Book Review: The Outlaw and the Upstart King

4/5 Stars: Untitled design (2)

With the Outlaw and the Upstart King, Rod Duncan veered away from steampunk style plot and setting. The feudal, political coup plot that seemed like it belonged in a fantasy novel, only it had no magic. It was a great story in a very well-developed land with a fascinating political system. It just wasn’t what I expected when I started reading.

The story more or less picked up where the previous book, The Queen of All Crows, left off, but Outlaw and the Upstart King hardly felt like part of the series. There were tie-ins, but a reader could also pick up that book and read it as a stand-alone, or without having read any of the other books in the series and still appreciate. They only things they might not get were the importance of the “big reveal” of Elizabeth’s identity, fleeting references to other characters, and vague hints at how this connected to plots to bring down the Gaslit Empire. These things were subtle enough that they wouldn’t ruin the story for a new reader, but they reminded those of us who have read the whole story that this book was indeed part of it.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King followed two characters, Elias and of course, the heroine of the series, Elizabeth Barnabus. The first part of the book was from Elias’ point-of-view, though there was a character who came in and out of the picture that I suspected was Elizabeth. At the end of Part 1, I learned I was right. Elizabeth was indeed that character. Up to this point, I’d been frustrated that I hadn’t seen anything from Elizabeth’s point of view. And while it was interesting to see the next chapter recap what had happened so far from her point of view, it was a technique I think works a little better in movies than books.

Elias is a fascinating character for sure. He has clear motives and through a balance of flashbacks, action, and internal thought, the reader knows why he has those motives and how they formed. I loved how he wasn’t a “good guy”  but I still wanted him to succeed, to grow, and learn to see himself how others saw him. Watching him intellectually spar with Elizabeth was also entertaining.

However, I wanted a little more from some of the other characters. Julia was mentioned, but kept passive and out of sight for the whole book. She didn’t really do anything other than be one of Elizabeth’s motivations until the the climax had passed and she was assisting in the resolution. Tinker was there more, blending in mostly, but he didn’t do anything of importance. In previous books, he used his ability to move around unnoticed to help with whatever Elizabeth plans in some significant way. This time, he didn’t, at least not in any way I noticed.

In the end, it was clear how this did connect to some of the larger, political movements that were happening between the Gas-Lit empire and the nations outside it, however, that felt much further in the background than in previous books. The benefit of it was that it did allow more of a focus on character development and the more immediate action.

One thing I’ve always loved about this series is how it explores gender and gender roles. Back in England, within the Gas-Lit empire, society certainly was male dominated. However, it was social norms, laws, and a sense propriety that suppressed woman. Elizabeth grew up in a circus, outside the some many social and cultural norms, so she was less influenced by them and more independent than other woman around her. Her resistance to the role women were forced into and a need to live independently drove Elizabeth to use skills  she developed in her father’s show to create a second-male identity: a brother she pretended to live with.

Watching Elizabeth slip back and forth between man and woman was what originally helped me connect with her. I always read her as genderfluid even though as the books went on, her male identity was used less and less.

In this book, it was non-existent.

In the culture this story happened in, women were oppressed as much as London, though in different ways. In the Outlaw and the Upstart King , a single woman owned and ran an inn/tavern and promiscuity seemed more acceptable. However, here, perhaps more than in any other place Elizabeth has been, women were objects subject to the whims of physically stronger men.

Elizabeth was dependent on and/or under the control of men throughout the book, forever playing the part of a woman, and really feeling like a side character in her own book. This was Elias’ story, not Elizabeths.

If I was a new reader with no attachment to Elizabeth, I would give this book five stars because it was beautifully written and clearly well researched. The plot was well executed. The world richly developed.

However, I’m used to seeing Elizabeth in control and in charge not matter how bad the situation got, and it killed me to see her with so little agency, only able to influence the outcome of events in subtle, typically female ways.

IWSG: Five Objects in my Writing Space

December 5 question – What are five objects we’d find in your writing space?

My writing space changes with the season. April through September, I wrote on my screened-in-porch, or, on really nice days, the picnic table by the lake.

 

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Tavi thinks he is a cat

When heat becomes necessary, I move to the kitchen table. No matter which space I’m using, my laptop is always there because it’s what I write on. For the sake of this list, I’ll focus on things unique to the space.

