Missing That Last Oxer: A Review

horses, review, Learning to Fall, Anne Clermont

Beautiful cover, and you know how much I love to judge a book by its cover!

I don’t remember how I found Learning to Fall by Anne Clermont. BookBub, or Kobo Daily Deals?  Either way, it cost something like a buck. I’m a cheapskate, but I hold dear the principle that life is too short to read bad books, so I looked it up. It got some decent reviews on Amazon, so I decided to give it a go.

Learning to Fall is the story of Brynn, a 23-year-old vet student whose father dreams of her becoming a serious competitor in the world of show jumping. Following his tragic death, the truth about her father’s finances is revealed. The training barn he owned and loved is swimming in debt. Where do her loyalties lie – to her father’s memory or to her own dreams of becoming a veterinarian?

The good: The author has potential. A great deal of it. I didn’t have to force myself to finish the book, which doesn’t always happen even with Big Six (or is it Five now?) novels. The premise of the book is interesting, a peek into the world of show jumping is intriguing, and the protagonist is humanly flawed, and therefore believable. The novel held a touch of nostalgia for me and made me miss the days when the Girl-child had her own horse. The relationship between horse and rider was tender, and the author reveals an intimate knowledge of this world.

horse, review, book

Yeah. No saddle, no bridle. I think the kid could carry the horse just as easily.

The not-so-good: there is such a thing between knowing a world too well. There were few examples of the dreaded info-dump. Sometimes, though, I would have been a little lost if I hadn’t grown up watching show jumping on television. There are even a couple of things that I am still unclear on. “Rapping,” or hitting a horse in the leg with a pole to get them to jump higher is bad, but the author indicates the damage to the horse is psychological. I don’t know why except that she told me it’s bad. Why should a rider have been disqualified from a round for hitting the horse four times with a crop at a jump? I don’t know.  I would like to, though. I wanted to read the book because I am nosy and want to know all the secrets.

Clermont skips parts, too. Important parts. We rarely get a glimpse of Brynn’s first round at a show, just the jump-offs, so a real opportunity to build tension and naturally fill in backstory is missed. Is it easy to get to the jump-offs? It certainly seems so because Clermont doesn’t feel the need to show us how we got there.

The copy-editing needs some work. Make sure you’re using the right form of the verb, and make sure that verb agrees with the subject. Editing isn’t terrible in this book, but the biggest demarcation between indie and mainstream publishing comes down to editing and attention to detail.

The downright frustrating: the villains are poorly-developed. Their dialog is clumsy and predictable, and the last dramatic encounter left me rolling my eyes so hard that I may have sprained them. In the last 5% of the book, I actually set down my e-reader none too gently and said “Oh, come on!” Had I not been so close to the end, I may have quit right then and there.

The story is rather predictable, as well. Predictability isn’t always a deal-breaker because comfort reads are a favorite category of mine. But I knew how it would end, mostly. The stakes are high, and the author reminds us of those stakes when she remembers to do so, as if she forgets and thinks we have, too. But the reader knows what is on the line. She needs to trust her reader the way the rider trusts the horse. We’ve been over it a dozen times. We know.

The inclusion of yoga is flat-out weird and out of place, but with a little reworking, another draft, it could have felt natural. Take us there. Don’t just tell me that Brynn did yoga. If it’s important enough to mention, it’s important enough to fully develop.

What would make it better – another draft. Tweak those characters. Flesh them out. Make the dramatic scenes less cluttered and more concise. Less running and yelling. More show, less tell, which is the trickiest bit of this writing gig. Build the drama naturally instead of telling me there’s drama. Polish the editing, be ruthless with the dialog. No backstory info dumps on characters.

Overall, the book was okay. I give it three stars. I finished it, and I don’t feel like I totally wasted my dollar. I might even re-read parts of it again. It was a quick read, too, so flaws are more forgivable. But with another draft, it could easily become a favorite horsey story.

What books do you recommend from 2016? New books, old books, new-to-you books?

She’s Back With Another Book!

