blog about reviews writing

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

"There’s a reason why Brewster can’t have friends – why he can’t care about too many people. Because when he cares about you, things start to happen. Impossible things that can’t be explained. I know, because they're happening to me."

When Brontë starts dating Brewster “Bruiser” Rawlins – the guy voted “Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty” her twin brother, Tennyson, isn’t surprised. But then strange things begin to occur. Tennyson and Brontë’s scrapes heal unnaturally fast, and cuts disappear before their eyes. What at first seems like their good fortune turns out to be more than they bargained for…much more.

Released: June 29th 2010            Pages: 328
Publisher: HarperTeen                Source: Library

First Look: ***** I've been deliberating for awhile about whether or not I should read this.  I've read Neal Shusterman's Unwind series, and liked it, so I thought I'd give this a try.

Setting: ****The setting didn’t play much of a role in this book. I was given a clear enough idea of it so that I could picture it. That’s about as far as it went, though, which was fine with me. There isn’t a huge amount of worldbuilding to be done, typically, in a realistic fiction novel like this.

Characters: ***** Out of the three main characters—Tennyson, Bronte, and Brewster—I liked Bronte least. To me, she seemed the least real. Sometimes she was just too upbeat, and I didn’t like the way she thought of Brewster as her own personal fixer-upper project. She was so nosy, and I wanted to yell at her to just leave him alone.

I liked Tennyson better. He came across as more realistic. If nothing else, his portion of the story was more interesting. I liked his fierce protectiveness of his sister and Brewster. I could connect with him more, as a character, even though we had less in common—his emotions came through better, and that made me more attached to him.

Brewster, though, was my favorite. His story is the most painful, the most raw. I felt bad for him, and I genuinely wanted to see his situation improve. I cared about him. He has a tough life, and Neal Shusterman’s depiction of the effect of his strange ability was believable and thought-provoking.

Plot: ***** This book is more of a realistic fiction novel than I expected. I didn’t mind this, actually—I was expecting a more paranormal-ish book, but I actually like it better as a realistic novel with a hint of magical realism. The plot itself had many aspects, with Brewster’s growing friendships with Tennyson and Bronte, and the conflict between Tennyson and Bronte’s parents. I’ll admit that I found the storyline involving Brewster much more interesting, but then again, I’m drawn more to elements like this in novels.

Uniqueness: ****It has a unique blend of real-life problems that many teens face, and unusual, fantastical abilities like Brewster’s.

Writing:***** Some of the slang and phrases used bugged me. They seemed like they were trying too hard to sound like an “authentic teen voice”. It felt forced, and it stood out to me right away. Can authors please stop trying so hard to write with an “authentic teen voice”? Newsflash: there’s no such thing as an “authentic teen voice”. Instead, there are just plain old authentic voices. Every teen has an individual voice, too. Authors need to figure this out.

I’m not sure why Brewster’s point-of-view was written in verse. It didn’t even read like verse; it was more narration with weird line breaks than anything else. I don’t think the verse was necessary, and it threw me off at first. 

Likes: Nothing not already mentioned above.

Not-so-great: Tennyson and Bronte's names made me roll my eyes.

Overall: Bruiser is a unique novel with an interesting blend of realistic modern-day teen life and problems, and a bit of magical realism.  The characters are likable, for the most part, though Bronte bugged me.  I loved Brewster, though--he was written in a way that made him very real.  The concept is interesting, and the execution is enjoyable and thought-provoking, for the most part.  Some odd-sounding slang, however, annoyed me.  Four stars.

Similar Books: It's a real-life story with a touch of magical realism like Invisibility or Every DayBrewster's ability reminds me of Jacob's in Thirteen Days to Midnight or even the abilities in Touched.
And now for some random updates and thoughts:
  • I actually spent the entirety of last week staffing at Celebrate Me Week, which is a week-long Christian camp in Minnesota specifically for kids entering the seventh grade.  I had so much fun, and I'm left with an obsession for this song, which has a beautiful message and an awesome video.
  • I also have a newfound obsession for 'Millionaires' by The Script, 'Better Days' by The Goo Goo Dolls, 'Your Bones' by Of Monsters and Men, and 'I'm Still Here' by John Rzeznik.
  • When I got home from camp, I found an email waiting in my inbox, telling me I was part of the top 1% of Goodreads reviewers.  Well, cool.  I think?  Do I get to do something cool, now, or do I just get bragging rights?  Do I get phenomenal cosmic powers or something?  I did the math, and apparently I'm in the top 200,000 reviewers, out of 20 million.  So I guess it isn't even that special.  Still...thanks for anyone who followed me or liked my reviews!

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Railsea by China Miéville

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Released: May 15th 2012         Pages: 424
Publisher: Del Rey                  Source: Library
First Look: ***** This book has incredible cover art.  It's unique, and eye-catching, and a little weird.  I love it.  It's some of my favorite cover art ever.  I also loved the concept of a "sea" traveled by train, instead of by ship.

 Setting: *****  
First, we have to talk about the moles.  In this book, the moles are gigantic.  Whale-sized.  Can we just take a moment to think about how utterly terrifying it would be to come upon a whale-sized mole?  I believe my Boggart has just taken a new form. (I just had a thought.  Are the moles just that big, or is it that the people are tiny?  Hmm...)

Anyway, this book has one of the coolest settings I've had the pleasure of reading about in a long time.  Not only is the concept awesome, but it's also marvelously imagined and described.  I could see every detail in my mind.  I felt like I was really there.  I'm not sure I'd want to live there--it's a little too dystopic for that--but I'd sure love to visit it.

