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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus #4) by Rick Riordan

At the conclusion of The Mark of Athena, Annabeth and Percy tumble into a pit leading straight to the Underworld. The other five demigods have to put aside their grief and follow Percy’s instructions to find the mortal side of the Doors of Death. If they can fight their way through the Gaea’s forces, and Percy and Annabeth can survive the House of Hades, then the Seven will be able to seal the Doors both sides and prevent the giants from raising Gaea. But, Leo wonders, if the Doors are sealed, how will Percy and Annabeth be able to escape?

They have no choice. If the demigods don’t succeed, Gaea’s armies will never die. They have no time. In about a month, the Romans will march on Camp Half-Blood. The stakes are higher than ever in this adventure that dives into the depths of Tartarus.

Released: October 8th 2013   Pages: 597
Publisher: Hyperion Books     Source: Library

The ending of The Mark of Athena will go down in history in the Heroes of Olympus fandom as an event that caused mass trauma and many tears as many people's OTP fell into Tartarus.  While I didn't undergo the as much trauma as more die-hard fans, and it wasn't my OTP (my OTP won't fall into Tartarus together because, as of book 4, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen had never met--no spoilers, please but actually, G.R.R.M., GET ON THAT.), I still was shocked along with everyone else.  

And yet, when you end with such an emotionally charged cliffhanger like that, there has to be payoff in the next installment.  You can't leave readers that distraught and then not carry that level of emotion over to the next book.  I felt like The House of Hades didn't quite carry that emotion over the gap between the two books.  Then again, it's been a year since I read tMoA, so this could have had contributed to this dropoff.

Once again, though, I was glad to return to the Argo II, the "ship of ships".  Seriously, though, everyone is half of a couple, unless you're Coach Hedge, Nico, or Leo.  I'm not a fan of having everyone be in a relationship, but at least the romance isn't turning into the biggest part of the plot.  Frank/Hazel is cute; it took me a long time to grow to love Percabeth, but I got there eventually; I couldn't care less about Piper/Jason.

For me, Piper and Jason are the weak points, and have been from the beginning.  Neither of them are as three-dimensional as the rest of the characters.  Everyone else, for the most part, is a character that feels real.  They have strengths and flaws just like an actual person, and most of all, they have qualities that endear me to them, like Annabeth's resourcefulness, Percy's loyalty, Nico's quiet strength, Hazel's kindness, etc.  Piper and Jason, though, are just kind of...there.

And then there's Leo, the seventh wheel.  Let me get this out of the way: I love Leo so incredibly much.  He's amazing.  Not only is he hilarious, witty, and smart, he's also the most interesting and complex character in this series.  Whenever he came into a scene, I was like this:

Haha, look at Jeremy.  "Oooh, I'm gonna make this a group hug--NOPE."
Leo Valdez is one of my favorite fictional people, ever.  This wouldn't ever happen, but I'd love to read something with both him and Sage/Jaron from The False Prince.  They remind me so much of each other--they both use their sarcasm to hide their dark backstories.  And they're lovable and hilarious.  They'd be best friends.  Rick Riordan and Jennifer Nielson should make this happen for me.  I have to admit, though, I wasn't on board with "Caleo" (Calypso/Leo) until I saw this awesome piece of fan art.  

I couldn't leave this review without discussing Nico's revelation.  I didn't see it coming at all, and I'm still not sure how to feel about it.  Rick Riordan, did you really need to give Nico something else to suffer over?  Then again, it's the author's job to cause trouble for characters, but STILL.  Nico is another of my favorite characters, and I'm interested to see how this new information about him will be handled in the next book.

Overall, I didn't enjoy this quite as much as the previous books in the series.  For some reason, I didn't quite as emotionally invested while reading this one.  Still, though, I enjoy this series.  It's fun, exciting, and emotional.  The characters are quirky, endearing, and real (mostly).  I can't wait for the final book of the series.

Similar Books: It's funny along the lines of Artemis Fowl (though, admittedly, it's less funny, and AF leans more heavily on the sarcasm side, but the books still appeal to similar audiences). It has mythology all over the place like The Alchemyst, it's by the same author (it's a continuation series) and uses some of the same characters The Lightning Thief, and has snarky average-kid-turned-superhero characters like The Merchant of Death.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

I Am Number Four (Lorien Legacies #1) by Pittacus Lore

Nine of us came here. We look like you. We talk like you. We live among you. But we are not you. We can do things you dream of doing. We have powers you dream of having. We are stronger and faster than anything you have ever seen. We are the superheroes you worship in movies and comic books - but we are real.

Our plan was to grow, and train, and become strong, and become one, and fight them. But they found us and started hunting us first. Now all of us are running. Spending our lives in shadows, in places where no one would look, blending in. We have lived among you without you knowing.

But they know.

They caught Number One in Malaysia.
Number Two in England.
And Number Three in Kenya.
They killed them all.

I am Number Four.

I am next.

Released: August 3rd 2010   Pages: 440
Publisher: HarperCollins        Source: Library
First Look: ***** There have been so many times where I've gone to the library and almost checked this one out...then then set it down.  It's gotten lots of attention, though, especially when it was made into a movie.  It's another one of those "I just want to see what the big deal is" reads.  (Why do I keep doing that?  I need to stop it, because it often doesn't go well.)

Setting: *****
The setting didn't play a large role in the book.  I would've liked to see more of the effect of being an alien on John.  (Number Four?  What do I call him?  If I call him "Four", I feel like I'm talking about Tobias or Tom Baker.  What did they call him on Lorien?)  He isn't from Earth, and he knows it, and this would have an emotional and psychological effect on anyone.  Also, I would've liked to learn more about Lorien itself. 

Also, the high school that John attended was not portrayed realistically.  It was the over-stereotyped and over-simplified high school that you'd see on a bad TV-show or movie, complete with every cliché that goes along with that--the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders, etc.  Why does this keep happening in fiction?  It doesn't work like this in real life, and it's degrading to teenagers.  I'm sick of writing about this in my reviews, but the stereotypes just don't go away.  It's sad that I have to keep pointing this out.

