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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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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Centurion: Mark's Gospel as a Thriller by Ryan Casey Waller

In 2099 the United States is gone. In its place stands the most powerful government the world has ever seen: the Kingdom. Led by King Charles and his Centurion Guard, Americans live in fear of being abducted north in a train marked for death. Deacon Larsen boarded a train three years ago to travel west, the only region where medicine is still taught. But after the Kingdom abducted his parents, he returned home to the South. But Deacon hasn't come home to put his parent's affairs in order, as stated in his strictly controlled travel visa. No. He's come back for the only thing he has left: revenge. But waiting for Deacon are truths he never expected and a decision so impossible he may have to die to make it. The life Deacon knew is gone. The ones Deacon loves are dead. The truth Deacon craves is out there. But can he find it? Centurion is an imaginative retelling of Mark's gospel as a dystopic thriller. It's the greatest story ever told, as never before told.

Released: December 26th 2013   
Pages: 190
Publisher: Interlochen Ink           
Source: Goodreads First Reads giveaway
First Look: ****Mark's gospel?  As a dystopic thriller?  Um, yes.  Christian fiction is becoming increasingly off-putting and problematic for me (here's why), but I hoped that this would go against that trend.  Besides, why wouldn't I want to read a gospel retold as a thriller?

Setting: ***** I feel like a broken record, having to constantly criticize dystopian novels for settings that don't make sense.  And yet, here I am, talking once again about weak worldbuilding.  There is a king in future America now, because...?  Everyone is oppressed because you can't have a dystopian novel if nobody is oppressed...?  This one, though, isn't so much about lack of sense--it's more about lack of explanations.  I'm a stickler for dystopians that are dystopic for specific reasons, not just because humanity randomly turned degenerate.  While the setting may have worked, in this case, it felt more like a backdrop than an actual factor in the story.  We are handed the dystopian aspects, but never shown why they happened that way in the first place.  We're also told that the Centurions are bad, but we're never given enough concrete proof of this to really care.

Characters: *****  This is the highlight of the book.  Deacon is reckless yet courageous, passionate yet jaded, determined yet easily manipulated.  He's a very fleshed-out, human character.  He has flaws.  He makes grave mistakes, but he still keeps pushing forward toward his goal.  I genuinely liked him, even if I questioned some of his decisions.  Since this is a gospel retelling, I kept trying to figure out which biblical character he represented.  Initially, he seemed to be a new addition, purely of the author's creation.  After awhile, though, I figured out his identity, and I loved this twist.  He's an often-overlooked biblical character, and I appreciate the unique angle it gave the book.

The side characters vary.  Some, like Jude and Alejandro, are complex, and therefore compelling.  Maria, though, seems too perfect to be real, and has little personality.  No other characters are given enough attention to be much more than background.

Plot: ***** The plot isn't as tight as I would have liked.  I understand that the author is following an already-established storyline, but Deacon's personal story didn't fully mesh with the gospel story.  We start out right away with Deacon's desire for a rebellion, but this never fully made sense to me.  The government is responsible for the death of his parents, yes, but what, exactly, does he hope to accomplish by taking it down?  There's a hint of a supernatural aspect (beyond the Christ figure), but this is mentioned once or twice and then ignored.  Also, the romance insta-lust between Deacon and Maria happens way too quickly.  And randomly.  He falls in love with her just for her beauty, which isn't even love at all.

Overall, the plot maintains a solid pace, and I was able to follow its progression through the gospel.  I just wish it had been a little more streamlined.

Uniqueness: ****If this was just another dystopian novel, I would be all over it for unoriginal plot elements.  It's not a typical dystopian novel, though--it's a gospel retelling.  A thriller gospel.  And I applaud the author for that idea.

Writing: ****The writing does its job in an unobtrusive way.  I don't have much else to say about it.  It blends a few direct gospel quotes into the narration and dialogue, and these felt a bit awkward.  Of course, f you're taking centuries-old dialogue and putting it into a modern context, it's going to sound a bit weird.  Still, I wish it had felt a little more natural.

Likes: N/A.

Not-so-great: That ending.

