Houri – Review by Marc Schuster


The nearest pop-culture cousin to Mehrdad Balali‘s Houri I can think of is Persepolis, the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, which, like Houri depicts the fallout of Iran’s Islamic revolution in poignant, personal detail. A few things, however, set these two works apart. The first and most obvious is the medium; Satrapi’s somewhat whimsical illustrations make for a mostly palatable examination of the 1979 revolution, whereas Balali’s prose paints a more stark but no less engaging portrait of Iran in the wake of the same event. Additionally, there’s the difference in gender between the narrators of each work, yet even here, there are more similarities than differences insofar as both narrators are simultaneously trying to balance their growing awareness of the political changes afoot in their lives with the equally powerful forces of nature that are making them increasingly aware of the opposite sex. The biggest distinction to be made between these two works, however, is that where Satrapi’s focus is largely on the revolution and its aftermath, Balali’s novel shuttles between pre- and post-revolution Iran with an unrelenting eye for detail. What emerges from Balali’s investigation is (for lack of a better phrase) a tale of two cities, both rife with corruption, each painfully human in its own way.

The novel opens with its narrator, Shahed, returning home to Iran after a number of years abroad in America. While he was gone, his father passed away, and Iran underwent a massive cultural and political shift. As Shahed walks the streets of the “new” Iran, he wrestles with the ghosts of his past. Given the rampant corruption of Iran under the Shah (as embodied more personally by Shahed’s father and the motley crew of stooges he calls friends), any change from the satus quo of the narrator’s childhood would seem like a godsend. The only problem is that the revolution has placed too much emphasis on its unforgiving conception of “god,” sending the citizens of Iran into a tailspin of repression and joyless piety.

Throughout the novel, Balali depicts the cultural impact of the Islamic revolution vividly. One notable example of this occurs early in the narrative when the narrator visits a once-bustling amusement park, the walls of which bare “paling images of Disney characters, along with the scars of bullets and tiresome political slogans.” In this image, Balali gives us the past and present simultaneously–the death of fun in the name of religious devotion.

The narrative itself is also complex. In effect, we’re given three versions of Shahed–the young child living in pre-revolution Iran, the sullen expatriate living in America, and the mature narrator striving to understand both of his former selves as their tales intertwine and comment upon each other. Ultimately, the lesson the narrator learns is one of forgiveness: though the crimes of his late father are, from Shahed’s perspective, heinous, the narrative force of the story pushes him toward a realization that to hold on to his bitterness–that is, to refuse to forgive–is to repeat the crime of the repressive revolution he so despises. In order to live, he must at once acknowledge his ambivalence toward his father and, in so doing, forgive his own flaws, which is also to say that he must recognize his own humanity.

Houri is a wonderful novel. Even as it provides valuable and much needed information to Western readers about a world that is, ironically, so present in the headlines and absent in any meaningful way from our collective understanding, it reminds us that humans everywhere have so much in common: greed, lust, yearning, heartache, joy, generosity, and love. And, perhaps most of all, the capacity to forgive.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl and the editor of Small Press Reviews.

Tips for getting your kids interested in reading


A child’s reading experience  is directly related to his or her attitude towards reading. Here are a few suggestions for making your child’s reading experiences positive ones:

1. Choose books that are on topics the children are interested in. You should start out with a wide variety of subject matter and genres. This collection can be narrowed down as your children develop their interests.

2. It is always good to start with books that are predictable and have vivid pictures. These can help children build confidence. If reading is too difficult you may lose the opportunity to develop an avid reader.

3. Giving positive feedback from parents, teachers, and peers is one of the best ways to build a child’s confidence. This confidence will help children expand their reading horizons and become avid readers.

As children grow older, the amount of time they read usually decreases. This is due to more responsibilities, more social events, and changes in interest. By helping your children build good reading habits, they can learn to make time in their days for reading as they grow older and busier.

For suggestions on finding the right  book for your children, visit MonkeyReader.com, which includes a searchable recommended reading list.

Michelle Wittle On Rookie Mistakes

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I have only been in grad school for about a month and I am already amazed how much I have learned about writing and myself as a writer. It makes me sick to learn all the rookie mistakes I have made as a writer. I feel like should have known better. To prevent any other young writers from falling into the same traps I have gotten my leg stuck into, I am admitting my top five errors I’ve made in my own writing.

