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Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy #1) by Douglas Adams

Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.

Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by quotes from The Hitchhiker's Guide ("A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have") and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox--the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and totally out-to-lunch president of the galaxy; Trillian, Zaphod's girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot; Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.

Released: September 27th 1995    Pages: 216
Publisher: Del Rey Books            Source: Library
First Look: ****Pretty much all of my friends wanted me to read this.  They're nerdy and like science fiction.  I'm nerdy and like science fiction.  It was going to happen sooner or later. 

Setting: ****
This setting makes no sense.  I know, I know, it's high time people got after me about the fact that I've said the same thing about so many other settings lately.  The difference is that Douglas Adams' galaxy (which, incidentally, is our own galaxy) isn't supposed to make sense.  It's a chaotic mess of impossible corporations, designer planets, spaceships, bureaucracy, and who knows what else.  It's meant to pull you along for the ride, as it did with Arthur Dent.  And maybe, just maybe, there's a hidden message here about our own experience of the galaxy.  Does it make any sense whatsoever?  Not really.  

Characters: *****
Arthur Dent is the epitome of "slightly annoyed guy who gets dragged on an adventure."  All he wants is to keep his house--and then his planet gets blown to pieces.  He spends the rest of the book in a slightly dazed state of "just go with it" as he travels the galaxy and finds his way into other people's (and aliens' and androids') mischief.  Also along for the ride are the president of the galaxy, a robot, an alien travel guide researcher, and other assorted oddities.  And that's what pretty much every side character is: an oddity.  Fortunately, that's what makes things interesting. 

Plot: ***** 
The plot is where this book didn't quite meet the high expectations all the hype has set.  Yes, it has the same quirky humor as everything else, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it doesn't go anywhere.  It begins with a focus--Arthur Dent's home, and the planet with it, is about to be demolished, and only sheer dumb luck brings him on this adventure.  After that, it's a romp through a seemingly random assortment of space settings.  Maybe this is a result of my fragmented reading of this book, but my interest started to wane once the romp began.  Don't get me wrong: it's a fun (and funny) plot.  It just isn't as clear as I usually like.

Uniqueness: ****
I haven't read about paranoid androids in a while.  Or about intergalactic travel writing.  Or about why towels are an essential space travel tool.  (And by "a while," I mean "never.")

Writing: ****
Douglas Adams combines weird analogies, straightforward narration, and a healthy dose of social commentary subtext.  We have this:

“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.” 

And then there's this:

“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.” 

And this:

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.” 

I'll let these quotes speak for themselves.

Likes: N/A.

Not-so-great: N/A.

Overall: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a strange little book.  It's part straight-up adventure story and part space romp, but you can't ignore the underlying sarcastic commentary.  Douglas Adams is a genius with odd analogies, and Arthur Dent is exactly the type of suitably ordinary annoyed-guy-dragged-on-an-adventure to drop into the mix.  The plot feels meandering at times, but overall, it's an enjoyable, offbeat ride through space.  We all need that sometimes.

Similar Books: I have nothing to adequately compare this to, but here's what I can come up with: It's a sci-fi classic like Ender's Game, quirky like Ready Player One, and its sense of humor would likely appeal to fans of Artemis Fowl (after all, Eoin Colfer did write a follow-up to Hitchhiker's Guide).

