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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top Ten Books of 2014

Last year, for the first time ever, I hadn't read enough five-star books to fill my entire top ten list, and had to pick one from the fours.  This year, I ended up with only four five-star books (not counting a reread).  I'm not sure what to make of this, but it's resulted in an interesting list.  Because of this, I had to analyze all thirty-six of my four-star reads and pick the six best.  This forced me to really think about which books have stuck with me all year long.  Some four-star books are enjoyable, but don't linger.  Others keep proving their worth long after you've finished them.  Not only, then, is this a list of my favorite books of the year--it's also a list of the most enduring books of the year.

10. Charm & Strange by Stephanie Keuhn
If there's one thing I've learned about my reading tastes over the past year or so, it's that I love books that mess with my mind.  I want to think I know what's happening, and then for the author to pull the rug out from under me.  I want the good kind of "Wait...WHAT?"  Charm & Strange satisfied my need for this type of novel.  It's an odd little book, but it packs a huge punch.  It's a fascinating character study, taking its time to develop both sides of the main character (he has two "parts" of himself--Drew and Win).  The whole time, it builds to an ending that changes your perception of everything that happened previously.  It's the type of book that you want to reread as soon as you finish.

9. Sinner (The Wolves of Mercy Falls #4) by Maggie Stiefvater
How many times have any of us read a book, fallen in love with a certain character, and thought, "I really wish the author would give this character their own book."  This is what happened with Sinner.  Cole St. Clair was my favorite character from the original trilogy.  Lo and behold, Maggie Stiefvater gave him his own book.  It's exactly what you'd expect from a book about Cole St. Clair--it's an angsty mess.  But a good one.  The werewolf aspect is actually only a small part of the story.  The bigger focus is on Cole himself (and Isabel), and their character development. 

8. The Final Descent (The Monstrumologist #4) by Rick Yancey
Rick Yancey's Monstrumologist books are one of the best things I've discovered over the last two years.  The Final Descent wasn't quite as good as the rest of the series.  Still, that's like saying that twenty-five billion dollars isn't as much as thirty billion dollars.  Sure, it's not as much, but it's still an incredible amount of money.  The Final Descent is different from the first three in length, structure, and the personalities of the characters, and these things threw me off.  However, both this book and the series as a whole are still excellent.  It's a Frankenstein-esque look at humanity: there are monsters, yes, but humankind is the real monster.

7. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith 
What is Grasshopper Jungle?  That's a good question.  It's a neon green mess of teenage life, the apocalypse, and science gone wrong.  It's a love story, but it's also a friendship story, and a story about giant grasshoppers that bring the end of the world.  And it's even more chaotic than it sounds.  Grasshopper Jungle is hard to describe, since it's so strange.  The strangeness is awesome, though.  It keeps things interesting, keeps you guessing.  The more it tries to put you off, the more fascinating it becomes.  

6. Champion (Legend #3) by Marie Lu
Champion still hurts me.  That ending...*sniffle*  Okay, fine.  It was a good ending to a fantastic series.  It was fitting and satisfying, but painful.  Then again, I respect Marie Lu for this.  If she can make me feel, she's done an excellent job creating her characters.  I cared about Day, June, and the others. In my original review, I gave this book four stars.  The more I think about it, though, the more I realize I was holding back.  It deserves five stars.  Even almost a year after finishing this, I still love it like I did in January.  That's a sign of a good book, right there.

5. Coda (Coda #1) by Emma Trevayne 
Coda is another four-star book that probably should have gotten five.  It presents an interesting--and frighteningly believable--dystopian setting where the population is controlled by government-regulated addictive music.  I was skeptical of how this setting would work, and if it would make any sense, but Emma Trevayne exceeded my expectations.  It's a weird concept, but it works so well.  The rest of it is just as awesome: the characters, the plot, and so on.  As I said in my review, it's a dystopian novel for the true music lover.


4. The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy #3) by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Jaron, the main character of this series, still holds the title of one of my all-time favorite fictional people.  Some of this is his personality (and his incredible snarking ability), but most of it is the skillful way Jennifer A. Nielsen has written and developed him.  He feels so real, flawed yet lovable.  He's just plain fun to read about.  The whole series, in fact, is just plain fun.  It has its emotional moments and intensity, but it's also full of funny, witty lines.  It's the type of book that leaves you feeling incredibly happy when you finish, even though you're sad to see it end.

3. Ruin & Rising (The Grisha #3) by Leigh Bardugo
Like Champion, Ruin & Rising is another trilogy finale that hits hard in the feelings department.  Again, this is because I cared so much about the characters--Alina, Mal, David, NIKOLAI.  (I have a favorite.  Ahem.)  I'm still recovering from this one, as well.  While the characters may be my favorite part of this series, the setting is a close second.  It's a Russian-inspired fantasy setting, with its own unique flair.  I want to visit.  Apparently Leigh Bardugo is returning to this same world in her next book, so I get at least one more chance.  
2. I Hunt Killers (Jasper Dent #1) by Barry Lyga
What turns a person into a killer?  Is it nature, or nurture?  I Hunt Killers says, "Forget about that the either-or.  What if you had both?"  Enter Jasper Dent, a teenager trying to live as normally as possible considering his upbringing and parentage.  As I wrote in my review, he goes from likable and fascinating to RUN AWAY NOW.  He's at war with himself, which is the most compelling aspect of the book.  While he's trying to track down one criminal, he's fighting not to become one himself.  This book doesn't shy away from the darkness and weirdness of this internal conflict.  Instead, it explores this, making Jasper a lovable, believable character even when it forces you to question his motives.

1. Half A King (Shattered Sea #1) by Joe Abercrombie
Half A King is a slow burner.  I didn't close it with a feeling of "Wow, this was incredible!"  I certainly liked it--more than liked it, actually--but I didn't love it at the time.  The longer it sits in the back of my mind, though, the more I fall in love with it.  It's the story of an underdog prince, Yarvi, fighting to reclaim his kingdom with only one good hand.  Yarvi is what makes this book truly great.  His personality shines through Joe Abercrombie's writing.  It makes you feel for him, cheering him on even when it looks like he's doomed to fail.  It's a book full of nuance, betrayal, and depth.  The plotting is brilliant; the twists begin almost as soon as the book itself.  It's full of other characters besides Yarvi who are likable, real, and well-written.  What else can I say?  It's amazing.  Read it. 

Least Favorite Book of 2014: The Young World by Chris Weitz

2014 Reading Statistics (as of 12/27/14)
Books read: 72 (down 19 from last year)
Average rating: 3.5 (up 0.1)
Total pages read: 27,490 (down 7968)
Average pages per book: 381.8 (down 0.6)
Average pages read per day: 76.1 (down 21.1)
Average number of days to read one book: 5 (up 1.1)

Not surprisingly, I read far fewer books this year than I have the past few years.  College will do that to a person.  It didn't help that I hit a reading slump around August that kept going for a few months.  I attribute this to college, as well: pre-move-in nerves and distraction.  As August progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to focus on reading.  Combine this with a string of several books that didn't impress me, and it all adds up to a reading slump.

I've had to adjust my reading habits, but it seems to be working out.  I'm not sure when I'll be able to get back to reading 90+ books a year.  As much as I'd love to set that goal for next year, it's unlikely to happen.  Still, I was worried that I wouldn't have time to read at all in college, but so far, I've been making the time, even if it is just fifteen minutes a night.

Here's to next year's books!

What were your favorite books of 2014?  Least favorites?
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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Top Music of 2014

I love music almost as much as I love books.  Discovering awesome new songs is addicting to me, and I decided that this year, I wanted to share some of what I've found.  (Yes, there will still be the yearly top ten books list.)  There's always my song of the week, in the lower right corner, or in this Spotify playlist, but this year, I'm devoting an entire post to amazing songs.

