Book Review | A Draw of Kings by Patrick W. Carr

9780764210457In A Draw of Kings, we complete the journey of Errol Stone. From his inebriated beginning in A Cast of Stones, Errol has certainly come a long way. Battle-worn and burdened with unfair truths, Stone staggers back from Merakh to find the kingdom of Illustra in the hands of an evil usurper. And though his actions from The Hero’s Lot deserve a hero’s welcome, Stone is greeted with a set of manacles and the promise of death.

This final installment of The Staff & the Sword series is page-turning high-action fantasy. Carr arrests your attention and keeps it held tight as Errol escapes from frying pan to frying pan, edging ever closer to the final fire. With stakes that couldn’t be higher, Errol struggles with the demands placed upon him in ways that make him both real and tragic.

If there is anything negative to say about the conclusion of this epic tale, it is that 450 pages is not long enough to explore the richness of the world Carr has created. The story could have been well-served by another installment in the series, though I’m guessing the publisher may not have had the confidence in it to justify the risk. And so, the final battle, though beautifully written and with surprising twists, leaves something to be desired as the reader runs from fight to fight wondering where the half of the warriors went.

With such rich action and grand writing, one might be surprised that Patrick Carr teaches Math instead of English. Though if he brings the kind of intensity to algebra as he does to sword fighting, I have a feeling that his students are some of the finest mathematicians in his home state of Tennessee. I only hope that his teaching career leaves him enough time to keep writing, as his debut series leaves this reader reeling and wanting more.

Pick up your copy of A Draw of Kings at Baker Book House today!

I am looking into grad school.

grad_school

Most of the major events of my life have happened by chance. I’m not complaining about that. I like my life. It suits me.

When I was considering where to attend college, a full-ride scholarship to Western Michigan University fell into my lap courtesy of the US Army. When I decided I wasn’t cut out for military service and considered switching schools to pursue a degree in camp ministry, a friend informed me that WMU had a similar degree, so I stayed. When I graduated and no longer desired a job in the leisure industry, I decided to get any job available, which led me to a local movie rental store. As I was buying a red shirt for the movie rental job, I was offered a seasonal job in the mall, which I accepted. And after deciding that I didn’t want to remain a mall worker indefinitely, I found part-time work at a bookstore, because I love books.

That was almost a decade ago, and though my role has changed over time, I’m still at that bookstore (and I still love books).

Sure, I did some things quite intentionally. I got married and started a family. My wife and I bought a house. I started writing.

But vocationally, my life has been subject to some precarious whims. And like I said, I like my life, but I’m starting to want something more.

I’m thinking about going back to school, pursuing a degree that will help me write better and maybe get me into a publishing job someday. To be specific, I’m considering an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing (fiction and creative non-fiction).

As I may have mentioned, I love books. I love working around them and selling them and writing them, but I would like to be more involved in production of them. My Bachelor of Science in Recreation doesn’t really qualify me for that, nor does my illustrious blogging career. I am in need of some formal training.

Or, at least I think I am. There are a lot of things to consider. Will I have time? Will I be able to afford it? Will I be able to get into a good program? Do I even need an MFA to get a job in publishing?

Anyway, I have to start somewhere. If I want to advance my career, either at the bookstore or into a publishing job, I need to start being intentional. It’s time to get answers to my questions.

I’ll keep you updated.

Dear reader, do you have any thoughts about MFA programs?

8 Questions | Meet Author L. B. Graham

Fantasy Author, L. B. Graham

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a fantastic fantasy (redundant?) author. I was first introduced to the books of L. B. Graham by a college friend at a Christian publishing trade show. After college, my friend Jesse went to work for P&R Publishing while pursuing a graduate degree. P&R Publishing is better known for Reformed theological tomes than fiction, so I was surprised when Jesse pressed a copy of Graham’s Beyond the Summerland into my hands and said, “As a fellow Lord of the Rings fan, I think you’ll like this.” And I did. Admittedly, it took me a minute to get past the book cover (fantasy covers can be notoriously bad), but once I got into the story, I really enjoyed it.

