January 3, 2017

Random Acts… Past and present connect in new tales

Posted in Books, Politics, Women at 10:09 pm by dinaheng

Everything in life is connected. The things we do today affect what happens tomorrow. The things we did yesterday affect what happens today.

Two authors explore that concept in different, intriguing ways in their latest novels.Dinah Eng

James Rollins, whose adventures often combine historical mystery and scientific exploration, has penned a thriller about an ancient plague that could wipe out the modern world in “The Seventh Plague” (William Morrow, on sale now).

In the book, which features characters from Rollins’ Sigma Force series, the leader of a British archaeological expedition stumbles out of the Sudanese desert, two years after vanishing with his research team. He dies before he can share what happened to him, and reveal who had begun to mummify his body – while he was still alive.

When the medical team who performs the archaeologist’s autopsy dies from an unknown illness, Painter Crowe, the director of Sigma Force, summons his team to investigate. Helping the team is the archaeologist’s only daughter, Jane McCabe, who discovers a connection between what is happening in the present and a historical mystery involving the travels of Mark Twain, the research of Nikola Tesla and the fate of explorer Henry Morgan Stanley.

"The Seventh Plague" by James Rollins. Book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

“The Seventh Plague” by James Rollins. Book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

Rollins explores the question of whether a virus could have caused the Biblical plagues, and whether today’s society is really ready to deal with global pandemics. Noting in the book that the Zika virus originated in a monkey in Uganda, the organism in the book is in the same family of viruses, causing birth defects and death, but only in male children.

The author, whose parents recently passed away from complications secondary to Alzheimer’s, dedicated the book to them. One of the main characters in the book, Commander Gray Pierce, grapples with the challenge of caring for a father whose Alzheimer’s has worsened throughout the series, and clearly reflects an experience felt by all who have aging parents.

When it comes to understanding the complexity of scientific issues, Rollins does a great job of using facts to keep readers guessing as his plot unfolds. Whether humanity is truly ready to face the crises that climate change and potential pandemics will bring is anybody’s guess.

Facing crises of faith and magical battles is at the center of “Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White (Harper Voyager, on sale Jan. 17, 2017), an absorbing reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice.”

In this tale, White weaves an historical fantasy with characters who live in a world where gryphons and direwolves battle dragonriders and wyverns. The heroine, a headstrong Aliza Bentaine, is as resourceful and brave as Austen’s Lizzy Bennet, facing both the demons that threaten the kingdom and her fears about falling in love with the haughty dragonrider, Alastair Daired (known as Mr. Darcy in Austen’s world).

"Heartstone" by Elle Katharine White. Book cover courtesy of Harper Voyager.

“Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White. Book cover courtesy of Harper Voyager.

Despite its connection to “Pride and Prejudice,” this story stands on its own with a well-crafted plot, passionate characters who come to life, and themes exploring class lines and what true love entails.

When Anjey, Aliza’s sister, falls in love with Cedric Brysney, a dragonrider and Alastair’s friend, the two seem destined for each other. But when duty calls, Cedric must leave, and the separation tests the faith each has in the other. Little do they suspect that someone is scheming to break them apart.

When Aliza is called to help an aunt and uncle who live near the Daired estate, she investigates why Cedric has not replied to any of Anjey’s letters. The answer to this romantic mystery unfolds as an even greater threat to humanity surfaces. (There are monsters aplenty in this realm).

As in all things, past connections bring present crises to the fore in this tale, which affirms the power of love to heal all wounds. For those who love classic romance and stories set in magical settings, “Heartstone” is a tale worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 10, 2016

HE is now “The Queen of Blood”

Posted in Books, Diversity, Politics, Women at 6:27 pm by dinaheng

Everything has a spirit… from the land that is parched by drought to the sea that rises like a tsunami when angry. In human beings, the spirit that has driven Americans through this presidential election has been fear and loathing.

