045. Review of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Beautiful Creatures follows a typical YA trajectory: teen from a small, dull town encounters a brand new teen who’s not entirely human. But the cliché — for it is one — is twisted slightly: the narrator is a boy. This change might not seem like a big one, but for a YA book like this, it made all the difference.

Ethan Wate is a mostly believable sixteen year old from a small southern town, and he’s been dreaming about this mysterious, beautiful girl for quite some time before she shows up in school as the town recluse’s niece. I was afraid Ethan and the girl, Lena, would have that insta-connection you so fear to read in books of this sort, but thankfully that wasn’t quite the case. Yes, Ethan was instantly drawn to her; yes, they began liking one another a tad quicker than perhaps was necessary — but Lena resisted his interest for long enough that I was okay with it.

Lena, it turns out, is a Caster — basically a hybrid of a “gifted” teen, a witch, and an X-man. Casters have all sorts of powers, and Lena is more powerful than most. I thought she was perhaps a little too powerful at times. After all, most of the other casters have specific “gifts”: Ridley can persuade people to do anything, Ryan can heal, and Lena’s aunt can see multiple timelines at once. They all have the ability to do little things, like telekinesis, but sometimes I felt that Lena (who is called a Natural) had powers that weren’t so strictly defined as some of the others. She can control weather, which is her main power, but  additionally, she can make people forget things, make her instruments play themselves, manipulate fire, write on her walls as she thinks the words without lifting a finger — and for me, I didn’t quite understand how her limits worked, and why she could do certain things that perhaps others like her could not.

The plot is, more or less, about a curse that has plagued Lena’s family for centuries: most casters can choose their own destinies. On their sixteenth birthdays, they choose to become Light or Dark, and can never switch once they’ve decided. But Lena’s family members have their fates randomly chosen for them by a magical and ancient book instead, which means that on their sixteenth birthdays, they become one or the other at random — whether they want to or not. Lena’s sixteenth birthday is approaching, and she fears she’ll go Dark.  She and Ethan spend much of the book trying to figure out how to break the curse so she doesn’t end up on the Dark side.

Sometimes Lena gets repetitively emo about this, as is bound to happen whenever YA books feature some sort of unavoidable and unwanted destiny. She often pulls away and says “you could never understand!” in that horribly melodramatic way that makes you want to smack her. It’s irritating at times, yes, but it’s not quite as intolerable  as if she’d been the narrator. Both characters were likeable, though I preferred Ethan immensely: Lena is a bit of a one note at times. I understand that people fear and dislike her at school because she’s so different, but she is victimized constantly throughout the book, and consequently becomes mopey and does the classic pseudo-noble shut-out too often for my tastes (“you should go be normal so you shouldn’t be with me, Ethan!” or “I don’t want to hurt you so I’ll stay far away from you for a while, Ethan.” For a full repertoire of this annoyance, please see the Twilight series).

Ethan, as I said, is mostly believable. He’s got strong convictions, he’s sensitive, he’s loyal, he’s compassionate, he’s even-tempered, and although he’s had great loss in his life (his mother died before the novel’s beginning) he deals with it in a believable manner. Sometimes, though, Ethan’s too “big” of a man. I understand he’s a good guy, but for someone who consistently comments on how beautiful Lena is, he never thinks of anything but kissing her or being in love with her — there are no other sexual thoughts or desires. I’m not of the mindset that teenaged boys  always think about sex, but in approximately 500 pages of mostly dating a beautiful girl he is obsessed with and trades his popularity to be with, he never has any of those desires or impulses at all. He’s also too good in other ways. While I completely understand that he is loyal, compassionate, and he sticks up for his beliefs, he is also a high school student. When everyone in his school turns against Lena (which is for the duration of the whole book), Ethan chooses to let himself be ostracized with her — even though these people are the people he grew up with, and even though it’s a lonely situation. I don’t believe that he’d just be completely and utterly okay with this. He never regrets it, never wishes he could hang out with his old friends, never feels torn between Lena and the people he’s spent his whole life with. I find that Ethan is completely and utterly above reproach, that he’s too good and too faultless, and that he never makes a single mistake when it comes to a question of character.

