Review: Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

 

May Contain Spoilers

Review:

Oliver and the Seawigs is a cute, cute book!  Ten year old Oliver Crisp has spent his entire life exploring all of the unexplored areas of the world, and he’s tired of it.  What Oliver wants is to wake up in his own bedroom, in his own house, and go to school every day.  When his parent sadly realize that there is nothing left to discover, they resign themselves to a boring life living in their long neglected house.  Oliver is delighted, and he is anticipating finally being settled.

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Review: Knockdown by Brenda Beem

May Contain Spoilers

Review:

Knockdown piqued my interest because it’s a survival story, and it takes place on a sailboat.  The mega-tsunami threatening to destroy every coastline in its path also seemed pretty interesting.  I haven’t read a post-apocalyptic story like this before, so I was game to give it a shot.  I really enjoyed it!

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Review: Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

May Contain Spoilers

Review:

Oh, dear, where to start?  I loved this book!  I received a surprise copy in the mail, and I was chomping at the bit to read it.  I had posted previously about Ice Dogs, because I think the cover is so striking, but I was worried that something bad was going to happen to one of the animals.  What if one of them died?? That would have ruined the reading experience for me.  I am STILL traumatized by Where the Red Fern Grows, and I read it when I was, what, 13.  While I can’t remember the death of every human character in A Game of Thrones, I still get upset over the death of Lady.  Ugh!  Reading stories with animals can be so trying for me!

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Graphic Novel Review: Bleach, Vol. 4: Quincy Archer Hates You by Tite Kubo

 

 

May Contain Spoilers

Review:

This volume of Bleach gets off to a fantastic start as Kon, feeling unappreciated, runs away from Ichigo’s room.  He is beset by one misadventure after another, until he runs home to Ichigo’s arms, screaming like a girl.  Poor Kon!  He really gets no respect!  If Rukia isn’t trying to clean him with a bathroom broom, Yuzu is dressing him in fru-fru clothes and gluing flowers to his ear.  Ichigo’s gruff indifference would certainly be preferable to that!

The next story arc is a winner.  It’s absolutely hilarious, and packed with explosions and ghostly wailing.  When TV sensation Don Kanonji arrives in town to excise a spirit at an abandoned hospital, Ichigo is forced to tag along with his family.  Yuzu and his dad are nuts about the popular spiritualist; Ichigo, not so much.  He thinks the celebrity is a big phoney, so  imagine his surprise when it turns out that Kanonji actually can see spirits.  Too bad he turns a chained spirit into a Hallow. Oops!  Not one of his better moments!  Good thing Ichigo is there to save the day, as well as the enormous crowd of cheering fans.

I love Don Kanonji.  He is so flamboyant and a total attention hog, but he takes his position as role model for his young viewers very seriously.  When the ghost changes into a Hallow, instead of running away, he’s ready to sacrifice himself so Ichigo can send him off with his zanpakto.  This is one of Ichigo’s most amusing adventures so far, and I found myself laughing aloud several times during the story arc.  Even my favorite supporting character, Kisuke makes a timely appearance, enabling Ichigo to race to Don Kanonji’s aid.

The volume closes with the start of a story arc introducing Uryu Ishida, a bow toting Quincy who hates Soul Reapers.  He’s made it his mission to take out the Hallows before Rukia and Ichigo can even get to the scene, and then he taunts them for their incompetence.  It’s a promising beginning for Ichigo’s next challenge, and I can hardly wait to read the next volume of Bleach. 

Grade:  A

Review copy provided by publisher

From Amazon:

A new reality-show craze is sweeping the nation, garnering legions of screaming fans (the majority of them being teenaged girls). But this program comes with a supernatural twist – the host, a media-savvy spiritualist, travels to local hotspots and performs exorcisms, live on national TV!

Surly Soul Reaper Ichigo Kurosaki has his doubts about this primetime prima donna, and his assumptions are about to be put to the test – the show is heading straight for his neighborhood. what effect will this unprovoked media presence have on the fragile balance between Earth and the spirit world?

