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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha #1) by Leigh Bardugo

Alina Starkov doesn’t expect much from life. Orphaned by the Border Wars, the one thing she could rely on was her best friend and fellow refugee, Mal. And lately not even that seems certain. Drafted into the army of their war-torn homeland, they’re sent on a dangerous mission into the Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh.

When their convoy is attacked, all seems lost until Alina reveals a dormant power that not even she knew existed. Ripped from everything she knows, she is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. He believes she is the answer the people have been waiting for: the one person with the power to destroy the Fold.

Swept up in a world of luxury and illusion, envied as the Darkling’s favorite, Alina struggles to fit into her new life without Mal by her side. But as the threat to the kingdom mounts, Alina uncovers a secret that sets her on a collision course with the most powerful forces in the kingdom. Now only her past can save her . . . and only she can save the future.

Released: June 5th 2012                   Pages: 358
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.         Source: Library

First Look: ***** I had heard a lot about this, and it looked interesting, so I decided to give it a go.  I was cautious, though, because quite often I read books with cool premises and lots of hype, and they don't follow through.  The cover looks just okay on a screen, but it's actually quite gorgeous in real life.

Setting: ***** Leigh Bardugo did a fantastic job with this.  I loved the setting.  One of the things I liked most was that it was different.  Though I'm very fond of the standard European-esque fantasy setting (if done well, of course), this one stood out.  I've never seen a Russian twist on it before. 

And it was so immersive!  (Apparently 'immersive' is not a word.  I had no idea of this until ten seconds ago.  Who knew?  Well, I've used it in numerous other reviews, and I'm going to keep using it.)  This is one of those books where the setting is so well-written that you feel like you've sunk into the pages and are living in that world yourself.  Because, let's face it, (Second) Earth is boring.  Alina's world was so rich and detailed.  I'll be eager to visit it again in Siege and Storm.

Characters: ***** First, I just have to say that the name Alina just makes me think of this:
But anyway...I liked the characters, overall.  Alina made for an interesting heroine.  Her conflict was interesting, and she was the kind of character who made things happen (as all MCs should be).  Side characters were likable as well.  Genya was interesting, Mal was adorable, etc.    

I have to talk about the Darkling for a minute.  At first, I really wanted to like him.  I did like him.  And then...*spoilers ahead--highlight to read* Bardugo, you fooled me completely.  You had me going, and then BOOM!  Nope, he's evil.  Way to totally not see that, Annie.  It's definitely not as bad as Luke at the end of The Lightning Thief*, but I still felt it.  I'm not sure whether to love or hate Bardugo for doing this.  I do appreciate, though, how complex his character was.  He wasn't the mindless dark force--he had more depth to him.

Plot: ***** This is actually what stopped this book from being a five-star read.  The plot was exciting at the beginning, and there was lots of conflict.  Then it slowed down quite a bit.  Alina went through training, yeah yeah yeah.  This isn't so bad on its own, but I've read sooooo many other fantasy books with the same pattern.  MC goes into training, struggles, fails epically, lots of exhaustion.  For some reason, many authors like to fall into this pattern.  I don't know why.

Other than that chunk of it, the plot was compelling.  Especially the ending.  The ending was wonderfully intense, and suspenseful.  And it left me wanting more!

Uniqueness: *****
The cool setting and interesting magic system made this a unique read.

Writing: *****
Bardugo's strength in writing seems to lie with worldbuilding.  Seriously.  Her narrative did such a good job making the setting come to life.  She used rich, exquisite details about her world that just gave it that special "sparkle" that I'm always talking about.  (Sparkle?  What?  Well, you could always check my glossary.)

Likes: At first, when I looked at the cover, I saw those silver things and thought, "Are those branches?  They kinda look like antlers.  No, they must be branches.  Just curiously silver branches."  But no, I was right.  They are antlers!

Not-so-great: Nothing worth mentioning.

Overall: I really enjoyed this.  I liked the characters.  The setting was wonderful and unique and gorgeous and I can't stop gushing about it.  The Darkling was interesting all by himself.  The only low point for me was that the plot slowed down too much in the middle and left me a bit bored.  The ending was awesome, though.  Overall, though, this is a great book with a cool magic system to boot.  Recommended for fantasy fans.
*Yup, definitely not as bad as The Lightning Thief.  I was a Luke lover all the way through, and then Rick Riordan had to go and smash that to pieces.  Though I guess even that one was nothing compared to Murtagh....

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken

The day the rains came was like any other, blistering air coating the canyon in a heavy stillness....

Just as the rains come after ten long, dry years, a young wizard, Wayland North, appears, to whisk Sydelle Mirabil away from her desert village. North needs an assistant, and Sydelle is eager to see the country - and to join him on his quest to stop the war that surely will destroy her home. But North has secrets - about himself, about why he chose Sydelle, about his real reasons for the journey. What does he want from her? And why does North's sworn enemy seem fascinated by Sydelle himself?

