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19 February 2014 @ 10:58 am
Days of Blood & Starlight (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #2)Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the best books I was introduced to last year was Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke & Bone. The first book impressed the hell out of me. Now that I've read the sequel Days of Blood & Starlight, I'm a full-fledged Laini Taylor fan.

As far as sequels go, this book does EVERYTHING that a second book in a series should do. Laini reveals more of the world(s) and lets the storyline progress in a natural fashion, giving it just the right nudges to send the main characters into the worst trouble possible.

Laini makes some bold moves within this book, not the least of which is waiting several chapters into the book to reveal the whereabouts and condition of the main character Karou.

I will say that while this book stands on its own, I wouldn't recommend skipping the first book. I'm not sure the opening will invest the reader as strongly if they're unfamiliar with the characters and storyline. Besides, part of this book's charm is how Laini takes what started as a tragic love story and turns it into a well-constructed, entertaining morality tale on how war is a self-sustaining monster.

If I had to nitpick, there are a few quibbles. Karou's best friend Zuzana is entertaining, but only in small doses. Much as I enjoyed some of her scenes, I quickly wanted to smack her across the head and tell her to shut up for five minutes, find a corner and grow up. Of course, I'm a 41-year-old, and Zuzana is a teenager; this means Laini has captured the true teenage personality.

Another small gripe comes from Karou being oblivious to the plot against her by Thiago, the leader of the Chimaera army, what's left of it. He needs Karou in order to resurrect his army and saddles her with an unwanted assistant to speed up the process. Yeah, right. Even before Ten (said assistant in cahoots with Thiago) starts talking about how she might help Karou restore her soul to a Chimaera body, it's pretty obvious that Thiago is plotting to kill Karou and replace her with Ten as the new resurrectionist. How pathetically obvious is Thiago's plot? Notice I'm not even warning readers about this as a spoiler. The only thing that could make it more apparent is if Ten wore a t-shirt that says, I'm here to murder and replace Karou. So when Karou is stunned to realize this is Thiago's plan against her two-thirds of the way into the book, I was more stunned that Karou hadn't been operating fully aware of that fact all along.

Those tiny missteps aside, the book is just bloody brilliant. The last third of the book is packed solid with one twist after another. Best of all, every twist makes perfect sense, and it's Laini's brilliant use of pacing and point-of-view that makes each twist so damned effective.

Daughter of Smoke & Bone delivers a cleverly-plotted fantasy novel, but Days of Blood & Starlight turns this series into an epic work of fiction that raises the bar for fantasy writers while painting a horrific portrait of how even violence born from the best of intentions can only lead to more violence.

Thank God the third book is just a month-and-a-half away from release, because I can't wait!

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11 February 2014 @ 11:09 am
Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Shadow and Bone has been on my radar for a long time now. Aside from a cool cover, the buzz around Leigh Bardugo's book sounded pretty solid. I'm sad to say that while it's not a bad book, Shadow and Bone didn't "Wow!" me.

The Good: the setting is freaky cool. It's not just the heavy Russian influence to the setting, even though that definitely helps. We're given a country at war with the only hope for supplies to reach them coming through a region known as "The Fold," which is occupied by several creatures. Travelers use sand ships to sail through the dark land.

The Bad: even though the book starts off with a lot of stuff that is new and different, I couldn't escape the impression of a color-by-numbers quality to the plot. It was almost too predictable in its pace. Even worse, after the main character Alina first displays her Grisha power to manipulate light, any hint of originality flies out the window. She's taken to the palace and is inducted into what amounts to a school for Grishas (aka witches). There are blatant shades of Harry Potter, The Tudors and Twilight.