Last year I reviewed a book from a rockin’ debut author. When I was offered an opportunity to read her next book for review, I jumped at the chance. I devoured the book in a weekend. That was months ago. But did I actually review it? Erm, does it count if the words are up in my head? No? Fine. It’s time to shake those words out here.

I'm a sucker for black and white images.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of reading Rattle by Olivia R. Burton. The author herself shared a copy with me in exchange for an honest review. Here’s the honest part. I learned it was a romance novel, and I almost didn’t read it. My great-auntie devoured romance novels, bodice-rippers with some scantily clad lady in the grips of some half-naked Fabian wannabee swooning on the cover. I was a kid who would read anything, so I sneaked a peek one day to see if it interested me. It did not. In the worst way, it did not. I ever after associated romance with insipid women who preferred their men big on biceps and short on brain. So I almost gave Rattle a hard pass. I am so glad I did not.

I’ll try to share the basic premise to the story without giving too much away. I hate spoilers, you know. Finn is your average, everyday necromancer who has limited control over his power. He’s not exactly what one might call a mental giant, and he allows himself to be exploited by Angelina, who uses his sex appeal to manipulate money from clients. Following the unexpected death of a client, Finn decides to take the money and run. The chase is on, and Angelina sends her hired goons to hunt Finn down, and he flees, straight into the arms of Veruca. He wonders if he has gone from frying pan to fire when he learns that Veruca is a Reaper in the pay of the Prince of Hell.

Rattle ain’t your great-auntie’s romance novel, let me tell you. Burton manages to turn what I have always thought of as a traditional romance dynamic on its ear. The protagonist, Veruca, is beautiful and sexy of course, but she’s also smart and strong and knows what she wants. Finn is kind of a goober. Instead of being the dominant one in the relationship, Veruca essentially keeps him as a pet.

Not only does the dynamic play out in a more satisfying way, the book is well-written. Burton doesn’t mess around when it comes to world-building. She writes with a deft hand, crafting the setting, the people, the magic, the limitations of all three. And she does it without the dreaded info-dump. Burton is a master of show-not-tell, unveiling details and backstory naturally. When she shows her readers what it looks like to take a soul, I believe her. Because she said so. Her world feels real to me because undoubtedly it feels real to her, and she’s so, so good at sharing what’s in her head.

The book isn’t just a paranormal romance, either. It’s a thrilling ride all the way around as Finn and Veruca dodge the bad guys. It’s about 90% action, 10% huggy-kissy, so don’t let the romance bit scare you away.

The book isn’t perfect. The action at the end becomes a bit muddy, and I get lost from time to time, and the huggy-kissy is rather naughty. But I can skim the blushy bits if I have to.

All in all, I give Rattle a solid four stars. It’s a fun ride all around and a quick read, and I recommend it.

 

What have you read lately?

Dreaming, The Second One

When we last met our heroine, she was all giggles and happy sighs because two fantastic things had happened – one, she had a piece published in Writer’s Digest, and two, she found a galley that not only did not make her want to gouge her eyes out with a blunt instrument, she loved so much she wanted to promote it. And give it away. All caught up now?

So here, you get part 2 of my interview with Olivia R. Burton, author of the decidedly awesome Mixed Feelings.

Me: If you could have a super-power, what would it be? What power would you NOT want to have?

Olivia: I’m always torn on this question when it’s not multiple choice! I would love something that lets me be more efficient at life, like stopping time or the ability to teleport, but I’d also adore a fun power like being able to talk to and understand animals. My cat Martin and I already have long conversations, but they’d definitely be more interesting if he could meow words other than, “NO!”

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Having Rogue’s life-draining superpower would be pretty unfortunate, as it would make sex all but impossible. Having a superpower like Gwen’s wouldn’t be that great, either, if you didn’t know how to control it. In one of my other series set in the same world, we meet an empath who knows how to utilize the power and it’s quite a boon. Gwen is pretty passive in her empathy at the start of the series, however, and it uses her more than she uses it.

Me: What advice would you give to readers who hope to publish their own books one day?