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The Meowditor-In-Cheif is hard at work

Winter Space (aka a mess)IMG_1789

  1. Teapot.
  2. Blanket.
  3. Salt Shaker
  4. Dog Bowl
  5. Cat’s Brush

Summer Space (aka heaven)DSC_0771.JPG

  1. Beach Towel
  2. Pitcher
  3. Notebook
  4. Sunscreen
  5. Chuck-it toys

No matter where I am writing, Goose the Cat aka The Meowditor-In-Cheif, is near-by. He likes to the delete words. Nothing is allowed to be fluffier than him.

 

Book Review: Hiddensee

Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker definitely gets five stars.

I’ve been reading Gregory Maguire’s novels since I was in high school.  I picked up Wicked in a time when I was just starting rediscover a love of books that had been lost when I got “too old” for picture books. That feeling of being wholly absorbed in a fictional word was still new then. Since then, I’ve read almost all of the books that he’s published, but none had compared to the experience of reading Wicked until now when I picked up Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker.

In most of Maguire’s works, the protagonist was a side character or antagonist in an existing tale. In Hiddensee, it was Drosselmeier from the Nutcracker. The narrative begins when he was boy named Dirk with no surname. After dying in the forest and being brought back by a mystical being, he leaves his adopted family (who seem to be myths themselves) and sets out on the long adventure that becomes his life.

Dirk, who eventually becomes Dirk Drosselmeier, is a fascinating,  frustratingly flawed character who I cheered for throughout the whole book, drawn in further by each of his mistakes and missed opporturnities.

While the magic didn’t play as large a role in this as it would a fantasy novel, myths and mysticism were forever in the background, not fully noticed by Drosselmeier, but not gone either. It gave the historic setting a layer of enchantment, further drawing me into the world Maguire built.

Sometimes I found myself frustrated, wishing he’d see the magic and beauty in front of him before it was too late, but that just pushed me to keep turning the pages.

It’s not an entirely new concept, but I loved how myths and Christianity intersected in this book.  Early in the narrative, when Drosselmeier was freshly resurrected, he spent a few years working in a church where the voices of the mice and thrushes first went silent. Christianity, particularly the protest branch emerging in the time period,  was a mystical force of it’s own, conquering and exiling the folklore that proceeded it. Neither is portrayed as inherently good or bad, but one is coming and the other is going, and like anytime something leaves, there is a sense of melancholy and grief that accompanies it.

Grief and loss were as constant presence in Hiddensee. 

Drosselmeier’s relationships and romances, particularly with a man he first met while working in the kitchens at a wealthy family’s estate, were as heartbreaking as they were beautiful. I can’t say much more without giving away the plot. However, I warn you: if you decide to read this, keep the tissues near by.

Hiddensee is beautiful and sad and definitely worth reading, especially if you are looking for something enchanting to read around the holidays.

Buy links: 

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2QxLlhP

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hiddensee-gregory-maguire/1126007372#/

Indie Bound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062684387

A Book-Lovers Gift Guide: Hidden Gems in Science Fiction and Fantasy

When I want to buy books as gifts for friends and family who love to read, the trickiest part is usually figuring out what books they haven’t actually read yet. Going into a book store, whether it be my local indie or a Barnes and Noble, I always see books from the big names and the same big publishers on the shelves.

If I’m buying a book as a gift, I don’t want to buy something the person already has. I want to get them a unique gift; something I know they haven’t read but might become one of their new favorites.

The best way to do this is to steer clear of the big names that dominate the shelves in bookstores and to turn to the small press’ whose books stores often hesitate to take a chance on or just never discover.

Here are eight great books you might not find on the shelves of your local shop:

1: Ardulum: First Don by J.S. Feilds  

The Ardulum series is one of my favorite space operas and would make a great gift for anyone who is a fan of Firefly. Complex, colorful characters, fiber based space-ships, original aliens, and a traveling plant  make this book truely unique.

2: How I Magically Messed Up my Life in Four Firggin’ Days by Megan O’Russell

If you know a teen who loves urban fantasy, this hilarious, high stakes romp through a magical version of New York City might be the perfect the gift! It reminded me a little of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Infinity or a goofy, male-narrated cross between Tithe and a pg-13 Deadpool.

3: Wings Unseen by Rebecca Gomez Farrell

For someone who likes classic but dark epic fantasy, Wings Unseen will make a great gift for them whether they are teens or adults.

4: Omen Operation by Taylor Brooke

Omen Operation is the first of three books in the Isolation Series, which the author describes as a cross between Resident Evil and X-men. If you know someone who likes contemporary science fiction with lots of action, lots of kissing, a wide range of LGBTQ+ representation, and complicated characters, Omen Operation will make a great gift for them.