Now that Donald Trump has won the contest, the true test of leadership begins.Dinah Eng

I couldn’t help but think of our presidential candidates as I read Sarah Beth Durst’s insightful fantasy, “The Queen of Blood” (Harper Voyager, 350 pp). In Durst’s novel, the realm of Renthia is ruled by queens who must prove that they can control the spirits that inhabit the world around them.

While we live in a nation that has yet to elect a female president, all those who hold the office get there by convincing voters that they are the best candidate to control the forces that determine our economy, our nation’s defense, and our foreign policy. Of course, no one can control anything except the way we behave toward others.

The heroine in Book One of this saga is Daleina, a young woman whose village was destroyed by rampaging spirits when she was a child. Determined to prevent the carnage from happening to others, Daleina trains to become a potential heir to the throne of Aratay, learning to use magic to bend the spirits to her will.

The spirits in this world are easily understood. The spirits of the trees want to grow. The spirits of the air want to fly. Whatever the element, plant or animal, its wish is to fulfill its natural inclination and purpose. At the same time, the spirits want to kill human beings.

Courtesy of Harper Voyager.

Courtesy of Harper Voyager.

So it is that Trump has used great showmanship to persuade a society that worships celebrities and tawdry gossip to choose him for our leader.

America has voted for change, and we must be grateful that change is always possible in a democracy. Let us hope that Trump ends up doing more to bring us together than his campaign rhetoric did.

For too long, partisanship has divided us. It took a shocking election wake up call for those long in power to hear the deep-seated anger of those who feel powerless and in pain.

What people in pain don’t always realize, though, is that change for change’s sake is never enough. When Trump supporters see that he will not fulfill the campaign promises that were only designed to win protest votes, will they grow even angrier? Will those who voted against him stretch the partisan divide even more?

Or will we all come to understand that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s message that we are stronger together really is the only way to make America great again?

In “The Queen of Blood,” Daleina is not the smartest or strongest potential heir, but she is a young woman who, above all else, wants to do the right thing. It is only after many spirits and humans are slaughtered that she rises to take the throne.

None of us really know what is in Donald Trump’s heart. We can only hope that the Office of the President of the United States challenges him to be better than anyone imagines.

In Renthia, each queen is chosen by the spirits when the previous queen dies, and must keep the world thriving with natural forces while taking care of the needs of the people.

Clinton’s concession speech showed the kind of leader she is, gracious and inspiring, even in defeat.

Trump must now show what kind of spirit truly lies within him.

 

September 19, 2016

Tales of terrorism all too real

Posted in Books, Politics at 4:40 pm by dinaheng

If you’ve never been the target of a terrorist attack, you probably have no idea how thin the veil of safety is that separates your sense of normalcy from constant fear and death.

Stories about ISIS and Al Queda attacks in different parts of the world dominate the news, but most of us really don’t think much about the politics and poverty behind the tragedies that occur daily. Until, perhaps, the attacks hit home on U.S. soil, like the New York and New Jersey bombings this last weekend.Dinah Eng

Read Daniel Silva’s “The Black Widow” (Harper, $27.99), and you’ll begin to realize that whatever happens across the world is bound to find its way to our doorstep.

Silva, a best-selling author of spy novels, fills his books with history, politics, and a look at what really happens behind the scenes of terrorism in the news. “The Black Widow” is an entertaining and intelligent primer on the chaos roiling the Middle East.

We join master spy Gabriel Allon, who’s about to become the chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service, as he leads the fight against a man named Saladin, whose terrorist network hides in the shadows of the Internet.

Photo courtesy of Harper.

Photo courtesy of Harper.

To penetrate that network, Allon recruits a brave Israeli physician to pose as a vindictive “black widow” who’s ready to die for ISIS. The operative’s travels from Paris to Greece to a training camp in Palmyra to Washington, D.C. reveal how vulnerable, disenfranchised people are recruited for extremist causes.

