Monday, December 28, 2015

Reviews in Review 2015

At the beginning of the year, I set my goal for reading for 2015. I intended to read 25 books, and unfortunately only made it to about 14. I'm a slow reader, exceedingly slow compared to some others around the reviewing watercooler, but I consider myself determined. I plan to set the same goal of reading 25 books for 2016, and I'm confident I can accomplish that.

Mostly, this year in reading brought a lot of new experiences for me. I decided that if I was offered a book to review, I would take on the project and give it a fair shot. (So long as it wasn't completely outside of my expertise. I'm not about to start reviewing non-fiction about the flight patterns of North American birds. Unless it's like, really good or something.)

Since the end of the year is usually a time of reflecting as well as setting new goals, I thought I'd take a look back at the books that I've read and reviewed this year. Not just as my own "Best Books of 2015" list, but also re-evaluating some of the reviews I left. So let's kick this sucker off.

Most Feels of the Year 
The Unbound by Victoria Schwab

Ah, the Unbound. I went into this book not at all expecting what would come of it. The emotional impact from this book was huge. It hit me in all the right spots, and though my review for the book was full of synonyms for FUCKING AWESOME, looking back I can see that was probably due to how it connected with me and my experiences. Others may not be so enamored with the book simply because they didn't connect to Mac's struggle as intensely as I did. Even still, I stand by my review while admitting my bias. The truths this book touched on left me in tears, those sort of happy delighted tears borne of understanding and feelings of connection to others. That's mainly why I write and read: to connect to those around me through the way they express themselves and view the world. Sometimes a book will describe an intangible feeling so well that it feels like it touches in on my soul, like the story has transcended words and the author has just touched my mind to hers like the kids in the Chrysalids, and we don't need words because I can feel it. When that happens, it's like freaking magic. If you want to talk about book hangovers, this one left me moaning with pain. Especially after I found out that the series had been discontinued by the publisher, and I would have no more of this fabulous world to immerse myself in. And that brought out a whole other set of feels. 

Best ARC 
Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

This almost seems like an unfair advantage, since Lauren Oliver was an author I had read and enjoyed before, so I had an idea of what to expect. Then again, if I had received Panic (the other book of hers I've read) instead, then I don't think I would have regarded it as highly. This book was simply so beautifully character driven. I could not put it down, because the characters felt so real they could have been my friends. It wasn't just the vivid characters, but the honesty of this book that really got me. It didn't shy away from tough topics, but more so it didn't try to sensationalize or demonize them. VG simply laid out the truth and let the reader form their own opinion on it, which was really refreshing. It reminded me of when I only wanted to be treated like an equal in my teenage days. This book doesn't talk down to its audience and doesn't try to instill a 'moral.' It respects its readers, which for some books isn't quite the case. 

A Review Too Harsh 
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Yes, I really hated Dorothy Must Die. I'm not going to deny that. It was filled with enough troupes and cliches to make your eyes bleed. Still, I feel like my hatred for those troupes colored my impression some, and made it harder for me to find redeemable qualities in the rest of the story. I did manage to read it till the end, mind you, and that was because there were aspects there that appealed to me, such as the re-imagined 'monsters' of Dorothy and her friends. And perhaps that's what spurred such a scathing review; I love creative world building, and like Zodiac, I wanted the story to be good so bad because of the world. When that didn't come to be it ended up making me hate it more than if it had only been a boring book. My little heart is broken so easily, and then usually turns pretty cold. 

Most Bad Assery 
Viscious by VE Schwab

Gah. Holy balls, guys. This book. Yes, Schwab has made it onto this list twice, and with good reason. I'm pretty sure she spins word gold. This book had everything I've ever really wanted in a book. It was so good it made me want to cry. More so, it was something that I would have loved to write, which is strange. It's rare for me to find a book that I could have written myself. The best friends turned enemy relationship, the moral ambiguity of heroes and villains, and the incredibly realistic explanation of superpowers. Gah. Even now it leaves me speechless in its awesomeness. If you weren't protected by a computer screen I would smack you in the face with my copy and make you read it. Believe me. I did that to my reading buddy. Don't worry, she thanked me for it later. 

