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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Relic (Books of Eva #1) by Heather Terrell

The truth will test you...

For fans of
Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games: high fantasy and dystopia meet in this high-stakes tale of a civilization built on lies and the girl who single-handedly brings it down.

When Eva’s twin brother, Eamon, falls to his death just a few months before he is due to participate in The Testing, no one expects Eva to take his place. She’s a Maiden, slated for embroidery classes, curtseys, and soon a prestigious marriage befitting the daughter of an Aerie ruler. But Eva insists on honoring her brother by becoming a Testor. After all, she wouldn’t be the first Maiden to Test, just the first in 150 years.

Eva knows the Testing is no dance class. Gallant Testors train for their entire lives to search icy wastelands for Relics: artifacts of the corrupt civilization that existed before The Healing drowned the world. Out in the Boundary Lands, Eva must rely on every moment of the lightning-quick training she received from Lukas—her servant, a Boundary native, and her closest friend now that Eamon is gone.

But there are threats in The Testing beyond what Lukas could have prepared her for. And no one could have imagined the danger Eva unleashes when she discovers a Relic that shakes the Aerie to its core.

Released: October 29th 2013   Pages: 288
Publisher: Soho Teen              Source: Purchased
First Look: ***** I originally picked this up for a dollar at a local book fair, thinking it was an alternate cover of this other book named Relic. Both came out in 2013. Both have similar covers. Both involve, well, relics.

Were Soho Teen and Entangled Teen just lazy, or what?

I'd rather have the other Relic, but since this one was only a dollar, I thought I might as well give it a go.

Setting: ***** 
The premise starts out just like only a thousand other YA dystopian settings: because humankind is as evil as a Disney villain, we let climate change happen, and floods ravaged the world, creating war, starvation, and general chaos.  And that's where this book diverts: instead of sticking around to create the Hunger Games, the few survivors of humanity fled to create a new society in the Arctic.  Because...winter is coming?  Who knows?  From there, we see one of the most nonsensical settings I've ever read.

The new society has somehow morphed back into a place where women are treated as they were in the 1800s.  Young women are even called "maidens", which essentially means that they have to be demure, cultured, and reserved.  And they have to leave all the important things to the men.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Society doesn't just backtrack this quickly.

Characters: ***** Meet Eva.  She just lost her brother, and sometimes she's sad about that.  More often, though, she's concerned about things that are obviously more important, like whether or not that cute boy Jasper likes her.  She doesn't speak her mind because her society forbids it.  In fact, she spends almost as much time thinking about how society tells her to act as she does thinking about Jasper.

Yeah.  It's about as interesting as it sounds.

She has no depth, no personality.  She does whatever she's told, except when she decides to try a small little rebellion.  And then she's praised for it, for no reason, in a society that does not allow rebellion.  She doesn't have any traits to make her likable, since she hardly has any traits at all.

Everyone else is just as much of a cardboard cutout.  The only one who is slightly interesting is Lukas (who suddenly becomes the love interest, out of nowhere), but his story is pushed to the wayside.

Plot: ***** The entire plot revolves around something called the Testing, which involves sending several teenagers on a mad dog sled chase through the wilderness.  Then they must survive a night camped in the Arctic.  Then they have to mine "artifacts" from 21st-century civilization from the ice.  When they find something, they write a cautionary tale about it.  Whoever finds the best thing wins.  The second half of this Testing makes sense to me.  The first half doesn't.  If it's all about the artifacts anyway, why bother sending them on the life-threatening race?  If it's the artifacts that win them the Testing, why would they care about racing at all?

And yet, despite her qualms, Eva undertakes the Testing.  And--spoiler alert--she wins.  Surprise surprise.  Even though she isn't the fastest and doesn't find the best artifact, she still somehow wins.  Probably because everyone and their brother, it seems, wants to illegally help her.  Throughout the whole thing, there's absolutely no tension.  Even though she does encounter a few stumbling blocks, the plot is so predictable that they hardly matter.

The description implies that this book is about a girl who brings down a corrupted civilization by herself.  Who "shakes the Aerie to its core".  Another spoiler--this does not happen.  Sure, everyone loves her unconventional writing about her artifact, but once she gets back, it's just same old, same old.  Maybe this society-shaking happens in the next book, but then it shouldn't be mentioned here.

Uniqueness: ***** Meh.  We've all seen the climate-change-turned-society's-clock-backwards thing over and over.  Other than that, nothing about it feels like it copied from something else, but it has nothing unique enough to stand out, either.

