Category Archives: Books

Taking in the Cold Reign by Faith Hunter: A Review Of Jane Yellowrock (11)

Depth and breadth matter. Scope and focus give a thing shape. Cheat or pad any of these overly much and a writer can kill a novel. I’m so glad there are a few who know how to balance it out.  Faith Hunter’s latest, Cold Reign, is a good example of the kind of novel that gets the math right.

Some books drive me nuts because the protagonist is the prime mover of everything in his/her universe and beyond. They grate. Others drive me nuts because the protagonist is forever a victim and cannot see through the fog of choices made, or the book is constructed such that victory means simply surviving all the horrible things inflicted upon him/her (I’m calling out Solzhenitsyn here, but then, Russian labor camps and Russian writing in general is almost unavoidably governed by this dictate).

Choices are what life is about. Conversely, books that impact me are those that deal with free will, introspection, options, hard decisions, and the consequences and/or rewards that result. And then, more introspection, or what’s the point?cold-reign

Which leads us again to Jane Yellowrock, the brain child of Faith Hunter. I’ve written about her books before, and I’m going to discuss this installment, too — not because I’m part of a blog hop (I’m not) or because I received an ARC (I didn’t). I just really need to get some thoughts down about this book while they are still fresh and have teeth and are whizzing through my brain. I saved the last hour or so of reading for its own separate day, because I knew there had to be some resolution forthcoming that would be heady, frightening, illuminating, celebratory, and even a bit sad.

Had to be, based on where Hunter had taken me with this story.

There couldn’t be any other kind of wrap-up if questions were to be answered and the plot arc satisfyingly punctuated.

And since I hate spoilers, you won’t get them — just generalities that also outline the Big Ideas here.

1) The tone of this book is quite different from other JY books. The bones are all still there, the core of the main characters is the same… but I think you’ll only appreciate the changes if, a) you’re familiar with the rest of the series, and b) you’ve also read the Soulwood series, a secondary story line with a few overlapping characters but a different primary protagonist.

[Going to dig a bit here and wax Former AP Lit and Comp Teacher, not because I’m being pedantic, but because this is really how I look at books all the damn time, and it’s my blog. So there. Stay with me and you’ll be glad you did.]

The reason for the change in tone: the perspective of the main players is skewed by choice and circumstance.  Imagine looking at a familiar landscape, one you see every day, and then seeing the same view after someone’s dropped a pair of tinted glasses over your eyes. Hunter draws on a theme of renewal and rediscovery — interpersonal and personal — and she’s very adept at introducing this with established characters with histories closely enmeshed with past story arcs. That’s a tricky thing to do and not come off like you’re recreating or rewriting their histories. It works because Hunter knows her characters inside and out and has worked out these many issues from an empathic perspective. In doing so, we get new language, new attitudes, and a different view than we formerly had of Jane and other key players, but not irrespective of their past. It’s at once familiar and fresh, but it adds a depth I think only contributes to the series overall.

2) It bothers me that so many of the issues Jane’s dealt with come from external forces imposing their will on her, forcing life-changing conditions, and causing chaos and misery, with little or no question of will. People with large egos and lots of power frequently do this — I was waiting for something to cause Jane to wake up and say, “No, I reject this, and you can’t change ME against my will. Nothing you do to me will stick unless I allow it.” Which, naturally, would go against the way most of the supernaturals work in this series; they have power and they force literal change. They control life and death. I always liked the idea that you could repel evil by saying, “I disallow you in my life, my home, and my head space. Get out now.” There’s a difference between dealing with the crap that rolls downhill and putting up boundaries that keep it out of your garden (not very English-teacher-y, but there you go).

And, finally, Jane gets it. About darn time, girl.

And, because I’m quite fond of the sister series Soulwood and its protagonist, I cannot help but think, “Nell got there first.” Folks in her world think Jane Yellowrock is a scary, super-wise, dangerous woman who has it all figured out. They’d be partly accurate.

But the truth is…

3) Jane knows, and she makes it abundantly clear in Cold Reign, that she’s still a child in so many ways. She’s old, but not world-wise. She’s powerful, but she really only just learns her true strength in little illuminated bursts of insight that occur at really humble moments — any parent knows this feeling, but Jane has little-to-no experience like this from which to draw her insights.

Still, truth is truth, and will out. You watch your child sleep and suddenly the weight of Understanding hits you out of the blue. On another day, you get a sudden emotional shock and some truth about the importance of relationships spells itself out in the pause between the news and your response to it.  A simple gesture translates into layers and layers of meaning that don’t translate to things as mundane as words.

