Monday, September 30, 2013

The TorchBearer's Book Club: Bumped chapters 19-23

We’ll be breezing through the next five chapters, mostly because there’s not much to say about them that wasn’t already discussed, and also because the next one will be such a clusterf*ck of OMFG WHAT THE S*** AM I READING that I’ll need to devote all my time and attention to it.

Also, the next three chapters are mostly worldbuilding worldbuilding worldbuilding and set up, and since we’ve already discussed these at length, the only thing left is to snark like it’s 2006 and Twilight has just hit the stands.

Spoilers and racy language warning!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd

Goodreads review, last updated January 05, 2012

Have you ever wondered what would happen if all the YA heroes and heroines got together to discuss the times they saved the world?

Jace&Clary: "We stopped our dad from starting a demon apocalypse and then got together."

Edward&Bella: "We stopped a vampire war after we made a demon baby parasite."

Bethany&Xavier: "We tripled the visits to our local church!"

Everyone else: *blank stare* "Dude, that is so lame."

Seriously, our reality has been put in danger so many times that I'm surprised none of those super villains hasn't succeeded yet. Wonder what would happen when one does?

What I mean to say is that books nowadays need some kind of earth-shattering calamity to get a story going. It takes a special kind of talent to just write a simple tale of a person taking on a journey.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cliches Explained, Part One: Deus-ex-machina

How often in reviews you hear something like: “Ugh, such a cliché! I’m so sick of this device/plot being used.” This leads to some aspiring authors believing that clichés are forbidden territory, and that their work needs to be 100% original, or else.

Still, clichés exist for a reason. In fact, if you read my reviews, one of the most common refrains you’ll notice is: “I love this concept, but the execution is very bad.” I’ve given high ratings to some pretty lame, formulistic stories, purely because they managed to entertain me and make a good impression; and I’ve given the down-thumbs to at least a dozen innovative and interesting stories purely because they didn’t go anywhere past the basic premise.

In other words, execution is everything. My purpose in this series is to check a few common cliché complaints, so to speak, and see if there isn’t a way to use them in a story without it seeming like a cop-out.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

Note: As GR is apparently going to Hell, I decided to take on the not-so-easy task of transferring my reviews to BookLikes and here. If you want to follow me, here's my profile: http://kb.booklikes.com/ 

This review was last edited on October 30, 2011.

I have a little dilemma with reviewing indie books. On one hand, I get it why authors might prefer to go down the self-publishing road. With an industry that gives us Halo and Hades, I'd be disheartened too. The thing is, indie writers face a lot of difficulties getting their stuff out there and making a profit, because the general assumption is that self-pubbed books are poorly written, poorly edited things that no agent wanted to take on. 

So I was very conflicted about reviewing this book. EDIT But not anymore. There's a difference between engaging in discussion and blocking your ears to criticism entirely. I will not, in any way, support an author who allows their fans to attack anyone who disagrees, and then blocks the voices of those who object

Now that I have this out of the way, let's look at "Beautiful Disaster". 

Spoilers ahoy.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Harper by Shawna Walls

The rebirth of the harpies begins with one young man . . .

Harper Reed's post-high-school plans are up in the air. His promising football career has been cut short by an injury, the girlfriend he thought he might marry has dumped him after he confided to her that he also likes guys, and now, on his 18th birthday, he's started growing feathers.

According to the mouthy poltergeist who appears in his room, Harper's becoming a "mythic," one of thousands of creatures thought imaginary by most humans. Oh, and he's also the subject of an ancient legend and might well bring on the doom of humanity. Finding a new career path has suddenly become a much lower priority.

With the help of his ghostly guide and some new friends, including a charming mythology student, a con-artist faun, and a dragon princess, the young harpy must adapt to the changes in his body and identity while trying to discover the truth behind the dangerous curse that has given him wings.


Okay, I'm shallow. The first time I saw this cover I was all: "Mmmmmm, I'm not sure about this...." *twitch twitch* But this was pitched to me as having a bi-racial, bixesual main character, so the least I could do was read the sample. And then, ooops, I click on "buy" and spend the rest of my day devouring the book. 

I regret nothing.

This book not only delivers what it promises, a story about a paranormal coming-of-age with lots of cool characters, it also brings heaps and heaps of fun. It's like every time a reviewer exclaimed: "How does this universe work?" this book got another notch in its world-building belt. 

Which is always fun to read, you know? I mean, sure, bring on the bombastic action sequences and all, but let's have some throaway line about how we got there first, mmkay? I like how "Harper" managed to introduce a whole world of mythics, which is not only well developed, but draws you in with in-jokes and weird-normal stuff, like, for example, the fact that bureaucracy is so slow in the after-life, people lose track of time.

"Yeah. Orcs. Always annoying." 

"Of course, the real ones aren't as bad since their magic faded away. These days, they just smell terrible, swear a lot and vote Tory."

Walls, Shawna, "Harper", page 81, Kindle Edition

*snort*

I like a book with a healthy sense of humor. Think of how much better some paranormal YA's would have been if the heroes and heroines stopped being so damn intense over everything - be it an emotional confrontation, a toothpick, or the main mean girl's choice of skirt - and just poked gentle fun every now and again? 

I don't even mean straight-up parody, (although there's room for that particular cheesecake, amirite?) but just... toning down the DRAMA a notch and acknowledging every now and again how silly some things are.

Obviously, it can be done, because I'm reviewing one!

Hell, I can forgive "Harper" some of its flaws (like all of the exposition in the first half) because it's so damn entertaining! 

Moving on...

