Saturday, June 30, 2012

The June Round Up!

June was a pretty big month for me. I went to Book Expo, my blog turned eight years old, I posted about the merits (or lack thereof) of happy blogger fairy dust, and I set a deadline for my novel. My writing's actually started to pick up. I've read a lot of advice from different writers and blogs over the years, and for the most part ... I've ignored it. I always seemed convinced that everyone writes differently and that things that apply to other people might not apply to me.

But I finally found a piece of advice that resonated with me - pick small goals. Sounds stupid. What could be a small goal about writing? Well, for me, it's going for a small results-based goal rather than a strict count. Going in and telling myself "write as much as you can" isn't a goal. It's pretty open-ended since I can't really define "as much as you can." It means that more often than not, I feel like I haven't written enough, that I haven't met this goal, and that shoots down my morale.

Moreover, measuring progress by word count (other than during National Novel Writing Month) doesn't really mean anything. I could (and can, and HAVE) written thousands of words that do absolutely nothing to further the plot or get me closer to the end of my book. So instead of word count, I do scene count. I decide on a scene, and I write until I get to the natural conclusion of that scene. It may take a thousand words, it may take three hundred, but when I'm done, it's there, I get a sense of accomplishment, and my book has progressed in a significant way (one more scene means way more than another 500 words).

Anyway! The reviews:

*June Winner*
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily M. Danforth. YA, Contemporary. A-
Pros: Fantastic, nuanced characterization. Detailed environment. Engaging coming-of-age storyline. Cons: Slow pacing for the first two-thirds. Occasional overabundance of detail. Some narrative loose ends.

The Wild Marquis, by Miranda Neville. Romance, Historical. B+
Pros: Delicious hero, interesting book collecting subplot. Cons: Heroine is a bit of the silly type who sometimes ignores sage safety advice for the plot to go forward.

Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik. Fantasy, Historical. B+
Pros: Amazing worldbuilding, fantastic bromance between and dragon. Cons: Slow slow slooooow pacing.

Pixar's Brave. Animated Film, Fantasy. B
Pros: Strong female-centric storyline, no tacked-on love interest. Cons: Uneven pacing, narrow scope.

Where It Began, by Ann Redisch Stampler. B
Pros: Interesting mystery, hilarious hilarious voice. Cons: Heroine is completely passive in her own story.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Fantasy, Contemporary. C
Pros: Original storyline, detailed setting. Cons: Dull characters, scattered and unfocused narrative.

Motherland, by Amy Sohn. Fiction, Contemporary. C-
Pros: Soapy scandals galore! Cons: Unrelatable characters, unresolved storylines, and SURPRISE INCEST.  

*June Dud*
Dark Fever, by Karen Marie Moning. Urban Fantasy. D+
Pros: The brief appearance of a fairy so sexy he literally causes people to spontaneously take their clothes off. Cons: Dickbag hero, TSTL heroine, gratingly annoying future-heroine narrator spoils all the good parts, no conflict resolution at all.

"The Miseducation of Cameron Post," by Emily M. Danforth

The Protagonist: Cameron Post. When her parents die on the same day she kisses a girl, she subconsciously wonders if she somehow caused their deaths, even as she grows to explore what it means to be attracted to girls in small-town 1990s Montana.
Her Angst: Her guardian, her extremely religious Aunt Ruth, believes homosexuality is a sin and a sickness and when Cameron's sexuality comes to light, she feels forced to take drastic measures.

The Secondary Cast:

Grandma Post: Cameron's beloved, diabetic grandmother who helps raise Cameron with Ruth.

Irene Klausen: Cameron's best friend and first kiss - their relationship is dealt a decisive blow after Cameron's parents are killed.

Aunt Ruth: Cameron's well-meaning but evangelically religious aunt. Believes everything she's doing is for Cameron's own good.

Lindsay: A fellow competitor from Cameron's swim meets, and eventual friend-with-benefits, who helps introduce Cameron to lesbian culture.

Jamie: Cameron's stoner friend, who is awesome, but might have a crush on her. I honestly wish we saw more of him.

Coley Taylor: A girl with whom Cameron falls in love, who is nevertheless too restricted by her religious beliefs to enter into an honest same-sex relationship.

Reverend Rick: One of the leaders of God's Promise, a private school dedicated to helping teenagers overcome their unhealthy homosexual desires. A professed "ex-gay" himself, he sincerely believes he's helping teenagers become closer to God.

Lydia: Rick's aunt, and the other leader of God's Promise. A cruel, cold, hateful bigot with no sense of empathy or boundaries. Has a special corner of Hell reserved for her.

Adam Red Eagle: One of Cameron's classmates at God's Promise, forced to go by his homophobic, political-minded father, although his mother, of the Lakota tribe, believes he's a winkte, or "two-souls person."

Jane Fonda: Another rebellious God's Promise classmate, who was raised in a commune, grows her own weed and stores it in a hidden compartment in her prosthetic leg. I couldn't make this stuff up.

Angst Checklist:
  • Dead Parents
  • Self-Blame for Dead Parents
  • Questioning Sexuality
  • Bette Midler as Coping Mechanism
  • Evangelical Christianity
  • Where Do We Find Weed At a Private Christian School?
  • Unrequited Love
  • Homophobia
The Word: The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an example of a novel I haven't read it quite a while: a bildungsroman - a coming-of-age story.

But AnimeJune, aren't most YA novels coming-of-age?

In a sense, but I've found that most YA novels focus on a particular, narrow period of time in a teenager's life where something life-changing happens - a single summer, or year of school. My favourite bildungsroman, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, follows the main character from miserable childhood to successful adulthood, with all the dramas in between. Instead of spanning a particular period of time or event, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron from age twelve to seventeen, with a linear recounting of her interactions and discoveries.

Still, The Miseducation does have a theme - that of Cameron's developing sexual identity in small-town Montana, told in three parts. The novel opens as twelve-year-old Cameron discovers she has feelings for her best friend, Irene. The two kiss at a sleepover while Cameron's parents are on vacation. Later that very night, Cameron learns her mum and dad have been killed in a car accident, and her first reaction is relief, that they didn't find out, that they'd never find out. Her subsequent guilt and horror at this response strongly influences her growing understanding of her own desires and ultimately severs her friendship with Irene.

Cameron then acquires the guardianship of her born-again Christian aunt Ruth, and as she grows into a teenager (the novel's second part), she starts exploring her sexuality as well as its social context. On one end of the spectrum, she's influenced by her aunt's church, Gates of Praise, and the Christian youth group she is forced to join. On the other end, she has her friend and sometimes-girlfriend Lindsay, a city girl from Seattle, who inundates Cameron with ideas about lesbian culture and Gay Pride and gender constructs - subjects that interest but also intimidate Cameron, who only feels ready to explore what being a lesbian means to her personally.

She also falls in love with another girl in her class, named Coley, and as she moves to act on what seems like a reciprocated attraction, the book moves into its third and final part, where Cameron must hold true to her identity against serious and insidious opposition. When Coley confesses to her family that Cameron "seduced" her in a moment of weakness, Aunt Ruth packs Cameron off to God's Promise, a private ultra-Christian school for curing teenagers of their "sexual brokenness."

I like books that make me happy - but I also enjoy books that make me angry. Books that make me feel anything in such a powerful way are always preferable to books that don't touch me at all. I'll admit, I enjoyed the first two parts of this novel, but I never felt truly emotionally invested until the third part. The third part is excruciating to read - the methods used to try and "cure" these kids are infuriating. For instance, the teachers often conclude that behaviours that don't fit outdated and extremely cliched notions of gender are responsible for homosexuality - boys being too close to their mothers, girls liking sports, etc.

