My roommate, Rita, decided to punish me for not being lazy enough by making me watch Cats with her. I think she was looking for an excuse to rope me into it. Anyway, I knew I wasn’t going to like the movie, because I read the reviews and I saw parts of the Broadway play on YouTube. I actually went through a phase where I watched/ read bad reviews of this poor movie for fun. (What that says about me, I don’t know.) But, at any rate, I finally saw Cats, so I can have an opinion.
Let’s just say, I’m not a fan.
Cats is the 2019 movie adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name, popular in the 1980s. A recently abandoned cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) finds herself in the midst of a tribe of Jellicle cats who are having their Jellicle ball. One cat will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, where they will be reborn into a new life. While cats sing and dance and make their case, an evil cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) kidnaps the participants for his own nefarious purpose. Meanwhile Victoria befriends Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), an old glamour cat who has been ostracized by the Jellicles and wishes for acceptance and a better life.
If my summary makes it sound like Cats has a plot, I apologize, because it really does not. Cats is an excuse for song and dance--dance, mostly. Aside from “Memory,” the one song everyone knows, and “Beautiful Ghosts,” the new Taylor Swift song embedded in the movie, most of the songs are adapted from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” These poem-songs are whimsical, but don’t really have the emotional highs and lows. For most of the movie, the cats introduce themselves. The dancing is good, but, honestly, I don’t like dancing much, and I get bored of straight singing. I watch movies for stories. I like plot and character. This was why I was against watching the movie. I already knew there was not going to be a plot, and without a plot, why even bother?
It turned out I wasn’t as bored as I thought I’d be, but not for the right reasons. There were so many story errors and questionable artistic choices, that my writer’s brain went into overdrive analyzing the mistakes and trying hard to fix them. By the end I was alternating between screaming into my pillow and bursting into uncontrollable laughter. At least Cats made me feel something. I can’t fault the movie for that.
Title: Half a Soul (Regency Faerie Tales Book 1)
Author: Olivia Atwater
Genre: Regency Romance, Fairy Tale Fantasy
Dora Ettings knows she will never be married. As a child, a faerie lord tried to steal her soul; he only got away with half of it. Since that day, Dora has never been able to act normally. She says the wrong things and feels very slightly, if at all. But her beautiful cousin Vanessa has a plan to cure her. Elias Wilder, the young Lord Sorcier, is the best magician in England; surely, he can find a way to make her whole.
Vanessa arranges for a trip to London, where Dora crosses paths with the cantankerous Lord Sorcier and his friend Albert. Although Elias has a great contempt for polite society, he is interested in what ails Dora. In the midst of society balls, marriage plots, and a mysterious plague, Dora and Elias grow closer. To the outside world it almost seems like the Lord Sorcier is courting the strange Miss Ettings. But Dora knows the truth: his attentions to her have only to do with case. For how could the most powerful magician in England fall in love with a woman with only half a soul?
I happened across Half a Soul randomly on Amazon, but I like regency romance (in the vein of Jane Austen) and I like fantasy, so it seemed like a good fit. I sampled the first chapter, and I was engaged with Dora’s plight from the beginning. I was curious to see how a character with half a soul would act and how her romance might unfold. The day I began reading in earnest, I was feeling drained and overwhelmed. I read the entire book without stop and finished it in a few hours. The next morning, I re-read my all favorite bits, which turned out to be most of the book. I found Half a Soul to be, not just entertaining, but also healing and restorative. It made me feel good.
One of the reasons why it was so easy for me to read was because I connected to Dora early on. After the faerie drains her passion, Dora becomes dreamy and erratic and can’t quite function in normal society. (I feel you, girl. Same here.) She is often insulted and treated poorly by those closest to her, and her response is subdued. Yet even though she doesn’t feel strongly, she does feel. In fact, she has a great capacity for caring, which comes out more and more during the course of the story.
