Thursday, November 20, 2014

Marketing vs Writing: Where Categories Fall Short

During my daily browsing, I came across a rather rude article about young adult fiction entitled How to Write a Shitty Young Adult Novel. Now, aside from me calling it rude, it is just a satire of many troupes and cliches found in young adult writing. It makes some very solid points, and there's a reason why nearly everything the writer outlined strikes a familiar chord with readers of YA. It left me between a rock and a hard place, because although I was raving mad and spouting my usual "YA is not a descriptor of quality!" I also saw that there was some valid points being made.

I was stuck. What to do. I could have gone to Twitter to post rants squashed down into 140 characters, or I could've ignored it entirely, choked it up to someone else's opinion and moved on with my day. But as I pondered, it occurred to me: why do I feel I have to defend myself? Why do I have to defend YA?

I could scream it until my face turns blue. YA, MG, NA, or adult is not a descriptor of quality. There are bad books everywhere. The title of that article could have been changed to at least a dozen other things. After all, isn't SF/F mocked for being "unrealistic" and "using magic or science to solve problems without difficulty"? Isn't romance and chick lit often thought of as just as wooden and hollow? Isn't literary and contemporary mocked for being dull or pretentious? It doesn't justify it, and mocking any genre or niche of fiction seems like the childish thing to me. Do you really have to elevate yourself above others just to feel good about what you enjoy? Then perhaps you need to reevaluate yourself before you start looking at others.

But why do people feel the need to dictate for others what is appropriate and not? 

We're told to avoid trolls. The internet is full of them, as well as real life, and they only wish to make people angry with whatever fodder they can come up with. Articles like this are no different. Sure, they may be accurate in their criticisms sometimes, but I fail to see what is being gained by shaming others for what they like. Whether its reading YA or MG, or enjoying My Little Pony, or falling in love with 50 Shades of Grey, or playing video games when you've become "too old" for something so silly, we all have or do something others may consider "childish" or "inappropriate" because you are not the target audience.

It comes down to, in my opinion, a lot of marketing bleeding into our perception of what is "normal." The marketing department of a publishing house decides vampires are the new hot ticket and begins to sell them to teenage girls, but when teenage boys begin reading them-- or adults, or even young children-- suddenly there's a societal problem. The books were not made with teenage boys or adults or children in mind, so it's not approrpaite for them. We use different shaming tactics--"Kids shouldn't have access to books with content like that." "Do you feel smart reading that book? Because obviously it's meant for kids and kids are stupid." "Ew, you actually want to read about ponies/vampires/X, isn't that for girls?" At the end of the day, content is content, and people don't fit into neatly made categories. Again, everyone else seems intent on deciding what is right for you.

Yes, there are people with their own opinions, and though they don't have to be wrong, it doesn't make the opinions of people who love, read, and write YA any less valid. Just because someone sets up a blog or works as a journalist does not mean they know what they're talking about. Hell, that includes me. I think it is important to remain aware of the effect categories, trends, marketing, and "target audiences" have on our writing. When we only focus on the idea of categories and what's appropriate for who, we forget that our art needs the freedom to grow and change, just as we do. If we get used to our comfort zones and never try to break boundaries, try something different, try to create something instead of just manufacturing something, then teen fiction has already been left to rot.

Ursula Le Guin said it best in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards:

"Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.


Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art."

 Don't create the "Chosen One" story because you know it will sell. Don't sacrifice the needs of the story because someone else gets squeamish. Create art, then worry about where it fits later. Once you publish something, it's in print and there forever. Would you rather your debut be something you really care about, or an old story repackaged with different names?

If you're practicing art and not producing products, then you'll never have to defend yourself, because if you care about the craft, you'll always intend to improve. In my opinion, it's the beauty of art: it inspires growth, change, and emotion. But products don't inspire anything. They fill a need and are forgotten about when it no longer has use.

Even then, I can't bring myself to mock a book I feel is nothing more than a product. The business is subjective and there are many people who were touched or inspired by books that have put me to sleep. That's the magic in reading and the shortcoming of categorizing. A category only tells us the most basic of information. A shirt may be orange, but there are thousands of shades of orange. We put words like "Sunset orange" or "Urban fantasy" to try and narrow it down, but just as it pales in comparison to actually looking at a colour, a category cannot begin to encompass what's really found between pages.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Review: The Star Thief

Book Review: The Star Thief by Jamie Grey

Goodreads Description: At twenty-three, Renna Carrizal is the most notorious thief in the galaxy. There's just one problem - all she wants is to get out of the business.

But after Renna rescues an injured boy on her final job, she finds herself on the run from the mob instead of enjoying retirement. She unwittingly becomes ensnared by MYTH, a top-secret galactic protection agency who offer her a choice - either help them on their latest mission, or spend the rest of her life on a prison ship.

Forced to work under the watchful eye of handsome but arrogant Captain Finn, Renna learns the former mercenary-turned-hero has a few dirty secrets himself. As Renna works to discover the truth about Finn's past and keep the tantalizing man at arm's length, she unearths a plot to create an unstoppable army. The target? The human star fleet.

Now Renna must pull off the biggest job of her career - saving the galaxy. And maybe even herself.

My review: I knew little more than the title going into this book with the knowledge that it was a sci-fi new adult novel. I went in with an open mind and was very excited, as this was the first book I'd read as a ebook. The title intrigued me and going in the premise was fairly solid. An expert thief trying to retire roped into one last gig? Count me in. The first chapter opens in the middle of action and leads us through Renna's last job where she finds a child confined in a crate and decides to rescue him-- for the promise of a reward.

Unfortunately, this is where it began to lose me. The first chapter ends in a cliffhanger-- well done, keeps the reader on edge, and made me turn to find out what happens next. But as I made my way through the opening chapters, though I was excited and intrigued by the story, I found every chapter ended in a cliffhanger. Every. One. The first eight or so chapters have varying degrees of cliffhangers, some the traditional "and something bad happened at the last minute" to ending on a "let's have a talk" note to cutting scenes in half to end on a dangerous note. I am a huge fan of cliffhangers, and the first two or three didn't bother me so much. But as it kept happening, the author using that one tool to attempt to keep readers' attention, I found myself laughing at it. I could hear the cheesy, formidable "Dum dum dum" with every ending. Though it was effective at first, the repetition completely took away its power.

From there, I noticed many more cliched, troupe kind of writing. We have to reinforce that Renna is "absolutely vital" for the mission, "the only one who could save us." Which, though it is a common angle to go for, I find is highly unrealistic. Though people can be very important, no one is irreplaceable, especially in a military-like setting.

Though the main character, Renna, suffered from many cliched personality traits, I was not at all put off by her. In fact, she was probably the only character in the novel that I actually enjoyed, even if it was simply because she was the typical tough-shit, take-no-bull, strong female character. The parts that I enjoyed with her involved whenever she chose to break the rules--actually playing the "thief" and "rogue" that she was. However, I felt these negative traits were often pushed aside or minimized. After rescuing the boy, Myka, from the crate, she completely forgets about any compensation and accepts him as almost a younger brother. Her driving motivation through most of the story is to rescue Myka, to keep her promises to him, when really the only thing endearing her to this kid is that he's adorable and has been through hell. But growing up in the slums through horrible conditions, I find it unrealistic that she would become endeared to him because of that so quickly. Living a life like that, she would become hardened to children's suffering, so I feel like there needed to be something more tangible between them to make their relationship viable.

