Archive for June, 2011

Book Review: Wither

The Chemical Garden Trilogy #1: Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Ages 16 and up

Rhine Ellery is used to living with a death-sentence hanging over her head. She’s sixteen, which means that she has four years before the virus that now claims every female at 20 and every male at 25 comes to claim her. She and her twin brother, Rowan, have spent most of their lives surviving day by day. Until the Gatherers find Rhine. Suddenly, she finds herself a teenage bride in a polygamous marriage. She’s heard of this happening, part of a desperate effort to keep the human race from dying out completely, but she always thought that she and her brother were careful enough to keep it from happening to her. Despite the fact that she finds herself in the lap of luxury and is quickly becoming her new husband’s favorite wife, all Rhine can think about is getting out of her gilded cage and back to her brother. So she can spend whatever years she has left in freedom. But her husband’s father is a man bent on finding a cure and saving his son and Rhine starts to feel that she has perhaps been chosen for a darker purpose than being his son’s wife. A purpose that she’s not sure she likes.

This book was on my list. I was going to read it eventually, because a very reliable source told me it was good. And then I got to have a brief conversation with the author over Twitter (emphasis on brief). So if you were hoping my next review would be on Uncommon Criminals, blame it on the mouse. (And the fact that Borders forgot to call me when my book finally came in. Good thing I’m proactive.) Anyways, it got a well-deserved bump up to the A.S.A.P. part of my list, so here it is.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been on a dystopian kick recently. I am far from being an expert, but I find that I love it. I knew Wither  was categorized in that section, so I came to the book with a few preconceived notions about what I could expect. And with the big stuff I was correct. But one of my favorite nuances was how proactive Rhine felt. What I have found to be the case much of the time (and this goes for genres, I just think it’s more with this one) is that you have Protagonist. Protagonist is surviving in a less than perfect society, following the rules and acting like a good little sheep. And then something happens. Protagonist’s best friend runs away, or their sister’s name gets drawn from the cup of death. Protagonist reacts and the story begins. But through out the whole story, survival is goal (it’s a very good goal, I will give you that). The main character will do what has to be done for them to survive, but they don’t act out of the box unless they have to. They don’t try to break the mold without outside influence (be it from friends of enemies).

Rhine isn’t like that. She wants to live. She wants to be free. From almost the moment she wakes up in Linden’s house, Rhine is figuring out how she can get out. Rhine has suddenly found herself in the lap of luxury, with a guy who adores her more every day. Her needs are more than met, she could just sit back and accept that she is going to spend the rest of her life here. She could be like her sister wife, Jenna, and think that this is a better a place than most to die. But surviving isn’t good enough for her. Rhine wants freedom. Another thing that I like about Rhine is that she isn’t overly cynical. She could be. She is witty and real in her observations, but not unpleasant to a fault (actions are sometimes a different story).

This book has some of the best examples of using significant detail in a story that I have ever seen. There are some books where you can guarantee that the author is going to describe every dress or every building. Books where facial features will be stressed or actions. But in Wither, DeStefano uses her details to enhance what is happening in that moment, which means that the details with significance change constantly. One moment, she’s describing the wedding attire of Rhine and her two sister wives, giving you a glimpse into each girl’s personality. Two pages later, you see Rhine focusing on just one wall of her new home, impressing on you just how big the Ashby house is. She even manages to uses something as mundane and everyday as make-up to lead into background for a minor character. It’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

And speaking of background. This is one book where I was as happy to be reading backstory as frontstory (is that the technical term?). You get dropped right in the middle of the action. You don’t have to go through Rhine’s typical day and then she gets kidnapped. She already is kidnapped. DeStefano uses innuendo and slight of hand to deftly make you as interested in Rhine’s past as you are in her present and future. You want to know about her brother and about how her parents died. The balance between backstory and current plot is such a hard balance to strike. Too much and the reader gets bored. Too little and the reader gets lost. DeStefano does a very good job of walking that line between the two.

Of course, it’s not a perfect book. There were a few times when Rhine or the plot would make a jump and I’d be dragged out of the story to say, “Wait, what? How did you come up with that?” I’m someone who is constantly jumping in and out of the story. When it gets too intense, I’ll out the book down for about thirty seconds. Or when I’m struck by an author’s brilliance.  Or when I’m just laughing to hard to hold the book still…or breathe. Rarely do I actually have to stop because something doesn’t make sense or because I actually have to back track to figure out what the blazes is happening.  I can think of only two times that this happened and I don’t even remember where they were (not that I would tell you if I did, that would be a spoiler and I don’t give those). And I’m still not sure that I wasn’t supposed to have to stop and think at those points.

With Wither, you are in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they are doing. And they won’t tell you! I’m sure that the clues are all there. I’m sure that when I get to the end of book three (however, many years down the road that is) I’ll be able to reread the series and go, “How did I not see that?” and everything will make perfect sense. But right now, my powers of prediction are sadly baffled. And that is frustrating! (If the author is reading this, I bet she’s doing a little victory dance or at least grinning evilly.) One of my favorite parts about reading a book is to take the pieces and see where the plot is going and figure out what is going to happen before it happens.  It’s an uncanny skill that I have. And it is being pushed to the max right now. Normally, I find it painfully easy. Not this time. My brain is still turning possibilities and lines of story development and the interaction between characters and coming up with likely directions the story will take. But I can’t settle on any one thing that I know is going to happen (okay, actually there are a couple of things that I think I might know are going to happen, we’ll see). This is not a familiar feeling for me. It’s weird and foreign and…actually, kind of fun. It won’t stop me from trying of course, but I like that I wasn’t able to figure all the big stuff out in one reading. No, I don’t like it…I love it. And it’s part of why I can’t wait for Fever to come out in February (*cries* It’s SO far). Because the more pieces of the puzzle I can get, closer to seeing the whole picture I will be.