 Characters: *****  Sham ap Soorap is a complex and likable protagonist.  He's tough, and curious, and complex.  He's hardened by the world he lives in, which is just another reflection of this book's spectacular worldbuilding.  He has this old-fashioned adventure quality to him--he's not the archetypal ultra-heroic hero.  He's more of that archetypal orphan, and, at least for me, the use of this familiar character basis made him easy to understand.

Other characters were well-developed as well.  The Shroakes, Captain Naphi, the doctor...all of them were complex, and I could see them as real people.

Plot: *****  I love plots in dystopian books that don't involve starting a rebellion and bringing down the evil totalitarian regime.  Why?  Because they hardly exist, that's why.  When other plots are used for this genre, they stand out, and in my experience, it tends to work well.  So, yay for the unique plot. 

The storyline was compelling--I was kept interested in Sham's journeys, and his desire to solve the mystery of the single rail.  It was part high-seas adventure (except on rails), part quest, part survival story.  And of course, the ubiquitous coming-of-age story.  And I loved it.

 Uniqueness: *****  
I can't even begin to describe how different this book is.  From everything.  It mashes genres together and creates its own niche.  It has a wholly unique and interesting concept, putting an incredibly cool spin on your typical high-seas adventure.  (Train pirates, guys.  TRAIN PIRATES.)  The setting is completely fresh and original.  And cool.  Have I said it's cool?  Because it is.     

Writing: *****  
The notable thing about this book's writing is that the word "and" is never used.  Instead, the word is replaced by an ampersand (this thing: &).  Initially, this is a little weird and takes a chapter or so to get used to.  Eventually, though, we get an explanation for this, and it all makes sense. 

I love the writing in this book.  It feels authentic to Sham's voice, with the words he'd use and the feelings he'd want to convey.  There was something raw and gritty about it that matched the rest of the tone of the book.

"Sham gaped. Wasn't it bad luck to see an angel? ... Should he look away now? How could he?"  No, no, don't look away! DON'T BLINK! BLINK AND YOU'RE DEAD!

This has to be a reference.  How can this not be a reference?  Further proof: I don't have a direct quote, but I'm pretty sure the word "weeping" was used to describe the angels at one point.

 Not-so-great: Um...yeah, I have nothing.

Overall: This book is seriously cool.  The setting is incredible, and unique, and vivid.  You have no idea how much I am in love with the worldbuilding.  Sham ap Soorap is a fun, likable protagonist.  The plot is compelling and engaging, and has a gritty, high-seas adventure quality to it.  I highly recommend this book.  Because TRAIN PIRATES.

Similar Books: It really reminds me of Ship Breaker  and its companion, The Drowned Cities--both have a gritty dystopian feel to them.  It also feels a little like Blood Red Road, and even The Knife of Never Letting GoAt times, it's a little weird, like The Marbury Lens.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What I Learned About Writing From Eragon

I first read Eragon in about fifth grade.  I loved it, and ever since then, it's been one of my all-time favorite books.  It's been a huge inspiration for my own writing, as well as a gateway to all other books of its type.  I've read it so many times that I've lost count.  My copy is showing its use; it's well-loved. 

I learn from each book I read.  Every one of them.  Even so, some books have gone far beyond that.  Some books have taught me about writing without even trying.  Here's a list of what I learned about writing from Eragon (and Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance as well):
  • There will always be people who don't like your writing.  Eragon has its fair share of haters.  Maybe more than its fair share.  In fact, there even used to be an entire website dedicated to criticizing it.  And yet, it's still out there and has tons of fans.  Christopher Paolini didn't stop writing the series just because people didn't like his books.  He just kept going.  No matter how many people love your work, there will always be someone, somewhere, who hates it.  There's nothing you can do, and you can't let it stop you.
  • Everyone has to start somewhere.  Christopher Paolini started writing Eragon at age fifteen (the beginnings of the story were there when he was fourteen).  Just like the rest of us, he started out with just an idea and a need to write it down.  Now he's a New York Times bestselling author.  If he can do it, so can others.
  • When you daydream about your book becoming a movie...well, be careful what you wish for.  Sometimes we just don't talk about the Eragon movie.  For various reasons.  (One of them being: DAT VEST.  Another: "I suffer without my stone.  Do not prolong my suffering."  The movie does have some highlights, though, as seen in the GIFs throughout this post.)  When we say that we want a book to become a movie, what we really mean is "I want a nine-hour feature with a cast that looks and acts exactly how I imagined the characters and recreates every event and piece of dialogue exactly how it was in the book".  No matter how faithful a movie is to its book, there still will be some differences. 

Movie highlight #1: Garret Hedlund as Murtagh, which was FANTASTIC.

