Godsquad, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

This is going to be my last review pre-baby arrival. Although I’ve discovered already how hard it is to take proper maternity leave as a freelancer, I think it’s important to try and separate from work to enjoy family bonding/spend any sliver of downtime I may have sleeping. The plan is to be back with new reviews beginning on September 17 (slightly more than three months so that I may enjoy traveling to and being in a wedding at the beginning of September), and I look forward to the new perspective motherhood brings to my literary life. While I suspect part of my brain will go numb from board book repetition, I also hope this change will lead me down even more interesting avenues.

That being said, this final book is one written by my colleagues across the pond (and for the record, even though I begged for a pre-release copy, I had to wait and purchase one at the same time as the rest of the world – truly a poor execution of cronyism if I ever saw one!). I read the first book in the series, Clovenhoofbefore I decided to work with Goody and Grant, and it remains a beloved favorite in the vein of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore or Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. 

Growing up the daughter of a UCC minister, I was privy to an odd perspective on the church, and on religion in general. While I have a deep respect for my own beliefs and those of others, I couldn’t help but see the thread of absurdity that often unravels in congregations. I never took my Sunday School lessons as seriously as my friends in part because I could see what was behind the curtain (the work that went into writing sermons, the vast energy required for counseling people, the patience necessary for handling disagreements over what tablecloth should be used on the communion table…). At a very young age, I determined that church was a place of instilling values and a sense of community, not necessarily having a relationship with God. I was content with that though, because as much as I love structure and routine, faith doesn’t really fit into such strictures. It’s found by those searching for it over some of the roughest courses of life. It lends itself to ridiculous situations, to the impossible, to moments of deep trauma and to great adventure. 

As a result of this flexibility, I’ve always found that the topic makes for some of the very funniest books. Humor is so revealing. We pretend that it protects us, but it often ends up exposing some of the most interesting conversations about the choices we make, the people we follow, and lives we have as a result of those decisions. All three of the books Grant and Goody have written in this series have fallen into that vein. I can’t help but laugh out loud when I read them, but I’ve also found myself quite moved by some of their subtle insights into human nature versus the divine. 

I think the greatest praise I can give them (and this series) can be best understood by a different yardstick though. I’ve never met either Iain or Heide in person, and yet not only did I desperately want to work with them on Circ, I also trusted and respected their talent enough to brutally edit down my own work when they suggested that it was necessary. I doubt writers are the only people who will appreciate what high praise this is – anyone who has put their heart into a project and then had to make major changes will understand such vulnerability. We often have to take feedback from editors, managers, and bosses who we think less of, but when we submit ourselves to the inspection of opinions we respect, it generally results in a combination of nausea and gratification…and, quite frankly, superior results. I know for a fact I’m a better writer having worked with them, and I also know I’m a happier reader knowing I have more of their books to look forward to in the future.

For more about Grant and Goody, head over here

Skin Game, Jim Butcher

Michael snorted. “You destroy buildings, fight monsters openly in the streets of the city, work with the police, show up in newspapers, advertise in the phone book, and ride zombie dinosaurs down Michigan Avenue, and you think that you work in the shadows? Be reasonable.” (p 267)

There are few things I love more than a new Dresden Files book. I have to give Jim Butcher major props too, because come spring, he delivers. I’ve been reading this series since 2007 (seven years after he began publishing stories about Harry Dresden), and although it’s painful to wait for the next volume after I finish a new one, it’s comforting to know I won’t be left hanging indefinitely. I cannot overstate how much I value consistency when it comes to a series I love.

An author can buy my affection for the low, low price of a great book written every year. Piece of cake, right? If you have a pact with the devil, maybe. Or you’re heavily into witchcraft. I suspect Jim Butcher of both. And I am fine with that. He works hard, and his books are such fun that even while my rational brain is applauding him for the grueling writing schedule he must have to keep, I never get the feeling it’s hard work – just the contrary. His style is sarcastic adventuring at its best, and it reads like he enjoys spending time in his version of Chicago more than the world outside of its pages.

I don’t know anything about Butcher’s personal life. I don’t where he lives, or whether he’s married or has kids. I’ve never seen him speak or read any interviews, and yet I’ve created a mental image of him after reading his books that informs my own work as a writer deeply. I greatly admire his work ethic. I don’t need to do more than look at the number of books he’s published to know that he lives by the adage “a writer writes.” I, like many writers, go through periods over the course of every year where I write more or less, and at the moment, I’m in one of those lulls that forces me to confront the fear that I’m not doing enough to prove myself in my field. When I read books by authors like Butcher, I’m humbled by his dedication to his characters, to his fans, and to his own desire to tell stories.

