Wednesday, February 27, 2013

26 Awesome & Amusing Tees for Readers

I love t-shirts, especially geeky t-shirts, if I could get away with wearing a t-shirt everywhere I would, without question, and I own enough of them to do it. My favourite t-shirts are my shirts that have references to books and reading emblazoned on them, in my opinion you cannot go wrong by exclaiming your love of reading with a giant picture stretched across your chest. And they're a great way to get people to talk to you about book! For example, at Christmas I was wearing my 42 Ringer shirt from Think Geek and my cousin struck up a conversation with me about it, he said knowing he was confused because he didn't think I was a sports fan and yet I was wearing a famous player's number, upon my correction that it was in fact a subtle shout out to my fellow Hitchhiker's Guide fans he said that that clearly made more sense knowing me and we proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes talking about books. So wear your love of reading proudly and strike up some bookish conversations with one (or you know, all) of these awesome and amusing bookish tees.

Existential Whale & Fail Whale two depictions of one of my favourite scenes.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan

     Title: Daughters of Eve
     Author: Lois Duncan
     Publisher: Laurel Leaf
     Published: 1979
     Number of Pages: 256
     Genre(s): YA, Thriller, Suspense, Horror
     Date Read: 2002 (The 1st time...)
     Acquired: Coles (First copy) (Replacement copy)

It's 1979 but in the small rural Michigan town of Modesta the ideals and values still scream 1950s, especially when it comes to girls, women's rights and the feminist movement. The girls at Modesta High are being driven slowly insane trapped in the anti-feminist time warp that is trying to suck them under. 

Ruth Grange has to deal with the fact that her three brothers get everything and get away with anything they want simply because they are boys, leaving Ruth to be their mother and housekeeper without a thought for her desires or dreams.  Laura Snow is the overweight girl that nobody tries to notice, for anything other than making fun of her that is, all she wants it a friend. Jane Reardon is trapped in an abusive household with a mother who won't stand up for herself let alone Jane. These three girls' lives are changed radically when they get invited to join the Modesta Chapter of the Daughters of Eve, a sorority-esque club that is home to the elite females of Modesta High and sponsered by their worldly and strong feminist art teacher, Ms. Irene Stark.

 It's more than a school club though-it's a secret society, a sisterhood, and they have a mission, to change the school, cast out the backward anti-female attitudes of not only the school but the town. At first, it seems like they are actually changing the way guys at school treat them. But then something happens and Ms. Stark begins to urge them to take more vindictive action, and it starts to feel more like revenge-brutal revenge. Some of the girls begin to question the group's actions, and Ms. Stark's motives and past,  but they are ultimately blinded and bound by their oath of loyalty and so the Daughters of Eve become instruments of vengeance. Can one of them find the courage to break the spell before real tragedy strikes and there's no going back?

I enjoyed this book so much that when I went to reread it about 5 years after first acquiring it and I couldn't find my copy I went out and bought a new copy.

This is a pretty dark and gritty novel, but one shouldn't expect anything less from the author of I Know What You Did Last Summer. It's also a very powerful novel, showcasing the results of what one negative influence can do to a group of people, especially a group of young, malleable &  impressionable people like the girls here. Irene Stark has a dark past and as you get further into the novel you can see just how unhinged she truly is to be capable of doing what she does to these girls. She could have benefited from counselling, it's this type of person that when you hear about them in real life you have to ask yourself how they even managed to become teachers and ask why we don't give psychological screenings to educators?

Another running theme in this novel is what happens when you give in to negative peer pressure, a club like this with binding oaths to secrecy, where the stronger members can force their will on the weaker characters and make them do things they wouldn't normally do if not for the pressure of being accepted and being part of an elite group, these are very real things that teenagers, girls especially, deal with on a daily basis. The girls in Daughters of Eve go down some very dark paths thanks to peer pressure. It's also interesting to pinpoint the moment where it goes from being simple peer pressure to mob rule. Very horrific to picture as you're reading it.

Duncan manages to explore those themes completely and thoroughly in under 300 pages, which I find incredibly impressive for such hugely loaded themes. Another aspect that impresses me is the way she manages to actually develop all of the many characters within the novel in such a short length. Other reviewers complained that she tried to take on too many characters and that many just ended up being stereotypes. I am inclined to respectfully disagree with that opinion, that is theirs and I have my own. I don't mind trope-y characters, tropes in characterisation fill a need. So yes you've got the brainy girl in Fran and the man-eating girl who of course is named Bambi as two examples, but both of these characters are much more fleshed out than that. Fran for instance ends up bonding with a boy, and emotionally and interpersonally she's actually one of the stronger voices amongst the girls and they all respect her and look up to her as a leader, where as the stereotype usually has the very brainy girl as being a wallflower, loner, plain or unattractive etc. Duncan makes certain that all of the Daughters of Eve are very real and very relatable, I remember the first time I read finding different aspects of myself within a few of the girls and that makes it very easy and enjoyable to connect to the book.

And now that I'm talking about it I want to re-read it again! Maybe I will!


