Monday, November 28, 2011

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Note: You will probably appreciate this review more if you've actually read the book.


If I read this book when I was 12, or maybe even 15, it would have been my absolute favorite book of all time. I loved horses and horse racing. I rode for six years, and I dreamed about becoming a jockey. While my attitude about horse racing has changed over the last few years, I still love horses, and I was really excited about this book. 

And honestly, as a horse lover, it is very difficult to love this book. This isn't because of the island's practice of capturing flesh-eating sea horses and then attempting to tame them--I don't think Stiefvater intends for her readers to agree with this practice. What bothers me is Puck: On a whim, she decides to ride in a dangerous race, threatening not only her life, but that of her sweet, loyal pony, whom Puck considers her "best friend". (Would you enter your family pet in a dogfight?)

Let me throw this out there: Puck is an idiot. She isn't brave, she is stupid.

But let's forget about Puck for a minute. Let's talk about obstacles. Maggie Stiefvater makes it very clear what the obstacles are: Not only is there a good chance Puck and Dove might be eaten alive, but the fact that Dove is not a capall uisce means that she is laughably slow. Dove is also afraid of the capaill uisce and afraid of water. And Puck thinks that she can overcome these insurmountable obstacles with better feed and a couple weeks of conditioning.

Obstacles are a good thing in books, but they mean nothing if you can just shrug them off at the climax. That makes me feel cheated as a reader.

And the whole "first girl to ride in the races" thing was really unnecessary. The rampant sexism just felt like it was forcing the "girl power!" message (which is ironic, because Puck often repeats that she isn't racing for feminist reasons). It was a cheap way to create antagonism, and it failed to make me care. That, and it felt like a slap in the face to female empowerment. An empowered female isn't one who enters a competition she has no chance of winning, but rather a woman who is actually qualified to win. (Chainmail bikinis, I'm looking at you.)

What did make me care was the capaill uisce. There were scenes where characters or animals died on account of them.  A particularly terrifying scene involved Puck and her family facing a hungry capall. That was enough to create tension, without all the sexism.

Maggie Stiefvater's writing style is incredible, and I wish I could have appreciated the story more. I really liked some of the minor characters, especially Finn. I liked Holly at first, but his conversations with Sean became very repetitive. ("Hey, that Kate girl...") The romantic development was both believable and satisfying.

I wish there was more I could praise this book for, but I can think of very little. I enjoyed reading it, but to love this book would require more suspension of disbelief than I am capable of.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Recommendation: "The Lies of Locke Lamora" and "Red Seas Under Red Skies"


   

I'm in St. Louis right now, and so far I've spent more time at my friends' apartment than I have at home. This is mostly due to the fact that a) the apartment is thirty minutes from my house, b) I am sharing a car with my sister, and c) going out with my friends involves late nights and the use of substances which make one unfit to drive. This poses a bit of a problem, because unlike my friends, I am incapable of sleeping in until three in the afternoon. So what was I doing through those long hours of lonely wakefulness? Finishing Red Seas Under Red Skies.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is the second book in Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards Sequence. I read the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, back in January. The books are perfect for anyone who loves thieves, intrigue, and sneaky protagonists. The world-building is not only solid, but Scott Lynch weaves societies that are both interesting and complex. Take Camorr, for example. The city is  ruled not only by the nobility, but also by an organized hierarchy of thieves and con artists. And thieving? It's a religion--literally--with a god and a temple and even rituals. (And yes, the author does manage to pull this off without making it completely ridiculous.)

Oh, and Locke and Jean have the best bromance ever.

The plot is not without it's shaky points. There is also the issue of romance--Scott Lynch kind of sucks at it. Romance is supposed to be central to the third book, which makes me a bit hesitant to read it in March. (And by hesitant, I mean that I will totally read it, although my expectations won't be as high as they should be.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Halfway Done with Westboro Revisions!

Where I should be by December 31st: 75,000 words
Where I should be by (the end of) today: 33,090 words
Where I actually am: 37,889 words

I realized once again that I need to fix something that happens earlier in the plot, but I'm saving that edit for later. I did write the last couple of scenes in the context of the edited plot.

I'm three scenes away from finishing "Part One." Part One was originally 60,000 words, and I was hoping to cut it down to 40,000-45,000 words, but at this point, I'll be happy with 50,000.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Biblical Retellings

I probably don't have to tell you that Fairy Tale/Greek Mythology/Shakespeare retellings are the new "big thing" in YA. But what about Biblical retellings?