A Review Too Soft 
Survive the Night by Danielle Vega 

From the cover to the content, I really wanted to like this book. I was excited to see drug culture being tackled in YA. When it came down to it though, the book just fell short. It fell short with character motivations, with its attempt at an unreliable narrator, and its attempt at horror. Though I admit to projecting what I wanted onto the book in the review, I was still too soft on this book because of what I wanted it to be. I shoved on beer goggles and convinced myself this was the book I wanted, or was at least passable, but when I sobered up the next morning (figuratively), there was no denying that it just wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. At the end of the day this book had a lot of potential, but potential is not the same as actually following through on it.

Ending With a Bang 
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde 

The first book I read this year still riles me up as much as it did when I first read it when I think about the ending. Perhaps what makes it so enjoyable for me is that I'm horrible for flipping to the last page and reading the last line. Well, when I did it with Shades of Grey, the scene involved a very happy ending at a train station. Only when I reached the end of the book did I understand the context of what was going on, and realized it was anything BUT a happily ever after kind of ending. It was such a smack in the face as a cheater reader like me, but I adored it. It completely threw me and my expectations on its head, which is exactly why I read. Not to mention the book was such an incredible delight the entire way through, and so the ending still has a big impact on me. The books that stay with me for years always end up being those I treasure most. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Interview with Cornelia Funke

I'm very excited to have Cornelia Funke, author of the Mirrorworld series and founder of Breathing Books, on the blog today. She is an awesome lady who creates some astoundingly magical worlds. I hope you'll all join me in giving her a warm welcome and a big thank you. I hope you'll check out her website here (which is so super cool!), as well as the webpage for Breathing Books

1) What was the most challenging part of writing The Golden Yarn?

To weave all the storylines into one pattern. This world by now delivers so many – which is of course the greatest gift for a storyteller and at the same time it asks for cruel choices. I am currently exploring which characters I’ll follow in Book 4 and which ones have to wait until I write their story separately. But- I love this feeling of a world opening in all directions especially as this one is so close to ours in so many ways.

2) When do you write? Do you have any rituals or routines?

Yes, but they changed vastly over the years. When my children still lived at home I mostly wrote only when they were at school or busy with their friends. As I was the bread winner that was only possible because my husband stayed at home and helped with everything, from cooking and driving the kids to school to lay outing my illustrations and discussing plots with me. Now that my son and daughter more or less live their own independent lives, I enjoy it very much that I can be more flexible. I still organize my work quite strictly nevertheless, as I love to work on several projects at the same time by now. I have a small paper calendar, where stickers name my tasks of the day: ch 9 edit Griffin’s Feather, research Japanese Fairy Tales, cover sketch advent calendar book, ch 10 Color of Revenge, short story Stockholm….these are only a few examples of what they can say. If I don’t get them done I put the sticker on the next page :) But this way makes it very easy for me to have my mind always in just one story, although I wrote more than three at times.

O yes – I always write my first drafts by hand, in A 4 notebooks. I prepare those books for each story, creating a cover from images and sketches. By now I have three fire proof boxes filled with them (after all I live in California) :)

3) How does it feel to read your stories in German versus in English (or any other language for that matter)? Do you feel something is lost or gained with each language?

That’s a very precise description. Yes, they both loose and gain. I especially experience that when I do readings back to back in German and then in English. It is of course still the same story, but it wears different clothes. And it tastes slightly different on the tongue when I read it aloud.

4) Where do you draw your inspiration for your characters? Do you have any suggestions for character building?

I am suspicious of patterns and rules for stories and their characters. I believe that every writer should find his or her unique voice, rhythm, colors….and characters. Otherwise our books may be as predictable as our movie plots one day! Some characters are clear from the very first moment we name them. Others hide and pretend to be someone else. I love to find out more about them with every draft – and I do up to 15 drafts before I hand a story to my editor. Some reveal themselves so late that you have to revise dozens of chapters, but I believe that to allow that makes them come alive in far more organic ways than building corsets for them and their stories which they are not allowed to escape from. The writer’s greatest challenge are the clichés we all work from. We owe our readers to escape them and that mostly is not possible by planning ahead.