The trail of terror is told with details of the failures of Western Europe security forces, the lure of jihad, and the path to attacks on U.S. soil. Silva’s narrative is a page-turner of moral issues and geopolitical conundrums that bring home how connected we all are, whether we want to see it or not.

If Silva’s spy novels seem too close to home, the fantasy and folklore in the Jackaby novels by William Ritter will distract, yet teach, important life lessons. The supernatural mysteries, which feature the sleuthing adventures of paranormal detective R.F. Jackaby, as told by his intrepid assistant, Abigail Rook, are intriguing tales of life in a 19th Century New England town called New Fiddleham.

Courtesy of Algonquin, Workman Publishing.

Courtesy of Algonquin, Workman Publishing.

“Ghostly Echoes” (Algonquin, $17.95), the third book in the Jackaby series, explores the murder of Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghost who lingers in Jackaby’s house on Auger Lane. Jenny, who has become a dear friend to Abigail and Jackaby, learns that a great evil was responsible for her death, and even though she no longer exists on the Earth plane, she is far from powerless.

There’s romance for Abigail with Charlie Barker, a shape-shifting police officer; a trip to Annwyn, the land of the dead; and encounters with a vampire and a nixie (otherwise known as an evil water nymph).

Jackaby, who has the Sight, long ago learned to ignore the world’s skepticism, for he knows that the things we do not see are often more important than the things we do. He tells Abigail that we all make our own luck in life, and that real power lies in “finding something to believe in.”

Both Silva’s spy novel and Ritter’s fantasy explore the nature of fear and the choices that determine the kind of human beings we want to be. Terror and darkness exist in both genres, as they do in real life. Thankfully, so are the heroes who fight for the Light.

 

June 1, 2016

Random Acts… Good reads for summertime

Posted in Books, Uncategorized, Women at 4:21 pm by dinaheng

Romantic suspense… science fiction… a sweet tale about an awkward, lovable creature. What more could you want for a good summertime read?

Dinah EngWhen Morgan Yancy, a covert team leader of a paramiltary group, is shot and nearly killed, his supervisor sends him to an isolated town in West Virginia to hide and recuperate. Little does Yancy know that his housemate, Isabeau “Bo” Maran, the part-time police chief of Hamricksville, is about to change the course of his life.

Courtesy of William Morrow

Courtesy of William Morrow

In “Troublemaker,” by Linda Howard ($26.99, William Morrow), romance and suspense combine for some fun summertime reading. Unlike many novels in this genre, the suspense takes a backseat to the romance. Most of the book explores how two wounded souls, brought together by the antics of Bo’s dog Tricks, help each other to heal.

The danger is muted in this tale, with the mystery of why Yancy was shot being solved almost as an after-thought at the end of the book. This is not a page turning thriller. But with a satisfying romance at the core of the story, who cares?

Fans of romance, mystery, and science fiction will enjoy “The Cold Between,” a debut novel by Elizabeth Bonesteel ($16.99, Harper Voyager) that sets up a universe where Central Corps engineer Commander Elena Shaw is determined to prove that her lover, Treiko Zajec, a former pirate, did not kill her crewmate on the colony of Volhynia.

Courtesy of Harper Voyager

Courtesy of Harper Voyager

After helping Trey escape the authorities, the two head into a wormhole, seeking answers to the murder, which may be tied to a government conspiracy that threatens the balance of power for all human civilizations. Galactic politics, it seems, is the same no matter which universe you hail from.

While the first third of the book starts slowly, the story picks up its pace and complexity with each page. Ancillary characters in the novel are well drawn, setting up the hope for more stories about the crew of the CCSS Galileo.

For younger readers, a charming picture book titled “Hello, My Name Is Octicorn” by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe ($17.99, Balzer + Bray) speaks to anyone who has ever felt a little different.

