Friday, February 27, 2015

Reading...Magic Bites


Magic Bites (Kate Daniels, #1) Magic Bites is the first book in an urban fantasy series in which magic has reasserted itself in the world, pushing technology to a place of little importance. A world in which man's industrial and technological achievements crumble uselessly, in which creatures that go bump in the night are just a matter of fact. 
Kate Daniels is a member of the Mercenary Guild, making a living fighting more unsavory magical creatures. She's practical, tough, smart-mouthed, and kicks some serious ass. Kate likes to fly below the radar, and hides her own magical powers to keep herself safe. When her guardian is murdered, Kate heads to Atlanta to find the killer and get vengeance.

This is a great book, and as I've already read the second as well -- Magic Burns -- I think it's safe to say I'm going to enjoy this series. First off, there's a really interesting world going on here. It's are world, but full of magic. In this reality, magic and technology sit at opposite ends of a pendulum, and thousands of years of technological dominance have been replaced by magical dominance. Sometimes the tech is "up" -- anything technological like cars and phones and electricity work. Sometimes the magic flares and the vampires grow stronger, baddies get badder, and were animals (because it's more than just werewolves, you know) have a harder time staying under control. The reader is put right in the middle of everything, so at first it's a bit jarring. But Ilona Andrews does the gradual world building well, and it makes for fewer info dumps and a faster pace. The story(ies) are tightly written, part mystery and part action-thriller. There's a good bit of blood and guts, but nothing over the top. There's also a dash of romance, but at book two it's basically some molasses-like sexual tension.

Finally, I really love the characters. Most of them start off in a certain mold -- you have the aforementioned kick-ass heroine, you have the alpha male -- literally, since he's the alpha of the Pack, you have the sort-of and very reluctant sidekick, and various other side characters depending on the story. But while they may start off as tropes, Andrews breathes life and individuality into each character. And even over two books the characters have movement -- you'd be missing something to read the books out of order, because you get to know the characters a little better each time.

Bottom line: if you're in the mood for well-written, fast-paced, engaging action/mystery and don't mind some make believe and magical creatures, pick up these books.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Friday List

It's pretty common in the blogosphere to see bloggers post fun lists of things they love. Like my friend Tess who posts Sweet Lists on her blog (which you should read, because Tess is sassy and funny and thoughtful). I'm not with it enough to really create lists at regular intervals like that, some days there are just little things that are making my day and who doesn't love to share happy things? 

1. A cup of coffee from Port City Java.  Technically, a cup of coffee I made from Port City Java beans given to me by a lovely friend. Because sadly, there is no Port City Java in Texas. 

2. Sanuk shoes. These are seriously comfy shoes, y'all.

3. The Middle. Funny stuff. I'd seen a show here and there in the past, but just recently started watching it regularly on Hulu. 

4. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Beta Radio. I love music, but I have never been on the edge of what's new and cool. So, the whole world is probably like "oh yeah, Drew Holcomb. Old news." But I just recently discovered them and it's fantastic. My kind of music. Beta Radio is a band out of Wilmington, NC, where we lived for 10 years. Fun fact: I even worked for a while at Port City Java with one of the members! And my good friend Doc designs posters for them. But aside from all that connection....they just make good music. Guitars, banjo, lovely harmonies. 

5. A cast-iron cicada from France.  What? you ask. My friend Sonya sent me a delightful cast iron cicada to hang on my wall. It's about five inches long, and fantastic. I've hung it next to the window above my kitchen sink, and secretly hope it will not only make me smile and think of Sonya, but will scare away roaches, ants, spiders...all those delightful South Texas bugs that I wish would stay out of my house.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reading...Ruin and Rising

Ruin and Rising, by Leigh Bardugo is the third and final book in her Grisha trilogy. It's Russian-inspired fantasy with magic, politics, and romance. The third book is a great ending to the story, with high stakes, intensity, and just the right amount of happy in the ending.

Overall, I really enjoyed these books. You might remember a brief mention a couple of months ago when I posted about good books for winter reading. And indeed, one of my favorite things about Leigh Bardugo's writing is her ability to create a vivid atmosphere and sense of place. There were a few things about the books that aren't necessarily my favorite tropes: for one thing, the main character is the classic plain-girl-is-actually-super-powerful-and-awesome-but-always-thinks-of-herself-as-less-than. I'm not going to lie: in the first two books I found Alina to be pretty whiny and reactive, but she steps up quite a bit in the third book and finds her agency. The second not-my-favorite part of the books was the love triangle -- two of them in fact! But it didn't bother me that much, because both of them actually made sense in those situations.