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Olivia: Take criticism, but know your audience. I’ve had a lot of writer friends who want lots of people to read and give input on their books, but I think they overextend. I don’t like high fantasy, so having me read your epic Tolkein-esque adventure tome isn’t going to do either of us any good. If you write technical sci-fi, find your friends who like that sort of thing and get their thoughts. Listen to their input, and evaluate your work honestly, but don’t lose confidence in what you’ve written if they have a lot of criticism. A few mistakes don’t mean your work is crap, it just means it could be better.

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Always be willing to give back, too. Don’t just expect others to read your stuff if you’re not willing to help them better their craft as well.

Me: Gwen likes sweets of all kinds, and yet I am not sure she has ever had a MoonPie. Do you have something against them, or have you not gotten around to writing them yet?

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Olivia: I’ve heard of MoonPies, but I wonder if they’re regional, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen one here on the West Coast. I have nothing against them, I just haven’t gotten the chance to feed them to Gwen. From my light and recent research into what they are, I can promise you Gwen would be all too eager to stuff them into her face.

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Rest assured, were she real, she would fight you for the last one in a bin. Whether she wins or not would depend on if you have fighting experience and if you are smart enough to distract her with another sugary treat. You could probably just chuck a Tootstie Roll and go, “Fetch!” and the MoonPie would be yours.

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Now, who wants to win their own copy of Mixed Feelings? Just click here to visit Candlemark&Gleam where the lovely Rafflecopter is set up just for you! The only reason you log in with your email is so that we know how to contact you if you win! So easy! No salesmen come calling.  Would you rather buy it? No problem! It’s only $5 right there on Candlemark&Gleam’s site!

Batman says enter to win! Look into his startling blue eyes and feel the fear dissipate. Enter to win. Enter to wiiiiinnnnn!

Batman says enter to win! Look into his startling blue eyes and feel the fear dissipate. Enter to win. Enter to wiiiiinnnnn!

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***I do apologize for the formatting this morning. Word and WordPress don’t play nicely together.

The One In Which I Live My Dream

Sometimes dreams come true. Last week, I was lucky enough to see one of my wishes come to fruition. No, I can’t fly, I am sorry to say. Still working on that one. I think I went overboard on the eye of newt. Anyway, last week, I got the opportunity to interview The Next Big Thing. Ever wish you had the chance the meet Paul McCartney or Ernest Hemingway before they were who they were? Me. I did that. Not Paul McCartney, of course. How old do you think I am? Last week, I got to interview Olivia R. Burton. Remember her from this post?

So we sat down over a soy latte (or email, because modern times), and I got to know her a little better.

 

Me: At what point did you know you wanted to be a writer?

ORB: I don’t know the exact point, but I know I used to hole up in a little TV cabinet as a teenager and write (awful) fanfiction for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. For the record, I hope every handmade notebook I wrote in has since been burned and scattered to the four corners of the earth. My first foray into original writing was in middle school when I read Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire. I say “original” loosely, since the story I wrote was very derivative and basically just self-insert fanfic of the book.

Me: The idea of a self-centered empath is so outside the proverbial box. How did you come up with it?

ORB: The short answer is that I wanted her to be awful. I’ve read so much Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy where the main character is a dippy, selfish brat, but the side characters refuse to acknowledge it. That made me so frustrated! I think a story is much more interesting when the main character has a lot stopping him or her from sailing through the plot with ease.

I took my customer service experience into account as I looked at how her empathy would affect the person she is. Sure, there are sad people in the world and a good person who felt that sadness as their own would want to help, but sadness and happiness aren’t the only emotions in the world. Think about how irate you get sitting in traffic. Now think how Gwen feels sitting crammed on a stopped freeway within empathic range of a dozen or so grumpy drivers who don’t want to go to work or who can’t wait to get home. Think how she feels standing in a long bathroom line. Consider how her empathy would function at the mall around the holidays.

Is it any wonder she’s chosen to be a recluses who wants nothing more than to sit at home self-soothing with cupcakes and soda that turns her tongue purple?

I wanted Gwen to be her own worst enemy and for everyone around her to see her for what she is. She does go through a fair amount of character development and, while she remains a greedy coward at heart, she learns through the main arc of her series how to overcome her own shortcomings enough to help when problems arise. She never becomes as useful as Chloe or Mel, but Book Six is the absolute last time she hides under her desk because she doesn’t want to take a client meeting, I promise.

