children growing up

These two books were favorites of mine in childhood, for different reasons. I enjoyed daydreaming about what it would be like if I were rich like Sara Crewe when she came into a fortune in diamond mines. And who wouldn’t want to see a brat like Harvey Cheyne get his comeuppance by working for little pay on the We’re Here!

Bad kids learn lessons, hard work has rewards, someone will rescue you, dreams are previews of reality. These stories have their magic.

The interesting thing I didn’t notice when reading the books many years ago is that they are BOTH about spoiled rich kids thrown into circumstances beyond their control. I’d always kind of identified with scullery-maid Sara. I saw A Little Princess as a rags-to-riches story. It’s really a riches story, with a bout of poverty thrown in.

Parallels in A Little Princess1905) and Captains Courageous(1897):

Sara Crewe and Harvey Cheyne are rich kids, both spoiled by indulgent parents. We like Sara because of her modest attitude, while we hate Harvey for being entitled.

—Harvey is lost at sea, his parents think he is dead
—Sara becomes lost in London, her guardian thinks she is dead

—Harvey adapts to working hard after Captain Disko Troop punches him for accusing the crew of stealing money
—Sara adapts to hard work when Miss Minchin forces her to work as a maid to pay Sara’s debts

–Harvey gains a mind for business after being put to the test
–Sara doesn’t change much in attitude, but begins reaching outside her circle to give

There are more things alike between the two books, but which author handled the “fish out of water” character circumstances the best?

I’m actually weighing anchor on the side of Kipling. Captains Courageous is practical from start to finish. In fact, it kind of reminds me of a self-help book, with phrases like:

“Tis dollars and cents I’m putting in your pocket.”(Long Jack teaches Harvey the ropes on the ship)

“No good gettin’ mad at things, dad says. It’s our own fault if we can’t handle em.”(Dan)

“I tell you two boys here they after you’ve made a mistake–ye don’t make fewer’n a hundred a day–the next best thing’s to own up to it, like men.” (Salters)

It’s SO practical, in fact, that A Little Princess seems dreamy in comparison. But Sara’s world is different–more about compassion and mental tricks to help one get through tough times. I think the story here causes it to be more my favorite tale than the other:

“I can’t help making things up. If I didn’t, I don’t believe I could live.”(Sara)

“Left just one bun for herself….and she could’ve eaten the whole six–I saw it in her eyes.”(baker after Sara gives her food to a beggar girl)

“Somewhere in this world there is a heavenly kind person who is my friend–my friend. If I never know who it is–if I never can even thank him–I shall never feel quite so lonely.” (Sara)

Two different sets of coping mechanisms for the characters. Sara lives like the Princess she imagines herself to be, kind to others but spirited through persecution. Harvey learns and adapts to the ways of life on a rough fishing boat, leaving soft comforts behind.

Of these two, which is your favorite, and why?

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20150307-092619-33979144.jpg

Penworthy Press Presents: Dragon’s Rook by Keanan Brand

The Penworthy Press collective—sounds like a cult, doesn’t it? But we’re just writers, honest!—announces the first book published under our logo:

Dragon’s Rook, book one of The Lost Sword duology by Keanan Brand.

This epic fantasy tells the story of two kingdoms at war. The kings are brothers-in-law—Morfran’s late wife was Damanthus’ sister—but the conflict has nothing to do with family and everything to do with the Territories, a long strip of forest and hills ruled by neither kingdom. The people there govern themselves, but have no standing army.

When Morfran’s soldiers invade, a young shepherd name Gaerbith journeys to the Dissonay capital and begs help of Damanthus to keep the Skardians at bay.

Disson engages Skarda in war, and pushes the invaders out of the Territories and back into the western Plains of Skarda, near the Highlands, a hallowed and feared place where the dead are said to dwell.

When Dragon’s Rook begins, the war is at an impasse. Both sides have lost heavily, and ground has been neither gained nor given in a long while. Gaerbith is now a seasoned soldier and captain of the Fourth Lachmil. His skill in battle has gained him a reputation as possessing magic, but anything special he attributes to the fact that his mother was a Keeper, one of a group of immortals charged with keeping the Great Archive, a storied trove of learning and art that many think is just a myth.

His mother, Uártha, entrusted him with a secret that can only be unlocked when he takes the oath of a Keeper: the hiding place of Azrin, the lost sword of Kel High King, who in ages past slew a Dragon and freed the people.

Yet, even if Gaerbith takes the oath and learns the secret, he can do nothing without Kel High King’s nearest descendant, the only one to whom the sword will answer.

Dragon’s Rook is the name of a cave in Kel Tor near the village of Shea, where a blacksmith lives. He possesses a dagger decorated with the same metal from which Azrin was forged, and he remembers nothing before the day the previous blacksmith found him as a child and took him in as an apprentice.

Kieran Smith and Captain Gaerbith set out on unexpected journeys—the blacksmith to learn who he really is, the soldier to do his duty to a king—and along the way they face great foes, make new allies, gain love or lose it, and must decide whether or not to do the most frightening thing of all: trust their lives to the leading of the Voice.

Dragon’s Rook is currently available as an e-book (visit Keanan’s website or his blog to select which version you prefer), and will be coming soon in paperback.

The cover art and design are by another member of the Penworthy Press collective: artist and writer, Suzan Troutt. She can be found at Gothic Tones blog, at her online jewelry shop, or at Jade’s Journal.

Advance readers have commented favorably on the cadence and detail of the writing, and on the characters, especially the female protagonists. Some readers have selected the story’s quieter moments—not the battles, not the wonders, but the human interactions—as some of their favorites.

Although there are fantasy tropes and archetypes in Dragon’s Rook, there are few mythical creatures—aside from Dragons, there are bloodthirsty giant crows called Nar’ath, invented for this story, but expect no dwarves, elves, ogres, trolls, and the like. The author freely admits to the classical influences of Tolkien, Lewis, folklore, mythology, and the Bible, and built the world of Disson and Skarda on a mix of American and European geography, but weaves a story all his own.

We at Penworthy Press are proud to present this novel to the world. May it and its successors bring joy to their readers for many years to come.