Like I said, the plot is standard paranormal coming-of-age with some romance and saving the world thrown in, but the little twists along the way make it stand out. There's our bi-racial and bisexual hero, who manages to be bisexual without turning into an after-school special (his community doesn't chase him with pitchforks, his parents are accepting, and the supernatural community is all whatever rocks your boat, mate!) and bi-racial without glossing over it (there's a very nice bit where Harper gets worried about being discovered the airport because he gets racially profiled at the scanners.) There's also gay and lesbian characters, transgender characters, polyamourous characters, and all around goodness. There's also drama and betrayal and realistic conflicts, which is also nice. 

I did notice the pacing was a little off, but not so much as to make it dreadfully boring. The book makes up for any lagging with interesting characters, which is more than I can ask for.

And then we got to the ending, and I'm once again like "mmmmmm, I'm not sure about this...."

Actually, this depends on your mileage. In my case, I was a little disappointed because that particular twist wasn't foreshadowed properly, and it just felt a wee bit tacked on. At the same time, I'm glad for the ending, because it's one I would have liked to see. 

So I guess you'll have to read the book for yourselves to find out! *wink* *wink* *nudge* *nudge* 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: Ink by Amanda Sun

Goodreads review, published July 24, 2013

On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.

Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they'll both be targets.

Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive.


Oh, "Ink". Oh, oh, oh, "Ink".

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book to review via Netgalley. I'm criminally late in doing so, but no monetary compensation has been given in exchange for this review.

Another full disclosure: I love anime. I love the Japanese language. I love Japanese culture. I'm quite adept at eating with chopsticks and shop at Asian supermarkets (because where else can you buy not only miso and wakame, but dashi, mirin, abura-age or even a steamer basket?) I don't quite qualify as a weebo, although, who knows, I just might be one. 

What I'm trying to say is, I'm a geeky, awkward fan of Japanese culture, and so whenever something even remotely Japanese-themed hits the YA market, I instantly get excited. I was super-pumped about Stormdancer, although subsequent reviews (and the price for the UK hardback) chilled my ardour, I was still very excited about Ink.

I was also very excited to get the galley, even if it was in the middle of a reading drought which had me so emotionally exhausted I could barely look at a book. I picked it up in May, fully intending to gobble it up and review it and...

Monday, September 23, 2013

The TorchBearers' Book Club: Bumped chapters 17-18


Last week on Bumped, we talked about commitment and obligation and how these two things can help and hinder each other.

This week, the divide grows as we look at Harmony enjoying breaking the rules while Melody sinks deeper into an orderly despair.

Ah, Bumped! Ever so cheerful!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: Halo by Alexandra Adornetto

Note: As GR is apparently going to Hell, I decided to take on the not-so-easy task of transferring my reviews to BookLikes and here. If you want to follow me, here's my profile: http://kb.booklikes.com/

An angel is sent to Earth on a mission.

But falling in love is not part of the plan.


Three angels – Gabriel, the warrior; Ivy, the healer; and Bethany, the youngest and most human – are sent by Heaven to bring good to a world falling under the influence of darkness. They work hard to conceal their luminous glow, superhuman powers, and, most dangerous of all, their wings, all the while avoiding all human attachments.

Then Bethany meets Xavier Woods, and neither of them is able to resist the attraction between them. Gabriel and Ivy do everything in their power to intervene, but the bond between Xavier and Bethany seems too strong.

The angel’s mission is urgent, and dark forces are threatening. Will love ruin Bethany or save her?


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: Adorkable by Sarra Manning

 
Welcome to the dorkside. It's going to be a bumpy ride...

Jeane Smith's a blogger, a dreamer, a dare-to-dreamer, a jumble sale queen, CEO of her own lifestyle brand and has half a million followers on twitter.

Michael Lee's a star of school, stage and playing field. A golden boy in a Jack Wills hoodie.

They have nothing in common but a pair of cheating exes. So why can't they stop snogging?


Adorkable is one of those sneaky synopsis stories. You know the type – take the familiar formula, tweek it a little bit, lull unsuspecting readers with a promise of something formulistic and fluffy and then BAM! Falcon punch straight in the feels!

It’s shocking what it can do to a hardened cynic.

From the description, you’ll think you’re in for another one of those Opposites Attract type comedies, possibly with a few dashes of John Green-esque quirkiness and the obligatory rebellion against convention, where both sides learn a lesson about how the other is actually better than they expected and yadda yadda yadda. To an extent, you would be correct – all of these elements are present – but this story has the benefit of actually starring real people.

Michael and Jeane do have a pair of cheating exes in common, but the pair of cheating exes, instead of being mustache-twirly and sneaky and generally evil-slutty, Barney and Scarlett (yes, seriously, her name is Scarlett) are portrayed as painfully shy and painfully normal people who had societal expectations stacked against them. Both thought they were lucky to be with Michael and Jeane respectively, and that they ought to be grateful, and that changing the status quo would be wrong. They both found confidence and happiness when they jumped the barriers and their rebellion, so to speak, wasn’t followed by a societal lashing out.

How rare is that? Seriously, how rare is it that a pair of cheating exes in books or movies are portrayed as something more than handy foils to bring the main characters together?

Likewise, Sarra Manning doesn’t shy from making Jeane and Michael a pair of judgemental teenagers. Michael is obviously baffled at Jeane’s point-blank refusal to act “normal”, but Jeane isn’t a sainted social revolutionary either. This is one of those books where you actually get the point of view of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and it’s not a pretty one. Jeane prides herself on her accomplishments, her individuality and her ability to defy expectation, but she also missed the memo that individuality =/= going against the current. She doesn’t make an effort to become friends with her schoolmates, but decries them all as haters; her teacher almost strong-arms her into apologising when she’s wrong; and she’s very hard to discourage once she’s got her mind on something.

The MPDG demystified, if you will.

