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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Monthly Recap: June 2012 (And a Blogging Break)

In May (there was no May update), I read and/or reviewed The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (4 stars), The Blood by D.J. MacHale (4 stars), Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (3 stars), TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow (4 stars), The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flannagan (4 stars), Fear by Michael Grant (5 stars!), and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (4 stars).

In June, I read Witchlanders by Lena Coakley (5 stars!), Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore (3 stars), The Returning by Christine Hinwood (3 stars), Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel (4 stars), The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi (5 stars!), and Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare (3 stars).

 Writing Links
Here are some signs your story has too many characters, a post on your characters' humor, a post on taking the mystery out of query letters, a fantastic form to fill out for developing MCs, a post on how to spot non-reactive and over-reactive characters, 38 ways to check for character life, and 21 ways to make your plot more compelling.  Writing-wise, I blogged about my four aspects of character development, writing what you love, when to start and stop your story/scenes, and character needs vs. wants.

Other Links
Here is a fascinating breakdown of YA book covers in 2011, and a great summer reading flowchart.  Also, I'd highly recommend that you check out my friend's blog, Beaux Cheveux.  She's doing a zillion different hairstyles for every day throughout the summer, and she's blogging about it with tutorials and pictures.  Cool, no?  She did this second semester--a different hairstyle every day.  No lie.  Check it out!  (And for all those non-French speakers, like me, it's pronounced BOH-SHA-VOH.  Or at least, I think.)

Song of the Month: "Paradise" by Coldplay
The music video is odd, but the song is awesome.

Also, I'm going to take a break from blogging for the next week or so.  I'll be unable to get to the internet, and I didn't have enough time to schedule posts in advance.  Besides, in over two years, I haven't done this once, so it's probably time for a short rest.  Meanwhile, I can assure you that I'll be doing plenty of this:
Because I totally blog with that machine.  Even if it has no screen.

What about you?  What did you read in June?  What cool links did you find?
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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Drowned Cities (Ship Breaker #2) by Paolo Bacigalupi

Soldier boys emerged from the darkness. Guns gleamed dully. Bullet bandoliers and scars draped their bare chests. Ugly brands scored their faces. She knew why these soldier boys had come. She knew what they sought, and she knew, too, that if they found it, her best friend would surely die.

In a dark future America where violence, terror, and grief touch everyone, young refugees Mahlia and Mouse have managed to leave behind the war-torn lands of the Drowned Cities by escaping into the jungle outskirts. But when they discover a wounded half-man--a bioengineered war beast named Tool--who is being hunted by a vengeful band of soldiers, their fragile existence quickly collapses. One is taken prisoner by merciless soldier boys, and the other is faced with an impossible decision: Risk everything to save a friend, or flee to a place where freedom might finally be possible.

This thrilling companion to Paolo Bacigalupi's highly acclaimed Ship Breaker is a haunting and powerful story of loyalty, survival, and heart-pounding adventure.

Released: May 1st, 2012          Pages: 437
Publisher: Little Brown Books            Source: Library

I've had plenty of time to mull over this book and my review, and yet...I still can't quite find words for it.  There's just something about this novel, something about the way it just sucks you in, that it's hard to write about.  Let's start out, then, with some things about it that are concrete.

The futuristic, dystopian setting is fabulous.  It's dark and gritty.  It's incredibly believable in a way that is unnerving.  As I wrote in my review of Ship Breaker, it "took those mediocre dystopian The Giver ripoffs and ate them for breakfast".  (Rereading the SB review, I realized that I was in an odd mood when I wrote that.  "I could smell the...stuff that didn't smell good"?  What?  LOL.  Carry on.)  You know, those dystopian books that are everywhere, the ones that look so unique and enticing but once you pick them up, you realize you've read the same thing before.  You know this setting from somewhere, because it's basically the same setting every mediocre dystopian novel has. 

If you enjoy that kind of setting, don't you dare pick up The Drowned Cities.  TDC is not like that.  The setting is unique and scary and awesome.  And the rest of the book is nothing like those other mediocre dystopians, either.  The characters are wonderful and lovable and utterly real.  When I realized that Nailer wasn't in this book at all, I was very disappointed.  I loved Nailer.  The only character that SB and TDC have in common is Tool, actually (someone's name is Tool?  What?  Yeah, if you weren't interested before, you should be now).  But Bacigalupi* makes up for this with Mahlia and Mouse.  Each of them were compelling, beautifully developed characters with exciting stories. 