This is a book that I would recommend to people all across the board. It’s up there with The Hunger Games, I think that all my friend’s that enjoy a good book will enjoy this. Whether you are into the dystopian scene or not. Make this your introduction. At the same time, anyone who wants to write, especially if you want to write YA, this book should be on your list. I had as much fun reading how it was written as I did reading what was written. It’s one of those books you walk away from and say, “Wow…Let’s do that again!” (Kind of like you do with a good roller coaster). Parents, if you’re looking for a good, thought-provoking book for your teens to read, have at it. I would keep this one away from the younger teens. Rhine knows first hand the reality of her situation, she sees glimpses of it, and she’s honest. She doesn’t shy away from the realities of her world. Some of what she sees, or knows is happening just might be bit much for kids that are younger than fifteen or sixteen. I didn’t even come close to needing to self-censor the book while I read. It is very clean (I can’t vouch for the second and third books as they haven’t been written yet), but it is also very deep and kind of dark.

This is a good example of:

  • Significant detail
  • Character reveal
  • Backstory integration
  • A good love triangle
  • First person narrative
This book is one my recommended reading list.

I recently came across the first story I ever wrote. It was for a creative writing class that I took when I was eleven. I vaguely remember the story: It was during my Beanie Baby phase and of course, they came to life and we had adventures. I didn’t reread it, because I’m pretty sure I would cry (and not the happy kind). After all, it hails from way before I discovered all of the authors that taught me what a good book is made of. But there is something nostalgic about holding that folder, with it’s Lisa Frank stickers and being able to see the date, January 22, 1999, typed in the chunky font of my mother’s typewriter (which was bought shortly before I was born). And something satisfying in knowing that I’ve been writing for twelve years now. It makes me feel accomplished. I can still remember sitting at that little desk, covered in wood grain contact paper, staring at that tiny screen with its glowing green letters armed with nothing but an idea and a deadline.

How far I have come.

I use my own desk now. And I’ve learned that, while a good idea is of utmost importance there are a few other more mundane things that make a writer’s life a little easier.

Like a baby name book. I still remember the look on my mom’s face when she saw me with it for the first time. She of course had (and has) complete faith in me and knew that there was no way that I would actually be naming any babies (not yet at least), but she was really wondering why the heck I had that book. Of course, once she saw the notebook, she got four. It is perfect for when I need a name for a last minute character…or when I discover that all of my characters have names that begin with ‘A’. For my main characters, I like to rely on my reverse name dictionary. This one is great for when I have a character that I know a bit about, but don’t know their name (my leads usually introduce themselves). For example, let’s say I need a name for the sidekick, who will end up being the main characters closest friend–All I have to do is look up the word friend under the appropriate gender and I have a host of names to choose from.

I also have a dictionary and a thesaurus nearby. The dictionary is there is because sometimes I feel the need to double-check the meaning of a word and because when i come across a word I don’t know, I like to actually look it up. The thesaurus is for those times that I I realize that I’ve used the word “glare” six times in the last chapter. Simplicity is best, but there are words, like dazzling, that stand out. You don’t want to use them too often. If I feel I’m using a word too often I’ll look up a quick equivalent. It’s also useful for those times that I know exactly which word I want, but I can’t remember what that word is-but I can remember a synonym. Then it’s time for a word search.

Of course I have my stack of Writer’s Digest magazines…all but the last six months of them still waiting to be read. I know it’s horrible. I’ve always stunk at keeping up with my subscriptions (It was even worse when I subscribed to Dog Fancy right before I got my dog), but there’s SO much in them so I am trying to at least stay up-to-date. You can now find me walking around with the newest issue for about two weeks. I like to spread each issue out, helps me to warm-up for working on my book. As with a good book or a book on writing, these magazines make me want to write, no matter my mood. So obviously, I don’t usually get very far into an issue before I’m putting it aside.

And then there are a the books we all have. Reference books. Mine are mostly books on writing. Actually, mine are all on writing. All of my other research comes from library books because I’m a poor college student.  There’s the textbook from my creative writing class at UF. And the book on getting published that I now refuse to read even though it says “Read this before you start chapter one” (or something like that). Why? Because I read somewhere else that I shouldn’t read any publishing books until after I’ve written the first draft. But it was 40% off at Borders, so I don’t feel too bad. There’s also my B.I.A.M. book that I’ve restructured to do over the course of a year (because there’s no way I can pause my life for a month at this point, but I still like the structure). And then my two personal favorites: 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt and The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Dr. Linda Edelstein. The first caught my eye because it breaks things down into mythological dimensions and me being a mythology buff, had to have it. It’s been very thought provoking. The latter I bought because I seem to always have one character with some sort of mental illnessand it had a very good chapter on that. They turned out to be a well-spring in my character development process–from thought process to childhood memory to traits that fit the type (I was typing characters in TV and books for weeks afterward).  There used to be a shelf full of spiral bound notebooks also, but I got tired of them taking up valuable book space, so they’ve been boxed until I can get the story starts and the ideas typed into my computer.

Sadly all of this only takes about a shelf on my little desk-side bookshelf (of course, the other shelves are filled with novels, so maybe it’s not so sad). It won’t stay that way for long if I can help it, but right now it seems rather insignificant. And yet, this one small shelf probably tells you a lot about who I am and where I am as a writer.

