Cover reveal for A Time to Speak

I have recently poked my nose into Nadine Brandes' debut novel, A Time to Die, and I have been favourably impressed, even if I haven't finished reading it yet. I recommend that you check her out yourself. Her second novel, A Time to Speak, will be coming out soon and she's running a giveaway contest to celebrate. In the meanwhile, here is a look at the new cover.

Click over to Nadine's contest.

Review: Burn Baby, Burn Baby

Burn Baby

Burn Baby, Burn Baby by Kevin Craig is a raw look at abuse and disfigurement from a victim's perspective. Teenager Francis Fripp bears the scars, mental and physical, inflicted by a brutal father. He arms himself against a hostile world with sarcasm, cynicism, and profanity. The only truly bright spot in that world is his best friend from before his disfigurement, "Trig", who has stuck with him all the way and who always has his back. Trig is also everything Francis isn't: a popular, athletic A-student, dating one of the hottest girls in the school. Francis is envious, but not enough to ruin his friendship. In the meanwhile, school is hell for him, as a violent bully who has christened him "Burn Baby" sees to it that he gets regular verbal and physical abuse, which he amps up any time somebody tries to help.

And one person who tries to help is the new girl, Rachel. She has to be persistent, because her greatest roadblock is Francis himself, who cannot conceive of the notion that any girl could actually like him. Kevin Craig was himself a victim of abuse, so he comes at this subject with a deep understanding of what that kind of pain can do to a child. Francis has to fight with both himself and his environment to come to terms with his disfiguring scars, the ones on his body and the ones on his soul. It's not an easy read on any level, but I think a valuable one for anyone who has had an easier ride through life. Fortunately Craig allows some light to shine in the deep darkness here, or it would be an unbearable read.

It is not unbearable, but it is brutal. Prepare yourself for profanity, anger, violence, and a very unhappy teen culture. Prepare yourself also for hope.

Kevin Craig's website

Review: An Ember in the Ashes


Ye gods! as they say in Coventree1. Burning, bleeding skies! as they say in the Martial Empire. I haven't read anything as good as An Ember in the Ashes in some time. I kept being struck by the quiet inventiveness of the language ("In the ensuing silence, you could hear a tear drop.") and the brilliant handling of tension and characterization. Don't most people take several books to get to that kind of skill level?

The story is told from the viewpoints of two young people: Laia, a young woman of the Scholar people who has lost all her family but one to the brutality of the Martial Empire, and Elias, a young Martial man about to graduate from a brutal military academy to become a Mask, sort of a cross between secret police and special forces. Their paths are fated to cross of course, and the results are explosive. The Martial Empire is at a critical junction and the choices they make (and they will have to make many) will have far-reaching consequences.

The Martial Empire itself bears some similarity to Ancient Rome, but elements of many other cultures are drawn in, with the fantasy elements being mostly Arabic in flavour: jinn, efrits, ghuls.

An Ember in the Ashes is a fantasy book for teens, but that designation does make me grumble a bit. I haven't been a teenager in many, many years, and I never felt that this book was too juvenile for me. Yes, the central characters are young, but the themes are universal: conflicting loyalties, choosing between self-gratification and principles, love, betrayal... All the good stuff. And while the difference between good and evil is quite clear in this book, the mix can be complex. While the Scholars are very clearly the oppressed in this story, we find out that their past is not as virtuous as one might think, and their Resistance, while sometimes heroic, can also be venal and corrupt. And the Martial people, while clearly the oppressors, have individuals who aspire to be better and will sacrifice a great deal to do so.

The personal dynamics can also be complex. Sometimes there is no simple choice; someone will get hurt or feel betrayed. Some of the choices remain in the future, as this is clearly the first of a series, and we can't help but wonder how the dilemma will be resolved. The "good guys" blow it sometimes, and even the most evil of the evil show flashes of humanity, although admittedly very few.

The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful, which keeps us turning pages and perhaps from noticing an occasional plausibility issue (unless there is an underlying reason for those implausibilities which will be revealed in future episodes). I am particularly pleased to note that there is no foul language (unless you are so sensitive that "ten hells" sets off your alarms), no steamy sex, although desire is never far away (they're young, how could it be otherwise?) and the story does not suffer in the least because of it.

