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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Books of 2013

Well.  Here we are again.  This year, for the first time, I found myself in the unfortunate position of only having read nine five-star books.  Usually, I have read enough five-star books throughout the year to fill this entire top ten list, with extras.  This year, though, I had to step back and look at all of my four-star books, and pick just one out of all the rest.  (If you missed the 20 Questions post, where I also talked about my favorite characters, least favorite books, etc. form this year, it's right here.)

Looking at this list, I'm realizing one thing: I like sad books.  Actually, I'm not surprised.  I'm the same way with songs--I find it easier to like sad songs than happy songs (probably because there are only about three different "party songs" that anyone can ever write, but an infinite number of sad songs [and seriously, just listen to all this wonderfulness].)  Then again, if a book is completely "happy", why would it be worth reading?  We don't read, or at least, I don't read, to read about people for whom everything goes right all the time.  If there's no struggle to overcome, what's the point?  I like books that cause me to feel something, and in many cases, it's books with much sadness.  It also so happens that some of the saddest books I've read are also, at the same time, the ones that leave me feeling the most hopeful, at the end.

Anyway, though, on to the list.

10. The Isle Of Blood by Rick Yancey 
Here it is, the one four-star book that managed to stand out above all the others.  Its spot is, admittedly, a little iffy, since my favorite four-star book of the year could easily change depending on my mood.  Still, though, this is a fantastic book.  My review is not actually up yet, since I posted reviews in the wrong order last weekend, but it'll be up soon.  This series just keeps getting better with each book.  It's rare when a series can do that, but when it does, it's fantastic.  One of my favorite things about this book is the writing; Rick Yancey can write, and it's gorgeous and haunting all at once.  It's creepy, but in a poetic way.  The characters are also awesome, and I particularly love the complex mentor-apprentice relationship between Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop.

9. Frozen by Melissa de la Cruz and Michael Johnston
I'm not sure what I expected from Frozen, but it overtook any expectations I might have had.  For starters, no one told me this book ended with a dystopian naval battle.  With dragons.  I've been looking for a dystopian novel with dragons for so long that I thought I'd have to go and write one myself, if I wanted one at all.  Even with that aspect, though, Frozen surprised me with its complex, awesome characters.  The setting, while still a recognizable dystopia, manages to be unique, which I very much appreciate.

8. Froi Of The Exiles by Melina Marchetta
I read this book's predecessor, Finnikin Of The Rock, in 2010.  Even though I loved it, it was one of those cases where it took me forever to get around to reading the sequel.  If I had known what I was missing out on, I would've read this much sooner.  Melina Marchetta is such a gifted writer, and her true skill is creating characters that feel truly real.  It's also one of only two high fantasy books that made it onto my top ten list this year, which is unusual.

7. The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielson
There's only one reason you'd ever need to read that series, and that reason is Jaron.  Every so often, there comes a character that you just want to be best friends with, and Jaron is a friend I'd love to have.  Without him, this would've been a four-star book, but he catapulted it into the five-star range.  This book sits in that no-man's-land between young adult and middle grade books, and I think it benefits from this by using the best elements from both areas.  It still maintains the sense of adventure and just plain fun that middle grade books have, but at the same time, tackles more difficult issues like YA books often do.

6. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
I almost didn't read The 5th Wave.  If I hadn't already read (and loved) another of Rick Yancey's books this year, I doubt I would have picked this up.  I did, though, and I'm glad of it.  The 5th Wave is filled with a surprising amount of emotion (it surprised me, anyway), and characters that I loved.  It gets hard to read, in places, but if it wasn't, it wouldn't be half as good as it is.

5. Railsea by China Miéville
I'm not sure what you already know about Railsea, if anything, but there's only one thing you need to know about it: TRAIN PIRATES.  I didn't realize I wanted that to be a thing until I read this.  It was one of the most unique, if not the most, books I read this year.  It's a dystopian novel, as well as a high-seas adventure of sorts, except that instead of ships, the characters ride around on trains.  And there are whale-sized moles.  If nothing else, it has an awesome cover.

4. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
The simple facts that a) this book is about a boy whose mother has cancer and b) it's written by Patrick Ness tell you one thing: if you're the type of person who cries when you read, you'd better go and grab yourself an entire box of Kleenex.  Before I even started this, I knew how it was going to end.  Not because I'd read spoilers, but because there wasn't any other way it could end.  This book is brilliant in its simplicity.  It's short, but it manages to say a lot in those 215 pages.  As I wrote in my review, the "monster" in this book wants the truth from Conor, the main character.  At the same time, the book is its own sort of truth, in itself, which gives it so much impact.  Also, the pictures are hauntingly beautiful.

3. Light by Michael Grant
This series is one of my favorites, and its other installments have made it onto my top ten list for as long as I've had a top ten list.  Sadly, this will be the last time, since Light is the series finale.  It's one of those cases where you're desperate to see how the series ends, but sad to see it go.  The Gone series certainly went out with a bang.  This ending could have so easily gone wrong, but instead managed to be satisfying.  It didn't feel like there was any other way it could have possibly ended.  I might have to do a reread of this series, because I already miss Sam, Astrid, Edilio, and everyone else from the FAYZ.

2. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
I was prepared to dislike this book, or at least be indifferent towards it.  I'd heard almost no negative reviews of it, and it's hard to avoid all the gushing fans on Goodreads.  Contemporary romance is not my thing--it never has been, and I doubt it ever will be.  This was just another case where I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  I'm so glad I did, because I ended up loving this.  I'd read enough reviews to have figured out the ending, but that didn't make it any less emotional.  It was also beautifully written, with wonderful, complex characters.    

