Sep 25, 2013

Finding Angel by Kat Heckenbach: A Review

            The first time I met Kat, she was wearing more rings and ear cuffs than I could count, a headband that barely kept back a mass of curly reddish hair, and a black shirt with red letters that read ‘vampires don’t sparkle.’
            “Are you Kat?” I asked, eyeing the stacks of Finding Angel she was plunking down on a long table in the conference bookstore.
            “Yes!” she exclaimed, dropped her last stack, came round the end of the table, and enfolded me in a hug.
            Needless to say, we hit it off.
            To be fair, we had actually hit it off a few months before on Facebook when she asked for character Pinterest boards and I showed her my treasure trove. Our newfound friendship was sorely tested, however, when she began keeping a running count of days until the conference on my Facebook wall when I really didn’t want to be reminded. Becky Minor kept the peace by assuring me she would have smelling salts handy at the conference, which assuaged my fears. (Well, not really, but it at least made me realize I wasn’t the only nervous one.)
            Finding Angel was one of the few books written by conference attendees that I managed to finish before the actual conference rolled around. (I had a half-read copy of Merlin’s Blade in my dorm room the whole time. Sorry, Mr. Treskillard.) When I saw Kat’s disappointed status recently, saying she’d had a dream that Finding Angel got another review, I decided to surprise her. (Are you surprised? Well are ya?)

Overall: 3.5 stars
Finding Angel is the story of a girl separated from her magical heritage. She lives a normal life, until pieces of her past begin to catch up with her. A beetle, a charm bracelet, a boy with silver eyes…they all lead her back to Toch Island, the place of her birth, and her strange powers, which may help Angel solve the mysterious disappearances around the island – or reveal her to the evil man who desperately wants to find her.

This was a light, fun read with unique settings, new twists on the old fantasy elements, and a sojourn into a world where worldviews have consequences.

Concept: 4 stars
On the surface, this is your ordinary science-justified magic story. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find such delightful creatures as fractal chameleons, modern-day unicorns, and elves with their own rock bands. During my mentoring session with Kat (though it felt more like a chance for us to sit down alone and fangirl about – well, everything) I reflected that when you meet creative people, you rarely fit them with their work on the first try. Perhaps it’s the preponderance of introverted authors, but usually it takes a little while for you to see their creativity shining through. Not so with Kat. When she started talking, I immediately saw through to the mind that created Toch Island – a flamboyant, colorful, I-don’t-care-what-you-think kind of mind.

Plot: 3 stars
Unfortunately, this book suffered from a case of SMS, or Sagging Middle Syndrome. The first third was good. The last third was great. The middle – not so much. For all that it was neatly paced, with things speeding up toward the climax (as they should), I felt Angel spent a little too much time socializing, training, and playing with animals. Of course, this may be due to my allergic reaction anything approaching relaxation or warm fuzzy feelings. Give me TRAGEDEHHH!

That said, I loved the way the clues to the mystery were sprinkled through the story. It was one of those “aw, shoulda seen that coming,” moments.

Characters: 2.5 stars
My favorite books are usually the ones where I can tell you what the characters would do months later. Few live up to that hope – Incarceron, and Outlander, and The Restorer. The trouble with Finding Angel was that I wanted to love the characters – they were unpredictable, they were human, and they drove the story well. However, I had trouble telling their personalities apart, especially the main characters. This is something I suffer from myself. Besides a few overarching characteristics, my FMC often plays hard-to-get and I end up having to make her behave the way she needs to for the sake of the plot. (Odd thing, actually wishing the characters would take the scene and run with it.) But oh well; that’s what development and rewrites are for.

Technical: 3.5 stars
Technical details are not something I pay a great deal of attention to unless there is a profusion of mistakes. I have a rather different method of dealing with them than most. Some people claim to throw the books, or yell, or write the author nasty letters. I sigh. If it’s really bad, it earns a closed-eyed sigh. Woe to the book that elicits such a response! Since I don’t recall any sighing for the duration of this book, I think it was clean of any glaring errors. (This, folks, is why you don’t write a book review months after reading the book.)

Execution: 3 stars
While not the most vivid writing I’ve ever read, the style of Finding Angel is clean, uncluttered work full of unique elements. In future works, greater attention could be paid to expanding the scenes and adding more action – not necessarily swashbuckling action, as I don’t think that would fit – but more action by the characters instead of so much summary. Still, it was a bold, admirable endeavor. Also, the author is delightful. Can I add extra points for the fractal chameleons? Thank you.

Sep 17, 2013

Runner-up: Seahorse by Jonathan Garner

The sea, if Jim had to guess, was salty only because the world held so much sadness. Millions of tears fell, running in rivers of sorrow, until all the oceans in the world were salty instead of sweet.