First in the Binding of the Blade series

A couple years later, I got to meet L. B. Graham at the same trade show. He and I got into a discussion of his book covers and I remember how very honest he was about them. I told him that I enjoyed the books in spite of their covers and I would do what I could to promote them in my bookstore. Unlike meeting some authors you like only to discover that you only like their books and would never like them in real life, it was a good experience.

I recently friended (I remember back when “friend” was just a noun; I must be getting old) L. B. Graham on Facebook. I reintroduced myself and asked if he would be willing to do an interview with me so you all could meet him. He was happy to do so. After reading the interview, I encourage you to visit his website (http://blog.lbgraham.com/) and buy all of his books.

The interview:

1. Fantasy writer Terry Goodkind once said, “Fantasy allows you to shine a different kind of light on human beings. I believe the only valid use of fantasy is to illustrate important human themes.” What themes do you illustrate in your books?

It’s a good question, even if it does reference Terry Goodkind (oh wait, did I say that out loud?), so let me see… My first series, “The Binding of the Blade,” revolved around the theme of ‘longing for restoration.’ It imagines a world where the making of weapons represents ‘the Fall’ and where the ‘unmaking’ of weapons is a prelude to Restoration. As such, it wrestles a good bit with what it means to navigate a broken world while yearning for a perfect one.

My current fantasy series, “The Wandering,” (which begins with “The Darker Road,” coming in the spring) revolves around a very different theme than my first. Namely, that a world that rejects its maker and puts its trust and hope in lesser things might find that for this rebellion, a price might have to be paid. So, it is kind of a judgment theme and pretty different than the restoration theme of BOTB.

Like Huck Finn, only with robots.

My Indie book, “The Raft, The River, and The Robot,” which is a slightly dystopic, futuristic novel inspired in large part by “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” wrestles – much like the book that inspired it – with identity. How do we find and define ourselves, and to what extent do parents and social context shape us, both in that we are molded by them and in that we push away at times from them.

And, having said all this, I hasten to add that the books are more interesting than this might make them sound. J The theme is often under and behind the story, not up front in preachy ways, I hope…

2. When and why did you start writing fiction?

While I had tackled a few stories before this, my first real story was “Killer Kudzu,” a choose-your-own-adventure story written in about 1982, I think. I wrote it on index cards as part of a project for school.  I continued to dabble in fiction in High School and College, and occasionally thereafter.

In seminary, I did an independent study on “the Problem of Pain” and part of my arrangement with my supervising professor was that I could report on my work with a story, rather than a traditional paper, and I wrote a 60 page story for that.

I didn’t start working on a novel for publication until 1998/1999, when I began in earnest to turn that story into a novel, and even though I didn’t finish it, it got my wheels turning and led pretty soon to my decision to go back to the fantasy idea I’d had years before when I was a college student, and that eventually became “The Binding of the Blade.”

3. Describe your writing space.

This may be less than inspirational, but these days it is usually a booth at McDonalds. The soda is cheap and the internet is free, and I hunker down for a while and get to work.

I wrote my first series, alternating between home (on some weekday nights) and my classroom (on Saturday afternoons), but as my kids have grown and I live further from the school where I teach, I’ve adapted. All I really need is my computer and some headphones to drown out the world, and I’m ready to go…

4. Your Binding of the Blade series was published by P&R Publishing, then you published two books independently, and you’ve got a book coming next year from Living Ink Books (publisher of Bryan Davis’ Dragons in Our Midst series). Which has been the best publishing experience? Why?

I’m going to do something unusual for me and take the tactful approach here and say ‘they aren’t better or worse, they’re different.’

Actually, I don’t have much of a choice, because while I worked with P&R pretty constantly between 2002 and 2008, and have since had a few years to reflect on that experience, I don’t have nearly the perspective on my Indie experience or Living Ink.

Having said that, they really are different. After working with a traditional publisher, I really enjoyed the creative control of Indie publishing. I made final decisions on covers, and on titles, etc, and that was great. Consequently, I have a finished product that really does fit my vision for each of those stories.

Another of Graham’s indie titles

At the same time, I spent my money to get those books to that level of professional quality, I have to try to market them myself, and so on. Both the financial risk and potential reward grow exponentially with Indie publishing, so the jury is still out on the wisdom of going that way.

