Archive for the Recommendations Category

Behind the Curtain

Posted in Events, New release, Recommendations with tags , , , , , , , on July 30, 2014 by jaclemens

Howard and Mary blindside Dan with an award while Brandon looks on at Westercon.

My FantasyCon experience began in the same way as FanX: with a booksigning by Dan Wells! In this case it was not at Wellers, but at Westercon (Wellers was onsite). My press pass allowed me to enter the FantasyCon floor early, get the lay of the land, then cross the street for the launch party of Shadows Beneath: A Writing Excuses Anthology. All four authors from Writing Excuses were guests at Westercon, so I was able to meet Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler for the first time.

The anthology collects the transcripts of the podcasts (both brainstorming and critiquing), the first drafts, and all the edits that went into the final version of each story. Sanderson also included his own analysis of the process, as well as notes from his own writing group. This is the entire process, warts and all. Four seasoned authors go beyond giving advice: they reveal the challenges each faced, and the exact tools of the trade they used to surmount said challenges. The final versions of the stories alone are worth the price, but the glimpse behind the curtain is priceless. (Incidentally, Dan managed to wear a cloak through multiple international airports without anyone asking for a glimpse of what he had under it!)


Knights Who Say

Posted in Fiction, New release, Promotions, Recommendations with tags , , on March 25, 2014 by jaclemens

Shattered Plains 2Words of Radiance! The second book in The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson was released on March 4th! We are featuring it in the store as our book of the month – and it made a fine birthday present for a certain Sanderson fan!

The Heralds have returned, the Knights Radiant have reformed, and the Voidbringers have summoned the Everstorm. As they converge on the Shattered Plains, so does Shallan and Szeth-son-son-Vallano. Words of Radiance wraps up a two book mini-arc (if two thousand pages can be deemed “mini”) establishing the series, and opens many more possibilities moving forward. It is a dazzling follow up to Way of Kings (which I re-read beforehand), and it bears some resemblance to Hero of Ages. Its’ ties to Warbreaker may be the strongest, however, resulting in an unplanned re-read of that supposed stand-alone novel.

In the final 60 pages there is an epic showdown that gave me such chills I had to give myself an extra day to finish my reading! I’ve read almost everything Sanderson has written, but this one blew my mind to such an extent that it has taken two weeks to form a review! I hope I get a book of The Stormlight Archive for every birthday!

Double Up

Posted in New release, Promotions, Recommendations with tags , , , , on February 20, 2014 by jaclemens

LeopardsViking is allowing me to do another giveaway for Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, this time in paperback! I have re-posted my review – leave a comment to be entered in the random drawing.

While I am holding a second giveaway for one of my favorite books of 2013, I will simultaneously have a giveaway for a new release from Penguin! Stayed tuned for that review, as you will need to comment on it separately to be entered in both drawings; they will both close on Friday, February 28th.

(This review was previously posted on 3/21/13; an interview with the author was also posted on 3/18/13)

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma is highly addictive for fans of literary fiction; it’s lit fic crack! I sped through it in a day and a half, but I absorbed it too quickly the first time so I had to start over and re-read it at a slower pace. As the unnamed narrator describes the work of another writer:

“It is the rare sort of book that resembles nothing else and yet somehow seems intensely familiar. From the first line you feel your own heart begin to beat differently. Once it’s over you want to begin it again.”

That is precisely my experience with this book. There is a great con going on here – our narrator is both unnamed and unreliable – but there is another level to this Inception-esque con at work. I was hooked so rapidly that I had a surreal sense of being hooked, as though Jansma had cracked the literary fiction formula and used it to cook up this new form of irresistible lit fic crack. I embraced the book so readily I wanted to throw it across the room! I might have done it had I been reading a typical advance copy, but I got this through netgalley (a first) and a touchscreen isn’t especially useful when it’s embedded in the drywall.

