Sunday, 31 March 2013

Review: City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that was both fantasy and a murder mystery, so in this regard City of a Thousand Dolls was quite unique. Miriam Forster also gets bonus points for keeping me guessing about the identity of the murderer until the very end of the story. I love trying to figure out a good murder plot, so I was impressed with her slight of hand on this, especially seeing as she dropped all the necessary clues.

This isn’t a fast-paced book with lots of action, rather the author spends her time weaving together a cast of compelling characters with a colourful and richly textured setting. There is a lot of description in City of a Thousand Dolls, especially concerning clothing. Though this slowed the story down a bit for me, it contributed to the vivid Asian-influenced atmosphere of the book, which was ultimately its biggest strength.

While City of a Thousand Dolls is a mystery, at its heart it’s about the issue of independence and respect. The girls living in the city are orphans training in various cultural arts that will make them suitable wives, mistresses, or assistants. The plot works its way toward the Redeeming, a ceremony in which wealthy men (and sometimes women) can purchase them. The society in which they live operates on the caste system and while the City of a Thousand Dolls provides a means for castoff girls to survive, it also perpetuates the immoral practice of selling young women and sentencing them to lives they did not choose.

The main character, Nisha, serves as an assistant to the Matron of the City of a Thousand Dolls, and as more girls are killed, she is secretly assigned the task of investigating the deaths. While she tries to solve the mystery of who is murdering her fellow students, she also discovers some important details about her own obscure background. The question of Nisha’s fate following the Redeeming is also central to the plot. Her desire for freedom and to be treated as more than a nobody made me sympathetic to her plight. I admired her determination to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, even if it meant putting her own life at risk. I also enjoyed her bizarre telepathic relationship with the cats that roam the City of a Thousand Dolls.

In addition to the revelation of the murderer, there was another plot twist that took me COMPLETELY by surprise. In fact, I read that segment twice, because I was so dumbfounded for a moment. This particular reveal was my favourite part of the book.  Just as with the murder clues, the author played fair with her hints about this as well. And that is all I’m going to say about that…

If you like reading books with strong female characters, detailed description, and are intrigued by a mash up of fantasy and murder mystery, then City of a Thousand Dolls might be just the story for you.

*Note: I would advise not reading the cast of characters listed at the start if you can help it. I happened to flip there when I was partway done the book and found it was a bit spoilery concerning a couple characters. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

More Mug Matches and Crazy Characters

So you might have noticed I've added a tab for my mug and book matches. I had so much fun with the project that I decided it should be an ongoing thing. I've actually started referring to my mugs by the titles of the books I paired them with. I know. Weird. Anyway, during my weekend travels, I happened to find two more to add to the list. One actually isn't a mug, but the vintage-looking glass was so darn pretty and matched one of my books so well that I couldn't resist. It's for drinking beverages, so I figure that's enough to qualify. And it was bought at a bookstore, which makes it seem all the more appropriate.

Here are my latest matches:

And speaking of beverages, after a nice glass of Merlot last night, the words started flowing and my current WIP was swept in a direction that totally surprised me. While I furiously scribbled down a large chunk of a particular scene (in red pen oddly enough), I was more or less gobsmacked by my own characters and what they decided to do. This came out of nowhere and was exactly the type of thing I needed to shake up my plot. The crazy thing is that this scene was an afterthought. It wasn't even in my original outline (I'm a planner, not a pantser) and it's become one of the most crucial scenes in the story. Don't you love how you'll think you have it all figured out and then BAM the creative process throws you for a loop?

Monday, 25 March 2013

Blog Blitz

Click here for more information

Just a quick post to say I’ve decided to take part in the Blog Blitz created by DL Hammons. It looks like a great way to encourage other aspiring writers and make new connections. Imagine how fun it would be to find over a hundred comments on your blog one day, or to covertly bombard another blogger’s site with support. If you’d like to join in or just feel curious, head over to DL's blog for more details and the signup list.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Movie Magic About a Beautiful Book

Even though it’s a cartoon, one of my absolute favourite movies is The Secret of Kells. We first saw it at a vintage theatre in our area, and it has since become a family tradition to watch it every St. Patrick’s Day. The plot surrounds the Book of Kells, a sacred text illuminated by monks, and also incorporates elements of Celtic mythology. The result is a charming and vibrant blend of Irish history.