The Worst: Oh, yes... I did mention Twlight. Once again, we're handed a love triangle of sorts with one guy who is several centuries old but just happens to look like he's near the end of his teenage years. Even though he turns out to be the bad guy, it's really too late by the time that revelation appears to redeem the mountain of cliche that's led up to it. Up until the budding romance between Alina and the ancient, creepy dude (yes, that's what he really is, no matter how much Alina enjoys making out with him), Alina actually comes across as this cool, tough survivor. No sooner does she land in "Hogwarts for Grishas" than she changes into a vapid, annoying girl obsessed with looking pretty and keeping up with the latest school gossip. I was so turned off by how shallow Alina becomes that I couldn't find any credibility to a romance with either guy in her life. I also didn't buy into why she eventually runs away from the school, or rather, I didn't believe she'd been given enough evidence to convince her she needed to.

The latter gripes are a true pity, because this book has so much potential for delivering something new and unexpected. For the well-read, just understand you're picking up what amounts to the literary equivalent of a popcorn flick and you won't be as disappointed as I was. I think for younger readers who are just beginning to explore the world of fantasy within YA, this will be a book they love and is well worth the trip. Despite my complaints, I did recommend it to my daughter.

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28 January 2014 @ 02:02 pm
The Killing Moon (Dreamblood #1)The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Second dates are awkward, even when the first date goes perfect. Same thing holds true for readers when they find a new author. A little more than a year ago, I read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, and that book rocked my world. Damn it was good. Finished that book fast and gave it a solid five star review, so I was nervously optimistic as I finally took my second chance on Jemisin with her novel The Killing Moon. The book rocks, and I can't wait for my "third date."

Just as with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Killing Moon is blessed with a brilliantly well-developed setting. I love the mythology Jemisin has built for this world, with its Gatherers who some regard as priests and others as assassins. The idea of these religious figures who collect lives through dreams is fascinating and well-presented.

What really locked in another five stars from me was her characters in The Killing Moon. She provides a solid cast, with the Gatherer Ehiru, his apprentice Nijiri and a foreign spy Sunandi. They're all well-developed with wonderful strengths and flaws. Nijiri probably enjoys the best story arc within the book, but as good as the heroes of this book are, the villain steals the show. I won't say too much to avoid giving away certain things, but the villain isn't your typical shade of evil. There's an old adage that villains are simply the heroes of their own stories, and one could argue that with this book. The bad guy in The Killing Moon has noble goals. He wants to build a lasting peace for his world and wipe out corruption within his homeland, but to do this, he will resort to any means, no matter how many people's lives he must destroy. As Jemisin's tale exposes the corruption within the Gatherers and the political system of Gujaareh, more than once I had to wonder if this world would indeed be better off with the villain winning in the end.

Perhaps my greatest surprise was when I discovered the book stands on its own. The sequel The Shadowed Sun came out the same year as the first book, so I very much expected to find a cliffhanger at the end of the first book. While I would have been fine with that, I'm glad to see Jemisin didn't take that route. The Killing Moon certainly ends with plenty of potential storylines to travel in a second book, but it provides a satisfying ending, even if the reader doesn't make reservations for a date with The Shadowed Sun. I, however, will definitely be going on that date.

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29 August 2013 @ 04:49 pm
I realized today that I'm a hypocrite. Even after spending more than half of my life chasing the dream of getting a novel published, I suddenly realize how hesitant I am to encourage my children's artistic endeavors.

What brought about this epiphany was attending today's luncheon for Women in the Arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The event honored eight women in the Richmond area who have made contributions to the city's arts community. I went for two women in particular, author A.B. Westrick and actress/author Irene Ziegler. I've had the pleasure of working with both women as part of James River Writers, and I was thrilled to be there and applaud their accomplishments.

Six other women were honored, and as I listened to what made them all worthy recipients, it painted a picture of Richmond as a place that truly does cherish its artists. These women have dedicated their lives to their crafts and using it to better others. The commitments weren't easy, and they made their sacrifices along the way. Good art demands no less.

I know about that price and have paid it, too. My daughter is an artist, and even at the age of thirteen, I see so much talent pouring out of her to write, to paint, to sing. I remember hearing her pluck at her guitar and cringing at the horrid sounds of a metaphorical cat being strangled, but that's changed. These days, I hear her picking up that same guitar, and the music coming from it is worthy of being called music. The girl has talent, and she makes no secret that she wants to devote her life to that music.