And for those following the We Read Diverse Books Challenge, this would answer nicely in a couple of categories, depending on your age and the colour of your skin.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy through a giveaway from SF Signal. No review was requested, but I wrote it anyway.

Sabaa Tahir's website


1The land at the heart of Disenchanted.

Cover reveal for Burn Baby, Burn Baby

Kevin Craig's fourth novel, Burn Baby, Burn Baby, will be released December 11, 2014. I've never had the privilege of meeting Kevin in the flesh, but we've been running into each other online for years. Although not always specifically aimed at teens, his novels feature young people dealing with heart-wrenching issues, and this latest one is no exception. Read the description of the novel below to get an idea of what I mean.

Burn Baby Burn 1000.jpg

To pre-order a Kindle copy, click here.

Kevin's website

Seventeen-year-old Francis Fripp’s confidence is practically non-existent since his abusive father drenched him in accelerant and threw a match at him eight years ago. 
Now badly scarred, Francis relies on his best friend Trig to protect him from the constant bullying doled out at the hands of his nemesis, Brandon Hayley—the unrelenting boy who gave him the dreaded nickname of Burn Baby. 
The new girl at school, Rachel Higgins, is the first to see past Francis’s pariah-inducing scars. 
If Brandon’s bullying doesn’t destroy him, Francis might experience life as a normal teenager for the first time in his life. He just has to avoid Brandon and convince himself he’s worthy of Rachel’s attentions. 
Sounds easy enough, but Francis himself has a hard time seeing past his scars. And Brandon is getting violently frustrated, as his attempts to bully Francis are constantly thwarted. 
Francis is in turmoil as he simultaneously rushes toward his first kiss and a possible violent end.

Review: Color Song

Giulia Borromeo's life is defined by walls, the walls of her convent, the walls of the cell into which she is locked every night, the walls of the society which decrees she can be only a servant, a nun, or a prostitute. But Giulia is an artist, a painter with a gift that is bigger than the small space her world wants to give it, a painter who can literally hear the song the pigments make as they await the artist's hand. And yet within the walls of her life, she had found an unexpected treasure, the only workshop for female artists in all of medieval Italy, presided over by a nun of immense talent, and a heart big enough to recognize and encourage Giulia's.

But when her mentor dies, the workshop leadership is assumed by Domenica, a woman with an entirely different attitude. Giulia knows that once she takes her final vows, she will be relegated to a lifetime of menial tasks, whether or not she accedes to the demand to yield up the secret formula for Passion Blue, a pigment that dazzles like no other. The only other option is fleeing the safety of the convent and throwing herself into a dangerous world for which she is totally unprepared, pursued by the unscrupulous man who desires Passion Blue above all else, and beset by all the other predators waiting to pounce on a solitary young woman with no street smarts, no resources, and no protector.

Kirkus Reviews named Passion Blue, Victoria Strauss's first book about Giulia Borromeo, a Best Teen Book of 2012. I had not read Passion Blue, but I did not find that to be much of a problem, as Strauss fills us in on the back-story without being unduly heavy-handed. The fantastical elements in the first seem to have been more pronounced; in Color Song they are negligible, consisting only in Giulia's ability to actually hear colors, a kind of enhanced synaesthesia.

Color Song is more historical fiction than fantasy. Above all else, it is a coming-of-age story, taking place in a world that gave women very few options. Giulia's determination to be an artist puts her in opposition to an entire society, and places her very life in danger.

The story is well-told, with excellent pacing. The author allows the tension to subside occasionally, but just when we – and Giulia – are starting to get a wee bit comfortable, another wave rocks the boat, or perhaps I should say gondola, seeing as the story takes place mostly in Venice. Strauss very ably makes us appreciate the magnitude of the challenges facing Giulia, as well as the sacrifices she must make in a society that will not allow her to be both a woman and a painter. The characters are also nicely sketched, although hewing perhaps a little too closely to well-worn stereotypes. It is not a fatal flaw, even less so in a book aimed at teen readers who have not yet been exposed to them multiple times.