  1. Never use adverbs when using “said”. An example of this would be: “He smugly said”. The reasoning is the dialogue should express the character spoke smugly and the writer shouldn’t feel the need to explain how the character spoke.
  2. Show, don’t tell. For me, I think I fall victim to this because I was a teacher. I am used to lecturing people and having to explain things many times and in different ways. Readers don’t read because they want to be lectured. Readers read to become a part of the world the author presents. Let the reader live in the world the author created and let the reader take away what he or she can take away from the writing. It will mean more to the reader because he or she discovered something in the writing rather than being told what he or she was supposed to get from the writing.

Also, I think I am so afraid of my writing. I feel like I don’t write the pieces well enough, so I have to tell the reader what I meant by writing the piece. That comes from low writing esteem and in time that fear will dissipate.

  1. Opening up with the weather or time. My first novel (that my Mac ate) opened with Meredith walking to school on a beautiful fall morning at the start of a new school year. These two things are major no-no’s. With the weather, no one cares about it not unless it is a crucial part of the plot. If it is a great hurricane and the character is struggling to keep the family safe, then the weather description works. However, if the weather is just setting the stage, then trust me no one cares about the stage. Let the characters set the stage.

With time, it’s the same thing. If the time is important because at 12:15pm the main character’s friend died and now the character feels his or her life shifting at that moment, then it might be acceptable. However, if the time is just to set the stage…toss it out. Let the character and his or her actions and reactions tell the reader the time of day.

  1. 4. Heavy description. Luckily, it is not the Victorian times and writers no longer get paid by the word. Heavy description tends to kill the world the writer creates because the writer is investing too much of him or herself inside the piece. The writer’s job is to create the world and, again, let the reader play in that world. I can’t tell you how many times I have read a book or a short story and looked at that heavy prose paragraph and just turned the page. I can recall one book I read and it was describing how some water dripped off a girl’s body. The whole time I was reading it I was frustrated because why do I care how the water dripped off the chick? Apparently it was a well written piece, but again I couldn’t stomach reading it because I didn’t care. That scene served no purpose other than establishing the writer’s ability to write description.
  2. 5. Writing true dialogue. This is by far one of the most difficult things to do because as a young writer (young meaning new to the game and not chronicle age) one tends to insert the writer’s own voice in the character’s voice. Also, the dialogue tends to be too long and forced. Most people don’t speak to someone for a page and a half without taking a break or moving. In just writing this blog, I have drunk a cup of tea, watched some curling on TV, put towels in the washer, and I’ve been cheating on you by texting a friend. People multi-task and it is crucial when writing dialogue the writer allows the characters to move about as the conversation moves along. My one professor calls it the “floating head syndrome” and I feel that is a great visual to hold in mind when writing dialogue. Are your character’s just floating about having a conversation? Give them action.

With action in dialogue also come speech patterns. People speak over one another. People use slang. People use contractions. Speech isn’t all grammar free and pretty, so don’t write it that way. Speech is also a great way to get a character description across without having to explain everything about the character. Words help define us; allow that to happen in writing.

Archelon Ranch – Review by Marc Schuster


Garrett Cook does not exist. I know this for two reasons. First, the front matter of “his” latest novel, Archelon Ranch, explicitly states that “All characters in this publication are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Second, Garrett Cook is a character in this novel. Confronted with these facts, one cannot help but draw the conclusion that this is a book whose author does not exist, at least not in the real world. Rather, the author is a fiction. A fiction, moreover, who has written a book. A book, moreover, that exists in the real world–and which, by the way, offers one hell of a mind-bending read. It is, in other words, a book written into existence by its own characters or, more broadly, a book that has written itself.

If you follow my logic so far, you’ll love this novel. If you think I’m being a bit too clever for my own good… well, there’s always Twilight.

Archelon Ranch opens with its (likely) protagonist insisting, despite all evidence to the contrary that he is not a hat. That he does all of this insisting in French is only mildly outlandish, given that he is, in fact, at least for the moment, a hat. Or at least he has come to inhabit a hat as part of a quasi-scientific effort at fending off an epidemic of green mud that turns anyone who comes in contact with it into an unbridled, hairy Id.

At least I think this is what’s going on.

Things get complicated in chapter two when the protagonist’s brother, Clyde, interrupts his commerce with an army of rooftop orangutans to insist that the (alleged) protagonist is, indeed, the protagonist of the story. Clyde, it turns out, is a lapsed member of the church of the Narrativity (or something like this). In other words, he really wants the book to make sense. Which it does. In a wild, loopy, nonsensical kind of way. But in order to make the book make sense, he needs to discover its hero, who may or may not be the erstwhile hat, whose name (as I should have mentioned) is Bernard.

