Sunday, December 29, 2002

Review: "Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life," by Barnaby Conrad and Monty Schulz

I have to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of "Peanuts." I liked it when I was a kid, but as I grew older, Charlie Brown and his pals lost their luster for me. Most of the time when I turn to the comics page now, my eye skims right over it - with one exception. I love the strips that feature Snoopy's thoughts on writing.

For a while now, I've had a couple of Snoopy comics hanging over my computer at home that sum up the writing experience for me. One features Snoopy writing a letter that I've often wanted to write back to publishers. It reads, "Gentlemen, Regarding the recent rejection slip you sent me. I think there might have been a misunderstanding. What I really wanted was for you to publish my story and send me fifty thousand dollars. Didn't you realize that?" I'm afraid my luck probably wouldn't be any better than Snoopy's, though.

But those thoughts on writing are why I got really excited about "Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life" by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz ($19.99, Writer's Digest Books).

For this book, the authors asked some of the most well-known writers in the world about their favorite "Peanuts" cartoon on writing. Among the contributors are Ray Bradbury, Danielle Steel, Clive Cussler, Sidney Sheldon, Fannie Flagg, Dominick Dunne, William F. Buckley Jr., Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Julia Child, Elmore Leonard and more.

The bits from the writers are often interesting, sometimes infuriating. Some, like best seller Steel, made me groan. She goes on and on about how tough the writing life is. I wanted to say, "If it's so bad, surely you've made enough money to quit."

But most are a bit more light-hearted. They're funny, humble, even inspiring. Take for instance Flagg's tale of how she became a writer. Her joy in the act of writing shines through the essay. Others, like Bradbury, recount tales of the bumps and potholes on their road to success, and express their gratitude that they're able to make a living at something they love.

But the real star of the book, as we all know, is Snoopy. My favorites are his takes on rejection slips. Anyone who has started a collection of those little multi-colored slips of paper can understand Snoopy's frustration. Those insidious little phrases like "not right for us at this time" or "doesn't meet our present needs," translate to something more like "you stink" in the mind of the aspiring writer.

One particular cartoon - one of the ones that hang on my desk - cuts to the heart of it. It shows Snoopy retrieving a rejection from the mailbox. It reads, "Dear Contributor, Thank you for considering us with your manuscript. Has it ever occurred to you that you may be the worst writer in the history of the world?" I've certainly gotten a couple of letters that made me feel that way.

It works the other way too, though. There's one strip where Snoopy gets an acceptance, of a sort. It says, "Dear Contributor, Thank you for not sending us anything lately. It suits our present needs." I know there are a few editors out there who have wanted to send me that one.

I was disappointed that I didn't see one of my favorites in this book. It's the final one of the three next to my computer. Snoopy receives a letter that reads, "Dear Son, Thank you for considering us with your letter. We regret, however, that it does not suit our present needs. Sincerely, Mother." The final frame shows Snoopy sitting dejectedly on a rock, thinking, "Even my letters home get rejected."

"Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life" provides a fun break for any writer or "Peanuts" fan. But now, it's time to get the nose back to the grindstone and start writing again. Let's see ... how should I start? Oh, I know.

It was a dark and stormy night...

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Review: "Night Watch," by Terry Pratchett

In "Night Watch," Terry Pratchett treats fans to a fun trip into the history of the city of Ankh-Morpork through the eyes of everyone's favorite City Watch captain Samuel Vimes.

When Vimes pursues a criminal named Carcer, accused of killing two coppers, they find themselves locked in a fight atop Unseen University, the school for wizards. As a storm rages around the two combatants, a freak accident sends Vimes through the roof of the school and into darkness.

When he wakes, things are a little strange. He soon finds that he's been transported back in time to his very first days as a copper. He takes on the identity of John Keel, a watchman who took Vimes under his wing in those days. And indeed, Vimes meets the younger version of himself in Lance Constable Samuel Vimes.

The times are turbulent ones for the city of Ankh-Morpork. The current patrician is completely insane, and the man plotting a revolution to take his place isn't much better. The streets are about to erupt in violence, and the results are one of the last things Vimes wants to relive. Unfortunately, it appears he's going to have to, despite his best efforts to change history.

What's worse is that Vimes discovers Carcer has come through with him, and he has a plan to change history himself - by killing one of Vimes' selves.

If my count is correct, "Night Watch" is Pratchett's 28th novel set on his whimsical Discworld, and in all those books, neither the place nor the characters have lost their charm.

The story itself is perhaps not as funny as some of the previous tales of the City Watch, but there are still plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments.

The real fun of this installment is getting a chance to see how things were before Vetinari took over as patrician and before Vimes overhauled the City Watch. Readers caught glimpses of it in Pratchett's first novels about Vimes, but never knew the whole story.

In "Night Watch," readers get to see younger versions of watchmen Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs, a Vimes who isn't nearly as savvy and cunning as the current version, watchman Reginald Shoe - before the unfortunate accident that made him a zombie - and a young, but skilled assassin named Havelock Vetinari. Oh, and there's also the birth of a legend, Ankh-Morpork's greatest salesman, "Cut Me Own Throat" Dibbler, who we find out actually got his catch line from Vimes - at least in this timeline.

Time travel stories can be tricky when writers let themselves get bogged down in the "rules." Fortunately, Pratchett throws all that nonsense out the window and just has fun with it. Of course, that's been Pratchett's trademark all along. He approaches everything about the Discworld with an anything goes attitude, and perhaps that's why the series has lasted so long without becoming stale.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Movie review: "The Two Towers"

Being a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, it was with more than a little apprehension that I entered the theater this time last year to see the first installment of Peter Jackson's silver screen version of "The Lord of the Rings." But "The Fellowship of the Ring" was so impressive that when I lined up for the opening of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" on Wednesday, I had nothing but excitement and anticipation.

Apparently I wasn't the only one. After what seemed an interminable wait for the lights to go down, the packed house broke into applause as the trailers began to play. After that, it was off to Tolkien's magical land of Middle-Earth.