One tool though I find very helpful when creating characters. I search for faces on paintings or photographs to have a more multi-layered approach to my characters. Images often say so much more than words. I pin them on my writing house walls, collect them in notebooks and sketch them while writing. My manuscript notebooks are by now filled with such sketches and very often they make me see a character much earlier and quite differently from what I expected him or her to be. A real face says so much more than an abstract description. It doesn’t have to fully match the image in our imagination. But it will always enrichen it. There is such a strange hostility towards illustration and visuals, when it comes to books. So often I hear: doesn’t that cripple our imagination? But books were illustrated on every page in the 19th century and I think it can help our imagination to play – and to see.

5) What do you feel your greatest success has been as a writer? Biggest failure?

I don’t really think in such terms. Especially Success is such a strange and over used word. It measures life and its tasks in such a questionable way. Apart from the fact that it is mostly understood in terms of material gain or celebrity status, instead of creative achievement. For me the most important and meaningful decisions of my creative life were often made against such ‘success’ and ‘failure’ definitions. When I wrote The Thieflord – the book that made my world career – my editor didn’t like it at all and wanted me to change it in ways that I didn’t agree with. I therefore edited it myself – quite a scary step to take :) - but this decision made me into the writer I am. I had a similar challenge with Reckless. My readers and publishers hated me for leaving Inkworld and trying something new. But I decided that this is the world I have to explore and I worked for eight years against the wishes of my readers (and my publishers :) Now many readers love the Mirrors more than any other of my books and once again I grew as a writer. One could say: failure gave birth to success:) I think it often does. We have to dare to fail to grow. If I would use the word success I’d say it was my Mirrorworld App. Creating it opened so many channels in my creativity that I would need six arms and three heads by now to get it all on paper :) Suddenly my worlds were shown in museums and I became much more of an illustrator again – which was quite a surprise!

6) To publish The Golden Yarn, you started your own publishing house, Breathing Books. What transpired with your previous publishing house that made all this come about?

I came back from quite a magical tour in Germany, from readings in huge theatres filled with Mirrorworlders, brilliant reviews and the feeling that I was Sir Edmund Hillary who had climbed Mount Everest by writing these books for eight years. But – at home I found an email from my US and UK publishers asking me to change the beginning and the ending of The Golden Yarn, although it had been published to such passionate reader reactions in Europe. I would never change a published text, unless I feel I can make it better, so …I said No. And when my publishers didn’t accept that I had only one choice – to publish myself. If I had sold the rights to other publishers it would have taken far too long to get The Golden Yarn to my readers. I was tired of the age boxes, publishing works in by now, its merciless commercial thinking and all the tailoring for the markets.

7) What was the greatest difficulty in starting your own company? Your biggest success?

It would have been quite easy to just publish as EBook, but books have to be also on paper for me. So we had to face the challenge of translation editing, printing, binding and delivering in little more than six months. Not easy even for a small print run. But…it was all worth it when I unpacked the boxes! And so far Breathing Books gave me back the feeling to be connected to my readers, to book sellers, bloggers, librarians and all those other bookophiles, that make my work so magical.

8) How do you think starting your own house will affect you as a writer?

It will give me the freedom to try adventurous things – like publishing The Color of Revenge, my Inkworld sequel, in three installments ( inspired by the publishing ways of the 19th century) I will publish my first picture book written in English and illustrated myself in spring, as things move so much faster, when you do it yourself. I will publish the other two Mirrorworld books with a design I love and with my illustrations in summer and I plan a book of short stories and artwork based on the Mirrorworld App. Additionally I will print small numbers of all my books that are out of print in the US- quite a few- and I will publish some never published in English.

9) What are your goals with Breathing Books? What would you like to see your publishing house achieve?

We want to explore ways to include more illustration, weave art and word together. We’ll continue with what we tried with the Mirrorworld App and keep all my books alive, although they may not sell big numbers. We’ll try to think less of numbers and more about creative adventure.

10) What’s the best feedback you’ve received from your readers? Got any stories?

