Friday, February 28, 2014

Review Me Twice: Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon

Honesty time: I didn't finish this book. But it wasn't the book's fault. It was just a bad week for trying to get into a fantasy novel. (I could blame my cold, planning for my bachelorette party, a weird work schedule... oh, I guess I just did.) Especially considering I have a tough time getting into fantasy novels in the first place.

But for all that, this is a book to get excited about. I mean, look at the cover; there's a female in full-coverage fighting-type garb in the foreground. She isn't in a glorified metallic bikini and stilettos. She isn't purple. She's holding a weapon and looking ready to kick some fantasy ass.

One thing I do like from what I managed to read of this book is the cast. There aren't so many characters you don't know what to do with them. (As much as I love them, I don't think The Hobbit really required that many dwarves. They didn't have the opportunity to be fleshed out, and they didn't even serve as body shields... you know, characters you carry around so there can be a dramatic death scene that doesn't kill anyone important.) I know who's there, why they're there, and what they're doing at any given point. And - another problem I tend to have while reading fantasy - I can handle their names. (Don't get me started on Tolkien's elf lore.) They aren't distractingly complex names designed to make the characters feel more exotic. (Side note: This is obviously relative to the culture of the reader. "Rhapsody" and "Emily" and "Grunthor" and "Achmed" are easier names for me to deal with than, perhaps, a reader who grew up with an Asiatic language. But that's a discussion for another time.)

This one goes on my "I'll come back to this and finish it another time" pile, definitely. I liked what I did read, and the only reason I didn't finish was a time crunch issue.

I read this book in high school after it was recommended to me by no less than four people.  And with good reason.  It's got a strong female lead (Rhapsody), who can hold her own.  Does she travel with two male companions?  Yes, but we learn early on this is after living on the streets, being a prostitute to survive, only to come out on top as a Namer (which sounds dumb, but is actually SUPER respected in this universe.)

I really love the character development in this.  For instance, Rhapsody didn't start the book knowing how to wield a sword.  The whole time they're traveling underground (which I didn't realize the first time through, is actually YEARS.   I mean... years, upon years, upon years), she is being taught by her companions, who DO know how to fight.  She learns their language in this time and they learn to read and write.

Like Alex mentioned, it has just the right amount of characters.  Achmed, Rhapsody and Grunthor are there throughout the series.  And, to be honest, we only gain one or two significant characters between book one and three.  It's a pretty low-key cast, which I like.  (Dear George R.R. Martin: Please take a hint and maybe give me a few less people.)  It makes it easier to really get into the characters.

There are a LOT of fantasy books out there, and some are better than others, but Rhapsody has one that has managed to migrate from my 16 year old self and hold up against my 27 year old self.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Women in Fantasy

It is widely known that there is a severe shortage of women in fantasy novels. Given Tolkien's strong influence on most of the archetypes of the fantasy genre, some people believe this to be largely his fault. But I'm here to point out some of the more influential lady-characters from the fantasy genre.

The White Witch (Narnia)
I'm not a Narnia fan (you'll have to talk to Cassy about that one) but I do know you don't mess with the White Witch. I'm fuzzy on the details, but she is one scary witch.

Eowyn (Lord of the Rings)
I know some people feel like they're getting beaten over the head with an apology for the lack of women in the series when Eowyn says "I am no man" on the battlefield, but I think she's pretty cool. (I don't know if that line is in the book... I haven't gotten further in the series than Tom Bombadil. What a plot-momentum-killer.)

Arya Stark and Daenarys Targaryen (Game of Thrones)
Actually, George R. R. Martin is a revolutionary in the world of writing women in fantasy. (In interviews, he has attributed this ability to "thinking of women as people." I love this guy.) There are a lot of tough chicks in GoT, but these two are the first ones that came to mind.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter)
Hermione, as you know, is one of my favorite characters ever, female or otherwise. She's smart, she's brave, she's gorgeous, but she also acts like a real person. Sure, she's like "okay, let's take down the most evil, deadly wizard ever" but when she gets attacked by powerful people, she has the good sense to be afraid and have a little mini-panic moment (without totally losing her mind like that bimbo from Indiana Jones).

Who's your favorite fantasy female?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Favorite Book With a Prophecy

There are a lot of books out there that involve prophecies.  Some of them, let's face it, most of them, are fantasy books, giving you a prophecy to save the world.  Rhapsody has one such prophecy (in fact, I think the second book is even called "Prophecy")  So, today, we're talking about our favorite books with a prophecy in them.

