Monday, December 31, 2012

The Dystopian Novelist's Exam

Apocalypse! Ahhhh!
In 2005, RinkWorks posted the Fantasy Novelist's Exam. It's basically a list of overused tropes in fantasy novels. I liked it so much, I decided to create one for dystopian novels. Now, I'm not harsh as RinkWorks. They suggest abandoning your novel if you fail a single question. That's practically impossible. So here's the deal. If you answer 'yes' to more than five or these questions, consider revising. Seriously.

1. Is your protagonist a sixteen year old female?
2. Does your protagonist have exactly one sibling?
3. Are children banned in any way? (Examples: Outlawed, limited to two per family)
4. Does your government quell uprisings through surgery?
3. Does your government arrange marriages?
6. Does your character meet someone for the first time and soon falls into a relationship so true, so strong, that no force of nature or the government could break it apart?
7. Is the love interest an outcast or from a lower class than your protagonist?
8. Does your protagonist think their world is ideal until the love interest teaches them to see beyond the lies?
9. Is your government basically communism on steroids?
10. Is it headed by a single old man worshiped and feared by all his subjects?
11. Have they branded a certain group of people as unacceptables although they pose no apparent threat?
12. Does your government kill off normal citizens for some undefined reason in order to keep the plot going?
13. Is your story the first of a planned trilogy?
14. Will the next two book's titles share suffixes with the first's title? (Examples: Fever, Wither, Sever. Matched, Crossed, Reached. Delirium, Pandemonium, Requiem.)
15. Are you going to write prequels and midquels staring secondary characters?
     15 1/2: Do you know the definition of the word trilogy?
     15 3/4: Is your name Scott Westerfield?
     15 7/8: Do you see nothing wrong with these numbers?
16. Does your protagonist have no memory or knowledge of the World Before?
     16 9/π: Alternatively, do they know exactly how our customs and technology worked and compare them alongside their own world?
17. Was the World Before decimated by World War III?
18. Were Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America destroyed in the Apocalypse, yet North America was able to arise from the ashes?
19.  Do you use bird imagery in your story?
20. Would 'gilded cage' make for a good metaphor in your story?
21.  How about 'bubble'?
22. Is your protagonist dressed up or forced to look her best for Moments of Doom? (Examples: a fight to the death, a face to face meeting with the Supreme Dictator.)
23. Is any of your characters an 'unwitting pawn'?
24. Does your Supreme Dictator let the protagonist run around the country for several hundred pages, only to show up at the climax, because they wanted to see how far the protagonist would get?
25. Does your protagonist have a tracker on their person from the beginning of the story?
26. Is the tracker implanted inside their body?
27. Are organizations in your book so important, you need to capitalize the first letter? (Society, Authorities, Reestablishment, the Order.)
28. Does your character's best friend exist for the sole purpose of being killed, captured, brainwashed, or corrupted?
29. Does their sibling exist for the sole purpose of being killed, captured, brainwashed, or corrupted to add fuel to their fight?
30. Does killing off the hypotenuse sound like an excellent way to solve a love triangle?
31. Do your leading characters' names sound suspiciously like Adam and Eve? (Examples: Addie, Eva, Evelyn)
32. Do you think 'dystopian' means 'ya sci fi romantic thriller'?
33. Do you think 'dystopian' is the same as 'post apocalypse'?*
34. Has rebellion always been brewing, but doesn't kick in until your protagonist joins the Resistance?
35. Is your protagonist the figurehead of the Resistance despite having little or no strategic military value?
36. Does the conspiracy go even deeper than it first appeared?
37. Several times?
38. Is The Resistance located far out in the wilderness?
39. And yet they have technology capable of overthrowing the Supreme Dictator?
40. Does your story go something like this: discovers conspiracy, on the run, gets caught, escapes, joins  uprising, wins at a high cost?
41. Does the 'on the run' portion cover the entire second book?
42. Were you lazy when it came to world building, so you decided technology is exactly the same in the future, except they have really fast trains?
43. Did your protagonist only become a rebel because their best friend/lover/sibling started out as one?
44. Does this buddy decide to ditch the rebellion?
45. Is your setting located next to a body of water that was altered by global warming?
46. Are all animals extinct (never mind how the ecosystem continues to function)?
47. Does reality TV play an important part in your story?
48. How about social networking?
49. Does your government monitor every citizens' every move?
50. Are you basically ripping off George Orwell or Suzanne Collins? Read that question again and answer honestly.

Bonus Questions: If you wrote a jacket blurb for your story, would it sound similar to this thing I made up on the spot?
     Two hundred years ago, North America as we know it was decimated by the Plague and the Last War. The Organization arose from the ashes. To keep the peace, they surgically eliminated beauty from the human mind. 
     Sixteen year old Evetta is smart enough to keep her head down. The Organization will choose a safe life for her. Until she meets Damian. Damian is an Undesireable, one of the rare few who can resist the Organization's Procedures. The mysterious daredevil can only lead to trouble-yet she finds herself falling helplessly in love with him. 
     But when her brother Owen disappears, Evetta is forced to face the facts. Her entire life has been spent in a gilded cage-and Damian holds the key to her escape.
     The World After is a thrilling literary debut from rising YA sensation Erica Eliza Bloggersnark. This fast paced story set in an intriguing postmodern setting will have readers anxiously awaiting the next installment.