It’s such a beautiful thing to read books by writers who are clearly in love with writing. That creative fire ignites their work to create spectacular energy on every page; Butcher is the kind of writer who stokes that fire for all its worth. He could just as easily fall back on the great novels he’s written in the past, but instead, he breathes new life into his characters with every book. When I finished Skin Game, I was reminded again of the joy that lies beneath his stories. It’s a feeling that makes me wish I had time to go back and reread the series every year. I could easily live in Dresden’s universe for months at a time, and the most butt-kicking part of realizing that is that knowledge I should take as much pleasure from my own fictional worlds as I do the ones created for my enjoyment…


For more about Jim Butcher, go here.

Satan’s Short, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Well, the wait is finally over, and I can say I came in second place in Ten to One! Thank you so much to everyone who supported me and sent votes my way on Facebook. I’m very happy I no longer have to beg votes from family, friends, and strangers, but that won’t keep me from pimping the book itself when it comes out in the fall! It’s a fun read, and I’m really proud of what we’ve put together…which doesn’t mean it doesn’t still need plenty of editing, but that’s okay. I actually enjoy the editing process. I mean, who doesn’t prefer to start with raw material rather than an empty page?!

At any rate, I needed a palate cleanser after last week, and I was finding it difficult to get into anything long. My mother was visiting from New Hampshire, my husband was sick, and my brain was still half in grieving mode from Young Widower. The rest of me was trying very hard not to think about that final round of voting for Ten to One. It turns out, not thinking about something requires nearly as much energy as thinking about it does! Funny how that works, isn’t it?

It seemed fortuitous, somehow, that in the midst of all that not thinking and not working (because between my mum’s visit and playing nurse, there was zero actual work happening), Goody and Grant’s collection of shorts about Clovenhoof was released on Amazon. It was a year ago, in March, that I sent off my audition packet to Grant, and only slightly less than a year ago that I decided I wanted to read his work before I got really excited about the possibility of being invited to join the project.

I read Clovenhoof in a Starbucks in London, and it killed me. I didn’t think its follow-up, Pigeonwings, could possibly hold a candle to it, and then I loved it just as much. Goody and Grant are just dynamite writers, and now that the contest element of Ten to One is over, I can rave about them without worrying about whether it’s a conflict of interest! Instead, I can just be thrilled that they decided to write a few more stories in this universe and then only charge me a dollar for the pleasure of reading them.

Honestly. It’s March – the one month a year that has neither the benefit of a three-day weekend to break up the monotony of the work week, nor the redeeming quality of long lazy summer days (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, in which case, August is your March, so save this series until you need it). This is the perfect time to curl up with unrelentingly funny books. They may not change the dreary weather or help you kick that inevitable St Patrick’s Day hangover (even if you don’t drink, I have to imagine corned beef and cabbage takes time to recover from), but they will bring much-needed light to this slow month. And hey! Since I’ve already read them all, I’m open to suggestions in the comments for other novels that might perk March up for me. Sure, I have a huge stack of books I should be reading, but none of them really screams “escape.” I’d be grateful to hear about your favorite winter break reads…

Clovenhoof, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Do you know what kind of people have meetings in Starbucks? Important people. People who wear well-pressed suits and order black coffee with no room (or, occasionally, on blustery, miserable Mondays, a venti upside down nonfat mocha with an extra shot, topped with whole milk foam…). They come equipped with spread sheets and projections, yet they’re always late enough to have to squeeze eight people at a table meant for two with absolutely nowhere for the all the briefcases to go. Then, of course, there are the matching neutrally toned tench coats that should be hung, but end up underfoot and trapped under chair legs.

It’s a very solemn business obviously, and although I have to imagine that these people work in offices with lovely large conference rooms and enough cushy chairs for everybody, I’m the one who gets dirty look for spitting my coffee out when this damned book happened to catch me by surprise. I work from home, people! This is my office (for as long as I can fake a few sips left in this cup), and if I happen to bray unexpectedly, resulting in a mouthful of room-temperature soy latte all over my one nice sweater, it’s my prerogative. You don’t have to stare and make faces; your disgust has been duly noted. Just go back to those bar graphs. I promise untoward delight will not impinge on the sanctity of your coffee shop meeting again.

I did promise (silently, because there were about sixteen of them and I prefer to save my smart alec remarks for people who know me better and are less intimidating), and it really wasn’t my fault that I broke that promise several more times over the course of an hour. I eventually took the hint that said joviality was truly not appreciated, and saw myself out.