Friday, February 22, 2013

First Read Friday: Soulbound (Legacy of Tril #1)

     Title: Soulbound (Legacy of Tril #1)
     Author: Heather Brewer
     Publisher: Dial Books
     Published: June 19, 2012
     Number of Pages: 394
     Genre(s): Fantasy, YA
     Date Read: February 14, 2013
     Acquired: Wal-Mart

Kaya has lived her life knowing that she and her parents are fugitives, that their entire existence depends on discretion and secrecy. They are on the run from the ruling council of Tril, the Zettai Council run by the most powerful Barrons in the land. The Barrons are the warrior class, the highest of the Skilled and the most revered; every Barron has a single Healer bonded to them, that is the way it has always been and should always be according to council law, one Barron and one Healer and nothing else. After losing their respective Healers to the War and falling in love, Kaya's parents knowing they were breaking this law went in to hiding and raised Kaya, born a Healer, to know and hate these traditions. For 15 years this life of secrecy has worked, for 15 years they have been free in a way, living life hidden amongst the Unskilled who know nothing of the Barrons and Healers or their Council.

But suddenly and inexplicably and without any warning the war is on Kaya's front door and her father must give them all away in order to save not only Kaya's life but their entire village. In exposing them Kaya is discovered and is summoned, on pain of death for her parents if she disobeys, to Shadow Academy to be trained as a Healer, forced into a Bond with a Barron she does not know, and made to follows strict rules of Protocol that her parents had spent her entire childhood trying to keep her away from. Kaya chaffs under the rules of Protocol, unable to accept the passive, dangerous role of the traditional Healer, she does not understand why she should not be allowed to defend herself, why she should have to rely on her Barron to protect her at all times and at any cost. So she sets out to get herself trained no matter what the cost to herself, her family, or the people she asks for help.

This was the book that prompted me to bring up world building last Wednesday. I did something that I keep telling myself not to do while reading a book; I looked at the GoodReads reviews, I already learned that doing that does nothing but colour my opinion of the book as I continue to read it and yet I did it again with this book anyway. I swear lesson learned this time, promise. It was this review in particular that ended up being the route of my problems. Up until that point I honestly hadn't been bothered by the world building because I usually give the first book in a series the benefit of the doubt that further books will continue to expand the world. The problem lies in that this reviewer and all the other reviewers who mentioned poor world building are right. Brewer does not lay enough of a foundation here in Soulbound, so I have little hope that the rest of the series will be able to sufficiently make up for what is lacking here. We get a general description of what it means to be Skilled and Unskilled, but we get absolutely no information about why those labels came to be, who created them or why people like Kaya's parents haven't revolted and tried to change things. We get told about a war that is suppoed to be devouring Tril, meanwhile the only people who know about this war are the Skilled, and we get very little information about who the Big Bad is or what his motives are. I understand that a lot of this might be able to be attributed to the narrator, which in this case is the main character who has been sheltered from all of this information and so is probably unreliable; but I don't know, I feel like Brewer didn't even bother trying to world build, she envisioned Kaya to supposedly be this game changing character who is completely against the current hierarchy, but she really never does any real hard questioning or digging so how can she be expected to change anything when she doesn't understand any of it? Am I the only one thinking that way?

Another thing that bothered me about this book? The buzz words highlighted on the back: deeply romantic adventure, heart-stopping action and impossible to forget heroine; my problem with these buzzword is that none of them are true. I find nothing at all romantic about any of the relationships in this book, they're both unhealthy. We're told that Kaya's relationship with Trayton is this huge romantic thing, sure Trayton does a couple of nice, sweet, romantic things, but for every one of those moments there are another two-three where he's either manipulating Kaya, belittling her, abusing her, or neglecting her, and she lets him do it even though she's supposed to be this independent spitfire. Forgive me if I don't see the deep romance there. And don't get me started on her relationship with Darius, he's just as bad as Trayton especially when you get to the end of the book and find out he's been lying to her the entire time. Although if you're observant, which Kaya is not, at ALL, you'll have the big twist figured out pretty much the first time Darius is introduced, I know I did.

As for heart-stopping action, yes there were some nice action scenes thanks to the sword fighting, but I wouldn't class any of the battle scenes as heart-stopping not by any means, especially when the narrator herself spends most of the time worrying about not cutting herself on her own katana. Which brings me to the claim that Kaya is impossible to forget, from the cover I was expecting her to be the ultimate badass, I was left highly disappointed as she turned out to be full of stereotypes; yes she wants to learn to defend herself instead of relying on Trayton to defend her, very feminist, very independent I applaud her for that. She actually achieves that goal by the end, except she still does need rescuing at some point in pretty much every one of her fights. And honestly, she was damn whiny. For how much emphasis was put on battles and war and breaking Barron protocol, Kaya spent an inordinate amount of time angsting over her supposedly romantic feelings for the two male leads, even though she self identified as not being interested in boys when she was first introduced.