Through a journey that spans a country, magic and hard-won romance are woven together with precision and brilliant design by a first-time novelist.

Released: March 23, 2010          Pages: 354
Publisher: Egmont                     Source: Library
First Look: ***** I can't say for sure what prompted me to pick this up.  Maybe it was the gorgeous cover art.  I love that girl's hair. 

Setting: ***** In the end, the setting wasn't memorable.  I got no sense of what made this setting unique from any other.  I didn't really get a good feel for who the people were, or why I should care about the place.  I wasn't given much detail to go by, either.  In the end, it was simply unmemorable.

Characters: ***** For the longest time, I had trouble caring about our main character, Sydelle.  I just couldn't connect to her.  I finally got to the point where I could care, but it was too close to the end of the book.  I should've been able to like her almost immediately.

But then there was North.  Wayland North.  Not only did he have a cool name, but he was a fascinating character.  He had so much backstory, so much depth.  He was beautifully characterized.  The whole book might have been cooler if it had been written about him instead, especially since he was basically the one who did everything. 

Plot: ***** It was okay.  For most of the book, there wasn't much at all, in the way of a plot.  There was excitement at the beginning, but then the conflict dropped off.  It didn't pick back up again until far too late in the book.

I'm having this same problem with many books this summer, it seems.  The plots finally pick up, but it takes them waaaaay too long to get there.  Whatever happened to dropping your reader directly into conflict and keeping them there?

And then, when the plot finally started to move again, it seemed rushed.  It happened too fast, and there were a few "Wait...wait?" moments, which are never a good thing.

Uniqueness: *****
It was fairly unique, although if I had liked it better as a whole it might have seemed even more different.

Writing: ***** Most of the time I had no problem with the writing. When it came to action sequences, though, I felt like I was missing something. I never quite felt like I had the full picture of what was going on. I think more detail would have solved this problem.


I would have liked to learn more about the magic system.  Also, it was a bit too romance-focused for my tastes.

Overall: If you ignore North, this was an okay book.  It took me too long to connect to Sydelle, and the plot took too long to get interesting.  The writing was alright, and the setting didn't stand out.  This would have been an okay, unmemorable book if it didn't have North in it.  He was funny and interesting and I could connect to him, unlike Sydelle.  He bumps this book up into the 3.5 star range, which means I round up.  Four stars it is. 

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 (Michael Vey #1) by Richard Paul Evans

My name is Michael Vey, and the story I’m about to tell you is strange. Very strange. It’s my story.

To everyone at Meridian High School, Michael Vey is an ordinary fourteen-year-old. In fact, the only thing that seems to set him apart is the fact that he has Tourette’s syndrome. But Michael is anything but ordinary. Michael has special powers. Electric powers.

Michael thinks he's unique until he discovers that a cheerleader named Taylor also has special powers. With the help of Michael’s friend, Ostin, the three of them set out to discover how Michael and Taylor ended up this way, but their investigation brings them to the attention of a powerful group who wants to control the electric children – and through them the world. Michael will have to rely on his wits, powers, and friends if he’s to survive.

Released: August 9, 2011       Pages: 326
Publisher: Simon Pulse          Source: Library
First Look: ***** A few months ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I noticed an ad for this book along the side.  It said something along the lines of "Michael Vey is a hero Percy and Annabeth would approve of".  Considered the fact that I love the Percy Jackson series, this is a pretty dangerous statement to make.  I shrugged and continued scrolling.  A few days later, I saw the same ad, except that it said Michael was "a hero that would make Artemis and Holly* proud".  Now, I like the Percy Jackson series, but I love Artemis Fowl books like you wouldn't believe.  Making claims like that is a dangerous thing to do, because I took that as a direct challenge.  Artemis and Holly* would be proud?  All right, let's see about that!  And so I added this to my to-read list. 

Setting: *****
It was a typical high school.  I have no complaints, but nothing else to mention.  I shall sum up my thoughts with this picture**:
Meh: neither good nor bad.  Indifference.  Just...meh.

Characters: ***** Many of the characters were too stereotypical for my liking.  To be honest, I felt like I had read about Michael before.  Let's see...scrawny kid, gets made fun of (often for no logical reason), has a single mother, not much money, limited amount of friends, average student, has a disorder.  And a superpower.  Hm...Percy Jackson, maybe?  Nick from the Chronicles of Nick (minus the disorder, I think)?  Charlie Bone (again without the disorder)?

And Michael.  Now, I didn't care much for the Chronicles of Nick book that I read, and I can never figure out whether to love or hate the Charlie Bone series.  But you see my point.  If I can think of three other series with a very similar character (and that's without scanning my Goodreads shelves to look for more), then maybe we have a stereotype problem going on.  Percy Jackson had these characteristics, yes, but I still liked him.  Rick Riordan made him stand out; he gave Percy uniqueness.  I liked Michael to a certain point, but at the end of the day he doesn't stand out for me against all the other characters I've read about. 