Despite my mostly lukewarm feelings for Alina, I loved the other characters Bardugo created. I particularly thought that the Darkling was a great character, a nuanced villain that is more than just a foil for the main character.

One final note: I listened to both this book and the second in the trilogy, and I highly recommend them in audio format if you're in the mood for an audio book. The narrator does a great job bringing the story to life.

Bottom line: a great ending to a solid fantasy trilogy

Monday, February 9, 2015

A little creative writing

Previously....I posted a chapter from something I'm working on right now.  In honor of a little writing spurt I had last week...and because I'm reading a non-fiction book right now and it takes me a lot longer to read nonfiction...here's another chapter from the same novel. This is a flashback to when the two characters George and Rosalee were young, the summer they met.




George and I had been hanging out for almost three weeks. The waitresses were starting to wink at me every time we came into the diner for coffee. Neither of them ever asked what we wanted anymore. Coffee for both of us, whatever fruit pie was on special for me and whatever cream pie was on special for George. We’d spent a couple of afternoons listening to records at my house – with the bedroom door open, and the boys running past the door ever few minutes or so. Probably under orders from mom. We’d talked on the phone at least every other night. I could tell George was bored, but I think he was also enjoying my company too. There were other girls to be bored with, and he didn’t seem too interested in making a lot of friends in town.

I’d just gotten home from babysitting, and was flipping through a magazine, laying on the floor in front of a fan, trying to cool off from a few hours of playing outside. I heard a knock on the door and contemplated just ignoring it, figuring it was the mail man with a package or a salesman or Jehovah’s Witness. But, I got up anyway. Mama would be horrified if I was home and didn’t answer the door.

I was glad I did.

“George!” I said, a smile forming on my face. “What’s up? Why aren’t you at work?”

He leaned against the door jam and his smile showed off his dimple. “Uncle Jim kept talking about the great swimming hole around here today, and I told him it was cruel and unusual punishment to keep talking about it on such a hot day, and not letting a guy experience it for himself. It was a persuasive argument.”

I smiled back. “You are pretty persuasive.”

He reached out and lightly took my hand. “So, I’m betting you know some good places to swim,” he said. “You want to show a guy around, or do I need to use my persuasive powers on you too?”

Not likely, I thought. But I tried to play it a little cool.

“Nothing to do right now,” I said, only slightly distracted by his hand still holding mine. “And you’re right about it being crazy hot.”
“Well, then,” he said, still smiling. “I’ve got shorts in the car. How much time do you need?”

I grinned, squeezed his hand and started backing up. “You know where the downstairs bathroom is. I’ll be five minutes,” I said. “And I’ve got a cold coke in the fridge I was saving for later. First one to the car gets it.”

The words were barely out of my mouth and I was running up the stairs. I heard George laugh and his feet thunder down the porch steps. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. Running into my room, I threw open the top drawer of my dresser and unearthed my swim suit, a plain dark blue bikini that Betty talked me into getting on sale at the department store last time we went into Springfield. I ripped off my clothes and tugged on the suit, thankful that the top was a halter style and I didn’t have to mess with tying fussy strings. I pulled on the cut-off shorts I’d just taken off and ran across the hall into the bathroom, grabbing a towel. My sunglasses and sunscreen were in my bag, sitting down by the front door from babysitting. I raced down the stairs, trying to think if I needed anything else.

I got to the bottom of the stairs just as George was walking out of the kitchen with the coke in his hands.

“Confident, are we?” I asked.

He smirked and glanced between me and the front door. I lunged for my bag and my keys and George lunged for me, his arm wrapping around my waist and swinging me away from the door. I squealed.

“No fair!” I gasped. “I’ve got to lock the front door!”

We were both laughing hard as he set me down on the front porch, his arm still firmly around my waist.

“This truce only lasts long enough for you to lock the door.”

I was still laughing as I fumbled with the key, but eventually we heard the deadbolt click into place. The skin on my waist suddenly felt a rush of hot air, and I turned, leaping off the porch after George. I was seconds behind him, and threw myself into his side, and knocking him off balance just enough to make my lunge for his car count. My fingers brushed the hot metal and I turned, triumphant, to find George standing very close, his face still creased in a smile and his eyes crinkled from laughter. We were both sweaty and breathing hard.

“You, Rosalee, are one of a kind,” he said. He held up the bottle of coke between us, then rested the cold glass against my neck. I shivered.

“I have to say, I kind of figured this was mine. But you earned it,” he said.

“You’ve met my brothers, right?” I said. “They are their own full-contact sport.” I reached up and wrapped my hand around the bottle, my fingers overlapping slightly with his.

“If you’re nice, I’ll share,” I said.