1. More Than This by Patrick Ness
After The Ask And The Answer, Monsters Of Men, and A Monster Calls, I thought I was prepared to face this book.  I thought I was prepared for whatever Patrick Ness had in store for me.  I was wrong.  All at once, More Than This is a questioning of reality, a survival story, a story of love and loss, and a story of hope.  In my review, I wrote, "Trying to explain this book is like trying to use only a crayon and the vowels to explain quantum physics."   As I've said before, it questions our very existence, and what is reality, and what isn't.  Unlike anything else I've ever read, though, it goes one step further and questions the questioning itself.  The existential question of More Than This is not "Do we exist?", "How do we exist?", or "Why do we exist?", but "Does it really matter?".  This book makes you think, and question your own beliefs.  It's complex--the more you think you have its secrets all figured out, the more you realize you have it all wrong.  It hurts, like many of Patrick Ness's other books, but yet it fills you with so much hope, at the end.  It's a reminder that even if you can't see it, even if you feel there's nothing more to your life, your story, your existence, there's always something more.  Hence the title, More Than This.  As soon as I read it, I knew it would earn this top spot for the year.  That's how much I love it.  This isn't just my favorite book of this year--it's one of my favorites of all time.

This year, I read more books than I ever have before.  I didn't quite make 100, but I'll get there one of these years.  Here are some stats:

Books read: 91 (up 10 from last year)
Average rating: 3.4 (down 0.4)
Total pages read: 35,458 (up 4,222)
Average pages per book: 382.4 (down 3.6)
Average pages read per day: 97.1 (up 12.1)
Average number of days to read one book: 3.9 (down 0.6)

Out of curiosity, I decided to see if my average rating differed for male vs. female authors, as well as male vs. female protagonists.  I read a few books with both a male and female author, which I did not count.

Total books by male authors: 48
Average rating: 3.6
Total books by females: 37
Average rating: 3.4
Total male POV only: 35
Average rating: 4.2
Total female POV only: 27
Average rating: 2.4
Total mixed POV: 21
Average rating: 4.8

It seems that, this year at least, I preferred books by male authors slightly more than female.  Books with a female protagonist, on average, got a considerably lower average rating than books with male protagonists, though I apparently preferred mixed POVs above male-only or female-only.  I suppose I need a disclaimer saying that it's not the fact that the author or character is a certain gender that makes me like or dislike the book; it just happens the way it happens (in other words, if I dislike/like your book, I don't care what your gender is, and I'll give it the rating I think it deserves).  Fantasy (especially high fantasy) and science fiction, the two genres I read most, tend to have a majority of male authors and protagonists, so this might explain the discrepancy in ratings.  It'll be interesting to see if these numbers change from year to year.

I'm excited to get started on my 2014 reading!

Just for fun, here are my top ten songs bought and/or discovered in 2013:
10. '21 Guns' by Green Day
9. 'Your Bones' by Of Monsters And Men
8. 'Rainy Zurich' by The Fray
7. 'Daniel In The Den' by Bastille
6. 'Ships In The Night' by Mat Kearney
5. 'C'mon' by Panic! At The Disco and fun.
4. 'All Alright' by fun.
3. 'I'm Still Here (Jim's Theme)' by John Rzeznik
2. 'Breath Of Life' by Florence + The Machine
1. 'The Wind' by The Fray

What were your favorites/least favorites of this year?  What are you excited to read in 2014?
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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Rebel Spring (Falling Kingdoms #2) by Morgan Rhodes

Love, power, and magic collide with war in the second book of the Falling Kingdoms series.

Auranos has fallen and the three kingdoms—Auranos, Limeros, and Paelsia—are now united as one country called Mytica. But still, magic beckons, and with it the chance to rule not just Mytica, but the world...

When the evil King Gaius announces that a road is to be built into the Forbidden Mountains, formally linking all of Mytica together, he sets off a chain of events that will forever change the face of this land, forcing Cleo the dethroned princess, Magnus the reluctant heir, Lucia the haunted sorceress, and Jonas the desperate rebel to take steps they never could have imagined.

Released: 27th 2013       Pages: 416
Publisher: Razorbill        Source: Library
I love the cover of this book.  It's more interesting than your standard fantasy-weapon cover, because Jonas there actually looks like he's about to attack someone, rather than just doing the Mulan thing with the sword.  Anyway, though, this was one of my most anticipated books this year.  Its predecessor, Falling Kingdomsleft me eager for more, and I was excited to see where this series would go.

I'm still not a fan of Cleo.  While she gained a little more respect from me during this book, I still am having trouble seeing her as anything other than selfish and superficial.  She experienced some growth, but I'm not as attached to her as I am other characters in this series.  It's also a bit obnoxious that she has five(?) guys interested in her.  Love triangles are one thing, but five guys infatuated with her?  Isn't that overkill?  I'm not sure what to think of her relationship with Jonas.  I wouldn't say that they are "together", by any means, but there's definitely something there, and it hasn't been around long enough for me to tell whether it works.  It feels sudden and random, and yet...I'm not as opposed to it as I thought I'd be.  

The romance, in general, in this book is all getting slightly out of hand.  I'm not sure of the number of love triangles in this book, but as soon as there's more than one, does the exact number really matter anymore?  None of the love triangles feel quite as superfluous as, say, Twilight.  I'm just hoping they don't turn overly angsty or annoying in the next books.

The other main characters, Lucia, Magnus, and Jonas, continued to be interesting characters.  Lucia's development is a bit frightening, but I actually like the direction she's headed.  I continue to admire Jonas' dedication to his cause, and let's face it, his bromance with Brion is adorable.  Magnus has maintained his spot as my favorite.  He's probably the one I would dislike most in real life, but in this book, he is the character with the most depth, and the character I care most about.  