And then there's Taylor.  Stereotypical popular-yet-nice cheerleader.  She's only talked to Michael about...twice, but she's going to invite him to her house?  Suddenly they're best friends, and, wait for it, dare I say, boyfriend and girlfriend?  Insta-love at its finest (worst?).  That aspect of her bothered me.  I was also bothered by her reactions after she was kidnapped.  These scary, suspicious people kidnapped her, even hurt her, and dragged her off away from home against her will.  Then they bought her expensive stuff and flattered her.  And she began to like them, to think they mean her no harm?  What happened to the they-kidnapped-you part? 

Okay, here's the end of the character rant.  In short: I liked them, to a limited extent.  But they seemed stereotypical to me, and they did things that bothered me (and rightly so).

Plot: ***** I enjoyed the plot itself.  I liked how it moved nice and quickly.  I probably would have liked it much more if I hadn't spent much of the time being annoyed with the characters. 

Another of my problems, though, was that Michael himself didn't actually do very much.  Stuff happened to him, but he didn't cause much to happen.  Writing lesson: In your novel, there's going to have to be some amount of stuff happening to your character.  It'll get the story rolling.  But your MC should be making most of the plot happen.  It's more interesting. 

Uniqueness: *****
The premise itself was clever and unique, but I wasn't getting the same from the characters.

Writing: *****
What bothered me about the writing was the way the author kept referring to teenagers as "children".  Look, I don't care if they actually are considered children by many standards.  No fourteen-year-old thinks of themselves as a child.  They don't call themselves children.  (For the record, I don't think even six-year-olds talk about "children".  They talk about "kids".  But that isn't my point.)  If this is written from a fourteen-year-old's POV, no matter whether it's first person or third, you can't describe the MC and his friends using a term he'd never use in real life.  It makes no sense.

Plus, fourteen-year-olds don't want to be thought of as children.  And fourteen is around the prime audience for this book.  They're going to pick up on the use of this word, and they're going to feel like they are being talked down to.  It's going to feel condescending.  Yes, they will pick up on this.  (Here's a spot for another writing lesson: When writing about this general age group, just "kids" will do just fine.  The term "kid" comes off in a completely different way than "child".)

Likes: Electrical powers are always so cool.  And the evil corporation really was scary and intimidating.

Not-so-great: Nothing that hasn't already been mentioned.

Overall: I read this book as a "Oh yeah?  If you're going to make those claims, challenge accepted!" sort of thing.  Unfortunately, it doesn't really live up to the Artemis-Holly standard.  The plot is quick and cool, and it's got some really unique and awesome ideas.  The characters are very stereotypical, though, and they did things that annoyed me to no end.  Try it out of it looks interesting, but otherwise I'd pass on this one.  I'm not sure whether or not I want to read the sequel.
*And believe me, Holly puts all those other "strong female heroines" to shame.  Seriously.  Katniss Everdeen would be afraid to cross her.
**Okay, fine, I admit it.  I just find that picture highly amusing.
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Thursday, August 23, 2012

4 Ways to Organize Your Book Information

If you're anything like me, you do a ton of work on your novel before you even start writing it.  You write out character profiles, make maps, write snippets, etc.  But it can be hard to keep all that stuff organized.  To help you out, here are four methods of organizing your info.

1. Binder.  Cost: <$5.  Supplies: Binder (the bigger the better, in most cases), dividers, looseleaf paper.

This is the preferred method for many people.  For each book you write, you have a binder full of information.  Separate it using the dividers into sections like "character forms" and "setting info" and "maps" or whatever works for you.  You can also print off blank character forms and stick them in the binder so you have them when you need them.  If you want, you can even use the looseleaf paper in the binder to actually write the novel.  This is handy because if you need to look something up (for example, what color was Bob's hair again?), you can simply flip back to the correct section of the binder.  They keep everything in one place, but if you have tons of prewriting material, they can get rather hefty.

2. Computer folders.  Cost: free, providing you already have a computer.  Supplies: Computer

This is mainly what I use.  I like to keep a folder called (literally) "Book Stuff".  Within this folder, I have another folder for each of my projects.  In this folder, I keep the actual book document itself, plus my filled-out character forms, my Xcel spreadsheet of scenes (more on this in another post), my outlines, etc.  It's basically the same idea as the binder, except everything is stored in files on the computer.  Just make sure it's all backed up, because you'd hate to lose everything if something happened to your computer.

3. Writing/Novel Planning Software, like Storybook.  Cost: Regular Storybook is free, $34.90 for the Pro version Supplies: Computer, internet

I'm going to just talk about Storybook, in this case, because it's what I have.  Storybook is a computer program that can be downloaded for free at the above link.  With it, you can keep a file for each book.  Within that, it's super easy to organize everything, and you can easily plot your novel and rearrange scenes and such.  I don't need to tell you everything it can do, since the website already does that.  There's also a paid version, but I'd recommend testing out the free version first, especially since the free version still has almost the same features.  There are other similar softwares; this just happens to be my favorite.  You'll be able to find plenty more just by Googling "writing software".