And yet, Michael isn’t some dweeby nerd with no self-esteem either. Jeane might show him the life, MPDG style, but he’s not lacking in self-confidence, nor is he one to take her shit when she’s obviously wrong. He admits his mistakes and gives Jeane space when she needs it; he calls her out, but doesn’t guilt-trip her when she eventually comes around to accepting her blame; also, he’s not one to mope when things don’t go according to plan, takes responsibility, respects his parents… basically, he’s my new fictional crush.

I may be over-exaggerating, but really, let’s talk about Manic Pixie Dream Girl narratives for a second. In literature and film, they’re either played straight (dweeby nerdy man being taught joie-de-vivre from the aforementioned girl) or demystified (your Paper Towns and Looking for Alaskas, where the girls are stripped of their magic and left to the dweeby nerdy man to be pitied and looked down on.) How many books or movies can you list where the female characters are portrayed as humans (like Green’s Alaska) but also treated as such by the other characters?

The problem with both common MPDG narratives is that both of them objectify the girls in question. We don’t have books written from their points of view, at least not in popular YA. The guys who love them view them either as this unreachable thing or as pets, both of which deprive the girls of any relatable traits or capacity for human interaction.

Let me say this once, people: WOMEN ARE NOT ALIENS!

Thank God this book realises this too. Jeane may be portrayed as full of hot air, but Michael doesn’t treat her like a pet. He’s mad at her and forgives her, she’s mad at him and forgives him, they like each other and hate things about each other, without having either define their relationship. They’re not each other’s Perfect Partner, or Ideal Half; nobody has to give up their individuality or become dependent on the other; they’re two people who navigate a relationship.

And when I say navigate a relationship, HOLLA if you want a good, realistic portrayal of sexuality in fiction! Holla again, because this book has it. (I read this on the train. I wonder if the guy standing next to me thought why I was grinning like a split melon during a certain scene. Kudos, Sarra Manning, kudos!)

….

….

…..

What? I’m done. Why are you still here?

It’s on Amazon. And The Works. And Waterstones. And your local independent, as far as I know.

Do you need me to say it more clearly?

GO READ IT!
Note: Image and Synopsis via Goodreads,

Friday, September 20, 2013

“Cassandra Clare, The Bechdel Test and why Criticising Women Isn’t Anti-Feminist.”

A post by Ceilidh and Christina.

Ceilidh: I am a feminist. But I'm not a clone. 

I say this because for some reason, when many women hear the term feminism, they think it means that I have to support every woman ever. There's this naive and ultimately ridiculous idea that feminists all hold hands and stick up for one another no matter what they've said or done. We in the YA world have seen this attitude appear a lot in relation to many authors being called out on problematic issues. Who can forget the Be Nice mess? Now, we once again return to Cassandra Clare and The Mortal Instruments movie. As it continues to flounder at the box office, both domestically and internationally, the YA community of Clare's inner circle have rallied around her to praise the movie's female friendliness and urge YA fans to see it not only for the good of YA but for women in general. Author Ally Carter got things started with a series of tweets that were amusing at best and insulting at worst.

Going to the movies this weekend? I loved #CityOfBones! Greatmovie about a girl getting a lot of hate b/c...it's about a girl
If you wantmovies about girls to get made then we have to go see movies about girls.That's math, people.

So there you have it. The movie is failing, both critically and commercially, but all that must be because it's about a girl. It couldn't possibly be any other reason, and if you want women to be in more movies then you should rush out and see a terrible film for the good of us all. That's just like the rules of feminism, as Gretchen from Mean Girls so eloquently put it. I guess the sequel has been shelved because us ladies just didn’t want feminism to succeed hard enough.

Christina: By that rationale, the ten professional female critics featured on Rotten Tomatoes that gave CoB a less than stellar rating are not feminists, or they don't want more movies with female leads.

Let's take Maryann Johanson, for example. She's been lauded by Variety, runs FlickFilosopher.com, and said City of Bones gave "overwrought fan fiction a bad name". 

By Carter's standards, Johanson clearly hates the idea of women having lead roles, or she'd support CoB regardless of the movie's actual merit. Nevermind that Johanson has said this about the epic film Titanic:

"This hardly ever happens in films, which are almost invariably about men and their personal journeys. From the most idiotic action movie to the most profound drama, most movies offer us only men who grow and change over the course of a (hopefully) engaging and exciting story. Women, if they’re lucky enough to appear at all, are the noble, saintly bystanders who inspire and encourage men; if they’re unlucky, they will be sacrificed, often quite literally via rape, murder, or both, to the male protagonist’s spiritual and personal development."

Ceilidh: It's such a strange way of looking at things. By that logic, everything done by women is positive for women, and sadly that's not how the world works. We saw the announcement of the casting for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie and I was reminded of the fact that the film will be written, directed and produced by women. Does that mean it'll be female positive? I guess it is if you view romanticised domestic abuse as helping the glorious sisterhood. 

That's the main fallacy in Carter's argument: It's not my feminist duty to support everything done by or for women. The Mortal Instruments, both the film and the book series, have been repeatedly criticised for their less than stellar portrayals of women, not to mention Clare's use of attempted rape as a dramatic plot device and having one of her female characters of colour go back to the man who beat her. 

I think there is some strong reasoning behind supporting the work of women, particularly in film. After all, women only make up about 10% of directors and are practically non-existent as studio heads. Having a woman in the lead role is still seen by many as a sign that they've made a "women's film" because only women can relate to other women while everyone can relate to men. Visibility is a big deal, especially for younger viewers. The badass Geena Davis has done some great work in this field with her institute on gender and media. 
 

There is work to be done. However, said work does not mean we instantly must support everything by or for women. 