Speaking of cliches, the love interest is a dark, moody captain with a dark and mysterious past involving Renna. Yawn. Captain Finn was about as interesting as soggy bread. You can find copy cats of that kind of character in every book on this side of the Atlantic. Though other characters described him as "level-headed," he flew off his handle at any moment and acted more like a novice than any sort of captain. Sadly, the characters seemed to be telling us they were one way or had certain experiences, and then acted completely counter to that. It made it feel weak and underdeveloped.

Regarding the new adult aspect-- I failed to see what separated this book from any other adult novel. Perhaps that's something to do with the new adult section, as it is still an emerging market. I enjoyed the sexual freedom Renna had, the way she expressed and went for what she wanted. It was a refreshing change-- no doubt because I'm used to YA-- but there wasn't much, besides the character's age, that said she was a "new adult." The author could have made her 30 and I don't see that it would change anything.

Finally, my last problem lies with the ending. Though this book followed many of the "rules" of what publishing likes to see, it failed on, what I consider, to be one of the more important parts. The first book, so they say, should be able to stand alone. More than that, every book, no matter where it lies in a series, needs a beginning, middle, and end. This book had a beginning and middle, and after answering a few questions, jumps to set up for the next book. This book literally ends on a cliffhanger with no resolution-- until you read the second book. Nothing irks me more, because though this is a series, I should have a full story in my hands, especially with the first book.

Despite my complaints, there is nothing overly wrong with the book. The writing was very strong and the author has definitely done a lot of research on the sci-fi genre and knows her stuff. I finished it, which means I didn't hate it. It definitely satisfied that little bit inside me that enjoys cliches and the comfort of something that's been done before. So, if you're a fan of science fiction, strong female characters, and a smooth flow that won't bog you down, you should take a look. The author definitely has some promise, and it will be interesting to see how she develops her craft over the next few books.

TL;DR: 2/5 stars. Unless you're hard on for sci-fi and strong female leads, give this one a pass.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Let Sleeping Books Lie

Photo credit goes to Adrian Gaucher (@nobidieshero) Check out his site

A good friend of mine who also doubles as my extra special beta reader loves to hang around bookstores with me and discuss what we're reading. Who doesn't? We often refer things to each other, but try, try, try as I might, I could never convince her to read Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series. (Which is amazing if you enjoy steampunk.)

She absolutely refused, not because of the genre or content, but because she had been burned by Scott Westerfeld once before.

She read his Uglies series and absolutely loved it. Originally, it was set to be a trilogy, but somewhere along the lines Westerfeld decided to write a fourth book in the series, after the trilogy had seen some success. She loathed this fourth book and claimed it completely ruined the series for her. She refused to read anything else he'd written because, as we began coining it, he was sure to pull another "Westerfeld."

We'd used to the term to refer to writers who couldn't let a series lie, and that term got much use in our conversations. Which author had pulled a Westerfeld? Was it someone we adored? A series we loved?

Recently, while perusing through Chapters, I came across the newest book to the Shiver series, Sinner, which features around a character in the Shiver series, Cole St. Clair, and follows him and his love life after the end of Forever. I have yet to pick it up, but I know I will. Because first of all, I don't believe in judging books before reading them and because I absolutely adored the Shiver series.

Which made me kind of angry, standing in that bookstore and facing a new book in a story I thought was finished. Did Cole St. Claire's story leave questions unanswered? Oh hell yes, but not in any way did I feel like I needed to know more. It felt finished, and I had a sense of closure reading the last book. He still had things he needed to accomplish in his world, but they didn't seem focal enough to need a whole book about it.

Both in the Uglies series and the Shiver series, the fourth book was an after-the-fact addition. It appeared after a grace period where there was little to no lead in from the book previous to it. It's a case of what I consider "not letting go."

Another case could be seen in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. Though the "trilogy" ended, most of the end of the final book was used to set up conflict for the next series. This sequel baiting gives you an "ending" that isn't complete, that has raised just as many questions as it answered. This, sometimes, I feel is a bit more annoying, just because it is more in your face. It's as though the author or publisher promised you an ending by calling it a "final" book, only to pull out the rug at the end and say, "If you want closure, you have to read this next series of books." It feels a bit more like trickery, not so much in the storytelling as the way that it's marketed. At times, I feel like if it just called itself a series or a saga and then the writer produced however many books were needed to tell the story, it wouldn't be an issue.

Why do writers do this? What's with the obsession with trilogies when some stories just don't fit in three books? There are probably a million answers, some more justifiable than others. But no matter the quality of the follow-up book, it will ruin the series, because the story was finished. This new story? You're slopping fresh clay on top of a finished statue. And why?

Because fans, and authors, love the world. Let's face it, fans can't let go. All you have to do is look to Firefly to understand that. Often, fans will respect a proper ending, but the real hardcore fans, the ones every author dreams about, the ones that create art of our work, write their own fanfiction, who stay up all night dreaming about where your characters will go after the end, will never be happy. In some ways, these fans are toxic. Because even when you present them with the utmost perfect ending, they still want more.

But how can you shame them for that? Fans want more of your art because they love it. That's the dream.

The publishing business, as well, loves to see writers keep writing. At the end of the day, publishing is a business and houses want to be in the black when it comes to sales. What makes the most money in books? Series. Hook a reader with your first book, and they'll gladly buy a second and third and fourth. I faced this a little myself when I got my own agent. I had written a stand-alone book to sell as my debut. There was no way to continue this story. I massacred one of my main characters, I obliterated the villain and completely resolved the conflict. There was nowhere, NOWHERE, for the story to go without feeling horribly contrived, and yet my agent still pushed for it to be turned into a series, as it would "sell better." But, caught up in the glitz and glamour of agent life as well as being a little young and naive, I said, "Of course I can turn my single book into a series."

But every time I sat down to write the sequel, I ran into walls. It felt contrived in every way. I wrote that book, scratched it, and began again at least three separate times. But the book wasn't to be written, because there was no story left there.

Can I blame the agent for pushing a series where there wasn't one? I feel like I can, because although everyone needs to eat, the bigger paycheck should never be the thing driving art. When all you're looking at is the income, you forget about the bigger picture, the story, and it is so easy to lose it to cliche or crappy, half-formed ideas. Art that is rushed or forced isn't art anymore, it becomes a product. If that's what you want to be at the end of the day, someone like James Patterson who pumps out books like they fly out of his ass, then by all means. There are many others out there with similar views of books as something to be mass produced.

Then there comes the authors, the writers, those of us who can't let go. I can hardly fault a writer being in love with their world or their characters. After all, isn't that why we do this? But, I think the inability to let go of something you've written is not done so much out of love, but out of fear. This world is established, these characters are flushed out, the plot makes sense, and if you're published and selling well, people really like it. It's so much easier to come up with new conflict for characters that already exist than to start from scratch with a new idea. But that is what we must do.

There are so many ideas out there, so many stories to be told, and so many that aren't being told, because people favor the hero's tale, the simple plotline, the easiest path from A to B. I feel, as authors, we have to have the strength and the knowledge to know when to stop. To know that the series you've written is finished, and it's time to move on.

If Maggie Stiefvater had spent all her time writing more Shiver books, she never would have created the Scorpio Races or the Raven Boys. If Scott Westerfeld never let go of Uglies, we wouldn't have Leviathan. Not to mention, if they had clung to these ideas, they would have long ago faded away into obscurity. No idea lasts forever, no matter how many books you can pump out of it.

How do you succeed in this business? How do you create a really good story?

1) Know Where To End A Story

2) Always Try Something New

I may be the minority here, but when I sit down with an amazing book series, I want closure. The end is always my favourite, and it leaves me feeling empty when the story is left half-done or a finished story is revived, to walk amongst other books like the living dead. Endings are hard, because after we reach it, there's no going back, no adding to it, no time to fix plot holes with more story. It is a finality, and it opens the door for criticism, as there's no more hiding behind the mystery of "more to come."