The thing is, I’m usually an excellent coffee shop patron – very quiet and tidy, and I’ll even share the outlet if I have a full charge. It takes a special book to reduce me to a chortling distraction, unworthy of the chair I had to pry from a woman who was only using it for her purse. Clovenhoof is apparently one of the dangerous ones though.

“What do you mean, pretty much a paramedic?” asked the woman standing above them.

“I’m first aid trained,” said Nerys. “Can you feel your legs, sir?”

“I’m first aid trained too,” said the woman.

Nerys stood. “Listen, sweet-cheeks. I don’t mean I’ve just watched a few episodes of Casualty. I am first aid trained. I’ve helped out during several medical emergencies.” She pulled out her phone, flipped to her photo library and passed it to the woman. “Look. Here’s me helping a boy who was choking on a mint imperial.” Nerys knelt down again and began feeling the man’s arms for fractures.

The woman looked at the photograph. “How many emergencies?”

“Several,” said Nerys.

“How many?”

“Two,” said Nerys. “Including this one.”

“Two is not several.”

“Two is more than one and therefore is several.” She put her arms under the man’s shoulder and began to turn him over. “Sir, I’m just going to put you in the recovery position.”

“Oh, what’s the point?” he said, producing fresh tears.

“To stop you swallowing your tongue, I think.”

“Hang on,” said the woman. “Did you ask someone to take a picture of you giving this boy the Heimlich Manoeuvre?”

“Yes,” said Nerys irritably, getting the man onto his side.

“He was choking but you stopped to get out your phone so someone could take a photo before you stopped him choking?”

“Who wants to see a photograph of someone who is no longer choking?” She raised her eyebrows to her patient. She was sure he understood that the woman was some sort of imbecile. (loc 304)

And that was just a funny moment – not one of the sections where I legitimately laughed out loud. I’m not sharing any coffee spewing moments here – not to be a spoil sport, but because I swear they will be much funnier if you read them in context. (I know this for a fact, because I read out one a piece to a friend over Skype and she thought I was deranged. So, context.)

I have to admit I stumbled on this book in an unconventional way. I was reading up about one of its authors, Iain Grant, who is gathering interest for a collaborative writing project called Ten to One. I decided to submit a brief resume and writing sample for consideration in the project, mainly because in my experience, writing with a partner or two (or in this case, ten) is infinitely more fun than writing alone. Writing with others shores up personal weaknesses and it introduces ideas that can lead to far better books. Clovenhoof was written this way, and I think it worked out brilliantly. One of my all-time favorite books, Good Omens, was also written collaboratively, as was The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, a favorite from when I was young. While I have no idea what kind of writers will end up being chosen for this project, I’m thrilled by the idea of it.

When I left college and moved 3000 miles away from my family, my mother and I decided to write a collaborative novel just for fun. I was lonely, she was heartsick, and we both needed a way to stay in touch that transcended ordinary emails. It was from this desire that our clunky, silly (still unfinished) book was born. At least once a week, I would write a chapter and send it to her, then she would write another and send it back. The characters were related (both literally and figuratively), but their story lines didn’t overlap much. This gave us room to pursue our own plot lines while still driving the other half of the story forward. It was wonderful.

Even though the novel was not particularly good (I dare you to look back on something you wrote when you were twenty-three and claim it as anything but melodramatic insanity), it meant so much to me. It motivated me during a difficult transition, and it brought me closer to my mother. Most importantly, it was fun. Her chapters always made me laugh, and I loved that she looked forward to seeing my work as much as I did hers. After all the competition of the academic world, what she and I created was pure bliss.

I got the impression, reading Clovenhoof, that these authors, too, were having a good time with it. It’s a quality that shines through in a book, and one that I can never get enough of. I knew from the first page of this book that I would enjoy it. A snappy novel about the devil getting sacked by his sanctimonious board of directors and sent to live in a suburb in England? It was almost too on the nose in its targeting, to be honest. And a week before Easter, at that? I never really stood a fighting chance against its charms…


Heide Goody and Iain Grant may be found at their book-related blog.

Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman

I think we can all agree that the most pressing question at hand this morning is how have I made it a little over a month without reading, rereading, reviewing, or at least mentioning a book by Neil Gaiman? How?! He was my first foray into a brave new literary world back in the sixth grade when my best friend recommended I read Good Omens (Gaiman and Terry Pratchett). It’s still on my top ten list, and I’ve read it at least twelve times since then. I don’t even have the original copy I owned (a mass market paperback that was easy to hold and had my favorite cover of all the releases) because I’ve lent it out so many times (I think I might be on copy four actually). It’s a small price to pay to introduce others to an author who just keeps surprising me, and who brings a joy to storytelling that’s not just rare, it’s magical.