Alvin & the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel was directed by Betty Thomas, and is one of the world’s most commercially successful films directed by a woman. No offence to her but I hardly think supporting that film would lead to more female positive movies and visibility in the industry.

Moving on from the state of the industry, let's go back to Clare, as so many of our conversations these days seem to centre on her. She is still very popular in YA and this movie, while not a commercial or critical hit, did start a lot of conversations, so it makes sense on that front. In an interview with The Mary Sue (jokes on a postcard, please), Clare talked about how she insisted on the movie passing The Bechdel Test. Putting aside yet more proof refuting Clare's claim that she had little to do with the movie, we need to talk about the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test originated in a comic called Dykes To Watch Out For by the genius Alison Bechdel (read Fun Home, it's a masterpiece). 

The test has three basic rules:


1. The movie has to have at least two women in it.
2. They must talk to each other.
3. The topic of their conversation must be about something besides a man.

The test isn't perfect, but then again it was never intended to be a benchmark standard for feminism in film. However, it is extremely useful in pointing out just how unbalanced the gender dynamics are in film, at least in Hollywood productions. It demonstrates the limitations placed on female characters by a majority male industry. 

The limitations of the test itself highlight many other issues with media and entertainment, something Clare and many other writers, of YA and otherwise, don't seem aware of. You can pass the Bechdel Test ridiculously easily if you wanted to. Have two women talk about the weather on the bus and it passes. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency suggested an additional rule to the test: the conversation must last longer than a minute. That minute plus long talk can be about anything non man/romance related and technically it'll pass, so two women slut-shaming someone or having an insultingly sexist conversation can still passed. The problems with the test are evident.

Clare seems proud to pass off passing the Bechdel Test as proof that the film is female positive. It's never been that easy and it's offensive to suggest it is so. The Bechdel Test was never intended to be a get-out-of-sexism-free card for writers, film-makers and the like. Clare can brag about working to pass the test and Carter can talk about the need to support female led stories but there's no guarantee those female led stories are in any way female positive or free of sexism. 

Another reason I resent being told as a feminist YA fan to support things like TMI is because they're not the kind of stories I want to support. A studio and its crew can tell me that TMI is a female positive project but having a young woman kick a bad CGI demon in the chest doesn't suddenly make her an interesting character, let alone a standard for female led film. 

Christina: Also I'm perplexed as to how Clary Fray is being described as a strong character. Obsessing over a rude male character and having an unnatural knack for runes doesn't make her equal to Katniss, or Hermione. Are we currently at a stage in YA where ANY female character, regardless of disposition or motivation, is marketed as "strong", "independent", and a "role model for little girls"? 

Even if we did have a heroine like that, what are the odds that she'll get along with other girls? She might pass the Bechdel Test, but she also might slut shame a romantic rival for being too pretty or too sexual. Or her friend will be unattractive and/or "fat", and will serve as fodder for humour or will spout one-liners. As Peggy Orenstein pointed out in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, there's no room for actual female friendships:


"There is only one princess in the Disney tales, one girl who gets to be exalted. Princesses may confide in a sympathetic mouse or teacup, but they do not have girlfriends. God forbid Snow White should give Sleeping Beauty a little support. Let's review: princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married, and be taken care of the rest of their lives."

Ceilidh: There are many great female characters in film and literature that exist in majority male worlds without female interaction, and they’re not necessarily anti-feminist characters because there’s no girl talk (the recent introduction of the Mako Mori Test, thanks to Pacific Rim, fits this mould). The issue is representation and whether any of it, regardless of how problematic it is, is better than none at all.


Personally, I don’t believe this. Maybe in the early days of film, this could have applied (the documentary The Celluloid Closet, on the topic of LGBT representation in film during the days of severe censorship and homophobia in the industry discusses this at length) but it’s 2013. There’s really no excuse for it now. Even with majority male film-makers and an inherently sexist industry, we’re now more aware and educated as audiences to pick up on the problems as we see it. It’s not going to destroy female representation in the industry to point out that we’re sick and tired of the same tired old tropes being trotted out and then being expected to fawn over it because hey, those two ladies had a conversation about something other than a man! If you want to believe in some great hand holding sisterhood where we should all support one another regardless of what we’ve said or done based solely on our gender identity then go for it, but don’t expect a cookie when you use one extremely flawed tool set at an incredibly low bar to prove your feminist credentials. Like a good book or a good film, good feminism needs a bit more work than that. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Guest review by Laura Martinelli: "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" by Holly Black.

"The Coldest Girl in Coldtown." 
Author: Holly Black. 
Pages: 432. 
Publisher: Little Brown Books.
Summary (taken from Goodreads): Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.
One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself. 
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

Every now and then at the bookstore I work at, I get into a heated discussion with a customer over what constitutes as horror. Most of the time, the customer pins the blame on ‘that vampire book’ for ruining horror forever and no one but Stephen King can even write horror anymore. Which is an incredibly narrow and stupid argument, if you ask me. (And yes, I have had this argument. A lot.) Vampires and other various children of the night are a major part of horror, but as the last few decades have proved, you can have a book about vampires or ghosts or werewolves and not have it be necessarily a horror book.

Unfortunately, it feels like YA has been splattered with the paranormal paint brush more often than horror. This is not to say that there’s no horror in YA whatsoever—Robin Wasserman’s The Walking Dark is being promoted as both a horror and a paranormal thriller novel, which is the case that I find most of the time. Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers is another case where the book is touted as a thriller rather than a horror book. And there’s some very creepy and disturbing murder sequences that I’ve seen in recent YA books (Maureen Johnson’s Name of the Star and Libba Bray’s The Diviners, to name two), but again, those fall more towards paranormal rather than outright horror on the spectrum.