     The World Now hits bookstores in Fall of 2014! (Followed by The World Eternal eighteen months later because publishing companies like making you wait)

*Post-apocalyptic means the world died and the survivors are left picking through rubble. Dystopian means the big bad government is controlling the people. A story can be both, of course, but it has to be done right. Imagine our world is destroyed by nuclear warfare next Tuesday. What's the government's top concern? Negotiating peace treaties? Organizing hospitals? Implanting tracker chips in citizens' brain? Arranging marriages? Sending dozens of men in black sedans after teenagers who break those rules?
Hunger Games suffered from this for awhile. What does killing off a few random teenagers have to do with a seventy four year old uprising? The movie clears this up beautifully (along with the whole two victor thing) with the rose garden scenes. One word. Hope.
You can't just toss in a mention of The Plague and The War to justify your world. You need to know how and why it came to be.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Genre: Fantasy
Rating: *****
Pages: 280
Series: One companion novel, Princess of Glass, with a third, Princess of the Silver Wood, on the way.
When the kingdom of Westfalin finally declares victory on Analousia after twelve years of war, Galen has no home to return to. Luckily, the eighteen year old soldier is able to find work with his irritable uncle, keeper of the Queen's Garden. He soon falls in love with King Gregor's eldest daughter. But Rose and her eleven sisters are cursed. Every third night, the princesses disappear and wear out holes in their dancing slippers. None of the princes King Gregor recruits can solve the mystery.
Can a lowly under-gardener triumph where so many princes have failed? Galen is prepared to find out, armed with nothing more than his soldier's stamina and true love. Well, that and an invisibility cloak, herbs to ward of evil, his trusty knitting needles, two pistols, a rifle, and a penknife. Soldiers are supposed to carry weapons, after all. But let's just leave off at true love.
This is my third reading and I still can't figure out why it's so good. I think it must be Galen. Don't let the title and Ballgown Babe fool you. This isn't a girly book. It's told from both Rose and Galen's perspectives but focuses mostly on him. I love Galen. He's a respectful soldier boy when he needs to be, stands his ground when it's important to him, and turns into a cocky flirt whenever it suits him.
Princess of the Midnight Ball is an action packed, addicting read.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Book Talk: A Word to YA Authors

All YA authors tour schools at some time. Many of them are former teachers. So why do they never understand how schools work?

1: Blackbords
I've never known a teenager who goes to a school that has them. We have whiteboards now, and sometimes SMART boards. Those are going to gain popularity in years to come.
2: Popularity ladder
Schools contain hundreds, some thousands, of students. Do you really think we'd take the time to rank every last soul by popularity? There's your friends, the people you know, and then everybody you don't know. Some people are more well known than others. Mostly for being stupid. Nobody memorizes the names, faces, and reputations of the entire varsity football team for the sole purpose of whispering about them. You're not going to track everybody by where they sit at lunch. You're too busy eating and talking to your own friends. Which brings me to our next item.
3. Cafeterias
Lunchrooms are big. And loud. Sometimes you have to ask a friend sitting next to you to repeat what they just said. So naturally enough, you won't be able to hear an anouncement over the intercom. You won't see somebody trip halfway across the cafeteria. And depending on the size of your school, you won't be able to sit alone at a table. You couldn't at my elementary or middle school, but my high school has more space because it lets people eat outside or in the halls.
My elementary school had twenty tables in two straight rows. Stand in the middle and you can see anything that goes on. There was an end of school food fight every year. I never saw it. Everything fifteen feet away goes unnoticed.
4: Characters dramatically switching seats after a dramatic breakup
Some teachers let you choose where you sit, but even they won't let you trade haflway through the quarter. Usually you get alphabetical seating at the beginning of the term and a more randomized seating chart once they've realized who's going to be their problem student.
Attention...students, I have a...very shrill deliver...
5: P.A. systems
What does that even stand for, principal audio? I've always called it an intercom.
6: School nurses
Schools don't have their own anymore. Most nurses travel around between dozens of schools. When you get sick, it's the attendance office lady who opens the door for you and tells you to lie down.
7: Clever abbreviatons
Perhaps some people refer to their cafeterias as "the caf" and classes as "bio" or "chem". But to the rest of us, it just looks weird. English lit, home ec, gym when it was called lifetime fitness on your schedule, those are okay. But do yourself a favor and make it mainstream.
8. We're all sixteen going on seventeen
Except for the readers. I've been reading books about high school students since I was in third grade. Apparently ninth grade protagonists are only acceptable in boarding schools where they're not quite the youngest. Sixteen is the golden age. It's when you discover you're descended from a line of magicians and inherit your powers. It's the year the monsters realize you are the Chosen One and hunt you down. It's the year the prophecy must be fulfilled. It's the year you obtain a driver's license, so the setting isn't limited to the walking distance of Freshman Fred's stubby legs.
All the little people can read up. Unless they're content with the books featuring protagonists their age. Namely stupid middle school clique novels and fantasy where fifteen year olds don't need to be in school. Really, that's all there is. If they start out fifteen, they have a birthday by the end.

9. Miss Wilma Wallflower
She lurks on the outskirts of the aforementioned cafeteria, hiding behind her book, glasses, and long, dark hair. An outsider among blondies doting on lip gloss and boys. All the others find it strange that she reads and pulls straight A's. So she's supposed to be different.
But she isn't. She's a more common stock character than the blonde cheerleader. When female authors want to set a story in high school, they recall their own memories of teenage life, and this is what they get. But wait, there's more!
Despite his status as school quarterback and the personal harem clinging to him as he glides from one class to another, Dreamboy wants her. Because she doesn't want him. Because she doesn't wear makeup. Because she's intelligent. Bonus points if he's a senior and she's merely sixteen (see above). Wish fulfillment, anybody?
Oh, and intelligence? It's not that rare a quality in teenagers. But nobody gets straight A's unless they spend every single waking hour outside of school on homework. Minimal sleeping. No hobbies. No friends. Have fun writing a novel about Wilma spending a year in front of a computer screen maintaing her perfect report card.
Really, can't she settle for being an honor student? There's nothing wrong with a 3.0. How does the entire student body know her GPA anyways?
10. Mrs. McTeacher
From kindergarten to tenth grade, I have had...let's see...twenty-seven female teachers. Ms. Darger became Mrs. Johnson halfway through the year. Mrs. Mackerell had us call her just that. My Spanish teacher, Ms. Denney, encouraged us to call her Senora. Ms. Von der lohe taught theater and appreciated the title 'Queen V'.  All the rest had Ms. in front of their names. Even if they were old. Even if they were visibly pregnant for much of the year. Even if they had children attending the school. Even if they taught home ec. That's just how teachers work in the early twenty-first century. Until seventh grade, I didn't even know Ms was supposed to have an air of unconventional feminism to it. I thought it was an abbreviation for Miss. In books, Mrs. McTeachers strike me as weird unless they're supposed to be motherly, or grandmotherly, or evil teachers pretending to be caring for appearance's sake.