My only complaint with this book is the plot, actually.  Despite the awesome characters, the story moved a bit slow at the beginning.  I kept waiting for it to pick up, and it took a little too long.  Luckily the rest of the book was awesome enough that I can forgive it. 

And now I have to write, somehow, about the harder parts of this book.  About the sheer harshness of the world, the characters, the themes.  There is violence in this book.  Quite a bit of it.  This is by no means an easy book to read.  It's tough.  It puts characters in impossible, horrible situations, and you're glad to be safe at home.  And then you isn't that far from reality.  Child soldiers have been a major topic as of late, and this book fits right in with that. 

I think Bacigalupi was going for quite a bit of shock value with this book, much more so than Ship Breaker.  It worked, too.  But none of the intensity, none of the violence, felt thrown in just for the sake of it.  Everything was deliberate, and I admire Bacigalupi for that.

And then there's the last part of the book.  The death at the very end.  You guys who have read the know exactly what I'm talking about.  I'm still reeling from it, still asking "Bacigalupi, how could you?"  The thing about it is that the author made us care so much that we feel such emotion from this death, and again, I admire him for it.

This is an awesome book, guys.  Read it.  Recommended for fans of dystopian novels, or gritty novels, or basically anything that makes you think and feel.    

*Like I said last time: And I thought Paolini was fun to say.
Reviews of other Ship Breaker novels:
Ship Breaker (Ship Breaker #1)
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Monday, June 25, 2012

Amusement 2.0

Since I needed a couple of posts, fast, I decided to compile another collection of amusing pictures.  If you missed Amusement 1.0, be sure to check it out!  Neither of them really have anything to do with what I usually blog about, but it's better than nothing while I'm away.  Here goes!  As always, click on the pictures to see them bigger.
I would totally have self-restraint in this situation.  Probably.  Possibly.  Okay, maybe I'd buy them all.  But that's irrelevant.
My goal is to end up as awesome as the grandma when I'm old.  I'm not sure it's humanly possible to be that awesome, though.
I like this movie.  Quite a bit.  It's awesome.
I love this.  Except...what are the animals roaming around my yard up here in the US?  They look like bunnies, act like bunnies....
One hop this time!

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Friday, June 22, 2012

The Four Aspects of Character Development Part 2

On Monday, I starting talking about the four aspects of character development: backstory, personality, motivations, and interactions.  These aspects are hugely important to developing your characters.  If you don't have them, you don't have a character.  In Part 1, I talked about the importance of backstory and personality.  Today I'll discuss the last two points, motivations and interactions.

3. Motivations
If your story has any sort of conflict at all (which it should), your character needs motivation. They want something, for a specific reason. Maybe two characters want the same thing, but for different reasons. For example, let's say Mary and John are both searching for a lost treasure chest. Mary wants this treasure so she can pay her baby's hospital bills. John wants this treasure because he has followed in his older brother's footsteps his whole life and desperately wants to accomplish something on his own. Both characters want the same thing, but because of their different motivations, they're going to have different approaches.

If your character wants something, but there's no motivation behind it, your character will be flat. Your story will be flat. Also, when thinking about your characters' motivations, make sure you consider their needs vs. wants (full article on needs vs. wants), and how they might clash and create more conflict.

Check for motivation: Write down, in one sentence, what each of your main characters want, and why they want it. This shouldn't take more than one sentence. If you can do this right away, with little trouble, you probably have a good idea of what your character's motivations are. If not, you need to sit down and figure them out as soon as possible.

4. Interactions
Every person has a different way of interacting with other people. So should your character. Maybe your main character hates argument. Maybe they have a temper. Maybe they're shy and don't like interaction at all.

Also, each of your characters has a different relationship with each other character. Maybe they have one certain friend they go to in order to have a good time, but another they go to for advice. They share their secrets with one character, but not another. Or maybe they don't share their secrets at all. Anything like this is a form of interaction between your characters.

Check for interaction: Make a list of all of the characters that play a fairly prominent role in your character's life. You don't have to list each and every character, but don't leave out any important ones, either. After you've made this list, consider each character on it. Write down a sentence or three describing your main character's relationship with them. How do they view this character? How do they interact?