There are, of course, some clichés in the book: among others, the premise is typical of YA fiction, the book’s peopled with southern townsfolk who are completely and utterly prejudiced against anything new, and there’s a stereotypical black “mammy” character — Ethan’s wise, caring, and loving housekeeper, Amma. But as stated before, the authors made little changes that really made all the difference. Swapping the protagonists’ genders worked well for me. And although Ethan’s housekeeper, Amma, still held on to some clichés of the black “mammy” character, she had some really interesting character quirks, which made her all the more real. I love that Amma is obsessed with crossword puzzles, and that every time she reprimands Ethan, she uses a “crossword” word, spelling it out and giving him the definition. This is original, smart, and gives her the extra pizzazz she needed, the twist to make her character original.

The writing had a great tone, a voice that was all Ethan’s (although at times it was clear that the authors were women writing a boy — not too often, but it emerged every now and then), and the prose was smooth, fast-pasted, and well-done, minus one or two sections when it got clunky due to the amount of information the authors loaded into one scene.

I was intrigued by the end — so sad to see Macon die, but pleased to know that the book had real, honest-to-goodness stakes — but am still somewhat suspicious of Lena going neither Light nor Dark, as well as suspicious of what the next books in the series will entail. Ethan’s obviously still going to be around (and I do hope he continues to narrate and it doesn’t switch to Lena’s perspective), and I’m crossing my fingers that the relationship between them will evolve in a natural and believable way, and that it doesn’t dissolve into Twilight or The Mortal Instruments-esque forced relationship drama. But I’ll certainly be reading the next installment regardless!

044. Shameless Self Promotion.

As I’ve probably mentioned a couple of times here, I am the proud holder of two internships and one paying job. My first internship, with literary agent Ann Collette, is going spectacularly. Originally, I was supposed to stop working there in September. And then that moved back to December. And now I’m staying for another indeterminable stretch, which is totally fine with me. I’ve proven my editorial skills and have now been editing manuscripts — some good, some great, some utterly and undeniably heinous. It’s proving to be a point of pride and of enjoyment for me, and I’m currently working through one right now, developmentally editing a book that I really do quite like. 

My other internship’s also going well — so far, I’ve written four blogposts, which I’ve failed to crosspost here. I’ll link the most recent one here: it’s a list of the “best of the best” books of 2011. 

This is not your typical “best of” list — nothing about it has my opinion in it. Instead, I checked all the published “best of” lists I could find online — such as the ones from the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Barnes & Noble — and tallied all the books that made it onto multiple list. The results are documented in the above post, so if you really want to see which books (divided into fiction, nonfiction, and young adult) got the best response this year, check out the post!

043. In Which I Return to WordPress After Being Dormant for an Unthinkably Long Time.

I haven’t updated in a very, very long time. This is somewhat unacceptable, because unlike some of the other times I neglected my posting duties, things actually happened in my life.

There are many things I need to post about: my job, my social life, my early Christmas gifts, and, of course, my National Novel Writing Month experience and novel.

I think I’ll stagger posts about these topics, because I’m absolutely certain that if I tried to write a single post encompassing all these things, it would take thirty minutes to read, and nobody wants to spend that much time reading a blog post.

So let’s start with the most ultimately fun (and topical) item on the menu: Christmas presents.

It should be mentioned that I really enjoy getting gifts for people; not quite as much as I enjoy receiving them, but I absolutely love that moment when you think of something or see something, and that lightbulb goes off in your head: “This would be perfect for ___.”

