Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Fatal Tree: Review

Imagine a universe knit together like a scarf--everything is connected, nothing is coincidental. 

Cut one thread, and the whole universe begins to unravel.

Welcome back to the CSFF tour for Stephen Lawhead's The Fatal Tree! Feel free to stop by the tour's headquarters here for a list of all the other participant's posts.

As I said yesterday, this is the final book in Lawhead's Bright Empires series, a time travel story. More specifically, it's a story about alternate dimensions. Lawhead centers this series on the idea that every decision or every major event in this world creates a new world, where a different decision has created a slightly different reality. In this world, new worlds are constantly appearing, which pushes the edges of the universe outward as ever increasing rates--as scientists have been able to observe.

I've read a variety of time travel stories, but not a large quantity. The Fatal Tree, along with the other Bright Empires books, fits into the genre pretty well, with a few fun twists. There are the ley lines in England, the Sedona vortexes, and the whimsical, but very serious Zetetic Society of ley travelers intent on exploring and decoding the finicky patterns of the ley lines.

In the previous four books, Kit Livingstone gets a crash course in ley lines and inter-dimensional travel, while trying to track down the missing skin map which holds the secret to the omniverse--though no one knows exactly what that secret is. Lord Burleigh, a dark and evil villain, is also after the map. Burleigh's schemes knows no bounds, but Kit, of course, has to avoid messing with history in his ley travels.

Then, in the fourth book, The Shadow Lamp, Kit learns that someone has already changed history. If he and his friends can't undo the damage in time, the universe's expansion will reverse itself and the world will end. All the worlds will end...

I've somehow missed reading Lawhead's books before now, but this series makes for a fast, fun story, especially when you add in the quirks of being able to time travel. After all, I'd love to be able to jump to another dimension and spend four years studying a foreign language as one of the characters does-- before coming back three days later to find nothing important has happened. It would be very convenient, if nothing else, and easier than trying to not meet yourself while using a Time-Turner.

Apart from the search for the Skin Map, though, my favorite parts is the idea of finding a place where you feel at home. At different points in the story, both Kit and his (former) girlfriend Wilhelmina find themselves stuck in strangely new worlds. I won't spoil anything by saying where they end up feeling most at home, but it's an interesting concept and makes me wish even more than usual that I could visit another era. 

Still, if I could change one thing about this story, it would be to add more depth to the characters. I tend to like stories for their characters. I like action too, which Lawhead offers in abundance, but for the first book in particular, the characters felt flat. That book, The Skin Map, ended with a great cliffhanger, but it took me another book or so until I really connected to Kit or Wilhelmina. Even then, Kit doesn't get a lot of development, and only one part of the plot involves major character growth. Incidentally, even that ended up being a bit chaotic and left me mildly confused at the end.

For sci-fi/fantasy fans, Bright Empires is a fascinating genre-bending series, combining elements of both science and myth. It's also a fun adventure read, with a large helping of imaginative extrapolation. None of the books stood out to me individually, but I did like the series as a whole and would recommend them to readers with a taste for fantasy. 

[My thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for sending me an electronic review copy of The Fatal Tree, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Fatal Tree: Blog Tour

Have you ever wanted to figure out time travel? Do you wonder if life might be more interesting in the Stone Age--or in 19th century England, for that matter?

The Fatal Tree, Bright Empires Series #5   -     By: Stephen Lawhead
Merry Christmas and welcome once again to the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour! This tour, we're reading Stephen R. Lawhead's The Fatal Tree, the final book in his Bright Empires series. In Lawhead's world, time travel is possible, but it's just slightly more complicated than turning a knob on a fancy gizmo.

The story starts in The Skin Map, when Kit Livingstone runs into his great-grandfather in a back alley of London. Livingstone, Sr., introduces Kit to the vagaries of time travel, but it's a business so tricky that only one man has ever mastered--and that individual only succeeded by means of a map tattooed on his skin.

With an arch-villain on the track of the skin map, a girlfriend who doesn't believe why Kit is eight hours late for their date, and his grandfather urging him to take up the family business, Kit is thrown into the crazy life of a time traveler.

I've seen this series mentioned a number of times, including when the previous books were featured on CSFF tours, but never got around to reading the books. So, when I heard that the November.December tour would be for The Fatal Tree, I had some reading to catch up on. I'll post my review for The Fatal Tree tomorrow, along with some thoughts about the series as a whole. For now, though, feel free to check out some of the other tour participants, as well as the author's website:

Julie Bihn
Thomas Clayton Booher
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Karri Compton
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Jason Joyner
Janeen Ippolito
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Jalynn Patterson
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Audrey Sauble
Jojo Sutis
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler

The Fatal Tree - on Amazon
Author's Website - http://www.stephenlawhead.com/

[My thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for sending me an electronic review copy of The Fatal Tree, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's been a couple of months since I posted--life has been going fairly well, but I just haven't had the time or mental rest to put any thoughts together. Still, I do hope to get back to writing soon. No telling when that will actually be, but...soon.

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving!

(I took this photo at an abandoned work camp from the Great Depression--I'm sure glad I'm not in charge of cooking that meal.)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fort Clatsop: Photos

Last week, we visited Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis & Clark Expedition spent the winter from November 1805 to March 1806. This being Oregon, and the wettest part of Oregon at that, I except they saw considerably less sunshine most of the days during their stay. I won't complain about a little sunshine, though.

We actually started near the beach and walked the five to six miles inland to the fort. It was a nice, pretty trail, though I imagine the original route didn't include the field of cows we passed along the way, or the state highway. 


Also, congratulations to Carol, from Worthy 2 Read, for winning last week's giveaway--and thank you to everyone else who was part of the blog tour for Rebels

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rebels: Review & Giveaway

It’s always interesting to reach the end of a series—and a little challenging to summarize both the book and the series at once.