  • There's always a learning curve, and you can improve if you work for it.  The writing in Inheritance is noticeably stronger and more mature than the writing in Eragon.  The author was learning as he went, and you can see the progress (especially if you read them all back-to-back). 
  • It always helps if your parents own a publishing company.  Because that would totally never give anyone an advantage.  Nope.  Not at all.
  • All fictional characters are based off real people in some form or other.  It's public knowledge that some of the characters in Eragon (most famously, Angela) are heavily based off real people.  While most of us don't do it to this extent, every character we create is, in effect, based off people we know.  The people we know give us material in order to create our characters.  We notice the way they speak, act, and feel, and, consciously or not, we use this information to write our characters.
  • Everything is a trope.  Tropes don't mean your novel is unoriginal.  Tropes are the fabric of fiction.  A common criticism of Eragon is that it relies heavily on common "stock fantasy characters", like the Epic Hero, the Beautiful Princess, the Evil Overlord, the Wise Old Mentor, and so on.  While I'll agree that yes, Eragon does have an abundance of overused fantasy elements, that doesn't take away from my enjoyment of it.  Just because a book uses a familiar element doesn't mean it isn't original.  A trope is not the same thing as a cliché.  There really isn't any element of a story that isn't a trope, so therefore, every story is built of different combinations of these tropes.
    Movie highlight #2: This is epic, though I don't understand why Eragon isn't bursting into flames.  It looks cool, though, so I'll go with it.
  • You don't have to tie off every single loose thread.  One of the things I like about Inheritance is that it doesn't tell us what happens to every single character in the entire novel.  There are things left open-ended.  Some people hate that, but I like it.  If nothing else, it leaves room for sequels and spinoffs and such.  The book also doesn't explain everything, even at the end.  For example, Angela is a mysterious character throughout the entire series, and there's much we don't know about her.  Her backstory isn't revealed, though, leaving it up to interpretation and imagination.  The author could have told us her story, but he left us to make up our own minds about it. 
  • Even if you write yourself into a hole, there's always a way out.  Okay, sometimes the way out is deleting the last five chapters you wrote, but still.  It isn't real life, so it isn't set in stone.  And that means that no matter how weird a situation you've gotten your characters into, there's bound to be some way to pull them out of it.
  • Keep your story under control.  Learn how to rein it in.  If you think your story seems to be going on far longer than you intended, you might need to start regaining control.  Like, for example, if you feel your trilogy expanding into a four-book series.  Apparently some people can get away with that, but most of us aren't bestselling authors, and we can't.  So if it's getting too big, start cutting things down.

Movie highlight #3: One time Eragon made this face, and the fandom is still laughing.  And then this GIF happened.

  • All stories come from other stories.  Again, Eragon borrows heavily from other stories.  Mainly Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  While we shouldn't borrow from other stories to that extent, we can't help but borrow some aspects.  Like I said earlier, fiction in itself is not original.  There are basic stories that already exist.  What we do is build on them, combine them, and twist them to fit our purposes and create something unique.
  • The Big Bad Villain will be so much scarier if he has a human side.  Throughout much of the series, we don't even get to meet the antagonist.  And yet, he has a huge presence hovering over the entire novel.  We know he's scary even though he hasn't come into the story.  But when he does finally make an entrance, he makes you stop and think.  The way he talks, the things he says make so much sense.  Sometimes, you don't think he seems like a villain at all.  And yet you know he is.  This, in my opinion, is what makes him an awesome villain. 
  • Sometimes, you just have to pull the carpet out from under the reader.  (Eldest and Brisingr spoilers ahead.)   Remember that time when Paolini was all "Eragon, Morzan is your father!  Cue panic, cut to credits"?  And then when the next book came around, it was "JK LOL, Brom was actually your dad the entire time."  Sometimes you just have to pull a big surprise, and then make another big reveal that subverts it.  Because why not? 
  • Romantic relationships don't always go as planned in real life.  Why shouldn't fiction reflect this?  One of the things I appreciate about Inheritance is that Arya and Eragon don't end up together.  Eragon was in love with her the entire series, but she never really returned the feelings.  The relationship was never forced like in so many YA novels.  It resisted the "But they just have to get together" pressure that exists in books today.  It maintained its realism.
  • Readers want to be immersed.  When I read a book, I don't want to be a bystander.  I don't want to be conscious of the fourth wall.  I want to feel like I'm part of the story.  I want to feel like everything is right here, happening around me.  I want to feel like it's real.  Eragon, with its richly described setting and awesome cast of characters, makes this happen.  It's a hard trick to define, and even harder to try and explain how to recreate.  I think it's something you have to figure out through trial and error, but it's still something to strive for.

Movie highlight #4: It's kind of funny.  "I'll be fine without you."  Haha, you wish.  Eragon can't even go buy bread without getting himself into trouble and setting an entire town on fire.  Also, Murtagh.

  • Find books that give you that urge to sit down and write.  For whatever reason, when I read certain books, I get an itch to go and write my own novel.  I don't know why some books give me this feeling and others don't.  I love it when I find a book that does it, though. 
  • Never underestimate the value of rereading.  I've read and reread Eragon so many times that the cover of my copy actually fell off.  It's a book that I come back to, over and over, even though I know everything that's going to happen.  I talked more and what makes a reader reread a book in this post.
  • Eventually, your novel has to end.  If you've been working on a series for as long as it took to write the Inheritance Cycle, then you'll become attached to it.  It'll be hard to see it go and move on to other things.  Still, it has to happen sooner or later.  Writers have to learn when to say "Alright.  It's done."
  • Worldbuilding is vital.  I love the setting of Eragon.  It's full of detail, which makes it seem like an actual place.  It's populated with people with their own stories and culture.  It's fully fleshed-out in a way that makes it easy to immerse yourself in.  If writers can accomplish this, then we've already gone a long way to keeping readers hooked to our books. 

Movie highlight #5: Baby Saphira is adorable.