If I don't actually stop and think about all of those things then I can enjoy the book. I hope that the next book in the series is narrated by a different character, I'd much prefer to see things from either Darius's point of view or Maddox's they seem to be the most interesting characters to me. I know that's not going to happen though because this series is the Kaya show for better or for worse. I really hope that Brewer delves more into world building in the next book, because I think that she could have a really, really interesting world going here and I want to know more about the mythology. There is culture blending galore you've got names like Patrick and Samantha mixed with names like Trayton and Darius and Sharya; Japanese katanas and European Chain mail, the cover depicts leather armour but there's never mention of any in the actual story, they just all seem to be dressed like ninjas are always depicted. 

Overall, even though I have complaints, I will continue reading the series out of sheer curiosity to see just where she is going with all of this.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lost in Translation: When Cover Artists Miss the Point

You know that feeling you get when you see a book and the cover just makes your imagination run wild; and then you read the book and you're left sitting there staring at the cover with a bemused expression and muttering to yourself, "Well that wasn't at all what I was expecting when I picked that up?" That's the feeling you get when you come across an edition of a book where the cover just did not get what the book was about, and their cover art clearly points that out once you read it. I know I'm not the only one who has had that feeling, Cinda Williams Chima even talked about having that feeling with one of her own book covers. So here 10 book covers that made me feel like something got lost in translation between the author, the publisher and the artist:

Soulbound (Legacy of Tril #1) - A minor example; I wrote a review of this book (it'll go live as this week's First Read Friday) and pointed out that nowhere in this novel is there leather armour. It also made me expect more fighting and less angsty teen girl.

This edition of Outlander which makes the book seem like a few things it isn't: a typical romance novel, and set in England. It's set in Britain and it's one of the most well researched pieces of fiction out there; oh and the hero is supposed to be a Scottish warrior, he does not look like one there. This cover is one of the reasons Diana Gabaldon requested that people not be used on her covers.

If this didn't actually say James Bond I would have absolutely NO IDEA that Colonel Sun was a James Bond fact I wouldn't have any idea what it was...this cover is just messed up...

Can I just say, as a Harry Potter fan I am REALLY glad these Italian copies of Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets were not my introduction to the series? There is nothing relevant, save for the chess pieces going on in either of these cover drawings. Also, what is up with this artist and dead animal hats?

Given the blue colour, the depiction of a free bird in flight, and the fact that it's the closer of the trilogy, you would think from this cover that it means Katniss and company are getting a happy ending right? OH BUT YOU COULD NOT BE MORE WRONG! The contents of Mockingjay are as dark and twisty as early Grey's Anatomy Meredith's soul and more akin to a George R.R. Martin book where any character is free game and happiness is a distant memory.

This Dutch cover of The Hobbit makes me think more of Winnie the Pooh's adventures in the 100 Acre Wood instead of the journey to defeat Smaug that actually takes place.

A comment about most of the Kelley Armstrong covers (the ones with people depicted) is that they have scantily clad or naked women and men in provocative poses which is fine for romance novels but none of Armstrong's novels is a romance. Sure there is romance, but it's always a background element, a hazard of having relationships between one's characters if you will and Stolen is no exception, especially because the two main characters spend most of the book apart...

And last, but certainly not least, the aforementioned Cinda Williams Chima book. There are no dragons in this book, there are no ships, indeed no seas mentioned at all, and there are definitely no staffs like this. The worst transgression of this Dutch edition though? The title isn't even the same, the book is The Demon King but for some reason, unknown to anyone, the Dutch title became Black Magic...even the author doesn't get it. The comments point out, and I am inclined to agree, this would make a much more fitting cover illustration for her book The Wizard Heir but you'd still have to lose the ship.

What book covers have you come across that have made you stop and go, "Say what now?"?

-- Ren

Monday, February 18, 2013

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

     Title: Outlander (Outlander #1)
     Author: Diana Gabaldon
     Publisher: Seal Books
     Published: January 1, 1991
     Number of Pages: 870
     Genre(s): Science Fiction, Romance, Historical Fiction
     Date Read: February 2006 (The 1st time...)
     Acquired: Chapters

The year is 1945, the Second World War has just ended and combat nurse Claire is finally reunited with her husband, historian and amateur genealogist (and former Army Officer) Frank Randall. They seek bliss and rest in the highlands of Inverness, Scotland so that Frank can do some family research on a descendant who was an Officer in the area back in the 1740s, before the start of his tenure as a History Professor at Oxford. Young and innocent they think they have the entire future together ahead of them, until curious Claire, unversed in the mysterious mythology of the standing stones of Scotland, goes exploring alone and disappears. 

Claire suddenly finds herself transported back through time, about 200 years back, because that's how all the legends go, to 1743, a dangerous time to be a British lady in the Scottish wilds where the border clans are at war with each other and with the British. As dangerous a place to be as the war she just finished surviving in 1945. She's confused, she's lost, she's least until she's picked up by a band of MacKenzie warriors on the run from the local British army regiment who save her from the Captain of said regiment, one Jack Randall... They take her in, believing her to be a British spy, and bring her to their laird for judgement. When he decides she's not an immediate threat they offer her protection, protection in the form of an arranged marriage to the young outlaw nephew of the laird, one Jamie Fraser, who Claire hasn't been able to keep her eyes off of since the moment she met him. She doesn't love him, she doesn't want to but she needs him. 