Dora’s strangeness actually helps her during her first encounter with Elias, the Lord Sorcier. Elias has a reputation for impropriety, and boy, does he earn it, acting downright rude to Dora the first time he sees her. Dora is barely bothered by his insults and holds her own with witty comebacks. The relationship between Dora and Elias, which begins with verbal sparring, gradually becomes sweet and warm, as Dora learns more about Elias and comes to understand the depth of his character. The Lord Sorcier is a man of passion and ideals, unhappy with the ways of the world.
Note: This review was previously published on my previous blog on September 15, 2013.
Title: The Skinjacker Trilogy: Everlost, Everwild, Everfound
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Supernatural, Urban Fantasy, YA
A white Toyota slams into a black Mercedes, and just like that, Nick and Allie are dead. But something happens on their way to the light. Their souls collide, and they spin into Everlost, a parallel dimension hovering on the border between life and death. Here, child ghosts wander through deadspots--destroyed places that have "crossed over" into Everlost--and Skinjackers possess humans to remember what it felt like to be alive.
To Mary Hightower, Everlost is the only eternal place, more real than the living world. It is her duty to gather and nurture new souls like Allie and Nick. But Allie doesn't trust Mary. Plunging headfirst into a world of monsters and secrets, Allie and Nick soon learn that all is not what it seems and sometimes those souls with the best intentions may be the ones to destroy the world.
Although Everlost exists parallel to the living world, it might as well be its own realm. Like any well-built fantasy, the protagonists must learn the rules of their new world, develop their powers, and confront villains who wish to dominate and destroy. Since I write epic fantasy, this is all in my wheelhouse and I have to say I found it greatly amusing. Though the point of view was third person omniscient, the author mostly kept inside the character's head, drifting away only to offer key bits of explanation to the audience. This allowed the book to run at a fast pace.
I, personally, judge an author by the quality of their villains, and Mr. Shusterman writes them just the way I like: full of empathy. The antagonists may do horrible things, but they never lose their humanity. In the end, they're tragic figures, presented with the choice of changing or clinging to what they think they desire. Some crossover to become heroes, while others lose themselves forever.
Allie and Nick both find love--but surprisingly not with each other. Their separate romantic arcs illustrate the power and limitations of love and its ability to change people. I'm picky with my love stories, but these two hit all my favorite buttons. The romance strengthened the characters rather than weakened them and did not take away from the plot. The emphasis was on emotional (and dare I say spiritual) connection rather than physical. A bittersweet edge ran through the romance, for as pure as the love might be, when your characters are ghosts, you know happily ever after is out.
The Skinjacker Trilogy hits all my preferences right on the nose, so how can I help but to recommend it? It's a weird, fun, and solid adventure series from Neal Shusterman, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I’m so pleased and proud to announce that my third novel, Company, will be published on September 5, 2020, available as an e-book on Amazon. Priced at $4.99, it’s less than a specialty coffee at Starbucks and will stay with you longer. A physical print version of the book will be coming out in October this year. If you don't mind, I’d like to tell you a little about what Company is and why I’m so proud of it.
Company tells the tale of an unlikely friendship between an amnesiac ghost and an abandoned imaginary friend. As a ghost, Curtis is trapped in Thornfield Manor, a beautiful, but isolated house in the California mountains. Bored and alone, his memories are slowly falling away, including the memory of his death. One day, a stranger arrives at Thornfield Manor. After her parents died, Charlotte created an imaginary friend and “sister” named Jenny to deal with her depression. But after Jenny develops a mind of her own, Charlotte is desperate to get rid of her. Charlotte dumps Jenny at Thornfield Manor. As the only two beings who can see and interact with each other, Curtis and Jenny strike up a quick friendship. Jenny is determined to solve the mystery of Curtis’s death and help him cross over. But Curtis worries: if he does cross over, what will become of Jenny?
I’m proud of Company, because I put my heart and soul into writing this beautiful and thought-provoking story. It has a little bit of mystery, a little bit of romance, and a little bit of philosophy. It’s an emotional book, and some scenes will leave you feeling choked up, but it has a sweet ending that I hope will make you smile. Company is the kind of book I’d imagine someone reading on a vacation in the mountains, sitting outside a log cabin in the cool of the morning, with a hot mug of coffee or tea or hot cocoa.
