One Year Anniversary – happy birthday to the Tower of Winds!

pen-and-paperToday I take the time to look back at the year I had and raise a glass to celebrate this blog’s first anniversary. Who knew I would last that long? Or that I would manage to post more or less consistently for such a long time? I certainly didn’t.

So almost a year ago, in October 2013, I accepted a dare to participate in NaNoWriMo 2013. Almost on impulse, I had also decided to start a blog and document this adventure.

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Up until that point, I had never managed to finish a story, nor did I have any experience in blogging. Heck, even my numerous attempts at keeping a diary had failed miserably. I would write consistency for a few weeks, then progressively lose interest until the diary lay abandoned and forgotten in a dusty corner. So I had several challenges in front of me, one of which was to find enough content to blog about at least once a week.

Well, one year later, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that nothing is impossible if you are willing to put in the necessary work.

A year ago, writing 1700 words a day to reach the 50k NaNo goal had seemed like an impossible task. But I gave it a try and not only did I win NaNo, but I went on plugging away and in mid-January 2014 I had finished the first draft of my very first novel. For someone who had never managed to get past the half-way point on a story before, this was an eye-opening experience.

The euphoria of “Holly sh&t, I can do this!!!” simply cannot be described. It has to be experienced.

I also kept on writing and learning about the craft. I finished several short stories and a novella, and even got one of the short stories published in this anthology. Had somebody told me a year ago that I would have achieved this much, I would have laughed in their face.

Of Dragons and Magic

I also learned a lot about my writing process and what works for me and what doesn’t. But most importantly, I learned not to fear the blank page, or the bad page. I learned that it was essential to finish a scene (a chapter, a story) even if it didn’t sound quite right, even if I was unhappy with it. I learned to let it go and power through to THE END without giving into the temptation to go back and edit an unfinished draft.

Basically, I understood that in order for me to finish a story, my inner editor needs to be bound, gagged and locked in the basement. But don’t worry, she gets to come out and play (and make me cry) when the time to edit the mess comes around.

Blue blood on the page!
Blue blood on the page!

As far as this blog goes, not only did I manage to post consistently for a whole year, but I also have a much clearer vision of the type of content I want to have here. This blog had started as a diary of my NaNo experience, but has progressively evolved into an account of my adventure as a writer and now a published author.

This blog also allowed me to meet other writers and make some wonderful friends in the writing community. This is really important to me, because writing is a solitary experience. It’s just you, a blank page (or a blank computer screen), and your thoughts, your hopes and (sometimes) your tears. It’s not a job, it’s a passion, sometimes an obsession that non-writers simply cannot understand. Having a vibrant and supportive writing community is essential if you want to keep your sanity.

And finally, the blog provides me with a place to share my book reviews. I am and have always been an avid reader. I usually have at least 1-2 books I’m reading at any given time. And if I happen to like them, I want to share them with others. The blog allows me to do exactly that during the Friday Review posts. Plus it’s my blog, so I’m not afraid to be frank about what I liked and didn’t like about a book.

And now that I have looked back, it’s time to look ahead. What are my goals and dreams for next year? Continue writing and editing my stories. Find a good (and affordable) editor and cover artist for The Mists of the Crossworlds and make the big (and scary) leap into self-publishing. I will definitely blog about that experience as it progresses. Finish editing Of Broken Things and maybe self-publish it next year as well. Finish the first draft of Choices, this year’s NaNo project. Finish a series of short stories in the Eye of the Norns cycle (the first of which, A Small Detour has been published), and self-publish them as a collection. Grab one of the plot bunnies that hop around my head and start on the next project.

And I will continue posting in this blog, sharing my book reviews, writing challenges, anecdotes and tidbits of wisdom (and silliness) with the world. And hopefully you, my dear blog followers, will still find my contributions interesting.

So Happy one year Anniversary to the Tower of Winds!

fireworks

Evernight by Kristen Callihan

Stars: 2.5-3 out of 5.

This is a review of the ARC of Evernight that I got curtesy of NetGalley.