"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." Joseph Chilton Pearce.

I think Pearce puts it best.



Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Book Review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor 

Goodreads Description: By way of a staggering deception, Karou has taken control of the chimaera rebellion and is intent on steering its course away from dead-end vengeance. The future rests on her, if there can even be a future for the chimaera in war-ravaged Eretz.

Common enemy, common cause.

When Jael's brutal seraph army trespasses into the human world, the unthinkable becomes essential, and Karou and Akiva must ally their enemy armies against the threat. It is a twisted version of their long-ago dream, and they begin to hope that it might forge a way forward for their people.

And, perhaps, for themselves. Toward a new way of living, and maybe even love.

But there are bigger threats than Jael in the offing. A vicious queen is hunting Akiva, and, in the skies of Eretz ... something is happening. Massive stains are spreading like bruises from horizon to horizon; the great winged stormhunters are gathering as if summoned, ceaselessly circling, and a deep sense of wrong pervades the world.

What power can bruise the sky?

From the streets of Rome to the caves of the Kirin and beyond, humans, chimaera and seraphim will fight, strive, love, and die in an epic theater that transcends good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy.

At the very barriers of space and time, what do gods and monsters dream of? And does anything else matter?

My Review: Goodreads ate my last review and I've had trouble summoning motivation since then, so hopefully this all comes out coherent.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters picks up just after the nail biting ending of the previous book, with Karou and Akiva trying to unite their rebel armies within the Kirin Caves. Laini Taylor beautifully mastered the tension it takes to join two opposing forces. It did not feel too easy, nor did the squabbling armies take away from the deeper story. The tension not once let up throughout the whole story, much like the previous novels in the trilogy, which made this book incredibly difficult to put down.

What delighted me most, at the end of the day, was the way Taylor continued to add more to her plot and deepened her story right up until the end. We were introduced to new characters, and old characters have their roles completely transformed. I must admit, I didn’t see Razgut having such a big role in the final book and was so pleased to see it. Though it was probably because I underestimated the story, which is my own fault, as the hints and character progression had been there since day one. Possibly, because there's so much more to this book and this series, it was easy to overlook him as a minor character with an interesting backstory.

And ultimately, his backstory is what made the book interesting, as it led into a deeper stories with the other parallel worlds, not just Earth and Eretz. After all, if there are two worlds, why not more? Taylor delves into this and more, which left almost an unfinished feeling to this book. It was my biggest and probably only problem with the series. Taylor dug deep into lore in the last quarter of the book, and it was due to how late the information came that made it so surprising and unusual. It's difficult to introduce a whole shwack of new information at the end of the story, as it often opens things up to more conflict and plot points. After reading the last page, the first thing I did was hop online and search for any news of a sequel, another series, something, because all the information that was introduced felt like the beginning of something new.

I think that's what frustrated me. I loved every bit of the worldbuilding and the plot, as most of the set up had been there from the very beginning and was obviously well-thought out. But with such a grand story, I wanted a grand ending, and it felt like I got that and just a bit of a taste of more to come. It sounds nice, but at the end of the day I wanted a resolution, not the introduction to another new series. Now, if Laini Taylor wrote a series about the godstars and what it all means, I would be thrilled and devour every book she put out, but it almost feels like a bit of a money grab, in the sense that the author is trying to sell me another book while I still haven't finished the one in front of me. But that's a whole 'nother blog post.

At the end of the day, the story comes back to Karou and Akiva, the main figures and driving force behind all that's happened. I was very pleased with the way their relationship was handled in the wake of miscommunication and war. Karou, much more than in previous books, feels incredibly fragile and almost bested by the events and traumas that have taken place over the last three books, and though she still had some serious kickass in her, it was great to see a main character actually affected by what was happening around them and show the wear of a battle-heavy life. In contrast, Akiva's character loosened up and became the kind of lovable partner you'd want to envelope and never let go. In this, too, I was extremely pleased. Most often with YA, it seems like the boys are brooding and the girls are peppy and sassy. Though Akiva and Karou came off that way at the beginning of the series, their characters have pretty much done a complete 180 by the end of this book, and the way they've changed is both believable and a step outside the YA formula. And we all know how formulas make us yawn.

Nearly everything about this book made me extremely happy. Laini Taylor is a magician with words and makes me believe in magic. The only thing that really disappointed me was that it didn't feel like a final book to me. Though all the plot and worldbuilding worked wonderfully, it left too many questions and opened too many doors for me to get a sense of closure for this story. I guarantee we'll see more Smoke and Bone books in the future, and though I will devour them with fervor, I still feel a little cheated, a little like the only way this follow up series could sell is if it had a strong lead in from Gods and Monsters, which is silly. If readers loved the first series, they'll read the second, without having to include the YA version of, "Next time on Daughter of Smoke and Bone..."

TL;DR: 4.5/5 stars. I wish I could have had a sense of closure. Otherwise, it left me in awe of Laini Taylor's writing skills.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

When Books Take Flight

Photo help/credit goes to Adrian Gaucher (@nobodieshero). He's got skillz!

In meme theory, there's this idea that ideas are alive, subject to evolution, reproduction, death and extinction like any other creature. The theory can sometimes be questionable at best, but I think in the case of stories and books, it is absolutely true. Any reader will tell you a novel is alive, that a story has the ability to completely transform them and their worldview, as well as remain alive in them for many years.

A good book, story, snippet, quote, semblance of words, whatever, has the ability to touch on deep human emotions. It inspires and sparks something in you, even if it's as simple (and "simple" is of course taken with a grain of salt) as your enjoyment or a love of a character's witty or sassy voice, something resonates there. The best books stay with you for years, you dwell on their ideas and characters, spend time creating fanart or participating in discussions, write fanfiction, reread the book, and most importantly, talk about it with those you care about. When we find something really special, we want to share it with others around us. This is where the meme theory comes in. Truly well-composed books that resonate and inspire want to be shared, and meme theory argues that it is not us sharing them, but the stories controlling us in order to live on and reproduce, like any other creature.

Not long ago I took a look at my bookshelf and noticed something odd. Almost all my shelves were filled with books I didn't particularly enjoy, or that I had given up on, or that I read but hated. But, when I thought about my reading experience, I didn't remember bad books. I remembered all the wonderful stories that I had read, the ones that truly made me feel and motivated me, and realized that, one by one, I had given them all away.

There are some collectors out there that are probably aghast at the thought that I have lost so many books simply by "lending" them out to people and then never seeing them again. Some were given away with the knowledge that they weren't coming back, such as with giveaways, where I get so excited about a book that I have to give it to someone, anyone, so long as they'd appreciate it. I like to think of it as the best books growing wings and taking flight, ideas growing and wanting to spread and evolve. The ones that are the most alive, the most vivid, end up flying off in the hopes that someone else will be touched and inspired by the story.

A book is often not born of one person anyway. Sure, there is someone who sits down and pens the story, but writing a book, as the acknowledgements will show, is never a one man job. There are editors involved, agents, beta readers, friends and significant others and writing partners that offer tips and ideas and changes. All of these edits and ideas are offered through so many different lenses. Seemingly, a writer doesn't write the book at all, and it comes to being all on its own. Wouldn't that be nice. The metaphor definitely ends there, as any writer knows that though sometimes the ideas seem to come together out of nowhere, it definitely takes a butt load of uphill work before anything looks remotely story-like.