Jane learns not to see others in terms of black and white, but, more importantly, she stops seeing herself in those terms. We’re none of us linear and easily defined by algorithms.

And, while this is an entirely separate point…

4) Synesthesia abounds in this book — which is unrelated to Jane’s character development, but… yay! Kind of a big thing with me. *cough*

Life is short. Read the books.

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Review: Curse on the Land, by Faith Hunter

Curse on the Land is all about soul: the souls who are lost, the ones who save themselves, the ones in conflict, the alien nature of the soul, and the soul of the land.  It’s the common thread that ties the elements of the second installment in the Soulwood series by Faith Hunter together.

Hunter doesn’t bash you over the head with it… it’s a theme that weaves itself gently throughout the storyline, much as ivy will work its way from its roots and weave itself into a pattern over anything it grabs.  Its subtlety is part of what makes it so lovely.

At the core of this story is the emergence of the protagonist Nell Ingram into mainstream society… but she does it in a truly roundabout way.  Her induction into this world is ushered in through her involvement with PsyLED (a magical law enforcement agency) and recent graduation from Spook School.  It’s a highly exclusive club whose members are anything but average.

Just as Nell is anything but average.  Here’s a sample of the goodies:curseontheland

“T. Laine?” I said again. She took another step. And another. I called her name, louder. When she didn’t turn, training took over. I rushed her. Dropped. Tackled her at the hips. One hand ripping the gun away from her. And to my feet.
She came up swearing, fists swinging, and she shouted,. “What the holy hell do you think you’re doing? Gimme me my gun!”
I held the weapon at her, centered on her chest.
T. Laine’s face underwent a series of changes. “What the holy hell. Nell?”
“Are you back in your right mind?”
“Huh?”
“Who is president of the US? Who is the leader of Unit Eighteen?”
She answered both questions, her expression shifting from anger to bewilderment. “What happened?”
I lowered the weapon. Uncurled my finger from the trigger and placed it along the slide. Dropped my shoulders, which had hunched up at the stress of watching T. Laine fall under some weird kind of compulsion.

She doesn’t even rate “average” among those whose standards include tails, magic slinging and mind reading abilities.  Nell is a square peg in a set of ovals.  But this isn’t to say that Nell’s a superstar.  She’s delightfully awkward, flawed, naive and child-like, despite her depths.

She’s a fascinating heroine, one who’s admirable in both her strengths and her weaknesses.  If you’re going to fall in love with a character (as have I), she’s a magificent example of a strong female who’s believable, likable and compelling… and for a paranormal book that’s saying something.

Bonus for word junkies — the prose in this book can be absolutely haunting:

I was met with a feeling of warmth, of welcome, as if the land was awake now and waiting for me.  As if it had expanded, unfolded, yawned and reached out to welcome me.

Just gorgeous. This is what happens when an author knows how to build emotion through the careful use of sentence structure and word choice.  That’s art.

Do yourself a favor and check out this novel.  It’s the shot in the literary arm paranormal fiction needs.

I received Curse on the Land as an ARC but I’m buying it on audio since I love the performances of Khristine Hvam, and especially loved her delivery on the first Soulwood novel, “Blood of the Earth” (you can find it at Audible here).

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On Paranormal Fantasy… and Being Real

I’ve been a fan of Faith Hunter’s books for a long time.  She’s a prolific writer, which means I’ve been able to sink my teeth into her books, particularly her Jane Yellowrock novels, with delightful regularity.  It’s good to have a hobby that’s good for me, too.

As she’s currently promoting and enjoying the successful release of Shadow Rites (the series’ tenth installment), you won’t have any trouble finding lots of positive reviews, all well-deserved.  The book delivers the best of the genre, and continues to build on the rich history of her characters and the familiar sights and sounds of the South I know.

I’m not going to echo those reviews.  They’re right, naturally, in calling tShadowRiteshis book a success, and a highly gratifying read.  But what I’m compelled to share is what sets Faith Hunter’s writing apart from so many others in the urban fantasy and romantic urban fantasy genre.

And here’s why:  I appreciate artistry and subtlety.  I love complications.  I love imperfections in a character.  I love cleverness without pretension.

To be honest, if I read one more paranormal fantasy in which the protagonist is a suuuuper-powerful beautiful gem who enchants everyone, craps vanilla, attracts sexy paranormal admirers like deer to a salt lick, and saves the day with a toss of her perfect hair and snappy comebacks, I will be violently ill.

Because, let’s be honest… they’re a dime a dozen in this genre.