“I’m always nice,” he replied. He let go of the bottle and reached around me, unlocking the passenger door of the car so I could get in. My body was trapped in the space between his and the car, his eyes never left my face as he turned the key. I found myself staring at his mouth. He winked, I blushed, and he was walking to the driver’s side. I stood frozen for a second, then shook my head and climbed in. I set the bottle in the cup holder, stuffed my towel in my bag, and set the bag on the floorboard, then picked up the coke and twisted off the cap as the engine roared to life.

“Which way?” George asked, looking at me with another smile, this one sweet and friendly.

“Left at the end of the driveway,” I replied, taking a long drink. The pop was cold and fizzy and sweet and pretty darn delicious. I pulled it away from my lips and offered the bottle to George.

He raised an eyebrow. “Sure?”

“Yep. Take it. It hits the spot.”

We were quiet on the drive, passing the coke back and forth while I gave him directions. In ten minutes we were on the bumpy gravel road that led to the spring. The trees along the road made shadowy patches on my bare legs and arms as it filtered through the trees that occasionally brushed along the side of the car. It was only two miles, but you had to take them slow. I didn’t mind though. We’d left the radio off, and I just enjoyed the peace. The sounds of the birds and squirrels, the crunch and hum of the car, the warm breeze blowing my hair. By the time we’d gone the two miles and pulled into the clearing, it felt like we’d entered into the remotest pocket of the world. George parked the car and turned it off. We gazed for a moment at the spring-fed pool. The grass sloped slightly down to the water on our side. To the right, some huge rocks under a big oak tree made a perfect diving board and rope swing platform. Trees and undergrowth crowded around the water, except for the narrow stream that rushed off toward our left. I loved this place.

“Does it feel as great as it looks?” George asked, turning toward me.

“Better.”

We opened our doors and walked toward the water. I kicked off my sandals and set down my bag. George shoved off his own shoes and pulled his t-shirt off over his head, and I have to admit I took advantage of the few seconds in which his face was covered by the shirt to admire his lean muscles. I turned away, and reached down to slip off my shorts, although I hesitated, aware of George right next to me and suddenly feeling a little shy.

Don’t be silly, I scolded myself. You go swimming with boys all the time. I quickly dropped my shorts, pulled off my t-shirt and ran toward the big jumping rock. I could hear George laughing behind me, but I didn’t slow down or turn around. I jumped up on the rock and without slowing down ran off the edge, tucking my knees up to my chest and closing my eyes just before hitting the deliciously cool water. I let myself sink, enjoying the refreshing water, the peacefulness, the weightlessness – before kicking my legs and reaching my hands toward the surface. I broke through the water, tilting my face up slightly so the water would push my hair way from my face.

When I opened my eyes I glanced around for George, and found him standing on top of the rock, grinning at me.

“Well, what are you waiting for,” I said as I treaded water.

“Didn’t want to accidentally land on top of you,” he replied as he grabbed the rope. He walked backwards until there was no more slack in the rope, then bounded across the rock. As his feet left the ground he let out a whoop, sailing almost all the way across the creek. He hung on to the rope as it hit its peak, then just as he started to swing back toward the rock he let go. I laughed at his gigantic splash, and turned my head away from the spray instinctively. A moment later, George’s head popped up so close to my own that I jumped, startled at how quickly he’d swam through the water.

“Boo,” he said.

I laughed and smacked his shoulder. “Smart-aleck.”

He grinned. Surrounded by the blue sky and blue water, his eyes were brilliant, deep and mesmerizing. His shaggy hair was plastered to his forehead, dripping water down his cheeks. A few pieces of hair clung to his cheekbone. I wanted to reach out and push the hair off his face. The thought made my insides flutter. I wasn’t experienced with boys at all, but I knew that a gesture like that would be a statement of some kind, a silent acknowledgement that maybe I was open to something more than friendship. But I thought maybe I was okay with saying that.

My fingers softly – but with no hesitation – skimmed the top of George’s cheekbone, carrying the wet hair off his face. I let my fingers run through his hair, my hand coming to rest on his shoulder for a moment before slipping off into the water again.

Uncertainty hit me belatedly, and I opened my mouth to fill the silence with something funny. But before any words emerged George’s rough hand slid around my bare waist, the other hand cupping the back of my head, tangling in my own wet hair. And then he kissed me.

My insides melted and my skin sizzled. His lips were soft, but firm, asking questions that my own mouth answered enthusiastically. I stopped thinking and became a mass of sensations. The gentle pressure of George’s hands…the feel of hot skin and cold water and sunshine on my back…the cinnamon taste of his mouth. I wrapped my arms around his neck and his hand on my waist became an arm wrapped around me, our bodies pressing into each other.