It seemed to me that the first two parts of this book were simply an elaborate and detailed lead-in to Cameron's struggles at God's Promise. The first two parts give Cameron the experience and the personal knowledge to understand and combat what's being done at God's Promise, to come fully into an understanding of her identity - and the validity of her identity - during a period of extreme struggle, and this was extremely powerful to read.

Part of what made that powerful was the humanity of the characters - well, most of them. The majority of the characters are given enough angles and layers that we can understand them, even care about and empathize with them, even when they're antagonists. Cameron's Aunt Ruth is never demonized, and after 200 pages of her interactions with Cameron we can understand her decisions and where they come from, even if they're short-sighted and awful.

The character who stood out the most for me was Reverend Rick, the young, handsome pastor who helps run God's Promise. The other leader, Lydia, is a loathsome bigot inside and out, but Rick genuinely cares about the kids and what he's doing and what he thinks he's helping them to do. Emily Danforth skilfully manages to render him sympathetic without rendering his actions sympathetic.

I also enjoyed The Miseducation of Cameron Post because it's a very atmospheric novel. Yes, at times (parts one and two) it's slow-moving, but it pays a lot of attention to Cameron's physical and social environment. I got a real sense of her small town and the types of people in it, the pervasive religious and farming culture, as well as how much Cameron loves her town. Yes, there's a part of her that knows she will eventually have to leave for greener (and more gay-friendly) pastures, but the story also conveys just how much of herself is bound up in this town.

That being said, I had a few niggles. The novel introduces a few plot points as if they are significant (like Cameron's mother's friend Margot, or Ruth's chronic illness), only to drop them without dealing with them. The character of Margot puzzled me, in particular, since her one appearance in the book left such a deep impression on Cameron, but it was never really explained.

Despite these quibbles, and the uneven pacing, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an involving, thought-provoking novel about the importance of personal identity.

You can purchase The Miseducation Of Cameron Post here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"The Wild Marquis," by Miranda Neville

The Chick: Juliana Merton. A bookseller whose business tanked once when her husband died and her customers decided a woman couldn't possibly understand enough about rare books.
The Rub: When a devilishly handsome rakehell asks her to represent him in a book auction, she knows she'll earn a serious chunk of change, but can she really put valuable books in the hands of someone society believes is frivolous and selfish?
Dream Casting: A young Reese Witherspoon.

The Dude: John Godfrey, the Marquis of Chase, a.k.a. "Cain." Banished from his fanatically religious family as a teenager, the notorious aristocrat has spent years wearing his coal-black reputation with defiant pride.
The Rub: This pride comes back to bite him in the ass when he sees an opportunity to reconcile with his family, but his peers aren't willing to take his "reformation" seriously - but maybe a shapely book seller could help him win back one of his family's prized heirlooms.
Dream Casting: Matthew Goode.

The Plot:

Cain: I need to buy back my family's favourite book!

Juliana: I need enough money to buy my mother's Shakespeares!

Cain and Juliana: We should team up! It's perfect!

Cain: I may also need to be taken seriously as a gentleman to protect my sister.

Juliana: I need to know who my real father is.

Cain: I seriously need more dude friends.

Juliana: I need to know why my husband was murdered.

Cain: I need a woman who understands that I'm actually NOT a dirty incestuous pervert, but a dude who loves women - in the respectful and non-penis-touching way...

Juliana: I need a man who respects me because I'm AWESOMELY SKILLED and not just because I'm also super hot...

Deranged Villain: Meanwhile I need to murder both of you!

Cain: No thank you!

Deranged Villain: *conveniently dies*

Cain: We need to get married!

Juliana: Agreed!

Cain and Juliana: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Very Bad Dad (deceased)

2 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Unexpectedly Appearing Sister

1 Unexpectedly Supportive Aunt

1 Terrible Guard Dog

Several Contraceptive Sponges

2 Counts of Sequel Baiting (Tarquin and Iverley - whom I initially mistook for a gay couple)

The Word: I've had the very lovely opportunity to have met Miranda Neville in person as well as spoken with her on Twitter. While I felt her first book, Never Resist Temptation, was good but flawed, by the time I'd read that, I'd already bought her second novel, The Wild Marquis, thanks to the beautiful cover as well as the plotline of a wronged rake hero from a puritanical family.

John Godfrey, now the Marquis of Chase (although he prefers to go by his nickname "Cain," after his courtesy title the Earl of Cainfield), is a Very Bad Man. At least, that's what society believes. His father, the previous Marquis, had such a towering reputation for piety and righteousness, that when he tossed his then-sixteen-year-old heir out of the house for "unspeakable acts of debauchery," it was tacitly assumed by everyone in the Ton that Cain was obviously a Pervert among Perverts. When the teenaged Cain found rescue and shelter at a brothel, it only confirmed society's suspicions.

Eight years later, Cain comes across a copy of the Burgundy Hours, an exceedingly rare devotional work that's been a (secret!) Godfrey family heirloom for centuries, at an estate auction for a recently deceased book collector. Cain is curious to know why his late father would have parted with the Hours - and he also believes that purchasing the Hours would go a long way towards dissolving his estrangement from his fanatically religious mother and sister.

However, Cain knows nothing about book collecting or auctions, so he seeks out a reputable bookseller who would be able to lend their expertise to his endeavour. He goes to a shop owned by J.C. Merton, who, to his surprise, turns out to be a woman.

Juliana Merton is herself interested in the upcoming auction - more specifically, she's seeking a collection of Shakespeares that used to belong to her grandfather, himself a fanatical bibliophile. However, ever since her husband's murder, business at her bookshop has been dismal and she can't afford them - not unless she takes on a wealthy client willing to offer a generous commission. Although she's initially disdainful of the frivolous and handsome Marquis of Chase, she can't afford to refuse him and she agrees to represent him in the auctions to ensure he gets the Burgundy Hours.

So on top of an original storyline examining a fascinating and yet rarely-explored aspect of Regency life, we have two thoroughly charming protagonists, vastly different in mindset and upbringing and yet united by the novel's central theme of family and identity.

Cain is a man whose public identity was more or less decided for him by his insane and tyrannical father when he threw him out of his house. He's spent the intervening years living up to (or at least playing into) high society's disgusted opinion of him, when in reality, he uses his black reputation to hide who he really is - a thoughtful, compassionate man with a deep regard and respect for women, especially fallen women and prostitutes. However, life is an exhausting and frustrating business when everyone is determined to think the worst of him, which is why he's drawn to Juliana, the bookseller who looks beyond his bad name and helps him regain some footing in civilized society - at least that part of society that worships books.

Juliana is a woman without a public identity - she had to find out for herself that her book-loving guardian was really her grandfather, and that her mother had died in childbirth, for all appearances unmarried. Her identity as a bastard keeps her from high society, her identity as a woman restricts her to the fringes of the book collector community, and her identity as a wife was taken from her when her husband was violently murdered on the way back from a book sale. With Cain, she finds a man who relies on and appreciates her hard-won skills, regardless of her gender or background, and from there she comes to love the identity she's created for herself with her intellect and her passion.

Honestly, these two people have their angsts but they're just so refreshingly open and rational about how secretive and irrational they sometimes get about their own hangups. If that makes sense. These are characters who are flawed and know they are flawed but refuse to dwell on their flaws. Their burgeoning relationship is honest and witty and blessedly free of many of the cliched tropes I would have expected from a rake and a bluestocking romance.

If you're looking for a story steeped in book culture with a rake hero sans misogyny, The Wild Marquis is the romance novel for you.

