The Tom Cat, by Amy Holden Jones: A Review

The Tom Cat is a delightful romp of a story, without a missed beat or loose end.

Tom Knightly is a rich man-about-town who can’t commit; he breaks the heart of his tom-catfiancee by running out on her only a few days before the wedding. Ashamed of himself, he ends up in a bar called The Black Cat, where he meets a graceful, beautiful older woman apparently on the prowl, a cougar. They drink together, and the next morning, Tom wakes up….as a cat.

As a cat, Tom survives a few escapades before making it back to the apartment of his fiancee, Kaylie. The fat old labrador, Henry, who serves as a guard dog, welcomes him, and begins to teach him a few life lessons. Tom will need to learn what true love and sacrifice is before he can become human again, and win his Kaylie back.

The Tom Cat is a delightful romp of a story, without a missed beat or loose end. Sure, the characters are a bit two-dimensional, and there’s no real doubt it’s going to end happily, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Author Amy Holden Jones has a number of screenwriting credits to her name, and the professionalism is apparent. In fact, The Tom Cat itself would make a good summer movie. (Twenty years ago, I would have cast Hugh Grant in the title role.)

This isn’t great literature, but I couldn’t fault it. Five stars to this light, offbeat romance.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A Noble’s Quest, by Ryan Toxopeus: A Review

If it is adventure you are after, The Noble’s Quest has it in spades.

Elves and dwarves, men and halflings, gnomes and orcs…this is a high fantasy story in thea-nobles-quest tradition of Terry Brooks, with gaming influences also apparent. Fast paced, and with a unexpected twist towards the end, A Noble’s Quest suitably entertained me. The gaming influences, I think, are most apparent in the pace of the story, and the characters’ self-awareness, tending towards ‘kill now, think about it later’ rather than the more reflective nature of some fantasies.

But if it is adventure you are after, A Noble’s Quest has it in spades. Thomas and Sarentha, the two protagonists, are peasants working as lumberjacks until Thomas accidentally kills the boss’s son. Forced to flee, they are caught up in a quest that involves an ancient map, the branch of a magical tree, and silver dragons that breath frost, not fire. (I liked that dragon, a neat inversion of the usual.)

There’s a bit of a fan fiction feel to parts of the world Ryan Toxopeus has created, strengthened by his use of the terms orcs and mithril, but to some extent Middle-Earth belongs to the generations now, part of a shared consciousness and the foundation of much of high fantasy, whether the authors realize that or not. The characters are a bit predictable (well, most of them – no spoilers!), but that’s less important in a story shaped by the adventure, not by the personalities. Sometimes the solutions to problems seemed a bit ‘deux ex machina‘, especially towards the end, again reflecting (in my opinion) the influences of gaming.

A Noble’s Quest is followed by its sequel, A Wizard’s Gambit, which I will be reading as soon as I get through my backlist! Overall, 3.5 stars from me for The Noble’s Quest, which translates to 4 on Goodreads and Amazon.

I received a copy of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Reading about Writing

The key to any advice on writing is to pay attention to what lies underneath the overarching organizational structure …


I’ve just finished reading two diametrically opposed books on writing.  One is Robert McKee’s Story, which is really about screenwriting but almost all of it is applicable to any writing.  He’s an advocate of the ‘plan everything out in detail’ style of writing, with some very good insights on conflict and pacing. 

The other was Stephen King’s On Writing (King is up there in my favourite writer category, when he’s at his best), in which he says basically: think up a situation, and let the characters take the story wherever it goes. No planning.  Which is exactly how I wrote Empire’s Daughter, so I automatically favour his approach (confirmation bias, that’s called) – but I think McKee has some very good advice as well.

The key to any advice on writing is to pay attention to what lies underneath the overarching organizational structure of the advice. I’m not going to plan out every scene before I write it, as McKee suggests, but his discussion of how scenes need to move the protagonist and the story from one place to another (physically, emotionally, spirituallly); that each scene must involve meaningful change, now that’s useful for me. But I need to let my subconscious guide that meaningful change, let my characters speak and do and think and react for themselves. I can’t force them to do something that isn’t right for them, and my understanding of my characters’ temperaments and beliefs and emotions resides somewhere that I can’t reduce to lines on an index card or in a notes file on my laptop. On the other hand, when I have a fair idea of the overall story arc and the major conflicts inside that arc, then that place that knows who my characters are and what they’ll do has more time to develop a deeper response from them.