They begin their life together with Claire torn between her new reality and the reality she left behind, and a desire to return there. Things are going along as peacefully as one would expect from a war torn Scottish nation in the 1740s, until Captain Jack comes back into the picture. He seems to have a grudge against both Claire and Jamie, something that seems very personal. Can Claire learn to love Jamie? Can they come together enough to survive Black Jack? Or will she flee from Jamie the first chance she gets to try and get back to Frank?

I would like to start this review by saying, I like to consider this book as a stand-alone book and I would have been perfectly content to never have found out it was a series. I tried reading the second book and I just got very turned off by the willy-nilly back and forth of the characters travelling through times to multiple periods multiple times. I am very critical of time travel because it is really really hard to get right in a way that does not create glaring plot holes. I can pick out plot holes anywhere but present me with a time travel plot and I will find even a pin head sized plot hole that I then use to unravel the entire story, I've done it on several occasions thoroughly annoying people who genuinely enjoyed the story and never questioned the integrity of the plot. Just wanted to clear that up and let you all know why this review will make no reference to the rest of the series.

Back in 2006 I never would have willingly picked up a romance novel, not even if you paid me, and yet I actually paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of reading this book, because I had to read it for an undergraduate English class. I will not lie, I have gotten out of required course readings I didn't think I would enjoy through various means in the past; like the time I didn't even crack the spine on The Tempest I just  based all my answers about the play on a combination of the very, very strange 3 man production of it I saw at The Globe, and Spark Notes. I was sorely tempted to do that with this book given the reading load I was faced with that particular semester and my distaste for romance novels. That was before I actually read the summary on the back, the minute I read the summary I had two thoughts, "Oh dear god time travel I am going to hate this even more than I would have if it was just a normal romance novel!" and "Ooooh 1700s Scottish Highlands! Swords and red heads, okay I'm done this book is getting read." Yup you tell me there will be sword play and I will read it, you tell me there will be sword play AND red heads (I have a thing for red heads in a big way, it has been known to lead to me embarrassing myself horribly...) and there's no way I won't read the book. It was actually about this time in 2006 that I read it because I spent my entire reading week glued to it, so that makes this week the 7th anniversary of me reading it for the first time, and since then I've read it about 10-12 more times, so that right there should tell you just how much I liked it.

I not only liked it, I loved it. With the exception of the first 39 pages. I was okay with those first 39 pages the first time I read it, but after finishing it the first time I'm not a big fan of Frank and just really don't want to read the part that he's in, so on most of the times I've re-read it I've started on the second half of page 39 and read from there.Did anyone else who has read it feel that way? Am I the only one here? For me the book really gets started in chapter 3, that's where Claire finds herself transported back to the 1700s and the fish out of water story really gets started. I'm so glad Diana gave Claire the characterisation that she did, because Claire's stoicism, strength, stubbornness and adaptability are what drive this story for me. If Claire had been the stereotypical romance heroine that I dreaded she would be when I heard I was going to have to read a romance novel I would have been crushed, but watching Claire grow into the role of a 1700s Scottish lady was nothing short of magical, by the end of the book I at least felt like Claire really belonged exactly where she was and I actually couldn't picture how she would fit into the WWII era world she had come from. 

Obviously I have to talk about her relationship with Jamie, the Hero of the novel, who numbers among my favourite literary red heads, can't really leave discussion of that relationship out. Diana's writing in this book is exquisite in my opinion, but I especially enjoyed her portrayal of the central romance in this couple, it was very realistically done. You have a heroine who is a "modern" woman coming back to the 1740s so of course there are going to be culture clashes, especially in the area of romance, and the clashes between Claire and Jamie are SPECTACULAR. Seemingly horrific, for obvious reasons, as Claire points out corporeal punishment is barbaric now a days (and even in 1945), but it was normal to Jamie, and honestly the way Diana handled the writing of it it comes across as more hilarious than horrific. For every moment of them blowing up at one another there are as many or more moment where you can just watch them slowly realise how much they love one another and that they really are quite well matched to one another in both personality and nature. Jamie is an impulsive, injury prone warrior and Claire is a responsible (usually), calm former combat nurse; which means that in the eyes of the Scots of the 1740s she's the best surgeon/doctor in existence. That becomes a bit of a running gag between the two. 

There are sex scenes, of course, it's a romance novel that's a given, but you don't read this novel for the sex scenes, or even just for the romance. There is an actual discernible and complex plot in this novel and it's just as important if not more important than Jamie and Claire's relationship, if only because of how intertwined the villain is to both Claire and Jamie as individuals and as a couple.

Since I'm being honest, I feel completely comfortable saying that in my opinion, this is one of the best and most well thought out and written books that I have ever read. And I have no doubt that I'll probably read it another 10-12 times in the next 7 years. Ask me again in 7 years and we'll see!


Saturday, February 16, 2013

First Read Friday: Falcondance by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

Since Friday was a Holiday I'm choosing to post what would have been Friday's First Read Friday today, enjoy!