I am nostalgic for the days of Christopher Pike and RL Stine (like them or not, bear with me) where you could get with a straight YA horror novel. Unfortunately, in the post-Columbine world where mass teenage violence and death is really not a good thing, a writer cannot get away with a good horror book aimed at young adults. You can, however, have all of the paranormal creatures go after impressionable young teenagers, but I’m not adding anything new by bringing up certain vampires that have completely neutered that idea.  But my point being, we’ve gotten to the romanticizing the paranormals to the point we’ve lost the horror aspect.

With that, I turn to the latest offering by  Holly Black, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. This was a book that I’ve been waiting for all year, probably since Black initially announced it. I have read and really love the short story of the same name (published in Black’s collection The Poison Eaters & Other Stories), but the events of the short story don’t influence the events in the novel, just sharing the same world. (The short story is not only referenced in the book itself, but also the Coldtown novel was released on the same day the short story says. By coincidence, or so says Black. /fun fact!) That said, as I was reading the book, I felt less…enthusiastic about the plot.

After the haunting, grotesque opening as Tana’s exploring the farmhouse and discovering the bodies of her friends, the pace crawls along until Tana and the other survivors—her ex, Aidan; a vampire named Gavriel; as well as two siblings that they pick up along the way, Midnight and Winter--make it to one of the eponymous Coldtowns. And although the plot does pick up more once they finally enter Coldtown and Tana begins to make her way out, a lot of the book falters and is really weak.

It’s not to say that this is a terrible book. It’s not badly written—I love Holly Black’s writing style, and she has some fantastic descriptions throughout the novel. When Tana and her friends enter Coldtown for the first time is a really tense and fantastic description of the characters swinging above the slums of Coldtown in cages, and it’s such a shock from what you’ve been expecting the entrance of Coldtown. I really liked the scenes of Tana exploring Coldtown and befriending Jameson and Valentina—I loved Jameson, I really wanted to see more of his character throughout the book. The descriptions of the various clubs and the inhabitants of Coldtown are really well done and vivid, done in Black’s typical gritty urban fantasy style.  I even don’t mind Black’s tendency to fall into fan fic-esque eye descriptors. (I actually really love the “eyes as red as poppies;” I found it to be a really cool nod to vampire lore.) The opening chapter sets such a fantastic mood to the book, where Tana is exploring this desolated farmhouse with the eerie background noise of the television—the first chapter of Coldtown is so evocative that it is a disappointment for me with the rest of this.

The problem that I have with the book centers around Gavriel, and how much his story overshadows Tana’s. If this story was about Tana getting Aidan to Coldtown, dealing with Midnight and Winter, and realizing that she can’t leave, that would have been a better story. It’s similar to the short story, but you can retread similar ground and make it feel different with different characters and their reactions. Tana has a strong story already—she’s afraid of vampires because of her mother’s going Cold (the slang for turning) when she was young; but she’s attracted to the idea of being one herself. Not as strongly as Midnight or Winter do, but it’s a feeling that scares Tana and she tries not to give into that desire. Having Gavriel and having his story takes away from Tana’s story, especially since how largely Gavriel figures into the world-building of the whole book. This is what really disappointed me about Coldtown. Holly Black’s best stories are the personal ones—I loved the Modern Tales of Faerie because even though there were a lot of important changes to overall world, the hearts of the story are Kaye’s and Val’s. And that’s what I would have loved to seen here. Gavriel could have been the same character, have had the same backstory…but giving so much explanation and so much weight on Gavriel makes me lose my focus on the story. And by the time we get to the reveal of Gavriel's true identity,  not only did I already call it  within five lines of introducing that plot point, I really didn't care about Gavriel’s story.

Gavriel is the vampire romance boy, and I think the book suffers from that. For all that he tells Tana about how “dangerous” she is, Tana’s role ends up being reduced as the trophy who can fight back, and her story doesn’t matter as much in the long run. Which is a shame, because I do like her whenever she’s not around Gavriel. I wanted to more of Tana’s desperation to save Aidan from turning and confronting Midnight with the reality of Coldtown and being a vampire, and getting out of Coldtown and back to her family. But her obsession with Gavriel makes the plot screech to a halt and I lose my enthusiasm  for Tana’s character. (Plus, I think Tana had far more chemistry with Jameson than she did with Gavriel.) It takes away from the tension of Tana getting out of Coldtown when she stops every five feet and thinks “Oh, but what if I don’t see Gavriel again!”

My other issue with the book is the aesthetic. Black says in the acknowledgements that this is a throwback/homage to the vampire novels of Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite. And that’s fine, I’m not saying that she’s not allowed to write those novels. I would like a reason for that aesthetic, especially since in our world, the deadly decadent vampire in the Victorian clothing has become the cliché. Even if it’s a throwaway line of “Oh, this is what humans expect of us.” I actually don’t mind that the vampires traipse around in period clothing and present the image of being fabulous and beautiful, but I need a reason for it. (Especially with Lucien Moreau, because he makes a big deal about being modern and a celebrity and gathering more vampires, and yet the glimpses of his feed embraces the Victorian vampire image.) When Black includes a store called the Dead Last Rest Stop that sounds like a Hot Topic on steroids, I find it really hard to take seriously. I commented to a friend that the style of that sequence wanted to be Rasputina, but I found myself thinking about a latter-era Backstreet Boys video. (Yes, that’s exactly where my brain went when I read it. I’m not exaggerating.) It even extends to the dialogue—Gavriel, again, has some really cheesy lines, like “The gates of Coldtown are as close as my own shadow” and how he describes Tana. It jolts me out of the book because that dialogue calls attention to itself. It even extends to Midnight and Winter-the goth wannabe vampire ideal is played so straight-forward with them. And yet, they barely appear once Tana escapes from their house in Coldtown, and we never fully get a grasp on how wrong they've turned out to be.

