Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Christmas and a Message for 2015

I’ve started early on my New Year’s resolutions. I didn’t set out to, I just so happened to sign up for a half marathon and realized that, if I were to do it, I had to start training way before what Marian Keyes refers to as burlap month (i.e. January.) It kinda grew from there, expanding into other things I wanted to do. And you know what? I'm glad this is how it turned up.

That's not to say that, come January 1st, I won't get caught up with the communal health kick and strict budgeting that is so on trend once the holidays are over, we're back at work or school, and we wonder why we spent so much money on cookie cutters we use only once. (Tough questions, those.) But this year, I'll be aware of it. And I hope that this awareness actually leads me to making a positive change in my life.

See, I have this theory, about why New Year's resolutions don't work (for me.) It's the same reason why Christmas morning is always a little anticlimactic (for me,) and that reason, friends, is the Hype. The expectations. The movie you have running inside your head in the lead-up to something, the movie that plays when you're buying presents, planning a party, drawing up elaborate lists of things you will do in the new year or places you will visit. The movie which is always, always, always better than reality. (I mean, I know I have a fertile imagination, but let's be real - it can't be just me doing it.) 

Of course, the problem with focusing on the future means you lose touch with reality. And I don't mean it like you're going around bumping into things because there's Christmas music playing everywhere - it's an issue of logistics.

Sure, it'll be great to buy everyone all of the presents, but if you go overboard, there's always the chance that you will outdo everyone in that department, and then you'll be disappointed when they stuck to budget/didn't put as much thought into it as you did. Or, you could promise to run a (half) marathon and mean it, but let me tell you - good intention will not get you through the reality of training for one. (Hell, even wellness/weight-loss motivation won't help you. Not after you figure out that running will most likely make you gain weight, because otherwise your joints will fall apart.) 

I'm not arguing against resolutions, mind you. Or buying presents. By all means, buy all of the presents. Or make them. Or write a nice letter to everyone you love telling them exactly how much you love them. Regardless of how disgusting you find the whole Christmas branding thing, and the Boxing Day sales, pen and paper are fairly commonplace, and there is something precious about giving someone a written testament of your love.

Because at the end of the day, the holidays are not about presents. They're about love, (said Dr. Seuss.) And resolutions aren't about weight loss, they're about making a change in your life that makes you feel good about yourself. It's not the stuff that matters, it's the feeling. The symbol, not the animus. And those things are hard work. 

Starting on my resolutions early didn't just help me prepare for the reality of them - it showed me that I could do them, and that I wanted to do them, not because I was driven by guilt or shame or a sub-par yearly review. And besides, we still have a whole week of 2014 left - that's 365 more hours of awesome that we can cram in.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and rock on, y'all. 


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review: Prodigy by Marie Lu

I was surprised, when doing my 2014 prequels and sequels round-up, that I didn't have a review of "Prodigy" up. I thought I did. I definitely remembered reading it and having a minor crisis over the ending. I suspect I set writing the review aside, wanting to give it my full attention in exploring the themes of this deep, challenging book...

Or maybe I just didn't have much to write about?

Day and June are on the run from the Republic. Injured and strapped for cash, they head for Las Vegas to try and join the Patriots, who have just the assignment for them. The Elector Primo has just died and his son Anden is not yet established with the military, and the time is ripe for havoc. The Patriots offer to infiltrate June into the Elector's entourage and, with her help, have Day assassinate the Elector. In return, the Patriots would heal Day and help reunite him with his brother. All things seem to go according to plan, until June actually gets to know Anden and realizes that a bloody revolution may not be the best answer to the problems of the Republic. 

Which, actually, is a stance I really like. Coincidentally, so does this book.

Has anyone noticed how a lot of these new YA dystopias seem to center around one protagonist trying to chop off the head of the snake, and once this bad guy is dead and gone, everything becomes all hunky-dory? Very few series actually acknowledge that the problem is bigger than the EEL of one individual (excellent evil leadership, in case you were wondering.) More often than not, a regime has a whole structure, both formal and societal, that keeps it in place, and the leader is the least of your problems. 