Somewhat like the three books our narrator has written, all of which have been lost. In an Author’s Note he explains that this book is pieced together from the remnants of those other books, and that in the empty space between them – in the cracks, as it were – is the truth.

Strikes Again

Posted in New release, Recommendations, Young Adult with tags , , on September 24, 2013 by jaclemens

15704458Sanderson strikes again in Steelheart, released today! It’s his second YA book this year, and like The Rithmatist it features a non-powered protagonist who gets ahead by meticulous attention to detail. David also lost his father, but, unlike Joel, he witnessed his father’s death. He watched as Steelheart brutally murdered an ordinary man who thought Steelheart was the hero they needed. They need a hero because every Epic who gained superpowers at the advent of Calamity became a villain. There are no heroes save for the Reckoners, a shadow ops group of humans that take down the Epics within their reach. They choose their battles carefully, picking the Epics who appear unbeatable yet possess hidden weaknesses. Not even the Reckoners will stand up to Steelheart, however. His rule of Chicago is uncontested until David alters the already altered landscape. He saw Steelheart bleed the day his father died, and will stop at nothing to strike again.

That is the premise of Reckoners #1, but it’s not what makes Steelheart so gripping. Sanderson’s take on the superhero genre is full of great characters who don’t need to wear spandex suits to be colorful. That’s how he succeeds in taking something familiar and reinventing it – by creating characters with motivations and secrets in addition to special abilities. I should point out that I’m describing the Reckoners and not the Epics. It’s their series, and they make it work. The Epics may have impressive powers – Nightwielder is the Epic version of the Darkling – but the Reckoners have impressive personalities. It’s David’s heart, not Steelheart’s immunity, that makes the difference!

It’s worth noting that both Sanderson and Wells – friends who share a writing group – use alternate versions of Chicago. In Steelheart much of Newcago has been turned to steel (including part of the lake), and in Fragments the lake has flooded the low-lying part of the city (including Soldier Field, site of an important scene in Steelheart).

Geek Week

Posted in Events, Fiction, New release, Recommendations with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2013 by jaclemens

It’s been a week since I went to Salt Lake Comic Con, but Friday the 13th seemed like the right time to post about it! This was the first comic con for Salt Lake and the first I’ve attended. I was only able to attend one day of the three, but Friday was a great day to be there! The top item on my agenda was an unofficial sneak peek at The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Immediately after I registered I got in line to wait for it. After some initial confusion about which line to stand in, I found the correct one and settled in for some people watching. This meant missing out on panels on Firefly (a show I have recently come to appreciate), Marvel vs. DC, and a Q&A with Q (John de Lancie’s character from Star Trek: the Next Generation), but I waited patiently – only to have the door closed in my face. I was seriously the next person in line when the room was declared full.

First lesson of first comic con: don’t expect to stick to your outlined schedule. Upon being denied entry to my top choice, I found a suitable alternative in Peter Lyon, the master swordmaker for Weta Workshop. That was fascinating, and would come back into play later in the day. I had intended to go to a discussion of the changing publishing world next, but wound up in the ballroom for Ray Park’s spotlight session.

DSC00619Park, aka Darth Maul, Snake Eyes, and Toad, was truly entertaining! He talked about emulating Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Charlie Chaplin, and he has the personality to go with the physical tools. He also has a Scottish accent, which explains why he didn’t supply the voice for Darth Maul. Park was only 21 when he was cast to play the villain (he always wanted to be a hero), and wasn’t sure he could pull off the integral intimidation until he saw the crew’s reaction to the first fight scene he filmed. He lobbied unsuccessfully for a different death in Phantom Menace (decapitation), but would relish the chance to reprise the role. Rather than the mech legs Darth Maul’s been grafted onto in the comics and cartoons, Park joked that he should have a hover board and use his double-bladed lightsaber like a kayak paddle! After taking questions and adulations from the audience, Park wrapped up the session by bringing young kids in costume up on the stage and teaching them some martial arts poses. He was terrific!