While I cringe at calling anything "___ for the ___ crowd" (as in, Harry Potter for adults, A Game Of Thrones for girls, etc.)*, whoever called this "A Game Of Thrones for the YA crowd" certainly has a point.  This series would definitely appeal to fans of A Game Of Thrones.  If nothing else, the authors of both series are not afraid to kill off major characters left and right.  It's like Shakespeare or something.  Brace yourselves: death is coming.      

As a whole, Rebel Spring suffers a little from second-book syndrome.  While it's not as severe as the closely related middle-of-the-trilogy syndrome, it's still not as good as the first one.  That being said, it still maintained my interest.  Most characters became even more fleshed-out and developed, and the plot just keeps getting more complex.  I'm eager to read the next book and find out what happens next.    

*Because, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”  Also, I hate when anyone calls something "__ for girls".  What, girls can't like the same things as guys?  I found this awesome book; it's A Game Of Thrones for girls.  Want to know what it's called?  A Game Of Thrones.  OH WAIT.  When people say something is "for girls", they usually mean it has more romance, which not all girls like.  I can attest to that.

Similar Books: It has a high fantasy setting and features princesses like those of The Girl of Fire and Thorns and Bitterblue. It has some magic to it, like Grave Mercy or Shadow and Bone. It pits multiple point of view characters against each other like Fall of a Kingdom and A Game of Thrones. It actually has many things in common with aGoT. Namely, an author who isn't afraid to kill major characters.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

20 Questions: My Year In Books: 2013

I like year-end reading recaps.  Since there are just some things that can't be summed up in a top ten list (though I'll do that as well), I'm doing a 20 Questions-style recap.  If you want to participate and use this list as well, go here to find out how.  

And the best/worst of 2013 are...

  1. Best book of 2013? More Than This.  Usually, I have to stare at my yearly top ten list for half an hour before I make up my mind.  This year, there was no question.  I pretty much knew that More Than This would end up being my favorite of the year as soon as I read it.  
  2. Least favorite?  Dragonspell.  What was that, even?  It was painful to get through the entire thing.  The main character named her dragon Gymn (so basically "gym"), for goodness' sake.  What else do you need to hear?
  3. Favorite cover?  Either Railsea or Touched.  If I had to pick just one, it would probably be Touched.  Both are unique, and visually interesting.  Railsea is intriguing, because, well, how often do you see a book cover with a train wreck off one edge?  Touched, while no more than an okay book, is gorgeous.  The haunted-looking amusement park is creepy and beautiful at the same time.  
  4. Most eagerly awaited book?  Light.  I've been with the Gone series for a few years now, and I couldn't wait to see how it would end.  There was a lot riding on this final book, and I was ready for some answers.  The Runaway King also deserves mention.
  5. Favorite new series you discovered in 2013?  The Monstrumologist.  While it's not new this year, I didn't discover it until a few months ago.  The writing style is lovely and poetic, and also unsettling, because it's at its most poetic when it's describing a gory or creepy scene.  And this series has plenty of those.
  6. Most disappointing book?  My Favorite Band Does Not Exist.  The premise was so cool--a character trapped inside a book (convinced that he's going to die in chapter 64), and an alternate reality in which the fake viral internet band created by said character exists.  It let me down.  I tried to like it, but it was just too bizarre, not to mention poorly written.  I also wanted to love Project Cain, which had all the ingredients for a super-suspenseful novel.  Instead, I had to endure almost four hundred pages of solid telling.
  7. The book you expected not to like but were pleasantly surprised?  Contemporary romance is not typically my thing, so I was fully prepared to be, at best, indifferent towards the much-loved The Fault In Our Stars.  In fact, I ended up loving it.  I was about to say "loving it to death" but that probably isn't appropriate in this context.  I was also ready to be annoyed with The 5th Wave for being just another of the zillions of dystopians that came out this year.  Instead, though, it stood out from the crowd, and I'm glad I read it.  (Don't worry--I got my chance to be the Grumpy Cat-esque reviewer on other books that everyone except me seems to love, like Ender's Game and Across The Universe.)
  8. Book you recommended most often?  The Book Thief.  I'm not surprised at all; it's been a few years since I read this (I need to reread it), but my love for it hasn't yet faded.  My runners-up were Falling Kingdoms, Every Day, and Eon: Dragoneye Reborn.
  9. Freebie! (Favorite quote, favorite scene, etc.)  I'm going with quotes.  Here's one I loved: "I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is inprobably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?”   -John Green, The Fault In Our Stars
    And another: “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.”
    -Patrick Ness, More Than This
  10. Best review you wrote in 2013?  More Than This was one of the hardest reviews to write, but I think it ended up being one of the best.  My review of A Feast For Crows probably deserves mention because I basically just wrote about the fact that I read this series like it's some high fantasy version of Survivor.   
  11. Book that had the most impact on you?  More Than This claims yet another category.  It had such an impact because of the questions it asks of readers, and the way it makes you rethink everything.  It's one of those books that questions the very existence of reality.  What defines reality?  More importantly, though, More Than This goes beyond any other reality-questioning book and asks: "Does it matter?"  To me, this second question gives it so much more meaning.  Though it was one of the saddest and most emotionally intense books I read this year, it was also one of the most hopeful.  
  12. Most emotional book (for you, or the characters, or both)?  The Fault In Our Stars.  Before I even read this, I had read enough reviews to know the ending.  I thought this would lessen the impact, but I believe it actually made it worse.  I spent the whole book not wanting to care about a certain character because of this knowledge, but I found myself unable to not care.  I didn't physically cry at the end, but I did spend ten minutes with my face shoved into a pillow, trying to comprehend my feelings.  Does that count?  
  13. Best of genres:
    1. Fantasy?  Froi of the Exiles.  Melina Marchetta creates some of the most fantastic characters I've ever read, and I want to know her secret.  Runners-up: A Feast For Crows, Falling Kingdoms
    2. Sci-fi?  Ready Player One.  I'm not a gamer, and I have no obsession with the 80s, and yet I still really enjoyed this book.  It's a little odd, but unique and exciting.
    3. Dystopian?  Either Light, The 5th Wave, or Railsea.  They're three completely different books, but I loved all of them.   
    4. Realistic/Contemporary?  The Fault In Our Stars.  I grudgingly picked this up, but I'm so glad I did.  I already know the movie is going to hurt--anyone who goes to see it without reading the book first will have no idea what hit them.
    5. Historical?  The Monstrumologist (and its sequels).  This isn't strictly historical--it's more historical sci-fi, but I'm going to count it anyway.  
    6. Paranormal?  There wasn't a paranormal book that I absolutely loved, this year, but out of the ones I liked, my favorite was probably Necromancing The Stone.
    7. Classics?  Frankenstein.  This is one of my favorite classics, not just this year, but of all time.  It's beautifully written, with a fascinating storyline and nuanced characters.
    8. Other?  More Than This is tough to classify, so I might as well mention it here.
  14. Book that didn't quite live up to the hype?  I have many of these--to many to name here.  Ender's Game, Across The Universe, The Thief, I Am Number Four, and Allegiant, just to name a few.  Sometimes, I read a book that I wouldn't have normally read, just to see what all the fuss is about.  In a few cases, this has rewarded me.  More often than not, though, I just find myself thinking, "Really?  Thousands of people love this?  Ugh, why?"  
  15. Most gorgeously written book?  The Monstrumologist, The Fault In Our Stars, and More Than This are all written beautifully.  Each writing style is completely different from the others, but they'll all awesome.
  16. Most shocking scene? (Mark all spoilers!)  [Spoilers here for A Storm of Swords.]  Most authors: "Oh, I see that you love that character, and that he/she is a main character.  I'll fake their death 800 times, but we all know they'll never actually die."  George R. R. Martin: "Muahahaha, you like this character?  You love this one?  Well, how do you like THIS?  *swings ax*"   In short, the Red Wedding killed off a good portion of the remaining characters that I actually liked.  Every so often, I see something on Pinterest about an A Song Of Ice And Fire-themed wedding.  Have these people never read the series, or what?  If I ever am invited to an aSoIaF-themed wedding, I'm not going because I prefer to survive.    
  17. Best character?  Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Jaron, Magnus, Edilio, Leo Valdez, Sturmhond.  I can't pick just one.
  18. Book you can't believe you didn't read until 2013?  Froi Of The Exiles has been sitting on the shelf since 2011, and I don't know why I waited so long to read it.  
  19. Book you never got around to reading in 2013 but will definitely read it in 2014?  Champion and The 100.  Both look awesome, but neither of my library requests came through in time.
  20. Book you are most excited for in 2014?  Avalon.  I can't wait to read this.  If nothing else, the cover is fantastic.  
Stay tuned for the Top Ten post!