Characters: *****  
John was a decent character.  He was a bit of a Gary Stu, but he also had elements that made him likable.  He didn't stand out from the vast crowd of other YA heroes, but I didn't hate him, either.  I got a strong sense of emotion from him, and my guess is that this will only get stronger in future books.

Everyone else was either flat, stereotypical, or both.  One of the number one ways to make me mad at a book is to present teenage characters that conform to High School Musical-eque stereotypes, and sadly, I Am Number Four is full of these.  Mark was the stereotypical jock/bully who began picking on John for no particular reason as soon as they met.  Sarah was the cheerleader-turned-nice, whatever that even means.  Sam was the cliché loner/geek.  This made them all seem more like cardboard cutouts than anything else.
Plot: ***** It started with the overused beginning of a kid moving to a new town and immediately (and sometimes simultaneously) getting picked on by the school bully for no particular reason and falling in love with the most popular girl.  You could take this beginning and stick it onto hundreds of other YA books and no one would ever know the difference.  Apart from that, though, the plot was, for me, the most enjoyable part of the book.  The Legacies themselves were interesting, as well as the entire premise of the coming alien invasion.  I liked John's journey to discover his powers, or "Legacies".  The storyline was unique, and kept moving at a solid pace, even if it was a tad predictable.  (How could someone NOT see the thing about Bernie, the dog, coming from a mile away?)

Uniqueness: ***** 
The main focus of the book, the developing of John's Legacies to fight the alien invasion, was unique and grabbed my attention.  Unfortunately, a large portion of the beginning of this book was weighed down by an opening that felt just like too many others I've read.  

Writing: ***** 
The writing wasn't bad, but I never got a sense of John's distinct voice, either.  Even though it was narrated in first person, I kept wanting the narration to sound more personal, and less generic.  And I found a typo.  Other than that, I have no other specific comments about the writing--I just know that something about it never clicked with me.

Nothing not already mentioned above.

Not-so-great: John: The bully who hated me and tried to beat me up at the beginning of the school year has just invited me to a party at his house.  Sounds like a great idea, right?  There is no way this could possibly go wrong.  Me: *slams head into wall repeatedly*

This book had some interesting aspects that I enjoyed, including its unique and exciting plot and a decent main character.  Unfortunately, it was weighed down by cardboard-cutout side characters, an unoriginal beginning, and writing that just never quite worked for me.  It contained too many stereotypes of teenagers.  It evens out to being an okay book overall, but I'm not sure if I'll read the sequels.

Similar Books: It features a teenage boy with powers, Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 or Touched.  It also reminds me of Infinity and Thirteen Days to Midnight.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Nine Things Writers Love To Write But Readers Hate To Read

Some things are fun to write, but not so much fun to read.  Which, understandably, poses a problem.  Sometimes, you just can't help but write that flashback, even if you know it's not necessary.  There's nothing inherently wrong with anything on this list, in itself, but they're often overused or misused.  It's good for a writer to recognize things that bore readers or distract them from your story.
  1. Flashbacks.  It's easy to understand why writers tend to like writing flashbacks.  It's an easy way to let the reader in on a character's backstory, and it gives the writer a chance to explore a character and cash in on an event that's probably emotional, exciting, or both.  The problem is that, for the most part, readers don't like reading them.  From the reader's perspective, a flashback is most likely an interruption of the current action in order to look back on an event that, in all honesty, they could do without.  And besides, there's a good chance it'll be written in all italics--yuck.  As the writer, if writing that flashback makes you feel better, go ahead and do it.  It might help you gain insight on a character or event.  And then, in almost all cases, delete it.  It's probably not necessary, and this might be a case where a small piece of telling to get your backstory across is better than an entire scene of showing.  (More on showing vs. telling here.)
  2. Dream scenes.  Much of what I said about flashback scenes also applies to dream scenes.  While dream scenes may not be used as often for backstory, they can be used as foreshadowing.  Often, though, writers use them as a chance to do...I don't even know.  I had a bad habit of writing dream scenes when I wrote Secrets of the Legend Chaser, and I mainly wrote them when I felt like using prose that was a little less down-to-earth (so, basically, when I wanted to pretend I was much more eloquent than I actually was).  The problem with these scenes, though, was that they were pointless.  So I deleted them all.  Unless they're vital to your plot, you might want to consider deleting your dream scenes, as well.
  3. Detailed physical descriptions of people.  Writers love to write descriptions of their characters.  They know every detail of how the character looks, so why not share it with their readers?  It's important to include a paragraph describing each new character, right?  No.  In reality, few readers actually care about the small details of a person's appearance.  Give me eye color, hair color, body shape, and any other defining features, and I'm good.  Any more than that is just a waste of words.  Cassandra Clare somehow gets away with this and I'm not sure why.
  4. Excessive internalization.  Internalization refers to descriptions of the inner thoughts and feelings of characters.  Sometimes, internalization is written as a direct thought, possibly in italics.  Other times, it isn't so much a direct thought as a description of a character's thoughts, feelings, or state of mind.  Internalization is necessary--you can't have a decent book without it.  Still, though, there comes a point when enough is enough.  We don't need to be privy to your character's every thought.  When internalization becomes excessive, it slows down the action and bores the reader.
  5. Descriptions of a character waking up and subsequent morning routine.  Starting a book with a character waking up should be considered a felony, at this point.  It's cliché, and annoying.  As much as you may think your character's routine is new and different, chances isn't.  Not to readers, at least.  Like flashbacks, maybe you want to write this description as a way to get to know your character.  There's nothing wrong with that, but please, please delete it from the final draft.  Your readers will thank you. 
  6. Excessive worldbuilding tours.  We know you did your worldbuilding.  We know that you spent hours figuring out every detail of your invented setting.  I get it.  But there's never, ever a need to share every single detail with the reader.  I posted more about this here.
  7. Scenes from the villain's point of view just to show the evilness.  Think of those scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies where the shot suddenly flashes to Mordor, showing clips of orcs making swords, monsters being born, etc.  Think overwhelming bass drum beats and the Imperial Death March.  In some cases, like LotR, these scenes are effective, mostly to create mood and tension.  Unfortunately, though, sometimes these scenes from the villain's point of view aren't necessary.  They show how evil the bad guy is, but many times, that's about it. 
  8. First-day-at-a-new-school scenes.  Ugh.  I can't stand these.  Like I've said so many times in this post, maybe you want to use these scenes to get to know a character and their life.  However, first-day-of-school scenes have become so cliché and overused that they aren't worth it.
  9. Excessive descriptions of training sessions.  This is especially a problem in fantasy books.  The hero begins some sort of quest, or starts attending a new school for wizards, warriors, etc.  And the training scenes begin.  And go on.  And on.  And on.  Some amount of training scenes is okay, if they're necessary to the plot.  But there's no reason to go Ender's Game with them (Ender's Game is basically an entire novel of training sessions).  Just give readers a Mulan-style montage or something and they'll be fine.