Review: The Lair by Emily McKay

The Lair

May Contain Spoilers

Review:

When I was contacted about participating in the blog tour for The Lair, I hesitated.  I had tried to read The Farm last summer, but there was so much going on in my life that I had give up and return it to the library.  I thought the premise sounded interesting,  though, and I love post-apocalyptic reads, so I thought What the heck?  Sure, I’ll give it a try.  Let me say that The Lair can be read by itself.  I was only confused a few times, and the author did a nice job recapping the previous book, without the references feeling awkward or out of place.  As someone who hates to read books out of order, or hates starting a series in the middle, I never felt that nagging burst of frustration with The Lair, and I don’t regret reading book two without having first read book one.  I guess I should try this more often with longer series that I’m interested in, but that seem too overwhelming to start at the beginning.

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Mini Review: Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman

Fortunately, the Milk

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

"I bought the milk," said my father. "I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road."

"Hullo," I said to myself. "That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened."

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

Review:

I love Neil Gaiman’s writing, and I love that he’s so entertaining in so many different creative arenas.  He creates for adults and children with equal skill, and don’t forget his celebrated writing for comics.  He confidently stretches his creative muscle, and his audience is made the richer for his efforts.

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Guest Post: Tony Cliff on Writing Strong Female Characters and Giveaway!

Today’s special guest Tony Cliff has a guest post for us, and after, you can win a copy of his graphic novel Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant.

Writing Strong Female Characters by Tony Cliff

I don’t know whether she meant it sincerely or whether she was just trying to tease me, but when a notably feminist-minded female friend saw the cover for my first little Delilah Dirk comic back in 2007, she said, “oh! You made a feminist character.” Knowing how vocal this friend could be about feminist issues, it was often fun to bother her about it with a grab-bag of stereotypically misogynist remarks, so she could have been returning the favour by maligning-but-not-really my labour of love. Pointing out that the project I’ve been working on for months secretly demonstrates feminist principles would have been a sort of, “ah ha, you’re part of the club and you didn’t even know it” statement. Whatever her intentions, she was the first person to posit that Delilah Dirk might be a “strong female character.” Since then, presumably because I am a human male and the incongruity is astonishing, I am often asked why and how I have written a “strong female character.” Let me tell you!

I’ll just pass by arguing about whether Delilah Dirk is, in fact, a “strong female character.” Since that first mention, enough people have framed her as such that I’m just going to roll with it. No one that I am aware of has argued that DD is specifically not a “strong female character.” If I’m reluctant to embrace that term (as indicated by my liberal use of scare-quotes), it’s probably due to my personal tendency to be contradictory, but also because I am occasionally suspicious of peoples’ motivations in throwing the term around.

I’ll also pass by the question, “why do you write strong female characters,” because Joss Whedon has already addressed that question very eloquently. Listen to him here (http://youtu.be/cYaczoJMRhs?t=1m44s).

If possible, I would also defer to Joss Whedon about how to write strong female characters. He has more experience than I do. I’m not entirely sure what makes a “strong female character.” Others have invested years of post-graduate study in this topic – there are tests to see if your work of fiction has sufficiently fully-featured female characters, there are classifications, there are archetypes and stereotypes… I just sat down one evening to invent an adventuresome character who seemed appealing.

Here is the extent to which I considered Delilah’s gender: inspired by Hornblower and Sharpe adventures during the Napoleonic Wars, I wanted to have a sort of logistically hyper-flexible (i.e. “globetrotting”) action character, and the genre and setting were already chock-a-block full of male characters. Plus, a female character in 1810 naturally faces more obstacles due to societal norms, which I thought would present more opportunities for conflict. It would generate laughs, too, because our society has come so far since then that the gender roles are comically outdated. Feel free to roll your eyes in disagreement, if necessary – again, I am a White Male. I was also motivated by the mainstream comics I had encountered – mostly Image comics of the late 1990s. The female characters were across-the-board boring. Too serious, too bland, no sense of humour, no depth or colour.

Meanwhile, throughout my life I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the platonic friendship of a few actual human females. I have studied them – made notes, measured and analyzed their behaviours and characteristics. I have dissected their droppings and run samples of their blood through complicated scientific equipment, at great personal expense. I have made a surprising number of astonishing conclusions!