5: Smoke City by Keith Rosson 

If you’re searching for a gift for an adult reader who likes magical realism, Kurt Vonnegut, and/or Martin Millar, I recommend Smoke City. Rossen “blurs genre and literary fiction”  with reincarnation, road trips, alcoholism, and mysterious smoke ghosts.

6: Phaethon by Rachel Sharp 

Phaethon mixes Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series with Holly Black’s A Modern Faerie Tales series and makes it a standalone book for adults. It’s a perfect gift for fans of urban fantasy who enjoy seeing faeries wreck havoc in the modern world.

7: Seven-Sided Spy by Hannah Carmack

When it comes to adult readers who like spies and science fiction, I recommend Seven-Sided Spy, a cold war era novel with a super-soldier and survival plot that appeals to fans of Agents of Shield and Peggy Carter.

8: Power Surge by Sara Codair

Last but not least, I have to plug my own book. Power Surge is great for older teens and young adults, especially those who enjoy dark urban fantasy. Readers of Jim Butcher, Cassandra Clare, and Holly Black will definitely enjoy it!

IWSG Day: Creativity Evolved

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Today’s question is:
How has your creativity in life evolved since you began writing?
I’ve been labeled “creative” and “imaginative” my whole life, but what that means to me has changed over time.
Most of the time, I took it as a compliment. However, there have been a few times I wondered if people called me imaginative because my ideas were just so weird.
However, writing and publishing fiction has showed me that a lot of my ideas aren’t as unique as I used to think. I’ve gotten plenty of rejection from editors saying my short stories were too familiar, too cliche, or two similar to overdone tropes.
On the other hand, I’ve gotten rejections along the lines of “it was a very imaginative piece, but it wasn’t right for us.”
It’s not just my definition of creative that has changed over time. The ways I express my creativity have evolved as well.
Making up stories has been a part of my life as along as I can remember, but writing them down used to be an inconsistent practice. In the times I wasn’t writing, my creativity showed in other ways.
The last two years I was in college, I was photographer at a mall portrait studio.
When I was in graduate school, I made just as much money making and selling beach glass jewelry as I made working part-time as a photographer.
Now that writing fiction is my main creative outlet, how I view creativity in terms of writing has changed. I used to think that drafting was the creative part, but I’ve since learned that revising, and even editing, is a rather creative process.
Want to see the results of my creative writing and editing? Buy a copy of Power Surge and read it.

YA: Teens First, Adults who are Young (or young at heart), Second

A few days ago, I read The Many Ways YA Books & The Community Isolates Teens by VICKY WHO READS. It was a thought provoking blog post about Young Adult (YA) fiction that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how teens are isolated from the books that are supposed for them.

Because adults are the ones writing YA, publishing it, and spending money on it, teen voices often get left out of the genre. This had me wondering if my YA fiction was guilty of isolating teens, and if as someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time with teens, I should even be writing books labeled as for teens.

I’m still grappling that and one way I am pursuing it is by reflecting on how I read as a teenager so I can see how it impacts my assumptions about teen readers. What I discovered about the later is worth sharing.

I was high school from 2002-2006, and I was barely aware that there was a category of fiction labeled as “Young Adult.” I think read about five YA titles on my own, unless you count the Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl series, but I think those are really middle grade.

Some of the books I was forced to read, like Lord of the Flies or A Separate Peace might be labeled YA now, but they were written long before YA was an official category.

I was actually in college when I started seeking out and reading YA novels. I met a girl who called herself Artemis, and she let me borrow a copy of Tithe by Holly Black. She introduced me Libbra Bray,  and eventually Cassandra Clare (whose books made me shelve Power Surge for a long, long time).

If I wasn’t reading YA in high school, what was I reading?

Anything Tolkien. I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings multiple times. I read Tolkien’s short stories and poems. I started The Silmarillion and then I took a break from Tolkien.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe, which sadly is no longer cannon. There were plenty of books in that series to keep me busy for a long time. Why would I bother with the YA shelves when all the good Star Wars stories where in the Sci-Fi section?

Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels were one of the best things my senior English teacher introduced me too.

I’m almost certain I was a senior in high school when I started reading The Dresden Files, though it might have been the summer after graduation. I know was not happy when I got to White Night and realized it wasn’t out yet.

I loved these books. I bought them in used book stores, or the used “Section” of my favorite indie bookstores (Jabberwocky and Toadstool). If I couldn’t find it used, I went to the new section, and if it wasn’t there, Borders almost always had it. The staff often said they could special order things for me, but I never wanted to wait that long.