I admit that I find rating this book extremely difficult, and I think it has at least partly to do with the fact that I rarely read books with a romantic line as one of the driving forces of the plot. And of those that I read, the number that I really liked is very small.

But let’s start from the beginning, shall we? As far as the world-building and the plot itself goes, I would give Evernight between 3.5 and 4 stars.

This is the fifth book in The Darkest London series, so the readers are thrown into a world that had already been introduced and explained in the previous books. As such, there are no noticeable info-dumps. The world itself is interesting and well fleshed-out. It’s everything a steampunk lover would want: a Victorian London with steam engines and crazy contraptions; Ghosts in the Machine (GIMs), demons and other supernatural beings; an organization in charge of policing the supernaturals and another one fighting for their freedom.

Granted, it’s nothing particularly new or original, but it’s described well and it works. I enjoyed exploring this alternative London with Holly and William, and I wouldn’t mind discovering a bit more about it, so I might go back and read the other books in the series.

The main characters are also rather engaging. Both Holly Evernight and William Thorne are interesting protagonists, with their own backstories and personal demons. So empathizing with them wasn’t a problem for me.

By now you must be wondering why I gave this book such a low rating if I liked so much about it? Well, we reached the crux of my problems with Evernight – the romance between the protagonists. In order for a romance book to work, at least for me, the romance has to work, since it is such a big part of the story. No matter how good the plot is or how interesting the world, if the relationship between the characters rings false, it will put me off the book.

And this is precisely the problem here. Will and Holly are interesting characters… that have zero romantic chemistry between them. They work well as partners, maybe reluctant friends, but any time the author tries to introduce the romance, both start acting extremely out of character.

The whole romance between them feels forced, as if the author had decided that it was needed, since it was a romance book, and tried to make the characters dance to her own drum beat, instead of listening to what they really wanted to do.

As a result, I had to roll my eyes during some of the touchy-feely scenes. When I realized that I was skipping them altogether to get to the plot, that was indication enough that the romance simply wasn’t working for me.

So I would rate the romance component somewhere around 1.5 and 2 stars. But, once again, I need to emphasize that there are very few romance novels I liked; where the relationship between the main characters was so well written that it had me hooked and wanting more. When I find such a gem, I hoard it, I cherish it, and I re-read it quite often. And this is always a matter of personal taste. What I found forced and unbelievable might seem beautiful and romantic to somebody else.

So would I recommend this book? I would say – up to you, guys. The world is interesting, the plot is rather fun, if you don’t mind skipping all the romance parts.

Life crazier than fiction or my epic quest to get a Green Card – Part 2.

This is the continuation of a story I had started last week, so in order to understand what I’m talking about, you might want to read Part 1 first.

So two days before we had to board a plane and head back to the States, we rented a car (because we had already sold the old Toyota we had been driving around Pizza, since shipping it back home would have cost more than the car was worth) and drove all the way down to Naples. Well, my husband drove; I just enjoyed the ride… right until we reached Naples itself. After that point, he tried to get us to the hotel in one piece, while I tried not to have a heart attack.

Driving in Naples is an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. In this city, the rules of the road are more like suggestions that nobody really pays attention to. The street has one lane each way and a sidewalk? Good enough for driving three wide… and yelling at the poor pedestrians who are trying to get home on foot without getting run over.

By the time my husband had safely gotten us to the hotel, he was gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. He parked the car and said, “We are taking the cab from now on.”

The next morning we gathered all of or documents and, after a brief struggle with the language barrier at the reception, managed to call a cab and headed for:

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Level 3: The Embassy

Boss battle: Prejudice

Our first stop before the US Embassy itself was at a local clinic where I had to undergo the most extensive medical examination I ever had in my life. I swear they even checked for lice, though I assured them that I wash at least once a month. Sadly, my attempt at humor was lost in translation, or maybe the doctors and nurses were just having a bad day.

By the end of the morning, I felt like I had just escaped a horde of vampires – bruised, battered and drained. And I never ever wanted to go through that again. So I clutched the envelope with my medical records to my chest like it was made of gold, and I would have fought to the death if someone had tried to take it from me.