Stay tuned for part II of this fun interview in an upcoming post. And stay tuned to win. Wait a minute! Hold the phones! Did I say stay tuned to win?

I have right here a little Rafflecopter, put together and managed by the illustrious Kate Sullivan at Candlemark&Gleam. She’s offering cool prizes ( and she’s even in charge of sending them out. No waiting for the weather to change for me to get them out by owl post. We’re talking, QUICK RETURN! There are so many ways to enter – 17 in all. What are you waiting for?

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This link takes you to Candlemark&Gleam’s wonderful website where the actual Rafflecopter entry is waiting for you. Click it, log in with your email, and go! Enter! The giveaway will run until November 18. Let’s get the word out about this up-and-comer fast!

Print copies are only available to those in the continental US, but the ebooks are for everyone, anywhere in the world! You know you want it!

And want to know something totally rocking? Another dream of mine came true last week. I had a guest post over at Writer’s Digest!

The One In Which I Confess

I could have, and I should have, and I would have. I really would have. But I didn’t. There. Now you know. I did not like Game of Thrones.

I wanted to. I have been looking for a new series to dive into, and Game of Thrones was primed to fit the bill. When I finish a book I love, there is nothing better than the knowledge that there’s another one waiting right there in the wings, another opportunity to immerse myself in that world and meet the characters I have come to love. I’m not just looking for a good read, I crave all the trappings of a rabid fandom, too. I want to type on message boards in the middle of the night, attend midnight book releases where I may or may not show up in costume.

Trelawney. Don't say you're not jealous.

Trelawney. Don’t say you’re not jealous.

I want the whole enchilada. All of it. Game of Thrones was my next hope. Several books to read? Check. More to come? Check, check. Fans out the wazoo? Triple check. So I gave it a go. And then a second go. And now I’m done.

Why didn’t I love it? I wanted to. I really did. But this series has more flaws than I can overlook, not the least of which is an insufferable author who has as little respect for his fandom as he does for the characters he writes. When an author laughs scathingly and says he should make them wait 20 years for the next book, I lose a little interest. But it’s about more than the author.

Martin writes cardboard characters. I guess he has to because he’s going to kill all of them, but it’s hard for me to engage with one-note wonders. I hate spoilers. Hate them. I don’t even read blurbs on dust jackets. But when I finally gave up on this series, I collected spoilers from lots of sources. Turns out, some of the characters are not as one-dimensional as they seem at first. And I might have even liked them eventually. But it shouldn’t take an author 1500 pages to show me. What if Han Solo and Greedo had dropped their breadcrumbs 10 lightyears apart when they made their trail in the woods? Their dad would never have found them. Wait. Back up. Hansel and Gretel. There we go. When it takes too long to develop characters, I get really bored.

I don’t have to like all of the characters to enjoy a book. ***Spoiler*** Draco Malfoy was an irritating prat for five-and-a-half books in the Harry Potter series. BUT he was a great foil for the protagonists. His interactions with the other characters evoked something, be it laughter or outrage. He made me feel something. Heck, I don’t even have to like the protagonist to enjoy a book. I could not STAND Lincoln in Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. He was a spineless little clownfish. Every time he looked out into the world and appeared like he was about to mature a little and stand on his own , he’d dart right back into that anemone. I did not like him. You know why? Because I know people just like him! He was a real person. He made me angry. He evoked emotion. By and large, Martin’s characters don’t.

Yep, this is Lincoln. Will I ask her out? No. I'm gonna move out... Nah... Photo credit amazonaws.com

Yep, this is Lincoln. Will I ask her out? No. I’m gonna move out… Nah… Photo credit amazonaws.com

There are too many characters, as well. There were four characters whose story-lines I kind of wanted to follow. That sounds like a lot, right? But they represented less than 10% of the population of the first book. I didn’t even encounter many of them in the second book, or their chapters weren’t big enough to matter. I tried skipping the characters I was bored by and just reading the ones I liked, but that meant skipping the majority of Clash of Kings. Too much work.