As for Living Ink, the decision to go with them had a lot to do with the fact that they’ve consciously worked to create a fantasy presence in the Christian market, where many Christian publishers are hesitant to commit to fantasy as a genre. I applaud and appreciate that commitment.

5. Can you tell us about your upcoming book, The Darker Road?

“The Darker Road” is the story of the dramatic collapse of an empire. I don’t want to give too much away, but the King of this empire has stolen a powerful talisman of sorts, and he is using it to strengthen his already considerable military might. And even as he is preparing to use that might to further subdue the empire he governs, the rightful keepers of the talisman come looking for it. That’s how it all starts, anyway, and the conflict that ensues is only the beginning.

There is a pretty cool ‘alternative technology’ system in the series, which makes for some fun devices and weapons and so forth. This also creates a pretty unique feel for the stories, as they don’t quite fit into the traditional, medieval/semi-medieval feel of many fantasy worlds. At the same time, I definitely think the series fits the ‘fantasy’ mold, even if it stretches some of the conventions.

For example, I think one of the fascinating things about fantasy is this contrast in fantasy stories between a way of life that is somewhat archaic, or behind us, and magic and magical abilities which give the characters abilities that are beyond us. In “The Darker Road,” I think the reader will get a similar experience, where sometimes the world feels dated, and in other ways, very advanced.

6. Any advice for aspiring writers?

Lots, but I’ll stay basic: read & write. The absolute, non-negotiable foundation for becoming a good writer is to read & write.  You need to read, read, read, so you can learn the craft of writing from those who have gone before, and you need to write, write, write, since no one (or almost no one, anyway) ever becomes good at anything without lots and lots of practice.

7. What book is on your nightstand?

I am trying to read three different books right now.  When I’m on my recumbent exercise bike in the basement, I am currently reading “Sword at Sunset,” which is Rosemary Sutcliff’s version of King Arthur. When I am in bed and up for a challenge, I’m re-reading “War in Heaven” by Charles Williams – which of course means that “The Novels of Charles Williams” by Tom Howard is also on my nightstand, since I never try to read Williams without it handy. Lastly, when I’m in bed and too tired to venture into Williams & only looking for ‘easy reading,’ I’m reading Book 5 of the “The Dark Tower” series by Stephen King. I haven’t read much King, but some friends and former students encouraged me to read his ‘epic fantasy’ series, and so I’m working my way through it.

8. What do you want people to know aside from your writing?

This is a very open-ended question, so I’ll take full advantage. What I want people to know is that Christianity is about grace, not moralism, and I think when Christians set out to be story tellers, they need to keep this in mind. A book isn’t Christian because the people in it behave morally, even as a person isn’t a Christian because he or she tries to behave morally. We need a better, more faithful, deeper standard of evaluation than that.

And with that, I’ll say thanks to you, Josh, for the interview, and best wishes to all of your blog readers!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

No, L. B. Graham. Thank you.

Fight Club and 9/11: How Fiction Affects My Perceptions of Reality

**Warning** If you haven’t seen Fight Club (which is kind of old by now), I’m going to spoil certain bits for you. Maybe instead of reading today’s post, you could go rent Fight Club, watch it, and then read today’s post.

The first time I saw the movie Fight Club was September 10th, 2001. I know this without hesitation because when I woke up for class the following morning, my roommate got an instant message from his boss telling him not to come in because large financial institutions were being bombed and planes were falling from the sky or something like that. If you have seen Fight Club, you’ll know that the movie ends with the bombings of large financial institutions.

I was sure that my roommate was putting me on. When he showed me the instant messages, I was sure that somehow, his boss had heard which movie we saw the night before and he was putting us both on. I didn’t have much time to ponder this though, as I had a class to get to.

After biking across campus, I showed up to my class only to find all of the students and the professor standing in the hallway, staring up at the television that normally cycled campus news and music videos. Instead, the footage showed a smoking, not-yet-fallen World Trade Center tower. The class never met. The professor sent us home and told us that classes would be cancelled for the rest of the day.