What things are you aware of that writers love to write but that annoy readers?  Are there any types of scenes that you know you'll delete but you write them anyway? 
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Monday, October 21, 2013

More Than This by Patrick Ness

From two-time Carnegie Medal winner Patrick Ness comes an enthralling and provocative new novel chronicling the life — or perhaps afterlife — of a teen trapped in a crumbling, abandoned world.

A boy named Seth drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments, losing his life as the pounding sea claims him. But then he wakes. He is naked, thirsty, starving. But alive. How is that possible? He remembers dying, his bones breaking, his skull dashed upon the rocks. So how is he here? And where is this place? It looks like the suburban English town where he lived as a child, before an unthinkable tragedy happened and his family moved to America. But the neighborhood around his old house is overgrown, covered in dust, and completely abandoned. What’s going on? And why is it that whenever he closes his eyes, he falls prey to vivid, agonizing memories that seem more real than the world around him? Seth begins a search for answers, hoping that he might not be alone, that this might not be the hell he fears it to be, that there might be more than just this. . . .

Released: September 10th 2013           Pages: 480
Publisher: Candlewick Press               Source: Library

 Before this, I read four other Patrick Ness books.  Three of them grabbed hold of me, showing me something amazing while also shaking me back and forth and making me question...well, everything.  Then they dropped me back to the ground, leaving me to somehow deal with my feelings. 

Fine, I thought.  I'll read More Than This, but this time, I'll be prepared for whatever Patrick Ness has in store for me.  I'm ready this time.

I was not ready.

 This book is impossible to describe.  If I were to try to squeeze this book into nice, even boxes of genre, or even structure, I wouldn't be doing it justice.  I can hardly even gather my own thoughts about it.  Every time I try, my brain just turns into a big confused mass of sadness, elation, admiration, ASDFLKJLK;, and FEELS.  Trying to explain this book is like trying to use only a crayon and the vowels to explain quantum physics.  Words fail me, which is ironic, given that it is Patrick Ness's words that did this to me in the first place. 

But I'm going to try my best to articulate myself about it anyway.

Where the Chaos Walking trilogy is all raw, rough edges grating up against everything you thought you believed, More Than This is so fluid that it edges its way into your emotions without you realizing it until after it happens.  It shocked me, yes, but it also snuck up and affected me in more subtle ways than I'll ever be able to quantify. 

More Than This begins as a survival story of sorts, of a boy who finds himself in an alternate reality--or afterlife--and must try to make sense of it all.  And I was left as clueless as Seth.  Every time I thought I had this book figured out, it was like Patrick Ness gave a little knowing smile and said, "You just go along thinking that, Annie", all the while knowing he was going to pull the carpet out from underneath me in a few more pages.

It's about so much more than survival, though.  This book touches on some difficult themes--suicide, abuse, death, and more, all of which make it a little disturbing.  It presents all of these in an honest light.  There's another layer to Seth's drowning, another aspect that you don't realize at first, and when I figured it out, I just sat there in shock, unable to turn the page.  It questions the whole of reality, and then questions the questioning itself. 

The plot is complex in a beautiful way.  It has so many layers, and each one reveals something even deeper, something intimate about life or love or humanity.  About the characters themselves, who were as real as my feelings about this book.  Each character was raw and real and honest. 

On rare occasions, when you read a book, you come to a line where it feels like the author has specifically reached out to you, impacting you in an intensely personal way or articulating a feeling you've never been able to express until now.  Here is my experience of this:

"He's seeing the actual Milky Way streaked across the sky.  The whole of his entire galaxy, right there in front of him.  Billions and billions of stars.  Billions and billions of worlds.  All of them, all of those seemingly endless possibilities, not fictional, but real, out there, existing, right now.  There is so much more out there than just the world he knows, so much more than his tiny Washington town, so much more than even London.  Or England.  Or hell, for that matter.

So much more that he'll never see.  So much more that he'll never get to.  So much that he can only glimpse enough of to know that it's forever beyond his reach."

This.  I can't...  I'm taking an online astronomy class right now, and I had to do a lab that involved looking at the stars.  A few weeks ago, I went outside on a warm night, laid on my back on my pool deck, and stared up at the sky.  I've always been struck by the marvelous beauty of the stars, and I could look at them for hours.  But, at that moment, I was also struck by a strange sadness.  I just looked up and couldn't comprehend the fact that there just so much out in the universe that I'll never be able to see.  While it's beautiful, now I also can't help but feel sad.  Reading this was one of those moments where you can't help but wonder if the author somehow knew to reach out to you on a personal level.