I really like the Percy Jackson series.  And, even better, there's not one prophecy, there's a billion.  They have an oracle in an attic that constantly gives prophecies, in fact, she gives one every time someone goes on a quest.  They're required to go see the oracle before they leave on their quest.

It's a fun series and it teaches a LOT about mythology, but in a fun way, which is great for a kids book.  It's a perfect mix between educational and just plain awesome.  There's a lot of twists and turns and crazy characters.  Some characters you love, others you can't stand, and still more you just feel sorry for.

If you're big into mythology, you should pick them up and read them.

This is probably no surprise. I choose Harry Potter as my favorite book with a prophecy.

I love the idea that, had Voldemort not assumed one minor thing about a prophecy (from Sybill Trelawney, someone who seems like such a minor, unimportant, crazy side character but who happens to turn out to be extremely important from the outset) the series might have been named after Neville Longbottom instead.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

Ok, so this post doesn't ACTUALLY have anything to do with Queen, but the lyrics seemed too perfect to pass up.  This week, we're reviewing Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon, which is considered High Fantasy.  So what's the difference between High Fantasy and all the rest?

Typically, High Fantasy doesn't contain a whole lot from our world.  There are incredible worlds that the authors build, constructing them from scratch and sometimes, like we see in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, creating their own languages.

J.R.R. Martin created and incredibly complicated political system when he created his world in the Game of Thrones series.  Not to mention, he created an entire land that required him to know where people were in relation to the other mythical places that he created.  Often these authors will create maps.  Both Tolkien and Martin include maps in the front of their books.

High fantasy also has an extreme magical element to it.  Our book this week features Rhapsody, who can magically sing your name, therefore doing everything from renaming to, to protecting you from fire.  Sarah Douglass wrote a series, The Wayfarer Redemption, and the characters can control STARS.  STARS!

So then what do we consider just plain old fantasy?  Well, Vampires tend to be just normal fantasy.  For instance, Laurel K. Hamilton's series takes place in St. Louis, under the impression that vampires exist, everyone knows about them, and oh yeah, they have legal rights.  It's certainly fantastical, but not so out there that it would be classified as high fantasy.

Erin Morganstern's novel The Night Circus, which we reviewed some time ago, also would be fantasy.  The idea is that they both can manipulate magic, but she came by it naturally, while he was taught to do real magic.  It's just an interesting twist on something that's already real, something that could be real, but no one has ever seen evidence of it.

This picture isn't actually relevant to anything, I just thought it looked cool.

So is one better than the other?  No, of course not.  It's all about preference.  There was one point in my life that if it wasn't high fantasy, I wasn't going to pick it up.  Now, as an adult, I have found my tastes have vastly changed and I only pick up a high fantasy book if I have a good recommendation for one.

And there are also tons of other types of fantasy classification.  This is a good website to see them, so check it out and see where your favorites would fall.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Author Bio - Elizabeth Haydon

We're reading Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon this week, a book that I read in my high school years and has still ranked pretty high on my "very good fantasy series" list.  It's held up over the years.

This is the only picture of her I was able to find.

However, there is surprisingly little on Elizabeth Haydon.  She 48/49 years old and lives in Michigan.  She's into a lot of folklore and is an herbalist and harpist.  She lives on the east coast.

She really only has two series, The Symphony of Ages, which Rhapsody starts off, and YA literature series, The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme.

She doesn't seem to participate in any social media and, in fact, does not even have a website.  She's pretty off the grid for a writer.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review Me Twice - Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I had seen this book everywhere during the Christmas season.  Mainly because I work at a bookstore and it's an incredibly popular webcomic turned book.

And I did enjoy the book.  She manages to combine her ridiculous pictures with her even more ridiculous stories (which seem to have really happened.) She has a very poignant story about depression and what it's actually like as opposed to everyone's view of it.  Or at least everyone who has never had it before.

There were some stories that had me laughing.  Mainly ones about her dogs which she lovingly refers to as "the slow one" and "the helper."  It's funny mostly because how she refers to their antics is true, universally true when it comes to dogs.

But I feel like this was one of those books that didn't live up to the hype.  It was funny, but not side-splittingly so.  It was insightful, but not so insightful that it pushed me into a state of amazement.  Maybe it's the kind of thing where you need to read the blog to fully appreciate it, but this reviewer won't be picking this book up again.

I love Allie Brosh. But you probably figured that out on Monday. I've been reading her blog for ages and I was so excited when I found out she had a book deal. I was also really excited when she mentioned in her "omg you guys I have a book deal" post that it would probably be half things already posted on her blog and half new stuff. (I've bought books based on webcomics before... sometimes they're all new stuff, and sometimes they're all stuff you've already read online. I like the half-and-half approach.)