For those worried that this one can't live up to the hype, forget about it. If anything, "The Two Towers" outshines its predecessor. It has all of the amazing effects and gorgeous settings, but it injects a healthy dose of action into the mix. The most hardcore Tolkien purists may be disappointed a bit by the trumped-up battle scenes, but no one else will. They're fantastic eye candy and make for some compelling dramatic moments.

Jackson does take a few liberties with the story, but the changes are primarily cosmetic - a slight tweaking of the timing, a few minor scenes removed, a brief continuation of the Arwen/Aragorn thread and the delay of a couple of scenes for the third film due next Christmas. All in all, there was nothing that I really missed, and I'm pretty picky about that sort of thing.

If you haven't read the books or seen the first movie, you might want to check it out before going. Like the books, the film version of "The Two Towers" dives right into the action without any backstory, and there's a good chance you could be lost if you're not familiar with the tale.

The movie opens by telling the story of Gandalf's fall from the bridge over Khazad-dum and his ensuing battle with the Balrog. The effects are stunning as the wizard and the computer-generated demon battle while plummeting through the center of the mountain. It also prepares viewers for one of the key twists in the movie, (the wizard's transformation into Gandalf the White.)

From there, the story continues its march to the final showdown with Mordor. With Gollum as guide, Frodo and Sam move along on their journey to Mount Doom with the one ring becoming a greater burden, while battle is joined in the rest of the world. Saruman's forces move against the kingdom of Rohan, while Sauron's armies converge on Gondor in an attempt to crush the human lands between them. The elves are boarding the ships that will take them to the Grey Havens and the dwarves are locked in their mountain halls. It's a bleak picture for the world of Middle-Earth, but despite that there are strong threads of hope and determination running through the movie.

Overall, "The Two Towers" is a very intense film, but Jackson also knows where to provide viewers with a laugh from the dwarf Gimli or one of the hobbits to break the tension.

Jackson's casting continues to be picture perfect, with the choice of Bernard Hill as Theoden, Miranda Otto as Eowyn and Brad Dourif as Grima Wormtongue. Despite the excellent casting, it's a computer-generated character that really steals the show.

Viewers became acquainted with Gollum briefly in "The Fellowship of the Ring," but he takes a larger role in "The Two Towers." We learn that he was once named Smeagol, and there's a particularly impressive sequence as the two distinct personalities emerge and battle for control over the creature. Gollum/Smeagol is the most fully-realized and believable computer-generated character that I've seen, and he was able to draw a wide range of emotions from the packed house in the theater - laughter, pity, disgust and even perhaps a bit of fear.

Of course, there's always a character or creature to look forward to. In "The Fellowship of the Ring," it was the Balrog. In "The Two Towers," it's Treebeard and the Ents. I had nightmares of the great tree-herders looking like the talking trees from "The Wizard of Oz," but Jackson has done a magnificent job of bringing them to life. They're not exactly what I imagined while reading the books, but they're still very impressive.

In truth, there are times in the movie when the viewer knows everything on the screen is computer generated, but it hardly seems to matter. You get caught up in the swirl of the story, and everything is completely believable.

With his version of the second installment of Tolkien's trilogy, Jackson ratchets up the drama and excitement for the conclusion, "Return of the King," which promises to be the best of the three films. The only downside I can see in "The Two Towers" is that we have to wait another year to see the conclusion.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Review: "The Thousand Orcs," by R.A. Salvatore

After nearly a decade and a half of tales about the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden, the story has come full circle in R.A. Salvatore's latest, "The Thousand Orcs" ($25.95, Wizards of the Coast).

The book marks a new beginning for Drizzt and his companions, opening a chapter that promises to bring the series back to its adventurous roots, while still retaining some of the introspective aspects of more recent volumes.

As the book opens, Drizzt and his companions are once again on the road to Mithral Hall, only this time to stay. The old dwarven king Gandalug has died, and Drizzt's friend Bruenor Battlehammer, the dwarf responsible for the retaking of the ancient dwarven home, has been named the new king.

But Bruenor is reluctant to chain himself to the throne of the dwarven kingdom. He still longs for the freedom and adventure of the road. A chance meeting with a pair of dwarves from a neighboring stronghold who had been attacked by orcs on the road, provides the perfect opportunity for him to duck his duties for a little while longer. In the process of tracking the band of orcs, the companions uncover a more sinister plot. Someone has united the orcs with the frost giants of the north and given them direction and a mission - to capture Mithral Hall and kill Bruenor and his companions.

There are also problems on the political front for Bruenor. Since the reopening of Mithral Hall, Bruenor's kin have been taking business from the metalsmiths of Mirabar, a mixed community of dwarves and humans. A visit by Bruenor breeds discontent between the two races, ultimately leading to a confrontation that threatens to rip the community apart and shift the balance of power in the region to Mithral Hall.

In an interview earlier this year with The News-Star, Salvatore said he was more excited about the new tales of Drizzt Do'Urden than he's ever been. This volume should have the same effect on Salvatore's fans.

For them, reading "The Thousand Orcs" may be a little like jumping on a time travel machine and dialing up the late 1980s. The book captures the spirit of Salvatore's "Icewind Dale" trilogy, the tales that began the story of the dark elven ranger.

Like "Icewind Dale," it's a tale of the companions, free and for the most part happy, on the road to adventure. But at the same time, there's a bit more depth than the original trilogy. The political maneuverings between Mirabar and Mithral Hall are a nice touch and promise to make things interesting over the course of the next two stories.

There's also a much darker feel to this story than the first books. Salvatore promised to shake up the lives of his characters in this latest chapter, and he certainly has. Without giving away any of the twists and turns, I'll just say the ending should leave long time fans more excited about this series than they've been in a long time.

"The Thousand Orcs" shows Salvatore fully recovered from the lull his "Forgotten Realms" books went through in the mid- to late 1990s. The book kicks off the "Hunter's Blades" trilogy which promises to revitalize characters that are in need of some change. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Review: "Bradbury, An Illustrated Life," by Jerry Weist

Like his famous Illustrated Man, the images in "Bradbury, an Illustrated Life: A Journey to Far Metaphor" (William Morrow, $34.95) tell a lot of stories.