What about you? What do you find near your writing spot? Or what tools do you have that you favor? And what do they say about you?

Artemis Fowl #7: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

Ages 12 and up

Artemis Fowl has just turned fifteen and he’s ready to do something that he has never done before: Save the world–willingly. It should be simple shouldn’t it? With the best of both human and fairy technology at his disposal, Artemis has discovered a workable way to slow down global warming. But unfortunately, it seems that any time that Artemis and Captain Holly Short occupy the same space trouble is bound to follow. Artemis and his friends find themselves under attack from an enemy that Holly had forgotten she had. And if that isn’t enough, Artemis seems to be suffering from Atlantis Complex, a rare fairy psychosis that couldn’t have picked a worse time to develop. As Artemis, Holly, and friends try to get to the bottom of both the attack on themselves and the subsequent attack on Atlantis (because, ofcourse, they are related) they must also contend with Artemis’ growing paranoia and a split personality that brings to light things that Holly would rather stay hidden. Will Artemis’ distrust of even his friends keep them from saving the fairy folk yet again, or can Artemis overcome his new nemesis–his mind.

The Artemis Fowl books are books that definitely deserve a permanent home on my bookshelf. And once they’ve settled on one cover design, they will have one. I discovered this series through a friend, who gave the first book to my brother. Now at that time, by baby bro was not the biggest reader. And he loved it. So of course, I had to read it. I’ve been in love with the series ever since.

One of the best things about the Artemis Fowl series is that is so much fun from beginning to end. This newest book isn’t any exception. Right off the bat you have not only a mystery (What is with Artemis’ sudden obsession with the number five?), but the usual banter. There’s really no build-up, no easing into the problems of the plot. The strange state of Artemis’ mind is disturbing in a character you love. And just when as you start to figure out what the heck is going on, BAM! The usual mayhem occurs. And maybe a few deaths. This could be really heavy, gruesome stuff, but Colfer still uses dialogue and description in such a way that even with things are exploding, you’re laughing your socks off. I mean, he has Butler pretend to be a luchador–complete with a crazy costume. The characters in The Atlantis Complex are just as much fun and witty as they have been in the last six books.

It’s nice to get to see Artemis vulnerable to what he has considered his greatest asset in the previous six books. He feels more like a normal teenager with each book (not that he ever will truly be normal) and I think this is the first time he’s ever actually wished he was. It is interesting to see how much everyone has come to rely on having Artemis to help think them out of a situation. Artemis’ crazy is well-written. It’s a smart kind of crazy. He’s not bouncing off the walls and shouting incoherent sentences, he’s simply paranoid and more than a little obsessive-compulsive. Which doesn’t work out so well when you’re leaps and bounds beyond your friends intelligence-wise.

This book feels a little more confined than those that came before. And I guess, since a majority of it is spent in a tiny submersible sub, that is expected. Still, it works. I walked away from this book feeling like I knew the main characters much better than I did before, so I didn’t mind that the cast of characters wasn’t as expansive as it has been in previous books, but I did notice. A lot of it was setting up for the next  book, I felt (which is kind of obvious after the ending). I will warn you that the ending of TAF is what could be considered a mild cliffhanger. And if the rumor that this is the penultimate Arty book is true, then I suppose to be expected.

This book was everything that I could have asked for it to be…even if we had to listen to Orion call Foaly a “noble beast” so many times it was nauseating. The more I got into the book, the more I realized that I had missed Artemis and Holly and Butler and Juliet and Foaly and yes, even Mulch. It was wonderful to be able to interact with the characters that I have grown up with. And I will be eagerly awaiting any news of the next volume in the series.

This is a good example of:

  • Description
  • Dialogue
  • Character building
  • Adventure novel
This book is on my recommended reading list.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

All ages

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, which, as anyone in the kingdom of Ingary knows, means that she is destined to fail if she decides to try seeking her fortune. So Sophie, remains at her father’s hat shop helping her stepmother keep the business going. That is, until she manages to offend the Witch of the Waste (though she doesn’t know how). As punishment Witch lays a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old woman. Unwilling to face her family, Sophie sets off. It isn’t long before she comes upon wicked Wizard Howl’s moving castle. Howl has made a reputation for capturing young girls and eating their hearts. But Sophie is an old woman, so she’s safe, right? In the castle, Sophie meets Calcifer, the fire demon that is responsible for most of the castle’s magic and Michael, Howl’s apprentice. Sophie strikes a bargain with Calcifer, he will free her from her curse if she can free him from his bargain with Howl. As she grows to know Howl and the two other occupants of his castle she finds that that everything is not as it seems. Not with Howl. Not with Calcifer. And most certainly, not with herself.

My first experience with Howl’s Moving Castle was actually through a friend who couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen Miyazaki’s movie. Which is an awesome movie, by the way. I highly recommend it.

The book is ten times awesomer (Yes, I said “awesomer”).

Anyways, when I found out it was a book as well, of course I had to go buy it. And I’ve gotten my money’s worth. This is my third full reread–not counting all the times I’ve picked it up to reread my favorite parts.

There are some books that just seem to transcend age range. This book is slated for ages 9-12. I was eighteen when I first read it and I enjoyed it more than I have enjoyed many books. Howl’s Moving Castle is a book that will be just as much fun for the parents to read as for the kids. It’s written in the same style as Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (another awesome book). Full of wit, magic and mayhem. The humor is clean and timeless. Jones’ wording is chosen for the utmost impact both to the story and the enjoyment of the reader. I’ve started tweeting random sentences when I’m reading, I maybe tweeted a tenth of what I wanted to. Just reading the chapter titles is an experience in and of itself. This book will tickle your funny bone until you don’t think you can possibly laugh anymore.