The neat thing about a book like this is that you can read her blog (for free) and decide whether you like her writing, drawing, sense of humor, what have you. Then, if you like it, you can get the book and get more stuff in the same vein. She's consistent, and I love that.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Webcomics vs. Comics

I think it's interesting that, while a lot of people struggle with the concept of a graphic novel (compared to a comic book), the idea of webcomics is far easier for non-comic-readers to understand.

And I can see why: It's the same idea as a daily comic in the newspaper, except it's online. But there are some huge differences between the two.

(To clarify, I'm comparing webcomics to the comics you see in the newspaper, not comic books. That's a whole different animal I'll probably tackle at some point in the future.)

1. Webcomics don't have to be censored.

Newspapers arrive at a wide variety of homes, many of which house children, who aren't supposed to see bad words or nudity or adult themes like drugs and violence, so these don't appear in newspaper comics. But webcomics are usually self-published. They appear on their very own websites, usually run by the authors themselves. So they can be as bad as they wanna be, a la Dennis Rodman. All of my favorite webcomics have contained profanity at one point or another (although I think xkcd usually bleeps) and one (Menage a 3) has what I would categorize as excessive nudity.

2. Webcomics set their own schedule... and don't always stick to it.
 The webcomics I read on a regular basis are the ones that tend to keep to their scheduled post times. Webcomic authors don't have to answer to an editor or someone like that like the newspaper comic creators do. No, far worse... webcomic authors answer directly to the reader. And if you miss the mark too often, you lose readers. But, this also means they can work on the next day's comic up to the last second, whereas newspaper comics have to be submitted ahead of time in order to be rearranged, printed, bound, and shipped off to the houses where they will be consumed. Webcomics might have been completed 12 seconds before you read them if you have good timing.

3. You can interact directly with webcomic creators, and many of them blog along with the comics.
Off the top of my head, I know that at least two of the webcomics I read regularly (Questionable Content and Least I Could Do) have blogs alongside them. I know this because I usually at least skim the posts, if not read them thoroughly. You can learn a lot about the creators that way, and see their lives peeking through (or bashing through, in some cases) in their work. Some people like that; some don't. Other webcomics, like this week's Hyperbole and a Half and The Oatmeal, are directly drawn from the creator's life/experiences. Newspaper comics might every once in a while include a message from the creator, but usually they stand alone. Personally, I feel way more attached to Jeph Jacques, Allie Brosh, Matthew Inman, Tycho and Gabe, and Randy Munroe than I ever was to Charles Schultz or Jim Davis. Better yet, WHILE I'm reading their work, I have direct access to them; I just emailed Allie Brosh a couple weeks ago! How cool is that?

What are some differences you see between newspaper comics and webcomics? Which do you prefer?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Favorite Webcomic

I read a lot of webcomics on a daily basis (or whenever they update). It's hard for me to choose a favorite, because I love them all (I wouldn't take time in the mornings between waking up, checking the weather, and getting dressed to read them if I didn't) but I narrowed it down to xkcd, Sinfest, and Questionable Content. Since we're a book review blog, I'll choose the one I like best for storyline: QC.

The comic has been around for over a decade now (it launched in August 2003) and I've been reading it since at least 2008, but I'm pretty sure it was before then.

The characters are likable and seem like any average group of friends. On holidays or during other interruptions in regularly-scheduled comics, the creator - Jeph Jacques - uses Yelling Bird to (very profanely) amuse the readers during the lull.

I regularly use the phrase "Everything is ruined forever," which I got from this comic. I'm sure there are lots of other influences it has had on me, but they're so ingrained, I can't even think of them right now.

So, I actually really like webcomics.  I think they're fun, they allow people to show off their amazing talents, without having to sell the idea or strip to a newspaper.  

And, like Alex, there are a LOT that I'm a fan of (I really like xkcd also.  It's hysterical.)  I'm a huge fan of Cyanide & Happiness.

Sound like a certain co-blogger we all know and love?

However, my favorite webcomic, that I love to death, is actually one that has been finished for a few years now.  Ozy and Millie was one of the first webcomics that I ever read.  They're funny, and cute, and really, just always reminded me of my friends and I.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Effect of the Internet on Reading

This week, we're reading Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.  The book was originally (and still is, I believe) a webcomic.  They tend to be short, succinct and fast, in all honesty, much like most internet reading.  So what kind of effect is the internet having on our reading skill.*

People tend to read less physical books these days.  We are living in an instant type of world, where our attention spans are getting shorter by the second.  Even if we are the kind of person to sit down and read a whole book (which, on this blog, most of us probably are), we still don't always resort to physical books.  We buy Kindle's and Nooks because we want to be able to buy books when we want them.  We don't want to have to wait for the cheaper paperback, or then be forced to lug around a large book.  Newspapers, magazines: they all come digitally now.