There’s almost no subtlety. Martin’s bad guys are mustache-twirling evil dudes. They’ll tie that damsel-in-distress right to those railroad tracks. But there’s no hero, either. Not only will the train run her the heck over, it will cut her into three equal pieces, and it will take her two weeks to die. Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Not the first three times, anyway. Eventually it becomes predictable. Imagine the very worst thing that can happen to a character. Then multiply it by five, and you’ve got Martin’s plot-line. Basket of puppies? Don’t look now, but those puppies are going to get put in purses and carried around by rich ladies. Poor, poor dogs. Are there little babies? No, not the babies! Is nothing sacred? Martin would write them having to watch six hours of Baby Einstein before being fed M&Ms and getting dropped back off with mom and dad. There’s your plot twist. You thought it was the kids who were being punished, didn’t you?

There were good parts. I loved the Others. I couldn’t wait for them to take over the whole world, actually. I liked Dany. Her storyline in the first book was the best part. She was the one character that was truly developed, and I was taken by surprise by how things turned out with Khal Drogo. I wanted to like the dire wolves. I hear they were pretty awesome later on, or at least had a great story. But again, there was too little of any of these to keep me engaged. If anybody wants to email me the story of the wolves or what happens with Dany, I’m game. I am just not invested enough to find out for myself.

What series do you absolutely love? I’m up for something new.

Of Cookies and Books

Ever bake something amazing from scratch? Something so good, so rich, so satisfying that you can’t wait to try it again, but the next time you tweak the recipe to try to make it just a little bit better. Sometimes it works, and you produce the most deliciously gooey double chocolate chip cookies, but other times, you’re left with a pile of dried out, brittle briquettes are more suitable for acts of vandalism than human consumption. Books are like baking.

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When I come across a story I love, it’s natural to want more, but sequels are a risk. Sequels change the story, for better or for worse. At its best, a sequel strengthens our relationship with a character and gives the author an opportunity to explore and develop larger plotlines. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a great example. But a poorly written sequel has the power to turn readers away from a burgeoning series, and even characters they love forever. Jan Karon’s Father Tim series falls into this category for me, and Jim Butcher is headed down that path with his Dresden Files. Sometimes it’s better to stop while you’re ahead.

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When I was offered an ARC of the sequel to Justin Robinson’s Mr. Blank to review, I didn’t hesitate. I loved the first book so much. It was fast-paced and hilarious, and Robinson’s writing style is so engaging I had to quit trying to find quotes from his work to fit the title because every time I try to find one, I get carried off in the story again. I was eager to read it, but I did have to wonder if he could do it again. Just in case you’re wondering, he can, and he did. And you wanna hear something really crazy? Get Blank is even better than the original.

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It will come as no surprise to some of you that I am not always the sharpest crayon in the box, and it’s not hard for me to get lost among the twists and turns of a gumshoe novel. I’ll be the first to admit that I got tangled up a few times in Mr. Blank, but Robinson deftly set me back on the path every, single time. I never stayed lost for very long. This time around, I had no trouble at all in keeping up, and I could see where I was being led without anyone spelling it out for me. That is not to say the ending is predictable. It is not. But I could connect the dots on the significance of each event this time all by my own self.

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Robinson knows how to develop his characters. Even when they aren’t human, even when they’re pretty much identical to every other one of their species, Robinson manages to make them stand out, to make me care about them. And maybe even cry over them.

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The book isn’t perfect. The resolution was a bit abrupt, and the pursuit of the identity of “Mr. Blank,” the thread that ties this book to its predecessor and is the premise of the series is weak. But the writing is so solid, the story at hand so well developed that I look forward to other opportunities to revisit this world. And while it is a sequel, Get Blank really does stand on its own two feet.

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I devoured this book in a weekend, in one fabulous, children-raise-yourselves-because-Mommy’s-not-putting-this-book-down kind of weekend. It’s urban fantasy, it’s noir, it’s bizarre, it’s a delight. I give it 4.5 stars. I haven’t given an ARC a rating that high in a long time. It was my pleasure to do so this time.