It may seem like a whimsical and silly way to look at writing and creativity sometimes, but often when I get touched by something really special, like Dreams of Gods and Monsters and the rest of the Smoke and Bone trilogy, it makes me want to believe in whimsy and magic. At the end of the day, behind every bit of magic, there is hard determination and passion. And as a fellow writer, I'm always trying to dissect what about a book makes it so magical, and how I can achieve similar responses in my readers. After all, isn't it every writer's dream to write something that has that bit of magic in it?

I've learned a lot of things from studying the books that have really touched me. What makes them so magical? Of course, they need to have the fundamentals down.

1) A solid plot with little to no flaws or holes with intricate devices that keeps the story interesting and interwoven. Loose ends and holes can sink even the strongest stories.

2) Dynamic characters with conflicts between each other that are both interesting and sympathetic. The best characters are those with well thought out flaws and strengths with places to grow and fail as the story progresses.

3) A consistent tone/voice that sets it apart from the competition.

4) They must touch on something real.

Real? What is real? It's that bit of magic that turns a good book into a great book. That bit of heart that takes it to the next level. Donald Maass, literary agent, once wrote that it involved touching on timeless human experiences that many people can understand or relate to. A superhero book by Perry Moore called Hero did this by touching on the real lives behind his superhero characters, the wounds in their lives, whether they were physical, emotional or otherwise, and his main character who learned the true strength of his healing powers. Though this story was told through the lens of a superhero world, it still involved real world issues that people can relate to, even just emotionally.

In Dreams of Gods and Monsters, many could say that Laini Taylor's Eretz and its struggles of independence are no different than any other major fantasy story out there. What truly sets it apart, of course, is the originality, tone, and its ability to really touch on why this dream is so important to these characters. Yes, they want to save their world, but at the end of the day they just want to be together, in peace, in a world where people didn't have to hide and fight and die. But the way Taylor presents it is such a raw, emotional way that you really feel the loss of war and the yearning for the dream. The heart behind it is what elevated this book out of good to great, from bookshelf quality to taking flight.

Whenever I sit down in front of my computer, or my typewriter (nerd alert) I always ask myself what feeling I intend to inspire with my writing. What piece of humanity am I trying to touch on? In this scene, right now, what is the reader feeling? Are you only focusing on entertaining them? Because that will always leave you on the bookshelf.

They say every idea has been done. And it has. The difference is the execution, and how much of a heart you give the creature you're creating. A story with a strong heart will fly from reader to reader so it can spread and live on for a long, long time. No heart? No life, and your book will face plant before it can ever take flight.



Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Death of Icons

Am I a good person?

It's a question the Doctor asks Clara in the most recent episode of Doctor Who, which if you know anything about me, you know I'm a little obsessive about the man in the blue box. But I found that question returning to me as I watched the responses to Joan River's passing today.

For the most part, many responses involved the typical RIP, people reminiscing on how she touched their lives. And, of course, I saw the negative side creep out, which seems to rear its ugly head whenever it has its chance. Some people tweeted about how glad they were that she passed, that she was truly a horrible person who made a living out of criticizing others. There were people sending out links to crude sites like or claiming how they were "crying tears of happiness."

Now, we don't have to like everyone. After all, there are people who do unspeakable things in this world. But why do we use things like social pressures, criticisms, even insults to try and correct "wrongful" behaviour exhibited by other people? When you see a man hitting a dog, you call it disgusting, tell him to stop, describe his actions as abhorred or inhumane. And why? All in the hopes of altering behaviour, if not his then others, by showing how this behaviour is unacceptable. It's the same way that governments impose sanctions on other countries when they're taking actions they, or the UN, think of as unethical. On a smaller scale, we preform social sanctions on those who, in our view, have done wrong. We osctricize them from groups, shame their behaviour, and are guarded around them, which puts pressures on them to alter their behaviour.

But what happens when they pass away? What about Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, and dozens of others who have passed away? Is Joan Rivers still a she-bitch? Did her death wipe her conscience clean? The answer to both questions is no. Because Joan Rivers is dead, no amount of social sanctions will change her behaviour-- we cannot change the past-- but in this way, by continuing to impart social sanctions on a dead person, we're becoming no different from her, who built a career around antagonizing others. Our comments, however true or untrue they may be, now only fall on her family and those close to her. Suddenly, we're stepping from an attempt to correct behaviour to antagonizing others, from defensive to seeking out vengence.

Of all of us, Joan Rivers has got the shortest end of the stick. Her life is over, she will never change another person's life or affect the world in any way. However, we still can. I'm not saying that the thing to do is sing her praises-- quite the opposite. Learn what can be learned from her life and leave all else at rest. Focus on the positives her life brought-- because no person's life is wholly negative-- and lay the negative to peace. If the thing that bothered you the most was her attitude and how she treated people, how are you any better by lowering yourself to that standard?


-KE Carson

Monday, September 1, 2014

Infodumping: The Whats and Whys

What is an Infodump? 

I'm sure many of you have heard of the term "infodump." But what it is exactly? Why do so many people regard it with scorn?

Infodumping is a literary term (sort of) that refers to an author inserting a large amount of information into their story, of "dumping" it onto the reader all at once. Most often, it interrupts the story as it is not woven into the action and slows the reader down. Most writers use it to introduce a chunk of worldbuilding, backstory, or even trying to get across description or a character's personality. As writers, we have to get information across, and sometimes it's not as simple as to be condensed into a sentence or two. So is it all a bad thing to "infodump"?

Infodumping is not defined by quantity. There is no set number of words you're permitted to explain something. It's considered infodumping when the writing becomes irrelevant to the task at hand-- getting your reader to follow where you're going and keep their attention. As writers, we spend months and even years stewing over our worlds and characters, but the reader has only a few hours or days in which to process your novel. Therefore, when you try to force a lot of information at them at once, it can be difficult for them to follow and causes them to lose interest.

But how do you know when you have infodumps in your writing? Often it can be hard to see, especially if you see what you've written as necessary to the story-- and perhaps it is. But infodumping violates one of the most important writer creeds: Show, Don't Tell. When you're infodumping, the information is not woven into the story, and so it is not being "shown" to the reader. This is what makes it awkward. The same information can be revealed through the action of the story, often pieces at a time, at times when it becomes necessary.

Infodumps can take various forms. They can come as a prologue with long histories of fantasy worlds or excessive backstory that spells out the main character's entire personality and childhood. They can also come across as newspaper articles or newscasts that spell out a danger or upcoming plot point. There are also the blatant "As You Know, Bob," troupe, where characters will over-explain things to each other in order to catch up the audience. It's a lazy way to pass off information to the reader, but it will almost always come off as dull and clunky. In video games, infodumping can take the form of characters explaining things in long, awkward monologues filled with information that may or may not be actually useful to the player.

Is it Ever Okay to Use an Infodump? 

Generally, most readers find infodumps to be rather annoying. Though it has been used in the past and in published novels, it's generally frowned upon in current marketplaces. Even the most literary and languid novels tend to shy away from infodumping, in part also because it can often reveal too much information too soon and take away intrigue.

Current publishers, editors and agents shy away from a lot of infodumping because they're looking for more action driven narratives with quick paces and high tension to hook the reader in and keep them reading, in the hopes that they will purchase the book.

But It's Been Done Before

Some writers have managed to use infodumps, and sometimes effectively (though that will vary based on personal taste.) Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and JRR Tolkien are among a few. Adams and Pratchett managed to weave their copious amounts of information into their narrative by using humor and keeping the reader entertained, which refers to the point I made above. Infodumps are defined by quantity, but by whether you can keep the reader engaged. Many other writers have used humor or voice to keep readers engaged while they carry them through the information.

