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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Next Two Weeks

Last night, I realized that if I want to preserve my sanity, I need to do something.  Something that involves limiting the amount of things I have to get done before next Friday.  I want to avoid panicking, but look, here's part of my to-do list: read half the book of Psalms, read all of Proverbs, 2,000-word essay, 7-page paper, take the ring to Mordor*, etc.

I'm not saying this to complain, or to be all "Nobody has ever had as much work as this, ever".  I'm just saying "Look, here is my life right now".  Because of all this, though, something else has to go, and I've decided that I'm taking a short blogging break.  I'll be back at the beginning of April.  When I return, you can expect a GIF-laden review of The 100, a long rant about how mad The Future of Us made me, and probably more GIFs.

Since I'm making this post, though, I'm going to throw this in: I saw Imagine Dragons in concert.  And it was awesome.  They sound just as good (if not better) live as they do on their album.  It's awesome to hear extended versions of awesome songs--'Radioactive' was six and a half minutes long, and there was a violin part, which was cool and unexpected.  If nothing else, you could have spent the whole concert watching just the lights and their circular screen and not been bored.  On the outside, I'm kind of like this about it:
But on the inside, I'm a bit more of this:

While I'm away, here are some random links:
  1.  40 Breathtaking Nebulas
  2. 8 Beautiful GIFs of Space
  3. This fantastic article that uses ancient military strategies to explain how to write a solid essay.
  4. This medieval Avengers fan art.
  5. Josh Groban sings Kanye West tweets.
  6. Awesome songs you might not have heard.
  7. Also this, this, and this.
*I maybe lied about this one.

Have an awesome end of March!  Do you have any fun spring break plans?  What have you been reading/writing/listening to lately?

Edit: I probably should have added this sooner, but I didn't think of it until now.  When I get back, what do you want to see on the blog?  Is there a specific book you'd like to see me review, for whatever reason?  Is there a writing topic you think I should cover?  Do you want to learn more about me, in general?  (I've always been divided about this--it's fun to learn more about the actual people behind the blogs that I love, but then again, if I post about myself, I feel self-centered.  What do you think?)  Is there another random topic you'd like to see me write about?
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Monday, March 10, 2014

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

When you’ve been kept caged in the dark, it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees. It’s impossible to see anything, really. Not without bars . . .

Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.

He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.

He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.

Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.

Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.

Released: June 11th 2013       Pages: 216
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin   Source: Review copy provided by publisher

First Look: ****Initially, I had no intention of reading this.  I had skimmed the description once, and dismissed it as "not my thing".  Then I started hearing good things about it, and it started sounding more interesting.  When I was offered a review copy, I decided I might as well give it a shot.

Setting: ****
I never quite know how to review the setting of realistic fiction books.  While setting is always important, it typically doesn't play as large a role as it would in the fantasy and sci-fi novels I'm used to reviewing.  Still, even after only 216 pages, I could get a sense of the claustrophobic feel of Win's private school, and the tension of where Drew stayed during that eventful summer.

Characters: ****
This book is a fascinating character study.  It's told from two different (kind of) points of view.  Both are the same person, but one is the young Drew, and the other is the older version, Win.  Though it's hard for me to relate to Drew's constant anger and general angst, it feels real in a way that is borderline frightening.  It might be difficult to like a character who is always that angry, and it does get frustrating, but in a way that makes it believable.

The other half of the story is told from the point of view of present-day Drew, Win.  He's the same person in some ways, and different in others, which is what makes him so compelling.  That angry little boy is still there, but he's grown up in a way that makes him more withdrawn and angsty.  Again, he none of this makes him sound likable, but I found myself caring about him and feeling for him all throughout the book. 

Plot: ***** 
It unfolds strangely and gives up its secrets slowly.  You don't get key elements of the backstory at the beginning--for the reader, they happen at the same time as the present-day action.  If nothing else, the backstory raised so many questions that I wanted to keep blowing through chapters simply to find the answers.  It's unpredictable--you think you know where it's going, but then it takes another turn.  It's dark, sad, frustrating, and wonderful all at the same time.