And so, my memory has forever linked the fictional work of Fight Club with the real-life tragedy of the 9/11 attacks. And how I remember the tragedy is shaped by the motivations of the characters in the movie. To me, the terrorist group did not simply choose to attack the World Trade Center arbitrarily. They were motivated by a desire to bring down an example of American consumerism and the American way of life, similarly to the motivations of Project Mayhem from the movie. In this way, I can put their actions into the framework of a story rather than a random act of terrorism.

This is just one example of real-life intersecting with and being influenced by fiction. And I only mention this example because of the significance of this day. But I can think of many more instances of fiction influencing my interpretation of reality.

I believe that it is an entirely human thing to assign a story to a situation where we have limited information. If I were to say that a woman is crying, there is a chance that you have already thought of a possibility of why that woman is crying. Perhaps she is injured, emotionally or phyically. Maybe she is overwhelmed with happiness and the tears are for joy. You don’t have enough information to know the exact reasons, but you do have enough to create a story in your head.

I think that the stories that we comes up with to explain the world around us reveal much more about us than they do the world. And often, the stories that we create are influenced by the stories that we consume, which lead back to our preferences for the how we interpret the world. If you seek out books about paranoid characters, you show that you have a penchant for paranoia, and there is a good chance that your interpretation of the woman crying has something to do with the source of your own personal fears.

What do you think? Do books, movies, and stories in general influence your perceptions? What memories are you seeing through the lens of something fictional? I’d love to hear your responses.

Creating Characters

I love characters. I love coming up with their names. I love discovering their quirks. I love finding out how they act when thrown into a problem that i have invented for them. It is a powerful feeling to determine the destiny of a character. It is godlike.

Names | When deciding what a character will be called, I consult a few different sources. If you don’t have a good Baby Name Book, it is a worthwhile purchase. Just be careful not to leave it laying around if you are of an age or situation where getting pregnant will cause undue concern or excitement.

In addition to a name book, I have a name journal where I write down good names that I hear.

If you are at a complete loss, try a phone book (the phone book companies just keep cranking them out for some reason, so we might as well use them for something, right?).

Quirks | Sometimes, a character’s name will suggest the quirk. When I came up with the main characters for my anthropomorphic flash fiction series, Thom and Tom, I was focusing on the different spellings of the shortened name for Thomas. In Thom, the h is silent, but not invisible. In Tom, I decided that the character would be the opposite, invisible, but not silent.

For other quirks, I just let my mind wander. I have a tendency toward the pairing of disparate things. One character that hasn’t found a story yet is an Amish man with a pacemaker. I don’t know why, but I find that sort of thing funny.

Another approach is to take a normal feature and exaggerate it. Maybe someone is abnormally tall, or super smart, or like Kurt Vonnegut sometimes gave his main characters, they have a large phallus (You never know who’ll get one).

Last, you can always base characters on real people, or a mash-up of different people that you actually know. Just make sure that they either don’t mind you using their likeness, or that they will never see your fictional treatment of them.

Situations | Once you have a group of characters, invent a situation for them. I know that everyone’s writing practices are different. Because I am character focused, I let my characters determine my plot. Others will come up with the plot and then let it determine which characters are needed, often coming up with the characters at that time. I don’t do that. I like coming up with characters too much.

The one on the left is me.When creating a situation, sometimes I just pick a few characters from my list and imagine them in the same room. How would they react to each other? What are they talking about? Is one of them the odd man out? Which of them could be a main character and which are the supporting cast? Which one is your favorite? What actual place in reality could you find this collection of people?

Once you decide on a basic setting for your characters, they will need a strong problem to overcome. Once you have setting, characters, and a problem to solve, you just have to decide how long and complex to make the story. Is it flash fiction? Short story? Novella? Novel? Maybe a Tolkien-esque tome?

Things to Remember | After they are created, let your characters surprise you. I didn’t understand this advice until the opportunity arose for me to use it. If, when writing, one of your characters says something or does something that seems unlike how you originally intended, go with it. It will likely make your character richer and more memorable, and your story will be better for it.

How do you come up with characters?

