Review: Something Upstairs

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If you are looking for a ghost story for children, get The Ghost Belonged To Me by Richard Peck. If you are still in the mood for ghost stories, Something Upstairs by Avi is a pretty good read. Something Upstairs has a faster pace to the story than The Ghost Belonged To Me, but the latter had a more immersive setting, richer characterization and subplots.

Something Upstairs features a 12-year-old boy named Kenneth that moves to a house in Rhode Island that is haunted by the ghost of a teenage slave. The slave asks for Kenneth to find his murderer, but by agreeing Kenneth finds himself transported back in time, and unable to return until he solves the mystery. The time travel provides an interesting set of rules to the universe, but is hardly an innovation to telling ghost stories, as Peck’s ghost story book series contained time travel as well. Still, Avi throws in some interesting twists and political intrigue into the story that make it a solid, streamlined story.

I’ve been told that kids these days have a short attention span, and that there needs to be action from the beginning, and action throughout to keep the reader hooked. It is possible that modern kid readers would prefer Something Upstairs over The Ghost Belonged To Me, but I missed the richness of having interesting characters including a male and female protagonist in the story. Something Upstairs is very male-centric. There are approximately two female characters in Something Upstairs, Kenneth’s mom and a librarian, and they have very little to do with the story. I may be more sensitive to this as a female reader, but I would rather my stories take place in a world rich with characters of both genders.

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Review: Little Black Book of Stories (some spoilers)

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I admit it, I feel misled by the cover blurb on A. S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories. It starts off “Like Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, A. s. Byatt knows that fairy tales are for grown-ups. And in this ravishing collection she breathes new life into the form.” So I was anticipating a book of fairy tales, but what it gave me was just what it said in the title: A book of stories. Although there were lavish descriptions and rich details that maybe the writers of the cover blurb interpreted as being magical, very few of the stories contained magic in any way, and I ended up very disappointed.

In more spoilerific detail…

Review: Mister Monday

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Mister Monday by Garth Nix, is the first book in the Keys to the Kingdom series. The hero is Arthur Penhaligon, a child with asthma who is given possession of one of the keys to another realm, but those who are hunting him down to get it back have sickened the people of his town and the only way to free them from the illness is to journey to a mysterious world, and take on Mister Monday and the entire bureaucracy that backs him.

The book reminded me in places of The Phantom Tollbooth. There were words that I was surprised to see in such a children’s book, but they were defined within the story and seemed like a good way to help a young reader stretch his or her vocabulary. Throughout the book is an emphasis on the power of words and reading that I found delightful. The action was fast paced, and there were many touches of humor and wonder throughout the book. It was an enjoyable read, though I’m not quite sure if I’m going to pick up the rest of the series to read. There were a couple of characters I liked that played a rather small role in the story after Arthur traveled to the other world. I think if I knew that they were going to play more of a role in the next book, I would be intrigued enough to want to find out what happens next. I’m a very character-driven person, and even if the setting is fantastic and creative, I have to feel engaged with the characters as well. Overall, I would expect that kids would enjoy the book, but I would need a little more intriguing characterization for me to stay hooked into the series as an adult.

One year anniversary

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Over a year ago, I had the first public reading of an excerpt from Tuatha de Rising at Phoenix Comicon. This year I attended the con again, lounging mostly in the writers seminars again, but this time felt a little different. This year I came in having finished my first novel. I used to be daunted when I saw the number of people in the writing panels. Now I feel more accomplished. I’ve finished it, I’m editing it, I’ve got beta readers for it, and now I’m just daunted by the prospect of trying to get it published…

The writer’s group has really been helpful. There’s nothing that breaks me out of writer’s block like a deadline.

Review: Ink Exchange

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Ink Exchange is about a young woman who finds a strange connection with a mysterious tattoo design. As she works on getting the tattoo, she finds herself becoming a key player in the world of the dark fae. I admit that I broke one of my cardinal rules with this book. It is clearly the second book in the Wicked Lovely series, but I was so excited when I found it that I decided to read it without chasing down a copy of the first book in the series first.

It is definitely a book geared towards teens, but I was shocked initially at how adult the situations were, including rape, drugs, broken homes, polyamorous relationships. I knew from writers conferences that today’s children books are written for a more sophisticated group of kids than in the past, but it was still surprising to me to see it in practice. I’ve noticed for a long time that the list of award-winning books that are recommended for children and teens have the bleakest descriptions in the universe: death, death, suicide, rape, cancer, death. I realize that the descriptions are written for the parents and teachers looking for books to recommend to their children and students that deal with the kind of real world topics that kids have to deal with, but there is usually nothing that entices me to read any of the books in those long lists of despair.

This book dealt with some of those weighty topics that teens encounter, but it was wrapped in fantasy and an intriguing magical storyline. This book would have caught my attention as a teen because of its connection with the fae and mysterious connections with other worlds. On the surface, the story is about dark fairies finding a new way to feed off of human emotions. In its depths, it is a powerful story about recovery from rape, the way that friends can help or hurt, and self-empowerment. It is filled with rich, sensual language and is a very engaging read.

Review: I am the Salamander

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I am the Salamander is a book about a teenager recovering from cancer who finds himself with a set of salamander-based superpowers, the blogger determined to reveal the Salamander’s secret identity, and the villains determined to kidnap him to conduct experiments on how he got his powers.