And therein lies my conundrum. Is it my issue as a reader, having the cultural knowledge that I do, that I can’t get into to the aesthetic or is it Black’s job to acknowledge that her aesthetic is a cliché? This is my issue with a lot of YA horror/paranormal books is that I’ve seen so much of the parodies and the winking and nudging that I’m looking for it even when it's played straight. In regards to something like vampires, it feels like we may have to go all the way back to the Nosferatu-style vampire to make them terrifying again. (And of course, that resets the cycle and back the romanticism and so on and so on.) I wanted a throwback vampire novel where we had the charming vampires who are going to eat you at the first chance they can, but having Gavriel around takes away from that because he is the one noble vampire to show that not all vampires are evil. (Really, Black could have gotten rid of Gavriel or used him in a better way.) Again, this is not a terrible book, but I expected better from Black and her characterization and plotting, and this was kind of a disappointment for me.

Laura Martinelli is a writer and bookseller, follow her on twitter @princess_starr or on Goodreads.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The TorchBearers' Book Club: Bumped chapters 15-16

Like I said, I’m back my lovelies!

And isn’t it a serendipituous turn of events, because today, we’re talking about commitment.

Quick recap of the story so far: Identical twins Melody and Harmony reunite after the latter seeks out the former. Melody is a professional surrogette, a woman paid to deliver healthy babies to wealthy couples. Harmony was raised in a strict religious community that tries to marry off everyone at 13 and have them pushing babies out as soon as possible. The two girls are critical of each other’s lifestyle, but after getting off to a bumpy (hah!) start, they grow more tolerant of each other, especially when it becomes clear that they, for one reason or another, aren’t keeping up with the image of what they should be doing.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Population Control Narratives and Entitlement

Hi Torch Bearers, missed me?

Sorry the Bumped Mondays took a backseat, but I do plan on picking them up again very soon. RL got in the way, and while that isn't necessarily an excuse, I couldn't exactly tax Ceilidh and Christina with doing my work for me either.

Anyway, the deconstructions will get back on track, but before I get there, let me tell you about a little sci-fi trope that has been bugging me since... yesterday, I guess.

Those of you familiar with "Ender's Game" will remember that the very first thing we learn about Ender Wiggin that makes him super speshul is that he is a Third. As in, a third child in a world where the maximum child quota for a couple is two. Population Control Legislation isn't a new thing in sci-fi; in fact, it's a pretty good way to let readers know they're no longer in Kansas.

Currently, Western society is very big on the sanctity of life thing. Access to birth control and abortions is not the same for women everywhere, family planning is almost universally underfunded, not to mention the subliminal idea that bringing life to this world is a woman's ultimate achievement (Love, marriage and baby carriage is the American Dream for the XX chromosome types, you see.) So to have things inverted - that children are not a blessing, but a carefully regulated quota - is an indicator that some serious shit went down prior to the novel's inception.

However, there is a serious problem with how that trope is deployed and used in sci-fi. Well... two, actually.

The first is pretty obvious. In "Ender's Game", the titular character is a special Third because  the government commissioned him - his first two siblings having failed to be the perfect soldiers humanity needs - and that serves as a double whammy on protagonist and reader. Ender is not just potentially awesome, he must be awesome because people broke the rules to have him.

The second is slightly more subliminal, and I will refer you to the TV series "Terra Nova" for an example. The series starts in the 22nd century, in a polluted wasteland of a world where you can't set foot outside without a mask. The Shannon family is visited by Population Control - apparently Thirds are also a big no-no in this world - and we're treated to a truly terrifying passage of policemen tearing the flat apart while the parents and the two older children look on. The sound of the destruction scares the aforementioned Third - a little girl named Zoe - and the father gets into a scuffle with the head honcho trying to prevent her being taken away.

That, in itself, is a pretty good introduction and it serves as an interesting set-up for later on. The father is taken away and locked up for two years, the family is shattered, the only chance for happiness is taking part of a colony that goes to an alternate dimension. Drama all around!

Except... later in the episode, we learn that the only reason the father was locked up was because he assaulted that enforcer from Population Control, and the son of the family is holding onto some serious angst over the fact. Had his father kept his cool, they would have gotten away with a fine and they wouldn't have had to fend for themselves for two years.

Let's take a moment to process all that.

The world is going to hell. Population control laws are in place, but the punishment for having more than two kids is a fine. That, in itself, is okay - money being the easiest motivator - but then how do you justify the raid we saw earlier? Do the fines cover the salary and insurance for those three enforcers? And what about them destroying the Shannon family's apartment - if they hadn't found a Third kid, would they have just walked off without paying damages? How can an alleged Third justify the destruction of a flat, but an actual Third only warrant a fine?

Did the Shannon family have Zoe just to hide her during raids, and then sue the police department for damages? Then why did the father attack the other guy? Surely a lawsuit for fraud is bad enough without adding obstruction of justice and battery to the bill.

From what I could tell, though, none of this was the case. The Shannon family just wanted a Third child SO MUCH Y'ALL, they were ready to break the rules, and we're supposed to sympathise with them.

Um... are you kidding me?

Let's step back from this particular situation and consider the global picture. The world is dying! It's so polluted people need masks to walk outside of their filtered abodes. Oranges are so rare, adults haven't seen them in years, so we can also assume food is scarce. Obviously, this isn't a dome or a space colony where everything is rationed, but things must be heading that way, if there is a POPULATION CONTROL LAW in place.