There are some ways that this was definitely written for a younger audience. The plot is quick, there is no time for your attention to wander. Now don’t by any means think that it has a simple plot. This book has one of the most twisty plots that I have seen in a book for this age range. There is a lot packed into Howl’s 448 pages, so you have to pay attention or you’ll miss something. Also, the book’s short format makes every word important. The descriptions are brief. But they are also colorful and vivid. Jones establishes the world and then thoroughly immerses you in it. You can picture the streets of Kingsbury and the wharves of Porthaven in your head. Dialogue is quick and snappy, with one liners galore and each character’s voice distinct and entertaining.

The characters are constantly revealing new and different layers of themselves. When we first meet Sophie she seems quiet and timid. Used to talking her way out of situations meekly. She seems content to stay at the hat shop and determined to help her two younger sisters (who have much better chances at finding their fortunes). And then she gets cursed into her nineties and we get to see a little of Sophie’s real personality. She’s fiesty and fun and no longer afraid to speak the thoughts that have been entertaining for two chapters–even when it means standing up to a wicked wizard. Howl plays the flamboyant playboy, but (as anyone who reads Batman comics will know) there is much more to him than Sophie has heard in her little town of Market Chipping. These character’s are far from perfect (very far, in Howl’s case), but that’s part of what makes them so lovable. And what makes watching them grow so much fun.

This is one of those books that is just as great to read in bed on a rainy day (the sun will be shining inside, trust me) as it would be to listen in the car on a family trip. It’s wonderfully complicated and surprising. Even in my third read through, I was discovering new levels to both the characters and Jones’ handling of the plot. And I recommend it to anyone who wants to write. I always walk away from this book refreshed and inspired to write more.

This is a good example of:

  • Character development/story arc
  • Plot
  • Descriptions
  • Making every word count
  • Putting fun into your writing
This book is one my recommended reading list.

Montreal Twestival 2009 Cupcakes by clevercupcakes

Do you tweet?

In an age where authors are having to market themselves more and more on Twitter, Facebook, and personal web pages/blogs, online presence is becoming essential. We’ve become a society where you have to market yourself as well as your book.

Now, if you are not already a Twitter convert (and I understand there may be a straggler or two), I know where you are coming from. I resisted the Twitter trend until last fall. I mean, how could I possibly express myself in only 140 characters?

Turns out you can fit a lot into 140 characters.

Twitter has probably become one of the most influential and useful tools in my writing arsenal. At least when it comes to motivating myself to write. Here are a few ways that Twitter can help you in your writing (btw, my Twitter account is @TheGladElf if you don’t already follow):

1. Connection- What really got me hooked on Twitter was when I started following some of my favorite authors. I was getting up to the minute updates on where they were on their current WIP (work-in-progress for the noobs or the acronym deficient, like me). Twitter is a great way to see what the big names (or not so big names) are doing and to get in touch with other writers who are at the same stage that you are. And there is some really great interaction. Find a Twitter chat to participate in, get to know your peers and the people who’ll be reading your books. Getting yourself out there is key to building an audience.

2. Information- If you know anything about the publishing/writing industry it is that it changes constantly. Staying up to date in the latest doings is key. Following accounts like Writer’s Digest (@WritersDigest) and Publisher’s Weekly (@PublishersWkly) will keep you in the loop and informed. I’m constantly finding links to other’s blogs and to web pages with great information.

3. Motivation- One of the awesome things about following other writers is that they are usually very vocal about where they are on their current WIP. It’s nice to see someone else where you are or where you want to be. And it is a constant reminder to you to pick up your pen and get to work. If my favorite authors can manage to write a book while promoting another, going on tour and buying anew fridge what excuse do I have that can compare. Although, you might want to disengage from Twitter to write. It can be distracting. Just a little. Or just a lot.

4. Promotion- Let’s face it. You write because you want people to read your writing. I’ll admit it at least. Because first thing I do when I write something is shove it in my best friend’s face and demand “Read!” Twitter is a great way to keep people updated and interested in your own work. Especially if you blog (which you should). In the last month since I started really using Twitter to post links to my blog (TweetDeck and scheduled tweets are a wonderful thing) it has become the most dominant form of referral to my blog.

5. Fun- First off, I did try to find a “-tion” word for this, but celebration wasn’t quite right and distraction just seemed offensive (and fun rhymes, sort of). Anyways, Twitter is fun. It cracks me up. I mean, I knew that I loved Ally Carter’s (@OfficiallyAlly) humor in her books, but she Tweets funny stuff too (as well as important, informative stuff). Also, you never know who’ll tweet back. A certain author might have tweeted a picture of a page from their upcoming book. And me being me, I might have gone ahead and read even though I knew it would only drive me crazy (relief comes next week, thank goodness). My retweet/reply read something like “AAAAGH!!!” and she tweeted back. Now, I did not take a picture of my computer screen and have it framed…but I might have thought about. Just might have. Suffice it to say, that one moment made a bad day much brighter.

So, I’m sure that by now you have been won over to the wonders of Twitter, or maybe you were already won over, but there are just a couple more things that I would like to mention. Because on Twitter, nobody wants to be that guy (or girl). You know, the one that nobody wants to follow. So before I go, five things that I have learned to help you tweet smarter (can you tell I’m all about the numbered lists?):

1. Be relevant- I think this is the one I run across the most often. Consider your audience. Do they really need to know what you have for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Everyday? If you’re a chef, maybe. But for the most part, try to refrain from the daily doldrums. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t add a little personal flair or give a brief (key word, brief) glimpse into your perosnal life, but try to keep in mind your audience and what they are looking to read. In my case, anytime I come across a tweet about writing, or about someone’s book or just, something that has me rolling on the floor laughing, I’ll retweet it.