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Monday, March 16, 2015

(Yet Another) 100 Things Every Writer Should Know

  1. Structure.  Learn what it is.  Learn how to use it.
  2. Posting about your novel progress on Tumblr is not, in fact, progress.
  3. Make lists.  Make a lot of lists.  Make lists of possible names.  Character traits.  Details about setting.  Procrastination techniques.  Lists of things writers should know.  Anything.
  4. Figure out what type of writing environment works for you.  Do you need complete quiet?  Do you enjoy the white noise of a coffee shop?  Stick to it.
  5. And then, once you've gotten used to one writing environment, change it up every so often.  Try something different.  It's good for your creative muscles.
  6. If you want to know what a writer's life is like, look no further than F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris.  That's exactly what the writer's life is like.  Exactly.
  7. Sometimes, you just have to play the Game of Thrones theme on loop for five hours when you're writing epic battle scenes.  
  8. In real-life conversation, remember to clarify that you're talking about your fictional characters, not real people.  Most people won't react positively to "Yeah, and then I killed off Frank!  It was fantastic!"
  9. Story ideas will wake you up in the middle of the night.  There's absolutely nothing you can do about it. 
  10. Never trust a writer that talks to you for 20 minutes when you ask her to give a summary of her latest book.  If you can't sum it up in one or two sentences, you need to rethink your plot.
  11. If you're looking for information on illegal things like, say, how much it would cost to hire a hit man, but you're afraid of Googling this even in incognito mode, here's a resource for you.
  12. Back up your work periodically.  Email it to yourself.  Save it to an external hard drive.  Carve it into a stone tablet and cast it into the sea.  Anything to save you in case of that inevitable computer meltdown.
  13. “An old racetrack joke reminds you that your program contains all the winners’ names. I stare at my typewriter keys with the same thought.”  — Mignon McLaughlin
  14. You know that feeling of looking back at something you wrote and realizing, "Wow, that's terrible," even if you just wrote the thing yesterday?  I'm going to let you in on a secret: you're always better than the last thing you wrote.  You improved while working on it.  Thus, everything is always going to seem worse to you, since you're always better than when you started.
  15. Ignore anyone who tells you "You're not a real writer if you _____" or "You're not a real writer unless you ____"  The only thing that makes you a "real writer" is that you write.  Do you write?  There you go.  You're a real writer.
  16. There are no completely new ideas.  It's not about coming up with something nobody has ever thought of.  Everything you will write is a combination of various other aspects from books you've read.  It's not stealing--it's making it your own. 
  17. Pacing isn't about constantly keeping up an action-packed plot.  It's about variation between fast and slow scenes.  Too much slow is boring; too much fast is exhausting.  Find a balance.
  18. Avoid using "thinking" words whenever possible.  Realized, felt, saw, knew, thought, etc. bring your reader one level further away from your protagonist.  They're often unnecessary.
  19. If buying that pretty new notebook gives you a reason to write, then buy that pretty new notebook.
  20. A popular piece of writing advice says that you should never use said--instead, you should use more descriptive dialogue tags like whispered, shouted, murmured.  Actually, the exact opposite is true.  Said is your friend.  Avoidance of said is the mark of an amateur.
  21. Some writers like to talk about their work-in-progress before it's done.  Some don't.  Non-writers often don't understand this, and get offended when you won't tell them what you're writing.  If you've explained that you'd rather not say, and they're still pressing you, just walk away.  Nobody's requiring you to talk about your writing.  That's the other person's problem, not yours.
  22. Don't let anyone tell you "You can't write about that!"  Write about whatever makes you happy.  If you want to write a genderswapped Jack the Ripper story, do it.  If you want to write about civilized geese, do it.  If you want to write about your childhood in Nowheresville, North Dakota, do it.  Any subject that calls to you is worthwhile. 
  23. If you can fit all your books on one shelf, you don't have enough books.
  24. Never submit to a literary agent that charges you for reading your work.  Legitimate agents will never make you pay to query.  An agent isn't supposed to get any payment until you've made an actual publishing contract, after which they'll take a (typically minor) commission.
  25. Learn the rules of writing.  Follow them.
  26. Only then can you learn to break them.  Breaking writing rules is more of an art than following them.
  27. If you have a headcanon about your own characters, it's canon.
  28. That's the kind of power you have as a writer.
  29. Please, please, please don't make all of your male/female friendships end in romance.  Contrary to popular belief, this doesn't always have to happen in fiction.  Don't believe me?  Watch Pacific Rim.
  30. If you sit around and wait for inspiration before writing, you're going to be sitting there until season 4 of Sherlock airs.
  31. Writing is hard.  There, I said it.
  32. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.
  33. The only way you'll ever get anything written is if you 
  34. “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” — Anaïs Nin
  35. Sometimes, the most important aspects of a character aren't their tragic, complex backstories.  It's all in the little details--how do their hands fidget when they're nervous?  In what order to they eat a meal?  What odd thing makes them twitch?
  36. If you've recently discovered the synonym function on Microsoft Word, just...don't.
  37. Have writer's block?  Change up your writing music.  If you normally listen to Fall Out Boy when you write, switch it to soundtrack music.  Go from Phantom of the Opera to My Chemical Romance to classical.  The change in mood might be enough to kickstart your imagination.
  38. The delete key is your friend.  If it's bad, don't be afraid to get rid of it.
  39. Everything you write can be changed.  
  40. That being said, it's helpful to keep a file or folder of "deleted scenes" so that you don't feel so bad if you have to cut an entire section.  You'll still have it for future reference, but it won't be taking up space in your piece.
  41. Consider every word in every sentence.  If you could cut a word and your story wouldn't lose anything, then that word needs to go.