Meet the Cast Tuesday | Ian Langston

Last week, I introduced the main character of my WIP, a teen boy named Daniel who finds out that he is half-angel. This week we look at Daniel’s roommate and best friend, Ian Langston.

Ian is the only child of only children. His parents died in a house fire when he was very young. In the blaze, Ian’s dad carried him outside then ran back in for his mom. Neither came back out. Without any living relatives or friends to take him in, Ian entered the system and wound up at Stockton’s Home for Disadvantaged Boys.

In spite of a traumatic beginning, Ian has the best sense of humor in the story. I know that I shouldn’t, but I laugh out loud when I read what Ian says. Here’s a sample:

            Daniel turned to see if Ian was still in bed, but it was impossible to be sure, as the bottom bunk was home to the cleanest of the piles of clothes. The question was answered a second later when Daniel overheard Ian’s voice coming from the kitchen.

“I’m pretty sure that Daniel would want me to have his strips of bacon, Mr. Stockton. He’s very giving that way.”

“No, I’m not!” shouted Daniel from the top of the stairs outside his bedroom. “Touch my bacon and I’ll stab you with a fork!”

“Easy Tiger!” Ian shouted back defensively. “We need to work on that temper of yours. I’ll accept your apology in the form of bacon.”

Remember when this was the best that digital cameras had to offer?

Look at that hair. Just look at it. It's hair. Ah, the good, old days.

Ian is probably based on how I remember myself in high school. I wasn’t big in sports, but I was big. I was more of a band geek than anything. I enjoyed being the funny guy. It worked for me. And that’s how I’ve tried to write Ian’s character.

Of course, in order to have some depth, we’ll learn more about Ian’s past and the truth about the fire that killed his parents. But I won’t go into that here. You’ll just have to pick up the book when it is published.

Any publishers out there want a surefire hit with a half-angel lead and a witty best friend?

Back to School | Fantasy & Science Fiction

My phone died on the way home from work yesterday. I’m really glad that it did.

My wife and I both get out at 5:00 PM. She picks up our daughter from her parent’s house on the way home from her work, and I get dinner started since I get home first. We always call each other and talk on the way home (driving safely, of course). But yesterday, my phone died just as I was pulling onto our street.

I got home a few seconds later and went about my routine (let the dog out, get the mail, take care of my lunch bag, start dinner). By the time I got my phone plugged in to call my wife back, she was almost home.

“Monkers,” she said to me, “Did you happen to turn on NPR after your phone died?”

I told her that I did not.

“Because I heard something on the radio that made me think of you.”

She proceeded to tell me about a free class being offered by the University of Michigan that had to do with Fantasy something-or-other. My wife knows that I would like to go back to school at some point and get some formal training in writing. I graduated a few years back from Western Michigan University with a degree in Recreation and a minor in Communication. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I took up a serious interest in writing.

“I’d really like to look into that,” I said.

So I did.

The class is called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. It doesn’t look like a specifically “writing” course, but it looks great all the same.

Here’s a description from the sign-up page:

Fantasy is a key term both in psychology and in the art and artifice of humanity. The things we make, including our stories, reflect, serve, and often shape our needs and desires. We see this everywhere from fairy tale to kiddie lit to myth; from “Cinderella” to Alice in Wonderland to Superman; from building a fort as a child to building ideal, planned cities as whole societies. Fantasy in ways both entertaining and practical serves our persistent needs and desires and illuminates the human mind. Fantasy expresses itself in many ways, from the comfort we feel in the godlike powers of a fairy godmother to the seductive unease we feel confronting Dracula. From a practical viewpoint, of all the fictional forms that fantasy takes, science fiction, from Frankenstein to Avatar, is the most important in our modern world because it is the only kind that explicitly recognizes the profound ways in which science and technology, those key products of the human mind, shape not only our world but our very hopes and fears. This course will explore Fantasy in general and Science Fiction in specific both as art and as insights into ourselves and our world.

This course comprises ten units. Each will include a significant reading, typically a novel or a selection of shorter works. I will offer video discussions of each of the readings and also of more general topics in art and psychology that those readings help illuminate. Each unit will include online quizzes and ask you to write a brief essay offering your own insights into the reading. All the readings except Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness will be available online at no charge.