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Siege of Macindaw (Ranger's Apprentice #6) by John Flanagan

After years as a Ranger's apprentice, Will is now the protector of his first fief. Not long into his service, everything that can go wrong does: Keren, a renegade knight, has taken over Castle Macindaw, a strategic gateway to the North--poisoning the royal family in the process--and is holding Will's friend Alyss captive. The situation grows direr when Will uncovers Keren's secret alliance with the Scotti, who have plans to plunder Araluen. Time is of the essence, and Will must recruit a motley crew to rescue Alyss and reclaim Castle Macindaw--before the Scotti can make it their own. This New York Times bestselling series maintains its breathless pace in this newest installment.

Released: May 1st 2006    Pages: 293
Publisher: Philomel             Source: Library

While I've never given a Ranger's Apprentice book less than four stars (or more, for that matter), some of these have been solid four-star reads, and others teetered on the brink of three stars.  Book three (The Icebound Land) has been the low point of the series, for me, so far.  It's becoming a complex pattern, since it seemed to be going uphill with The Sorcerer in the North as my highest point so far, and now we come to The Seige of Macindaw.  I don't think this latest book was on par with Sorcerer, but it was by no means my lowest point.  All of this, within the range of a four-star rating.  Part of this might be due to the fact that I tend to go weeks--or even longer--between each subsequent book in this series.

On to this book, specifically.  This book picks right back up where its predecessor (on whose review I wrote, "Half a book alert!") left off.  This whole segment of Will's story couldn't be contained into one book, and splitting it over the space of two worked well.  It didn't rush things--it left time to develop characters and such.

I'm seeing Will grow gradually more mature, though I'd still like to see some more depth from him.  I still don't quite "get" his relationship with Alyss.  Apparently they're in love.  The problem is that there's absolutely no chemistry between them.  To cite an opposite example: in The Avengers, nobody ever actually says that Clint and Natasha are in love.  And yet, we all know it.  A few simple glances and instances of body language show us all the chemistry we need, as viewers, to buy into it.  Will and Alyss, though, don't have this.  I want to see why they're in love, not just that they are.  (Okay, fine.  I'm still shipping him with Cassandra.  Those two actually have chemistry.)

The more I read, the more Horace's characterization annoys me.  Over and over, he says something along the lines of "Don't look to me to be the thinker--I'm just the guy with the sword".  He has no confidence in his own intelligence, and everyone else pretty much goes along with it.  I know there's more to Horace than his brawn, but it's get increasingly disappointing to see him falling short of his potential, as a character.

I don't have much to say about the storyline itself.  It tied off the loose ends from Sorcerer, but left itself open enough so that readers can pick the story right back up in the next book.  In this one, more than any of the others, I noticed how simplistic the writing style is.  Well, I've noticed this before, but it seemed more prevalent in this book.  I'm not sure if this is a new thing, or if I'm just paying more attention to it.  I'll have to wait and see what happens in the next book.