(Aside: do you think the lack of acknowledgement is an American thing, or a product of the times? After all, Orwell and Zamyatin weren't afraid to point out the problem was with everyone, not just the evil bogeymen in charge. Perhaps these days we're less inclined to admit that we contributed to things being the way they are?)

My philosophical inclinations aside, this book is pretty solid on all fronts - offering us a glimpse at structural failures on both sides of the border and asking some tough questions. Day and June are forced to think about what their relationship means in the long run and for everyone around them - whether they like it or not, they have been turned into the symbols of two opposing ideologies, and having a "private life" is impossible when there are tens of thousands of people following your every move and imbuing it with meaning. (A cigar is never just a cigar, kids.) 

And yeah, I wonder what discussions we'd have if we used this book as springboard. I'm a social scientist. But it's also plain fun to read, which explains why people praise it so much. Some of the metaphors and messages come across as heavy-handed, and the secondary characters tend to err more on the side of good or bad rather than morally ambiguous, but hey, it's a polarizing situation.

Writing about this now, I'm surprised I didn't grab Champion as soon as it was available. 

Oh, wait.

I remember.


Friday, December 19, 2014

2014 Prequels and Sequels Challenge Round-Up

At the start of this year, I started the 2014 prequels and sequels challenge from Novel Heartbeat. And I did enjoy it a lot, although I didn't end up reading all the books I wanted to read. Which, on the one hand, is a shame because there's a lot of books here I wanted to read. On the other, hey, I have my 2015 TBR cut out for me. 

I'll enclose a full list of my completed challenge reads below, with links to reviews, but I wanted to give some of the highlights:

Favorite finished series: Though technically Garth Nix said he's working on another Old Kingdom book, I think that Clariel is hands down my favourite read this year, and the Old Kingdom is my favourite series. I have the full review if you want to know why, but if you want a gateway into the world, and something that is relatively self-contained, this is the one for you.

Series I'm looking forward to most in 2015: That would probably be the Lunar Chronicles. I already loved them, but after reading Scarlet and Cress I'm super-excited for Winter. (Fairest, I'm withholding judgement until I actually read it. Queen Levana has a ton of potential, but I've only had glimpses of her so far. I can only hope her stand-alone lives up to the hype.)

Best discovery: Not so much a discovery since I started this series earlier, but I was pleasantly surprised by Sweetly and Fathomless. Neither was perfect, but I liked how they liked to get gray. Or grayer than what I'd been used to. Honestly, I kinda don't want to read the final installment because then there wouldn't be any left. And then what will I do?

Biggest disappointment: The Mercy series. Through and through. Exile was okay, but Muse and Fury just dug the whole thing into the ground, which was such a pain because Mercy was fantastic. (And now with the angel trend over, what are the chances of this repeating itself?)

First for 2015: First series I'll pick up in 2015? That'll be the Russalka Chronicles by Jonathan L. Howard. And not just because the main character and I share a name. It's just quality stuff, these series.

Although this latter category makes me think about all those series that I wanted to finish this year, but I would have liked to re-read first. The Ghost and the Goth series for example, and a lot other. A re-read challenge perhaps? What would you guys think about it?

Full list of reads:

Allegiant by Veronica Roth
Sever by Lauren de Stefano (having just finished Fever today)
Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake
Scarlet (and Cress) by Marissa Meyer
Magic Study and Fire Study by Maria V. Snyder
Exile (and Muse, and Fury) by Rebecca Lim
Prodigy by Marie Lu
Sweetly and Fathomless by Jackson Pierce
Rebel Heart by Moira Young
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Because It Is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin
Clariel by Garth Nix
Into The Shadows by Carolyn Crane

Points count: 84

Images courtesy of BookLikes.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ultimate Guilty Pleasure Reads

'Tis the season for gift guides, and though I have some suggestions, I feel like the winter holidays are a time for something else as well. Namely: curling up with a cup of hot something and a nice, long, delicious guilty pleasure book.