Sure, I smile and tell her, "That's great," but there's also this part of me that holds back. Even worse, I suspect she senses it. I know what she wants to do will demand a sacrifice, and the protector in me wants to stop her. I don't want to see my little girl suffer for her art.

I am a hypocrite.

Seeing the eight women who were honored today and hearing their stories, I realize my daughter deserves better than my hesitant encouragement. I need to be "all in" for her. Sure I can warn her about the obstacles ahead, but that's no excuse for not helping push her towards those dreams. The women honored today have made a difference in many lives. Their dreams inspire others. What right do I have to hold back my daughter from doing the same, just to keep her safe?
05 August 2013 @ 01:32 pm
LanaFreakling01I’ve been tagged by Lana Krumwiede, author of Freakling (which is excellent!) and its forthcoming sequel Archon to participate in this globe-spanning blog tour. This blog chain began in Australia and has made it to the Commonwealth of Virginia. If you want to follow this blog series back to its origins, just start by clicking on Lana's name or picture, and you can follow the chain back to its beginning (each entry links to the one before it).

Q: What is the working title of your latest book?

Tales of a 10th Grade Vampire Hunter got its title as a subtle joke. Since I have the same last name as Judy Blume, my book's title is actually a nod to her book Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing. My publisher loved the title when I e-mailed the idea to them. In their reply, they asked, "Are you saving Are You There, Vampires? It's me, Gidion. for a sequel?"

TalesCover200Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?
I've always been fascinated with stories about vampire hunters, but I just never felt anyone had done it right.

Q: What genre does your book fall under?

Tales is a young adult urban fantasy.

Q: Which actors would star in a movie rendition of your book?
I'm going to cheat a bit on this one. I've never really had an idea of potential actors. If he wasn't starting to get a little too old for it, I'd say Logan Lerman. He demonstrated some serious acting talent in his role for "3:10 to Yuma." His character had an edge that Gidion would require.

For my part, I'm more passionate about who would compose the music for the film. Without a doubt, I'd want Marco Beltrami. I'm listening to his score to "The Wolverine" a lot while writing the sequel to Tales.

Q: What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

For Gidion Keep, hunting vampires is easy; it's high school that might kill him.

Q: Who is publishing your book?
Fable Press is publishing my book. I've really enjoyed the experience working with Fable. They're a relatively new publisher and take very good care of their authors.

Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Most of the writing for Tales of a 10th Grade Vampire Hunter took place during two summers (2010 and 2011). There was a huge gap in the middle where nothing got written because of other commitments in my schedule. Even though this has happened to me with previous manuscripts, I was petrified I wouldn't be able to finish the story. Clearly that didn't happen.

ComparedBooks01Q: What other books would you compare this story to within your own genre?

Comparing Tales to other books within YA isn't easy for me. I will point to The Maze Runner by James Dashner and Variant by Robison Wells which provide books with a lot of action and some very well-written male main characters. My book was influenced a bit by Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. I loved what Maggie did with the main character's relationship with her two best friends and how growing up (and the conflict in the book) pushes them apart and in new directions. I borrowed that dynamic and applied that with a few twists to Gidion and his two best buds. My book also owes a small nod to the book Vampire$ by John Steakley which is one of the grittiest and most exciting vampire hunter books you can find.

Q: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My wife was the main inspiration. I was not in a good place as a writer before I began this book. I was frustrated with my current project, chasing trends for something marketable (which a writer should NEVER do). My wife asked the question, "What is it you want to write?" The answer was Tales of a 10th Grade Vampire Hunter. A second influence ended up being my son. As he and his sister have gotten older, I've come to realize how many more books are out there for my daughter compared to my son. YA needs more good books for boys. That said, there are so many brilliant books boys are missing out on, not because they're written for girls, but because publishers choose to market them towards girls.

Q: What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?