If you can do this fairly easily and all of your descriptions don't sound the same, you probably have a good hold on how your character interacts. If not, sit down and think about it for awhile.

How can I work on this stuff?  Do you have links that might help?
Yup, actually, I do have links for you.  Glad you asked.  Okay, maybe you didn't ask, and my bolded letters did the job for you.  Either way, I have links.

Character needs vs. wants: Your characters have things they want, and things they need.  These wants and needs often clash.  If you aren't aware of the difference between these two things, and how you can exploit them for the good of your plot, you should check it out!

Character Words: Explained: What do I mean when I talk about relatable, likable characters?  This post explains.

The Giant Form of Doom: A form you can fill out to help make sure you cover everything when it comes to character development.  Highly, highly recommended.  And the "of doom" is just because I liked the sound of it.  No doom involved.  Probably.  Well, now that you mention it....

100 Things Activity: This is a simple activity that does wonders for your character development. 

If you make sure to develop these four points, you will have a fully fleshed-out character.  And if you have well-developed characters, your book will be better.  And your readers will thank you for it. 

Have a writing question?  Don't hesitate to send an owl email to theanniemarie(at)gmail(dot)com.  I don't bite.  Really.
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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Four Aspects of Character Development Part 1

(Part 2 is right here.)

Character development is a fiction writing topic that never gets old.  It needs to be touched on again and again, since it is vitally important to a good story.  Without solid characters, you don't have a story at all. 

Character development can be almost completely summed up in four points.  These four areas are backstory, personality, motivation, and interaction.  You need to cover each of these, if you want a well-developed character.  If you're missing even one, or part of one, you character will fall flat.  But if you have each point well covered, chances are your characters will seem lifelike to your readers.  (No, these four points aren't commonly taught in creative writing class.  You might not find another article on the internet that even uses them as the four main points to look for.  That's 'cause I made them up myself.  You're welcome.  Unless they actually are commonly used, in which case, well, you're still welcome.)

1. Backstory
The character's life doesn't begin when the book begins.  The book simply shows a smaller snapshot of the bigger picture of this person's life.  People are shaped by experiences, past emotions, their childhood, etc.  These things affect who they are.  They influence the character's decisions, present emotions, reactions to events, and more.

Your character's backstory may or may not play a prominent role in your story.  For example, in my novel, backstory plays a huge role.  My main character, Davi, had his life turned upside down one night, five years before the book begins.  It's important because it shapes who he is.  It still affects him all throughout the story, and the event had such a big impact on him that it causes him to second guess his decisions, feel unsure of himself, and more. 

On the other hand, your character's backstory may play a less prominent role.  Maybe nothing out of the ordinary or life-changing has ever happened to your character before the book begins.  That's okay, too.  Backstory is no less important in this case, though.  Your character was still shaped by their past, whether it is obvious or not.

Check for backstory: Write a short paragraph about your character's life before your book begins.  What events shaped him/her?  What still affects them today?  What kind of life did they live?   If you can't sum up their past life right away, this is a sign that you need to spend some time fleshing out this character's backstory.  It might be helpful to sit down and write a page or two about your character's past.

2. Personality
Every single person in the entire world has a different personality.  How cool is that?  Your character, too, needs their own defined personality.  Without a personality, your character will be flat and boring.  Personality is a fun one to play with, since you have so many different options.  Give your character a unique way of looking at the world.  Give them a unique set of standards and morals.  Give them opinions and methods of handling conflict and such.  What defines them, as a person? 

Your character's personality will affect everything they do.  Everything.  Their personality will come into play in every choice they make.  If there is no personality, there is no character at all. 

Check for personality: Throw a hypothetical random event at your character.  Say, for example, your character finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her.  How does she react?  How would this reaction be different if the same had happened to her sister/best friend/mother?

If you can tell right away how your character would react in several different situations, you probably have a decent handle on their personality.  You're in trouble if you try this test with different characters and they all have similar reactions.  Also, watch out and make sure your characters aren't just reacting the way you would react. 

I'd highly recommend the Meyers-Briggs test for a good way to get deeper into your character's personality.

