January 31, 2014

The Monthly Digest: January 2014

I realize that monthly recaps aren't necessarily the most interesting types of posts, but I've been toying with starting one myself for a while now. I always find similar posts written by others to be interesting, even though I normally don't comment on them. First and foremost, however, these posts are for me. As a way to analyze everything reading and blogging related for the past month. If you're interested in reading this sort of stuff yourself, please do continue. 

The Books

Favorite Reads from January:
These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner  
Love Letters from the Dead by Ava Dellaira   
And a re-read: Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

The Blog
January Reviews:
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

January Discussions:
A Year for Writing

The Writing
Because I'm forcing myself to have some public accountability here.

January Progress:
As explained in my post A Year for Writing, I'm returning to a novella/story idea I started back in 2012. It's a retelling of the "Maid Maleen" tale as popularized by the Grimm brothers (it's also a variant of sorts of the "Rapunzel" tale). This month I focused more on going through what I had written and doing some fairy-tale research. 

After reading Zipes' Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, I started writing my own feminist fairy tale (just a brief short story).

I'm also am spending some time doing lots of pre-writing and planning in my new writing journal.

No new words written for my WIP yet, though, as I'm still very much in an exploratory phase. Too often I start writing only to get stuck fairy early on because I'm not sure just where I want my story to go.

January Research:
Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England edited by Jack Zipes The critical essays were interesting, especially the discussion of typical heroine passivity in Marcia K. Lieberman's “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale.” What I really enjoyed, however, were the feminist fairy tales included in this volume, written in the style of older tales but featuring strong, empowered heroines.

The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold by Francesca Lia Block I bought this back for thesis research in 2011, but the only story I read then was "Beast," her retelling of "Beauty and the Beast." Of all her short stories, I think I enjoyed "Ice" ("The Snow Queen") and "Tiny" ("Thumbelina") the most. No "Rapunzel" retelling, unfortunately. Block has a very vivid, evocative, fluid writing style which I greatly enjoyed.

I'm currently working through Philip Pullman's Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm and Heidi Anne Heiner's (better known as the creator of SurLaLune Fairy Tales) Rapunzel and Other Maiden in the Tower Tales from Around the World.

And that's it for January. It's been a busy month, and my class started up again last week, which means it's only getting busier from here. How was your January?
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January 28, 2014

Top Ten Types of Worlds I'd Never Want To Live In

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're discussing the top ten worlds we'd never want to live in. Rather than simply listing ten specific novel worlds, I'm going to mix it up with some more general types of worlds that I've never, ever want to inhabit. Because that's more fun.

First, some specifics:
World of Lois Lowry's The Giver — A world without collective memories? Where you're told just how advanced/self-sufficient you should be at each age? Where you're given a career, a spouse, and children by the governmental system? Where you die when the government decides you should? Where there's no color at all? No thanks.
World of Neal Schusterman's Unwind — Absolutely nothing about this world is okay. Nothing. Abortion is not something that should be an option years after the child was born - it's not abortion at that point, but murder. Also? Unwinding is the creepiest, most disturbing thing I've ever read about.

A little more generally:
Worlds with an intense class system  Sure, I sometimes have fun trying to imagine which class I'd place myself in if I was part of this society. But class and rank systems are inherently unfair and are a great breeding ground for insurrection. (ex. Divergent by Veronica Roth)
Worlds undergoing an alien invasion  I don't believe that many aliens making the effort to travel to Earth would completely lack ulterior motives. As in, I'm pretty sure any aliens that travel to Earth would be planning on colonizing or destroying our lives. (ex. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey)
Worlds undergoing a Biblical apocalypse  Have you read the Book of Revelation? It contains some pretty terrifying stuff. Mass destruction, plagues, vengeful angels. Honestly, I'd prefer not to be around if for any Biblical apocalypse. (ex. Angelfall by Susan Ee)
Worlds undergoing a zombie apocalypse
  Mostly because I know I'd be one of the first people to get eaten. Just eaten, with no potential to even turn into a zombie. Not that I'd want to have that happen to me either. (ex. This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers)

And even more generally:
Any dystopian world  Because let's be frank: a key facet of any dystopian world is the oppression. Even though most portrayals of dystopian worlds feature a revolution of some sort, there's a reason that the uprising happens. Dystopian worlds suck and generally exist to limit and control one's rights. Also, there's no way I'd be brave enough to fight against a powerful governmental system. Nor lucky enough to survive such a rebellion.
Any paranormal world  This is with the caveat that I'm not a paranormal being myself. I think it would kind of suck to be surrounded by all these paranormal beings and know that I'm normal and therefore boring. I don't want my distinguishing trait in such a world to be my humanness or play the role of the bait/sacrifice/be constantly in danger, and that's generally what happens to humans in paranormal-being infested worlds.