That's school as I know it. Time to break the tropes.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Talk: Copycats

Sometimes I pick up a book and feel like I'm reading the same story time and time again. Sure, authors can't be original all the time, but I'm starting to wonder if originality even exists.
1. Mimic
This is the cheapest form of copycatting. You see that somebody's gotten rich off a certain series, leaving fans frantically searching for anything that remotely resembles it. So you write something kind of sort of like that, but nobody likes it anywhere near as much as the original series. 
Examples: This happened with Harry Potter and Twilight. Now it's happening with Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins is trickier to copy. You can put wizards or vampires in any story. But  you can't just put twenty four teenagers in an arena to fight the death. Dystopias require a lot more world building. Most of the Hunger Games 'knock-offs' have little in common except the genre.
 A bad (less original) dystopia will have only an evil dictator, a conspiracy where the government harms its own citizens, shortages, environmental changes, slightly changed technology (often hovercrafts), and lots of capital letters. I've seen Society, Authorities, Officials, the Reestablishment, and The One or the Ones. Usually protagonist thinks their world is perfect until a lover/friend/mentor, most often a lover, teaches them to think differently.
A good dystopia willl create a remarkably different world and raise questions about human nature.
2. Glorified fanfic
Fan fiction is great fun, but not usually high quality. And it shouldn't be published. Internet is fine, it gives the fandom something else to drool over. But it shouldn't be wrapped in a book jacket and placed on shelves of Barnes and Noble. It's even worse than mimicry because they're copying characters and plots, not just concepts.
Examples: Everybody loves Pride and Prejudice. Especially the authors of Prada and Prejudice, Prom and Prejudice, and Pride and Popularity. I actually liked the first one, but I could tell Callie was supposed to be Elizabeth and Alex was supposed to be Mr. Darcy. 
I think what happens is somebody will read a book they really love and feel a strong desire to write one just as good. But what made it good is the originality-such a rare thing-so a copy will never never achieve the same quality.
3. Parody
So you hate a book and want to write the opposite. Many of history's great works were written this way.
Jane Austen wasn't very impressed by gothic romance, which dominated women's fiction at the time. Northanger Abbey stars a clueless heroine who only thinks there are skeletons in the closet.
Cervantes hated knights in shining armor galloping across the countryside on noble steeds to save damsels from giants. So he had an insane old man in rusty armor riding ugly horses, wooing kitchen maids, and attacking windmills.
Dr. Suess hated the Dick and Jane books. He thought it was no wonder kids wouldn't want to read if all they could do was learn about Dick and Jane watching Spot run. His editor challenged him to write something children wouldn't want to put down using the same simple words.
After scanning a vocabulary list, Suess found two words he liked, 'Cat' and 'Hat', and worked from there.
4. Inspiration
Everybody has to get their ideas from somewhere. Lewis Caroll got his while rowing down a river with three little girls, one of them named Alice Liddell. That trip inspired Wonderland. Wonderland inspired everything from books to songs to TV shows to plays. I'm not even going to count the movie adaptations and fan sequels.
1900: L. Frank Baum writes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, where we have Dorothy instead of Alice, a tornado instead of a rabbit hole, and Oz instead of Wonderland.
1967: The Jefferson Airplane Song 'White Rabbit' consists of references to Alice in Wonderland and makes it sound like the book's about drugs. This is probably why people believe Caroll was high while he wrote it. You can't write a book while you're high. Songs, yes, but not a book.
One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall
1971: The diary format novel Go Ask Alice takes its title from the lyrics of White Rabbit.
1995: Gregory Maguire twists the story of Oz and writes Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.
2003: A Broadway musical is based of Maguire's book.
Also 2003: New York City resident Suzanne Collins ponders on how you're so much more likely to fall down a manhole than a rabbit hole and writes 'Gregor the Overlander'.
2012: In the ABC drama Once Upon A Time, the Mad Hatter is named Jefferson after the band.
All this wouldn't have been if it weren't for Alice.
So I have to wonder, is anything original, or are people retelling the same stories over and over again?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Night by Eile Wiesel

Nonfiction, memoir, Holocaust
Rating: *****
Series: First of a trilogy
Pages: 120. And that's counting the preface, introduction, and Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech at the end.
This is not the kind of book I usually read. But I had to for my English class. I put it off until the end of August because, well, it's a Holocaust book and I wanted to enjoy my summer. I checked it out from the library along with a load of fantasy, figuring I could focus on them and rush chapters of Night in between.
So there I was, eating lunch next to my stack of library books, when I decided I'd pick up Night and just read the first sentence. Because I like first sentences.
You know how you manually shovel popcorn into your mouth in an action packed movie? That's how I ate pasta while reading the first page. And that was just the preface.
Night tells the story of Eliezer Wiesel's time in concentration camps and the horrors he endured there.
Hmm. My summaries are usually longer. But really, that's all I can say. None of my own words could do justice to the crematoriums and starvation and horrible inhumanities.
What got me was the simplicity. Wiesel makes no attempt to dramatize anything. People he cares for die in a sentence. The camp is liberated in less than half a page. The words are all basic and understandable aside from a few German names and terms. Yet somehow, strung together, these words commanded a dark, eerie essence.
"The road was endless. To allow oneself to be carried by the mob, to be swept away by blind fate. When the SS were tired, they were replaced. But no one replaced us. Chilled to the bone, our throats parches, famished, out of breath, we pressed on.
We were the masters of nature, the masters of the world. We had transcended everything-death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth."
-Page 87
Even the less eloquent parts pack raw power in the context.
We came to an abandoned village.
Nobody asked anyone for help. One died because one had to. No point in making trouble.
Our eyes searched the horizon for the barbed wire of Gleiwitz.
If you only read one Holocaust book, read this one.