Make sure you come back on Friday, when I'll talk about the second two aspects of characters: motivations, and interactions.  Also, I'll list a few resources for help with developing characters.  Stay tuned!
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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Skybreaker (Matt Cruse #2) by Kenneth Oppel

Former cabin boy Matt Cruse, now a student at the prestigious Airship Academy, is first to identify the Hyperion, the private airship of a reclusive and fabulously wealthy inventor that disappeared forty years ago with its owner. Armed with the Hyperion's coordinates, which only he possesses, Matt, heiress Kate de Vries, and a mysterious young gypsy board the Sagarmatha, an airship fitted with the new skybreaker engines that will allow them to reach the Hyperion, 20,000 feet above the earth's surface. Pursued by others who want the Hyperion and will stop at nothing to get it, and surrounded by dangerous high-altitude life forms, Matt and his companions are soon fighting not only for the Hyperion but for their very lives.

In this thrilling sequel to Airborn, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, Kenneth Oppel evokes the classic storytelling of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, creating a world in which a new discovery can have unimagined consequences -- on earth and miles above it.

Released: November 29, 2005          Pages: 384
Publisher: HarperTeen            Source: Library

Why aren't these books more popular?  Seriously.  This book has pretty much everything you could ask for in a book--adventure, heart-stopping action, romance, strong female characters, a likable underdog protagonist, mystery, treasure-hunting, and giant flying electric jellyfish (more on this later). 

First off, I love the level of action in this series.  It's everywhere.  This book keeps you guessing, in a good, old-fashioned pageturner sort of way.  It keeps you turning pages, constantly wondering how the main characters are going to survive.

Question: Why do characters like Edward Cullen and all the other unrealistically attractive supernatural guys get all the fangirls?  Edward and the other don't have anything on Matt Cruse.  I love him, as a character.  Where Edward can...stun you with sparkliness and his knowledge of Clair de Lune (though it is a fabulous piece of music that I've probably played 400 times),  Matt Cruse can take you up in an airship and fly you across the sky, while discovering new life forms, defeating notorious pirates, finding lost treasure, and generally saving the day while making sure you don't die of oxygen deprivation.  That, girls, is the kind of guy you should go after.  Not the sparkly ones who lust after your blood. 

The main point of that paragraph was that Matt Cruse is an awesome character.  He's believable, too.  And realistically flawed, just like all the other characters.  Like Kate de Vries, for example.  She's no damsel in distress, either.

There are gigantic, flying, electric jellyfish in this book.  How cool is that?  It's purely awesome, is what it is.  It might just be the coolest thing since Paolini's giant snails.  Eragon Shadeslayer, Vanquisher of Snails.  Matt Cruse, Vanquisher of Jellyfish.  They'd made a good team.

I also think it's worth pointing out that this is a HarperTeen book with no love triangle.  They do exist.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book.  The characters are extremely likable, and the plot is exciting and compelling.  The setting is cool, too--Victorian era with airships!  Recommended for fans of steampunk, science fiction, alternate history, and just good old adventure stories.  It's more of a 4.5 star read, but 4.5 is the only rating I won't round up, so 4 stars it is. 
Reviews of other Matt Cruse novels:
Airborn (Matt Cruse #1)
Starclimber (Matt Cruse #3)
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Monday, June 11, 2012

The Returning by Christine Hinwood

For Cam Attling, the war is both an ending and a beginning.  An intense story of love, loss and turmoil in the aftermath of war. A first novel by a uniquely talented author.

Vivid, compassionate and totally absorbing, The Returning follows the fortunes of young Cam Attling and all those whose fates entwine with his.

Cam has a hunger, an always-hunger; it drives him from home, to war, from north to south. When he returns from war alone - all his fellow soldiers slain - suspicion swirls around him. He's damaged in body and soul, yet he rides a fine horse and speaks well of his foes. What has he witnessed? Where does his true allegiance lie? How will life unfold for his little sister, his closest friend, his betrothed, his community, and even the enemy Lord who maimed him?

With extraordinary insight and literary skill, Hinwood weaves their stories to create a tale of romance, adventure and everyday life in croft and manor house and castle. Her style is unique. Her characters will hijack your heart.