Tolkien, however, is another matter. Tolkien wasn't necessarily writing a traditional narrative, as his focus was not on the story or the characters, but on the world and its history. Tokien used his characters to move the reader through the world and the landscrape, rather than had them as the focus. LOTR was also written during a time when writers tended to be more omniscient, which allowed them to step out of character's heads and make observations and judgments that weren't about the immediate situation. Even then, Tolkien went above and beyond for his time, though he had already published before this epic, including the Hobbit, which has much less infodumping.

Infodumping is not popular to do in the marketplace these days for the same reason that high fantasy and long epics are no longer in demand—the need for more tension and story, with less details is what the readership, or at least the publishers, are looking for.

So How Do You Avoid It? 

The most important thing when communicating information is to weave it into the story. Reveal information only when it becomes necessary. Usually this means heading straight into action, and then saving the big whys for later. The whys and questions are what keep readers turning the pages. Using small tidbits to hint at the bigger picture will keep readers invested to find out more. Sometimes teasing is the best policy. And, of course, sometimes the best ways is to have a beta reader look it over, because they'll be happy to let you know which parts are dragging. 

Sometimes the best ways to get across things like description is to weave it into the action. Explain what they're wearing by snagging their jacket on something. Have them brush hair out of their face. Describe a room by focusing on how your character feels about it, and let it color their description. But for the love of god, please don't use a mirror to describe appearance. Some tactics have already been beaten to death. 

Hope you enjoyed my infodump on infodumping. Happy writing!

-KE Carson

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Review: Once We Were

Book Review: Once We Were by Kat Zhang

Goodreads Description: Eva was never supposed to have survived this long. As the recessive soul, she should have faded away years ago. Instead, she lingers in the body she shares with her sister soul, Addie. When the government discovered the truth, they tried to “cure” the girls, but Eva and Addie escaped before the doctors could strip Eva’s soul away.

Now fugitives, Eva and Addie find shelter with a group of hybrids who run an underground resistance. Surrounded by others like them, the girls learn how to temporarily disappear to give each soul some much-needed privacy. Eva is thrilled at the chance to be alone with Ryan, the boy she’s falling for, but troubled by the growing chasm between her and Addie. Despite clashes over their shared body, both girls are eager to join the rebellion.

Yet as they are drawn deeper into the escalating violence, they start to wonder: How far are they willing to go to fight for hybrid freedom? Faced with uncertainty and incredible danger, their answers may tear them apart forever.

My Review: Once We Were picks up just after What’s Left of Me, where our main characters have settled into hiding. They’ve escaped the institution that wanted to destroy their recessive souls and have set their sights on trying to combat the oppressive government. I was not as fond of this book as I was the first book. I found the tension to be lacking and the pace to be particularly slow for the first 2/3 of the book. While What’s Left Of Me focused more on Addie and Eva and was a very character-driven story, there was a definite shift in tone for Once We Were. This book still focused on Addie and Eva, the relationship between them and the other hybrids, but began branching out and started to almost seep into dystopian territory. It was a natural progression to the story, and though it fits, I found myself a little disappointed that the story seemed to be going in that direction, as I felt the first book was so much more successful in endearing the characters to the reader and creating strong stakes.

For the majority of the book, Addie and Eva are living in an apartment building being hidden away with some of the other hybrids that broke out of the institution. She begins sneaking away to join meetings with some of the other hybrids who are plotting ways they can stop the upcoming “cure” for hybridity. The stakes are really low for a majority of the book, and though a threat of capture or exposure is high, it doesn’t feel like a pressing concern. Throughout the book, we get to see the progression of Eva and Ryan’s romance and see some tension creeping in between Addie and Eva. IMO, the relationship between Addie and Eva is the best part of the book, and in Once We Were we begin to see some shifting between them. Suddenly they’re keeping secrets, are able to go into a coma-like sleep to give each other privacy, and Eva is hyper-focused on making her own decisions and trying to live for the first time in however many years that she begins to take Addie for granted. All this makes for a great conflict between them.

I didn’t get excited about the book until later in, when stakes are actually put in place. Once it is revealed that the empty institution the hybrids plan on blowing up won’t be so empty, the book really kicks off and it’s a quick paced ride to the end. Despite the low stakes, Kat Zhang has really beautiful prose and a way of balancing between character and plot to create a really full, well-developed story. Her characters are fully fleshed out, though there wasn’t anyone, besides Addie and Eva, who I really overly loved.

Overall, the lack of tension did disappoint me, but every time I picked it up I found myself fully engaged in the story and characters. I’m interested to see how the third book will play out, and I hope Kat Zhang can continue to keep the balance between character and plot, as to not fall too deep into the dystopian atmosphere.

TL;DR: Slow but solid. 4/5 stars

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

Book Review: Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

Goodreads Description: The first memoir of its kind, Confessions of a Sociopath is an engrossing, highly captivating narrative of the author's life as a diagnosed sociopath.

She is a charismatic charmer, an ambitious self-promoter, and a cunning and calculating liar. She can induce you to invest in her financial schemes, vote for her causes, and even join her in bed. Like a real-life Lisbeth Salander, she has her own system of ethics, and like Dexter, she thrives on bending and occasionally breaking the rules. She is a diagnosed, high-functioning, noncriminal sociopath, and this is her world from her point of view.

Drawn from the author's own experiences; her popular blog,; and scientific literature, Confessions of a Sociopath is part confessional memoir, part primer for the curious. Written from the point of view of a diagnosed sociopath, it unveils for the very first time these people who are hiding in plain sight. The book confirms suspicions and debunks myths about sociopathy, providing a road map for dealing with the sociopath in your life.

My Review: To start here, I believe the issue most people have when reading this book is a dislike of the author and her voice as she goes through her narrative, and I think it really highlights the differences between sociopaths and what M.E. Thomas refers to as "empaths." There is nothing in this book that will make you like M.E., and I don't think that's purposeful, simply a result of her laying out how she views herself and the world in the plainest terms possible. She is very cutthroat about a lot of social situations, and at times I was disturbed by the flippancy in which she cared for the others around her. There is no "soft blow" language here, and what I mean by that is when most people talk about something bad they've done, they will justify it, soften the blow, lower the risk or lessen the severity of their own actions to seem more "human" or sympathetic to those listening to their story, but M.E. doesn't bother with such fluff. She doesn't try to endear her to you, doesn't justify her actions beyond the straight "I did it because I enjoyed it" or "I did it to get X result." Because of this, I can see many readers being put-off by her and shutting down anything she has to say on the subject, which is a big mistake, in my opinion.

If you intend to read Confessions of a Sociopath, you must do so with an open mind and the understanding that everything M.E. writes is through a warped view. She has some great arguments, but everything must be taken with a grain of salt. However, if you go in with the right mindset, this book is absolutely eye-opening.

Confessions of a Sociopath is part memoir, part psychological research. M.E. looks at the history of study done on sociopaths way back into the 1800s and presents it in a very wonderful and informative way. She illustrates the faults in our tools for finding sociopaths, showing that most research and testing is done on the prison population. While many sociopaths do end up in prison, this only highlights one thread of sociopathy, and neglects to look at successful sociopaths who manage to immerse themselves in an empathetic culture and stay above the law. Looking at sociopaths as all murderers or serial killers is no different than looking at all Mexicans as lazy or all black people as criminals-- it is just not reality. She goes on to show the study of the brain and that sociopaths have been proven to have a different brain make-up, and explains the theories and research behind why sociopaths are so unempathetic, looking at something such as inattention to be the cause of this lack of empathy.

