Quick and Dirty Review: THE DISTANCE FROM A TO Z by Natalie Blitt

http://www.amazon.com/The-Distance-A-Natalie-Blitt-ebook/dp/B00WELVQSI

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So, I’m supposed to be finishing line edits, right now. I’m supposed to be neck deep in removing all the extra commas from my manuscript (I have an addiction. I admit it — My name is Stacey and I use WAY too much punctuation.) HOWEVER, that being said, I took a night off last night.  My agent-mate, the lovely Natalie Blitt, had a book birthday yesterday with the release of her Teen Romance, THE DISTANCE FROM A TO Z, so I took a few hours off to read it.

And it was fantastic.

But since I have to get back to those commas I’m going to do a quick and dirty review — five things I loved about this book about a girl who travels away from home to immerse herself in the culture that she loves — to get away from the family that drives her crazy — only to find love in a most unexpected boy.

#5 – Abby and Alice. The friendship between these two is perfectly real. Both are flawed, both are strong in their own way. They have fights and make up over real things. Their friendship drew me into this book right away.

#4 – French and Baseball. Full transparency — I don’t speak French and I don’t really like baseball. We’re an NFL family, around these parts. But the immersion of the French language and the baseball — all the baseball — made these characters real. The French language and the baseball references become a part of the story. They become characters unto themselves. And they are great fun.

#3 – Trivia as Foreplay. Here’s the thing — I am a sucker for a good nerd love story, and Abby is a nerd that I can totally get behind. She is smart and funny, geeking out on all things France and the beauty of words. (You know I’m all about that.) She’s got a head full of baseball facts and all kinds of family baggage and is trying to find her place in the world. And any book that uses a trivia competition as the first real set-up to romance gets an A+ from me.

#2 – CONSENT! Zeke is a jock. He’s the exact kind of guy you would expect to push back, if a girl says, “No.” But instead, Natalie Blitt has given us a story that at its heart is about consent and that, way more than his shaggy blond locks or his easy smile, is what made me love Zeke.

#1 – Instant Gratification. The e-book is available right now. Right here. Or here. And it’s $1.99! And it is a quick, happy read that made me smile. It was lovely and I’d recommend that you use a few hours of the time you’re supposed to be doing something else to fall into it, too!

Book Review – HOUNDED by Kevin Hearne

I haven’t read much Urban Fantasy, and as such, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. HOUNDED might have spoiled me, since it was absolutely hilarious. A fun, quick, incredibly engaging and entertaining read, I devoured it in about a day and a half. 

Atticus is old–21 centuries old, in fact. But he looks like a 21-year-old hipster playing at magic in his occult bookstore. Seriously, that might be the best, simplest premise I’ve ever heard. Add to it his Irish Wolfhound who is laugh-out-loud hilarious, a healthy dose of pop culture references, and some pissed off Celtic gods and you have a story that sucks you in and keeps you reading.

I liked everything about this book–the depth of the setting, the obvious research that Hearne put into it, the humor and juxtaposition between Old World and New-all of it. EXCEPT I didn’t love Hearne’s treatment of his female characters, and that kept me from giving HOUNDED five stars. I felt as though every woman (mortal or not) got the “super sexy movie star” treatment, and that Atticus had a hard time concentrating when they spoke because all he wanted to do was jump their bones. We’re talking about seriously powerful women, who can manipulate your perceptions of them. Why would they all choose sex as their manipulation of choice–Why not intimidation? Why not terror? Why not groveling respect? I’ve got no problem with a sexy female character, but I felt like it was a little one-noted.

I look forward to reading more of the IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, as the story was clever and funny and greatly entertaining, and I hope that Mr. Hearne has found a way to flesh out his female characters in later volumes.

Next Up: THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley. You know I’m excited about this one. 🙂

Book Review – ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb

 

 

In an effort to broaden my horizons in Fantasy, I have been keeping my ears open for recommendations from authors that I respect and admire. A few months ago, Chuck Wendig posted on Twitter that ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE was a must read, and (I’m paraphrasing) a beautiful, brutal book. If you’ve read anything by Wendig, you’ll be interested to know what he sees as brutal. So, I put it on my to-read list and (when I couldn’t find it locally) ordered it online. 

In the meantime, several other authors and reviewers that I follow brought up the glory that is ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, and I learned more about Robin Hobb. Here’s the thing–I love Fantasy. I think it, and write it, and breathe it, and worship the very ground that it bleeds on. But I didn’t find it until I was an adult, really. So I am behind the times. This book–I should have read it almost 20 years ago. I should have, by this time, been wrapped up in an obsession with this series, and the others that follow it, for most of my adult life. I should have already been as obsessed with this world as I am with Westeros. Hell–even GRRM blurbed about ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, “Fantasy as it ought to be written.”

