Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Short Book Reviews: Steampunk Victorian Revolution

Rebel Mechanics, by Shanna Swendson (Macmillan Children's Publishing Group) Steampunk and 
alternate American history, spies and skullduggery and steam engines, oh my!

From the beginning, I was captivated by this tale of an 1888 America that never freed itself from Britain, a world ruled by aristocratic “magister” magic-users, Masked Bandits and airships, and an intrepid heroine. With the focus on plot and character, perfect for young adult audiences, the world-building is handled with subtlety. Verity Newton arrives in New York City to take up a position as a governess, only to become entangled with the Rebel Mechanics, a fellowship of engineers committed to freeing themselves from the tyranny of the magisters through the creation of steam engine powered devices that anyone can operate, regardless of magical talent. (A particular charming twist was the role of the novel Jane Eyre, and its reflections on the role of governesses!) I hope this will be the beginning of a series of Verity’s adventures and the eventual liberation of the American colonies. Fans of Gail Carriger will particularly enjoy this book.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Short Book Reviews: Nothing New in Camelot

The Return of Sir Percival (Book 1, Guinevere's Prayer), by S. Alexander O'Keefe (Greenleaf, September 2016). 

A year after the death of Arthur, his kingdom lies under the brutal yoke of a Viking invader. Guinevere languishes in a convent, while setting up a secret spy network to keep tabs on the rest of the kingdom. Sir Percival, who had been dispatched to the Holy Land in search of the Grail, returns along with his Moorish companion. Morgana schemes to at last assassinate Merlin, while playing a dangerous game of alliance with the Vikings.

Although smoothly written, this sequel to the well-known story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table came across as flat and derivative. None of these characters struck me as remarkably original; they were all pretty much what I expected, although the many historical inaccuracies gave the narrative a Hollywood flavor (for example, Morgana is supposed to be a Roman assassin, but neither speaks nor behaves in a Roman fashion). The Moor, as charming as he is, reads as if he has just stepped out of Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” and that character was copied from the Saracen in the A & E “Robin of Sherwood” series. 

Readers hungry for everything Arthurian may enjoy this book, but anyone looking for a fresh take on the legends will likely be as disappointed as I was.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Supporting a New Writer 7: Flexibility

"Moving ahead, this is a good time to talk about where to connect with other writers, how to use social media, the benefits/drawbacks of face-to-face, what to look for in a group, workshops -- which ones, pitfalls, etc. And how to use technology like the internet and digital publishing (and why you shouldn't). Any of these spark ideas?"

Barb Caffrey: Today I'd like to talk about social media. I've known some writers who've made great strides in their readerships, using it -- but what I use it for, mostly, is to get to know other fans and writers. I've been able to gain encouragement, support, and appreciation through the use of Twitter and Facebook (I don't use Instagram or Pinterest, but I've heard both of those also are quite useful; find your own platform, and use it).

Most of the writers I know on Facebook, for example, talk about their works-in-progress, or sometimes about the struggles they're having with their works-in-progress. This lets me know that I'm not alone, and gives me the option to talk to them, see what they're doing and how they're doing it, and give them the support they've given unending circle, if you will.

While I stand behind my previous recommendation of the Forward Motion Writers Group (, I urge you to try the various social media platforms, and see if one -- or more -- may work for you.

Now, as far as how to find other writers locally, in whatever area you live in? I know where I live -- Racine, Wisconsin -- we have a local writers' group that meets every Thursday night in various places. I've only been there once or twice, but I appreciate knowing this group exists; I get their e-mails, and have written back and forth a few times to the various group organizers. (This group, by the way, is absolutely, positively free. Just like Forward Motion is online, except with real-time communication.)

There are a few other ways, mind. If you live near a university (or college), you might see if there's a group meeting there. Or there may be writers doing events at a local book store; going there to talk with the writer (or writers) in question may help you meet someone with similar interests, and perhaps lead to a writerly friendship down the line.

But the main thing to know is this: We all start off as neophytes. And the only way to get any better is to keep trying, keep writing, keep creating, and dare to be the creative person you were born to be.

I hope that helps.

Barb Caffrey has written three novels, An Elfy On The Loose (2014), A Little Elfy in Big Trouble (2015), and Changing Faces (forthcoming), and is the co-writer of the Adventures of Joey Maverick series (with late husband Michael B. Caffrey) Previous stories and poems have appeared in Stars Of Darkover, First Contact CafĂ©, How Beer Saved The World, Bearing North, and Bedlam's Edge (with Michael B. Caffrey). 

Doranna Durgin: I admit, the scope of this question was a little daunting.  How many of us have really figured out the answer to all these questions on our own?  Not me!

But I have an approach to figuring them out, which is maybe the next best thing.
Actually, it’s going to sound too simple: Figure out where you want to go.  Figure out what you need to get there.  Choose to do those things.

Ha ha ha ha!

Okay, so, for instance:  there are many social networking platforms.  What do you want yours to accomplish?  How many platforms are you comfortable juggling?  What are you comfortable with in terms of user experience and investment?  With which demographic do you want to connect?  What devices do you have on hand and what do they do best?

Ask yourself ALL the questions!  You may still have to do some eenie-meenie, but questions should winnow things out so it’s not all just one big overwhelming mass.
Also, there are many opportunities for connecting with others of a writerly bent.  Do you want something local, or online?  What are your goals for connecting—are they social, or are they educational?  Can they be met by writers of any experience level, or only those well along their career path?  Can they be met by gathering as a reader, with readers?

