The Younger Gods by Michael R Underwood.

Stars: 4 out of 5

It’s been a while since I read a good urban fantasy book that didn’t center around fae or werewolves / vampires and didn’t include a romance. In fact, I had come to the sad belief that these were the only books the genre had to offer. So The Younger Gods by Michael R Underwood was like a breath of fresh air.

Jacob Greene came to New York to escape the clutches of his very overbearing and secretive family and start a new life away from the cult. Jacob’s only worries now are to try and fit into this strange new world that is life at St. Mark’s University, keep his grades up to keep his scholarship, and stretch his meager allowance in order not to die of hunger before the end of each month. Then a crucified body is found in one of the New York parks, and Jacob realizes that his family has caught up with him…

I absolutely loved the main protagonist. Jacob is a smart and well educated boy, even though his knowledge mostly lies in the field of summoning monsters and performing human sacrifices.  He is completely lost in the intricacies of the normal college life, and his social skills are so bad that he can’t seem to make friends. The author did an excellent job showing the complete lack of common ground between Jacob and his classmates. They didn’t read the same books, didn’t hear the same stories, and Jacob just doesn’t understand any of the mass culture references we all take for granted. And his over-flowery and slightly archaic speech makes him seem even more alien. Jacob tries so hard to fit in, to put his less than normal childhood behind him, but when he hears about the murder on the news, he immediately recognizes his sister’s signature.

I like the fact that the idea to simply walk away and think “it’s not my problem” doesn’t even cross Jacob’s mind. It’s his family, so it’s his problem. If he has to stop the apocalypse all by himself, he will do it, or die trying. That shows a tremendous strength of character.

And the author also did a very good job showing the diversity of races and cultures in New York city. All of the secondary characters come from different ethnicities and cultural (and magical) backgrounds. Carter is an Indian (dot, not feather) Nephilim, Antoinette is a voodoo practitioner from Haitian descent, and Dorothea is a black ex-NYPD cop who became a Brooklyn Knight. And they are not just clichés put in the book just to act as a background to Jacob’s adventures. They are well fleshed out characters. Oh, and there are also Staten Island werewolves, Rakshasa from Queens and a multitude of other magical beings that call New York home.

The pacing of the book is fast and gripping. There isn’t a single dull moment. It’s even a bit too fast in places, and I caught myself wishing for the action to slow down and give myself and the characters a breather. But at least it’s never boring!

My only complaint is that there are still some errors in the copy I read. For example, Nate is described as a man when we first meet him, but halfway through the chapter, he is suddenly referred to as “she”, then he becomes a “he” again when we next meet him. But I think all those problems are due to the fact that I read the ARC of the book I got from NetGalley, and hopefully didn’t make it into the published version of the book.

So if you like strong characters and an interesting story, you should definitely pick up The Younger Gods. I will be looking forward to the next book in the series.

NaNoWriMo Prep – 10 useful links to stay motivated during the month of November.

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NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and I’m sure that most of you are excited about diving right in and getting a start on your novel. So I’m not going to bore you with another long post about how to prepare for NaNo, or what I learned from my past NaNo experience, blah, blah, blah.

The next month will be a wonderful, but also tiring experience for everyone trying to put 50k words on page in 30 days. There will be days when words fly faster than you can write them and you get 2k down in an hour with no visible effort. Then there would be days when writing even 100 words feels like a gargantuan effort, and every one of them feels like it was written with your own blood. There will be days when you will be motivated and days when you will feel like giving up.

So I thought about what had helped me stick through the worst moments of self-doubt and discouragement and motivated me to keep going last year. The answer was simple: encouragement from fellow writers.

That’s why I created a list of blog posts about NaNoWriMo that I found useful, funny and motivating. I would encourage you to bookmark them and reread them any time you feel like you need a pep talk during the cold month of November. I know I will be revisiting them frequently.