Both books agreed on a couple of things, the biggest one being: don’t write what isn’t necessary. Every word should be there for a reason. That doesn’t mean we all have to write like Ernest Hemingway, nor does it preclude description, but there should be more to describing a setting or a person or a facial expression than just filling space: the invocation of character, of mood, time, familiarity or alien-ness, joy or desolation. If we’re showing the reader something important, good. If we’re over-describing instead of showing character through dialogue or reaction, bad.

Related to this is the need for dispassionate editing. You may have written the best scene of your writing life, but if it doesn’t play a part in the story, why is it there? “Kill your darlings,” King quotes. (I never got to see the movie Genius, about the relationship between Thomas Wolfe (not Tom), author of Look Homeward, Angel, and his editor Max Perkins, but I gather this was part of the conflicted relationship between them.) King says if the writer’s reaction to the advice to cut a scene is ‘Yeah, but…”, then the scene most likely needs cutting.

McKee and King both discuss the difference between writing and story-telling; the first is a matter of having the skill to put words together in a way that is literate and has style, a way that evokes emotion and captures setting and mood. But you can do all that, and still not have a story to tell. Some of the world’s best story-tellers have no or limited written literacy skills, but they know all about character and pacing and tension and crises and climaxes, and that a story – any story – must contain some universal features – the struggle for identity, the conflict between life and death, a facing of horror: a personal journey of some sort. But of course, a good story is not necessarily well written.

A writer can learn the elements of style, and a story-teller can learn to structure her stories for maximum impact. When the two are skillfully put together, in a story told in a way that is truthful, honest to the characters, and concise, then the result should be a book (or a movie or a play) that is remembered by its audience.

What have been your most useful books on writing?

The Extraordinary Temptation, by Patrick McCusker: A Review

Worthy of a couple of lazy summer afternoons…

Any book that starts with an archaeologist in the field is likely to pull me in, and PatrickThe Extraordinary Temptation - Front Cover McCusker’s The Extraordinary Temptation did exactly that. From a medieval monastery site in Ireland to a ranch in Texas to Vatican City, the story for the most part kept me turning pages, entertained.

Ed Weaver is a young archaeologist overseeing a routine construction project when the ditch-digger uncovers a marble cube deep in the Irish bog, but he is without the funds to continue its appropriate excavation. An American donor steps in, promising the funds, setting off a tragic sequence of events for Ed and the theft of the precious contents of the cube. With those contents, a scientific experiment is begun, one with life-and-world-changing potential. Ed is determined to pursue of the chain of events that began with the discovery of cube, even if it takes him over twenty years to learn the truth.

The Extraordinary Temptation is sufficiently well-researched to be plausible, without going into so much detail to be pedantic. The writing is competent and the plot flows smoothly for the most part. I had a few niggles: one clearly evil character’s background or motivation is never satisfactorily explained; another, central to the plot, perhaps needed a better explanation of the myths and tales of sacred duality for readers unfamiliar with the concept. Overall, I found the first two-thirds of the book, leading up to the major crises and climax of the story, to be better written than the actual climactic events, which lacked sufficient impact. A pivotal chapter, which should fully engage the reader’s emotions, fails to do so (at least for me), because the reader is primarily told what is happening and not shown through the characters’ reactions and responses.

Niggles aside, I still found The Extraordinary Temptation to be entertaining and mostly enjoyable reading, worthy of a couple of lazy summer afternoons. My rating is 3.5 stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

More Good News!

I’ve just learned that my local library has ordered Empire’s Daughter for its collection. That’s quite rewarding, really; it’s really nice to see the library supporting local authors.  So now it’s in three libraries – two public (the other one is my university’s library, as part of its Campus Author program) and one private (the library of the rec centre in the over-55 community in which I live.)