     Title: Falcondance (The Kiesha'ra, #3)
     Author: Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
     Publisher: Laurel Leaf
     Published: September 13, 2005
     Number of Pages: 192
     Genre(s): Fantasy, YA
     Date Read: February 22, 2013

When we last saw the Avians and Serpiente their leaders Zane Cobriana and Danica Shardae were pregnant and setting out with their Falcon friends, Rei and Kel, to create a Wyvern's Court in hopes of bringing their people together to not only achieve peace but to keep out the hateful influence of the Falcon Empire.

Now we fast forward several years and meet Nicias the pure blooded Falcon son of Rei and Kel, and the Grandson of the Heir to the Falcon Empire, Araceli. He's part of the Royal Guard of Oliza Shardae Cobriana, the heir to the Wyvern's Court. He is sworn to protect her with his life, a duty he takes very seriously, but his duty puts his life at stake when suddenly and without warning he begins to have nightmares of Ahnmik, nightmares which lead to a black out and a fall when flying with Oliza. His parents have no choice after that but to send him back to Ahnmik and to Araceli, because if they don't the Falcon magic that has awakened within him will drive him to total insanity.

Nicias is both drawn to and appalled by Ahnmik, simultaneously wanting to be there, succumbing to the seduction of Lily and the pull of the magic, and wanting to flee and get as far away from the place his parents hate the most. But he stays, because Araceli is the only hope he has, or so he is led to believe, until he finds himself drawn to the supposedly dangerous criminal Darien and her mysterious daughter Hai. Suddenly he finds himself smack in the middle of the royal power struggle his parents sought to keep him out of a struggle that will force Nicias to choose between duty and destiny. Is he strong enough to do what is necessary?

As the middle book of the series it has the task of moving the plot forward, but honouring what came before it. I'm not entirely sure it's successful in accomplishing that task. By skipping forward about 15-20 years Atwater-Rhodes has glossed over extremely important details about the building and growth of the Wyvern's court. It went from not existing at the end of Snakecharm to being an almost completely functional kingdom where the only real threat is what will happen when Oliza takes the throne, and for some reason her parents aren't as concerned about this as one would expect. In Hawksong and Snakecharm the readers were treated to Danica and Zane as highly conscientious people who thought about every detail of their plans and how those plans would affect their people. But either parenthood changed them or I completely misunderstood them in this book, because Zane at least seemed extremely different than the previous two instalments. I think this is compounded by the fact that we have Nicias as a narrator, he wasn't around during the events of the previous two books so maybe it's just that his perspective is skewing the reader's knowledge. That makes sense because he's a very introspective narrator who doesn't really seem to have a complete and full understanding of Wyvern's Court, which could be chalked up to the fact that he's a Falcon and the one thing the Avians and the Serpeiente can actually agree on is that they really really have a hard time trusting Falcons who look like Falcons. So not only are we not treated to how exactly the court was formed but we have little to no information about what exactly the Falcons were doing to work against them for the last 20 years.

At the end of Snakecharm the characters were well aware that the Royal Family of Ahnmik wasn't just going to let them get on with it. But from the sounds of the narrative that seems to be exactly what happened? Nicias coming into his magic seems to be the catalyst that gets the Falcons interested in acting again. But given what Nicias discovers about the Falcons' motives while he is on Ahnmik I find it REALLY hard to believe that the Falcons just sat back for all those years without interfering and just let Danica and Zane work towards re-uniting the Avians and the Serpiente after all the work they put into ensuring they would never re-unite. It doesn't make any sense; perhaps it's fleshed out more in Wolfcry? I haven't gotten around to reading that yet maybe I should make it my next book.

Moving away from plot and narration, one of the major themes of the series has been the personal growth of the narrators, watching them wrestle with their heritage and find a way to synthesize their histories with their day to day realities. Nicias has the hardest time doing this out of all 3 narrators so far. He's the son of two exiled Falcons living in a place where no one trusts someone who has a Falcon form. He has to learn how to control magic he didn't ask for and wasn't warned about from a woman who his entire family and extended family hates in a place he has never wanted to go. And while he's there he makes discoveries that not only change everything he knows about himself but everything he and everyone else knows about the world in which they live. Heavy stuff for a teenager. Nicias handles all of this surprisingly well. There are very few outbursts on his part. He's very level headed and mature.

I have to say that even though the book feels out of place, and I think the series would have benefitted from a book in between Snakecharm and Falcondance, something from Rei or Kel's perspective, that overall I enjoyed this instalment in the series. Nicias is by far the best of the three narrators so far. He also has the most interesting and involved story of the three which makes for an engaging read. Even though I feel it's weak as the third instalment and that it has it's flaws (what book doesn't?), it's still a good and enjoyable read.


Friday, February 15, 2013

First Read Friday: The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann


     Title: The Unwanteds
     Author: Lisa McMann
     Publisher: Aladdin
     Published: August 30, 2011
     Number of Pages: 390
     Genre(s): Fantasy, YA, Dystopian
     Date Read: February 11, 2013
     Acquired: Wal-Mart

Quill is a veritable fortress, surrounded by high walls with only one closely guarded gate, even the sky above is caged in, whether it is to keep enemies out or the populace within under control only the High Priestess knows for sure, and as her word is law, no one dares to question. After all who would try and rise up against a tyrant who ritualistically annually declares that a certain portion of Quill's population that have just turned 13 will be culled and sent to die in a lake of boiling oil?