There are differences, but all you need to figure them out is a little observation, a little time, and to not be a raging garbage bag of misogynist filth. Sure, there might be subtle differences between a male character and a female character who are identical except for their gender. But the gulf is not very wide. Maybe you know how to write characters who fall all along the personality spectrum, from a cruelly selfish man to heroically brave man, to a paralyzingly cowardly man. If so, you’re more than capable of embracing the socially and physiologically imposed differences between genders. They are minor by comparison. Yes, there may be aspects of a character that are forced on them by their physiognomy and anatomy, how they think of themselves, and how your society of other characters treat them based on their perceived gender, but this is where imagination and observation come in.

So how do you write a strong female character? And is this different from a believable female character? Is there something that separates strong from believable? Is it just the addition of swords? Is it some other “empowering” trait? After all, the forcefulness of how a character represents their gender is not necessarily an indication of their strength. I am suspicious that when people say “strong female character” what they really mean is “believable female character” or just anything except “curvaceous plot device.” Assuming you want to step away from having your character serve the limited purposes of a plot device (ahem, Princess Peach, ahem, every damsel in distress), I like two simple tools for the job: contrast and depth.

Contrast is a simple idea, and it applies to anything you’re creating, at any step in the process. It is a flexible and infinitely useful fundamental concept. Follow along. When you’re reading a WHERE’S WALDO book (or WALLY, I guess, for you Europeans), it is difficult to figure out Where Waldo is because he is surrounded by other humans, some of whom wear stripy things and/or share similar colours with Waldo. This is low contrast. It’s hard to tell where Waldo is because he’s surrounded by so many things that are similar. He gets lost in the Waldo-ness.

Conversely, if you put Waldo on a flat, deserted ice floe, voila! he’s easy to see. He is the only Waldo-shaped and -coloured object that’s visible. This is high contrast. Waldo stands out because of all the not-Waldo-ness around him. Meanwhile, the polar bear behind him? Neither you nor Waldo saw it coming, because a white polar bear against a white background is the epitome of low contrast.

You can (and ought to) apply principles of contrast to everything. Readability and understanding increase when contrast increases. So it goes when you are creating a character. Their happy moments stand out in contrast to their sad moments. Their angry, intense, moments stand out in contrast to their quiet, meditative, sitting-and-sipping-tea moments. I believe this is what sets an interesting (“strong/believable”) character apart from a dull character. Certainly, if you’ve heard the term “one-note character,” this is a way to combat that, and it’s the beginning of achieving a little depth of character. Just put them in situations where they’ll be motivated to have different feelings.

It is frustrating to realize that I have just given advice that amounts to, “give the character more than one feeling,” because if you think about it that simply, it seems inconceivable that anyone could make anything even passably interesting for the maker without clearing this low hurdle. But I guess it needs to be mentioned. Those dour, guns-blazing ladies in my late-90s Image comics all had approximately two-and-a-half modes of expression: “scowl”, “scowl harder”, and “laugh derisively.” Sometimes they would look very serious while sunbathing by the pool, or on a boat, or on cloudy days. Not exactly a rich tapestry of emotion.

Conversely, in his series of novels, Horatio Hornblower is a well-rounded, fully-coloured character. The stories are no major touchstones in the history of literature, but they are solid, enjoyable, and are improved dramatically by the depth that C.S. Forester gives his protagonist’s character. Hornblower’s strength, resolve, and bravery stand out so much more impressively because they are contrasted against his worry, neuroses, and his internal conflicts.

For advice on achieving depth of character, I’m once more going to defer to someone with more expertise than me. After all, this is the sort of topic that one could write a book about, as many have. I like Lajos Egri. His excellent book THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING was written in the 1930s and is designed for the playwrights of the time. Nevertheless, it is a timeless, effective guide to building integrated characters and stories, whether you’re writing a novel, comic, movie, or even an actual play, as preposterous as that notion may be. If you didn’t know when it was written, you might mistake it for being more modern than McKee’s STORY. Egri’s emphasis is on designing stories that could not exist if it weren’t for the characters within them. Weak characters? Weak story. If that seems to you like it might be a recipe for the type of dull literary fiction that lacks the excitement of a good adventurous or romantic story, please see my earlier thoughts re: Horblower. Strong characters make for strong stories. A dull story is elevated and made interesting by entertaining characters, whereas the greatest roller-coaster of a plot is still mind-numbingly dull without interesting characters.