Monday, July 30, 2012

UNWIND by Neal Shusterman

Genre: Dystopian, science fiction
Rating: *****
Pages: 335
Series: One companion short story available only as an ebook, one sequel scheduled for digital release in late August
Reaction: This was supposed to be my road trip book. But then I rushed through it all the day before.
Connor's been called troubled. Defiant. At risk. A problem child. Now his parent are having him unwound-taken apart piece by piece so his tissue and organs can be donated to someone else. Someone more deserving. And then they're going on a cruise to the Bahamas to celebrate.
Risa an orphan. A ward of the state. Unwanted. A burden. When she's unwound, the state home will recieve a sum of money they can use to provide happy, safe lives for all the other children.
Lev was slated for unwinding at birth because of his family's religion. That makes him special. A tithe. A donation. A gift to the world. He didn't used to mind.
The action kicks in when fate (well, a bus crash and a kidnapping) bring the three together. And from there, it. Does. Not. Stop.  In the moments where they're not on the run, they're hiding under trapdoors or packed into shipping crates. When the police aren't an immediate threat, there's always the risk of mutiny and betrayal. Usually from Lev, the little brat.
I love a good dystopian novel, but some of them are starting to seem the same. Evil dictator killing his own people, war against an unspecified enemy, extreme wealth and poverty, shortages, climate changes, and everything seemed so perfect until the love interest taught you to see otherwise.
UNWIND is everything a dystopian story should be. There's rebellion and plenty of action, and it also provokes questions about life, death, and human nature.
Most of the other reviews I've seen are by adults, parents and non-parents alike, who go on an on about how horrifying the premise is. They would never do that to their own children. No civilized person could. Or could they?
I could believe it. There are plenty of parents who murder their own children, both before and after birth. America aborts more babies each year than soldiers have died in every war combined.
But that's beside the point.
Neal Shusterman isn't the first to raise similar issues. Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children Sequence and Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card explore worlds dominated by a two children per family law. The Declaration by Gemma Malley takes place in a futuristic Britain where children are outlawed altogether. And then we're back to Suzanne Collins. Spoiler: People die in that book. Or did you know that already?
The world-building in UNWIND is slight. Newspapers are referred to as "retro", Connor describes iPods as "from his grandfather's time", but they still use cell phones. No futuristic technology beyond unwinding is mentioned.
There are a few social changes. Mothers can "stork" unwanted newborns, leave them on some random doorstep and the family is supposed to take them in. "Clappers" are suicide bombers who blow themselves up by-wait for it-clapping.
Political correctness has advanced. The new "appropriate" terms make me laugh everytime. There are no more black and white people, just "umber" and "sienna". Gays, mentioned about twice and appear very briefly without playing a particularly large role in the story, are  now "yin families".
Ah, euphemisms. Even unwinding isn't tehcnically called death. "100 percent of you will still be alive, just in a divided state." So stop complaining, kid.
UNWIND is told from three main perspectives-Connor, Risa, and Lev-with additional chapters narrated by walk-ons. Cops, teachers, and even a rioting mob. My favorite character is Cy-Ty. He's this umber guy who always speaks his mind, but there's a lot more to his mind than first meets the eye.
Of the main three, I liked Risa the best. She's strong. Not in that take-on-the-world-with-her-bare-fists way you're starting to see from more heroines. She just sticks up for herself and her friends whenever there's trouble. Both of the boys have terrific character arcs. Connor learns to contol himself. If I had to pick, I'd call him the main protagonist. But Lev, ooh Lev, he goes from being this whiny, pathetic, brainwashed tithe I wouldn't have minded seeing unwound too terribly'll just have to wait and see.
Yes, there's bad guys and bad laws and bad things happening to good people. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone under thirteen. But if you get caught up on chalking up a list of everything appropriate and inappropriate, you'll miss the whole frecking point. Shusterman creates an issue and comes at it from every angle, every what-if. All the themes and intriguing characters and quote-worthy passages and metaphors and quick, well chosen words are bound together to form the best dystopian novel I've seen in a long time.
Now when does that sequel come out again? The ending's perfect, I could have gone without and been happy, but I still need to read it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Talk: My Pet Peeves

1: Car crashes.
Sometimes characters just have to die. Often these are the parents who die before the story even starts, leaving the protagonist with a single parent or entirely orphaned. Am I the only one who thinks this is a lame and overused excuse? If you need to kill somebody, have them gunned down in an alley or eaten by a polar bear. My favorite orphan explanation comes from Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. Alex was raised by her uncle because her parents died while spelunking is Iceland.
I did read one book where both villains drove off after locking the protagonist in a burning building (she escaped) and crashed into a tree. Dues ex machina.