Released: April 14, 2011 (first published as Bloodflower, June 2009, in Australia)          
Pages: 302
Publisher: Dial            Source: Library

The Australian cover.  It took me forever to
 figure out that the arm wasn't
 just some weird disconnected
limb lying on a table somewhere.
First Look: ***** I had heard both good and bad things about this book.  The pitch alone probably wouldn't have lured me in, but I have a hard time resisting can't possibly turn down fantasy novels with horses on the cover.  I'm weird that way.

Setting: ***** It was okay.  I don't have any strong feelings about it one way or the other.  It didn't play a huge role in the book, but I might've enjoyed it more if I had been given a few more details so I could attempt to immerse myself in the setting.

Characters: ***** The characters were very well-developed.  Each showed many different sides to themselves, and I could clearly see and understand their motivations.  Cam's feelings and reactions were believable, and I felt for him.  I felt his longing, his uncertainty of what to do with his life after the war.

Other characters, too, were likable and realistic.  I especially liked Pin, Cam's little sister, and also Graceful, Cam's betrothed.  Gyaar also made an interesting character, and his inner conflicts made the book more interesting.

Plot: ***** This is the aspect of the book that gives me mixed feelings.  It's the main reason why I didn't give it four stars.  The first half to three quarters of this book were slow.  Very, very slow.  There really wasn't much plot at all.  We were given interesting characters to read about, but they never did anything.  There wasn't much in the way of conflict. 

It finally picked up in the last part of the book, but it took too long to get there.  If more had happened at the beginning, I would have liked this a lot more.  The plot towards the end was compelling, but it didn't get there fast enough.  And it's entirely possible that I felt the plot was more compelling than I usually would have, just because I was bored and desperate for conflict. 

Uniqueness: *****
I've never before read a fantasy book that focused on the events after the war, rather than during it.  That aspect of it was unique.

Writing: ***** There was some awkward phrasing scattered throughout the book.  I think some of that might have been the characters' dialect, but I never could quite tell.  There's a fine line between having awkward wording and having characters with a unique way of speaking, and this book seemed to go more towards the awkward side, at least for me.  There were also a few times where I couldn't tell if the punctuation was wrong for a specific reason, or just because somebody messed up.   

Likes: This is neither a good or bad thing, but I'm seeing a few American Civil War parallels here. There's the same North vs. South conflict with Uplanders and Dowlanders, and a bunch of boys all eager to go to war but hardly any survive, etc. Or maybe I'm just overthinking it, especially since it is an Australian book.

Not-so-great: I wish the horse would've had a bigger part in the story. 

I felt bad for Pin when she got her first period.  How awful, to spend that day with a celebration.  Yeah, parties to honor womanhood are nice, but the poor girl was in pain.  I can understand why she was grumpy with everyone.

Overall: This was an okay book.  The character development was very interesting, and the entire book had a unique premise.  The writing was a bit awkward, though, and the first half to three quarters of the book had very little in terms of plot and conflict.  If it looks interesting, I'd give it a try, but otherwise I wouldn't go out of your way to pick up this one.
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Friday, June 8, 2012

Bitterblue (Graceling Realm #3) by Kristin Cashore

Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck’s reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle—disguised and alone—to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past.

Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart.

Released: May 1st, 2012      Pages: 563
Publisher: Dial Books        Source: Library

(Note: This book is a sequel of sorts to Graceling, and a companion to Fire.  If you haven't read either of  those two, you might still enjoy this.  You'll have no trouble understanding this book, and you don't really miss anything by reading them out of order.)

I'm going to go right out and sum up my thoughts right away: this book disappointed me.  I really enjoyed Graceling and Fire, but Bitterblue wasn't up to that same level.  Maybe Graceling and Fire weren't actually as good as I remember them, as it has been a few years since I read them. 

My main issue was that the plot dragged.  If I had been the type of person that left books unfinished, I would have put this down.  For much of the book, I felt like the main conflict was just that Bitterblue was confused.  That doesn't count as a plot.  When a plot finally did come around, I felt like it much more complicated and tangled than it needed to be. 

And that means quite a bit, coming from me, since I love complicated, tangled plots.  For example, part of the reason I love Cinda Williams Chima's Seven Realms series is because the plot is such a huge big, messy web of intrigue, conflicting loyalties, betrayals, etc.  I'm a fan of that kind of thing.  But in this book, it felt like it was a lot more complex than it needed to be.  I think I would've liked this better if it had been more straightforward. 