Actually, everything in this book reached me on a personal level.  Not only is this book a beautifully written, masterfully plotted work of art, it's also an important book.  It's important to me, and for the world.  It dares to defy structure, and redefines fiction itself.  It makes you question existence in a way that, in my opinion, is a necessary fact of existence itself.  It also makes some profound statements about the hope of life, about how, even if you can't see it, there is always more.  This more-ness is at the heart of the book, and it's ultimately what left me filled with so much hope at the end, despite all the sadness that the characters had experienced.

"'I wanted so badly for there to be more.  I ached for there to be more than my crappy little life.'  He shakes his head.  'And there was more.  I just couldn't see it.'"

Also, as if I needed something else to prove my point, there's this:

Can your Kindle do that?  I didn't think so.

In the end, though, my thoughts boil down to this:

God bless Patrick Ness.

Similar Books: It questions existence and reality like Every Day or I Am the Messenger.  It's open-ended and up to interpretation like A Monster CallsIt deals with the idea alternate realities (and is creepy) like The Marbury Lens and its companion, Passenger.

Note: I didn't review this in my normal categorical way because this book is so unusual that I felt like that sort of review would hinder me more than help me.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Merlin's Blade (The Merlin Spiral #1) by Robert Treskillard

A strange meteorite.
A deadly enchantment.
And only Merlin can destroy it.

A meteorite brings a mysterious black stone whose sinister power ensnares everyone except Merlin, the blind son of a swordsmith. Soon, all of Britain will be under its power, and he must destroy the stone—or die trying.

Released: April 16th 2013    
Pages: 432
Publisher: Blink YA Books  
Source: Purchased

First Look: ****This intrigued me because I tend to enjoy books involving the Arthurian legend.  Besides, the cover has a wolf on it, which is cool.  Is there a reason, though, why one of its eyes is a different color than the other?  Quig alert, quig alert, everybody!  Also, what is Merry doing on this cover?  Doesn't it look like him, reflected in the sword?  That was probably supposed to be Merlin, but, well, I kept imagining Merlin as Colin Morgan (there was pretty much nothing the author could have done to either prevent or destroy that mental image).

Setting: *****  
Historical fantasy is a somewhat rare thing in YA fiction, though possibly less rare in Christian YA.  Christian fantasy lends itself well to Arthurian legend, which in turn lends itself well to historical fantasy.  Either way, though, I'd like to see more historical fantasy settings.  For the most part, I liked the historical aspect of this book.  It is set in the year 400-something, in England.  I love how real the medieval village felt (as much as I'm able to tell, having never actually lived in one).  The overpowering religious conflict was interesting, as well as the day-to-day struggles of life during this time.

Characters: ***** Merlin himself was the most likable and the most real out of all the characters.  He's a character in a Christian fiction book who actually makes mistakes; it's sad how rare that is.  I grew to like him by the end of the book, though it took me awhile to get to that point. 

Everyone else seemed one-sided.  Garth was too ungrateful for me to ever like.  Merlin's father had some complexity to him, but not enough to make him feel real.  Nataleyna strayed too far into damsel-in-distress-who-always-needs-a-man-to-save-her territory.  I kept wanting to see some independence from her, but I never did.

 Plot: ***** I tend to have problems with books that start out with non-world-threatening conflicts (that still hold much weight for the characters involved, of course) that, halfway through, turn a little (or a lot) cosmic and large-scale and supernatural.  I don't have a problem with any of those things, in themselves, but sometimes it's annoying to get yourself situated in a story and then suddenly have it change on you.  I had this problem, to some extent, with Merlin's Blade.  It starts out with a smaller-scale story that affects Merlin and his village.  Its smallness doesn't make the story any less compelling.  However, suddenly the king of the entire nation comes into play and we're dealing with something that'll affect the whole country and the future of Christianity.  It wasn't all necessarily bad, but the plot lost some of its hold on me in the transition.

Uniqueness: ****
It's a unique take on Arthurian legend, and takes place in a historical setting that isn't common in YA fiction.

Writing: *****  
It's possible that some of my problems with the writing are on my end, not the book's.  I read this entire book on the Kindle app on my iPad, and I'm not used to reading books on a screen.  I don't know if this would somehow affect how I experienced the narration, or not.  Still, it would've been hard for me to get my hands on a physical copy of this book, and my high school issued every student an iPad this year (I know, I know), so I figured I might as well put it to use. 

Still, though, the writing disoriented me a few times.  My main issue was all of the different point of view sections.  There were too many, in my opinion, with no real transition between them.  Some of them didn't seem necessary at all.

Likes: Nothing not already mentioned.

Not-so-great: Nothing not already mentioned.

Overall: This was an okay book.  I like the old English setting.  The main character, Merlin, was likable and real, though everyone was harder to get to know.  The plot had my attention at the beginning, but started to lose me the farther the book progressed.  The book contained too many different point of view characters, which became disorienting and moved the focus away from the most important (and interesting) character, which was Merlin.

Similar Books: It's a Christian fantasy book with a medieval setting like The Book of Names, the Dragon King trilogy, or the Door Within trilogy.  Its setting and time period is similar to that of Blood Red Horse and its sequels, and the Perfect Fire trilogy.
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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Daughter of the Centaurs (Centauraid #1) by Kate Klimo

Malora knows what she was born to be: a horse wrangler and a hunter, just like her father. But when her people are massacred by batlike monsters called Leatherwings, Malora will need her horse skills just to survive. The last living human, Malora roams the wilderness at the head of a band of magnificent horses, relying only on her own wits, strength, and courage. When she is captured by a group of centaurs and taken to their city, Malora must decide whether the comforts of her new home and family are worth the parts of herself she must sacrifice to keep them.