These are just the tip of the iceberg, really. I wouldn't want to live in a large percentage of the fictional worlds I read about, although I still do love reading the stories that take place within them. Please let me know what types of worlds you'd never want to live in!
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January 26, 2014

Review: Restless by William Boyd

Restless by William Boyd
Published: 2006, Bloomsbury
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction, Thriller
Source: Library
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I stood there in the kitchen, watching her staring across the meadow still searching for her nemesis and I thought, suddenly, that this is all our lives - this is the one fact that applies to us all, that makes us what we are, our common mortality, our common humanity. One day someone is going to come and take us away: you don't need to have been a spy, I thought, to feel like this.

I feel as though I’ve really been striking out with my book club’s latest picks. The worst part is there’s no real reason why I shouldn’t have enjoyed Restless. It’s not the typical type of book that I tend to read, but it’s still fairly interesting and well written. Some pretty substantial disconnect made it difficult for me to enjoy this very much, however.

Practically out of the blue, Sally Gilmartin tells her adult daughter Ruth that she is not who she’s claimed to be for the past few decades. She created a new life for herself as Sally Gilmartin, but she fears her efforts have begun to unravel before her very eyes. She’s worried that her past has finally caught up with the woman who was once Eva Delectorskaya, a woman of Russian heritage spying for England during World War II.

Of course, Ruth isn’t inclined to believe Sally at first, and instead thinks that her mother is going mad. But as Ruth continues to read her mother’s journal entries, she’s swept away by the story of a young Russian woman who, after her brother’s untimely death, decides to continue his work with a British spy agency. Known as Eve Dalton, Eva travels across many countries and takes advantage of her many skills and knowledge. But she learns that the dangers of this lifestyle may outweigh the positives.

I don’t have too much to say about this book. It’s clear that Boyd has done his research. There are many scenes from this book that seamlessly integrate real-life events and Boyd’s own characters. I thought that I knew a fair bit of World War II history, but apparently I not as much as I thought. Either that, or my knowledge is more specific to American involvement and certain overreaching concepts such as the Holocaust (which is very possible). Either way, I feel as though this is a story that would be better enjoyed by those who really know their World War II trivia (especially that as related to British involvement/espionage).

Both Eva/Sally and Ruth are fairly well-constructed characters. I didn’t have a problem with either of them, but neither did they summon up too many emotions for me. I was never more than mildly amused/surprised/worried by their situations. I might have had the potential to be more involved in Eva’s story, but I already knew that she ends up leaving her service and becoming Sally Gilmartin, so the element of surprise was missing. Not every story needs to leave the fates of its characters as a surprise, necessarily, but my lack of empathy for the characters coupled with the fact that I knew that Eva manages to survive made me a bit less involved.

There are also many loose threads. I can understand the loose threads surrounding Eva’s life; once she decides to be a spy, nothing in her life can ever be clear-cut again. I get that. And the main mystery surrounding her increased paranoia and decision to reveal her past to Ruth is resolved. I never felt as though Boyd put the same amount of effort into Ruth’s story, however. Her story functions as both a frame narrative and a second story to Eva’s. Outside of her learning about her mother’s history and helping her get a sense of resolution on things, not much is resolved about Ruth’s personal conflicts. Again, resolution is not always necessary, but the lack of any sort of resolution on Ruth’s made me wish that Boyd hadn’t devoted as much time to her characterization and life outside of her mother.

Restless is not a bad book. It’s just not my type of book. If you like your historical fiction and thrillers with a decent dash of spies and espionage thrown in, then this just might be the book for you.

Rating: 2 stars

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January 23, 2014

Review: Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor
Series: Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #2
Published: 2013, Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Contains spoilers for Daughter of Smoke & Bone (my review)
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Karou’s whole body was rigid. “Yeah? Okay," she said, staring up into the stars. "Let's see. You know how, at the end of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet wakes up in the crypt and Romeo's already dead? He thought she was dead so he killed himself right next to her?

“...Well, imagine if she woke up and he was still alive, but..." She swallowed, waiting out a tremor in her voice. "But he had killed her whole family. And burned her city. And killed and enslaved her people.”   