Much of Egri’s approach involves building a character up from their backstory. He is good at providing direction on how to do so. Now, admittedly, backstory and depth are not the same thing. But they can work in tandem. I find that one inspires the other.

Boiled down as simply as possible, depth can be found by giving your character likes, dislikes, wants, needs, preferences, quirks, and fears, among other things. Characteristics. Indiana Jones began as an homage to the heroes of adventure serials from the early 20th century. One of those is H. Rider Haggard’s character Allan Quatermain. Admittedly, I have not read a lot of Quatermain stories – maybe only three-quarters of one story – but you’d think that would be enough to give me a sense of his character. I know him only vaguely as a pith-helmeted avatar for the readers who would have revelled in what would have been exotic adventures back when those stories were written. What does everyone know about Indiana Jones? Whip, hat, competitive, and he’s scared of snakes. It’s not much, but it’s enough to be interesting, and it’s all established in the first ten minutes of his first story. The same can not be said for Quatermain. Say what you will about Wikipedia, feel free to contrast Quatermain’s “Appearance and Character” section with that of Indiana Jones or Horatio Hornblower.

At this point, I’ve wandered away from specifically talking about writing “strong female characters.” Though… I like to think that’s the eventual goal – some time far in the future, we might not need to differentiate between “strong female characters” and “strong characters.” Maybe you shouldn’t be writing strong female characters. Maybe you ought to write strong characters, making them ladies when that makes sense and men when that makes sense. Based on what I hear on Twitter and elsewhere, I can acknowledge that we’re not there yet, but I also get the feeling that I might be preaching to the choir: the type of person most likely to read about how to write a female character is the type who’s probably already inclined to do so, and that person is not the person who needs to be convinced of the value of a treating your differently-gendered characters equally.

So my hope is that you’ll keep writing your characters, and hopefully I’ve shared some viewpoints that complement your own. Perhaps I’ve simply illuminated some of my own biases, and you’ve encountered a type of thinking or some cognitive mistakes you want to avoid. Either way, I hope you’ll keep writing (or start writing) richly-developed characters and sending them out into the world so that, eventually, somewhere down the road, no one feels that a character’s gender requires a special approach to writing.

Thank you, Tony!!

About the book:

Lovable ne’er-do-well Delilah Dirk has travelled to Japan, Indonesia, France, and even the New World. Using the skills she’s picked up on the way, Delilah’s adventures continue as she plots to rob a rich and corrupt Sultan in Constantinople. With the aid of her flying boat and her newfound friend, Selim, she evades the Sultan’s guards, leaves angry pirates in the dust, and fights her way through the countryside. For Delilah, one adventure leads to the next in this thrilling and funny installment in her exciting life.

A little bit Tintin, a little bit Indiana Jones, Delilah Dirk is a great pick for any reader looking for a smart and foolhardy heroine…and globetrotting adventures.

Giveaway:

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Interview with Ellen Booraem, Author of Texting the Underworld and Giveaway!

Please welcome Ellen Booraem to the virtual offices this morning.  Ellen dropped by to chat about her latest release Texting the Underworld.  She also brought along 2 copies of her new book for you to win!

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Describe yourself in 140 characters or less.

[Ellen Booraem] Lifelong daydreamer and late-bloomer, now living the dream.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you tell us a little about Texting the Underworld?

[Ellen Booraem] It’s a hero’s tale, featuring a fearful South Boston 12-year-old named Conor O’Neill. One school night, a young banshee named Ashling turns up in his bedroom, telling him that someone in his family is about to die. (Banshees are ancestral spirits who wail before the death of a family member.) Convinced that the death will be his beloved grandfather, Conor comes to believe that he must prevent it. He ends up visiting the Underworld, hoping to strike a bargain with the Lady who runs things there.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How did you come up with the concept and the characters for the story?

[Ellen Booraem] Reading Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts by the late British folklorist Katharine Briggs, I discovered that banshees weren’t always the ghastly old crones I’d thought they were. (I grew up in Massachusetts in a partly Irish household and neighborhood.) Briggs said that in some traditions they were maidens who’d died too young.