Writing: ***** The narration isn't great, but more of my focus went toward how much I disliked other aspects.  Still, a few sentences are awkward.  So much of it is just Eva thinking, "Oh, I can't do this, I can't do that.  It's not what a Maiden would do!"  It gets old really fast.  It doesn't make me want to like the character, and it's annoying and repetitive.

Likes: N/A.

Not-so-great: Can we stop comparing books to Game of Thrones?  Game of Thrones is a TV show.  A Song of Ice and Fire is the book series.  A Game of Thrones is the first book.  If you're going to make a comparison to a book, please use A Song of Ice and Fire or A Game of Thrones.  Because they're books.  It's not that hard.

Anyway, this has absolutely nothing to do with either Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games.

Overall: This book just made me bored and annoyed.  The main character, Eva, has no personality.  She's a slave to the constraints placed on her by a sexist society, and she does nothing but mope or worry about following the rules.  The setting makes no sense.  The plot makes only slightly more sense, but the whole concept of the Testing leaves something to be desired.  Sure, it only cost me a dollar, but there are better ways to spend it.

Similar Books: It reminds me of Dualed, The Iron Thorn, and Firstborn.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Indecisive Student's Guide to Picking a College

Picking a college is hard.

There it is.

In fact, it might well be the hardest thing you've ever done.  You're just a high school student--you can't even go to the bathroom without asking permission, so how do adults expect you to make a decision that will shape the rest of your life?

Storytime: The deadline for a final college decision in the United States is May 1st.  With less than a week remaining, I still had not made a final decision.  This was a terrifying situation.  I had two excellent schools that I liked equally.  Everything seemed so much the same--the financial situation, the classes, the job outlook, etc.  It was frustrating to not know what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to even make that kind of decision at all.

There is a lot of advice on the internet regarding this subject, but I find the majority of it to be either obvious, redundant, or just generally unhelpful.  People say things like, "When you step onto the right campus, you'll just know", which is completely false.  Okay, maybe you'll get really lucky and this will happen to you, but the rest of us need another solution.  For those people, I am digressing from my usual writerly posts to give you the following advice:

Ask a ridiculous amount of questions.  In the weeks leading up to my final college decision, I called the admissions offices weekly.  I kept coming up with questions, and sometimes I had to let them shuffle me around to various departments to find someone who could answer.  Still, this was my way of learning about the school.  If you feel a bit embarrassed to be annoying these people again with your ceaseless questions, you're doing it right.

Make a weighted list of pros and cons.  For those of you who like to make decisions based off facts and stats, not just pure intuition, here's a method for you.  First, make a list of all the aspects of a college that could possibly make a difference in your decision.  Some examples include closeness to home, the availability of study abroad options, the reputation of the school, the schedule flexibility allowed by the required core classes, a scientific term I like to call "dorm coziness", and so on.

Put these in one column in a spreadsheet.  Each of these aspects, then, is assigned a weight from 1 to 3, with 3 being the most important.  For example, if study abroad options were a top priority for me, I'd assign that a 3.  If "dorm coziness" was less important, I'd make it a 2 or a 1.

From there, add a new separate column for each college and rank them on each of your chosen aspects.  If I thought college A's study abroad options were better than college B's, I'd give college A a 3 and college B 1 or 2.

Add a "product" column next to each college column.  Once you've entered all your rankings, you'll need to do some multiplying.  (Yeah, I know, math on a writing blog?)  You can do this with Excel formulas, or by hand--it makes no difference.  Multiply study abroad's weight by the score in this category for college A, and enter this in the product column.  Repeat for all aspects of both colleges.  Now, add up the products.  Hopefully, the numbers will be different.  It should look something like this:

If you're a strictly by-the-numbers person, your decision has been made, at least theoretically.  Choose the school with the higher total.  I understand that it won't always work like this, but it'll at least give you something to think about.  Or, it'll allow you to cross any schools with unusually low numbers right off your list.

Figure out exactly what classes you'd take.  You can do this however you like, but the easiest way is probably to whip out another spreadsheet and get to work.  First, find the homepage for your intended major(s).  It should look something like this.  Figure out how many credits you need in order to graduate.  Core requirements, too.  Spend some time looking through the course catalog and lay out a hypothetical course plan.  Don't think about it too much, since you don't necessarily have to follow it.  The idea is just to list classes you might take, if you chose that school and that degree path.

When you do this, a few things become apparent.  It'll show exactly how many classes you need to take, which might be a dealbreaker.  For example, when I did this, I noticed that one college required considerably more core classes (outside my major) than another, which made it harder for me to double-major.  This, then, factored into my final decision.  (This can also go into your first spreadsheet.)