Courtesy of Balzer + Bray

Courtesy of Balzer + Bray

Little Octi is half-octopus, half-unicorn, and more than a little sad because “when you don’t fit in, you don’t get invited to a lot of parties.” He shares his various talents – like being good at lots of sports, a good juggler, and a terrific dancer.

If others would only give him a chance, an octicorn would make a great friend “because in the end, we all want the same things. Cupcakes, friends, and a jet ski.”

Truer words were never spoken.

 

 

 

 

May 5, 2016

Random Acts… “War Hawk” possibilities all too real

Posted in Books, Politics at 8:20 pm by dinaheng

We live in a world where drones are capable of killing an enemy, and information cyber attacks are increasingly being used to blackmail corporations for money and more.

With that reality as the backdrop, James Rollins and Grant Blackwood have written a thriller that could be tomorrow’s headlines, putting a spotlight on the dangers of using technology without working out the moral consequences first.Dinah Eng

In War Hawk, (William Morrow, $27.99) Tucker Wayne, an ex-U.S. Army Ranger, works with the help of his military war dog Kane to figure out who’s killing cyber experts on a top secret project, and unravels a web of digital warfare that could end up toppling targeted governments.

Imagine a media mogul, manipulating the flow of information in publications and social media by using drones to secretly gather information and change what’s reported. Add in other drones to target and kill those who stand in the way of making profits to fund this man’s vision of a better world.

The tale reflects the military expertise of Blackwood, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent three years as an Operations Specialist, and the perspective of Rollins, a former veterinarian whose thrillers combine scientific breakthroughs, historical secrets and fast-paced action.

Beyond the taut suspense of a thriller, “War Hawk” explores the questions of who will control future drones, and the consequences of psychological warfare in an era where digital information spreads faster than our ability to discern the truth.

What’s frightening is that the technology cited in the story is already in play.

The concept of telling the story through the eyes of a former Army Ranger and his dog came from a two-week trip Rollins made to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 as part of a USO author tour.

“Since a lot of the military were reading thrillers, the USO asked five of us who were members of Thriller Writers International to visit some bases,” Rollins says.

"War Hawk" book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

“War Hawk” book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

“We talked with the men and women there, and tried to encourage them to write about their experiences – whether through journaling or recording thoughts — so that events would be preserved, even if it was for personal family histories.”

Prior to going on the USO tour, the authors visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. There, Rollins met soldiers who had PTSD and who lost limbs.

“Moral injury is something they’ve been talking about in the last couple years, and the treatment regimens are different,” Rollins explains. “When it comes to PTSD, treatment may include drugs and psychological therapy. With moral injury, the better treatment is talk therapy. It can become a manageable condition over time.”

As a former veterinarian, Rollins was curious about military handlers and their dogs. He researched the emotional connection between the two, and decided to create the Tucker Wayne and Kane duo, writing parts of the book from the behavioral standpoint of the dog, and giving Wayne the little discussed condition of moral injury.

After returning from the USO tour, Rollins founded Authors United for Veterans, a group that raises money for USA Cares and its efforts to support veterans. He also supports the US4Warriors Foundation, which helps veterans and their families who have specific needs.

While doing research for “War Hawk,” Rollins learned that drone technology has advanced to the point where drones can act autonomously, with the capability of shooting without orders.

“A lot of this is being developed by corporations who are becoming more involved in running wars and the military, which is disturbing,” Rollins says. “It has me worried because drones make it easier to go to war, and as killing becomes impersonal, the likelihood of choosing aggression over diplomacy grows.”

And that’s a headline none of us want to read.

 

 

 

 

 

February 4, 2016

Random Acts… Sweetest words need to be spoken

Posted in Books, Diversity, Relationships at 5:29 pm by dinaheng

I was in line at the post office behind a woman holding her 20-month-old daughter. The little girl smiled shyly at me, then hid her face in her mom’s jacket.

