Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Writing and Elsewhere Blogs

You know I write for YAvengers, right? Right. It's proof that I'm still writing, just not so much here. I'm frantically trying to finish my novel, Beads of Glass, before the ides of September. If I don't, I can't post pictures of the boys on social media for a month. A whole thirty days without Vincent and Anthony making the world a better place. Yeah, I need to get on that.

I've got a post up today on character darkness. Here's an excerpt:


The secrets we conceal inform our actions. We are what we hide. What we choose to reveal and how we reveal it shapes us. These are the lies we tell ourselves, the things we cover up, the fears we drive into the hollows beneath our hearts. We live, hoping that no one will ever know the truth.
Thanks for reading, friends!

YAvengers

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book Review: Blackout


Books are often written in response to a resounding “What if?” Writers, especially in speculative fiction, imagine changes and tell stories about those possibilities. What if teenagers suddenly had powers that could help the world? What if teenagers suddenly had the power to destroy it? Robison Wells answers this question with his novel BLACKOUT. Wells utilizes a power of his own, he utilizes his characters venturing from the known to the unknown to invoke the same emotions and experiences that unite to form the teenage experience.

Aubrey taps into every high school girl’s psyche. Her ability is invisibility: “she knew it wasn’t as plain as just disappearing. Instead, people simply didn’t notice her.” (18) From the beginning, she invoked the feeling from my own high school years. That is the power of young adult literature. It reminds us of the times when we were that young, that vulnerable, that invincible. The appeal goes beyond the X-Men adjacent powers and the thickness of the plot. I loved this book because it could have been me, had I caught the virus. I could have been Aubrey as she grew in self-confidence and awareness, as she fell in love. Combining oncoming adulthood with the imposition of superpowers was a really fun way to make truth fantastic.

Jack too, encapsulated the teenage experience. His yearning for love and surprise in his own self-discovery felt incredibly real. Laura was that awful, moody teenager that we all know and don’t really love. Pairing this characters like Alec and Dan were harder to identify with because their motives were so unclear. Since there is an upcoming sequel, I won’t consider this lack of depth a failing, but rather a cliffhanger to lead the reader into the next book.

The pacing in the novel is faster than an adult novel. It had a great deal of action and intrigue as the mysteries surrounding the terrorist attacks and the virus unfolded. While there were brief moments of reprieve, the novel moved along with new information, new betrayals, and new action without missing a beat. It maintained tension in scenes of micro-tension, while carrying the novel as a whole. Each chapter had a breathtaking moment. And unlike some thrillers, it didn’t leave the reader winded.

Wells juggled multiple viewpoints. He revealed who the terrorists were from the beginning, which was served to amp up the tension as they befriended the other protagonists and plotted their next strike. He laces the novels with snippets from “SusieMusie” which he doesn’t explain until the end. This worked really well. The inevitable parts of the story—the main characters making their love connection, the terrorists betrayal—weren’t annoyingly obvious because there were other questions that drove the story.

This story had a huge impact on me. This wasn’t because of the story itself, but because the way it made me look at my own novel. I’ve been waffling between whether Beads of Glass is young adult, new adult, or just plain adult. It seems obvious now, but for the last six months or so since I started writing it, I’ve felt like I straddled a line. BLACKOUT made me fully aware that I’m writing young adult. BLACKOUT is about characters discovering who they are Vesper’s story, at its core, is the story of a girl finding out the pedestals she held her father on were formed on falsehood and that she’s not who she thinks she is. I’m writing (or trying to) with a similar pace and movement, while trying to reveal certain things slowly while waiting for the bigger reveal at the end.  The thing is, I love YA. I read it for breakfast. But for some reason I felt like I wanted to be different in my novel. I don’t need to. Young adult novels are fantastic, and while they may not juggle the intense philosophical themes as some adult novels, they still have the power to draw in a reader and make them feel.

BLACKOUT worked because it helped me discover greater truths about myself. That’s the goal of any writer, I believe, to give the reader an experience that changes them in some small way. Robison Wells did this for me, with great powers, pace, and characters.
             

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Under the Never Sky


UNDER THE NEVER SKY by Veronica Rossi is a novel that straddles the lines between science fiction and fantasy and has even been marketed as dystopian fiction at times.  It has sold in twenty-six countries and has been optioned for film by Warner Brothers, which makes me very, very sad because this was probably the worst book I’ve ever read. While the general idea for the world and the first fifty pages are engaging, this book was an utter failure in terms of character development, believable story line, actual science, and realistic depiction of relationships.  In short, it sucked a big one.

UNDER THE NEVER SKY depicts a world in which Something Terrible has happened which has driven most of the human race into Pod living, protected from the Aether storms which seem to be a sort of electrical storm.  They thrive on genetically modified plants, living in virtual realities called the Realms.  We never actually get to see the realms or much of life inside the Pod, as Aria begins the novel by sneaking into a shut down and restricted area of the Pod with several of her friends, turning off their virtual reality eye pieces and seeking adventure. Aria has an ulterior motive, however, and is searching for her mother. The beginning has sharp dialogue laced with post-modern colloquialisms: “We’re off! We’re strictly meat!” (5), “Sounds mega-regress,” (8), “Here we go Glitches” (4). It immediately drew me in.  I was fascinated by a world which is lived nearly completely in one’s own mind and the millions of directions Rossi could go with it. By putting the characters in a real life situation, she was able to demonstrate the sharp contrast between what we-as readers- know, and what the characters know.