51VCByhE72LSo much has changed in the course of the three books in Jill Williamson's The Safe Lands series! It’s not just where the Glenrock people are living that’s different—it’s who they have become.

After their neighbors at Glenrock are captured by the Safe Land’s enforcers in Captives, Levi has to become the leader, taking the place of the elders they’ve lost. The place is a twisted, drugged-out dystopian, where everyone lives for today because they’re promised nine lives and a future in Bliss, but no one actually knows what the future is like. Levi can get the others into temporary safety, disappearing into the underground, but they have no way to actually escape the city.

As Outcasts begins and the rest find safety in hiding, Mason is still on his way to becoming the medic he always to be. He has as many emotional injuries to heal, though, as physical wounds. Even more important, he needs to find some answers to the plague that is destroying the Safe Lands, and he needs Medic Ciddah Rourke to help him. He knows he can’t trust her—but he has to anyway, even if it means endangering his own life and his brother’s.

And Omar—Omar, the bratty little brother who betrays his village for a chance at glamor, is ready to become an adult and help undo the damage he caused. He also needs to help Shaylinn, now that the Surrogacy Center has impregnated her with his child(ren). The only problem? At the beginning of Rebels, he and Mason are sentenced to early liberation. They’re about to find out the secret no one will talk about.

As I said yesterday, it’s a complicated story.

The plot follows five different narrative voices high speed down a freeway jumbled with overpasses and intersections. If you haven’t read the previous books recently, there is enough backstory to get you up to speed, but if you haven’t read them at all, you might miss a lot of the action by jumping into the story at this point.

With all these threads going, it takes a while to see where the story is headed, but the journey never really slows down. Toward the end, the pieces came together briefly, before splitting apart again into a frenzied chase sequence and a TV drama that seems almost tame by comparison.

The complication actually works both ways—while there is a lot of action in play, the story does jump tracks a couple of times. At one point, for example, a major character ends up working in a cow shed and notices how awful the conditions are. It’s not a bad point to make, but to me, the section feels out of step with the rest of the story. It reads along the lines of: “Nasty dictator, corrupt system, people out to kill me—wow, modern farming practices are rotten—must escape before I get killed.” The sections like this don’t hurt the story much, though they do jar a little and make the climax feel slightly off.

It’s also sort of hard to explain why this story doesn’t end up highly demoralizing. The world of the Safe Lands is so extremely well-built and grotesque, it should be depressing. I also find heroes (or villains) who consistently mess up and end up depressed—well, depressing. I didn’t really expect to like the story much when I started reading Captives, and after a while, even quirky Princess Bride allusions can get depressing. So for me, it’s saying a lot that Omar and Shaylinn—struggling through their broken world—makes this a story about hope.

With that said, I really did enjoy the story. It’s been a fascinating journey, watching the characters grow and change, but it was really Omar who kept me reading. I was surprised in Captives to find how much I still liked him after he messes up so badly, and I’ve continued to like him as he struggles to fix his mistakes only to fail and lose hope once again. I might even read the series again someday.

You can see what the other CSFF Tour participants are saying about Rebels here:

Julie Bihn Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Vicky DealSharingAunt
April Erwin
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Jeremy Harder
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Melanie @ Christian Bookshelf Reviews
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Writer Rani
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Elizabeth Williams

As I said yesterday, I am hosting a Rafflecopter giveaway for a copy of Rebels. You can enter the giveaway by leaving a comment here or on my review tomorrow. Even better, you can get a second entry by linking to your favorite post from one of the other tour participants--I'm looking hearing about the posts you like and why.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

[My thanks to Blink/Zondervan for sending me a review copy of Rebels in connection with the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.]

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rebels: Blog Tour & Giveaway

Welcome to the September CSFF Blog Tour!

The book this month is Jill Williamson's Rebels, the third and final book in her The Safe Lands series.

After Safe Land enforcers take the Glenrock families as Captives, Levi, Mason, and Omar find themselves snared behind a façade of lies and tricks that has kept the people of the Safe Lands bedazzled for generations. When the three brothers attempt to rescue their families from the Safe Land's harem (also known as the Surrogacy Center), they end up as Outcasts, hiding from the enforcers and working with a group of dissidents to rescue friends who don’t always want to be rescued.

Now, as Rebels themselves, they might have the chance to find the truth behind the lies. The trick is finding the right help, especially with pregnancies, unhappy family members, and old grudges getting in the way.

This third book kept the suspense going so long I was beginning to wonder whether Rebels really was the last book in the series—until the climax hit with a bit of a crash.

With the series wrapped up, I liked how the characters, especially Omar, changed and grew into their new roles. The series as a whole is a little more complicated to describe—I do like the story, but a few things stuck out to me for one reason or another. More on that in my review tomorrow, though.

For now, I happen to have a second copy of Rebels which came when I received my review copy for this tour. I'm hosting a Rafflecopter giveaway to find this second copy a home. You can enter the giveaway by leaving a comment here or on my review tomorrow. Even better, you can get a second entry by linking to your favorite post from one of the other tour participants--I'm looking hearing about the posts you like and why.

Julie Bihn
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Vicky DealSharingAunt
April Erwin
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Jeremy Harder
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Melanie @ Christian Bookshelf Reviews
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Writer Rani
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Elizabeth Williams

Rebels - http://www.amazon.com/Rebels-Safe-Lands-Jill-Williamson/dp/0310735777/
Author's Website - http://www.jillwilliamson.com/

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rewriting Monsters

Have you ever met a good ork?

They're about as rare as a duck sitting on a rooftop, aren't they?