Have you ever watched a vampire movie and wondered what a hunter would do with the body if the vampire didn't just go "poof" into a pile of ash? For that matter, if vampires can't be exposed to sunlight, how do they travel long distances? Where do vampires who've only been undead for a decade or two get money? What do vampires do for room and board, because hotels would be twice as expensive for them (they're probably having to pay for a two-day stay since they're sleeping through the standard checkout time)? Hollywood has glamorized how sexy and easy the vampire world is. My book does the opposite. I take the vampire myth and boil it down to its most basic, realistic elements, then figure out how to meet the needs of the hunter and vampire with real world solutions. This was half the fun of writing this book, and the result was something of a strange blend of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" and "Burn Notice." I suppose that makes Gidion Keep something of a love child of Buffy Summers and Michael Westen.

Q: And what is next after the next big thing?

My son with author Meagan Spooner (Skylark) at Fountain BookstoreI'm in a strange and wonderful position with my career. Finding a home for Tales of a 10th Grade Vampire Hunter took about a year. In that time, I wrote another book, which is more of a traditional fantasy for YA. We'll see what happens with that. Most of my focus these days is on writing the sequel to Tales, which is proving a lot of fun and will turn the tables on Gidion Keep when he faces a vampire who makes a living (or perhaps, "unliving") by hunting slayers.

I’m pleased to pass the Next Big Thing's virtual baton to Meagan Spooner. Meagan is the author of two young adult series, the Skylark and Starbound trilogies. My children and I met Meagan earlier this year at Fountain Bookstore's YA Extravaganza for the release of Skylark. I originally posted this picture of Meagan with my son on Facebook. The sequel to that book, Shadowlark, is coming out later this fall!
26 July 2013 @ 06:54 am
The next generation of writers is alive and well. After attending a local writing event last night, I'm more assured of this than ever.

James River Writers focused its monthly Writing Show on Young Adult books. The second half of the event offered a unique opportunity for YA writers: a chance to pick the minds of their target audience. Three teenagers who have a passion for reading and writing took the stage. Freelance Writer Valley Haggard, who also heads a creative writing program called Richmond Young Writers, moderated the discussion and she got some interesting insights.

One of the biggest turn-offs for the teens when it comes to picking a book they like? Being talked down to. After hearing these kids talk, you understand why. The kind of kids who want to read are smart and more than capable of bringing a critical eye to any writer's work. What surprised me most was when they pointed to the things that attract them to a good book: compelling characters, good sensory descriptions and strong plots. They're looking for the same things in stories that people two and even three times older are still wanting to find.

The event included readings from two other teens, and it was great stuff, far ahead of what I was writing at their age. One of the panel members also revealed she writes a book blog. Valley praised another of the panel members who writes about math (and does it very well!). They're eager to get out there and willing to take risks with their work.

I've already witnessed a passion for the written word in my children, which makes me proud. They want to go to events like last night's Writing Show. My 13-year-old daughter is working on a series of fantasy-adventure novellas. Even my 11-year-old son has the writing bug, recently writing a short story retelling of "How to Train Your Dragon" but told from the dragon's point of view. I'm grateful my family lives in a city like Richmond with so many great organizations passionate about literature: James River Writers, Richmond Young Writers and the Podium Foundation.

With video games, online social media, TV shows and movies all competing for the attention of these kids, it's great to see there are plenty of them still in love with the simple beauty of joining words to build something fantastic.
I'm excited to reveal the cover to my upcoming novel, Tales of a 10th Grade Vampire Hunter. Fable Press did a really nice job on this, and I was glad they were willing to bounce around ideas for the cover with me ahead of time.

Ironically, I had recently watched a TED video featuring book cover designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd. Even if you don't know his name, odds favor you've seen his work. One of Kidd's most well-known covers was the original design for Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.

Up until watching the video of Kidd's TED talk, I don't know that I would have been able to offer anything of value to the discussion. Thinking on some of Kidd's thought process in designing covers made me realize what the cover shouldn't have on it: vampires.

Watch the video, and you'll understand why.