  • Dragons are not going out of style.  I heard/read somewhere, a few years ago, that dragons are going out of style.  Um, what?  Dragons are cool.  At least, I think so.  And so do many others.  If dragons are "going out of style", then how do you explain the popularity of EragonA Song of Ice and Fire?  The Hobbit?  Merlin?  (There's a dragon in Merlin, right?  Someone help me out here--I haven't seen it.)  Harry Potter, even?  No, it seems to me that dragons are going out of style in the way iPhones are going out of style--they aren't.
  • “Mmm....she's doomed! You're doomed!! They're all doomed! Notice I didn't specify what kind of doom, so no matter what happens, I predicted it. How very wise of me.”  This is some timeless wisdom, right here.  
Over time, I've picked up a lot of things from Eragon and its sequels.  I'll always love it for that.  What about you?  Have you learned anything from Eragon?  What about any other books?

I've got a few more of these posts planned.  One of them is for The Avengers, which isn't a book, but I'm still going to use it.  Stay tuned. 
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Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Obsidian Mirror (Chronoptika #1) by Catherine Fisher

Jake's father disappears while working on mysterious experiments with the obsessive, reclusive Oberon Venn. Jake is convinced Venn has murdered him. But the truth he finds at the snow-bound Wintercombe Abbey is far stranger ... The experiments concerned a black mirror, which is a portal to both the past and the future. Venn is not alone in wanting to use its powers. Strangers begin gathering in and around Venn's estate: Sarah - a runaway, who appears out of nowhere and is clearly not what she says, Maskelyne - who claims the mirror was stolen from him in some past century. There are others, a product of the mirror's power to twist time. And a tribe of elemental beings surround this isolated estate, fey, cold, untrustworthy, and filled with hate for humans. But of them all, Jake is hell-bent on using the mirror to get to the truth. Whatever the cost, he must learn what really happened to his father.

Released: May 1st 2013               Pages: 400
Publisher: Thorndike Press         Source: Library
First Look: ****This had a lot of things going for it right away.  I loved Catherine Fisher's Incarceron and its sequel.  I love time travel books (though lately I haven't been doing well with them), and it looked vaguely steampunkish because there are gears on the cover.  Speaking of the bugs me.  That bracelet thing is clearly not an obsidian mirror, and I'm annoyed by that.  There should be an obsidian mirror on the cover.  Would you call a book The Red Sword and then put a golden crown on the cover?  Well, at least, I wouldn't.  (I'm looking at you, The Crimson Crown.)

Setting: ***** 
Was this set in England?  I'm not even sure anymore.  Probably.  I thought it might be, because of some of the terminology used, but the more I think about it, the more I have no idea where this book actually took place.

And then, we're back to Victorian London.  Again?  I'm fond of this place and time period, but is late-1800s London the only place we can travel to?  Out of the last three time travel books I've read, all three have gone to this time.  Can we have some variety?

Time travel places/periods I'd like to see (at least, in the past): Revolutionary War era New England, Ancient Rome/Greece/Egypt/China, medieval or Renaissance anyplace, the Crusades, WWII anywhere, 1990s America (I'm not kidding.  There are books celebrating the long before we start on the 90s?  I'm talking all-out war between fangirls of the Backstreet Boys vs. N*Sync.), Paris during the French Revolution, and so on.

 Characters: ***** 
At the beginning, Jake was interesting.  He had motives, and a personality, and I was never sure what stunt he'd pull next.  It was compelling.  After he got to the home of Oberon Venn, though, he fell flat and I lost any and all interest I had before.  He didn't really do much; he just let things happen to him.  I didn't care about him one bit.  This may have something to do with the fact that the chapter sections were so short I barely had time to even think of caring--more on this later.

I feel pretty much the same way about Sarah.  It took way too long to reveal her secret and her past.  I don't like it when POV characters hide information from readers--it feels like cheating, like pulling a reveal out of the hat as an extra, free way to spice things up. 

Plot: ***** 
I spent about 90% of this book sitting here like this:

The whole thing read like one giant prologue.  In prologues, often, a reader only gets half the story.  Not much is explained, or revealed.  You're privy to conversations about things you don't know about yet, but will later in the story.  It doesn't all make sense right away.  Done right, it's a mysterious experience.

In this book, though, I just couldn't grasp anything that was happening.  I felt like I was skimming over the top of something, never really digging in.  I didn't skim the book, though--I read it thoroughly.  For some reason, the understanding never reached my brain.  I'm not sure why this is, but it didn't contribute anything good to my reading.  Instead, it just made me bored and confused.

 Uniqueness: ***** The methods of time travel were different, but traveling to Victorian London has been done over and over and over.

Writing: *****  
Again, for some reason, nothing that happened in this book ever really sank in.  I'm not sure if I was just distracted the entire time I was reading, or what.  This is unusual for me, so probably not. 

Part of my disconnection with the story has to do with the chapter and point-of-view sections.  They were too short for my liking.  I barely had time to grasp what was happening before it switched again.  In Incarceron, this style added suspense to the book, but here it just got on my nerves.

 Likes: ...

Not-so-great: Nothing I haven't already mentioned.

Overall: The Obsidian Mirror left me feeling confused and disappointed.  I didn't care about the characters.  Plot-wise, I felt like I was skimming along the top of the story, never really getting into or understanding anything.  The POV sections jumped around too often for my liking.  Overall, I didn't care much for this book.