The internet has also contributed to our shorter attention spans.  We want things that we can consume in small, sixty second blurbs.  So webcomics have become a big thing (and once again proving that even comics are turning digital.)  While I don't read a lot of webcomics, I get all of my "newspaper" comics in my email, keeping from having to buy and actual physical copy of the newspaper.

We read all our news stories on instantaneous blurbs or headlines as we browse our news feed on Facebook (which, at one point in time, was not so easy to post/read on.  You used to have to visit each individual profile.) 

So is all of this information dumping bad?  For the physical book, probably.  However, maybe not so much for the individual.  My fiance rarely, if ever, picks up a physical book.  If he does, it's probably a programming book that he's glancing through to find something specific.  So I always tease him about his lack of reading skills.

However, he once pointed out to me that he DOES read.  He reads news websites daily, catching up on politics and current events.  Give him a page with some interesting Sonic facts and he will read it from start to finish.  Don't even get me started when he manages to stumble on Wikipedia (I recently found out WAY more about Lucille Ball's life and career than I think I ever needed to know.  And I LIKE Lucille Ball.)

So is the internet destroying our ability to read?  Well, yes, but not because they don't offer reading material.  It's mostly because we can't stop looking at cat gifs long enough to read.

*At no point should this be taken as 100% fact.  We don't actually back up our ideas with sources around here.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Author Bio: Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh is the talented, funny, fascinating creator of the blog Hyperbole and a Half and the book by the same name. She tells stories, mostly from her childhood and many from her adult life, and adds her own illustrations. If you've ever seen the all the things meme, that's her work.

Hey look! That's her.
She is one of my personal heroes. I know that sounds a little silly, to have a cartoon-drawing bloggess as one of my heroes, but from everything I know about her, I love her. She's smart, funny, talented, and to top it all off, she has recently been posting about her struggles with depression, with what I think is a really great approach. See these two posts (part 1 and part 2 and actually the one that goes between them too) to see what I mean.

The Alot is one of her classic stories/comics and it's hilarious. She does for the phrase "a lot" what The Oatmeal has done with semicolons, the word "whom," apostrophes, and commonly misspelled words.

So if you like Allie Brosh and what she does, you're going to have a great time on the blog this week.

Potentially too-late disclaimer... there's a lot of swearing on pretty much every link in this post.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Review Me Twice: Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

I am not sure if I've mentioned (probably), but if I had to pick a favorite book of all time, this book would probably be it.  Which, considering how many books are out there, probably makes you wonder why this is book is so special.

This book was written in the late 1700s, when sex was incredibly taboo and people never talked about it, let alone do things like enjoy it.  But Laclos not only writes about sex, but a woman enjoy it!  WHAT?!  World must be coming to an end.  And Merteuil and Valmont's characters are just so spectacularly done.  I mean, the mass amounts of manipulation that goes on in this book, and the lengths Merteuil goes to make sure it could never come back to her and ruin her reputation.

For instance, Cecile is to marry a guy that once left Merteuil before Merteuil wanted him to.  So, instead of getting her revenge on Gercourt (the guy), she decides to ruin Cecile's reputation and then expose it after the wedding to shame Gercourt, never mind that she's ruining the life of an innocent girl.

Valmont isn't any better.  He's trying to convince a very pious and monogamous married woman to have sex with him.  The whole book.  That's all he does.  I know, it sounds like a terrible book.  I mean, it's about two people ruining everyone's reputations!

But I love that it's all about the reputation.  Merteuil couldn't do what she does, manipulate like she does, without her good reputation and Valmont couldn't seduce so many women without his bad one.  The two of them, scheming together, it's just the best thing to watch.

There's so much more about this book I love (the fight between Merteuil and Valmont, the constant double speech that goes on in letters, the fact that Merteuil and Valmont always have to win, and the book is really about the battle for power between them), but I don't want to give away the book.  Just know that it's written in the most spectacular way and I love it more every time I pick it up.

I am not a big fan of this book, but not for reasons that should influence you not to read it, unless you're like me in certain ways. What do I mean?

I don't like epistolary novels. For all that I described them in a fair light yesterday, they aren't my favorite thing. I made attempts at writing them a while back, because it seems like an easy way to keep track of what's going on while I'm writing, but I don't like reading them. Actually, I take that back; I like monologic (one-person) epistolary novels, like a one-sided letter conversation or diary entries. I don't know why; this is just my preference. (Though, as Cassy pointed out to me earlier this week, these make for good "lunchtime reads," because it's easy to find a stopping point.)

