Sunday, June 30, 2013

How to Write a Smart Character

I once wrote a brief post about how to (not) write smart characters. (Or you can check out Maggie Stiefvater's much more eloquent post that basically states the same thing.)

Today, I had one more realization about smart characters:

Sometimes a smart character doesn't always think of the smartest plan. Sometimes they think of something convoluted and risky, while ignoring the fact that the best plan is actually very simple and almost obvious. (This tends to be the case with a lot of "smart" villains, actually.) And sometimes that's okay, especially in high pressure situations. When you're under pressure, it's very easy to make mistakes.

So is that my realization? That smart characters aren't always smart?

Nope.

My realization is this: The smartest characters are the ones who have a backup plan.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Updates: Reading, Writing, Life

Hello everyone! I have internet in my apartment now, so I'm back to my usual mind-warped drone self.

Some updates:

Reading: I finished a couple more ARCs. I'll post brief reactions here, but the actual reviews won't go up until closer to the release date.

-Indelible - Beautiful style, unique concept, and a very original romantic plotline. I wasn't totally satisfied with the worldbuilding, though--it wasn't bad worldbuilding, I just didn't get to see enough of it. (But there's a sequel!)

-Crown of Midnight (sequel to Throne of Glass) - Cliche and predictable, but still entertaining.

I'm currently reading The Twins, by Saskia Sarginson. It's beautifully written, and the characters have incredible depth. I'm only reading two chapters at a time, since it's one of those books that's best to read slowly. I also plan to start The Bone Season tomorrow.

Writing: I'm trying this new thing where I write first thing in the morning. Most days I write very little, but it's still a good habit to get into. Will I continue this for a long time? Who knows.

Life: Two more awesome things about Louisville: 1) my roommate, 2) grilled cheese donuts


Thursday, June 20, 2013

New Release: Ink


 
Goodreads Summary:
 
I looked down at the paper, still touching the tip of my shoe. I reached for it, flipping the page over to look.
 
Scrawls of ink outlined a drawing of a girl lying on a bench.
 
A sick feeling started to twist in my stomach, like motion sickness.
 
And then the girl in the drawing turned her head, and her inky eyes glared straight into mine.
 
On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.
 
Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they'll both be targets.
 
Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive.
 
***
It’s difficult to discuss this book as a whole, because in a way, it actually felt like two books: a story about an American girl who lives in Japan, and a paranormal romance featuring people who can make ink come to life. So I’ll go ahead and discuss those two aspects separately. 

*Before going into this, I should make it clear that I’m no authority on Japan or its culture. I used to watch a lot of anime, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.

The “Living Abroad” story

The biggest question I had going into this novel is “Is it cultural appropriation?” Japanese culture is very trendy among certain subsets of our demographic, and the fact that the protagonist is a white American means that a lot of people might see it as such. However, if you consider this aspect alone (minus the paranormal stuff), then Katie’s story is a valid one: a girl moves to a foreign country and has to learn to navigate a whole new language and culture.

Does that mean Amanda Sun handled the story well? Yes and no. At the detail level, Sun does a very good job of illustrating Japan for her readers: describing locales, incorporating mythology, lifestyle, and culture, etc. There were a couple places that felt too “tell-y,” such as where she explains what “-san” and “-chan” mean (I think this is something readers can figure out for themselves, especially if they already have some knowledge of Japanese culture), and the sakura blossom metaphor felt a little heavy handed, but overall, this book felt very well-researched. The last two chapters were especially strong, both on a stylistic and an emotional level.

But what about Katie? It is difficult to move to a new country and learn a new language, but I don’t think we saw enough of her struggle. By the time the story starts, she already has friends and a working knowledge of Japanese. In the first chapter, there are a couple of occasions where she makes a slight cultural mishap or doesn’t understand what someone is saying, but these moments all but vanish by chapter two (other than not understanding kanji, which doesn’t make much sense—she should at least be able to recognize some characters). This especially bothered me, because Tomohiro (and the author, in the interview at the back of the book) kept referring to Katie as “brave” because of her struggles. This struck me as a highly privileged attitude. Adapting isn’t something you do out of bravery—you do it because you need to survive. When foreigners move to the United States, no one applauds them for learning English, because that’s what they’re expected to do. I’m not trying to de-value those people’s accomplishments, but it annoys me when Americans are dubbed “brave” and “open-minded” for doing what many of my friends, family, and acquaintances do every single day.