This will be a long post.  You have been warned.

This year, I added more new songs to my iTunes library than ever before, both brand new songs, and older ones.  I'll break it down into a few categories:

Top 10 Songs Released in 2014
10. 'Raging Fire' by Phillip Phillips (Behind the Light)
Initially, I had the same reaction to this song as I did to Phillip Phillips' other songs: "meh".  The more I heard this one, though, the more it grew on me.  I'm particularly fond of the string section sound in this one.
9. 'Sleepsong' by Bastille (All This Bad Blood)
All This Bad Blood is even more of an oddity than Bad Blood.  It's a little bit more haunting, a little more ambiguous, and a little harder to pin down what, exactly, Bastille is up to, which is what I like about the band.  'Sleepsong' is a perfect example of this.  It's catchy, but there's something a little unsettling about it.
8. 'Flares' by The Script (No Sound Without Silence)
No Sound Without Silence is a shift from The Script's previous albums (and a bit of a letdown for me), but 'Flares' is my favorite moment of it.  It's sad yet hopeful, and suits Danny Donoghue's voice perfectly.
7. 'Wherever This Goes' by The Fray (Helios)
Helios also was disappointing for me, but it does have a few gems like this one.  It's a bit different from The Fray's previous work, but somehow seems like it would fit well onto their first album.
6. 'All Of The Stars' by Ed Sheeran (The Fault In Our Stars: Music From the Motion Picture) 
I'm normally not an Ed Sheeran fan (I don't dislike most of his songs, but I don't love them, either), but this song is the exception.  It's perfect for The Fault In Our Stars.  His voice is lovely, and it's slow but still catchy.
5. 'Cardiac Arrest' by Bad Suns (Language & Perspective)
Yes, I do, in fact, check the free "single of the week" on iTunes every Tuesday.  I've found some good things there, one of them being this song.  It's catchy, but also a bit nonsensical ("how much do I invest"?).
4. 'The Draw' by Bastille (All This Bad Blood)
'The Draw' is another of Bastille's ambiguous, slightly-odd additions to the original Bad Blood.  Whatever it's about, it has the same semi-haunting quality as 'Sleepsong,' but at the end, finds itself in an edgier place than Bastille has ever gone before.
3. 'Luck' by American Authors (Oh, What a Life)
I love the lyrics of this: "Please just listen/'Cause I don't ask for much/I am my own man/I make my own luck."  It tells an interesting story, but it's also upbeat enough to get stuck in my head all day long.  Plus, American Authors has a unique sound.  It's acoustic, but they've added an electronic quality to the singer's voice.
2. 'Lanterns' by Birds of Tokyo (March Fires)
This is one of those songs that was popular for about two weeks on the radio station I listen to, and then was never heard again.  Except that I bought it and didn't stop playing it all year long.  Like the rest of the album, it has an ethereal quality to it, but it's anthemic at the same time.
1. 'Alienation' by Morning Parade (Pure Adulterated Joy)
Where do I even begin with this song?  I got it in May; by July, it was in my Top 25 Most Played.  It's full of interesting wordplay.  It builds and builds, except when the delicate piano chords come in.  And even then, the lyrics don't let up--this song has a lot of lyrics.  And they're brilliant.

Top 10 Songs Discovered in 2014 (released before this year)
10. 'Learning to Love Again' by Mat Kearney (Young Love, 2011)
A few weeks after I first moved into my dorm, I made a "bedtime" playlist of songs to listen to while I'm reading or scrolling through Tumblr right before I go to sleep.  For whatever reason, this became the first song I always start with (after that, the playlist shuffles).  I find Mat Kearney's voice really calming, and it's a beautiful, slower song that fits perfectly on my playlist.
9. 'Vox Populi' by Thirty Seconds to Mars (This Is War, 2009)
This song is cool on its own, but it's so much better in context.  It's one of the brighter moments on the album--the lighter version of the song 'This Is War.'  I love its big sound.
8. 'Here We Go' by Mat Kearney (City Of Black & White, 2009)
I'm so glad I discovered Mat Kearney this year in general.  I'm not sure exactly what draws me to this song, but it's my favorite from this particular album.  (All of which, in fact, is awesome, though I wish he'd go back to the pseudo-rap/spoken word style of his previous album.)
7. 'Be Calm' by Fun. (Aim & Ignite, 2009)
This song took a long time for me to like.  It's odd, even compared to the rest of Aim & Ignite.  It's another of Fun.'s contradictions, since there's nothing calm about it.  I also love its odd structure and unusual instrumentation.
6. 'Welcome to the Black Parade' by My Chemical Romance (The Black Parade, 2006)
I first heard this song on a Pandora station over a year ago, but I didn't think much of it until this past November.  I don't know what made me return to it, but I'm glad I did.  I had previously dismissed My Chemical Romance as "not my thing," but I realize that they do, actually, have songs that are "my thing."  Whatever that means anymore.
5. 'Born Alone' by Morning Parade (Morning Parade, 2012)
I relate to this song a lot.  "In my silence/I am strong/When I'm quiet/I belong."  So many songs are about how great it is to party all night, but how often do we hear about introversion?  How often do rock songs actually acknowledge that silence can be a good thing?
4. 'Never Let Me Go' by Florence + the Machine (Ceremonials, 2011)
Florence Welch has an amazing voice.  This song is about drowning, but it's still beautiful, which makes it even more compelling.
3. 'Hurricane' by Thirty Seconds to Mars (This Is War, 2009)
We're back to This Is War again.  'Hurricane' is one of the darker moments on the album.  The minor piano intro, Jared Leto's voice, and the string backgrounds all create an intensity that truly reflects the lyrics.  Instead of burning with this intensity, like the others, this one simmers.
2. 'Before The Worst' by The Script (The Script, 2008)
I hadn't paid The Script's first album much attention until I heard some of it live last June.  This song reflects the best of their early music--piano, sort-of rap, Danny O'Donoghue's breakup lyrics.  This style suits the band best, in my opinion.
1. 'Young Blood' by The Naked and Famous (Passive Me, Aggressive You, 2010)
I heard this one live, as well.  In fact, I had never heard this song at all until The Naked and Famous opened for Imagine Dragons in March.  There's something about hearing certain songs played blastingly loud that makes them better.  This is one of those songs.  The synthesizer part is what makes the song, but I also love how quiet it gets in the third verse.

Honorable mentions from both categories: 'Fade' by Egyptian, 'Fire & Rain' by Mat Kearney, 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' by U2, 'Soldier' by Gavin DeGraw, S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W by My Chemical Romance, 'A Thousand Nights' by Trent Dabbs, 'Final Masquerade' by Linkin Park, 'Silhouettes' by Of Monsters and Men, 'It's Not Right For You' by The Script, 'City of Angels' by Thirty Seconds to Mars