I don't like reading about the court (as in, fancy people with nothing better to do than play complex social games with each other). I think this has to do with the fact that I don't put up with anything even resembling complex social games in my own life, and I don't find it amusing to hear about other people dealing with them. It's just not my thing. But I do see how it makes for a good story.

And finally, I am a minimalist. Full disclosure: I didn't finish the book. I read what remained of a summary to finish the story for myself, and I quite enjoyed the summary. It was succinct. I know that wasn't the goal of writers for a very, very large part of the history of literature (and some authors aren't aiming for succinct today, either... I'm looking at you, Stephen King) but I prefer short stories and novellas. It's part of why I love YA fiction; they can tell you a story succinctly.

But after all that, I admit that I can see why Cassy loves this book. She does like epistolary novels and she does like reading about courtesans and the like, and she doesn't mind when a book takes the time for details and language instead of driving the plot forward like it has somewhere to be later and it hasn't had time to do its hair. The characters are so developed; if you know terrible people like them, it's probably like reading about the people you know, because they seem real. (I think that's another benefit of epistolary novels; it's like getting the behind-the-scenes information of first-person narration without the awkwardness of actual first-person narration.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Epistolary Novel

An epistolary novel is one written as a series of documents, usually an exchange of letters between characters. That is what this week's review book, Les Liaisons dangereuses, is.

The first epistolary novel was the Spanish Carcel de amor (Prison of Love) published around 1485. It caught on fairly well, in other countries and languages.

The dramatic, romantic nature of the genre led to a great deal of ridicule, however. Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) was closely followed by a parody by Henry Fielding: Shamela (1741) wherein the titular character pens her letters under unlikely dramatic circumstances.

Even Jane Austen gave the genre a fair shake with Lady Susan, but abandoned the form for her later work. Some people believe that First Impressions (her lost novel) was an epistolary novel that was redrafted into Pride and Prejudice because of the number of letters included in the latter.

While it fell out of popularity during the 18th century, it hung on by way of some of the 19th century classics, particularly Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

There has been a small resurgence of the epistolary form since the advent of email and IMs, but not in any major works.

There are three kinds of epistolary novels: monologic (one-way correspondence), dialogic (two-way correspondence), and polylogic (more than two people corresponding).

Les Liaisons dangereuses is a polylogic epistolary novel. My personal favorite epistolary novel is probably We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which is monologic. What's your favorite, and what kind is it?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Favorite Dysfunctional Couple

Happy soon-to-be-Valentine's-Day! We're celebrating with our favorite not-so-perfect couples from literature, much like those from this week's review book, Dangerous Liaisons.

I think Hamlet and Ophelia from William Shakespeare's Hamlet are pretty dysfunctional, but I love them anyway. They're both psychotic in their own special ways, but they still love each other, despite all the craziness and scheming around them.

Hamlet doesn't understand women very well, thanks to his upbringing, so he misunderstands practically every move Ophelia makes. Polonius (Ophelia's father) doesn't want them to marry, because then Ophelia would have more power than him. He bans her from seeing Hamlet, and she obeys. Hamlet's mad at her for this.

But you know they still loved each other because of how Hamlet behaves at the funeral and how Ophelia can only respond to Hamlet's yelling at her by begging God to forgive him.


If you don't think that Cersei and Jamie are the most dysfunctional couple ever, you've never read Game of Thrones.

If you're wondering why I'm choosing a brother & a sister when we're picking couples... well, then, you've also never read Game of thrones.

Let's just review a few bullet points of their relationship:

  • They're twins, who have sex.
  • All of Cersei's children are Jamie's
  • Jamie joined the Kingsguard so that he could be near his sister.
  • Jamie threw a kid out a window so no one would ever discover that he was having sex with his sister.
  • Jamie got his hand cut off and now his sister thinks that he's gross
  • We're pretty certain that either he, or his sister, killed Cersei's husband (who just happened to be the king.)
  • They killed the king's adviser... a few of them, in fact.
  • Cersei and Jamie's son is about the most horrible, malicious little prick you've ever met, and yet, he's now the king. 
They're on a constant quest for power, these two siblings, and they're doing everything that they can to bring everyone around them down.  Cersei at least has the sense to realize that she won't be quite so powerful if people figure out she's boinking her brother, but her brother doesn't seem to have that sense.  I'm only in book three, so I can only imagine that this relationship is going to get more... weird as the books continue.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Writing in the Past

Dangerous Liaisons is unique because nothing happens in real time in the book.  The whole book is written in a series of letters (which Alex will talk more about on Thursday), and as the reader, you only see things as people tell other people about them.