I take great pride in my gift giving ability, and spend perhaps an inordinate amount of time picking out good presents for people. For my roommate who is extremely into Doctor Who, a disappearing TARDIS mug. For my friend Sarah who likes all things geeky, a Princess Leia print; For my friend Ali who has recently become obsessed with cooking, a chef’s knife and that elusive ice cream scooper she somehow has never had in her house. And so on and so forth. I had a hard time finding things for my mom and my sister, but eventually, I had those “aha” moments for them, too.

Of course, not everything was all well and good on the gift giving front. I hit a snag when shipping costs ran rather high and then the gift did not arrive in the time it was supposed to, and in fact still has not arrived. There was another problem in which I thought I’d gotten a terrific gift for somebody, and it turned out she didn’t want it — and I had to get her something else.

But it all came out well, because my Boston friends and I had our gift exchange last night. Everyone was pleased with what they got — especially me. My gift haul, so far, goes as such:

From my boss Ann: $100. That’s pretty awesome, considering I’m an unpaid intern. Think about that for a second, then think about how ecstatic I was when I realised I wouldn’t be losing quite as much money as I thought I’d be this holiday season.

From Zoë: Gourmet hazelnut hot chocolate. There are really no words to express how incredible this hot chocolate is — and you can still make it with water, which for me is always a huge plus!

From Sara: A mortar and pestle. It’s marble, it’s neat, and I crushed up nuts in it today because even though I didn’t need to, I really wanted to use it. It’s very pretty and I shall add it to my collection of amazing kitchen items I have in my apartment.

From Sarah: A tiny notebook that is only slightly larger than my tinyphone. Which is a feat in itself. It’s blank, has lovely paper, a butterfly print on the cover, and is held together by string. It’s very pretty; so much so, I’m afraid to randomly start writing in it without a purpose. It needs to be designated a purpose!

From Ali: Seasons two, three, and four of Dexter. You heard me. THREE SEASONS OF DEXTER. I don’t think I need to say anything more about that because I’ll get so excited that my grammar will deteriorate faster than a rotting corpse.

From Keri: It hasn’t yet arrived, and I forget which brand it actually is, but this one is so insanely neat that I can barely sit still and write about it.

My friends — mostly the people listed above — have made it a tradition to steal my phone. Perhaps it is because my phone is basically a novelty, as it’s five years old and a Samsung Juke. Look it up. It’s pretty crazy. Regardless of the reason, they take my phone and they hide it or change my contacts or both. This is alternately hilarious and frustrating depending on my mood, their timing, or how drunk we are.

Keri has provided a solution to all of this, because for Christmas, Keri is giving me a phone/key locator. Yes, that’s right. It’s the thing where you put something on your phone or your keys, you have a remote, and you can locate your shit. Never again will tinyphone be unfindable, whether it’s in the depths of my bed, on my floor, or in Sara’s pocket. Never again will I need to run out the door and forget where I put my keys. NEVER AGAIN.

I think you can tell that I am waiting with much anticipation for this gift to arrive.

So as of now, these are the gifts I have received. I’ve bought others that I’d love to write about here, but unfortunately, some people read this blog who have not yet received their presents, and I don’t wish to spoil the surprise.

In a few days I’ll post about my work life. For now, though, it’s back to cooking (without, sadly, the mortar & pestle … there’s just nothing to crush and my life is a dark abyss.)

042. NaNoWriMo, and Also My Friend Is Famous.

It’s day four of National Novel Writing Month, and although I’m a little bit behind, I’m sitting at 4,600 words. I’m halfway through the second chapter, and my characters are working out pretty well — some things are going a little differently than expected, but the language is working, the tone is working, and the point of view is working — at least for me, and for now.

My novel, which is titled (tentatively) Die Young & Sell Your Soul, is technically in the non-genre of Adult YA: it’s not quite in the same vein as, say, Twilight or Cassandra Clare’s books. My protagonists are a little bit older, between 18 and 25, and it’s a bit more mature — but not so in a way that it will alienate or be inappropriate for younger readers.