2. Clumsiness
So many characters describe themselves as clumsy, yet they only trip twice in the whole book. If they were truly clumsy, they'd stumble going down the stairs, fall into a car while opening it, and hit their heads on the wall waking up in the morning. Not just when there's a trapdoor that can only be seen with your face on the floor or a clue lying unnoticed in the carpet. Not just while they're being chased through a dark forest at the climax.
3. Love interests that are just there
Some stories just don't need lovers. They need friends to accompany the hero on adventures, mentors to help them along, and villains to get in the way. Sometimes they don't even associate with their object of interest, just watch them from afar, hold maybe two conversations, and kiss at the end. Because life works that way.
red and pink hearts
4. Love interests that are boring
So he's described as being cute. Terrific for you, but I can't see him. Furthermore, I can't see why you'd spend a great portion of the novel talking to him if he has no other attractive qualities. If I'm going to dive into romance, I have to fall in love with him, too. Have him quote poetry or rescue hamsters from a burning building.
5. Authors who don't know how schools work
Blackboards are gone, we use whiteboards. Schools don't have their own nurses anymore. And if something happens in a cafeteria, a couple breaking up or friends shouting at each other, nobody will notice. Not if they're more than two tables away. Unless your cafeteria is really small, like a private school. But in your average high school, nobody can keep track of who sits at what table or what might be going on over there. You can't always hear what a friend sitting right next to you is saying. My elementary school cafeteria had two rows of ten tables, one for the lower grades and one for the upper grades. Not terribly large. Every year there was an end of school food fight, and I never saw it.
Then there's the whole popularity concept. I've never seen a school where people actually trail the rich/blonde/snobby/cheerleader/stupid girl around the hallways. There's no popularity ladder. There's your friends, the people you know, and then the people you don't know. Some people have more friends than others, but most of us don't care enough to rank them by popularity.
Besides, I can't get excited about another book with a blonde cheerleader. They just change the names every time. If you use stereotypes, abuse them, like the cheerleading spies in The Squad: Perfect Cover.
6. Overly happy endings
If they all get back home safely, if the battle is won, if the guy gets the girl or vice versa, that's happy enough for me. They don't need to get extremely rich, gain magical powers, and reunite their hopelessly divided family. Life is good, but sometimes life can only be so good.

7. Villains who play with the hero
This is the one who cuts only one rope from the rope bridge, leaving the hero a route across the chasm. Or the one who installed a tracker in the hero's arm while they were knocked out at the beginning, but allowed them to run around the country for 300 pages before meeting them at their final destination.Or the one who watches the hero battle their way out of terrifying traps fit for the movies instead of just shooting them when they have the chance. Which brings me to my next problem.
8. Villain middlemen
This usually happens in mystery or action. Especially in the Alex Rider books. So they figure out who the bad guy is and it's not very hard to figure out. After all, he was hanging around the crime scene with a gun. But wait, gun guy was actually working for somebody else. So they investigate that somebody else and find them to be in partnership with Villain #3. But wait! #2 and #3 had their motives, yes, but they were actually being manipulated by the real bad guy. Villain #4 is the real mastermind here. He's incredibly smart, yet for some reason he finds in necessary to blow up a car, burn down a building, kill a few guards and pedestrians, start a power outage, send threatening notes, hack a computer, disguise his motives, and involve three other lackeys. All so he can kill one person.
Couldn't you just walk in there with a gun? You might have gotten away with it if you didn't overcomplicate everything.
9. Random gay guy
Not even the main character. This is usually the best friend left behind when the girl goes on an adventure. She may mention him twice or talk to him on the phone when she needs advice, but he's not even there. So why make him gay?
If it's because political correctness has become necessary for fiction, why do most books still have all white characters? The only black protagonists I can think of are in historical fiction, with the exception of Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles and Heroes of Olympus.

Speaking of Rick Riordan, anybody else notice how diverse his characters have become lately? In Heroes of Olympus we meet Leo, who's Hispanic, Piper, half Cherokee, Hazel, African-American, and Frank, Chinese-Canadian. I think he's trying to appeal to a broader fan base.

10. The unconventional young lady
She might be a princess, she might simply be from a wealthy family. She has no interest in embroidery or dancing or boys, like all proper young ladies should. And she's supposed to be unique. Every single time.
She might have been daring in contrast to the books of a couple decades past, but now the rebel princess has become the norm. I'm surprised when they do actually enjoy embroidery, like Creel in The Dragon Slippers or Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fairy Bad Day by Amanda Ashby