So why does this make any sort of difference?  Well, for one, it gives you some crazy unreliable narrators.  When you are writing letters, it's usually at least a few hours after the event your writing about happened.  So you've had time to reflect on it and write it down in the best light.

You also get a unique point of view.  You hear about Valmont's conquests when he's writing to the Marquise de Merteuil.  He boasts about them, often claims "victory" before he has accomplished it. And when he does, he talks about it in a very detached way.  Whereas Mme Tourvel, his conquest, talks about love and doing nothing but making him happy.  You get two totally different points of view.

You also get a much clearer timeline in books that involve letters.  Each is dated, so it's not hard to see that the book takes places over quite a number of months (August to November, I think.)  There are a lot of books that don't have that distinct of a timeline.

So what's different about writing in the past, as opposed to writing in the past tense?  Past tense is what most people write in.  You can still get a lot of action, a lot of surprise and suspense, despite the tense.  Often you're sitting on the edge of your seat in scenes like the first Quidditch cup that Harry Potter won (written in past tense.)

However, writing in the past, you have to write like you're the person, as if you yourself were sitting down and writing a letter as that character.  It's a different voice for each letter, a different style and you have to think about how that person is going to write to the different people they write to.  For instance, Valmont writes very differently to Merteuil than he would to Tourvel.

The biggest difference is that the rising action is very different.  The climax rises over a steady period.  It's a long and low kind of action.  If you're writing just a sequence of events, it's quicker.  Your falling action is much faster when you write in tense.  Letters everything is evenly paced, all around, which I think is interesting.  It might be a good way to teach you pacing in your writing.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Author Bio: Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

This fancy-looking gentleman was Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, a French novelist who lived from 1741 to 1803. He is best known for writing this week's review book: Les Liaisons dangereuses (or Dangerous Liaisons). It was his first work after the failed comic opera Ernestine (which premiered to an audience that included Marie Antoinette).

As you've probably guessed based on his attire, he was also a military man. He opened an artillery school in 1777, which Napoleon attended as a student.

In 1779, he was supposed to be assisting in the construction of fortifications against the British in Ile-d'Aix, but most of that time was actually spent writing Les Liaisons dangereuses. He got six months' vacation, and spent that time in Paris, still writing.

It is believed that he died of dysentery and malaria, but his tomb was destroyed and his bones thrown into the sea during a reconstruction project.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review Me Twice: Matched by Ally Condie

We selected this book at the request of our friend Beth, but to be honest, I probably would have chosen it at some point anyway. The covers are eye-catching. Here are the other two in the series:

So they look pretty cool all in a row on the featured table at Barnes & Noble.

Anyway, when I first picked up the book and read the back cover, I literally said out loud: "This is Divergent. This is a Divergent knock-off, with more focus on the love story." Now that I've read it, I would neither agree nor disagree with my first impression based on the summary.

Yes, there's a Society that places people (in school, in jobs, in marriages) and that's the Divergent-y part. Also, the love triangle is sort of Hunger-Games-y if you see Xander as Peeta (the one the government is telling Cassia to love) and Ky as Gale (the one she likely would have been with if the government weren't involved).

One thing I noticed - and I think I really liked - was that this isn't nearly as epic as some books get. At some point, most YA books - especially those with sci-fi elements - break out of a narrow focus (home, the city, whatever) and get really grand. For the most part, Matched takes place in Cassia's geographic/physical comfort zone: her home, her school, her work, her neighborhood... places she knows. There isn't an enormous setting shift like Divergent (to a new faction), Ashes (don't even get me started), Uglies (out of the city and into the Smoke), Starters (into someone else's body)... etc. It's unusual and not every book could pull it off (it could get really boring) but based on the ending, the next book promises to get "out there" and explore new places and be a little more... grand.

Long story short... I liked it. It was a really quick read (every time I set it aside I was surprised at how far I had gotten) and it has good (not great) characters. It's a little redundant (yes, Cassia, we know you're conflicted about that particular thing... do something about it already) but not horribly so.

A few notes on the trilogy as a whole: When I wrote my review above, I had only read the first book. Now I have read all three, and I wanted to mention that it is a consistent trilogy. Sometimes you get a series that makes each book feel like a totally different book. (I think Uglies is like this, personally. Doesn't mean I don't like each book, they're just very different books.) This series feels like each book is an extension of the others. It's like one long book that had to be broken up to avoid the inconvenience of holding an extremely thick book. Some people like that, some people don't... I think it worked, for this story.