Whomever put that legislation in place must have known that a certain amount of control needs to be exercised in the name of the general good. We can also assume that, if this legislation is in place, access to birth control and abortion is not limited in any way, shape and form.

So basically the Shannon family broke the law, hid their Third kid, and, when faced with the possibility of  being brought to task (by paying a bloody fine) the father reacted by attacking the enforcers who, safe for the show of excessive force, are only doing their job.

Something doesn't add up here.

We're meant to sympathise with the Shannon family because they're just like a family in the 21st century is supposed to be - loving, tight-knit, willing to make sacrifices for one another, willing to have children when circumstances are obviously stacked against them. We're meant to hate the enforcers because they're mean and have no regard for personal property and family values.

But this isn't the 21st century. The situation is much worse than the one in the 21st century, as the series has clearly shown. And yet, we're supposed to uphold outdated values because they're objectively right? What does that say about all the other families in the 22nd century, who work hard and don't exceed their child quota?

The problem with these population control narratives is that the people breaking the law are usually the ones with the most privilege. The Shannon family boasts two able-bodied and fully-employed parents, and two older children who can easily take employment if necessary. If they were forced to pay their fine, they would have been able to (otherwise, Josh's angst would be totally and wholly disproportional.) We don't see how other people live in this world, or how they might feel if resources are re-allocated to accommodate this new and illegal Third.

The Shannon family broke the law, but they didn't just break it, they felt they didn't deserve to face the repercussions (why else would they hide? It's not like the police would have killed their kid). I also don't buy that they counted on keeping Zoe hidden all her life, which means they also didn't expect to deprive only their little family unit in order to raise this extra member. They felt entitled to having this third child, possibly because the real consequences of having it wouldn't be falling on them.

Again - why are we supposed to root for them?

Is it because this kind of narrative holds a universal truth? Or is it because it validates the fact that, right now, 20% of the world population is using up 80% of its resources?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: "Elusion" by Claudia Gabel and Cheryl Klam.

“Elusion.” 
Authors: Claudia Gabel and Cheryl Klam. 
Pages: 384. 
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (this ARC came courtest of Edelweiss.)
Release date: March 18th 2014.

Summary (taken from Goodreads): Soon, Elusion® will change the world and life as we know it.

A new technology called Elusion is sweeping the country. An app, visor and wristband will virtually transport you to an exotic destination where adventure can be pursued without the complications—or consequences—of real life.

Regan is an Elusion insider. Or at least she used to be. Her father invented the program, and her best friend, Patrick, heir to the tech giant Orexis, is about to release it nationwide. But ever since her father’s unexpected death, Regan can’t bear to Escape, especially since waking up from the dream means crashing back to her grim reality.
Still, when there are rumors of trouble in Elusion—accusations that it’s addictive and dangerous— Regan is determined to defend it. But the critics of Elusion come from surprising sources, including Josh, the handsome skeptic with his own personal stakes. As Regan investigates the claims, she discovers a disturbing web of secrets. She will soon have to choose between love and loyalty…a decision that will affect the lives of millions.
Suspense, thrills, and romance fuel this near-future story about the seductive nature of a perfect virtual world, and how far one girl will go to uncover the truth behind the illusions.
Ah, science fiction YA. Remember that brief period when it was supposed to be the new big thing in the wake of dystopia? I must admit that while I enjoy a good sci-fi now and then (Wars over Trek), it’s not a genre I’m wholly in love with. In the same way that I find hardcore fantasy literature to be a little overwhelming, sometimes the jargon of sci-fi can leave me more exhausted than I like to be when reading a novel. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed some sci-fi YA (I particularly enjoyed Beth Revis’s “Across the Universe” but had no desire to read the other two books), and this is an example of a synopsis that grabbed me. One can’t help but think of “Inception” with its promises of technology leading to wonderful new fantasy worlds that are darker than they seem.

My biggest complaint with “Elusion” is for something I tend to fear with such genre reads. There is a lot of exposition dumping going on throughout this novel, especially the first quarter of the story. You’re given basically every minute detail you could possibly need to know about Elusion itself as well as the technological explanations of how everything works. It drags down the pacing quite a bit but overall it’s tolerable. Think of it as the scrolling screen at the beginning of the “Star Wars” movies: Get it out of the way then get on with the rest.

Once the plot gets moving, it’s a fun sci-fi mystery with enough red herrings and little twists to keep you intrigued. The hook of this story is in Elusion itself: A device that allows the user to enter beautiful and euphoric fantasy worlds, a welcome distraction from the overpopulated and polluted urban districts that have become the USA (the story is set in futuristic Detroit). The brief moments where Regan enters Elusion are certainly some of the stand-out moments of the book, full of gorgeous imagery that left me wanting more. If the story spent more time in Elusion and less time using exposition to advance from point to point then it would have been a more satisfying read.

Character-wise, I genuinely liked Regan, a young woman struggling with grief and a disconnected mother and desperate to cling to the shreds of her father’s legacy as it crumbles before her eyes. She’s got a brain in her head and even when she makes questionable decisions, they’re understandable from her point of view. Besides, it’s practically law for science-fiction protagonists to be a little bit stupid to forward the action. Unfortunately, the novel is also sort of guilty of one of my most hated tropes: the dreaded love triangle!

Okay, to be fair to the novel, it’s not exactly a love triangle. Basically, there’s the love interest, a rather stock handsome male character with the expected dark secret in his past and just enough angst, and then there’s the childhood friend who clearly loves the heroine but she doesn’t reciprocate, but his love for her is there to show how special the heroine is. All romantic elements within “Elusion” are completely unnecessary; especially when you remember that the action of the story takes place over one week. That’s a long term relationship by some YA romance standards but it’s still a strain on my tolerance levels.