Similar Books: It has some weird and convoluted time travel methods like The Obsidian Blade (incidentally, both have obsidian in the title, and both left me feeling much the same way).  Its genre-bending and short chapter style is much like Incarceron, by the same author.  It has modern-day high tech time travel like  The Reluctant Assassin or even Found.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting. He's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming...

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Released: September 27th 2011          Pages: 215
Publisher: Walker Books                    Source: Library
I searched and searched, and I can't find a full-length, thought-out one star review for this book.  There are some one star reviews on Goodreads, but none of them are full-length.  This is incredibly rare.  This book's disproportionate high ratings are also rare: 56% (out of almost 17,000) of the Goodreads users who read this gave it five stars (with 84% giving it either four or five). 

Pardon my statistics.  I find it fascinating, that this simple little book manages to resonate with so many people, including myself.  There isn't much to the book, plot-wise: it's a simple story about a boy on the verge of losing his mother to cancer, and the way "the monster" helps him cope. 

And yet, there is so much to this book that I can't begin to describe it. 

In the story, the monster wants the truth from Conor, the truth of what Conor really feels.  The book itself is its own truth.  This story is so achingly real, so raw, that it hurts.  It kind of makes you go numb inside.  It's a terrible and wonderful feeling, when a book does this to you. 

I've seen people compare this book to The Fault in Our Stars.  They have much in common--young people dealing with cancer, the death of a major character.  Where tFioS is brilliant in the way it focuses in on two specific people and all the details of their lives and experiences, A Monster Calls is equally impactful because of how vague it is.  There's nothing special about these characters; they're just people.  They could be anybody. 

This book is as much an exploration of emotion as it is a story.  It tackles some heavy-hitting things: grief, loss, fury.  It uses a bit of magical realism to do so, blurring the line between reality and the things going on in Conor's mind.  This aspect of it is brilliant--I love it when authors leave the reality of a situation up to interpretation. 

The thing about it is that, before you even begin, you know what's going to happen.  Or at least, I did, and I don't think I'm alone in it.  I knew, and Conor knew, even if neither of us wanted to admit it.  And though we thought the knowing might take the sting away, it didn't.  Patrick Ness is wonderful at creating and bringing out emotion in his gorgeous prose, and he didn't shy away from it here.

Those were my feelings that you just hurt, Patrick Ness.  I hope you're satisfied with the number of people you've caused to start crying.

Okay, so I didn't cry.  I don't really cry for books or movies--it's just my personality.  I mean, come on.  I'm an INTJ.  That doesn't mean I didn't feel anything.  Just because it didn't make me shed physical tears doesn't mean I'm an unfeeling, cold, emotionless statue, thank you very much. 
This book takes you by the hand and leads you to the edge of a cliff.  Then it lets go, forcing you to peer over the edge.  And you won't like what you see.  But you know you'll have to take that leap.  At this point, it comes back, envelopes you, and takes the leap with you.  And in doing so, you'll accept the themes of this book, because you have no choice, but also because it's all done in a beautiful way, and you want nothing more than to sit and admire even more Patrick Ness's gorgeous prose and symbolism.
It's not so much the story in itself--it's the way it relates to everything.  It's the way it causes you to step back, immerse yourself in it, and then come back into the world with all these new thoughts.
I can't leave this review without talking about the pictures.  This book has pictures, and they are gorgeous.  They're a bit haunting at times, and I loved them.  They are what really makes this book come together.  Reading it has an impact, but seeing the words with the pictures is what makes the impact even greater. 
Alright.  Feelsfest over.  I think.  Maybe.  Read this book, people.

Similar Books: A Monster Calls deals with cancer and loss like The Fault in Our StarsIt has a bit of magical realism like I Am the MessengerThe writing style will appeal to fans of Patrick Ness's other books, the Chaos Walking trilogy.

(Note: I didn't review this in my usual categorical way because I thought that would take away the impact of this book.  It's short, at only just over 200 pages.  There isn't enough to fill out a full category review, but there's enough to review in paragraph form.  If that makes sense.)
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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Situation Vs. Plot: What's the Difference?

Sometimes, when I read descriptions of books, I think "Okay, that's nice.  But that's just a situation--where's the plot?"

Pro tip: You want your novel to have a plot.  Actually, your novel needs to have a plot.

But sometimes, writers don't have a plot.  They think they do, but what they actually have is a situation.  

Here's an example.  Try these two book premises:

Sarah is just trying to survive her senior year of high school.  She's just broken up with her longtime boyfriend, and her best friend is drifting away from her.  On top of all this, she may be about to lose the job, which was her only source of money to pay for college.

In order to survive her senior year of high school, Sarah must deal with the pain of losing her longtime boyfriend, while struggling to repair her relationship with her best friend.  At the same time, she must also find a way to keep the job she's desperate for.

The difference is subtle, but it's there.  The first snippet is an example of a situation, and the second if an actual plot.  So what's the difference?

The first example simply lists a bunch of circumstances.  It's a description of the current state of Sarah's life.  While things may be happening, there's no hint of conflict.  Saying that she broke up with her boyfriend or that she's about to lose her job is not saying that there is a plot.  It's not conflict at all; it's just a situation that Sarah is in the middle of.

The second example, then, has some elements of an actual plot.  There are concrete goals, both internal and external.  There are things Sarah must do.  She must fix her relationship with her best friend, overcome personal issues, and hold on to her job.  These things all are various forms of conflict.  There's conflict with Sarah, conflict with her best friend, and conflict with her employer.  This is the beginnings of an actual plot.