Fairy Bad DayFairy Bad Day
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: **
Pages: 336
Emma was born to kill dragons. After all, her mother was one of the world's greatest dragon slayers before she died. Instead, Burtonwood Academy assigns her to be the first fairy slayer in history. Why would anybody want to slay stupid creatures no taller than ten inches? They're harmless, even if they are obnoxious and sarcastic with no fashion sense whatsoever.
Her rightful position of dragon slayer is taken by Curtis Green. He may be cute, but he has three years less slaying experience than Emma.
As if things couldn't get any worse, a giantic killer fairy keeps appearing on campus. Emma's the only one who can see it and it's looking more and more like there's no way to kill the thing. But there may be a way to defeat it...but only with some help from Curtis.
I found the fairy slaying idea extremely original and the romance extremely predictable. A perfectly cute boy, a personal grudge against him, and they're forced to work together. That sounds slightly familiar. Let me guess, are they going to kiss on the last page?
And then there's the writing style. Lots of showing instead of telling. The characters speak in a very expository manner, summing up their actions in recent pages or recents chapters and describing things they already know about. Not to mention the overuse of italics whenever they're saying anything remotely important. Especially in the last line of paragraphs.
Towards the beginning, Emma annoyed me because all she ever did was complain to the principal. Complain about not slaying dragons.  Complain about Curtis. Complain about how he's not doing anything to stop the invisible fairy. Things get a lot better once she starts acting on her own.
Later on, there's this dramatic scene where somebody's about to have his throat slit, but there's plenty of time for questions and answers and planning and insults while Emma moves to stop him. Either that claw is moving really slowly, or Emma's supernatural slayer abilities have blessed her with the gift to talk and lightning speed and still be understood.
There are also a few mild but unexpected twists towards the end, adding a satisfying element of drama to the story, though nothing made my heart beat fast.  I do love it when a book can do that. Fairy Bad Day is a quick, light, enjoyable read, even if the title is slightly corny.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Genre: Fantasy
Rating: ****
Pages: 351 when the story actually ends. I'm not going to count the lexicon.
Series: So far there is one sequel, Liar's Moon.
Digger is a common street thief. She and Tegen, her lover and partner in crime, live by three rules. Stay alive, don't get caught, and don't get involved. It doesn't matter to them if they trade secrets that could cost others their lives, so long as they can earn a living and escape capture by the king's Inquisition.
But everything changes when Tegen is murdered. Digger is alone. She survives by posing as Celyn Contrare, lady-in-waiting to Merista Nemair. Life isn't bad in a snowbound mountain castle. Bryn Shaer is full of food, clothes, and enough valuables that nobody will notice if a small jewel or two goes missing. It's also packed with secrets.
The residents of Bryn Shaer are hoarding weapons and magic, both of which would get them executed horrifically in a country that hasn't recovered from a religious civil war eighteen years ago.
Life on the streets has taught Digger to be greatful when somebody shares their shelter and friendship. But how can she grow attached to people so tangled in a magical rebellion when the sinister Lord Daul is blackmailing her to dig up evidence of treason?
Bunce crafts an intricate fantasy world with seven moons and seven gods. Some of the names seemed overly complicated-Phandre Sethe, Stagne, Caerellis, Eptin Cwalo, Mend-kaal, kernja-velde, and the name of the country itself-Llyvraneth. Halfway through I discovered a lexicon in the back. That's was helpful, but there's no map to help us chart where exactly Gelnir, Kellespau, Briddja Nul, Yeris Volbann, and Gairveyont are. There's no pronunciation guide, but I'm guessing many of the words have Scandinavian influence.
Star Crossed contains some moderate swearing, mostly mild words and very creative fantasy curses based on their pagan religion. There's also a character named Marlytt whose profession rhymes with her name, but she's not a main focus and nothing is said explicityly.
What I loved most about this book is how there's more to absolutely everyone and everything that meets the eye. Merista Nemair is a chubby thirteen year old with a carefully hidden talent for magic. Most of the adults are plotting a revolution under everybody's noses, and there's more than one traitor nobody seems to suspect.
None of the nobs (nobels) are your typical pampered, self-pleasing aristocracy so common in this type of story. For several chapters, I felt something was unnatural about Merista and Phandre. Merista is thirteen, three years younger than Digger. Phandre is three years older and a beauty, but both of them are capable of intelligent dialouge. No oh so predictable gorgeous airheads or whinny children here.
The most intriguing mystery of all was Digger herself. Though she's quite wrapped up in the secrets of others, we start to discover about halfway through the novel that she's more than an anonymous cat burgular. She has a past and a surprising relative.
Star Crossed is a moderately paced, intriguing story where nothing is what it seems.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Slayers by C.J. Hill

Genre: Fantasy, action
Rating: ****
Pages: 373
Tori knows St. George and the Dragon Camp isn't her typical vacation the moment her sister's BMW pulls into the parking lot. The fencing practice and college level medieval history lectures are expected-after all, they're supposed to be learning how to slay dragons. But motorcycle riding and rifle shooting-with your eyes shut? Isn't  that a little extreme? Never mind how the "advanced campers", cabins twenty-six and twenty-seven, are two miles off from the main camp and must be kept secret.
Nothing gets easier when she discovers the truth. Dragons are real, the advanced campers, including her, are descended from the fabled dragons knights. Oh, and they're the only ones who can stop the dragon lord Overdrake from conquering Washington D.C. and eventually the world.
Tori didn't sign up to save the world. She not to happy about leaping fifteen feet into tree limbs and getting her hair singed off by the kind, scholarly, flamethrower-wielding camp director. Her fellow campers don't approve of her blonde highlights and trunk full of designer clothing. How can a pampered senator's daughter take down a dragon?
I picked up this book because I've read and several other by this author, all of them contemporary high school fiction or fairy fantasy.
This was not what I expected. Fewer hilariously awkward situations, more machine guns.
The plot is almost perfectly paced, the action intense, the romance kept to a tolerable, practical level for dragon slayers. The way the dragon business was set up stretched my imagination a little. A slayer is created when their pregnant mother goes near a dragon egg. It's not known how this works, only that it has to do with the triangular bumpy thing on a dragon's forehead and the kid's DNA. Their genes are passed down from dragon knights, who altered their DNA by drinking an elixir prepared by alchemists. That's the true goal of alchemy, by the way, not transforming ordinary medals into gold. Then there are dragon lords, who are different than dragon knights.
The main thing that bugged me was the guys. All of male advanced campers are tall and hot. Don't forget the rock-hard muscles. I know they're superhuman, I know this is a novel where dragons can exist in the real world, but having all the guys hot isn't realistic.
With an unforeseen twist, and Slayers is an intense action debut with an ending that will leave you burning for the sequel. Well, if you can call it a debut.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Locked in Time by Lois Duncan