Matched is your typical "utopia" (which is secretly a dystopia) about to implode on itself because of course, no society can be a utopia.  The book was enjoyable.  It was a quick read and, for reasons I'm not totally sure about, I wanted to keep reading the book.  Why was I not sure?

Well, to be honest, there's really almost nothing original about this book.  From the second that I cracked it's pages, it was almost a carbon copy of The Giver, if The Giver had a little more Hunger Games type government control about it.  It's all that "no color, not differences, nothing that's not exactly the same and equal" kind of environment, with "if you try and buck the system, we'll kill you" undertones.

The love interest, while predictable, was interesting.  I liked Ky and I liked that he was a little different from everything and he was your person who could potentially change things but didn't.  I felt AWFUL for Xander.  He did nothing but love Cassia and protected her every second of every moment without question and he seemed to get the short end of the stick.

The odd thing about this book (maybe not odd, I don't really know) is that everything was predictable.  I mean, maybe I've just been reading too long, but I saw everything coming from a mile away.  And maybe that was the point (their whole society is based on the idea that people are predictable and will have one probable outcome based on the data previously collected on them.)  It kind of made it... less enjoyable.

Either way, it wasn't a BAD book, but it wasn't one that especially stood out to me either.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Remember in middle school English class, when you learned all those literary terms like alliteration and hyperbole and denouement? One of them was allusion, and it's one that has bothered me for a long time.

The image above is a literary allusion. Do you recognize what it's alluding to? I do, because I grew up in the United States of America from the 1980s to now. I might still recognize it if I grew up in dozens of other countries around the world, in other decades, or if I spoke other languages. But that's only because it's from the most published and most translated and most sold book in the entire world. For goodness' sake, it was the first book printed by movable type!

This image, too, is a literary allusion. But a far greater number of people wouldn't "get" it. (It's from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, if you're one of the ones who doesn't.)

And therein lies my problem with allusions. If you aren't familiar with the piece being alluded to, you can't enjoy the piece in front of you. Or maybe you can, but not on the level the author planned. That might even happen if you know what they're talking about, but you haven't interpreted it in the same way they did, or the way they thought you would.

I don't know if Stephanie Meyer did it on purpose, or even if it worked, but I can only hope that the popularity of Twilight boosted the popularity of Pride and Prejudice. (It may be impossible to tell, given the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies one year after the release of the first Twilight movie.) But Bella keeps referring back to the Jane Austen book she reads over and over again, as an - admittedly obvious - way to better describe the relationship developing between herself and Edward. (That's another thing that irks me about allusions... The attitude is often, "If you can't write it well enough yourself, rely on the ability of those who came before you." It also points out very obviously where you took most of your ideas from.)

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is full of allusions, because it's referring to the books that the firemen are burning. When Guy Montag picks up a book and reads it, it is more fitting that he read something we - as readers - can associate with. If he picks up a fictional book-within-a-book, (1) it feels more like a deus ex machina that Bradbury dropped in to move things along, and (2) we don't care about it nearly as much. Granted, the first time I read this book, I didn't know that the "lillies of the field" bit was from the Bible, and every time I've read it since, I've been an atheist, but the Bible (as I mentioned above) is an important part of a large percentage of the world's history, and to burn every copy of it would not only be a monumental task, but a terribly destructive one, in the sense that an enormous part of history would suddenly be gone, and inaccessible to future generations. You feel more invested in the story when you know all of that, and the allusion has succeeded in adding layers to the story.

Dylan Thomas's poem "Do not go gentle into that good night" is a big deal in the Matched trilogy. A lot of other poems and books pop up, at varying levels of importance (at one point in Crossed, a mention is made of an unnamed novel by Ray Bradbury, and given the fact that they burn books that don't belong in the Society, I can't help but think it's the one I mentioned above). Knowing about them beforehand can be helpful in understanding the plot and characters, but the important ones get repeated often enough (and in pieces, to emphasize the particularly important parts at that time) and interpreted in enough detail by the characters to serve as an introduction to them and some of their possible meanings without being didactic. I think Condie's background as an English teacher helps here, without being overwhelmingly obvious as a poetry lesson.

When done well (subtle introductions; introducing multiple possible meanings through the characters' thoughts and dialogue; breaking the alluded-to piece down and repeating often enough to remind the reader but not so often they get sick of it) allusions can help a story. When done badly (not enough explanation for those unfamiliar with the reference; too much explanation to force an interpretation on the reader; making tenuous ties between mostly unrelated things; letting on that the author stole all their other ideas from the referenced work as well) it can ruin the entire story.

