Sunday, April 28, 2002

Review: "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" by R.A. Salvatore

A lightsaber duel written by R.A. Salvatore. Do I need to say anything more about this book?

Not for anyone who understands Salvatore's writing style and his flair for combat scenes. But that fight is only one of the highlights of "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones."

Ten years have passed since the end of "Episode I: The Phantom Menace." Anakin, training under Obi-Wan Kenobi, is well on his way to becoming a Jedi Knight. Padme is now the senator from Naboo. They haven't seen each other in a decade, but after a failed attempt on her life, seemingly by opponents of her political stance, Anakin and Obi-Wan are assigned to protect her. That's a task that proves more complex than it sounds.

The assignment sends Anakin and Padme into hiding on Naboo and Obi-Wan across the galaxy on a search for a mysterious bounty hunter named Jango Fett.

At the same time, Anakin's mother has been abducted by Tusken Raiders and his dreams have been calling him back to Tatooine. There's also an important vote expected in the Senate. Many of the Republic's leaders want to form an army to deal with a perceived threat from separatist systems.

Without giving anything away, I have to say that there are some scenes in this book that I can't wait to see on the big screen. The frenzied finale should be especially impressive.

That's good, because I was beginning to worry a little. The book started slow, allowing Anakin and Padme to get to know each other again - and allowing the reader to learn more about the changes the last decade have wrought on the characters. There's some political maneuvering and a touch of romance, interspersed with a few spikes of action.

Anakin is no longer the sweet little boy of "Episode I." He has grown into a brash, hotheaded and slightly arrogant teen-ager, who questions many of the Jedi ideals. Padme is questioning her life of public service and wondering what else life has to offer. Obi-Wan is questioning his sanity for taking Anakin on as a Padawan.

"Episode II," at least the novel version, shows more depth and character development than any previous installment. The first half of the book focuses largely on Anakin's inner turmoil and the uneasy relationships he shares with his master Obi-Wan and his love interest Padme. It's something that perhaps has been lacking in previous "Star Wars" episodes.

But that doesn't mean there's not plenty of action, adventure and wonder. It wouldn't be a "Star Wars" movie without exotic locales, swashbuckling lightsaber duels, daring rescues and plenty of other derring-do.

For those "Star Wars" fans like myself, who have some misgivings about this movie, the novel is a relief. If the book is any gauge, "Episode II" will be much better than some of the trailers have led us to believe.

Sunday, April 14, 2002

Review: "Living Dead in Dallas" by Charlaine Harris

Could vampires be lurking in my neck of the woods?

In Charlaine Harris' latest novel "Living Dead in Dallas" (Ace), the place is absolutely overrun with them.
Since synthetic blood was introduced, vampires no longer have to feed on humans. Now, they've gone public, and not everyone is happy when these creatures of legend come to life.

Sookie Stackhouse works at a bar in the fictional town of Bon Temps - which based on geographical clues, I guess is somewhere near Ruston. She's also a psychic with a vampire for a boyfriend, which puts her in a precarious position. When the vampire council in Shreveport calls her to duty, she has to answer.

This time, a nest in Dallas is missing a member, and a radical anti-vampire religious group is suspected of kidnapping him. Sookie's psychic abilities have been loaned to the group to help track down their brother.
To make matters more complicated, the murder of a friend back home also remains unsolved - and Sookie is about to find out firsthand about one of Bon Temps' dark secrets.

Harris is a prolific mystery writer, but "Living Dead in Dallas" is only her second foray into vampire fiction. The first, "Dead Until Dark," was also set in Bon Temps. If Harris wants to take this direction in the future, she's off to a promising start.

The most impressive thing about this novel is the detail. Though she lives in Arkansas, Harris will make you believe she lives here. She's very familiar with the culture of northern Louisiana, and it shows. From the erratic weather patterns to the area's obsession with high school football, Harris makes Bon Temps feel like a very real place, somewhere you could pass through on a Sunday drive.

The book is littered with recognizable things from the real world. For example, the Monroe Symphony may or may not be happy to know that Sookie's vampire boyfriend Bill attends their concerts.
Aside from that, though, "Living Dead in Dallas" is also an entertaining read. The book is fast-paced, and the story line is intriguing.

Harris has given her readers a lively romp through a fantasy land that's grounded in the real world, a world readers in this area will know well. Think Laurell K. Hamilton with a Southern accent.

Interview: Charlaine Harris

Northern Louisiana might seem to some to be a strange setting for a vampire story, but author Charlaine Harris thinks it's perfectly natural.

Harris' latest novel "Living Dead in Dallas," published this month by Ace, begins in the fictional town of Bon Temps, La., which is located somewhere near Ruston. It's Harris' second vampire novel set in our area. The first, "Dead Until Dark," was published in 2001.

"I wanted to corner the market on northern Louisiana vampire romance mysteries, and I think I did," Harris jokes when asked about her choice of setting.

Actually, she chose the area for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's close to her Magnolia, Ark., home, which helped with research. The second is that she finds it easier to identify with Southern rural settings.

"(Southern settings) are what I know and what I feel most comfortable writing about," she says. "The characters just seem to flow more naturally in the Southern setting."