You can purchase The Wild Marquis here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Film Review: Pixar's "Brave"

Pixar's Brave is an excellent example of a movie that improved in my mind as I reviewed it. My first reaction after watching this movie was disappointment. While it was a good movie when compared to other movies in general, as a Pixar film it didn't seem to measure up. It seemed - predictable. Most other Pixar films sweep you along on an exploratory journey of astoundingly original worlds and ideas. Monsters. Bugs. Toys. Rats in Paris.

This story dealt with - princesses with red hair who don't follow society's rules. Didn't I watch this one before?

However, after letting the movie sink in and really analysing the aspects of the plot, I realized it simply had a different focus. While Pixar movies, in general, are idea- or setting-based, Brave is a personal, character- and emotion-based story. This may seem like a Disney Princess movie, and you would be right - but it's a Disney Princess movie as done by Pixar, and the result is a subtly different creature.

The main character, Merida, shares a great deal in common with Disney's first modern princess, The Little Mermaid's Ariel. She's headstrong and good-natured with fantastic hair but also naive, selfish, and politically short-sighted.

In this kingdom, there are four major clans, and tradition dictates that the princess of a clan must marry a prince of one of the others, provided he's able to win her hand through a series of competitions. Merida is NOT happy with this turn of events at all, and her defiance of tradition sparks a terrible argument with her mother, the queen. When she accidentally happens upon a witch's cottage, Merida decides the only way to change her fate is to muck about with someone else's - and she buys an enchanted cake intended to change her mother's mind about marriage.

To absolutely no one's surprise, this plan backfires spectacularly when the spell winds up turning her mother into a bear. With only two days before the spell becomes permanent, Merida and her now-ursine mother must team up and find out how to mend the rift between them.

The movie wins most of my appreciation for the following three points:

1. The story not only has a female protagonist, but a plot that is centered entirely around the relationship between two women. 
A princess with a surviving mother figure is already a rare thing in the Disney canon, but for a princess to have a significant relationship with her mother, and for it to be the main focus of the film, is entirely unheard of. Yes, Mulan, Tatiana, and Rapunzel all had mums - but they were always relegated to the background.

In Brave, the film is all about how Merida and her mother the Queen come to terms with their differences in perspective. Merida is a classic tomboy skilled at horseback riding, archery, and outdoorsmanship, and the queen is an exceedingly proper politician and diplomat who clearly means for Merida to follow in her footsteps, if only she would give up her pointless and unladylike interests. 

Once the spell deprives the queen of her voice and her agency, and she must rely on Merida's aid, the queen comes to learn that her daughter's unorthodox passions and talents are valid and useful aspects of her personality. Meanwhile, Merida must accept how her selfish actions can have repercussions, and just how important her mother is to her life. The film explores both viewpoints equally and gives both sides equal weight - I especially liked how the film takes the time to explain why Merida's betrothal is such a political necessity.

2. The heroine's actions have consequences - and she learns the importance of those consequences.
In this instance, Merida edges out past The Little Mermaid's Ariel. Ariel is also a rebellious princess character who runs afoul of a witch when she tries to change her fate - but she never really grows up or learns her lesson by the end of the movie. She abandons her family and sells her soul for a nice pair of gams and it's all fun and games until Ursula comes to collect. Her powerful daddy and resourceful boyfriend are fortunately on hand to bail her out, and at the end of the movie she's got her gams, her dude, and her father's approval and absolutely no understanding of how her own actions endangered all three. Let's face it, Ariel got lucky.

Merida is a character cut from the same redheaded cloth as Ariel, but in the film she's forced to come face to furry face with the consequences of her actions as she comes perilously close to losing her mother forever. It's a message both good and bad - she learns her words and actions have power, but they also have the power to affect other people's lives in a negative way.

3. There is NO romantic subplot at all. NONE.
You read that right. There is no handsome prince. There is no platonic male friend who becomes something more. The closest thing to a male main character is Merida's father and her three baby brothers. I seriously wish screenwriters would realize the storytelling time they could save if they just stopped trying to wedge a romance into a story that doesn't need one. Brave does not need a romance and I never noticed its absence.

That being said, did the writers use their time wisely? No. I felt the pacing of Brave was off - Merida's mum doesn't turn into a bear until nearly half the movie is gone thanks to filler scenes and overelaborate narrative setup.  I felt the movie would have been more effective if the transformation had come sooner, allowing for more scenes of Merida and her mother bonding.

Also ... well, although the film does inject refreshing elements into the narrative, it's still a familiar narrative (girl doesn't want to marry, constrained by society) in a familiar setting (Medieval Western Kingdom). I don't know - Pixar films usually find a way to offer something new, from an angle or setting or story we've never thought of before, and so Brave felt a little too familiar.

My grade? Good, very good, but not great.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (10)

Happy Sunday, everybody! Nothing much happened this week, other than I finally set a deadline to finish the first draft of my YA novel tentatively titled More Than Normal. My first draft needs to be done by September, and if it is, I get to do something ridiculously decadent and expensive. Hooray! I also saw Brave yesterday, and it's a thinker. I may have to review it to get a better grip on how I reacted to it.

Only one book today for the wanting. Still recovering from Book Expo swag overdose!

Genre: YA, Contemporary
Cover Snark: Personal problems in the side mirror may be larger than they appear.
The Story: A pampered, popular girl returns to her hometown after a drunk driving accident the previous year and discovers that not everyone is willing to welcome her back with open arms.
Why Do I Want It? I've been it positively reviewed all over the internets and was caught by the story of a queen bee who's fallen from grace.

  And that's it! What books are you desperately wanting this week?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"American Gods," by Neil Gaiman

The Protagonist: Shadow. When he's released from prison mere days after his wife's sudden death, he impulsively accepts a job from a mysterious personage named Wednesday.
The Rub: He soon departs on the adventure of a lifetime when he learns that Wednesday is actually a god, adrift in a nation bereft of worshipers, who wants to find other abandoned gods in America and band together.

Secondary Cast:

Wednesday: The American incarnation of the Norse god Odin. Believes that the Internet, the Media, and Television (the new gods that Americans believe in) are trying to eradicate the rest of his kind, so he needs to convince his brethren to stand up and defend themselves.

Laura: Shadow's dead wife, who is inconveniently resurrected by a magic coin. She wants to help Shadow as well as make up for her mistakes during their marriage, but being undead has its disadvantages.

Mr. Nancy: An ally of Wednesday's, and the American incarnation of the African trickster god Anansi.

Jacquel and Mr. Ibis: Two small-town morticians who are the American incarnations of the Egyptian gods of the dead, Thoth and Anubis.

Czernobog: An elderly Slavic god who beats Shadow at a game of checkers, thereby winning the right to smack him over the head with his sledgehammer - but he'll wait for the right time to do it.

Fantasy Convention Checklist:

1 Surprise! Father

Several Rambling Literary Digressions

3 Years In Prison

1 Sexy Gay Ifrit Cab Driver

Several Coin Tricks

2 Games of Checkers

1 Dead Wife

1 Man-Eating Vagina

The Word: In the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy Nerdery, Neil Gaiman is Kind Of A Big Deal.

Me, I've kind of rested on the very far fringes of Neil Gaiman fandom. I enjoyed Coraline and Stardust and most especially 1602 (where all the Marvel superheroes were transported to Elizabethan England). I've got a couple of his story collections on my TBR. But I never read Sandman, or saw his episodes of Doctor Who. He's been an author I've enjoyed, but not enough to seek out his works.

I had to be nudged by my bookclub to read American Gods, and it kind of cemented for me why I've never really become a huge fan.

For me, American Gods was pleasant - but more because the act of reading is pleasant than because I wholly enjoyed the book itself. Kind of like how I enjoy going to movies even when the movie is blah because I like the seats and the people and the popcorn.

