Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

 

 

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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.

Penworthy News, In Brief

When the blog falls quiet, it’s not abandoned. Think of it as the companionable lulls that occur in conversations between friends: they’re a sign of trust, respect, the comfort of one another’s presence.

For us at Penworthy, the conversation is by no means at an end. The silence simply means we’re creating.

Here are a few notes to catch you up on our doings:

1) Black Gate magazine posted an excellent review of Dragon’s Rook:

Black Gate sidebar_bg_mag_sigilLike all genres of fiction, fantasy has a growing list of clichĂ©s and played-out tropes: the orphaned farm boy who’s actually the chosen one, the quest for a magical artifact to save the world, the generic medieval European setting, the Tolkien-lite denizenry of humans and elves versus orcs, goblins, and trolls
. On one hand, it’s surprising to see these tropes crop up new cover^for Smashwordsover and over again. Authors are supposed to be imaginative. Is it really that hard to come up with original ideas? On the other hand, it makes a good bit of sense to see certain recurring tropes. Fantasy is, after all, rooted in mythology, and one can make a strong case that fantasy taps into symbols and archetypes coded into the human psyche, whether we’re talking about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or the simple Jungian archetype of the shadow representing the basest of human instincts.

In practice, of course, the truth lays somewhere in the middle. Mediocre writers reuse certain tropes and make them cliché because they do nothing new with them. Expert writers create new tropes or take old ones and make them new in the context of unique characters and original words.

Read the entire review here.

SuSAn2) Suzan Troutt has been helping a fellow writer, Fred Rothganger, promote his science fiction novel, SuSAn, which we think is fitting, given the name. (wink and a smile)

Susan stands on the threshold of Singularity, a nexus where all the forces of history converge. What world waits on the other side? 

She has no “laws of robotics” built into her program, only the restless desire to be loved. She does everything to please her mother, a manipulative and driven scientist. As she grows from a trusting child into a rebellious young woman she faces a terrible choice: risk her very soul in more experiments, or stay stuck as an unfinished creation. 

She searches for a man who can embrace her as both machine and human being. Her final step in development is the most difficult of all: learning to love him back. The affair between humans and technology will determine the shape of our future.

Read more at Suzan’s blog, at the book’s Facebook page, or at Fred’s blog.

Gothic Tones logo

3) Suzan’s online jewelry store, Gothic Tones, is gaining more and more attention, which is making us quite happy. After all, we like to see one another succeed.

Suzan offers new, vintage, and offbeat items for customers looking for sophisticated, unique, or quirky jewelry. She also offers original artwork, a survival bracelet (for guys or girls), and customers can make requests.