Believe it or not, I came up with the idea for a ghost and an imaginary friend back in 2012. At that time, I wasn’t sure if the idea was strong enough to be sustained for a whole novel. So, in 2013, I decided to write it for National Novel Writing Month, an event that challenges you to write 200 pages in 30 days. To my surprise, I completed an entire rough draft of Company in a month. But I got stalled on revision for many years. Then in 2018, a tumultuous and uncertain year for me, I looked at Company again and found new inspiration. For the next two years, I began revising it whole-heartedly, using all my skill as a writer to hone and polish my vision. I hope that when you read it, you’ll get swept up in the characters, the friendship they form, and the journey they make together.
Unlike most novels I’ve written in, Company takes place in the real world (California) and in modern times (2019), so it is more accessible to people who are less inclined toward traditional fantasy. It is best for teens and adults; younger children probably won’t be interested in it. Company has a few curse words and deals with death, and for those reasons, I’d put it at a PG-13 rating.
If you decide that you want to buy Company, it is available for pre-order right now--just click on the button below to reserve your copy. If you need more information, I have the first chapter available on my blog. Over the next few weeks, I hope to add a more sample chapters and bonus features that share my experience writing this novel. If, however, you decide this is not the book for you, that’s okay, too. I appreciate you listening to me with an open mind.
I know from experience that certain books can hit you in a way that stays with you for the way of your life. It’s my hope that, for some readers out there, Company may be that book. However, finding those readers is still a struggle for me. As an independent author, I don’t have a big marketing team, so I need all the help I can get in order to spread the word. If you think of anyone who might like this story, please send them this link. Or, if you have a social media account (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), please post there. Thank you again. I appreciate your love and support.
Sincerely, Rebecca Lang
A Certain Slant of Light is A Heart-Wrenchingly Beautiful Tale About Love, Language, and the Human Spirit
Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, YA?
A long time ago, Helen died, but her soul did not make it into Heaven. For over a century, she has existed as a ghost and a writerly muse, attaching herself from one literary figure to the next, watching their lives but never being more than a whisper in their ear. Helen’s latest haunt is an English teacher and aspiring writer named Mr. Brown. One day, as Helen stands beside him in his English class, a boy notices her.
The boy is not what he appeared. James died as a young man and also became a ghost, but very recently, he discovered he could enter an “empty” body. Possessing a high school boy named Billy gives him access to the world again and allows him to see Helen. As the two ghosts begin a whirlwind romance, Helen wonders if she, too, can enter a body and be with James. After so much time spent watching in the distance, is it possible that Helen can once again partake in life?
It has been a long time since I read a book I unabashedly loved. But that is how I felt about A Certain Slant of Light. It is sweet and romantic, full of yearnings and emotions, with beautiful prose and a genuine affection for words and literature. I loved Helen and James. I loved their old-fashioned courtship and their passionate yet somehow innocent romance. This rendered the second half of the book hard to read, as the tension started to ramp up and I became genuinely afraid of what might happen to them. But, though it took a lot of pain and struggle to get there, the ending was happy and left me as a pile of mush, basking in emotion.
This an excerpt from a fantasy/ romance/ historical fiction I've been working on during quarantine. In an alternate version of America, where magic is commonplace, a witch and wizard have adventures as they travel the country in pursuit of magic and gradually fall in love. Right now, I call this story Hazel and Saul, after my main characters, but the title is subject to change. This is a second draft, which means it's pretty early on in the writing process. I haven't added a lot of details and description, and the prose is rough. This scene takes early in the story, when the title characters first meet.
Hazel Meets Saul
Pennsylvania, October 1870
He was worse than a peddler. The wizard stood at the gate of her aunt’s house, banging on the door for a good ten minutes. Hazel could tell he was a wizard by the gaudy purple cloak he wore, popular among only the lowest rung of that profession. Hazel had made the mistake of peeking out through the window to see what was making the noise. Unfortunately, he’d seen her, and his rapping had only grown more furious.