I'm not a religious person, but I'm familiar with enough Old Testament stories to know that they're loaded with sex, violence, family drama, and betrayal. The people we call Biblical heroes are heavily flawed, so they would form an excellent basis for character development. And that doesn't even begin to touch upon all the between-the-lines interpretations of all of these stories.

This morning, I woke up with Samson in mind. If you're not familiar with it, the story goes something like this: Samson is very strong because of his long hair. He falls in love with Delilah, a Philistine woman. She asks him about the source of his strength, and he reveals his secret. She cuts his hair, and, in his weakness, the Philistines blind and enslave him. Eventually, his hair grows back, and he knocks down their temple, killing both himself and Delilah. (Or at least that was the version I remember from the 1949 movie that my baby-sitter's husband was particularly fond of.)

Wouldn't some of those elements make for an awesome story? You'd have to be careful, of course, because of the unfortunate implications, but at this point, I would much rather read a Samson retelling than another Cinderella story.

What's your take on retellings? Are there any Bible stories that you would like to see "retold"? (Or is this a horrible idea that I should never speak of again?)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Global Curriculum, Please


RTW: In high school, teens are made to read the classics - Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Bronte, Dickens - but there are a lot of books out there never taught in schools. So if you had the power to change school curriculums, which books would you be sure high school students were required to read?

A couple years ago, [ETA: actually, this didn't *officially* happen until a couple of weeks ago] Arizona passed a law forbidding public schools from teaching classes that focused on a specific ethnic group. Their reasoning was that "we want to focus on the students as individuals, not as members of a group." In theory, I absolutely agree with this. However, when you look at the general curriculum favored by most American high schools, the focus is very much on Western culture. "World History" primarily deals with Europe, and with the exception of the units on colonization and imperialism, you rarely learn about other cultures. Literature classes tend to be the same way. It's this focus on white culture as the default that marginalizes other groups. If we had a more integrated curriculum, "African American studies" and "Hispanic studies" courses wouldn't be necessary.

Latin America, for example, has a lot to offer in terms of great books. Magic realism and dictator-era novels are the most famous, but one novel that is especially relevant to our generation is Alberto Fuguet's Por favor, rebobinar ("Please Rewind"). It deals with an urban culture that is obsessed with celebrities, mass media, consumerism, and globalization. As a result, the characters are detached from their revolutionary past and from each other. The book is long, yes, but it's divided up in a way that teachers could easily use individual passages from it. (It's also one of my favorite books!)



I'm sure there are a lot of great books from Asia, Africa, and the Middle-East, but I don't know about them. Maybe if they had been taught at my high school, I wouldn't have this problem...

ETA: Apparently, Por favor, rebobinar was never translated to English. Someone fix this!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Response to the "Dead Girls on Covers" article

I'm sure many of you have already seen Rachel Stark's article on the prevalence of dead girl images on YA covers. (If not, go read it now.)

Rachel Stark discusses how both men and teenage girls are fascinated by the glamorized death of women. She attributes this to the way society romanticizes violence towards women and how, in death, the female body turns into an object of passive sexuality. I'm not exactly disagreeing with this, but I want to offer another analysis.

To better discuss the topic of beautiful dead girls in fiction, I first want to discuss a fictional living girl. In my Spanish Literature class, we read a story called "Fatima de los naufragios" ("Fatima of the Shipwrecks") by Lourdes Ortiz Sanchez. In the story, Fatima is a Moorish immigrant who lost her son on the voyage to Spain. Every day, she goes out to the beach and waits for him to return to her. After a while, the village grows to love and romanticize her, and she becomes a symbol of beauty, goodness, and virginity. (Yes, virginity. Even though she's a mother. God forbid we place any value on a women who has sex.)

Anyway, the aspect of this story I found most problematic (other than the virginity thing) is that Fatima never becomes a character. She has no personality, and I don't think she ever speaks. (It's been a couple years since I read this story, so I don't remember it perfectly.) She is a symbol, only there for the purpose of being romanticized.

In other words, Fatima is no different from the countless numbers of beautiful dead girls on YA covers. The reason that many teenage girls fantasize about dying, I think, is that in death, they become an enigma; people look at them, admire their beauty, idealize them, wonder about them. Can any girl pretend she doesn't want this?