Track down some graduates.  If you know what job you'd like to eventually get after attending this school, find a graduate from your prospective school who is doing it.  I used LinkedIn to search for people, but you could probably use Facebook, Google, or something else with a search engine.  You could try asking the college itself for some names and contact information.  If you're able to speak with these people, ask them about their experience at the school.  Since they don't work in the admissions office, they'll have a much more unbiased opinion.  From these people, you can find out whether they felt the college was a good fit for their career.  Ideally, at least.

I can't tell you which college to pick, but hopefully I've given you a starting point.  Because you know that relatives will keep asking you, "So, where are you going next year?"  And it would be nice if you could actually give an answer.  

Also, let me tell you this: people expect you to pick a school.  You expect yourself to pick a school.  If you feel like nobody has ever told you how to do this, though, isn't just you.  It's completely true that nobody tells you how.  It's also completely true that the process is overwhelming and mind-boggling.  You're supposed to pick the school that's "right for you", but how do you even know what that means?  I managed to make a decision, and I still can't define that.  I can't even tell you to go with your gut instinct, because in those last few weeks, my gut instinct was "the right school for me is Hogwarts".  However, I can tell you that every other high school senior feels the same way.  That isn't encouraging, I understand, but at least you're not alone, floundering in the cosmic abyss of college brochures.

Actually, I'm still waiting for that Hogwarts letter.

It's worth noting that all the usual advice still applies--you definitely should visit the campus (more than once, if possible), do an overnight visit, sit in on a class, meet with some professors, etc.  I'm not giving you that advice, though, because I doubt you need it.
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Friday, September 12, 2014

11 Thoughts and Reactions to The Giver

A best-selling, ultra-controversial yet beloved book.  An audience still clamoring for more dystopian movies, even though the genre has basically been exhausted for two years.  Taylor Swift with some free time on her hands.

What do you get when you combine these things?  You get the kiddie version of 1984, or, more accurately, The Giver.  Except now, it's in movie form.  And either way, it's much better than 1984 and can appeal to a larger audience because it doesn't have rabid rats or love affairs in sketchy shop attics.  Plus, it's not dumbed-down at all, which is why so many people have tried to ban it.