Unfortunately, “Elusion” ends with something of a cheap shot. The cliff-hanger ending isn’t so much a cliff-hanger as it is a sudden stop, as if the editor took the longer manuscript and just separated it into halves. It hammers home some of the novel’s weaknesses in terms of plotting and pacing and ends the novel overall with a whimper rather than the bang it’s clearly aiming for. Even if it’s the first in a series, it needs to be able to stand on its own two feet.

Overall, “Elusion” is the standard 3 star read. That sounds like damning with faint praise but it’s not meant in a negative manner. I genuinely enjoyed the novel, despite its faults. It’s damn good fun and has great potential, but it just doesn’t pack the necessary spark to take it to 4 stars and more. Still, if you don’t mind a bit of info-dumping and are interested in some strong world-building and a solid central mystery, give it a go.


3/5. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

City of Technical Fail

By now everyone and their grandma has heard about “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and what a tremendous flop it was. I would lie if I pretended otherwise, as well as if I said I didn’t go to see it precisely because it was labelled to be bad. Let’s face it, objective quality, or even critical quality, doesn’t stop a movie from being entertaining, and I have to say, my best memory from Cassandra Clare’s books is that they were fun to read.

But oh, Draco, my Draco, I was not prepared for this. I was not prepared for it at all.

So this post is going to be a bit of an unpopular opinion, because I’m not talking about Cassandra Clare’s past (other people have done this already), nor am I discussing the source material (because others have done that too), nor do I think that the movie’s failure stems from either of the above. No, my dear readers, this movie was made to be a soulless waste of time, and it would have been regardless of the source material. Let me count the ways.

First things first - yes, there is a scene where they fight vampires to dance music. The music direction is all over the place, really - from the majestic arrangements set to scenes like the introduction of a building or a door locking (hello, Harry Potter!) to putting Demi Lovato’s “Heart to Heart” as the soundtrack to the greenhouse scene (which tumblr is taking the piss at as we speak.) There is a huge discord between what happens onscreen and what musical cues we receive, which makes me wonder what exactly what the filmmakers were going for.

Another thing which makes the rounds is the fact that the CGI in this movie is terrible, and that’s true too, although I don’t consider it the crime everyone else does. Yes, it’s baffling that they didn’t think to make good special effects for a paranormal action movie, but you know, people have done those before modern film-making technology came around. In fact, I daresay this movie would have managed, if they’d made up for the lack of special effects with creative montage and camera work. Turn off the lights, play with focus and angle, save the money from, oh, let’s see: special effects, making up an army of extras, choreography, stunt doubles, wire work, or extra takes. (You would also get brownie points from hipser movie-goers, but that’s a bonus.)

Unfortunately, neither the director, nor the cinematographer thought to be a little adventurous. The shots rarely deviated from the standard head, medium, or full body, everything seemed to be in deep focus, and the camera’s role was reduced to that of a blunt tool, not an active player in the adaptation process. (Also, apparently the cinematographer has won awards. A moment of silence, please.)

Okay, but those are nit-picky film nerd things, you say. What about the acting?

Well, the acting is a mixed basket, as one might expect. Props to Jamie Campbell Bower for managing to play a nuanced Jace, it’s not an easy feat to soften up that character (especially while looking like a leather-clad version of Paul Bettany circa “The Da Vinci Code”.) I’m also pretty stoked about the casting of Jemima West as Isabelle, and not another one of the uber-skinny uber-pretty actresses Hollywood has an unlimited stock of. Lilly Collins does her best as Clary, but with a total of two allowed facial expressions, she can only go this far, and Kevin Zegers as Alec is… um… I’m not sure how much of that was the acting and how much was the script, but damn, he doesn’t do halfway, does he?

Which brings me to the script, or as I like to call it, City of Bones, the cliffnotes. This is the biggest indicator this movie was made for the fans and for the fans alone, and you can’t convince me of the opposite.

Hey, kids, remember that subplot about institutionalised racism that plays a huge part in the original trilogy, and which is set up in City of Bones? Yeah, that’s cut out entirely. The closest we get is a throwaway line from Magnus, but without the context of earlier scenes (which just couldn’t be fitted in between all the other exposition dumps in the first half. I guess they took the abbreviation TMI to heart,) it sounds weird and out of place. Sure, I know what it is, and fans of the book know what it is, but not everyone will bother to familiarise themselves with the source, or read Whitley Birks’ deconstructions (much as I would like them to.)

It’s… honestly quite baffling. I mean, best case scenario, a movie should attract new fans, as well as please existing ones. Filmmakers are essentially cutting their own hamstrings by aiming at one single demographic.

I’ll be quoting Lindsay Ellis here, but this movie was clearly not made with the right thought in mind. It seems to me the people responsible for it had some good ideas, and a huge checklist of what makes a blockbuster, but didn’t know how to put those things together. There are bits and pieces there - Clary right after Jace kills the demon in her flat, Simon in the vampire’s lair, even the greenhouse scene - which are beautifully done, and stand well on their own, but in the context of the movie? It was like the movie makers couldn’t keep up with it.

(Also, I find it ironic that Cassandra Clare originally had trouble finding a studio that would fund a movie with a female character, supposedly won in keeping her protagonist, and then the only main character to speak of in this movie was Jace, who, at the very least, got a character arc.)

The result is… absolutely useless. It fails as an action movie because it’s too hammy, it fails as a so-bad-it’s-good movie because it takes itself too seriously, it fails as a romance because there isn’t enough of it and it fails as an adaptation because the filmmakers had no idea what to do with it.

But with all of this, there is a silver lining: if we have certified badass Sigourney Weaver as part of the cast for the sequel, what can possibly go wrong?

Note: Image via Wikipedia.