  42. Keep your calendar clear in November, if you're inclined to feats of insanity such as writing an entire novel in a month.
  43. There's never any shame in not being able to write 50,000 words in a month.  Everyone goes at their own pace.
  44. Stop writing about people's "gold-flecked eyes."  Just stop.
  45. Plot bunnies?  More like 
  46. If the idea of writing it scares you, that's a good sign that you should write it.
  47. Don't use five words if two will do just fine.
  48. Watch your camera angles.  Start writing really close-in on a character, then zoom out.  Pan around the room and vary what we see.  Zoom back in.  Change it up just like you change up your pacing.
  49. If the number 1,667 means something to you with no further context, I'm sorry.  I'm so, so sorry.
  50. You're probably better than you think you are.
  51. But you're probably, at times, not as good as you think you are.
  52. Publishing is slow.  Painfully slow.
  53. But trends change quickly.  Don't start a dystopian novel just because they're trendy.  If you jump on a trend, there's a good chance it'll be long gone by the time you actually get published.
  54. The only way to write a decent battle scene is to hit your keyboard as hard as possible when typing.  Trust me on this one.
  55. Half of the writing process is just you playing mind games with yourself.
  56. Whenever you question yourself as a writer, just remember:
  57. Probably.  More or less.  As much as any of us can be.
  58. Take every piece of criticism with a grain of salt.
  59. It's okay to imitate somebody else's writing.  It's how we learn.
  60. Know where you're going before you start.
  61. There is a difference between writer's block and simply not wanting to write.  Learn the difference.
  62. “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” -W. Somerset Maugham
  63. You probably don't need as many adjectives as you think you need.
  64. You will never say, "Wow, I wish I hadn't written that."  Every piece teaches you something.
  65. You'll also never regret time spent writing.
  66. If you're here, you might be procrastinating writing.  Just a thought.  
  67. And you'd probably be better off writing than reading this list.  But I appreciate that you're here.
  68. You're never too old to start writing.
  69. You're never too young to start, either.
  70. Actually, if you haven't learned to read yet, maybe you're too young.  Learning the alphabet might make writing a novel a little easier.
  71. People say that every writer has gained enough material by age 13 to last the rest of their life.
  72. If you're writing a dystopian novel about a character who must pass some sort of Test to determine her future once she reaches a certain age, don't.  
  73. Write fanfiction of your own characters.  It's a good way to take them out for a "test drive" to see how it feels to write them.  
  74. Revision: 
  75. If you're having trouble with a character, make a list of 100 things about them.  Any 100 things.  You'll discover new things about them.
  76. Don't start with big concepts like love, war, or death.  Start with images.  Don't set out to write about loss--begin with a man clutching the withered roses he gave his wife four months ago.
  77. Write something other than your main novel.  Write in a journal.  Write haikus.  Write one-shot fiction.  Single-mindedness is healthy for writing, but variety is also healthy.
  78. Know where you want to end before you start.
  79. Pay way too much attention to how people behave in real life.  Look for their tiny gestures.  Notice all the weird things people do.
  80. Sound-blocking headphones are your friend.
  81. If you're writing about something even vaguely science-y, please make sure you do some research.  I guarantee that there's someone out there who knows more about it than you, and you don't want them to be writing you angry letters.  
  82. It's possible to search for new book ideas, but more often than not, they drop onto your head out of nowhere.
  83. Do your homework.  Writing will get you nowhere if you're unable to afford even ramen noodles because you can't get a job because you flunked every single class you ever took.
  84. Visit new places.  It's good for your muse.
  85. Use sensible fonts.  Don't write your novel in Wingdings.
  86. If you ever think, "Oh, my readers won't catch that," you're wrong.
  87. Find a writing buddy, either online or in person.  It's helpful to have someone you can bounce ideas off of.  And it's also nice to have someone around to tell you, "Hey, maybe writing a story about sentient desk chairs that have secretly been spying on humanity and are plotting world domination isn't a great idea."
  88. Writing will forever change you.  As in, once you start analyzing the story structure of every single movie you watch, you'll never be able to stop.  Ever.
  89. Starting a blog is not helpful for getting novels finished faster.  Trust me.
  90. Please strive to always be as awkwardly in love with writing as Eddie Redmayne is with his Oscar. 
  91. Before you commit to a title, do a quick Google search on it.  If there's already something moderately well-known with that title. find a new title.
  92. You're only allowed to break writing rules if you've learned all of them first.
  93. Write for yourself.  Then write for an audience.
  94. Recognize that there's a difference between writing for yourself and writing for an audience.
  95. Be weird.  Be unpredictable.  Be offbeat.  It gets readers' attention.
  96. Every reader will have a different experience of your story.  No two people will see the same things from your imagery, feel the same things from your plot twists, or interpret the same things from your symbolism.
  97. Obsessing over word count will only cause you to write slower.  Never faster.
  98. Some people will say that writers must write every day.  This isn't true.  Writing every day is healthy, but not always realistic.  Find writing times that work for you and you alone.
  99. Remember what I said earlier about being a "real writer?"  Actually, that's not true.  All real writers must leave an offering of ink and blank paper every full moon at the Globe Theater to appease the spirit of Shakespeare.  If one cannot easily make this trip every full moon, one may substitute a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage and instead leave an offering of either 7 typewriters that have each printed an entire Edgar Allan Poe collection or 7 cartridges of printer ink mixed by Tibetan monks that write 1,667 words every day and only speak in haiku. 
  100. Number 99 is 100% true.
If you liked this list, there's more where that came from.  I also have the original 100 things list, and the second set of 100 things (complete with GIFs, as always).