In their simplest form, plots are about conflict.  They are about people doing things.  They are more than a set of circumstances or the current state of someone's life, which, in terms of fiction, is mainly static.  Plots are about movement.  They flow and they progress and they build on themselves.  You want your story to have this movement.  Otherwise, it won't have a plot at all and we'll all be bored. 

The trick is to learn the difference between a plot and a situation.  Situations, of course, have their place, and are great jumping-off points.  However, you can't write a whole book off them.  To have a novel with actual conflict, you'll need a plot. 

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Rithmatist (Rithmatist #1) by Brandon Sanderson

More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Chosen by the Master in a mysterious inception ceremony, Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings — merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students study the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing — kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery — one that will change Rithmatics — and their world — forever.

Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson brings his unique brand of epic storytelling to the teen audience with an engrossing tale of danger and suspense—the first of a series. With his trademark skills in world-building, Sanderson has created a magic system that is so inventive and detailed that that readers who appreciate games of strategy and tactics just may want to bring Rithmatics to life in our world.

Released: May 13th 2013        Pages: 378
Publisher: Tor Teen                Source: Library

First Look: ****The premise of this book looked so cool--an alternate history world where magic is controlled by chalk drawings?  YES.  I'd heard good things about Brandon Sanderson's books, but I'd never read one before now.

Setting: ***** Few books can make me say "I want to live in this world! How soon can I move in?" (Notable examples of this include the Fire and Thorns trilogy and the Matt Cruse series.) The setting of The Rithmatist is just plain cool. Even without the Rithmatists, the alternate history aspect is interesting. Instead of the United States being one big continent, it's composed of loosely aligned islands. 

The addition of the Rithmatists made it even cooler. It's obvious that the new concepts introduced in this book, the concepts of Rithmatics, are well thought-out. It all makes sense, and is very well-developed. It would've been easy for the author to skim over the top of these ideas and tell readers the bare minimum about them in order to understand the story. But no, instead he went above and beyond. There are drawings explaining various aspects of Rithmatics, and I read them eagerly. You'll have no trouble understanding the story if you skip these pictures, but for me, I found that they made the book so much cooler.

Characters: *****  The only distinct sense that got about Joel was that he desperately wanted to be a Rithmatist.  Other than that, I found him a bit bland.  I liked him, but there wasn't anything that made him stand out from the crowd of all the other YA protagonists.  It's quite possible that he'll come more alive, as a character, in the second book and beyond.  In this book, though, I wish he would've seemed more three-dimensional.

Melody annoyed me.  She spent a lot of her time complaining, though I grew to like her more near the end of the book.  I would like to have a round of applause, though, for the relationship between Melody and Joel.  At the beginning of the book, they were at odds with one another, but they became friends.  At this point, they have not fallen in love.  It's sad how rare this is.  I'd love to see more of this type of focus on friendship instead of romance.

 Plot: ***** 
It moved a little slow towards the beginning.  The mystery was there, but things didn't really start picking up until halfway through.  It did keep me guessing, though, as to who was behind the attacks.

I loved Melody and Joel's cooperation at the end.  It was a neat twist, and fulfilling for both characters.

Uniqueness: ***** It was a fresh, unique read like nothing I've seen before.  It had a wonderfully different alternate historical setting, and an inventive new magic system.

Writing: ****I don't have much to say in this area.  There wasn't anything that bugged me, and nothing in the narration distracted me from the story.  For that, I appreciated the writing.  Still, I wish I could've gotten more insight into Joel's character, and the narration might have been a way to help with this, since it provides the connection between the character and the reader.

I want to be a Rithmatist.  Really.  You have no idea how much I want this.

Not-so-great: Nothing not already mentioned above.

Overall: The Rithmatist is a fun, engaging, and refreshing read.  Though it was a little slow to start off and the characters weren't as fleshed-out as I would have liked, I still enjoyed it.  The setting, with its ultra-cool and different magic system involving creatures and defenses made entirely of chalk, was fantastic.  I want to live there.  Overall, I liked this book, and I'll be eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Similar Books: It has elements of steampunk and alternate history like Leviathan or the Matt Cruse books (and has a protagonist similar to Matt Cruse as well), a "magical" boarding school that reminded me a little of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter books.  For whatever reason, it also reminded me of the Bartimaeus trilogy.
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Monday, July 8, 2013

Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey

On Wilde Island, there is no peace between dragons, fairies, and humans.

Wilde Island is in an uproar over the recent death of its king. As the uneasy pact between dragons, fairies, and humans begins to fray, the royal witch hunter with a hidden agenda begins a vengeful quest to burn girls suspected of witchcraft before a new king is crowned.

Strong-willed Tess, a blacksmith’s daughter from a tiny hamlet, wants more for herself than a husband and a house to keep. But in times like these wanting more can be dangerous. Accused of witchery, Tess and her two friends are forced to flee the violent witch hunter. As their pursuer draws ever closer they find shelter with a huntsman in the outskirts of the forbidden Dragonswood sanctuary. But staying with the mysterious huntsman poses risks of its own: Tess does not know how to handle the attraction she feels for him—or resist the elusive call that draws her deeper onto the heart of Dragonswood.

Released: January 5th 2012         Pages: 407
Publisher: Dial                            Source: Library
First Look: ****This book looked interesting because, well, dragons. Until I was about halfway through this book, I didn't realize that it was a companion to Janet Lee Carey's other novel, Dragon's Keep.  I had seen Dragon's Keep at the library before, but I had never wanted to read it because the cover grosses me out.  (Long fingernails + weird green skin=nope nope nope.)  I hadn't made the connection between the two books until then.  It's a bit weird that there is no indication on Dragonswood that it has a companion novel.  I haven't read the companion, but I had no trouble understanding this book.

