Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cover Reveal, Forever Layla

Cover Reveal, Forever Layla

A friend of mine has a new book coming out soon. Here's the details:

Title: Forever Layla
Release date: May 27th 2014
Publisher: AltWit Press
Here's the synopsis (I got to beta read this, and if you love sci-fi time travel, or romance, you're going to LOVE it!)

What if the woman you envied most is the person you are destined to become?

In 1994, high school senior David Foster was the lackey and soundboard geek for his best friend's grunge band. During spring break, the band lands a dream gig playing at a motel in Myrtle Beach, SC. David expected all the girls to ogle the guys on stage, but when a beautiful blond "Bond Girl" approaches him and calls him by name, he's shocked to find out she knows more about him than a stranger should.

She even knows about his notebooks and his visions of time travel.

What she thought was a quick time-travel-sightseeing trip takes a surprising turn when she meets the young adult version of the man she'd heard stories about as a child. His fairy-tale romance with the woman he'd loved, Layla, inspired her to accept nothing less than a love just as strong...but hopefully not as tragic. When she won't tell the younger version of him her name, he calls her Layla--and the world as she knows it changes forever.
Melissa Turner Lee holds a BA in Communications with a concentration in Journalism from the University of South Carolina. She has studied fiction writing since 2008, attending various writing conferences and workshops, along with guidance from professional writing coaches. She resides in Spartanburg, SC with her husband and 3 sons.
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And, the moment you've all been waiting for... the cover!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: First Impression

Today's book review  is First Impression, by Pauline Creeden.

(Notice: I received an advance reader copy of the e-book for a fair and honest review.)

From the "back of the book":

"Chira Kelly thought she didn't need anyone...until she met Ben.
Because of one ugly rumor, Chira lives as an outcast at her school. Which is fine with her, because she works better alone. Always has, always will. And at least she has her one and only true friend, Tasha. When Tasha insists that they join a group to visit a possibly haunted abandoned old schoolhouse, she's wary, but joins her friend. Because of that decision, their lives are in jeopardy as a malevolent spirit targets the group. Tragedies and accidents pick them off one by one, and Chira finds herself drawn to the one person who can see the truth. But can he protect her?"

From the author of Armored Hearts, and a handful of other novels, Pauline Creeden brings us the first book in a new series. The book is marketed in the Paranormal Romance genre, and while it does fit that bill, it's also a paranormal mystery, if that's more your style.

Insert standard "The characters are awesome" line here. (Hey, if they weren't, my review would be a LOT shorter. ;) ) So, lets talk about them.
Being a romance, the characters hit all the genre requirements: the loner, misunderstood girl, the loner, brooding boy, the best friend... fortunately, none of them go overboard into cliche land. For example, Chira has the (almost genre required) crazy step-dad that hates her for no reason that she can discern, but she handles this by avoiding him, studying hard, and hanging out with her best friend (as opposed to brooding and moping...)

Her best friend's family provides a second home for Chira, so between that and her relationship with her mom, she avoids cliche and stays relate-able.

The whole "ugly rumor" (as mentioned in the blurb above) really brought me back to junior high (yeah, I wouldn't want to be that age again...)

Also, the love interest is a nice guy who you want to root for, instead of the creepy stalker type, like you'd find in some other paranormal romances *cough*.

The writing is nice and clean, and pulls you into the story without getting in the way. The whole world is filled out nicely with one tiny exception...

So, what didn't I like about this book? Only two things really:

- owls wings DO NOT make noise
- it's written in first person, present tense

Yeah, the first one's a nit-picky point, but it bothers me. Possibly because I've been about six feet away from a wild snow owl, and it flying away in complete and utter silence is one of the coolest things I've not heard.

The whole first-person present thing, I'll admit, is just a preference. I just don't like it. The only thing worse is 2nd person present (I'll quit reading those... yes, I hated the "Choose Your Own Adventure books...anyway...) A book written in firs-person present tense has to have REALLY good writing if it wants to keep me engaged, along with great characters and an interesting plot. This book had all three.

So, how to rate this one. I'd say four and half stars. Allow me to explain...
No, a book doesn't have to be "perfect" for me to give it five stars, and I'm not opposed to giving five stars to a book written in first-person present tense (though it would have to be as well-written as this one is...)

So, why not five stars? For me, one star is: "Ewww. I hate this, and am never reading anything by this author again." Two is: "I didn't like it." Three is: "Eh, it was okay, I guess..." Four is: "I really liked it!" Five stars is: "I LOVED this book and am totally fan-boy geeking out over it! I'm totally buying anything related to this awesome book!"