  1. First, a little bit of shameless self-promotion. Last year I had written a post about what helped me stick to my goals during NaNo. I would recommend reading it around week two, when the dreaded burnout starts – NaNoWriMo – 15 days to go.
  1. If you need a good laugh and also a boot in the butt advice to keep going, check out this older post by Chuck Wendig – 25 Things you should know about NaNoWriMo. I love Chuck for his humor, but be advised that the language he uses is definitely not PG-13.
  1. Now, if you need to go deeper into the nuts and bolts of writing your novel, here is a very good guest post by Piper Bayard on Kristen Lamb’s blog about backstory and how much the writer has to disclose and what to keep away from the reader – Backstory: The More You Know, The Less I have to.
  1. And speaking of writing that first draft, here is an excellent post by Kristen Lamb herself about turning off your inner editor during NaNo – Write Fast and Furious! Learning to Outrun “The ?Spock Brain.
  1. If you write your story from the point of view (POV) of several characters, here is a wonderful post by Jami Gold about which POVs we should use when and how to switch between them without confusing your reader – Ask Jami: Whose Point of View Should We Use?
  1. I try to stick to the advice of “show, not tell,” when I write. So this post by Amy McElroy about integrating all the five senses in our writing was very useful – Sensory Description: Deep Beyond the Five Senses We Learned in Preschool.
  1. We all love our protagonists (otherwise why would we want to write about them in the first place?), but we need to be careful not to make them too much like ourselves. So here is a good post by Anne R Allen about that – 5 Protagonists Riders Hate: Why Writers Shouldn’t Identify too Closely with a Main Character.
  1. And let’s not forget to stay healthy during November madness. So here is a nice infographic article by YogaDork – “Pose before Prose” Yoga for Writers.
  1. Since writing 50k words takes a lot of your free time, cleaning, cooking and having a social life will be next to impossible. So here is a nice link for Easy Recipes for NaNoWriMo on Pinterest.
  1. Last but not least, is the NaNoWriMo site. It’s full of useful resources, how-to guides, pep talks and most of all, all the other wonderful wrimos attempting this challenge with you. Browse, read, visit the forums, find writing buddies, but most importantly, communicate with others. They will be your best cheerleaders, your most devoted fans and a shoulder to cry on when you feel discouraged.

Here you go, I hope this list will be useful to you guys! Feel free to share more useful links in the comments. I’m always looking for good posts to motivate me and help me improve my craft.

The London Project by Mark J Maxwell

Stars: 3 out of 5

I liked the story in The London Project. The world is a quite interesting (albeit chilling) vision of a possible future. The total monopoly of Portal over the lives of Londoners reminded me a lot of George Orwell’s 1984. “Big Brother watches you,” indeed…

This story also had all the things I usually like: a futuristic setting, a murder mystery that the protagonist has to solve, influential people determined to thwart her at every turn, and a bigger conspiracy emerging during the investigation. The story had the potential to keep me interested and turning the pages into the late hours of the night, but… it didn’t.

The biggest problem with this book, at least for me, is the pacing. For a thriller to work, the author needs build the tension progressively throughout the book, and never ever let it falter. The story has to grip me from the get go and drag me along, making me want to turn the next page to discover what happens.

Unfortunately, the abundance of technical and world-building explanations break the tension and slow down the pacing, sometimes bringing it to a screeching halt. I found myself frustrated when I wanted to know more about the investigation into the dead girl, but had to read through info dump after info dump about Portal and their little monopoly over London and how the technology worked. I know it’s probably relevant to the story and serves to introduce the reader into this world, but for me, it killed the suspense and the drive to continue reading. When I find myself skipping the explanations to get to the plot, I know I won’t stick with the book. And I probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t an ARC I had agreed to review.

I didn’t need all those detailed explanations into the workings of Portal in the first 10 chapters. I would have been perfectly happy with a few brief mentions of it and a lot more focus on the case itself. But then again, I am the kind of reader who likes being lost in a world, to discover it progressively throughout the book, looking for breadcrumbs of information the author left on the pages and drawing my own conclusions. Info-dumps give me mental indigestions, because by the time I read through the explanation and assimilate it, the suspense is gone. I have to try and immerse myself in the story again… until the next info-dump.

This is sad, I think, because the book would have been a lot more interesting (and faster paced) if the author trusted the reader to understand his world without having everything spelled out. This is the case of when too much backstory does more harm than good.

I know that this is strictly a personal preference, so take my review with a grain of salt. What I find off-putting might not be so for another reader. So my advice is, if you like a well thought-out world and are not afraid of the slow pacing, give The London Project a try.

P.S. This review is for the ARC of the book I got from LibraryThing.

NaNoWriMo Prep – Know your Story or the Importance of Outlines.

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With NaNoWriMo fast approaching, I wanted to share some of the advice I took out of my own experience with NaNoWriMo 2013. I learned a lot about writing in general and my own writing process last year, so hopefully this will also be useful to somebody else.

Last week I had talked about why I think everyone should do NaNo at least once. This week, I want to talk about outlines.