Harris grew up in the Mississippi Delta and says she's never lived far from the South. That shows in her writing. One of her mystery series is set in a suburb of Atlanta, and the other, featuring detective Lily Bard, is set in the fictional town of Shakespeare, Ark.

Her familiarity with rural America gave her an edge when she decided to write a vampire novel. She says she enjoys reading some of the modern vampire writers, but saw a way to give the genre a unique twist.

"It seemed like a good idea to take vampirism out of the urban setting," she says. "I wanted to do something of my own with it, to go in a direction that hasn't been done so much."

Thus, in "Living Dead in Dallas" there's a vampire attending the symphony in Monroe and a psychic shopping at a lingerie store in Ruston - not to mention a vampire bar in Shreveport.

Because of her style and subject, Harris is likely to be compared to one of those modern vampire writers, Laurell K. Hamilton. Harris says she knows Hamilton "very slightly," and the writer of the "Anita Blake" series did provide some inspiration for her first vampire novel.

"I had wanted to write a vampire book before I read hers, but I didn't really know if it would be accepted," Harris says. "I read two of her books, and I thought, `sure, I can do anything I want.' But it wasn't quite that easy."

She shopped "Dead Until Dark" to her normal publishers, who all felt that it wasn't quite right for their market. By the time the book found a home at Ace, Hamilton had hit the big-time. Harris acknowledges that Hamilton's success probably helped her, but doesn't think the other author's writing was a big influence.

"In a sense, she really paved the way for me," she says. "I don't know that I'd call her that much of a direct influence - more like a guiding light."

Harris' love of writing started early in life. She says that she's always been a writer, but she finally got the chance to make a career out of it 24 years ago, when she married her husband.

"He gave me the opportunity to stay at home and work on a book instead of resuming my job," she says. "I took him up on it."

She got off to a fast start. Her very first novel sold - a rare occurrence.

"People always hate me when I tell them that," she says with a laugh.

Harris now has 16 novels under her belt, but the jump from mysteries to vampire stories has been good to her so far. Ace has signed her for at least two more installments in the series, and the books are also reaching into foreign markets.

While a few mystery fans have given the vampire books a cool reception, she says most have shown interest.

"Some mystery readers don't like them because of the higher `ick factor,'" she says. "But a lot of mystery readers do read cross-genre, so I really like to think of the vampire books as kind of transcending one genre and crossing over to another."

Harris says she'd like to do more fiction with a supernatural element in the future, outside of her "Southern Vampire" series, but she also plans to continue writing mysteries as well.

Her next mystery, "Last Scene Alive," is due out in August. It's about a movie company that comes to a small Georgia town to film the fictional treatment of a book written about the town. Her next vampire novel will be released this time next year by Ace. Beyond that, Harris says she'll just wait and see what happens.

Sunday, April 07, 2002

Review: "A Caress of Twilight" by Laurell K. Hamilton

No matter how many people jump on the supernatural detective bandwagon, there's still only one Laurell K. Hamilton. She proves that again in her latest "A Caress of Twilight" (Ballantine).

Merry Gentry - also known as Princess Meredith NicEssus at the Unseelie Court - has returned to Los Angeles and her job at the Grey Detective Agency with a contingent of bodyguards chosen from the Queen's Ravens to protect her. These protectors also have a chance to become kings - if they can provide her with a child.

After years of hiding from her sidhe cousins, Merry has been welcomed back by Queen Andais - and named heir to the Unseelie throne. The catch is that she has to conceive an heir before her cousin Cel, who is currently undergoing six months of torture for an attempt on Merry's life. If she doesn't, the mad Cel takes the throne.

But there are those at the sidhe court that are unhappy with either choice. They want a war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts and are doing their best to start it.

"A Caress of Twilight" is the sequel to Hamilton's outstanding "A Kiss of Shadows." Though it doesn't quite live up to the first book, it's still a top-notch novel, with a perfect blend of fantasy, horror and mystery.

Overall, this book feels like a bridge from "A Kiss of Shadows" to whatever comes next. The reader receives a lot of information and a lot of plot elements are set up, but there's clearly more and better yet to come.

"A Caress of Twilight" starts slow, perhaps focusing a bit too much on Merry's sexual exploits. These scenes are not for the easily offended. But Hamilton deftly uses them to increase the tension within the ranks of Merry's defenders as the threats around them build.

When the Grey Agency gets a call from Hollywood's "Golden Goddess" Maeve Reed - exiled by the Seelie court for an insult to King Taranis - business begins to pick up.

When she receives an unlikely invitation from the Seelie king, Merry finds herself once again enmeshed in the Machiavellian world of sidhe politics. This is where Hamilton really shines, twisting the plot in knots that the reader fears will surely ensnare the heroine.

Hamilton also has the uncanny ability to take creatures of fantasy and make them seem like a living, breathing reality in our own world. Not once does the reader question the appearance of faeries, goblins or other creatures on the streets of Los Angeles.

But the true power of this book is in the author's style. Hamilton's writing is darker and more seductive than any of the characters she's created, and the story will stay in your head long after you've put the book down.