Released: January 24th 2012      Pages: 362
Publisher: Random House         Source: Library

First Look: ***** This book looked awesome because a)centaurs, b) horses, c) is that not the same girl that's on the cover of Blue Flame? and c) CENTAURS.  Before I saw the tagline, I thought the main character would be a centaur, which is a unique perspective I've never read before.  She's not a centaur, though--she's human.  And before reading, I thought that she was literally a daughter of centaurs.  I spent way too long trying to figure out how that works (I don't recommend doing this).  And then all I could think of was Firenze from AVPS.

Setting: ***** Apparently this was supposed to be some sort of dystopian novel, based off reading some other reviews.  I can see how it might be our world, but after something devastated all our technology and reverting us back to square one.  I can't see how the centaurs and other assorted creatures would have come about. 

Barring the dystopian aspect, though, the rest of the setting never did much for me.  The centaurs, as a society, came off as frivolous, illogical, and immature.  I understand that their overwhelming passion for the arts was supposed to come off as a little impractical.  And yet, for me, it went over the top.  I couldn't respect them.  They devote their lives to things such as sculpting, painting, or making mosaics, while leaving the day-to-day cooking, cleaning, and such to another species that's basically a slave race.  (Hello, House Elves?)  When Malora, the main character, shows interest in becoming a blacksmith, everyone (including the blacksmith) thinks she's insane.  While the worldbuilding was in-depth, it just didn't work for me.

 Characters: *****  The problem I had with Malora was that nothing seemed to affect her.  When all of the men from her tribe, including her father, are killed right in front of her (this isn't a spoiler--anyone who has read the back cover of this book will know that this happens), she barely even reacts.  She just gets whiny because she loses her favorite horse.  The rest of her people are killed, and she barely even cries.  She just doesn't have any emotions.  Except at the end when she becomes super-protective of her horses.  Then she gets angry and starts bossing people around, sometimes rudely.  Apart from that, she didn't do anything--she just let things happen to her.

Other characters were either obnoxious or flat.  Or both.  Orion never gave me any distinct sense of personality, nor did any of the other major centaurs.  Neal showed a little promise, but he wasn't given a big enough part in the story for me to get to know him better.  I couldn't stand Zephele--she just never stopped talking, and it made her seem shallow.  And annoying.  I can't abide people who never stop talking. 

Plot: ***** For the first part, there was a plot.  It moved along at a good pace, and had action.  It presented an actual problem that the characters had to face.  There was conflict, between Malora and the people of the tribe, and between the tribe and the Leatherwings. 

Unfortunately, though, that level of conflict dropped off quickly.  After that, there wasn't really a plot.  At that point it became a 300-page tour of the centaurs' society and culture. 

 Uniqueness: ***** 
Apart from the tidbit about House Elves, I can safely say I've never read anything like this before.  Centaurs are a rare topic in YA fiction.  The setting in general was a different take on centaurs, and mythical creatures in general.

Writing: ***** 
Third person + present tense=lots of awkward phrases and a generally bad combination.  I don't know if I've ever seen this combination work well.  This book wasn't an exception.  The phrasing was often awkward, disorienting, or both.  It skimmed over seemingly important things with not much thought.  For example, it suddenly jumped a few years (the time Malora spent alone in the wild) with no transition, which confused me at first.  If you're going to have a huge gap in your story, you have to clue your reader in on it before you just drop them on the other side without warning.

Likes: Nothing not already mentioned above.

Not-so-great: Are we not going to talk about the cover model's collarbone and shoulder?  Is it just me, or does she look absurdly bony, or is that just the angle and the background?  Model, go eat some cake, please.  Preferably an entire cake.

Also, what was with Malora's fascination and obsession with small talk?  She keeps yearning for small talk with her mother.  I can't understand this.   She seems to not understand the concept.  Here's the definition of small talk: polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, esp. as engaged in on social occasions.  It is, by definition, unimportant and shallow.  You talk about the weather and your health but neither person really cares what the other is saying.  So what's the point?  Why would anyone long for this?  I'm an INTJ--small talk is the kind of thing that makes us scream internally because we recognize how pointless it is but sometimes we just can't avoid it.

"Herself and Father feel that I've been adversely influenced by reading far too many books about love. Ancients like Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen and Victoria Roberts and Danielle Steele and Nico Simonette and Shakespeare and Stephenie Meyer."

How  This is what survives into humanity's future?  Danielle Steele and Stephenie Meyer?  No wonder people talk with such fear about an impending apocalypse.

Overall: Daughter of the Centaurs was an awkwardly written book with hardly any plot to speak of.  The setting was unique, but it also dominated the book and didn't make room for other important aspects like characterization or conflict.  The main character, Malora, showed no emotion, and she never did anything.  Other characters, like Zephele, just annoyed me.  Overall, I wouldn't recommend this, and I won't be reading the sequel.

Similar Books: It involved humans interacting with horse-like creatures like The Scorpio Races (though in all other aspects they're very different books).  It also reminds me of Dragonswood and Brightly Woven, though I don't have a good reason why.

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Bitter Kingdom (Fire and Thorns #3) by Rae Carson

The epic conclusion to Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns trilogy. The seventeen-year-old sorcerer-queen will travel into the unknown realm of the enemy to win back her true love, save her country, and uncover the final secrets of her destiny.

Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she's never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion--a champion to those who have hated her most.

Released: August 27th 2013              Pages: 448
Publisher: Greenwillow Books         Source: Library
This book lacked a certain something that would have made it awesome.  The first two books had that something, which was what made me fall in love with this series originally.  While The Bitter Kingdom is still good, it just didn't have the same effect on me that the first two books did.

I'll start with what I liked.  Elisa has always been a struggling point, for me, in this series, but she's finally growing up.  She never crossed that line of characters I like vs. characters I love as if they were real people, but I was rooting for her, even if I never loved her.  Still, as the series has progressed, she's become a more solid character, and become more mature.  She has some awesome moments like this:

“You look beautiful,” Alodia says.
I startle at the compliment. Then I smile. “I’m beautiful to the one person who matters.”
She nods. “Hector’s mouth will drop open when he sees you.”
“I hope so. But I meant me. I’m beautiful to me.”