I smiled back, and hid my face in my hands. A fast game of peek-a-boo ensued, creating lots of giggles until we parted at the counter, going to separate clerks to mail our letters.

We are surrounded by words of fear, indifference, prejudice… words that make the world narrow and small. But those words can be vanquished by a smile, a laugh, a game of peek-a-boo.Dinah Eng

Some of the sweetest words are uttered by children, who haven’t learned the words that reflect darkness and negativity. So it’s no surprise that words of love are the essence of the stories we love to read to them.

Three endearing children’s picture books are out for Valentine’s Day, but even if you don’t have a little one to read them to, read them for yourself, or someone you love.

“I Love You Already” written by Jory John and illustrated by Benji Davies ($17.99, Harper) is the comic tale of what happens when Bear wants to spend a pleasant day alone, but Duck wants to hang out… with his buddy Bear.

"I Love You Already" by Jory John and Benji Davies." Book cover courtesy of HARPER.

“I Love You Already” by Jory John and Benji Davies.” Book cover courtesy of HARPER.

The lesson, of course, is that no matter how much someone irritates you, all will be well if the Bear in you admits how much you love the Duck in the other.

Continuing on the animal theme — since adults seem to understand truths better when the characters are not people – “Worm Loves Worm” written by J.J. Austrian and illustrated by Mike Curato ($17.99, Balzer + Bray) is a charming story about what happens when a worm meets a special worm, and the two decide to get married.

Their friends want to know all the typical details… Who’s going to wear the dress? Who’s going to wear the tux? How will you wear the rings if you don’t have fingers? What are we going to do if things have always been done a certain way?

As one wise Worm answers, “…we’ll just change how it’s done.”

One thing that never changes is what happens when you “Plant a Kiss,” as the sweet story written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds ($7.99, Harper Festival) reminds us.

In this tale, Little Miss plants a kiss in the ground and watches it grow and grow. For no matter how small the gift, each genuine kiss is destined to result in endless bliss.

So smile. Giggle. Say the sweetest words you can imagine.

Love is sure to find you.

 

April 16, 2015

Random Acts… ‘Empire of Night’ features intrigue and spirits with a cultural twist

Posted in Books, Diversity, Spirituality at 1:29 am by dinaheng

When it comes to exploring the spirit world with characters that have substance and a cultural twist, there’s no turning away.

Fantasy author Kelley Armstrong has written a compelling middle novel in her Age of Legends trilogy that fans of Young Adult fiction will love. “Empire of Night” ($17.99, HARPER) follows the journey of twin sisters Moria and Ashyn, the Keeper and Seeker of Edgewood, as they strive to rescue children held captive by Alvar Kitsune, a warlord who aims to take the emperor’s throne in a game of political subterfuge and lies.Dinah Eng

Aiding the sisters are Prince Tyrus, the emperor’s bastard son and Ronan, a principled thief. We also meet Diago and Tova, the girls’ guardian beasts who take the forms of a huge wildcat and hound; Guin, a resurrected spirit in a teenage girl’s body, and Gavril, the son of Alvar Kitsune, who may or may not be an ally.

The novel has an Asian feel, but unlike books that are steeped in cultural references and stilted dialogue, “Empire of the Night” has seamlessly woven universal personalities into a fantasy world that is both familiar and foreign.

By giving the characters more Western-sounding first names and using English terminology, Armstrong makes it less obvious that the world of this trilogy is based on another culture.

“The impetus for the story is Japan’s Sea of Trees, which naturally made me consider Japan for the world basis,” says Armstrong, who lives in rural Ontario. “I’ve always loved the samurai period, particularly at the end of the classical period, where the emperor is at his peak power, but the shoguns are beginning to rise up.

“That’s the era loosely reflected here. However, because it’s high fantasy, it wouldn’t make sense to use Japanese terminology for anything except the clan names, and that allowed me to show how universal the characters could be.”

"Empire of Night" by Kelley Armstrong.  Photo courtesy of HARPER.