Many of the tears were his.

His daughter had stopped smiling this morning. The doctor said Miri wouldn’t last the day. It was time to say goodbye, but he couldn’t do it yet. He needed to compose himself, and to do that, he had to get away from her and the many seahorse decorations that filled her room.

So he left the cottage and went down to the sea, where his little angel couldn’t see his tears. His wife had long since cried herself dry, but his tears came slower, and he still had a few left.

When the tears were gone, he remained sitting in the sand, staring at the waves crashing onto the beach, thinking. Everything he tried, from dancing about to saying her favorite jokes, had failed to bring a smile to his daughter.

When Miri talked of heaven, the pain left her face, but still no smile came. He wanted to give her one last smile before she left him and went to play on heaven’s beaches, but had no idea how to bring a final ray of joy to her face.

Jim stared into the water, his burning eyes seeing nothing but a blur of green. Then a brown blur got his attention, and he focused on it. A little seahorse swam in a salty wave.

It reminded him of Miri’s room, and that thought caused him to leap to his feet. Miri loved seahorses, and had always dreamed of seeing a real one, but had never got a chance to. She thought she never would.

Praying that he could change that, he ran up the sandy hill to the cottage and grabbed a jar off a windowsill. When he returned to the water, he expected the seahorse to be gone, but it was swimming through a new wave.

He splashed into the water, not caring that his clothes got wet. Dipping the jar into the sea, he pressed it downward until it was filled with water, then moved the mouth towards the seahorse. The little creature avoided his jar during several swipes, but he persisted until it was sucked in and caught.

With a violent splash, he lifted the jar out of the water, holding it up and watching it sparkle in the sun. The seahorse swam around peacefully in the jar, as if content to be in such a tiny sea.

He proceeded carefully out of the water and across the beach, not wanting to accidentally drop the jar and ruin everything. When he reached the cottage, he entered it with his treasure.

As Jim came into his daughter’s room, he saw that her eyes were closed, but her chest was rising and falling. His wife gave him a blank stare that turned quizzical as she saw the jar and his wet clothes.

When the realization of what was in the jar sunk in, a bit of life rushed into her eyes. She gently shook the little angel next to her awake.

Jim knelt next to Miri’s bed, watching the little girl’s eyes slowly come to rest upon the jar.

“Oh, Daddy,” she whispered. “A seahorse.” For one very brief moment, she smiled, and he smiled back.

Hours passed as he held the jar there for her to watch, knowing that his wish would not be granted a second time. Her breathing grew shallower, and her eyes closed, never to open again.

The doctor came and went, confirming what the young couple already knew. When they could no longer look at their daughter, they stared at the jar with the seahorse.

Somehow, even in a salty sea, beautiful things lived. As he and his wife found new tears, he hoped that good would come of these tears as well.

They left the cottage and went down to the edge of the sea. He poured the jar into an incoming wave, watching the little creature swim out into the ocean.

“Farewell,” he whispered.

Find Jonathan Garner at:

My thoughts:

Overall: 3.5 stars
In hindsight, I'm not sure why this story grabbed me so much. Perhaps it was my mood. Perhaps because I'm discovering how much bittersweet stories please me. Whatever it was, this story has a little something extra, despite its plain exterior. It seemed a shame not to include it, at least in the runners-up. Congrats to the author for creating something I just couldn't let go of.

Concept: 3.5 stars
Kudos, as well, for not cluttering up the story with a lot of other plot points. It's simple, clean, easy to follow. The "sea of sorrow" theme ties in well at the beginning and the end. Again, there are only two names. Jim and Mari. The doctor is not named, neither is the mother. This helps put the focus where it belongs - on a little girl's dying wish.
Plot: 3.5 stars
The arc is one of the most beautiful things about this story. It proceeds exactly as you expect it to. No miracles, no magic, no sudden bursts of inspiration. Yet by the end you're left with a gently unexpected feeling, like the first touch of waves on your toes.

Characters: 2.5 stars
This is one reason this piece didn't place in the top three. The characters needed more filling out, more outward and inward description. Unlike the third-place story, you're not drawn in to Jim's head. He seems merely a vessel from which to observe the events. I realize it's meant to be short, but details as to their personalities, hopes and dreams, biggest fears, could have made it even more potent. Since they're characters in a short story, you can afford to include improbable things (for instance, if Jim was afraid of water, if his daughter hoped to sail a sailboat someday, if his wife had stopped canning when their daughter got sick and he had to scramble to find a jar, et cetera), whereas in real life or in a novel, the characters' personalities and such tend to be more widely spread.

