Review: “Summer in Orcus,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Beautiful, heartfelt alternate-world tale
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher, is about 11-year-old Summer, whose mother is overprotective and needy. One day Baba Yaga’s house struts into town and plops down near Summer’s house. Baba Yaga offers to give Summer her heart’s desire–but Summer has no idea what that is. It’s only once Baba Yaga has thrust Summer into another world with only a talking weasel for company that Summer realizes that any story featuring Baba Yaga is unlikely to end well. It doesn’t take her long to discover that there’s a cancer eating away at the heart of the world, and to realize that she’s no hero to go around saving entire worlds. How can she help on a scale that’s doable; how can she find her way back home; how can she escape the bad guys who immediately realize that something’s changed and there’s someone to be caught?

I absolutely love Summer in Orcus. It has a taste of Narnia, but it’s on a smaller scale. Summer isn’t a queen; she isn’t meant to save entire worlds. She’s lost and tired and scared. Her friends include a wolf (who turns into a house when night falls–he’s a were-house), a dandy of a hoopoe bird who owes people money, and a weasel who’s just as scared as she is. Early on she stumbles into a dying dryad and finds she feels a sense of need to help that dryad, but she has no idea how. The only hint she has as to her path is from a cheese-selling man who cuts a slice of a cheese that predicts the future, and this one says that her path will be marked with turquoise. A turquoise dragonfly, vivid blue eyes of a forester…the color isn’t always there to lead her, but it comes up often enough that she thinks she’s still on the right path.

She still has to avoid the bad guys, however, and the bad guys have no qualms about killing and burning to get what they want. Summer’s very presence puts some of her new friends and their allies in danger, and she has to realize that this doesn’t make it her fault.

Summer in Orcus is a smaller, folktale-sized version of something like Narnia, where young people have to go to another world and put it to rights. This one is cozier and very imaginative, and as an adult I love it.

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Review: “Jackalope Wives and Other Stories”, T. Kingfisher

Pros: Magical
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s Jackalope Wives And Other Stories is an absolutely magical collection of stories and poetry. I remember reading one of the stories online some time ago, and I loved it enough I read it twice… then read it all the way through again when I picked up this book. In this case there’s also a little bit of extra context to the story due to a preceding story in the book that’s connected. (Both involve the Jackalope wives of the title.)

There are a couple of poems in here, particularly regarding gardening, and they’re lovely. My favorite, though, is called “This Vote Is Legally Binding” on the topic of men who seem to think that women’s wearing headphones in public is somehow a plot to keep them from talking to women.

There’s also a story involving a man named Bob who decides to summon himself a unicorn, having “re-virginized” himself. The main character tries to explain that virginity is a cultural concept, but he just doesn’t get it. This is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how to introduce a ‘cool concept’ to an audience while making it also a really great story rather than an infodump. I wish I could force writing teachers to use this story to teach that concept to their students.

This collection definitely feels like folklore, and I love that magical touch that so few writers seem to have. There’s even a Cinderella variation that has the feel of folklore rather than a typical fairy tale and involves a wonderfully none-too-cooperative Cinderella.

After I finished reading this book I went through on my Kindle and bought every other T. Kingfisher book it offered to sell me.

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Review: “All the Little Children,” Jo Furniss

Pros: Fantastic tale of hardship, loss, and survival
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

All the Little Children, by Jo Furniss, follows Marlene and her children, as well as a few relatives and friends, on a camping trip. As it happens, while they’re camping in the woods of England, the apocalypse more or less comes and they’re left adrift. Everything is called into question–the status of relatives and friends, how they’ll keep themselves fed, and what they’ll do when other sorts of tragedy strike. Even Marlene’s parenting is called into question, especially when a boy dies. Eventually the group ends up gaining additional children, and Marlene finds herself unable to rely upon the other parent present.