“Empire of Night” by Kelley Armstrong. Photo courtesy of HARPER.

The Sea of Trees is, in actuality, Japan’s Aokigahara forest. The dense wood, in the shadow of Mount Fuji, is thought by Japanese spiritualists to be permeated by the spirits of those who have committed suicide there. The forest is known as being the world’s second most popular place to commit suicide (the first being the Golden Gate Bridge), and about 70 corpses a year are found there annually.

Paranormal activity has been reported in the area, and while suicide is not a topic explored in “Empire of the Night,” there are plenty of references to spirits and ghosts.

Armstrong says anything about the afterlife fascinates, and terrifies, us because it’s the next big step.

“Ghosts are one possibility for that ‘what if’ we don’t move on, but remain in this world, yet are not truly part of this world,” she notes. “Most cultures have some variation on the concept of those who stay behind. As for me, I’ve never had any kind of encounter, despite purposely visiting places that are, supposedly, very haunted!”

I’ve never seen any apparitions, either, but have felt their presence at funerals and in other places. I believe that life is ever-present and ever evolving, and that the energy of our spirits never ceases to exist. What probably scares most of us more than the hereafter, though, is creating the lives we want in the here and now.

Like all of us, Armstrong’s heroines — Moria and Ashyn – must come to terms with the roles they were born into, while figuring out how to create the lives they wish to lead.

The identical twins, the author says, “represent two of the most common ‘types’ we see in fantasy-fiction — the butt-kicking girl and the quiet, intellectual one; the warrior and the princess.”

While each are strong young women, it will no doubt take both to save the children of Edgewood, and the empire they live in. “Empire of Night” is a novel that could stand alone in this trilogy, but like all good stories, it will leave you wanting more.

August 10, 2014

Random Acts… Young Adult novels out of the ordinary

Posted in Books at 9:32 pm by dinaheng

Some may think that Young Adult (YA) novels are only for teenagers, but the best stories will capture the heart and imagination of readers of all ages.

One such book that should be required reading for all ages is “Say What You Will” by Cammie McGovern (Harper Teen, $17.99). This deeply insightful and beautifully written tale takes us into the world of Amy, a girl with cerebral palsy who must use a talking computer to speak, and who cannot walk or eat without assistance.Dinah Eng

For her senior year in high school, Amy persuades her parents to let her work with peer helpers, instead of professional assistants.

As she tells Matthew, one of those peer helpers, “Maybe you don’t know this, but when you’re disabled almost no one tells you the truth. They feel too awkward because the truth seems too sad, I guess. You are very brave to walk up to the crippled girl and say, essentially, wipe that sunny expression off your face and look at reality. That’s what I want you to do next year. Tell me the truth. That’s all.”

"Say What You Will" by Cammie McGovern. Book cover courtesy of HarperTeen.

“Say What You Will” by Cammie McGovern. Book cover courtesy of HarperTeen.

Matthew, who never expected to become friends with Amy, has his own secret, and as the two begin to share what’s in their hearts, she helps him to confront his own increasing fears and erratic behavior.

As the two fall in love, their thoughts and actions become a poignant reminder that no matter what we look like on the outside, on the inside, we all long for the same thing – to be loved for who we are, faults and all.

McGovern, the mother of a teenage son with autism and one of the founders of Whole Children, a resource center that runs programs for children with special needs, has written a powerfully honest tale about the struggle of forging real relationships in the non-disabled world.

McGovern’s book is exceptional reading — not because its characters are disabled, but because we come to see them as normal as everyone else in their humanity, their fears, their hopes, and their dreams.

While “Say What You Will” may be appreciated most by those 15 and older, younger teens (and older) will love “Death Sworn” by Leah Cypess (Greenwillow Books, $17.99).

"Death Sworn" by Leah Cypress. Book cover courtesy of Greenwillow Books.