Top 5 Albums Discovered/Released in 2014 
5. Aim & Ignite (2009) by Fun.
I spent a long time listening to Aim & Ignite before I could decide whether or not I liked it.  It's quirky and doesn't really have a uniform sound (Strings?  Electric guitars?  French horns?  Why not all of the above?).  It carries an odd dissonance, since so many songs sound bright and upbeat when the lyrics tell a much sadder, more serious story.  Favorite songs: 'Be Calm,' 'The Gambler,' 'Light A Roman Candle With Me'  
4. Morning Parade (2012) by Morning Parade
Despite my love for 'Alienation,' off Morning Parade's second album, their first is my favorite overall.  It reminds me of The Fray's second album, but less acoustic.  It shows off the entire range of what Morning Parade can do, from hard ('Blue Winter') to slow and quiet ('Half Litre Bottle'), to a more standard rock sound ('Headlights').  Favorite songs: 'Born Alone,' 'Close To Your Heart,' 'Under The Stars'
3. The Script (2008) by The Script
I've counted The Script as one of my favorite bands for a few years, but I had never become familiar with their first album until I saw them perform live.  Finally, though, I got this album, and wondered why I didn't download it sooner.  Like I mentioned earlier, it has the strongest pop/rock sound, with the semi-rapping that was mostly nonexistent on their second album, Science & Faith, and then returned as more of a pop sound on #3 and, to a lesser extent, No Sound Without Silence.  Personally, I think this style suits them better than anything else.  Favorite songs: 'Before The Worst,' 'The End Where I Begin,' 'The Man Who Can't Be Moved'
2. Nothing Left To Lose (2006) by Mat Kearney
Mat Kearney has a knack for writing lyrics that feel intensely personal, even if you can't relate to them.  Much like The Script, he often finds that thin line between singing and rapping, but it comes out closer to spoken word on this album.  His songs are honest, which makes them emotional.  Favorite songs: 'Renaissance,' 'Won't Back Down,' 'Can't Break Her Fall'
1. This Is War (2009) by Thirty Seconds to Mars
The title of this concept album says it all--this is war.  The sound is big, dark, and intense.  It goes from the sweeping choral sounds of 'Vox Populi' to quiet, acoustic songs like 'Alibi.'  It's a different sound than Thirty Seconds to Mars' previous album, but I like this new direction.  Each song is good on its own, but this is one of those albums that is better heard all together.  Favorite songs: 'Hurricane,' 'Vox Populi,' 'Stranger In A Strange Land'

Top 10 Most Played Songs Of All Time (as of now)
10. 'Sweet and Low' by Augustana (Can't Love, Can't Hurt, 2008)
9. 'Syndicate' by The Fray (The Fray, 2009)
8. 'Secrets' by OneRepublic (Waking Up, 2009)
7. 'Enough For Now' by The Fray (The Fray, 2009)
6. 'Tiptoe' by Imagine Dragons (Night Visions, 2012)
5. 'It's Time' by Imagine Dragons (Night Visions, 2012)
4. 'All Fall Down' by OneRepublic (Dreaming Out Loud, 2007)
3. 'Breath of Life' by Florence + the Machine (Breath of Life - Single, 2011)
2. 'Never Say Never' by The Fray (The Fray, 2009)
1. 'Say (All I Need) by OneRepublic (Dreaming Out Loud, 2007)

I also went to two concerts this year.  The first was the Imagine Dragons 'Into the Night' tour, with The Naked and Famous and Nico Vega.  It was the first concert I ever bought tickets for, and it was so much fun.  Their songs lend themselves well to dramatic lighting and effects--and they sound good live, too.  The second was the OneRepublic 'Native' tour (my brother won tickets), with The Script and American Authors.  I'm a big fan of both OneRepublic and The Script, so I was excited to see both in one concert.  And now I've been in the same "room" as Ryan Tedder, which will always be cool to me.
Not my concert, but here's a GIF of Imagine Dragons.  And a lot of lasers.
I wish I had a way of getting statistics about my music listening over this past year (for example--I'd love to know my most played song of 2014 overall, not just of all time).  Still, here is a glimpse into what I've been listening to.  I have accepted that my music taste no longer follows predictable patterns.  I used to be able to say, "I like female pop artists like Leona Lewis or Jordin Sparks."  Then it became, "I like ambiguous pop/rock bands like OneRepublic and The Fray."  Now it's "I just made a playlist that includes OneRepublic, Les Miserables, My Chemical Romance, the Thor soundtrack, and Queen."  This year, I started listening to stuff that's a bit more "edgy" than I'm used to, like Thirty Seconds to Mars.  But I'm also starting to enjoy more electronic-influenced artists like Bastille.  We'll see how my taste changes, if at all, in 2015.

What did you listen to in 2014?  What songs were your favorites?
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Friday, December 19, 2014

14 Thoughts and Reactions to Mockingjay Part 1

Mockingjay was one of the most highly-anticipated movies of 2014, if not the most.  Since I'm still not 100% over Catching Fire, I had high expectations.  I was also wary, since, well...part one.  Unfortunately, this aspect drags it down.  Still, there are so many good things happening at the same time.  Here are 14 thoughts:

I'm assuming you've read Mockingjay already.  If not, there are spoilers in numbers 2, 8, and 9.
  1. Alternate titles: The Hunger Games: Fillerjay, The Hunger Games: The Musical, The Hunger Games: If I Close My Eyes Maybe I Can Pretend We Won't Have to Watch Everyone Die in Part 2
  2. SOMEONE SAVE FINNICK ODAIR.  Even at the very beginning, he looks dead inside.  I don't know how Sam Claflin pulled it off, but his eyes have an awful haunted look.  I'm already worried enough about how I'm going to get over his death in Part 2--I don't need to deal with these feelings already.  It's too soon.  JUST LET HIM BE OKAY. 
  3. Also Peeta, but that's been done.  Peeta also is in need of saving, but at least much of the movie's plot focuses on this.  Still, Peeta's appearance at the end of the movie is hard to watch. I commend the director for this.  It been so easy to gloss over certain difficult elements of Mockingjay: main characters being tortured, Finnick's past (more on this later), genocide, and so on.  They didn't shy away from it, though.  If anything, the movies embrace the darkness and grit of the novels.
  4. It's nice to have a movie that actually passes the Bechdel test.  The Bechdel test is by no means an indicator that a movie features realistic female characters, or that it represents both genders equally.  Still, it's a start.  I've started to pay close attention to the portrayal (or, in many cases, the lack thereof) of female characters in movies.  Sci-fi and fantasy movies are still male-dominated, and the more I see of this, the more frustrated I get.*  Women make up half the world's population, but nowhere near half the population of many movies.  "But people don't watch female-led action movies!" critics cry in the distance.  Excuse you.  Mockingjay's box office numbers beg to differ.  Mockingjay passes the Bechdel test in an unfussy way.  There are female characters of all types.  There are also male characters of all types.  It's 2014; why is this still noteworthy?
  5. I liked Natalie Dormer's performance more than I expected.  I haven't seen much of Natalie Dormer's work, but for some reason, I was skeptical of her role in this.  I shouln't have worried.  Natalie Dormer just keeps proving herself over and over.  Her portrayal of Cressida is intense, interesting, and fabulous.  She brings complexity to the character--I don't remember Cressida much from the books, but I'll definitely remember her from this movie.
  6. It shows how little Katniss cares about the revolution itself.  That's what I love about this series.  Katniss doesn't truly care about the noble ideas of the revolution.  She doesn't really care about taking down the system.  She just wants the people she loves to be safe, and she'll do whatever she must in order to make this happen.  She may be motivated by strong feelings of love, but she goes about it in a calculated way.  Mockingjay shows this well.  Every time Katniss is faced with a choice, she makes it not about her or the revolution, but about her family or Peeta.  It makes the story so much more personal.  
    You tell 'em, Katniss.
  7. It suffers from being part one of two.  In this regard, it's much like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.  It's much slower than the previous movies.  People travel places and have significant conversations, but very little is actually happening.  The whole movie feels like it's building to something big, but you don't get the payoff until Part 2.  This is problematic.  Even if a movie is part of a series, it still should have its own complete story arc.  Mockingjay just doesn't have that.
  8. The bombing of District 13 has some brilliant moments.  At around the three-quarter mark of the movie, the Capitol bombs District 13's underground bunker.  Everyone has to move into the bomb shelters in a matter of minutes.  It's a chaotic mess, and it's a particularly intense scene.  It adds an element of fear to it along with the element of suspense much of the rest of the movie lacks.  The best part, though, is how well it showcases Katniss' personality.  As soon as she realizes Prim didn't make it into the shelter, there's absolutely no question what the big sister must do--make sure the little sister is safe--even if Katniss herself won't make it out alive.  She'd rather die trying to save Prim than live without her.
  9. I don't like how this movie shows Finnick's backstory.  It's shown on a screen, but other things happen simultaneously.  You can't devote your full attention to it.  This is one of the most important revelations in the entire series, and they lessened its impact.  No.  Don't just have his story of "I was forced into prostitution as a teenager" in the background.  The audience needs to be able to focus on this, since it exposes an even darker side of the Capitol culture surrounding the games.
  10. This movie portrays the media as scarily powerful.  It's true.  This series is known for its social commentary, and in this aspect, Mockingjay no different.  District 13 uses their video broadcasts strategically in order to prompt rebellion.  There's no direct contact--it's all media.  And it works.  It's important to remind viewers (especially right now) how much power media can have, whether that power is wielded for good or otherwise. 
  11. Can we stop the one book-two movies thing?  I keep writing about this in my movie reviews.  I don't know what I can say that hasn't already been said, but it's important enough to deserve another mention.
  12. Can we also stop teasing the Gale relationship?  Why does Katniss kiss Gale in this movie?  By this point in the books, it's apparent that Katniss is romantically interested in Peeta, if anyone at all.  I understand that movies and books are different formats, and as such, the storylines have to differ.  But playing up hardly existent romance just for the sake of adding romance is unnecessary.
  13. The shaky camera is back.  I don't remember seeing as many shaky camera shots in Catching Fire as in The Hurnger Games, but Mockingjay has a few rough moments.  
  14. It didn't have the same emotional impact as Catching Fire.  I remember feeling emotionally drained after Catching Fire.  I felt a little of this from Mockingjay, but nowhere near as much.  It's probably due to the fact that this movie is part one.  Part 2 is going to hurt.  We should start preparing ourselves right now.