2. Be careful- Once you hit “tweet”, it is out there until the end of eternity. You can’t get rid of it. It’s kind of like that tattoo you got on Spring Break. Tweet with care. Double check that your wrods have all the letters in the rihgt places. And be careful what you tweet. Think twice and then thrice. and try not to offend anyone famous or rich.

3. Be nice- You know that thing your mom told you. Yeah, that one. I won’t repeat it, but, keep in mind that this may be the first impression that people get of you. Or the second. Have you heard of the “lost the job” horror stories because people assumed the big man didn’t do Twitter (Or Facebook, etc.)? It’s not just that you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. It’s that you want to create a professional persona here. It’s okay to disagree with someone, but be polite when you do. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later.

4. Be giving- The world revolves around the sun. Not me. Not you. You know and I know it. So don’t just tweet your own stuff. You want people to follow you? You have to follow people. You have to do more than tweet links to your blog. You need to contribute and be useful. And part of that is helping share what others have brought to your attention. Best way to get someone’s attention? Retweet their stuff (but you should also be picky, make sure anything you RT matches up with the last three factors).

5. Be real- By which I mean, be you. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there who are going to get some part of your personality. Who are going to find it entertaining and thought-provoking and fun. Don’t try to be someone else on Twitter. I mean, if your M.O. is jerk-face, you might want to censor it a little (unless you’re famous, apparently it’s okay then). But otherwise, feel free to be you. Because that’s who your readers are going to want. And that is who they will connect with.

Obviously, I’m a Twitter baby. So please, chime in with any other advice or tips or enlightening (funny) stories you might possess.


Septimus Heap #1: Magyk by Angie Sage

Ages 9 and up

The beginning of young Septimus Heap’s life started out with promise. He is the seventh son of a seventh son. A child guaranteed to be very magykal. That is, until he dies only a few hours into his short life. With no time to mourn his family must take in a foundling infant girl, whom they name Jenna. Ten years pass and Jenna is revealed to be the long lost princess,  born on the same day as the Heap child’s birth and her mother, the Queen’s, death. Her life of hiding with the Heaps, is thrown into upheaval when the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand, arrives to divulge the secrets of her birth and to whisk her away before the Supreme Custodian’s Assassin can find her. Fleeing with Marcia, her brother Nicko, her father, Maxie the wolfhound and the mysterious Boy 412, Jenna and her family find themselves in hiding from DomDaniel. DomDaniel, ex-ExtraOrdinary Wizard and practicer of Darke Magyk wants Jenna dead so that he will have no contest for the rule of the small kingdom. If she is to live, Jenna must outsmart the Assassin, the Hunter, DomDaniel’s Apprentice and even DomDaniel himself. And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, her long “dead” brother may still be alive. Is Septimus really alive? And if he is, is he really who he claims to be?

The Septimus Heap series is one that has been taunting me for ages. Every time I would go to my library I’d see book two or book three, and I knew I wanted to read them. The covers were just too much fun to pass them up (I don’t usually read a book specifically because of the cover, I believe this is a first). But try as I might, I could never find book one at my library. And then I got my Nook e-reader. Among my favorite features is Free Fridays. Guess what book was the first Free Friday book the week I go my e-reader.

Right off the bat, things were interesting. I mean, the main character was pronounced dead by page 12. Which meant one of two things: this was a ghost story (unlikely because ghosts don’t age and a story about an infant doesn’t promise to be interesting) or not everything was as it seemed. And then there is the death of the queen and the (quickly solved) mystery surrounding Jenna’s real parentage. All-in-all there were the makings of a good story. And it was a good story.

Sage tells the story using a host of characters. All of whom have at least one or two traits that define them. The multitude of the characters doesn’t get confusing, which is the tendency in books with a lot of minor characters. And part of that is because she uses her minor characters just as well as she uses her main characters. They get integrated into the plot. They get reused at least once. And some of them, like Boy 412 and Stanley the Message Rat, end up becoming major characters (okay, maybe Stanley wasn’t a major character, but he was important).

The world of the book and the way the book is written are also tied together. Of course it’s a world with magic–I mean, “Magyk”. But that magic is ornery and doesn’t always do what you think it will do. So too with the plot. You kind of know where the story is going, but it doesn’t take you straight there. It’s more like the wizards described in the book. It like to go on tangents. It kind of reminds me of me telling a story to a friend. I’m constantly stopping to explain important things. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because you it’s fun to learn about this little world. It’s a bad thing because the story tends to ramble, heading every which way until it sort of focuses for the climax.

There was, unfortunately, a lack of urgency for me when I read the book. Don’t get me wrong, it was good and never boring, but it never grabbed me. I never got to that point where putting the book down was painful. Part of that might have to do with the fact that I am an adult reading a book written for middle-schoolers (actually, now that I think about it, it probably has a lot to do with it). The expected reveal of Sepitmus’ identity was probably the most compelling reason to read (cause I wanted to see if I was right…I was). The way each big bad was taken care was also slightly anti-climactic, something  I hope changes with the next five books. It kind gave Magyk the feeling of  being an intro book, with the real action to come in subsequent books.

