Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Woodcutter - Kate Danley

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I picked up The Woodcutter:  a new kind of fairy tale, maybe; or maybe something more lyrical, similar to the work of Patricia McKillip or Robin McKinley.  What I got was something else entirely -- a sort of private-eye noir tale, set in the world of make-believe.

The Woodcutter of the title is the main character.  He is an enchanted being who is sort of the one-man detective force of fairyland.  If bad stuff happens, he's called in -- and he must leave his mortal wife for however long it takes to solve the case.  As the book opens, he hasn't been called into service for many years.  But now a young woman is found dead in the forest, and a glass slipper nearby is a giveaway to her identity. 

To help the Woodcutter find her killer, the River God gives him three magical axes, but he must complete the God's challenge in order to receive them.  If he cannot solve the case before he has used up all the axes, he is doomed never to solve it.  Eventually, he uncovers a surprisingly brisk trade in pixie dust (and the heartbreaking way it's being harvested), and it becomes clear that a power-mad faerie queen is at the heart of the trouble.  What will put everything right at last?  Oh, please; if you've seen "Sleeping Beauty," you know the answer.

I looked over some of this book's reviews at Goodreads to refresh my memory before starting this post.  Some of the critics didn't like the way Danley pulled so many fairy tales into the story.  Having a history of creating mythological mashups myself, I wasn't bothered by that.  No, what bothered me about the book was the voice.  A book peopled with fairy tale characters requires a bit of whimsy, I think, but there was nothing whimsical in Danley's just-the-facts-ma'am narration.  It seemed a little cold and off-putting for the setting.

Also, the scene with the River God wasn't set up at all.  Typically in fairy tales, either the main character makes some sort of statement about why he's pursuing X, or another character advises him that he needs X in order to accomplish Y.  Here, it became clear eventually that the Woodcutter needed the River God for something, but I had no idea what it was until after he obtained the axes.  A little bit of explanation up front would have helped me enjoy the scene more.

One other thing: The chapters were exceedingly short.  Chapter length is certainly the author's prerogative, but many of these chapters felt like scenes that could have been combined into a longer chapter.  A chapter break interrupts the narrative flow, and I found that to be a bit of a problem here.

As a mystery, The Woodcutter was somewhat entertaining.  Just don't expect a fairy tale.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fezariu's Epiphany - David M. Brown

I guess that since I reviewed a book by one-half of the Tweedlers last week, I ought to review one by the other half.
If I gave stars for these reviews, I would give David Brown five stars out of five for world-building without a second thought.  He has spent more than ten years creating and embellishing the history of Elenchera, the fantasy world where his "Elencheran Chronicles" are set, and it shows.  Brown's land is rich with detail and robust with a sense of its own history.

In this book, we follow a man named Fezariu from a happy childhood, through the death of his mother, to his career in the Merelax Mercenaries.  A mission with the mercenaries brings him to his mother's hometown, where he discovers that she didn't die, after all.  Fezariu then must decide whether to take revenge on the man who stole his mother, and his childhood, from him.

The plot is interesting, the world-building is awesome...but.  You know by now, if you've read my other reviews, that I have a problem with third person omniscient point of view. I call it the "little did they know..." point of view, because it can tempt the author into telling more than showing.  Here's one example:  In my opinion, the book would have been stronger if the reader had learned of Fezariu's mother's past as Fezariu himself learned of it.  The way the novel is currently structured, by the time Fezariu gets to the brothel, the reader is not consumed with a desire to find out what happens next; instead, the reader is dreading Fezariu's reaction when he finds out where, and what, his mother has been all this time.  Plus we are robbed of the sense of discovery, of putting two-and-two together and getting that "aha!" moment that's part of the pleasure of reading.

Another problem with third person omniscient in epic fantasy is that the author can be tempted to throw in more details about the world than are strictly necessary to the story.  I saw some of that in this book.  Of course, third person limited can go the other way and not give the reader quite enough information to find his or her feet (*cough*Malazan*cough*).  But a good editor can help an author find the sweet spot between those two extremes.

I also think a capable editor could strengthen the narrative in Fezariu's Epiphany.  Probably one-third to one-half of the adjectives and adverbs could be cut, and stronger verbs used in their place.  But that might be a matter of taste.  You know me -- I loves me some action verbs.

To sum up, Fezariu's Epiphany is a first book that shows promise, but needs some work.  And I'm looking forward to returning to Elenchera in Brown's second book, A World Apart.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Double-Take Tales - Donna Brown

Donna Brown, for those of you who don't know it, is a champion of indie authors.  I got involved in the winter of 2011-2012 with her brainchild, which was then known as Adopt an Indie. Later, AAI morphed into The Indie Exchange, a website and blog featuring tips and advice for both indie authors and the book bloggers who unselfishly promote their work.

But even if you're aware of all that, you may not know that Donna dabbles in writing herself.  Double-take Tales is a collection of three short stories, each just long enough to read on the bus on the way to work, and each with a twist at the end that I, at least, didn't see coming.

My favorite of the three is probably the first one, "Round Trip," which follows the route of a five-pound note (Donna's British, okay?).  The other two stories are called "Poison," in which a woman realizes her husband's nut allergy could be the answer to her prayers; and "C'est la Vie," in which a murderer thinks she's gotten away with the perfect crime.  I wasn't wholly satisfied with the ending of "C'est la Vie," but I won't tell you why because it would give it all away.  And that would, of course, defeat the purpose of the book.

Double-Take Tales is a very short read -- just 16 pages on my Nook -- and I'd say it's worth its 99-cent price tag.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Benediction - Kent Haruf

(I originally posted this review at

Kent Haruf is one of my favorite authors.  His spare prose is perfect for the plain, small-town folks who people his novels, and their stories are compelling for all their simplicity.

It's giving nothing away to tell you that the main character in Benediction, Dad Lewis, is dying; he receives the diagnosis on the book's very first page.  His reaction, and that of his wife and daughter, make up much of the book.  But their friends' lives, and the lives of those with whom they come in contact, also come into play here.  And just like anyone else, Dad Lewis has regrets, and that's a theme of the novel as well.

Benediction is an unsentimental, yet very moving, depiction of the end of a good man's life.  I'd rank it right up there with Plainsong as one of Haruf's best books.