4. Notebooks.  Cost: <$5.  Supplies: Notebooks, post-its for page dividers

Again, this is basically the same idea as using a binder.  This method works best for people who like to handwrite everything.  You could use separate notebooks for everything, or you could just use one big notebook and use post-it notes to mark where each new section begins.

How do you organize your story information?  Do you have any other ideas?post signature

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Seraphina (Seraphina #1) by Rachel Hartman

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina's tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they've turned the final page.

Released: July 10, 2012          Pages: 467
Publisher: Random House     Source: Library

First Look: ***** Young adult high fantasy debuts are rare these days, and ones with dragons are even rarer. When I find one, I just have to have it! And besides, this one had praise from Christopher Paolini. How could I turn that down?

Setting: ***** I liked how the setting was very unique.  It's hard to make high fantasy settings stand out, but this novel did a good job of it.  I loved how the dragons played into it. 

It could have been a bit better, though.  I liked it, but sometimes I wished I would have had more explanation.  It's good to assume your readers are smart and let them figure some things out on their own, but there's a limit.  There were a couple times where I went "wait, what?".

Characters: ***** I liked Seraphina quite a bit.  Her internal conflict drew me in, and I felt for her.  I felt for how she always had to hide from everyone, and her conflicted feelings towards Kiggs.  The author did a good job with making her realistic. 

Speaking of Kiggs...there weren't a whole lot of side characters that weren't against Seraphina, but I liked the ones I could.  Glisselda was awesome, Orma was endearing in an odd sort of way, and Kiggs was just...Kiggs.

Plot: ***** It started out slower than I would've liked.  I saw hints of intrigue, but it took awhile to actually get moving.  Longer than it should have taken, in my opinion.  My interest faded a few times.  I'm wondering if this series doesn't have a mild case of The Trilogy Trap (if it is indeed a trilogy).

Once it picked up, I enjoyed it much, much more.  I'm guessing that the second book will have much more intrigue and action and suspense to it, because it can just pick up where the first book left off. 

Uniqueness: ***** With its unique premise and setting, it stands out from other fantasy novels.

Writing: *****
The writing did a good job of getting through to Seraphina's voice.  It did a good job telling the story.  I have no complaints, and I find no typos. 

Yup.  That's it.

Dracomachia is just so much fun to say.  And if you read this book, make sure to read the Cast of Characters.  It's actually quite amusing.

Not-so-great: This is a short review.  Bleh.  I suppose I wouldn't be having this problem if I hadn't waited almost a full week to review this.

Overall: I enjoyed this.  It was a little slow in the beginning, but it picked up pretty soon.  It had a compelling and likable cast of characters.  It introduced a cool, unique, and draconian setting that's easy to immerse yourself in.  And besides, it had dragons!  I'll be eagerly awaiting the sequel.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lies Your English Teacher (Might Have) Told You

Whether or not you've taken an actual creative writing class to further your novel-creating prowess, you've taken some sort of English class.  And you've listened and tried to apply what the teacher was saying to your novel.

But let's face it--some of the things teachers tend to say are just plain wrong. 

There.  I said it.  Freedom of speech, everyone.

Yes, English teachers went to school to teach English.  They know what they are talking about.  And yet...some teachers will say things about writing that aren't true.  Most of the time, they'll give you wonderful and helpful advice.  Every once and awhile, though, one of the following phrases will come up.   
  • "There is only one way to write."  False.  There are as many ways to write as there are writers.  No two people have the same writing habits, the same style, the same methods.  Two different writers can go about the act of writing in two completely opposite manners, and still come up with two amazing books. 
  • "There is a right way to write.  There is a wrong way to write."  False.  Again, no two writers are the same.  One method might work well for one writer, but it only hinders another.  For example, some writers like to plot everything out before they start writing.  Others just start with a basic idea and see what happens.  Both can result in awesome writing. 
  • "Outlines always make writing better."  False.  It depends the writer.  Each person has to find what works for them.  Some people love outlines, but some struggle more with the outline than the actual writing.
  • "Writing rules must be followed exactly to the letter."  False.  Yes, rules should be followed.  But sometimes, a writer has a good reason to break a rule.  For example, Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking Trilogy is written in Todd's (the MC) dialect.  He doesn't always speak well.  He misspells things.  But the dialect makes the book feel more raw and authentic, and gives a greater connection to the character.  Breaking rules can be a tough thing, though, because there's an extremely fine line between breaking rules in a classy way, and doing it in a way that adds nothing to the writing.
  • "Bad books are worthless."  False.  You can learn from every single book you read.  I've read books I didn't like, books I thought were poorly written or plotted.  I didn't like them, and I didn't enjoy finishing them, but I learned something.  Bad books teach you what not to do.  There are only a handful of books that I actually regret reading, but in almost all of those cases, I regretted them because they went against my beliefs in a way I felt was unnecessary. 