Recently, I read Rick Riordan’s House of Hades, and a small part of that story got me thinking about another book by Donita K. Paul. I don’t remember which book specifically, but it was one of the later books in the DragonKeeper series.

Both books—and both series as a whole—have several groups of characters who start out entirely bad. Riordan’s villains are the Titans and Gaia’s monsters in general; Paul’s are the seven low races of Amara. Partway through both stories, a character shows up who belongs to one of the ‘bad guy’ groups, but isn’t actually bad himself.

Now, my initial reaction was—“That’s odd, why would an author suddenly decide bad characters can be good?”

Oddly enough, I happened to run across two different articles on the topic soon after reading House of Hades, while I was still pondering the question.

The first was Rebecca LuElla Miller’s post on Speculative Faith, where she discusses why so many stories and movies want to reinvent the villains from older stories. Miller argues that this sort of story tries to erase the reality of evil by explaining the story behind it: “The problem, as I see it, with this kind of thinking is that evil is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, there really is no evil—just evil circumstances or evil influences.”

Evil is real. We can try to understand why someone would want to commit murder, but even understanding doesn’t change the fact that some people murder because they can and they like to do it.

Like Miller, I don’t really like the idea of explaining away evil, so at first I wanted to extend that line of thinking to Bob the Titan. If a group of characters are functionally orcs—their role in life and their nature is to attack humans—how can one of those characters suddenly be not an orc?

That line of thinking didn’t quite fit, however. Miller was writing about stories like Malificent (which I haven’t seen yet), with a misunderstood villain. My issue was with good characters belonging to villainous races such as orcs or trolls or Titans. The real question was whether those characters might be heavily influenced, but not trapped, by their background.

I found a better answer in another blog post—this one about portraying cultural drift in fantasy cultures. In this article, Hannah Emery, a sociologist, suggests developing fantasy cultures realistically with a full range of skills, opinions, personalities, styles, and motives. She points out that American culture—from McD’s to homesteading—is bigger than just one stereotype, so why can’t dwarf or orc cultures be the same?

The challenge is that you have to treat the characters as individuals—not as stereotypes or a chip of the cultural monolith.

Even Tolkien did this, I think. There may not be any good orcs in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien suggests that some characters fight on one side or another simply because that’s what their culture taught them to do. Some of his orcs fight humans because that’s what orcs do, but some would rather just get away from the bigger, meaner orcs, back to their nice, cozy, stinky orc dens.

Of course, that's the challenge with writing any character—even if the guy is evil, despicable, and thoroughly rotten, you still have to develop his personality. It’s not okay just to say “And this dude is evil, despicable, and thoroughly rotten” and leave the story at that.

Well, it might work if you are writing a parody of some kind—as with Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. Even in that series, though, the villain has a very distinct personality, motives, and methods.

That’s where I think Paul actually failed, while Riordan succeeded. Paul’s redeemed character felt like a side to the main story. His presence forced the other characters to reconsider their view of the low races, but he himself left very little impression on anyone.

Riordan, on the other hand, produces someone with a background and a personality, someone who is confused and struggling with the idea that he’s supposed to be bad but maybe wants to be good. He’s something more than a showpiece, and his presences makes a difference in how the story plays out. Plus, there are hints that maybe Bob is not the only one with a conscience.

Maybe it’s not so much about rewriting monsters as suggesting that the old stereotypes are more of a guideline than anything else. After all, ducks do sit on rooftops sometimes.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Behold the Dawn: Review

With the melee at Bari, Italy, Marcus Annan has yet another tourney, yet another death to put behind him. It’s all he’s good for now, or so he thinks.

He’s put a lot of things behind him—his whole life actually—but the darkest secrets from his past are about to show up, and an old acquaintance wants to reopen an old wound. The secret drives Annan from one fray in Bari toward another one in Acre. He hardly knows what he wants to do there—but he’s about to get dragged down anyway by an undercurrent of schemes and betrayal.

Behold the DawnAnd with that, Behold the Dawn takes off.

After reading K. M. Weiland’s Dreamlander last year, I’ve been interested in reading more by her. Behold the Dawn was high on the list since it’s historical adventure novel set during the crusades—the Middle Ages, King Richard, and all that other lovely history. The story isn't really about that history, but the history gives this story a good background and sets the tone for the rest of the adventure.

When I first started Behold the Dawn, it was a little hard to get into the story, mostly because I was trying to read the book while chasing down several other distractions. This week, though, I decided to set aside a couple of days and start over.

My final take? I really like this book.

Behold the Dawn does have a couple rough sections toward the beginning of the story, and I did a bit of a double-take at one poorly worded metaphor, but the writing overall felt easy to follow and the story itself raced through an amazing journey of dark corners and twisted secrets.

Best of all, Marcus had me cheering for him by the time I was well into the story. He’s got a history rather like most other broody heroes, but I felt he avoided the annoying angst that goes with that stereotype. He’s good at fighting, for one thing. He thinks it’s doomed him and he has no chance at escaping the life of an accursed tourneyer, but since he’s good at it, he has no problem with going after someone—especially when the guy is just asking for it. At the same time, he’s also honorable, though a bit rough on the outside.

Add to that a smart aleck squire who is quite willing to call his master a troll, a love story, a handful of other characters, and a well-played plot. This isn’t a fun and word-play story, but it’s a good story of hope and second chances.

It’s also just a fun story to read—in fact, by the time all the secrets had spilled out, I was ready to start reading all over again. I actually did go back and reread a couple earlier sections after the final plot twist, just to admire how well I’d been suckered into those first couple of chapters.