Is it good overall?  Yes.  Did it need to have two parts?  Absolutely not.  Going in, I thought this split made sense, but after actually seeing it, I realize that it just made the structure weaker.  Other aspects, though, still worked as well as they did in Catching Fire, especially with Jennifer Lawrence's talent to lead the way.  My feelings are still mixed about these movies, as a whole.  Hopefully Mockingjay Part 2 will change this.

Did you see Mockingjay Part 1?  What did you think?

*We also have to stop with this "strong female character" trope.  Why do we have to keep giving female characters traditionally "masculine" traits (fighting ability, dislikes dresses, hides emotions, etc.) in order to make them "strong"?  I don't want strong female characters--I want realistic female characters.  Some women are like this trope.  Some aren't.  Hollywood recognizes that males have this range, so why not females?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Young Elites (The Young Elites #1) by Marie Lu

I am tired of being used, hurt, and cast aside.

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.

Released: October 7th 2014    
Pages: 355
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Source: Library
 First Look: ***** I loved Marie Lu's Legend trilogy.  I didn't need any more prompting than that to pick up this book.  Even without that, though, it looked awesome.  Secret societies with magic, in a high fantasy setting?  YES.

Setting: ****
It's a high fantasy setting, with all the usual elements--a magic system, court intrigue, and so on.  On top of all that, though, it has an Italian,* Renaissance-y flair.  The names sound vaguely Italian, and the general culture and feel of it definitely has that influence.  This put a unique spin on the setting.  The fantasy elements are familiar, but the culture feels fresh and different.  (Marie Lu has a Pinterest inspiration board for this book, and it's super cool.)

The other aspect that makes this setting so compelling is its history.  The backstory of the disease that caused the malfettos and the magical powers is an integral part of the story, but woven throughout in a way that doesn't feel like an infodump.  The nation's present reflects its past beautifully.  It's an interesting look at how quickly a society can change, and the effect this has on its people.

Characters: *****
The character development here is fascinating.  The entire time, I found myself rooting for Adelina.  She's clever, strong, and has a deep capacity for caring about people.  She's also ruthless and deceptive, with a dark past.  As the book goes on, she only gets darker, even beyond antihero territory.  This is not a hero's story--it's almost a villain's.  This is what makes it brilliant.  For Adelina, all of her actions make sense.  They're justifiable.  Marie Lu does not portray them as evil or wrong; she simply presents them as Adelina's truth.  It's easy to want Adelina to win, which is the paradox of it.  I'm excited to see where Marie Lu takes this character development in the future.

Along with Adelina, we have another character with powers, scarred by the disease: Enzo.  He's a betrayed prince, looking to reclaim his throne.  He's no more heroic than Adelina, but his motives are still believable.  Then there's the courtesan Rafaelle, or the enemy of  the Young Elites, Teren.  Everyone, basically, is an antihero, which is the beauty of this book.   

Plot: ***** 
While it does get a bit slow in places, the plot is complex and dark like the characters.  It starts as Adelina's personal journey to overcome the persecution she has faced as a malfetto, on trial for murder as a result of her powers.  Then it's a struggle to gain acceptance from the rest of the Young Elites, who want to restore Enzo to power.  Adelina doesn't seem to care much about that, though--she just wants to protect her younger sister.  And she'll do anything in order to make that happen.  The plot is twisty, making you wonder where Adelina's loyalties should lie.  Or anyone else's, for that matter.  Nobody's path is the "right" one.  As the plot progresses, it gets darker, and Adelina's path becomes more morally ambiguous.  Also, there's a lot of cool magic.

Uniqueness: ***** 
It's a high fantasy, and has many familiar elements of the genre.  However, its unique setting makes it stand out, as does the fact that it follows the perspective someone other than the traditional hero.

Writing: ****
Marie Lu can do both action scenes and emotional scenes, and do them well.  The action is suspenseful and exciting.  The quieter scenes have the potential to make you feel for the characters, portraying them in an honest, raw light.  She creates a setting that you can fully immerse yourself in, both in the details she includes, and her overall sense of tone.  It's the kind of narration that flows so well that you hardly notice it's there.

I appreciate that the romance never becomes overwhelming compared to the rest of the plot.

Not-so-great: N/A

Overall: The Young Elites is a unique, exciting book with an equally awesome Rennaisance-inspired setting.  The main character, Adelina, is not so much a hero as an antihero, and later, possibly even in villain territory.  She's darkly complex, and her progression is believable, so much that you hardly realize it's happening.  That's what makes this book great--it presents a dark character, showing all her motives as honest without placing her as either "good" or "bad".  It also showcases Marie Lu's talent for writing compelling plots full of emotion.  It's more of a 4.5 than a 4, but I round 4.5s down, so 4 stars it is.

Similar Books: It features a cast of characters with varying, often contradictory motives, like Falling Kingdoms or The Demon King.  It has a female lead with magic powers, like The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Death Swornor Shadow and Bone

*Speaking of Italy...I'm going to be spending the entire month of January in Rome.  More on this later, probably.
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Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Infinite Sea (The 5th Wave #2) by Rick Yancey

How do you rid the Earth of seven billion humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.

Surviving the first four waves was nearly impossible. Now Cassie Sullivan finds herself in a new world, a world in which the fundamental trust that binds us together is gone. As the 5th Wave rolls across the landscape, Cassie, Ben, and Ringer are forced to confront the Others’ ultimate goal: the extermination of the human race.

Cassie and her friends haven’t seen the depths to which the Others will sink, nor have the Others seen the heights to which humanity will rise, in the ultimate battle between life and death, hope and despair, love and hate.