Overall, this was an imperfect yet still fun adventure.  I'll be reading the next book.  *crosses fingers in the hope that it has Halt and Gilan*

Similar Books: It's for an older audience than Rowan of Rin, but a younger audience than Eragon or A Game of Thrones, though they all share many common elements.  (In chronological age-appropriate order, starting with the book friendliest to younger kids: Rowan, Ranger's Apprentice, Eragon, A Game Of Thrones.)  It's much less complex and intense than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It also reminds me a little of the Darkest Age trilogy.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

16 Thoughts And Reactions To Catching Fire

I "reviewed" Thor: The Dark World in a semi-coherent manner by simply listing my reactions to it, unlike my more paragraph-style book reviews.  I hadn't planned on making it a regular feature, but the response was overwhelming, so I thought I might as well keep going, and see what happens.  It wasn't actually "overwhelming", but I just wanted to say that because it makes it sound like my site was crashing because of an overload of pageviews.  Spoiler: it wasn't.

Anyway, though, on to today's movie: Catching Fire.  This was one of the most, if not the most, anticipated movies of this year.  I had mixed expectations going into it, since my feelings about the first movie were, well, mixed.  I like it, for the most part, but I wasn't blown away by it, either.  Still, I wanted to see how they would handle the sequel.  Overall, I'm impressed.

Free of major spoilers, regardless of whether you've read the books.

  1.  This movie wasted no time at all setting up the fact that Katniss has post-traumatic stress disorder.  (Who doesn't, in this series?)  It couldn't have been more than three to five minutes into the film, and Katniss was already having flashbacks.  This element was revisited relatively often throughout the two and a half hours of the movie.  I appreciate this so much.  These movies could have easily focused on the glamour of the games, the romance, the heroic ideals of the rebellion--while these things are not forgotten, they never overshadow the darker, grittier aspects of the story.
  2. They also wasted no time setting guessed it...the love triangle.  This is pretty much my biggest problem with this movie.  If you haven't read the books and saw this movie, it would seem like Katniss, who just got done kind-of-faking a relationship with Peeta, is now randomly kissing Gale.  If I hadn't read the book, my guess is that this would have come out of nowhere.
  3. Sam Claflin+Finnick=AWESOME.  It would've been so easy to turn Finnick into nothing more than the attractive guy who likes to crack jokes, with an obligatory shirtless scene or two.  It would've been easy to ignore his depth, his own trauma, but that wasn't the case.  If anything, Sam Claflin made Finnick's pained, strong, and vulnerable side even more prevalent than his I'm-pretty-and-also-witty-what-more-do-you-want side.  His relationship with Mags was adorable and heartbreaking. 
  4. Jena Malone as Johanna Mason was also awesome.  She brought just the right mix of attitude and anger to make the character come to life.  Again, this would've been an easy character to miscast, but Jena Malone took it and ran with it, so to speak.
  5. While I'm still talking about actors/actresses: Jennifer Lawrence just keeps getting more awesome.  I saw her in The Hunger Games, and I thought, "Wow, she's good."  Because I obviously know so much about acting.  Then I saw/read some of her interviews, and the more I read about her, the more respectable (not to mention utterly hilarious in her unfiltered way) I found her.  Her performance in Catching Fire was fantastic.  She did not shy away from Katniss' overpowering emotions.  She held nothing back, managing to capture all the pain and fear necessary for the character, being totally at odds with her usually quirky self.
  6. The costume design has already been nominated for various awards, and I can see why.  It's like they hired a real-life Cinna to put all these designs together.  Katniss' "wedding" dress was gorgeous.  It managed to capture a bit of the eccentricity of Capitol fashion, while still being pretty.  And it could light itself on fire.
  7. Effie.  While she was still flighty and annoying, she had some moments where I respected her in a way I've never been able to before.  Despite her faults, she truly cares about Katniss and Peeta, and wants to help them.  In many ways, she's just as trapped as everyone else.
  8. Haymitch has always been one of my favorite characters, and in this regard, Catching Fire didn't let him down.  I felt he was stronger in this movie than it the first one, so I'm eager to see how the character develops in Mockingjay.   
  9. This. 
    Katniss, your Jennifer is showing.*
  10. Do you remember that scene from The Hunger Games, where Seneca Crane hit a button, and then BAM! the muttations came out of nowhere and gave everyone in the theater a heart attack?  Did you think you could get through Catching Fire without an equally startling scene, especially now that the cameras aren't shaking like they're in an earthquake?  Well, you're wrong.  CUE RABID BABOONS, STAGE LEFT.
  11. I don't think some aspects will make sense to people who haven't read the books.  I understood the complex plot between some of the tributes that was put into action at the end (I think I'm trying too hard to avoid spoilers), but it wasn't explained very clearly, and I'm wondering if that would confuse non-readers.
  12. The whole rebellion, all across the districts in general, was done well.  It didn't get too info-dumpy, but it wasn't ignored, either.  It appeared just often enough to keep it in the back of your head.  And it wasn't glorified, simplified, or toned down, either.  It was shown in all its harsh reality.  Some of it wasn't fun to watch, but without it, the point of the movie would have been lost.
  13. My feelings.  Just...ouch.  So many things are just so sad.  I don't know a better way to put that.  My friend remarked that she spent the entire movie with a pit-like feeling in her stomach, and I understand what she's talking about.  Seeing Rue's family...Mags...the news that came to Katniss at the very end...  If you're emotionally connected to this movie, then it deals blow after blow after blow to your feelings.  As it should be.  If it hurts, you've made that connection, and once you've made that connection, you've experienced something special, that is worth it.  Remember when Gotye said, "You can be addicted to a certain kind of sadness", and we all said, "Um, what?"  I doubt that song was talking about attachment to fictional characters, but still.  If you're the type to be attached to fictional characters, you'll get these feelings every so often (or more, depending on what you read/watch Red Wedding anyone?).  But yet we keep returning to fiction, because it's worth it.     
  14. I was so happy to hear Coldplay's song 'Atlas' as soon as the credits began.  I loved this song from the day it was released, and I'm glad they used it.  It fits well with the movie, though I've been thinking lately that it fits more with The Hobbit than Catching Fire.  Either way, it's awesome.  The lyric video is gorgeous, as well.  
  15. The irony of the entire franchise's success still unsettles me.  I won't go into that now, as I already wrote about it here.
  16. Mockingjay is going to hurt.  I'm just going to throw that out there.  People who haven't read the books will have no idea what hit them. 
Overall, I'm pleased with Catching Fire.  I had a few issues, but I feel that this is one case where the sequel surpassed the prequel.  I'm glad of that, and I can't wait for the first part of Mockingjay.  Though I'm slightly dreading it at the same time. 