Marlene isn’t a perfect parent, and neither is her sister-in-law (the other parent present). I appreciated that. It makes this a story more about people than a plague. There are plenty of hardships for the group to endure, from life-threatening injuries to a kid who feeds all their food to the dog, and what makes this different from other post-apocalyptic books is the focus on adult/child relationships. It’s also a nice change of pace for those who primarily read American post-apocalyptic fiction; the setting does introduce some differences. Politics have a role to play as well, which additionally keeps things interesting.

Even the small children have personality and their own unique ways of helping and hurting the situation. And with all the children involved, it’s easy for Furniss to tug on our heart-strings when things go badly. She isn’t afraid to invoke tragedy, paranoia, and imminent danger to keep the reader on her toes.

Between the great characters, the threats to life and limb, the interesting setting, and the hard knocks, this is a fascinating book to read. I was glued to the pages, wanting to know what happened at every turn.

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Short Take: “No Easy Hope,” James N. Cook

Pros: Interesting characters
Cons: Somewhat slow
Rating: 3 out of 5

Unlike many recent zombie apocalypse novels, James N. Cook’s No Easy Hope (Surviving the Dead Volume 1) takes the time to give the characters some depth and originality. I wouldn’t say they sparkle, but at least they come alive. It’s interesting to be following a lead who was a financial analyst as opposed to a hunter/survivalist/etc. In this case he had a friend who taught him what he’d need to survive when the time came, and then he passed that on to others. I love that they basically have a survivor’s manual printed out from the information collected by someone who saw the whole thing coming.

Things are a little slow, but not too much. It’s about what you’d expect from a zombie tale that’s trying to give you a taste of the usual parts: survivalists, fighting the zombies, and fighting off some bad guys. It’s a decent balance.

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Writing Routines

I found a great article on various authors’ writing habits. Whether you’re talking music, silence, time of day, coffee, reading, ritual, or warming up, there’s something there for everyone. Take a look and see if you can find something that will help you dive into your work every morning.

Posted in Writing

Short Take: “Trudge,” Shawn Chesser

Pros: Some decent material
Cons: Bland, familiar ground; appropriate title
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Shawn Chesser’s Trudge: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse (Volume 1) is an aptly-named book. It felt like trudging through the fairly standard zombie tale. The characters didn’t appeal to me. The action scenes were better than other parts, but otherwise felt standard at best. There was the introduction of IEDs to the mix, which was interesting. But nothing else set it apart from other books of its kind. It felt familiar and bland.

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Review: “Breakthrough the Block,” Allen C. Paul

Pros: Decent ideas
Cons: More like a blog post than a book
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Breakthrough the Block!: 5 Steps to Renewing your Inspiration, by Allen C. Paul, is more like a long blog post than a book. However, it does have some decent suggestions in it.

I have to admit, the idea of changing the thought of “what if?” to “so what if?” is a helpful one. We don’t always have to fear the things that might go wrong or the difficulties that we’re having.

Reconnecting with your feelings certainly can’t hurt. Emotion is at the heart of inspiration, after all.

Reactivating your appreciation for others: “a grateful artist is an inspired artist.” I do think that reading/listening to/etc. other wonderful artists is a great way to feel creative again.

Recommit to your daily creative time. Mr. Paul is certainly not the first person to say that one of the best ways to stay active in your art form is simply to do it every day, even when you don’t feel creative.

Reward yourself for each step forward. Hey, I’m all for rewards.

 

I think this book is simple and doesn’t present anything terribly new (except maybe for the appreciation tip–I’m not sure I’ve heard that one before). However, it’s also brief and, at the time I’m looking at it, quite cheap, so maybe it’s worth a read. It certainly can’t hurt, and when you’re feeling blocked you just never know what will get things moving again!