And then the ending makes it even more so.  It's fitting, yet at the same time it boggles my mind a bit.  I mean this in the best way possible--I love books that mess with my mind.

Uniqueness: ****At first, it seems like it will turn it to be yet another boarding school book about an overly-angsty teenage boy.  It is about an overly-angsty teenage boy at a boarding school, but it's so much more than that.  And besides, the twist at the end separates it from all that.

Writing: ****The best word I can come up with to describe the writing is "understated".  It's pretty straightforward, with little in the way of fancy language and "wow" moments.  And yet, it packs a huge emotional punch.  It proves that you don't have to be over-the-top with your narration in order to make readers feel something.  I certainly was feeling the things Drew/Win was feeling.

My favorite part of the writing, though, is the ambiguity of it.  It twists your perception of what is reality, within the novel, and what is happening inside Win's mind.  I know that some people hate not knowing whether or not something in a book is real, but I love it.

Likes: Nothing not already mentioned above.

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

Overall: This is a strange, emotional, and wonderful little book.  It gives up its secrets slowly, but when the reveals come, they're worth it.  Even for just over 200 pages, it made me feel for the angry, sad, confused main character, Drew/Win.  The ending twists your perception of the entire novel in an awesome way.  I'm glad I got the chance to read and review this.

Similar Books:  It questions its own reality like The Marbury Lens and More Than This.  The angsty boarding school characters remind me of the boys from The Raven Boys.

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Game, Firstborn, and The Dream Thieves Mini-Reviews

Game (Jasper Dent #2) by Barry Lyga

I Hunt Killers introduced the world to Jazz, the son of history’s most infamous serial killer, Billy Dent.

In an effort to prove murder didn't run in the family, Jazz teamed with the police in the small town of Lobo’s Nod to solve a deadly case. And now, when a determined New York City detective comes knocking on Jazz’s door asking for help, he can’t say no. The Hat-Dog Killer has the Big Apple–and its police force–running scared. So Jazz and his girlfriend, Connie, hop on a plane to the big city and get swept up in a killer’s murderous game.

Released: April 16th 2013   
Pages: 520
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers  
Source: Library

After finishing I Hunt Killers, I was eager to keep going with this series and read more about Jazz.  I wanted more of his fascinatingly creepy inner conflict, and all the psychological aspects that come with it.  One of the biggest changes from the first book to this sequel is the addition of some chapters from Connie's point of view.  While I like Connie, her chapters never seemed as strong as Jazz's.  It's probably because her voice just isn't as compelling, since she's not, well, Jazz.

This book made me lose respect for Connie, more than anything.  I admired her courage in the first book, but in this one she makes some dumb decisions.  At one point, she essentially tells her parents, "I'm going to New York City to chase after my boyfriend (who just happens to have a serial killer after him).  If you say no and call the police, I will no longer be part of this family."  What?  No.  This is not strong or admirable.  It's gutsy, but it's hard for me to respect a person who does this to her family.  

Something about Game just isn't quite up to par with I Hunt Killers.  I felt like the psychological aspect was stronger in the first book, and that's what really drew me to it.  The first book had more of Jazz's am-I-a-sociopath angst, while the second book had more relationship angst than I would have liked.  Game is still awesome, but I didn't love it in the way that I loved the first book.

Similar Books: This series is everything I wished Project Cain would have been--they both have similar protagonists dealing with the nature vs. nurture issue as it relates to serial killers. It also reminded me of Boy Nobody and BZRK (though I'm not sure why that comes to mind).

Firstborn by Lorie Ann Grover
Where does a firstborn girl fit in a world dominated by men?

When Tiadone was born, her parents had two choices: raise their daughter as male and force her to suppress all feminine traits, or leave her outside the community to die in the wilds. Now, as the first female living as male in her village, Tiadone must prove her father didn't make a mistake by letting her live. As her time of male initiation approaches, Tiadone desperately wishes to belong, and be accepted in her world---though at every step it appears the Creator allows traditional feminine gifts and traits to emerge, as well as cursing her with a singing bird the ruling culture sees as a sign of the devil.