I made my first foray into the vendor floor next. Lesson two: be prepared to spend plenty of time and money shopping the vendor floor. I didn’t make any purchases on my first pass. I wanted a look at everything that was available before I made my selection. I didn’t pay to have my picture taken with any of the celebrities, but I did take photos of a few from a distance. I managed to get pictures of David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca). I didn’t see Shatner or Stan Lee in person, but I did see William Kirchner (Bifur) and Manu Bennett (Azog) from the Hobbit films!

White OrcI took more photos of the life-sized Azog statue on display at the Weta booth than anything else at the con. The whole booth was spectacular. I particularly enjoyed seeing Peter Lyon take the sword Orcrist from a display case and show it to a few lucky fans. That was a serendipitous con moment! I was sorely tempted to get a treasure at the Weta booth, but the answer to the question “What have I got in my pocket?” was not enough for even the smallest knife.

There were some desirable items in my price range, but I decided to give it more thought during the next panel. Unfortunately I showed up too late, and both of the writing panels were already full. So I got in line with friends for the next popular panel on my list, Avengers vs. X-Men. That panel proved too popular for the likes of those of us waiting in the general line, so I went to listen to Brandon Mull and Chad Morris talk about comedy in writing. They were in a comedy group in college, and performed some funny sketches and songs.

They both signed books at a booth following the panel, so I went back to the vendor floor and waited in a line that already wrapped around the booth. Lesson three: be ready to wait in line. I read my advance reader copy of She Walks in Darkness while people paraded by in costumes. The book I asked Mull to sign was also an advance reader copy – Spirit Animals: Wild Born came out this week. It’s a series with an online game component in the same vein as 39 Clues; Mull laid out the full series and wrote the first book (of seven). Getting the book signed took most of the hour set aside for a second pass of the vendor booths, so I stepped out for one more panel.

An Examination of the Hero’s Journey was the only panel on my original schedule that I was able to attend. I was familiar with one of the authors on the panel, having once sat next to him at a signing – that was Dave Farland. The other members were Rhiannon Paille, Brad R. Torgersen, and Bryan Young. Robison Wells did not appear as scheduled, but having heard him discuss his social anxiety on the Writing Excuses podcast, that was understandable. I asked the panel how they address the matter of romantic interest in their writing, given that the examples being cited – Greek myth, Arthurian legend, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars – present only two options for the hero: love ’em and leave ’em or monasticism. The responses from Farland and Paille were noteworthy.

By that time I had come to the conclusion to make a worthy purchase from Artist’s Alley. Lesson four: support the artists who come to the con. I wanted something unique, something I may not be able to buy at a local store or order online. When I returned to the vendor floor the closing announcements started and the lights dimmed. I hurried back to a booth that arrested me on my first pass, hoping the artist and a particular print would still be there. They were, so I bought an X-Men/Star Trek (NeX-Gen) mash up picture from Stewart Craig. Later I located his blog and was stoked to read that it was one of three images he created specifically for Salt Lake Comic Con. It made an ideal souvenir!

I continued to walk the vendor floor, now emptier and darker, and took more photos of the booths I hadn’t seen on the first pass. I wasn’t coming back on Saturday (when the crowd ran between 70,000 – 80,000 con-goers), so I had to make the most of my opportunity that night. I found the Lego booth, one I would not have wanted to miss, among others. I returned home a reaffirmed geek, with photos of acceptable role playing role models for my kids and this great shot of a weeping angel posing with my copy of She Walks in Darkness!Friday the 13th

Vital Publications

Posted in Book Buying, Fiction, Reading List, Recommendations with tags , , , , on July 25, 2013 by jaclemens

ConstellationA customer recently contacted our store to formally request that we not carry the August issue of Rolling Stone due to the controversial image on its cover. I appreciate her concerns, and agree that it’s poor taste for the magazine to portray the young man accused of planting bombs at the Boston Marathon as though he were a celebrity (see the Huffington Post for a discussion on the cover’s design). Personally I object to the portayal, but, as a university store, we have decided not to join the boycott of the issue. We want to add to the discussion, not take away from it. The issue will be available on request, but not displayed. In its place I will be promoting A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.