I’ll probably want to go back and reread this book at some point, and I would definitely recommend it for adventure/historian fans. Story nerds and writers might also want to check out K. M. Weiland's site on writing craft: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/

[My thanks to K. M. Weiland and Story Cartel for sending me a free Kindle copy of Behold the Dawn, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book. ]

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Case Study in Spontaneity

Sometimes brilliant ideas are so brilliant that everyone thinks of them at once. My husband and I had one of those ideas last night. 

Like half of the population of the northern United States, we were sitting at the dinner table, talking about the chance of seeing the aurora borealis last night.

So, I came up with the brilliant suggestion—why could go camping! Find a place, pitch the tent, go to bed, and wait for the munchkin to wake us up at midnight or 3 a.m. He’s quite good at that, so we might get a couple chances to venture out and see what we could see. We could even take the leftover pancake mix from our August camping trip to make breakfast before coming home.

After a ten-minute discussion and a quick check to find a campground, we decided on a plan. If we hurried, we might make it out before it got too dark, so—yes, camping trip; yes, northern lights (we hoped); and no, pancakes.

That last part was just as well, because I was only thinking about the pancake mix. I hadn’t made it as far as remembering the skillet, peanut butter, syrup, or jams, much less plates, forks, knives, and napkins. Or even a mixing bowl…

We didn’t have two sleeping bags, so we planned to take a couple of quilts instead. We had the car packed, the baby in pajamas, and were out the door about forty minutes from the time we first floated the idea. We also forgot the second quilt.

Of course, night always comes a little faster than you expect, and you never get out the door quite as fast as you expect. We were only halfway to the campground before night caught up with us. As we left the highway and headed uphill to find a site, we could only see the road ahead of us in the darkness. We went on, though, past the main parking lot and along the windy logging road until we reached the entrance…

…and found the campground was full. We drove the loop anyway, but the sign at the entrance was correct—no room here.

Now we had to come up with Plan B.

We didn’t have a map, but we knew we could find a couple lookout points along the route back into town. With that in mind, we decided to head back and stop the first place we found something promising. Maybe we wouldn’t camp, but we could at least hang out and watch the stars.

Perhaps we should have thought better of that plan when we found the traffic backed up over a mile from our destination.

The cars were creeping up the steep hill, all of them waiting to turn the same direction.

We joined the line, though, and eventually reached our turn. Past that point, the traffic was moving pretty quickly, so we went on, scanning the dark shoulders for a sign. The drive took a bit longer than we expect, but soon enough we passed what we were waiting to see—lookout point, one quarter mile.

The lines of parked cars started just after that. By then, we knew the parking lot would be packed, so we pulled off into the first empty spot we could find on the shoulder.

Our plan was pretty simple by this point—let’s see what happens. So, we loaded up the baby backpack with a water bottle, a tarp, and a blanket, tucked the baby into a front pack, and grabbed our pillows.

We saw a few other stragglers headed down the road to the lookout, but as we approached the entrance, we met a tangle of cars—those still hoping to get in, as well as those who had given up and were headed out. The backup worked in our favor here, and we made it across the road in one piece, only to meet a larger crowd of people gathering on the hillside below the parking lot.

At this point, the adventure was about to lose its charm.

Fortunately, we had visited this place about a year ago. On that trip, we discovered a secret trail that looped along the hill below the main lookout area. Now, we headed down it, expecting to meet another crowd at any moment.

This time, the plan worked. When we got to the place we remembered, a flat stretch of trail overlooking the river, no one else was around. We had an area wide enough to spread out tarp with a little extra room, and we had a gorgeous view of the sky—everything we could ask for.

Somewhere on the hillside above us, a laser beam swung back and forth across the sky. Down in our little nook, the munchkin stared around fascinated for a few minutes, fussed around for a few more minutes, and then settled down to sleep.

The wind was blowing hard all the while, but we settled under our quilt and watch the sky. The quietness last for half an hour, maybe an hour.

Then other people began wandering down our secret path. The rest of the trip didn’t last very long after that. We moved to another section for a short time, but the wind was still blowing steady, even though it wasn’t too cold. Plus, the moon had come up, and our slim chance of seeing the aurora borealis had faded. It was just time to head home.

So, we gathered up our stuff and trekked back up the hill. The parking lot had quieted down somewhat, but it was still packed—think about fifty cars trying to fit into a place meant for twenty. It was 11 p.m. by the time we reached our car and packed up, but more cars were still driving up. When we reached the turn back down the hill, the line had doubled from what it was before, and we were just as glad to be heading home.

We didn’t see the lights after all, but as they say—fun was had by all.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Merlin's Nightmare: The Legends

Welcome back for the third day of the CSFF Blog Tour for Merlin’s Nightmare! As before, you can find more posts from the tour here, as well as my review of Merlin's Blade and Merlin's Nightmare. Today, though, I want to talk about the legends behind Arthur and why I like Robert Treskillard’s new version of the story.

What do you think of when someone mentions King Arthur? If you are like me, you probably have a mental image of medieval knights in armor riding about the countryside doing good deeds. (Maybe the original boy scouts society?)

I do know this image doesn't fit reality. 

One of the earliest mentions of Arthur is linked to a 6th Century British saint, St. Gildas. Oddly enough, Gildas never mentioned Arthur in his own writings, even though he supposedly was born the year Arthur defeated the Saxon invaders at the Battle of Mount Badon. The reference comes from a biography of Gildas written almost five centuries later. I can guarantee that the author for that hagiography didn’t have access to the Internet, so his fact checking was probably limited to reading up on legends in the local monasteries or listening to ballads at the inns.

Most of the other major sources for Arthurian legend—and the most well-known author, Sir Thomas Malory of Le Morte D’Arthur—have about the same level of authenticity. Malory, for example, may have been a brigand-knight during the War of the Roses. Scholars speculate that he wrote his famous work while in prison. He doesn’t have history or imagination on his side, since the knights of his story sounds more like 15th Century contemporaries than true Briton heroes.