I mean, we use Christmas to justify so many things: shopping sprees, mince pies, the existence of Band Aid 30 (because the Brits are so tight-fisted, they need a double whammy of Christmas and a charity single to be persuaded to give, apparently), surely we can fit in a book as well. 

And repent at leisure.

So if you'd rather indulge in something other than a box of chocolates (or, better yet, together with a box of chocolates,) here are my top picks:

1. "Sweet Magik" by Penny Watson. Romance and Christmas usually go hand in hand, but if you add evil elves trying to take over the North Pole using dark magic and a love spell gone awry, I'm all in. I wasn't a huge fan of the first Klaus brothers books, "Sweet Inspiration", and the third one called "Sweet Adventure" ended up landing on its arse for me (seriously, that last conflict!) But "Sweet Magik" is just the perfect blend of cheese and cake, with two very strong leads, a nice mixture of action and romance, and holiday cheer. If you MUST only read one Penny Watson novel in your life, make it this one.  

2. "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" by Aimee Bender. Magical realism is one of those things you can't really admit to liking anymore because it's become "too mainstream." (Actually, many of the literary novels I used to read as a teenager seem a bit too pretentious to me in retrospect.) But - it's the holidays, so go right ahead and dust off your Isabel Allende. Or, if you just finished re-reading her entire bibliography, go for Aimee Bender. Lemon Cake is far from perfect, but if you like your novels to leave you with more questions than answers, then this one is for you.

3. "Saved by Cake" by Marian Keyes. This is a guilty read in only the loosest sense of the word - no Marian Keyes book should be read in secret, IMHO. But I feel any fellow cookbook lover will agree with me on this: Any perusal of such a manual will leave you jealous, ravenous, and oddly inspired. "Saved by Cake" has an extra something to it - baking helped Marian Keyes focus when she was suffering from depression and kept her sane - but beyond that, it's written in such a way, it can make the most discouraged baker want to dig out their apron. It even makes a case for meringues - meringues! - and what better time than this to try your hand at making some? (Her "Christmas Cake Without the Fear" recipe is a beauty to behold.)

4. "Scarlet" by Marissa Meyer. Asking me to choose a favorite Lunar Chronicles book is like asking me to choose my favorite type of sweet - I refuse to name preferences. That said, if these was one book that I would classify on this list, it would probably be "Scarlet", (I have a thing for second books it seems,) and for a very specific reason - out of all the couples in the Lunar Chronicles, Scarlet and Woolf is just the most questionable one. (They're also my faves.) That said, they're also the sexiest pair, and I just love the way the book unfolds, so it gets a big thumbs up from me this season.

5. "Twisted" by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's okay to admit your favourite author doesn't always bring her A-game. It's also okay to admit you liked it anyway. (And besides, a pencil twisted in a giant phallic shape on the cover is like the ultimate symbol of a guilty read. It just is.)

6. "Seven Days for an Eternity" by Marc Levy. It's a YA that adults can plausibly deny is YA because the characters are ancient. And the author is French, so it has a higher count of sex and mutilation than something hailing from the USA. (Though if I remember correctly the story is set in San Francisco.) God and Satan decide to settle the age old battle of good and evil by pitting their Number One agents against one another and seeing who does the most good or evil in a week. They don't expect the agents to meet and fall in love. 

7. "Moon of the Spider" by Richard A. Knaak. Come on, a novelization of your favorite video game is a cash grab, and I looooooooooooooooove it. If you're not a Diablo fan, anything set in your favorite universe is fair game, and if you don't like anything published, head over to fanfiction.net. I repeat: it's the season. Repent in January.

What guilty pleasure reads will you be cracking open this winter? Let me know!

Note: Images via BookLikes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: Messenger of Fear by Michael Grant

This book is cool in a way "The Blood of Eden" wishes it was. 