Now, not every teacher says this.  In fact, most teachers would never say these phrases.  Then again, some teachers might.  If they believe that, great.  But you don't need to believe it, too.  As always, never follow writing advice blindly.  (Actually, don't ever blindly follow anything you hear.  One of my worst pet peeves when it comes to people is when someone believes everything they hear without using their own judgement and thinking about it.  But that's another story.)

This concludes another episode of Mythbusters at The Epic, the Awesome, and the Random.

This blog post was brought to you by the First Amendment.   
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Monday, August 13, 2012

Blood Red Road (Dustlands #1) by Moira Young

Saba has spent her whole life in Silverlake, a dried-up wasteland ravaged by constant sandstorms. The Wrecker civilization has long been destroyed, leaving only landfills for Saba and her family to scavenge from. That's fine by her, as long as her beloved twin brother Lugh is around. But when a monster sandstorm arrives, along with four cloaked horsemen, Saba's world is shattered. Lugh is captured, and Saba embarks on an epic quest to get him back.

Suddenly thrown into the lawless, ugly reality of the world outside of desolate Silverlake, Saba is lost without Lugh to guide her. So perhaps the most surprising thing of all is what Saba learns about herself: she's a fierce fighter, an unbeatable survivor, and a cunning opponent. And she has the power to take down a corrupt society from the inside. Teamed up with a handsome daredevil named Jack and a gang of girl revolutionaries called the Free Hawks, Saba stages a showdown that will change the course of her own civilization.

Blood Red Road has a searing pace, a poetically minimal writing style, violent action, and an epic love story. Moira Young is one of the most promising and startling new voices in teen fiction.

Released: June 7, 2011          Pages: 459
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books    Source: Library

(Note: I was going to publish this review a few weeks ago, but somehow it never got scheduled.  That's why I'm just posting it now.)
First Look: ***** Ever since this came out, I've heard nothing short of amazing reviews of this.  I read the pitch several times, but it never caught my attention like the reviews did.  And I've learned that a person can only listen to their Goodreads friends rant about something for so long until you just can't help but get it.  So, I picked this up.

Setting: ***** I liked the setting.  It was a good setup for the rest of the novel. Where the land was desolate and hopeless, so was Saba's situation. It's a bit hard to have a rather bleak storyline in a place full of green, flowery pastures and frolicking bunnies.

My problem was that I didn't know why it was a dystopia.  I was handed a desperate, messed-up place, but the author never told me why it was so messed-up.  I wanted more backstory on it.  This is a huge issue for many writers of dystopian fiction--I'll probably have to post on this later.

Characters: ***** Saba was prickly and hard to like, and yet...I liked her.  I felt for her.  I loved the simplicity of her motivations--she wanted her brother back, and she was going to do whatever it takes to get him.  Anything else was just leading her to that point.  I love it when characters have single-minded desires like this, because if done well, they make for a really focused plot, and they allow the reader to really care about the story itself.  Don't get me wrong--I love a good, tangled, complicated mess of plotlines and motivations, but simple is also nice once and awhile. 

I liked Jack, too.  I liked how he interacted with Saba, and...I like his cover, for the sequel.  Ahem.  Anyway, though, I liked the other characters, too, though I liked Saba the most.

paperback cover
Plot: ***** The plot was compelling.  It grew in complexity as the story progressed, and the stakes went from high to higher.  I think the main reason why it was so compelling lies again in the simplicity of what Saba wants.  She wants to rescue Lugh.  Everything else just goes along with that.  Because of this, she wastes no time in going after him.  The plot keeps moving, and I kept turning the pages.

Uniqueness: ****
The idea of a dystopic wasteland with a greedy and/or tyrannical king/government has been overused and abused, but Moira Young balances this out with her unique characters and writing style.
Writing: ***** The writing style took some getting used to.  For those of you who don't know, the entire thing is written in Saba's dialect.  There are deliberate misspellings.  There are also no quotation marks.

Now, I can handle deliberate misspellings, as long as they're reasonable and make sense.  I don't know what the point of omitting quotation marks was, other than to be different.  That aspect bothered me a bit.  And I did find at least two typos.

 Overall, though, the writing style worked for the book.  It gave it a raw, emotional edge.  Somehow, the "unedited" writing made the whole book more gritty and intense.  The author kept the style consistent, making it seem very real.

Likes: Jack

Not-so-great: Nothing specific.

Overall: I liked this quite a bit.  It had a premise that could've been boring and cliche, or intense and emotional.  Fortunately, it went more towards the latter.  I liked the characters, like Saba and Jack and Emmi.  The writing style was unique, and though it bothered me in places, it really made the book.  I didn't think this was the amazingly splendid pile of awesomeness that many of my Goodreads friends seem to think this is, but I still liked it.  Even if I do feel like I'm in the minority by only giving it four stars.  Recommended for fans of dystopian books, or books with unique writing styles.