The coffee-table biography written by Jerry Weist does tell the tale of Ray Bradbury's life, but it could just as well have been billed as an overview of science fiction and fantasy in the 20th century. Few writers, if any, have had the kind of impact on the genres as Bradbury has. From his earliest publications in the 1930s to his current works, Bradbury has consistently set a high standard for other writers to follow.

Following the introduction by Bradbury himself, the book opens on photos from the 1934 World's Fair's 1,000,000 B.C. exhibit, which was perhaps the inspiration for one of Bradbury's most famous stories "A Sound of Thunder." At any rate, the exhibit certainly left an impression on him and helped set him on his path.

The first chapter of "Bradbury, An Illustrated Life" is a treasure trove for lovers of classic fantasy and science fiction. As we read about the things that shaped Bradbury's life and his love of all things weird, we can enjoy classic covers and illustrations from H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Amazing Stories magazine, as well as early comic strips and stills from classic horror films.

Over the next 100 pages or so, the book takes us on a trip through Bradbury's most prolific years. From covers of Weird Tales where his stories ran alongside luminaries like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, to his numerous novels, they're all represented. There is an extensive collection of illustrations that have accompanied Bradbury's stories in magazines, as well as the various incarnations of the covers of some of his most famous books.

On the pages dedicated to books like "Fahrenheit 451" and "The October Country," you can follow the trends in the publishing industry from the stark covers of the 1950s to the funky '60s and '70s versions and the slick covers of the '80s and '90s.

Later, we're introduced to images from the silver screen, small screen and even stage adaptations of Bradbury's work.

But it's not all about the writer's considerable legacy. We also get to steal a few glimpses of the real man behind the typewriter. Images of Bradbury enjoying himself on classic movie sets at the Los Angeles Film Society or at his cluttered desk or surrounded by friends are scattered throughout the book. Particularly interesting are the drawings and correspondences by Bradbury that are sprinkled throughout. More than anything else, these offer insight into the real man.

"Bradbury, an Illustrated Life" is a gorgeous and informative tribute to the true master of the speculative genres. If you've got a Bradbury fan on your Christmas list, this volume would be the perfect gift.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Review: "Summer Knight" by Jim Butcher

With Halloween approaching, it's a perfect time to check back in with my favorite wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden. Jim Butcher's sleuth always seems to find himself surrounded by the creatures of the season - ghouls, vampires, werewolves and assorted other nasties. His latest adventure, "Summer Knight" (Roc, $6.99) is no exception.

First, Harry gets a visit from Mab, queen of the Winter Court of the sidhe. She's got a case for him, and it's one he can't refuse. Mab has purchased Harry's obligation from his faerie godmother Lea, and now he owes her. She asks him to investigate a death that's been ruled accidental by the police. She thinks otherwise. It just so happens that the deceased is a knight of the Summer Court of the sidhe.

Complicating matters, the White Council of wizards find themselves on the edge of a war with the Red Court of vampires, largely due to a confrontation between Harry and a group of vampires in Chicago. The Red Court has already struck against the wizards and are demanding that Harry be turned over to them. Half of the White Council wants to turn him over, and the other half isn't exactly in his corner. Harry's only way out is to solve the case and in the process prevent a war between the Summer and Winter Courts.

This is the fourth volume of the Dresden Files, and Butcher has not disappointed yet. "Summer Knight" starts with a bang and doesn't let up.

Butcher's tales meld the wonder and fun of the "Harry Potter" series, but with an adult tone and attitude. Mystery fans who approach the series with an open mind about stories that include vampires, faeries and the like, will find a very good detective series. Fantasy fans might just find that the mystery side appeals to them as well. But fans of any kind of fiction can enjoy Butcher's fun and fast-paced style.

"Summer Knight" also shows great development in both the character of Harry Dresden and Butcher's writing style. It's probably the most developed and satisfying story line of the series so far.

Thanks to the success of series by Laurell K. Hamilton and a handful of others, there's no shortage of writers churning out supernatural detective stories these days, but Butcher is most definitely among the best. I can't wait until Harry Dresden is on the case again.

Sunday, October 06, 2002

Review: "Dreamland Chronicles" by William Mark Simmons

Who would have thought that one of the funniest fantasy novels I've read in a while, would come from an author in our own back yard. It turns out that William Mark Simmons, better known to people in these parts as the station manager at KEDM, can also spin a pretty good fantasy tale or three.

"Dreamland Chronicles" ($20, Meisha Merlin Publishing) pulls together two of Simmons' previous novels that were out of print - "In the Net of Dreams" and "When Dreams Collide" - along with a newly-penned third volume, "The Woman of His Dreams."

The story revolves around Robert Remington Ripley III, also known as Riplakish of Dyrinwall inside the Fantasyworld milieu of Dreamland. Ripley is one of the original programmers of the computer-generated, virtual reality game worlds that have become a playground for the rich and famous.

But now there's a problem with his creation. An anomaly has entered the program, and the game has become real. If an avatar dies in Dreamland, the Dreamwalker's body dies back in the real world. The problem is complicated by the fact that some Dreamwalkers are still trapped inside the program, and there are forces at work to keep them there.

We've all read or seen plenty of "ghost in the machine" stories, but none quite like this one. While it does ask some serious questions about the nature of artificial intelligence, those issues don't get in the way of the fun.

Fantasy fans will have a blast picking out the references to J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Robert E. Howard and a host of other favorite authors. But you don't have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy "Dreamland Chronicles." Simmons also liberally sprinkles references from popular music, movies and television throughout the story.

Among my favorites:

· The two Russian agents are named Borys and Natasha - and yes, Simmons does work in a "moose and squirrel" line.

· The acronyms for a couple of weapons from the Spaceworld milieu are F.R.O.D.O.S. and S.A.M.S.

·The demoness Lilith's horse is named "Beuntoyou." I won't give away the joke on this one, but it was one of my favorites.

As Simmons jokingly points out in the introduction, "Dreamland Chronicles" not exactly a light read, though. Combining three novels, it weighs in at close to 1,000 pages - enough to keep most readers occupied for a little while.