That afternoon, we finally arrived at the US Embassy for our final interview, and I made the mistake to think that the ordeal was finally almost over. Oh, how mistaken I was…

Boss fight: prejudice.

I don’t know if I was just unlucky to get the most prejudiced embassy official I’ve ever seen of if it’s the norm (God I hope not), but the interview was a nightmare.

We brought all of our supporting documents, as well as the “suggested” documents, like our wedding and vacation photos, letters from his and my family addressed to both of us, testimonials from our friends. The immigration office on base told us that those documents were optional, and that nobody ever checked them, but it was good to have just in case. Well, he checked every single one of them. And asked us a bunch of questions, like which side of the bed we slept on, or whether I knew if my husband liked to take his shower in the morning or in the evening…

I understand that the reasoning behind this is to make sure that this wasn’t a fake marriage done just to get me a Green Card. I understand that it happens, and that it’s the immigration officers’ job to verify that. So it’s not the questions I had problems with, it’s the tone in which they were asked. This whole process could have been handled with humor and good grace, but we both were showered with condescendence, suspicion, and prejudice…

When we left the Embassy at the end of the day with the sealed envelope containing all my documents and the “Approved” stamp on top, I felt like this had been the hardest level yet.

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Level 4: Airport Immigrations Office

Boss battle: human error

We were tired after a nine hour flight and eager to get through customs, catch our next flight, and finally get to our family in Indiana. Of course, there was a waiting line at customs. There always is. When our turn came, I handed my Green Card package to the officer with a big smile. He opened it… and we both got escorted to a side room.

Turns out my medical records (the ones that I had spent a whole morning being tortured for) weren’t in the package. The people at the Embassy who had put the package together forgot to put them in.

Now I must say that the package the applicant gets is SEALED with a big notice saying that it can only be opened by the immigration department at the airport. It also specifically says that if the seal is broken before that, the package is not valid. So we had no way of knowing that something was missing. Talk about a big and unpleasant surprise.

Thankfully, the Immigration officer in Washington DC was a lot nicer than the Embassy official back in Naples. He looked at our exhausted faces, our luggage, and the cat carrier with a cat that was so done with it all she wasn’t even moving anymore, and assured me that this was in no way my fault.

“Human error happens,” he said.

I got a one month visa, the phone number for the Embassy at Naples, and a new date with the Immigration office in Raleigh where I had to bring my medical records once I got them.

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Level 5: Raleigh

Boss battle: Time difference

The department responsible for these kinds of problems at the US Embassy in Naples only works from 1 to 4 pm (GMT +1 time zone) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Getting anyone to answer during those three little hours is equivalent to winning the lottery.

Once I finally got someone to answer the phone, I spent the next hour being ping-ponged around the different departments, and everyone tried to persuade me that the package was complete when they sealed it, and that I must have tampered with it myself. Nobody was willing to help me.

After I had been given the run around for three times, my husband put his foot down and hired a lawyer. The medical records were miraculously found and FedExed to us within the next week. It’s sad that sometimes the only way to get what you need is to bring out the big guns…

The rest of the level was an easy walk to victory. I got the records, drove to RDU on the day of my appointment, handed everything to a very nice Immigrations Officer, told her the story of my ordeal and drove back home with a new Green Card.

victory

I’m glad I did it, but I don’t wish to repeat this experience ever again (and sure am glad that I don’t have to). Compared to that, becoming an American citizen was a walk in the park.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

This review is for the ARC I have received curtesy of NetGalley.

I must admit that I am rather frustrated with this book.

On one hand, I loved the premise of We Are All Completely Fine.

We’ve all read stories about that Lone Hero, or that Boy or Girl who survived his / her brush with the supernatural and often malevolent forces that lurk in the shadows.  But we never hear about how those people get to live after that. They cannot be normal again. All of them bear scars from their encounters, physical or emotional, or both. All of them know that the world isn’t a safe place; that powerful and cruel Beings lurk just on the other side of the veil, eager to swallow it whole. They are permanently altered by the ordeal they survived, and they feel lost in  this life, because how can you resume a normal life if you are not entirely normal anymore?