The synopsis, taken straight from my NaNo page is here:

Even vampires get stuck in mid-life crises, and Flynn’s is more destructive than most. When he spirals too far out of control, he’s removed from his high-ranking position at the vibrant epicenter of the vampire empire — Las Vegas — and is sent to build a satellite colony in Boston, MA, which is not quite the honor Flynn thought it was.

 

Boston’s a lot of things: young, fresh, small, and unfortunately for Flynn, very diurnal. But while he and his crew are sitting around grumbling about the vast differences between their old life and new, they run into a far more serious problem: slayers. And up until a few months ago, there had been no such thing.

 

C.C. Howlett is one of those soulless slayers, accidentally “recruited” when a demon asks her an innocuous, trick question. But during the process of extracting her soul — her conscience, her free will, her personality, her passions, her self — something goes wrong. She’s left clutching the remnants of her soul and her self.

 

When C.C. gets captured while raiding Flynn’s hideout, it becomes abundantly clear that neither of them are each other’s enemy. Flynn wants safety, security, and to destroy what could be threatening his entire empire; C.C. wants her soul back. And to get what they want, they have no choice but to collaborate.

I’m really pleased with the way it’s going so far; we shall see how it goes! My goal is to get to 11,666 words by Sunday evening.

In other news, my hugely talented friend Jen (some of you may know her as Jenna Shear, who posted my profile of dancer Ela Rogers on her blog) and her bellydance troupe was featured in an article on Hipmix, a very important bellydance site. Check it out here! She’s not totally famous yet, but hey, this is a good first step!.

041. An Update On Life in General.

Tuesday was my birthday. Twenty-two. I feel old and unaccomplished. It was an odd kind of birthday, my first “adult” birthday, where I had nobody around me, nobody singing, nobody handing me a cake. I had no one to talk to, and very few family members bothered to call. And, of course, I was in the throes of a sinus infection. Sadly, I still am

That’s not to say I didn’t get some lovely gifts and some lovely messages. It was just … different than expected. My party was so very fun — last night, even though I was feeling rather sick, I ended up having a fabulous time. Everyone I could have hoped to see was there, and I hope everyone had as much fun as I did.

This afternoon, before my voice completely upped and left, I had an interview for an internship at Literary Traveler, an online magazine. I think it went fairly well, and for next week, I have to write a 500-word blog post that would fit in with their current posts. Tomorrow, I plan on writing up a list of possibilities.

Currently, I’m gearing up for NaNoWriMo. I finally have a possible title, though that may change in the coming weeks if I find another one suits me better. I think I’ll be able to write a lot of this book next month, and I’m excited about it. I know vampires are “done” but I’ve always wanted to write my take on them, and while of course it has been a huge trend in the past few years, I think I can offer something fresh to the genre — if only because I despise most of the vampire lit that came out of the post-Twilight wave of YA. I think my characters are different than the norm, and that my concept is unique with aspects of familiarity. Hopefully I am not wrong about this. You can find me here:

I’ve also been reading quite a bit; I read the next two books in the Flavia de Luce series (though I didn’t post the reviews here, since they’re very similar to the review of the first book), and am excited for book four to come out. I am now working through Kelly Link’s first collection of short stories; review to come soon!

041. Review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

I’ve heard many things about Bradley’s series, all of them good. And unfortunately, it took me over a year and a half to pick it up. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is an amateur sleuth novel, following the escapades of eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. Flavia lives with her two elder sisters and father in a decaying manor, and she is understandably quirky and a bit eccentric. After a murder occurs in Flavia’s yard, she decides it is her duty to investigate the murder herself.