Thank you.  It's about time someone said this in a YA book.  A strong female character does not have to be able to beat everyone in a five-mile radius in hand-to-hand combat in order to be strong.  Strength, in this sense, is not a physical thing, but more a strength of character, values, and self-esteem.  And, at moments like the quote above, Elisa embodied that strength.

Another highlight, for me, was the side characters.  Especially Storm, but also Mara and some others.  Storm was complex and felt real.  Mara did, to a lesser extent.  I never got that sense with Hector. 

And while we're on the subject of Hector...his point of view chapters disoriented me every time they came around.  I realize that they said "Hector" quite clearly at the beginning of every chapter.  Still, if I failed to notice this (which I did, on more than one occasion), they were confusing.  There was no distinction between Elisa's narration and Hector, despite the fact that they were both written in first person.  When there are two different first person narrators in a novel, I should be able to tell who is who without looking at chapter headings.  There needs to be a different voice for each character, and The Bitter Kingdom just didn't accomplish that.

My other major problem is that the climax and ending was underwhelming.  I remember reading the climax of The Crown of Embersat that moment, you couldn't have pulled me away from the final pages of that book unless the house was on fire or OneRepublic was outside randomly performing on the street where I live.  I was emotionally invested, and I couldn't stop reading.  The Bitter Kingdom did not give me the same experience.  I could have stood up and walked away in the middle of the climax, and not have had single problem doing so.  I felt like the stakes were lower, somehow: Elisa didn't seem as affected.  It was all over so fast, and it felt rushed. 

Still, though, I enjoyed this, for the most part.  It wasn't as good as the first two books, and it was disappointing, as finales go.  Even so, I liked it well enough to give it four stars.  My problems with this book aren't as much with this book itself; it's that I know how other books in this series have made me feel and how much I enjoyed them, and I was disappointed to not get that from this book.  If you liked the first two books, it's still worth a read.   

Similar Books: It features a main character who is a queen (or other royalty) like The Demon KingBitterblueor Falling Kingdoms.  It has elements of magic like in Shadow and Bone and Grave Mercy.  It also reminds me of Vessel.
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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Worldbuilding: The Most Epic DIY You Will Ever Do (Part 2)

In Part 1 of Worldbuilding: The Most Epic DIY You Will Ever Do, I talked about the steps needed to create a world from the ground up, how much worldbuilding you'll need to do, making maps, and also posted some worldbuilding checklists.  And now for Part 2:

The way you organize your worldbuilding information is just as important as the worldbuilding itself.  If you're figuring all these things out, you'll have to write it down somehow.  This is entirely up to you.  You might want a notebook full of notes, maybe organized into sections like "landscape", "culture", "maps", etc.  A binder will also work very well for this.  This would allow you to print off pictures from the internet that remind you of your setting.  I love doing this--it's so much fun to look at real-life mountains to get inspiration for my fictional mountain range.  For those of you who prefer to type or to go paperless, you can always use computer folders to organize your worldbuilding notes.  I posted in more detail about various methods of organizing any book-related information or notes you might have right here.  It's good to keep all your notes in one place, with some form of organization.  That way, if you need to look something up while writing, you only need to turn to your notebook/binder/whatever.  It's like your own personal Wikipedia.

Ah, Mordor, which I can include in this post because it's a fictional setting.  Such a lovely vacation spot.  Walk-ins not accepted.

If you're wondering how you're possibly going to think of all this, you have no further to look than the world around you.  Inspiration for your setting definitely can come from real-life places.  I know you have internet access, so why not try some Google searches to find something to spur your imagination?  Christopher Paolini based some of the terrain in his fictional world on the mountains of Montana.  It's okay to use real places, and borrow aspects from real-life cultures, past or present.  Just like how every plot or book idea inevitably is subconsciously inspired by the thousands of stories you've taken in over your lifetime, worldbuilding inspiration lies in the countless places you've been, seen, heard of, or read about. 

And now that I've spent all that time telling you how to make an entire world and how to plan all these things, I'm going to tell you that you won't use it all.  In fact, I'm begging you, please, for the love of all that is good and literary, please don't use all of your worldbuilding.  Use aspects that are relevant to the story.  Use enough to give us a sense of your world and an understanding of how it works.  Use appropriate details to richen the story, help form a character, or establish a mood.  But don't ever, ever say "Well, I spent all this time worldbuilding, so I might as well use every piece of information I came up with."  If you do this, your novel won't be as much a story as it will be one giant infodump.  And who likes to read infodump?  Nobody. 

The key to immersing your readers into your fictional world is not in dumping as much information as possible about it over their heads.  The key, after you've established the "big stuff" of how your world works, is to add details.  A few details here and there are far more effective than an entire chapter explaining the wedding customs of your fictional culture.  Strategically placed details give the reader the sense that this world is just as complex as a real one without making them read page after page of boring infodump.  Details clue in the reader's subconscious to the fact that this world has other details, below, the surface.  They might never make the book, but if you know these details, chances are you know other details, and that lends to a setting that feels authentic.  It's like an iceberg--you only see the top, but you know the rest is there, and that it's huge.

For some more worldbuilding advice, I like this article, 25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding. [insert obligatory language warning here]  It gets a little weird in places, but it's good advice.  And longtime followers of this blog will be used to reading posts from bloggers who go off on weird tangents all the time.  Ahem.

If you're sitting here thinking "Annie, ain't nobody got time for that", then I'd highly recommend not writing fantasy.  Please.  Just--don't.

Your brain might be going like this, thinking of all this worldbuilding:

I totally understand.  But it's also fun, and worthwhile once you start actually writing your book.  When you think about it, how awesome is worldbuilding?  You're creating an entire world that's all your own.  For now, it only exists in your mind and in your notes.  If someone ever reads your book, though, suddenly it exists in their mind, and on and on for all your readers.  How cool is that?  You get to take your readers by the hand into your very own fictional world and guide them through a place they've never been before.