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Developing Side Characters

Side characters can be tough to pull off.  How can we make them memorable and realistic without having them take too much glory from our main character?  How does J.K. Rowling do it?

Honestly, I think Rowling is a master of side characters.  I've seen the number of total characters in the Harry Potter series at 772, depending on who/what you count as a character.  Other sources put the number closer to 300 or so.  Still, that's a lot of characters. 

While searching for this number of characters, I came across a game.  It gave you 18 minutes to list the top 200 (by number of mentions) characters in the series*.  I came up with 111 of the 200.  (If you don't want to actually do it, I'm sure you can just click "give up".)

This is how I wish I could create side characters.  I wish I could create 111 memorable characters in a single series. 

Because that's the trick to creating side characters.  Make them memorable.  But how to go about that?

The important thing to remember about side characters is that they are not your main character.  And thus, it is not their story.  Side characters are there to support your main character (it's why they're called a "supporting cast").  Not necessarily to help out your MC, but to contrast with them, to make things harder for them, to create conflict, to give them a friend, to create comic relief, etc.

The first thing to figure out when developing a side character is this: What is their purpose in the story?  If you can answer this, everything else will fall into place much more easily.  Use that lens to figure out the rest of the character. 

For example, let's look at one of my side characters, Kentar.  His purpose in the story is essentially to provide a father figure for my MC, Davi.  He serves as the paternal influence Davi lacks, which serves to change Davi's mind about his own biological father.  Kentar also forces Davi to make up his own mind, provides guilt about something Davi did in the past, and periodically challenges Davi's beliefs. 

Notice how Kentar's entire purpose pertains to Davi.  Kentar is his own character, but he only comes into play to relate to Davi.  This is how it should be.  Develop your side characters, yes.  Know that your side character, Bob, is having trouble with his marriage.  Don't show us his arguments with his wife at home, though.  Instead, show us how Bob is cranky with your MC and counsels him against getting married.  Maybe his purpose in the story is to inadvertently lead your MC away from his current girlfriend.  Because of this, your MC finds another woman whom he loves even more.  All because of Bob's influence on the story. 

Once you know what their purpose is, you can develop them.  Make sure you cover the Four Aspects of Character Development.  You don't need to be as detailed as you would for a main character, but you should definitely know the core of their personality and key elements about the character.  How much you need to develop them is proportionate to how large a role they play in the story.

You also need to figure out how they interact with your MC.  How does your MC view them?  How does this character view your MC?  These factors will go into every aspect of their interaction.  It affects how they talk to each other, feel when they are around each other, etc.

When working on side characters, there are a few things you should watch out for.  One of these is naming.  If you have two side characters with similar names, readers might get them confused.  It's so much easier to have a Nick and a Mitchell than it is to tell the difference between a Michael and a Mitchell. 

Another is introducing your character at an inapporpriate time.  If this side character has no purpose in the story until chapter 7, don't introduce them in chapter 2.  There's no reason to do it, unless you've got some important foreshadowing to do.  But be careful with that.

A common problem is having too many side characters.  Do you really need to have Cindy, Jill, and Lily the overenthusiastic cheerleaders?  If they all have the same purpose, it would be much easier on your reader if you combined them into just one Cindy the cheerleader.  Less is more.  You could also combine characters to serve multiple purposes.  If Cindy's purpose is to provide comic relief, and your MC's sister, Samantha, is there to make your MC believe in herself, why not combine them?  It's easier to just have one Samantha who makes the MC believe in herself and provides a bit of comic relief at the same time. 

To recap, there are three main steps to developing a side character.
  1.  Figure out their purpose in the story.
  2. Develop their personality, backstory, etc.
  3. Know how the MC sees them and relates to them, and know how they interact with the MC.   
  4. Don't get yourself into a common side character pitfall, like having similar names or having too many side characters.

How do you develop side characters?  What advice do you have?  Who are some of your favorite side characters?

(This topic was requested by Tiny1. Hope I answered your question!)

*Even by itself, this list is interesting.  For example, Fred Weasley has 99 more mentions than George, despite the fact that for the first 6 books they pretty much act as a unit, a Samneric (here, let me Google that for you) sort of thing.  And Ron has around 1000 more mentions than Hermione.  Though I have no idea who actually counted all that out.

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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Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Confusion of Princes, The Obsidian Blade, and Great Expectations Mini-Reviews

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix
I have died three times, and three times been reborn, though I am not yet twenty in the old earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time. This is the story of my three deaths, and my life between.

You’d think being a privileged Prince in a vast intergalactic Empire would be about as good as it gets. But it isn’t as great as it sounds. For one thing, Princes are always in danger. Their greatest threat? Other Princes. Khemri discovers that the moment he is proclaimed a Prince.

He also discovers mysteries within the hidden workings of the Empire. Dispatched on a secret mission, Khemri comes across the ruins of a space battle. In the midst of it all he meets a young woman named Raine, who will challenge his view of the Empire, of Princes, and of himself.