With "Dreamland Chronicles," Simmons delivers a story that mixes the humor of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams with the bad puns of Piers Anthony. Despite what he says in the self-deprecating introduction, Simmons' work is actually great fun. There's a joke for everyone.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

Review: "Dissolution" by Richard Lee Byers

Though he didn't do any of the actual writing, R.A. Salvatore's stamp is all over the latest Forgotten Realms series, "The War of the Spider Queen."

The first volume, "Dissolution" by Richard Lee Byers ($24.95, Wizards of the Coast), casts the shadowy world of the drow into chaos.

Lolth, the goddess of the dark elves, has seemingly abandoned the underground city of Menzoberranzan. Large numbers of the normally subservient male drow have gone missing, and power struggles between the key figures of the city threaten to tear it apart.

While some seek to bring the Spider Queen's power back to Menzoberranzan, others look to use her absence to their advantage.

It's appropriate that Salvatore is involved in this project, since he's the one that introduced readers to the treacherous world of the drow through books about his popular hero Drizzt Do'Urden. But Salvatore himself was reluctant to take a role in the series.

"I was surprised when they called me, and I resisted to my last breath," Salvatore said in a recent interview with The News-Star.

The project is driven more by the dark elves' deities than the characters that Salvatore prefers to focus on. But he said the project has been much more fun than he expected, and with other authors taking on the main writing duties, his role is a relatively easy one.

"My job is real simple," Salvatore said. "To make sure the authors writing it understand the drow the way I understand the drow."

If the first volume is any indication, he's done a fantastic job.

Byars' handling of the dark elves echoes Salvatore's own in many ways. That's not to say that Byars doesn't put his own stamp on the project.

While Salvatore prefers to focus on character interactions, Byers' style is driven by plot. Readers won't find many introspective moments in "Dissolution." But what his characters may lack in depth, Byers more than makes up for in sheer action. The book's pace is fast and furious, with the characters being thrown from one dangerous situation to another.

The styles of Byers and Salvatore do intersect in one area, though. Byers' combat scenes are vivid and highly stylized. They're an added bonus for fans of past tales of the drow.

Writing about the drow - an essentially evil society - is a difficult task in itself. It's hard to create sympathy or understanding for a character that's just as likely to use a friend's misfortune to his own advantage as to help out. Byars handles the quandary well, though. While the reader can't really get fully behind the characters, each one has moments that earn at least a bit of sympathy.

All in all, "Dissolution" serves its purpose well. It's a fast and fun read that sets up an intriguing larger story. It will be interesting to see how the other authors build on it.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Review: "The Scar," by China Mieville

China Mieville's last book "Perdido Street Station" drew praise from fantasy fans and literary types alike. The book, which racked up awards and nominations, took the conventions of the fantasy genre and turned them inside out.

Now, Mieville unleashes the follow-up, "The Scar" ($18.95, Del Rey). While the two novels are connected by a shared world, "The Scar" is no sequel. The connection between the two is tenuous and no prior knowledge of the world is necessary.

Bellis Coldwine is fleeing her home in New Crobuzon. She has bluffed her way aboard a ship bound for the city's colonies by claiming proficiency in Salkrikaltor, the language of a crustacean-like people the ship will be meeting with. She's looking to get away from New Crobuzon for a few years in hopes that people there will forget about her current predicament. Bellis gets her wish, but her stay away from the city may be much longer than she anticipated.

The ship is hijacked by pirates and taken to the strange floating city of Armada, where she meets an even stranger cast of characters. The Lovers, the couple who rule the pirate city, are hoarding scientists and books for a secret quest. They intend to raise a creature of legend from the depths of the sea and harness it to move the city to The Scar, a point in the ocean that holds great power for someone who can control it.

While the book is ostensibly about Bellis Coldwine and her struggles, the real main character is the city of Armada. The floating fortress cobbled out of stolen boats is truly one of the more inventive fantasy settings I've ever encountered. The features and creatures of this isolated city continue to surprise and impress the reader throughout the story.

The world as a whole holds the same kind of fascination. It's peopled with races that stretch the reader's imagination to the breaking point - blood-sucking mosquito people, prickly cactus men and of course, the crustacean clan. Most interesting perhaps are the Remade, people who have been surgically altered, usually as punishment. Some have mechanical parts, others tentacles and deformities, but all find a home and a use in Armada.

The downside is that Mieville's literary tone and style can get a bit stuffy from time to time. That occasionally detracts from the sense of wonder provided by the amazing setting.

Overall, though, Mieville is one of the most interesting writers to hit the fantasy genre in a long time. This mixture of literary fiction, steampunk, urban fantasy and dark fantasy is sure to be a favorite of people who are looking for something different, both in and out of the fantasy genre.

Sunday, July 28, 2002

Review: "Dragons of a Vanished Moon" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

With "Dragons of a Vanished Moon" ($27.95, Wizards of the Coast), Dragonlance creators Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman bring their "War of Souls" trilogy to a close. They also effectively bring to an end the world's Fifth Age story arc, one that was unpopular with some fans.

As the book opens, Takhisis has revealed herself as the One God who has guided Mina's hand. Her Knights of Neraka continue their relentless march across Ansalon, conquering their enemies and leaving destruction in their wake.

The elven nation of Qualinesti has been destroyed and the Silvanesti are under siege.

The kender Tasslehoff Burrfoot, who may be responsible for the current situation because he used a time-travel device to escape his fate at the end of the Chaos War, is still bouncing through time. If he dies anywhere other than where he was meant to, the course of Krynn's history may be altered forever.

But behind it all is an even more sinister plot. Takhisis has planned her return for a long time, and it's no accident that the other gods are nowhere to be found.

Many fans feel that the Dragonlance series has floundered in recent years, and I have to admit that I was one of them. I had high hopes when Weis and Hickman returned to their realm. They didn't disappoint me.

With the "War of Souls" trilogy, Weis and Hickman have put the Dragonlance world back on an even keel. "Dragons of a Vanished Moon" closes at yet another critical juncture for the world of Krynn with great potential for new storylines. It leaves dozens of questions in readers' minds, each with the possibility of an intriguing tale yet to come.

Weis and Hickman have also given the Dragonlance world something it's needed for a while, an infusion of new blood. While some fans may be reluctant to let go of the original companions, characters like Mina, Galdar, Gerard and Gilthas (the authors seem to have an affection for the letter G), are worthy successors to the original heroes and villains of Krynn.