So imagine a support group organized explicitly for those souls so broken by their encounter with the supernatural that they are unable to heal on their own. This is a wonderful idea, and it’s brilliantly executed in this book. I loved the dynamics inside this group, and how Daryl Gregory slowly transformed those six broken and solitary people into a working group. How anger and distrust, and even contempt and outright hostility, slowly mutated into acceptance, mutual support and even respect.

And I loved the characters. They are all different and they bear their scars in different ways, but their reactions are believable. Stan is so scared of being ridiculed because of his infirmity that he  prefers to throw it into people’s faces as a pre-emptive strike and to be loud and obnoxious about it. And Gretta is on the opposite side of the spectrum – she is always covered from head to toe to hide the symbols carved into her flesh. And the other four characters also have fascinating stories that I would have loved to read more about.

So yes, the book has an intriguing premise and interesting characters, but I was left feeling cheated when I finished it. Like the author dropped the ball at the very end of a perfect story.

First of all, this book feels too short. It would have done much better as a full-blown novel instead of a novella. Right now, we have an excellent build-up, which takes about three quarters of the book, but the climax and the aftermath feel rushed. It’s like the author ran out of steam and tossed everything into the last 20 pages, just to get it over with.

Secondly, the frequent change of POV is somewhat confusing. Each chapter starts with a royal “we”, as in “we as the group” and so on. But then it promptly switches to third person and hops into the head of one of the characters. So I was left wondering who is really telling this story? Who is that “we”?

And my last complaint is that the ending brings to real resolution to any of the characters, except maybe Barbara. But even with her, the question of that final etching was left unanswered. The rest of the cast didn’t even get that.

It reads like a cliffhanger designed to make the reader purchase the next book in the series. If that is the case, then I’m eagerly awaiting the next book, because I want to know what happens to his rag tag bunch after the therapy. But if it’s a stand-alone, then I can’t help but feel cheated. Please tell me there is more to the story than that?

Those problems notwithstanding, I would still recommend We Are All Completely Fine. It’s a fast and entertaining read, and the characters are people that you want to stick around for. I just wish I could have stayed in their world for a little bit longer.

Life crazier than fiction or my epic quest to get a Green Card – Part 1

Green Card

I had a bad allergic reaction to a spider bite (my foot swell up to double its normal size), and I’m pumped full of corticosteroids and antihistamine pills which make me so loopy I have the attention span of a gnat. So I have decided that trying to write a serious post about my writing process would be a bad idea in this condition. Instead, I will share a small personal anecdote. Who said that life never got crazier than fiction? Read on. I might just prove you wrong.

I am a US Air Force wife. I met my husband while he was stationed in Camp Darby, Italy, and I lived and worked in Geneva, Switzerland (it’s not that far actually, only a four hour drive). The story of how we met and got married is worth another blog post. I might even get to that someday.

Anyway, we had been married for about 6 months when he got orders to be stationed back State side. We were both excited to finally be closer to his family and be able to see the kids more often. But we were also hit with the realization that I needed to apply for and get a Green Card (or Permanent Resident Card, as they call it now), and we only had about 6 months to get it all done. Little did we know that this process would turn into an epic quest from some video game, complete with several levels and boss battles.

Level 1

Level 1: paperwork

Boss battle: bureaucracy.

I could never have imagined the amount of paperwork I had to submit to even apply for the card.

There is the application itself, which is about 20 pages long; where every “t” has to be crossed and every “i” has to be dotted, and which has to be filled out EXACTLY AS SHOWN, or it will be rejected. Oh, and you have to include a check for about $700 with the application, and that money is non-refundable even if your application is rejected. You will have to pay another $700 if you want to start the process again.

Then there are all the supporting documents. Some of them made sense, like a copy of my birth certificate, proof of my Swiss citizenship, our marriage certificate and the copies of previous divorce decrees for both of us. I could also understand the need for my husband’s birth certificate, military ID and copy of his Orders. We were applying for the accelerated process for military spouses after all.