M.E. builds a wonderful case for how a sociopath may be a "successful" member of society. She insists that sociopathy is not as much of a "mental illness" as a different brain structure or personality type. Her description of sociopathic thought processes certainly brought the 4% statistic into reality for me, took away the stereotype of the "serial killer" and illustrated a very real person, whose personality traits I could see in people around me. But the thing that made this book so wonderful was the argument she raised on what should be done with sociopaths. All books and journals and readings about sociopaths indicate a need to find them, expose them, and avoid them. But if we come to a place where we can identify sociopaths, what would we do with them? Would we ship them off to camps to be put to death, because they are "beyond saving" or "monsters"? How is this any different from the way Jews were treated in WW2?

Confessions of a Sociopath is a fascinating read, and really opens up this topic to another perspective. Are sociopaths really monsters, or are we the monsters for thinking of them in such a way? Are they not just another structure of the human form, like autistics or geniuses? Sociopaths, much of the time, thrive in our world. They are our CEOs, our lawyers, friends and coworkers. They are people who are doomed to repeat the same destructive cycles time and time again because they lack the ability for self-reflection and introspection, and would have to work to obtain any level of self-improvement. But when autistics need this outside help, does anyone say they should be "avoided" because of their differences? Do we toss them to the curb because of the way they were born?

If you are at all interested in sociopathy, mental illness and psychology, I highly suggest the read. However, I'd advise readers to calm that emotional knee-jerk response when reading, and reserve judgement. The experience will be so worth it. 

TL;DR: 4/5 Stars. If you can put aside your own judgements, it is such a fascinating ride. 

Follow my reviews on Goodreads here

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Meet Soman Chainani and win a copy of School of Good and Evil!

I cannot express my love enough for this book. If you want to check out my review of School of Good and Evil, you can find it here. From page one it was a wild ride and I'm so happy to be able to host the author, Soman Chainani today on my blog! I could talk up this book all day, so in anticipation of the sequel, A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES, which comes out April 15, I'm doing a fantabulous giveaway!! I can't thank Soman enough for agreeing to chat with me.

1) What or who inspired you to become a writer?

Writing is a truly meditative activity, in the sense that it feels like you're breathing thoughts onto a page. Growing up, I always felt like I had to write. If I didn't, I'd either explode, go mental, or stagnate. Even now, if I go more than a few days without writing, I feel myself slipping into a sad fugue. It just is at the core of who I am. Perhaps, for that reason, it's impossible to say what exactly inspired me to be a writer. Because I was a writer long before inspiration ever arrived.

2) You've had a lot of success with film over the years. What kind of challenges did you face when writing SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL?

The publishing process happened with alarming speed. I had been adapting the novel The Pushcart War into a film for legendary producer, Jane Startz, who has adapted practically every major kids’ book of our time – Tuck Everlasting, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Babysitter’s Club, etc. I told her the idea for SGE and she immediately loved the idea of growing a series from the ground up as both novels and films. Once I had the proposal for the series ready and a few sample chapters, she sent it out to 16 publishers, but Harper preempted it and bought worldwide rights within 48 hours. The challenges all came after I sold it, rather than before, which is highly unusual. That said, you can imagine the pressure I felt to deliver once the series was sold. I wasn’t a particularly pleasant person for the better part of a year and a half. God bless Jane and my phenomenal editor, Phoebe Yeh, for their wisdom and calm. Now that I’m on Book 2, I’m more relaxed and secure in just spreading my wings.

3) What was your favorite part of writing SGE?

I love writing Sophie's scenes with Agatha. They're the ultimate odd couple, so they usually end up churning into high comedy -- even camp at times. Sophie, in particular, can be ludicrous, so I'm always pushing the boundaries of what even I find appropriate for a children's novel. Agatha's certainly the heart of the series -- but Sophie, perhaps, is the fun.

4) Since you do come from a background of film, did you ever see SGE becoming a movie, or did you intend to leave it as a novel?

Hollywood is a different world. If you ever have ANY presumed expectations of success there or having your book turned into a movie, you're an absolute fool. You can only navigate the rocky waters as best you can and hope it works out for the best. To that end, I wrote SGE purely as a novel, but knew it would make a fantastic movie if anyone had the courage for it. Right now, it's slated to be a film for Universal (I just delivered the script). So here's hoping the tide stays in our favor...

5) We all have personal challenges when it comes to writing. Do you have any bad habits as a writer you've had to shake?

I tend to want to control the story as much as I can and come at it consciously. But I think that's probably the worst habit of all, because if you can plot something ahead of time and just execute a linear outline for a novel, chances are the reader will predict what's going to happen as well. If I'm not surprised, then the audience won't be either. So it means I've had to write more from a place of the unconscious, just letting the story unfold on its own.

6) When do you take the time to write? Do you have any routines or rituals?

My routine is pretty simple – I get up at about 7am, then either go to yoga or spinning or play tennis until 9. I start writing by 9:30 and write until 3:30 or 4, with a lunch break in there (during which I watch a bad episode of reality TV to calm down). Then I run errands before I teach at nights. There are two keys to my writing process, I’d say. One, that I stay super fit, because the stamina required to write, edit, and promote SGE, where I’m doing both the books and movies at the same time, is absolutely inhuman. And two, that I don’t work too late. I need time for my brain to solve the problems of the day so I can move forward the next morning clear-headed.

7) What kind of responses have you gotten from kids about SGE? Have any stories?

The tour for Book 1 was beyond belief. I spoke to over 8000 kids, got to perform on massive stages, and had moments where I felt like a member of One Direction, simply because of the nature of school presentations. You have an hour, a captive audience of anywhere from 200-400 kids, and you have to bring it or the kids will either go to sleep or boo you off the stage. So instead of a traditional reading, I try to put on a full-scale theatrical 'show', with videos and slides and interactive games, and all kinds of little surprises that will help kids get access to what it's like to go to the School for Good and Evil.

Every school I went to, something absurd happened. But my favorite was one school where the boys had all read the book and were totally into it -- but had all taken the jacket covers off so no one would see the 'girls' on the cover. God forbid anyone know there were girl characters in their book!

8) Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I think worrying about the end goals -- when a book will be published, how much money you might make, a sliver of hope for fame -- will only destroy you as a writer. Write because you love it. Live your story only for yourself. The audience will come when it and you are truly ready.

9) Can you share anything about the upcoming A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES?

It's a darker, more emotional and more ferocious experience than Book 1. But that isn't surprising, since instead of the schools warring as Good versus Evil, this time its Boys versus Girls. Only as we learned in Book 1, sides are never all that clear in this world... It's a battle of the sexes like you've never imagined.

10) If you had been dropped into either the School of Evil or the School of Good as a kid, would you have tried to escape or would you have worked for your fairy tale?

Wow. Brilliant question. I'd like to say that I'd have missed my family so much that I would have tried to escape… But truth is, I'd likely stay and try to find as happy ending as I could. I'm a sucker for adventure.

I know what you guys are waiting for now. No doubt you're all pumped up for the book now, and I know I'll be first in line for the sequel. So, to make sure that you're right up there with me, I'll be giving away a copy of SCHOOL OF GOOD AND EVIL.

free glitter text and family website at 


1) Comment on this post with your email address and you will be given one entry.
2) Follow me on Twitter here for another entry.
3) Every tweet you send out about this contest (preferably with link) that is @katieEcarson will earn you an extra entry. Tweet 50 times? Get 50 entries. 
4) On April 15, I will be drawing a winner and will email that person for their mailing address. Not only can you celebrate the release date of A WORLD WITHOUT PRINCES, but you'll end up with a free copy of the first book, which ain't a bad deal if you ask me.

Ready, steady, GO!!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Authors, have you been "leading" your audience?