To sum it all up: If you're writing a book that's set in a fictional world, you need to plan and develop that world.  Once you've done so, though, don't ever, ever use every single detail that you've come up with.  Let readers know the big, important things, yes, and anything that's relevant, but also remember that it's like an iceberg.  We see the small details on top, but we know the massive rest of the chunk of ice is still there.  With worldbuilding, small details will give readers the sense that your world is fully developed and real. 

How do you build settings for your books?  What are some of your favorite fictional worlds?
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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Worldbuilding: The Most Epic DIY You Will Ever Do (Part 1)

Let's say you're writing a book.  A book that doesn't take place in our own, modern world.  A book set in either a made-up land, a future version of Earth, or an alternate version of Earth.  To do this, you're going to have to create (or recreate) an entire world.

That's right.  The whole entire world.

You need to know everything about it.  You need to know what kind of government your fictional place has, what they eat, how they celebrate birthdays.  You need to know everything from how their seasons work to how they conduct funerals and what kind of folklore they have and how they greet each other and how they name children and what their life expectancy is and if there's a magic system and what the landscape looks like and what kind of technology they have and what kind of jobs people do and what currency they use.  And on and on.

You need to build an entire world from scratch.  That, my friends, is what we call worldbuilding

So forget all those other do-it-yourselves on Pinterest.  Forget crocheting blankets and bookmark-making and whatever you do with mason jars.  All of that pales in comparison to worldbuilding, which is officially the most impressive, epic, large-scale DIY that exists.

The thing about worldbuilding is that it's a tip-of-the-iceberg thing.  You want to have an intimate knowledge of your world.  You want to know it inside and out.  In a sense, you need to be God for your own little corner of the fictionverse.  And yet, not every detail will be incorporated into your story.  Not every detail should be incorporated into your story, and that's okay.  We don't need to know everything.  But the more you know about your setting, the more you'll be able to use these bits and pieces of knowledge to bring it to life.

I'm about to tell you how to create an entire world and everything about it from the ground up (pun kind-of-not-really intended).  But first, recognize this: you may not have to do all this worldbuilding.  Maybe you're a build-as-you-go kind of writer, which I respect but don't really understand.  Some things might be totally irrelevant to your story, and you might not need to know them.  However, the more aspects of your world that you plan and design, the more you'll be able to make the setting come alive.  There's no required amount of worldbuilding that's needed to make an awesome setting, but I'd recommend that you err on the side of over-planning.

The first step is to lay down the basis for your world.  Is it a fantasy world?  Another planet?  Another version of our own world?  Note: from here on, I'll be talking about worldbuilding as if we're creating an entirely new world from scratch.  If you're creating a future version or alternate version of our own world, some of these steps will already be done for you.  For example, you won't have to figure out how the lay of the land looks.

Where was Gondor when I tried to create an entire world from nothing?

I highly recommend drawing a map (or maps) of your world.  I drew a map of the fictional kingdom I created for my past novel.  The map doesn't have to be artistic (mine wasn't *cringes*)--it just has to show what the land looks like.  All I did for my map was outline the country, draw some rough "mountains" (okay fine, they were just triangles), add some trees to indicate forests, and added a dot for each major city or landmark.  You might also want a map or diagram, at some point, of any important building or city, just to keep things straight in your head while writing.

Mapmaking links:
Drawing a Fantasy Map For Your Short Story or Novel
Mapmaking for Fantasy Authors
The Four Secrets of Fantasy Map Making (This one is by far my favorite.  It's geared toward people who can't draw, and it made me laugh.)

Then you'll need to think about the physical aspects of your world.  What kind of terrain does it have?  Is it mountainous, covered with desert, or a little of both?  (Don't forget water sources!)  Are the seasons like Earth's seasons, or are they different?  You have loads of creative freedom here, but keep in mind things like the fact that lone mountains don't tend to rise up in the middle of the desert.  Unless there's a magical or other explanation for it. 

Then, it's time to figure out where the people are.  Think back to middle school geography--people don't build cities randomly.  People congregate and build things in strategic places.  Near a river, at an important crossroads, on a bay, by a lake.  Who lives where, and why?  What kind of society is it?  Are most people peasants?  Are they educated?  Is the ruling class rich while everyone else starves?  Does the average person farm?  Which brings you to culture.  What kind of culture do these people have?  Weather, seasons, landscape, and means of living have a huge impact on culture.  Mythology, legends, celebrations, rituals, music, clothing, food, even aspects of daily life are impacted and shaped by the world around the people.  (See a more in-depth checklist if you want to make sure you have everything covered.  I've posted a few links later in this post.)

Are you feeling slightly overwhelmed yet?  How about very much overwhelmed?  And we're not even done yet. 

You have to consider your world's history.  How did it become what it is today?  Does it have centuries or millennia of history, or does its history only span the last few hundred years? 

Rohan is an awesome fictional place.

Don't forget the government.  Government is essential; is it a monarchy, a dictatorship, a democracy?  You also have to decide how the people feel about it, and how much direct impact it has on people's daily lives.

There are still so many things to think about--so many things, in fact, that there's probably something important that I've forgotten to mention.  I've only touched on the broader aspects of worldbuilding, and there are still so many details left to consider.

For more exhaustive and complete worldbuilding checklists, try these:
Cruinne's D&D Reading Room: The Worldbuilding Checklist (detailed checklist)
Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions by Patricia C. Wrede (detailed checklist)
13 Worldbuilding Questions (not as detailed, but provides broader questions to kickstart your worldbuilding)
Worldbuilding Links (a list with more links than I've posted here)

There's so much more to say about worldbuilding, so I broke this post into two sections so it wasn't some huge wall of text staring you down.  In the second half I'll talk about how to organize your worldbuilding, how to use details to make your setting come alive, and how NOT to use those details to infodump on your reader.