I know  people who approach who don’t plan or outline their stories; they just start writing on November 1st and see where the story will take them. They enjoy the process of discovering the story, of being surprised by the unexpected plot twists. In writer-speak, they are called pantsers, because they write “from the seat of their pants”. I know a lot of wrimos for whom this approach works wonders, and who can’t imaging writing their first draft any other way. I learned the hard way that I’m not part of that club.

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I am a plotter. I need to be familiar with my story and my characters before I start writing my first draft or I will crash and burn somewhere around the 1/3 mark. So for all of the first time wrimos who had tried to pants it before and didn’t quite succeed, my answer would be – start outlining.

It doesn’t have to be an extensive outline. I know some writers who are happy with just knowing the ending and the general direction in which their story is going before starting to write the first draft.  Others don’t outline the plot, but do extensive profiles on all their characters, then let those character’s reactions decide which way the story is going.

My experience with outlining:

I have learned that if I want to win NaNo (and finish my first draft), I absolutely need to spend some time exploring my story beforehand.

I need detailed background stories and profiles on my main characters, including the so important antagonist. I tell you, in order to get this sucker right, you have to know his / her life story better than your own.

I also need to know the ending. I might only have a vague idea of how my story will progress and which road it will take to reach that ending, but if I don’t know how my story ends, I cannot write. Tried, failed, learned from the experience.

Wriring Of Broken Things for NaNo 2013 had been my first try at outlining beforehand. I had character bios and a brief outline of what I wanted to happen each of the three parts of the book. Oh, and the last scene of course. It worked like a charm – I wrote like my fingers were on fire, and there hadn’t been a single day where I felt stuck. Of course, a lot of the scenes changed and the story evolved in the process, and I took a few detours and alternative routes, but I never felt utterly lost, because I knew my final destination.

This year, I am picking it up a notch. I am applying the process I developed for writing my short stories to my NaNo preparation. When I brainstorm a short story, I write a detailed scene by scene outline. They I start writing the story, trying to follow that outline. Most of the time, it changes drastically during the first draft, but that process allows me to immerse myself in the story and explore several possible courses of action.

I took this process and adapted it to this year’s NaNo novel, but instead of doing a scene by scene outline, I did a chapter by chapter one. So now I have detailed character bios, a general outline of the entire plot, and a detailed outline of what will happen in each chapter. Now I am ready to finally start writing! Is it November 1st yet?

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I want to finish this post with a word of caution though. Don’t consider your outline as something set in stone. It’s more of a roadmap with one route that would take you from point A (the beginning) to point B (the end), but there are a lot of roads and alternative routes. Feel free to take a different turn, stop in a small town, or to take the scenic route instead of the highway. Just keep your destination in mind and make sure you are progressing towards it no matter what road you take.

So how are you guys preparing for NaNo? Plotters or pantsers? How detailed are your outlines? I want to hear from you!

Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans

Stars: 5 out of 5

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

I am in love with this book and I’m not afraid to admit it. Vietnam War meets a fantasy world? It could have crashed and burned if it had been poorly executed. Fortunately for me, Chris Evans pulled this off masterfully, and the end result is a book that I found very hard to put down.

The premise Of Bone and Thunder is quite simple: the Kingdom is waging war in Luitox, a strange tropical land full of “savages” that the brave army of the Kingdom came to liberate from the Forrest Collective. That’s the official story anyway, but to most of the characters in this book, that propaganda is irrelevant. What matters to them is whether they will live to see another day and whether their squad will make it out alive as well.

I loved the fact that the author didn’t go into rhetorics or political explanations of this war in the Lux. Instead, he chose to tell this story through the eyes of regular soldiers, those forced to fight and die for ideals they don’t understand in a land that is absolutely foreign to them, against an enemy that knows the terrain and can literally disappear at will.

There isn’t one single protagonist in this book. We follow several characters instead. There is  Carny, a young crossbowman and his fellow soldiers from the Red Shield. The young thaum Jawn, who arrives to the Lux full of ideals and dreams of glory which are soon shattered against the gory reality of war. Obsidian flock leader Vorly and his thaum Breeze who fly real fire-breathing dragons called rags. And several other unique characters.

We see the war through their eyes; we follow them from simple skirmish to battle to desperate fight for survival, and we see them change. And that’s the biggest strength of this book. All the characters we follow are flawed in their own way. Jawn is naïve but also arrogant; Carny is an addict who doesn’t care about anything and anyone but himself; and the only thing Vorly cares about is his rags. And the other members of the Red Shield squad were just as bad. I hated some of them at the beginning of the book…

Yet they change, they evolve, they grow on you, so much so that you start cheering for them, hoping that they will make it out of one desperate situation after another in one piece. And when some of them die, it really hurts, like you have just lost a good friend.