Released: September 16th 2014    Pages: 320
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile   Source: Library

The 5th Wave set the bar high for its sequel, The Infinite Sea.  The first book is gritty yet eloquent in the way Rick Yancey does best, with plenty of shock value, deep questions, and emotional impact.  I expected nothing less from The Infinite Sea, especially since I've read examples of Yancey's ability to write sequels that rise above the expectations set by the first book.

Even for all its merits, The Infinite Sea falls a bit short of its predecessor.  I could attribute this to mid-series sagging, or my own changing reading habits (since I've started college, my reading has been more spread out, which makes it harder for me to really invest in a book).  Or maybe this book simply isn't as good.

"Isn't as good" is a relative term, though.  The first book is phenomenal.  Even if this one isn't quite there, it's still fantastic.  It's exactly the type of dystopia I like--gritty, believable, and raw.  It doesn't shy away from difficult topics like war, death, or child soldiers.  There is a large amount of violence, but it's never gratuitous.  The line, “How do you rid the Earth of humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.” is prevalent throughout the series, and it's a main theme.  How do you destroy humankind?  By bringing out that which would cause humankind to destroy itself.  It's what gives this series its haunting edge.  It's dark--characters are driven to extreme, morally ambiguous actions and decisions.  But it's believable, and it feels real.

The characters, especially, have this element of realness.  It's an odd group of ordinary-kids-turned-soldiers.  They're likable, despite how hardened they have become.  Cassie, one of the main characters, has never been my favorite, but my respect for her keeps growing. She's a bit blinded by her love for Evan, but I respect her incredible devotion to protecting her younger brother.  Evan himself is a bit of an enigma, especially with...certain plot twists.  That's all I'm saying.  Then there's Ben/Zombie, who was my favorite from The 5th Wave.  He's a leader of sorts, but has just as many issues as the rest of them, psychological or otherwise.  The real star of this book, though, is Ringer.  She developed so much during the course of the story.  Rick Yancey uses her time with Razor, a new addition to this series, to really flesh out her character, and I'm eager to see where he takes her in the next book.  Razor himself deserves a mention, mostly for being incredibly awesome.  

Despite all these positives, though, the plot of this book isn't as compelling as the last.  It's still good, but it fell short of my expectations.  It's action-packed, but less so.  There is more time spent arguing within the group than actually doing anything.  It's slower than the first book, and the plot has less focus.  It doesn't always seem like there is a clear goal, which gives it a directionless feeling.  

In the grand scheme of things, though, these problems don't detract much from the book as a whole.  It's still fantastic.  It's still full of Rick Yancey's amazing writing and insight into human nature.  It's still an intense, thought-provoking read.  I'm excited for the finale, but also a bit nervous.  I know what Rick Yancey can do to my feelings.  Then again, if he can create this kind of emotional intensity, that's a wonderful accomplishment.

Similar Books: It deals with kids-turned-soldiers in a dystopian environment, like The Drowned Cities.  Its near-future setting reminds me of Ashes, or Life As We Knew It and its companion The Dead and the Gone.  

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Blood of Olympus (Heroes of Olympus #5) by Rick Riordan

Though the Greek and Roman crewmembers of the Argo II have made progress in their many quests, they still seem no closer to defeating the earth mother, Gaea. Her giants have risen—all of them—and they're stronger than ever. They must be stopped before the Feast of Spes, when Gaea plans to have two demigods sacrificed in Athens. She needs their blood—the blood of Olympus—in order to wake.

The demigods are having more frequent visions of a terrible battle at Camp Half-Blood. The Roman legion from Camp Jupiter, led by Octavian, is almost within striking distance. Though it is tempting to take the Athena Parthenos to Athens to use as a secret weapon, the friends know that the huge statue belongs back on Long Island, where it "might" be able to stop a war between the two camps.

The Athena Parthenos will go west; the Argo II will go east. The gods, still suffering from multiple personality disorder, are useless. How can a handful of young demigods hope to persevere against Gaea's army of powerful giants? As dangerous as it is to head to Athens, they have no other option. They have sacrificed too much already. And if Gaea wakes, it is game over.

Released: October 7th 2014    Pages: 516
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion    Source: Purchased

This series is an excellent example of how important it is to have awesome characters.  The plot for this series never grabbed my attention like it did in the original Percy Jackson books--when it comes to Heroes of Olympus, I'm just in it for the characters.  Okay, fine.  I'm mostly just in it for Leo Valdez and Nico di Angelo.  And maybe Percy and Annabeth.

Even though I didn't get the chance to read this until a few weeks after it came out, I had managed to keep myself spoiler-free.  I knew nothing, so I had no idea what was coming for me.  I just had one request--I wanted Leo Valdez to make it out alive.

If you haven't noticed by now: Leo Valdez is one of my favorite fictional characters, not just in this series, but in anything.  I love his sense of humor.  I love his emotional complexity.  His devotion to Calypso.  His passion for machinery.  The fact that he's the "seventh wheel," the only single one in the group of seven.  Rick Riordan gives him a lot of attention in The Blood of Olympus, since his personal story is one of the most pivotal.

SPOILER PARAGRAPH.  After a certain point, though, I started to get worried.  Riordan drops some hints about Leo's future early in the book, which meant that I was glued to the pages for the rest of it, desperately hoping that something was going to change and he'd make it out alive.  And then the ending happened...YOU GOT ME, RICK RIORDAN.  Happy?  I completely fell for his death.  It seems so certain.  I should have known better, but I was still caught up in it.  That hurt.  But then he comes back, and he can actually be happy.  And it's beautiful.  Still, don't think for one second that I'm forgiving Riordan for that particular piece of emotional trauma.

It's not just about Leo, though, because Nico di Angelo exists.  He's a tough kid, but he's been through a lot.  I spent most of this book thinking, "Someone save Nico di Angelo!"  Give him a break.  I'm happy with the direction Riordan took with him in The Blood of Olympus.  There is so much growth, so much development.  He becomes stronger, more sure of himself, and learns to deal with his past--all in a believable, realistic way.  At the end, he finally gets the chance for the happiness that he has deserved since the beginning.  That was all I needed from this ending.

There are other characters, as well.  Of course.  I gained much more respect for Reyna in this book than I did in the previous books.  I never did warm up to Jason and Piper.  Overall, though, Riordan's ensemble cast is likable, energetic, and believable.

Like I mentioned earlier, the plot of this series always felt off to me.  For some reason, the urgency of the previous series just isn't there.  It feels less focused.  Maybe the series suffers under its own size, since it's considerably longer than the Percy Jackson series.  Some of the side adventures may not have been critical to the plot, and they slow it down.  This is probably what detracts from the urgency.  Cutting down a bit would make this series so much tighter, and give it some of the suspense of the previous series.

There's also this little moment:

"Dibs on London!" yelled a ghoul at the next table.

"Montreal!" shouted another.

"Duluth!" yelled a third, which momentarily stopped the conversation as the other ghosts gave him confused looks.

Thank you, Rick Riordan, for 1. actually mentioning Duluth 2. recognizing that it is a lovely place.
Even with my problems with the plot, this is still a fantastic ending to the series.  It packs a lot of emotion, but also the trademark Percy Jackson humor.  It's a serious series, but it's not afraid to balance this out with things like talking tables, either.  In some places, it's just plain fun.  At the same time, it has some wonderful character development.  The ending is satisfying, even if it messed with my emotions.  Yeah, I won't be getting over that one for awhile.

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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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Verbs: One Part of Speech to Rule Them All

It's been a while since I did a writing advice post, so I decided to go back to the basics with some good, old-fashioned style tips.  And when I say "back," I mean really far back.  We're going back to elementary school.