Despite being a book about superpowers, the situations and the way it unfolds seems remarkably realistic. The main character, Tim Cruz, is returning to school for the first time after an extended illness from which he had not been expected to recover. After months in the hospital, and the pity and other reactions he has experienced, he has become very isolated and would prefer to stay that way. He is trying to get back into the swing of life and complete the semester so that he can stay on time for graduation. He gets gradual flashes of his new superpowers before they are ever put to the test, and at first thinks that they are signs of his cancer returning. His first act of heroism gains the attention of a local blogger, and soon the Salamander and the mysterious blogger are local celebrities when attention is just the thing Tim is trying to avoid.

The book is well-written blending of fiction and realism. One thing I liked about it was the way the writer describes things. As a writer myself, I can appreciate the desire to show readers every detail so that they can picture the places and people just as well as the author can. This is balanced out by my love of old radio shows where so many of the details were left to the listener’s imagination, as well as my hatred of actually reading huge chunks of description. This is often a problem in fantasy novels where the writer is trying to create new worlds, but if I get long paragraphs of description with no action in them, I tend to skim ahead to where the action starts again. I am the Salamander had the perfect blend of just enough detail and imagery without getting bogged down in them.

Aside from one rather convenient power that real salamanders probably don’t have, the set of superpowers and flaws was an interesting and the reader joins the hero on his journey of discovering them. Although it won’t join my list of all-time favorites, it was an enjoyable read. The hero seems very realistic, the tension increases at a good pace, and it is a very engaging read. The one thing is that I wanted more of a resolution at the end. It gives enough clues for the audience to make some predictions about how everything will resolve, but leaves the ending feeling abrupt.

Review: Artemis Fowl

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The beginning of Artemis Fowl lays out an incredibly rich, intelligent, independent supervillainous child with adult servants, and it is clear exactly how the book will end by the amount of main character worship in the first few pages. I found this book difficult to get into. I honestly thought about not reading the rest of it because I wasn’t sure I could make it through hearing any more about how everything always went the way this character wanted them to go. I wasn’t sure how anyone could make it through that crap.

Then I remembered that as a child, I used to watch Richie Rich cartoons. I honestly can’t tell you anything about any particular episode, but it all focuses around a very rich kid with adult servants, and everything always ends up all right for Richie Rich at the end of the episode. Considering how little I remember about it, I’m thinking it was probably a very predictable show, and maybe as a kid it was really fun to imagine having the kind of wealth and independence to do the kinds of things that Richie Rich did. So I decided to keep reading, knowing that it probably would have had more appeal to me as a kid than as an adult.

Much to my surprise, I started getting into the book. The main character worship toned down as things started going not quite as the main character planned, there was clever wordplay, secret codes to unravel, and running gags involving many of the secondary characters, all of which came together in a nice climax. Overall, I was glad to read the book. Even though the ending wasn’t a surprise, the journey took some turns I didn’t expect and was an entertaining read.

I’m sorry.

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I’ve been cheating on you with another blog. My writer’s group started a blog at http://www.writersintraining.com and I have been updating there rather than here. I was reminded recently, though, that some people who read this blog are more interested in the book reviews than in writing tips, and that I haven’t been keeping this blog up to date with my readings. So I will endeavor to catch you up and keep updating this blog with my readings, and if you are interested in my writing journeys, you will find more of them at the Writers In Training blog.

Book review: The Dark Pond

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I’ve been involved with a book drive to fill the shelves a local charter school that currently has empty shelves (gasp!). Empty shelves in a library has to be one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen this year. We’ve been doing well with the donations, over 400 books and counting. The downside of this is that I have had boxes of books flowing through my hands with so many things I want to read and won’t have time to do before we turn the books over to the school and celebrate the re-opening of their new library.

Anyways, one of the books that I couldn’t put back in the box until I’ve read it: Joseph Bruchac’s . I love this book enough that I will have to purchase a copy I can keep. It has a wonderful blend of Native American folklore with modern mysterious happenings, and school-age struggles particularly with respect to being a minority at a boarding school. Bruchac expertly weaves mystical happenings with practical details, such as preparing for a winter camping trip, to the extent that fact and fiction are welded seamlessly together. After reading this book, and finding out that he had another children’s book in a similar myth-meets-modern vein, I decided that I should read everything he has ever written. (Then I looked him up and found out he’s written over fifty books for children and adults… I think I will skip the “Learning to read” level books, but that doesn’t whittle many titles off the list.)

I realize this is not the kind of detailed review I normally write, but the book has such an air of mystery, that I hesitate to spoil any of it for you. For now, back to feverishly trying to read way too many books in the two weeks before we open the library.

What’s in a name…

My dad and I were talking, and he told me that he had done an internet search on me. Specifically, he was hoping to find out more about the name Fiscassia, which I use as my handle on quite a few internet systems. He told me that he was amazed that the name “Fiscassia” only came up with one hit on dogpile. It was a blog that referred to a short story called “How Fiscassia got her name.”

I was pretty surprised at that one. There was no question that it referred to the short story I wrote that is the reason behind why originally started using Fiscassia as my handle. There have been people I have shared the story with over the years, but all I could think of was that the reference was in some long-forgotten blog written by one of my friends from my high school gaming group.

So it turns out that he sent me this link to my namesake… and it is the link to this blog. This conversation happened coincidentally the same day that my writer’s group had been discussing getting short stories published as a way to build an author’s “street cred” in order to increase the likelyhood that an agent would read and respond to novel query letters. It has me thinking that I ought to share the story about “How Fiscassia got her name” with a wider audience. In the meantime, I should at least be able to assure that there will be two hits the next time my dad searches for my handle.