The reality is, any historical King Arthur would have more in common with Beowulf.

Growing up, I was most familiar with The Boy’s King Arthur, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, so I certainly don’t mind Malory’s version. I love the other Arthurian stories as well, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Edmund Spenser’s brief encounter in The Fairie Queen. I just like knowing where the stories might have come from as well, and I also have a particular fondness for the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion with the changes it brought to England.

That’s why I’ve enjoyed Treskillard’s Merlin Spiral so much. He takes Merlin and Arthur back to the time when they might really have lived and recreates their world in considerable detail.

Several other bloggers have noted the amount of research Treskillard put into these stories. I noticed this as well, but I also noticed the way Treskillard interprets the fragments of history we have, combining them with bits of Arthurian legend.

So, while scholars try to identify Arthur with the Roman war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus, Treskillard’s Merlin is Ambrosius, hiding under a false name to protect himself and Arthur from the murderous High King Vortigern. Arthur becomes Merlin’s foster son under the name Artorius, another legend name, suggesting that their complicated relationship explains the later muddle about who they actually were.

Even better, since we’re talking about a wild conglomeration of legends and historical fables, the Merlin Spiral goes beyond the history. I like the history, yes, but I also like how Treskillard creates a story of magic and faith, demons and monsters. 

It fits in well with the Arthurian legends and the other stories we have from ancient England—from Beowulf to the hagiographies written about St. Gildas.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Merlin's Nightmare: Review

When it comes to Merlin’s Nightmare and the Merlin Spiral as a whole, it’s fairly easy to say what I like about this series. The characters are great, the suspense is high, and the story world is amazing. (Or, shall I say, fantastic?) 

Merlin's Nightmare  -     By: Robert Treskillard
For me, though, the biggest attraction is how Robert Treskillard plays with Arthurian legends. As I said in my post yesterday, I'm reviewing Merlin's Nightmare today for the CSFF Blog Tour, and I'll put off saying much more about the Arthurian elements until tomorrow. For now, I’ll just note that I enjoyed how The Merlin Spiral recreates the story as it might have happened in ancient Briton, rather than the typical medieval England and knights in armor setting.

Throughout all three books, Treskillard weaves in well-known characters. I had a small thrill when I realized who Launcelot was, and another when Guinevere appeared. While the first two books show Merlin’s special calling as a champion of his faith and his struggle to protect Arthur, Merlin’s Nightmare jumps ahead in time to show Arthur on the brink of manhood. Merlin still wants to keep the impetuous boy in check, but also has to guide the man when the time comes to rescue Briton from here enemies.

There should be an asterisk after ‘as it might have happened,’ though. People don’t usually stumble across magical blue stones or get attacked by wolf-men. Nor do they typically find the Holy Grail, however much they might search for it.

In Merlin’s world, magic, dark powers, and visions are real. The struggle to walk in faith is also real, since sometimes the Sangraal heals, and sometimes it does not.

The books do have a few issues—mostly minor with a bit of clunky writing here and there. I felt Merlin didn’t actually sound older in Merlin’s Nightmare, even though the book is set sixteen years after the others. The books also tend to be episodic, with a dominate storyline to tie the pieces together. That’s not to say things are haphazard. Even minor characters show up for a reason, and backstory becomes very important along the way, but the details can feel jumbled or rushed together at times.

A little more important is the fact that the series is labelled YA, but the School Library Journal recommends them for high school readers and older. While some younger teens might enjoy the stories, I agree with the age recommendation and would be cautious about handing the books off to more sensitive or visual readers due to the graphic violence in all three books.

For anyone else, I think the books are a fairly fun, imaginative read. I think I would have enjoyed them even without the remix of Arthurian legends, but for me, that part adds an extra bit of excitement to the stories.  

Curious? Be sure to check out the other posts for this tour! You can find links to the individual posts here.

[My thanks to Blink/Zondervan for sending me a copy of Merlin's Nightmare, in conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour.]

Monday, August 25, 2014

Merlin's Nightmare: Blog Tour

Who doesn't love epic stories, Arthurian legends, or true love tales?

I rather like them myself, especially when they're wrapped up with a unique twist. So, I'm excited this week to be part of the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour for  Robert Treskillard's Merlin's Nightmare

In this version of the story, Merlin is not a great wizard, but a young man fighting the Druids' attempts to retake Briton for their own. In the first book, Merlin's Blade, he's just a boy--the half-blind son of the village blacksmith, when the Druids bring a mysterious, powerful blue stone to enchant his village. (Yes, it's that stone...in an entirely new story about how Merlin meets the infant Arthur.) 

In Merlin's Nightmare, Arthur has grown. Merlin has been the boy's foster father so far, but he now faces a decision to tell Arthur about his heritage. It's a dangerous time, with the Saxons securing their hold on Briton and Morgana raising a Druidic army to defeat Merlin.

This is the final book from Treskillard's Merlin Spiral series, but it marks the beginning of Treskillard's Pendragon Spiral. That trilogy is supposed to continue Arthur's story into the more well-known period of Arthur's life. 

This blog tour will be running for the next three days, and I'm going to post my review tomorrow for Merlin's Nightmare, with a bit of background for the series. I'll be back on the third day with my thoughts on the history and legends in the Merlin Spiral. It's fun stuff and not what you might expect for 'yet another' Arthurian story.