Remember when you first learned about the parts of speech?  Ever since you knew what an adjective was, you were probably taught that they make your writing interesting.  Dog is nice, but oversized, fluffy dog is better.  This is true, to a certain extent.  However, adjectives are not the most important words in your novel.  Or any of your writing, for that matter.

Verbs are where the party is.

Verbs are the most powerful tools you have with which to tell your story.  They move it forward in a way that no other words can.  Adjectives are good, nouns are better, but verbs.

Think about it: verbs inherently imply action.  If you're using verbs, something is happening, on some level.  Something is doing something.  After all, isn't that what a novel is?  You can sit there and describe a scene all you want using nouns and adjectives, but it's not going anywhere.  Once you add verbs, things are moving, and that's your goal.

How can you do this, though?  How do you harness the magical power of verbs?

Many times, it's as easy as simply modifying small word choices.  You could say "Bucky Barnes ran quickly across the road," using quickly to modify the boring verb run.  You've described the running, yes.  There are better ways to say it, though, being even more specific than ran quickly.  You could use dashed, or sprinted, or galloped, or a million other possibilities.  This is a very basic example, but even here, it's easy to see how "Bucky Barnes sprinted across the road" is already so much better.  It's more specific--it conjures up a clearer picture in the reader's mind.  Running quickly could mean a range of things, but sprinting implies clear, all-out direction.

In many cases, it leads right back to the old passive vs. active voice rule.  As a general rule, go for the active voice.  Even though "The cake was eaten by dinosaurs" contains a verb--was--it gets so much more direct if switched to "Dinosaurs ate the cake".  It gets even better, then, if you use any one of the more powerful verbs at your disposal.  Dinosaurs devoured the cake.

It's not always as easy as this, though.  It won't always be enough to simply switch out one verb for another.  In this case, it's a matter of choosing what to describe in any certain situation.  You could describe your character's appearance--hairstyle, eye color, height.  That's important, but what's more important is the action of it, even if they're standing still.  Describe their right hand fidgeting with the hem of their shirt.  Describe the play of the wind in their hair.  Describe the movement of their shadow as other people move around them, blocking light.  You don't need any traditional "action" to make it active.  Either way, movement is important.

Adjectives, nouns, and any other words certainly have their place--I'm not saying you should avoid them.  You need a little of everything in the right places to make a story flow.  Verbs, though, are actually a powerful descriptive tool.  They can affect pacing; lack of verbs can influence this, as well.  There are exceptions to every rule, and like everything else in writing, this is no different.  Still, it's a solid bet that being conscious of verbs will help you achieve the feeling of forward motion in your writing.
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Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

730. That's how many days I've been trapped.
18. That's how many days I have left to find a way out.

DAI, trying to escape a haunting past, traffics drugs for the most ruthless kingpin in the Walled City. But in order to find the key to his freedom, he needs help from someone with the power to be invisible....

JIN hides under the radar, afraid the wild street gangs will discover her biggest secret: Jin passes as a boy to stay safe. Still, every chance she gets, she searches for her lost sister....

MEI YEE has been trapped in a brothel for the past two years, dreaming of getting out while watching the girls who try fail one by one. She's about to give up, when one day she sees an unexpected face at her window.....

In this innovative and adrenaline-fueled novel, they all come together in a desperate attempt to escape a lawless labyrinth before the clock runs out.

Released: November 4th 2014    Pages: 432
Publisher: Little, Brown             Source: Netgalley
First Look: ***** The premise of this didn't really grab my attention--people with secrets in a dystopian world?  Running the streets, or trying to escape something?  Sounds like...well, every other dystopian novel.  When I got access to it via Netgalley, though, something made me decide it was worth a shot.  I'm still not sure what that something is.

Setting: ***** 
I'm still left with one burning question: why, exactly, is the city walled?  How does the rest of the city (is it even part of an outer city, or is it totally separate?) fit into the picture?  If these questions were answered, I would have more positive feelings about the setting.  Apart from this aspect, the Walled City isn't much different from a typical dystopian city--gangs running around,virtually nonexistent police force, everybody is poor, etc.  It may not be original, but it's interesting.  It provides a rough, dirty, dangerous background against which to form the characters.  It's one of those settings where it's easy to see how the characters have been shaped by their world.

Characters: ****
If Ryan Graudin was trying to make me think of Day from Legend when she named her character Dai, it certainly worked.  The two characters come from different backgrounds, but they have so much in common: resourceful street-smarts, a haunted past, a drive to protect their families.  Dai is probably my favorite of the three POV characters in The Walled City.  His secrets make him complex, and his complexity makes him feel real.

If Dai is my favorite, Jin is a very close second.  She also has Dai's street-smarts and desire to protect, but her personality stands out in a different way.  She's less solitary than Dai, giving their brother/sister-like relationship an interesting dynamic.  If anything, she's a bit more ruthless, which gives her an edginess that makes her both flawed and likable.

Mei Yee is the character I cared about least.  Some of this might have to do with the fact that her story moves at a slower pace, since all of it takes place from inside the brothel.  Still, her characterization just isn't as interesting to me.  She has some real, raw emotions, but she seems more one-sided.  I know that she wants to escape the brothel, and she wants her sister back.  That's about it, though, and I spent much of her chapters wanting a bit more than that.

Plot: ***** While it didn't stand out to me as wholly original, the plot still kept my attention, for the most part.  Mostly, I just wanted to find out what Dai's secret was, even though my guess was fairly close.  This aspect still keeps the plot interesting, though.  A healthy action-packed pace adds to this interest.  Since I genuinely cared about the characters, I wanted to see them succeed, which kept me invested in the action.  Some of it could have used more explanation--why, for example, *highlight to view spoiler* did they wait until now to enter and clear out the city?  What changed?*end spoiler*  Still, though, I enjoyed the plot.

Uniqueness: ***** There isn't much to make it a strong standout from the crowd.  It's good, yes, but there isn't much to differentiate it from so many other YA dystopian novels.

Writing: ****As with so many other split-POV novels, I wish this one would have had more distinct narrative voices for each character.  I rarely lost track of who was narrating, but even so, I wanted more of each character's personality in their chapters.  That might have made the difference between The Walled City being a good book versus a great one.  The writing worked, doing its job effectively, but sometimes I just found myself wanted a bit more from it.  Mostly, that differentiation aspect.

Likes: "Mr. Lam told me you usually camp in this sector. All I had to do was look. And follow my allergies...closest thing I've got to a superpower."

I love this.  It's so true.  The closest I'll ever get to a superpower is the ability to detect, from a room (or more) away, the exact moment when someone opens a jar of peanut butter.

Not-so-great: Alright.  Dai has a secret.  We get it.  The emphasis on this fact is a little too heavy-handed.

Overall: The Walled City has its share of issues--namely, a setting and plot that don't do much to stand out from the approximately 528,491* other YA dystopian novels published this year.  Apart from this, though, it has a lot of good things going for it.  The characters are awesome, especially Dai and, to a lesser extent, Jin, who both have a ruthless side and a softer side, giving them interesting complexity.  The plot is full of a nice mix of action and emotion.  I would recommend it, but not if you're looking for complete originality.

Similar Books: It will certainly appeal to fans of Legend--the two have similar tones, styles, and even characters.  It also reminds me of Proxy and Frozen.

*Number is a completely estimated "scientific" figure calculated by yours truly.  If you define "calculated" as "stolen right from Inception because I wanted a random number".  (While I'm at it, here are some interesting theories about this number.)
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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Half Bad (Half Bad Trilogy #1) by Sally Green

Wanted by no one.
Hunted by everyone.

Sixteen-year-old Nathan lives in a cage: beaten, shackled, trained to kill. In a modern-day England where two warring factions of witches live amongst humans, Nathan is an abomination, the illegitimate son of the world's most terrifying and violent witch, Marcus. Nathan's only hope for survival is to escape his captors, track down Marcus, and receive the three gifts that will bring him into his own magical powers—before it's too late. But how can Nathan find his father when there is no one safe to trust, not even family, not even the girl he loves?