What would you add to this list?
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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Otherbound, Prince of Fools, and Snow Like Ashes Mini-Reviews

Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
Amara is never alone. Not when she's protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they're fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she's punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can't be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he's yanked from his Arizona town into Amara's mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He's spent years as a powerless observer of Amara's life. Amara has no idea . . . until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she's furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan's breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they'll have to work together to survive--and discover the truth about their connection.

Released: June 17th 2014     Pages: 387
Publisher: Amulet Books    Source: Library

I love the premise of this.  A boy sees through the eyes of a girl in a Middle Earth-type world every time she blinks: but is she real or some weird hallucination?  Did he somehow create her?  If not, how did they become connected?  This aspect of the book is excellent.  Without spoiling too much, I'll tell you that Amara is very real, not Nolan's mental creation, which has interesting implications on both of their lives.  I can't stop thinking about this idea.  Props to the author for making me think--the books that make you think are the ones that stick with you.

The point of view shifts between Amara and Nolan, creating a sharp contrast between the modern world and Amara's world with each chapter.  On one side, Nolan just wants to have a normal life, and I genuinely cared about him.  His emotions are all over the map, but then again, so is his life.  Connecting to another person's life every time you close your eyes would make anyone a mess; Nolan's reaction to it was believable.  I never connected to Amara quite as much, but I still enjoyed reading about her.  Her backstory brings out both courage and tenderness in her, sometimes in conflict.

The one problem I have is the plot.  It starts out focused, tight, and direct--we know exactly where it's going.  About halfway through, it starts to wander, making everyone's motivations less clear.  It's not a perfect book by any means, but I enjoyed it.  It's more of a 3.5, so I'll round up to 4.    