The professor is Eric S. Rabkin. Again, from the sign-up page:

Eric S. Rabkin is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of English Language and Literature, and Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. He has won numerous teaching awards, including the Golden Apple awarded annually by the students to the outstanding teacher at the University of Michigan. His research publications include the first English-language theoretical discussion of fantasy and the second of science fiction. He has won the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction criticism.

And the class really is free.

I signed up last night.  You can sign up here. Who’s going to join me?

Book Review | On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of DarknessThey say not to judge a book by its cover, but I’ve worked in a bookstore long enough to know that this is a lie. Sure, don’t just people by their outside appearances, but you can totally judge books that way.

Before even opening Andrew Peterson’s book, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, I can tell that the author is whimsical and the publisher is savvy. The book is a beautiful blue that’s been designed to look weathered by old age and use. The typography clearly says Fantasy, and the images are provided by a professional artist. In an industry where fantasy books have some of the worst covers that feature some of the most enthusiastic amateur artists, it is nice to see a publisher who believes in a book enough to spend some good money on design.

Flipping through the pages, I can already tell that I’m going to enjoy this book. Why? The extras. Within the roughly 300 pages, I see footnotes (which is a fun addition to fiction books), maps and illustrations, and an appendices. The chapters are short and the characters have names like Podo, Janner, and Leeli. This book is aimed at a younger crowd. It is obviously fantasy and is set firmly in the author’s rich imagination.

But Josh, when are you going to read the book and stop talking about how it looks?

Okay, okay. But when you are standing in a bookstore and you pick up a book that you know nothing about, it is helpful to know what you are looking at. Publishers are trying to get that book into the right hands, and they design everything except the words on the page to get it there.

First, you should know that while this is Andrew Peterson’s first fiction book, the man has experience with storytelling. For about five years, I was the music buyer for my bookstore. For those of you who are imagining me walking to the checkout with a pile of music and calling that my job, I was responsible for making sure that the store had music to sell by ordering it from various publishers and music companies. That is where I first heard the name of Andrew Peterson. Peterson is a singer/songwriter with an easy style and thoughtful lyrics. His songwriting and live show storytelling tell me that he knows what he is doing when crafting words together.

But on to the book itself…

I first read On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness a few years ago and I thoroughly loved it. I picked it up again yesterday to refresh myself for this review and instantly remembered why. From the first words of the introduction, readers will be able to hear Peterson’s sense of humor. And it is right up my alley. A brief excerpt introducing the bad guys of the story, Fangs:

The Fangs walked about like humans, and in fact they looked exactly like humans, except for the greenish scales that covered their bodies and the lizard-like snout and the two long, venomous fangs that jutted downward from their snarling mouths. Also, they had tails.

As to the characters, the story revolves around the Igiby family. Eldest son, Janner, is the main character for the series and we see the world mostly through his eyes. He is responsible and a strong lead. His younger brother, Tink, is the family troublemaker. And youngest sister, Leeli, is a sweet, crippled girl with a bright sense of humor. As with all good fantasy tales, at least one parent is out of the picture. The kids are raised by their stalwart mother, Nia, and her father, a former pirate, Podo Helmer.

The basic story is that the Igiby family is being hunted by the Fangs and must reach safety. Along the way, we are introduced to all kinds of fantastic characters. The plot has some really nice twists that keep you interested and the short chapters are custom made to tempt unwary readers into saying, “Well, its only a few pages, I can keep reading.”

The only thing that I didn’t enjoy are some of the modified animals and vegetables. Reading about thwaps, which are essentially rabbits, who steal totatoes, a mixture of potatoes and tomatoes, seemed more juvenile than the rest of the story. In my opinion, if you are going to create a fantasy world with new creatures, please design them to be completely different from what I know. If something is a rabbit, call it a rabbit. If it is a thwap, don’t describe a rabbit and tell me that it is slightly larger than a skonk (not a typo).

Aside from that, I loved this book. The story has barbed hooks that refuse to let you go. The characters are instantly likeable or not likeable as the author designs them to be. The only warning I have is that this is book one of a series, and if you don’t want to read the whole series, leave this book on the shelf.