A recurring theme of Days of Blood & Starlight is how words are not enough. Mere apologies from Karou to her people cannot negate the fact that she is one of the reasons that the chimera have all but been destroyed. Likewise, Akiva knows that any regret he expresses to Karou cannot repair the love they once had. And for me the words of this review are an insufficient means of expressing my thoughts on this book. But suffice it to say that I loved this book. Days of Blood & Starlight is tells a different sort of story than its predecessor, Daughter of Smoke & Bone does. It’s a darker, bleaker tale, but one just as compelling.

This is not a story for the light-hearted. Days of Blood & Starlight picks up shortly after the concluding events of Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Karou has found her way to Eretz, the world of seraphim and chimera, but she is too late to prevent the genocide of the majority of her people. The genocide that her former lover, Akiva, helped lead before he realized that his love Madrigal was not dead, but reborn as the human Karou. Together they may have been able to work again to give hope to their people that constant warfare is not the only way to survive. Now, any regrets that Akiva has for leading the war efforts, and that Karou has for having loved Akiva, are too little, too late.

Nearly two decades ago, an angel (seraphim) and a monster (chimera) fell in love and dreamed of a peaceful world. A world where the seraphim and chimera armies were not constantly trying to one-up another. A world where they could simply coexist. But of course that did not happen. If only Madrigal and Akiva had time enough to gather a large group of pacifists. If only Madrigal had not been executed for her “betrayal” of her people. If only Akiva had learned Karou’s identity before he set into motion the plans for the extermination of the chimera. If only. Separate, both Karou and Akiva are driven by their guilt, their fear, their anger.

Karou is but a ghost of the girl readers met in Daughter of Smoke & Bone. She is not the spirited, carefree girl whose biggest concern was finding out about the mysteries surrounding her chimera family, and why her adoptive father Brimstone needed so many teeth. In many ways, she’s lost her innocence. By lifting the veil that had hidden her memories of life as the chimera Madrigal, Karou has become exposed to many dark, brutal realities. Not only is her innocence gone, but with it are her hopes and dreams for peace. Her name literally means “peace,” and is a bitter reminder of all that has failed. As Karou replaces Brimstone as the resurrectionist for the chimera army, her (and their) main goal is in vengeance, for their numbers are too few to hope for much more.

Akiva is now referred to as the Beast’s Bane by the seraphim, and is ashamed of all that he has helped his brethren accomplish (or kill, rather). The majority of Akiva’s narration deals with his acceptance that he has played an integral role in the genocide of his love’s people, and that the love he and Karou once shared is forever gone. It also deals with Akiva’s new desire to look for hope in new ways, and to prevent the complete destruction of the chimera. In Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Akiva is purposely made into a more mysterious character; only when Karou remembers her past does Akiva begin to gain defining characteristics. In Days of Blood & Starlight, Akiva shares the title of protagonist with Karou, allowing readers to better understand the nuances of his character. It’s not always pretty, as the majority of the book is not, but he becomes more realistic for all of his flaws and dogged determination to ensure that some good remains in the world.

A number of other characters share narration time with Karou and Akiva. I mentioned in my review of Daughter of Smoke & Bone that I was not always a fan of Taylor’s decision to use multiple points of view in that book; here, she continues to expand upon the number of narrating characters. And, again, I am not sure of the necessity of that tactic (here even more so than in the first book). Karou’s friend Zuzana and her boyfriend Mik bring some levity and normalcy to the story, but I’m not sure they really deserved as much narration as they received. This is first and foremost a story about war and broken hopes, and the transition between those heavier topics and Zuzana and Mik’s roles felt a bit strained at times. Taylor also introduced a few new characters as narrators, but none of them really seemed to serve a major role in the story as a whole, making me wonder if the purpose of their narrative could have been just as well told in another way. Outside of the strange and sometimes awkward choices in points of view, I really have no complaints about this novel.

The pacing of this novel and its place within the trilogy as a whole are worth mentioning briefly. While Daughter of Smoke & Bone is a novel of discovery and romance, Days of Blood & Starlight is a novel of lost hope, of war, of death. I think it has a distinct plot, but it also includes many elements that are clearly setting up for the finale. This novel ends with promises for hope and redemption, which I assume will be the driving forces behind Dreams of Gods & Monsters. There is some set-up in this book, as well as some major worldbuilding. It is in this book that readers are really introduced to the world of Eretz and the centuries-old conflict between seraphim and chimera. Parts of the novel have a slower pace (most noticeably the first half), but I never found the pacing unbearable. Taylor’s understanding of her fantasy world is nothing short of impressive and I think it’s conveyed in such a way that really helps the reader grasp its intricacies.