Setting: *****   
Wilde Island is an island?  Either I missed that, or it was never specified.  I only realized it by rereading this book's inside cover description.  Anyway, the description says "Wilde Island is in uproar".  I never got that sense.  It seemed almost sleepy, to me.  Apparently tensions are high, but for half the book the biggest problem was an abusive father and false accusations.  These are big problems, but not necessarily for the entire island, and not enough to cause a huge uproar.  So, I'm not sure where these so-called tensions were coming from.

Other than that, I didn't care one way or another about the setting.  It was just...there.  In high fantasy, this is not a good thing.  High fantasy should make me care about the place so, in turn, I can care more about the people trying to save it.

 Characters: ***** I didn't care much for the main character, Tess, but I didn't outright dislike her, either.  The only thing that bugged me was that she wanted to be an independent woman, not owned by any man and not stuck in an abusive marriage.  I support all of these things.  Then, however, Tess went and fell in near insta-love with Garth, based on nothing but his looks and the fact that he owns a cozy little cabin in the woods.  So Tess wants to be loved for her personality, but she's okay with loving Garth based on those two little things?

Apart from that, I never had much opinion about her.  She didn't stand out as a particularly fleshed-out character, but she was okay.  I wish I would've been able to see her as more of a three-dimensional human being.

 Plot: *****  I feel like I read two different books.  The first part was about Tess's escape from the witch hunter.  About halfway through, Tess learns something about herself, and suddenly the book becomes the story of Tess getting involved with the fey and a plot to make an ancient prophecy about the princes come true.  Um...what happened there?  I felt like the second half didn't really connect to the first, and was a weird transition.

Also, I can never really get into a book involving the fey.  I'm open to being proven wrong, but so far I have never loved a book about the fey.  For some reason, in basically every single book I've read that involves them, I get bored and feel disconnected from the story.

Uniqueness: ****
The world of this book had a few aspects that were different, like the interaction between the fey, humans, and dragons.

Writing: ***** I kept getting disoriented.  It wasn't an every-so-often I have to reread a paragraph thing.  It was a consistent thing that happened every few pages.  I don't know if this problem had to do with lack of description wherever a transition happened, or what.  I'm not sure.  I kept getting a little confused, like "Wait...weren't they just outside?  When did they go inside?"

Likes: For the first time in over two months, I am officially caught up on my reviews.

Not-so-great: Nothing not already mentioned above. 

Overall: Meh.  Something about this book just didn't click with me.  Nothing about it compelled me, but I have few specific reasons to dislike it.  I never really connected with Tess, nor could see her as a three-dimensional character.  The first half of the plot was totally different from the second half, and it felt a little weird to me.  Finally, the narration disoriented me on a regular basis.
Similar Books: It involves the fey like The Iron King, has a softer medieval fantasy feel like Brightly Woven or Witchlanders, or even The ReturningIt also reminds me of Auralia's Colors.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga #1) by Orson Scott Card

Once again, Earth is under attack. An alien species is poised for a front assault. The survival of humanity depends on a military genius who can defeat the aliens.
But who?

Ender Wiggin. Brilliant. Ruthless. Cunning. A tactical and strategic master. And a child.

Recruited for military training by the world government, Ender's childhood ends the moment he enters his new home: Battle School. Among the elite recruits Ender proves himself to be a genius among geniuses. In simulated war games he excels. But is the pressure and loneliness taking its toll on Ender? Simulations are one thing. How will Ender perform in real combat conditions? After all, Battle School is just a game.


Released: January 1985                     Pages: 324
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction         Source: Library

First Look: ****This book is, apparently, a well-loved classic of YA sci-fi.  It's another one of those cases where I read it mainly to see what the hype was about.  It looked interesting, too.  And there's a movie coming out.  (Regardless of what I think of the book, the trailer is cool.  I'll see the movie eventually, mostly out of curiosity.)

Setting: ***** Throughout the entire book, the setting seemed...distant.  I got the sense that something big was happening out there in space, but I couldn't get a clear picture.  Once Ender got to the Battle School, this was even more the case.  Apparently they're training to fight aliens, and that's all well and good.  Except that we never see an alien firsthand.  We never see the damage that they're doing to the Earth, or any hint of the threat that they pose to humankind.  How am I supposed to care when I'm never actually shown a reason why this world is in danger?

Characters: *****  
I didn't feel one way or another about Ender.  I neither liked nor disliked him.  This isn't a good thing; it means that I didn't feel like he was real.  I knew things about him, yes, but there wasn't anything to make him come to life while I was reading. 

One thing that bugged me was that he was always so good at everything.  Everything.  Every test he was given, he excelled in.  Every time he was put under more pressure, he came through.  This is going to sound odd, but I'm a huge fan of making characters fail at some point throughout the story.  Failure brings out a different side of a person, and it would've made Ender seem more human.

Valentine's constant passive behavior towards Peter was annoying.  I understand that Peter is a manipulative, even murderous little child, but Valentine never once tried to get help.  I kept mentally yelling at her to get away from him.  He's not that scary.  