Similar Books: It walks the line between fantasy and reality like Invisibility and Every Day.  It also reminds me of The Burning Sky

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1) by Mark Lawrence
The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.

The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.

After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.

Released: June 3rd 2013   Pages: 355
Publisher: Ace                  Source: Library

Prince Jalan is the Tony Stark of high fantasy.  Minus, you know, the awesome Iron Man suits.  He's arrogant, rich, and loves women almost as much as he loves himself.  As such, he's not the type of character we usually like.  And yet, Mark Lawrence makes him into a believable, three-dimensional character.  He's also surprisingly loyal, with a solid stubborn streak.  

Okay, I liked him most of the time.  There were moments when I just rolled my eyes.  Or wanted him to focus more on imminent death and less on checking out the local barmaids.  This leads to my other main problem with this book--the focus.  The plot has the same issue as Otherbound, starting out fine but losing focus midway through.  Sure, there's the obvious problem of Jalan needing to survive when many people are out to kill him....  Other than that, it's a lot of traveling leading up to one final stand.  And most of the traveling is just following around Snorri, a giant Norseman with a backstory that seems much more interesting than Jalan's.  

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but I could never get into it enough to love it.  The characters are decent, but not fantastic.  The plot meanders like Jalan's travel path, and nothing else about it is unique enough to make it stand out from the crowd.  I have mixed feelings, so I'll go with three stars.

Similar Books:  The main character reminds me of The Lies of Locke Lamora.  It also reminds me of The Dragon's Path and Half a King.

Snow Like Ashes (Snow Like Ashes #1) by Sara Raasch
A heartbroken girl. A fierce warrior. A hero in the making.

Sixteen years ago the Kingdom of Winter was conquered and its citizens enslaved, leaving them without magic or a monarch. Now, the Winterians’ only hope for freedom is the eight survivors who managed to escape, and who have been waiting for the opportunity to steal back Winter’s magic and rebuild the kingdom ever since.

Orphaned as an infant during Winter’s defeat, Meira has lived her whole life as a refugee, raised by the Winterians’ general, Sir. Training to be a warrior—and desperately in love with her best friend, and future king, Mather — she would do anything to help her kingdom rise to power again.

So when scouts discover the location of the ancient locket that can restore Winter’s magic, Meira decides to go after it herself. Finally, she’s scaling towers, fighting enemy soldiers, and serving her kingdom just as she’s always dreamed she would. But the mission doesn’t go as planned, and Meira soon finds herself thrust into a world of evil magic and dangerous politics – and ultimately comes to realize that her destiny is not, never has been, her own. 

Released: October 14th 2014   Pages: 416
Publisher: Balzer + Bray   Source: Library

It took me awhile to warm up to this one.  I was initially attracted to the awesome cover, as well as the idea of nations based on the seasons.  I had been trying to get my hands on this for a few months, so I was excited to begin, but it starts out slow.  We're introduced to Meira and the other refugees all at once, giving us way too many names to keep track of in the first chapter alone.  Meira is upset because the leader of their group, Sir, won't let her go on a mission.  Then, she's angsting over her love for Mather, the future king.  I prepared myself for a disappointment.

Luckily, the more I read, the more this book redeemed itself.  The plot picks up about a quarter of the way through, with a healthy dose of unexpected twists.  It's a struggle to reclaim a kingdom, but it's also Meira's struggle to find her place in a nation not her own.  While Meira often grated on my nerves, she grew on me by the final few chapters.  She's prone to brooding over which prince she loves more, but she's also headstrong and deeply devoted to her fellow Winterians.

The side characters in this book are also well-done.  There's Mather, the prince with the weight of a destroyed kingdom on his shoulders, and Sir, the father figure of the entire refugee group, and Theron, the other prince who'd much rather spend his days writing than running a nation, and others.

This book is strongest in its last section.  While I wish the entire thing was up to this level, I'm glad that it got there eventually.  (This might bode well for future sequels.)  I wish it had less a focus on a romance that, at times, seems trivial and needless, but I enjoyed it overall.  I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

Similar Books: It features a female main character with magic power, like The Young Elites, Shadow and Bone, and The Girl of Fire and Thorns.
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