Oh there is so much! At a reading in Germany I just received a small envelope filled with Golden Yarn – spun by the reader herself. I received letters from the parents of dying children, telling me that my story helped both their child and them. Or from a soldier who told me she survived the desert thanks to Inkdeath. I hear so often that my stories grant shelter from the storm. It is each time a reminder that the responsibility of a storyteller is to catch the beauty and the terror of this world and life in words – for the others.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Book Review: The Golden Yarn

Book Review: The Golden Yarn by Cornelia Funke

Goodreads Description: Jacob Reckless continues to travel the portal in his father's abandoned study. His name has continued to be famous on the other side of the mirror, as a finder of enchanted items and buried secrets. His family and friends, from his brother, Will to the shape-shifting vixen, Fox, are on a collision course as the two worlds become connected. Who is driving these two worlds together and why is he always a step ahead?

This new force isn’t limiting its influence to just Jacob’s efforts – it has broadened the horizon within MirrorWorld. Jacob, Will and Fox travel east and into the Russian folklore, to the land of the Baba Yaga, pursued by a new type of being that knows our world all to well.

My Review: I was given an advanced reader's copy of The Golden Yarn from Goldberg McDuffie Communications and the author, Cornelia Funke, but my opinions are entirely my own.

The Golden Yarn is the third installment of the Mirrorworld series, a deep fantasy tale of love, treasure hunters, and magic. As I've done with previous reviews, I went into the book blind, hoping that the strength of the story would keep me from being out of the loop. Immediately, the story lunges into the action with the birth of the skinless prince to Kami'en, King of the Goyle, and the dollface human, Amalie. I was instantly enamored with the lyrical writing and a world that was both familiar and brand new. Funke's world beyond the mirror is based on many fairy tales, and despite the depth of the story, as well as the amount of characters in play, Funke's control of pacing kept the story moving. At no point did I feel bogged down by excess explanations. Instead, the narrative only lingered on past events or worldbuilding long enough to give the reader a taste for it. And it only made me hungry for more.

Though I have a general idea of what transpired in the previous two books, I still could not tell you how the story played out. At times when I read a sequel without reading the previous book, I no longer have to. The story is so thoroughly explained in the sequel, or the events are so linear that I would feel bored just reiterating what I already know. This wasn't the case at all with The Golden Yarn. I'm clamoring for the first two books, not only because I want to know more than just the little tastes I've been given, but because I know the first two are bound to be as complex as this one. Though some might be disoriented by shifting characters and titles used more often than names, I found the many characters and their layered inner conflicts so delightful. I loved seeing how these characters all intersected and then went their own ways. As well, each character had rich inner conflicts that influenced their actions. The Dark Fairy, of course, being the most obvious, especially after she sought to end the love she felt for Kami'en. I especially enjoyed Will's conflicts as well, how he was the "canvas others painted on," and how he came to deal with that.

I will say that Will's sort of "betrayal" of Clara by the end of the book (at least how I saw it) felt a little off, especially since his entire motivation for going to the Mirrorworld is to save her. And because of the high fantasy and so many shifting POVs and varying storylines, the tension can seem to lag a bit and it can be easy to be pulled out of it, at least in my opinion.

The ending worked everything together well, which I was primarily concerned with, as it can be hard to create so many "beginnings" and "endings" in the course of a series, but everything tied together in a way that felt like closure with the room for more story to be explored. There was only one plot thread, the subplot of the skinless prince, that didn't get properly resolved. I realize that it will no doubt be carried on in the next book, but it would have made such a more satisfying read if that one last plot thread could be tied back into the central story with its own little sense of "closure."

All in all, I really adored this book. I was really happy to get the chance to read it and I can't wait to look into the others in the series. If you love high fantasy, or want to love high fantasy but have a hard time with heavy writing, pick up the story of Jacob Reckless, and I assure you, you won't be disappointed.

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A lyrically written fantasy that tugs at the golden heartstrings.

Book Review: Dorothy Must Die

Book Review: Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Goodreads Description: I didn't ask for any of this. I didn't ask to be some kind of hero.
But when your whole life gets swept up by a tornado - taking you with it - you have no choice but to go along, you know?

Sure, I've read the books. I've seen the movies. I know the song about the rainbow and the happy little bluebirds. But I never expected Oz to look like this. To be a place where Good Witches can't be trusted, Wicked Witches may just be the good guys, and winged monkeys can be executed for acts of rebellion. There's still a yellow brick road - but even that's crumbling.

What happened? Dorothy.

They say she found a way to come back to Oz. They say she seized power and the power went to her head. And now no one is safe.

My name is Amy Gumm - and I'm the other girl from Kansas.