Our hero, Shadow, is only days away from being released from a three-year prison sentence when he's informed by the warden that his beloved wife, Laura, has died in a car crash. Numb and empty, he leaves prison with no home to return to, so when he's offered a job by a mysterious stranger named Wednesday, he accepts because, well, why the hell not? What else does he have going on?

Wednesday then reveals he is a god (Odin, to be exact), and spends the rest of the book dragging Shadow all over America on his quest to find the other famous gods and monsters of myth and bind them to his cause. In this book, gods are creatures who derive their power from the belief of their worshipers, but the gods Shadow and Wednesday encounter are weak, aging, and petty. Carried across the sea to America in the minds of devout immigrants and explorers, only to be abandoned by their disbelieving descendants, the majority of these incarnations live a shabby existence, scavenging and conning to survive.

Worse, there are new gods now, shiny and powerful gods, the gods of TV and Internet and Automobiles, and they don't like sharing the stage with the over-the-hill old-school deities that remain. In fact, according to Wednesday, these new gods of computers and consumerism have already started hunting down and eradicating the old gods one by one. Wednesday thinks it's time the old gods banded together to defend themselves, but he has an uphill battle - few of his compatriots are willing to risk what little comfort they have left to likely die in a suicidal war.

It's an interesting concept, even if I felt thoroughly beaten over the head with the repetitive "humans brought us here and then they forgot about us, those ungrateful bastards" schtick. The thing is, this novel is more of an experience than a story. At times I often felt like a child strapped into one of those little train rides that are meant to give controlled tours of a certain place - the story leads Shadow on a very linear, daisy-chain, and episodic journey to see random places and people that could fall under the "Gods Abandoned By Selfish Americans" category, with the occasional interlude into past tales of screwed-over gods. Again, by the end of the novel, it all felt repetitive - Shadow meets a watered-down version of a famous deity, we get a little snippet of what modern life is like for them, Wednesday asks for their allegiance, the god says no, and rinse and repeat.

And just like that child stuck on that train ride, I didn't feel involved or particularly invested in anything that I was seeing. It felt overt and manipulative - I felt like I was being shown a world rather than exploring a world.

As a protagonist, Shadow is a very passive character for the majority of the novel, although that does eventually change (very) late in the game. He's incredibly laid back and just accepts everything that comes without any real ambition or motivation - which makes it easier for the story to progress but renders him an incredibly dull and opaque character. And while we meet other characters along the way, they are only briefly present and sketchily drawn. Shadow and Wednesday are really the only solid characters we have, and Wednesday spends a lot of the book being somewhere else, and probably doing more important and interesting things that we never get to see.

And of course, since this is written by The Neil Gaiman, I initially felt like a little bit of a Philistine for "obviously not getting it," and by "it" I mean the brilliant genius of this novel that everyone else seems to see. But the fact of the matter is, to me, this novel was boring and scattered and all over the place and I didn't care about or get anything out of it. For me to enjoy a novel, the protagonist needs to care about something and I need to care about the character, and I got neither of these things from American Gods.

Disagree? You can purchase American Gods here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Throne of Jade," by Naomi Novik

The Protagonist: Captain William Laurence. He recently helped win a significant victory for Britain and her allies with the help of Temeraire, the dragon whose egg he rightfully won in a naval battle with a French frigate.
The Rub: Too bad the Chinese are now claiming that the English stole Temeraire (an exceedingly rare Celestial dragon) and are now demanding him back.

The Secondary Cast:

Prince Yongxing: The arrogant third son of the Chinese Emperor, he is horrified by the barbaric way the English treat dragons and believes that Temeraire (a rare dragon breed reserved for companionship with royalty) has been taken advantage of by his backwoods peasant of a rider, Laurence.

Hammond: A young diplomat assigned to Temeraire's journey to China who initially believes a peaceful alliance between Britain and China is more important than one dragon's feelings - a mindset that earns him the intense distrust and dislike of Laurence.

Liu Bao: A corpulent companion to the Prince who befriends Laurence on the trip to China, thanks to Laurence's helpful seasickness remedy.

Sun Kai: Another companion of the Prince - albeit one with far more dubious intentions.

Fantasy Convention Checklist:

1 Surprise! Parent

1 Surprise! Adoptive Parent

1 Bid for the Throne

1 Bitchin' Air Battle

1 Giant Sea Serpent

1 Fake Ghost

The Word: It took me a while to get around all my other reads and find my way back to Naomi Novik's Napoleonic dragon series, but I don't regret it. I read His Majesty's Dragon way back in 2010, and quite enjoyed the original take on introducing dragons into the Napoleonic war as well as English culture, and discovering the epic bromance between former Navy Captain William Laurence and his beloved dragon, Temeraire.

At the end of His Majesty's Dragon, experts were finally able to identify Temeraire (whose egg was discovered aboard a French ship as a gift to Napoleon) as a Chinese Celestial - an exceedingly rare breed of dragon that's never been seen outside of China.

And, as it turns out, China is not happy. At the beginning of Throne of Jade, a Chinese delegation, headed by Prince Yongxing, arrives in England and demands Temeraire back. To Laurence's horror, his superiors are too desirous of maintaining positive ties to China to outright refuse the Prince's demands, and Laurence is eventually ordered to give up Temeraire.

Temeraire, however, has a mind of his own, and after he makes his attachment to Laurence violently known, the Chinese very reluctantly allow Laurence to accompany Temeraire back to China - but only to keep Temeraire from an outright mutiny. Laurence hopes their newly-bought time will help him come up with a way to keep his beloved dragon once and for all, but Prince Yongxing appears implacable. He believes English dragons are treated little better than cattle and that Laurence is an upstart peasant.

Once again, I found myself exceedingly entertained by the Novik's marvellous and extremely clever worldbuilding - in this case, exploring everything from the types of ships designed to carry dragons to the different ways in which cultures deal with dragons.

The notion of dragon culture is an important theme in Throne of Jade and an interesting thorn in Laurence and Temeraire's relationship. A loyal Englishman, Laurence is accustomed to believing that the English are superior in all things, including dragon rearing - until he discovers that in China, dragons are taught to read, are served cooked food, are allowed to choose their companions, can own property, and can live peacefully amidst humans - whereas British dragons eat cow off the hoof and are restricted to isolated coverts to avoid terrifying the populace. Temeraire finds himself enjoying the Chinese way - even as he feels terribly guilty about it, and Laurence is forced to wonder whether trying to keep Temeraire as a British dragon is selfish.

One of the best aspects of these books is how the author never allows the exterior, magical conflict to overpower the internal conflict that her characters undergo. Laurence is a veritable prince of a man, although he is allowed to be more of an ignorant ass in this book than he was in His Majesty's Dragon, which is a relief. Temeraire, of course, is a very young dragon who is always growing and always changing and, more importantly, always thinking - increasingly about how dragons are treated, sometimes unfairly.

On the other hand, the internal conflict does overpower the external conflict on several occasions, resulting in very slow pacing. There isn't a whole lot of action in this book, and I'll admit the story dragged in places. However, the atmosphere and the wording and the worldbuilding and the small details and the dialogue are so very enjoyable that reading Throne of Jade is always pleasant, if not riveting. I highly recommend Throne of Jade, although it would be better to read His Majesty's Dragon first.

You can purchase Throne of Jade here.

Eight Years! Count 'em, eight!

It's true.

My blog is now old enough to enter the second grade (*sniff*). Blogs grow up so fast! During that time, I graduated high school, obtained a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature, got a job, moved out, had a story published, had a novel looked at by agents and publishers (but ultimately not published), and discovered a whole, wide, internet world of friends and fellow readers!  I've started and given up so many projects in my life, but I managed to hold onto this one, and I'm so glad you readers did, too. That being said, it didn't start as a book blog. Oh no. But there are still a few gems. 