(Left: 2011 cover, the one I read. All the rest: Retro versions)
Genre: Mystery, thriller, paranormal, but definitely not a paranormal romance
Pages: 242
Rating: ***
Things were hard enough for Nore when her mother died, but now her father is remarried and moved from New York to Louisiana. Her new stepbrother, Gabe, is alright-even attractive. His sister Josie may be awkward and moody, but isn't that how everybody is at thirteen? But  something's not quite right about Lisette, her young, contolling, privacy freak of a stepmother.
As Nore spends more time with the Berge family, it soon becomes apparent her they're concealing a dark secret stretching back for centuries.
Locked in Time was originally written in 1985 and then revised for paperback in 2011. This gives it one blessed advantage-it's not a Twilight wannabe. Gabe isn't your smoldering, dark man of mystery. Nore's brain cells may take their sweet time figuring out his secret, but she's not another TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) heroine throwing herself into a pair of cold, waiting arms when every meager scrap of common sense in her possession tells her to run the other way and get a real boyfriend. There's some mild, crush type romance, but Nore's got the rationality to put her own life above, well, certain death.
The Berge's secret is obvious from the first thirty-four pages, if not the title and tagline. Forever young, forever evil. 
There's just enough vivid description and clever metaphors to qualify it as well-written, if not for Nore's stiff, formal voice. She favors stuffy words like 'whom', though she's not supposed to be nerdy. I know everybody claims the last generation of teenagers was smarter, but I can't believe 'whom'. Which brings me to the next problem: the perception of teenagers in general, both Nore's and Lois Duncan's.
Josie is thirteen, four years younger than Nore. Josie is awkward and unsightly, Nore is a blonde bombshell.  And no, it's not a Scott Westerfield style 'age doesn't determine beauty' theme. I don't know whether to blame Nore or Lois, but somebody here has a weird perception of age.
     "When you're seventeen and a half, being pretty comes with the territory. Smooth, unlined skin, shiny hair (mine is strawberry blond) trim hips, firm breasts-that's what being young is all about. I know that I'm not going to look this way forever. Twenty-five years from now, if I'm lucky, people might call me 'interesting looking'. That's the best I can hope for, and it will be good enough.
     But, at this unique time in life, I'm pretty, and that makes me happy."
Is that really how it works? Ooh, goodie. Two more years and I get to be strawberry blonde!
Here's her description of Josie:
     "One day, perhaps, her beauty would match her mother's but at this point nothing about her had come into proportion. Her nose was too long, her mouth too wide, her chest still flat and bony, and she had the overall look of knobby-kneed colt.
     Her appearance brought back painful memories of my own transition from childhood to adolescence. I breathed a sigh of relief that this stage of life now lay behind me."
Youth doesn't work that way, and beauty isn't the only thing she's screwed up. Nore is portrayed as confident, benevolent, and intelligent. Josie is supposed to be moody, every outburst and emotion are blamed on her age. I personally thought she was pretty mature, especially given the circumstances she's had to live through. The simplest, most excusable answer is that Nore's another self-centered blonde bimbo, but she applies this view to her own life.
     "At thirteen years old, I suddenly declared war on my parents. They abruptly became 'the enemy', bent on wrecking my life with their unreasonable regulations. Everything I wanted to do seemed to be forbidden. I couldn't stay out past eleven; I couldn't go to concerts; I couldn't attend parties unless there were adult chaperones. The one time I cut class to go to an afternoon movie with some friends, I was hauled out of my theater seat by my father, when the attendance office called. (All of my friends had normal parents who worked out side the home.)
     It was a horrendous year for all of us, but I did move past it."
     Some people consider thirteen an unlucky number, but we don't wake up on our thirteenth birthday and go evil for the next 365 days. You'd think Lois Duncan, being an experienced and decorated writer, would have noticed that in the twenty-six year gap.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Genre: Historical fiction, middle grade
Pages: 218
Rating: ***
Delphine and her sisters live in Brooklyn until they're shipped three thousand miles to spend the summer with their mother. Cecile ran off to Oakland seven years ago, changed her name to Nzila, and devoted her life to political poetry. Now they're expected to coexist in a green stucco house with the neighborhood's only palm tree out front.
Cecile ignores her role as mother, aside from sending the sisters to the Black Panthers community center in the morning for free breakfast and a fun filled day of poster making. When they come home from the day camp, she hands them a fistful of money for Chinese takeout.
For a book with lots of stickers it's actually pretty decent. Of course, it's about racism and that's usually enough to secure a nomination. I'd could completely relate to Delphine's trials of being a big sister, even though it sent me on a bit of a guilt trip. She's four years younger than I am and she doesn't think anything of grocery shopping for the family or taking her sisters to San Francisco for a day trip.
I found the family dynamics and dialouge authentic. Perhaps too authentic. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern talk in a rhythmic pattern, finishing, repeating, and adding onto each others' sentences. Nearly all the arguments follow an Is not/Is too format: Black/Colored, No we can't/Surely can. Fern loves the word 'surely' almost as surely as her Miss Patty Cake doll.
I read this book because goodreads recommended it to me on three separate lists. Then I got a free copy. I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy late historical fiction along with anybody else who wonders why there are no books about black people.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

Stars: *****
Genre: Historical fiction, religious fiction
Pages: 254
When Daniel was eight, the Romans conquered Palestine and murdered his father as an example. Now eighteen, he lives in the mountains with a band of rebels led by smooth talking Rosh. His one purpose in life is to drive out the Romans or die trying.
But there are people who stand between him and his cause. People he cares about. He unexpectedly runs into Joel, an old friend who's also passionate about Palestine. Joel has a a twin sister, Thacia. She's beautiful, dances, plays the harp beautifully, and actually talks to Daniel. And Leah, his little sister, who hasn't left the house since their parent's death.
And then there's this guy named Jesus. His words stir something inside Daniel though they make absolutely no sense. How are you supposed to obtain freedom through faith and prayer? Swords and brute strength are totally the way to go. Because Rosh said so. And Rosh is always right. Even if Jesus can miraculously heal crippled people.
When Daniel's grandmother dies, he has to return home to care for Leah, much to Rosh's displeasure. But even as he assembles an army to take on the Romans, he starts to change the way he thinks about Rosh, Leah, Thacia (obviously. There has to be romance) and even Jesus.
There were times I cheered Daniel on, and times I wanted to whack him over the head with a shovel. What kind of boy runs off to the mountains, leaving his traumatized sister and ancient grandmother to fend for themselves? Oh, right. A stupid one under pressure. Understandable. Daniel is a fiery and realistic character.
While the book contains a certain amount of religious stuff, Jesus is only a minor character, which I found amusing. He shows  up at occasional yet important moments in the story, making The Bronze Bow an inspiring and entertaining for religious and nonreligious readers alike.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass

Rating: ****
Genre: Realistic fiction, mystery
Pages: 289
Jeremy Fink's dad died when he was eight years old. One month before his thirteenth birthday, he recieves a mysteriously heavy box with four keyholes. Engraved on the lid are the words THE MEANING OF LIFE: FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY.
The keys are not included.
Jeremy and his only friend, a kleptomaniac redhead named Lizzy, search flea markets, offices, and antique stores in effort to find the keys. Their search is fruitless, even before one of Lizzy's plans backfires and they're caught breaking and entering during their search for the keys. How can Jeremy find the keys in time for his birthday if he's forced to spend the rest of the summer making deliveries for a pawn shop owner as community service? But Mr. Oswald isn't exactly what he seems, and neither are the packages. And why is he letting his chauffer drive Jeremy and Lizzy around in his limo to deliever them? Even worse, all the hippies, scientists, preachers, fortune tellers, and tattoo artists they meet in the process seem to have a different meaning of life.
Jeremy is a very interesting character, though I can only describe him as nerdy and socially awkward. Halfway through the book, I stopped and made a list of Ways Jeremy Fink is Lame. He collects mutant candy, keeps a life size hobbit cutout in his room, doesn't see why anybody would need more than one friend, devotes an hour each night to studying the mysteries of the universe, and refuses to venture four blocks from his own home.
Then I realized if I knew enough about him to make such a list, he must therefore be a very unique and fully developed character. Wendy Mass has done her job well.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Palace Beautiful by Sarah Deford Williams

Rating: ***
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
Pages: 240
When Sadie and her sister Zuzu move into an old Victorian house, they make several discoveries. First is their neighbor Kristin Anne Smith, a girl Sadie's age who insists on being called Belladonna Desolation. Next they find a secret room in their attic with Palace Beautiful scrawled above the doorway. Inside the palace are an heirloom necklace, an old family photograph, and the diary of a girl named Helen who lived-and maybe died-during the 1918 flu epidemic. The three girls are drawn by Helen's journal, especially when her lives start to parallel their own. Did Helen survive the influenza, or (Bella's theory) is she haunting them as a ghost?
Bella is by far the most interesting character. She wears ankle-length black dresses on a daily basis, gives Sadie a chandelier crystal after knowing her for about thirty seconds, and then asks Sadie if she thinks she's "bold and mysterious". This causes conflict with her Martha Stewart wannabe mother, who grounds Bella for a week because she's worried about what the neighbors will think.
Sadie, a budding artist, also has a unique way of seeing the world. There's no plain white or pink in her mind. A building is old world white, a bowl is nail poish pink. Each chapter heading names a color that appears in the following pages. Sadie categorizes people based on the story they heard about the origin of the universe immediately after being born, which I found weird and slightly annoying. Great dog people are shy and filled with sorrow, like herself. Cabbage patch people are stubborn, like Zuzu. Red bird people, such as Bella, fill the gaps in other's lives.
Aside from Helen's journal entries, the story is set in the 1980's, though you wouldn't know it except for a few references to celebrities, the time gap between Helen's life and theirs, and one scene where Sadie and Bella listen to records. Ah, quaintness.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison

Genre: Fantasy
Series: Trilogy
Pages: 355
     When Tanya's ability to see fairies lands her in trouble, she's shipped of to her grandmother's for the summer. In addition to being large and decaying, the place is crawling with fairies. While doing her best to avoid them, Tanya and Fabian, the caretakers' son, make some startling discoveries about the mysterious disappearances and secret tunnels connected to the house. But some secrets are better left hidden...
     The author was able to toss in a lot of random ingredients-tunnels, magic, disappearances, an old fortune teller living in the woods-and make it work. It's great for fantasy and intrigue, but I was expecting more twists and turns. For example, Tanya's father never appears in the story. Tanya mentions she has one, but only her mother appears-and that's only to drop her off at her grandmother's. I kept expecting some mysterious backstory. Then there's the title. Thirteen treasures do appear, but they don't play a relatively large role in the story.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: *****
Pages: 338
Calpurnia Virginia Tate, Callie Vee to everyone but her mother and Granddaddy, is the only girl in a family of six brothers. In 1899, that means endless hours of knitting socks at home and lessons on Use of Hankie and Thimble at school. She can't even check out a copy of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species from the library without her mother's permission.
Unfortunately, Calpurnia is beyond her time. She's clever enough to lure earthworms to the surface by dumping a bucket of water on the same patch of dry ground four days in a row-and then sell them to her brother by the dozen. She writes a letter to the newspaper telling them to measure the temperature in the shade instead of the middle of the street. After all, who stands out in the sun unless they're scampering to another patch of shade?
As her interest in the natural world develops, Calpurnia wants to focus her attention on the finch population and her Confederate veteran turned businessman turned naturalist Granddaddy's stories. Unfortunately, her mother is determined to turn her into a proper lady. On top of it all, her oldest brother has started dating-and three of her other brothers are in love with Lula, her best friend.
The independent woman vs. docile lady conflict is nothing new. I'm actually starting to get sick of it. But Calpurnia's spunk and dramatic (if a tad melodramatic) emotions invest this novel with a power rarely seen in debut novels.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The False Princess by Eilis O'Neal

Rating: ****
Pages: 321
Genre: Fantasy with a hint of mystery, plus the obvious romance you find in every teen novel
Nalia has never felt quite comfortable as princess and heir to the throne of Thorvaldor. She's shy, bookish, klutzy, and prefers the company of her best friend, an earl named Kiernan, to other ladies. When she learns she's really Sinda Azaway, a stand-in to protect the real Nalia from a deathly prophecy, fitting in becomes even harder. She struggles with the daily tasks of commoners, like cooking, cleaning, and understanding boys. Her newfound magical powers aren't exactly helping.
But when Sinda discovers a conspiracy that threatens both her and Nalia, she's forced to push her powers to the limit, break into tombs, and admit her true feelings for Kiernan.
Mistaken identity and princess stories are two of my bigger pet peeves. Is there anything more improbable and inconvenient than a poor average girl being swept off into a life of luxury that was hers all along? O'Neal takes the other end of the story. Despite a protagonist I suspect to be partly based on herself and the obvious romance, O'Neal's red herrings, midstory twist, and shocker ending create a princess story unlike any other.