We've all been there. You've picked up a new book and you're whipping through pages. You love some of the characters, the story has got you hooked and you're definitely enjoying the ride. But then you begin to notice something strange. You seem to be "led" in certain directions, not by the character or the narrator, but the author. You notice the way certain characters are described seems over the top, while other major characters are mostly ignored in comparison. How does it make you feel when you realize the author is trying to manipulate you into feeling certain ways about their book?

It sounds like a bit ridiculous, doesn't it? But it's true. As authors, we attempt to manipulate readers in many different ways. We ask ourselves "How can I make readers sympathize with this character?" "How do I play out this relationship so X character will not be seen as an idiot?" It's not a bad thing to be aware of what effect our writing is having on our readers. After all, we want readers to feel sympathy if we kill off a character, we want their hearts to swell and sink with each exciting plot point. But I believe there's a limit, and after a certain point the author is not so much telling a story as leading a reader through it.

The book I'm currently reading has a bad habit of trying to "lead" me, and it's not a new occurrence among young adult books. When the MC is introduced to a new character, "leading" authors tend to specialize the introduction. Is this your character's love interest? They'll probably have a cool entrance where they are the spotlight of the scene, where your MC is overly focused on them. Their descriptions may seem overdone, or they over focus on features that are supposed to be desirable--their attitude, their clothing, or even just the fact that they're "a good person but a little crazy in certain respects." Not all of it is negative, but it definitely feels like the author is pushing a character forward, like a helicopter parent putting their child on a pedastal and saying "Okay, go ahead and adore him."

It's perfectly reasonable that your MC should see your love interest as the spotlight, but sadly it's come to a place where it seems a character's role can be predicted based solely on how the author presents them upon their first couple scenes. When you MC meets the "third wheel" character, the person your MC may flirt with but not ultimately "fall in love with," the way that character is presented takes away all our mystery. They're introduced as a side character, with some thrown in tidbits about their life, but for the most part they recieved about as much attention as the description of your MC's house. So, why should I care about this character, when based on your introduction, I know he not only won't stand a chance of being with the MC, but that his part will probably be cut down or minimized? The author is saying without words that he is not worth me paying attention to.

There is a thin line between narrator and author at times. The narrator can be your MC, or simply the voice that has developed to tell your story. When you're in the MC/narrator's head, you need to ask yourself what it is they are focusing on AT THIS VERY MOMENT. I think a lot of authors get caught up in what's to come, and it ends up tarnishing the moment. Take the introduction of a love interest. Your MC has no idea what future lays between them and this new character. It's exactly the same as meeting a new person in real life. Yes, there are moments (especially as a teenager) when meeting someone is love at first sight, where birds are singing and the heavenly choir is christening your union. But about 99% of the time that is NOT the case, so why is it that YA likes to paint it the opposite way? When your MC meets their LI, you need to focus on the real moment feelings of the characters, instead of instilling little author clues of "Hey, there might be romance here!" Because honestly? The best romance is the one you never saw coming.

Leading readers in this way can be severely limiting, but also can be used as a great tool if you're aware of what you're doing. A great example of this would be Unearthly by Cynthia Hand. Throughout much of the book, the author leads you to focus on Christian as being the main love interest. The way she paints him makes the reader make a lot of assumptions about him, meanwhile Tucker was introduced and played out in many of his initial scenes as a side or background character. And this made so much sense for the book, because our MC, Clara, at the time is fully invested in Christian, putting him in the spotlight in her mind, while Tucker is just that annoying kid in class. As opposed to many other books, which use leading to bring the reader to the conclusion the author wants, Cynthia Hand led her readers to cliched conclusions, allowed the reader's assumptions to get the better of them, and then twisted it and changed the entire flow of the story to create a thrilling and surprising tale. (If you dig angels and haven't picked it up yet, YOU MUST.)

I like to think of leading readers as using blinders on a horse. As an author, you can highlight certain traits, bring the reader's attention to specific details, and by doing so you are putting blinders on them. This is not necessarily a negative thing, as sometimes readers and horses need to be focused, but if you leave them on all the time, the reader will not be able to fully experience your world. They will only have the story you drew for them, the conclusions you led them to, which takes away from one of the most important and exciting parts about reading: discovery.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: In The Path of Falling Objects

Book Review: In The Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith 

Goodreads Description: Jonah and his younger brother, Simon, are on their own. They set out to find what’s left of their family, carrying between them ten dollars, a backpack full of dirty clothes, a notebook, and a stack of letters from their brother, who is serving a tour in Vietnam. And soon into their journey, they have a ride. With a man and a beautiful girl who may be in love with Jonah. Or Simon. Or both of them.

The man is crazy. The girl is desperate. This violent ride is only just beginning. And it will leave the brothers taking cover from hard truths about loyalty, love, and survival that crash into their lives.

One more thing: The brothers have a gun. They’re going to need it.

My Review: This review will have spoilers, which is something I don't normally do, but I feel it's necessary to explain my thoughts about this book, so warning's ahoy.

I'm kind of conflicted about this book. The truth is I wanted to give it a higher rating. It was a book I thought I would be too forgiving of, or too generous with when it came to my stars. The reason for this is that I absolutely love Andrew Smith's style of writing. I like the light touch, the way he peppers his work with onomatopoeia and these threads of ideas that blend together. I loved the heart of this story, which is two brothers try to get somewhere and hitching a ride with a pair of mysterious folks that turn out to be much more than they bargained for. But I feel like the threads that were begun didn't come together in time, or at all, and the characters had been set up like fireworks but weren't ever lit.

I'll start by saying that I think the light touch was a little too light for this book. The heart of this story is majorly character driven, and so I feel like we needed to see more of what was going on in each character's head and heart to ultimately see the whole picture. For example, the beginning of the book was quickly building tension between Jonah, our main character, and Mitch, our antagonist. The two characters butt heads over Lily, as well as Simon, but there's no heat under their words. I feel like we got to bare minimum for what they were feeling, when really that emotion and heat should have been fueling the story. In some places, the emotions and motivations for the characters were drawn out beautifully. For example, Mitch's hatred towards the brothers wasn't random, and it became achingly apparent that it was fueled by jealousy, since the brothers got so close to Lily. But on the other hand, I felt like I didn't know enough of what drove Simon, and made him so fully embrace Mitch and his ways.

Which brings me to a big reason as to why the rating sunk so low, and that was Lily. I really liked her and the dynamic that she introduced. She caused a lot of tension between Simon and Jonah, poked and prodded at Mitch and kept things interesting, but at the the end of the day she was nothing more than an object. I was excited by her and what her character could bring about (for example, I was surprised at the suddenness of which she crawled into bed with Jonah, and loved the sudden shake up of it all). She was the reason why the boys got into the car with Mitch, she was the main reason Mitch hated and even wanted to kill the brothers, in a way, she was the one who began the road trip with Mitch, since it was revealed she was asking him for a ride to California before Jonah and Simon came into the picture. She was the reason and the cause of all these plot points, but she was SUCH a passive character. She didn't so anything, barely made her own decisions, and even when she did, we were kept in the dark about a lot of her history to make her more 'mysterious' but it only left her motivations seriously lacking. I wanted to learn more about this character. The brothers were convinced she was "messing" with them, but I saw no evidence of this, nor any clarification as to what she was actually doing.