First Impression didn't quite do that for me... but it was close. It was more than four, but not quite five... Still, I'm definitely going to read more books in the series.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Should "Christan" Books have swearing in them?

So one of my writer friends posted a link to this article.

Go ahead and read it, then come back for my thoughts on this topic. I started to reply to the the person who posted it on facebook, and the reply got a little out of hand.... I've seen a LOT of this kind of article over the past few years, and they all seem to say the same kind of thing.

 I see a LOT of articles on various sites asking "What's wrong with Christian fiction", or a variant of that question. They don't every say, but they must not be reading the same stuff I am. There's a LOT of good stuff being put out by small presses and indies in the last few years. Even the CBA has a small fingerfull of good stuff (Anything by Donita K. Paul, Cast of Stones series by Patrick W. Carr, the Prophet series by  R. J. Larson). Okay, it might have improved in just the last year or so... but why do these articles, all by different people on different sites, but still saying the same things, keep popping up?

They there's my pet peeve. This sentence, or one almost identical to it, pops up in every one of these articles: "Stories with compelling drama, convincing heroism and well-crafted, true-to-life characters are often dismissed by Christian publishers because of things like swearing, violence or overtly sexual references."

I completely, wholeheartedly reject the notion that a book must contain anti-biblical content to be considered "good."

Don't misunderstand me. I think I know the point they're trying to say, that books are too "clean", that the bad guys in some books are more good than the good guys in some secular books, that it isn't telling the truth to show the world as if it's populated entirely by Pollyannas.

In part, I disagree with that premise as well, but that's a rant for another time, and since I at least partially agree with them on this point, I'll refer you back to my opening paragraph. None of the books I mentioned are like this, yet they're not filled with filth either. (I could give you a list of indie and small-press examples, but we'd be here all day...)

The point that really irritates me is the call in all of these articles for Christian fiction to contain foul language and sex (we've already dealt with the violence issue above, in which I've partially conceded. I can rant more on that topic if you'd like, though... ;) ) These articles always seem to include of list of words that seem to make the reader think "Gosh, there's no harm in most of those words..." But there's always at least one word that is offensive to most people tossed in.
Are these lists of disallowed words overly excessive? Yes. But where do we draw the line? Why are we "pushing the envelope" of what's acceptable? Is it really to tell a better story, or do we have a spiritual problem that we are afraid to deal with, so instead we lash out at others that don't?

These articles always cry out for realism. Every one says we must include these controversial elements 'for realism.'  Why? The real word is a horrible, awful place. We all know that. Why must fiction remind us of that? Instead, why can't fiction point the way to a person that shows us that it doesn't have to be that way? (In the long term, at least...) Sure, in a good story, we paint a world that the reader can relate to... but I think those calling for Christian fiction to be indistinguishable from secular fiction to be considered 'good', are hiding there candle under a basket. We must be different to stand out. Different isn't necessarily 'bad.'

Do I have a problem with some of these words? No, not if there used appropriately. I use the word "breast" in one of my stories, and I've read several indie Christian books that have had 'gasp' sex in them, in a proper married context, without being gratuitous.

We must ask ourselves, however, if we are lashing out at perceived restrictions in language because they truly hurt our stories or not. And, if the removal of such words does truly hurt our stories, we need to take a hard look at them and see if they are honoring to Christ, or not.

That's what really bothers me about such articles. On the surface, they try to take a literary look at the problem, and don't bother to address how we can best serve and honor Christ with our words. Oh, sure, they always pull out the phrase, "We can reach more people with our message if we put in (un-biblical thing here)...", or a variant of it. But reaching more people is pointless if the message has been corrupted.

The authors of the articles seem to anticipate this criticism, and thus toss in a sentence like this: "Such an attitude comes at least in part from a poor reading of the Bible. Jesus spent much of his time engaging with and speaking into the darker sides of life - prostitutes, the demon-possessed, the ill and rejected."

Yes, Jesus did spend his time with such people. Paul even said "To the Jews, I become like a Jew, to the Greeks, I become like a Greek, all so that the message may be preached."
Still missing the point. The whole article goes on about how we need filth in our Christian books so that non-Christians will read them, then tosses this in here to support it? Talk about missing the point. Yes, Jesus hung out with sinners. He didn't, however, change his message. When the woman who was caught in adultery was brought before Jesus, did he condemn her? No. "Ah-ha!" the author of the article is probably saying, "You've proved my point!". Hold on. What'd Jesus tell her next? "Go, and sin no more." (emphasis mine.) We shouldn't change our message to get a bigger audience. Change how it's done? Sure. But if we change what we're saying, what's the point? What's the worlds number one criticism of Christians? It's that we're hypocrites. What's going to happen if we 'reach' someone with our violent, sexual, and foul-languaged book, then try to witness to them? Yes, I know, we can't change them, only God can, and its only our job to tell them... Still, what's going to happen to that person spiritually when they're reading the Bible, and the Holy Spirit tells them not to do... the stuff they just read about in a book by a 'Christan' author....