Readers also get a fresh look at old favorites Palin and Dalamar. Each has his own challenges to overcome in this new world.

"War of Souls" manages to blend some of the best aspects of the original "Chronicles" and "Legends" trilogies. It begins with the same sense of adventure as "Chronicles" and ends in the dark and somber tones of "Legends." While it doesn't quite live up to those two stories - when it comes to RPG-based tales, those are tough to top - it is easily the best Dragonlance set since.

After several disappointing years, the creators of the Dragonlance world have returned to set things right. In the process, they've breathed new life into the series and left Krynn a much more interesting place.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

Review: "The Star Wars Trilogy: The 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition"

Being the "Star Wars" fanatic that I am, most people will probably find it surprising that I've never read the novelizations of the first three films. But a couple of weeks ago, a package that I couldn't resist hit the shelves.

"The Star Wars Trilogy: The 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition" ($25.95, Del Rey) pulls together the first three novels of the saga in one hardcover volume.

From the arrival of R2D2 at the moisture farm on Tattooine with his message from Princess Leia, to the final reconcilation between Luke and Anakin, it's all in this one volume - Yoda, Jabba, Ewoks and all.

If you're one of the few people in the world who is not familiar with "Star Wars," I'd probably recommend seeing the movies first. This is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the book.

These books seem to be written directly from the original scripts, and therefore aren't quite as interesting as the big-name author novelizations of "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones." You won't find many extra details or deeper story development in these volumes. It's pretty much a straight, blow-by-blow report of the movies.

That being said, it's still something that I'd recommend to any "Star Wars" fan. It's a nice package and certainly a big piece of "Star Wars" history.

The novelizations of the three films, written by George Lucas, Donald Glut and James Kahn, respectively, improve as the story moves along.

Lucas' "A New Hope" and Glut's "Empire Strikes Back" read much like the movie script. There is some nice background information that the films didn't have, but beyond that, they're a solid retelling of the story and not much more.

While many people consider "Return of the Jedi" the weakest installment of the first three films, it's the strongest in this case. Kahn spins a bit more of a tale than Lucas or Glut. It still sticks with the script, of course, but it moves a little more smoothly and is more entertaining.

How much you'll like this volume depends largely on what you expect out of it. If you want something that sheds new light on the first three "Star Wars" films, you'll probably be disappointed. If you want to experience the movies in a slightly different way, then you'll likely enjoy it.

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Review: "Sorcery Rising" by Jude Fisher

All great stories have to start somewhere, and Jude Fisher's "Sorcery Rising" (DAW) lays a solid foundation for a good story to come. Fisher, who has also written the visual companions to the first two installments of "The Lord of the Rings," makes a promising fiction debut with the beginning of a series called "Fool's Gold."

"Sorcery Rising" opens on a world that's currently at peace, but is always teetering on the edge of conflict. The Istrians from the south have conquered most of the world, driving the Eyrans into a small area in the far north. Though the two nations have declared peace, there is still a great deal of animosity between them, from cultural differences to old grudges. But for the week of the Allfair, they have to get along.

Katla Aransen is a free-spirited Eyran, excited about her first Allfair. On arriving, she immediately makes waves by climbing a rock that is sacred to the Istrian's god - an offense punishable by burning. But that's far from the last strange happening of the celebration.

For some reason the magic of the Footloose - a nomadic gypsy-like people - is working far better than it should. A strange albino named Virelai - traveling with a young woman who casts a spell on every man she meets and a cat with a wealth of magical knowledge - has joined the wandering people. At the fair, he offers gold nuggets, along with a map to the place they were found, to several adventurous people. All they have to do to claim the treasure, he says, is find the island and deal with the old man that lives there.

The fair ends in chaos with a murder and Katla's capture and condemnation, threatening to send the two nations to war again.

With "Sorcery Rising," Fisher has laid the groundwork for what could be an explosive story. She's created a world balanced precariously on the edge of chaos. The Istrians bear a great resemblance to the Islamic radicals we've become so familiar with recently, while the Eyrans are free-wheeling. There's a natural tension between them that borders on open hostility.

Fisher has also created an intriguing cast of characters, each with his or her own story to tell.

Despite all its promise, though, "Sorcery Rising" is a bit unsatisfying. Fisher covers a lot of ground, but tells very little of the story. Almost all of the book's storylines are left dangling, and the lack of any kind of resolution is a little annoying. It's a common practice in fantasy, but having been burned in recent years by seemingly endless series like Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time," I find it disappointing.

Still, I have to give Fisher the benefit of the doubt. The story begun in "Sorcery Rising" is compelling, the characters are charismatic and the world is an interesting one. It leads me to believe that there are good things to come from this series.

Sunday, July 07, 2002

Review: "The Pictorial History of Baseball," by John S. Bowman and Joel Zoss

For many baseball fans, this week is one of the best of the season. In Tuesday's All-Star game, arguably the best players the sport has to offer will be on display in one place. So what better time to take a look at a book that illustrates some of the highest (and lowest) moments in the sport's history?

John S. Bowman and Joel Zoss' "The Pictorial History of Baseball" ($24.98, Thunder Bay Press) is a great read for the casual baseball watcher or the hardcore fanatic.

The first thing that strikes you about this volume of baseball lore is the fact that it's a gorgeous book. The hefty tome measures 14 1/2-by-10 1/2 inches and weighs a solid five pounds. Its 256 glossy pages, feature about 320 photographs from all eras of the sport. That's enough to make any bibliophile flip.

Open the book up and you'll find a complete history, from the ancient Egyptian games that were the earliest ancestors of baseball to the sport's role in the wake of Sept. 11. The account is perhaps not as in-depth as some others, which focus on smaller segments of the game's past, but it covers a lot of ground.

As the title suggests, though, the real star of the book is not the written portion, but the photos. They present a visual account of how the game has changed since the first professional teams took the field in the 1800s. A quick glance at two contrasting photos - a very serious-looking Boston team in 1874 (page 19) and a light-hearted moment for the 1984 world champion Detroit Tigers (page 217) - speaks volumes about the differences time has made in the game. But baseball fans will find similarities in the two pictures as well.