By far, my favorite part of the book was how the narrative was handled. It was unabashedly an omniscient narrator. A great deal of the book was from Jenna’s point of view, however, it often broke off to another person’s viewpoint. We get a sense of the whole story. We’re shown all the pieces that we need to understand exactly what the stakes are. One minute we’re with Jenna in her aunt’s cottage, the next we’re watching the Supreme Custodian or DomDaniel as they plot how to get their hands on her. Usually changing viewpoint in the way that Sage does (sometimes in the middle of the chapter) is a big no-no, but in this book it just works. It flows.  And it’s clear. You are always aware of when the character focus shifts, but it’s not jarring.

This is definitely a book aimed at preteens. The way the book is written, the constant shift in point of view, the myriad of absurdly quirky characters, and the comical bad guys all land Magyk in the 9-12 age range. It’s good, clean fun that would a make a great read-aloud book with the whole family (hey, the younger you start, the more likely they are to become book addicts). It’s even suitable for the younger children in the family if they have someone who will read it to/with them. I look forward to discovering the next few books.

This is a good example of:

  • Omniscient narrative
  • Use of minor characters
  • Middle school fiction
  • World building
  • Tying world’s history into the plot

Heist Society

Heist Society #1: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Ages 12 and up

What Kat Bishop wants is a normal life. A life where visits to the Louvre don’t involve casing it. Where trips to Austria don’t involve stealing the crown jewels. And she almost manages to get it. Then her best friend gets her kicked out of her prestigious boarding school, because a very dangerous man is missing five priceless paintings. And her father is the suspect. Thing is, Kat is pretty sure that her father didn’t steal the paintings. Not that anyone believes her. With a deadline of two weeks, Kat sets out with her best friend Hale and her cousin Gabrielle to figure out just who stole those paintings…and steal them back.

Despite my deep and abiding love for Ally Carter’s writing, I refused to read this book for a while. On principle. Because the book I really wanted to read was the next book in her Gallagher Girls series. Of course, in the end, that only hurt me and with the next Heist book in the series coming out in nine days and a four dollar price tag at Borders (yeah, I totally took advantage of the four stores that had to close in my area) I decided that is was time to stop acting like a spoiled kid and just read the darn book already. Because I knew I would love it. Which I did, because Heist Society might possibly be better than all the Gallagher Girls books put together (and they are basically four books full of awesome).

Kat is a complicated character. She is a good thief. Good as in, wicked skilled. Everyone she loves is a master thief and this is something that she’s been trained for since the age of three. But it’s not the life she wants. Not since her mom died. She is painfully aware of how much her skills have suffered during her brief hiatus. It’s rather interesting to see her mourn over the loss of skills that she no longer wants to use. Of course, with  her father’s life on the line, she doesn’t let rusty skills stop her. She enjoys the rush of the game, while being painfully aware of just how much one wrong move will cost.

And then there’s Hale.

The only thing that rivals Carter’s masterful female protagonists are her male protagonists. In GG, we had Josh. And then Zach (who I’m in love with, by the way). In Heist we get W.W. Hale. Carter does really well with the tough guy who is really a softee with a little bit of damage. Hale is everything that he needs to be. He’s protective, without being overbearing or getting in the way. Really good with witty dialogue. Just a little bit mysterious (Hale is his last name, he refuses to tell Kat his first) and really, really hot. Yes, it is possible for a character in a book to be hot. Hale is the honorary inductee into the Bishop family. He doesn’t have any ties to “the life”. He just caught Kat breaking into his home one night and took advantage of the opportunity knowing a teenage super thief to find a different life from the one his parents planned for him…and to become said teenage super thief’s not-boyfriend. Just like Kat, Hale has so many more levels than you see at first glance. But where we get a good look into Kat’s thought process, we only get a peek at Hale’s inner self. We just kind have to make an educated guess. I’m hoping we get to see more of Hale’s vulnerable side in the next book (which comes out in nine days, did I mention that?).

Carter has always been really good with her characterization. She has just enough characters in the story to keep things interesting, but she doesn’t over load you. She takes her time, making each of the characters that you spend time with separate and distinct and fleshed out. I can’t wait to see more of Kat and Hale’s teenage crew of thieves in Uncommon Criminals. Especially her cousin, Gabrielle. The tension between Kat and Gabrielle (partly centered around Hale) is very telling of both of their characters. They like each other more than they’ll admit, but sometimes they feel like two cats about to launch into a clawing, yowling, spitting fight.

I’ve read a lot of books. And many authors that I’ve read don’t really change from book to book. If you’ve read one Redwall book, you have the basics of every other Redwall book. How the author treats point of view, the kinds of story they tell, the kinds of characters they like to focus on don’t usually change. Not so here. While Gallagher Girls was a first person narrative with a protagonist decidedly on the right side of the law, Heist Society is in third-person and about characters who are more likely to cause a headache for the law. Granted, there is still a lot of Carter’s style in the book. It’s still about teenagers that spend a good deal of time having to look over their shoulders. And her humor is just as skillful, but the characters are a little more mature than in previous books. The scene on page 283 had me in stitches for a good five minutes. And then, of course, that was so much fun that I have to reread the scene.

The point of view in Heist Society is unique. It’s limited omniscient, I believe. For the most part we’re reading from Kat’s POV, but every now and then the lens zooms out and we get to glimpse a moment or an impression. Almost like we’re voyeurs, stealing  in to watch the story unfold. It gives the book a movie-like quality.