Okay, this one's actually new to me (in these articles, that is. I've heard plenty of people spew this ill-informed crap in real life):

"There is a sentimentalism in Christian culture, there's a definitive division between good and bad guys, and there is a simple way of making these separations. When you deal with a theological tradition dealing with the fallenness of humanity, you realize there are no white hatted good guys. The only means to fight evil are often evil themselves."

Does anyone else smell horse manure? The sad part of this kind of comment is that it's half-true. We do live in a fallen world. People do make mistakes, and there often shades of grey. That's where the 'truth' here ends, though. There IS such a thing as absolute truth. It IS possible to know it (him). The phrase "theological tradition" here is also a warning sign, but I don't have the time or space to go into that quagmire...

Also realize that I'm not saying we can't have shades of grey in Christian fiction, but what I am saying is that this is not a valid argument for putting filth into "Christian" fiction, and calling it good. Now, this is a good time to step back and ponder where the line is... I'm not going to tell you that, that's something that you have to decide for yourself. You might have a problem, though, if you find yourself fighting for any kind of an excuse to include such content, and flippantly ignoring any reason against.

Another quote from the linked article:

""In noir fiction, they accept that there are no white hatted good guys. We all have this potential to be seduced and corrupted. I can't explain why that topic doesn't interest the evangelical reader."

I can explain it. Quite easily, in fact. It's because we can be seduced and corrupted. We all know that, its a fact of the world we live in. Playing it out on the page is just depressing. Now, if we take that same concept, and show that God can get us through it, that there IS a way out, that it doesn't have to be that way, now we've got something interesting.

And now, for a quote that I DO agree with:

"The first book I published, I had a ghost in there. Ghosts are not welcome in Christian fiction because evangelicals often see ghosts as demons. It had a lot of rejections early on because Christians have a lot of problems with ghosts.
"When it was published, I was asked to write an afterword explaining my understanding of the possibility of ghosts. Speculative fiction challenges a whole bunch of theological concepts, very sticky for lots of Christian publishers.
"That's why fantasists and speculative writers look badly on the Christian market. They don't want to jump through all the theological hoops just to tell a story. If the guy's a wizard, he's a wizard, why do I need to have theological explanation for where his power's coming from?"

Note that I haven't read the book in question (but I have read a really good christian ghost story...) This is a better way to do things. Yes, the Christan market status quo needs to be challenged, but we can't toss the good things of Christianity out just to do so.

And, my favorite, the topic that comes up in all of these articles: "The evangelical drive to know the answers and not to let fear and confusion in strangles our fiction," says Metcalfe."
Ah, yes, those pesky evangelicals, they're the real problem. How dare they look for answers, how dare they try to be like Christ... anyone else see an undercurrent of spiritual jealousy? No? Just me?
I'll grant that no one is perfect... but lets leave our theological turf wars out of the discussion of fiction, hmm?

(In case you didn't know, the indention of "evangelical" is:  "of or relating to a Christian sect or group that stresses the authority of the Bible, the importance of believing that Jesus Christ saved you personally from sin or hell, and the preaching of these beliefs to other people." Thought you might want to know that, as they way we are portrayed... everywhere... is, um, not like that definition...)

The argument here goes that evangelicals have their shorts in a twist, and the stick is up there so far that they can't tolerate anything that's not 10000% literally true. Horsehockey. That's not true at all. Sure, there are people like that out there. Problem is, there are people like that in any kind of people group you can find, and they're always the loudest ones. Doesn't mean they're all like that.

Another quote:
"But the key factor here is that these are 'Christian' publishers. While they are a business, that should not be their first identity. Their first identity should be as a ministry sharing the kingdom of God with others, and it is clear that the bland flavour of large swathes of present Christian fiction isn't doing that.
Too many Christian publishers are looking at a commercial interest of selling to their market ahead of representing Christianity to the literary world. Representing Christianity should mean the best possible books, with the best possible stories, because we believe that at their heart is our God who is the best there possibly is."

With this, I wholeheartedly agree.
Wait, we're supposed to represent God who is "the best there possibly is", with content that that he told us he finds offensive? Back to our ghost story as an example. First, the Bible does contain ghosts (sort of) in it, so there's that... The article here also makes a good point that this is fiction. Speculative fiction especially deals with "what if..." Asking "what if..." is obliviously going to take us out of reality. For example, I write about aliens. Do I believe they exist? No. What I write is just a story, which, among other things, deals with the question "Well, what if they did exist?"
So, in my story, I'm not being literally true with the real world, just like the ghost story isn't being true to the real world, as it takes place in a fictionalized version of reality where ghosts do exist.
So, how is such fiction "Christian" if it's not real?
I believe that a story can still stay true to christian principles.