Worse, as Tiadone completes her initiation rites, she finds she is drawn to her male best friend and patrol mate in ways that are very much in line with the female gender.

Confused and desperate, Tiadone tries to become what she must be while dealing with what she indeed has become: a young woman who may be able to free her people from despotic rule and allow the Creator's name to be sung once more.

Released: January 28th 2014   Pages: 304
Publisher: Blink                     Source: ARC received from publisher

I went into this one blind--I hadn't heard anything about it, but it looked interesting, so I thought, "Why not?"  The premise is unique, and the setting was, too, but it never felt fully fleshed-out.  The "declared male" aspect doesn't make any sense.  This society has no place for firstborn girls, so if your first baby is female, she's abandoned.  In the main character Tiadone's case, her father basically said, "Well, this baby is a girl, but I'm going to raise her as a boy even though we all know she's not."  It would make sense if nobody knew her true gender, but they did.  In that case, what's the point?

Tiadone's relationship with her best male friend, Ratho, made no sense.  First Ratho liked her, then hated her, then liked her again.  Then they had a brief, intense making-out session where they talked about marriage.  Then they never spoke again.  This is one of the most confusing and spontaneous cases of insta-love I've ever seen.

I wish this book had a plot.  At the beginning, it seemed like it was there, but after Tiadone started her patrol duty, there was no overarching conflict.  It was just descriptions of Tiadone's various struggles with her gender identity.  Spoiler: The description is misleading.  What's this about Tiadone freeing her people from the despotic ruler?  That never happened.  The book literally ends with Tiadone running into the forest with her stepmother's female baby, which accomplishes nothing.

Overall, this had so much potential, but it just wasn't there.  The writing was awkward and weirdly phrases.  The dialogue felt off.  Tiadone wasn't a particularly interesting character, despite her situation.  I didn't hate this book, but I didn't like it, either.

Similar Books: It's a fantasy novel with a unique desert setting like Vessel or Daughter of the Centaurs.  It also reminded me of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Stiefvater
Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater have been woken, nothing for Ronan, Gansey, Blue, and Adam will be the same.

Ronan, for one, is falling more and more deeply into his dreams, and his dreams are intruding more and more into waking life.

Meanwhile, some very sinister people are looking for some of the same pieces of the Cabeswater puzzle that Gansey is after...

Released: September 17th 2013    Pages: 439
Publisher: Scholastic Press         Source: Library

Well, what happened here?  Why wasn't The Raven Boys this good?  While it earned a 4-star rating for me, it was more of a 3.5.  I was underwhelmed.  I'm not sure what Maggie Stiefvater did differently in The Dream Thieves, but whatever it was, it worked.

I'm still not a huge fan of Blue, though I've gained a bit more respect for her.  The reason I kept reading this series in the first place was the Raven Boys themselves.  I love them.  This book increased the stakes for all of them, showing new and interesting sides to their personalities.  They're all three-dimensional, and feel achingly real.

I'm usually a big fan of Maggie Stiefvater's writing.  She manages to capture the voice of each character well, and I love some of her turns of phrase.  But then, occasionally, she comes out with something like this: "Blue was a fanciful but sensible thing, like a platypus..."  And then, all I can do is laugh.  Am I the only one who can't take that seriously?

Overall, though, this was a big improvement, for me, on its predecessor.  The stakes were higher, the conflict was more engaging, and I grew even more attached to the characters.  I'm excited for the next book. 

Similar Books:  It's a paranormal novel with characters that remind me of those from Midnighters: The Secret Hour.  It also reminds me of Through Her Eyes and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