Alex knows this is his rate, he knew from the moment he defied the High Priestess's ridiculous edicts. He knows, and is constantly reminded that Quill has little value for creativity, the Quillitary, and High Priestess Justine especially, value strength, detachment and clear headed logic above all else. And so it is that Alex is selected for culling as an Unwanted while his identical brother Aaron has been labelled not just Necessary like their parents but given the title of Wanted, the highest honour a citizen of Quill can hold.

So it is that Alex and the other Unwanted children are sent to the ominous Death Farm to face the Eliminators; when they arrive they put on stoic faces and bravely face the prospect of their deaths, only to be told, by the Death Farmer no less, that he has no plans to kill them. For he is a Mage and he has created a magical haven for the Unwanteds where they can be safe and free to not only hone their creative skills, but to use them as weapons in case they ever have to defend themselves against Quill should the High Priestess find out how Mr. Today has been defying her for so many years. Alex has finally found a place where he is wanted and can be himself, but what will happen when his new found peace is threatened? Can Artimé and the Unwanteds really prevail over the mechanical might of the Quillitary?

First and foremost I have to say that even though I adore the cover image on this book, how could I not it's got a flying stone feline and live origami fire breathing dragons, that it's actually a really poor cover choice. It gives away FAR too much. After reading the book I really wish they'd gone with a desolate image of Quill instead, it would have intensified the dystopian nature of Quill and the abject horror of the idea of culling 13 year olds just for being creative, which is one of the main draws of the blurb. A missed and wasted opportunity in my opinion. Although one that somewhat continued into the story itself. McMann is obviously trying to create a place and a leader that the reader will be horrified by and hate, try to make us see just how horribly the people of Quill have it. But it never goes quite far enough, yes the practice of culling children because they aren't logical or emotionless is cruel, unusual and disturbing, but the jacket blurb and cover have both already given away that this practice doesn't actually take place, and aside from that practice and the fact that Justine is a cold-hearted dictator, the people of Quill don't live in abject poverty or squallor, Quill seems to me to be more of a cross between Castro era Cuba and Medieval England than an Orwellian dystopia. I get it, the target audience for this series is tweens, but that's the same target audience that both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were targeted towards and the covers claim that this book is "The Hunger games meets Harry Potter" led me to believe that there was going to be some darker content, and all it did was hint at it, it just didn't go far enough for my taste.

My other complaint is that it was super rushed. If you will allow me to compare it to Harry Potter for a few minutes, let me say this on the subject of magical education in each series; it takes a good 3-4 books arguably in HP for the kids to become proficient enough in magic to hold their own in head to head combat with other wizards, actually I'd probably say they aren't really capable of that until book 5, that's 3-5 years of magical education and training. The kids in Unwanteds are shown to be mastering their respective arts and moving on to magical warrior training after only a few weeks and it's not like these kids had ANY experience before coming to Artimé, they came from a place that banned all creativity. The climax of the book takes place around the 1 year mark of their arrival and they are able to not only hold their own but win in a battle against an army, granted the army they are going up against doesn't have magic but still I find it incredibly hard to believe that this group of 13 year olds could have gotten that good that fast.

That all being said overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, the characters where likeable, with the exceptions of Will, Justine and Aaron, the antagonists, McMann was clearly on a mission to make these characters as unlike-able as possible because I can't think of a single redeeming quality in any of them, and for the blurb I've read for the second book in the series apparently Aaron is only going to get even more unlike-able. The use of creativity as magic was entertaining, the idea of a stinging soliloquy or fire step is pretty neat, but I like the idea of literally boring your enemy to death with a story best, because I think we've all felt in the past that we had teachers who were doing that to us at one point or another. 

Any really creative person can easily sympathise with the Unwanteds and Artimé is a truly imaginative place filled with wonders, it's really easy to get into Artimé and want to know more. This book definitely kept me engaged and even though it didn't push the envelope as much as I wanted, and I found the pacing awkward I liked the book I believe it does its best to try and live up to the promise of being The Hunger Games for Harry Potter fans (although in my experience Potterphiles in general seem to be a large portion of The Hunger Games fanbase) and I am looking forward to reading the next one in the series as soon as I've made a noticeable dent in the pile. (Been banned from bringing any more new books into the house until I have done so...)


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

World building

My best friend Angie will be the first to tell you that I am more than mildly obsessed with world building. I'm a details person, I want to know it all, the more details you give me about something the more fun I have with it. Especially with a work of fiction the more details an author gives me about the world the more vivid and real it becomes in my head. That's one of the pitfalls of my own writing...I get stuck in planning mode because I want to explore every little detail. I have a feeling when I do actually churn out a work I'm going to have Tolkienesque levels of details and appendices...Maybe that's one of the reasons I chaff with Tolkien, he was the king of world building. I am in absolute awe of the world he created and so so jealous of the layers of detail he created. That's probably also why I love fan-fiction and roleplaying. When I love a fictional world, I like to spend time with it, to build upon the details the author created, the half dozen or so spreadsheets I have filled with every possible detail imaginable about one of my Harry Potter roleplays proves that. 
Good gal JKR always willing to give
the fans more details

I like to know the laws of the world the characters live in, and I don't just mean the governmental laws, I want to know the physical laws of the world, literally how does their world work compared to earth. That is something I especially love about both The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series and the Star Wars expanded universe; they both provided lots of that type of information; the Star Wars EU has produced several reference books filled with that kind of information, and they are all on my book shelves. I want to know about the different religions and cultures in the characters world, the foods, the animals, the geography. Give me everything.