Did you see Catching Fire?  What did you like/dislike about it?  Do you think the fandom will implode when Mockingjay comes out?

*Can I please have a sitcom about actors/actresses trying to coexist with their characters?  I want to see Tom Hiddleston and his alter ego Loki interact.  (Loki: KNEEL, MORTAL.  Tom: Oh dear, darling, I'm so sorry.  Would you like a cup of tea?)  Jennifer would just make weird faces at Katniss, who would be constantly exasperated with Jennifer for being quirky and laughing all the time.  Bilbo would knock something over and Martin Freeman would start swearing at him.  Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark could just pretend to be each other, if they needed, because they're the same person.
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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Music For Writers

I love listening to music while writing.  Sometimes, when just the right song comes on at just the right time, it'll contain lyrics or emotions that perfectly match what you're writing.  Music can inspire you while you're writing, or just serve as a background to your story.

I've collected a bunch of songs that fit various themes/issues/emotions that connect to different aspects of stories.  This is by no means an exhaustive list--though it's huge, I actually had to trim it because there are just so many songs that would fit for many categories.  For each category, I made a YouTube playlist, so you don't have to click each link individually, if you want to hear everything.

Note: Sometimes it isn't just about the lyrics.  Sometimes, it's more the general "feel" of the song.

And no, I'm not sorry that I'm basically just dumping the contents of my iPod into this post.

"Nobody's going to stop us" songs (Youtube playlist here):
'Waking Up' by OneRepublic on Waking Up
Other songs:
'We Won't Give Up' by The Afters on Light Up The Sky
'Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love' by Coldplay on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
'Tiptoe' by Imagine Dragons on Night Visions
'Marchin' On' by OneRepublic on Waking Up
'Fallen' by Imagine Dragons on Night Visions
'Hall of Fame' by The Script on #3
'Rebirthing' by Skillet on Comatose
'Rebel Beat' by The Goo Goo Dolls on Magnetic
'Syndicate' by The Fray on The Fray

Songs for a character haunted by the past/dealing with inner demons/looking for redemption but can't find it (YouTube playlist):
'Demons' by Imagine Dragons on Night Visions
Other songs:
'Lost!' by Coldplay on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
'Desperate' by David Archuleta on David Archuleta
'Bleeding Out' by Imagine Dragons on Night Visions
'Breath of Life' by Florence + The Machine on Breath of Life - Single Oh, look, a Loki video of this song.
'Little House' by The Fray on How To Save A Life
'All Alright' by fun. on Some Nights
'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' by Green Day on American Idiot
'Monster' by Imagine Dragons on Monster - Single
'Secrets' by OneRepublic on Waking Up
'Flaws' by Bastille on Bad Blood
'Iris' by The Goo Goo Dolls on Dizzy Up The Girl
'Won't Back Down' by Mat Kearney on Nothing Left To Lose

Songs for when your characters are involved in a rebellion/there's a war going on (YouTube playlist):
'Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall' by Coldplay on Mylo Xyloto
Other songs:
'Violet Hill' by Coldplay on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
'This Is War' by Thirty Seconds To Mars on This Is War
'Ready Aim Fire' by Imagine Dragons on Iron Man 3: Heroes Fall
'Eyes Open' by Taylor Swift on Songs From District Twelve And Beyond
'Major Minus' by Coldplay on Mylo Xyloto
'Viva La Vida' by Coldplay on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
'Syndicate' by The Fray on The Fray
'Radioactive' by Imagine Dragons on Night Visions
'All The Right Moves' by OneRepublic on Waking Up
'Daniel In The Den' by Bastille on Bad Blood

Songs for a character who has an undying love or devotion to another character and would do anything for them (YouTube playlist):
'You Won't Feel A Thing' by The Script on Science & Faith
Other songs:
'Keep Holding On' by Avril Lavigne on the Eragon soundtrack
'Never Say Never' by The Fray on The Fray
'Atlas' by Coldplay on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
'Save The Day' by David Archuleta on David Archuleta 
'Look After You' by The Fray on How To Save A Life
'Safe And Sound' by Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars on Songs From District Twelve And Beyond
'Us Against The World' by Coldplay on Mylo Xyloto
'Time For Miracles' by Adam Lambert on For Your Entertainment
'Renaissance' by Mat Kearney on Nothing Left To Lose

 Character is falling (or already is) madly in love with another character (YouTube playlist):
'Beloved' by Tenth Avenue North on Over And Underneath

Other songs:
'Rainy Zurich' by The Fray on Scars & Stories
'No Words' by The Script on #3
'Yellow' by Coldplay on Parachutes
'Good Place' by David Archuleta on The Other Side of Down
'Two Is Better Than One' by Boys Like Girls and Taylor Swift on Love Drunk
'All This Time' by OneRepublic on Waking Up