Tales of 10th Grade Vampire Hunter will be coming out later this fall. Can't wait!
28 June 2013 @ 04:08 pm
I'm happy to announce that my first novel will be released later this year. My young adult fantasy novel, Tales of a Tenth Grade Vampire Hunter, is being published by Fable Press.

The novel focuses on Gidion Keep, who comes from a long line of vampire hunters. For Gidion, hunting vampires is easy. It's high school that might get him killed.

There's plenty of time until the book is released, so I'll hold off on saying much more for now. Gotta save some tidbits for along the way. What I will do is share a picture that was taken back in May of 2010 when I was just starting on this book.

I set this book here in Richmond, Virginia, and the opening scene starts across the street from the Siné Irish Pub in Shockoe Bottom (see below). I visited every location I mention in my book. For the first chapter, I took more than a hundred pictures as reference material.

Oh, and yesterday I shared the picture of a red bat on a t-shirt my wife gave me for Christmas. The logo on it is actually a red, celtic-style version of the Batman symbol, as many of you noticed. Gidion wears a t-shirt with a red bat on it, so I wanted this t-shirt very badly when I saw it.
27 June 2013 @ 05:11 pm
I'm going to have some big news to announce very soon. For now, I'll simply say the image below, a symbol from a t-shirt my wife gave me for Christmas, does tie into it. You'll have to wait to find out how.

12 February 2013 @ 09:31 am
I feel the need to further a discussion started recently by writer Maggie Stiefvater. This past month, she went on a rant about the ridiculous overuse of rape within literature. I would say that I couldn't agree more, but in fact, I can agree far more.

Like Maggie, I've encountered several books of late which use rape or attempted rape as a means to further the character development of a female character. I could provide examples, but I'm hesitant to do so. My concern isn't so much that I might offend the authors I point out or their readers; it's that I don't think it would be fair. The writers (men and women) I'd point out aren't hacks who haven't the creative talent to craft a well-rounded character with an engaging arc. Many of these books, I've actually enjoyed quite a lot for their other merits. Sadly, these writers have fallen prey to a general acceptance that rape works as a "go-to device" for advancing storylines.

The more I read about the leering gazes and aggressive threats and gestures, the more disgusted I get at the absurd acceptance of this portrayal--and I'm not referring to women being depicted as victims. No, I could mirror Maggie's arguments about the excessive use of rape against women in literature as a means to create character development, but that seems silly. She does a fine job in her recent blog entry, and it's well worth the read. No, my rant focuses on a different side of the coin:

Do we really have such a low opinion of men?

Seriously. Why is it so acceptable to blanketly portray men in such a despicable light? Want to show that a society is violent and brutal? Well then, just make the majority of men sex-driven bruisers who look at women as playthings and baby-makers. Want to make your reader despise the villain? That's simple enough. Just find a convenient opportunity for the villain to disrespect a woman, and mission accomplished. Really, people? You're okay with this?

Before some of you want to say that I'm not being realistic about what men are like, even in our own society, then you'd be mistaken. I've worked for more than eleven years as a 911 dispatcher. In that time, I've talked to murderers, men who've killed women. I've also talked to some women who do a tremendously poor job representing the female half of the population. My job has proven to me that the dark side to equality is that both men and women can suck.

Thankfully, in that time, I've also talked to some people who could bring tears to your eyes for the humanity they display towards others. Damn, I love those calls, but the jaded dispatcher in me realizes, I'm only catching a glimpse of that person's character. Do we really believe the same person who is capable of showing great compassion in one moment is incapable of equally immoral actions? Is it so unrealistic to think we can have a vicious and hated villain in a story who also believes in equality?

Men and women have no shortage of moral crimes they can commit. That's why I ask my fellow writers to challenge themselves. Yes, there will be stories that demand rape as an element, where it might even be appropriate, as difficult as that is to imagine. Stories will require men to be less than they can or should, but we can do better than this. The same minds that can build entire worlds and fill them with souls to entertain and inspire readers can also provide richer ways to unfold those many lives within their tales. We writers have an obligation to ourselves and our readers to reveal all the layers of humanity and not settle for cheap stereotypes that sell humanity short.