For now, I just got the second book, Merlin's Shadow, in the mail, so I'm off to read that later today. Meanwhile, you can go back to my review for Merlin's Blade. And, please check out some of the other bloggers! I've read a number of great posts during past tours, and I'm expect more of the same this time around.
Blog Tour Participants:

Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Vicky DealSharingAunt
April Erwin
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Emileigh Latham
Jennette Mbewe
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Mirriam Neal
Joan Nienhuis
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Robert Treskillard (author)
Phyllis Wheeler
Elizabeth Williams

Merlin’s Nightmare on Amazon.
Series Website: http://www.KingArthur.org.uk

[My thanks to Blink/Zondervan for sending me a copy of Merlin's Nightmare, in conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Foreword to Prologues

I’ve read too much theory of writing recently. It’s starting to affect my reading.

Not too long ago, I picked up a new book—the author came very well recommended. It was a tad macabre, but the book turned out as brilliant as could be hoped for. Still, when I put it down at the end (and gave a little sigh that the book didn’t last even longer), my brain involuntarily went reeling back to the beginning of the story.

To set the stage a little—this was a detective novel of sorts, with a psychic hero w

ho sees dead people. They never talk, he’s very clear on that point, but they do want him to resolve their problems, solve their murders, and generally make it easier for them to pass on to the next life.

The book starts off with a prologue. No, the author doesn’t call it that, but it is one anyway. I have a prologue at the beginning of my current work in progress, and I call it that very clearly. It’s purpose, though, is to set the stage for the key incident in my story. The prologue in this other book is really just the first couple of chapters, but they aren’t the main story—they’re a little snippet of a story—a short story, really—set there to introduce the main character and set the stage for the bigger story to come.

According to another book, one I read this spring, that's all a prologue really is--a set piece that introduces the main character (or sometimes the villain), or else establishes a degree of tension that will carry the reader into the rest of the story.

In The First Fifty Pages, Jeff Gerke suggests using prologues to show main characters such as action heroes or detectives solving a smaller problem before going on to the big event. It lets readers see who the hero is and how he solves things. That way, they have an idea what to expect when he faces a real challenge, even if the story doesn't immediately turn into booby traps and explosions.

I recommend The First Fifty Pages, by the way. The book explained some things about plot structure that plenty of others have discussed, but it made sense to me in a way that none of the others did.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Firebird: Series Review

A royal daughter on a suicide mission, for an interplanetary war she doesn't support?

If you add a telekinetic stranger and an ancient prophecy, that pretty much describes Kathy Tyer’s Firebird, the first of five books about Lady Firebird Angelo and her family.

Sometime during my last semester of college, I ran across Firebird in the college library. I had a couple hours between classes, and I desperately needed something to read besides Bible study material and literature criticism, so I pulled the book off the shelf and started in.

Now, Firebird is not a short book. When it came time for my next class, I was only part way through, so of course, I had to take the book down to the librarian’s desk and check it out.

I really enjoyed the read at the time. Then, in August last year, I picked up Firebird again, after noticing the final book in the series, Daystar, among the 2013 Clive Staples Award nominees. I really meant to review the series back then, but late is (usually) better then never, and it's almost never too late to pick up a good read. Plus, Firebird gets another new cover this fall, courtesy of Enclave Publishing (which is itself a restart of Marcher Lord Press, a fairly popular Christian Speculative Fiction publishing house).

My description of Firebird is pretty simple, but the series is not. The original trilogy focuses on Lady Firebird’s story, but the story's background centers around a race of genetically-altered humans and the Messianic prophecy about one of their families. A remnant of these Ehretans escaped the Earth’s destruction and the more skilled became special-force Sentinels in their new home world. Firebird sticks with the classic space opera story. The rest of the series explores a lot more of the history and prophecies behind the Ehretans, while still maintaining a high level of action and suspense. 

It's hard to say anything more without giving spoilers, so I'll just recommend it with enthusiasm. I found the books highly entertaining, as well as thought provoking, and as a Christian sci-fi story, this one's a classic.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Little Traditions: The Etsy Project

This is a very brief follow up to my brief post last week. It's my current new project, related to the photos I was working on last week. After several years of storing various (dozens) or crochet projects at my family's, I finally decided to do something with them. So, I opened an Etsy shop, called 'Little Traditions.'

I hope to list more items soon, but if you're interested in checking it out, you can find it by searching Etsy for the shop name or by clicking on one of the links below.

Also, I'm offering a coupon for 20% off of purchases over $20. The coupon code is TwentyOff20. You can enter the code during checkout, and it's good through August 16th.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Good Stories, According to C.S. Lewis

When it comes to writing about writing, nearly everyone has tried to define what makes a good story. Ever heard of Plato, Aristotle? Yep, they started it, and plenty of people have continued the trend.

Even C. S. Lewis.

Last fall, I reviewed a new collection of C. S. Lewis’s essays, Image and Imagination. I picked up the (Kindle) book again recently and ran across a section on the qualities which make a story great. He applies them particular to the book he’s reviewing, Charles Williams’s Taliessin Through Logres.

Technically, this post should really be called “What Makes a Good Poem,” since that’s primarily what C.S. Lewis is talking about in his review, but he isn’t referring to the quality of the poetry. Instead, this is about what makes the language, story, and idea of the poem stand out. This isn’t about good poetry as defined by meter or rhyme, but good poetry and good storytelling that captures a reader’s attention and lingers in memory after the reader has finished.

Several years ago, I borrowed a couple of Charles Williams’s books from the library. I still remember very intense images from the books I read, but they were fairly dense reading and I didn’t make it to Taliessin Through Logres, unfortunately. I still want to go back and read it, especially after reading Lewis’s review. I suspect that I will get a lot more out of the poem after reading the analysis Lewis gives in this review.

Toward the end of the article, though, Lewis explains why he believes Taliessin stands out—and why he thinks it should take its place among other great poems.