If you throw any kind of secular content in, as these sorts of articles seem to want to do, what makes it Christan fiction?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Review: A Draw of Kings

Book Review: A Draw of Kings

A Draw of Kings is the third book in the Staff and the Sword trilogy by Patrick Carr. (The first is A Cast of Stones)

From the "back of the book":

"Dark Forces Have Gathered and the Final Battle for Illustra Has Begun.
Their journey to Merakh should have made Errol and his companions heroes of the realm. Instead, they've been branded enemies of the kingdom.
In the wake of the king's death, Duke Weir is ruling the country--and he intends to marry Adora to bring an heir from the royal line. With Errol and the others imprisoned and the identity of the rightful heir to the throne still hidden in secrecy, Illustra is on the verge of civil war--and threatened by hostile forces gathering on every side.
A dangerous mission to free Errol is attempted, but the dangers facing the kingdom mount with every passing moment. The barrier has fallen, ferrals are swarming toward the land, and their enemies draw ever closer. Will the discovery of the true heir turn back the tide of Illustra's destruction?"

The final book in the trilogy has all our favorite returning characters. Errol actually gets some respect for a change... and then he volunteers a suicide mission this time. Adora gets fleshed out into a full character in this book. We got to see a little of that in A Hero's Lot, but she gets almost as much screen time here as Errol (I still say Rhoka's a better match for Errol, but... ;) )

Being the final book, I can't talk much about it without spoilers, but I'll try...
All the plot threads are wrapped up nicely, and it doesn't feel like anything has been stretched too far plot-wise. We finally find out why the cast for the king failed, and yes, it's just what I thought it was (the reason was fairly obvious... the author practically spelled it out...) The plotline for Errol or Liam as king was handled nicely though.

One critisiam that can't be handled without spoilers, so be warned: (un-spoiler version: the ending is a bit of a deus ex machina)





(highlight to read)

So we find out that Liam is Adora's sister, and the nephew of the King. Okay, makes sense... except, why did the barrier fall if there was still a descendent? Okay, so he wasn't a direct descendent, so the barrier is down. What make it come back up, then? Errol's "death", or Liam's being crowned? If the first, that doesn't make sense, as Errol had no children, so how'd that work? If the latter, why didn't Deas reveal his will WAY long ago (you know, thousands of deaths and such ago) and just crown Liam before Rodran died? To get the book back and clean out the church? Seems there'd be a WAY better way to do that...

So short version, I thought the ending was a bit of a deus ex machina. I like that Errol didn't stay dead, though.





Spoiler end.

So, I give this book four stars.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: Dune

For February, my book club read the sci-fi classic, Dune, by Frank Herbert.

I've been familiar with it, of course, but hadn't actually read it. (I had seen the movie... the one with Patrick Stewart and Sting.)

For those who haven't read it, the galactic emperor assigns Paul Atreides father to govern the planet Dune, where the spice comes from. The spice is used to extend life, and makes interstellar travel possible, etc..., so everyone wants it. One of the rival houses, who manged the planet before the Atreides, assassinates Paul's father and his whole family except his mother.
They flee into the desert, and try to survive until they can take back the planet.

To try to sum this up would take a while. It's one of those books with an "epic" scope. Everything gets fleshed out, and it feels like the world is real...sometimes to the point of excessive wordiness. The characters and plot are excellent, but it almost feels like the author tried a little too hard to cram a lot of differing religious ideas into the story. On one level, this works, as it fills out various characters, and does appeal to the human need for myth, but there's a little too much of it, and contradicting philosophies are espoused by the same groups. It's a fascinating mix of christian, eastern, and atheism. This works in the story, but on earth, wars have been fought over much more minor points. (The author attempts to explain this in an appendix, but it'd be better left unsaid, as it was in the story proper.)

My biggest complaint with the story is, that if it were published today, it would be edited a lot. The book is written in third-person omniscient, which tends to throw a lot of readers. I've read a lot of older books, so this is actually my favorite viewpoint to read, but even I was confused as to the viewpoint character on occasion. Also, most of the book is in standard English, but for some reason Chani picks up a King James English accent... in the middle of the book... then loses it again at the end... that was weird...

Despite that, this is a really good book. It's been called the "Best sci-fi book ever." I'm not sure I agree with that, but it is really good.

I give it four stars.