Even as Clyde champions Bernard, however, their competing narratives set up an interesting tension within the novel. To wit: who is the book’s true protagonist? This issue worries Clyde to no end but has little effect on Bernard, who is too busy resisting the urge to turn back into a hat (among other things) to worry about such matters as the nature of fiction and its relationship to objective reality. At the same time, however, it should be pointed out that these matters are also all that Bernard worries about; he just doesn’t realize it as literally as Clyde does. Ironically, Garrett Cook, the aforementioned non-entity who penned this novel, is, at one point, described as someone who hates metafiction.

Towards the end of the novel, Clyde, recognizing that he’s a fictional character, asks a pair of pointed yet fair questions of the narrative in which he’s taking part: “Who could read this? Who could enjoy this?” Although the questions go unanswered, I can honestly say that I both read and enjoyed it. (As opposed to many books that I’ve enjoyed without actually reading. For example, my intimation based on what I’ve been told and the excerpts I’ve read is that I’ll enjoy the aforementioned Twilight books much more thoroughly if I refrain from reading them.) Other people who might enjoy Archelon Ranch are Dave Prior (author of The Yoke of the Horde), Walt Maguire (author of Monkey See), and Marleen Hustead, author of a great short story in which a TV critic is reincarnated as a fire hydrant. Many other people will probably like it, too. Most of these people are probably enrolled in MFA programs.

Written in a style that’s an odd triangulation of Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Jasper Fforde, Philip K. Dick, and Jonathan Lethem (Girl in Landscape and Amnesia Moon in particular), Archelon Ranch offers a surprisingly clever and engaging meditation on writer’s block and authorial angst, especially for a book with no real author.

Interview with Gail Z. Martin by Michael A Ventrella


Cross-posted at Michael A Ventrella

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Gail Z. Martin today. Gail is the author of The Chronicles of The Necromancer series. The books are available in your favorite bookstore, as ebooks from my publisher Double Dragon, and will be released as audiobooks by Audible.com soon. 0061-eWomenNetwork She is also host of the Ghost in the Machine Fantasy Podcast, and you can find her on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. She enjoys attending science fiction/fantasy conventions, Renaissance fairs and living history sites. Her web page is here.

Gail, tell me about your fantasy series The Chronicles of the Necromancer.

GAIL MARTIN: The Chronicles of the Necromancer series includes four books so far: THE SUMMONER, THE BLOOD KING, DARK HAVEN and DARK LADY’S CHOSEN. The story begins when a young man’s family is murdered, and he discovers that he is heir to a very rare type of magic, the ability to intercede between the living and the dead. He needs to learn to control that magic before it destroys him in order to avenge his family. I’ve really written two two-book sets. The Summoner and The Blood King are one story arc, and then a new story arc with the characters picks up in Dark Haven and Dark Lady’s Chosen.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a set number of books planned for this series?

MARTIN: Well, I’ve given my publisher abstracts for about 20 books I’d like to write, so we’ll see! There are two exciting pieces of news about the series. First, DARK LADY’S CHOSEN comes out December 29, and it will launch as a paperback, an ebook and an audiobook. And second, Orbit Books has picked up the next four books. The Fallen Kings Cycle is the name of the new series, and it will pick up after DARK LADY’S CHOSEN. I’m already working on Book One: THE SWORN.

VENTRELLA: Do you plan the entire series in detail or do you do one book at a time?

MARTIN: A little of both. I have a pretty clear idea of the full story arc and the arc for each major character. And I’ve given my publisher abstracts for quite a few other books set in the world of the Winter Kingdoms. And my publisher asks me to turn in a chapter-by-chapter outline before each book. That said, things do arise as I’m writing that often changes the way I saw things unfolding. Usually not a change to the ultimate outcome, but changes in how things go along the way. So the overview and outlines help, but the story develops on its own as we go along.

VENTRELLA: How did you become published? Did you obtain an agent first?

MARTIN: Yes, I did get an agent first. I really didn’t have time to work, write and shop my manuscript, and I knew that fewer and fewer large publishing houses accept unagented submissions. Having an agent has been very important, especially when it comes to negotiating contracts and understanding what options exist. A good agent is also valuable for negotiating translation sales and other contracts, such as ebooks and audiobooks.

VENTRELLA: Do you think you will ever write in another genre?