Songs for characters experiencing a breakup and/or relationship problems (YouTube playlist):
'The Scientist' by Coldplay on A Rush Of Blood To The Head
Other songs:
'No Light No Light' by Florence + The Machine on Ceremonials
'All Alone' by fun. on Some Nights
'Six Degrees of Separation' by The Script on #3
'Missing' by For King & Country on Crave
'Haunted' by Taylor Swift on Speak Now
'Jar of Hearts' by Christina Perri on Lovestrong.
'Nothing' by The Script on Science & Faith
'Falling Stars' by David Archuleta on The Other Side of Down
'Save You' by Kelly Clarkson on All I Ever Wanted
'Barriers' by David Archuleta on David Archuleta
'Vienna' by The Fray on How To Save A Life
'Renaissance' by Mat Kearney on Nothing Left To Lose
'Ships In The Night' by Mat Kearney on Young Love

Songs for a character searching for/finding/coming into his/her identity (YouTube playlist):
'I'm Still Here' by John Rzeznik on the Treasure Planet soundtrack
Other songs:
'The Wind' by The Fray on Scars & Stories
'Shake It Out' by Florence + The Machine on Ceremonials
'It's Time' by Imagine Dragons on Night Visions
'Say (All I Need)' by OneRepublic on Dreaming Out Loud
'Hearing Voices' by OneRepublic on Dreaming Out Loud
'Look How Far We've Come' by Imagine Dragons on It's Time
'Slow And Steady' by Of Monsters And Men on My Head Is An Animal
'More Than It Seems' by Kutless on Music Inspired By The Chronicles of Narnia
'Round And Round' by Imagine Dragons on Continued Silence

Epic soundtrack music, for writing epic scenes, or just when you want to feel epic (YouTube playlist):
Main Theme from The Lord of the Rings soundtrack

Other songs:
The main title theme, the Rohan Themes, and basically everything  from The Lord of the Rings soundtrack (you can listen to the entire soundtrack here)
'Mhysa', 'A Lannister Always Pays His Debts', and the main theme from the Game Of Thrones soundtrack (I've never seen the show but I tried listening to the soundtrack while doing homework and it was awesome [And I've read aSoIaF anyway.].)
'This Is Berk' and 'Test Drive' from the How To Train Your Dragon soundtrack
'Sons of Odin' from the Thor soundtrack
'The Avengers Assemble' from The Avengers soundtrack
'He's A Pirate' from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack
'The Witch and the Saint' by Stephen Reineke (My school band played this a few years ago, and it's one of my favorite things that we've ever done.)
'El Dorado' by Two Steps From Hell on Skyworld

 Songs for when your character feels like giving up the fight (YouTube playlist):
'Nothing Left To Say / Rocks' by Imagine Dragons on Night Visions
Other similar songs:
'21 Guns' by Green Day on 21st Century Breakdown
'Hear Me' by Imagine Dragons on Night Visions
'Twenty Years' by Augustana on Can't Love, Can't Hurt
'Shadow Of The Day' by Linkin Park on Minutes To Midnight
'Sound The Bugle' by Bryan Adams on the Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron soundtrack
'Things We Lost In The Fire' by Bastille on Bad Blood

 Songs for your villain/antagonist (YouTube playlist):
'Breath of Life' by Florence + The Machine on Breath of Life - Single
Other songs:
'Tyrant' by OneRepublic on Dreaming Out Loud
'Major Minus' by Coldplay on Mylo Xyloto
'Viva La Vida' by Coldplay on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
'In The Dark Of The Night' from the Anastasia soundtrack

Bonus/Etc. Music That I Thought I Should Include:
10 Hours of the Game of Thrones Theme.  It exists.  This is just begging to be played while writing epic scenes.
10 Hours of the Shire Theme from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  For when you want ten hours of happiness.
For when you NEED to get X number of words written, and want to do the "I can only turn this obnoxious music off when I'm reach my goal" thing: ten hours of the songified 'I've Got A Jar Of Dirt', ten hours of Justin Bieber's 'Baby', or just put 'Mambo Number 5' on repeat.
For when you need to pump yourself up for an intense writing session: 'I'll Make A Man Out Of You' from the Mulan soundtrack (here's 10 hours of it, and the Eomer version you never knew you wanted until now)
For a character who is just THAT cool: 'Everybody Loves Me' by OneRepublic on Waking Up**
For a character who is so full of angst that you're not even sure what to do anymore: 'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Queen on A Night At The Opera
For a character with financial problems/disillusioned with the American Dream: 'Take A Walk' by Passion Pit on Gossamer
For a character who is maybe just a little insane (but not really...maybe?): 'Unwell' by Matchbox Twenty on More Than You Think You Are
For a lovely instrumental piece that wanted to include because I love it: 'Forbidden Friendship' from the How To Train Your Dragon soundtrack
For a character with an immense amount of sadness: 'My Immortal' by Evanescence on Fallen
For a story involving a haunted house/ghosts: 'Little Talks' by Of Monsters And Men on My Head Is An Animal
'The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything', 'His Cheeseburger', and 'Endangered Love (Barbara Manatee)' from VeggieTales because...why not?

**This song is actually satire, when taken in context.  Out of context, it just sounds like somebody let Tony Stark too close to a guitar.

I will probably update this list, over time, as I come across more songs that fit these categories.  I'll update the YouTube playlists, as well.

What music do you like to listen to while writing (if any)?  Did you discover anything here that fits your story (or did you discover anything new that you love)?  What would you add to the list?
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Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Thief, The Eye of Minds, and Poison Dance Mini-Reviews

The Thief (The Queen's Thief #1) by Megan Whalen Turner
The king's scholar, the magus, believes he knows the site of an ancient treasure. To attain it for his king, he needs a skillful thief, and he selects Gen from the king's prison. The magus is interested only in the thief's abilities.