I've been recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked.

I've been trained to fight.

And I have a mission.

My Review: I'm not going to lie, I definitely considered not even reviewing this book. I found nothing redeemable about it, and why should I spread word about a book I despised? Ultimately, I decided to write this review for the same reason that I chose to read Dorothy Must Die to the end-- in the hopes that I could learn something, AKA what not to do.

I was draw to DMD as soon as it came out, as it had a lovely cover and even a staff picks sticker at my local bookstore. Naturally, that boosted my confidence, and since I love re-tellings, I hoped it would be the thrilling adventure I'd been craving.

What I got, instead, was every possible cliche in the young adult handbook. I'm pretty sure the author just Google searched Most Overused Tropes in YA and then crammed all of them in. From the love triangle between the 'sweet' boy and the 'troubled' one, to our main character being ghosted away from her home to be the "chosen one" and the "only one who can stop Dorothy." After Amy, our main character, is dumped into this twisted version of Oz, she trots along and gets herself arrested and thrown in Dorothy's prison despite the numerous warnings and red flags around her that insist it wasn't so smart. She might as well have walked down the middle of the road and then acted surprised when a car hit her. As Amy orients herself into this new world, she learns little by little about the world and what happened since she heard the story of Oz and Dorothy. And I mean, LITTLE by LITTLE. Because every flipping character has to give her the same roundabout "I can't tell you that/I'll tell you later/You shouldn't have to know things" bull that comes up far too often. I read a great post recently about tension that summed up the failures of this book perfectly: When an author withholds important information in an attempt to generate "tension," it means they have no faith that the story and its plot will generate tension on its own. Sadly, if the author didn't spend so much of the book pussyfooting around and actually got to the point, the book would not only be more enjoyable, but the tension would be stronger. When withholding information from your reader that the characters know or should know, you are treating your readers like toddlers. Instead of building a story, it leaves the reader frustrated and in the dark. They're reading your book because they want to know what happens. Don't hold back from that.

Tension aside, each character within this book made me want to beat my head against a desk. Amy is possibly the only character with some small bit of development and personality, and that's only because we get to look into her history, her mom, how she deals and copes with it all. But because this had no effect whatsoever on her story (not even affecting her choices in OZ, for example) the whole thing felt out of place. Aside from this, every other character was about as flat as a pancake, the most pathetic of which included the love interests, specifically Nox. The entire romance between them was so, so painfully forced. There was NO chemistry between the characters, there was barely even an attempt. The adult characters pushed Nox and Amy together like they were trying to play matchmaker. There was nothing there to draw them together, especially since their relationship starts off rocky (of course), and the only thing that made Amy slightly like him was that he said she wasn't useless. I'm sorry, but Amy needs some way better standards. A kiss eventually comes too, but like I said, the forced romance coupled with zero chemistry left me rolling my eyes and moving on.

The only redeemable thing about this book has to be the re-imagined characters of Oz. I really enjoyed how the author reinvented each one, but that's where the enjoyment ends. Though they were creatively recaptured, their characters were just as flat, if not more so than any of the others. They were often defined by a single thing -- the Tinman's love for Dorothy, the Scarecrow being creepy -- and didn't ever expand or build on that. Moreso, Dorothy's character had been completely flipped to be a promiscuous, drunk, cruel little princess. The author touched briefly on some of Amy's fears-- will she end up just like Dorothy?-- but didn't go deep enough. Why was Dorothy like this? What about the magic drove her to be this way? And more importantly, how easily could Amy slip down the same road?

At the end of the day, this felt, aside from the copious swear words that again, seemed out of place, like it should have been a middle grade novel. The thought processes and ideas expressed were very black and white and didn't look any deeper than the surface, and I feel like it could have been re-tailored to a younger crowd and been more successful. As it was, the book itself felt like a little kid dressing in provocative clothing, swearing, and trying to insist they were all grown up, while its reliance on troupes and cliches left it really juvenile.

If you're looking for the same crap you could find in any fanfiction on the internet, if you find comfort in simple concepts and cardboard characters, then by all means take a gander. The only thing this book is good for is guilty pleasures. Or maybe a fire starter.

TL;DR: .5/5 stars. Goddamn this one made me embarrassed to write YA.