How many people do you know who write everything from picture books to YA and Middle Grade to adult fiction, and do it well (I mean, award-winningly well)? Oh, did I mention he’s also one of the foremost graphic novelists of our time (and I say that as someone who doesn’t enjoy reading graphic novels because the combination of text and pictures hurts my eyes)? Some of his books have even been made into wonderful films and musicals. I am not overstating his talents in the least when I say he has written something for everyone and if you’ve never had the pleasure, find someone who knows your taste and have them recommend something. Seriously. Because if you don’t, or haven’t, or think he has nothing to say to you, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say you’re wrong. Not that I have strong opinions about this…I’m just saying, brilliant storytellers come along so infrequently, it would be terrible for you to miss out.

Now, Odd is not my favorite, or even close to my favorite of his books, and I still love it. Also, it’s short, and between the visit from my mother and my desperate desire to finally finish watching The West Wing this weekend, I admittedly did not leave a lot of time for reading. I certainly didn’t leave enough time to give a new book the proper consideration it would deserve, so I took Odd out and spent a happy hour with him.

(I’ll warn you right now that I’ll be doing this from time to time – as much as I love to discover new authors and/or new books by already beloved authors, I also have a small collection of books that I love to reread. I can’t just abandon them, these dear friends of mine, so some weeks, you will have to endure my slightly wonky loving on a book that you might never have thought twice about.)

Odd and the Frost Giants is written as a Norwegian folktale, and truly, the quarter Norwegian in me can’t get enough of this sort of book (I recently read another, similarly styled excellent Norwegian tale called Icefall, by Matthew J Kirby, in case you’re into that sort of thing). It works well as a children’s story – simple, straightforward yet elegant language, and a protagonist who is both honorable and, well, odd – but it’s not a childish book. It reads like the best kind of fable, a story that will transport the reader to the icy fields of Norway, if only for a hundred or so pages.

So go ahead and get that cozy blanket out, stoke the fire against these last cold, dark days of January, and venture into a world where winter has settled deeply and seemingly without end…

Chapter 1

  There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place. Odd meant “tip of the blade,” and it was a lucky name. 

He was odd, though. At least, the other villagers thought so. But if there was one thing he wasn’t, it was lucky…(pg 1)

Neil Gaiman can be found on twitter @neilhimself or at www.neilgaiman.com

The Magician King, Lev Grossman

I just finished reading Lev Grossman’s sequel to The Magicians – The Magician King (yes, another Scalzi rec – I’m sure I’ll get through them all soon, as long as he stops posting books I’m dying to read over at whatever.com) – and I am sad. No way around it. This book was only released in August, so even if he does to do a third, it will be years away. It wasn’t that he left this one hanging, per se…or well, no, he did. Let’s just go right out and say it. There I was, sobbing over my keyboard (yes I was reading it on the Kindle app on my computer – romantic, I know), in the middle of a really solid cathartic moment, when all of a sudden, poof. Done. Over.

It was like the door to absolute heartbreak (not the romantic type, but you know, the soul-rending kind) creaked open and hung there, and all of a sudden a gust of wind came by and slammed that thing shut. Abruptly. Right in my face. Just like it did for Quentin. And no, Grossman, I am not enjoying any ironic parallels at the moment (I might later, but right now – not so much).

“This isn’t how it ends!” Quentin said. “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!”

“No, Quentin,” the ram said. “The hero pays the price.” (pg 396)

I absolutely do not want to think about how the emotional rug got pulled out from under me in precisely the same way it was for Grossman’s severely abused, at times completely idiotic, but somehow lovable Q. It’s literally making my brain stretch and curse at the inside of my head trying to make room for more story that does not yet exist. That may never exist.

Probably what salts the wound is that I don’t know anyone else who has read these books, who understands this particular frustration, with these particular imperfect and many times over detestable characters. And so, like Quentin, I came up from the icy waters…

He was alone. The stone square was silent. He felt dizzy, and not just because he’d hit his head. It was all crashing in on him now. He’d thought he’d known what his future looked like, but he’d been mistaken. His life would be something else now. He was starting over, only he didn’t think he had the strength to start over. He didn’t know if he could stand up. (p 399)

Bah humbug.

To read more about the author, check out levgrossman.com