My second issue was that Bitterblue did hardly anything herself.  Her advisers made things happen. Saf and Teddy made things happen.  Katsa and Po (I love Po.  Ahem.) made things happen.  Bitterblue mostly just sat in her tower.  (Speaking of Katsa and Po...there's a revolution in Estill?  What?  Cool!  Wait...nobody cares except me, apparently.)

My other, more minor issues: 1) Why is Bitterblue the only one with words in her name?  We've got a world of Safs, Pos, Katsas, Thiels, and then...Bitterblue?  What? 2) I had a hard time caring about the betrayals/suicides/past actions of certain castle people (I won't say who) because I was never given a reason to care about them.  Bitterblue did, but I never got that chance to get attached.  3) Bitterblue: "Hey, I'm depressed and there just so happens to be a guy in my bed!  Let' know!"  Not okay.  4) Raffin and Bann.  Also not okay.  5) Thigpen?  Really? 

All in all, it wasn't really a bad book.  It definitely had good points.  Saf and Teddy were fascinating, likable characters.  It was interesting to read about the aftermath of Leck's reign.  Thiel, Darby, and the other advisers' emotional responses to Leck's madness were very realistic and haunting.  Saf's Grace was a neat surprise that I didn't see coming. 

Edit 9/22/12: I keep on getting Google search hits for "what is Saf's grace in Bitterblue".  For all those desperate people...fine, I'll tell you.  Saf's grace is (highlight to read)  that he gives people good dreams.  Happy now?

This is an okay book, despite the criticism of this review.  I just felt the need to rant about a few things, since this book disappointed me and was definitely not as good as the other two.  The character development was interesting, and there were many questions that kept me wondering as I read through this book. 

I'd recommend it if you enjoyed the first two books.  Also, if this looks at all interesting to you, I'd recommend you give it a try.  If not, I'd pass on this one.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What's In a Rating?

I've seen this topic discussed on various other blogs, and I've decided to go over it myself.  Lately, I've seen these questions popping up more and more often: What do ratings mean?  What can be considered "great literature"?  Do we rate based off enjoyment, or literary merit?  Should we even use star ratings?

What do ratings mean?
Ratings mean something different for everyone.  For example, many people follow the Goodreads star ratings system.  It works like this:
1 star=didn't like it
2 stars=it was okay
3 stars=liked it
4 stars=really liked it
5 stars=it was amazing

This system works for many people.  What gets confusing, though, is when people have different systems.  Like me.  I, personally, don't care for the Goodreads system.  My rating system works like this:
1 star=practically nothing I liked about it
2 stars=didn't like it, but it had a few redeeming qualities
3 stars=it was okay
4 stars=liked it
5 stars=it was amazing

I use this system because it makes the most sense to me.  I like to keep three stars as "okay", because I'm in the middle with my opinions of those books, and three is in the middle of one and five.  Simple as that. 

Some people use half-stars, but I don't.  I think it just gets confusing.  I do read books where they're right in the middle of two ratings, but then I round up.  For example, if I read a book that was somewhere between three and four stars for me, putting it at 3.5 stars, I'd round it to four stars.  The only reason I round up instead of down is because up is mathematically correct.  The only one I don't round up is 4.5 stars, because for me, a five star rating is a high honor and if a book isn't quite there, I don't want to give it that rating.

Should we rate based off enjoyment, or literary meritWhat can be considered "great literature"?
Frankly, I don't understand the difference.  Why would I enjoy a book that had no literary merit?  And if I enjoyed a book, doesn't that mean it has literary merit?  If a book has a compelling plot, realistic characters, then it has literary merit.  It doesn't have to be considered a "classic" (I have issues with that term, too, but that's another post for another time.) to be considered "great literature".  If I liked it, then the author did something right.  He/she wrote a well-written book with a compelling plot and characters I connected with.  It doesn't matter if I found it on the shelf at Walgreens--I still consider it great literature.  My definition of great literature is any book I really enjoy.

What I also have trouble understanding is the concept of "guilty pleasure".  If I liked it, why should I feel guilty about it?  Again, if I liked it, the author is doing something right.  To use a music example, I have an entire Justin Bieber CD on my iPod.  I'm not ashamed of it.  I enjoy it (okay, most of it).  If I enjoy it, then doesn't that mean it has some merit? 