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Review: “A New World: Chaos”, John O’Brien

Pros: New ground for a zombie book
Cons: Slooooooow
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

John O’Brien’s A New World: Chaos (Volume 1) posits a world in which the disease just did the killing–it was the rush to find a cure that created the zombies. Luckily for John he never gets flu vaccines and seems to be immune to the original flu. He’s collected his little family together, but now he has a bigger problem–his girlfriend is stationed in Kuwait. When he and she were (just for fun) discussing what they’d do in a zombie apocalypse, they always promised they’d find each other. So he, a retired Air Force pilot, now needs to steal a plane and take himself and his kids on a trip to Kuwait.

This is actually a good story. Unusual, vivid, and with a different set of priorities than most zombie tales. It’s very detailed. The only problem is that the writing lingers over everything. At best it’s thoughtful; at worst it’s extremely slow except when winding up to action scenes (which compared to normal action scenes are also slow, but they seem fast compared to the rest of this book). It also sometimes makes the main character seem a little slow-witted, which doesn’t match his occasional very dry fits of humor.

There are places in this zombie world that don’t have hundreds of zombies crawling around (presumably due to the original high death rate from the flu itself). It’s a nice change from the standard story.

Especially considering the slow pace, there are far too many flashbacks in here, to things that are not necessary for us to know. (At some point I started going, “oh no, not another one!”)

I enjoyed the story enough to find it worth sitting through the slow parts, but only barely. If you have a short attention span, this isn’t the book for you.

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Review: “Return of the Phoenix,” Heath Stallcup

Pros: Standard but decent storyline and a couple of decent characters
Cons: Slapstick humor bits; inappropriate humor bits; forced humor bits; writing so-so
Rating: 2 out of 5

Heath Stallcup’s Return of the Phoenix: A Monster Squad Novel (Volume 1) is one of those novels that seems so-so when you’re reading it, and then suffers more when you look back on it.

The “Monster Squad” series is about a government program to develop super-soldiers who spend their time fighting the hidden supernatural enemies–vamps, werewolves, trolls, zombies (although those don’t show up in this novel) etc. It’s a little weird, because most of the novels I’ve seen with this plot frame have been urban fantasy/romance novels, which have a specific feel to them. This had much more the feel of, well, non-romance urban fantasy. Although it still has the standard werewolf one-true-mate trope, and it does have some sex in it.

Rather than having one or two major ‘this didn’t work for me’ bits (other than the sense of humor, which I’ll get to in a minute), there were a lot of little things. It’s easiest just to say that the writing quality wasn’t very good. Characters lacked believable depth, or were ridiculous in their behaviors; characters’ plans had holes in them; the book ended at an annoying place; etc. One (military) character, upon being captured by the enemy, volunteered an amazing amount of sensitive information before they even asked him about anything, yet didn’t even seem to realize it.

The sense of humor also had a lot of little problems rather than one big one. Sometimes it’s forced and over the top. Sometimes it’s slapstick. Sometimes it seems rather inappropriate (there’s a plot involving setting up a homophobic, ranting politician for blackmail involving a transsexual–without going into the whole thing, I’ll just say that I think a number of people would find the way it was carried out to be offensive).

On the whole, I think there are enough books that fit any of a number of the aspects of this one, but are written better, that you might as well not settle.

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Short Take: “Last Another Day,” Baileigh Higgins

Pros: New venue; decent characters; good writing
Cons: It’s good but not great
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Baileigh Higgins’s Last Another Day (Dangerous Days – Zombie Apocalypse Book 1) stands out among the other Kindle Unlimited zombie firsts I’ve been sampling. This may seem like a small thing, but I love that it’s set in South Africa. Finally, a new location! It alters some of the common assumptions and character actions, automatically bringing a sense of the new.

The writing is good, with basically interesting characters (although they could have used more depth still). There’s a sense of family that permeates this narrative; it’s a nice difference. Rather than have a focus on weaponry or battles (although those are present), the focus is on community, staying alive, and being human. There’s even a burgeoning serial killer in the midst to keep things unusual.

Most of the book is smack dab in the middle in terms of quality, so this is a short review. All things considered though, if you’re like me and have a weird obsession with zombie novels, this might not be a bad one to try out.

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