With subtle strokes of the brush, the author also showed us how a ragtag group of men transforms into brothers in arms. You can see the moment when concern or individual safety is overruled  by concern for the safety of fellow squad members. When the words “leave no man behind” suddenly become a moto to live by. And Carny gives up the drugs and assumes the mantle of Squad Leader because there is nobody else left to do it. Vorly risks his life and the life of his precious rag to help the troops on the ground he had transported so many times that he grew to consider his own. And Jawn risks both his life and his sanity to defeat enemy thaums  before they annihilate the small army surrounded by an enemy force twice its size in the valley of Bone and Thunder. And the words “Anything for the greater good” gain a truly sinister meaning.

 Of Bone and Thunder is the story of a big war described through a multitude of small, almost personal wars, and that’s what makes it so powerful. This book leaves a lasting impression long after you finished reading.

So my advice is read this book. Definitely and without reservation.

5 reasons everyone should do NaNoWriMo at least once.

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We are now midway through October and thousands of writers across the world are frantically preparing for the biggest writing challenge of the year – the National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. Since I had jumped into it head first last November, I read a lot of blog post and articles about NaNo on the web, and I realized that there are often opposite reactions to the event. Some like it, some don’t; some swear it’s the best thing that ever happened to them, while others think it’s worthless.

Personally, I think that if you think of yourself as a writer, even an aspiring or pre-published one, you should do NaNo at least once in your life. And below are the 5 most important reasons why you should do it.

  1. 50k words is an average a professional writer produces every month, not just in November.

Before I did my first NaNo, the idea of writing 50k words in 30 days seemed almost impossible to me. I could barely manage to write 300 to 400 words a day, and it was a good day when that happened.

But consider that an novel is anywhere between 80k to 120k words. If a professional writer releases one of those a year, he has to go through all the steps (outlining, research, first draft, editing, beta readers, etc) in just 12 little months. That means  the first draft has to be put on paper pretty fast. So 50k words per month is actually not that farfetched.

So if you have a dream to one day become a professional writer, I think NaNo is a good training ground to see what it takes to do this for a living. Plus it’s always interesting (at least for me) to challenge myself and see if I can do this.

  1. NaNo helps you build a habit of writing consistently.

As I had mentioned in point 1, before NaNo, I was lucky to put 400 words on the page in a day, then spend a week or more without writing anything. After NaNo?  My average is about 1000 and I write every day. Or if I’m not working on my first draft, I edit, rewrite or outline something.

NaNoWriMo showed me that waiting for a muse to strike to sit down and write is just an excuse NOT to write. Inspiration can come to you, but it has to find you ready and already at work. I have a day job, I have a family and a social life, but NaNo showed me that I could find a way to balance all that and find time to put words on paper everyday if I wanted it badly enough. And if I managed to balance all that during the month of November and nobody died (and I still have my job), why not try to make a habit of it?

The results are staggering. Before NaNo, I had 3 attempted and abandoned novels. After NaNo, I have a published short story, a finished novel (still editing that one though), a novella, and 2 more short stories. I went from never finishing anything to consistently finishing all my projects.

  1. Lock your inner editor in the basement.

When you have to reach a daily goal of 1667 words, you don’t have time to stop and edit every sentence. Heck, sometimes you don’t even have time to go back and correct a typo. NaNo is about putting that first draft on paper, and even Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

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NaNoWriMo teaches you how to tie you pesky inner editor up, gag her, and throw her in the basement. It allows you to write prose that looks like crap. A scene isn’t turning out quite to your liking? Don’t stop, write it down and move on. You are not quite sure where your character or story is going? Write on, your story might take you to a surprising and interesting turn.

Remember, that you can always go back and edit everything later, once you are done with your first draft, that’s what revisions are for.

  1. Discover which writing methods work for you.

Writing a novel is hard work. Writing one in 30 days is a feat. You need to be aware of all the tools in your writer’s toolbox and put them to good use if you want to achieve your goal. I look at NaNo as a big experiment to test different writing, outlining and time management techniques to determine which ones work for me. Those I keep for further use, the others I discard.

This is how I discovered that if I want to put my butt in the chair and type until my fingers bleed putting that first draft on paper, I need to do all my research and planning beforehand. I need to have a very good idea of what my story is and where it’s going or I get stuck and discouraged.

I didn’t outline any of my failed novel attempts, but for last year’s NaNo, I decided to change things up and wrote a 10 page outline of the whole project. It resulted in a finished draft. Lesson learned. Now I take the time to do extensive outlines on everything I write. This year I’m experimenting with chapter by chapter outlining.