It is a devastating story, told with immaculate care by a decorated debut author. Marra didn’t take an easy route for his first novel, although I wouldn’t term it overly ambitious. To crib from the title, it is a vital story, one that required refined skill to write and needed to be published (and I commend Hogarth for doing so). It is a necessary read for anyone trying to understand the violent forces that shape the people of Chechnya. There is nothing glamorous in the portrayal of violence for the sake of any cause, not even in the amputation of a leg mutilated by a mine, as in the attacks in Boston.

Only eight-year-old Havaa isn’t compromised in this constant struggle to survive, but she is without recourse when her father is taken by Russian forces. She hides in the woods as her house is burned to the ground. The Russians will leave no trace of her family, without exceptions. Her father’s friend Akhmed finds her first, and takes her from their remote village of Eldar to the city of Volchansk, where there is a shelled-out hospital. A single surgeon named Sonja still operates the hospital, but she too has been shelled out by ten years of fighting. Akhmed, the village’s unlicensed doctor, trades his rudimentary assistance for Havaa’s boarding in the hospital. Akhmed (a Chechnyan) and Sonja (a Russian) continue to function in their grim circumstances, and between them they manage to spare Havaa from a terrible fate.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a tragic tale of friends, family, and neighbors who alternately wrong and ultimately redeem one another. It should resonate with anyone who experienced the ‘B Strong’ resolve that swept through Boston in the wake of the deplorable attack. I recommend keeping the focus on the survivors who carried one another to safety, which is why I strongly recommend this book.

Circle in the Chalk

Posted in New release, Reading List, Recommendations, Young Adult with tags , on July 24, 2013 by jaclemens

RithmatistTriangles within circles within squares – it’s an indecipherable puzzle. But these aren’t crop circles; they’re chalk circles. The magic system in The Rithmatist is based on geometric lines written in chalk. It comes as no surprise that Brandon Sanderson is a whiz at inventing magic systems, but it’s refreshing to see a protagonist who’s a whiz at that system without any magical ability. Joel is a 16-year-old student at Armedius Academy, a school that instructs both traditional and magical students. Joel is neither a Rithmatist nor a traditional prep school student; as the son of a humble chalkmaker and a cleaning woman, he’s an aberration at a place like Armedius. He doesn’t fit in with either group, although he longs to be a Rithmatist. He’s memorized all the complicated variations of the defensive chalk circles they use in duels, as well as the history of the duelists who used them successfully. He’s a student of the game without the specialized skill set needed to participate. But when a mysterious attacker begins abducting the most skilled Rithmatists at Armedius, it’s up to Joel’s understanding of the magic, not his innate ability to use it, that unravels the secret plot.

I’m an unabashed fan of Sanderson, and there is a lot to love about this book. It’s a fantastic reworking of the magic school concept, with academics applying the magic to their advantage. Joel is an outsider who finds his way into the inner circle. The alternate history is great, with the United Isles of America bearing new names. Armedius is one of eight academies that teach Rithmatics, and it’s located in Jamestown on the Isle of New Britannia. Europe was conquered by the JoSeun Empire, and the exiled monarch of England is the one who discovered Rithmatics. That ties magic to the Monarchical Church, building another layer to the clockwork culture that developed in America. Joel is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters, and his interactions with them are perfect. The illustrations of the chalkings – chalk creatures drawn to assist in the duels – are delightful, and the diagrams of the different defenses are highly detailed. The Rithmatist is also Sanderson’s most personal book to date, with a main character who shares a name with the book’s dedicatee, and a dark menace located in Nebrask, the state based on Sanderson’s home state of Nebraska. The Rithmatist is a sheer delight for Sanderson fans like me, and would serve as an excellent introduction to a younger generation of new fans.