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Interview: Holly Lisle's Forward Motion

There's a place on the Web where dragons roam the skies, wizards cast their spells and vampires - or even stranger creatures - lurk in the darkness. It's a place where hardy adventurers meet to discuss their quest or seek advice from others who have followed the same path.

The place is the Forward Motion Writer's Community (, fantasy author Holly Lisle's home on the Web.

If you had visited Lisle's site in 1995, you would have found a simple page with a few writing tips. If you visit today, you'll find a thriving community of writers, a place with a free exchange of ideas, advice and encouragement.

When she began the site, Lisle had no idea what her creation would evolve into.

"I figured I'd post a bunch of writing articles and then - as the bug hit me - a LOT of writing articles, and that would be it," she said. "But the Internet is a seductive place - and was particularly seductive in 1999-2000, when the dot-coms thought they'd created a way of minting money and everything on the Web was free."

That's when Lisle's site really began to change. The availability of free tools made it easy to experiment with message boards, chat rooms, classes and plenty of other interactive features. Now, the site has over 2,000 members, though not all are active, and gains around 20 new members a month.

"I kept thinking about all these people who wrote to me - thinking they would really like each other, and we could have a lot of fun and do cool things if I had some way to bring them all together," she said.

"The explosion of freebie Web tools made that possible. I have to pay now - the days of free on the Internet are gone. But now everything works - at least most of the time - and I know the price is worth it to me."

Lazette Gifford, who designed the original Forward Motion page almost seven years ago, is also surprised and pleased by what's happened at the site

"(Holly) has taken over and expanded in ways I never imagined," Gifford said. "I'm amazed at how much it's grown and how much time and energy Holly is willing to expend to help new writers."

Lisle says she considers that something she owes to the people who helped her, people like well-known fantasy and science fiction writers Mercedes Lackey and Stephen Leigh.

"Stephen rubbed the stupid out of my storytelling, and Misty showed me how to treat writing as a profession, not a hobby," Lisle said. "I couldn't pay either one of them back. But I could pay forward - that Robert Heinlein adage is some of the best advice he ever gave - and when I discovered the cool Web tools, I figured out how I could pay forward."

Lisle says that's how the site works - not just for her, but for everyone there. The spirit of Forward Motion is people helping each other.

"That's the coin of the site, the stated agreement," she said. "If something or someone helps you reach your dreams, then when you have the opportunity to help someone else, you take it."

And writers have found help in Lisle's community. Users like Jim Mills, Robert Sloan and Julia Pass praise the site's boards, classes and the inspiration they find there.

"The site really got me motivated to write more and actually think about what I was writing," said Pass, who now serves as a moderator. "It's also helped me to put more into my writing than just a plot, so now it actually says something."

Kay House credits Lisle's site with kicking her fiction writing into gear. House says she's wanted to write fiction since she was a child, but had never been able to get it going.

"My hard drive got littered with false starts. Despite the fact that I have finished more pieces of non-fiction than I could possibly count, I despaired of ever finishing one piece of even the shortest, most mediocre fiction," House said. "Within a month of finding the site, I had finished a short story. Not a good short story, or a long one, but a finished one - and finished was the goal."

Most users say the camaraderie keeps them coming back as much as the writing help.

"The community has a unique, stimulating atmosphere where in one sense, everyone's equal," Sloan said. "Every writer here is unique. We're all striving for the same difficult goals, and the same stresses affect popular, published successful members, as well as talented young writers who are beginning their careers in high school."

Gifford says there's no other site quite like it, and the information and help she finds there is invaluable.

"Having instant contact with a community of writers is probably one of the biggest changes in the lives of authors since the invention of the typewriter," she said. "There is almost always a person or two in chat willing to talk out plotting problems or share a triumph."

The community also continues to grow with new classes and opportunities for members. On a recent Saturday afternoon, members were given a chance to chat with a book editor from a major publishing company. Insights like those are invaluable say members.

Lisle says she feels a great deal of satisfaction and delight when a member of the community succeeds.

"My objective is to one day have an entire shelf of books by site members," she said.

But she's quick to point out that success comes primarily from the work the member puts in. The site just gives them tools that will help.

"I don't justifiably get to be proud. That would be like a hammer manufacturer being proud of someone using his hammer to build a gorgeous Victorian mansion or a castle," Lisle said. "Forward Motion is a place where you can get a wide selection of tools, and I think they're pretty good tools. But the folks who have the drive and the passion to build castles would figure out a way to do it with their teeth if no other tools were available."

Lisle says the biggest push now is to get a more stable interface for the site, but that's going to be a challenge. She says pricier packages aren't in her budget, and she refuses to charge for membership.

"More people need to buy my books so that I can afford a more reliable back-end for the community," Lisle jokes.

Other than that, she says she'd like to see the community continue on its present course.

"I think I'd just like to see more of what we already have," she said. "More writers participating in critiquing each other's work, more people volunteering to teach classes on their specialties, more passionate discussions about writing, more people finding a place where others share their love of words, more people bouncing onto the discussion board screaming, `They just bought my story!'

"That's a wonderful thing to see when I log on in the morning."