When George eventually pulled back, I opened my eyes to see his blue ones still inches away from me, their corners crinkled slightly in a smile. I moved my arms and tried to pull away, the rational part of my brain slowly waking up and wondering what in the world had just happened, but George’s arm remained firmly wrapped around my waist.

“Well,” he said.

“Well,” I replied.

As I searched for something not stupid to say, George’s head suddenly dipped slightly, and the arm not wrapped around me snaked behind my knees. I yelped as he scooped me up, then squealed as I found myself launched out of the water. I landed in the water with a splash and emerged laughing.

“Oh, it’s on now.”

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reading...The Little Blue Truck


2241348 Okay, this is a bit of a departure from the books I normally talk about on here, but it's a book I've been reading quite a bit of lately. It was a gift from a dear friend (her toddler's favorite), it's the first book the Munchkin has really shown a preference for, and I have to say I like it a lot myself. It's just a really cute book.
It's a lovely fall day, and a little blue truck drives down a country road. As he bumps along, he says hello (beep! beep! beep!) to all the animals he meets along the way, Before long, a big dump truck barrels along behind, shoving the truck out of the way and too full of his own importance to do more than ignore anyone he sees. So when the dump truck gets stuck in the mud, all the friendly animals develop a suspicious lack of hearing. But the little blue truck comes to help. He pushes as hard as he can, but ends up stuck along with the dump truck. When Little Blue calls for help, all his animal friends come running to help, and together they get the trucks unstuck. Of course, the big dump truck learns a valuable lesson about friendship and being kind, and everyone goes on their way. 
I like that the book emphasizes kindess, friendship, and working together. I love the illustrations. The Little Blue Truck reminds me of my Grandpa Blair, a kind, generous, quiet man who also drove a little truck, and who wouldn't have thought twice about stopping to lend a hand, or taking the time to say hello.  

Friday, January 30, 2015

Watching...Parenthood

Last night was the series finale of the television show Parenthood. I haven't watched this final episode yet...part of me wanted to hold off because I'm sad that there won't be any more episodes but to be honest, part of me was just too tired to stay up. ;-)

If you've never watched Parenthood, you're missing out. The show follows  the lives of the Braverman family -- Zeke and Camille, their grown children Adam, Sarah, Crosby, and Julia, and various spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, and children. It's a show about messy lives, love, careers, illness, the joys of middle school and high school, about starting over, growing up, making mistakes, forgiving and being forgiven. And ultimately, it's about family. The joy and heartache and loyalty of family.

The Braverman's aren't everybody's family, that's for sure. Their loud and obnoxious at times, and I can't count the number of scenes with everyone talking (ok, yelling, let's be honest) at once. I once read a reviewer comment during the first or second season, that there's no problem in the Braverman world that can't be fixed with a meal and some physical activity. Snarky, but true, especially those first couple of seasons. And you know, they're fairly solidly upper middle class, so sometimes the stakes don't seem quite as high in certain situations. As with any show that's on more than a year or two, there are some missteps along the way -- a storyline that goes on to long, a drama that turns into melodrama. I may have wanted to smack every character at least once at some point -- but to me, that's good storytelling, and good acting. The Bravermans and their cohorts seem real and their emotions genuine. I've cried and laughed and cheered and rolled my eyes and yes, even yelled at the television a time or two.

The characters have also grown and evolved throughout the show -- and to me that's one of the highest praises one can bestow on a long story. These people are living life -- experiencing and winning and losing and growing and changing and adapting.

It's not been perfect, but I've enjoyed (almost) every minute. Grab a friend (because it's a show that is even better when shared) and get some good use out of your Netflix or Amazon Prime membership.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blast from the past

One of my all-time favorite fantasy series is The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. In the first book, The Thief, King Sounis's most powerful advisor releases a young thief from prison to help him find and steal a great treasure. Eugenides -- Gen -- is cocky, brash, whiny, surprisingly clever, a genuinely amazing thief, and much more than meets the eye. (confession: throughout this series, I may or may not have developed a wicked book-crush on Gen) Although the first book in the series starts out as simply Gen's story, what opens up is the story of a corner of the world, reminiscent of the Classical period. There are several countries in play, each with their own rulers, gods, political schemes, and agendas. The books are smart and intricate. Loyalty, love, ambition, duty, desire, sacrifice. There is intrigue and plot twists.

Bottom line: if you're in a reading slump or burnt out on "new" books...reach for this excellent series.

p.s. because I'm not feeling very verbose today, if you're interested but not convinced, here's a longer review of the series at The Book Smugglers.