But why the heck would they need a copy of my high school diploma or my Bachelor’s Degree? And what’s the need for an extensive questionnaire about my parents, including where they were born, where they lived and who their parents were? Thank god, they didn’t ask for supporting documents on those. Both my parents were born right in the middle of WWII in Russia. I’m not even sure they ever had a birth certificate. Plus I didn’t want to make two seventy years-old have to drive all over Moscow and stand 5-7 hours in line in different governmental agencies just to be told to come back another day.

Oh and all those documents had to be translated into English by an accredited translation agency and legalized.

Which brings me to the first Boss fight – Bureaucracy.

It’s bad enough when you have to deal with just one country; imagine when you have to deal with three? I was born in Russia, so my birth certificate is in Russian, but I became a Swiss citizen when I turned 18, so the rest of my paperwork is in French… Yeah, fun times were had by everyone involved in this little merry-go-round.

But I managed to beat that boss by the skin of my teeth and moved to the next level.

Level 2

Level 2: medical and vaccination records.

Boss battle: nurse with a syringe at the base clinic.

Apparently, whether you live in a peaceful European country or in a small village in the African bush, the medical records need to be just as extensive. Not to mention that you have to be vaccinated against about every disease under the sun.

I was able to get ahold of my current medical records from Geneva with little to no problems, but getting my childhood records from Russia, a country I had last visited when I was 16 and couldn’t travel to anymore without a visa, that proved to be just as painful as pulling teeth without anesthesia. And just as fruitless. In the end, I had to give up on that idea, because the Russian embassy simply refused to cooperate with me. This sucked, because that’s where most of my childhood vaccination records were. And, as I said before, they were required.

Boss fight: nurse with a syringe.

In my desperation, I went to the base clinic and shared my plight with the nurse on duty.

“That’s not a problem, hon,” she said with a cheerful smile. “We can just give you all the shots right now.”

When she came back with the syringes and a bunch of vials, I was in for a load of pain… And I was right. Both my arms hurt for a week after that barbaric procedure, and I ran a mild fever for days. But I had won yet another boss fight on the road to my Green Card.

We had finally gathered all the required documents, triple-checked all the forms and sent everything to Immigration. Thus began the long wait. At first, we weren’t too worried, because we had been warned that the process took about 4 months. But after five and a half months of radio silence and our PCS date fast approaching, my stress levels shot through the roof. I really didn’t want to be left behind to try and deal with this on my own.

I became a daily visitor at the immigration office at Camp Darby. And I want to give special thanks to the immigration officer who was there to see my through that ordeal. She had been very supporting and an absolute sweetheart. I would have lost it without her support and all the cups of coffee we drank just chatting about nothing at all, passing time.

Then two weeks before we were scheduled to fly out of Italy, when we were already packed up and staying in TLF on base, the letter with the interview date at the American Embassy in Naples finally arrived. The interview was scheduled for 2 days before we were supposed to leave. That was cutting it awfully close, but we really didn’t have a choice, did we?

To find out what happens at Level 3: the Embassy, come back next Monday! *Evil laughter*. And I totally meant to finish this post in a cliffhanger, it’s not the antihistamine speaking, no sir. Oh, squirrel!

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Stars: 5 out of 5

I received an ARC of this book for free from NetGalley.

There are books that grip you and don’t let you go until you read the very last line on the very last page. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett is one such book. I finished it in three days, which is no small feat for me, considering that I have a full time job, a family and my own writing fighting for my time most of the days.

So what is City of Stairs about? Bulikov used to be called the Seat of the World, the city where all six Divinities governing the Continent resided. But the Divinities had been slain 80 years ago, and the Continent was invaded by the people who used to be their former slaves. The passing of the Divinities laid waste to the land, with whole cities disappearing, collapsing or shrinking in the blink of an eye. Even the climate has undergone a drastic change, and the whole land went from being a lush tropical paradise to a frozen wasteland.

The city of Bulikov suffered the most damage. Even 80 years later, it lies in shambles. Its citizens are the poorest on the Continent, the infrastructure is non-existent and the living conditions are atrocious. And the invaders intend to keep it that way, as punishment for everything they had to suffer at the hands of the citizen of Bulikov and their Divinities.