Those are great big words from a great big author, and I doubt that I have anything to add that others haven’t already said, but I’ll try.

The first thing that drew me into this book was the age of the protagonist, Fitz, at the opening of the novel. He is six years old. I have a six year old, and as Fitz went about some truly life-altering experiences, in my mind, he was my little guy. And that’s where the brutality of this book lies. Fitz, throughout this first book, is a child. This is not the gruesome, bloody savagery of Martin’s Westeros. This is the terrible alone-ness of a little boy, thrust into a world that will only ever see him as a tool.

Hobb is brilliant in her weaving of the tale. Not too gentle, yet not too barbaric. We are dipped, lovingly, into the Six Duchies. Cradled in the warmth of the stables, drawn out, into the intrigues of Buckkeep. We, as readers, are granted the indulgence of seeing the adult characters through adult eyes, while simultaneously viewing them through the hooded, shadowed lenses that Fitz sees them through. Fitz is a remarkable child–observant and kind, intelligent and gifted. But he is also a child. We are given the gift of seeing those around him as he cannot–the silent, secretive protectors, the adroit handlers that do all that they can, including risking themselves, for the love of Fitz’s father who cannot acknowledge his bastard son.

Because I know, so intimately, a six year old boy–I instantly fell in love with Fitz. As he grew, in my mind, he became my older son (now twelve) and full of his own ideas of what a man is. Fitz is flawed in only the way a child can be–beautifully. Brutally. 

In the end, the story left me gasping for more–so clearly is there so much more to tell, and I am infinitely grateful that the next books are readily available. This is a hero’s quest, flawed and damaged as our hero may be, and it has become clear to me that I have only scratched the surface. Robin Hobb has done something stunningly complex–building a man from the skin and bones of a tiny boy. Fitz comes to life, on the pages. Her words breathe into him the stuff of life. Not just the heroics, the kindness and the brilliance, but also the failings, the weaknesses, the hubris. 

I also ADORE the gentle gender-politics that play out, throughout its pages. Certainly there are women that are mistreated and abused, dismissed and ignored. But also, there are men, just as maligned. Beautifully entwined, are women of power and strength. There are leaders among them, there are teachers and masters and Queens. There are petty women, women of integrity, and every sort of women in between. Just like the men. And not a damsel in distress among them.

There was truth to what Wendig said. The book is beautiful and brutal, but it is much more than that. It is not the grim darkness that we’ve come to expect from Martin and Abercrombie, nor the bantering heroics of Rothfuss. It is something different. Something special, a vicious hopefulness. With this book, I have come to understand why Robin Hobb’s name is spoken amongst the greats of Fantasy. She has certainly, in my estimation, earned every fair word.

Book Review – Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Sometimes you go to rate a book on Goodreads and it makes you rethink every book that you’ve ever rated, before. RED COUNTRY was that book, for me.

When I started reading RED COUNTRY, I did not know that it takes place in the same world as the FIRST LAW TRILOGY. I had read Abercrombie’s short story from DANGEROUS WOMEN, so I was familiar (a bit) with Shy South, but there was no telltale clues that Shy’s world and the world of Bayaz, Glokta, Logen and Ferro were the same. Discovering that A.) This was the same world and B.) That there were some spillover characters–was like receiving a late birthday present. I was giddy.

RED COUNTRY is to epic fantasy what toe nails are to hair–It’s slightly related, but it isn’t really the same thing, at all. This is a western, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and, ironically, Mark Millar’s brilliant comic, OLD MAN LOGAN.

It is the wagon train and the hardscrabble, sinew-and-bone frontier folk. It is dusty and exhausting and wear-through-your-boots toiling. It is not pretty–no courtly meetings or feasts with the nobles. It is the very definition of the word ‘gritty’–and yet, it is also a freshening of a world that we’ve spent more than a thousand pages exploring.

Here, in RED COUNTRY, we see new, deeper sides of characters we thought we knew. We scrape away all of the magic and the spirits and the politics and the city and we encounter a raw, bare-skinned tale of a family. They are broken and battered and not always very kind to one another. They don’t even share blood. But make no mistake, this is a family saga, and it is beautifully rendered, even in its brutality.