Gag.  There I go.

No worries here.

Jane Yellowrock is corny, flawed, awkward, imperfect, silly, impertinent, irreverent, and, quite often, blind to her own shortcomings.  She is brutally honest, sincere, and real.  She feels betrayal and hurts deeply.  She lives a genuine life, if one steeped in myth, legend, and impossible, fantastic elements.

This is why Shadow Rites works for me, why Faith Hunter connects on a level other authors don’t, or can’t.

In short, her heroine is someone with whom, despite her history (deep, wide and tall), many readers will identify.  She has bad hair days.  She has difficulty picking out clothes.  She’s comfortable in her own skin, but aware that she isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  She’s discovering herself, even as she’s a child in many ways, and, ironically, is also rather an old soul.

She’s sexy without meaning to be.  She fights, loves, and feels life deeply and with abandon.  When she hurts, you ache with the pain of the depth of it.

She’s in touch with herself and honest, even about the ugly parts.  And she’s okay with that.

It works.

Jane wouldn’t relax enough to sit down for coffee with me, but if she did, we’d be okay just sitting, not talking.  She’s a hero I wish I could be.  She’s honorable, brave, and intensely, immensely protective of those she loves.  She hurts and heals.  She cries inside for things she can’t change.  She feels guilt for things she can’t control.

She’s multi-natured, many-layered.  She’s what women are, and try to hide, and that’s ironic, as Jane Yellowrock isn’t human.

She’s a badass, but not for glory’s sake.   She soldiers on when it’s hardest because she’s who she is, and she lives a life full of purpose and meaning, even if no one else understands her journey.  Even when it’s lonely.

I’m delighted every time I dive into Jane Yellowrock’s latest adventures, and love that she’s in the hands of Faith Hunter, who understands that the best things in life come with a bit of wear on them.

Find Shadow Rites here.  For an extra-special treat, grab it on Audible, too, because Kristine Hvam does a wonderful job with this series, and you’re worth it.

It’s nice, in this day of polished edges and edited photos and ridiculously artificial Instagram “slices of life” (which are anything but real) to get something close to honest, even in a fantasy novel.

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On Anything-ism in Fiction, and Hypocrites

It cracks me up when people criticize fiction because it doesn’t present modern Western ideas about social matters in what’s considered a forward-thinking way. It is fiction. If you want to write fiction that seeks to reform someone’s thinking, do that. If you want to read fiction that changes and transforms the world, go, you. But to criticize the product of someone’s work and imagination because you disapprove of the theme is laughable to me, and small-minded. It’s saying, “Of course, you should be creative. Just don’t do it THAT way because it’s backward and icky and you’re horrible. Also, it hurts my feelings.”

Rrrright. So, see, criticizing George R. R. Martin because Game of Thrones is violent and sadistic, and, at times, sexist, is kind of stupid. Anyone who doesn’t like those thinOneOfThoseDaysgs ought to be forewarned and not read the books, unless you enjoy the inner turmoil that results from reading graphic everything vile, but you’d be missing out on so
me killer intrigue and world building (which I always admire in a plot, but the latter
is not in academic vogue at the moment). The same goes for any other matters addre
ssed in the books. They aren’t about changing society, and if the series makes you think, yay. But it’s fantasy, which kind of means anything goes, and often does.

If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. But don’t insist that artists/musicians/authors change what they do because it grates on your sense of social outrage. I saw someone attack Emilia Clarke because she defended GoT against critics who call it sexist. Ironically, some of the comments coming from detractors were, frankly, sexist. Can’t have it both ways.

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Coloring Books For Grownups, (AKA The Best Therapy EVER)

Three things you should know:

1.  I really like to play with art supplies.  It doesn’t matter what kind.  I love them, and never really need an excuse to obtain more.
2.  It’s stressful being an adult.  One of the best things about it, however, is remembering that the only person making rules about when it is and isn’t okay to play is ME.
3.  Therapy is expensive.  Crayons and colored pencils are not.  Arts and crafts therapy is a thing… a real thing.  A good thing, too.  More on that in a minute.

Oh, and one more thing:

4.  I have moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis.  It’s relevant to this post… just hang with me.

Since I was a kid, I’ve loved to color.  Every year at Christmas, I break out four or five coloring books that contain many, many years’ worth of pages that I’ve filled in, or that my mom completed on Christmas Eve in my kitchen, or that my children colored with me, or with one another, or by themselves.  The pictures are dated and usually signed — and, of course, the ones with the wonderful, spidery kid scrawls are my favorites, and are precious to me.  There’s something about going from a black-and-white page to something alive and imbued with colors, and the emotion that helped shape it, that’s almost mystical.