The photos from the first half of the book are mostly posed shots, which also hint at the photographic technology of the time. But those shots do have something valuable to offer the baseball fan - faces to put with some legendary names.

That's not to say there aren't a few gems among the photos. One that stands out is a shot of Hall-of-Famer Mickey Cochrane stretched out, lunging with the ball to make a play at the plate. This shot is given a two-page spread, and certainly deserves it.

There are also some interesting stories and characters that some fans might not be familiar with, like Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, whose missing finger certainly wasn't a handicap. Instead, it helped him to six consecutive 20-win seasons, in which he led the Cubs to four pennants.

The book covers all of baseball's most glorious moments - the best sluggers, the most revered pitchers, the greatest dynasties. But it doesn't ignore the dark side of the sport - the Black Sox scandal, the initial treatment of Jackie Robinson, labor disputes and drug issues all get their mention, too.

Due to the ambitious nature of the project, neither the good nor the bad really get the space and depth they deserve, but Bowman and Zoss do manage to pack them all in.

One of the most interesting chapters of "The Pictorial History of Baseball" has nothing to do with the professional game, though. With the rich history of the pro game on their palette, the authors could have easily ignored youth baseball. Instead, they devote six pages to Little League and American Legion baseball. Again, the book offers only sketchy details on the history of these organizations, but it's a testament to the true spirit of baseball - not today's game of millionaires.

"The Pictorial History of Baseball" probably won't satisfy the rabid fan that wants an in-depth study of the details of the game. It does, however, provide a glimpse of the rich history of the sport and what it's meant to American culture - and in a beautiful package that no baseball fan should be able to resist.

Sunday, June 30, 2002

Review: "The Visitor" by Sheri S. Tepper

Killer meteors hurtling toward the Earth were big at the theater a few years ago, but with her latest, "The Visitor" (EOS), Sheri S. Tepper puts a new spin on the tale.

In a society not much more advanced than our own, astronomers spot a strange object sailing through space, on a collision course with our own world. Scientific minds prepare for survival, thinking they can preserve the human race. The religious turn to prayer, thinking Armageddon is at hand. They're both wrong.

While the world changes and millions upon millions die in what comes to be known as the Happening, the human race survives - but it's greatly changed.

The result is a future that neither the coldly scientific nor the faithful religious could have predicted. A new mythology is born with tales of rebel angels and a Guardian Council - both of which will soon return to the world. Many have heard the story, but few suspect they're real.

Disme Latimer is a descendant of one of the scientists that sheltered in hopes of preserving humanity. Since her brother and father died, she's lived with a wicked stepsister who takes pleasure in causing her pain and anguish. But her stepsister Rashel has her own secret to keep.

Disme lives in Bastion, a society of the Spared, who believe they are the only true humans. She knows she's different from the others around her, but even she can't guess the destiny that awaits her when the Visitor begins to move from its perch at the top of the world.

"The Visitor" is part "Armageddon"-style sci-fi thriller and part "Cinderella" story. It's a book that merges magic and science effortlessly into a new kind of post-apocalyptic world.

Tepper has created a place where magic and science are almost indistinguishable from each other - and both do exist. A place where concepts from our own world are skewed to fit this new frontier. A place as intriguing as it is horrifying.

The story in "The Visitor" is another incarnation of the age-old science vs. religion argument. The difference is that in Tepper's world, neither side is truly right. The reader is forced to face some facts with a cold, analytical mind, while at the same time taking other facets of the story on faith.

Even though I suspected the true nature of the Visitor, the revelation of the mystery was a bit disappointing. Not because of its identity, but because, after a long and thought-provoking novel, Tepper didn't let the readers draw their own conclusions. Instead, she takes the soap box for a few pages - in the guise of the Visitor, of course - and tells us exactly what we should get out of the book. It's a heavy-handed approach that didn't do much for me.

That being said, it's not enough to ruin the book. The story up to that point and the conflict that follow are more than enough to make up for a little bit of preachiness.

In the end, "The Visitor" is an excellent tale, one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I've ever read. Tepper has created a world of endless possibilities, a world that I wouldn't mind visiting again.

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Review: "Knight Life" by Peter David

Ever wonder how King Arthur would have done in the Connecticut Yankee's world? Peter David ponders that question in his latest novel "Knight Life" (Ace). The book, originally released 15 years ago in paperback, has been updated and expanded by almost one-third for its hardcover release this month.

After centuries spent in an isolated cave, Arthur and Merlin - now a young boy due to his living backwards in time - emerge in modern-day New York. Seeing the problems in todays society, Arthur decides that the world needs him, and he'll start as mayor of New York.

But Arthur and Merlin aren't the only ones who have survived Camelot. Arthur's half-sister Morgan Le Fay has been watching for their return, and she has a surprise of her own. Their son Mordred isn't dead either, in fact he's a campaign manager for one of Arthur's chief rivals in the election.

Things are going well for the "Once and Future King" when he meets Gwen DeVere Queen, the reincarnated soul of his beloved Guinevere, of course. Despite Merlin's warnings that he's doomed to repeat history, he makes her part of his campaign.

Arthur's simple platform - "Hi, I'm Arthur Penn, and I want to be the next mayor of New York" - and his radical, common-sense views on political issues quickly earn him a following among jaded voters. But Morgan's plotting and a classic betrayal may lay his political career low.

"Knight Life" is a fun spin on the Mark Twain classic. Rather than send a modern-day person to King Arthur's court, David brings Arthur's court to us. The result is a mix of classic Arthurian fiction and a satiric commentary about the nature of today's politics.

The story is rife with intrigue, mirroring the Arthurian legends on several key points. At the same time, it pokes fun at double-talking politicians. A perfect example is the mayoral debate in the book. When Arthur is given his first chance at a rebuttal, he sputters, "but they didn't answer the question." It's something all of us have said to the TV screen after watching a politician evade an issue.

The entire tale is subtly humorous, but there are a few true laugh out loud moments as well. For example, Arthur's initial meeting with Gwen - in full plate armor - leads her to classify him as a weirdo. That meeting also sends him to an upscale clothiers shop - still in full armor - which causes quite a stir among the workers.