The “Paranormal Romance”

But what about the paranormal aspects? Unfortunately, the only good thing I can say about this is that the mythos is really neat—people who can make ink come to life. But beyond that, the plot was so cliché (girl moves to a new school and becomes obsessed with local broody paranormal boy) that I just didn’t care. Tomohiro had the potential for a great story, and Ishikawa’s character was even more interesting, but Katie’s character didn’t fit here. (This is why I see this novel as two stories rather than one.)  Sun tried to make her relevant by giving her some weird unexplained power of her own, but quite honestly, I just found that to be invasive. (If there’s any aspect of that story that I consider “cultural appropriation,” it’s that.)

Also, I don’t agree with Tomohiro’s decision near the end of the novel. Remember that article that everyone blew up about back in November? [This one]. The one that stated that YA heroes should embrace power, rather than reject it? Nowhere did I find that more true than in this novel. Power is only as good or as evil as what you do with it. If you have a great power that could benefit humanity, I see no reason not to use it.
 
So as you can see, I had very mixed feelings about Ink. Do I like it enough to read the sequel? Not really. But I would be open to reading another one of Amanda Sun’s books.

***

Ink comes out June 25th. I received my ARC at BEA.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Life updates: BEA and Louisville

The last three weeks have been both awesome and overwhelming. Here is a short(-ish) overview of all that has happened.

Week One: My last two days of work were this week, which meant two days to finish the review article I've been working on for the lab--a task made for difficult by computer problems that arose early in the week. On Wednesday night, I went for a good-bye dinner with what I thought was one labmate, but actually turned out to be the whole group. The next two days I spent going back and forth between BEA and Newark, because I had until the end of the week to pack up my apartment. BEA was amazing. I grabbed a bunch of ARCs, and even better, I got to talk about actual books with actual people in my own actual voice (and they talked about books back!) Also, I got to tell Paolo Bacigalupi and Elizabeth Wein just how much I love their books. The next day, after my apartment was empty and clean, I spent the last day in New Jersey with some of my family. During this entire week, I was suffering from a horrible bout of insomnia, which meant that I was practically falling asleep at the wheel as I drove down to my friend's place in Washington, DC. When I finally got there, we went out for ice cream, and by this time I was very loopy.

Week Two: Nine-hour drive to Lexington, where I stayed with another friend. I made the mistake of taking the shorter route, which involves very hilly country highways. My car apparently doesn't do well with hills, which resulted in a panicked AutoZone stop halfway through the drive. (The car was fine.) The next morning, I drove from Lexington to my new lab in Louisville. After work, I met my roommate for the first time. Even though we signed the lease weeks ago, the apartment wasn't ready for move-in until Friday, so I spent that week living with my roommate's family and driving around with a fully-packed car. That weekend, after finally moving in, I drove down to St. Louis to see friends and family.

Week Three: Not much to say here. Work, new apartment, computer fixed, roommate away in Barcelona, another weekend in St. Louis. My apartment still doesn't have internet, which is great for my productivity and not so great for finding my way around town. (I'm the only person in the world who doesn't have a smartphone and I don't plan on changing that anytime soon.)

So far, I'm very happy with everything. My roommate seems very cool, my labmates are great, and I absolutely love Louisville. There are a ton of independent cafes and restaurants, the people are friendly, and it's small enough that I can get around very fast.