Minor issues aside, I really do think that Days of Blood & Starlight is a worthy successor to Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Through this book, Laini Taylor has proven her versatility as a writer; she’s able to transition quite seamlessly between the romantic daydream that is the first book into the grim nightmare that comprises the second book. I will not spend much time speculating as to what the third book will contain, although I do hope that there will be some sort of redemption for Karou and Akiva and the seraphim and the chimera.

Rating: 4.5 stars
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January 21, 2014

Review: Everneath by Brodi Ashton

Everneath by Brodi Ashton
Series: Everneath, #1
Published: 2012, Balzer + Bray
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal
Source: Purchased
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“I’d like you to ask yourself, Who loses hope first? And who never gives up? Because it’s not the supernatural abilities that set mythical creatures apart.” She leaned forward. “It’s the decisions the human characters make, in impossible situations, that have us still talking about them centuries later. Heroes are made by the paths they choose, not the powers they are graced with.”

I bought ebook versions of both Everneath and its sequel Everbound on a whim when they were on sale. Even though paranormal romances are among my least favorite types of books, I’d heard good things about this series. I was also just plain curious. If anything, this reading experience has further cemented my belief that while there are good books found within the paranormal genre, they’re by and large just not for me.
Nikki Beckett lost her mother months ago due to an accident with a drunk driver. Since then she had constructed some semblance of normality once more. But when she found out her mother’s killer was acquitted and her boyfriend Jack may have cheated on her, she was desperate for an escape from all her negative emotions, so desperate that she agreed to accompany her new friend Cole to a place called Everneath and allow him to numb her pain by feeding off of her emotions.
After having spent one hundred years with Cole in Everneath (equal to six months of Surface time), Nikki is changed. She’s lost the majority of her memories, except for this one persistent image of a boy: Jack, her boyfriend. As her one hundred years in Everneath end, Nikki is given the option of going straight to the Tunnels of Everneath, essentially becoming a human battery for the rest of her life, or else delaying the inevitable by returning to the Surface for six months before then being sentenced to the tunnels. Nikki chooses the Surface and the opportunity to regain her memories about Jack, possibly the only thing that allowed her to survive those one hundred years in Everneath. But Cole believes she’s special, different from all the other humans he’s fed off of over the centuries, and will do anything to convince her to return to Everneath on his terms.
The basic premise of Everneath ensures that the reader will feel at least a little bit of anxiety. After all, Nikki’s made an inescapable bargain with demons, more or less, who will eventually return to reclaim her. The story alternates between Befores (detailing the events that led up to Nikki’s decision to join Cole in Everneath) and Afters (counting down to Nikki’s return to Everneath). Normally these types of stories make me a bit anxious. 

As the time flies past, however, I found myself feeling peeved by Nikki’s (lack of) agency, rather than simply anxious for her predicament. Emotionally, Nikki is a mess. She was a mess before traveling to Everneath, and, surprisingly, all those problems she hoped to escape are back with her when she returns to the Surface. And they’ve multiplied. It takes Nikki a while to realize that she actually doesn’t want to return to Everneath, and then the book is little more than a mad dash to escape fate. I suppose I can’t fault Nikki for acting like a teenager, but my experience reading this does show me how much of a difference it makes that I’m not the intended teen reader here.

At this point, it seems almost a prerequisite for a paranormal romance to feature a love triangle. Everneath certainly fits that bill as Nikki must come to terms with her feelings for Jack and for Cole. First there’s Jack, Nikki’s best friend for years and the one who helped her cope with her mother’s death. He’s been the object of her (seemingly) unrequited love for a while, until suddenly he admits that he also has feelings for her. Things are going well until a misunderstanding at a spring training camp for the football team and cheerleaders causes Nikki to believe that he’s cheated on her. And. of course, from the beginning Nikki has suffered from feelings of inadequacy compared to Jack.

Then there’s Cole. Blond, cocky, and mysterious, he is Jack’s polar opposite in many ways. Because of Cole, I consider Everneath to contain a love triangle, although it seems pretty clear that Nikki does not harbor romantic feelings for him. He was there and able to take away Nikki’s pain, and so she uses him. But there never seems a question of whether Nikki will love Cole instead of Jack. Rather, the question seems to be whether Nikki will choose to accept loving Jack and the consequences that entails, or whether she will choose the more emotionless life that Cole offers. Although Nikki believes that Cole is incapable of love, he’s clearly the harborer of unrequited feelings here, not Nikki.