No, I'm not trying to label all teenage girls as attention-whores. This phenomena is the inevitable result of centuries of treating fictional women as beautiful treasures for brave men to seek. (Remember the part in Pirates of the Carribean where Jack Sparrow says "Not all treasurer is silver and gold?") Even badass women are often shuffled into this role. (Ginny Weasley is often criticized for this.)

I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be that girl--the one who's beautiful and who inspires curiosity everywhere she goes. However, that isn't the end-all-and-be-all of my existence. Unlike Fatima and hoards of dead girls in prom dresses, I do have a personality. I have goals, and dreams, and flaws, and habits, and ticks--and so do my characters.

So yes, Rachel Stark, we are in agreement. Death dehumanizes girls. (Actually, death dehumanizes everyone.) And I'm all in support for women who exist as more than just lust objects.

ETA: I just remembered that I recently reviewed Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman. A perfect example of a book with a personality-free dead girl who exists for no reason other than to spur the protagonist into action.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I'm really annoyed right now, because a lot of the blogs I've added to my "Follow" list aren't showing up (or are showing up as "Follow Anonymously.")

Anyone know how to fix this problem?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Writing Progress: Easy Parts Done

Where I should be by December 31st: 75,000 words
Where I should be by (the end of) today: 20,957 words
Where I actually am: 29,620 words


I have reached the point where I last stopped revising. In other words, most of the Westboro revisions have been pretty easy up until this point. I have made incredibly fast progress, which will probably slow down now that I have to do some actual writing. Although I have written versions of the next few scenes, many of those scenes will need to be cut or edited down, since I had 24,000 words worth of scenes where not much happens, (scenes that were very tedious to write, I should add). In other words, I need to find a way to go from 24,000 words to 10,000 words or less.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Chain posts make me feel like a sheep (but sometimes I do them anyway)

In light of 11/11/11 and Veteran's Day, tell us about your favorite soldier and how he or she is saving the world (fictional or real life):


Some background: Although I grew up in the United States, my family is from Israel. I spent the first nine years of my education in Jewish school, I speak Hebrew (relatively) fluently, and we travel to Israel once every year or two to visit family. Although I have never lived in Israel, I do have dual citizenship. However, I do not consider myself Jewish (I'm agnostic), and I don't believe in patriotism.

In Israel, almost all young people have to serve in the army. My parents, my cousins, and my older siblings have all been in the army. My oldest nephew is currently serving. However, the soldier I'm thinking of right now isn't a family member. Actually, I don't even know if I can call him a soldier. I'm thinking of a childhood friend of mine who recently deserted from the army. I haven't spoken to him in over ten years, and I don't know what was his reason for deserting, but I'm incredibly proud of him.

Although I'm a pacifist, I understand the need for national defense, especially in country as controversial as Israel. However, in the last few years, Israel's government* has been pissing me off more and more. There's a huge difference between national defense and outright bullying. I don't want to go into a long rant, but Netanyahu is destroying any chance of peace with the Palestinians. He and his cabinet of right-wing nut jobs (Avigdor Lieberman, Yaakov Amidror) not only refuse to pull Israeli settlers out of Palestinian territories (forcing young soldiers who are barely out of high school to risk their lives by defending them), but they continue to pass laws that are dripping with fascism. (It's illegal to boycott settlement products.)

I admire those who are willing to risk their lives to defend their beliefs, or to protect others. However, I equally admire those who stand up against a corrupt government and choose not to fight for a cause they disagree with. They are the ones who remind us that war is fought by people, not nations.

*I said "Israel's government" and not "Israel" for a reason. Most Israelis do not support Binyamin Netanyahu's actions--they didn't even elect him. The woman who was elected, Tzipi Livni, couldn't assemble a coalition government in time, so the government passed to Netanyahu's party.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Over a Quarter Finished!

I'd made a lot of changes to early scenes in the rounds before this one, so many of my Westboro revisions involved little more than "copy/paste" plus line-edits. There are a few scenes that I decided to set aside for later, which means long-term progress is happening a lot faster.

Where I should be by December 31st: 75,000 words
Where I should be by (the end of) today: 15,442 words
Where I actually am: 19,404 words

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Battle Royale" vs "The Hunger Games"


I recently finished reading Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami. A lot of people refer to it as "the book Suzanne Collins ripped off when she wrote The Hunger Games." Both books revolve around the premise a totalitarian government that forces teenagers to fight to the death. However, despite the similar premise, these are entirely different books.

Note: No major spoilers here.