Now, I knew Lily was going to die. It became pretty apparent by mid book, but even still I wasn't upset by this. I expected her to take action before the finale, perhaps take a bullet for Jonah, but I was sorely mistaken. Lily grows weaker and weaker after she and Simon escape from Mitch until, wait for it, SHE DIES. That's it. They put her to bed, she's sweating and obviously ill, and the boys decide she needs help. They run out to the truck, (avoiding Mitch who is hiding outside somewhere hunting them). They make it to the truck, get the gun, and then RUN BACK TO THE HOUSE. You see my confusion here? They didn't even bother to drive the truck back to the house and grab her so they could actually get her help. And why didn't the author bother with this? Because when they run back to the house, Lily has already "stopped breathing" due to some mysterious pregnancy illness. I literally balked at the page. I couldn't believe how Andrew Smith had so blatantly disregarded a character, used her as an object and then tossed her away without so much as an explanation to her death. I was absolutely flabbergasted. She started this book as Mitch's possession, made little to no effort to establish herself as her own character outside of things pushed on her by the brothers (running away wasn't even her idea, nor did she express much want for it), we learned next to nothing about her history or her motivations, and then she died to make the antagonist a little more angry and to drive tension up a notch. I was thoroughly unimpressed.

More so, what dropped this rating even lower was some of the style choices the author used. The story was written in first person through Jonah's POV, but we continued to jump from POV to POV, while keeping Jonah in first person. This was ridiculous, in my opinion. The story called for third person with multiple POVs, and it felt like the author was clinging to first person for whatever reason. It dragged the story down and, in my opinion, came across as highly amateurish. First person can be a great way to tell your story, if it's used properly.

The second style choice that made me see red was the choice to switch between present and past tense, often between Mitch's POV scenes and the rest of the story. I understand why some authors choose to do this, but there should be a damn good reason to mix tenses like that. It should be apparent, so when a reader starts on a passage that has switches tenses/POVs, they understand the reason for it. It felt like the tenses and POVs were chosen and thrown out at random, again really making this feel like a teenager's first book. Which is such a bummer, because I mean it when I say I really like Andrew Smith's style and the overall story here.

TL;DR: 2/5 stars. A real bummer. 

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book Review: The Archived

Book Review: The Archived by Victoria Schwab 

Goodreads Description: Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often—violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.

Being a Keeper isn’t just dangerous—it’s a constant reminder of those Mac has lost. Da’s death was hard enough, but now her little brother is gone too. Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.

My Review: If you could stroll through a library of the dead, whose memories would you want to read? 

It's the question that came to me after I finished THE ARCHIVED. Honestly, going in I wasn't expecting this book to be as amazing as it was. The book begins with a back and forth in time that serves to not only reveal more of the world-building, the Archived, and all its components, but also establishes a strong emotional bond with the Archived. Because the information was relayed through Mac's grandfather, it allowed the reader to associate the Archive with the warm memories of Mac's childhood. I was sceptical of the back and forth at first, but not only did it beautifully open up the world without dumping info, but the tone and tension of each shortened scene actually made me ache for the next flashback, even if there was no overarching action taking place within them. 

Mackenzie's character opened up rather nicely. I was worried because in the beginning she came off as a tad bland, and I worried that would be a constant. Nothing worse than cardboard when you're looking for meat. But Mac proved me wrong. The way the character opened up, both with the flashbacks and then later with her actions and admissions, it made me almost feel as if I was getting to know her one on one, and the more I discovered about her passion for the Archive, for closure, and as the pieces of her character came together, the more I grew to like her. 

The rest of her characters shone through beautifully, including the antagonists of the story. Though throughout the book, the antagonists remain a mystery, I had my suspicions and was proved right in some cases, however I was surprised that at certain points I didn't want them to be the villains. They were well done characters with wonderful motivation, but more than that, the glimpses into their humanity really sealed the book for me. 

Besides the characters, I absolutely adored the world-building. The Archive itself is a wonderful idea, where history is at your fingertips. The vast, gleaming world of the Archived coupled with the dark and craggy Narrows made for great atmosphere and a fascinating backdrop. I found the use of keys and doors and locks fit so nicely with the secrecy and deceit that makes up the Archive. And just as the writing would have you believe you were looping through the Narrows, pursued by Histories, the plot is as thick and creamy as clam chowder. (Is that an expression? It is now.) As I writer, it was an absolute joy to read, because it was as though I could see each plotline spread out like threads across the pages. I couldn't always guess what was coming, but I was given enough information to guess and ponder, which I love when you've got a mystery on your hands. 

All in all, the Archived was pleasantly surprising. I didn't expect to fall as in love with it as I did, but it has left me pondering death and legacies and with a wonderful book hangover. This is a book that sinks into your skin and stays there, quiet but insistent.

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. This one's a Keeper. 

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review: Annexed

Book Review: Annexed by Sharon Dogar

Goodreads Description: Everyone knows about Anne Frank and her life hidden in the secret annex – but what about the boy who was also trapped there with her?

In this powerful and gripping novel, Sharon Dogar explores what this might have been like from Peter’s point of view. What was it like to be forced into hiding with Anne Frank, first to hate her and then to find yourself falling in love with her? Especially with your parents and her parents all watching almost everything you do together. To know you’re being written about in Anne’s diary, day after day? What’s it like to start questioning your religion, wondering why simply being Jewish inspires such hatred and persecution? Or to just sit and wait and watch while others die, and wish you were fighting.

As Peter and Anne become closer and closer in their confined quarters, how can they make sense of what they see happening around them?

Anne’s diary ends on August 4, 1944, but Peter’s story takes us on, beyond their betrayal and into the Nazi death camps. He details with accuracy, clarity and compassion the reality of day to day survival in Auschwitz – and ultimately the horrific fates of the Annex’s occupants.

My Review: After finishing Anne Frank's diary, I was stunk in a Frank funk, so I immediately reached for ANNEXED. Right from the beginning, I was a little off-put by the relationship between Peter and his mother. After all, hadn't he said they didn't get along well in Anne's diary? I liked the relationship between Peter and his parents, for sure, but I felt like the author missed out on a golden opportunity. A famous quote that came from Otto Frank after reading Anne's diary was "Most parents don't really know their children." And since this is a YA novel, it would've been a great chance to expand on that idea and show how Peter's parents, though their relationship with their son was good, they didn't know all of him. It felt kind of one-dimensional at times because we didn't see much or any conflict between Peter and his parents. 

Expanding on that, I think part one in the Annex was really lacking. This is historical fiction. You get to dip your fingers into the past and expand. Where was the development between the others in the attic? What about all the fights Anne talks about, the discussions, the grievances with each other? These people were trapped together for two years! There was tension between them! Anne mentions things briefly (like the arguments), and I'm really disappointed that the author didn't expand on them, show what got on each other's nerves! The entire first part of the book consisted of Peter moping around (and do you really think that wouldn't get old after two years, trapped inside or not? The people in the Annex kept busy!) and even when Anne enters his life, there was no real spark or excitement. Yes, Anne and Peter's romance wasn't of the ages, but the feelings could've been touched on, explore more of why they are clinging to each other, and it could've been much more poignant. 

A scene near the beginning of the book, when they are in the attic and Peter shouts, I found absolutely ridiculous. I could handle it when he whistled. I could deal with him shouting. But when his father shouted back, and then they all go after Peter and he's "screaming"? I know it was meant to be a representation of his emotions and the feelings of entrapment, but come on, these people were in hiding. Like I said, I could understand the shout, but when his father shouted back? You really think the adults would be so stupid as to add to any noise? 

The end was very nicely done. I enjoyed the camps and the way it was presented. I felt like the "light touch" writing style that the author had really worked well here. The ending really brought it up for me, but ultimately I was disappointed. ANNEXED could have pushed the boundaries a bit more, got into the details a bit more, and explored the Annex enough to bring it alive.

TL;DR: 2/5. A pretty bland retelling. 

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