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Want to win it? You know you do!  There are two ways to enter. I recommend both! Go here to learn about and participate in tomorrow night’s drinkalong. Go here to the contest’s main page.

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And what goes better with books than cookies? Nothing. Here’s the recipe for the double choco-chip cookies I made to eat while I read Get Blank. I futzed with the recipe so you don’t have to. You’re welcome!

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2 C bread flour
½ C cocoa powder, unsweetened
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks salted butter, softened (not melted)
1 ½ granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs

6 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

 

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Preheat oven to 375F. Combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl and set aside. In large bowl beat butter and sugar on high for 1 minute. Add vanilla. Beat to blend. Add eggs one at a time, beating for one minute between each. Slowly add dry ingredients to butter mixture and beat. Batter will be thick. Add the chocolate chips and mix until evenly distributed.

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Place batter on ungreased baking sheet in heaping teaspoonsful. Bake for 9 minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool for 1 minute, then remove cookies to a wire baking rack.

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Makes: not nearly enough

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Now, make some cookies and read this book. It’s my top pick for summer reads. And don’t forget to click here to vote for my zoo to win $5K. Comment on yesterday’s post to let me know you voted.

Second Chances

If I have said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Life is too short to read bad books. But sometimes the parting of the ways comes not through any fault of the book itself. This year I decided to give A Game of Thrones another go.

I started reading it a couple of years ago, I guess. It was the first library loan on my brand new Kindle Fire. If you look at my top pages and posts on any given day, you will likely see how that particular relationship ended. Long story short, I sent back the device before I finished the book.

I was content to live Throneless for the rest of my days, but the universe has ways of changing our minds. It started with discovering A Clash of Kings at the Friends of the Library book sale. Hard cover, good used condition, $2. Then over the course of the year, I found three others in the series at thrift stores. A near-complete series cost me just over three bucks. The universe wins again. I found a copy of book one (at the used bookstore, and guess who had trade credit?) and a few days ago, I sat down to read.

My original thought was that the world Martin built is more memorable than the characters themselves. My second thought was that A Game of Thrones is possibly the worst book to read during the polar vortex. I’m cold. So cold. Winter is coming? Whatever, Starks. I’ve got news. Winter is already here. I hate Catelyn already, what with her nice hot water steaming through the walls, and all I’ve got is this stupid rice sock. The snow is going to pile deeper still, and we’ll never get out, and I’m almost out of milk! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE! Wait. Where was I?

In the first ten pages, I was drawn into the story. I could not remember why I was able to put this book aside so easily. Oh, yeah! There it is! Now I remember! In a world with thirty main characters, it makes sense to give some of them the same name. And how’s about we toss in a nickname or three? Eddard? Sometimes we’ll call him Ned, even when the chapter header refers to him by his formal name.How about Robert and Robert and Robb. And let’s toss in a Brandon, a Bran or two and maybe some oats for fiber. I’m waiting for a Jehoshaphat to pop up somewhere. I’m just gonna call him Steve.

I’m struggling as well with the line between fantasy and reality. Newborn dire wolf pup that licks someone’s face? I’m not overly familiar with the species since they went extinct about 10,000 years ago, so maybe it was possible. No, it’s not. I’m more ready to believe that fossilized dragon eggs come to life than I am that five spoiled children have the ability to train pet wolves to advanced levels. I’ve actually trained a dog or five. There’s only so much reality I can suspend. Fantasy I can deal with; schoolgirl fantasy I cannot.

I’m hung up in the nitpicky things. Because it’s cold, and I’m grouchy, and it’s cold. But I’ll keep reading. The universe says I must. I still have hopes for it. Maybe. Except for the fact that Martin hates both his readers and his characters.

Have you ever given a book a second chance? Did it end well? I’m pretty sure this one’s not going to end well. I’ve read the jokes. “Why isn’t George R.R. Martin on Twitter? He’s already killed all 140 characters.” But I’m in, at least for now. Worst case scenario, I hate the series and resell them at the used bookstore to buy Harry Potter action figures with my windfall. Best case scenario, I find a new favorite series and languish in agony until the 6th book comes out. I’m hoping for the latter. I never pick up a book without hoping it will become my new best friend.