The main character, Brendan (who looks like a cartoon version of my son), is given the rare opportunity to work on the renowned Book of Kells, though he’s just a boy and has little experience with the art of illumination. His passion for the book meets disapproval from his uncle, the abbot. Preoccupied with building a wall around their monastery to protect against Viking attacks, his uncle feels Brendan’s time would be better spent aiding in the construction efforts. Brendan’s desire to work on his own project leads him not only to defy his uncle but into the forest surrounding the monastery where he has been strictly forbidden to go. There he meets Aisling, a mischievous fairy, who assists him in various aspects of his quest to work on and protect the Book of Kells. 

I’m not exaggerating when I say that every frame of The Secret of Kells is a piece of art. The term “eye candy” doesn’t even come close to expressing how gorgeous this movie is. Its style is sometimes amusing but also hauntingly beautiful, and there’s something simultaneously simple and intricate about it. The detail is astounding, for example each snowflake is designed to look like a falling Celtic knot, and yet there’s an almost childlike charm to the animation. Perhaps what I find most fascinating about this movie is that it was created to reflect the book at the centre of its story. The movie itself often looks like an illuminated manuscript, a tribute to its subject, and a wonderful way to “show not tell.”

While the book that inspired the movie is a sacred text, the messages expressed by the characters extend to all good works of literature:

If there were no books, all knowledge would be lost for eternity,” says one of the monks, while another insists, “The people must have books so that they may have hope.”

As a writer, I must say I heartily agree!  I will always, always choose books over movies, but how can I not love a movie that actually extols the virtues of books?  And this is precisely the type of movie kids should see: creative, imaginative, and altogether magical (though definitely a bit scary in parts for the wee ones.) If you haven’t ever watched The Secret of Kells, next St. Patty’s Day give yourself an Irish treat that’s a whole lot more satisfying than green beer. Your imagination will thank you!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Review: Splintered by A.G. Howard

The story on the pages of Splintered is every bit as colourful as the cover. Weirdness abounds in this fun tale, and considering its predecessor, this is exactly as it should be. To be clear, Splintered is not technically a retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, rather it’s a darker and more macabre revisiting of Lewis Carroll’s world.  A.G. Howard manages to capture the wacky essence of Wonderland while putting her own twist on the setting and characters.

Alyssa Gardner, the protagonist of Splintered, has the ability to hear insect and plant voices. This is a red flag that, like her mother, she has inherited the mental illness that plagues the female descendants of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s main character. Naturally, Alyssa discovers that Wonderland is a real place and that this legacy of madness is inexplicably tied to it. In an adventure that incorporates strange childhood dreams, storybook relics, and many bizarre characters, Alyssa attempts to set things right in Wonderland and by doing so save her mother (and herself) from the grip of insanity. She finds herself embroiled in the dangerous political games of Wonderland where very little makes sense, and it seems that everyone she meets is spinning lies or using her for their own devices.

Though the story is largely based on fantasy, I found Alyssa’s struggles to be believable, especially her worries over succumbing to mental illness like her mother.  She made mistakes but learned from them, and I felt like she genuinely cared for the people in her life, demonstrated by the way she risked her own safety to help those she loves. As much as Alyssa’s journey through Wonderland was about saving her mother, even more so it was about gaining confidence in herself and discovering her own identity. She also had to piece together her past in order to figure out her future. There’s a bit of mystery in this aspect of the story, which I found intriguing.

I also enjoyed Alyssa’s relationship with Jeb, the skateboarding artist next door who has been her best friend and crush for years. Jeb unwittingly gets sucked into Alyssa’s adventures in Wonderland, and the issues in their “friendship” gradually and sometimes uncomfortably unfold during their perilous quest.

The other major player in the story is Morpheus, but I really can’t give many details about him without spoiling. I’ll only say that he’s a very creative spin on one of Lewis Carroll’s original characters and that he’s also partly based on Brandon Lee’s character in The Crow.  While Morpheus was very unusual and entertaining, I have to admit I was rooting for Jeb in terms of the love triangle. After reading some other reviews, I seem to be in the minority on this one. Alas, I cannot make my case without giving specifics from the book.

To sum up, Splintered is one of those stories where you really have no idea what’s coming next, because it’s so off the wall. In that regard, it's much like the original which I actually read not all that long ago with my son (and yes, we had our own Mad Hatter tea party). The picture to the right is my lovely copy. Splintered has romance, adventure, creepiness, crazy characters, and a brilliant setting.  And as an added bonus, it may have the prettiest cover of any book released this year. Originally, Splintered wasn’t on my Debut Author Challenge list, but the cover and some great reviews made me “curiouser and curiouser” until I just had to check it out. I’m glad I did.