Here are eleven thoughts and reactions.  Only numbers seven and eight are spoilery.
  1. It opens with a poorly-handled infodump.  The movie literally opens with words on a black screen.  Then some voiceover.  Really?  That's the best you can come up with?  Even The Hunger Games did better than that with their "Let's make the characters watch an infodump on a screen so we have an excuse to make the audience watch it, as well!".  I'll cut tHG a little slack, since at least it seems like they tried, but I won't give The Giver this same benefit.  Figure out another way.  It's not that hard.  The book has been getting by without it since 1993.
    Off in the distance, Captain America raises a finger and shouts, "Objection!"
  2. Pacing.  What's that?  I'll admit that pacing is something I'm picky about, but even by lower standards, this movie's pacing needs help.  The beginning scenes are decently paced, but towards the second half, it starts to feel rushed.  There's too much happening too fast.  First, the conflict revolves solely around Jonas, his family, and the Giver.  Suddenly, though, he's on a mission to save the entire Community, for motivations that were never clearly established.  He's running around urgently, but the audience is left wondering, "Wait, when did this happen?"  The receiving of memories, the most important plot concept, is nowhere near as fleshed-out as it should be.  The progression happens too fast, and there's not much time for any of it to sink in.
  3. Black and white--yay!  I was prepared to forgive a lot in this movie, on the condition that it was mainly in black and white.  And it was.  The simple truth is that I am not an objective moviegoer--nobody is.  And I'm a casual reviewer, so I feel no obligation to even pretend to be objective like some reviewers.  The lack of color is so important to the setting and overall theme that omitting it would be an insult to the book.*  
  4. Once you age the characters, you automatically get unnecessary kissing.  In the book, Jonas experiences the beginnings of feelings for his best friend, Fiona.  It doesn't go further than this, partly because he's only around twelve, and partly because daily injections have all but eliminated the experience of puberty, and therefore raging middle school hormones are nonexistent.  In the movie, Jonas kisses Fiona, and their other friend Asher witnesses it, for no particular reason other than to form an awkward love triangle.  That also exists for no particular reason.  But hey, it's a teenage dystopian movie, so we have to have a love triangle, right? 
  5. Lily: Can I be released?  Me: *excessive cringing and general discomfort*  To anyone that hadn't read the book, this scene was not particularly disturbing.  I knew exactly what "release" meant, though, so I was (understandably) uncomfortable with this.  The thought of an entire society being so blind to this is chilling, but a necessary and timely message.  (Fun fact: My seventh grade class read this book, and I was the only one who had read it before.  My teacher pulled me aside and swore me to secrecy on this subject, and basically everything else.)  
  6. Brenton Thwaites' sense of wonder is beautiful.  In the book, Jonas is a few years younger, and I was skeptical of the decision to age the characters.  In this aspect, though, the movie pleasantly surprised me.  Brenton Thwaites did a wonderful job conveying the sheer wonder Jonas feels when he receives the memories.  While some of the dialogue didn't feel realistic, his portrayal was always spot-on.  He's so giddy after seeing snow, and it makes him seem younger than he is.  And it's something beautiful.  Also, it's thought-provoking--we take things like snow, elephants, and dancing for granted, but what would it be like to live sixteen years not knowing they exist? 
  7. SLIGHTLY SPOILERY So much of this never happened in the book, but I don't fault the movie for most of it.  The extra romance adds nothing positive to the movie, and I wish the screenwriters could have resisted this temptation.  The other additions, though, don't bother me as much.  Though every book lover would like to see their favorites on screen exactly how they imagined it and exactly how it was written, but in most cases, this is impossible.  You can't tell a story the exact same way in a song as you can in, say, a painting, though both can be storytelling mediums.  The same thing applies to books and movies--though they're more closely connected, hey're still fundamentally different, and that calls for different interpretations.  (Come on, even Game of Thrones fans don't get to see every detail of the books reflected in the show, and they get over fifteen hours per book.)  The Giver in novel form is often subtle and ambiguous, two things which do not translate well to screen.  It's also a short book, and potentially lacked material to fill a full movie on its own, depending on the pacing.  In a movie, everything needs to be more visual and action-oriented.  Thus, events like Asher's betrayal and the entire concept of the Boundary of Memory (I think) were added.  They'll frustrate purists, but I didn't mind.
  8. SPOILER ALERT Taylor Swift.  Even though Taylor Swift's role feels a bit random to me, I don't mind this particular deviation from the book.  She plays Rosemary, the former Receiver of Memory and the Giver's daughter.  The role adds some interesting backstory, though every time she spoke, I half expected her to burst out in song.  "I'm the Giver's daughter *bass drop* OH *bass drop* OH *more bass* TROUBLE TROUBLE TROUBLE."  When did I ever pretend to be a professional reviewer? 
  9. Every time someone said "precision of language", I came a little closer to punching something.  This isn't a criticism of the movie--or the book, for that matter--it's just my knee-jerk reaction to this concept, in general.  In this movie's setting, language is meant to be precise, formal, and direct.  This isn't a bad thing, in itself, but as an English major, the thought of taking all the nuance out of language is appalling.  Also, the Community has erased concepts like love, meaning that Jonas' father "enjoys his presence" and "takes pride in his accomplishments", rather than loves him.  As if we need any more proof that the Community is seriously messed up.  (Also, every member of the family is required to discuss their stunted and formalized feelings at every meal, a tradition literally referred to as "it's time for Feelings".  Cue involuntary shudders from every INTJ in the audience.)
  10. Regardless of how I felt about this movie, I got to hear Ryan Tedder's voice keening out of large speakers at the end.  In my experience, Ryan Tedder (and the rest of OneRepublic, of course) and large speakers are always a good combination.  Their song 'Ordinary Human', written for this movie, is nowhere near the best song they've ever done, but it fits well.
  11. Many of my reactions are not "nice" but "nicely handled".  I can't say I'm impressed by this movie, but I appreciate it.  I love the book, and I feel it's an important story for our society to be exposed to, but the movie just doesn't have the same effect.  It's a difficult book to translate to film--I'll give it that.  And, for the most part, the writers and directors did a good job with what they had.  Ultimately, though, if you're looking to experience The Giver to the fullest, you should read the book.

Overall, my feelings are mixed.  I enjoyed it, but it just didn't impact me the same way the book did.  Fixing the pacing issues would have made my review much more favorable, but that won't happen.  Still, though, I'd recommend it for fans of the book. 

If you're interested, there's a full article here detailed the differences between the book and movie.

Have you seen The Giver?  What did you think?