Half Bad is an international sensation and the start of a brilliant trilogy: a gripping tale of alienation and the indomitable will to survive.

Released: March 4th 2014    Pages: 394
Publisher: Viking Juvenile   Source: Library
First Look: ****At first I passed over this book--witches typically aren't my thing.  That entire section of the paranormal genre, actually, doesn't hold much appeal from me.*  After seeing a few highly positive reviews of this, though, I gave it a second look, and went for it.  Now I'm glad I did.

Setting: ****
For the most part, it's solid.  Other reviewers have criticized this aspect for being weaker than usual in this type of novel.  I can see where this is coming from--the setting leaves many questions unanswered.  How does the world of witches fit into the "Muggle" world?  How does the magic even work?  It's vague about many of the finer details of witches and their subculture.  While I completely agree with these points, I disagree that they are a weakness.  It's a book about magic and witches, yes, but the focus is on the character of Nathan more than anything else.  The witches are a backdrop for the character development, unlike something along the lines of Harry Potter, whose entire story revolves around the magic.  Here, though, it provides a medium through which to tell his story; the magic isn't the story itself.    

Characters: ****
We're first introduced to Nathan when he's very young. Already, he's what you would call a "troubled child".  And it only gets worse from there.  His characterization is complex, dark, and even a little off, in the sense that I spent much of the book thinking, "There's something not quite right with this kid."  This is the logical result of his environment, though--after being imprisoned and abused for most of his life, it wouldn't make sense for him to be a completely normal kid.  He's believable in a raw way that really made me feel for him.  He has a lighter side, though, which made me want him to succeed.  Like any kid, he just wants the love and respect of his parents, even though his father is the most notorious murderer of the witch world.

Other characters are fleshed-out as well, though not quite as well as Nathan.  It's hard to get a good sense of the other characters, since most of them are seen as villains or obstacles through Nathan's eyes.  Still, though, I got a good sense of their personalities.   

Plot: ***** 
The first half is compelling.  It's graphic and intense, but it certainly commands attention.  The author wastes no time introducing us to the darkest parts of Nathan's existence.  It took me a chapter or two to get the hang of what was happening, but I don't necessarily think this is a fault, since it's designed to be slightly disorienting.

The second half loses some steam, which seems to be another common criticism of this book.  It's true that I started to lose interest when Nathan was no longer a prisoner.  Part of this is probably due to the subject matter--whether it's real conflict or not, violence demands people's attention.  Still, though, the second half seemed to lose the intensity that I loved in the first half.  Don't get me wrong; I still enjoyed it, but I just enjoyed it less.       

Uniqueness: ****
It's a book about witches, and when you start throwing that word around in YA fiction, everyone's brain goes straight to Harry Potter.  (Well, everyone except mine, it seems.  I don't see Harry Potter as the be-all, end-all of...well, anything.)  Half Bad is nothing like Harry Potter, though.  They both involve witches, but that's where the similarities end.  Half Bad, like I mentioned before, is more about Nathan's abuse and characterization than anything else.

Writing: ****
The beginning is disjointed, but in the best way possible.  There is some shifting between second and third person narration, deliberately making it hard to figure out what's going on.  It's chaotic, but it reflects Nathan's life and mental state.  It's been a turn-off for many reviewers, but I loved it.  It gave the story a weird, intense, dark feeling (and isn't that all I ever want from a book?).  After the first few chapters, the writing becomes more normal, but still maintains its pace and intensity.  It's not for the faint of heart--Sally Green doesn't shy away from graphic descriptions of Nathan's abuse.  Parts might be hard to read, but it's all part of the overall well-told story.

Likes: N/A

Not-so-great: N/A

Overall: Half Bad is a somewhat unusual addition to the fantasy/paranormal genres.  For once, the magic takes a backseat to the characterization, and becomes more of a backdrop than a main focus.  I love what this does for the book--it helps create Nathan's complexity and darkness.  It's graphic, and it's intense, but also thought-provoking.  My only major criticism is that the second half is slower and less compelling than the first.  Still, though, it's definitely worth a read.

Similar Books: It has so much in common with Charm & Strange--its dark intensity, troubled main character, hint of the paranormal, and writing style.  Its tone reminds me of The Magicians, and it is strangely reminiscent of The Raven Boys, though I'm not sure why.

*Then again, this is coming from the girl who posts Supernatural GIFs all the time.
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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Merchant of Death (Pendragon #1) by D.J. MacHale

Bobby Pendragon is a seemingly normal fourteen-year-old boy. He has a family, a home, and even Marley, his beloved dog. But there is something very special about Bobby.

He is going to save the world.

And not just Earth as we know it. Bobby is slowly starting to realize that life in the cosmos isn’t quite what he thought it was. And before he can object, he is swept off to an alternate dimension known as Denduron, a territory inhabited by strange beings, ruled by a magical tyrant, and plagued by dangerous revolution.

If Bobby wants to see his family again, he’s going to have to accept his role as savior, and accept it wholeheartedly. Because, as he is about to discover, Denduron is only the beginning….

Released: July 15th 2010 (original hardcover pub. 2002)     Pages: 384
Publisher: Simon & Schuster                                          Source: Purchased

This series.  Just...this series.

I don't even know what I can say to do justice to my feelings for it.  I first read The Merchant of Death in fifth grade.  I can't quantify the impact it, and the other nine books, have had on me since then.  It's an absolute masterpiece of character development and complex plotting.  It shows the good guys losing to the bad guys.  It shows kids growing up to become adults in a believable way.  It shows that everyone, even the best protagonist and evilest villain, is composed of shades of gray.  Even five years after the release of the final installment in the series, it still stands as one of the best things I've ever read.  And, as you know, I read a lot of things.  

Still, I was nervous to reread this.  My fifth-grade self had different standards and tastes than I do now.  I know more about what makes good writing and good storytelling.  What if Pendragon no longer met this standard?  Then again, I had this same worry with Eragon, and it proved needless.

Yes, I did find issues with The Merchant of Death that I didn't in fifth grade.  The narration is awkward and simplistic at times.  Action sequences still take place in block paragraphs.  A few slang terms slip out that sound odd coming from a 14-year-old.  The beginning is cliche and overused--normal suburban kid gets whisked off on some grand adventure and is chosen to save everyone.

It's not perfect.  But who am I kidding?  I love it.  I had so much fun rereading this.  I forgot how completely inept Bobby is at the very beginning.  I forgot Loor's incredible sass.  The implied Press/Osa ship.  Don't tell me that's not a thing.

So many things I didn't forget just made me incredibly happy upon rereading them.  The twistiness of a certain reveal (reread=look for foreshadowing!).  The fabulousness of Osa.  Mark Dimond's endearing awkwardness.  Courtney Chetwynde, a somewhat "masculine" female character whose personality runs far deeper than just "can beat boys at sports".

Like I mentioned before, Bobby Pendragon starts out as a useless protagonist.  For much of the book, every time he tries to help, he messes up.  Big time.  Let's face it--if many of us were pulled out of our normal lives into this type of adventure, we'd probably mess everything up, too.  And yet, Bobby just keeps going.  He keeps trying.  It's believable, it's real, and it's also a lot of fun.  More than anything else, that was my reaction to this book: it's just a ridiculous amount of fun to reread.