MARTIN: Well, I have the first book in a new nonfiction series for writers coming out in January, THE THRIFTY AUTHOR’S GUIDE TO LAUNCHING YOUR BOOK WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND. Dark HavenIt’s a book on book marketing for authors who want to make sure readers find out about their books! And as far as fiction goes, I do have some ideas I’m developing, but they’re not ready for prime time yet!

VENTRELLA: I keep hearing that publishers are not that interested any more in traditional high fantasy. As a writer in that genre myself, I am worried. Do you find this to be the case?

MARTIN: I think the more important question to ask is, “Are readers interested in traditional high fantasy?” From my experience, I would say yes. So long as there are readers who want a certain genre, there will either be publishers who will supply it or authors will meet the demand directly by self-publishing. My bet is that so long as publishers sense there is money to be made in a genre, they will keep publishing it.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Do you advise new authors to go this route, or is it better to not publish at all than to be self-published?

MARTIN: I think it’s easier to succeed with nonfiction in self-publishing than fiction because most nonfiction authors have the opportunity to sell from the “back of the room” at workshops, speaking engagements, etc. Also, if nonfiction meets a need and creates a benefit, people buy it, regardless of who publishes it. Fiction is a little harder, because it doesn’t have that clear need/benefit link. With fiction, distribution through bookstores and online booksellers is still crucial, and that can be more difficult if you’re self-published.

On the other hand, a good book will find a market. THE SHACK was a self-published book that couldn’t get a publisher until it sold a gazillion copies and then was picked up by a big publishing house. If you decide to self-publish, you’ll have to work twice as hard on distribution, personal appearances, being a vendor at conventions and basic selling. But if you believe in your book, then you do what you have to do to bring it to life. I would probably advise authors to exhaust their options for traditional publishing with large and small publishers before self-publishing fiction, but I’m sure there are other authors who feel differently and that’s OK. Even when you’re traditionally published, there is a lot of work that goes into promoting the book.

VENTRELLA: Gail, you are one of the most active authors when it comes to publicity and promotion, because of your background. While it is clear that published authors must promote themselves, do you think it is appropriate for unpublished authors to maintain a web presence and otherwise promote themselves, and if so, how can that be done tastefully and effectively?

MARTIN: I think part of that depends on your definition of “unpublished.” If you post your short stories on your web site, that is a form of publishing. If you release your book as a podiobook, that’s a form of publishing.

I think you always have to be clear about what it is you’re promoting. thesummonerSome authors, like J.C. Hutchins, started out by releasing free podiobook versions of their stories and gathered so many readers/listeners that they ended up getting a book contract with a traditional publisher. So think first about what your goal is in promotion yourself and what you have to promote. If you write an entertaining blog, host a good podcast or even create an online serial that gets good buzz, you may attract a publisher.

VENTRELLA: You and I run across each other at conventions often and you attend many more than I do. Please tell us why you think attending these is important, and whether you think they are important even for unpublished authors.

MARTIN: Cons are important because they’re a great way for authors to meet other authors and of course, to meet readers. Today’s readers like to meet the authors of the books they read, just like they enjoy connecting online and on social media. It’s also a great way to attract new readers who may decide to try your books because they liked what you said on a panel, had a good chat with you in the lounge or came to a reading and liked what they heard.

For unpublished authors, cons can be great places to meet published authors and get advice. Lots of cons have writing and publishing tracks where there are panels with editors, agents and publishers, or with authors talking about the business and mechanics of writing. It’s a great free education. I definitely think it’s worth it.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first began trying to break into the business?

MARTIN: Expect to spend twice as much effort promoting the book as it took to write it. blood_king_med_coverRealize that if you don’t promote the book and you don’t sell well, you don’t get invited to write a second book.

VENTRELLA: Can you think of a personal anecdote about the writing life you’d like to share?

MARTIN: Going on book tour really does require you to check your ego at the door. You spend a lot of time driving around, setting up table displays and schlepping your stuff from store to store. No matter how many big signs in the store have your photo on them, inevitably more than one person will ask you where the bathroom is or where somebody else’s book is shelved because they just assume you work there. Smile. It’s all part of being an author, and it’s worth every moment. But just to be safe, make sure you really can direct people to the bathrooms!

VENTRELLA: You’ve got audio and excerpts from DARK LADY’S CHOSEN online, plus there are other sites participating in your Days of the Dead blog tour. Where can we find all the goodies?

MARTIN: Check out my site at www.ChroniclesOfTheNecromancer.com, for all the downloads and more Days of the Dead stuff. Also, please find me on Twitter.com as GailZMartin and on Facebook and MySpace as well.