Stay awhile, won't you, as we go down memory lane?

Year One
1. My absolute first blog post ever, where I muse about the end of high school and the lameness that is the High School Diploma Exam.

2. My exceedingly verbose attempt to find a summer job. with less-than-stellar results.

Year Two
1. Whoring for Candy, a post wherein I relate the surest way to my heart. Hint: It involves sugar.

2. I am the Butter Queen, wherein I lose four teeth but gain 11 movie passes and a free Madagascar watch.

Year Three
This was the year I started to review books - unfortunately, they were all the books I had to read during university for my English degree. Guy Vanderhaeghe, anyone? I was also very heavily into my short-story phase. Submitted a lot of stuff, got rejected a bunch of times.

1. Five Reasons Why I'll Never Be a Great Writer: thanks a LOT, MUM.

2. Ten Rules for Writing Epic Fantasy. I thought in multiples of five back then. For reals.

Year Four
This is the year I morphed into being a book blogger - starting with romance, thanks to the recommendations of the Smart Bitches.

1. My fiction is published for the first time!

2. My first romance review: "Bet Me," by Jennifer Crusie.

Year Five

1. I review a movie so bad it's good (with an Easy Bake Oven of Nazi DOOM): S.S. Doomtrooper

2. I discover Lost In Austen, one of the best Jane Austen adaptations of ALL TIME. ALL TIME.

Year Six

1. I accept a Guest Dare from The Book Smugglers and review Games of Command, the best romance with a virginal cyborg hero I've ever read!

2. I write a blog post that has seriously never lost its relevance, especially now: The Author's Attitude. Geared especially towards authors who get riled up about negative reviews.

Year Seven

1. AnimeJune's Guide to Exploiting the Dead for Fun and Profit - where I take on the recent glut of Jane Austen and insert-paranormal-creature-here fiction. 

2. A commenter under then name "Miss Manners" tells me how very disappointed she is in me for being a Mean Girl Blogger of Meanie Mean Blog Reviews - and I respond with Miss Manners vs. AnimeJune.

Year Eight 
This brings us to 2011 and the start of 2012. I slowed down somewhat in 2011 due to the circumstances of my moving into my first apartment that was close enough to my workplace to walk. No longer having to take the bus twice a day, every day, five days a week seriously cut into my reading time. But I brought it up again by 2012.

1. Against the warnings of my blogger friends, I read Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught and it seriously hurt my brain.

2. When the Blogger Who Shall Not Be Named Or Linked To was revealed as a plagiarist, I read the comments section in her (non-)Apology Post, which inspired my insanely popular: So Your Favourite Blogger's a Plagiarist.

3. I take umbrage at Jennifer Weiner's BEA Book Blogger con assertion that bloggers should just be shiny happy people and discover the book blogosphere is a small (snarky) world, after all: The Importance of Being Nice.

As you can see it's been quite an interesting eight years, and I have my readers, followers, and awesome blogging buddies to thank for keeping it up for so long! Here's to another eight years!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (9)

Sorry for forgetting to do a Wanting post last week, I was still recovering from my Book Expo America adventure. While I do want all of these books, I have to admit - now that I'm currently swimming (drowning?) in ARCs from the Expo, it will be a while before I walk into a bookstore or a library.

As it is, today is a very special day - because as of today, my precious little blog is eight years old! I started it upon graduating from high school, and who knew it would last this long? I'll be posting some retrospectives throughout the week, with some of the funniest (or most embarrassing) things I posted in the eight years I've been blogging. Yes, I've been blogging for eight years, but I've only been book blogging for about five. Three of those years were spent whining. But there are a few gems! So stay tuned for that.

 Genre: YA, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: Maybe she's born with it ... maybe she's Maybelline! ...or a resurrected Chimera warrior. Whichever.
The Story: The continuing adventures of Karou, a gifted teenager involved in a centuries-old war between angels and chimera. 
Why Do I Want It? Have you read my review of the prequel, Daughter of Smoke and Bone? It cannot come out soon enough!

 The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford
Genre: YA, Steampunk (ish), Historical(ish)
Cover Snark: This dude looks like an Irish Super-Saiyan.
The Story: A 13-year-old girl with an interest in automatons in 1914 Missouri suspects a travelling medicine show of nefarious deeds.
Why Do I Want It? The Book Smugglers gave it a positive recommendation, and I love me some period pieces.

Shadows Cast by Stars, by Catherine Knuttson
 Genre: Fantasy, Futuristic.
Cover Snark: Painting with all the dark, pretty, colours of the wind.
The Story: In a plague-ridden future, people of aboriginal descent are hunted for their valuable antibodies, so our heroine is forced to flee to a protected island where the native spirits are allowed to roam free.
Why Do I Want It? Again, another book I heard of from The Book Smugglers. On top of it having a bee-yoo-tee-full cover, the story is intriguing, and sounds like a great mixture of fantasy and science fiction.

 Second Chance Summer, by Morgan Matson
Genre: YA, Contemporary
Cover Snark: Man, I would kill to be at that lake right now.
The Story: When her father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, our heroine goes with him and the rest of her family to share his final days at their lakeside cottage - where she must also face her past with two of the residents.
Why Do I Want It? The story sounds tragic but also dramatic and interesting, and I've read a lot of excellent reviews of this book.

The Dark Unwinding, by Sharon Cameron
Genre: YA, Steampunk
Cover Snark: Um, pretty dress?
The Story: A girl in Victorian London goes to investigate her uncle for squandering her inheritance, only to discover he's an eccentric but brilliant inventor.
Why Do I Want It? Man, The Booksmugglers are all over my book recs these days. I'm not usually too interested in steampunk, to be honest, but this one (of a mad inventor who's the leader of a secret community of inventors) sounded different. In the good way.

  Teeth, by Hannah Moskowitz
Genre: YA, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: Something smells fishy...
The Story: Two boys in love. One of them is part fish. And may eat people. Sold!
Why Do I Want It? I met Hannah Moskowitz at the Teen Author Carnival in New York last week and she is AMAZEBALLS. She is equally amazeballs on Twitter. But it doesn't come out until 2013! *sad face*

"Motherland," by Amy Sohn

The Primary Cast:

Rebecca: A well-off Park Slope mother with a successful husband and two children - only one of whom's her husband's. Keeping the secret is slowly unravelling her, and the reappearance of her celebrity lover doesn't help things.

Gottlieb: The director of a film school who worries his failures as a filmmaker and screenwriter are affecting how he's raising his sons and interacting with his wife. When he gets the chance to go to Hollywood to pitch a screenplay, he leaps at the chance.

Marco: A gay dad in Park Slope who never wanted to be a parent,  whose partner, Todd, pressures him into adopting a second baby. The stress of being the unwilling primary caregiver to two young boys leads him into an addiction to booze and anonymous gay hookups on Grindr.

Karen: A former pampered stay-at-home mom, she struggles to regain her life and independence after her husband leaves her for a transsexual prostitute, but she's been out of work her entire child's life and her money situation is uncertain.

Melora: A Hollywood actress back in New York to try theatre after her last film bombed - she's at odds with her combative director and smartass costars, but an encounter with a strange, harsh artist on a plane gives her a new inspiration - and obsession.

The Secondary Cast:

Theo: Rebecca's husband. Kind of clueless - but may have a surprising secret life.

CC: Rebecca's best friend and Gottlieb's wife - also rather unsatisfied in her marriage.

Todd: Marco's inconsiderate ass of a boyfriend who pressures Marco to adopt another child, only to spend several months away at work.