In "Knight Life," David manages to strike a balance that can be tough for humor writers. He's loaded the story with laughs, but doesn't take the easy way out and turn it into a slapstick tale. Instead, he tells an engaging story and manages to slip in a few commentaries on the real world as well. If you didn't catch "Knight Life" the first time around, there's no time like the present.

Sunday, May 26, 2002

Review: "Stormrider" by David Gemmell

In his latest novel "Stormrider" (Del Rey), David Gemmell returns to a world that looks very much like the 17th Century of our own for what appears to be the final tale of the Black Rigante.

Several years have passed since the events of "Ravenheart," and life has returned to a semblance of normality for the Rigante. Kaelin Ring lives happily with his family in the highlands. The Moidart has taken up painting, of all things, and has turned his cruel attentions away from the highlanders. His son, the Stormrider Gaise Macon - now a general known as the Gray Ghost - has been called to the southern front by the king to help deal with a traitor's army.

That all changes when Winter Kay and his Redeemers recover the legendary Orb of Kranos, the skull of a Seidh god who wants to return to the world. Kay has been warned by the Wyrd that one with a golden eye will come for him. He takes that to mean Macon, who has one blue eye and one golden eye, a family trait.

To avoid the prophecy, Kay sets himself on a path to destroy Gaise Macon. That path may ultimately lead to the destruction of not only the Varlish and the Rigante, but all of humanity.

The tales of the Rigante have been some of the strongest stories of Gemmell's career - and that's saying something. With more than 25 novels in print, he has yet to disappoint.

The last novel "Ravenheart" left me wanting to walk the highlands with Jaim Grymauch just one more time, to experience the nobility of the Rigante clan again. This one is a much darker tale, lacking the moments of levity in "Ravenheart." Instead, "Stormrider" left me with a lot of questions about the future of a world at a turning point, and also questions of what might have happened if that turning point had gone differently in our own world.

Gemmell weaves his thoughts on mankind's destructiveness and the damage we've done to our world into the plot of "Stormrider." The Seidh god Cernunnos seeks to destroy the human race, because he's seen it destroy the magic of other worlds.

At the same time, Gemmell is not heavy-handed with the moral side of the tale. He never becomes preachy as some writers do when tackling real-world issues, but instead sheds a light of hope on the situation.

The rest of the tale is pure Gemmell. As always, his view of heroism is more realistic than many of his fantasy counterparts. He understands that great men - or women, for that matter - are made in the moment, and are usually not the glory-seekers of the world.

His heroes don't have adventure after adventure, but rather rise to the call of circumstance. It's a refreshing break from the near-immortal protagonists that flood fantasy fiction - and one of the things that manages to keep his work fresh book after book.

Sunday, May 05, 2002

Interview: R.A. Salvatore

Considering his last foray into the "Star Wars" universe, R.A. Salvatore may seem like an odd choice to write the novelization of "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones."

In 1999, he was pegged to write "Vector Prime," the book that introduced the "New Jedi Order Series." In that book, he had the unenviable task of killing one of the heroes, Chewbacca.

When he found that out, Salvatore says he had to be convinced to take the job.

"When they told me to do it, I told them to take their money back," he says. "I want to be remembered for the `Dark Elf' and `Demonwars' series, not as `the guy who killed Chewbacca.' I love Chewie."

Del Rey and Lucasfilms were finally able to convince him they were doing it for the "right reasons." They needed to inject a little reality and suspense back into the "Star Wars" universe. He gave in, and the book became a best seller - despite ruffling a few feathers among fans.

Still, it was a bit of a shock to Salvatore when he got the call from Del Rey to write the novelization of the new movie.

He says his initial reaction was mixed. He was unsure about returning to the "Star Wars" universe, instead preferring to focus on his own projects.

But the author of the earlier "Phantom Menace" novelization gave him a not-so-subtle wake up call.

"I got a call from Terry Brooks, and he said: `Are you nuts?'" Salvatore says, with a laugh. "I don't think I really got it that George Lucas was asking me to write the novelization of a `Star Wars' movie. I don't think it clicked."

Surprisingly, he had the same hesitations when asked to write his first "Star Wars" book.

"When I agreed to write `Vector Prime,' I thought I was doing them a favor," he says. "Then I realized: I'm writing dialogue for Princess Leia. How cool is that?"

One of the challenges of writing a "Star Wars" novelization is dealing with rabid enthusiasts - fans who know every minute detail about the universe. Salvatore says his experiences on his own "Dark Elf" series, which has spanned 14 years and 15 novels, have helped prepare him for that.

"There are people who read the books over and over again - and I have a hard time remembering things I wrote in 1990," he says. "It's the same way with `Star Wars.' The hardcore fans know more about the expanded universe than I did and do. So I just try to tell a good story. If you read the book and enjoy it, then I've done my job."

Salvatore says he would love to be chosen to write the novelization of "Episode III," but he's not expecting the call. He says Lucas and Del Rey want a different author for each book.

But, after many conversations with Lucas while writing "Episode II," he's excited about where the movies are going.

"I'd love to be a part of `Episode III,' as a co-screenwriter or in some other way," he says. "I know where (Lucas) is going with it, and I think he's doing it the right way."


In the meantime, Salvatore has several other projects. His latest "Demonwars" novel "Transcendence" hit the shelves recently; he's an advisor for a new "Forgotten Realms" series on the drow (dark elves) from Wizards of the Coast; and his most popular character, the dark elven ranger Drizzt Do'Urden, returns in the fall in the first book of the "Hunter's Blade" trilogy.

"As a writer, I couldn't ask for anything more than I've got," Salvatore says.

He's currently working on the final book in the "Demonwars" series, which should be out around this time next year. Salvatore thinks this series features some of his best work, saying it has "challenged me on every level as a writer." Too, Salvatore is eager to finish the final volume "Immortalis," and get it on the shelves.

"I'm going to line them up on my bookshelf, one through seven, and look at them and say: `You did it right,'" he says. "I'll feel like I've completed one of the most important things I've ever done."