So that's my new life. (Yay!)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

New Release: Far Far Away (recommended)


Goodreads Summary:

It says quite a lot about Jeremy Johnson Johnson that the strangest thing about him isn't even the fact his mother and father both had the same last name. Jeremy once admitted he's able to hear voices, and the townspeople of Never Better have treated him like an outsider since. After his mother left, his father became a recluse, and it's been up to Jeremy to support the family. But it hasn't been up to Jeremy alone. The truth is, Jeremy can hear voices. Or, specificially, one voice: the voice of the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of the infamous writing duo, The Brothers Grimm. Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil whispered about in the space between this world and the next. But when the provocative local girl Ginger Boultinghouse takes an interest in Jeremy (and his unique abilities), a grim chain of events is put into motion. And as anyone familiar with the Grimm Brothers know, not all fairy tales have happy endings. . .

Young adult veteran Tom McNeal (one half of the writing duo known as Laura & Tom McNeal) has crafted a novel at once warmhearted, compulsively readable, and altogether thrilling--and McNeal fans of their tautly told stories will not be disappointed.

Anyone who loves fairy tales and small town stories will adore Far Far Away. This book's primary strength lies in its characterization. The characters are quirky and genre-savvy, and I especially loved Ginger, who was hilarious and fun and the sort of friend everyone wishes they had. And although the story gets off to a slow start, you will reach a point where you can't put it down--I don't want to say too much, but Tom McNeal has a real gift for building suspense.

Yes, I know that last part sounds really vague. So let me explain... [The next part is meant more for people who've already read the book. There aren't any direct spoilers, but it might change your reading experience. So if you're like me, and prefer a completely unbiased first-reading experience, then you might want to come back to this after you've read the book.]

In many books, there is some sort of a twist or a big reveal or a secret identity exposed, and an attentive reader can pick up on that. Often, that sort of predictability is a bad thing. But here, if you know what's coming, you're suddenly aware of every single clue and double meaning in the dialogue, and you're even more on the edge of your seat than if you hadn't seen it coming in the first place. It's almost like an indirect sort of dramatic irony, and Tom McNeal excels at it.

One of the main criticisms I have of this book is the town. It has character, but part of me feels that there could have been more. Yes, I realize this is a very subjective criticism, but for whatever reason, that's how I felt.

***

Far Far Away comes out...um...yesterday. (My computer finally works, but I still have no internet access in my apartment.) I received my ARC through NetGalley. 


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book Recommendation: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

[Something that I learned over the last two weeks: Computer problems are infinitely more stressful when they occur during the same week as a big move. However, now that I am in Louisville and my life is re-gaining stability (ie, finally having a permanent address), then I hope my blogging routine can go back to normal.

And no, my computer problems haven't been fixed yet, so no images in this review, at least not at the moment.]

So, back to our regularly scheduled programming...aka, The Windup Girl. I've already gushed about Paolo Bacigalupi's other books (Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities), so it was only a matter of time before I picked up this one. Like the other two novels, The Windup Girl takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting--a collapsing world where petroleum is almost non-existent, and where genetic engineering of crops has led to food monopolies and rampant disease strains (Monsanto, anyone?). It's an amazing, intelligent novel, albeit one that requires a lot of patience.

There are two things you should know before picking up this book:

1. This book is not an easy read. (If you don't read a lot of adult books, then this will be a huge adjustment.) It's heavy with details, and readers are thrown into a foreign, futuristic world without any form of a dictionary. But if you're a patient reader, then all of the strange words and concepts will become more familiar, and although the level of detail makes this a difficult read, it's also one of the book's greatest strengths--the worldbuilding is incredibly vivid and so well-constructed. And while I'm discussing the worldbuilding, I should also mention the foreign setting--the book is set in Thailand, and from what I've gathered with a brief internet search, the author does a good job of incorporating Thai culture into the story. (Well, okay, I did see some dissent on this. One person accused this book being 'a story of white people in an exotic world,' which is a fairly ingenuous thing to say, seeing as only one out of the five POV characters is white.)

2. This is not a story about good people. The plot is driven by survivalism and greed. And while the characters are highly complex and not incapable of virtue, do not go into this book expecting to cheer for the characters. (This has never been a turn-off for me, but I know other people feel differently.)

Paolo Bacigalupi is the master of thoughtful, complex post-apocalyptic literature. If that's what you're looking for (and you're not bothered by either of the things I mentioned above), then there is a very good chance you will love The Windup Girl.
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