I don't remember any of that happening in the Bible, but...alright.  It's a dystopian novel, so things aren't going to be pretty.  Still, the ending seemed abrupt and sudden for no good reason.

Overall: Centurion is not perfect by any means.  The setting never feels fully integrated with the plot.  Some of the direct Bible quotes are awkward mixed into the rest of the dialogue.  Deacon is a realistic and unique character, though, and I enjoyed reading about him.  The entire idea of this book is fantastic, as well.  It's more of a 3.5 star book, but I'm rounding up.  Recommended for people who want to read familiar biblical stories from a different perspective (though you wouldn't have to be familiar with the Bible to enjoy it).

Similar Books: It's a Christian dystopian novel like Aquifer.  Without the biblical aspect, it's a take-down-the-government sort of book, like Shatter Me or Inside Out.  (Even though I'm making comparisons, I should point out that none of these books really read like Centurion--it's just that I had trouble finding anything that does.)  

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Monday, October 6, 2014

14 Thoughts and Reactions to Divergent

This movie has been out for a few months, and though I was curious about it, I never could justify spending eight dollars and nearly three hours on it, especially since I'm not overly fond of the book.  When my university showed it, though, I figured I might as well go.  I was not surprised by my overall reaction toward it.
  1. When can we stop with the beginning infodump in dystopian movies?  I talked about the same thing in my review of The Giver.  There has to be a better way to do this.  This movie literally opens with Tris narrating the backstory while we're shown some ambiguous dystopian scenes.  Were they even trying?
  2. The Choosing ceremony has some sanitation issues.  They're all cutting their hands (to get blood for the Choosing ceremony) with the same knife.  That's an excellent way to spread disease.  If one of you has Ebola, now you'll all have Ebola.  Also, why do people in movies* always cut their palm when making a blood oath?  It would be so easy to damage something important in the hand; why not use the forearm instead?  
  3. The romance between Four and Tris develops so awkwardly.  It's not believable, and there's even less chemistry than in the book.  He's giving her the cold shoulder.  She's still talking to him because she thinks he's attractive.  Then there's an awkward yet intimate moment on a rickety ferris wheel.  Suddenly, he's helping her train.  And there is kissing.  I watched this movie with a bunch of fellow college students, and half of us actually laughed out loud at the first kiss.  It made that little sense. 
    I can't get over this GIF.  Her face...  This scene was even more gratuitous and unnecessary than the random shirtless scene in Thor: The Dark World.  
  4. This isn't necessarily the movie's fault, and it's explained in Allegiant, but...who would ever think this society would make sense?  Spoiler: it doesn't.  The faction system makes absolutely no sense.  I understand that certain revelations in Allegiant shed light on this, but why do all of the characters just accept this system?  I'm no sociologist, but even I can tell at one glance that it can't work.  You can't shove everyone into one of four personality types, especially when they aren't even personality types at all.  Sure, selflessness may be part of someone's personality, but intelligence?  No.  That has nothing to do with personality.  Honesty and peacefulness are more values than personality.  Can we just...not...with the faction system? 
  5. Erudite's trying to take over the government.  Darn.  We wouldn't want the people known for intelligence to be running the government, now, would we?  I understand the theory of letting Abnegation govern the factions--after all, they're supposedly selfless.  While it might be a good thing to have selfless people in power, how do we know they can run a government?  You can take care of the poor all you want, but if you lack leadership skills, you're still going to be an ineffective leader.  So why villianize Erudite for trying to gain control?  (Understand here that while I'm not faulting them for the end goal, I disapprove of the means.  I don't condone brainwashing people in order to turn them into your own personal army.)
  6. Dauntless.  What are you even doing?  Speaking of not making sense: Dauntless takes courage a little too far, to the point where it becomes stupidity.  There is no reason for them to have to jump onto/off of a moving train.  There is no reason for them to make their initiates jump off a building.  And there's definitely no reason to allow the type of violence that happens between initiates outside of training sessions.  Yes, I suppose you have to be fearless to jump off of a moving train, but it proves nothing except your own stupidity. 