I feel like I've just answered this question with more questions.  Still, it's something to think about.

Should we even use star ratings?
This is another matter of opinion.  Some people feel that star ratings give them a good idea of whether or not the reviewer recommends a book.  Some people like to turn to a trusted review and see, at a glance, how much they liked it.  On the other hand, some people feel star ratings are biased (even though there is no such thing as an unbiased book review).  They're just numbers, and they can't express the whole picture of the reviewer's experience with the book.  

There are valid points to both sides.  I fall more to the first side.  I'll always use star ratings.  As a reviewer, star ratings are an easy way to tell my readers, at a glance, whether or not I'd recommend the book.  They're also an easy way to keep track of what books I liked or didn't like.  I can sort and categorize them and keep them organized, which I like. 

Whether or not you use star ratings is entirely up to you.  Every reviewer does their reviews in a different way. 

What about you?  What do your ratings mean?  What are your thoughts on this subject?

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Witchlanders by Lena Coakley

High in their mountain covens, red witches pray to the Goddess, protecting the Witchlands by throwing the bones and foretelling the future.

It’s all a fake.

At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?

But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—

Are about him.

Released: August 30, 2011      Pages: 400
Publisher: Atheneum Books        Source: Library

First Look: ***** The cover looks nice, on a screen.  But it is simply gorgeous in real life.  You have to hold it to appreciate it.  I do have a problem with the cover, though, and the pitch.  If there's only one part of this review you read, make it the "Not-so-great" part.  Please.  I'll explain why this book isn't what you think it is.  And there will be unicorns.*

Setting: ***** The setting was very interesting.  Though a map might have been nice, I liked the contrast between the two countries and their relationships.  That part of it was well-developed.  The narration had just the right amount of detail to show me the setting.

Characters: ***** I really liked Ryder.  I could connect to him.  I loved how much he cared about his family, and how it conflicted with his own interests sometimes.  His doubt, fear, and confusion was all so realistic.  There was nothing flat or stereotypical about him.

I liked Falpian, too.  Possibly more than Ryder.  His reactions to everything were realistic.  He was every bit as well-developed as Ryder, which I loved.  I loved his connection to Ryder, too.  It was unique and cool, with an interesting light-dark contrast to it. 

Plot: ***** It had its fair share of action, which I enjoyed.  But what really made this plot awesome was everything underneath the surface.  There were the main conflicts, the survival issues, the villains, etc.  And then, there were more subtle things, things that didn't jump out at you but were definitely there.  For example, Falpian's heir-ness (that's a word now), or his connection with Ryder, or Ryder's wanting to get away. There was conflict everywhere, which is always a good thing.   

Uniqueness: ***** It was your typical high fantasy, but at the same wasn't. If that makes any sense, which it doesn't.

Writing: ***** 
Just like the plot, I loved the subtleties of the writing. It did a good job of telling the story, but it also packed a huge amount of emotion.  It made you feel Ryder's and Falpian's pain and fear in such a personal way. That probably had much to do with the character development, though. The writing isn't a standout style that I'll remember for years to come, but it was definitely well done.


Not-so-great: Both the cover and pitch are misleading.  First, the cover has a girl on it.  Why does every cover have to have a girl on it?  The girl comes into play, but she's not a huge part of the story.  She's not important enough to have a spot on the cover.  And I'm pretty sure the girl had Baen blood anyway, so she wouldn't be blonde (unless I'm remembering wrong).

The pitch is misleading, too.  From it, you can't even tell that Falpian is in the story.  It's actually a dual POV, with half the chapters from Ryder's POV and half from Falpian's.  But the pitch doesn't even mention his existence, when it's half his story.  What's up with that?  And again, that girl isn't even important enough to be mentioned in the pitch.  What on earth was the publisher thinking when they did up this book design? 

Overall: Despite the misleading cover and pitch, this is a wonderful book.  I loved it.  It's the first book I've read this year that I've completely loved, that wasn't a sequel.  It has fantastic character development, and great writing.  It has an intense and action-filled, yet subtle plot.  It's something different for fantasy fans, while still being fantasy.  Highly recommended for fans of any sort of fantasy.

*No unicorns, actually.  Sorry.  I just really, really needed to get your attention so you'd realize that this book is cooler than it sounds.  
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