And I’ve finally worked out a thorny problem in the sequel, so it’s coming on a-pace!

 

 

 

The Fall of The Gods (Elynx Saga Book 1) by Nicola Bagalà: A Review

I found parts of the story to be quite fun…

The Fall of The Gods (Elynx Saga Book 1) by Nicola Bagalà requires a major suspension of disbeliefFall of the Gods to enter fully into the world the author has created. Visualizing the action as a movie may help; when I could do that, I found parts of the story to be quite fun, although I could never really take it seriously.

The writing, as far as the adherence to the rules and conventions of grammar and spelling of the English language, is quite good, perhaps more so as English is not the author’s first language and he has translated the work from Italian. There were one or two mis-steps (snickers for sneakers, as one example) but overall the translation is competent and sentence flow is good; there are fewer mistakes than I usually see in any self-published work. It’s in the structure of story-telling that the problems arise. Mix together a sentient artificial intelligence that is the ‘soul’ of a building (and can appear as a solid hologram), a missing genius scientist, a Japanese grad student who is a mathematics and martial arts specialist, some equipment and action straight out of comic books and video games, dream sequences, and aliens crashed in the Sonora desert…well, can you mix all that together and write a coherent storyline? Not in one book, I’m afraid. There are too many plot lines and too many genres combined here for the story to hold together well. As it is the first book in a series, it is possible that once the other(s) are written that the whole series will coalesce into a solid and meaningful story. As it stands now, it’s too many flavours in one pot.

Standing out for me among the characters of the book was the sentient, holographic AI Hex. Perhaps an homage to Hal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, (although he also reminded me of the ‘soul of the Tardis’) as revealed in the Doctor Who episode The Doctor’s Wife), I found the character appealing and amusing, and oddly enough more fully realized than most of the other characters. (Which may, of course, say more about me as a reader than it does about the writer.)

Overall 2.5 stars, which translates to 3 on Goodreads and Amazon.

I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Oracle (Freya Snow Book 4) by L.C. Mawson: A Review

…a fast-paced magical adventure.

The fourth installment in L.C. Mawson’s Freya Snow series continues the story begun in oracleHunt. Freya, now more aware of her magical heritage and powers (although not completely) accepts a work experience placement in London, only to discover that her employer has chosen her for her magical abilities, and her assignment is to track down a missing Oracle. The problem is, does this Oracle want to be found?

Switching between the Shadow Realm and everyday life, the story provides more explanation of Freya’s background and foreshadows one possible future. It also acts as an exploration of some of Freya’s deepest fears and the choices she needs to make. But I also found parts of this book had, for me, a deeper resonance as a metaphor for the difficulties and choices people on the autism spectrum disorder face. I hesitate to write this, because I am allistic (non-autistic), but my husband is autistic (Asperger’s diagnosis), and after thirty-eight years of living with him, I may have a few valid insights. When Freya (or her Shadow Realm counterpart, to be precise) is told this about her possible bond with another magical creature: “The only way the two of you can bond is if you form a real and lasting attachment to the Human world. We always knew you were too closed off to others for that ever to be likely….” it struck me as the truth about relationships many autistic people live with. It can be easier to invest in other sorts of relationships – with computers, games, or, as Freya does, as a bounty-hunter of evil magical creatures – than it is with other humans…especially when the powers you hold – whether it is Freya’s magic or the ability to envision and analyse and discard dozens of answers to a word-game problem in a few milliseconds (don’t play Tribond® with my husband) – separate you from allistics.

Even with that possible interpretation aside, this is a fast-paced magical adventure. It should not be read without having read the previous books, and perhaps the related short stories too: I have read all the books, but not the stories, and there were occasionally times when I found myself confused about past events, which could be due either to my poor memory or to something happening or revealed in a story I haven’t read. But overall the four books have provided a coherent narrative and a developing story. I’m giving this installment four stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Another Dream Come True

I imagined reading my own work at this festival…but it was never going to happen. Except it is.

