Sunday, September 28, 2014

GoodReads Review: Spells and Swashbucklers

Spells and SwashbucklersSpells and Swashbucklers by Valerie Griswold-Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I had stopped reading this anthology about halfway through, I would have described it as a solid but unexceptional collection of stories - only one or two duds, but nothing that particularly grabbed my attention, either, with the exception of A.D.R. Forte's "The Goddess Clause," which had a very satisfying fleshed-out fairytale feel. Right about "William Did" (Erik Amundsen), though - the terrible pun-ness / rhyming-ness of the title and content notwithstanding - the quality of the stories takes an upturn. The remaining stories in the anthology are in general much richer, with some inventive worlds and unusual circumstances.

In general, I think this anthology suffers from the fact that many of these stories feel like - and in a handful of cases, actually are - sequels, but they don't quite satisfy as they are. The strongest stories are those that contain a complete arc, including the chilling "The Vengeance Garden" (Laurel Anne Hill).

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Sunday Snippet: Wine and Chocolate

It's been a while since I've posted an excerpt since - until recently - I've been working on novel-length projects, which are too far along to pick an excerpt that isn't a spoiler, requires a lot of explanation, or both.

But for today, I'd like to share the opening of a new story I'm working on, inspired by:  my research on wine and religion; the medical properties that, historically, people used to believe that chocolate (as a drink) had; and an aspect of the opening scenario of the television show The Last Ship.  I've also just finished my Latin Cuisine course, so I have that area of the world on the brain.

That melange of inspirations has become Wine & Chocolate:

I leaned against the Necessity’s rail, my fingers tracing the grain of my ancestors, and squinted into the fog.  While the dark bulk of the city assured me that Port Diovana had not been swallowed by the earth, no firefly lights sparkled in the gloom to greet us.

“Odd thing, isn’t it, Captain?”  Arojin Feneli, my first mate, spoke in a low voice.  His softness made me more uneasy than the content of his words.  “Never seen a city so still.”

“Neither have I.”  I shook off the unease.  It had been a long journey back to civilization after a pack of privateers had chased us deep into the Evershifting Islands.  After that unwelcome adventure, I was probably just borrowing trouble.  “Tell Nip to stay sharp.”

Arojin nodded and moved off to flag the tiny girl – my cabin girl and lookout.  Nip, who had always looked a bit like a scruffy monkey with tawny hair that spiked down the center of her brow, now looked better kept than most of us:  she had grown up in rags and cast-offs and knew how to carry herself in them.  Arojin took pride in his sculpted black beard, the height of Tavellan fashion, but hadn’t been able to trim it since the ship’s last mirror broke in a storm.

I joined the navigator at the helm as the ship glided into the fog.  “Lane lanterns are out,” I observed.  “Think you can do this by feel, Vassar?”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

In honor of my final week as a pastry student - after this week, I will be calling myself a pastry chef, though I will still be a culinary student working on my associates - I present a feast (or is that a library?) of culinary to fiction parallels:

If the final product is too staged and composed, it is unappealing.  In plated presentations, a bit of randomness catches the eye; in display cakes, gum-paste flowers and leaves look more real when occasionally torn (my chef recommends putting in a puncture mark 'bug bite' now and then); and in fiction, the best tales have a bit of real life's messiness.

The dish you are eating is made of both what you can see - fruits, nuts, lamb - and what you (usually) can't - herbs, spices, and in the case of baked goods, baking powder, yeast, and other invisible ingredients that are crucial to structure.  There's also a lot going on in fiction that goes beyond the casual read and between the lines.

If you play a trick on someone - bread that looks like a carrot; blue food - there are people who will appreciate it, and people who will have to suppress the urge to smash the plate over your head, and the response only partially depends on how clever you are.  I don't think I have to elaborate how this applies to trick endings in fiction.  ;-)

You can make a gorgeous, soaring sugar-piece or beautiful gum-paste blooms to accent a pastry piece, but none of that matters if the cake is two inches tall because you don't know how to properly emulsify a batter.  (Sponge cakes rise in large part because you are incorporating air into the batter.)  In fiction, spinge-tingling prose and intriguing plotlines fall apart without basic grammar and punctuation.

You have to know the rules before you break them.  See above:  blue is typically not used (via dye or other methods) because there are no true blue foods.  Blueberries are actually more purple.  But certain cultures traditionally have blue plates, and it can be quite effective when used correctly.  I don't even know that I can pick out a single writing rule to apply this to:  there are times when it's very effective to tell, not show, or to use passive voice to convey a feeling of helplessness, or ...

And there's one parallel where I feel it's most appropriate to start with the writing aphorism, because it is one of the most infuriating and misunderstood bits of advice in the author's world:  write what you know.  More properly, this should be "know what you write."

I am one quarter Welsh, one quarter Italian, and a random dollop of Scottish, Scots-Irish, German, Swedish and ... oh, never mind, I've lost track.  The fact is, I am ridiculously European, and until relatively late in life, I had no experience with Indian cuisine.  That hasn't stopped me from cooking Indian food, but I've spent a lot of time becoming familiar with the spice profiles and understanding the philosophy behind certain flavor combinations.  I can confidently say now that I could "invent" an Indian style dish, but if I had tried when I first started cooking?  It would have rung hollow.