Sounds corny, I know.  But it’s true.

So…  Art.  Stress.  There’s a relationship here, in the sense that when I’m stressed, art makes me feel better.  Unfortunately, sometimes it’s difficult to go from a closet full of art supplies to an art journal page, or a painting, or a beautifully-drawn bit of Zendoodletanglescribble fun.  However, there’s a wonderful product that’s been around forever, and it’s been revived and re-branded and reinvented for grownups.  Behold:  the adult coloring book.

Kaleidioscope Wonders Color Art for Everyone, by Leisure Arts

Kaleidioscope Wonders Color Art for Everyone, by Leisure Arts

What I’ve discovered, through the use of adult coloring books, is that I can recapture that same feeling — the joy and the wonder of something so simple as the choosing of one color over another, because it feels right, and the delight in seeing the finished page, a one-of-a-kind creation.

The stress evaporates in an almost tangible way.  With each tiny segment filled in, these complex drawings and doodles have the power to siphon the very noisy excess ick in my brain and channel it into something almost medicinal, and certainly therapeutic.

This is doubly true in my case, as there are days I can barely hold a fork.

“At the Concert” by Renoir

I’ve been instructed to stay busy, and I know that keeping active and my joints flexible is a way to prevent the swelling and stiffening that are hallmarks of rheumatoid arthritis.  It’s been a challenge, partly because I’m so frustrated at my inability to do the simplest things, and partly because the disease appeared to have really kicked me when I was down.  But then, I learned something fascinating:  famous Impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir suffered from RA, too.  He is quoted as having said, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

It struck a chord with me.

I may not be able to do things the same way that I used to… but adult coloring books have made something amazing possible.  I can physically exercise my hands in a way that helps maintain my range of motion, and I can exorcise the demons in my head that tell me I am stuck, or limited, or unable to make beautiful things.

It's such a simple thing, but it has the power to heal, in more than one sense.

It’s such a simple thing, but art has the power to heal, in more than one sense.

This is what this Leisure Arts publication allowed me to do: make something lovely using little more than a colored pencil and the limits of my own imagination.  The book contains a variety of designs and patterns — everything from mandalas to paisleys (similar to the shapes you might see in Mehndi or henna body art), and floral designs, to which I’m especially drawn (no pun intended).

And that’s not all — the book contains tips on shading, an explanation of the color wheel and color combinations, and comparisons of different media you might want to use in your art.  I used colored pencils, but the paper is heavy enough that markers or watercolor pencils could just as easily work.

The pages are perforated, and the art continues on past the perforations, which means you get a nice sharp edge to your work if you decide to remove it from the book to frame or scan in, or if you simply prefer to work on individual, unbound pages.  I like that the option is there and that you don’t have to risk destroying the whole book for the sake of a single beautiful piece.

One common thread to the book as a whole is that the pieces do seem to all have a kaleidoscope effect.  The artwork is mostly abstract, which is a wonderful thing to me.  It allows me to not be constrained by pre-conceived ideas of what colors to use, or the way things “ought” to look.  It truly makes for a therapeutic, relaxing experience.  While I received this book for review purposes, I have to tell you, the price is so reasonable as to make it a must-have for anyone who loves art, deserves a break, and needs to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from making something beautiful — you can purchase it at Leisure Arts for about the same price as a latte from your favorite coffee shop.

And if you do happen to have arthritis, or you’re interested in the merits of art as a form of physical therapy, ask your doctor(s) what they have to say about it.  All I can tell you is that, for me, this little book has given me something incredible.

Pick up a pencil, or a pen, or a crayon, or a paintbrush today.  Create something, in some way.  See if you don’t feel years younger, happier, and healthier — in body and mind — as a result.

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Review: Anne Bishop’s “Vision in Silver” Shines

There’s nothing ho-hum about the characters, the world in which they live, or the premise of this book. Of the three books in the series to date, I enjoyed Vision in Silver the most. Here, you see how the progressive social project initiated by the Courtyard has long-reaching effects on humans (“a two-legged kudzu”) and others (Named’s creAnneBishopVision in Silverations) alike, and encounter the first results of the conflicts between them when it goes very wrong elsewhere.

I cannot say that there’s another series in the urban fantasy genre that’s remotely like this one.  That, in a genre that sometimes borders on — dare I say it? — dull, trite and cliché, owing to everyone and her third cousin dipping a toe into the supernatural pool, is a rare treat.