On the banks of the Eramosa River, in the tiny village of Eden Mills, Ontario, the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival is held every year, as it has been for over twenty-five years.  One of Canada’s premier writer’s festivals, it attracts huge crowds and very well known Canadian writers, reading their works in a variety of picturesque outdoor settings (if the weather cooperates, that is; indoors if it doesn’t. Usually it does.).

I’ve gone, on and off, for the last twenty years.  And, of course, I imagined reading my own work at this festival…but it was never going to happen.  Except it is. This year, I entered work in two categories – prose and poetry – in their Fringe contest, open to ‘not-yet-yet-widely-published’ authors.  I really didn’t think I had a chance…but on the weekend, I got the call, telling me I’d been selected in not one but both categories. I was (nearly) speechless. The official invitation – not only to read, but to attend the author’s party the night before, and the Festival dinner after the readings – is hanging on my bulletin board. I’ll probably frame it.

So I’ve got some reading practice to get in over the next month, to get the flow of the poems right, to figure out what part of the short story I can read in ten minutes, the time allowed.  Good problems to have.

Regular readers know I don’t do inspirational pieces, or moralize…but maybe I will just a bit this time.  As I said, I’ve been going to this festival for over twenty years, and wishing I could read there.  In my earlier entry I talked about how seeing my book on the shelves of my local independent book store was a dream come true, a dream held for over thirty-five years.  I’m fifty-eight, readers, and while I postponed my writing dreams for far too long, caught up in life and work and travel, I never forgot them completely.  Two years ago I got a blunt and visceral reminder that life is short…and to stop dreaming and start working, or I was never going to be able to call myself a writer. Now I can. My dreams may seem modest to some of you, but I’ve never been one for the limelight. This is enough for me.

Whatever it is you’re dreaming of, don’t give up, but you’ve got to do more than dream.

 

 

 

A Dream Come True

Can you imagine how that feels?

For thirty-eight years–since I came here for university in 1978–I have frequented the aisles of an independent bookstore in my city, starting at its original location and moving with it to its purpose-built new home, which included a cafe, and after a few years, a cinema. I’m not exaggerating when I say it has been, and is, a cultural hub here, and is in part responsible for the fact that we have a small but healthy downtown, one filled with cafes and interesting stores, music venues and concerts, art shows, and summer markets. It’s been a labour of love from one family, into the second generation now.

I used to look at all eclectic books…and dream that one day a title of mine would join them. Delivered to them today, soon Empire’s Daughter will grace the Young Adult fiction shelves. I am excited, awed, honoured. Of all the places it can be bought, this is the one that matters to me. This is the one that validates me as a writer. This is the dream come true.  Can you imagine how that feels?

A Season for Killing Blondes, by Joanne Guidoccio: A Review

An extended Italian family, lots of food, and four murders.

An extended Italian family, lots of food, and four murders are at the heart of Joanneseason for killing blondes Guidoccio’s A Season for Killing Blondes, a cozy mystery set in Sudbury, Ontario. While followers of my blog and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads know that this is not my usual genre to review, every so often, I like to read something different, just as while my preference in cinema is for small, independent, international films, once in a while I watch with complete enjoyment a rom-com, or a Hollywood blockbuster.

And enjoyment is what A Season for Killing Blondes gave me. It’s a fairly quick read, at 264 pages on my iPad Kindle app, perfect for a lazy Sunday or as a beach book. Competently written and plotted, it gained points for me by not only being set in my home province, but by its protagonist being middle-aged. Gilda Greco is fifty-ish, setting up a new business as a career counsellor after winning a major lottery, when a body is found in the Dumpster behind her office. The investigation reunites her with police detective Carlo Fantin, a high-school crush of Gilda’s. Family secrets, rivalries and jealousies factor into the escalating crimes. Can Gilda clear her name while helping to find who is responsible?

There are sufficient clues dropped, along with a few red herrings, to keep the reader engaged in the mystery and at the same time guessing. I had a minor niggle with a plot point which I felt rang untrue, and characters tend to be a little two-dimensional, but no more so than they are in an Agatha Christie mystery, so that’s not really a criticism. A nice addition to the book is the inclusion of several recipes at the end. Overall, 4 stars.