To start off, the characters in Battle Royale are classmates, not strangers, which changes the dynamic a lot. Instead of nameless adversaries, your "opponents" are your friends, love interests, acquaintances, and enemies. Which of them would try to kill you? Would you be able to kill them? Obviously, some turn on others, some form alliances, some go crazy or reveal themselves to be outright sociopaths, and a few of them even refuse to play. A big driving force in Battle Royale is the element of denial. Although the students knew about "the Program," they never expected that their class would be chosen. In The Hunger Games, the members were forced to watch the games year after year, so when it is their turn, they are more or less resigned to their fate, and even when alliances are formed, everyone knows they can't last forever. In Battle Royale, several students are determined to escape. This adds extra tension to the alliances--are your friends really trying to help you, or will they stab you in the back after the numbers dwindle?

A major difference is that while The Hunger Games is Katniss' story, Battle Royale shows the story through the eyes of several different students. This is both a strength and a weakness. I loved that I was able to get to know most of the students, and some of their stories were heartbreaking (and of course, there was one instance where I cheered on a girl as she fought against a particularly heinous opponent.) However, this story is in many ways an allegory, which meant that a lot of the minor characters fell flat (ie, "the gay guy," "the snobby, rich boy," "the weird girl.") One major problem I had was the book's sexism. All but two major characters were male, and of those two females, one was a "villain" (and a considerably weaker one than the primary male antagonist) and the other mainly existed to be the protagonist's sidekick/love interest/damsel-in-distress. (I'm not necessarily asking for a bad-ass fighter, but it would have been nice if she were more developed.) Additionally, I found the portrayal of the gay character offensive. Still, due to the allegorical nature of this book, none of the sexist/stereotypical characterizations of students were a deal-breaker for me.

Thematically, the books are very different. Both deal with totalitarianism and government brutality. However, The Hunger Games deals a lot more with voyeurism and sensationalized violence. The Tributes are dressed up and put on display and their deaths become a public spectacle. The book (well, the first one, at least,) isn't so much a critique against the government as it is a critique of the Capitol citizens, who are shallow, flamboyant, obsessed with celebrities, and perfectly okay with killing innocent teenagers, as long as they aren't star-crossed lovers, of course. The critique in Battle Royale, however, isn't on the society, but on the students. By delving psychologically into the characters, Takami explores brutality, paranoia, selfishness, friendship, devotion, and trust. These elements aren't absent in The Hunger Games, but due to the limited point of view, they aren't explored as broadly as in Battle Royale. (Note: I said "broadly," not "effectively." YMMV on that one.)

Stylistically, The Hunger Games is far superior, although I can't really compare them since I didn't read Battle Royale in its original language.

In terms of violence and gore, there is no competition. Battle Royale makes The Hunger Games look like candy.

So which one was better? I don't know. Instead, let me ask this: Which packed more of an emotional punch? Battle Royale was much more horrific, not just because of the gore, but also because of the sheer level of "wait--this is real" that the students were facing. However, I felt much more connected to the characters in The Hunger Games.

Both books are excellent, and of course, I recommend both.

I'm interested to hear what other people think. Did you read Battle Royale? (There's also a movie and a manga series.) Did you read Let's be honest, you've probably already read The Hunger Games. What was your impression?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Recommendation: I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak


I don't want to say too much about this book, except that Zusak nails voice and character here. The ending was a little preachy, but overall, I would recommend it to anyone.

Markus Zusak also wrote The Book Thief, which is one of my favorite books.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

If I had a writing coach (RTW)

Well, actually, I think I need two writing coaches.

1. The first one needs to be hardcore and mean. The kind of coach who won't actually look at my writing, but who will yell at me until I finish today's deadline. From time to time they will probably guilt me out about not having a real job other than baby-sitting for two hours a day. At that point, when I am feeling too down to actually be productive, I will run to...

2. ...my second coach. This person will look at my writing from time to time and they will love it. They will point out which parts they liked and be excited to read more. Of course, they will have criticism, but they will write it down and file it for later, so that I can look at it AFTER I have finished the first draft.

At this point, my main priority is to get a COMPLETED draft written. I keep going back and editing, and at this rate, I will never finish the manuscript.

Status Update:

Where I should be by December 31st: 75,000 words
Where I should be by (the end of) today: 9,927 words
Where I actually am: 3,895 words
Yes, I know this isn't nearly as far as I need to be. Certain circumstances (being sick, heavy snowfall, power outtages) have been getting in the way. But I will bounce back! (On the days where I have been writing, I averaged a little under 900 words.)
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