*Yes, movies can indirectly give the middle finger to their books, whether intentionally or not.  Remember that time in the Eragon movie when Brom guesses Eragon's age as "Fifteen, sixteen..." and Eragon angrily responds with "SEVENTEEN!"?  First, the book clearly states Eragon's age as fifteen, and in that case, aging him two years would make no difference.  Also, Brom would know exactly what Eragon's age was.  For obvious reasons.  (It's worth mentioning that the movie came out before Eragon's parentage was revealed in Brisingr, but all this does is make a stronger case for the fact that movie companies should wait until an entire series is released before trying to make a movie.)

PS: I don't know why most of the GIFs I could find are in color.
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Friday, September 5, 2014

Fade to Black (Rojan Dizon #1) by Francis Knight

From the depths of a valley rises the city of Mahala.

It’s a city built upwards, not across—where streets are built upon streets, buildings upon buildings. A city that the Ministry rules from the sunlit summit, and where the forsaken lurk in the darkness of Under.

Rojan Dizon doesn’t mind staying in the shadows, because he’s got things to hide. Things like being a pain-mage, with the forbidden power to draw magic from pain. But he can’t hide forever.

Because when Rojan stumbles upon the secrets lurking in the depths of the Pit, the fate of Mahala will depend on him using his magic. And unlucky for Rojan—this is going to hurt.

Released: February 26th 2013  Pages: 384
Publisher: Orbit                         Source: Library
First Look: ****This is one book that I picked up for no reason other than that I liked the cover.  The premise is cool, but that cover just grabbed my attention. 

Setting: ***** 
It's interesting, but also confusing.  A few people have guns (newly invented technology, in this case), but not everyone.  Because of...reasons?  The concept of the synth and the glow, two sort-of magical substances that provide energy to the city, is well-explained, but what's unclear is how it relates to the magic system.  The magic is the weakest part of this book.  Why do some people have magic but not others?  How, exactly, did Rojan even learn to use it?  What is his connection to the glow?  The non-fantasy elements of the setting, like the social structure and that of the city itself, make sense and are compelling, but the magic element didn't work for me.

Characters: ****
I liked Rojan. Right away, he establishes himself as a strong character, full of personality.  His employment is a little on the sketchy side, and he readily admits he's not without vices, but he has a caring heart beneath it all.  He goes through a lot of pain in order to save a niece he's never even met.  Francis Knight makes him at once likable and flawed, which is the best kind of character.

Other characters were well-developed, for the most part.  Jake, the love interest (a woman), has her own unique personality that plays off Rojan's.  The two have a complex relationship, though it's nowhere near as nuanced as her relationship with her business partner, for lack of a better term and the fact that I honestly can't remember the man's name right now.  I'm warning you now--I'll have the same problem with my next review.  In that last week before I moved into my dorm, I was so distracted I could barely focus on reading.  So maybe you should take this review with a grain of salt.     

Plot: ***** 
It starts out interesting, but the second half falls into chaos.  Rojan begins with a simple goal: rescue his niece.  Then, though, it becomes a quest to free all the captive children, whose pain is being used to power the city.  I have no problem with that itself, but from there, it just kept going, and ended with Rojan wanting to take down the entire oppressive government.  Or the ruler, at least, *highlight to read spoiler* who just so happens to be...*gasp*...Rojan's father. Um...okay.  The last half is fast-moving series of events that have little or no explanation, leading to an ending that feels rushed and disorienting.

Uniqueness: *****
It has a little of so many different genres, making it hard to pin down.  It's part urban fantasy, with characters with magical powers.  It's part dystopian fiction, with a formerly glorious city now full of disease and poverty, plus a dictator that nobody likes.  It's also part thriller, part mystery, and part something I can't quite name.

Writing: ***** I have no strong feelings one way or another about the writing.  Except for the last few chapters, which made me disoriented in an already-rushed ending, the narration did its job.  I got to see inside Rojan's head in a way that made him seem real.  Then again, I never felt as fully engaged as I wanted to.  I have no specific reasons for this--it just didn't do the trick for me.

Likes: That cover, though...

Not-so-great: Can we get a female character who isn't (a) in need of rescue (b) the object of Rojan's abundant lust (c) a former or present prostitute (d) all of the above?  Is that too much to ask?

Overall: Fade to Black has an awesome premise, with a genre-defying setting that's both a fantasy world and a dystopia.  Some aspects of it, though, like the magic system, make little sense.  I liked the main character, Rojan, and some of the side characters.  The plot becomes disjointed and chaotic in the second half.  Overall, this just never grabbed my attention, despite its strong points.

Similar Books: It's an urban fantasy in the vein of The City's Son.  Its genre-bending setting reminds me of Incarceron.  It also makes me think of Steelheart.

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