Back in the early 00s when I was still really, really into pixel art I was on staff at a forum called The Last Gate and all of the other people on staff were also writers, one of the owners' Steph gave me a spreadsheet she had created called the world creation check list. To this day it is still on my hard drive and to this day I believe it is a valuable tool for world building. I should really get back in touch with her and see if she'd be willing to let me post it here on Novel Concepts.  Anyway, the check list? It has over 200 individual questions designed to make you plan out all the details in the following categories: History; biases, prejudices, & crusades; life span & quality of life; medical care; religion; sexual equality & homosexuality; birth control, sex, & marriage; recreation, art, & culture; commerce & money; education & technology; military; government, law, & law enforcement; agriculture, hunting & gathering; animals; terrain. I can thing of another few categories I would add: physical laws, and metaphysical laws (including magic). I'm reminded of this movie I've seen the trailer for (dying to see the movie, haven't been able to lay hands on it, first time I saw the trailer I was mesmerised then never heard ANYTHING about it for like a year so I was convinced I had dreamed the entire movie, until I came upon the trailer again a few weeks ago), Upside Down clearly there are very important physical laws at play in this movie, and that's the kind of thing I want in a book too, explain that kind of thing, as fully as possible.

My love/hate relationship
with J.R.R continues:
he is my world building icon
There are some authors out there, like Tolkien, who are just world building gods (I know you see what I did there!) and then there are others who make you question how their books got published because their worlds' are so flat and gapingly incomplete. That second type of author? Yeah I hate them, that sort of thing ruins my whole experience when I'm reading a book.

For instance, Christopher Paolini? Yeah A LOT of people out there like to claim that he just ripped off The Lord of the Rings when he wrote the Inheritance Cycle, I'm more inclined to say he was just heavily influenced by Tolkien, and really what modern epic fantasy authors aren't? There are only so many epic fantasy tropes out there and with the level of detail in Middle Earth it's really not surprising that Tolkien used the vast majority of them, so yes any fantasy world worth it's salt is going to have a lot in common with Middle Earth, tropes are tropes for that reason. A Dwarf is a Dwarf and an Elf is an Elf; when someone follows the traditions of world building race creation they're labelled as copying. Well when they don't we just end up with something really bad, the best example of that is Twlight, Stephanie Meyer tried (and EPICALLY FAILED) to world build a world of vampires and shapeshifters but I think we can ALL agree that her vampires were not even recognisable as vampires because she threw all respect for tradition out the window. That's something I have a problem with.

Example of:
how not to build a complete world
Another thing I have a problem with, and that was already mentioned above, gaps and holes in the laws of the world. I'm going to revert back to Meyer here because her series is just full of examples of what not to do in writing. When you can't even keep the laws of your world straight yourself, here's a protip, you fail at world building, go back to the start, do not go to the publisher, and publishers? Please stop giving people money for such things. Alice the vampmeyer has a power that allows her to see the future, Meyer outlines all the situations in which it doesn't work, and then throughout the rest of the series fails in actually having it function the way she's laid it out. That's just one example. Another example of bad world building due to gaps is the world in James Patterson's Witch & Wizard series. He never actually manages to build a complete world at any point in this series. The reader is continually left with unanswered questions and I know I personally spent a lot of time sitting there asking myself, and the book, "Wait, wtf? How did that happen!? How did they get there? Since when can they do that?" and so on and so forth.

So my point in all of this? My point is that the authors who take the time and make the effort to create a rich and vibrant world that deserve the glory and the praise; these are the authors that really care about their readers and their characters. I appreciate them and everything they do, wholeheartedly.

And now here is a list of my top 10 favourite fictional well constructed worlds:

Reason #4 the I love the name Arthur.
Reasons 1-3 are:
Arthur Weasley
 Arthur Dent
& King Arthur
  1. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling - She took the world we know and built a whole secondary world into it, and she did it well! I LOVE the Pottermore initiative.
  2. The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix
  3. The Star Wars universe and expanded universe (so many booooks, so many details *drool*)
  4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (except the last book which was written post-Adams death by Eoin Colfer)
  5. The Seven Realms by Cinda Williams Chima
  6. Frontier Magic by Patricia C. Wrede
  7. Women of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong (bonus points for being Canadian :D)
  8. Libyrinth by Pearl North
  9. 1984 by George Orwell
  10. The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien - you know just in case I haven't already been clear; I know I've said I can't read the books because of the amount of detail, but that seriously does not stop me from being in love with the level of detail, which does seem rather paradoxical... 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Legend by Marie Lu