When Aria’s companions light a fire to mimic the Outsiders who lived in savagery outside the realm, her reaction is beautiful. “Magic. That was the word that came to Aria’s mind. An old world, from a time when illusions still mystified people. Before the Realms made magic common.” (17). The fire proves to be more than they can handle, and overtakes the Pod with smoke. Aria tries to escape but is stopped by her so-called friend Soren who attacks her.  At this point, the narrative switches perspective to that of a young man, to the perspective of an Outsider. I thought this was interesting as well, especially since in my own novel I’m playing the privileged against the other.  Perry rescues Aria and stashes her in an airlock before escaping himself. In the outside world, people there live in primitive tribes led by a Blood Lord, someone Perry wants to be:  “The Tides needed a Blood Lord who’d take action—and his brother didn’t want to budge.” (33) Additionally, some people are born with gifts of heightened senses, the ability to smell emotions, to hear unbelievable well and even hear thoughts, to see farther and perfectly at night. This fantastical element was exciting and intriguing, with so much potential in the possibilities.  Though the Marked usually only have one sense, Perry was born with two, rendering him cursed. Unfortunately, that was where most of the interesting parts in the book ended.

The characters never progress beyond these initial starting points, other than to do a sudden 180 and fall in love. In fact, they were better before they met and started to travel together, because at least then they both had decent motivations and strong dialogue.  Once they get together, the story loses any heat. It becomes of tepid adventure story with characters who contrive no emotional weight. Perry’s sense of smell goes from cool, to sort of creepy. At one point, Aria gets her period and thinks she’s dying. “For the first time since he’d known her, her flesh smelled like something he recognized, feminine and sweet. He smelled violets.” (154) Not only his reaction serial killer creepy, but she spends a paragraph reflecting on how “utterly barbaric” (156) menstruation is before settling into blandness once more.

There is a spark of intrigue once again when they meet a young boy by the name of Cinder. “It was like something from a Realm.  But then hadn’t she just learned about Scires and Auds and Seers? COuldn’t Cinder’s ability be just another genetic mutation? Harnessing the Aether seemed like a massive genetic break. But it was possible.” (204-205). This was exciting.  There was so much potential in a character who contained the very essence that drove Aria’s people underground and made Perry’s special. But no. Cinder is given hardly any attention, other to establish that he’s both afraid of and likes hurting people, before he’s tucked somewhere else until it’s convenient for him to pop up and kill a bunch of cannibals.

I think the worst part of this book was the romance element. It was inevitable that Perry and Aria would fall in love, but they went from hating each other, to indifference, to True Love. In a moment of peril, they decide to have sex.  In the morning “He was different with her. He spoke to her quietly as they walked. He answered every one of her questions, even things she didn’t ask, knowing she’d want to know them.” (326). This might be a soap box moment, but I hate the message this spreads to the impressionable teens and preteens reading this book.  Sure, give it up and your boyfriend will turn from a relative asshole to the perfect man. You’ll instantly be in love and everything will be awesome.  What? No. Last time I checked, teenage boys don’t react that way. They don’t fall deeply in love to the point where they forget to eat. If there had been a strong arc leading to this point, if the characters react like puppets being jolted by clumsy marionette strings, I might have been okay with it. But it didn’t work, it didn’t work at all. And now there are poor little nerd girls out there who believe that sex is the world’s Band-Aid. RAGE.

It boils down to the real problem of this book. There are no real consequences.  There are no real stakes.  The cover of the book says “A million ways to die. One way to live.” We don’t see any of that. There are cannibals and electrical storms and wolves, but there isn’t half a second of believable terror. In the end, Aria’s mother is dead. She doesn’t really have a reaction to it. She spent the whole novel trying to get to her mother and we don’t get a single reaction from her. Perry’s quest of finding his nephew results in the discovery that his brother sold his own son to the Dwellers in exchange for food for his tribe, and that his nephew is happier there anyway. “He drew his blade across Vale’s throat. Then he stood, Blood Lord of the Tides.” (370). That was it, and I didn’t even care that he just killed his brother and became leader of his tribe. I was completely indifferent to the situation. There was no tension, no emotional through line that led me there.