This isn't all I have to say about worldbuilding--come back in a few days for the rest of the "DIY"!  Part 2 is live right here!
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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney

A teenage girl is transformed into a reluctant superhero and must balance her old life with the dark secret of who she has become.

Prima ballerina Anthem Fleet is closely guarded by her parents in their penthouse apartment. But when she meets the handsome Gavin at a party on the wrong side of town, she is immediately drawn into his dangerous world. Then, in a tragic accident, Anthem falls to her death. She awakes in an underground lab, with a bionic heart ticking in her chest. As she navigates her new life, she uncovers the sinister truth behind those she trusted the most, and the chilling secret of her family lineage…and her duty to uphold it.

The Dark Knight meets Cinder in this gripping and cinematic story of heartbreak and revenge. From Alloy Entertainment, this inventive new superhero story is sure to captivate any reader.

Released: October 8th 2013   Pages: 320
Publisher: HarperTeen           Source: ARC received through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway

First Look: ****I won a copy of this through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. It looked awesome.  Bionic hearts and superheroes?  Yes, I'll go for that.  Even if I can't decide how I feel about the cover.  It's cool but it also freaks me out for some reason.

Setting: ***** 
Let's make a checklist.  Corrupted police organization?  Check.  Out-of-control crime level?  Check.  Rich people that are either ignorant because they're in their own little worlds or because they choose to be ignorant?  Check.  Fear-inducing chemicals?  Check.  Mysterious vigilante that saves people but keeps identity secret?  Check.  We're talking about Gotham, right?  Oh, wait.  This is Bedlam, the setting of The Brokenhearted.  You were only four letters off.  If I didn't know better, I couldn't tell the difference.  Actually, that's a lie.  I could tell the difference because Bedlam doesn't have Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who are obviously the most important aspects of Gotham.

Apart from the lack of originality, the worldbuilding still wasn't great.  I'm thinking this was a slightly futuristic setting, but we were never told.  It couldn't been happening in 2013, for all I know.  Or it could be in the future.  I have no idea.

 Characters: ***** Someone needed to knock some sense into Anthem Fleet.  She goes to some random party in the most dangerous part of town.  I wonder how anything could ever go wrong.  And then she meets some random guy and instantly falls in love with him.  A few chapters later, they're kissing, and a few chapters after that, they're sleeping together.  And she barely knows anything about him.  Also, instead of using her new "powers" (though they really aren't powers--it's just an artificial heart transplant) with common sense, she just rages all over the city tying up criminals.  While on a revenge mission.  She ends up making bigger messes by trying to do good, but does she stop?  Nope.

Gavin was too perfect.  Right from the start, I knew that something was wrong about him, and not just the Edward Cullen Syndrome.  I predicted the twist about him (half of it, anyway) long before it happened. 

I didn't understand why Will suddenly turned into such a jerk.  He was Anthem's boyfriend at the beginning of the novel, and she gave no indication that he was manipulative, disrespectful, or mean.  Yet after getting back together with him, he became an awful person.  Was he like this before?  If so, why was Anthem still with him?  And if not, why the sudden change?  It made no sense.

 Plot: ***** Given stronger characters and a more original setting, the plot could have been awesome.  That is, if the insta-love was removed from the story.  This particular case of insta-love has to be setting some kind of record.  Page 21: They meet.  Page 38: They kiss.  Page 60: They sleep together.  It moved way too fast, too fast to be a healthy relationship.  Again, she hardly knew anything about him, yet she temporarily set aside all previous commitments to spend time with him.  Other aspects of the plot interested me, but the overbearing romance made it hard to keep the rest of the plot moving. 

And then she spent too much time in bed, being depressed.  She doesn't feel like anything will ever be okay again, and she just wants to sit and feel sorry for herself.  I can't stand characters who sit and pity themselves all day long.  And I've never been able to like characters who are utterly focused on revenge, like Anthem is.

 Uniqueness: ***** 
This book is basically a Batman movie, in novel form.  I've already talked about Bedlam's many similarities to Gotham.  And besides, Ballerina Batman is already more of a thing than you might think, as this reviewer pointed out.

Now all I can think about is Christian Bale trying to be a ballerina.
Christopher Nolan: Christian, you need to learn to pirouette for your big showdown with the Scarecrow.
Cillian Murphy: I absolutely cannot wait.
Christian Bale: Wait...what...this wasn't in my contract.
Nolan: Too bad.  Go find a tutu.
Bale: Well, at least I'll look fabulous when I take on Superman.  That Kent guy won't know what hit him.
Everyone: ...
DC: Oh, snap!
HISHE Batman: I'm Batman.

*highlight to view spoiler* He's Batman.

 Writing: ***** The writing was alright.  I don't have large issues with it, just little nitpicks.  Like the inconsistency.  At times, Anthem referred to her parents as "my mother".  Other times, she called them by their names.  It makes so much more sense to just pick one, and stick with it.

The author hardly touched on the emotional effects of having an non-human heart.  This would have a huge emotional impact on the bearer of the heart, and would make them start asking some difficult questions about their humanity.  Why was this never touched upon?

Also, why did everyone have a normal name like Will or Gavin, but Anthem is, well, Anthem?

 Likes: Nothing not already mentioned.

Not-so-great: "...this inventive new superhero story is sure to captivate any reader."  That is a lie.  It didn't captivate me.  Someone needs to rewrite this pitch.

Overall: This book could have been so much better.  Bedlam was basically Gotham with four letters changed.  Anthem did things that annoyed me.  The insta-love was just...ugh, and took away from the exciting, promising aspects of the story.  And it wasn't even a healthy relationship.  One of the major twists was predictable.  Overall, I didn't like this much.  Not recommended.

Similar Books: It had a main character discovering/gaining an inhuman/machine body, like in Mila 2.0, or Virals. It also reminded me of Shatter Me.
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