What are the downsides to any of those choices?

The thing is, sometimes we don’t know.

Social media platforms change.  The software around engaging with them changes.

Writers’ groups wax and wane with the participants’ real life obligations and their evolving writing paths.  The value of our choices (to us) changes.  This can be hard to acknowledge once one has invested time, energy, and emotion into a situation—I for one am particularly guilty of lingering when I should move on—but it’s important to perceive when a thing that should be supporting your writing is actually taking from it.

So Part Two of the simple approach is this: Maintain reality checks to adjust outreach choices as your experience grows.

Our initial choices don’t need to be perfect—there’s no way that all of them are, no matter how thoughtfully we proceed, so the need to adjust a decision isn’t a fail.  In fact, it might well be a nice indication of progress and growth.  Cool!

So Part Three of the simple approach is a reminder that decisions made/actions taken count as moving forward even when they aren’t perfect.  Endless sit and spin…well, that’s just sitting and spinning.

So figure out your personal goals—your goals, not what everyone says should be your goals or what they’ve all chosen as goals--and go for what meets them.  And then pat yourself on the back.  

(Also, chocolate.)
Doranna Durgin is an award-winning (Compton Crook--best first SF/F/H of the year) whose quirky spirit has led to an extensive and eclectic publishing journey across genres, across publishers, and across publishing lines.  Beyond that, she hangs around outside her Southwest mountain home with horse and highly accomplished competition dogs. She doesn't believe in mastering the beast within, but in channeling its power. For good or bad has yet to be decided...

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The "Ennara" Books: Middle Grade Fantasy Strikes the Perfect Tone

Ennara and the Fallen Druid (Ennara, #1) by Angela Shelley, Patchwork Press, October 2014.

Ennara and the Book of Shadows (Ennara, #2) by Angela Shelley, Patchwork
Press, October 2014

Middle grade fiction stands apart from its younger and older (Young Adult) cousins in ways that go beyond the simple division by ages. Kids this age are just beginning to spread their wings, assert their independence and individuality, and test their limits. Friends help them define themselves and try out new behaviors and identities, although not always in ways their parents approve. At the same time, they’re not ready to plunge into the full-blown angst, sex, blood, and darkness (although certainly rock/n/roll) of stories for older readers. They often prefer adults to hang around somewhere, just not too close by; they tread the line between wanting to go off entirely on their own and needing someone stronger and wiser to lend a hand when they get in over their heads. In other words, they’re highly capable children. Some will happily devour literature for teens and adults, but others want the same adventurousness, but featuring kids closer to their own age.

With this perspective in mind, I embarked upon a series of adventures with young Ennara and her friends. The setting included many familiar elements: low-technology villages, magic, prophecies, pirates, “shadowspawn,” and druids. In an adult fantasy, these might feel generic and derivative, a hodge-podge of time-worn tropes, but in Angela Shelley’s hands, they evoke a sense of familiarity. Pre-teen readers aren’t after a startlingly original world with sophisticated culture and so forth; they want a good story with characters they can relate to. So even details that caused me-the-adult to roll my eyes were strangely congruent and certainly didn’t cause me to stop reading (although I admit, finding a professor in a plaid blazer in the middle of a fantasy tale gave me a giggle). I don’t think the intended readers will notice, for instance, that druids have been done to death in adult fantasy; instead, they’ll recognize the name, just exotic enough to be not-here-and-now, but not so alien as to require chapters of backstory and explanation.

So the above-mentioned shadowspawn appear in Ennara’s village, thereby initiating a quest for our young heroine. Ennara is magically gifted, of course, although not educated in its use. She has a mentor, a wise old magician (who incidentally is in love with her potion-making aunt, which made me smile), a family, who remain behind but send their love and support, and a best friend. As the adventure unfolds, she picks up a new friend (and a huge marine cat named Smoos who loves to swim), loses the mentor partway through (although he’s still alive and they wrap him up to bring him along with them). Ennara’s gifts and self-confidence grow as she learns from her adventures, so there are no sudden bursts of power but a careful, step-wise mastery and growing self-knowledge, which is, after all, what the pre-teen years are about.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Short Book Review: Twilight with Angels and Demons

Toward a Secret Sky by Heather Maclean (Blink, April 2017) is a YA novel of the “Twilight with Angels and Demons” sort. Our teen orphan heroine finds herself shipped off to grandparents in Scotland where she explores scenery, makes friends, and encounters the devastatingly gorgeous angel assigned the guard her.

Even though she is told in no uncertain terms of the dire consequences of human-angel love affairs, she plunges into one obsessive daydream after another about him, refuses to heed his warnings to leave him alone, and in general behaves like an infatuated adolescent incapable of making rational decisions. To be sure, she has personality and strengths, not the least of which are keen mental abilities and a generous heart, and the story moves along nicely, with enough twists to keep the reader engaged. Logic bobbles (like why would a handsome, rich incubus need a date-rape drug when looks and money alone would get him as much sex as he wants?) flawed an otherwise enjoyable flow of prose, and the “the war [with demons] is just beginning” epilog felt tacked-on. 

These shortcomings may pale in comparison to the overall enjoyability of the story, particularly for a young adult reader but a more critical reader may find them annoying.