So, here are Lewis’s four standards for declaring Taliessin a masterpiece. May they help you decide why you think a story is great—or even how well your own stories rank against Lewis’s scale of greatness:

  1. “The world into which this poem carries is emphatically not mine.”
  2. “Closely connected with the preceding point is the fact that the poem, once read, lays the images permanently on the mind.”
  3. “The total effect of the poetry is something more and better than any enumeration of its qualities would lead one to predict.”
  4. “If this poem is good at all it is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near reminding you of it or being even a momentary substitute for it. If you can’t get an orange, then a lemon or a grapefruit will give you a taste that has something in common with it. But if you can’t get a pineapple, then nothing else will even faintly put you in mind of it.”
With his first point, Lewis clarifies that the world he means is not a familiar, comfortable world. It’s not a world that he likes and visits because he’s familiar with it, but because the story has drawn him into a new world entirely. Plenty of people say they read because it introduces them to a world outside their experiences, because it broadens their horizons. I've never head before a distinction between books that help us feel comfortable and those which really do introduce us to new worlds.

With the last point, Lewis describes Taliessin as deep and disquieting, but adds that it left him with a sort of “shy, elusive laughter; angelic rather than elfin laughter.”

I often have trouble explaining why I like certain stories—sometimes it’s a particular character’s wittiness, or the vividness of the imagery—but sometimes it’s a feeling that the story leaves. It’s that last, irreducible piece of a story that gives it soul and makes it more than all the pieces which compose it. It's the final, indescribable essence of the story, which so many people have tried to capture in practice exercises and theories. In other words, it's the element which makes it a pineapple instead of an orange like so many other stories.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Photo Studios & Puppies

This week, I again started something new and set up a homemade photo studio. I've wanted to work on my photography for a long time, and an excuse came up to play with it a little. This project hasn't helped me any with understanding aperture and shutter speed, but it has been fun to play with a new sort of creativity. 

And, in reading up on the process, I finally learned how to create a nice clean background for photos...tape a large sheet of paper to the wall and let it curve down across the floor. A single sheet of paper: background, foreground, wall and floor all in the same piece. Well, duh. 

No more horizontal lines running across the photo! I feel almost professional.

I might need to work on that glare in the background, though.

And I promise I'll get back to writing soon. The stories have been stirring--they just haven't emerged from their lair quite yet.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Firewall: Review

 Taryn Young, a top software developer for an important national-security project, is taking a vacation to go on her honeymoon. 

Just before she boards an airplane for her perfect, dream getaway, though, someone blows up the airport terminal. No one knows who is behind the attack or why. Taryn only knows that her dreams have fallen apart as she and her new husband become the main suspects in the attack.

A new release by Christian fiction author DiAnn Mills, Firewall starts off with a bang. Okay, that’s a bad cliché, but this is one of those ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ stories about national security, computer hackers, and terrorist plots.

I have to say I liked this story, mostly. It’s a thriller romance, a story of finding love in between the gun fights, as Taryn recovers from her initial shock and joins with FBI Special Agent Grayson Hall hunt for answers. Together, they have to track down the real villain behind the bombing before time runs out and Taryn’s special software turns into a Trojan horse.

I did struggle a bit with the story. Some of the details felt awkward, especially early on, when the plot focuses on Taryn’s job and the initial FBI investigation. A good part of the search involves program security and hacking, but nothing gets very technical, and non-technical readers won’t have a problem with any of it. The software development process seems too simplistic, but my problem there might be that I’m married to a software designer and get to hear about all the stages of development from time to time. (And, for the record, I don't really think either of the cover models look like the main characters.)

Apart from those details, though, Firewall has a lot of action, with plenty of narrow escapes, near misses, and revelations. Taryn’s search runs into a number of twists, including a big one at the end, but my favorite part was getting to know the characters and their determination to see things through.  I’d rank this as a fun, light summer read for anyone who likes romance with their action stories. 

[My thanks to Tyndale House Publishers for sending me Kindle ARC of Firewall, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Celebrating July

Happy 4th of July to you!

I know—the 4th of July was last week, but it was a busy week, and I’m finishing some thoughts this week that I started a couple weeks ago. This is a slightly belated Independence Day post, but it's mostly about how important this month has become for me.

The 4th of July is a national holiday, commemorating the US's formation, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, freedom, fireworks, and summer barbecues. It’s my own celebration month as well, partly because of the number of family birthdays at this time of year, partly because I started blogging in mid-July.

Yes, I've been blogging for almost three years now. Another week will mark my first post a long, long time ago, back in 2011. That's just over 180 posts ago, with enough words to make a novel, more words than I've managed to write on any of my novels in that time. I’m hoping that part will change soon.

I actually created this blog on the 4th of July, however, while house/dog/cat sitting for a friend. That was the first year I spent the 4th of July away, or any major holiday actually, away from my family, and later that summer, I headed up to Alaska for the first time.

The year after that, while I was in Alaska for the second time, the 4th of July was the day I started a long-distance friendship with a special, extra-awesome guy.

Last year, I was just back from my honeymoon.

This year, as I'm looking back at those past anniversaries, I'm also watching a little munchkin who is already trying to go, see, do, taste everything. We've added a third to our family this year, and he might just inspire some children's stories along the way—something I wasn't ever planning to do.

I’m a fairly quiet person, so I'm not setting off fireworks, but I feel like I should—it’s all worth celebrating. I foresee some busy years ahead, with plenty of changes, surprises, blog posts, and missed deadlines. I’m hoping to make some deadlines as well, finish some projects, and have a lot more quiet celebrations with my family along the way.

What about you? What are you celebrating this month?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Squirrel Attack

I've been concerned about my lettuce plants for a while. First there was the lack of sun. Then there was the heat. Now it's the squirrels.

Yes, the squirrels. They’re back—or still here.