Even though, he's wrapping up the final book of the "Demonwars" series, he says the world of Corona is a rich one with a lot of stories left to tell. Likewise, he laughs off rumors about the demise of Drizzt that swirled after his last "Forgotten Realms" novel "Sea of Swords."

"There have been rumors that this is the last Drizzt book ever since I finished the `Dark Elf Trilogy' (in 1991)," he says. "I've never been more excited about writing Drizzt, and the rest of the characters, than I am now."

Part of that excitement is the anticipation of "Hunter's Blade," a trilogy that should shake things up for everyone's favorite dark elf.

"The `Hunter's Blade' trilogy will put Drizzt in a whole new light," he says. "It's not about bigger and badder monsters, but about new challenges. Drizzt will really stand out and shine like he did in the `Dark Elf Trilogy.'"

Salvatore has also been asked to work on an upcoming live action "Forgotten Realms" television series for Fireworks Television, which he says is going well. But fans shouldn't get their hopes up about seeing Drizzt on the small screen.

"You may see some cameos by familiar characters, but I think they're going for something more original," he says. "I don't know how deep my involvement is going to go, but I hope it's pretty deep. It's something new, and it's been fun."

Salvatore's fans will be happy to know that books about their favorite characters and worlds will continue well into the future. He has plans for at least another five years and says there are infinite possibilities after that.

"I'm going to die some day, and unless my kids decide to write, I guess it will end there," he says. "But I don't see it any time soon."

Review: "Transcendence" by R.A. Salvatore

Following hot on the heels of his adaptation of "Star Wars Episode II," R.A. Salvatore dives right back into his "Demonwars" series with "Transcendence" (Del Rey).

Salvatore finds himself in the strange situation of having two books released back-to-back. "Episode II" hit shelves on April 23, while this book followed on April 30.

The second novel of Salvatore's second "Demonwars" saga, "Transcendence" tells the story of the elven-trained ranger Brynn Dharielle. She has returned to her homeland of To-Gai intent on liberating her people from the oppressive rule of the Behrenese. In order to do that, though, she faces a number of challenges - not the least of which is her own conscience.

"Transcendence" runs concurrent to the last novel in the series, "Ascendance." That book told the tale of Brynn's childhood companion and fellow ranger-in-training Aydrian Wyndon, son of the legendary Nightbird, Elbryan Wyndon. This one establishes Brynn as a To-Gai-Ru warleader. The next, and final book, should be explosive.

The "Demonwars" series has gone a long way in establishing Salvatore as one of the premiere writers in fantasy. The six books of the series are easily the best he's written, even surpassing his excellent "Dark Elf" series.

The "Demonwars" books are different for Salvatore in a number of ways. Instead of the rousing adventure tales he's written in the past, these books offer a deeper look into the environment that breeds the conflicts. The world of Corona is probably the most detailed he's ever built, with complex political and cultural structures. That's really the driving force behind the stories, unlike the "Dark Elf" series which revolves around the characters.

Salvatore said this series is something he felt he had to do as a writer.

"`Demon Wars' is a world-driven, philosophically-driven series," he said. "I needed to do this for me. I had to prove to myself that I could build a world like this. It challenged me on every level as a writer."

Salvatore, who is currently working on "Immortalis," the final book in the series, said he's very happy with how the project has turned out. He's eager to get the final book on the shelves.

"It's very satisfying the way the last piece is falling into place," he said.

Though "Demonwars" will be finished next year, he says he's not finished with the world of Corona. Salvatore says it's a place rife with possibilities, and a world he's intent on visiting again.

"The world of Corona is so rich that I could write about it forever," he said. "I intend and hope to go back to Corona in the future."

If future stories are as good as "Demonwars," his readers will gladly follow him there.

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."

Sunday, March 31, 2002

Review: "Vincalis the Agitator" by Holly Lisle

There is always a price for magic, and in Holly Lisle's latest, "Vincalis the Agitator" (Warner Aspect), that price is high indeed.

The Dragons, an elite group of wizards that run the Empire of the Hars Ticlarim, have a problem. They've been converting the bodies of Warreners - people raised in captivity much like cattle - into magical energy to sustain their amazing cities that float in the air or hide beneath the waves. But that energy isn't enough anymore. They need more power, so they turn to a darker fuel source - the burning of souls.

Wraith was born in the Warrens, but for some reason was immune to the magic in the wayfare - drugged food that's pumped to the Warreners to keep them mindless and docile. When he's caught stealing bread in the Aboves, he stumbles into the home Solander Artis, a member of a highly placed Stolti family and son of a member of the Dragon council. Solander is intrigued by Wraith's immunity to magic and offers to free him and his friend Jess from the Warrens in exchange for the opportunity to study him.

Years later, Wraith, now known as Gellas Tomersin, continues his quest to free the Warreners. He produces a number of plays from a mysterious playwright named Vincalis that are intended to make people think about the luxuries they have and how they're powered.

At the same time, Solander is working on a new form of magic that doesn't require the sacrifice of others. But a shadowy group of leaders known as the Silent Inquest knows about their efforts and has decided that they are a threat to the power of the Dragons. Things are about to get ugly.

In "Vincalis," Lisle takes a trip back in time in the world of her popular "Secret Texts" trilogy. The book illuminates the history of the Dragons and the origins of the Falcons and their holy books, the Secret Texts. Aside from the history lesson about the world of Matrin, it's also a very good story and easily accessible to those who may not be familiar with her previous work.

The book was originally planned as a three-book, 600,000-word epic, but was trimmed down through what Lisle calls a "brutal" process. The result is a tightly-plotted, action-packed tale that will take readers on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

Lisle mingles classic fantasy adventure with the feel of a science fiction novel and even mixes in a touch of horror. The book also has some statements to make about political corruption and social segregation. Oh, and don't forget about the Illuminati-like Silent Inquest.

The characters are realistic, sharing the same conflicts that most people deal with, while also striving to change the world. Though their actions are occasionally frustrating, the characters command the sympathy of the reader.

Over the past 10 years, Lisle's work has gotten better with every book, and "Vincalis" continues the trend. I can't wait to see what she has in store for the future.