I have contended, previously, that Abercrombie’s strengths lie in the exquisite characters that he creates, and RED COUNTRY is no exception. I am repeatedly drawn to, and amazed by, his dexterous handling of “gray” characters. Each and every one of the people that populate this book is deeply flawed. They are cowards, bastards, murderers, thieves–monsters. They are beautiful, horrible monsters, and he makes us love them, in spite of their weaknesses, despite their failings. He is so successful in doing this because he shows us the contradictions within them–the murderess that fights for her siblings, the coward that wants desperately to be brave, the savage killer that sings his children to sleep. Over and over, I find myself drawn to his characterizations because they have the stink of real people on them. No one is perfect. We are all flawed–tiny, monstrous failings, fracture each of us.

There are a handful of scenes in this book that, due to avoiding spoilers, I will not further discuss. However, I would like to say that I was moved by this book in a way that THE FIRST LAW books did not emotionally move me. There are scenes and events within RED COUNTRY that made me cry, that made me laugh, that made me hold my breath in fear. There is a myth in THE FIRST LAW world, of a nine-fingered Northman–bloody, barbaric songs are sung about him–The Bloody Nine.

This book, for what it’s worth, made me a believer.

*** I am very eager to now read Abercrombie’s other books–THE HEROES and BEST SERVED COLD–both of which also take place in the FIRST LAW world.***

Stuff and Things (and Guardians of the Galaxy)

So, let’s get this out of the way, first thing. If you enjoy comic book films–Go see Guardians of the Galaxy. If you enjoy witty banter and raucous adventure–Go see GotG. If you are a fan of 1970’s easy listening–Go see GotG. If you enjoy fuzzy raccoons with a bad attitude–Go see GotG. If you like to laugh–Go see GotG. If you don’t enjoy laughter–Go see GotG (It will change your mind).

This movie, hands down, was the most fun I’ve had at the movie theater in years. Hilarious, action packed, sentimental but not sappy, engaging at every turn. It was a giant ice cream sundae, before dinner–and I don’t even feel guilty.

Chris Pratt does an excellent job of playing Peter Quill–a man/boy trying to find his way alone in the universe. His moral compass is a bit unfixed, his put-downs a staple of any twelve-year-old’s vocabulary, and his heart is covered up by bravado, but not absent. Bradley Cooper delivers laugh after laugh as Rocket–a genetically enhanced “raccoon” who is one part genius and one part Conan the Barbarian.  Dave Bautista is incredible as the well-spoken but brutal Drax the Destroyer, and Vin Diesel stole my heart as the short-on-words Groot.

But it was Zoe Saldana that, for me, made this film amazing. Saldana’s Gamora is a bad-ass–stronger, smarter, more agile, and more capable than anyone else in the room, and for the first time, I really felt like Marvel handed the reins to their female star and said, “Go ahead. Knock their socks off.” This is the heroine I wanted to see when Black Widow showed up–and we’ve seen glimpses, as Scarlett Johannson out-tricked the trickster and interrogated a mark, while tied up. In Gamora, I see a female comic character that isn’t sexualized, that isn’t marginalized, who truly contributes to the team and adds depth and heart to the group. (And–thank the Gods–we weren’t subjected to a Winter Soldier style scene shot from between the heroine’s legs, because–well, let’s hope that will be the end of that.)

Seriously. Go see it. You’ll be glad that you did.

In other must mentions, I’m going to link to a couple of very fine articles–

The first is a discussion of rape as it is portrayed in media, today, and especially in SFF. A very interesting look at the “realism” of sexual assault on women, and why don’t we see more rape of male characters in film and fiction. It’s worth a think, or two, and the numbers presented may surprise you.

The second is a couple of links to possible ways to get your hands on the Hugo Award-nominated essay “We Have Always Fought” by Kameron Hurley. Personally, I’d love to see this essay be required reading for the human race, but since that seems unlikely, I’ll just throw it out as a suggestion.

You can download Hurley’s essay collection here for free until 8/17, or you can listen to Hurley read the title essay on a podcast, here.  I highly recommend either–she’ll make you think about the way that you see the women characters in the stories that you love, and for me, she has really made me question the way that I write female characters, which I feel is contributing to a richer, deeper understanding of the characters I create, and the world in which they live.

Also, I would add that Kameron Hurley has a new novel, THE MIRROR EMPIRE, coming out on August 26th, which is getting stunningly good reviews.

Finales, Finales, Finales…. WARNING – Spoilers Abound. (HIMYM, TWD)

This has been a week full of finale words, final episodes–finales seem to be popping up, everywhere I look, and I have a few thoughts on some of those that I’ve encountered, this week.