The squirrels were a lot quieter during the winter, but I notice them fairly frequently these days. It's great fun to watch them jump between the trees. I haven't seen any fall out of a tree this year, not yet. But sometimes when I see one girding up for the leap, I'll grab my camera and start recording…just in case.

Just last week, I glanced out the window and found a squirrel staring at me from the porch rail. 

He wasn't terribly interested in me, though. After a moment, he jumped down onto the porch and started rummaging through the pine needles. He had a peanut in his mouth—probably stole it from the neighbors upstairs—and he seemed to be trying to find a place to bury it.

Poor squirrel—we only had carpeting under our pine needles, nothing deep enough to hide a peanut. Still, that’s when I decided it might be time to sweep the pine needles off the porch.

The next day, a different squirrel showed up. How do I know? He was distinctly redder than the first one, as well as smaller. I’m just not sure whether the same squirrel showed up twice that day, or if I managed to spot Squirrels Two and Three relatively close together.

The squirrel (or squirrels) also seemed to be hunting about in the needles for a place to hide something.

A couple days ago, I did manage to sweep the porch, and the result looked so nice that I sat out there a couple times in the past week. Warm afternoons and a clean porch are great at encouraging me to go outside.

Unfortunately, when I went out on the porch today, I found one of my lettuce pots had been knocked over. A couple others had the dirt shoved around. It seems the squirrels are persistent, though maybe they decided to eat some greens with their peanuts this time.

Oh, well.

Actually, I had already spotted signs that my lettuce sprouts were trying to sprout flowers, instead of growing up into big lettuce. At least I still have green stuff other than moss growing on my porch. That's all that really matters.

That, and healthy squirrels who know when to eat their veggies.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cinderella Revisited: Book Tour & Giveaway

Displaying Final Cover.jpg

What happens when Cinderella is so painfully shy that she cannot bear the idea of attending the royal ball? Or when the slipper fits . . . but on the wrong girl? What happens when Cinderella is determined to oust an imposter prince from her rightful throne? Or when she is a cendrillon miner working from a space station orbiting a cthonian planet? What happens when Cinderella, a humble housemaid, is sent with a message for a prisoner trapped in a frightening fairy circus?

Welcome to the fourth day in a week-long Cinderella Tour hosted by Amber Stokes and Rooglewood Press!

Last year, Rooglewood Press hosted a short story contest with a Cinderella theme. Five Glass Slippers presents the five winning stories, all with a unique twist on the fairy tale's true-love story. Today's Cinderella is Stephanie Ricker, author of "A Cinder's Tale."

I haven’t finished Five Glass Slippers yet, but it's waiting on my Kindle...

Speaking of which, the book is on sale through the end of this week—you can currently get the ebook on Amazon for only $0.99, so now is a good time to check it out if you are interested. I loved Stephanie’s story, though, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the other authors have done with their stories. According to the blurb for “A Cinder’s Tale:”

It’s a dangerous life, yet Elsa wouldn’t trade this opportunity to work at Tremaine Station, mining cendrillon from the seething surface of planet Aschen. Nevertheless, when a famous deep space explorer and his handsome son dock their starcraft at the space station, Elsa finds herself dreaming of far galaxies beyond Aschen's blistering heat. There is no time for dreaming, however, when danger threatens the space station, and Elsa and her fellow miners are tested to the limits of their courage.

This story had me enchanted with its pumpkin patch full of bubbling lava, but it also introduces a fun, reinvented cast with Bruno, Gus, Jaq, and even the fay Marraine.

Today, Stephanie is answering questions about herself and "A Cinder's Tale," starting with her own Cinderella moment at Seasons of Humility. I’m excited to have Stephanie here today with a question of my own. So, welcome to The Loremistress, Stephanie!

Q: What would a ball gown spacesuit look like?

A: Hi, Audrey! Wow, tough question…I haven’t considered that before. Does the suit need to be life-supporting, perhaps for a ball in zero gravity? If so, the helmet wouldn’t be a bubble, but would be sleek, following the contours of the head, with a large viewplate so that the wearer still had good peripheral vision for dancing. The suit would be form-fitting and would transition smoothly into light boots that wouldn’t be too bulky. To give the impression of a ball gown, the suit would have sheer, flowing fabric attached here and there to float in zero gravity. I have no idea if this would actually work, but it sounds pretty!

Thanks, Stephanie! You’ve got a fantastic dress for Elsa in the story, even if it isn’t a spacesuit.

It does seem unlikely that someone would design a real space suit in a ball gown style. Still, if space travel becomes more practical, I’m sure someone will find a market for fashion designs even in space—perhaps for a suit like the one on the title page for “A Cinder’s Tale?”

About Stephanie Ricker:

Stephanie Ricker is a writer, editor, and tree-climber. She adores the cold and the snow but lives in North Carolina anyway, where she enjoys archery, hiking, canoeing, and exploring with friends.

Stephanie’s fiction has been published in Bull-Spec, a magazine of speculative fiction, and in four consecutive editions of The Lyricist, Campbell University’s annual literary magazine. She was the editor of the 2009 edition of The Lyricist, which won first place in the American Scholastic Press Association Contest. Stephanie’s non-fiction has been published in an assortment of medical magazines and newsletters, and her senior thesis on Tolkien was published in the 2009 issue of Explorations: The Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity for the State of North Carolina.

You can find out more about Stephanie and her writing on her blog: www.QuoththeGirl.wordpress.com.

Want to see what other questions Stephanie is answering today? Check out these links, but be sure to enter the giveaway below as well:

8. You mentioned in an interview with Anne Elisabeth Stengl that this was your first foray into fairy tales. Can we expect to see more sci-fi retellings in the future?
9. Your story takes place in the far corners of the universe. Do you have a favorite spot in outer space and a picture of it?

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