(Not trashing "The Blood of Eden" obviously. I kinda liked those books, even though I lost patience with Allie a lot halfway through "The Eternity Cure.") 

So you know how it is, you're sitting around, reading your Julie Kagawa, and you suddenly get a feeling you're reading the description of a movie? When I reviewed that book, I described it as "cinematic", although "trying too hard" would have been equally appropriate. It just seemed to me that book really, really, wanted to be a movie and wasn't afraid to use minute descriptions of the protagonist entering a bar, snowflakes trailing in the air and the wind ruffling up their long leather jacket. 

Why am I talking about Julie Kagawa's vampire dystopia romp, might you ask? Well, because if you take that, remove the "trying too hard" and ramp up the cool factor by a 100, you might just get "Messenger of Fear."

Full disclosure: I've met Michael Grant at a book signing. He's a pretty cool chap. This is the only book of his that I've read, but I'm already itching for the sequel because, really... it's action/horror in the best way possible. 

Another disclaimer: there are no vampires in this book. Or dystopias. Instead, we have a Grim-Reaper-But-Not-Really type story with some mythology that some people would describe as "refreshing," others as "esoteric", or as "hackneyed" (or even "trying too hard"), depending on their mileage. I liked it it. 

Our main character, Mara, wakes up without any memory besides her name. Nobody can see her, nobody other than a strange boy with the ability to manipulate time and space, who introduces himself as the "Messenger of Fear." More due to circumstance than choice, Mara follows Messenger as he goes about his duties, which are to find people who did wrong and challenging them to a game. Winning means atonement. Losing means punishment. And if you refuse to play, you get to face your greatest fear. 

Fair warning: some of the imagery in this book might give you nightmares. Mine even came with a warning, both on the book jacket and in the author's dedication (which, again, thank you!) Michael Grant's very well-known for his "Gone" series and the "Brzrk" series, and those of you familiar with his writing will probably know what to expect. Those who don't, I would say this: If you are comfortable watching/reading "Attack on Titan", you will like this. Or, I suppose, if you liked "Anna Dressed in Blood," you'd like this. 

Those of you who didn't, feel free to get the book and read it for the rest. "Messenger of Fear" is an action/horror/philosophical tale that balances its main components in just the right way to keep you hooked until the very end. Mara's quest to finding her identity is what starts the story, but it isn't by any stretch the most important aspect of it. The questions of what is good, what is bad, and what wrongs are the ones that we should be aiming to right, play a huge part in the narrative and, unlike some books, there is no clear, perfect answer by the end. The reader is left to ponder, just like one might do in RL after having to make a difficult choice.

The compromises we make are sometimes not perfect, but they are what they are.

Note: Image via BookLikes.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Thoughts From a Zoella "Fangirl"

By now you would have all heard about "Girl Online", Zoe Sugg aka Zoella's debut novel. (And yes, that is actually how her name is written on the book.) It made a lot of waves over the past few days, first by becoming the fastest selling debut of all time, and then because it was revealed that it was ghostwritten by Siobhan Curham. 

There's a lot that can be said about the whole "controversy" (and Ceilidh expresses a lot of them here and here) (and, for good measure, I highly recommend this post by London Beauty Queen, who is, to me, one of the most honest people on the blogosphere, and this one, which details the ideal world lemonade that can come from this controversy.) Traditional media have jumped on the bandwagon fairly quickly, moaning and groaning about celebrities cashing in on their brand and fooling their gullible young fans...

Actually, I'd really like to talk about the fans here. Seeing as I'm one of them.

Yes, I watch Zoella. I watch a lot of YouTuBe-rs . I started off by looking for ways of putting on make-up for work and ended up getting sucked in. If you want me to explain the appeal of YouTuBe beauty and lifestyle videos, I would probably describe it as "Facebook, but it doesn't really feel like your friends are trolling you with their perfect lives." I'm not active in the community, I don't go to Tumblr, and I certainly don't follow their break-ups and get-togethers, although I do own a few Tanya Burr Cosmetics products. (The nail varnish is super difficult to get off, but the lip glosses cured me of a phobia I didn't even know I had until I started wearing make-up.)  