Sounds simple. But the mystery is pretty complex, involving not only the murder of the mysterious stranger in the cucumber patch, but a murder that occurred thirty years prior — one that Flavia’s own father might have been involved in. Not to mention that there is also theft

There are a lot of things I loved about this book. The first is obviously Flavia. She’s precocious, brilliant, amusing, and passionate girl, and although that’s kind of typical for these kinds of novels, the narration is charming. I also thought Flavia’s love for chemistry was very unique and interesting — as was her particular love of brewing poisons and experimenting on her elder sisters. I also loved her penchant for fibbing, for her ability to charm, for her sharp wit and ability to extract information from people, her investigative skills, and her exuberance and general enthusiasm for life.

I need to take a quick break to gush about the names in this book; I am totally in love with the names Bradley chose for his characters. Horace Bonepenny? Fabulous. Ophelia, Daphne, and Flavia de Luce? A name nerd’s dream. And let’s not get started on the fact that Flavia named her bike Gladys. And — god, every name in this book is brilliant.

My love for the names in this book aside, the writer put in a lot of intriguing hobbies into the book. There’s chemistry, philately, and magic tricks all in one book, all of which are essential to the plot, and the content never feels excessive or overdone. It just feels — quirky and rounded and at every turn there is something interesting to learn about.

I didn’t feel that any character was a stock character. Although some characters were only in the book for a very short amount of time, they all had a real presence, and while I’m sure characters like Dogger or Mrs. Mullet could be fleshed out more, there are also currently two other books in the series, and I’m sure each of these side characters will get their time in the limelight. But even small characters like Dr. Kissing and the dead mother, Harriet, have distinct personalities and flavours. I have to say that I quite loved the Inspector; his relationship with Flavia was certainly amusing, and I’d love to see him more. Flavia’s elder sisters are both not very good sisters (they’re no Cinderella siblings, but they all rag on each other and are horrible to each other — but it’s obvious that beneath all that animosity, there is a loving bond. And Daphne and Ophelia (or Daffy and Feely) are completely different in personality).

The writing is fast-paced while also being intelligent; I felt like I was learning along with Flavia, and also learning about hobbies and subjects that I didn’t know much about or had forgotten about. I never felt that the writer was talking down to the reader, nor did I feel that I was being bombarded by unnecessary information, the way I sometimes do when I read Chuck Palahniuk novels. It’s beautifully crafted with perfect pacing, and there’s never a dull moment. The mysteries have so, so many twists and turns!

My only real critique? The fact that Flavia narrates. She is a brilliant, brilliant child. There’s no doubt about it. But even someone that smart does not speak so beautifully at that age, especially because while Flavia is certainly gifted, she is no genius. Nor is her father. And when they’re both speaking (i.e. Flavia’s narration and the Colonel’s long story about the murder of Twinings) they sometimes have too lovely descriptions. Of course much of the narration feels authentic. But sometimes there are just glimpses of the authorial voice, and when that happens, I get pulled from the story for a second, because I just know that nobody telling a story to their daughter while in prison would say something like “mediocrity … was the great camouflage; the great protective coloring.” It’s too perfect. And sometimes Flavia says things that are a little too poetic and mature for who she is. But this wasn’t enough to be a problem for me — I enjoyed it even despite that.

I’d recommend this book to pretty much anyone. Whimsical plots, characters and language? An eclectic cast of characters? A fun mystery that’s not too light nor too dark, but has elements of both? A tone to satisfy readers of YA fiction and traditional mysteries, and literary fiction? This book’s got it. And I am very excited to read the rest of the series!

040. Book Review of Vampire Empire #2: The Rift Walker by Clay and Susan Griffith.

WARNING: SPOILERS.

The Rift Walker is a very good follow-up to the first novel in the Vampire Empire trilogy.

At the beginning, it’s a bit mopey and moves far too slowly. Adele is longing for her love (although, granted, I still think their love came about really instantaneously in the last book, and I would have liked a little more development of HOW they came to be that into each other; Adele really didn’t have as many struggles with the fact that the beloved Greyfriar was a vampire as she should have, and it all seemed a bit too easy). She is waiting to be married, and dreading her union with the boisterous Senator Clark. She starts learning about the powers she’d discovered in book one, and it becomes clear that Adele is way more powerful than anyone could have ever imagined.