The premise of the story, a master thief being forced to steal against her will isn’t anything new. But the way Carter treats it is refreshing. the struggle between Kat and her family to accept her leaving is real and touching. And the solution that she comes up with at the end of the book is both surprising and expected. One of those, should-have-seen-it-coming kind of things.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was the reading of an afternoon and an enjoyable use of my time. I can’t wait to get my hands on book two next week.

This is a good example of:

  • Author versatility
  • Limited POV
  • Character crafting
  • Handling a moderate cast of characters
  • Humor

This book is on my recommended reading list.

So…it’s the end of the 2010-2011 television season. All of my shows have officially ended for the summer (Hold on, Chuck, Castle, Bones, Fringe, Grey’s, yep that’s all of them). Which means that I have turned to my best friend over the summer hiatus…fan fiction. Yep, yep. That’s how I silence the part of my mind that is still going: “Wait, did that really just happen? AAAH! *giggle* Booth’s face.” Yes, the me that was perfectly calm after the Bones season finale has abandoned ship and the me that wants to write for a living is starting to churn out possibilities mentally. So, I read what other people think might happen to get my giggles and to daydream about next season. However, there’s this inherent problem with fan fiction. While some of it can be really good, there is a lot of stuff that is really, really bad. Or at least so riddled with misspellings and grammar goofs that I stop reading before it gets good. It’s a problem that comes when anyone can post something to the internet. I go through probably ten bad ones to find a good one. Many I don’t even open because I can tell from the title/summary that it’s probably going to suck. And with the ones I do read I often find myself making a list of things that fanfic writers should or should not do. A list that does no one any good when it stays stuffed in my brain. So for those of you that want to improve your fanfics (and gather more readers), please read on. Whether your brand new or a veteran, you might find something helpful…or at least thought provoking. Thanks to Dot for helping me fill in some of the blanks in my little list.

Now, I’m going on the assumption that everyone knows what fan fiction is–pretty self-explanatory. It’s technically not legal, but it’s kind of like speeding—if you don’t go too far over the limit (i.e. try to profit from your fan fiction) the authorities generally ignore you. It is meant for enjoyment, not profit and therefore is considered acceptable. It is also a very good way to improve your writing (more on that and conquering writer’s block in a previous blog). It’s amazing what you can learn about plot structure, character development, significant detail and dialogue when you already have the basics to work with. It’s great for practice or for when you need a break from your work-in-progress or when you simply want some way to satisfy your craving for the next book/episode/issue (It’s also good for when anime editors royally screw up a series ending and you will be depressed until you fix it).

The first and most drastic way that you can keep your readers is to proofread. I will say it again, and this time I’ll break out the capital letters just for emphasis: PROOFREAD. I have continued reading stories that plod, that have poor plot or an exceptionally abysmal amount of OOC-ness because the grammer didn’t give me any reason to pause. I have also passed up potentially great stories because the writing was messy. Posting something without proofing is a BAD idea. Let it sit for a few hours or, better  yet, the night (like I did with this) and then proofread, it’s easier to find mistakes. But always look for misspelled or misplaced words (or missing words in my case). Refine the grammar to the best of your ability and make sure that you’re capitalizing the first letter of every sentence…and the pronoun “I”. I struggle with this myself. My most notorious bad habit when it comes to writing is that I leave out words and then, when I proofread, my brain inserts the word into the blank space. That’s part of why I try to let it sit a day or two. Poor grammar and bad spelling just equal sloppy writing, but if you take care of these problems, almost any other sin you commit writing a fanfic will probably be forgiven (at least by me). For a little more on proofing, read The Red Pen is Your Friend.

You should treat anything you write seriously. Now, keep in mind that I use the term “seriously” in very loosely. What I’m trying to say is that even when you are working on fan fiction you should put effort into your work and be professional. I have a friend who rides horses and she’s always saying that every time you ride you’re either training or un-training your horse. I’d say that the same can be said for writing. Don’t get used to producing sloppy work. Use everything you write to hone your craft. Always aim to write well, whether or not the story will ever be published. This definitely applies to proofing your writing, but it goes further than that.

If or when you write your own book and want to publish it, you are going to have to be able to summarize your story. First question people are going to ask when they find out that you write for a living is what your book is about. Now is the time to practice being able to summarize a story in one sentence. When I look through fan fiction, it quite often is the summary that makes me decide to read. So don’t put things like “I suck at summaries, but the story is good” or “This is my first fanfic” in your summary. Guaranteed way to turn the reader off before they even start reading. Sit down and figure out what your story is about. Who is it about? What is the problem that they are facing? Whittle it down to a sentence or two and voila, you have a summary. You want something short, sweet and slightly sneaky. Now I don’t claim to be a master at the summary thing, in fact I am still working on it. But here’s an example of what I am talking about from a Batman fic that I wrote:

“Living with Gotham’s dark knight was going to be hard, but somehow, Selina had never figured this into the equation.”

Granted it’s a little vague…but doesn’t it make you wonder what the “this” is? Now that story is a one shot, summaries for a multi-chapter story can be a little more difficult because you have an entire plot versus a single scenario. However, it you’re smart and write down the general plot of your story you’ll already be halfway there. On that note, I have a confession to make: I have several unfinished fanfics because I was too lazy to write down the plot. Yep, I have at least three stories that have been left hanging and may never be finished and I have learned a very valuable lesson. Create an outline…or at least jot down a few notes about where you’re going with a story. That way you’ll be able to keep going and your fans won’t want to kill you. Just a little bit of wisdom I thought I’d pass on.