When Zoe announced that she was writing a book, (not gonna lie again) I put it on my Amazon wishlist. Later, I took it down during a wishlist cull, (as you do,) because let's face it, I have enough books to read, and the blurb made it sound awfully autobiographical, which isn't a bad thing, but it was not my cup of tea.

But I kept it at the back of my mind. As the release date approached, I even thought about reviewing it, partly because I was curious and partly because of this post, in which Zoe talks about hate on the Internet and how upset it made her that her friend didn't want to be in her vlogs anymore because she (the friend) was getting so much hate from fans. I thought about "Girl Online" and wondered - it touches on anxiety and being on the Internet, perhaps it will have something valuable to say. If there is a YouTuBe "celebrity" that has licence to talk about the not-so-pretty aspects of being an online content creator, it is Zoella (although, recently a lot of bloggers and vloggers have talked about their experiences with getting hate and they all make fabulous, valid points. All posts highly recommended, and yes, I think Zoe does a great job of talking about negative things. It's good that she sets an example of being open, but this only makes the most recently controversy worse in my opinion.)

I haven't bought "Girl Online." I don't think I will anymore. When the news that it was ghostwritten hit, I was honestly a little surprised - from the online previews of the book, it didn't strike me as the work of a published author with several novels under her belt. It genuinely seemed like something a new writer would produce. But then the news kept coming, and my feelings changed to annoyance and finally, today, to anger.

The annoyance was easy enough to unpack - every single post I've read about this "controversy" tends to describe Zoella's fans as a unified body of brainless, impressionable, consumerist zombies that have no appreciation of real literature or real life. (At least that's the impression I'm getting from reading these articles.) Adults looking down on teens - quelle surprise!

But the anger I couldn't identify fully. Not until I remembered about this post I'd read way back in July, and specifically the image that accompanied it.

(source: http://www.zoella.co.uk/2014/07/girl-online-behind-scenes.html)

First time I saw this, I was like: "Damn, if I ever get an editor, I am so getting one of those cake stands. And I'm making macaroons." It just looked so pretty and dainty and idyllic, two women hard at work on their macs while the lighting was perfect and they poured over the manuscript. 

If it were me, I'd probably be sitting cross-legged on my desk chair, Skyping with the editor, stress ball in one hand and a box of tissues on standby. (And then I'd make macaroons, because there's nothing more relaxing that whipping a meringue in submission.) 

This is the reason why I'm angry, and why I think more people would be angry, about this controversy. Not because it's ghostwriting (which is a time-honoured practice in the publishing world,) and not because it's just the thing that is done (as some bloggers, and even Zoella's publishers, are quick to point out,) but because of how it was presented and framed: "writing books" is apparently all macaroons and cake stands and pristine Macbooks. (I can't help but think about all those writers whose blogs I follow who document every excruciating day of NaNo or just their regular writing lives, who talk about everything from inspiration bursts to writer's block to depression.) And then we get Zoe's friends putting "Girl Online" in their favourites videos and talking about how much they liked it and how proud they are of her for the work she did on the story... it all just leaves me with a horrible taste in my mouth. 

And no, I don't buy the "it's just what's done, ghostwriting is a thing about celebrities" excuse. I'm more than happy to buy Tanya Burr's lipglosses, but I don't for a second believe that she "makes" them by herself, (i.e. she goes to Eye Candy labs, dons on a lab coat and mixes together the ingredients, adjusts the pigment, scent and formulation, does the testing, names them and designs their packaging.) "Girl Online," meanwhile, is presented as this Cinderella story of a girl with a blog who is given an opportunity to achieve her dream, and then we discover that the book was ghostwritten?

So much for your YouTuBe favourites not trolling you with their perfect lives, I guess. Where do we go from here?