Released: May 15, 2012       Pages: 337
Publisher: HaperTeen         Source: Library

I don't understand. I don't understand this at all. 
Let me explain. Last September, I picked up a copy of Mister Monday*, also by Garth Nix. I read it. I wanted to love it. But I ended up wanting to throw it at a wall not liking it. I was afraid A Confusion of Princes would have the same writing style as Mister Monday (you know, same author and all), and I didn't want to read another book like that. But for some reason, I picked this book up.

And I'm definitely glad I did.  Since I ended up really liking both this and Glow, I think I'll have to start reading some more spaceship sci-fi (I should probably find the actual name for the genre).  The writing was nothing like Mister Monday's.  I loved all the action, and the ending was beautiful and spectacular.  It fit perfectly. 

Khemri was a little unlikable, but yet...I liked him at the same time.  That's the awesome paradox of how Garth Nix characterized him.  He'd basically been raised in a way that made him a less-than-friendly person, but he overcame it.  And I felt for him and was cheering him on. 

My favorite part of this book was the worldbuilding.  The sheer complexity of it all still amazes me.  It's genius.  I have no words to describe how utterly cool I thought it all was.  If you're looking for examples of awesome worldbuilding, this is a good place to look.

I really enjoyed this.  Apart from some technobabble that I couldn't even begin to comprehend, I liked pretty much every part of it.  Only a few things kept it from being a 5 star book, so it'll be 4.5 stars.  Highly recommended.

"...It's only Mister Monday Mom...." Wait, what? That never happened.

The Obsidian Blade (The Klaatu Diskos #1) by Pete Hautman
Kicking off a riveting sci-fi trilogy, National Book Award winner Pete Hautman plunges us into a world where time is a tool — and the question is, who will control it?

The first time his father disappeared, Tucker Feye had just turned thirteen. The Reverend Feye simply climbed on the roof to fix a shingle, let out a scream, and vanished — only to walk up the driveway an hour later, looking older and worn, with a strange girl named Lahlia in tow. In the months that followed, Tucker watched his father grow distant and his once loving mother slide into madness. But then both of his parents disappear. Now in the care of his wild Uncle Kosh, Tucker begins to suspect that the disks of shimmering air he keeps seeing — one right on top of the roof — hold the answer to restoring his family. And when he dares to step into one, he’s launched on a time-twisting journey
— from a small Midwestern town to a futuristic hospital run by digitally augmented healers, from the death of an ancient prophet to a forest at the end of time. Inevitably, Tucker’s actions alter the past and future, changing his world forever.

Released: April 10, 2012           Pages: 320
Publisher: Candlewick              Source: Library

(This post contains minor Fear spoilers.)

I have two separate issues with this book.  The first is with the book itself.  I didn't like the writing, and I couldn't connect with Tucker, the main character.  At times he acted his age, but at times he acted a lot younger.  During the first half of the book, I was very bored and felt like nothing was happening.  The second half happened way too fast, and I found it to be bizarre and disjointed.

My other huge issue is the religious statements in this book.  I don't like the statements that were put forth about religion.  I hate how the Reverend was "cured of his belief" in God.  As if it were some disease, and only a more advanced society could save him.  No, no, no.  I don't read books in order to read messages like that.

"But, Annie.  Remember in Fear, when Astrid Ellison gave up her faith?  Why didn't you have a problem with that?" 

Actually, I do have a problem with it.  But not the same problem that I had with the entire The Obsidian Blade.  In Fear, I didn't agree with Astrid's choice.  I don't condone her behavior.  But I respect her as a character, which goes a long way.  And Michael Grant handled the issue very well.  There wasn't an underlying message that religion is worthless.  It was just a "Hey, this happened" sort of thing.  (And besides, we don't know what will happen in Light.)  Also, Grant showed us both sides of it, when Edilio made a remark along the lines of "I'm sorry you feel that way, Astrid, but I'm going to keep my beliefs."  (Don't quote me on that one.)

But in this book, the religious aspect was  It went too far, in my opinion.  In the Gone series, for example, religion is portrayed as something honest, real, and something that can give people strength.  In The Obsidian Blade, it was pulled apart and twisted into something that it isn't.  And some parts weren't even necessary to the story.  Did we really need to know that Jesus didn't actually rise again from God's power, but was actually "cured" by the same people that "cured" the Reverend?  No.  I didn't feel there was any reason for that.      

I'll stop myself from ranting right now, because I could go on for a good long while about this.  I didn't like this book.  I'm giving it two stars because I've read books that I felt were worse off story-wise and writing-wise and such.  On the other hand, I don't know if I've ever read a book that made me this mad.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Dickens's magnificent novel of guilt, desire, and redemption
The orphan Pip’s terrifying encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes, and his mysterious summons to the house of Miss Havisham and her cold, beautiful ward Estella, form the prelude to his “great expectations.” How Pip comes into a fortune, what he does with it, and what he discovers through his secret benefactor are the ingredients of his struggle for moral redemption.