Another big problem that many amateurs run into is handling point of view (POV). POV is the bane of every author at some point in their career. It is best mastered through experience. The more you write, the better you get at handling POV. However, POV isn’t something you typically announce. There are occasions where you do need to have that extra bit of clarity. For example, when you’re handling a story with multiple first-person narrators. Not that I suggest doing that first time out of the gate. Still, you want to develop distinction is your narrators so that even without the names at the top of the chapter people can feel who it is narrating. You want to have a chapter break or something similar to indicate that you are changing viewpoint.   Trust me, your audience will appreciate not having to guess at who is narrating. If you find it necessary to indicate who the narrator is, I’ve found that the least intrusive way is to put the character’s name in bold print at the top of the section. But don’t switch too often, constant switch of POV gets annoying and tiring for your reader.

Keep in mind that you are using someone else’s world and characters. Disclaimers, though it may not seem necessary, are good form when you’re posting fan fiction. Also, be careful about going AU (alternate universe). Granted, if you start a fic during book 3 and there are now books 4, 5, and 6, then there will definitely be differences between what you are writing and the actually storyline that the real author came up with. When I say AU I don’t mean a story you wrote because  you think Bella should’ve ended up with Jacob/Mike/Tyler/Ben. That’s okay (If you go for off-canon stuff like that). But there is such a thing as being too “creative” when you’re fanfic-ing. Fan fiction is about immersing yourself in another author’s world and working with that. My favorite compliment with my fanfics is when I’m told that the reader can’t tell the difference between me and the real author. It means that I’ve done a good job…that I have ninja-writer skills. However, don’t use another author’s story and characters to dress up your own story. It is one thing to wonder how Harry and Co. would fair in a normal high school. But taking Harry Potter and inserting him into a world that you created with nothing to tie him back to J.K. Rowling and her world is a big no-no. You need to respect the original author’s work and keep your own true to that in every way your talent/training allows you to.

Remember, the fan fiction scene is a community. The people who read your fan fiction are just as much in love with that world as you are. Which means that they will have their own opinions. And those opinions may not necessarily agree with yours. Hopefully, your story will bring them around to your point of view, but don’t get hostile. Even if they do.  Engaging in a…I believe the technical term here is “pissing contest” with any of your readers is very bad form. A little friendly debate is always fun, but know when you should just walk away.

While we’re on the subject of feedback and community. Let’s talk about reviews. Obviously, you aren’t the only writer of fan fiction. And all those other writers out there are craving reviews just as much has you are. I know, it’s hard. A lot of the time I don’t feel that I have anything constructive (or nice) to say. Now granted, “OMG! This was an awesome story. It’s the bestest, best (insert fandom here) story I have ever read!!!!!” is not very helpful. Good for the ego, but not helpful. I’ve started trying to point out two things: 1. What I liked about the story/What they’re doing well and 2. One thing that I think they could improve. For example, “I really like the way that you’re handling the characters, you’ve hit so-and-so’s character spot on. However, I’d be a little more careful when you proofread. Especially with the difference of “your” vs. “you’re”. Can’t wait for the next chapter!” Notice the specificity…and the judicious use of exclamation points. Being specific gives a person something to watch out for. And if you ever end up on the tail end of one of these reviews, don’t get mad. It’s much harder for you to see your own faults, so be grateful for the help. Always thank them for taking the time to review.

Finally, no discussion of fan fiction would be complete without covering the most notorious, obnoxious and cringe-inducing character of them all: the Mary Sue (if your name really is Mary Sue, I apologize, but I didn’t come up with the term). We’ve all read stories with him/her in it. She’s perfect, has every power in the book (along with the ability to immediately control them), has the looks of a supermodel, the genius of Einstein, and is loved by everyone who isn’t pure evil…and even that’s not a given, no one has converted more bad guys than Ms. Mary Sue. Typically, this character is the author inserting themselves into a story, and not in the cute Stan Lee having a cameo in the Marvel movies kind of way. I’m talking in the story-destroying, snore-inducing, hair-tearing sort of way. Let’s just take a moment and pretend that I am a Star Wars nerd (which I am) and I wanted to create my own character to insert into the storyline (which my brother and I did…we were big role-players as kids).  If I were to create a Mary Sue for the Star Wars world, she would be the world’s most powerful Jedi with the uncanny ability to see the future, who also happens to be an intergalactic senator, who single-handedly is able to stop the Empire, all while keeping Anakin from turning to the Dark Side and having a secret relationship with Obi-Wan. And did I mention that she’s Padme’s twin sister? Don’t you hate her already? Not only does she screw up the entire story, but she’s guaranteed to be a snob because she’s so much better than everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about an original character (OC). There are often necessary for whatever story you’ve created. But there is a line, a very big, glaring, “Do not pass Go, do not collect $200” line between an OC and a Mary Sue. Even canon characters can become Mary Sue-like if you don’t create real obstacles for them. Rule of thumb: If they’re perfect and have no problems, then dirty them up a little. Add a couple of flaws or/and take away some (or all) of their powers. The strange fact is, if you give us a reason to hate them, we will just love them all the more. (Don’t believe me? Two words: Severus Snape.) Keep an eye out for any character that is starting to become too Mary Sue-ish, whether it is a canon character, an OC, or even a character in your own original fiction.

All-in-all, there is some really good stuff in the fan fiction community. And some of it could be yours if you keep these things in mind. If any of my veteran fanfic-ers think of something that I missed, feel free to leave a comment. Also, I’d love some feedback on the length of this blog. Was it too long? Just right? Would you have preferred a two-parter?

Oh, and one last word of advice. Authors are obligated by their contracts to report any fan fiction that they receive, so don’t send them your story. No matter how awesome it is.

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