I got thinking about such a maiden and how she’d feel about losing her life and spending eternity as a harbinger of death. Inside of an hour, I had Ashling the banshee, killed by cattle raiders in fifth-century Ulster and offered a bargain by the Lady: Serve just once as a banshee, and she gets a new life. (In the universe of this book, we’re all reincarnated.) Fearful Conor arrived in my head next, and two hours later this was his story, a kid who finds his courage trying to save his family.

At first, I figured the afterlife would be Celtic. But I soon realized that (obviously) the Irish aren’t the only ones with an afterlife. So the Underworld became multicultural and a bureaucracy, with all these death gods wearily registering the Dear Departed and shipping them back to the world for their new lives.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three words best describe Conor?

[Ellen Booraem] Timid, smart, tortured.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] If Ashling had a theme song, what would it be?

“Songs from the Heart: Walking the Night/Give Me Your Hand” by Celtic Woman. (“And the song that we once knew/ Brings me back to you./Pipes play within me once more.”)

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Name one thing Conor is never without.

[Ellen Booraem] His cellphone.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three things will you never find in Conor’s pocket?

[Ellen Booraem] A fake spider, a hockey puck, a rock-climbing carabiner.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What are your greatest creative influences?

[Ellen Booraem] A shower, a nap, and a walk in the woods. (Since we’re talking in threes.)

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three things do you need in order to write?

[Ellen Booraem] A computer (totally addicted to the keyboard), a quiet room (no music, unfortunately), and a calm spirit.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What was your biggest distraction while working on Texting the Underworld?

[Ellen Booraem] The internet. Sometimes I turn off the modem, figuring that the time it takes to turn it back on will give me a chance to get my discipline back.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is the last book that you read that knocked your socks off?

[Ellen Booraem] The Water Castle, by Megan Fraser Blakemore. Is it fantasy? Is there a fountain of youth, or is it all fakery and coincidence? You’re never really sure, and that’s a lot of fun. Also, the characters are utterly real and round.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] If you had to pick one book that turned you on to reading, which would it be?

[Ellen Booraem] I’ve been a reader since I first held a book in my hand. So I’d have to say Yertle the Turtle, by Dr. Seuss. Confirmed slightly later by Fair, Brown and Trembling (an Irish version of Cinderella).

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

[Ellen Booraem] Read! Also walk, garden, kayak in the summer, ski in the winter. Sit out and watch the trees move when it’s warm enough. If not, sit inside and watch the fire in the woodstove. I also like to travel, but I don’t do it as often as I’d like. The week has only seven days, unfortunately.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How can readers connect with you?

[Ellen Booraem] Through my website (ellenbooraem.com) , my facebook page (Ellen Booraem’s Books) or twitter (@EllenBooraem). I love hearing from readers!

These were very entertaining questions, Julie. Thanks for inviting me to Manga Maniac Café!

[Manga Maniac Café] Thank your for visiting today!

Ellen’s blog tour for Texting the Underworld ends tomorrow (August 22) at We Do Write. See you there!

Giveaway!

US shipping addresses only, please!

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About the book:

Texting the Underworld

A fantasy for ages 10 and older

Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers

In stores August 2013

Conor O’Neill always thought spiders—and his little sister, Glennie—were the worst kind of monsters life had in store. That was before an inexperienced young banshee named Ashling showed up in his bedroom.

The arrival of a banshee, as Conor soon learns, means only one thing: Someone in his family is going to die. Not only will Ashling not tell him who it is, it turns out that she’s so fascinated by the world above that she insists on going to middle school with him.

The more Ashling gets involved in his life, the harder it becomes to keep her identity a secret from his friends and teachers—and the more Conor worries about his family. If he wants to keep them safe, he’s going to have to do the scariest thing he’s ever done:  Pay a visit to the underworld.

If only there were an app for that.

About the author:

Ellen Booraem’s TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD, a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat South Boston boy and a determined young banshee, hits bookstores in August (Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers). Her earlier middle-grade fantasies are SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS (Penguin/DBYR, 2011) and THE UNNAMEABLES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). A former weekly newspaper editor and reporter, she lives in coastal Maine with an artist and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon. She’s online at ellenbooraem.com, and also blogs at enchantedinkpot.com and scene13ers.wordpress.com.