5. Be part of a wonderful writing community.

Last year, over 600,000 people participated in the NaNo challenge. There is a lot to be said about being part of such a large community. Writing is a solitary act, but knowing that thousands of people around the globe are writing their own novels with you makes it considerably less so.

Plus the forums are full of useful resources for writers. There are always people happy to help you out if you are stuck, need help with your plot or character development, or just need some cheering up (or a kick in the butt to make you get off the internet and keep on writing). Browse the site, add some writing buddies, make friends, do some word sprints, and enjoy this special brand of November madness.

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And to conclude this blog post, I wanted to point out that when you wrote your 50k words and won NaNoWriMo, you are still not done. Your novel is probably not finished. So stick with it. Make the commitment to continue writing through December (and January, if necessary) until you can finally put those two wonderful words at the bottom of the page: THE END. It’s a wonderful feeling, I tell you. Makes you forget all the blood and tears and frustration that went into writing that first (and bloody awful) draft. And if this feeling makes you want to do it all over again with a new story, then congratulations, you are a writer!

The Undying by Ethan Reid

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

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

The Undying by Ethan Reid could have been a great book. When I read the blurb, I really looked forward to diving into the book itself. I mean two young American tourists trying to survive an apocalyptic event in Paris, as our civilization falls apart? That ought to be a an interesting read, no? Especially if you add the undying (the author’s version of zombies) into the mix. I love Paris, I love disasters books and I love zombies. So this book was right up my alley.

Unfortunately, my excitement about the premise was quickly dampened by the execution. First of all, the prologue takes place months after the event, and the author tells us right there and then that only Jeanie and the baby will survive. This makes it very difficult to empathize with any characters in the book. I mean why bother caring about Ben, Zou, or Farid if you already know they won’t make it to the end? And even during the episodes when Jeanie is in serious trouble, I wasn’t worried about her, because I knew from the prologue that she would survive. And not being able to care about the characters makes for a very boring read.

The cataclysmic event itself is well described. It was scary to see the familiar topography of Paris transforming into a death-trap for its inhabitants. I also liked the progression of events and how the author slowly plunged our world into Hell. First the light go out, but there is a beautiful Aurora Borealis in the sky, and it’s New Year’s Eve, so nobody pays too much attention to the loss of power, because everyone is too busy celebrating. It’s the next morning, when the skies get shrouded with dust and rocks start falling down, that the chaos really begins. The author built the tension well, with things going progressively from bad to worse, and the appearance of the undying plunging an already scary situation into the realm of cheer terror.

And the undying deserve a special mention. Those “moribund”, which are Ethan Reid’s take on the usual zombie trope, are really scary. Unlike their more mainstream counterparts, they are fast, they are cunning, and they hunt in groups.  In fact, their behavior is similar to a pack of wolves or a pride of lions. Add to that the fact that they can bend shadows around themselves for concealment and that they are very fast learners, and you have a truly terrifying enemy. Most of the memorable moments in the book are tied to the undying, one way or another.  So they deserve the 2.5 stars.

Unfortunately, this building tension is constantly interrupted by Jeanie’s flashbacks to seemingly unrelated events, like the death of her father or the last conversation she had had with him. I understand the need to introduce the readers to her background, but it can be done as a paragraph or two here and there, not a whole chapter thrown in smack in the middle of the action.  By the time I made it through that chapter, all the tension was gone; I didn’t care what happened to the characters anymore.

The author chooses the oddest moments to go into those flashbacks or info dumps. For example, the protagonist and her friends are in the Louvres and they are running out of time. They need to get somewhere safe and underground before the temperatures outside rise to unbearable levels. That moment is full of tension, right? Will they make it? Will the find a place to hunker down?.. Yet the author choses to spend 3 (!) chapters making Jeanie talk to people about what they think happened to cause the disaster. All I wanted to do while I was reading this, was smack the protagonist on the head and yell, “Who cares? You have to get out of here NOW, not speculate on why this happened.”

So when the time runs out and characters start to die, I didn’t feel upset or sorry for them anymore. I felt frustrated with the author, because it felt like the exposition had just been a plot device designed to get rid of some of the characters.

I also couldn’t help but feel that the ending is rushed and rather anticlimactic, like the author ran out of steam and just wanted to wrap up the story really fast.

So The Undying  had sounded like a good book, but turned out a disappointment. But then again, everybody looks for something different in a book, so what I didn’t like, you might love. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this book, but ultimately it’s up to you to make your own choice.