What are some of the most notable examples of allusion you've noticed in your reading? How do you feel about them?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Favorite Rebellious Character

Let's face it... most main characters rebel a little, if not a lot. It's what drives the plot in most cases. But sometimes it's done reluctantly or by necessity, and sometimes it's because the character has an insatiable, burning fire within them that can only be quenched by seeking other, by rebelling against all they know and all that is thrust upon them. Those latter are who we celebrate today, by choosing our favorite rebellious characters.

You guys know by now that I love the fringe characters. I usually can't care less about what the main character is up to... I'm focusing on the supporting cast. (Side note: that's because I love YA, and in YA, most of your protagonists are going to be the Everyman type so the reader can easily identify with him/her, whereas the secondary, tertiary, etc. characters can have real characteristics and behave like actual people, not walking, talking tabula rasas.)

That's why I immediately thought of Cinna, from The Hunger Games (and more specifically, from Catching Fire) when I thought of rebellious characters I love.

Without getting all spoilery (for the half dozen of you out there who have neither read nor seen the story) Cinna is more important than anyone seems to realize ("anyone" meaning characters in the book and also readers thereof). Without him, everything would have been far more difficult, and perhaps would not have worked out at all. He puts himself in extreme danger without making a big deal out of it or asking for anything in return, and he pays for it dearly, but all because he knows it's worth it, and he believes in Katniss's ability to carry on what he started (or helped to start... I won't pretend he single-handedly began a revolution).

As an additional thought, I feel kind of the same way for the other stylists, but not as much, because I don't believe they did anything purposefully. But go read Mockingjay and tell me you don't love them just a little bit.

Let's face it: Scott Westerfeld is my Hero.  And while I am not referencing Peeps today, he still wins with his Uglies series. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)

Tally Youngblood guys.  The most rebellious girls who kind of didn't mean to.  No really, she never WANTED to be rebellious.  She just wanted the operation like everyone else.  But she fell in love with David, she decided to stay in the smoke, she broke her friends out of jail, she overcame brainwashing... TWICE, to do what she knew that she should, what was right, and what inevitably brought down the ruin of her government.

And while I do agree with Alex that peripheral characters are the best, it's Tally's relationship with those characters that makes her character great (especially in Extras, which I wasn't expecting.  Her relationship with Shay and David FINALLY became what it should have been all along.)

Basically, Tally is super rebellious and awesome and amazing without even meaning to be.  And that kind of makes her all the cooler.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Power of Choice

We've talked a lot about holding the power, acquiring it, even being given that power, but I think the power of choice is one of the pivotal things that can happen in a book, ESPECIALLY YA literature.

This week, we're reading Matched by Allie Condie.  Cassia has to make a choice between two boys: the one that she has been told she should marry and the one that it's against the law to marry.  That choice is basically what sets off the whole book.  It's her choice that makes thing turn out the way that they do.

The Giver also presents us with that choice.  Jonas has to make the choice between life and death, right and wrong, a decision only he can make, because he is the only one that has the ability to see past the gray.  He is the only one who can see beyond what has been spoon-fed to him by his government.

You see it everywhere, and in most dystopian/Utopian novels, it's the power of choice that upsets everything.  In The Hunger Games, all choice is taken away.  They can't live where they want, they can't even choose what happens to their lives.  It's all at the mercy of The Capital (which, ironically, chooses one girl and one boy from each district to, essentially, sacrifice themselves.)

It's only when Katniss takes that power away from them (by choosing to kill herself if she couldn't save both her and Peeta), that everything went to hell.  Suddenly, people had a choice.  Suddenly they realized what choices they did have.  And believe me, they made them.

Unwind is one of the most powerful examples of choice, or rather the lack thereof.  The kids don't have the choice of whether they live or die: it's all decided by adults who may or may not want them.  All three of the kids in that book make the choice to live, to survive, for better or worse.  They make the choice to try and change the system, that system that made the choice to unmake these kids.

Look at the books that you have on your shelf?  How many of them completely turn the book on its head for no other reason than they wanted the power to choose back?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Author Bio: Ally Condie

This is Ally Condie. She wrote the Matched trilogy (Matched, Crossed, and Reached), of which we are reading the first book this week. She has written other YA: Freshman for President, the Yearbook trilogy, Being Sixteen, and Enthralled.

She lives in Utah and used to be an English teacher. There isn't much other information floating around about her, really.

Disney is optioning the film rights for the Matched trilogy, so perhaps we'll be seeing Cassia, Xander, and Ky on the big screen in the future. In the meantime, stick around this week and we'll review the book on Friday!