What Gen is interested in is anyone's guess. Their journey toward the treasure is both dangerous and difficult, lightened only imperceptibly by the tales they tell of the old gods and goddesses.

Released: October 31st 1996    Pages: 280
Publisher: Greenwillow Books   Source: Library

I'd heard so much about this book, and how it was a must-read for fans of YA high fantasy (especially fantasy with a more political plotline).  It's been on my to-read shelf for a long time, and I was eager to read it.

Initially, I was prepared to like Gen, as he's the type of character I tend to be fond of.  I could never gain much respect for him, though.  He was more obnoxious and arrogant than anything else.  I wish he was half as witty as he thought he was.  He said things like this:

"Maybe in five hundred years every thief that came here had been as smart as myself, but I found that difficult to believe."

Just a little bit pretentious, aren't we?

I gained a little respect for him at the end, after his big reveal.  Still, though, he was too obnoxious for me to ever care about him.  The other characters failed to make me care about them as well.

I liked the unreliable narrator aspect of this book--it's what redeemed it a little, though not enough to make it into the four-star range.  For most of the book, though, I was bored.  Traveling was all that ever happened, it seemed, which made it move too slowly.  The characters spent huge amounts of time telling stories about the gods and goddesses, and I didn't see the point.  Why distract us from the actual story by telling us other stories that don't add anything?

Overall, I don't see what the big deal is about this book.  I didn't hate it, or even dislike it, but I didn't like it, either.  I'm told that the second book is much better, but I'm not sure whether it's worth giving the rest of the series a try or not.

Similar Books: It features a wayward, wrong-side-of-the-law protagonist like The False Prince.  It's high fantasy that would appeal to both middle grade and young adult audiences, like the Ranger's Apprentice series.  It also reminds me of Starcrossed.

The Eye of Minds (The Mortality Doctrine #1) by James Dashner
Michael is a gamer. And like most gamers, he almost spends more time on the VirtNet than in the actual world. The VirtNet offers total mind and body immersion, and it’s addictive. Thanks to technology, anyone with enough money can experience fantasy worlds, risk their life without the chance of death, or just hang around with Virt-friends. And the more hacking skills you have, the more fun. Why bother following the rules when most of them are dumb, anyway?

But some rules were made for a reason. Some technology is too dangerous to fool with. And recent reports claim that one gamer is going beyond what any gamer has done before: he’s holding players hostage inside the VirtNet. The effects are horrific—the hostages have all been declared brain-dead. Yet the gamer’s motives are a mystery.

The government knows that to catch a hacker, you need a hacker. And they’ve been watching Michael. They want him on their team. But the risk is enormous. If he accepts their challenge, Michael will need to go off the VirtNet grid. There are back alleys and corners in the system human eyes have never seen and predators he can’t even fathom—and there’s the possibility that the line between game and reality will be blurred forever.

Released: October 8th 2013                                Pages: 323
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers    Source: Library

My first thought after reading the description of this book: "So basically...Ready Player One?"  This book was going for what Epic failed to accomplish, and what Ready Player One pulled off marvelously.  The Eye Of Minds falls somewhere in the middle.

The biggest problem I had was that the characters were flat.  Michael had no personality, nothing to make him unique.  I felt like I was watching a movie where the main character is a cardboard cutout of a person.  Incidentally, I had the same problem with James Dashner's other book, The Maze Runner.  Unlike The Maze Runner, though, the side characters didn't make up for my lack of interest in the main character.  Michael's best friends, Bryson and Sarah, weren't any more developed or interesting than Michael.  Bryson had the most prominent personality of any of them, but more often than not, he was just plain annoying.

My other problem was that the worldbuilding seems weak.  It was never the type of setting that I could immerse myself inside.  The world inside the virtual reality game made sense, but the real world, the outside world, was lacking.  I had too many questions.  Does everybody basically live inside the game, or just people with money, like Michael?  Who is in charge of this game?  Who is in charge of anything, actually?  Because I knew so little about the setting, it never worked for me.  (Also, why would you pay so much extra for super-realistic feelings within the game?  Why would anyone want to play the game if there's real pain involved?  If I want to play a video game, I don't want to have real, physical bruises afterwards.)

Overall, this was an okay book.  The plot was interesting, but the rest of it didn't impress me.  If you want to read a book with essentially this same premise, go try Ready Player One instead.

Similar Books: It's basically a version of Ready Player One, for a younger audience.  It heavily involves virtual reality games or experiences like Epic or The Reality Bug.  The writing style reminded me a little of BZRK.

Poison Dance: A Novella (Midnight Thief #0.5) by Livia Blackburne
James is skilled, efficient, and deadly, a hired blade navigating the shifting alliances of a deteriorating Assassin’s Guild. Then he meets Thalia, an alluring but troubled dancing girl who offers him a way out—if he’ll help her kill a powerful nobleman. With the Guild falling apart, it just might be worth the risk. But when you live, breathe, and love in a world that’s forever flirting with death, the slightest misstep can be poison.

Released: September 12, 2013   Pages: 54
Publisher: Lion's Quill Press       
Source: review copy received from author

I'm not used to reviewing novellas, but here it goes.  Poison Dance managed to grab my attention almost immediately.  The most compelling part was easily the plot.  It had elements of mystery and intrigue, as well as action and a bit of romance.  The romance--if you could call it that, since it was so short-lived--developed faster than made sense to me.  I'm not sure how James grew so attached to Thalia so fast.

James was a decent character.  I could easily see his personality, though I never had much reason to care about him.  There isn't much time to create immensely complex characters in just over fifty pages, but still, I've read books where I cared about the main character within the first chapter.  Thalia was interesting, and I wish I had the chance to learn more about her.

Overall, I enjoyed this.  It's more of a 3.5 star read, but I'll round it up.  I can see the beginnings of an interesting world, and now I'm eager to read Midnight Thief.
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