So ... know what you write, know what you cook:  know your inspirations.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

Fiction, like the real world, is supposed to be messy.  It is, however, a continuum:  if fiction were as chaotic, random and often pointless as reality, readers would revolt.  On the other hand, a story where all the pieces fit neatly into place and everything has a purpose feels too contrived, too convenient.  It breaks our suspension of disbelief.

I have a pet peeve with prequel stories, mainly illustrated by film examples.  For me, I find myself pulled out of the story when the prequel tries to explain / incorporate everything.  Isn't it awfully convenient that the complexities of the now-time story can be contained within this one episode?  To me, rather than illuminating mysteries and revealing new facets, it makes the fictional world feel smaller.

(My personal examples:  White Collar and the prequel episode that finally shows Neal's relationship with Kate; the Spartacus prequel series.)

A related issue is the amount of content in a story that isn't strictly necessary.  Once again, I feel moved to offer a culinary metaphor.  I hope y'all will forgive me.

We're told to cut fat off our stories - but fat is what provides flavor.  Lean pieces of meat are frequently wrapped in or threaded with fat while cooking to ensure taste.  When hunting for a quality piece of meat, we look for marbling.  And what does marbling represent?  That, my friends, is intramuscular fat.  In the fictional world, I suppose that would be "unnecessary" detail that fits so smoothly in with the story the writer is telling that it never stands out.

This may be why I've never had much luck with shorter stories.  I do luck upon them occasionally:  She's Unable To Lunch Today, which I just finished, runs about 2800 words ... but even that tale has some detail that doesn't pertain directly to the story and characters at hand.  I just find it difficult to narrow my focus to only the essential elements.  There's so much just around the corner, and it only takes a heartbeat to take a peek ...

By contrast, this has served me well in Unnatural Causes.  It makes for a great method of generating red herrings.

I feel the urge to extend the culinary metaphor once again, but I hate fish.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

Because I've been in no less than three baking and pastry courses, two of which allow a fair amount of artistic freedom, a lot of my observations on creativity lately have related to the culinary field.  It's not so unrelated to my writing as I originally assumed, though, and I've found a lot of parallels and similarities.

Dessert plating, which takes into account color, shape, texture and taste, and includes at minimum a main component, a sauce and a garnish.  (I suppose you could stretch the metaphor and say that ... no, you couldn't, because I'm reluctant to say that "plot" is automatically the main component, or relegate "setting" to the garnish.  But I digress.)  As I've progressed through my coursework, I've learned some things about my plating style:

I don't like overly complex, cluttered plating with multiple elements that serve only a decorative purpose.  (Read:  purple prose.  ;-)  See also:  stories that go out of their way to be clever and experimental.  No, I am not bashing either of these things in themselves, but I have read stories where it seems like the author's only purpose is to be "weird," and everything else has gotten lost.  The experiment should serve the story, not the other way around.)

I don't like plate design to be overly regimented or organized.  A little chaos / messiness / randomness is very appealing to me.  (Stories, especially in the shorter category, can be *too* neat and tidy.  Life is messy, and fantastic worlds reflect this.)

I like abstract designs and odd shapes.  (I wouldn't call myself an experimental writer, but I definitely trend to tackling odd topics and dealing with them faithfully.)

I have trouble conceptualizing the design of a plate in my head.  To really discern what I want to do, I need to have all the potential elements laid out, where I can physically play with them a bit before plating.  (This is also how I write:  I create in-depth character and world profiles so I have all the pieces developed in technicolor, but I do very little plotting in advance.)

You can never have enough sorbet or ice cream.  (In fiction, I ...

Nope, I got nothing.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Goodreads Review: The Viognier Vendetta

The Viognier Vendetta (Wine Country Mysteries #5)The Viognier Vendetta by Ellen Crosby
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When vineyard owner Lucie Montgomery receives a phone call out of nowhere from her tempestuous friend Rebecca - who she hasn't seen in twelve years - she finds herself drawn into a web of lies, betrayal and coded messages buried within poetry.

I picked up this book by accident: I was actually looking for non-fiction books on Viognier. However, I love a good mystery with an amateur sleuth, so I decided to take a chance on it. It has all the right elements - lies, intrigue, an evocative setting, excellent pacing - and I really wanted to like it, but it fell short for me in too many places.

The first thing that stood out to me is how much the descriptive and historical passages read like a tourist guidebook. The infodumping took me right out of Lucie's point of view and made me feel as if I was learning about the places secondhand, rather than actually being there.

Second, there's the romantic subplot. It may be an unfortunate side effect with coming in at the fifth or so book in a long-running series of this subgenre, but I briefly found myself wondering if the main character had slept with every male we would be introduced to. The actual interactions with Quinn are disappointing and frustrating: there seems very little reason for her to be attached to him except that he's good in bed, and as a reader, I never really felt the heat between them. So much of their apparent problems could be cleared up by honest conversation and never were. It was throw-the-book infuriating.

I really did enjoy the way Crosby set the scene, introduced us to characters, speculated on their motives, and gave us loose ends to puzzle upon. The novel was also nicely paced: for all its flaws, it kept me turning pages. (I had the same reaction to The DaVinci Code, so I suppose it is in good company!) However, the final revelation as to the killer disappointed me. It was a very straightforward mystery with few twists and turns as to whodunnit. The answer wasn't a surprise, and not in a positive way.

Finally, considering that this is Lucie's fifth endeavor into the realm of murder and mayhem, I expected her to be more proactive. She was fairly passive throughout, allowing other characters and their actions to push her into motion.

Overall, it was a decent read, but I was disappointed.

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