However, the book really picks up about a hundred pages in when on her wedding day, Greyfriar saves the day, pulling her out just before the wedding is truly finalized because his evil brother, Cesare, is planning to kill her. They escape Alexandria, eventually joined by Adele’s loyal guard Colonel Anhalt, and exciting adventures ensue! Murders, magic, political uprisings, secret identities revealed, and lots and lots of violent battles.

Like the last book, The Rift Walker has a great balance of romance, adventure, darkness, fantasy, steampunk, and just a little bit of humour. Unlike the last book, the pacing was a little off; the beginning was very, very slow, and could have used some whittling down, while the last half was completely action-packed; there were no dull moments, and the writers really know how to keep readers turning the pages.

The magic touched upon in the prequel gets a bigger part in this book. The concept of geomancy was much better explained, and I felt it was extremely creative and unique. I loved the idea of rifts, and the way the writers described the magic in itself. I do hope there’s going to be more of an explanation in the third book as to why Adele is so insanely powerful, though.

Which leads me into some problems I had. Some of them cross over from book one, while some of them are only issues that I really considered after beginning book two.

First: Adele is a little too powerful. She’s a brilliant Empress, and that’s what I like best about her character. She is charismatic, commanding, strategic, and knows exactly what she needs to do to motivate people and rally them. But the problem is that aside from being a genius at politics and also being the surprisingly powerful geomancer who puts all other geomancers to shame, she is somehow an extremely fantastic warrior woman who somehow has learned to do battle better than many other people. She knows how to fence absurdly well, and is a master of hand-to-hand combat. There’s no real reason as to why Adele is so great at everything; I cannot imagine that her upbringing, which seems exceedingly typical of female royalty, would allow for her to train her skills in battle.

Second: I absolutely adore the idea of vampires being a completely different species. But that poses a couple of problems. These problems are typical things that arise from vampire books, but in most vampire books they AREN’T problems, because in most mythologies, vampires have once been human and have died. One thing that almost always happens in these books and movies and TV shows is that the lead romantic vampire often identifies with humanity in some way; in Twilight, which I hate but still provides a pretty good example, the Cullen family becomes “vegetarian” because they seem to prefer humanity over other vampires. That makes sense, in a strange way; even though they are themselves vampires, they were once human, and identify more with that part of themselves than the monstrous part.

In Vampire Empire, vampires are a completely separate species from humans, like tigers are completely different than house cats. Same genus, different species. House cats don’t sit around wondering why they’re not like tigers. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense why Gareth wants SO BADLY to be human. Because … he never was a human. He never will be human. While I do understand why he might be fascinated by human culture, I cannot possibly understand how he could hope to be a human; how he could side with humans over vampires. I need a good reason as to why this is happening, why he’s fighting his kind secretly.

Third: I don’t like how quickly the whole situation between Gareth and Adele was resolved. I’m not talking about just the relationship; I’m talking about the fact that when Adele finds out that her growing powers can actually seriously hurt Gareth, even when she’s not intentionally using them, she just ups and says “Oh, okay guys, I guess I’ll never deal with my powers again, I’m just going to live with you forever and ever and ever,” and it literally lasts one paragraph or two. I cannot imagine that situation could even possibly have a solution in that short amount of time. I needed more depth there.

I loved a lot about this book, too; there are a lot of twists and turns in this installment; lots of betrayals, some unexpected deaths, and some forays into the more exotic aspects of the world the Griffiths have so deftly created. I especially enjoyed the fact that several other characters find out Greyfriar’s true identity in this one; it upped the drama and the stakes quite a bit. But it is also important to note that while the books so far are fun, well-written, and very compelling, some important aspects, like the motives or the whys, are somehow absent.

I’m looking forward to reading book number three!

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