It is my hope that Color Song will find a wider audience than just teenage girls. By squeezing us into the very narrow passages that society imposes on Giulia, it makes us appreciate her desperate efforts to scale the walls, literally and figuratively, and encourages us to reflect on the nature of oppression in all times and places.

As a special note to authors, Victoria Strauss is also well-known as the co-founder of Writer Beware, a website set up to protect writers from the various predators and dangers besetting them. You owe it to yourself to check into this invaluable resource.

Victoria Strauss's website

Writer Beware

Interview: Edward Willett

How do you not love an author who has a blog called Hasenpfeffer? I first met Ed Willett somewhere in cyberspace so long ago I can't remember where. Blogs? MySpace? Following links? Who knows? But he had a blog called Hasenpfeffer. And he grew up in Saskatchewan. (As did I. You get extra points if you know where that is.) And he wrote speculative fiction. It was clear I had to take a closer look...

You are such a prolific writer, it makes my head spin. Fiction, non-fiction, YA, adult, science fiction, fantasy, Edward Willett, E.C. Blake, Lee Arthur Chane... Am I missing anything? Plus you act and sing. How do you keep all these balls in the air?

I think you’ve covered the bases. Except for the volunteer work. (I’m on the board of The Golden Apple Theatre, a professional theatre company, and I also do a lot of desktop publishing for it and other theatre organizations.) And the driving-daughter-to-dance-and-theatre work...

I actually feel like I’m way too lazy and could accomplish much more if I didn’t waste so much time on the Internet. I don’t really have any words of wisdom regarding how I manage to do so many different types of things. To me it’s all one thing. Yes, writing a YA fantasy novel isn’t the same as writing, say, the annual report of Chief Electoral Officer (as I did last year) or a short 32-page book written at an early-reader level about the Milky Way…and yet, it is. It’s all about using words, about communicating—telling a story, whether one I’ve made up or one that’s true. Acting and singing, too, are really just forms of telling stories. So that’s what I really am: a storyteller. In ancient times I’d have been the old guy by the fire spinning tales. Good thing, too, since with my eyesight I’d either have had to be a shaman or I’d have been sabertooth bait…

May I be blessed with equally productive laziness.

Tell us about your most recent novel. (Yeah, I'm always more interested in the fiction. Sorry.) And how many novels does that make now, while we're at it?

Actually, I’ll tell you about my two most recent novels, since they’ve come out so close together. Both are the second books in series, as it happens!

Shadows, which came out August 4 from DAW Books, is Book 2 in The Masks of Aygrima, a trilogy that began with Masks last fall and will wrap up with Faces next summer. It’s a fantasy novel set in a land where everyone is forced to don a magical Mask at the age of 15, a Mask that tells the dreaded Watchers who might pose a threat to the rule of the Autarch, so no rebellion is possible or can even be contemplated. The main character is a 15-year-old girl, Mara Holdfast, who is the daughter of the Master Maskmaker and also has a rare and powerful form of the magical Gift that only a small number of citizens possess. When her Masking unexpectedly fails, she is sent into exile, rescued by the unMasked Army, and flung into the effort to overthrow the Autarch…all the while trying to learn to control her Gift, which is not only powerful but dangerous, and threatens to turn her into a monster worse than the Autarch she is working against.

Twist of the Blade, which I just got copies of yesterday, is Book 2 in The Shards of Excalibur, a five-book young adult fantasy series being published by Coteau Books here in Regina. It’s the sequel to Song of the Sword, which came out in the spring. Book 3, The Lake in the Clouds, will be out in the spring of 2015. In Book 1, Song of the Sword, the Lady of the Lake showed up in Regina’s Wascana Lake and informed Ariane Forsythe, a 15-year-old girl who’s been in and out of foster homes since her mother mysteriously disappeared, that she is the heir to the Lady’s power, and must stop Merlin, in his modern-day guise as Bill Gates-like computer magnate Rex Major, from finding the scattered shards of Excalibur and reuniting them. If he does, he will use the sword’s power to take over the world and attack his own world of Faerie. Ariane and her sidekick, 14-year-old Wally Knight, successfully gained the first shard in Book 1, but in Book 2 Wally begins having doubts after Ariane used her power to hurt his sister, Felicia (a rather nasty bully). The story takes Wally and Ariane to the south of France, and tests their new relationship to the limits.