But the citizens of Bulikov remember their glory days. Hatered and discontent brews in the streets and the whole city is a powder keg ready to explode. Will the murder of Efrem Pangyui, celebrated Saypuri historian, be the spark that ignites the city and starts yet another war?

The world created by Robert Jackson Bennett is absolutely fascinating. Each of the six Divinities had their own creation myths and rules by which the world functioned, and those rules were absolute in the zone of their influence. But when they died, all those different view of reality clashed together and produced the Blink, when entire parts of the continent simply vanished; others got warped beyond recognition while those realities fought for dominance. It’s a broke and strange world that we get to explore along with the characters of this story.

Speaking of characters, I absolutely loved Shara and Sigurd, her secretary / bodyguard / enforcer. They are interesting characters with their own flaws and strengths, and I was genuinely engaged with their stories and problems. But the book doesn’t rely solely on its main protagonists. The secondary characters are also memorable and “alive”. You love them or you hate them, but they don’t leave you indifferent.

Most of all, I found the general ideas behind this story extremely compelling and thought-provoking: do the Divinities create their followers or are they created by them? Or is it a two-way relationship? Can they break free from each other without losing their identity? Can whole nations become obsolete along with their Divinity? Is change really such a bad thing? All those questions apply not only to the fictional world of City of Stairs, but to ours as well…

I am glad I found this story and go to read the ARC before the release. I also heard that the author is working on the second book, so I’m definitely placing it on my “books to watch for” list. My advice is – go buy City of Stairs, it’s a guaranteed good read.

Know your story or the importance of world-building.

Image by Van Assche -Embarcadero
Image by Van Assche -Embarcadero

There are many elements to a good book. I have already talked about the importance of a good antagonist and fleshed-out secondary characters, but none of this will do any good if you haven’t bothered with the world-building.

As authors, we are the absolute gods of the worlds we create, and as such, we NEED to know how those worlds function. We need to know the physics, the magic and religious system, the races and customs of the people we populate our worlds with. Because if your knowledge of this world is patchy, trust me, the reader will know.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to prepare long ancestry lists for all of your characters. The reader doesn’t need to know about your protagonist’s great grand-aunt Bessie, unless she is relevant to the story somehow. But you, as an author, need to know where your characters come from and what they believe in. Your character’s background will help you determine how they will react in different situations. It will also prevent you from making a character act extremely out of character. Trust me, the readers will notice that as well.

If magic exists in your world, you need to know how it works better than the best Magisters in the best Magic Academy. You don’t have to reveal all the rules, you can even mislead your characters (and the reader) about some of them, but you need to know them.

Same goes for different gods and supernatural beings. You need to know their strengths and weaknesses. You need to know how they interact with each other and the humans that inhabit your world (if you have any).

Image courtesy www.tuku.cn
Image courtesy www.tuku.cn

That’s why I consider the world-building to be the most time-consuming process when brainstorming a new story. Creating a character’s backstory is a walk in the park compared to everything you need to take in to account when you start describing the world he or she inhabits. It becomes even more of a headache if your story requires your characters to travel long distances and visit different cultures. Because you can’t just say, “Hey, they are going to cross the Elf Forest. Elves like trees and are extremely arrogant,” and stop at that. Well, you could, but your character’s visit to this Elf Forrest would be extremely shallow and boring. And the readers will notice it.

Even though it’s a time-consuming and demanding job, I really love world-building. I feel like a child in front of an unopened Christmas present – can’t wait to peel off the layers of wrapping and discover what lays underneath. I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process – discovering a brand new world that nobody has ever visited before and setting its boundaries.

Before I wrap this post up and let you all return to your reading or writing, let me leave you with a word of caution though. NEVER break the rules you have created, even if those rules put your characters in a seemingly impossible situation. Readers will know, if you introduce a Deus Ex Machina to save your protagonist at the last possible moment, and they will not like it. If they are anything like me, they will feel cheated and walk away from your book frustrated with the story.