 Plot: *****
My first thought after finishing this book: "I just read a 300-page-long training montage."  That's what it felt like.  I typically don't have a problem with training scenes, but it gets annoying when we never get to see the real thing.  (Or so we think, anyway, but that would be a spoiler.)  The plot just consisted of Ender trying to make his way through the battle simulations.  And then being thrown into a more difficult situation and acing more of the battle games.  And again.  And again.  To me, it felt repetitive, and it was too easy to lose sense of what the overarching conflict was. 

The twist at the end was cool.  I'll give it that.

 Uniqueness: *****  It's hard to rate this category, as this book is, if I'm not mistaken, one of the books that set the standard for YA sci-fi.  Even now, it felt unique to me.

Writing: ***** 
What was going on with the point of view?  It was mostly third-person, except for some random first-person sentences here and there.  It took me a few chapters to figure out that these were supposed to be Ender's thoughts.  If these thoughts had been italicized, or even had a "he thought" tag, I would've been fine.  Without anything distinguishing them from the rest of the narration, though, it sounded weird. 

The other aspects of the writing didn't bother me as much, but didn't impress me, either.  The narration did nothing to help me connect to the story.

Likes: Yay for stories about kids in enclosed spaces.  I'm fond of those, for some odd reason.

Not-so-great: "[Girls] don't often pass the tests to get in [to the Battle School]. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them."

I give you the following GIFs of girls demonstrating those "centuries of evolution":
Witch King: "No man can kill me!"  Eowyn: "I am no man!"
Have I made my point?

 Overall: Ender's Game disappointed me.  It had a cool premise, and I wanted to read it to see what the hype was all about, if nothing else.  Unfortunately, Ender seemed a little too perfect.  I felt like I was reading a 300-page-long training montage, and the narration made weird switches between third and first person.  The twist, at the very end, was cool, though.  Overall, I give this three stars.  It had its good points, but also its not-so-good.  I'm not sure why everyone seems to love this book so much.
Similar Books: It has a high-tech futuristic setting and a genius/prodigy main character like A Confusion of Princes, and involves a little bit of space travel like Glow or even Across the Universe.

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

English Teachers Actually Don't Put More Thought Into A Novel Than The Author

Today I'm going to share something that bothers me.  It's something I've seen and heard before, both in school and on the internet.  And it is so blatantly and obviously wrong that I don't know how people even got this idea.  I am going to prove it wrong.  Here it is: 

Let's take a moment to calculate how long it takes to write a book.
Planning time: 5 hours
First draft: 75 hours (75,000 words, 1000 words per hour)
Revision: 25 hours (calculated in an non-mathematical way called estimating)
If that were the case, it would take an author 105 hours to complete a novel, from start to finish.
Okay, who am I kidding?  Some days, I can't pull off 500 words in an hour.  And I think I spent much more than 25 hours revising.  Also, the planning time doesn't take into account all those showers spent thinking about the story, those random daydreaming of the story moments throughout my daily life.  The planning time also doesn't account for time spent staring at the blank screen, deleting half your day's progress and starting again, etc.  It's impossible to quantify the amount of time an author spends on a novel, as a novel is part of the writer's being and sense of self, and you can't measure that in minutes or hours, or even years.
105 hours is a very, very low estimate.
Still, let's go with it.  In order for this "teenager post" (what does that even mean?) to be true, a teacher would have had to spend more time on this book than the author.
Show me a teacher who spent more 105 hours (that's almost nine twelve-hour days, by the way) thinking about/working on a book, and then we'll talk.  If you can't, get out. 
So where did this idea come from, then? 
I understand the frustration that some students feel while analyzing a book.  It's not a frustration that I share, actually, but I can see where it comes from.  They feel like a teacher is reading way too much meaning into a seemingly insignificant turn of phrase or event in a novel.  They feel that, by analyzing it, it's being blown way out of proportion. 
A common example is something like this.  What the teacher thinks the author meant: "The blue curtains symbolize the main character's deep and underlying depression.  They stand for the heartbreak that this character has gone through, and foreshadow future calamity, etc."  What the author actually meant: "The curtains were blue."
While it's quite possible that the author didn't intentionally add all this subtext, writers don't write meaningless things into their novels.  When I write, and say, for example, that someone's bedspread has red and white stripes, I don't necessarily mean anything deep by it.  But I don't do it randomly, either.  For whatever reason, I thought this character was the type of person who would have this kind of bedspread. 

The number of words an author can use to write their novel is not infinite.  At first glance, you'd think we could take up as many words as we want to write our books.  In truth, though, few people want to read 1,000-page novels.  We can use as many words as we want up to the point of boring the reader, and sometimes it seems like this point is actually quite low. 

Because of our limited word count, writers can't afford to add random things that don't add anything to the story.  Every word has to do its duty; none can be in the story without good reason.  And when everything that's there is there for a purpose, everything has meaning.  It may not be a deep, philosophical meaning, but it is still meaning nonetheless. 

This is why I can't stand this "English teachers put more thought into a novel than the author" idea.  Because, for one, it isn't true.  It also shows an obvious misunderstanding of how a novel is created, which saddens me.  Novels aren't something that you can just throw together. 

Writers, next time you hear someone say this, you need to tell them the truth.  Explain the number of hours that go into writing a novel.  Enlighten them.  Prove them wrong.    

Side note: Please don't actually point swords at people.  It's considered rude in most cultures.
PS: If you want to hear more about this topic from an actual published (and bestselling) author, Maggie Stiefvater blogged about it today.  So it's not just me.

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