Released: 1861               Pages: 460
Publisher: Oxford University Press (and others)   Source: Library

I'll skip the "expectations" puns, because it seems Goodreads reviewers can't get enough of them.

This was my summer reading book for the Advanced British Literature class I'll be taking this year.  Assigned reading books always make me wary, because I've outright hated many of them.

I liked this one, though.  In all the "classics" I've read before, I've never really liked a character.  I was getting there with Huck Finn, and Nick Carraway was getting there, but finally I found myself growing attached to Pip.  This is a first, when it comes to "classics".  (And I put classics in quotation marks for reasons I will probably post on at a later time.)

I liked the story, too.  It moved a bit slow, but it was told in a way that made me still enjoy it.  It took me forever to read, though.  I loved the old-fashioned language, and I kinda wish people still talked like that today.

Overall, I enjoyed this, even though it took me over three weeks to read.  Four stars.

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

What Do YOU Want To Know?

I've decided it's time to reach out to my followers, and ask you guys a question. 

What writing topics do you want to read more about?  What aspects of writing give you trouble?  What do you need help with, as a writer? 

If you have a writing question (or a totally random question, I suppose), or a writing topic you'd like to hear more about, now is the time to let me know.  Don't be shy! 

If you have a question or topic you want more of, write a comment on this post.  You could also drop me an email at theanniemarie(at)gmail(dot)com, if you'd rather. 

This way, I can get an idea of what my readers want to hear.  I'll try to answer all writing questions, if I can.  And if I can't, I'm sure I'll be able to find someplace that can answer it.  If the answer is shorter, I can simply do it down below in the comments, or through email.  If it's longer, it might warrant its own blog post.  Either is awesome! 

You're still welcome to ask whenever, even if you come upon this post a year from now.  That's okay.  Go for it anyway!

So, lovely readers...what do you want to know? 
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Friday, August 3, 2012

Variant (Variant #1) by Robison Wells

Trust no one.

Benson Fisher thought that a scholarship to Maxfield Academy would be the ticket out of his dead-end life.

He was wrong.

Now he's trapped in a school that's surrounded by a razor-wire fence. A school where video cameras monitor his every move. Where there are no adults. Where the kids have split into groups in order to survive.

Where breaking the rules equals death.

But when Benson stumbles upon the school's real secret, he realizes that playing by the rules could spell a fate worse than death, and that escape--his only real hope for survival--may be impossible.

Released: September 26, 2011           Pages: 373
Publisher: HarperTeen                      Source: Library

First Look: ***** I’ve had this book on my to-read shelf for about as long as I’ve even had a to-read shelf.  I’m not sure why I haven’t checked it out until now.  It looked interesting, and I tend to enjoy stories of kids trapped in an enclosed space, like Gone.  I’m not sure why this is—it’s a reading quirk of mine, I guess.

Setting: ***** The school was strange and creepy.  I couldn’t figure it out, which was the point.  This was a setting I enjoyed reading about, because I wanted so badly to know what the purpose of it was.  Other than that, I don’t have anything else to say about it.

Characters:***** Benson was a fighter, which I liked.  I could feel his emotion, and how badly he wanted to get out of the school.  The other characters, too, felt like real people.  I can see how ordinary teenagers trapped in this place would have turned into the characters they are now. 

I had some trouble keeping the side characters straight, though.  Sometimes it was because their names were similar, or I just couldn’t remember which is which.  I would’ve preferred either to get to know each side character better so I could tell them apart, or just to have less named side characters.

Plot:***** The plot was addicting.  Even if I hadn’t cared about the characters and hated the writing, the plot would’ve still kept me going.  If I’m teased with a question like “What on earth is going on with this school?”, my sense of curiosity needs to know the answer.  That’s what kept me turning the pages as fast as I did. 

It was fast paced, too.  There were enough reveals along the way to satisfy my curiosity enough to last me through till the big questions were answered.  It kept me in suspense, though, the entire time. 

Uniqueness: *****It stands out from other books of the type.  Okay, so there aren’t many other books like this, but it stands out from the standard mysterious-boarding-school thing (though it did have a Point Blank vibe to it).

Writing:***** The writing was fine.  I have nothing to criticize, which is awesome.  The first person worked well for the book and writing style.  This is neither a good nor  bad thing, but I almost feel like a few different POVs would have worked well.  The book is great as is, but the different perspectives might’ve added an interesting twist to it.

Likes: There was a M*A*S*H reference!  Yay!

Dislikes: Nothing worth mentioning. 

Overall: This book is addicting.  I loved it.  I was hooked from the very start, and now it left me wanting the sequel.  The characters are awesome and realistic.  It presents a strange situation that you’ll want to figure out.  It keeps you in suspense the entire time.  I had a hard time putting it down.  Highly, highly recommended! 

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