    I'll pass, thanks.
  7. Four movies are definitely not necessary.  It's trendy to take your trilogy (or septology, or The Hobbit) and make more movies than books out if it, because PROFIT. The problem is that this is a self-perpetuating cycle.  Maybe an extra Harry Potter movie was necessary, but Mockingjay?  Allegiant?  Three Hobbit movies?  Maybe Mockingjay, but otherwise, not really.  But even though they're unnecessary, people like me will still go to the theater and see them* and pay for it.  And movie companies will make more money from two movies than they would from one, and they'll just keep doing it.  It's frustrating.
  8. The side characters here are even more confusing than in the books.  In the books, I had a hard time keeping track of side characters, which is something that usually isn't a problem for me.  The combination of too many side characters, lack of distinction, and awkward name choices that was problematic in the books is even worse in the movie, because some of the people actually look similar.  This was confusing and distracting, and I had the benefit of having read the book--I can only imagine that a newcomer to this story would be even more lost.
  9. The fear landscapes are awesome.  I loved this aspect.  The fear landscapes were utterly believable, intense, and cool.  Shailene Woodley and Theo James did a fantastic job with them as well, but the bulk of the praise should go to the special effects people.  The same goes for the aptitude testing simulations, despite the fact that these were cut short compared to those in the book. 
  10. It's fairly faithful to the book.  It's been awhile since I read Divergent, and like any book-to-movie adaptation, there are differences and cut scenes.  Still, the movie Divergent stays true to its source material in tone, themes, and almost every plot point, which is impressive.  I don't remember any scene that made me think, "When did that happen in the book?"  In this regard, Divergent is excellent.  Except...
  11. Why is there a near-rape scene?  In the books, one fear that Tris has to overcome in the simulation is the fear of intimacy.  Specifically, with Four.  In the book, I attributed this to Tris' Abnegation background, since Abnegation values modesty, and the fact that she had an experience with assault in the compound (didn't she?  I'm remembering this, but I can't find any mention online, so please let me know if I'm wrong.).  Tris overcomes this fear by asserting her personal power and making out with Four on her own terms.  In the movie, though, this fear of intimacy becomes a fear of rape.  Four just won't take no for answer, and Tris has to overcome this fear by fighting him off.  Can we please stop congratulating this movie on the fact that it shows a girl kneeing a guy where it hurts, and question why this is necessary in the first place? The fear of intimacy makes more sense, and shows more strength.  The fact that showing a girl fighting off a potential rapist is (apparently) more important than showing girl asserting herself (and the guy respecting her wishes) is troubling.
  12. AGUSTUS WATERS.  *bursts into sobs*  Maybe I should've seen Divergent before The Fault in Our Stars, because I will now have this type of emotional reaction to anything involving Ansel Elgort.  I'm not even sorry.
  13. Shailene Woodley saved this movie.  It's full of lackluster dialogue and plot elements that make no sense, but at least Shailene Woodley can act.  I loved her performance in The Fault in Our Stars, and she did an equally awesome job here, despite this movie's problems.  She conveys emotion in a raw and honest way, and she knows how to bring out the strength in a character.  If the dialogue had been a little tighter, she would've truly had a chance to show her skills. 
  14. Kate Winslet as Jeanine is...meh.  Jeanine is an uninteresting villain.  She's the antagonist, yes, but she doesn't inspire any particular hatred from the audience--or love, for that matter.  A good villain should be both scary and fascinating (hello Loki, the Scarecrow, the Master).  Jeanine's motivations are largely ignored, giving the audience little explanation for her actions.  Why is she evil, again?  Because she's the Designated Evil Lady.  Come on, people--you need a better reason than that.  (And is it just me, or does she look like an older Scarlett Johansson?)
Overall, I'm not impressed, though it did have a few bright moments.  I won't go to the theater for the rest of the movies, but curiosity will probably tempt me to see them sooner or later.

He threw a knife at her.  Such romance.  So love.  Wow.

Did you see Divergent?  What did you think of it?

*And Supernatural.  All the time.  Shouldn't they, at least, know better?
**Well, except Allegiant.  I doubt I'll see that in theaters.
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