“Miss Blackwood! Miss Blackwood!” he cried.
Hazel pressed her hands to the side of her head. She had a terrible headache and his pounding on the gate only made it worse. She’d been sick these last three days and wanted nothing more than to curl up and rest. But here was this annoying creature, disturbing her peace.
“Miss Blackwood! A word, please! Just a word!”
Hazel sighed. From his voice he sounded rather young. Young and full of energy and shamelessly relentless. She decided she wasn’t going to get rid of him, so she put on her cloak and bonnet and hobbled out. It was cold and chilly, and the wind on her face made her shiver, despite the warmth of her cloak. She walked down the path through the front yard until she reached the gate.
“Ah, Miss Blackwood!” The wizard sounded relieved. “Thank you for your indulgence. I crave but a moment of our time. You are Miss Blackwood, are you not?”
“I am, but--”
“My name,” he said with a flouncy and exaggerated bow, “is Solomon Felix Zephyrus, an apprentice wizard of distinction, and I have a proposal for--”
He stopped and blinked. He leaned forward and stared at her face, as if seeing it for the first time.
“You’re young,” he said, with some dismay.
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: YA, Literary, Fantasy
Elizabeth Hall is dead. She died when her bicycle was hit by a cab, a senseless accident, and when she awakes, she finds herself on a boat taking her to Elsewhere--the afterlife. Elsewhere is a society similar to our own, except that here everyone ages backwards and once they become a baby, they will be sent back to earth. Most people in Elsewhere have had lived their lives, but Liz died when she was fifteen. As she copes with the sudden loss, she must grapple with creating a new “life” in Elsewhere. But is there a point to “living” when you’re already dead?
I first found out about Elsewhere when the title appeared on Goodreads list of YA books with dead protagonists. I’m writing a YA book with a dead protagonist called Company and part of the marketing process is to research similar books. However, I honestly did want to read Elsewhere, because the idea of a society of people aging backwards intrigued me, and while most books about dead protagonists featured ghosts (my own included), this one attempted to build an afterlife.
Elsewhere is a good book to read when you’re sad. The book has a languid and distant melancholy to it. This is to be expected; the book deals with death. There is grief and loss and mourning. And that, I feel, is the strongest part of the book. Liz’s grieving process is vivid and real. When she arrives at Elsewhere, she is not eager to explore this new land; rather, she sinks into a depression and gets stuck mourning the life she lost.
However, I feel like Liz never fully comes out of that depression. Even as she acclimatizes to her new “life” in Elsewhere, there is a lingering sadness that permeates the novel. In some ways, this has to do with the style of writing. The prose is simple, matter-of-fact, and not terribly descriptive. Anything that might elicit emotion is glossed over. As a result, the sadness is never too sad, but the happiness is not all that happy, either. In fact, everything is such an even keel of lukewarm, I started to feel like I was reading about a person coping with a low-key but persistent case of clinical depression.
Title: Dark (The Dark Trilogy Book 1)
Author: Paul L Arvidson
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Dun has troubles on his mind. Since his father disappeared, he has become the main provider for his family. Worse still, he's dealing with vivid and terrifying dreams--a sign he bears the gift of foretelling. When the village elders appoint him as head of a quest to find out why their mysterious neighbors, the Machine-folk, have gone missing, Dun assembles a band of allies to accompany him: his cheerful best friend Padg; Tali, an apprentice-alchemist; and Myrch, a man with many useful abilities and secrets. As they confront the different tribes, they begin to suspect that something odd is going on--a darker presence that threatens to throw their whole world into chaos.
I decided to take my own advice and find some free fantasy books on Kindle to read during quarantine. Dark was one of several I downloaded. What caught my interest and kept me reading was that the world felt both unique and believable. Fantasy books often rely on big, flashy elements to get attention: dragons, unicorns, gods, monsters, magic. But I appreciate a story that takes its time to build its own cultures.