The science was also unbelievably shady. In dystopian fiction and in science fantasy, authors can get away with under explaining things. Hard science fiction requires a basis in fact and plausible futures, but softer sciences can blur those lines. The trouble comes when an author decides to describe some of the science, and gets it wrong. Aria’s mother is a geneticist and sends her a message with the terrible fate of the Pod people and the emergence of Degenerative Limbic Syndrome (DLS):

It's called the limbic system. It controls many of our most basic processes. Our drive to mate. Our comprehension of stress and fear and reaction to it. Our quick decision-making capability. We say gut reaction, but actually these reflexes come from here. Simply put, this is our animal mind. Over generations in the Realms, the usefulness of this part of our brain has vastly diminished. It degenerates. This has catastrophic consequences when we do need to rely on instinct. Pleasure and pain become confused. Fear can become thrilling. Rather than avoid stress, we seek it and even revel in it. The will to give life becomes the need to take it. The result is a collapse of reason and cognition. Put simply, it results in a psychotic break. (256)

This would be just fine, if it was correct at all. A quick google search will pull up studies done on the limbic system, and there are greater effects on memory, as a damaged limbic system is more likely to result in amnesia than violent tendencies. Furthermore, virtual realities actually rely on the use of the limbic system as they are constantly being used. The science doesn’t add up.  When Aria discovers her mother is dead, she is told that she is the only hope for civilization. “Aria, your mother did leave us with an answer. She left us with you.” (361). And please gag me with a spoon.


While I originally read this book with the intention of observing the way it blended fantasy and science fiction, I could not ignore the red-button-badness that overtook the narrative and rendered anything good in this book insubstantial. I liked the way it began. I liked the colloquialisms used for a five whole seconds in the beginning. I like the potential in the Marked and the interesting ways she could have blended worlds. However, her characters were flatlined and boring. Her story arc held no weight. A sixth grader could easily correct her science. There was nothing to ground this story in believability. Fantastic stories require real characters. Rossi did not deliver. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tomato & Roasted Red Pepper Soup

It is the season for summer storms--thunder and lightning and big heavy raindrops. It takes the edge off of the heat, and it's perfect weather for soup. We have a plethora of fresh veggies from the garden right now, and since our fridge is already full of zucchini soup we decided to try something new: Tomato & Roasted Red Pepper Soup.

Here's what you'll need:

A mess of tomatoes, we used about a dozen big ones
3 bell peppers (roasted)
2 carrots
2 stalks of celery
2 potatoes
1 Zuchinni
2 onion (one roasted, one in the pot)
1 whole garlic 
Fresh basil, paprika, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper to taste. 


  • Scoop the insides of the tomatoes into a bowl and place the rest of the tomato onto a baking sheet. Make sure the baking sheet has raised edges because there's a lot of juice. 
tomatoes for days

  • Peel garlic and chop two cloves. Put the remaining cloves on the baking sheet to roast. 
  • Chop onions, placing half in the pot and half on the sheet. 
  • Drizzle your roasting veggies with olive oil and salt and pepper and roast at 400 for about 40 minutes.
  • While they're roasting, cut up the rest of the veggies sauté. Add tomato insides and simmer low on the pot. This is in lieu of any sort of broth. Better to make your own, fresh. Add two cups of water. 

  • Add your now roasted veggies to the mix. Salt and pepper to taste. We also put in about five sprigs of fresh basil, because the world is a better place with it. 
  • After simmering for about twenty minutes, blend. We used the Vitamix and then strained for seeds. Had there been any, we would have re-blended them and added them back into the soup. But it strained clean. Next time I'll skip that step. and move right to serving.
  • Eat, enjoy, and feel good about your life.

how do people live without one of these babies
I don't mean to toot my own horn, but this soup came out amazing. Easy and delicious, it's a great way to use up summer veggies! It also made a ton. A share-ton. Soup for everyone! 




Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book Review: If I Stay


The first time I heard of IF I STAY by Gayle Forman I was sitting in a dark movie theater waiting for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS to start. I'm a firm believer in supporting authors and so I try and see as many book movies as I can, with the caveat that I read the book first. The preview to IF I STAY drew me in, and it was in my Amazon cart before the preview was even finished.

I finished this book in two hours. I couldn't put it down. This book was bittersweet. Mia watches her family and her broken body taken away after a terrible accident. Then there's a choice: to live, or to let go. The book is a series of flashbacks piecing together Mia, the daughter, the sister, the girlfriend, the best friend. Each scene is written with power and beauty, leaving the reader to revel in loss and love and wonderful and awful things.

I'm usually not a fan of flashback books, but Forman does it exquisitely. She layers the scenes so that you fall deeply in love with the characters, making everything harder and sweeter. By releasing bits and pieces at a time, she creates a modular story that increases in depth with each page. The pacing is perfect, the characters are painfully real. They are flawed and easy to love. The relationship between Adam and Mia is genuine, two music nerds on different sides of the industry approaching change.

There's also a balance. This is a heart heavy subject, but there are moments of joy and humor. It's really well done. Mia's parents are really fun. It makes the loss of them even worse.

What I love about the writing, is the details. "Pieces of my father's brain on the asphalt. But his pipe is in his left breast pocket." Even in terrible tragedy, the focus is the pipe. The pipe represents so much of her father's character: his punk rock soul and push against society. Even in death, that's what stands out. It's lovely, it's all so lovely.

If you're looking for gut wrenching contemporary YA, I highly recommend this novel. I'm really looking forward to seeing if the movie captures all the feels. This book is all about feels.