Ray Hiss: An odd, borderline cruel man whose negative treatment of Melora makes him her latest obsession.

The Word: I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I picked up this book by Amy Sohn at the BEA Book Blogger con. The author had pitched at my table during the Networking Breakfast and she made it sound like a soapy read about pretentious, unhappy rich parents.

And, essentially, it is. Motherland follows five loosely-connected protagonists (Rebecca, Gottlieb, Marco, Karen and Melora),  all of them parents from the privileged New York City neighbourhood of Park Slope. All of them are unsatisfied in some way, most of them make numerous expensive, selfish, strange, and disturbing attempts to escape from the misery of being pretentious, bored, and wealthy (although not as wealthy as they'd like to be - they have to simply scrape by to afford forty thousand dollars a year for the nanny!), and few of them exhibit much empathy for anyone else.

I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to review this novel. Ultimately, for this sort of book, I must rely on the basics: did this novel entertain and satisfy me? To that, I reply sort of and not quite. Motherland entertains on a voyeuristic level - on being able to peek into the lives of privileged people and the details of their clothes, lifestyles, and personal problems. However, I only found it entertaining in a very superficial way. It was very difficult to become invested in the storyline or connect with the characters because none of them seem capable of healthily connecting with anyone else, including their kids.

They're all quite isolated in their pursuit of satisfaction, and perhaps that was the novel's point. Honestly, Karen was the only character I felt any attachment to. I could understand her loneliness and living under the stigma of being a single parent in a neighbourhood full of smug marrieds, trying to figure out what the hell she's supposed to do if her husband decides to stop paying child and spousal support. I understood her feelings and her motivations, and I appreciated her attempts to find herself and what she's good at - even when the story takes a bizarre turn and she starts pimping out a toe-sucking masseuse/prostitute in her co-op building (don't ask).

If I feel distanced from the characters, I can usually at least take some enjoyment from the events in their storylines, the progression of the characters' mindsets, and the satisfying conclusions to some if not all of their problems - however, Motherland doesn't provide that, which leads to my second biggest problem with the novel. Most of the storylines either a) go nowhere and are ignored or else remain unresolved or b) end with a sudden, unforeseen and random conclusion that feels unearned. I suppose that's meant to invoke the "it's just like real life" voyeuristic appeal, but to me, stories need to be told for a reason - there is a reason we're seeing these people at this particular stage in their lives right now - which usually means that something has to be achieved at the end of the novel. Instead, the narrative kind of peters out as if bored with itself and none of the characters (save perhaps Karen and Melora) have changed or grown in any way. This left me feeling cheated - particularly in regards to a surprisingly disturbing storyline hidden in the spoilers:

As well, there is a lot of name-dropping in this novel, and certain real-life people are brought into the fictional narrative and given dialogue - a technique which gave me pause. Fictional cameos of Sacha Baron Cohen and Gwyneth Paltrow seen in passing seem harmless enough and appropriate to the Hollywood and Broadway settings but in Melora's storyline, Jon Hamm (of Mad Men fame) is given several nasty scenes and lines where he comes off as a smarmy jackass. Why do that with a person who actually exists (and can sue you)? Why not invent a character? I found myself feeling uncomfortable and a little sorry for Jon Hamm.

As it is, Motherland went down easy - too easy. I read this novel with an increasing detachment and nothing stuck in my consciousness as being particularly memorable (except the nasty storyline in the spoilers that I would really care never to remember ever again). 

Motherland will be available August 14 - you can preorder here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Importance of Being Nice

One thing I noticed being discussed at BEA Book Blogger Convention this year was keynote speaker Jennifer Weiner's statement that bloggers should focus our energies on "sprinkling fairy dust" on what we do like instead of blogging about what we don't like.

Given all the spats and arguments on GoodReads and Amazon, and the flamboyant author accusations of the existence of a YA Mafia or YA Opus Dei or the secret secret cliques of "Mean Girl" Bloggers ("her swag bag is so big because it's full of SECRETS"), a lot of people have been given to wonder about the relevance of everyone's mother's favourite saying, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Should bloggers all take a deep breath and just focus on being nice?

To that, I have to say: no. If as a blogger, you personally choose to only publish reviews of books you enjoyed, that's definitely your call, but I don't believe that's the mindset all bloggers should have to work by.

1. Book Bloggers are Critics, Not Promoters
This fact was definitely on my mind for much of the blogger convention, since a lot of what was presented in the speeches and panels I was present for dealt with how bloggers can serve publishers. Two of the authors who came to my table at the Networking Breakfast acted under the impression that if we liked how they pitched their books, we'd put them up on our websites. Amy Sohn (whose book I will, amusingly, be reviewing next) actually ranted about those "damn reviewers getting her book wrong" - entirely oblivious to the fact that she was speaking to a table of reviewers.

Because that's what book bloggers are. The cost-effective, positive promotion that publishers want from bloggers is only a by-product of what we actually do. If we like a book, we'll say so - and people will read that and take our recommendations accordingly (by the by, have you read anything by Cecilia Grant or Rose Lerner lately? Please do!). But I don't blog to promote books. I blog to read and review books - and if my positive reviews serve as free publicity, than it's a delightful happenstance! 

I know there are other book bloggers out there who do cover reveals and contests and memes now for books, even ones they haven't read, which can explain the confusion. There probably are bloggers out there who feel they are book promoters rather than critics. I can only say that from my personal experience as a blogger, who reads other book blogs, and who's discussed this matter with a fair number of other book bloggers, that the majority of us got into blogging to review and discuss books, not promote them. And honest reviews and discussions will naturally produce reactions both positive and negative.

2. Honesty Trumps Positivity
One concern I've heard come up in discussions with book bloggers is the notion of integrity and honesty. There was that whole kerfuffle in the U.S. a couple of years ago about whether bloggers should explicitly mention in their book reviews where and how they received the book - based on the readers' worry that a blogger would be more inclined to write a positive review of a book they received for free than a book they paid for themselves.

Now there's an interesting situation - readers distrusting a positive review! But shouldn't all bloggers just want to bake a cake with rainbows and sunshine in it so that we can all eat it and be happy? What about Jennifer Weiner's fairy dust?

Authors and publishers may worry about negative reviews, but to bloggers and, more importantly, to readers, their main worry is dishonest reviews. Did this blogger really like this book, or are they being paid to like it?

While I've read and enjoyed some "positive reviews only" publications (Locus magazine is one), I've noticed that readers and other bloggers tend to distrust them unless the blogger explicitly mentions that they choose not to review books they didn't like. I like to call this the "Paula Adbul Effect." That delightfully kooky former American Idol judge couldn't give a coherently negative critique to save her life - she was always sunshiney and supportive of all the performers. But because of that, her positive critiques had no impact on the audience or the voters. You could never tell if she really was physically incapable of disliking something, or if she was just too afraid of audience censure to really admit what she felt.

Simon Cowell, on the other hand, despite being kind of a prick, always gave really detailed critiques of the singers - so on those occasions when he did give an effusive response, you could tell that he meant it. Viewers felt they could trust that his opinions were honest.

That's not to say you have to be cruel to be kind - after all, Randy Jackson was far less of an ass than Simon Cowell, but his remarks still carried weight because he pointed out both the positive and the negative aspects of a competitor's performance.

What I'm saying is, positive promotion only works if the readers trust the source. There's a reason people fast-forward through the commercials on their DVRs - commercials and advertisements are nothing but positive. However, they're made by people with a financial stake in the product's success, and viewers know that. No one in the world likes every book they've ever read. Just like every contestant on American Idol isn't going to be a shining beacon of musical enlightenment. If you want to promote your book effectively, it's better to gamble on a positive review from a blogger known for their honest reactions to what they read than to hedge your bets with a literary cheerleader.