“Death Sworn” by Leah Cypess. Book cover courtesy of Greenwillow Books.

Set in a fantasy world of magic and murder, seventeen-year-old Ileni is a powerful sorceress with a bright future. But when her magic begins to fade, she is sent to the Assassins’ Cave, deep within the mountains, to fulfill an ancient agreement between the sorcerers and a secret clan of assassins, losing her place in society and the man she loved.

As Ileni begins to teach the assassins magic, she must use her wits to stay alive while she tries to discover why the last two sorcerer tutors sent to the clan died within weeks of each other.

Protecting her is Sorin, a potential successor to the Master who leads the assassins. When romance sparks between the two, each begins to question what they have been taught about who they are. As secrets are revealed, Ileni discovers herself in a larger world, learning that there are things worth killing for, and that the loss of magic may lead to a greater purpose after all.

As she notes, “I can’t just let myself believe what everyone else believes. I need to see for myself.”

Cypess weaves a suspenseful mystery that grows more complex as the story unfolds, showing that what we judge to be dangerous and wrong may also have grace and goodness in its nature. Can’t wait for the sequel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 6, 2014

Random Acts… “Talker 25” more than a dragon’s tale

Posted in Books, Politics, Women at 2:42 am by dinaheng

There aren’t a lot of successful male writers in the Young Adult genre of book publishing, and Joshua McCune aims to break that gender ceiling.

McCune, formerly a telemarketer, SAT instructor and robotics engineer before taking pen to paper, says he’s always been a writer at heart. His first story, written in third grade, was about World War II, “complete with pictures,” he notes.

His first YA novel, “Talker 25” (Greenwillow Books, $17.99), is also about war, only this time it’s humans vs. dragons. The first of a planned trilogy, the book tells the story of Melissa Callahan, a military brat who becomes entangled in humanity’s fight against dragons who’ve come to Earth from an unknown realm.Dinah Eng

The first half of the book reads like a standard fantasy of girl in danger, girl meets boy, girl meets dragons who aren’t as bad as she imagined, and… well, the standard fantasy ends there.

When Melissa is captured by humans who want to kill the dragons, she must learn to survive a culture where people like her (who can “talk” to dragons) are forced to help find “the enemy” and kill them. In telling a nightmare of torture and a reflection of Big Brother’s worst deeds, McCune clearly steps out of the conventional tale into a dark story that not everyone is going to enjoy.

“I grew up reading epic fantasies, and it was always the farm boy who became the hero,” McCune says. “I turned that on its head, and made the farm girl the hero.”

While that idea isn’t new, being a male author writing a female protagonist isn’t the usual, and McCune turned to his wife and other female readers for feedback on his work.

“Girls are able to have a greater emotional arc than boys,” McCune says. “Melissa’s a flawed character, like a young Sarah Connor from the early ‘Terminator’ movies. She has to be strong, and becomes a little crazy in the process. Trying to get the emotions right, especially with the romantic point of view, was hard.”

Photo courtesy of Greenwillow Books

Photo courtesy of Greenwillow Books

While McCune makes a valiant effort, emotional connections fall by the wayside in the second half of the book, which reveals that “Talker 25” is really a book about war and the loss of innocence in young people who are caught in its grasp.

Male readers love it, the author says, while the reaction among female readers has been mixed. “A lot of readers go into it thinking it’s a dragon book, and when they come to the second half of the book with darker elements and torture, they’re surprised,” McCune explains.

Is that a good thing? Each reader will have to decide for himself or herself. Personally, I found the message a good and thoughtful one. War is never black and white, and there is good and bad in everyone (dragons, too).

Did I enjoy finding that in this tale? No. The message gets lost in the overly dark tone and mechanics of war. By the end of book, I was mildly curious as to what happens to Melissa, but felt no emotional connection to her. From a female’s perspective, I have no burning desire to read the sequel.

But in a world where men don’t always get what really matters to women, kudos to McCune for tackling a genre that requires that kind of understanding.