     Title: Legend
     Author: Marie Lu
     Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
     Published: November 29, 2011
     Number of Pages: 305
     Genre(s): Sci-fi, YA, Dystopian
     Date Read: January 23, 2012
     Acquired: Wal-Mart

Los Angeles, the central stronghold of The Republic, a society that stands where the Western United States once stood, a perpetual war machine, constantly fighting with its neighbours. In a violent warmongering society the officers are the elite, the crème de la crème of society; they live in the wealthiest neighbourhoods and are provided with all of the comforts and luxuries that the less worthy citizens are denied, such as medicine. June lives in such a district with her brother, an important military officer, she herself is a prodigy, quickly on the rise in training, no one can keep up with her. In fact she's so good that when her brother Metias is murdered by the fugitive terrorist Day, the Elector Primo calls June in to hunt him down.

Day was born in the slums; he could have been great, he had all the makings to be the Republic's perfect soldier, but instead he's their most wanted criminal. No one can catch him because no one is as good as he is, except maybe June. The catch? They're both only 15.

But when Day discovers the truth about the Republic, and June discovers the truth about Day, will these two foes become unlikely allies? Will they join forces and become a force so untouchable that they are actually able to bring the Republic to its knees? And what about the supposed enemies, the Colonies, that the Republic claims to constantly be fighting? Can Day and June unravel the web of secrets and lives that has  engulfed their world?

I think you can see the trend that I buy a lot of books at Wal-Mart; family employee discount, if I can get 10% of the price of a book of course I'll buy it there! T'would be silly not to! That's right I used t'would in a sentence. Anyway, you're here for a book review not my opinion on where to buy books. 

I enjoyed Legend, thoroughly, it's a YA Dystopian, which is a genre I am particularly fond of if you remember my recent post on the dystopian trend. As the first book in a series it has the job of introducing us to the world and the characters. Lu does this by choosing to have the two main characters narrate the action in first person, they alternate chapters. To make it easy to remember which of the characters is narrating Day gets sans-serif gold font and June gets serif black. I like the concept of different fonts for each narrator and I also like the way she's chosen the fonts in such a way that they somewhat represent their character's character. June is the straight laced, rule following, military prodigy being groomed for a high position in the Republic government that's what a traditional font signifies whereas Day is the rebel fighting against tyranny and oppression, so he gets a rebellious sans-serif in gold, and the fact that it's in gold just makes you want to root for him because it makes him seem like the good guy. So a smart decision choice, it definitely earns points with me.

The story itself is what drew me into this book and kept me interested. You've got two characters, who on the surface seem like complete polar opposites. What the majority of the time in the book is spent on is the two of them realising just how alike they actually are, they have almost identical thought, speech and action patterns to the point where Day at one point actually points out that June is basically a female version of himself. They are evenly matched physically and mentally even though they had completely different upbringings. It gets right to the heart of the nature versus nurture quandary. Marie does a good job of having these two, basically from separate worlds even though they live in the city, come together to find common ground and move from enemies to allies. Is it a little strange to have two romantic leads who are perfectly matched to one another? Yeah, but that's a fictional contrivance that we as the audience can forgive, (Or you know I can at least I don't know about the rest of you, some of the reviewers on GoodReads certainly couldn't) because inwardly everyone has harboured the fantasy at one point or another of meeting their perfect match, and when we talk about a perfect match we're usually talking about our identical counterpart of the opposite gender, or to quote Paul Walker's character in She's All That when a guy fantasizes about the perfect girl he's looking for himself with tits.

Obviously the growth in their relationship needed a driver and the catalyst for bringing these two unlikely allies together (eventually) was the murder of June's older brother, and only living family member, Metias, supposedly by Day. I don't really think I have to expound on that previous sentence I think you all know where it's going to end up by the end of the book. But the point is that unravelling that mystery is what forces these two together. Solving that mystery of course leads to bigger mysteries and since it's a dystopian series you know that by the end of the book our intrepid heroes are of course going to find themselves right smack dab in the middle of a conspiracy and a revolution. And I always enjoy watching that unfold.

My favourite part about dystopian societies is the way they function, I like to find out about all of the restrictions that have been put in place on the populace, and the tyrants rationales for why their society must be the way it is and Marie Lu did not let me down. She created a very interesting society. I love the way she plays with the original American revolution, the roles are somewhat reversed this time it's the Republic that is the oppressor and the Colonies who are rising up in revolt and trying to bring them down. It's also telling about the authors own stance that she chose to keep Los Angeles and indeed much of the US semi-recognisable as she ratchets the war machine persona of the States up to 11 by turning them into an unabashed, unapologetic warmonger who glorifies war and the military above everything else, and who are willing to do whatever they need to do to the members of their lower class to create the perfect soldier and ultimate weapons.

A lot of social commentary in this book if you look for it. Interestingly she claims to have been inspired to write this story by Les Mis, which is of course chock full of social commentary so I can see how it translates. 

I will definitely be reading the rest of the series, I picked up Prodigy at Wal-Mart yesterday afternoon.