It's worth noting that I have the advantage of knowing how the series progresses from here.  Without this, I would be far less excited about The Merchant of Death itself.  I know how much more complex it gets, though.  I've read through the next nine books of character development and writing improvement.  I've gone with Bobby and the others as they change and mature.  More than anything else, though, I have the ability to see the series as a whole and appreciate the immense planning that must have gone into it.  Everything builds on everything else, and all foundations are laid early on, setting the series up for increasingly bigger, better things.  It just gets cooler from here.  Darker, yes, but also more awesome.  I'm excited to reread the rest of the series.

Similar Books: It has a teenage-kid-has-to-save-the-world fantasy plot with crossover YA and MG appeal, like the Percy Jackson series or Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel.  It's worth noting that I was really into Artemis Fowl when I first read The Merchant of Death (if nothing else, the sass levels are pretty comparable).

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

14 Things I Learned While Writing Untitled Icarus Novel

Sometime in the summer of 2009, I had my first idea for a "real" novel.  This marked a turning point for me.  Ever since then, my life has been a swirl of first drafts, dragons, red pen, fire towers, word counts, Greek mythology, and a growing crowd of fictional people orbiting in the space dust of my imagination.

I've written two full novels now, and each has taught me more about writing than I can list here.  Sometimes, each book taught me different things, and sometimes, both books reinforced the same thing.  Here are 14 things I learned while writing my latest novel: (you can read about the plot, characters, etc. here)
  1. I need to outline more.  After finishing my first novel, I thought, "Well, that worked, but it would have been so much easier if I had done more planning in advance."  So I did more planning before beginning this new book.  And it still wasn't enough.  I got stuck a few times, and I found myself wishing I had done even more outlining.  I guess I'll have to go nuts with my outline before starting my next book.
  2. I think in fandom references, and sometimes I don't know how to relate to people that don't work the same way.  I can't even count the number of times I had to stop and remind myself that Steve Rogers is not a household name.  And even then, I probably refer to him more than is a smart idea.  How can I not, though, when his story is such a huge inspiration for mine?  Still, I had to tone it down.  I could carry out a whole conversation in fandom references without hardly trying, but most people can't.  Aren't ordinary people adorable?
  3. Dual point of view is harder than it looks.  When you read a well-written book with two (or more) different points of view, it seems effortless.  Yeah, there's nothing to it--you just write about a different character each chapter!  Nothing to it!  Skilled authors make it look easy, but my first experience writing dual POV tells me that it's anything but easy.  It adds a whole new level of things to watch out for.  I have to keep my overall plot arc going, but I also have to make sure it's balanced between the two characters, and that I switch POVs at strategic places.  It can be a logistical nightmare.  I had so many scenes where I thought, "Whose POV should this be?  It would work for both, and it involves both."  In the end, I had to figure out which character had more at stake in a certain scene, and give them the POV.
  4. The very first story you envision after getting the initial idea is always laughably different from how it turns out.  The very first seed of this idea was of a boy who was never hurt by a fall, obsessed with building and perfecting a pair of mechanical wings.  It would be quieter than my previous book, and would explore the boy's complex relationship with his grandfather.  I wanted it to be lyrical and literary.  I ended up writing a borderline sci-fi/fantasy semi-thriller about two angsty teenage boys, a malicious organization named after a Greek monster, sketchy scientific experimentation, and Icarus himself.  The grandfather is long dead.  Basically the only things that stayed the same were the obsessive wing-building and Everett's ability.
  5. I don't know how to write a thriller.  I don't know how guns work.  I don't know how the police system works.  I don't know how to break into buildings.  Is there some sort of prerequisite course that all these authors take before writing a book like this?  I must have missed that memo.  Everything I've learned about any of this, I've learned from movies.  That's definitely how the pros learn, right?
  6. I have way too much fun withholding information from my audience.  I am their goddess.  I am omniscient.  Except when I'm staring at a new chapter and how no idea how to start it.  We're ignoring that.  Thus, I will have to keep secrets from my characters and my readers.  And if that means never explicitly stating what, exactly, my main character did to get arrested two years before the book begins, so be it.
  7. I am physically incapable of giving readers an ending where the lead boy and girl end up as a happy couple.  A friend of mine has given me a hard time for this.  Like I discuss in number 13, this type of ending in my own writing makes me uncomfortable.  I'm not really sure why--it's just not my style.  I'll give readers ambiguity, but I won't serve the romance to them on a platter.  In my first book, a hint of unexpected romance popped up on its own (that type of thing happens--characters do their own thing), but I never let it get beyond subtext and my personal vision of the story beyond the book.  And even then, it's not smooth sailing for my main character and leading lady.  In my latest book, the main girl is the ex-girlfriend of one of my MCs.  They don't get back together, but she says she'll try to be friends with him again, for the time being.  That's as far as it goes.  Maybe it's my love of vague endings, or maybe it's just my inner Moffat.  Who knows?
  8. If I come up with a headcanon for my own's canon.  I don't know why this was such a revelation for me.  It should be obvious.  Still, it makes me feel like I have so much power.
  9. Male main characters are my thing.  Some writers make a conscious effort to include equal amounts of male and female characters.  While representation from both genders is important to me, characters tend to pop into my head as certain gender, and once that happens, there's no switching it.  For some reason, I just envision them as one gender or another, even if it doesn't really matter.  My story would still be the same of both my POV characters were female, or one was male and one was female.  So far, though, it seems that I'm gravitating towards male main characters, and I'm not sure why this is.  Despite this, the gender balance tends to work itself out on its own.
  10. New characters appear of their own accord, or established characters develop their own backstories.  There's no way to avoid this.  I didn't expect Everett's mom to play such a big role, or to be such a complex character.  I didn't really put much thought into her, either--she just happened.  And she adds an unexpected twist to it.  This happened during my last book, too--two unplanned characters ended up in the book, and they turned out to be two of my favorites.
  11. Endings are terrifying.  There is something safe about the first draft.  You know that nothing has to be perfect, and this gives you a safetynet.  Don't have every detail worked out right now?  No problem!  After you write the ending, though, you have to start revision.  And that's scary.  You actually have to figure things out.  You no longer have the "I can fix it later" cushion.  That's a lot of pressure.  Plus, when you're done with that process, you're done with the book, and then you have to leave it behind, in a way.
  12. Stories have a way of fleshing themselves out on their own during the first draft.  When I started writing this book, my biggest fear was that it wouldn't be long enough, that I wouldn't have enough story to carry it for a full novel.  For most of the writing process, I was nervous about whether I'd hit 70,000 words.  I ended up at 77,000 (and that's with an ending that I already know is too rushed).  It turns out that I had plenty of story.  Things expanded and took new turns along the way.
  13. Completely happy endings make me uneasy.  I don't like wrapping everything up in a pretty little package and handing it to my audience with a smile.  I like satisfying endings, not happy ones.  (Actually, I like unsatisfying endings, too, but that's a whole different story.)  Yes, my characters may have overcome the antagonist, but there's still a lot of work to do.  Personal problems have started to get better, but they're nowhere near fixed.  I would much rather show just the beginning of the healing process, rather than the healing process itself.  My view is this: If you've just gone through this entire book and these characters are not permanently changed in some way, why bother?  What's the point?  This change often involves damage.  That's how fiction works.  That's what gives it conflict, makes it interesting.  And if there's been damage, the ending can't be 100% happy.  Does this make me an evil plotter?  I'm working on it. 
  14. Titles are hard.  As you can probably tell from the fact that I'm still calling this book Untitled Icarus Novel.  The title of Secrets of the Legend Chaser just came to me out of nowhere.  I never put much thought into it.  For the longest time, I was using it as a working title, but I realized that I liked it more than anything else I could come up with (and I was used to it).  So it stayed.  Here, I don't even have a working title.   

This is by no means a complete list, but it just goes to show that every novel teaches you something, even if it never sees publication.  What have you learned from your recent writing?

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