March 17, 2014

Random Acts… Classic tales retold with futuristic twist

Posted in Books, Diversity, Women at 7:45 pm by dinaheng

Young Adult (YA) author Diana Peterfreund was in Hollywood recently to attend the premiere of the movie “Veronica Mars,” based on a beloved television show about a teenager who works as a private investigator under her dad’s tutelage.

“I’m a Kickstarter supporter for the film, so I got invited to the premiere and the cast party afterward,” she says. “It’s a project near and dear to the YA community’s heart because Rob Thomas used to be a YA author.”Dinah Eng

Thomas, creator of the TV show, originally wrote “Veronica Mars” as a YA novel that featured a male protagonist, then changed the gender to female for television.

Capturing the attention and imagination of readers can happen in numerous ways. For Peterfreund, finding the seeds of a story set in another time and place is a talent that turned into two YA novels that linked characters in two compelling tales — “For Darkness Shows the Stars” (Balzer + Bray, $17.99) and “across a star-swept sea” (Balzer + Bray, $17.99).

“For Darkness Shows the Stars,” inspired by Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” and “across a star-swept sea,” inspired by Baroness Emma Orczy’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” are set in a post-apocalyptic world where genetic experiments have gone awry, causing a Reduction of capabilities in much of mankind.

The heroines of both novels find themselves battling conventional thinking that has separated humanity into classes of nobility or servitude.

“I’m a huge fan of retellings,” says Diana Peterfreund, who started writing as a freelance journalist before turning to fiction. “There are always going to be some fans who say I’ve ruined (Orczy’s story), but the best thing is so many people say they went and sought out ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ because they loved my book, and wanted to read the original.”

Peterfreund says she’s thrilled at playing a part in getting teenagers to appreciate classic works of literature.Across A Star-swept Sea HC c

In “For Darkness Shows the Stars,” the Luddite nobility that rises in the wake of a dark new age shuns technology, and heroine Elliot North finds herself questioning the wisdom of the Luddite ban when her estate is on the edge of foundering.

When her childhood sweetheart Kai returns, transformed from a servant into a dashing explorer who is now part of a mysterious group of shipbuilders, she must decide whether to go with him in search of a better future.

Elliott and Kai reappear in “across a star-swept sea,” which is set in a different land, but the same time period as “For Darkness Shows the Stars.”

“When I decided to do more in that world, none of the other Jane Austen novels called to me,” Peterfreund explains. “Elliott’s very down-to-earth, doesn’t get dressed up, and I love fashion. I wanted to write a book with fashion in it, and thought of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel,’ which is filled with fashion.

“The guillotine in it is metaphorical with the reduction pill (in Peterfreund’s story) that’s given to the upper class to make them mentally challenged. I decided to make (the heroine) Persis a woman because women are so often judged by their looks.”

In “across a star-swept sea,” Persis is a socialite in public, and a daring spy in secret, working to rescue people being tortured and persecuted in a neighboring land. When Justen, a scientist for the enemy, comes into her life, her heart is conflicted when the two pretend to be in love, while trying to discover each other’s true intentions.

Peterfreund says there’s something in the zeitgeist today about the issue of class, and questions about different cultures and values are everywhere. For teenagers, who are discovering differences in class, cultural differences in fashion, the gender divide and more, her novels are particularly relevant, for the books are about young people questioning what they’re taught, while trying to become better people.

Next up for the author is an adventure series called “Omega City,” about contemporary kids who find an abandoned Cold War bunker city in Maryland. The three-book series, slated for release by HarperCollins beginning in 2015, is aimed at a younger market of 10 to 12-year-olds.

“If there’s a contagious disease of wanting to write a book, authors have it,” Peterfreund says. “I wrote four manuscripts before the fifth one (“Secret Society Girl”) sold. There’s no security in this career, but for me, it’s just been a dream come true.”

 

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