15 Thoughts And Reactions to Gravity

While Gravity did not earn itself the Oscar for Best Picture last night, it has still gotten a lot of hype this year.  I watched it, and I can see why people keep talking about it.  Here are 15 of my thoughts and reactions:
  1. Alternate titles: Alarms & Timers Everywhere, What We Saved In Costs For Extras We Made Up In George Clooney, The Mom From The Blind Side Goes To Space, But The Russians Started It, Let's Blow Up Every Single Major Piece of Space Technology We Own, There Actually Isn't Much Gravity In This Movie
  2. Oh, you always dreamed of being an astronaut?  NOT ANYMORE. 
  3. I want to see the screenplay for this, because I feel like half of the things that happened were written as "Alarm beeps.  Something blows up.  Science happens, so the escape pod does X."  A semester of astronomy and 2.5 semesters of physics do not an astrophysicist make, but you can't tell me everything in this movie is scientifically accurate.  Then again, accuracy is not necessarily what they're going for.  If it looks vaguely sciency, it works for me.
  4. On the dead astronauts: I was a bit worried that those particular images would become a regular occurrence throughout the movie, and I was thinking, "Wait, I didn't sign up for this!"  I was glad that wasn't that case.
  5. It has a lot of lens flare for a non-J.J. Abrams movie.  Not that I've seen many Abrams movies--I just know the reputation and I know how many Star Trek lens flare supercuts are on YouTube.  Maybe lens flare is a space movie thing.  
  6. It's so seamless.  The first half of the movie had few, if any, noticeable breaks in camera shot or position.  Smooth seems like an odd word for this movie, but it fits.  You don't pay attention to how many of these little breaks are in movies until you spend forty-five minutes with almost none.  
  7. How do you even film a movie that has no gravity?  I want to be in a zero gravity movie.  It would be even cooler than getting to run around in Inception's rotating hallway, which I want to do.
  8. I have never before described anything in a review as "atmospheric", because it's a hard term to define and few things have evoked that reaction from me.  Still, I'm going to go ahead and call Gravity atmospheric.  Haha, atmospheric.  I actually didn't realize that I'd made a bad pun until I was proofreading this post.  The entire thing evokes a sense of danger and intensity that feels very real.  
  9. This movie stars a strong female character that does not have to prove her strength by punching dozens of guys around.  So many so-called "strong female characters" are strong only physically, which means little.  They're just females displaying traditionally masculine traits.  Ryan Stone has physical strength, but she's more notable for being able to figure out how to survive and work all of the space technology.  In the end, that says far more about her than muscles and masculine aggression ever can.
  10. It does not let up.  Intensity, whether emotional, external, or both, wears down on the viewer.  Many movies give people a break by throwing in some comic relief here and there.  Gravity has some tiny moments, but mostly, it's just not going to give you that break.  It doesn't care about letting the viewer rest or catch their breath.  It just keeps barreling along like a freight train followed by an avalanche.     
  11. There's almost a bizarre slowness to it.  I can't put my finger on what I'm trying to describe, but somehow, the structure of the whole thing is odd.  There's no shortage of things happening, which typically makes for a faster-paced movie, but Gravity has this weird simultaneous slow and fast pace.  Part of this is probably due to the fact that it's repetitive.  A bad thing happens; she fixes the thing and barely escapes; a worse thing happens; lather, rinse, repeat.  And yet, it's not a boring slowness, because you can't look away from it.  It's an odd effect, and I like it.
  12. Showing me cool images of space is an excellent way to grab my attention.  I think space and cosmic things are cool.  My laptop background and iPad wallpaper are both pictures of a nebula.  My phone wallpaper was the aurora borealis (before I recently changed it to a picture of Toothless).  Gravity has some cool shots of the Earth.  Even besides the visuals, I will always be more interested in something labeled as "space thriller" than just a normal "thriller".     
  13. This would be spectacular and terrifying in 3D.  If this was intense on a home TV screen, I can imagine how awesome it would be on a huge 3D screen.  It might actually be scary in 3D.  
  14. This was my thought process at the very end when she comes up onto the beach: "Oh good, she made it.  What is she doing, still holding part of her body upright?  If that were me, I would be doing a faceplant in the sand right now--wait, there she goes.  If anyone ever earned a faceplant in the sand, it's Ryan Stone."
  15. I've had Ryan Tedder's 'Gravity' demo song stuck in my head this entire time.  Here, have some Ryan Tedder.
Have you seen Gravity?  What did you think?  How much do you not want to become an astronaut right now?

PS: If you liked this post, I also have one for Catching Fire, Thor: The Dark World, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
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