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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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