I didn’t really write reviews since I didn’t spend much time online. There was one computer in the house that I shared with my parents. The only review I remember writing of a bool was for my local new paper’s teen authored page. Normally, they published teen authored movie reviews every Saturday. But one week, they let me choose a book from a selection of ARC’s they’d gotten. I picked a science fiction novel by Mike Resnick.It wasn’t YA. I don’t remember which one and I don’t think I’ve ever read any other books.

I occasionally pre-ordered things, especially if it was summer and I had money from my job as a game attendant at Canobie Lake Park.

Like many of the teens mentioned in Vicky’s post, I did not have a huge influence on the industry.

The other question is, did I connect to those characters?

Jaina Solo and Mara Jade Skywalker are still two of my favorite heroines and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive Disney for erasing them. Mara was an adult, but when I started reading, Jaina was a teen who acted as much like a teen as one can when being a Jedi and the daughter of Han and Leia. She acted more teen-like than the adult characters, and as she aged, her voice matured appropriately.

And with the other stories? Tolkien?  Butcher? Kurtz?

No. Their characters weren’t other teens with relatable experiences. They were fascinating heroes I could vicariously live through for days on end, but they didn’t really share problems or experiences with me.

They weren’t necessarily characters I needed. They didn’t show me it was okay to be depressed, or that medication wouldn’t change who I was or ruin my ability to be creative. They didn’t help me understand why I was so jealous of the girls who boy’s clothing or help me understand that I could dress like that too if I wanted to.

Honestly, I can’t say the actual “YA” books did any better. Later, when I read YA in college, I found those characters relatable to my self as a college student. They weren’t much more relevant to high-school me than Harry Dresden or Bilbo Baggins.

These are books that had a big impact on my writing: Holly Black for the better and Cassandra Clare for the worse (because I thought there wasn’t room on the shelf for both of our demon hunter books).

I try to write the books I think would’ve helped me if I picked them up as a teen, but I’m 30 and I can’t help but wonder: are my teens to mature? Did I Erin Evanstar grow up too much between draft 1 and draft 15? Will they help teens how I imagine? Will teens even read Power Surge?

So far, more 3/5 of my reviews are from adult men.

The only non-adult feedback I’ve gotten is from the 7th grader in my neighborhood who hangs out with the adults more than the kids. They said they were loving it so much that their mom had to take it away so they could do their homework. They said it was relatable, but when I asked why, they said it was because of the protagonist used “they/them” as a pronoun. How much of this kid connecting was because the 17-year-old character as a whole was relatable, and how much of it was because they just hadn’t read many other books with enby protagonists?

I have no clue.

Going forward, if I truely want my books to serve teens, I need to seek out feedback from teen beta readers and read whatever teen authored reviews and book blogs I can find, otherwise, my “YA” will be for adults who are young, not teenagers.

Novella Review: The Lost Sisters

The Lost SistersThe Lost Sisters by Holly Black

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because I love Holly Black’s faerie stories, I was sick, too tired of looking at a screen to write more, but not willing to get lost in a novel that would take me away from my words for too long.

I liked how it was written to the sister, how the “stories” were interspersed with the narrative, and enjoyed being back in the realm of the fair folk.

However, it almost felt like a summary of Cruel Prince from Taryn’s point of view as opposed to the love/horror story apology I wanted it to be.

Every time Taryn spoke of jealousy, I felt a little of it. Not for a lover, but for the ability to be able to have enough of a fan base to write and sell a companion novella like this, one wholly dependent on readers knowing what happened in book 1 and already knowing and loving the world.

Now that I’ve admitted my jealousy to the internet, I’ll put it aside and go to sleep.

Tomorrow, I’ll get up and I go to work at my paying job and I’ll write on my breaks and at night when I should be sleeping. I’ll focus on the little step I won and keep writing for another.

View all my reviews

Reflections on My First Two Book Events

This week, I attended my first two book-related events as an author: a book talk / signing at Jabberwocky Books and the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival.

For someone with lots of social anxiety, planning, committing too, and/or attending events is no small feat, but somehow, I managed to set up a launch event and sign up for a book festival.

After convincing myself that one event or another wasn’t going to happen, they did. I did my talk and signing at Jabberwoky. I sold books at the festival.

I learned a few things.

43950609_10214216395229934_1937355220606517248_nFor first time authors, launch events are really for family and friends. Unless you have a fascinating non-fiction topic people want to learn about, if they don’t know who you are, they are probably not going to take time out of their Friday night to listen to you talk about your book. That’s my theory, anyway.

On the other hand, my family and friends showed. They were super excited to be there, to have me sign a copy of Power Surge, and to congratulate me. I was the only one that seemed disappointed that there weren’t any “strangers” in the audience.