How many novels? Um…(counting on fingers)…twelve traditionally published and three self-published. So far.


Arthurian legend in Regina. I like it.

Now I would like to know about your writing process. Outline? Improvise? Bit of both? Do you write better in silence? To music? In public places? (We'll pretend that's only one question. Ahem.)

I outline and then improvise. Most books start as a five- or six-page synopsis, which I only rarely refer to once I’m actually writing. Major plot points don’t usually change, but new ideas come out of nowhere as i write, or as characters, in the middle of a scene, say something or do something that takes things in a different direction than I originally envisioned. The outline is kind of like a roadmap on which the destinations of a planned trip have been highlighted, and perhaps the major highways that will be taken to get to them. The writing is the journey itself, full of side trips and detours and scenic routes. Occasionally even the destinations change. On more than one book I’ve had to pause and replot in order to get to the final destination because of choices made during the actual writing that invalidated my original synopsis.

I rarely write in my office. I prefer to write on my laptop either inside the house or, more often, in a public place like a coffee shop or bar. If I’m writing at home, I write in silence. If I’m writing in a public place, I listen to music—what music hardly matters: it’s just a way to shut out conversation. A general roar of background noise doesn’t bother me, but any actual conversation where I can make out what’s being said is incredibly distracting. Especially if it’s a conversation about something I have a strong opinion about and the idiots talking don’t share my opinion. :) As I write this I’m listening to some random mix of ‘70s hits on Radio…


I can really relate to the conversation problem. And now, finally, which authors have particularly influenced you? Do any of them attain the status of role model?

My biggest influences are undoubtedly the authors I read as a kid, the ones who turned me into a science fiction and fantasy reader and, very soon, writer. Robert A. Heinlein is, of course, the father of us all in science fiction. His “juvenile” novels in particular were a huge influence on me. Isaac Asimov, particularly the robot stories. Andre Norton was another big influence on me as a young reader. Zenna Henderson was another, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien.

But role models? Only in that it was their stories, which I loved so much, which convinced me that I wanted to tell stories that other people would enjoy as much as I had enjoyed theirs.

Because ultimately, that’s what I am: a storyteller. I make up stories, I tell them to other people, and hopefully they’re entertained. If I’m thought-provoking or inspirational or anything else, that’s great: but as long as I’m entertaining, I’m content.

Thanks so much, Ed.

I reviewed Ed's Lost in Translation here.

And his website is here.

And here for E.C. Blake

And here for Lee Arthur Chane

Review: Voiceless

Voiceless by Caroline Wissing is a literary Young Adult novel that tells the story of Annabel Cross, alias Ghost, who has lost her voice, her home, and almost all of her hope. As the story starts, we find her living in the country with a foster family and longing to be reunited with her mother, a woman who has never managed to shake her dependence on drugs and violent men. But a new boy arrives at the foster home and introduces yet another complication to Ghost's already difficult life.

We work both backward and forward with Ghost, finding out how she has become voiceless and abandoned, and how she works through a complicated adolescence, making some foolish choices, and paying dearly for them. She eventually has to take her life into her own hands, and step out into the unknown, completely alone.

Wissing writes beautifully, evoking a powerful sense of place.  She is a master of the telling detail, making a setting click into place with one or two sure strokes. Her characters are also drawn with a sure hand, their different voices and personalities clear on the page.

If there is any quibble I have with this book, is that it is perhaps too realistic. Ghost is not your typical novel heroine, being rather passive most of the time and trying to duck down out of her problems, rather than facing and defying them. She only takes action when pushed to it out of direst need, and her supply of initiative dries up rather quickly. This is entirely consistent with the way many people live their lives, but it did leave the book feeling rather directionless for a while.

But Ghost and her story are bound to live in your head for a long time after you put the book down, and Voiceless is a fine example of the excellence that can often be found in the Young Adult category. Bleakness and beauty, horror and hope, undeserved suffering and unexpected grace come together to stir and challenge us.

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