This isn’t a cop-out, but there hasn’t been another book outside the series that leaps to mind that has a similar premise. This is good, but it makes comparisons difficult. If you’re looking for a human-supernatural bodice ripper, this isn’t it. It’s also not a human-versus supernatural element the way the genre usually presents it; in this series, humans are the “clever meat” — how the dominant species (the Others) describes them.

Some scenes stood out and made me a bit teary-eyed.  It happens, but not as often as it should.  I became downright sniffly as I read scenes where human children and young Terra Indigene (earth natives that are the equivalent of supernatural shape shifters) interact… absolutely adorable.

I want to play with wolf puppies now.

Other notable moments:  “Words can be a weapon as devastating as a gun”
— this quote from the book applies to a number of situations in the book, a few of which made me a little angry. As for scenes that made my heart ache, the struggles of the relocated cassandra sangue endure qualify. To give further details would spoil a truly entertaining and engaging read.

I’ll tell you this: I enjoyed this series so much, I introduced my 70-year old mother to it. She enjoys it so much, she ordered her own shelf copies of the books, and has shared them with her friends. They loved them.

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Jim Butcher’s “Aeronaut’s Windlass” — Review, and The Shaking of Fists

Wow. Just… wow.  I received an ARC of The Aeronaut’s Windlass from the publisher and I’m still reeling from the effect this book has had on me.

Let me first note that I’m a huge Butcher fan. As much as I love the Dresden Files books, and the Codex Alera books even moreso, I initially balked at the news of the Cinder Spires project. Why? I resented any distractions that might redirect his efforts elsewhere. And, steampunk? Was it really necessary for Jim Butcher to go that route? No, I said. Absolutely not interested, I said.

How stupid of me. I should have known better.jim-butcher-aeronauts-windlass

Let’s forget it’s Jim Butcher we’re talking about here. Forget that The Cinder Spires series is not The Dresden Files or Codex Alera. It does not matter one damn bit. The book is amazing. The characters are compelling (I’ve a hard time trying to choose a favorite — how he managed to develop so many imaginative and varied characters in a single book blows me away — some of them aren’t even human; then again, this shouldn’t surprise me, considering how fond I am of some of his other non-human characters). Admittedly, I cringed a bit at the first few pages, and then forgot why, because I got sucked into this wonderful adventure against my will.

It’s so, so good. And I really did not expect it to be, and part of me didn’t want it to be.

It’s not fair, and it’s not right. Now I have to wait for him to write sequels to TWO COMPLETELY DISTINCT BOOK SERIES, and there are only so many hours in the day. I almost don’t care, except that I really, really do, and I hate the fact that I’m dying to read the next installment (and THIS BOOK isn’t even due to be released for a few months yet, which means he probably hasn’t even started the next book!). Ugh. Just, not what I needed in my life, Mr. Butcher. So not right.

This book is what might happen if Joss Whedon handed Jim Butcher the reins and said, “Dude. The people want more. Pretend Firefly had a half-sibling. Now author a new book series and blow them away.”

Now stop imagining it. Buy the book.

Back to “wow”.  This book not only holds its own against the best in the genre, but it’s going to displace some of the heavy hitters on many a bookshelf. You will not regret one minute of all the sleepless hours you’ll spend devouring it.

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Books Become Her, Undo Her

We all have vices.  Some of us swear or smoke or do any one of dozens of things that would earn us time in one of Dante’s 9 levels of h-e-double-hockey sticks.  My weakness, the object of my greed and much longing, is books.

I don’t just mean to say I like to read.  I’m insanely protective about my books.  I hoard them.  I take them with me on vacation, keep them in the car, read before bedtime and keep them with me while I’m waiting in line to get the kids.

Ask me what I want for Christmas, I’ll tell you: money for books.  If I see you in possession of a book you aren’t handling properly, I’ll say something.  When I’m at a bookstore, I become testy if I find a book that’s been improperly shelved.  If someone interrupts my reading time, they had better have a darn good reason for doing so (such as an axe murderer breaking into our home or sinkhole opening up near my favorite reading spot).

I love the way books make me feel, the way I can lose myself in a good read that doesn’t happen with most movies I see.   I dream about the books I read and I dream that I’m reading books.

This post is about someone with an addiction — the substance is the written word.  I admit it — it’s the first step, but I have no interest in recovery.  I’ll indulge my thirst for books like the glutton I am until I run out of things to read… and then, I’ll start over.

We all have vices.  Some of us swear or smoke.

I read.

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