Dark started off with a tribe of simple folks who live by fishing, trading, using reeds make baskets. And yet, there are hints of a more complex world. “Found” items have a curiously manufactured feel to them, underground tunnels are actually a complex system of pipes, and a decayed civilization is shown to have wielded great power once. Something happened in the past, but what could it be? That mystery kept me reading.
Dark initially gave me vibes of: Watership Down, which is high praise for me. (Watership Down is one of the foundational books that has inspired my writing.) You have a group of ordinary people with different abilities, led by someone with flashes of prophecy. (I love prophecy.) Occasionally, they come across technology that the audience may be familiar with but is baffling to them. Their journey is simple, but challenging, and members of the group need to use their different abilities. Friendships are forged and deepened.
However, the similarities diverge when it comes to the ending. Watership Down has one of the best endings I have ever read. Dark’s ending, while certainly not the worst, was rather disappointing. The problems began at Chapter 48, because at Chapter 48, Dark underwent a rapid genre shift and became an entirely different book.
VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD
Title: The Guardian: A Dream-Hunter Novel
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon
Genre: Romance, Fantasy
After thousands of years of being tortured in hell, demigod Seth has one chance to escape his misery. His master, the primal god Noir, has captured Solin, god of dreams, who has information about a key that can grant great power or cause great destruction. Seth is put in charge of interrogating the Solin. Little does he know that Solin’s daughter, Lydia, has come to free him. Lydia is an immortal were-jackal with the power to walk into another person’s dreams. But she is no match for Seth, who quickly captures Lydia and offers Solin a trade--the missing key for Lydia’s life. Solin agrees, and Seth keeps Lydia as collateral. But when Seth gets to know Lydia, he finds himself drawn to her. And though Lydia would like nothing more than to hate the man who tortured her father, the more she learns the horrors of Seth’s past, the harder it is to keep her own creeping feelings at bay.
A friend recommended Sherrilyn Kenyon to me a while ago, but I hadn't really gotten around to checking her out. So when I spotted one of her books at the La Habra Library bookstore for the low, low cost of ten cents, I quickly jumped on the chance. I was not disappointed. I finished the book the same day I bought it. The Guardian was that addicting.
The Guardian is a romance book first, a fantasy book second. It has a kind of Beauty and the Beast vibe going, which I really like. If it were a film, it would be a hard R for cursing, sex, and, most prevalent, scenes of violent torture. (More on that later.)
Title: The Buried Giant
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantasy
King Arthur is dead. Ogres roam the land, but the people are accustomed to them. More disturbing is a fog that clouds memories. Axl, an old man who lives a modest life with his wife Beatrice, occasionally has glimmers of people long forgotten: a woman with red hair, a missing child, and his estranged son. When Axl and Beatrice embark on a journey to visit their son, they run into a slew of strange traveling companions: a warrior on a solemn quest, a boy marked by evil, and the last remaining knight of King Arthur’s court. As memories are revealed and the secrets of the past are peeled back, Axl and Beatrice learn of a way to restore what was once forgotten--but at a startling cost.
I bought The Buried Giant because its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, also wrote one of my all-time favorite books, The Remains of the Day. As such, I wanted to wait for the perfect time to read The Buried Giant and slowly savor it. Initially, I was captivated by the simple beauty of the prose and filled with a sense of romance. But lurking under the quests and magic was a startlingly realistic look at the nature of war, hatred, and vengeance. These dark undertones slowly crept up on me and left me shaken and disturbed by the end of the book.
This doesn’t mean that The Buried Giant contains explicit material. It doesn’t. There are no graphic or gory depictions of violence, no sex, and no profanity--nothing that is typically labeled as “shocking.” I think what disturbed me, on a personal level, was the contrast between the high ideals of the characters and the horrific atrocities they were still capable of inflicting. It seemed very… realistic… for a fantasy world.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.