Execution: 3 stars
For the most part, though, I can class this with Grace Pennington's All My Tomorrows and say that the writing doesn't get in the way but lets the story flow naturally. The opening is another of my favorite things about this story. It's personal. It grabs you, but not too hard. It fits the tone and sets the stage very nicely.

Technical: 3.5 stars
Technically, this story is very clean, with well-crafted sentence that vary in length and structure. It didn't require any editing and I commend the author for taking time to make sure it was polished before submitting. This is another story that could have benefited from stronger writing, though. Replacing the weak verbs with stronger ones or using more inventive language would have beefed it up a bit, maybe placed it higher.

Sep 10, 2013

Nine Songs for the New World

Hey, folks! Sorry I missed my appointment with the latest short story finalist. I was, um, delayed (yeah, by your own laziness. Shut up.) I will most likely post the next one on schedule this week. Until then, let me amuse you by living up to my nickname of Jukebox Princess.

This is a post I've had in mind for a while, ever since I started working on the New World portion of my story. Even though my writing has grown vastly since I started using One Year Adventure Novel, I'm still roughly adhering to the OYAN story structure, the major points of which are as follows:

The Inciting Incident
Embracing Destiny
The New World
Black Moment
The Coming Storm

From the curriculum: 

Chapter four is our introduction to a whole new world neither we nor the hero have experienced before. This new world can be one of magic, or of a far-off land. It can be a new world of knowledge or a new trade...whatever the world of your novel is, this is where we truly see it for the first time. Another common function of [this section] is the introduction of tests posed by the new world. This new world, be it one of knowledge or of magic or of China or of slavery, is and must be a wild, untamed place with rules and dangers all its own. Such a place demands talent, skill and practice if it is to be overcome. The hero must not climb the mountain too easily or overnight.

In the case of my novel, the New World actually comes before the Embracing Destiny, but mine is also a double-whammy, with Arionwyn thrown into the dangerous realm of magic and a foreign country not entirely friendly to her kind. It's only after she embraces her destiny that she returns to territory familiar to her.

But enough of that. If you follow a structure similar to OYAN's or even any structure at all, your character is likely to encounter an unfamiliar setting once in a while. Music for these scenes is likely to be wondering, bright and hopeful, and tinged with a little bit of mystery. And that's exactly what I've tried to compile. May I present to you: Nine Songs for the New World!

Jeremy Soule - The Streets of Whiterun
This song is excellent background music for "discovery" scenes or almost any upbeat low-key scenes. The gentle piano/harp pattern in the background complement a soaring violin melody with rising strings and subtle choir.

Anne Dudley - A Different Land
Anne Dudley picks up the pace a bit in this song reminiscent of an archaic marketplace from the movie Tristan and Isolde. Bustling drums and nimble strings lend a sense of busy-ness and an alien setting without being too obvious.

John Powell - Wounded
"Why don't you away?" This brief but well-loved piece begins with a bang and rapidly descends into soft vocals, chimes, and trilling strings. Even though I've seen the movie multiple times (which usually cripples my use of the soundtrack) I can still imagine so many things to this song...mermaids, jungles, hidden treasure.

Two Steps From Hell - Beneath the Ice
In this unreleased track from TSfH's Skyworld, soft electronic chimes and low strings lead into a soaring melody that has it all - beauty, mystery, majesty, grandeur. Really makes me wonder what they found beneath the ice...

James Newton Howard - Penthouse/Training
This odd piece by James Newton Howard, a favorite composer of mine, explores the poignant, wistful sense of leaving home behind, coupled with the possible dangers of the new setting. (Allow me to geek out for a moment: Every time I hear Katniss' home theme at 1:21, it makes me want to bawl.)

Ramin Djawadi - The Kingsroad
This piece stands out of the mostly low-key Game of Thrones soundtrack. A string melody in an extended variation on the main theme sweeps across the song, breaking now and then with huge drums like waves upon the shore.

Howard Shore - The Council of Elrond
The first half of this song is an old standby of mine. Not only does it feature the beautiful voice of Enya, but it conveys a sense of starlit wonder that was just perfect for the opening scenes with Arionwyn in Laecla. The soft, alien elven theme builds into a gorgeous, floating melody featuring a minimalistic duo between Enya and a few low, melancholy strings.

Epic Soul Factory - Grasping Some Beauty
This one was a wild card for me, neither from a movie I'd seen nor an artist I liked. I can't even remember where I found it on the wide, wide web. But as soon as I heard the echoing piano melody, accompanied by the odd background noises, I was hooked. I based a drabble of mine off this song and I love it to this day.