Well, then, you may ask, what's wrong with every blogger simply being transparent about only writing reviews of books they like? Why not just not post reviews of books you don't like, and let the utter lack of press speak for itself? See my final point:

3. There's No Such Thing As Bad Press
This is the kicker - even if someone is giving your book a negative review, they are also reminding people that your book exists. Its name gets brought up, its cover is revealed, it sticks in the human memory and consciousness, which translates to what jumps out at you when you go to bookstores. If no one is talking about your book at all, and no one knows about it, good or bad, how is anyone supposed to find it?

I can also ask you, as a fellow writer, which is better after submitting something to a publisher - a rejection in the form of absolutely no response, a standard "not for us" rejection letter, or a detailed letter explaining what didn't work for them? I can tell you I would rather have people telling me what they didn't like about my book than not talking about it at all and leaving me wondering whether they received it or even read it.

One of my personal rules of Blogger Etiquette is that if I accept an offer of a free ARC, I will review the book. Even if it's negative - because it demonstrates that I took the time to read the book cover to cover, took the time to analyze it, and spend hours thinking about it and writing about it. Even if I dislike the book, I respect the work that went into making that book, and I demonstrate that by crafting a detailed review of it.

It takes time and effort to write a review, even a negative one. It takes no effort at all to say nothing. So really, which response is less respectful?

This is my take on it. I'm not going to stop writing negative reviews, and I don't think you should, either. We blog because we like expressing how we feel about books. And some books are going to make us screaming, hopping, hair-pullingly mad - so we're going to express that. To Snark or Not To Snark is a different argument for a different time, but for now, let your Lit-Nit-Picking Freak Flag fly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Where It Began," by Ann Redisch Stampler

I thought I'd point out that this was my *first* eBook read - I purchased it for the Kobo my mother generously lent to me so that I could read it on the way to New York without taking up valuable room in my luggage. All in all, a good reading experience!
The Protagonist: Gabriella Gardiner. Formally a high school nobody, a strenuous summer of make overs allows her to catch the eye of golden boy Billy Nash.
Her Angst: Until she apparently crashes his car while drunk. As her future becoming increasingly uncertain, she'll have to decide how much she's willing to give up to ensure Billy Nash's love.

The Secondary Cast:

Vivian: Gabby's mother - incredibly vain and image-oriented. Drags Gabby along for a summer of hair treatments and clothing shopping in an attempt to create the perfect daughter.

John: Gabby's reclusive, alcoholic father whose repeated business failures keep the Gardiners at the bottom of the totem pole in their swanky neighbourhood.

Billy Nash: Insanely popular and wealthy, the undisputed king of the high school social scene can do anything, get anything, and get away with anything.

Lisa: Gabby's friend, from an incredibly religious family who restricts her social activities.

Anita: Gabby's other and equally concerned friend. Her Indian family only wants her to date nice Indian boys.

Huey: A talented if oddball photographer for the high school yearbook and friends with Gabby, Lisa, and Anita.

Angst Checklist:
  • Amnesia
  • Underage Drinking
  • Drunk Driving
  • Pretentious Yet Adorable Photographers
  • My Parents Are Idiots
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • White Male Privilege
  • Unhealthy Relationships
The Word: The novel opens as seventeen-year-old Gabriella Gardiner wakes up drunk, clutching the keys to her boyfriend's car - which she has apparently reduced to a smoking wreck around a eucalyptus tree. She wakes up later in a hospital with her face horribly damaged, the police asking questions, and a giant gap in her memory where the particulars of her car accident ought to be. As the cherry on top of the sundae of suck, her wealthy, popular boyfriend Billy Nash is nowhere to be found.

Billy's absence hurts Gabby more than anything - as she heals in the novel's first half, she recalls how she first won the attention of the most popular boy in school, despite being an underachieving sub-regular nobody in a prep school full of the rich and brilliant. She loves Billy, and constantly strives to please him in order to keep him from finding out how truly average and unremarkable a nobody she truly is.

Once she's released from the hospital in the novel's second half, she realizes she's become worse than a nobody: now she's a teenage delinquent who stole and crashed her boyfriend's car. Amazingly, however, Billy Nash comes back into the picture, and, desperate to hold on to him, Gabby's willing to do anything he says, anything he asks, even as the consequences of her actions tighten around her.

As you can probably tell, Gabby is a real piece of work - raised by vain, vapid parents who constantly aspire to wealth and status without ever actually possessing it, she has no self-esteem to speak of. If this book had a Drinking Game, the only rule would be to take a shot every time Gabby describes herself as "sub-regular": she truly believes she's less than average. So it's no surprise how she becomes fixated on her miraculous relationship with the uber-popular Billy Nash, to the point where it seems her entire self-worth hangs on whether he stays with her or not. 

In the wrong hands, a character like this could have been a doormat. However, Stampler gives Gabby a cutting, observant and hilarious voice. While she's got serious blinders on when it comes to what's important about herself, her satirical observations of the hypocrisy of the people and the situations around her are hilarious. She's flawed and funny and human - however, even in her own story, she is little more than an observer, so I had trouble considering her an actual heroine.

That, ultimately, is the largest problem I had with Where It Began - while I felt for Gabby and liked her voice, her character had no agency and makes almost no decisions for herself in the course of the entire novel. She's an utterly passive character. She's told what to do for most of the story - by her mother, by Billy, by the various therapists and doctors and care workers - and then she does it. Things just happen, and Gabby reacts to them - with occasionally hilarious snark, but she doesn't actually influence or impact any of the events in the story.

This never changes, even by the novel's end. While she comes to a few long-awaited realizations, she doesn't act or take initiative on her own. Even the glorious All Is Revealed moment at the end is orchestrated by someone else. In the end, Gabby is still being told what to do - only this time she's, um, allowing herself to be told what to do by the right people? To me, a heroine impacts her story with her specific actions and decisions, so that the conclusion to her story occurs as a result of her choices. In Where It Began, Gabby doesn't make any real choices, she just gets lucky - which weakens an otherwise entertaining story.

You can purchase Where It Began here.

Monday, June 11, 2012

And Now, the Obligatory BEA Swag Post!

Soooo.... I got a lot of books at Book Expo America. I really did try to only pick up books that I actually wanted or sounded interesting, and I think I was mostly successful. Mostly. Either way, I managed to successfully pack everything into my two pieces of luggage without incurring overweight fees so I'm good on that score. Here's the list:

  • The Vicious Deep, by Zoraida Cordova. YA. Swag bag at Book Bloggers Con. I've wanted this one for a while, so I was excited to find a copy of this at the convention!
  • Origin, by Jessica Khoury. YA. Penguin Booth. The bioengineered-girl-escapes-into-the-Amazon plot intrigued me.
  • The Darkest Minds, by Alexandra Bracken. YA. Hyperion/Disney Booth. Honestly, this was one of those "well it sounds vaguely interesting and it's free" picks. The back cover blurb is super-vague, yo.
  • The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin. Fantasy. Signed at the Orbit Booth. It was super lovely to meet N.K. Jemisin, and I'm over the top excited for The Killing Moon. I also got to tell her that I think she writes the best immortal characters.
  • Kiss the Morning Star, by Elissa Hoole. YA. Picked up at the Amazon Children's Publishing booth. This story, about a teenage girl who discovers her sexuality while on a Kerouac-inspired roadtrick, has been at the edge of my radar for a while so it was lovely to find this copy!
  • Moo, by Matthew Van Fleet. Baby Book. Book Blogger Con Swag Bag. A lovely baby book with fuzzy things to pet and pop up pictures - and guess whose BFF's little boy is having a birthday in a week!
  • Kiss and Make Up, by Katie D. Anderson. YA. Picked up at the Amazon Children's Publishing Booth. Another interesting story - a girl discovers she can read the minds of any boy she kisses. So naturally she uses it to cheat on tests.
  • Wake, by Amanda Hocking. YA. Honestly, I've forgotten. It has a lovely cover, plus I've always been interested in stories about sirens.
  • Every Day, by David Levithan. YA. Signed at the Random House Booth. David Levithan is one of those writers I've heard hyped to the skies so much that I'll suggest him even though I haven't read any of his books yet. This one (about a nameless being who's a different person every day who falls in love with a girl) sounds like a good place to start actually reading him!
  • Eve and Adam, by Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant. YA. Signed at the MacMillan Booth. This sounded interesting but also hella confusing (girl gets sent to lab, girl starts making boy in same lab, girl falls in love with another boy in the lab?). But it was fun to chat with Jessica in the line to get it! 
  • The Wrap-Up List, by Steven Arntson. YA. Amazon Children's Publishing Booth (seriously, a lot of good stuff there). Sounded good - a girl gets a magical notification that she's going to die soon, so she works to get her affairs in order.
  • Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes. Literary Fiction. Picked up at the Penguin Booth. Sounded like a legitimately sweet romantic story.
  • Fathomless, by Jackson Pierce. YA. Signed at the author's Autographing Table. The idea of a darker, nastier Little Mermaid retelling definitely caught my eye, and the excerpt I read in Little, Brown's catalog looked amazing.
  • An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green. YA. Signed copy given out at the Penguin Booth. It's John Green - and I'd like to try and enjoy more of his work.
  • Son, by Lois Lowry. YA. In the Children's Book and Author Breakfast Swag Bag. I was only faintly aware that The Giver had continued as a series, but this book makes me want to read the other books in between.
  • Cracked, by K.M. Walton. YA. Won in the Meet the Apocalypsies event. This novel, about a bully and his tormenter in the same psych ward, sounds a little dark and bleak for my tastes, but I decided to give it a try.
  • Crewel, by Gennifer Albin. YA. Received last copy at the MacMillan Booth. This book was hyped UP AND DOWN Book Expo, y'all, but I have to say - the story (about a girl who can weave time and fate) sounded legitimately cool.
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily Danforth. YA. Won in the Meet the Apocalypsies event. I've wanted to read this since forever, so I was super psyched to win a free copy!
  • Starting from Here, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow. YA. Picked up at the Amazon Children's Booth. Sounded like an interesting romantic YA with a lesbian protagonist.
  • Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull. YA (I think). Picked up at the Penguin Booth. Two sisters go on a mystical journey - it sounds freakin' weird, but in the best possible way.
  • The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, by Cathrynne M. Valente. Middle Grade (sort of). Signed copy from the author's Autographing Table. Loved the first book - so of course I lusted after the second and waited in line for 45 minutes to meet the author.
  • Mistress of My Fate, by Hallie Rubenhold. Literary Fiction. Picked up from the Grand Central Publishing Booth. A lush period piece about a possible courtesan? Sign me up!
  • The Blessed, by Tonya Hurley. YA. Picked up from the Simon and Schuster Booth. I'm Catholic, born and raised, so the idea of three girls embodying three martyred saints? Kick ass! Had to have it!
  • The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Literary Fiction. Picked up at a booth - forgot where! Firstly - pretty pretty cover. Secondly, intriguing story about a couple on an isolated Australian island who adopt an infant. Thirdly, upon opening it to a random page, the writing sounded great.
  • Carnival of Souls, by Melissa Marr. YA. Picked up at the HarperCollins Booth. Another much-hyped book - I picked it up because the story sounded interesting, and also because my sister is a huge Melissa Marr fan.
  • Colin Fischer, by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stenz. YA. Signed at the Penguin Booth. I'd heard both authors speak on one of the YA Buzz Panels, and I liked the idea of a kid with Asperger's who has to clear the name of his biggest high school tormenter when a gun goes off at school, resulting in said bully becoming a friend.
  • Time Between Us, by Tamara Ireland Stone. YA. Won at the Apocalypsies event. It sounds like a YA take on The Lake House. Plus, pretty cover!
  • The Sweet Dead Life, by Joy Preble. YA. Picked up at the Soho Booth. A publisher I'd never heard of, but an interesting YA story about a girl who has to pre-emptively solve her own murder with the help of her dead-brother-turned-angel!
  • What We Saw At Night, by Jacqueline Mitchard. YA. Picked up at the Soho Booth. Another interesting title about three kids who are allergic to sunlight and also common sense who practice nighttime parkour and witness a murder while doing it.
  • More Than One Night, by Sarah Mayberry. Romance. Picked up at the Harlequin Booth. Everyone in Romancelandia has gushed about Mayberry at one point or another, and I felt it was time to see what all the fuss was about. 
  • Darker Still, by Leanna Renee Hieber. YA. Won at the Apocalypsies event. I love LRH to pieces, yo, plus this book has a hot dude in an enchanted painting in it!
  • Level 2, by Lenore Appelhans. YA. Won at the Apocalypsies event. Her book was much spoken of at the Expo for being the literary work of a former blogger.
  • The Diviners, by Libba Bray. YA. Picked up at the Little, Brown Booth. Magical kids in the roaring twenties!
  • She Only Wore White, by Dorthe Blinkert and Mel Foster. Translated literary fiction. Picked up at the Amazon Booth. Not sure why I picked this up - I think because it's a period piece that takes place on a boat. No way that can go wrong!
  • Beta, by Rachel Cohn. YA. Picked up at the Disney/Hyperion Booth. Sexy clones as servants - could it be like The Island meets Downton Abbey? Or is that the book that I should write?
  • What's Left of Me, by Kat Zhang. YA. Picked up at the HarperCollins Booth. I liked the idea of a body being born with two souls - most especially if they are played by Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin.
  • Iron-Hearted Violet, by Kelly Barnhill and Iacupo Bruno. Middle Grade. Picked up at the Little, Brown Booth. You had me at the title! Yowza!
  • The Land of Stories, by Chris Colfer. Middle Grade. Found in the Children's Book and Author Breakfast Swag bag, later signed. It sounds amazing - I'm a huge fan of fractured fairy tales and this sounds like a real labour of love for the Glee star.
  • The Dirty Streets of Heaven, by Tad Williams. Fantasy. Found at the Penguin Booth. TAD WILLIAMS WROTE ANOTHER URBAN FANTASY! I had absolutely NO IDEA his book would be at Book Expo! He hasn't written anything contemporary since The War of the Flowers. Grabbed it!
  • Hemingway's Girl, by Ericka Robuck. Historical Fiction. Found in the Book Blogger Con Swag Bag. Historical period, cocktail parties? Scandally scandal? Sounded vaguely good.
  • Throne of Glass, by Sarah Maas. YA. Picked up one of the last copies at the Bloomsbury Booth on the last day of BEA. Sounded like a Cinderella-story mixed with The Hunger Games. Could be awesome, or awesomely bad.
  • Then Came You, by Jennifer Weiner. Literary Fiction. In my Book Blogger Con Swag Bag. Sue me - I want to see if she writes better than she gives blogger speeches.
  • Motherland, by Amy Sohn. Fiction. I got this in my Swag Bag from the Book Bloggers Convention, and even though the author ranted about "damn reviewers," she sold me on her pitch about frustrated wealthy New York moms and their exploits. I just finished reading it, and boy, let me tell you, it's going to make for an interesting review.
  • Altered, by Jennifer Rush. YA. Picked up at the Little, Brown Booth. Girl's dad raises hot genetically-altered boys in her barn. Who WOULDN'T want to read this?