It is a lot easier to stand at a podium and talk to strangers than it is to talk to people I know.

The book festival wasn’t any different than the craft fairs I attended back when I sold sea glass jewelry. A lot of people attended, but there were also a lot of vendors. People walked by the table, picked up books, said good things about them, and walked away, saying they needed to look more before buying.43880502_10214220942663617_5203961892581670912_o

90% of people who say they will or might come back do not.

I brought about fifty copies of Power Surge and sold three. I brought ten copies of Drabbledark and sold four. At craft fairs, I’d have at least fifty pieces of jewelry, and I’d sell somewhere between four and ten pieces.

I made some mistakes:

  1. As usual, I left something I needed at home.
  2. I arrived at the venue with just enough time to set up, but not enough time to take a breath between set up and people walking in.
  3. I had to make three trips to the car because I brought too much and it wasn’t packed up efficiently.

These three mistakes are ones I made early in my craft fair and flea market days.

It wasn’t all a disaster. I remebered to get plenty of one dollar bills, so I could make change. I brought snacks, and ALL the pens and sharpie I needed.

Next time, I won’t let anxiety and imposter syndrome stop me from preparing. I’ll pack efficiently, and get everything ready the night before. I’ll have a larger variety of items.

I’ll be ten times more confident.

 

IWSG Day: Writing Through Life (and doggy drama)

Writing Through Life (and doggy drama)

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThe first Wednesday of every month, the IWSG posts an optional question, encouraging members to read and comment on each other’s blogs.

October’s Question is:

How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?

My answer is yes.

Major life events can affect how frequently I write, how coherent that writing is, and sometimes, even the content of my writing.

When I’m stressed, anxious to the point where I can’t even think about going to bed at a reasonable time, writing is the only thing that keeps me going. When my spouse goes to bed, I’ll sit up at the kitchen table with the cat at my feet, frantically writing until two or three in the morning. The sentence structure and punctuation might be more off than usual, but it is also when I can actually write emotion, show characters feeling things.

With Power Surge, the book that took a decade to finish, life events and revelations about my self shaped how I finished and revised the novel. In fact, one could say it was a major life event that lead me to finish it in the first place: I finished a different book. And I finished that book because it was the only way to get through a few months of very high anxiety.

Whether it was Power Surge, or one of my yet to be published manuscripts (Song of the Forest, Like Birds, or Earth Reclaimed), my novels, and my numerous short stories, have all helped me coped with anxiety, depression, or whatever my brain throws at me.

This summer in particular, writing helped me deal with a stressful neighborhood situation. The two people who live on either side of me both have dogs. One dog is female, yellow,  and about 45 pounds (the same size as my dog). Tavi, my pup, was still a baby when the yellow dog came to the neighborhood, and I swear she thinks she is his mother, at least she protects him like a mother dog would protect her puppies. To the other side of me is an 8lb ball of yapping energy.

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Tavi

This was not a good combination. One day, the little dog chased Tavi out of my yard and into her driveway. I thought Tavi had been tied to the trailer of the boat I was cleaning, but I had never actually clipped his 15-foot training leash to anything, so as he ran, that dragged behind him.

Tavi stopped and play bowed, possibly oblivious to little dog’s ruffled fur and bared teeth. Yellow dog charged out of her yard and down the driveway, grabbed little dog, and pullled her away from Tavi.

Little dog got hurt.

And for the next month, neighborhood tension grew as yellow dog’s and little dog’s owners passive aggressively argued over whose dog should be leashed and who was responsible for the vet bill.

Literally and figuratively, I was in the middle of it.

It was summer, so I wasn’t working. Yellow dog’s human, also a teacher, wasn’t working. Little dog’s owner, a national grid gas employee, was on strike and eventually, locked out.

I wrote.

In one month, I wrote a 20,000 novella and revised it three times. It wasn’t directly about what was happening in the neighborhood, but in one scene, a similar incident occurred. The main character was dealing with the same kind of mental health problems as me.

I haven’t looked at the story in a while, so I can’t confidently say whether or not it was good. But after proof reading the third draft, I remember thinking it was fantastic, and that it was the most emotional piece I had written since Power Surge.

 

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 Power Surge buy links:

  • Amazon Kindle: https://amzn.to/2RoANiQ
  • Amazon Paperback: https://amzn.to/2xWqpqp
  • Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/power-surge-sara-codair/1129616729
  • NineStar Press: https://ninestarpress.com/product/power-surge/
  • Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/897512