Jo Blankenburg - Arion
I wish I had more occasion to use this one. A beautiful piano undercurrent runs through lofty strings and a gripping key change before coming to rest in a clean, majestic ending suitable perhaps for a midnight flight on dragonback. I also suggest you investigate Leaving Lemuria by the same artist.


Harry Gregson-Williams - Journey to the How
I probably listened to the first minute and forty-eight seconds of this song about 200 times while writing in one of my favorite settings: The Boundary Forest. It made me very glad my mp3 player has a "repeat section" function, because that minute-and-forty-eight-seconds is about as perfect for my setting as a piece of music can get. Harp trills and fairy-like chimes pervade the background of this gentle but ominous track. I think I've listened to the rest of it about twice. Picky, I know.

Well, there you have it: nine songs for your new world. (Ten if you count the last third of one.) Have I missed any of your favorites? What music have you used for writing the New World in your novel?

(Image credit:

Sep 1, 2013

For Want of a Horse

So Jennifer Frietag over at the Penslayer recently did a post about the horses in her novel cast. Me, being lazy and also a copycat, thought "Oh, that looks fun. I think I'll spend way too much time looking for pictures of my own horses."

So either my mind was stuck in an earlier draft, or absent altogether, because after scraping all over the internet looking for pictures of one horse, I found the right one and turned back to my list - only to find that I have a mere six named horses in my current draft of 250,000 words plus. Six. That splendid Frietag woman also has pedigrees and histories and what-have-you for all of hers. Dang.

Not to be deterred, I dug up some horses from earlier drafts and figured I'd use them. Some of them were actually indignant at being bothered. Nevertheless, here are the most prominent horses in the Wings trilogy. (No, none of them are pegasi. I would have a lot more to post if we were doing dragons. Hence the wings part.)

Cascade is the first horse we meet. She, along with the next two, were bought on the black market by a desperate Arionwyn. The seller swears up and down she's been trained for battle, but Cascade is just an all-around sweetie. She was originally Aaron's horse - their personalities suited each other - but he gave her to Iri in an emergency and after that Iri refused to ride another horse into battle. Big-boned with plenty of stamina, she's a good one to have around when you're running from something.

 Lyric is the second of the three horses bought on the black market. To buy a decent horse in the Andunian-occupied city, you must have identification and valid travel papers, of which Arionwyn has neither.  Which is why she went to the black market and risked being sold nags. Lyric is no nag, but her wall eye doesn't exactly bode well - many consider it bad luck and with a personality like Lyric's, it's no wonder she ended up in the Underlevels. She and Earis tolerate each other - barely. She's feisty and unpredictable, but if you get her riled and point her in the right direction, you'll have a fast ride. Like, really fast. For a long time.

This is Spear, Arionwyn's mount throughout the trilogy, when she's not riding Smoky. He's big and friendly and easygoing, but can't be broken of the habit he has of nosing into your pockets looking for treats. He's a good match for Arionwyn because he tolerates everything, from depressing mood swings to overdone affection. Unfortunately, we don't see as much of him once Arionwyn gets a dragon. Earis does threaten to drown him in the river once, though, and that has to count for something.

Paintbrush is one of the horses I dug up from a former draft. Also the one who complained the loudest. A shaggy palomino pony with the typical shaggy-pony personality, he served as the comic relief on the now-obsolete Great Dragon Egg Quest. When the party came short of horses due to a wolf attack, it was immediately suggested that Aaron ride Paintbrush. I'll leave it to your imagination whether he let that happen.

Whisper, Fairivel's battle mount, is a light draft red roan and an oxymoron. Fairivel confessed in my interview with him that Whisper is one of the loudest horses he's ever heard and that whoever named him should be sold to the pirates. Despite that, Whisper is a very dependable horse and trained exceptionally well. He's quite fearsome (and loud) in battle.

Amulet, on the other hand, is Clark's battle mount. A huge bay stallion, he plows through just about anything you put in front of him, including enemy armies. The big problem is stopping him. He's one of the finest palace-bred battle horses until the second battle, when Klista used weird magic on him and makes him go crazy. After crushing Clark's left wrist, he's retired to stud - but many of his foals carry a tendency to go insane at just the wrong moment.

                                                                                                                                             Galaxy is Clark's backup horse, so to speak. With Amulet out of commission, he turns to her - a sometimes-skittish mare with a swirl of quite spots on her rump. Despite her refusal to go anywhere near dogs, stained-glass windows, or fallen logs, she's street smart and takes care of her royal rider.    

Well, that's it. All six of the ones that exist and one that doesn't. (Now the pony is complaining.) Perhaps next time I do one of these, I'll have more than seven...