So this story includes a triangle of complex feelings, but perhaps this doesn’t quite qualify as a traditional “love triangle.” That’s a small grace.
Although the story has both explicit and implicit ties to Greek mythology, Ashton’s use of mythology felt somewhat inaccessible and confusing at times. There were mentions of both Greek and Egyptian versions of the afterlife, of the Persephone myth, of Orpheus and Eurydice, and more. There’s even some Hindu myths thrown in the story. It seems as though Ashton attempts to clarify the juxtaposition of myths through Cole, having him inform Nikki that all of humanity’s mythology is based off of different interpretations of Everneath.

Fine. I can accept that. After all, most of our myths and legends have similarities and probably were adapted from one specific source. The tales presented in Everneath, however, just seemed a bit...off. I know my Greek mythology fairly well, yet some of the explanations about myths had me scratching my head. Who, exactly, is like Persephone in this world? The Everlivings like Cole? The Forfeits like Nikki? And what roles do the Shades and the Queen have in all of this? Really, it all boils down to the fact that Everneath presents a very, very strange juxtaposition of mythology and I found the worldbuilding lacked some essential clarity.

Everneath isn’t bad necessarily, but neither is it great. It works as a slightly more creative take on traditional paranormal romances, but its confusing worldbuilding left me with an aftertaste of unfulfillment. I suppose you could say I ended up feeling a bit emotionless towards it all, rather like the Forfeits fed on by the Everlivings. Despite all of this, I do plan on reading my copy of Everbound because Everneath does end on one fantastic cliffhanger that really does justice to the characters and their motives.

Rating: 2 stars
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January 17, 2014

Ready to Become a Fan of...Victoria Schwab

Ready to Become a Fan of... focuses on those authors new and old whose works I have every intention of eventually reading, but haven't been able to devote the time to just yet. By discussing authors and their works that I'm sure I'll love, given the chance, hopefully I can be more easily compelled to take the next step in not simply acquiring one of their books, but actually take the time to read it.

This month I'm putting on record that I am ready to become a fan of Victoria Schwab.

About the author:
Victoria Schwab, also writing as V.E. Schwab, is currently the author of three novels and two short stories, and she has two more novels scheduled for release in 2014 (New Beginnings, the first in a new MG series called Everyday Angel, and The Unbound, sequel to last year’s The Archived). Readers should take into consideration that Schwab’s debut, The Near Witch, was only published in 2011. Although all of her books can be considered speculative fiction, they can be categorized across a variety of subgenres and audience levels. 

Work I'm most looking forward to reading:

The Near Witch

The Near Witch is only an old story told to frighten children.

If the wind calls at night, you must not listen. The wind is lonely, and always looking for company.

And there are no strangers in the town of Near.

These are the truths that Lexi has heard all her life.

But when an actual stranger-a boy who seems to fade like smoke-appears outside her home on the moor at night, she knows that at least one of these sayings is no longer true.

The next night, the children of Near start disappearing from their beds, and the mysterious boy falls under suspicion. Still, he insists on helping Lexi search for them. Something tells her she can trust him.

As the hunt for the children intensifies, so does Lexi's need to know-about the witch that just might be more than a bedtime story, about the wind that seems to speak through the walls at night, and about the history of this nameless boy.

Part fairy tale, part love story, Victoria Schwab's debut novel is entirely original yet achingly familiar: a song you heard long ago, a whisper carried by the wind, and a dream you won't soon forget. (Goodreads)

Why this author & this work:
I’ve been fascinated by The Near Witch ever since I first read the premise. I’m all about fairy-tale retellings and fairy-tale inspired fiction. This story sounds dark and mysterious and so intriguing. Of course I’m interested in the story the premise promises, but I’m also kind of looking forward to really analyzing the various fairy-tale elements at play and just how Schwab was able to derive inspiration from these older stories.

I’m also always seeking new speculative fiction authors to read. Even more than being a solid speculative fiction writer, I enjoy reading works by authors who are willing to play around with a variety of stories. I just love the fact that with only a few published works, Schwab has already resisted being pigeonholed into writing one specific type of story or for one specific type of audience (well, besides the fact that all her stories do center around the fantastical). I’m sure I’ll find that I prefer certain stories of hers over others, but I respect the fact that she’s willing to experiment and that publishers are willing to allow her to experiment.

2013 appears to have been a good year for Victoria Schwab. Both her YA fantasy The Archived and her adult fantasy Vicious were published to positive praise overall. Schwab is still near the beginning of her career (I hope), so I think it will be fascinating to witness her rise in popularity and skills as a writer.

For those of you who've already read some of Schwab’s works, I'd appreciate hearing what you think about them. For those who also haven't read her works yet, let me know what's been holding you back!

Ready to Become a Fan of... is an original feature of Late Nights with Good Books.

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