First–last night, we said goodbye to Ted, Barney, Marshall, Lily, and Robin on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. My husband and I have been watching, faithfully, since we stumbled onto the show on Netflix, back around Season 3. We caught up, over the summer, and this has been a show that we religiously DVR’d and shared, together. The thing that I have loved about this show has always been its sense of humor. Beercules, Slapbets, High Infinity– these are the kind of really stupid, really hilarious “in-jokes” that we may have done, when we were younger and drunker. I have always loved the fact that the gang stayed together, through weddings and almost-weddings, babies and new jobs, heartbreak and new homes. I have always loved the gang.

That being said, I bought into the premise of the show because I believed that in the end, Ted gets to be happy. All of his struggles, and his loneliness, and the Zoes and the Sexy Pumpkins, Stellas and Victorias–all of it would be worth it, because in the end, he met the mother of all his loves. And, he did. Except that half an hour after he met her, she was gone, and I feel, as a viewer, that we got scammed. We’re left, in the final scene, right where we started from. 

Which would be cute, and sweet, and “Awww” worthy, EXCEPT that nearly all of those above mentioned struggles can be traced back to the fact that Robin didn’t want Ted. Remember, way back in the first few seasons, when Ted was in love with her and she “just didn’t feel that way.” Remember how it drove him to the brink of misery. Then, in one, fast-moving hour, Robin and Barney marry and divorce, and she suddenly realizes (once Ted is happily with Tracy and having kids) that it was Ted, all along. So, she spends 15 years, alone, abandoning the gang because she just cannot handle the agony of seeing everyone else happy. Until, in the end, Ted comes crawling back to her, french horn in hand. Because Robin is his drug. 

I call an Intervention. Ted suffered, while Robin was with numerous guys–including Barney. Ted stayed, until she was well and truly married. For the gang. For his friends. Robin turned tail and ran. I wanted to love the ending… and instead, it made me feel sad. This doesn’t feel like a happy ending. This feels like a precursor to couple’s counseling and Ted’s kids screaming, “We were wrong, Aunt Robin. We’re about to torch your car.”

The rest of the episode had its moments, and I was most moved by Barney’s falling-in-love with his daughter. Did anyone else think that #31 wasn’t so much a one-night-stand as a birth-mother that he had made arrangements to adopt from. We never see her, there is never any mention, after the birth, of her. My own theory is that Barney truly changed for Robin, but he knew that she wanted out, so he gave her an escape route. He loved her enough to do that for her. I think that Barney, post-divorce, was more act than ever, and that as he saw Ted and Tracy, Marshall and Lily raise their families, he knew that he wanted that, too. I think that Barney, honestly, is the character that learned the most, over the course of the series. And the scene when he looks into that baby’s eyes and says, “You are the love of my life…” Oy.

In other, obsessive T.V. news, THE WALKING DEAD wrapped up another season, this week. I’m of mixed emotions about this season–I really hated that they brought the Governor back. I felt like that story had been wrapped up, and it felt a little gimmicky, the second time around. I have honestly enjoyed the character growth of Daryl, Carol, and Michonne. In the episode “The Grove,” Carol showed more brutal common sense and honest bravery than any other character in the series ever has, except perhaps Carl when he has to take care of Laurie, after she dies in childbirth. It was, I think, a high point in the series.

I am interested to see how the gang gets out of the cattle car and takes care of Terminus, and I’ll even forgive the writer’s the soft-core line, “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Because… FCC, damn it. In truth, just seeing Rick come back to life has been a worthwhile study in human suffering. Losing Hershel was a blow, losing the prison was terrible, but it took the insane, horrible threatened rape against Carl to make Rick remember that there is no room for the weak in the apocalypse. I’m excited to see him embrace his inner monster.

Because that is what we are seeing, now. The walkers are hardly the enemy, at all, anymore. Man has become the monsters (The Governor, Terminus Peeps, The Claimed Gang, that chick that wanted to feed Rick to her zombified hubby). The question is no longer “Can we survive the plague?” The question is, “Can we survive each other?”

Also this week, I finished the final installment of Joe Abercrombie’s THE FIRST LAW TRILOGY. The final book, THE LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS, was everything that I hoped it would be. If you are interested in a full review, you can check out my Goodreads page, but suffice it to say, I loved these books. Abercrombie has won me over. I’ll read anything that he publishes, because the man knows his stuff. Gritty, compelling, beautifully flawed and human–his characters will be floating around in my mind for a good, long while.

Thus ends my obsessive media-related rant. I’m scratching away at the outline for Book 3 and I’ve written the Epilogue, already, which will conclude the series. It makes me smile, and tremble a little. But there is much to do. And, now that all of the above stuff has ended, I have plenty of attention to pay to GAME OF THRONES in, oh, 132.5 hours. Give or take.